Biodiversity Conservation Bill 2016

I speak to the debate on the Biodiversity Conservation Bill 2016 and cognate bill. When I was in Broken Hill recently, I felt a sense of coming home as I walked on the flat ground of one of the more arid landscapes in New South Wales. It took me back to my many years as a tour operator, bushwalking and following, in a car or a tour bus, the journeys of early European explorers of this country. I often did so while reading their accounts. While traversing the very landscapes that those men saw with such different eyes to mine, I saw the beginning of the conflicted approach of attempting to control the land rather than working with it, which the Leader of the Opposition referred to in his speech earlier today.

The historic accounts talk of men who saw the diverse and rich landscapes of the interior rural lands of our continent as barren wastelands. The lands had no alignment with their experiences of life in the rural villages of England and Europe, where many of them came from. They did not understand our flora and fauna which has adapted so well to the unique climactic conditions of our continent. They did not understand the weather patterns of our seasons, the wet and the dry. They were not used to a landscape that could change from dry plains to flooded rivers in a matter of days, weeks or months. This is a land where maps change in a moment, where inland seas are created in a series of heavy rains and where drought is often the default season. Australia is a land of contradictions that cannot be tamed and will not be mastered, a land that invites those who listen to share her bounty.

Eventually those early explorers were replaced by timber getters who did the vast amount of work of clearing land in our communities and left the largely cleared land to farmers who, over successive generations, either learned to work with the land they farmed or succumbed to the challenges it threw at them. The story of coastal New South Wales shows that as one drives north and into Queensland it was all about timber and then dairy and then further north into sugarcane. Further out to the west, we have seen innovations in farming practices over generations as farmers have learned the capacity of their land, the water and the climate. But these agricultural practices have not always been successful. Sometimes the land that was left to our farmers was irreparably damaged. For example, through the large-scale clearing of the banks of the Hunter River in my electorate, Europeans shortened the river by some 23 kilometres. It changed the path of the river and made many areas more susceptible to flood, which has impacted on our farms. Our decisions around the clearing of land often have irreversible impacts.

Sometimes our early colonists got it right. I think particularly of Goyder's Line, which was developed by George Goyder, then Surveyor-General of the colony of South Australia. Running roughly east-west across the State, it delineated those areas of the State where the annual rainfall is usually too low to support cropping and is only suitable for grazing. This line has proved remarkably accurate over time, but there is acknowledgement that over time and with the current warming and drying trend of South Australia's climate, there will be a need for a downward shift on Goyder's Line towards the south. There is no doubt that our landscape in this country is a complex living and changing environment. Just as generations of farmers have worked this land and have learned their lessons, so too do future generations need to learn the lessons of the past and farm their lands with respect and understanding.

Fundamentally, our biodiversity must be protected to provide environmental and economic benefits to all in our State. This is an issue that we in this country have been struggling with for generations. There have been moments where we have made great strides forward in understanding and rising to meet the challenges with respect to our landscape and biodiversity, and where we have brought together all the elements that provide our farmers with an economic life while protecting their land into the future. One of those moments was in 2003 when the Carr Labor Government passed the Native Vegetation Act. The Carr Government acted to address the wholesale over-clearing of native bushland that had taken place in the past. Our legislative initiatives have benefited the whole State by protecting our natural resources and supporting sustainable agriculture, thereby making sure that our farmers have a long-term future on the land. Good environmental legislation protects farm businesses and rural jobs and ensures those who work with our irreplaceable natural resources have productive land to pass down to the next generation.

As the World Wildlife Fund acknowledged, these laws "were put in place in 2003 because over-clearing of native vegetation in the past has been a prime cause of soil erosion, degradation of rivers, release of greenhouse gases and the loss of the State's biodiversity." Even today, Australia's biodiversity is under threat. More than 1,700 species and ecological communities are known to be threatened and at risk of extinction. As degradation of our environment continues to escalate, many ecosystems are increasingly vulnerable to collapse. Balanced biodiversity is crucial. When we have a large number of diverse plant species, our agricultural industry thrives. When we have a great diversity of food crops and other biological resources, such as the medicinal plants used for pharmaceutical drugs, our agricultural industry thrives.

