Firstly, we thank all witnesses who participated in this Inquiry and gave their time, expertise and effort to provide evidence to this Committee in good faith. It is disappointing some witnesses chose to make unsubstantiated attacks on the conduct of this parliamentary inquiry, rather than engage robustly to help bridge the disconnect between agriculture and science. In our view, the conduct and words chosen by senior eminent scientists in declining to appear at this committee sadly highlights the significance of the disconnect between science and agriculture and given the current state of affairs, that is a truly unfortunate reality. We also acknowledge the regrettable timing of the COVID‑19 pandemic and the inability of this Committee to visit impacted farming operations on-site or undertake regional hearings in the Great Barrier Reef (GBR) catchment communities.
In our view the conduct of this Inquiry revealed significant short-comings in the approach taken by the State Government in the design and implementation of the Environmental Protection (Great Barrier Reef Protection Measures) and Other Legislation Amendment Act 2019 (the regulations), particularly in relation to stakeholder engagement with the agricultural industries.
We make the following brief observations of the evidence provided during the course of this Inquiry:
We share the concern expressed in the main committee report regarding the disconnect between the findings made by scientists and the information provided to the agricultural sector.
The scientific community are not communicating with primary producers in relation to on‑farm activities. There has been no opportunity for producers to communicate their observations to the science community. Dr Hardisty of AIMS acknowledged during the public hearings that marine scientists have no involvement with farmers regarding any on-farm activities. We note the comments above and further observe that in the same way agricultural stakeholders could learn from scientists, there is also the potential for scientists to learn of industry trends that ultimately impact their current modelling approaches. For example, Canegrowers noted during public hearings that their industry contracted by 12 500 hectares last year, which equates to half a sugar mill. The trajectory of these industry trends across different regions and commodities in the catchment areas, is a factor that should be incorporated into any modelling.
There is an anomaly in figures indicating Best Practice Management (BMP) uptake and accreditation by agriculture. The State Government must integrate, standardise and incorporate their approaches to evaluating BMP, noting the State Department of Environment and Science currently acknowledge that some BMP programs are not formally recognised under the current regulations.
Prior to the implementation of the regulations, voluntary BMP uptake by industry had been increasing, and we commend industry for their efforts. We also accept the evidence that BMP accreditation is not an easy or inexpensive process – it requires auditing and that in essence requires on-farm changes. Practically speaking, sugarcane cropping which necessitates a five-year crop cycle, means some activities like laser levelling to prevent water run-off in a paddock may not practically take place for years depending on when the grower commences the accreditation process. The committee heard that this same activity might cost $1000 per hectare, which is an expense a grower needs to work into their business plan. Canegrowers gave evidence that 70 percent of cane farmers in Queensland were part of the BMP program, while 32 percent of the area is already accredited to BMP.
We heard from the Australian Institute of Marine Science that run-off only impacts 3.3 per cent of the Great Barrier Reef area and the 3.3 per cent is limited to onshore reefs.
As stated in the main Committee Report, there are issues concerning the accuracy of modelling. While it is one which will no doubt improve with time, it is a critical aspect informing the design of these regulations, which ought to be remedied through a concerted improvement effort by the State Government. The incorporation of farmer-science partnership projects (like Project25) and citizens' science is also important to encapsulate in any effort to improve the accuracy of modelling. We would welcome any future funding in this space. It should be noted there is no baseline methodology for how data is to be collected for the water quality targets set by the regulations.
The term ‘Consensus Statement’ is somewhat misleading. The Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS) clarified that the statement itself is not a consensus on the opinions of the scientists involved, but rather a 'synthesis of existing information and a knitting together of it into one story.' The Academy of Science noted during the hearings that the term originates from science where a convergence of accumulated evidence across multiple scientific disciplines leans towards certain conclusions. AIMS provided evidence during the public hearing that a red/blue team approach to future consensus statements could prove useful and that this approach is in fact what AIMS have implemented in respect of their work.
There are a number of variables that scientists believe are impacting GBR health—climate related events, like cyclones and flooding, ocean acidification, fishing and coastal development, through to industry impacts on water quality. During the Inquiry we heard that fresh water flooding emanating from the Fitzroy River in Central Queensland, regularly wipes out corals on the Keppel Islands. It is a complex ecological question, and it is impossible to isolate cause and effect for each variable. From evidence provided during the Inquiry we understand the focus of the research is to prioritise actions on the variables that can be influenced, hence the disproportionate direction from the State Government to farmers. The lack of scientific certainty should not be disproportionality borne by farmers, but rather we need to focus on improving scientific methodologies, data collection and analysis. Despite the existence of variables, including the strong correlation of cyclones and flooding events on GBR water quality, we note the State Government’s Explanatory Note to the regulations specifically, which states:
The latest science provides an unprecedented level of certainty that the main cause of poor Reef water quality is cumulative contributions from agricultural run-off in the Reef catchments, with locally significant contributions from industrial land uses.
