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Wednesday, 31 July 2019
Page: 1687

Mr CHRISTENSEN (Dawson) (11:16): It's my pleasure to rise to speak on Appropriation Bill (No. 1) 2019-2020 and the associated appropriation bills. The federal Morrison Liberal-National government is investing very heavily in a range of different environmental measures, notably on the Great Barrier Reef. When we do that, we try to work with industry to see that there can be improvements in environmental outcomes—for instance, with the agricultural sector—and, at the same time, drive growth in profits as well. When you get that double whammy, it is a great impact for the environment and a great impact for the bottom line of farmers. That's where you get real change, real sustainable, meaningful change, that's going to last for the long term, not just until the funding that might be on offer dries up.

A different approach is taken by the state Labor government. Just as we've seen the mining industry demonised by the green Left and blamed for everything from the destruction of the Great Barrier Reef to bushfires, cyclones and floods, we're also witnessing the demonisation of our farmers, both graziers and, more particularly, sugar cane farmers. The judge, jury and executioner, in the form of the Queensland Labor government and its Department of Environment and Science, are determined that it is, indeed, farmers who are guilty of just about every evil that afflicts the reef and that, in particular, they are responsible for the quality of water which flows into our water catchments. They make their pronouncement and outline their prescribed course of punishment with no conclusive or extensive data or studies on water quality. Although some monitoring of water does go on, it is piecemeal and it varies from catchment to catchment. So, in the absence of data, the department does modelling, it makes predictions and it determines that the evil farmers are guilty and they must be held to. It's akin to a witch-hunt. This is the treatment growers face after the vast majority of them, about 70 per cent, have spent the last six years or so changing their farming practices and taking ownership for the land their families have farmed for decades—and, I've got to say, they treat it with great respect.

I'd like to step through the process of the Queensland Labor government deciding to introduce yet another set of regulations on an already heavily regulated industry. In February this year, the Queensland Labor government introduced the Environmental Protection (Great Barrier Reef Protection Measures) and Other Legislation Amendment Bill 2019. They wanted to meet a reef water quality target. However, the Queensland Labor government had already introduced regulations in 2010 which essentially required farmers to become scientists, chemists and bookkeepers in order to grow their own cane.

While we all understand that industries develop and refine their processes and practices, the requirements are now extensive and time consuming. Cane farmers are already required to do the following: they have to undertake soil testing within one year of planting; they need to use the results of those soil tests to calculate the optimum amount of nitrogen and phosphorous in accordance with the Environmental Protection Act; they have to keep the soil test reports and records of the calculation of the optimum amount of nitrogen and phosphorous for a period of no less than five years; they've got to apply no more than the optimum amount of nitrogen and phosphorous according to those tests; they have to keep records of all the agricultural chemicals—fertilisers and soil conditioners—applied, including the amount, the product analysis, and the date and method of application, for a period of no less than five years; and they have to have a map showing the boundary of each block where soil testing, and fertiliser and soil conditioner application has occurred.

Naturally these tasks are more difficult for some than others. We don't all enjoy juggling chemical calculations and record keeping, and those practices will probably come more readily to some. We must remember that we are already asking people to change a lifetime of practices to abide by new regulations—quite heavy-handed regulations. Despite the difficulties and challenges, eight years on we've got about 70 per cent of growers going through the process of meeting the requirements which have been set before them. They have become involved in a number of industry led initiatives such as the Smartcane best management practice and the Reef Alliance project.

In November last year, I joined other innovators in the cane industry—130 of them, from Mossman, in the north, through to Koumala, south of Mackay—who were in Parliament House being congratulated for their efforts under Project Catalyst, which was celebrating its 10th anniversary. Project Catalyst was founded by Coca-Cola and by a group I don't normally commend in this place, the World Wildlife Fund. It was designed to reduce the impact of agricultural run-off. Through working together, sharing information, developing farming processes and practices, and boosting crop production, they've improved 150 billion litres of water quality. These are growers that have done this. They're very proud of what they are achieving, and rightly so.

I stood with CANEGROWERS Queensland chairman Paul Schembri, along with the then Minister for the Environment, in March this year for an announcement of further Morrison Liberal-National government funding for 11 programs which are all about practical initiatives and a collaborative approach of working with landholders and farmers to improve soils, protect land and protect waterways. That funding was coming through the Great Barrier Reef Foundation. One of those programs is the Project Cane Change. It is based on mutual respect and recognition of growers' achievements.

Sadly, this is not what our growers get from the Queensland Labor government. What they are faced with is more rules and regulations, further uncertainties and downright fear about whether, once again, they might be put in situations where they're scared to farm because they might break the rules. As Paul Schembri explained to committee members holding an inquiry into the state government bill: 'The current act provides for requirements such as environment risk management plans, soil testing, nutrient calculators, record keeping, the prescribed use of chemicals, chemical accreditation, mandatory setback areas and grower audits. We are very confused and perplexed as to why a high threshold that now exists is to be superseded by an extremely high threshold.'

If the Queensland Labor government's proposed bill is passed, this is actually what awaits our cane growers—an invasion of privacy, the introduction of big brother as the people that farmers work alongside. The agronomists, the extension officers, the resellers of chemicals and fertilisers, are going to be required to keep records of who buys what, and they'll be required to produce those records—or, essentially, dob in a grower. Sugar mills that growers supply to are also going to be required to hand over data on request from the government: 'Dob in a grower'. It is treating them like criminals. The bill will also give a public servant—the head of the environment department—the power to simply go ahead and change the rules and move the goalposts on regulations, with limited requirement to consult and absolutely no accountability on the impacts that rule changes will inflict on farmers and their communities.

