Native Vegetation (Miscellaneous) Amendment Bill

29 Sep 2011 archivespeech

This speech is in regards to native vegetation legislation in South Australia. The Hon. J.M.A. LENSINK indicates her support for the bill and that she will have some amendments.

Adjourned debate on second reading.

(Continued from 15 September 2011.)

The Hon. J.M.A. LENSINK (17:25): I rise to make some remarks about this particular bill, which has been around for some time in various forms. I would like to say at the introduction, in terms of the progress of the debate in the House of Assembly, that we were not given a lot of notice after the winter recess that the government wished to progress the debate, so we had not had an opportunity to complete all of our due diligence consultation, which is to talk to all the people who will be affected by it, by the time it was debated. So, in that place, my colleague the member for MacKillop raised a number of issues and we have reserved our right to introduce amendments. I am in discussions with parliamentary counsel in relation to those. I will outline those issues in this speech.

Native vegetation legislation is very important in South Australia because there has been so much land clearance since settlement, and clearance of native vegetation is one of the great threats to our loss of species, particularly as more land is taken up for further development on those fringes. The amount of land cleared in each of our regions in South Australia varies. I note from the recently released draft State Natural Resources Management Plan that it details the regions with the least amount of vegetation compared to those which are not too bad.

Looking at those various regions: Adelaide Mount Lofty Ranges and the South-East are those which have the indication of 'poor'. Eyre Peninsula, Kangaroo Island and South Australian Arid Lands are in the fair to moderate condition. Then the Alintytjara Wilurara, Northern Yorke and SA MDB are variable. I think it is important to bear in mind. It is important as well in terms of the significant environmental benefit credits, which is part of this particular bill, that they will be able to be transferred between regions. I will talk a bit more about those in some detail.

There will be a focus with those environmental benefits to those regions which have a lower amount of retained native vegetation than those which are well represented. I certainly subscribe to the point of view, one which might be at variance with some of my Liberal colleagues, that rehabilitated land is never as much of an environmental asset as virgin scrub. I think some of the concern with exchange programs is embedded in them not having the ability to provide a system which discounts too heavily those remnant ecosystems.

I am grateful for the work of David Paton, Associate Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, who has done extensive studies, particularly on birds, which demonstrate that there is a greater number of native birds per square kilometre in undisturbed native vegetation, or virgin scrub, compared to any other vegetation type, including rehabilitated land. He has done a lot of work in the Coorong and Lower Lakes and also holds great concern for the Mount Lofty Ranges and the declining bird species there. So, I think that is one of the things that we need to bear in mind in this debate.

With that in mind, I probably have more sympathy for the tendency of the Native Vegetation Council to be reluctant to grant clearance permits in regions which have lost a lot of original native vegetation, such as the Mount Lofty Ranges and the South-East where there is only some 4 per cent of original vegetation. However, at the same time, this risk has also led to some perverse applications across the state whereby the council has been accused of being too slow and unreasonable in approving permits.

I enjoyed reading the member for MacKillop's contribution regarding his youthful fascination with eucalypts. That is a fact that I had not been aware of. My colleague, the Hon. David Ridgway, in a contribution on the significant trees legislation a few years ago, spoke about his disappointment that he and some of the people on his property had accidentally set fire to a very mature, probably river red gum, with all of its attendant biodiversity.
Hearing from my country colleagues about their fascination with our native world is always of interest to me. I would recommend to the member for MacKillop that if he wishes to reacquaint himself with eucalypts he should visit Mr Dean Nicolle of the Currency Creek Arboretum.

Members interjecting:

The Hon. J.M.A. LENSINK: Mr President, can I just say that some of our colleagues are ferreting on about people not being here and they are distracting me. I might have to continue speaking a little bit longer because I am so distracted. I am having trouble hearing myself talking about native vegetation.

The PRESIDENT: The Hon. Ms Lensink could certainly say that. I would probably agree with you.

The Hon. J.M.A. LENSINK: Thank you, Mr President. I was saying that I would recommend that the member for MacKillop can reacquaint himself with all sorts of eucalypt species by visiting Mr Dean Nicolle of the Currency Creek Arboretum. On a recent visit to the Mount Lofty Botanic Gardens, I was told by a director of the botanic gardens that Mr Nicolle has voluntarily propagated hundreds of species of Australian native trees and is regarded as an expert in this area.

