Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
Standing Committee on Environment
02/05/2014
Streamlining environmental regulation, ‘green tape’ and one-stop shops

BRADEY, Mr Andrew, President, Environmental Farmers Network

CUMMINGS, Mr David, Communications Manager, Environmental Farmers Network

[11:28]

CHAIR: Welcome. Although the committee does not require you to give evidence under oath, I should advise you that this hearing is a legal proceeding of the parliament and has the same standing as proceedings of the House. We have received your written submission. Would you like to make any additional submissions or an opening statement?

Mr Bradey : I would be happy to make a short opening statement. I would like to thank you for the opportunity to come here today. Really all I have to say underlines what has already been said in the submission. The first point I would like to make is that I think the title of this committee, the green tape committee, is a little bit derogatory of environmental regulations. The line that we are putting is that we think that environmental regulations are not a bad thing, that they are a very useful tool through which good conservation and environmental management can be carried out.

Why should farmers care? One of the key things about environmental regulation taking place at a federal government level rather than just at local government or state government level is purely the issue of distance and the ability to see the issues more objectively and more consistently than possibly people who have to prosecute state regulations locally. I come from Andrew Broad's electorate.

Mr BROAD: A constituent.

Mr Bradey : It is a bit of a frontline for native vegetation tussling at state level and frequently the EPBC is draw into some of these tussles. It is very hard for the local councillor, who might be the president of the football club, to pull off a successful prosecution of someone who is allegedly doing illegal clearing if he happens to be the secretary of the football club. This is less likely to happen if the regulations are being run from distance than if they are being done up close. Although having a third level of environmental regulation potentially makes the whole business of compliance much more difficult, it can also add a layer of consistency which might otherwise be lacking.

If we use the case of Queensland at the moment, we have had a massive change of government and basically the Labor Party has been swept right out of parliament altogether and you have a lower house and no upper house. The EPBC and other environmental regulations that are based in Canberra can act more as a house of review and take some of the wild swings, which are not a good thing for environmental management, out of how the environment is managed in those areas.

The question is: why should farmers want to see environmental regulations kept in place? It is probably an unusual position to take, but the fact is that carrying out environmental works on farmland—which is where you find the bulk of Australia's endangered species and also farmland contains the bulk of those land types which are poorly represented in the national reserve system—is an extremely important way of creating a balanced environmental management system across the country. So for the past quarter of a century this has been done through the Landcare movement and the federal government, together with farmers and local communities, have invested billions of dollars in doing good work on private land. They have been doing work which complements Australia's reserve system, which is mostly on land which people did not want to use for agriculture because it was too infertile or steep or rocky. So we as a community and we as farmers have invested a lot over a long period to achieve good environmental outcomes.

Regulations are an important component of supporting this. I have been in the game a long time, planting trees to the dulcet tones of bulldozers knocking them over on the next property. Most sane people are not going to put up with that for very long. If you have regulations backing up the incentive systems which are in place at a federal level they are extremely valuable.

For any form of conservation to be effective, it needs to be working towards goals which are long term, are over a large geographical scale and have strong public support. There is no better organisation in Australia to do this than the federal government, theoretically. They should be carrying out what is a reflection of public attitude. They have a level of control over the whole of Australia and should be carrying out this long-term work. So we think the federal government is an important player in this type of work.

The Environmental Farmers Network as an organisation has had interactions with two main areas of federal regulation. The first is the EPBC Act and the other is the Murray-Darling Basin Authority, which you probably do not see as regulation, but it is a case where you are working over a large geographical area for long-term goals and working across borders. We think both of these are very good, effective things that are essential to maintain, because they tick all those boxes I mentioned earlier: they are large scale, they have pretty good community support and they are working over the long term.

The other area where we have some interaction with the federal government regulations is the role of federal government in a number of international treaties, such as Ramsar, migratory bird treaties, Kyoto and World Heritage. If you are talking about large-scale, long-term approaches to doing conservation, the international treaties take this a step further. We think it is important for the federal government to take these international obligations seriously and to continue to do so.

