Natural Resources Management (Commercial Forests) Amendment Bill

08 Nov 2011 archivespeech

This speech is in regards to the Natural Resources Management (Commercial Forests) Amendment Bill. This bill seeks to licence forestry as a water user as part of what the government has told us is its aim to 'achieve ecologically sustainable development of plantation forests while protecting and managing our water resources'.

The Hon. J.M.A. LENSINK (17:21): I rise to make some remarks on this bill and I am pleased to be able to make some remarks on this bill as it is the first time that it has arrived in this chamber. I would like to respond to the two preceding speakers in this debate and say at the outset that the Liberal Party firmly believes in equitable treatment of all water users, and that is part of the reason why we have reached the position that we have at this stage.

A number of the people who the Hon. Mark Parnell mentioned are people whom I have met with as well and I acknowledge their contribution to this debate. However, I would also like to acknowledge that it is a very complex area and none of us are particularly expert in hydrology or those matters, and that is a very large part of the reason why I think this bill deserves better examination by a committee which is able to look at it in much more detail. These are things that we as legislators can struggle with understanding from time to time and certainly some of the advice that I have had from some stakeholders is that the research work that has been done in the area has not been thorough enough.

The Hon. Mr Kandelaars said that the Natural Resources Committee did not progress the bill. That is not true and I will read into the Hansard a letter that I received from the current environment minster which demonstrates that it was his understanding, at least immediately after the election, that it was going to be the responsibility of the Natural Resources Committee to progress it. However, I think he has, once again, been fooled by his department and established a process which has been used to avoid proper parliamentary examination. Through the interjections of my colleagues I would urge him to read the rubbish that he gets put in front of him before he reads it into the record.

This bill seeks to licence forestry as a water user as part of what the government has told us is its aim to 'achieve ecologically sustainable development of plantation forests while protecting and managing our water resources'. I think a few of us would disagree with that laudable aim. Trees and forests are water users as they intercept rainfall and can reduce recharge and directly extract groundwater through their roots. Volumes vary between tree species and over the life cycle of the tree—which may be over 30 years. This is where I was interjecting with the Hon. Mr Parnell, because the way that they use water is different to irrigated crops and other dryland crops. I think the government would agree that they use water differently because the usage cannot be turned on and off according to the season.

The government has a policy entitled 'Managing the water resource impacts of plantation forests: a statewide policy framework' which was published in June 2009. We have also heard from the preceding speakers, the government has also told us that this measure is important to comply with the National Water Initiative which changes the way water is valued and counted in Australia.

I note that the water allocation plan for the South-East is now some five years late, and the member for MacKillop has questioned whether that is, in fact, legal. This proposal is a national first, and I think that is also important to this debate because we are going ahead of the other states. The proposed new forestry licences are a separate type of licence, which provide an allocation over the lifetime of a forest. A forest's water allocation may be reduced only when the plantation has been harvested, either fully or partially.

The bill provides for existing plantations to be automatically granted forest water licences when an area is declared so that the regime will not affect the current activities of existing forests. The government estimates that this will be in the order of $300 million of tradeable water. However, I do not think that it is as straightforward as trading water is in other areas.

This particular policy has operated under several environment ministers during the Rann-Weatherill governments. Minister Hill, who was environment minister several years ago now, had given assurances to the forestry sector in a ministerial statement on the topic of 'Managing the expansion of forestry's use of the South-East water resources'. This expansion has not materialised and therefore the industry believes that proposals to license continue to be unnecessary. I quote from minister Hill's statement of 17 February 2004, in which he says:

Provision has been made for approximately 59,000 hectares of total expansion to be permitted before any need to secure water allocations to offset the impact of further forest expansion. The provision allows for an increase in the current estate of 135,000 hectares by approximately 45 per cent. By its own assessment this provides the forest industry with significant certainty regarding its opportunities to expand for approximately 10-15 years.

