The Senate inquiry into native vegetation laws has heard claims a New South Wales Government agency aims to prosecute a set number of farmers for land clearing.
The inquiry is examining native vegetation laws, greenhouse gas abatement and climate change measures and it held its first hearing in Wagga Wagga on Thursday.
It comes after outcry from farmers who say native vegetation laws prevent them from clearing their land, jeopardising their livelihood.
The Wagga Wagga hearing got off to a bumpy start, with Senator Bill Heffernan swearing and arguing with chairman Senator Scott Ryan about the procedure for asking questions.
Senator Heffernan walked to the back of the room and told media the hearing was staged and a waste of time.
Nationals’ Senator John Williams spoke about a farmer who knocked over one or two trees while clearing blackberry bushes and now faces a fine of up to $50,000.
Senator Williams says he has seen a concerning statement from the Department of Environment, Climate Change and Water in NSW.
“It’s very alarming when a solicitor puts an affidavit, a sworn statement forward to me saying that the departmental chief inspector said ‘we must have so many prosecutions a year’,” he said.
“This sounds like a situation where a highway patrol police officer might see we must charge so many people for speeding each day.
“It seems to be like a revenue raising exercise.”
The department’s director of landscapes and ecosystems conservation, Tom Grosskopf, told the inquiry that report of the affidavit is concerning.
He says the department has no quota for action against farmers.
“We receive many hundreds of reports of suspected illegal clearing,” he said.
“The department investigates all of those reports but not in the way of some sort of ‘enviro-cop’.
“We work very much with our communities and we’re very much focused on avoiding the need for compliance action.”
Mr Grosskopf gave evidence the department wants to find a balanced outcome when protecting native vegetation so farmers can get on with business.
He says he is unaware of any evidence that land values have fallen because of the vegetation laws.
The inquiry also heard the Department of Environment, Climate Change and Water has no written report on the community impact of land clearing laws.
Mr Grosskopf told the hearing a department review of 2003 Native Vegetation Act considered the economic and social effects, but they were not documented.
“The social and economic impacts of something like native vegetation laws are very difficult to quantify,” he said.
“There have been some studies done by the Productivity Commission back in 2004 and other reports about the impacts of these laws.
“We pay very close attention to those types of reports and make sure that we continue to work for a balanced outcome.
“The department itself has not undertaken those studies but we reply on reports like the ones from the Productivity Commission.”
There is some disappointment the native vegetation inquiry has reduced its schedule of regional hearings.
It was expected to hold hearings in Shepparton and Tamworth.
The New south Wales Farmers Association’s president, Charles Armstrong, says the inquiry has avoided some areas where there are particular concerns about the laws.
“I think the inquiry and the committee would have got a better and broader aspect and better knowledge of those issues down onto an individual basis had they held more hearings, but in addition to that I understand there’s something like 320 submissions that have gone to the committee, so I think it’s fair to say the community across Australia have viewed this as a very serious issue,” he said.
Senator Barnaby Joyce is a member of the inquiry and says it is important to ensure property rights are returned to landholders.
“We have got to get away from this idea that governments can just stroll onto people’s places and divest them of an asset without payment,” he said.
“We have to make sure that the government understands that people go to work, getting skin cancers on their face, calluses on their hands, screaming bank managers and broken marriages because they believe at the end of the day they own the asset.
“We fought for this inquiry, we got this inquiry and we intend to pursue the course of this inquiry to try and show to the Australian people that we’ve got to stop doing over farmers.”
The inquiry will also sit in Rockhampton and Perth and is due to report its findings by April 30.