The whole business of cutting green tape we as an organisation are opposed to. However, the idea of streamlining how it is applied, I think, is an extremely good idea and certainly we would support that. The business of a one-stop shop, I think, is a good way to go. Whether it works well or not depends on how it is done, but I think it is necessary. We have people in our area who have to clear to carry out their agricultural activities. In my experience, they are happy to comply with the regulations, but they like to know what they are. They do not want to be complying with what the person from the local government tells them when they say, 'This is a state regulation that we administer that you've got to comply with,' and then, after they jump through the hoops to do what they have to do, get a tap on the shoulder from someone from Canberra saying, 'You might have done that, but you haven't complied with EPBC.' So I think the issue of a one-stop shop is going to give clarity to people. Like the previous speaker on native title was saying: it is not so much what needs to be done; it is knowing what needs to be done so that you can do it, rather than thinking you have done everything and then you are confronted with a little surprise at the end that just sets everything right back.

That is all I have to say on this topic. Basically we think environmental regulations are a very important tool. We are opposed to cutting and throwing them in the bin, because they been built up over a long period of time, based on good reasons. But I think streamlining them is a good thing to do if it is done well.

CHAIR: Thank you for your submission and your summary there. I understand your point. You are arguing essentially, to one of our terms of reference, that the balance of regulatory arrangements is about right for environmental regulation. You think there is enough and it works effectively. It has built up over time, as you say, and it is in place. When you say we need green tape, it is the first submission we have had which says green tape is good, so thank you for that. It is good to hear the other side of the story.

Mr Bradey : The environmental regulations are good. Green tape—well—

CHAIR: It depends on your definition of green tape, of course, but you say green tape is a good thing, which is an interesting point of view. Many industries and groups have come before our committee and given evidence that they are tied up in green tape processes that do not deliver environmental benefit but are either duplicate processes at different layers of government or processes that continue to be onerous but do not actually have a result out there in the real environment. There are quite a lot of examples. I am trying to understand from your submission, as a farmer, your concern about environmental quality on your farming land and access of some of these industries to your land. Is that your prime concern, to get to the nub of this?

Mr Bradey : My prime concern is that good conservation work that has been carried out needs to be supported by regulation. Regulation is quite often the most cost-effective way of achieving environmental outcomes, but regulation on its own is never popular. So I think it is a good balance between regulation and incentive. Regulation is not there just because it is nice to have regulation. Regulation should be there to achieve some coherent, long-term goal. One of the issues is that the regulation was made 20 years ago to achieve some long-term goal. Now the regulation is still there and we have forgotten what long-term goal it was to achieve. I think that is one of the issues. So if you are trying to achieve good long-term goals then regulation is a good way to do it. If you say regulations are not effective, then that is a case where the people do not know why the regulation was put there in the first place and it is just being lost.

CHAIR: Let me ask you a different question. I am just trying to get your point of view. One of the most concerning things, from my point of view, is that I hear in the evidence about the length of time it can take for various projects. Sometimes that is on a reasonable basis, as you point out—there is some regulatory reason. In other cases we are hearing about duplicate processes that extend the time of projects, whether they be large or small. This often leads in Australia to projects not going ahead or unreasonable costs and delays, which is a burden for all kinds of economic activity—it does not matter whether it is large-scale mining or small-scale ecotourism. You do not have a problem with our not removing environmental protections but streamlining them into a single process where time frames can be reduced, where people can have certainty about what the rules are, how they are administered and what processes they need to go through to get a sufficient environmental outcome.

Mr Bradey : I think that is a good goal.

CHAIR: I just wanted to make sure you were okay with that. If you are talking about something like coal seam gas, which I think you specifically mention in your submission, they should have one set of rules, they should have an ability to put it in and they should have to meet stringent environmental standards as well, and everyone should be consulted in the process. At the moment we seem to have multiple jurisdictions in these things.

