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Thursday, 23 August 2001
Page: 30191

Mr LAWLER (10:06 AM) —I thank the honourable shadow minister for so magnanimously supporting this Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry Legislation Amendment (Application of Criminal Code) Bill 2001, even though in his earlier comments he talked about the opposition having to come back later and mop up some of the troubles that come from these amendments. When you are making an enormous change to any piece of legislation like this, you can expect to make some more changes, and I do not resile from that. He anticipates having to mop up the legislation. I would have thought that it was the job of the opposition to predict some of those problems and to actually discuss them in the parliament now. This is probably just another example of the laziness of the portfolio representative on the other side.

I would also like to make some comments, similar to those of the previous speaker, about the difficulties and the sophistication of the modern farmer and the reason that this legislation is so broad ranging. In 1987 a committee was established to investigate, amongst other things, the need for provisions relating to criminal responsibility to be contained in a future act consolidating the criminal laws of the Commonwealth. This Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry Legislation Amendment (Application of Criminal Code) Bill 2001 amends existing statutes by inserting new provisions and amending existing provisions to harmonise various offences within those statutes and within section 2 of the Criminal Code Act of 1995.

It is the intention of the amendments to ensure that relevant offences continue to have much the same meaning and operate in the same manner as they do at present. At present, many hours of practitioners and courts are wasted on litigation about the meaning of particular elements or the extent to which the prosecution should have the burden of proving fault elements. The application of the Criminal Code will improve the Commonwealth criminal law by clarifying important elements of offences, in particular the fault element.

The major forms of amendment effected by this bill are: applying the Criminal Code to all offence creating and related provisions in the Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry portfolio legislation; deleting references in this legislation to some Crimes Act of 1914 general offence provisions which duplicate the provisions of the Criminal Code and replacing these with references to equivalent Criminal Code provisions where appropriate; applying strict liability to individual offences or specified physical elements of offences where appropriate; and removing or replacing inappropriate fault elements and repealing some offence creating provisions which duplicate general offence provisions in the Criminal Code.

As I have mentioned, there would not be terribly many farmers who would be interested in this bill or in how it directly affects them, but it does. Most farmers are hardworking, law-abiding citizens, but they do continue to have issues in relation to agriculture. One of the critical things I have raised in this chamber over and over again relates to some of the comments the previous speaker had made on the change in public attitudes to and perceptions of what restrictions should be applied to farming. I refer to restrictions on farmers, particularly those in the Nymagee, Tottenham, Hermidale and Nyngan areas, to sensibly clear their country so they are able to meet the demands that financial institutions have placed upon them with regard to debt servicing.

These demands are a result of changing community expectations and aspirations which I clearly understand and sympathise with. In the past, farmers were told to go out and clear their country so they could produce food for city folk to eat and, in many cases, if they did not the penalty would be that they would have their land taken from them. This has now turned to a recognition in some areas that there has been overclearing, with a resultant effect on soil quality, native species of flora and fauna, and of course salinity and degeneration of the atmosphere.

What has happened, however, is that an already small group in the community, farmers who own land that has not been substantially cleared—as a subset of farmers who have land that has been cleared, which in turn is a subset of our community—are paying a very high price for the change in community expectations. It is completely unjustifiable that they can have their livelihoods taken away from them in much the same way as the New South Wales government is threatening the livelihoods of irrigators who have millions of dollars worth of capital tied up, with the previous blessing of the New South Wales government. I understand the New South Wales government is going through a very similar process of clarifying penalties, as we are discussing here. Farmers had an expectation that they would be able to produce a crop with which to meet their financial obligations. But just as the New South Wales government—which is responsible for natural resource management—is restricting water use and thereby taking away the ability of farmers to derive a livelihood from farming, it is also taking away the ability of irrigators to earn a living by using the water that they understandably had an expectation they would have access to, after a long history of development.

I do not believe that anybody is arguing that these changes need to be made and that state governments of both political persuasions over many years have overallocated water resources. This needs to be reined in but again, a small section of the community is paying for bad decisions by government and the misguided aspirations of the community in years gone by. I have spoken about the difficulties faced by these farmers many times before, but I would like to briefly discuss one of the salinity solutions which are being considered at the moment. Again, it reflects on the demands that are placed on the farmers. The Criminal Code applications we are talking about are a reflection of the wide range of legislation that farmers must contend with at the moment.

While much work is being done on engineering solutions and the planting of trees, which have had limited success, the experiments with old-man saltbush, a species that was endemic to Australia before we all but wiped out large stands of this plant, have shown what a deep-rooted plant with an affinity for grazing can do for our damaged environment. Being a deep-rooted plant it can extract water at great depths, thereby addressing the cause of salinity. Contrary to popular belief that nothing can be done about salinity, in practice if the watertable lowers in an area and stays low, with the use of old-man saltbush, further rainfall will actually cleanse some of the affected soil by dissolving the salts and passing them back down through the ground whence they came. The plant produces excellent forage in dry times and creates a tremendous drought reserve which assists in stabilising landowners' income. I have actually eaten saltbush-fed lamb, and it is a magnificent product, certainly losing nothing in comparison with lamb fed on other diets. Because of its large surface area it also pushes carbon back into the soil more effectively than many other plant species. As the foliage is grazed and the roots die off, carbon is restored to the soil only to have the plant regrow, and cause for regrowth and more sequestration of carbon follows.

The economics of this plant appear to be sound. Not only does stock fed largely on old-man saltbush thrive, the plant allows greatly increased carrying capacity; in some cases up to 200 per cent. It is known that low rainfall is not a problem for it, and with the potential for carbon trading—I am sure that the discussion about carbon trading will in some way be tied back to the Criminal Code applications we are discussing now and the laws surrounding them—the cost of implementing a program based on old-man saltbush could be repaid within a few years. Though it is an ancient plant and one that has been observed and used by a small number of people for several years, it is staging a remarkable comeback as we search more and more for answers to the problem of salinity in our environment. As we have mentioned, the arms of this act are extremely broad and they touch almost every part of every activity of farming, whether we are talking about farmers' choice of farming type, choice of chemical, use of chemical—the whole range. There is nothing, really, that a farmer can do that will not be touched by the provisions of this act.

I welcome the opposition's support of the bill, though I point to the comments made by the previous speaker that they are generously allowing this bill to pass through the parliament with the expectation that they will come into government and mop up the problems. If they genuinely see problems, perhaps these should have been raised in this discussion. However, I do respect the comments that have been made in so far as, when you do make such an enormous change to legislation, there has to be a general acceptance on both sides that there will be some finetuning and tweaking of this as problems or difficulties arise in the ensuing years. Again, I welcome the opposition's support of the bill and I commend the bill to the House.