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Wednesday, 25 May 2011
Page: 4543

Mr COULTON (ParkesThe Nationals Chief Whip) (13:11): I have been a little astounded sitting here listening to some of the presentations from the government side on the Carbon Credits (Carbon Farming Initiative) Bill 2011 and related bills. I am just wondering: what does the member for Throsby tells his constituents, the ones working in the fine industrial city of Wollongong? Does he tell them that he is in here selling out their future and their jobs and that he has lost sight of the best interests of the people he represents in a bid to earn favour from the Greens and the Independents?

Listening to this debate this morning, I have heard some remarkable contributions from members of the government. While I might not be as quite as eloquent as some, I do come to this place with dirt under my nails. I have spent a large part of my life involved in agriculture and I can see when something is practical, when something will work, and I can see when it will not.

I do believe in the great potential of regional and rural Australia to play its part in the sequestration of carbon. I do believe that soil carbon is indeed one of the most unrecognised and misunderstood, or less understood, aspects of farming. In my early days of farming, my brothers and I, along with Monsanto, did some of the early trial work in zero-till farming when Roundup was first developed by the local New South Wales Department of Agriculture. The benefits of improving organic material in the soil by leaving crop residue on top of the soil were quickly seen. Basically, carbon is organic material. Anyone who knows anything about soil knows that you can tell a healthy soil by picking it up, by feeling it in your hands, by smelling it and by looking at the microactivity and the earthworms et cetera. Where this policy falls very short is with the idea of additionality. For someone who did not know any better, listening to the presentations from members of the government would have you think that Australian agricultural areas were a barren landscape on which a mob of uneducated, redneck farmers were raping the soil and that there was wonderful potential to show them the error of their ways through wonderful government programs. The government could help them see the great benefits of soil carbon and they were going to make a fortune.

The reality is that the government—and, quite frankly, the rest of the world—is behind the Australian farmer. The Australian farmer worked out the value of carbon many years ago. The irony is that under this legislation the farmers with the most carbon already stored in their soils will be exempt. To gain credits under this scheme, you have to prove that you are increasing the sequestration from this point on. That pretty well excludes a large number of the farmers in my electorate.

We have heard members say they understand because they have been involved in local community groups building tree lots and things like that. I am talking about large-scale farming. I have one farmer in my electorate who grows 200,000 acres of wheat. If you look at the amount of tonnage of carbon that is stored under a business of that size, you see it is of great magnitude. One of the problems is that that soil carbon is not recognised under Kyoto. Indeed, efforts in the past to trade that carbon have largely failed and we have seen the demise of the Chicago carbon exchange.

We have a long way to go to recognise what has already happened. The complexity of agronomy and agriculture is not done any justice by this bill. There is no recognition of the extra carbon that has been stored under grazing lands by the changes in management. One of the greatest changes that I have seen in improving the fertility and health of soil has been the introduction of the dung beetle. Dung beetles might not be the sexiest thing to talk about but they have done an enormous job in improving the fertility and the organic material in large tracts of grazing land right across Australia. Indeed, in my own case, I have seen a combination of manual soil works and the introduction of dung beetles turn severely eroded, badly scalded soils into productive and healthy soils. None of that is recognised.

If you look through this bill you see that the only real benefit that farmers can gain is by planting trees. The previous speaker spoke about protecting prime agricultural land, but there are no regulations in the bill to say what is prime agricultural land. If credits are going to be paid by the amount of biodiversity that will be grown, it is obvious that people looking to have offsets will want to plant trees in the most productive, fertile soil that they can because that is going to grow the largest biomass in the shortest amount of time. The problem is that those soils are exactly those that we need for our food security.

I have already seen large tracts of what were productive farms being planted down to trees to gain offsets in schemes outside this one. It has led to a reduction in the productivity of those areas and contributed to depopulating rural Australia. I believe that this legislation, brought in in an incomplete form without proper scrutiny and without waiting for the report from the Senate, is the trojan horse to lull the farmers of regional Australia into the next stage, which is the carbon tax, to be followed ultimately by an emissions trading scheme.

The member for New England, after Professor Garnaut visited his electorate, was making noises about the great benefits for farmers under a carbon tax regime. This is the sticky paper. Once farmers get on it, they are drawn in. Under the proposals first put up in the original emissions trading scheme of Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, one of the farmers in my electorate, on a medium-sized farm, worked out with a calculator that the scheme would cost his enterprise an extra $70,000 a year. Since then, agriculture has supposedly been exempted. Previous speakers from the government have said that since farmers are exempt here is an opportunity to raise income.But what are not exempt are the inputs. Agriculture relies heavily on fuel—as examples, electricity for running irrigation pumps, and diesel. A number of our inputs contain a high level of fossil fuel. Fertiliser has a large amount of energy in it. Many of the commonly used farm chemicals are based on fossil fuels, such as Roundup and Amine. I believe the inputs will always blow away any opportunity for farmers to be in front, so we need to be very careful here. While I understand the concept— and I think I have more practical understanding and experience of what this bill is about than others—this bill is incomplete. There are serious concerns and we should not accept this bill without seeing the regulations, particularly around the issue of additionality. With regard to 100-year sequestration, if all of us cast our minds back 100 years, we should all be thankful to our forefathers for putting in legislation enshrining land use rights for now.

One hundred years ago the internal combustion engine had only just been invented. Farmers were farming with horse teams. There was certainly very limited understanding of the complex agronomic information that is now available. To lock our landscape into something for 100 years, I believe, is a very risky move. What happens if it is destroyed by fire or something like that? Where is the cost in all that? We need to be very wary of this legislation. Professor Garnaut, in his original report prepared for the Rudd government, indicated that regional Australia would have an economic downturn of 20 per cent under an emissions trading scheme. I have not seen any information that says otherwise.

We have heard some wonderful speeches during the emissions trading debate. That great alarmist, the member for Isaacs, had half of his electorate under water. Those on that side made some wonderful contributions about their knowledge of what other people could do. When we start looking at tackling climate change, how about looking at some of the schemes that some of the metropolitan areas may introduce, rather than allowing regional Australia to carry the burden for the grand gesture of Australia being the world leader in attacking climate change? The people of regional Australia understand and can smell a bad deal when it is put at them. They think that this carbon tax coming up stinks and that this legislation is a forerunner for that. Much of the intent in this legislation is quite valid but, at the moment, it is unpalatable. Unless I see some serious changes coming through the inquiry in the Senate, this bill will not be getting my support.