Mr Bradey : Coal seam gas is an interesting one because the coal seam gas people are extracting a mixture of gas and water. They might be there for five years doing that, but then the resource will run out. So if the water is gone, and agriculture is there depending on that water, it is not the same water that the coal seam gas people are putting out, but it may affect the underground water supply for agriculture. Then you might be picking up a very big economic advantage from what you are sucking out in coal seam gas at the expense of a long-term sustainable agricultural sector.

CHAIR: Your argument would be, obviously, that there are areas where you would not do coal seam gas mining, because of the agricultural value of the land. Would you accept that there are areas where we could do coal seam gas mining which does not impact on agriculture, for example, where we could access the gas without doing long-term damage to the water table?

Mr Bradey : Yes.

CHAIR: Okay, that is good to hear.

Mr Cummings : Goal setting is important. Regulation itself is not important. The reason for the regulation is what we should focus on. Exactly how you apply the regulation is certainly open for big efficiencies.

CHAIR: Thank you for that. Who is next?

Mr BROAD: I will not ask you any Dorothy Dixers because I have to get your vote.

Mr Bradey : Haven't you got enough votes, Mr Broad? You are the safest seat in Australia, aren't you?

CHAIR: I want to know who the president of the football club is.

Mr BROAD: I will just give you three examples. I would be interested in your reflections on this, because you were saying it is not so much the regulation but how it is applied. A few years ago in Queensland, they said: 'We are going to stop land clearing in two years time; we'll put a ban on land clearing.' So every farmer went, 'Mabel, order some diesel and get the bulldozer out,' and they went and cleared more land. So there was a perverse outcome for regulation.

Another two examples, more locally: a neighbour of mine who wanted to have a son back on the farm wanted to put a centre pivot in and make the farm more viable, so it had some irrigation. Then, to put the centre pivot in, he had to remove one red gum tree. Despite the fact that he had 140 acres of swamp that is all red gum trees, that he has maintained for 100 years, he was not allowed to remove that one red gum tree. Eventually he did, but it took a lot of hoops to jump through. The other example I have is a farmer up near Wychproof. In September 2012, it was decided that where he had been ploughing his firebreaks was now native vegetation, even though it had been ploughed for 30 years. He went and ploughed it; now, there was no information exchanged out there that was available. They threatened him—the federal and state environment departments—with five years jail and an $800,000 fine. If he had been a corporation, it would have been up to an $8 million fine. He considered suicide.

So I guess what we are saying, what I am feeding back, is that in my opinion there probably needs to be some changes in how we are communicating what the intent of green tape is. I am interested in your experiences in your communities. Are people scared of the green tape monster, or are they aware of what their obligations are? How do we, as a government, see that the department ensures that the intent of green tape—which is largely good—is communicated and available in a way that the farm sector can relate to?

Mr Bradey : I was just thinking, before I came here, of what the federal environmental regulations were for my area. Where I live in the south-west Wimmera there is a lot of native vegetation and a lot of wetlands. We have the greatest concentration of ephemeral wetlands in Victoria.

Mr BROAD: Best part of Australia.

Mr Bradey : Yes, but you do not live there. You are still just angling for that vote that you do not need. In our area we have 2,000 ephemeral wetlands. They have recently been put down as being protected by the EPBC. We have two types of woodland that grows there—buloke can grow, and boxwood; they are both protected by the EPBC. We have red-tailed black cockatoos which use a number of different types of woodlands that basically cover all the other types of things that grow in our area. We have the green bell frog which is covered by the EPBC; that covers the non-ephemeral wetlands—the wetlands that were not already covered as ephemeral ones. We have Japanese snipe pass through there every summer; they are covered by the international migratory birds treaties. Part of the south-west Wimmera is the catchment for a Ramsar wetland in the south-east of South Australia. So conceivably, if you wanted to roll up your sleeves and exercise all the muscle that you wanted, you could. You could shut down agriculture completely. Every second paddock has an ephemeral wetland in it. Every second paddock has EPBC listed woodlands growing as remnants here and there. If you want to go in for the conspiracy-theory approach that Big Brother is going to come and get you and stop you from making a living, then you could really have a lot of sleepless nights because the whole of our area could be effectively shut down through these things.

