Speech: Rangelands Policy Dialogue, Brisbane

Speech: Rangelands Policy Dialogue, Brisbane
Monday, 1 Jul 2019

AgForce CEO Michael Guerin, at Rangelands Policy Dialogue.

Facebook Live video.

Introduction

Can I acknowledge the Royal Society of Queensland and NRM Regions Queensland, who along with AgForce are hosting this dialogue? Can I also acknowledge John Brisbin as our MC and my fellow Spark Plugs who together have made this important conversation possible? 

Our overall purpose of this meeting – to amplify the collective wisdom of those present through synthesis and dialogue has in our view been sadly missing to date and is desperately needed.  My spark plug contribution, on behalf of industry and AgForce, is deliberately provocative but done so in the spirit of frank and full dialogue with other people who care in the hope of contributing meaningfully to an important conversation.  I hope it is taken in the spirit it is given. 

Crafting a declaration for a sustainable rural future in the rangelands – markets, debt, water, drought and climate change is a lofty ambition.  It is also one that industry applauds given we have simply been unable to do so until now.  How many teachers, nurses, bank branches, small businesses, graziers, etc, etc, have been lost in Rural and Regional Australia as our landscapes, biodiversity, social, cultural and economic fortunes have gone backwards – how long has Rome been burning.  The other Friday night I arrived in Charleville at 8 pm hungry and thirsty.  All the kitchens had closed (the kind lady at the RSL did a ring around as I enjoyed a cool beer) and I went to bed that night with nothing but three beers in my stomach. 

It is no news to anyone in this room that rangelands include all those environments where natural ecological processes predominate and where values and benefits are based primarily on natural resources. The rangelands of the semi-arid and arid zones cover approximately 75% of the Australian continent. The rangelands are an incredible natural resource, occur in certain latitudes and soil types around the globe but are not given anything like the visibility that other beautiful and rich natural wonders like the Great Barrier Reef are afforded. I am not necessarily arguing they are as special or unique as the Great Barrier Reef, but I am arguing their value and significance are not broadly understood.  The Australian Rangeland Society aims to foster dialogue between all those with an interest, but I would argue have failed to do so.   

Learnings from the Past

For several years now policy setting in Queensland relating to the rangelands and indeed more broadly the landscapes of Queensland have been done without genuine or full engagement with industry or many others who have powerful and relevant contributions to make, care about outcomes and want to contribute. 

The Vegetation Management legislation of 2018 and Reef Bill of 2019 are classic examples. I do not raise these to politicise the conversation, actually to do quite the opposite – that is to talk openly and honestly in the hope that this strong conversation among friends who care equally and so deeply for the right outcomes will result in a quantum shift in this state's approach to our landscapes. 

The facts are that the strong, detailed, numerous and in many cases scientifically based submissions made by industry, Agforce & other representative bodies, universities, graziers and farmers, professors, local businesses and others were completely and utterly ignored.  Not one change, not one acknowledgement of an improvement opportunity before finalisation and no interest at all in further dialogue.  This must fundamentally change if we are to get the collective knowledge, wisdom and energy onto this critical issue before it is too late.  My hope is that this dialogue may provide a circuit breaker and a new beginning and we approach this dialogue in that spirit and with that intent.