Based on the evidence garnered during the course of this Inquiry, we consider this statement to be overreach.
We have seen commendable examples of co-designed, co-implemented and trust building programs to build greater farmer-science partnership water quality projects, like Project25 and Major Integrated Projects.
Given the prevailing uncertainty concerning the design and implementation of these regulations by the State Government and the clear ramifications of their approach on Queensland’s primary industries and the regional communities they sustain, we believe the lack of accessibility and transparency of modelling data by the Queensland Government has contributed to the mistrust around these regulations on the whole.
We heard during the course of this Inquiry of opportunities to explore other investments to positively impact the reef catchment areas and the GBR as a whole, for example like future development in water purification technologies, remote sensing, artificial intelligence and satellite technologies to support input efficiency, nutrient uptake of plants and optimising photosynthesis. Sugar Research Australia, responsible for the development of the SIX EASY STEPS guidelines, wrote in their submission that beyond this industry‑led approach to nitrogen use, there was the potential to look at different sugarcane varieties. There is a clear role for governments in facilitating positive investments and funding the extension of these efforts on-farm, especially where a government sets common good objectives.
Practically, we heard from stakeholders the targets set by the regulations are unattainable and this will ultimately reduce primary production in catchment areas, depriving growers from the full use and enjoyment of their land. This poses genuine questions around fair compensation for the forcible reduction or removal of property rights in relation to governments' pursuit of common good goals.
It is important to note only 4.2 per cent of the GBR basin is under cropping—given most cropping is on level or near level land it seems difficult to believe that run of from cropping has increased run off by five times. Of the 4.2 per cent cropping, 2.4 per cent is dryland cropping, most of which occurs well up upstream in places near Emerald, Taroom and the Dawson Valley. It is not in the interests of farmers to lose their soil and they go to great lengths to prevent run-off. Grazing occurs on around 75 per cent of the GBR Basin. While grazing does have an impact on erosion, gully erosion is natural and similar to farmers, graziers do not like to lose their soil. The impact of damming which reduces water runoff and presumably erosion has been ignored. The remaining 20 per cent of the GBR basin constitutes either urban areas or national parks. National parks contain the steepest terrain in the GBR basin and this is where the greatest runoff due to natural causes occurs. It seems highly improbable that runoff from flat farming land that only makes up 4 per cent of the basin, or grazing land, is more than runoff from steep hilly terrain that makes up almost 20 per cent of the basin or that the runoff has increased fivefold. It is arguable that run‑off due to agricultural practices is now slowing, not increasing given changes to on-farm practices through BMP, in conjunction with other changes.
For example the Greenshirts Movement also noted the cumulative impact of the State Government's native vegetation laws. Their evidence stated that the regulations in question 'in concert with the Vegetation Management Act and others are impossible to comply with under any and all conditions' and that together they form 'a perfect framework to destroy entire livestock industries in Great Barrier Reef catchments if government’s so desire.'
The economic and social impacts, both in the catchment communities and to the Queensland economy, have been overlooked by the Queensland Government and we consider there has been no attempt to balance environmental, social or economic factors across catchment areas, nor has any test of reasonability or proportionality been applied in the policy design.
While dissenting with some recommendations included in the main committee’s report, we too acknowledge the poor handling of these regulations by the Queensland State Government and the harm its policy approach has caused for primary producers operating across Great Barrier Reef catchment areas. On that basis we endorse recommendations 1, 2, 4 and 7 in respect of the Queensland Government’s failed engagement and communicative approach to these regulations.
It is imperative this Inquiry caution and provide guidance to future governments to avoid a repeat of these same errors in the design and implementation of policy, particularly where multiple stakeholders stand to be impacted. On that basis, we make the following additional recommendations to address the issues raised during the course of this Inquiry:
The Queensland and Australian Governments should establish an Office of Scientific Review to evaluate the existing science of the Great Barrier Reef and how it informs policymaking.