So the issue is not so much that the regulations are there—it is how they are administered that is the important issue. Usually when it is being administered in our area, it tends to be in response to community outcry about some activity that has gone on that is beyond what the community regards as acceptable. As recently as two or three months ago, we had an out-of-court settlement based on someone clearing paddocks of tree species that were covered by the EPBC Act, but there are plenty of other activities that go on that could conceivably be stopped but are not because of the way the regulations are administered. That is a hard one to define if there is one lone red gum in a paddock. There has been a lot of stubble burning lately. Lone red gums have gone up in smoke all over the place. Certainly in our area, that would not really have stopped the development. There has been a lot of centre pivot development.

Mr BROAD: Which is actually the guy's argument. He said that if he had not asked he could have just done it but, because he did it the right way, it slowed the whole project up and cost him a lot of money.

Mr Bradey : Yes.

Mr BROAD: That is not what we want to get to. We want to get people to a point where they—

Mr Bradey : Where they are complying with reasonable regulations. I agree, and I think you have to continue to work towards that. I am getting out of context here, but in Victoria the state government regulations for the native vegetation clearing have been quite strict over the last 10 or 15 years, and it has reached a point where it is much easier to break the law and take it on the chin than it is to comply. So, in order for these regulations to work, it is how you administer them and where you set the bar at a level where you can have good economic activity taking place and good environmental outcomes. You will never get there, but I think it is something that you have to keep pushing towards.

Mr Cummings : One of the benefits of the one-stop shop, I think—Mr Broad would fit this in too—is that you cannot do a one-stop shop without understanding the reasons for the regulation, and that is a communication issue too. If a one-stop shop has a particular area of geographic coverage then I think we can remove a lot of the fear that a lot of land managers and project developers have. If they understand better what the regulation is trying to achieve rather than that boxes have to be ticked then we will get somewhere much faster.

Mr ZAPPIA: Mr Bradey, I thought you made a good observation: that you felt that having the current system provides checks and balances which might otherwise not exist if you have just one process. Can you give any examples within your own region of where those checks and balances have been served by the fact that we have had both a state and a federal process?

Mr Bradey : There are two areas. To our north there has been quite a bit of building of centre pivots. Centre pivots and trees, as Mr Broad said, do not get on very well, so the paddock has to be entirely cleared for a centre pivot to operate. In one case, centre pivot development took place in an area that was dominated by remnant buloke as paddock trees. Bulokes themselves are EPBC listed—or buloke woodland is, but what occurs on a farm is not necessarily woodland—but those buloke trees are habitat for south-eastern subspecies of the red-tailed black cockatoo, which is EPBC listed. This centre pivot development that took place was administered by state and local government. Periodically, when some threshold was passed—none of us knew what it was—EPBC people would come and take part in this as well. So in some instances that put a brake on clearing that was happening, purely because the local government and the state government saw that the benefits of agricultural development far outweighed the value of these paddock trees but in certain instances the federal government came in and overruled that, because they thought that was not the case. I think that was good.

ACTING CHAIR ( Mr Zappia ): I understand that. I guess my real question is: if it were a one-stop shop which had been empowered to administer the EPBC Act as well, do you believe that that process would not have been followed through in the same way?

Mr Bradey : I think most people who were operating in that environment were not even aware that there were federal regulations in play until that happened, and I think that is a bad thing. If businesses are going to invest and do what businesses do, which is to maximise profit, then they need to know what the steps are, whereas in fact what is happening here is that they think they have done everything right and then they get a tap on the shoulder and someone says, 'Hang on, buddy; you haven't quite jumped through this one.' That is the issue.

So the one-stop shop, I would hope, would give certainty about what needs to be done. But, as I have already previously said, how do you give this certainty, given that the whole area is covered in EPBC listed species and there are other ones that fly in from Siberia? I am not sure where you draw that line.