  • Setting policy in isolation of industry or others who have a valuable contribution to make will not allow us to make the progress we want to and need to make.
  • Politicising critical debates leads to worsening economic, social, cultural, biodiversity and environmental outcomes. Again, the Vegetation Management debacle of 2018 can be used to show this clearly. Many many examples.  g. in the Mulga lands economies going backwards as people find their best economic opportunities for their land is to lock it up and accept some carbon credits.  What happens, a family leaves town, the farm no longer contributes any economic activity to the region, pests and weeds start to invade the landscape and the mulga thickens and in doing so worsens environmental outcomes and biodiversity suffers because of that thickening.  Mulga has been managed for thousands of years.  The mulga lands can be managed in an environmentally friendly way that also allows those landscapes to contribute strongly to local communities.  I so look forward to the day I have options and choice for a meal on a Friday night in Charleville – I believe it is possible but will require strong leadership such as is being displayed at this forum.
  • Patting industry on the head condescendingly is unhelpful. We have a powerful contribution to make collectively and individually but are continuously locked out and prevented from doing so.  For example, we made some strong submissions for projects within the Land Restoration Fund which were dismissed without reason and then AgForce was offered an MoU for a small amount of money and have been offered no stronger role despite a strong desire, the ability and the energy to be a much stronger partner.  I accept that others in this room may have a different view, but that is how it feels to us.  Again, these comments are made in the spirit of resetting the debate in a way that supports stronger outcomes.
  • Northern Australia is on the brink of exciting new agricultural development and employment opportunities, including helping indigenous communities prosper from growing crops and cattle. New agricultural developments already have enough checks and processes to ensure feasibility through existing state-wide Planning and Vegetation Management Acts. There is no need for further restrictive and costly Reef-centric regulations for farm design.
  • We can learn something from the first people of this great country of ours – Indigenous Australians. Rather than mass clearing land in football field-sized blocks, as is often misreported in the media, farmers are managing thickening vegetation on their properties to restore the land, much in the same way Indigenous Australians have been managing the land for more than 60,000 years, maintaining a balance between trees and grass with more open landscapes, encouraging healthy regrowth and a balance between the different types of vegetation that are more representative of pre-settlement times. Farmers know that where management of the land is taken away from the people who understand it the most, feral pests and plants thrive, increasing the risks of wildfire with greater fuel loads.
  • A genuinely broader engagement is needed. If you stand in Charters Towers, in Cloncurry, in Boulia, in Georgetown and in so many other communities in Queensland it is hard not to come to the view that you are not being treated as an equal in a debate that will have an effect on your future and one in which you have so much to give if given the opportunity. 
  • We live in a state of 13 unique bioregions. It is an incredibly beautiful and unique part of the world.  Recognising that is a critical underpinning to making genuine progress and is largely missing to date.
  • Support those eager to push boundaries and make strong progress as well as legislating to bring along the tail or push them out. I will only fleetingly mention the BMP fiasco today – but what an incredible opportunity lost.  We must work diligently to support best practice and pushing boundaries at least as strong as we work on legislating minimum standards. 
  • Don’t underestimate the interest, intellect and desire of graziers, farmers and industry in rolling up our sleeves and getting stuck into this. It is there and it is a resource that has not been well used to date. The majority of graziers, those who work the land every single day, are trying to do the right thing and improve the landscape, to leave it in a better condition for future generations than the way they found it. But working out what the right thing is isn’t always as easy as it should be. There exists a complex relationship between Federal, State and Local Government legislation that needs simplifying in order to deliver clearer, more accurate advice to landholders about managing vegetation and their land. Legislation related to how landholders should manage woody vegetation has changed 40 times over the past 20 years. We also have the situation in some locations where areas of land are considered exempt and therefore available to be managed and used for grazing under State Government vegetation management legislation, but certain local councils now require landholders to secure their approval before they clear any trees, and then as recently as two weeks ago along came new “blue dot” trigger mapping that seeks to override everything else and leave landholders in a situation where they can’t manage their land at all.

Agriculture has the environmental credentials to make a difference. If I return to my earlier example of the Great Barrier Reef, the agricultural sector has led the way by enacting measures that significantly reduce the risk to the Reef through the adoption of sustainable and efficient farming practices, while at the same time increasing food production. Agriculture has also done more than any other industry – including urban utilities like sewage treatment and power generation — to reduce runoff and greenhouse emissions. The goal for agriculture is to reach carbon neutrality by 2030, and as an industry we are well on the path to achieving this. Agriculture is contributing more than 80% of the total emission reduction contracted under the Australian Government's Emission Reduction Fund (ERF) auctions. Were it not for our sector, Australia would have no chance of achieving its emission reduction targets at all.

Lessons for the Future

Are we up for it Queensland?  Can we genuinely take those lessons and apply them fully to strengthening our future trajectory?  Can we step over our partisan political positions and out of our bubbles and fully embrace these and other learnings?  If we cannot we are doomed to more of the same and the consequences of that are difficult to contemplate.

  • Industry can and wants to contribute so much more economically, socially & environmentally. Will you and the broader Queensland community give us that chance. 
  • Landscapes need a long-term plan based on science and learnings and baselined correctly. That will allow for example all parts of the community to move forward with confidence and surety.  Sure, new learnings should be bought into the framework, but the fundamental framework needs to set – with a correct baseline giving comfort around environmental and biodiversity aspects. 
  • Perhaps another controversial statement, but policy settings currently are fundamentally wrong. There are many examples I and I am sure others could share but we do not have the time for that today.  Suffice to say though that this dialogue is necessary and important in correcting settings in a way that allows a strengthening of these critical environmental, biodiversity, social and economic trajectories whilst we still have a little time on our side.
  • Bipartisanship is critical given the long-term nature of this. An incredibly lofty and difficult ambition but one we must strive for if we are serious about this.  We often talk about leaving the landscapes in a better position than we found them for the benefit of future generations – this is a critical underpinning to that.
  • We have a bold ambition – otherwise we would not be here. No bold ambition (and particularly one that will be difficult to achieve) will survive without a strong vision and purpose that is set by and supported by the broader community. 
  • It is not too late for a bold and ambitious reset and landholders and industry want to be at the table, doing their share of the lifting and learning and being a strong and central part of the solution.

Conclusion

In conclusion, AgForce and Industry have a resolve for continuing collaborative development of pilot projects in several bioregions to build an on-ground understanding of alternatives to the current punitive approach to controlling management of regional ecosystems. Alternatives that consider building natural capital and resilience of regional ecosystems through landholders being supported financially and with conducive policy settings that reward them for good practice.  

AgForce and industry applaud this dialogue initiative. We hope it is the start of something meaningful and big. We want to play our part and believe we have a lot to offer. Thank you again to those of you who have helped in bringing this together and I welcome questions.

Speech: Rangelands Policy Dialogue, Brisbane

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