Likewise, greater species diversity ensures sustainability for all life forms. A diverse and healthy ecosystem can better withstand and recover from human-induced and natural disasters. Today we have watched as National Party members swaggered into this place and talked about karma and payback and getting back control of "their" land. They talked about ownership of the land as a legal right, not as a relationship that will continue over the coming generations and determine the productivity and the survival of the arable land that they hold in custody. They understand the delicate balance of our rural environments as poorly as they understand the concerns of the people in our rural communities. They do not own the land and they do not own our rural communities. They have no respect for science or for the fundamental basis of our land management programs and legislation, some of which has been in place for more than 40 years.

I recently visited the electorate of the member for Barwon. From what I heard, he is not as in touch with his community as he claims. He told us in this Chamber that farmers know best, that they are conservationists, that they have correctly managed the land and that they do not need governance of their farming practices. We know that this has not always been the case. While there are farmers who have very strong conservation values and practices, that is not always the case. We have seen farmers and regions fight over water rights; we have seen farming innovation and practices in some sectors that have disadvantaged farmers in other regions. The member for Barwon is right about one thing, that is, the vast majority of farmers do farm responsibly.

That is shown in the objections of many hundreds of farmers to this legislation. They farm responsibly precisely because of our laws that protect our land not just for the farmers but also for their neighbours, children and those who will farm their land in the future. Our laws also protect those who are down river and in other States.

In an increasingly global environment of land ownership where even in boutique farming communities like mine absentee landlords from other countries are buying up our farming land we need to ensure we have a clear set of rules to protects that land. We need to ensure that the new custodians do not have to start from scratch to learn about how to work with our land and that they do not replicate the mistakes of our colonial farmers from two centuries ago. Many people in my community complain about the lack of weed management and appropriate farming practices on some properties. There are ongoing complaints and disputes in my area about the management of the levee bank in Maitland where new farmers who have no understanding of the way the Hunter River works get into the ear of under-resourced Local Land Services staff and make significant changes that have very negative impacts on farmers who have worked with the river for generations. [Extension of time]

There are land conflicts between agriculture and mining and agriculture and development all over the Hunter. This bill will undermine the ability of farmers to argue for the retention of prime agricultural land when the very management of that land from an agricultural perspective has been walked back in regressive and environmentally destructive legislation. Farming these days is a business and the complexity of this legislation adds more red tape and regulation on those businesses. In something as vital as the protection of the productivity of our land we need to ensure that the rules are clear and understood by everyone. This legislation does not achieve that.

Over many years and in consultation with stakeholders from all sides the Labor Party has cherished our unique natural assets and put in place valuable checks and balances that have sought to protect the environment. Just as importantly, we have acted to protect those living and working on the land and to provide them with a clear pathway to farm successfully. The Carr Government left a legacy that showed Labor's understanding that land is eternal and that it endures. It is not just about an owner or about my land or your land. The land belongs to all of us and our relationship with it will continue through generations. We must protect it for all future custodians of our country.

These bills repeal a number of Acts. I will not go through all of Labor's criticisms because this has been a long debate and my colleagues have made extremely good contributions highlighting the deficiencies of these bills. I will end by saying that these laws will increase broadscale land clearing. They will lead to further extinction of native animals, drive up greenhouse gas emissions and represent a complete capitulation to the most extreme elements of The Nationals. Through these bills the Government is bowing to those who only see things from their own perspective and have no regard for the long-term sustainable productivity of our lands. We must act to protect our biodiversity and our environment not just for today but also for future generations. If Government members really care about rural communities and the capacity of our land to feed the people of our State, country and the rest of the world I urge them not to support this regressive and shameful legislation.

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