Thursday, 16 June 2011
Carbon Credits (Carbon Farming Initiative) Bill 2011; Second Reading
This is a debate that we should be having in Australia, and indeed globally, regardless of the discussion that is also raging about climate change. We all know that we have declining productivity in our soils, we have declining biomass and we have biodiversity problems right across the globe. There is no doubt that we must address problems that have been brought about by inappropriate farming techniques, by urban encroachment or by bad public policy right across the globe.
Today, though, we are particularly debating the Carbon Credits (Carbon Farming Initiative) Bill 2011, the Carbon Credits (Consequential Amendments) Bill 2011 and the Australian National Registry of Emissions Units Bill 2011. The problem is that this government just does not seem to be able to get it right when it comes to doing the hard work behind what should have been sensible moving-forward policy that delivers a better Australia. We have legislation before us with no regulations spelt out. We are told simply: 'Trust us. Sign this set of bills through and you'll find the details in the wash sometime down the track.' Unfortunately, Australians from a whole range of sectors no longer trust this government enough to simply say, 'We'll tick the big boxes and hope it all works out in the fine print.' That is not the way, we have discovered, that we can trust this government. We have seen a whole range of problems, from things which should have been small, like the pink batts program, through to things like Building the Education Revolution, where the outcomes could have been great but instead were a long litany of no real value for money and people's aspirations and communities being trampled for the sake of expediency and political opportunities.
Here we have legislation which describes how it is going to improve Australia's carbon sequestration, but it is very light on how that might happen. We fear it will in fact have very perverse outcomes. The coalition, of course, does have an alternative strategy and one which will make sure that we have a future of higher productivity for food and fibre production in our country. After all, as the previous speaker said, there is a major concern about the quantity and quality of food available for the growing global population, and Australia is very well positioned to lead in the production of food, both domestically and globally.
What have we got? We have a bill which seems to be fixated with growing more trees. All farmers know the value of protecting remnant vegetation, growing additional vegetation for biodiversity, protecting from soil erosion, providing supplementation as well as shade and shelter. No farmer willingly goes out and simply destroys vegetation without understanding exactly what the impact is for their bottom line and the environment. After all, the two are totally interrelated: a farmer's bottom line and the condition of their soils, water resources and air quality in terms of dust suppression and so on.
I grew up on the great treeless northern plains, known as the Tragowel Plains. There were only trees along the watercourses. That was not a consequence of farmers going out and cutting down everything that stood still; it was a consequence of, no doubt, hundreds, if not thousands, of generations of Indigenous use of that landscape—the burning regimes—and of natural phenomena. In 1836, Major Sir Thomas Mitchell described the area where I grew up as a treeless plain. Today, if you go there, you will see trees from horizon to horizon—in fact, there are trees all along the fence lines, the roadways and the channel check banks. Those trees were planted for salinity management and control. Some of them were effective; some were not. But the fact is that farmers will and do respond to what they are advised, and where they can see that tree planting is effective in improving landscape values and productivity.
But what we have in this bill are the sorts of suggestions and incentivisations which lead us instead to think about the old managed investment schemes. We all saw the disasters in parts of Victoria, particularly western Victoria, in parts of New South Wales certainly, and in parts of Western Australia where tree planting was incentivised on a commercial basis but at a huge cost to biodiversity. Disease was a serious risk where huge monocultures were established. In Tasmania, the same things were happening. We found that, once these enormous new forest tracts were planted, they were minimally managed or in some cases just airily sprayed from time to time, with serious consequences for neighbouring landscape. We do not want to see a monoculture of forestry established right across the Murray-Darling Basin, which is what the CSIRO has predicted might occur if a bill like this got through.
What we need is a whole raft of sensible strategies that lead to greater carbon farming initiatives and carbon sequestration. They would include things like biochar, no-till farming, perennial pastures and, of course, better feral animal control. Much of that control is on range lands and public lands, which farmers do not have immediate responsibility for. There will be many contributions from new genetics development, which will no doubt range from plant to animal genetics. In the future it will help that crops and animals can thrive in different seasonal regimes from those that we have now.
