“I don’t think there are any bad guys in the land-clearing argument,” Deputy Premier Jackie Trad said, as hundreds of farmers took to Brisbane’s streets to protest Labor’s planned re-instatement of its vegetation management laws.
But while Ms Trad said she “sympathised” with all sides of the debate, she said the state needed to act, or risk the future of one of its greatest assets – the Great Barrier Reef.
“Clearly what we have is an unsustainable rate of tree-clearing in Queensland,” Ms Trad said on Thursday, the same day more than 300 farmers protested the government’s land clearing laws in a march through the city, organised by lobby group, AgForce.
“Queensland now accounts for 90 per cent of emissions from tree clearing and land use in Australia – now that is a reputation I think that no Queenslander wants to have.
“We can do better; the Palaszczuk government is about restoring balance.”
Labor is moving to tighten the tree-clearing laws, after the Newman government relaxed the Vegetation Management Act to allow the clearing of native vegetation for what it called “high-value agricultural projects”, introducing self-assessable codes for landholders, which put the power back in their hands in terms of how to manage clearing on their properties.
It is also looking to extend the zone the laws will encompass, to take in more of the Great Barrier Reef catchment.
“Let’s be clear about the extension that we are talking about,” Ms Trad said.
“Currently of all of the six Great Barrier Reef catchments, only three are protected. We are proposing to extend the protection to all six of the Great Barrier Reef catchments, because we know that if we are to improve the prospects of the Great Barrier Reef surviving and thriving into the future, we have got to stop putting sediment and run-off into the water, that decreases water quality.
“That is what this bill seeks to do – extend the area of protection, so we can improve the quality of water into the Great Barrier Reef.
“I am not unmoved, of course I feel for everyone in this debate. But I think we need to understand that these laws have been in place in the past and they have seen the agriculture sector grow and increase in profitability. This will not put the brakes on any agricultural production on this state.”
Landowners have protested the move, warning it will cut into their ability to grow their businesses, in an already particularly harsh time for the industry. Indigenous groups have also spoken out against the tightening of the laws, concerned it will prevent Indigenous communities from establishing agricultural businesses.
The government is also looking to reverse the onus of proof, a move the Queensland Law Society labelled “a step backwards for justice”, where landholders would have to prove they did not clear land, instead of the department proving they did.
Ms Trad said cabinet was still considering if it would make any changes to the reverse onus of proof aspect of the laws, which was a recommendation of the bi-partisan parliamentary committee which reviewed the legislation. But she said concerns that the legislation would destroy business were unfounded.
“What we have said to landowners is that we are going back to the laws that were in existence before Campbell Newman and Tim Nicholls gutted the vegetation protection laws,” she said.
“These are laws that were in place and saw agriculture thrive within Queensland.
“In fact in the 10 years that Labor’s vegetation management laws were in place, the agriculture sector grew by over $2 billion in profitability.
“There is a way that we can balance protecting trees and increasing our agricultural industry – we got it right before and we’ll get it right again.”
The LNP has argued the outcry is further proof Labor was “out of touch” with regional Queensland and the government also faced an uphill battle convincing the crossbenchers, other than Cairns MP Rob Pyne, of the bill’s merit.
Parliament resumes August 16.