During the course of the Senate Inquiry there have been a number of submissions and other evidence tendered in support of establishing an independent authority to ensure the quality assurance of the science, particularly where it underpins the direction of government policy and legislation and where that direction results in significant economic and social impacts across communities. For example, AgForce hold the view that:
Reef science needs to pause and consider an independent, evidence-based audit of scientific integrity and recalibrate Reef models to verify if runoff of sediment and nutrient from agricultural land is actually the main impact on Reef health.
Pertinent to this point is the evidence provided during the course of this Inquiry from the Independent Science Panel itself. The Panel noted that the targets were not designed to return water quality to pre-development standards, but rather to halve the doubling of nitrogen coming those rivers, noting that agricultural practices had been occurring for 100 to 150 years along catchment areas. The Panel then expressed a view that these regulations ‘are an attempt to encourage widespread adoption of industry best practice among the major industry’. The science aspect and policy response in our view are two separate considerations and we disagree with the Committee’s view that the regulations as designed and implemented were necessary to expedite rapid uptake of best practice in the first instance. A genuine policy approach requires the balancing environmental, social (community) and economic considerations – in a circumstance where we cannot be sure what impact can be attributed to farmers, the climate (cyclones, heavy rainfall) and where agricultural stakeholders importantly note the current targets cannot be met in practice, it is clear there has been no attempt to balance multiple relevant aspects by the State Government.
While not disputing that there is a weight of scientific evidence and opinion in relation to the GBR health, the Inquiry certainly addressed the potential for further research in relation to the impact of nutrients on Crown of Thorns Starfish Outbreaks, the accuracy of water quality modelling and even in respect of isolating the impact of other potential impacts, like climate change as against water quality and coral cover loss.
Given the responsibility of Governments to adopt the precautionary principle in the design of policy to prevent the degradation of the reef, even where there is a lack of full scientific certainty, coupled with genuine questions for further research, we consider it only fitting that an Independent Office of Scientific Review be established. While the exact details regarding the design and remit of this office will have to be thoroughly consulted on, we believe it could help to provide industry with greater confidence in the science and repair what has historically been a very strong partnership between science and agriculture. One way we see this occurring is via greater focus on the observation process and the utilisation of empirical data, which is the recorded evidence that has been measured and is not subject to opinion, to demonstrate cause and effect.
There is already some movement towards establishing more rigorous approaches in relation to the science itself. For example, AIMS stated in their submission that they had recently implemented a Red-Blue team system to improve quality assurance of their work. The Red Team is the official 'devil’s advocate' that tries to find fault with important scientific work produced by the Blue Team. It would repeat experiments and analyses and be much more thorough than peer review. In different forms, it is a system commonly used in industry, the legal system, and the military. AIMS gave evidence that they believe other scientific institutions could benefit from this approach. This innovation by AIMS is considered prudent amidst current conjecture in relation to the current research in this space.
The Australian and Queensland Governments should prioritise any future funding for additional research into coral growth rates and the concentration of nitrogen, fine sediment and particulate nutrients in the Great Barrier Reef. This research should be published according to open source data principles.
Research into the Great Barrier Reef has attracted a significant amount of funding over time. It is noted that the existing body of science in relation to these variables informing the regulations is the most contentious. In our view, any future funding should prioritise additional research to seek to improve the knowledge in respect of these matters.
During the public hearings, Dr Peter Ridd, eminent scientist formerly employed at James Cook University in Townsville, expressed his opinion that fine sediment and particulate nutrients were in such low amounts, it would be impossible to measure. Dr Davis at TropWATER confirmed there had been no exceedances of pesticide guidelines in the outer GBR, and in relation to inshore and near-shore coral reef environments there are issues with 'grab sampling' (point in time) sampling, but that you could expect to see more significant and frequent exceedances in the estuaries and wetlands (freshwater ecosystems), which represent 3.3 per cent of inshore coral in the whole GBR area. Dr Hardisty of AIMS stated that farming practices have a low to negligible impact on the reef. Given this is the case it would seem that the reef regulations are too prescriptive, especially in relation to grazing. Despite this the Independent Science Panel noted they 'can demonstrate a significant increase in nutrients and pesticides in waterways, wetlands, estuaries and inshore waters'.
In relation to coral growth rates, AIMS confirmed that:
In respect of the calcification rate of Porites coral, we are unsure whether further research since 2005 has taken place, despite research claiming a collapse in coral growth rates from 1990 to 2005. We also note that AIMS stated there has never been a link or connection between farm practices and Porites coral growth rates.
That there is no complete data set analysing coral growth rates across all species of coral in the GBR.
