Second reading of Native Vegetation (Miscellaneous) Amendment Bill 2013
Adjourned debate on second reading.
(Continued from 13 June 2012.)
The Hon. J.M.A. LENSINK (21:21): At the outset of making a contribution on this bill, I would like to acknowledge a few people, so I do not forget: minister Hunter's office, particularly his adviser Holly; parliamentary counsel; and Megan Dyson, who has been a member of the Nature Foundation council. I am not sure if she is officially on it, but she certainly provided advice on the third-party offsets scheme.
I think it is fair to say that a number of us have looked at this bill several times and are keen for something to be progressed. To that aim, there have been ongoing negotiations about what the government will and will not accept, what things we can amend and where we might be able to reach a compromise, so I am hopeful that that may well be the case in the remaining sitting days before the end of the year and before the election.
This is actually the third time this bill has been debated in some form. It was first tabled in 2008, and then in 2011. The original bill was a result of a review of the act and contains a number of measures to improve its operations. It was not initially progressed in the Legislative Council because the Victorian bushfires took place and a review of related legislation and policies took priority.
I last spoke to this bill on 15 September 2011 and outlined the Liberal Party's position, which has not changed. I spoke to each of the clauses, and I am not going to repeat those comments, so anybody who wants to know what those views are can look up that speech. We have refiled a number of amendments that have been previously filed, and these are as follows:
a clarification that, if there is inconsistency between the Native Vegetation Act and the Fire and Emergency Services Act, the latter prevails;
providing additional exemptions for native vegetation clearance requirements for pastoral lands, in relation to watering points for stock, land that has not been cropped for up to 15 years, and for rural councils to undertake the construction of firebreaks and tracks, conduct whole burns and reduce fuel loads outside of the fire season;
establishing conditions under which credit for environmental benefits and third-party offsets may be approved, which would facilitate the ability of organisations, such as the Nature Foundation of SA, to obtain funding for conservation works which might, for instance, be funded by a mining company which needs to clear some scrub;
providing the South Australian Chamber of Mines and Energy (SACOME) with representation on the Native Vegetation Council; and
we have also opposed the clauses in the bill that would remove the current requirement that authorised officers take certain reasonable steps in informing landowners about actions they will take or have taken on their property.
In addition to those that have been filed, there are two other issues; one relates to clause 6 of the bill which, if it were to take effect, would have prevent the minister from directing the Native Vegetation Council in respect of specific cases before it. In relation to our third-party offset regime, addressing concerns which Nature Foundation raised with us and which, from memory, were to provide prospective assignment of credits, I will deal with those later when we get to the committee stage.
The Native Vegetation Council annual report I think updates some of the things that have taken place since this bill was tabled in 2011, and I would just like to refer to some of those. On page 6 of the report, they state that they have been reviewing the condition of native vegetation across the state by using satellite imagery, which I think is probably the way that vegetation clearances will be monitored in future. On that same page, they also refer to the Native Vegetation Regulations and, indeed, this bill.
One of the things that came through in my briefing with them was that they have a roadside vegetation management plan that they do in conjunction with the Local Government Association. They have developed a fact sheet in relation to that, and I would like to commend them for that work. I would like to point out, however, that native vegetation laws are extremely difficult to follow, and I think that is because some parts of it are contained within the act, some are contained within the regulations, and then some are held within policy documents such as the one I have just referred to in relation to roadside vegetation, which would make it quite difficult for a layperson to understand whether clearances are likely to be approved.
In relation to the regulations, I had occasion to have a look at those fairly recently, just to see what the rules are in relation to pastoral properties, and they go to some 30 pages. I challenge anybody who does not actually have a law degree to try to interpret those; by the time you get to the end of reading them, you cannot remember what they said at the start. For a layperson to have to try to interpret those would be extremely difficult. There is a guide on the website which is supposed to assist people to understand the laws which runs to some 44 pages, so I think that speaks for itself.
Referring again to the annual report, there has also been a review of the significant environmental benefits metrics applied under the Native Vegetation Act, and that is something I would like to talk about because it has caused quite a lot of consternation with local councils, particularly in regional areas, and Primary Producers SA I think have some concerns.
