The Queensland Government’s recently released discussion paper proposing a broadening of regulation in the reef catchments has again raised the important question of balancing the perceived success and realities associated with regulatory schemes of this nature.
Governments sometimes view regulation as a relatively easy option. The Queensland Farmers’ Federation (QFF) supports effective, well-targeted regulation, but it is a blunt instrument that supports minimum standards of compliance at the expense of true practice change, and it does little to encourage a culture of innovation and excellence.
Extending regulation to include the banana, horticulture and grains industries while increasing the regulatory standards that already apply to sugarcane and grazing has understandably been met by the agriculture sector with a mixture of inevitability and frustration.
In August 2016, the government agreed to implement all 10 recommendations from the Water Science Taskforce Report so this comes as no surprise. However, there is frustration that the underlying principle of industry-led Best Management Practice (BMP) programs seems to have been dismissed.
Farmers who voluntarily engage in industry-led BMP programs own their outcomes and the impacts they are having on their local area and the Great Barrier Reef. It is widely accepted that the best way to achieve real practice change is through leading by example, incentivising people and giving them a sense of ownership towards the change.
Even though the government acknowledges in principle the work already achieved through these programs, it seems to have failed to understand why and how these programs where able to achieve the results they did.
The rationale for regulation seems to be based on a view that practice change is too slow. However, any social change takes time and during the three years 2013-16, more than 2000 farmers changed their land management practices, equating to over 1.33 million hectares in the reef catchments. Farmers are also putting their money where their mouth is. On average, for every $1 spent by government, farmers have invested $1.55.
Governments must also accept that their current level of investment does not come close to reflecting the true cost of achieving the water quality targets they have set. Various independent estimates using different methodologies have identified an investment gap of hundreds of millions of dollars per year. QFF considers that if governments are serious about continual improvement in industry’s impact on the reef, there must be long term, adequate investment in BMP programs.
Another important fact to consider when imposing regulation is that perverse outcomes arise when it is not warranted or appropriately targeted, and when it is not well communicated or clearly understood.
Agriculture is worth over $5 billion in the reef catchments. It supports more than 40,000 jobs, underpins many catchment communities and has a strong and profitable future alongside the reef. While QFF and members remain principally opposed to regulation, the step to do so can’t be taken lightly and if it is to happen, it must be done right. The two main tools available to government are the ‘carrot’ and the ‘stick’. It will be critical to ensure enough carrot without too much stick so that a culture of innovation and excellence can be realised.
QFF and members look forward to working with government and industry to ensure that our sector continues to do its bit to deliver on community expectations.