The Queensland Government should revert to a cooperative approach and incentivise the implementation of best management practice principles and move away from the strict mandatory approach that has damaged relations between farmers and government officials.
As noted in our opening observations, evidence provided by industry indicated a willingness by industry to engage with the State Government on BMP (evidenced by pre-regulation increasing number of cane growers currently accredited or undergoing the accreditation process). The conduct of this Inquiry explored the widespread adoption of Best Management Practice (BMP) programs across the entire agricultural sector by producers – sugarcane, graziers, grain, banana and horticulture.
In Canegrower’s submission to this Inquiry, they noted their industry has been governed by regulation since 2009 with compliance programs in place until 2012. Compliance activities only then resumed again in 2016.
Paul Schembri of CANGROWERS provided evidence to the Senate Committee during a public hearing that:
… the 2019 Reef report card, amongst other things, it ascribed that nine per cent of the area had reached best management practice. That's a contradiction to the 2016 report that indicated 33 per cent were at best management practice. Don't tell me Australian farmers are going backwards. We're not losing our art or the way in which we craft our businesses. There seems to be a blatant misreporting of where we're at. Our own program, which is the Smartcane BMP, shows that around 33 per cent is at best management practice, so there is an anomaly here.
This anomaly is concerning and only adds to the genuine questions raised as to the efficacy of these regulations and the policy approach underpinning them. It seems at odds to suggest a reduction of BMP uptake by two-thirds despite the fact the Queensland Government recommenced compliance activities in 2016 after activities ceased in 2012 (noting the State Government suggested 33 per cent in 2016 and then in 2019 only references a 9 per cent uptake of BMP).
It is disappointing the Government chose to proceed with a blunt force regulatory approach and decided not to focus on incentivising further uptake or instead simply focus on compliance efforts. Based on the entirety of the evidence presented during the course of this Inquiry, we support the sentiment expressed by CANEGROWERS in their submission to the Committee, that:
… if the lack of progress in practice improvement, highlighted in the 2019 Reef Report Card, reflects the slowness of voluntary approaches, it is equally a reflection of the failure of the regulatory compliance effort.
Practically, the BMP accreditation process takes time and requires a significant investment by the grower. In light of all State Government compliance activities ceasing in 2012, and not resuming until 2016, we believe an appropriate transitionary approach should be adopted. Any changes to reverting to voluntary adoption and any intention around future regulations must be clearly consulted and communicated with industry. Further, it is believed that greater extension and on-the-ground support needs to be provided by the Queensland Government on-farm to practically assist growers especially during periods of transition. This is particularly pertinent to assist small to medium sized farm operations.
The Queensland Government should return the penalties for infringement to previous levels.
Sadly, the Department of Environment and Science appeared not to reference an increase to the penalties attached to these regulations in their submission to this Inquiry.
Our review of the Explanatory Note attached to these regulations indicates an increase from the maximum 100 penalty unit offences for failing to comply with an agricultural ERA standard, to 1665 penalty units for wilful non‑compliance, or 600 penalty units otherwise. At the current unit value of $133.45 in Queensland this takes penalties for offences from $13 345 to potentially more than $222 000 for farmers. There doesn’t appear to be any reasonable rationale for the significant increase other than, 'this increase is justified because it ensures that penalties accurately reflect the seriousness of the offences and are comparable to similar offences'. The substantial increase only adds to our view that these regulations reflect a disproportionate and unreasonable approach to policy design and implementation.
Increasing penalties without allowing appropriate time for industry adjustment to their new regime is punitive and not conducive to rebuilding the relationship between the state government, industry and scientists. While we heard of positive evidence during this Inquiry where collaborative farmer- science approaches are leading to improved buy-in and outcomes across the board, this Inquiry clearly shows a clear breakdown in the relationship between industry and the State Government.
We consider the imposition of excessive penalties, where a practical transitionary period has not been devised and where the industry is progressing through BMP accreditation, as counterintuitive to re-building this fractured relationship.
If the Queensland Government does proceed with strict mandatory best practice requirements, then the Queensland Government should compensate farmers for the costs imposed.
The Queensland Department of Environment’s Regulatory Impact Statement acknowledges the overall cost to Queensland’s agricultural sector operating within the Reef's catchment areas is just over $783 million over 10 years. At the higher range of impact provided by the Department, 13 000 farmers will be impacted. During the course of this Inquiry, it was revealed during public hearings by the Department of Environment that implementing these regulations will cost farmers more than $65 000 year.