ACTING CHAIR: All right. Ms Marino.

Ms MARINO: One of the things that we heard from the Lock the Gate group was mandatory exclusion zones around prime agricultural land. What would your group of farmers think about that particular idea—mandatory exclusion zones?

Mr Bradey : I am not sure that we have a view on that. I think the main issue with coal seam gas is the uncertainty about what it is going to do to water resources. I do not know much about the Lock the Gate group, but I think there are a fair few issues other than upsetting water resources; it is basically having big industry move onto your farm and the problems that that causes. That may well be a big part of what they are talking about. But, from the point of view of damage to underground water resources, I think the problem is that in most cases there is a great deal of uncertainty about what occurs—because coal seam gas development consists of drilling lots of holes over a large area and causes a lot of interruption, and some of these holes could very well cause leakage to underground water resources. The ones the farmers use are not usually far from the surface and the ones that these people tap into are way below those. So I think the issue there is the potential to lose valuable underground water resources and cut out the long-term productivity of agriculture. As for having exclusion zones, I cannot answer that question.

Ms MARINO: Because that is really the issue.

Mr Cummings : Could I just add that it seems to me that one of the difficulties we have in the environmental field is the lack of certainty itself: the environment lacks certainty in terms of what is going to happen. So where do you bring in a precautionary principle and where do you actually know that you can make a decision? That is something that farmers in environmental fields always have to cope with.

Ms MARINO: Yes. There is also the issue of what a farmer who currently owns land believes he or she wants to do with that particular property at any point.

Mr Bradey : Yes. There is this business of the precautionary principle. Some people are very cautious, and there are the others who are 'suck it and see': 'Let's whack down some wells and see what happens.' I suppose we have to look over the border at what is happening in the Darling Downs and learn from that. But I know that the people who actually do the coal seam gas business do not pretend that they have the answers with respect to how it is going to influence underground water. The uncertainty is what worries people. How you generate regulations to deal with that—well!

ACTING CHAIR: That is our problem! Mr Giles.

Mr GILES: Mr Bradey, firstly, thank you for, I think, a very interesting submission and a very important perspective. Would I be right in characterising the guts of your submission as asking us to deal with two first-principle questions: (1) are the regulatory arrangements that are in place fit for purpose; and (2) when you talk about a one-stop shop and streamlining, are you asking us to consider the next step from that? Are the oversight or administrative arrangements on top of the regulations effectively communicating to stakeholders what they are supposed to do and not do?

Mr Bradey : Yes.

Mr GILES: And, if that is correct, I guess I am interested in exploring this question of checks and balances, and how they can be effectively incorporated, from your perspective, into a one-stop shop arrangement.

Mr Bradey : Just knowing what is coming is very important. But, on the other hand, if you want to clear 20 trees and the application has to go into an in-tray in Canberra and be considered along with 500 or 10,000 other applications, there is a great deal of potential for that to slow things down enormously. Unless the bureaucratic process is properly resourced and streamlined, I think a one-stop shop could potentially be just an enormous drag on time. So I think that is a problem.

Mr GILES: And it may be that the sort of proposal that might suit the interests of, say, Woodside may not deal with Mr Broad's farmer and his centre pivot.

Mr Bradey : Yes. When I came to Melbourne arguing the case for native vegetation regulations, it was my environmental non-government people who we often worked with who invariably tapped me on the shoulder and said, 'There are two types of people who work with native vegetation regulations: the farmer who wants to clear 20 trees so that he can run his paddock more efficiently—and he has limited resources with which to carry this out—and the peri-urban developer who has an infinite amount of resources to do what they want to do.' This is another area that is a little bit interesting. I am representing farmers, not big business.

Mr GILES: I think the challenge you are posing for us is to look at, firstly, the purpose of regulation—

Mr Bradey : Yes.

Mr GILES: and, secondly, that when we talk about streamlining we are not talking about some abstract good we should be striving towards. It is a purposive goal.