I would like to correct some comments the member for MacKillop made regarding Trees for Life and the provenance of its seeds. It is an area that I have some personal knowledge of because I have been growing for them for about three seasons. The first batch that I grew would be about four years old. They are doing very well and are probably about 15 feet tall. My landholder is revegetating a property at Emu Bay on Kangaroo Island and this year he took custody of some 300 or 400 eucalypt melaleuca and sheoak seedlings that I raised myself.

Trees for Life is very careful to collect seedlings from each region and it provides idiot-proof instructions to make sure that we grow the seedlings properly. One of those aspects is that we carefully label seedling boxes including the region which they belong to so that they do not get mixed up.
In relation to the connection between native vegetation and no species lost, I would like to put on the record the failure of this government with its no species lost target. According to its own environment department statistics, there are currently 828 plant species and 342 animal species listed as threatened in South Australia.

The number of threatened species has soared since Labor came to office in 2002, when there were just 67 animals and 144 plants listed. The staggering increase should come as no surprise because Labor has significantly weakened its commitment to protecting endangered species. Not only has Labor failed to deliver on its promise to save endangered species but the situation has become dramatically worse. In its original strategic plan released in 2004, the target was 'lose no species'.

This has been changed in 2010 to a redefined target, and read that as you will: it just really means, 'Our spin, we realise, is no longer achievable.' That has been amended to 'lose no known native species as a result of human impacts' and it is now just measuring against 20 so-called indicator species rather than across the board, which does not provide a true representation of just how serious the situation is for endangered plants and animals. While we are at it, let us not forget that this Labor government has cut $64 million from the environment department's budget in Mr Foley's last budget.

The background to this particular piece of legislation is that there was an Environment, Resources and Development Committee inquiry in 2005 which was partly prompted by the devastating Wangary fires. The terms of reference and the committee recommendations covered the topics of the recovery of native vegetation, the role of fire access tracks, cold burning regimes, soil degradation, native vegetation management, fauna and education.

Recommendations focused on many things, including firebreaks and access tracks, the need for management plans, designated fire safety areas within native vegetation and at road intersections, the need for a single community representative body to authorise clearing of native vegetation for fire management, minimisation of soil erosion, management of weeds and pests, consideration for native flora and fauna, and a number of recommendations regarding prescribed burning of native vegetation.

These were that there was a need for a consistent approach to prescribed burning on both public and private lands, that the planning and approval process for prescribed burning be amended to allow flexibility for burning on optimum days, who should undertake the prescribed burning (which it said should be professionally trained personnel), that training should be provided to landholders to enable them to assist with prescribed burns, and that the government actively manage native vegetation for fuel loads, weeds and pests.

The 2008 bill which was presented to this parliament was a result of the government review of the act and contained a number of measures to improve its operations. This bill is largely the same as that which was presented to parliament in 2008. The Liberal Party at that stage did not consider the bill contentious and still does not consider it contentious. We supported it then, with two amendments from Graham Gunn, the first of which sought to include the definition of burning as a form of clearing, and the second was to allow people to put extra watering points on their properties so that stock would not have to walk as far, neither of which was accepted by the government. The bill then came to the Legislative Council and, due to the impact of the Victorian bushfires in February 2009, there was then a review which held up the bill.

I have done an examination of the changes to the Fire and Emergency Services Act in 2009 and there is nothing that specifically relates to native vegetation in the regulations. There are bushfire management plans which must set out the principles to be applied in achieving appropriate levels of hazard reduction. A bushfire coordination committee must take reasonable steps to consult with any government agency designated by the minister, the LGA, NRM staff, SAFF and the conservation council. The plan must identify existing or potential risks to people in communities and outline strategies to achieve appropriate hazard reduction.

My understanding of bushfire management plans is that it is very much a responsibility that rests with the CFS and they have some discretion and flexibility in how those are applied, but, as a formal question, if I have missed something in terms of changes to the Fire and Emergency Services Act, I would appreciate it if the government in its summing up could tell us what has been implemented since 2008 and 2009 in relation to native vegetation.

