High cost of poor policy

Ignoring the underlying contributing causes of this incident will only result in it happening again

LAST week a local farmer near Moree, NSW, allegedly shot dead a government officer.

This tragic incident has immediate personal impacts and I cannot begin to imagine the loss for the family of the deceased and the long term impacts on his young children. Similarly the family of the perpetrator will now also endure a harrowing emotional ordeal.

The government officer was married with two children and well liked. He worked for the NSW Department of Environment and Heritage and was involved in compliance work in relation to native vegetation clearing laws. He was allegedly killed while doing his job.

The farmer is a respected community leader with children and grandchildren involved in his farming enterprise. He has had a long commitment to a wide range of community programs and has been a stalwart in support of local causes. I know him personally and, notwithstanding this shooting, respect and admire his previous achievements in his business and his community.

Of course I do not condone this farmer’s action.

However, we need to ask some serious questions as to why and how such a community leader would break to the point of taking another man’s life in this way.

Sadly, in my opinion, it is a reasonably simple thing to understand. When I was a school boy we were taught, in physics, that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. In abstract terms if you continually increase the pressure applied to an otherwise sealed vessel it will eventually rupture. Throw a pressure can into a fire and it literally goes off like a small bomb.

This man was apparently subjected to such financial, legal and emotional pressure that eventually he simply broke.

While some will be critical of my seemingly dispassionate analogy of such a serious incident, I am not trying to belittle the personal cost or downplay the seriousness of the crime. I am deliberately trying to disassociate this discussion from the emotion of the actual crime, because I see this crime as a symptom of a much larger problem.

Native vegetation laws in NSW have been a point of considerable contention since their introduction well over a decade ago. These so-called environmental protection laws prohibit certain clearing and development activities, but are increasingly resulting in perverse environmental outcomes. These laws also disproportionately impact on agricultural production and personally on producers, particularly on underdeveloped lands in the north and west of the state.

The farmer involved in the tragic shooting incident had been investigated and prosecuted by the Department of Environment and Heritage for illegal land clearing. He was subject to what some might consider 'ongoing persecution' by the Department.

“If any politician or bureaucrat suggests the Moree shooting was unforeseeable then in my opinion they are either dishonest, incompetent or both”

Many farmers face the same dire dilemma of either abiding by poor public policy and suffering significant financial losses, or implementing what is essentially best practice land and production management and thereby becoming a criminal. Ultimately the decision must include the risk of being caught and the likely cost of being prosecuted versus the financial benefit of the clearing activity. Oddly enough it is demonstrable that for many development and management activities the most profitable activity results in better environmental outcomes.

In this circumstance, the debate around the nature of the clearing in regards to practical agricultural production, optimising asset development and utilisation, and, in turn, establishing a viable farming unit in incredibly tough financial and seasonal conditions, was completely negated by the draconian, misdirected and unreasonably rigid entrenched legislation.

The double standard applied to agriculture by society through government is palpable. As producers we are subject to increasing bureaucratic intervention that does nothing to improve our profitability. In the next breath financial support is withdrawn from the sector and we are criticised for apparently being dependent on public support in times of extreme dry, flood or fire. All the while, we are constrained from maximising our productive ability.

In NSW, vegetation clearing restrictions are perhaps the most intrusive of all of these constraining legislations, with many landholders unable to realise the intrinsic value of their asset or its true productive capacity. More critically, much of the vegetation that is supposedly preserved becomes of little to no environmental value due to weed and pest invasion and lack of management input due to necessary economic rationalisation.

The legislation is failing in its environmental aspiration and simultaneously causing financial hardship to primary producers. It is - and always has been - a disgrace.

I am not advocating criminal activity and certainly do not condone violence as a means to resolve this kind of public conflict, but the reality is that people will do what they perceive is needed to ensure their livelihood and or legacy. When policy makers refuse to yield to common sense, escalating civil disobedience will ensue.

Policy makers, sitting in their ivory towers in Sydney - or any capital city for that matter - appear to have little or no regard for the personal circumstance of the people they intrude upon. Indeed, a spokesman for the NSW Public Service Association has suggested the community is becoming less tolerant of government direction and there needs to be more respect toward public officers. I suggest that sometimes the converse may also be true of the people who decree policy from on high.

Here is a really simple suggestion: if you implement a law that results in a large number of reasonable and otherwise law-abiding citizens becoming criminals simply by conducting their business in an orderly fashion, perhaps you should reconsider the nature of the law, its implementation and its enforcement.

The reality is that all people have a breaking point. The native vegetation laws in NSW have dramatically increased pressure on landholders for more than a decade now. Ccoupled with significantly challenging weather events and declining terms of trade, this means a large number of primary producers are now under more acute financial and emotional stress than has been seen in the sector for many, many generations.

Now consider the typically ageing male farming demographic and in particular the characteristics that typify these farmers. These men are stoic to the extreme. Unfortunately this one attribute also means they are not great communicators and do not deal well with emotional issues. It is clear that the farmer involved in this incident had endured years of extreme emotional distress and depression with no effective mechanism to diffuse the building pressure. He is not alone in this kind of emotional isolation in the rural sector.