Mr Bradey : Yes.

Mr GILES: I think it is really useful that we are reminded of that challenge and not trapped perhaps by the plain wording of our terms of reference in discharging our duties.

Mr Cummings : Regulations can set standards too. They do not just have to be seen as burdens; they can set standards. You cannot always meet the standards. We cannot expect regulation to be perfect, but we need to have the goal in mind all the time and interpret how they are applied.

ACTING CHAIR: Some of the submissions today have made the point that, under many of the state jurisdictions, there are no time frames for specific actions to be responded to by the state governments. Do you have a view about that?

Ms MARINO: Statutory time frames.

Mr Bradey : No, not really. I think clarity is the important thing. It would be good if you could say, 'These are the issues you have to deal with,' and someone could look on a computer and say, 'You have ephemeral wetlands and woodlands; these are potentially triggers that you need to consider. These are triggers that may be taken up by EPBC. You need to consider that, and these are the boxes you have to tick. You have to do this with the local shire and that with the state.' The other thing is the time that it takes to do it. Once again, it is not so much how long it takes but saying at the beginning, 'This is how long it takes.'

ACTING CHAIR: Should there be obligations on governments to also deal with those applications within a specific period of time?

Mr Bradey : I think that would be good. That would be another level of clarity. Right now we are saying, 'These are the hoops we have to jump through, but we do not know how long it is going to take to jump through the last one and get on with it.' It would be good to be able to say it is going to take, say, six months from when you put your application in and have it assessed to know either way. I think that is a good idea.

Mr VARVARIS: From the number of submissions we have had over the last couple of days one common thing that seems to be coming out is that people who want to lodge applications to do certain works just want to know upfront the criteria they need to deal with at all levels of government. They want to know what they are upfront so that they can cater for that, and they want to know the approximate time frame in which that will get dealt with. Is that what you see are the key criteria for people wanting to undertake certain works and would that would make the process a bit more streamlined?

Mr Bradey : Would you like the short answer?

Mr VARVARIS: Yes.

Mr Bradey : Yes.

Mr Cummings : Yes, we have to avoid misinformation, because there is plenty of it out there.

Mr Bradey : At the moment, I have heard that some of the people who administer the state government regulations have said, 'We're not allowed to let the federal government know about what's going on here.' There is basically an instruction to keep the federal regulatory system in the dark, and we just get on with it and keep them out of it. I think that is the worst possible way to do it, because that situation might occur for a while but then the federal government does come in and say, 'Hey, hang on; that might have complied with state regulation but it doesn't comply here.' People want clarity. They want to know how long it is going to take. They want to know what they are going to do. In some instances, what people want to do should be disallowed.

We also had that in our area. We had sandmining happening not far from where I live, and the strand of stuff they were after—some rare metal that nobody can pronounce the name of—went under this block of scrub which had a really high level of environmental significance. So they employed Greening Australia to go out and do an assessment on the values of that and how they could offset that if they cleared it. They did the sums and it would cost them too much to offset, and they said: 'No, the environmental value's too high. We've mined out the rest of the deposit. We'll go somewhere else.' I think that is a very good outcome. It is not as though they have said, 'No, you can't do it,' or there are people lying in front of bulldozers. It is based on a cost-benefit thing and they said, 'Okay, that's it.'

ACTING CHAIR: Time has run away from us. In fact, we have gone slightly over time. Thank you, Mr Bradey and Mr Cummings, for appearing before the committee, for answering the questions and for your submission. I do not think you have been asked for any additional information, but if you have then please forward it to the secretariat afterwards. If you have anything further as a result of the discussion today, feel free to pass it on to the committee. You will be sent a copy of the transcript of today's evidence. If you feel that there need to be some changes made to your evidence, feel free to advise the secretariat accordingly. Thank you very much for appearing before us today.

Mr Bradey : It was a pleasure. Thank you.

Resolved that these proceedings be published.

Committee adjourned at 12:07 .