1. Comments on the core principles of the reform package:
Land ownership and Stewardship
Many landholders still absolutely and completely reject the right of the State to introduce laws that directs them how to manage, and micro-manage, their privately owned farms and landscapes. Further, most farmers either refuse or decline to engage with relevant Government land management agencies due to anxiety about intrusion on their rights to manage their land the way they require or see fit, or for fear of being penalised/prosecuted. In all, as the Native Vegetation Act has discouraged landholder-Government co-operation, it has actually been counter-productive to the intent of facilitating conservation on private lands.
The new Biodiversity Conservation Bill and associated measures go some way towards re-establishing the relationship, enabling a sense of trust in landholders, and consequently, addressing the core issue both positively and productively.
Landholders have been restrained/prevented by the legislative and regulatory powers of the Native Vegetation Act from implementing programs on private property to both improve productivity and expand production. It is bad enough to have a farm's overall productive capacity limited (through limits on modifying larger-scale vegetated areas eg retained tree areas), but to also affect productivity on actively farmed land (through restricting modification of site-scale vegetation eg individual paddock trees) has additional negative impacts on business and family-farm viability.
The new Biodiversity Conservation Bill and associated measures overall do seem to provide for increased flexibility at the farm-scale to achieve productivity and viability enhancements over time, while also meeting realistic community expectations on biodiversity needs.
It is imperative that the farm sector no longer bears the financial burden of a Government decision supposedly made on behalf of the broader community. Over the near 20 years of the Native Vegetation Act, primary producers have either or both voluntarily set-aside some of their land for altruistic reasons and compulsorily been forced to limit property development and productivity improvements with no direct means of compensation or assistance for this 'public good role'. The opportunity costs of this are inestimable.
However, it is acknowledged that the new Biodiversity Conservation Bill and package does account for, and attempts to right this injustice, in terms of:
o the provision of $240 M over five years to support conservation on private lands, and
o providing more scope and flexibility for farmers to manage their landscapes, which in turn means that farmers are able, and perhaps more willing, to contribute to the costs of biodiversity conservation through setting aside certain lands
Importantly, while Local Land Services will be given core responsibilities for managing and implementing the provisions of the new Bill and that there will be a cost-recovery component, it is essential that these fees are absolutely minimal and the rates that landholders pay to LLS for biosecurity services are not used to cross-subsidize the biodiversity conservation role.
2. Comments on core elements of the reform package:
The Codes of Practise, in particular the Equity code, are seen as a step that restores the ability of landholders to simplify the management of their lands and businesses, and be very useful for on farm productivity and enterprise expansion, while concurrently encouraging positive biodiversity outcomes on the local and landscape scales.
It is noted that landholders will still be required to notify LLS of intended low-impact activities under the codes, and seek certification of higher-impact activities; however, in exchange for additional management flexibility, it is viewed that most landholders will be more willing to engage and participate.
Caps on codes
Notwithstanding the above, it is noted that there is a cap of 2% on the efficiency code and the 25% cap on the equity code. This is a blunt, stringent, arbitrary, unsophisticated measure that is not in keeping with the intent and motivation of other features of the package.
While the purpose of the caps is clear, it is possible to ensure that clearing and the state-wide approach to biodiversity improvement can be accommodated in a more sophisticated manner, that also allows for and encourages landholder-Government trust.
It is suggested that an alternative approach could be introduced that simultaneously accounts for the need to improve trust and manage clearing rates, such that: the 2% and 25% caps be kept in reserve to be applied in situations where it is apparent that such caps are required. This will put an onus on landholders to be mindful of their activities without being dictated to by Government.
* Set-asides and ratios
As a general comment, the set-aside system and the ratios within, including the ratios for clearing of EEC, would be acceptable to many landholders, again, as an exchange for additional management flexibility and trust.
It is entirely appropriate for the LLS to be the body that is responsible assesses the development applications for on farm use of the BAM and applying the triple bottom line approach to discounts.
However, it is essential that private sector certifiers and assessors are also able to fully participate in the process.
This is due to two key factors:
o LLS as an organisation has limited resources, its staff need high levels of training to be efficient and effective, and this role may put LLS in the perceived position of being both the 'advisor' and 'regulator/prosecutor' - which collectively will undermine agency value and status among ratepayers
o private sector certifiers/assessors, working to agreed and rigorous protocols, can be far more efficient and flexible with client liaison and servicing
It is noted that Local Government widely and very successfully uses the private sector in its certification systems; this model must be replicated in the Biodiversity Conservation reform.
In addition, mapping should be handled by LLS, not OEH: it would be more efficient, better suited to advice and amendments, far quicker and efficient, and makes better sense for this process to be accommodated in and managed by LLS.
3. Comments on aspects of the reform package:
* Arbitrary inclusions:
It is noted that in the Equity Code, permitted clearing activities 'cannot be applied to properties less than 100ha' and, 'cannot be applied within 50 km of the coast
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