NSW Farmers is calling for $50 million to support a 10-point plan for further reform to the Biodiversity Conservation Act (BCA) and supporting vegetation Codes and additional resourcing for the Local Land Services (LLS) to support the swift implementation of these new arrangements. Through further reform, a true triple-bottom line balance can be achieved, in which the ongoing sustainability, productivity and conservation of our natural environment can be achieved.
Creating a sustainable and profitable agricultural sector in New South Wales requires us to actively manage our landscape. Better, active landscape management improves soil quality and increases the presence of native flora and fauna. A farmers’ land is their greatest asset – they aspire to leave it in a more sustainable and productive condition than that in which they found it.
A trusting relationship between landowners and regulatory authorities is essential to a properly-functioning land management regime. Despite recent reforms, trust between these two parties remains low, with landowners still viewed as the perpetrator and, in some cases, treated with contempt. Government must take further steps to improve the relationship between the regulator and the regulated – as the 2014 independent panel noted:
“Rebuilding this trust will be critical to developing a workable system, especially one which entails collaborative partnerships between the community and government.”
Changing the law does not change the culture – a change in regulatory culture is essential to make these laws work. More staff are desperately needed on the ground to deliver these reforms.
NSW Farmers is calling for a renewed commitment to biodiversity reform, through a 10 point plan which targets:
- Removal of the ’20 stems per hectare of invasive native species’ requirements: at present, known native pest species must be maintained despite their demonstrated negative impact on the environment. The ’20 stems per hectare’ requirement is an impractical imposition on landholders which results in perverse environmental outcomes and biodiversity loss.
- Introduction of a statute of limitations under the Native Vegetation Act (NVA): NSW Farmers believes that proceedings against a landholder should be commenced within two years of an offence being alleged to have taken place. At present there is no time limit on when an alleged offence can be reported (in either the old or the new legislation), with landowners concerned that records will need to be kept in perpetuity in case an action is brought against them many years into the future.
- Reform of the penalties under the Acts is needed: penalties must fit the crime, and must not also forever cripple a landowner and their business. NSW Farmers is concerned that penalties for minor offences are regressive and onerous, potentially resulting in a landowner being bankrupted and walking off their land even where an environmental benefit has been derived. A farmer converting land into productive pasture, and improving biodiversity, should not be penalised in the same manner as a property developer laying concrete to build houses – concrete and houses have no biodiversity value. Equally, the treatment of family trusts and corporate trustee landholding companies must be considered separately to ‘corporations’ under the penalties regime.
- Ensure the premise of ‘innocent until proven guilty’ is enshrined in the law: the current burden of proof sees the farmer required to prove their innocence, rather than authorities having to prove that an offence has been committed.
- The ‘right to silence’ must be available to a landholder to ensure good faith negotiations: farmers are concerned that unless they can seek advice ‘without prejudice’ in dealing with the Office of Environment and Heritage and/or the Local Land Services, they will continue to be reluctant to engage with the regulator. Working together in good faith to benefit the environment and agriculture must be at the heart of engagements between regulators and landowners.
- Provisions relating to the management of steep and vulnerable lands to be reviewed: the present arrangements are overly restrictive and at odds with proper land management practices. Perversely, heavily vegetated slopes can result in reduced biodiversity, inhibiting groundcover growth which protects soils and instead exacerbates erosive runoff resulting in land degradation and siltation of our waterways. These provisions must be reviewed sensibly.
- Recalibration of biodiversity offsets, which are presently too high: a set aside greater than 1:1 for large areas is unnecessarily onerous and does not encourage use of the Codes. Set asides do not encourage active land rehabilitation and simply seek to lock away land for an agreed period of time. Taking a landscape and regional view of biodiversity corridors must inform planning for set asides, which balance the needs of agriculture with the productive capacity of the land.
- Reconsideration of ‘perpetual set asides’: set asides which require land to be locked away ‘in perpetuity’ result in a landowners’ property rights being infringed with no ability to change or amend land uses in the future. These will result in lower land prices and cripple the adoption of future land management innovation and best practices, a particularly acute issue on larger properties.
- Improved culture within the regulator, encouraging a greater level of compliance and engagement: bureaucrats administering the legislation should have deeper understanding of the practical realities of farming; consideration of decentralised management of the legislation outside the Sydney basin would ensure the practicalities of agriculture were adequately considered in the way the legislation was managed.
- Scope for the development of region-by-region rules for the active management of native vegetation: there cannot be a ‘one size fits all’ approach to land management, particularly given the diversity of land uses and types across the state. NSW Farmers calls for the development, as a first priority, of specific Codes covering the Great Dividing Range, north-west and southern New South Wales, noting the particular issues relevant to those regions.
In addition, NSW Farmers:
- remains opposed to the release of maps of native vegetation on private land pending the development and testing of accurate technology to guide mapping development. The development of maps will require significant resources to ensure accuracy – they must also only be available to third parties with the express permission of the landowner and following agreement that they are indeed accurate, and
- calls for the Government to investigate financially appropriate stewardship payments to support retention of high-value biodiversity, with payments linked to the productive value of the developed land (ie the quantum of maintaining the biodiversity against the land being developed for productive purposes).
Our call for a further $50 million is to fund the Sustainable Land Management Office (SLMO) within the LLS so that the existing legislation, and these additional reforms, can be properly implemented. The funding will support the placement of additional staff and resources in key areas and to swiftly progress applications under the BCA.
Much time has already been invested in the development of a more sustainable, balanced framework for managing native vegetation. More can still be done to ensure the right balance between agriculture and the environment is achieved.