We want to see a whole range of strategies developed and supported in this country that deal with greenhouse gas emissions and, at the same time, improve our environmental sustainability and productivity. The two can go hand in hand. In fact, we have to walk down the path of a win-win scenario. Unfortunately, the rules in relation to carbon sequestration and carbon credits detailed in Labor 's bill indicate that you cannot have a business-as-usual scenario. You have to do something new and different or extra in order to get recognition for your efforts. What if you have been doing your no-till farming for a number of years? Is it just the very late adopters of that practice who will be rewarded for their late adoption? That is a nonsense. What if a whole range of new strategies, processes or methodologies that were developed by our excellent research and development organisations came up in the future? Under this legislation, we understand that farmers will have to lock themselves into a 100-year initiative. They will have to sign up to undertake, for example, a particular strategy or plant a particular range of forestry product and not disturb it for 100 years. How absurd! What farmer, what individual, what business can do that? And why would they do that, when they know that there is a very fast evolution of best practice, always, particularly in Australia, which is known for its innovative agricultural practice?
It is very distressing and concerning for our farming population to see an opportunity like this missed, to see another well-meaning, no doubt, but misguided attempt to try and do right for this country. We have examples of what can go very wrong when we incentivise the wrong systems in this country—for example, agriforestry through MIS schemes. We know that there is absolutely no room in Australia for further disturbing our capacity for groundwater regeneration. We know that a lot of additional tree planting does disturb or use up groundwater accessions. We are concerned about who is going to manage our landscape if a lot more fuel load is in that landscape for wildfires. We already have in the Barmah Forest, for example, some of the biggest black water evidence events on record, which were man-made as a consequence of bad public management of the biggest red gum forest in the world. That was a consequence of mismanagement of agriforestry resources and a lack of understanding about how to manage controlled burns and grazing in that forest. There is not, unfortunately, in Australia a history of governments, especially Labor governments, doing the right thing by agribusiness. The farming community in my region is very conscious of the need to farm effectively. We know about environmental sustainability. We know about landcare. For example, my region pioneered a lot of the early landcare and soil conservation works. It is a tragedy that those programs have been defunded. Our volunteers are exhausted after years of drought and now flood, but there is no government support for their facilitators to manage Landcare volunteers and that is a tragedy. We hope with a change of government and a return to the coalition that we will be able to restore the remnants of the Landcare movement. We hope, too, that the work of the Natural Heritage Trust—which did such excellent work in biodiversity protection, in weed control and in helping with Indigenous Protected Areas—will recommence with a government that understands and cares.
We cannot as a coalition support this bill. We have amendments and we urge this government to look at those amendments. We want this country to have a farming regime which involves very much greater carbon sequestration. We want our farmers to participate in the carbon credit trading which may evolve as time goes by. We are very conscious of what has happened in New Zealand. New Zealanders are our closest brothers and also our competitors in the commercial world of exporting. We know that those farmers are already suffering thousands of dollars per year in loss of competitive advantage because of poor policy in their country.
We urge this government to look harder at what they are trying to do here. I acknowledge it is well meaning but, unfortunately, it is misguided. It is not good legislation. It leaves the detail to regulation. We cannot trust this government to get regulation right. We need to see the i's dotted and the t'scrossed. There is so much at stake. We cannot expect any sector of our society to lock itself into any practices for a 100-year stretch. That is just a nonsense. It flies in the face of all we know about the evolution of science and best practice.
We know that our country can be one of the great food providers for this and following centuries. We want to do the hard work. We have already moved to change the malpractice suggested in the guide to the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, a suggestion to end irrigated agriculture in the Murray-Darling Basin as we know it. This government is already responding positively to an alternative plan which will not simply decimate irrigated agricultural communities. I put to them that they should look at these bills again, look at the realities, take advice from the CSIRO, consider the work of the Australian Farm Institute, look at the best practice among our farm families in Australia today and do not handicap them as they compete domestically and internationally. Make sure that we can do our best to deal with climate changes and Australia's seasonal variability and also that we can do our best as good global citizens. What is proposed here is simply paying lip-service to what is a very complex problem and it is simply not going to serve the needs of our nation or our global systems. It is simply going to leave our country once again with bad policy and inadequacy. Quite frankly, our country deserves and must have much better.