By Hoggett, Jim
Review - Institute of Public Affairs , Vol. 55, No. 3
AUSTRALIA lost three million hectares of native vegetation last bushfire season. All of this would fall within the current statutory definition of 'clearing'. In other words, we just 'cleared' 40 per cent of Victorian forests, 60 per cent of ACT forests and 20 per cent of NSW forests.
At the same time, the Productivity Commission has been charged with an inquiry into the Native Vegetation and Biodiversity regulations (NVRs); regulations aimed at preserving our environment. Truth is, they are a shambles.
Governments fiddle while the forests burn.
The problem is that the NVBs fall mainly on private landholders who manage most of the Australian environment-both natural and transformed-and that government has contrived to make compliance impossible.
First, the regulations are overwhelming. In NSW alone, they amount to at least 17 Acts of Parliament, numerous regulations and guidelines, multifarious regional, catchment and property plans, biological diversity strategies, species recovery plans, conservation agreements, threat abatement plans, local planning rules and much more. They specify endangered plants, animals, populations, and ecological communities, species presumed extinct, vulnerable animals and plants, key threatening processes and critical habitat-852 separate items.
In addition, the regulations are absurdly restrictive. The NSW Native Vegetation Conservation Act defines clearing as 'any cutting, destroying, lopping, damaging' of native vegetation. It could include the cutting (or grazing) of a single blade of native grass. In truth, a farmer needs a team of lawyers, biologists and botanists following every movement of humans, animals and machinery on his property to be sure that he is not damaging individual plants or animals of some listed species.
Inevitably, consent procedures are time-consuming arid expensive and therefore unavailable to any but a very small, wealthy minority. In NSW, the clearing application process involves 30 or more steps (for example, to lop a tree). Governments cannot manage or even comprehend the complexity they have themselves created, even with the assistance of the farcically numerous and chronically conflicting committees established by law to deal with NVBs.
Bad law means weak enforcement. There were 800 alleged breaches of the NSW State Environment Plan 46, but only 3 successful prosecutions. A nasty side-effect of the laws is that it encourages dobbers and litigation.
Second, the NVBs are heavily duplicative. The Native Vegetation Conservation Act, the Threatened Species Conservation Act and the Water Management Act all contain NVB provisions, which are echoed in the Protection of the Environment Operations Act and the Plantations and Reafforestation Act.
Third, the NVBs are extremely unstable. Government repeatedly changes the rules. This is not just the continual declaration of national parks at the expense of the hapless forest industry, it involves continuous new restrictions on private land.
Whatever regulations are imposed, privately-held land must still he managed and the NVBs impose a heavy cost. The landowner must leam the multifarious rules and participate in the process or suffer the consequences. He is effectively banned from private native forestry and new native plantations risk effective expropriation. He must identify listed species and protect them and their habitat. He must spend time with inspectors, objectors, informers and other third parties given rights over him.
Generally speaking, those that have maintained extensive areas of native vegetation will now be penalized for it. So, the NVBs cause loss of current and future income. The loss of expected income feeds into the potential sale price of the property and hence has an impact on the wealth of the landowner.
For the NVBs to have any real justification, they must presuppose the creation and transfer of well-being to the community at large. …