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.