Second Reading – Nature Repair Market Bill 2023, Nature Repair Market (Consequential Amendments) Bill 2023
Mr PITT: This bill is about paying landholders and farmers to produce koalas and not cattle, to produce possums and not protein, and I think these are some of the fundamental challenges about this proposal that every Australian should be concerned about. Ultimately, there is one set of land in Australia. They are not making any more. That is all there is. In terms of the numbers, there are some 426 million hectares of that land devoted to agriculture, cleared and partially cleared land that produces the food, the protein, that we use to sell overseas and to sustain our own population. Right across Australia, the impact of this bill has the potential to decrease how much land is used for agriculture, because landowners will be paid not only for these biodiversity offsets but also for carbon offsets under the safeguard mechanism. I will have more to say on that matter.
For those out there who might be listening, to give some context around the size of the land that is impacted and the potential impact upon Australia, I’ll mention a couple of simple agricultural products. This is a rough and ready figure. It depends on production, weather and irrigation. Australia produces about 1.1 million tonnes of potatoes on just over 29,000 hectares. There are 1.3 million tonnes of rice—this moves around a lot, depending on water availability—off about 150,000 hectares.
An example put forward by those opposite—about shining lights for things that have happened already—was in the recent press: the Munda Munda project in south-west Queensland. It is 24,000 hectares of acacia wooded grassland, which has now been taken up under what is the equivalent of the Emissions Reduction Fund through the state government. It is not the same location. It is not the same application. It doesn’t have the same access to water or good quality soil. But, to give an example, 24,000 hectares, in a rough and ready number, would produce 2.4 million tonnes of sugar cane on the coast. That is enough for one very large mill or two smaller mills to sustain hundreds of direct jobs and, literally, tens of millions of dollars into the local economy. The alternative, which has been put forward by those opposite, is to lock it up for biodiversity offsets. These are some of the significant challenges.
Part of the bill introduces another committee, the Nature Repair Market Committee, and the period for locking up this land in Australia can be 25 years, 100 years or some other nominated length of time. I’d ask you to turn your mind back to what happened 100 years ago. In 1923 this country had just come out of World War I. We saw the Federation Drought destroy most of Australia’s agriculture—in particular, cattle and sheep. And to think that we would lock up Australia’s land base for a century—a century!—to be paid for, potentially, by taxpayers or others on the basis of biodiversity. You would have to ask exactly what it is that Labor is trying to achieve.
This land can be Torrens land, it can be Crown land, it can be relevant Australian waters, including lakes or rivers. Freehold land should be freehold land; there is no argument about that. If you buy freehold land in this country it is yours. Unfortunately, we see continually not only at the federal level but also, particularly, at the state level more and more overlays and zoning and biodiversity and reef legislation, which is impacting directly on the landholder but with no support whatsoever. They are taking away freehold rights, so I think this is an incredibly important issue.
A secretary can also purchase biodiversity certificates, and they can do that outside of the Commonwealth Procurement Rules. That is quite an extraordinary thing for the Commonwealth to put into a piece of legislation, that you will enter into an agreement for purchase outside of the standard Commonwealth Procurement Rules. The regulator can force audits by a third party. If you look at the minister’s second reading speech, the large part of this application will be on private land because it is in private hands. There are hundreds of millions of hectares of Australian land but there are only 426 million hectares currently dedicated to agriculture.
If we look at the reason for it, it is because those opposite, in December 2022, signed up to the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework, which agrees that 30 per cent of terrestrial and inland water, coastal and marine areas will be protected by 2030—some 60 million hectares! The only way these applications can be applied, particularly for carbon offsets, is through cleared and partially cleared agricultural land. There is no benefit in terms of a carbon offset otherwise, absolutely none. If we go to the Bills Digest, there are some issues that I think the opposition should be concerned about. The Australian people should be concerned as well. The bill does not appear to address circumstances such as:
where a person or organisation has made a native title, or land rights, claim over the land on which it is proposed to undertake a project, but the claim is yet to be finally determined
where there may be overlapping, and potentially incompatible, tenures or interests, such as an exploration lease under state or territory mining or oil and gas laws, or a feasibility licence
That sounds like a pretty critical part of what has been proposed, but this legislation has no answers on how that application would come about. It is incredible, the idea that you’ll now produce a property—which is what this bill will do—which can be sold and transferred and purchased on freehold land for a biodiversity agreement. Do I think there are farmers out there who will want to do this? Absolutely. If you would have lined up when I was a landholder and said: ‘Hey, have I got a deal for you! The taxpayer will pay you for a century to not farm, to not produce and to not employ people. You’ve got to pay your rates and you’ve got to maintain some fences, maybe; you’ve got to pay an auditor and you’ve got to pay the Commonwealth, but you’ll be paid not to produce food.’ Well, of course, I would have jumped at it. If it made economic sense, you would be all over it. But our job in this place is to ensure that the decisions taken are in the national interest. It is not in the national interest to take away potentially hundreds of millions of hectares of food-producing land in this country.
Look at the potential around overlays on carbon offsets. I spoke on the safeguard mechanisms in this place not that long ago, and here are some of the numbers around. No-one’s really pinned them down on this, but Labor’s proposal is somewhere north of 200 million tonnes of CO2 to be reduced by 2030—and that is in law. The CSIRO report looked at every available current protocol, how much could be applied in a dreamscape and a realistic approach and exactly what impact you could get. They thought you could get 480 million tonnes of CO2 reduction under a methodology that requires 63 million hectares of ag land. But even the CSIRO says that is actually not that reasonable and is pretty unlikely. So then they looked at some of the other options. Commercial plantations and farm forestry could technically produce 42 million tonnes of CO2 reduction but would require five per cent of existing land. The CSIRO report, at the outset, said that existing land has to be cleared or partially cleared agricultural land.
Every single landholder in this country should be terrified of bills like this one, because it takes away their potential to earn a living, to drive the local economy, to employ people, potentially their own kids, to give them a future because their land will be locked up for 100 years under these types of agreements and protocols—a century! Imagine what will happen in 100 years. Imagine the population of this country. Imagine the population of the world. Imagine what will be needed to feed them. They will look to Australia for clean, green and safe produce. The idea that you will tie up this much land for this outcome is the wrong choice, the wrong decision. In fact, the CSIRO report said that the only viable way for up to 227 gigatonnes of CO2 reduction, would you believe, is carbon capture and storage. But that has been ruled out by the Minister for Climate Change and Energy, and yet around the world it is something that is being utilised by those who know this is really the only option. There is nothing more valuable in Australia than Australia’s agricultural land and the farming land that produces the food that we all rely on.
I say to those opposite: you need to look at this much more closely, because the impact is not in the national interest. You’ve signed up to some international agreement that wants to tie up 30 per cent of Australia’s country. If we look at the application in coastal areas, the only thing you can do for biodiversity is to stop fishing. There have already been significant impacts on the fishing industry, particularly in Queensland. In recent weeks, we saw gillnet closures, without any consultation—they were just announced—which will impact jobs and the economy, and the ability for Australians to access clean, green Australian seafood produced by Australian businesses is gone. I know the time is coming to an end, so, in conclusion, I say to those opposite, as I said at the outset: this bill is about growing koalas, not cattle. This bill is about producing possums instead of protein. We all want to protect the environment, but we have to protect the Australian people first.