NO END TO CLEARING FRENZY AS GOVERNMENTS DITHER
Article for Canberra Times by Phil Dickie
Self-professed media tart and Queensland Premier Peter Beattie recently listed the achievements of his first two years in office. High on the list was a claim to have successfully dealt with a range of traditional too hard basket issues like tree clearing.
Just in what sense the Premier has resolved the tree clearing issue remains unclear. Queensland farmers are bulldozing treecover at a rate that would put several South American nations to shame while the government threatens to water down legislation that it hasn’t yet proclaimed into law.
However, in Queensland the issue has disappeared from the front pages which for this Premier might well equate to resolution.
Barely 70 kilometres from Brisbane, a small creek starts its westward flow from the slopes of a prominent crag on the Main Range. It is the Condamine, source of the Darling component of Australia’s great inland river system.
Unfortunately for the creek, the first private land it encounters is owned by Tim Brosnan, a Killarney-based militant farmer who has had the bulldozers working the steep slopes these last few months.
On the heights across the river, another farmer had to pause his sudden and savage assault on rainforest remnants to call in the surveyors so the bulldozers did not blunder into a national estate reserve for the endangered Albert Lyrebird.
If this is panic clearing, it is probably unnecessary. Officers of the Department of Natural Resources concede that while the clearing going on around the source of the Condamine is clearly undesirable. Landcare is spending $168,000 planting trees in the valley - they wouldn’t be able to stop it under the proposed legislation anyway.
There is a large element of the irrational in the rush to clear Queensland. Although companies like AMP are implicated in the extensive clearing, there is as much sheer bloody mindedness as corporate calculus involved.
Observers who note similarities between the current noisy rural campaign against clearing restrictions and previous noisy rural campaigns against gun owning restrictions and native title concessions are not mistaken.
Tim Brosnan is a case in point. Media outlets trying to bring him to a microphone to discuss his clearing have drawn a blank. His only public comment is his rally placard - "Give me my land back"
Many Queensland graziers would rather not be tarred with the militants brush but keep any even mildly conservationist leanings to themselves. But others keep their distance from the sideshow for more hard-headed reasons even in the very short term, the economics of clearing can be pretty dodgy.
John Rolfe runs cattle on the property Broken Dray outside Emerald. In his other life Dr John Rolfe is a resource economist at Central Queensland University and has noted that in the areas where extensive clearing has occurred in the past there are now no more cattle than there were 20 years ago.
But the negatives, including the rising salt and the disappearing soil, are certainly becoming evident.
Rolfe also found that in the areas subject to the immense clearing that began in about 1993 when the possibility of effective restriction was first raised, productivity gains have been slight to negligible.
Effective regulation never happened, thanks extensively to the Queensland political gambit of passing legislation through parliament and then not proclaiming it. Leasehold clearing restrictions of no great onerousness were passed in 1995 and then not proclaimed until 1997. They have yet to have much effect on clearing under permits that have years of currency.
On freehold clearing, Premier Beattie is trying to pass the buck to the Commonwealth, demanding $103 million for compensation payments to farmers before proclaiming the fairly wishy washy legislation passed last November.
Much of the money would probably have flowed to Queensland through normal channels but for the Premier’s shrill demands. The Howard government seems to be considering its response with no great urgency and some movement on the issue is expected this week.
Among the considerations before the Commonwealth are an ABARE report on the issue, the release of which would supposedly damage relations with State and international governments, recent big spending announcements in Queensland including $260 million for a sports stadium, and National Party concerns to not alienate the militant farmers.
Premier Beattie says that if the Commonwealth doesn’t cough up, the legislation will be further watered down, effectively protecting only extremely endangered ecosystems.
Other States, both coalition and Labor, long ago realised the futility of negotiating an end to rape and pillage of the landscape. Immediate or interim bans or restrictions, introduced overnight and backed up with a big regulatory stick, have been the only effective measure. In most States, a compensation carrot wasn’t thought necessary.