Also, in division 3 of the act there are duties to prevent fire, in that an owner of land must take reasonable steps to prevent and inhibit outbreaks of fire, etc. If an authorised person believes that the owner has failed to comply, they can receive a notice in writing, which may include directions to trim or remove vegetation from the land or create, establish or maintain firebreaks or fuel breaks. That does not specifically refer to native vegetation, either, so I am still not clear what changes occurred because we did have amendments which would relate to allowing fire to be used more flexibly. I suspect that that issue is still alive.

If we turn to the specific provisions in this bill, it contains the piece of legislation which the Hon. Mark Parnell moved and which was accepted recently. It clarifies that the act applies to the Mitcham Hills, which was to protect the remnant grey box vegetation in that area; there is an addition to the Native Vegetation Council of a person with expertise in planning or development, which arises because the commonwealth environment minister had a statutory nomination, which the commonwealth no longer wishes to retain; there are a number of technical amendments which relate to the operation of the council; and there is an increase in the expiation for illegal clearance from $500 to $750. My second question is: can the government advise when this penalty was last increased? I would appreciate an answer to that during the summing up.

In the bill, there is greater flexibility in the treatment of significant environmental benefits (or SEB) offsets, specifically to allow for offset funding from the Native Vegetation Fund to be transferred between regions, which will be subject to the criteria of ensuring increased biodiversity value (I was advised in the briefing that those will be publicly available). There is also provision of future offset credits for current conservation works, which is new section 28A of what will be the act; a new lesser regime for minor enforcement notices; and changes to court proceedings. There are amendments to the time frame for when proceedings may be commenced, and there is a change in jurisdiction for criminal hearings from the Magistrates Court to the ERD Court (I note that civil jurisdiction is already in the ERD Court). It expressly stipulates that satellite imagery is a legitimate mode of evidence, which I think is just a reflection of how technology changes with the time.

The Nature Foundation is a well-respected conservation organisation. Honourable members may know it as the non-government organisation that purchased the pastoral property Witchelina in our Far North as a private reserve, with support from the state and commonwealth governments. The foundation is supportive of the bill as it provides greater flexibility in the treatment of significant environment benefit credits. However, the Nature Foundation would like amendments to the bill that will recognise credits for offsets that result from mining activities, which are known as third-party offsets.

The South Australian Chamber of Mines and Energy completely supports the Nature Foundation's proposal and submissions it has made to government on the grounds that it will encourage resource companies to take a more proactive role in natural resources management funding than electing to discharge their SEB through payment into the Native Vegetation Fund.

The resources sector has articulated its increasing need for representation in natural resources management. It also believes that it is having an increasing role with native vegetation, and it has therefore requested an amendment that it be represented on the Native Vegetation Council. I have also contacted SAFF. I have material from SAFF's submissions in the past, which I think indicate that it is largely supportive of this bill, but, at the time of giving this speech, I have not actually received a formal response.

The member for MacKillop raised the issue of third-party credits in another place. This is an area that other states are taking the initiative on. It is a pretty new area of regulation for state governments. Victoria has something that it calls its bush broker scheme which matches credits which are compliant with its framework rules. It is running a six-month trial in Gippsland and landowners and conservation organisations can be matched up so that those credits can be exchanged.

In Western Australia, as recently as two days ago, the minister, the Hon. Bill Marmion, has released a new framework for environmental offsets which may include acquisition of land for conservation, revegetation of natural areas outside the project area or improving scientific or community understanding and awareness of environmental values affected by a development.

The minister developed the policy through a ministerial task force on approvals, development and sustainability and peak representative groups including the Association of Mining and Exploration; the World Wildlife Fund; the Conservation Council of WA; the Chamber of Mines and Energy; the Urban Development Industry Association; the Property Council; and the Housing Industry Association all made a contribution to the development of that policy.

Queensland has also announced this week that it is developing an offset program which will allow for land-based offsets or, in certain circumstances, an offset payment. That indicates that other jurisdictions are moving on this. The Nature Foundation of SA, in its formal submission, has endorsed this bill. However, it has concerns that under section 28 the proposed SEB credits can only be redeemed on application for clearance consent under the act. They would also like a formal mechanism within the act for third-party offsets.

I indicate that we will be supporting the bill. I will have some amendments which I will file as soon as practicable and I look forward to the progress of the debate.

Debate adjourned on motion of Hon. I.K. Hunter.