In referring to this particular issue, I understand that there is nothing in this bill before us that actually does set out a formula for determining value of native vegetation, and I would like the minister to clarify that when he does his summing up. It was probably fairly well articulated in The Transcontinental, the Port Augusta local paper, of 16 October this year. The headline is, 'Council slams levy increase', with the by-line, 'Native Vegetation Levy proposed to rise by 5,000 per cent'. It is not actually the native vegetation levy, but that is what people may be calling it. The news item states:
The changes, if they are adopted, will see the cost of clearing a hectare of land with natural vegetation on it rise from $1,000 to $50,000 or about $6,000 per residential allotment. This kind of increase would see any major developments outside of Adelaide that involve the clearance of natural vegetation incur a significant price increase . F or example the additional cost for the proposed airport upgrade would be $1.7 million, a cost no metropolitan development would need to pay.
Further, it says:
DEWNR had advised that it ' had not planned to consult with the individual LGA regions or local councils '.
I think that is quite astounding. On 17 October, Greg Perkin, who is the city manager at Port Augusta council, stated on 639 ABC that the cost of clearance would be $17 million, which is 1.5 times the value of the land. Yesterday, Anita Crisp, the chief executive officer of the Central Local Government Region of Councils, was talking about the same issue, and she was concerned that it is a considerable impost, and particularly problematic when it comes to roadside vegetation, because councils do not have the sort of expertise they used to in order to be able to manage and that it is going to be very expensive for them.
I make those comments because I would like the minister to respond not only to advise the chamber that these increases are not part of the bill but also to give an update to the community, via Hansard and via the parliament, about what the Native Vegetation Council is planning on doing with that particular policy.
Since the bill was tabled in 2011, we have had several states—and I referred to these in the speech that I gave previously—with third-party offset schemes. A number of states have been working on those for some time. I proposed a third-party scheme in 2011, and I am pleased that the government has been able to progress one, but I note that its particular amendments prefer to prescribe the details, rather than the proposal which I have filed, which would do so through the regulations.
I will argue for those when we come to the debate, but I do note that Victoria has conducted a review. This document is entitled 'Future directions for native vegetation in Victoria: review of Victoria's native vegetation permitted clearing regulations, consultation paper, September 2012'. They outline a number of areas in which they are clearly looking at potential policy changes, and I think what that highlights is that the offset schemes are probably going to take some adjustment as they are adopted.
South Australia may not have such a large number of transactions once its scheme comes on board, and so I think it probably would be preferable that it is a scheme done by regulation, which would make it easier to make amendments, rather than taking the scheme back through the parliament. Goodness knows, we have had this particular bill on the table for so many years that I think it demonstrates how slowly sometimes these things can take to get through the parliament.
Another issue that has arisen since that bill was tabled is that there have been some changes to development regulations. This was the topic of a disallowance motion that I moved, but I am pleased to say that even if we had lots of weeks before the election I would not be progressing that, because it provides an earlier referral for matters to the Native Vegetation Council. Therefore, any development proposal where the vegetation in question is high-value is less likely to be agreed to, and so it is best that those proponents are advised at the earliest opportunity, so they do not expend large amount of resources on legal advice, planning advice and so forth and then find out that they are unlikely to be approved in any case.
What we did learn through the briefing we had was that the mapping of native vegetation is considerably out of date. My understanding is that the Native Vegetation Council has fallen into the habit of assessing each application on a case-by-case basis, which is resource intensive and not particularly strategic. We were advised that the mapping process was underway but we could not be advised when it was likely take place. I think this is a quite unsatisfactory situation, because it is the sort of data that the state needs to be aware of. It would make the whole process much more transparent if that were done.
I am also not sure whether these proposed increases to the valuation of native vegetation might not be some means of encouraging offsets by discouraging people from paying such large amounts of the Native Vegetation Fund, but that is possibly a discussion for another day. I do understand that revegetation is extremely expensive; in fact, at the Landcare conference last week a presenter provided information about the sort of work that was undertaken on Kangaroo Island to try to revegetate scrub there.
Revegetated areas do not have the same level of complexity in terms of biodiversity and number of species as remnant virgin scrub, and it is a very involved process to replant. Sometimes the seeds have to be treated with smoke and the land has to be landscaped. It is a very expensive process, and I do understand that, but I think there needs to be some realistic approach to this valuation as well. With those comments I indicate general support of the bill, and look forward to the committee stage.
Debate adjourned on motion of Hon. J.S.L. Dawkins.