Premier Weatherill (then minister Weatherill), on 18 June 2009, introduced amendments (indeed, this particular bill) to the NRM Act, which would license forestry as a water user. It was agreed that the bill should be referred to the Natural Resources Committee, which was done. On 1 December 2009, minister Weatherill moved that the bill be discharged after he had agreed. He asked the Natural Resources Committee to inquire into it, but this was subsequently withdrawn, I do not think with any communication between the committee and the minister, and that therefore never took place.

Minister Caica established an interagency reference group to work on the Lower Limestone Coast WAP, and that included PIRSA, DTF, Department for Water, DENR and the South-East NRM board, which established a reference group to consult with key stakeholders. The forestry industry states that both the bill and the WAP were not provided to the reference group beforehand. This bill was introduced to the House of Assembly on 24 November 2010 and is largely the same as the 2009 bill.

I place on the record the correspondence I have had between various ministers on this matter and introduce another issue that occupies the mind particularly of some of the irrigators in the South-East, and that is what is called the Border Committee, which is a rather secretive committee, I think, which oversees a separate irrigation area in that particular region between South Australia and Victoria.

I first wrote to the minister on 4 February 2010, which was before the last election and after the minister had agreed to refer the bill to the Natural Resources Committee. I said:

Dear Minister

I write to you on behalf of a range of South East irrigators and concerns regarding their water allocations.

I do appreciate that the Natural Resources Committee is undertaking an inquiry into the Natural Resource s Management (Commercial Forests) Amendment Bill 2009 which will be informative to the Parliament.

Irrigators who operate within the 'border zone' have raised concerns with me about the timing of conversion to volumetric allocations through the SE NRM process. I understand that conversion from area to volumetric licensing is a requirement of the National Water Initiative and is an ongoing process.

These irrigators are also impacted by decisions of the South Australian-Victorian Border Groundwaters Agreement Review Committee (the Border Committee). I have found it extremely difficult to find public information about this committee, including governance arrangements, contact details and the most recent annual report (since 2007-08).

Irrigators are aware that calculations of the permissible annual volume regarding water allocations have been made by the Border Committee which are at variance with the SE NRM WAP Total Available Recharge, but they have not been provided with the data and modelling, nor have they been provided with an opportunity to be consulted. These calculations imply a cut in allocations of up to 37 per cent in some zones (for instance, Hundred of Glenburnie).

I would greatly appreciate your advice on the following.

· Will the SE NRM implement a new WAP by June this year or will it be delayed until the Parliament makes a determination regarding commercial forestry?

· Is there to be a review of the Border Sharing Agreement and if so, what are the terms and the timing of the review process? Will a review structure include representation from all stakeholders?

· How often does the Border Committee meet? Are its agendas and minutes publicly available? Can stakeholders make... submissions to it?

· Can the data, modelling and calculations of the Border Committee's permissible annual volume be made publicly available?

The reason I read that into the record is that some people who have made representations to us have concerns that their water allocations will be greatly cut because of the groundwater border agreement. So, it is a related issue and it is important to take that into account in relation to this debate. I received a reply from minister Caica, dated 18 April 2010, which states:

Dear Ms Lensink

Thank you for your recent letter to my predecessor concerning South East water allocation plans and the Border Groundwaters Agreement.

The South East Natural Resources Management Board is currently in the process of preparing the Water Allocation Plan for the Lower Limestone Coast Prescribed Wells Area.

This is the key which shows that the government has been telling fibs about what happened with the Natural Resources Committee:

It is expected that the draft plan will be considered following the Natural Resources Committee of Parliament having considered the Natural Resources Management (Commercial Forests) Amendment Bill 2009.

Well, golly gosh, there it was all the time. The minister signed this letter to me and, surprise, surprise, he says another thing on Hansard recently. It continues:

The South Australian and Victorian Governments have agreed to review the Border Groundwaters Agreement. It is proposed that the review will also consider surface water and groundwater interactions. It is anticipated that this review process will take at least 18 months.