Could it get any worse? Yes it could. Growers will also need to obtain an 'environmental authority licence' to grow cane on their own land if that land has not been cropped for three of the previous 10 years, including one of the previous five years. The avenue then for growth of the sugar industry is pretty much zip. Where a licence is required the grower will need to show they can manage water quality risks through farm design and practice standards. The degree of dictatorship here is simply unbelievable. So a bureaucrat in a city office who reads the Green Left Weekly and has probably never stepped onto a cane farm in his or her entire life is going to have the power to tell farmers how they can farm their own land and even what land they can farm on. That is just an insult.

The next insult to growers is that the state Labor government wants to expand the number of regions of Queensland which will fall under these draconian reef regulations. The department, in their infinite environmental wisdom, have determined that the southern cane-growing regions of Bundaberg, Isis and Maryborough, which are already struggling with drought conditions and soaring electricity prices, are going to face these reef regulations for the first time. CANEGROWERS, which represents 80 per cent of growers in the country, believes that this southern expansion is a low priority and an unjustified expense to the public purse and to growers in the region.

It appears that there is a push to get the bill through the state parliament as soon as possible. One can only assume, considering that a state election looms in a little over 12 months time, that Queensland Labor wants to get this nasty attack on the autonomy of farmers over and done with in the mistaken belief that growers and others in their communities might lick their wounds, and that all will be forgotten come October 2020. I certainly doubt that, and they should too.

After this bill was introduced in the Queensland parliament on 27 February, it was referred to the Innovation, Tourism Development and Environment Committee. The committee planned to hold just one hearing, and where did they decide to have that hearing? I'll give you a couple of guesses, but you probably won't need to take too long, Mr Deputy Speaker McVeigh, because you come from a region in Queensland as well. Guess where the state government decided to consult on this agriculture bill, a bill that would affect rural communities? Yes, Mr Deputy Speaker, I know that you would have guessed correctly. They held it in Brisbane, far from the vast majority of the cane fields, far from the vast majority of farmers along the coast and certainly a long, long way from the affected areas of the Burnett Mary region and far from the Mackay region, the Burdekin region and the Wet Tropics region. After an outcry from growers the committee hastily agreed to hold another few sets of public hearings, in Cairns, Townsville, Mackay and Bundaberg—thank goodness.

But if growers and their representative groups thought that that was a sign that perhaps their concerns would be heard, that they were going to be listened to, they were sadly mistaken. Though the committee sat and heard the accounts of farmers—their objections, concerns and requests for consideration of other methods and other avenues—despite hundreds of submissions and hundreds of people turning up to these public hearings, particularly in Townsville and Mackay in my electorate, the committee came back with a short stark recommendation: 'The committee recommends the bill be passed.'

In the interests of the cane farmers in the biggest sugar-growing region in the country, and also on behalf of our cattlemen and cattlewomen, I would like to raise some of the concerns and objections that they have shared with me and that were raised in those hearings. The CANEGROWERS organisation in their submission to the inquiry said:

It is not reasonable that a growers' ability to farm profitably will be at the whim of a government department, with no explicit consideration of economic and social impacts, no process for independent review and no recourse for appeal by affected industries and individuals.

Cattlewoman Josephine Angus said: 'We are under pressure. I have many quality assurance manuals on my desk. I would love to be out riding a horse or driving a grader and doing some earthworks that might actually stop a bit of sediment to the reef instead of checking lists and ticking boxes.' CANEGROWERS chairman Paul Schembri said: 'Australian cane farmers are acknowledged as being world class in terms of innovation and in terms of embracing technologies and farming practices that are second to none. I make the observation that we are lauded and applauded as being perhaps the best in the world when it comes to environmental sustainability. It is somewhat irritating that when we come back to Queensland our environmental prowess is considered to be second-rate.' Manager at the Invicta Cane Growers Organisation, Michael Kern, said: 'A lot of our growers have questioned the science and questioned the testing results and have employed independent, peer reviewed testers to come onto their properties and undertake testing. It might come as a surprise, but they have found different results to that of the government's testing. They are satisfied themselves, particularly around nitrogen coming in off the properties.' Russ McNee from BRIA, the Burdekin River Irrigation Area Irrigators, said: 'The proposed amendment bill confirms irrigators' longheld concerns that government will continue to raise the compliance bar despite the commitment and best effort of irrigators to improve water quality and minimise irrigation run-off.'

Anyone who feels strongly about supporting our traditional industries and curtailing the green Left push to impose regulation after regulation on our farmers and other industry groups should call state members of parliament and ask them to take a stand against the demonisation of the agricultural sector and farmers. People can also sign the National Farmers' Federation #RejectTheRegs petition, which notes this push by Queensland Labor:

… puts farmers at risk of bureaucratic intrusion into their everyday business decisions for no guarantee of water quality benefits.

As the NFF rightly states in their petition about these regulations, they're 'a grab for private business data' and 'will give government the power to shift the goalposts again and again', and they're simply 'not needed'.

The Palaszczuk Queensland Labor government should get serious about listening to the concerns of our farmers. The bureaucrats are fond of saying the industry knew it was coming. They state they've been in discussions since 2016, but discussions are not an agreement. The Queensland Labor government's idea of consultation is this: 'We meet, you talk, we don't listen and then we do whatever we want.' This is how they've dealt with farmers. It is an appalling way to do businesses with any constituent, and it's particularly appalling to do this sort of business with the people who put food on our tables, the farmers who, in total, generate $10 billion of output for our state's economy and employ hundreds of people up and down the Queensland seaboard. This is a disgraceful way. Farmers will remember it, if the state Labor government goes ahead with these onerous regulations, and they will take it out at the ballot box.