Canegrowers commissioned their own economic research and it finds the regulations will cost the Queensland economy $1.3 billion over 10 years. The report was assessed on empiric impact on yield, given that paddock to Reef requires canegrowers to reduce the nitrogen input by 15 to 30 per cent over a period of time, in conjunction with broader regional impacts.
These regulations are an example of where individual rights are reduced for what the state government has deemed a common good goal.
There is something disconcerting where private property rights are forfeited, either willingly or unwillingly, for common good objectives set by Government but where the removal or reduction of those rights are not compensated. We believe in the reasonable exercise of property rights, and support compensation by any government whereby a landholder becomes forcibly impacted by government’s common good goals.
The Australian and Queensland Governments should review the merit of the water quality targets under the Reef 2050 Plan. The existing targets should not be used as a basis for additional restrictions on farming in the Great Barrier Reef.
The Independent Science Panel noted that the targets were not designed to return water quality to pre-development standards, but rather to halve the doubling of nitrogen coming those rivers, noting that agricultural practices had been occurring for 100 to 150 years along catchment areas. The Panel then expressed a view that these regulations 'are an attempt to encourage widespread adoption of industry best practice among the major industry'. Despite providing advice on the Consensus Statement, economic and social outcomes and on farmer uptake BMP, CSIRO gave evidence that they did not directly provide advice 'into the process of regulatory formation'. Given the lead role the CSIRO has as Australia’s National Science Agency and its long history in delivering science to support the health and restoration of the GBR their advice on the design of these regulations would have been useful.
The State Department of Environment and Science stated during evidence that:
The science underpinning the regs is The Scientific Consensus Statement, which has been used a lot of the time. The regulations are not designed directly to affect what's happening in the reef. They're designed to stop the runoff from land. That will consequently affect what gets out to the Great Barrier Reef.
We disagree that the Department’s intent should be to stop run-off altogether in an area with well- established farming businesses.
Evidence provided to the Committee by the Federal Department of Agriculture, Water and Environment noted that the water targets enable actions and investments to be better targeted.
We heard evidence from the agricultural industry that these targets are simply unattainable.
At the same time, we acknowledge the issues of water quality modelling accuracy.
This recommendation requires Governments to balance environmental, social and economic considerations to ensure any new targets are practical, proportionate and reasonable.
The Queensland Government should reduce the additional restrictions around 'no net decline' placed on new and expanded cropping and horticultural activities on greenfield sites in the defined catchment zones, especially when they are inconsistent with the Australian Government's policy to expand agricultural production.
The Department of Environment provided evidence at the public hearing that for any new greenfield sites, farmers will be required to prevent run-off or obtain water quality offsets from 1 June next year. The offsetting part of the equation requires a landholder to purchase an activity on another site to offset the run-off from primary activity.
Although the Department considers the 'good cropping land is largely cropped', we consider the Australian Government’s focus on building water infrastructure and increasing water capacity makes previously uncropped land in the north a future opportunity to generate prosperity in the regions and for the nation.
Agriculture remains a key pillar of not only the economy, but our way of life. The CSIRO released a report recently, titled 'The COVID-19: Recovery and Resilience Report'. The report clearly identifies the role of food and agriculture in Australia’s future post COVID-19.
We also consider the additional restrictions imposed are contrary to the Australian Government’s goals of increasing agricultural productivity to $100 billion by 2030 and ought to be revised to balance our economic and sovereign interests around food production.
The Australian Government should review the precautionary principle with a view to considering a risk-based approach following the completion of Professor Samuels' review of the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act.
Dr Shaw of the Independent Science Panel explained section 3AB of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Act requires the adoption of the precautionary principle, and that means we are often looking for those issues that might have an effect, even if we don't have sufficient science to back it up.
While protecting the GBR should be a priority for all, the suitability of identifying possible 'issues' to justify significant policy decisions without having a mechanism to properly calculate and quantify the potential level of risk, is inherently flawed and open to misuse. This could, and perhaps already has, led to occurrences where incredibly low level environmental risks trigger disproportionate policy responses.
By utilising a risk-based approach, a framework could be developed that accounts for both the 'likelihood of occurrence' and the 'severity of consequence' when considering potential risks. This would enable quantifiable information to be used for more informed decision-making and to better determine the most appropriate policy response. This would also allow for the calculated environmental risk to be properly compared with other risk factors, including the economic and social impacts to rural-regional communities.
Senator Susan McDonaldSenator Gerard Rennick