The Border Groundwaters Agreement Review Committee meets at least four times a year, the Committee publishes an annual report, which is tabled in both State Parliaments. A copy of the 2008-09 annual report is enclosed for your information.

And so on. So, that was where that was at 18 months ago. The Green Triangle Regional Plantation Committee put out a media release on 15 March of last year, again pleased that this issue was going to be examined by the parliamentary committee. They said that they were:

...pleased to hear a number of candidates—

this was in the lead-up to the state election—

express support for the water resource to be managed sustainably, allowing the resource to be shared fairly between all and recognising existing rights. This undoubtedly must include the forest industry.

I remind readers that this is the industry itself saying that it must be included and everybody must be treated fairly. It continues:

In 2009 the South East Natural Resource Management Board proposed a draft Water Allocation Plan which will discriminate against the region's plantation growers...

Licensed water use by irrigators is governed by a number of guiding policy principles:

· fair recognition of historic use,

· equitable sharing of the resource between licensed irrigators,

· access to both temporary and permanent water trading to manage changes in allocations,

· legally secure water property rights separate from land property rights...

And so forth. Continuing:

These are reasonable principles—

said Mr Phil Lloyd, the chairman—

but these principles have not been applied to forest owners under SENRMB's licensing proposals. For example, SENRMB does not accept the scientific principle that the amount of rainfall intercepted by a forest reduces as the amount of rainfall reduces.

I say that, and I again refer back to my interjection to the Hon. Mark Parnell, in that I would have thought that it was indeed self-evident that if there is less rain then trees are not going to be able to intercept as much water.

I have a range of questions which I will not table at this stage. We will see whether or not the Legislative Council accepts the referral to the Natural Resources Committee. I have asked for submissions regarding consultation on this bill, which would be considerable. I have since had to FOI them because I have not received them, so I look forward to those in due course. I might have to have an arm wrestle with the department to get hold of them.

The industry has said to us that it believes that there is a fair amount of deception going on within the government about this particular piece of legislation. I think it is worth bearing in mind for anyone who has taken an interest in this issue the Natural Resources Committee's examination of the Deep Creek Conservation Park, where the department said that native vegetation has no impact on water. Indeed, I remember the Hon. Sandra Kanck, who is a great conservationist, being pretty cross with the department about the way it behaved in relation to that particular issue.

This is a major change to legislation, and South Australia is going ahead. We are told that other states will be watching with interest. No doubt they will be, given that this will quite possibly be a major penalty on the local industry, and particularly given what is happening with the government's decision in relation to the forward sale of forests in the South-East. I do not know why we would be pursuing this at this particular time. In fact, the water licensing sale is a question in itself, because the issue of the definition of 'forest manager' is not resolved in this legislation, and the government will freely tell us that it will be waiting for that to be resolved if those issues are brought into court. Again, I think that is some reason for us to be alarmed.

The ForestrySA licences, we are told, will not be allowed to be sold, and I wonder whether it would then be a question for the ACCC to be involved. The government will tell you that this issue has been well examined by the Stakeholder Reference Group. We are told that the group has not met very much and certainly not for three or four months. It has not been given the task of reviewing the government's policy, but the policy is a given, and a lot of information—the hydrology reports that the government is relying on—is not being made available to the forestry industry. Under those conditions, I think this issue at least deserves to be looked at and all stakeholders should be asked to come in and give evidence.

The Natural Resources Committee, as far as its reputation is concerned, is a very effective committee. Unfortunately, the Environment, Resources and Development Committee is not anywhere near as effective as it used to be, but that is a discussion for another day. I think the NRC has done a lot of good work in the past. It takes its terms of reference seriously and does a good job. I move to amend the motion as follows:

Leave out all words after 'that' and insert the words, 'the bill be withdrawn and referred to the Natural Resources Committee for inquiry and report.'