Senate debates

Thursday, 12 November 2020


Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport References Committee; Report

4:06 pm

Photo of Gerard RennickGerard Rennick (Queensland, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to take note of the Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport References Committee report Identification of leading practices in ensuring evidence-based regulation of farm practices that impact water quality outcomes in the Great Barrier Reef.

And in the distance, through the heat haze,

In convoys of silence the cattle graze.

That certain texture, that certain beat,

Brings forth the night time heat.

Out on the patio we'd sit,

And the humidity we'd breathe,

We'd watch the lightning crack over canefields

Laugh and think that this is Australia.

Well, let me tell you, Acting Deputy President Fawcett, the farmers of Queensland aren't laughing anymore. They're not laughing anymore because punitive regulations have been imposed on their way of farming. Those regulations are that far in front of the research there is absolutely no way these regulations can be monitored and policed, yet these farmers stand to be liable for up to $200,000 if they get it wrong. That's very scary, because there's a history in Queensland of the state Labor government imposing fines on farmers where the law has been ambiguous. A very good example was a farmer who cleared a firebreak. He rang bureaucrats 35 times and he got different responses every time. He ended up getting fined almost a million dollars because he couldn't get a straight answer from the bureaucrats. I happen to know another farmer in my home town of Chinchilla who, when he bought a property, needed to find out what was classified as white and what was classified as blue. He got a different answer from the department of environment than he got from the department of natural resources. So you can have the best intentions in the world about trying to protect the reef and everything like that, but you have to make sure these regulations are enforceable. If they're not, two of our great industries—cattle and cane—synonymous with the great state of Queensland are in jeopardy.

That magnificent song I just spoke the lyrics of is from a band called GANGgajang and was released in the eighties. It wasn't just GANGgajang who used to pay homage to the heritage of Queensland; it was a rite of passage. Who can remember INXS's Burn For You film clip released in 1984 where they caught a bus up the North Queensland coast? They had the towns of Gladstone, Mackay and Townsville with much smaller populations, and their last stop was London. It was their homage to the fact that they did their hard yards touring around regional Australia, back when Aussie pub rock ruled the world. And who, of course, can forget what Jimmy Barnes was standing in front of when he went solo in his first single, Working Class Man? It was a burning cane field, because he knew that there was no more of a working class man than the Queensland cane farmer.

This inquiry was designed to work out whether or not we could rely on the data to demonstrate cause and effect. Obviously, we all want to protect the reef. I have done almost 100 dives. I've dived on the Great Barrier Reef and in other places around the world. I dived on the reef recently, in 2018, and it looked fine, but I'll admit that it's 2,300 kilometres long and we have no way of knowing the health of the full extent of the reef. That is why my very first question to the inquiry was: do we have a database of coral growth rates across the reef that shows whether the reef is growing or whether it's declining? Likewise, I asked: do we have a database showing how much run-off to the reef there is, and is that segregated year by year?

We need a centralised and consistent database so that we can demonstrate cause and effect. All knowledge is based on three major schools of thought: rationalism, empiricism and scepticism. It's all very well to say: 'We think the reef is dying. We can see a bit of coral bleaching, so the reef's dying.' What you have to do is measure observations, and you have to do it time and time again in order to prove your hypothesis. Unfortunately, we weren't able to do that in this inquiry, because there is no central database of coral growth rates on the reef, so we can't prove whether or not the water quality is a function of run-off onto the reef. It was alarming that when I asked the Bureau of Meteorology about confidence intervals they told me they had a confidence interval of 60 to 99 per cent. That is scary. I can toss a coin and have a confidence interval of 50 per cent that I'm going to get heads, yet our farmers are expected to walk into a court of law with a confidence interval of 60 per cent of their measurement. It's a bit of a lottery.

I seek leave to continue my remarks later.

Leave granted; debate adjourned.