Similarly, he is not alone in his sense of abandonment and or persecution by successive governments. Blind Freddy could see that this kind of situation was going to emerge - and unless there is serious redress of the attitude of policy makers and the tone and nature of public policy affecting agriculture, something similar is likely to happen again.

It is all well and good to call for calm, but for many producers who are under pressure, their entire sense of self-worth is tied to their land and enterprise and when it is threatened there will inevitably be an emotional response. Depending on your empathetic perspective, that response will either be considered predictable or inexplicable. If any politician or bureaucrat suggests the Moree shooting was unforeseeable then in my opinion they are either dishonest, incompetent or both.

People will be quick to choose a side, but laying singular blame on the farmer in this case would be cruel injustice. In my opinion, the political directives around native vegetation legislation in NSW have increased the pressure in the system to breaking point and ultimately put this government employee in harm’s way as much as any other contributing factor.

The draconian and increasingly ineffective legislation and the socially disconnected system of government that ultimately drove a good man to commit a great evil must also be held to account for their role in this crime.

Ignoring the underlying contributing causes of this incident will only result in it happening again.

FarmOnline
Pete Mailler

Pete Mailler

is a farmer on the Qld/NSW border and a co-founder of the Country Party of Australia
Date: Newest first | Oldest first

READER COMMENTS

Barcoo
9/08/2014 5:11:26 AM

You are spot on Pete. But the effect of the restrictions on farming are not restricted to the north of the state. Remember that Peter Spencer comes from the south and he was one of many in the same position. Did you read July "National Geographic" and the article The Next Breadbasket? It writes about small farmers in Mozambique being forced off their properties to make way for international companies. Seems that farmers have no rights anywhere.
Dick
9/08/2014 5:37:55 AM

So what's the alternative Pete? Open slather? Whilst the legislation may be far from perfect, why was it brought in in the first place? Also, if farmers do not want policy regulating our activities, we can't at the same time seek regulation of others, such as miners, can we?
Bruce Watson
9/08/2014 6:41:38 AM

Another incisive, pertinent and persuasive argument, Pete. These days we appear to be voting for politicians who have little understanding about the critical need for diligent, or even competent, governance.
victor
9/08/2014 2:53:29 PM

I'm sorry Peter but the legislation to prevent land clearing is based on sound scientific principles. No farmer has a right to do whatever he pleases with his land just as city land owners are subject to strict development rules. Australia farming has been the poorer for indiscriminate land clearing which has led to a raft of issues and widespread land and water degradation. Either implement sustainable, educated land management as good farmers do or get off the land. There are no excuses for what occurred.
Grumpy
9/08/2014 4:00:33 PM

As Pete has stated the elephant in the room has been ignored by successive governments, with tragic circumstances, It has been long foreseeable from within rural and regional communities that the stress will breakout with consequences. Sadly NSW Macquarie St representatives are to busy keeping the dirty dealing coming to light than showing statesman like leadership. Regional communities deserve better from the Liberal lap dogs, the Nationals. Who take for granted the loyalty of the rural community.
daw
9/08/2014 6:49:16 PM

Every thing you have said in the article is true Pete. I add that the Nat Veg Act has significant undemocratic clauses in it & this was endorsed by the parliamentary Legislation Review C'tee that reviewed it before it's enactment. They ticked 4 out of 5 boxes that they considered in need of further revision. (i) trespasses unduly on personal rights and liberties. (ii) makes rights liberties or obligations unduly dependent upon insufficiently defined administrative powers (iv)inapproriately delegates legislative powers (v)(out of space) No action was taken. /2
daw
9/08/2014 7:03:16 PM

/2 More specifically the basic democratic right 'innocent till proven guilty' has been reversed so that if one is charged with illegal clearing then the Gov't doesn't have to prove guilt but rather one has to prove ones innocence. An extremely difficult thing to do. If you accept a PVP then it will be registered on your deeds in perpetuity even though the PVP only has a currency of maximum 15 years. It is locked forever. It can & does include prohibitions including Not being allowed to pickup any timber whether living or dead. Not being allowed to move or remove any rocks. Draconian???
Bishop
11/08/2014 7:07:35 AM

You're ignoring the fact that these laws exist for a good reason. So much land has been stuffed because of salinity from widespread land clearing, something some farmers apparently still don't get despite shitloads of money being plowed into rehabilitation programmes. Land clearing needs to be regulated 'cause enough farmers stuffed things up in the past.
Qlander
11/08/2014 7:52:30 AM

The universal response to this tragedy, right across rural Australia. Has been 'Sigh - so it's finally happened'. Unfortunately the most likely response, will be more mental health workers, with little or no understanding of the real issues.
Dalby
11/08/2014 7:58:08 AM

Bishop, you have no statistics to back you up. What you overlook is that the salt encroachment you talk about is still not understood even by scientists, as to its real cause or prevention. No farmer willfully damaged his own productive land. In virtually all circumstances, farmers were encouraged to go and turn native vegetation into productive farming land by Govt/community via various farm occupancy schemes. They then applied the best available knowledge to do so. In the process all have learned and now improved land care. The whole nation benefited but now asks just farmers to pay. No!
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Burrs under my saddlePete Mailler is a farmer on the Queensland/NSW border. His perspective and opinions are borne from seeing more than one side of many problems in his various farm leadership roles and in wanting to ensure a future for his children in agriculture.

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