QUEENSLAND LNP Senator Barry O’Sullivan has hit out at “green activist inclinations” operating within the federal Environment Department and scaremongering farmers over land-clearing activities.
At recent Senate estimates hearings, Senator O’Sullivan tested Department officials on regulatory over-reach in a letter issued in December, warning Northern Queensland landholders about potentially breaching the federal Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (EPBC Act).
The former police officer investigated the origins of letter issued last December to 54 separate landholders - covering 59 different land-clearing licenses totalling 112,000 hectares - and environmental groups working with the Queensland government to influence the Department.
The letter said the Department had examined permits issued by the Queensland government for native vegetation clearing and held fears some projects potentially impacted matters of national environmental significance, protected by the EPBC Act.
It said the Department was sympathetic to the farming community’s needs - but was concerned nationally listed threatened species or the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area may be affected and substantial penalties would apply for any non-approved land-clearing activities.
During the estimates examination, Senator O’Sullivan asked the Department to provide all correspondence and records - including any file or diary notes, phone message slips or letters exchanged - on the Queensland government’s involvement in the issue.
Environment Standards Acting First Assistant Secretary James Tregurtha said the Minister and his Department received several initiating pieces of correspondence - including from the Queensland government and three environmental organisations - that the land clearing issue possibly needed consideration, under the EPBC Act.
Mr Tregurtha said once aware, the Department had a “clear obligation to look into those situations” and subsequently held several exchanges and discussions with the Queensland government.
But he said the Queensland government provided insufficient information for the Department to form a clear view, in relation to each individual action.
“The Department clearly had information that indicated that the EPBC Act may be in play in those particular instances but had nothing to confirm it conclusively,” he said.
But Senator O’Sullivan said provisions in the EPBC Act (Section 68) that provided for a person or government to refer matters to the Department, “were not enlivened on this occasion”, to which Mr Tregurtha agreed.
Mr Tregurtha also said section 18 or 18A of the Act, and other sections in part 3 – relating to penalties - did not contain any specific provision that “burdens” the minister to investigate.
But he said the minister was responsible the EPBC Act’s administration - under the administrative arrangements orders.
“Our normal cause of action in such an investigation is to write to the potential takers of the action, inform them of their obligations - so they can be clear about what their obligations are and to prevent them getting into a situation where they may be subject to further concerns or legal action going forward,” he said.
Senator O'Sullivan also asked if similar letters had ever been issued to land-clearing permit holders in NSW, Victoria or South Australia.
Environment Standards Compliance and Enforcement Branch Assistant Secretary Shane Gaddes said the Department regularly wrote letters to individuals who had State approvals - but not Commonwealth approvals - advise them of obligations under the Act.
“Land clearing is a very large part of the compliance and enforcement effort because the removal of native habitat is more likely to trigger the Act than most other activities,” he said.
Senator O’Sullivan asked Environment Department Secretary Dr Gordon de Brouwer if he was present when Queensland Environment Minister Steven Miles discussed the land-clearing matter, during the Paris climate change talks, last December.
Dr de Brouwer said he could not recall but agreed to check his diary notes and times of who he was with, to be addressed at a spill-over hearing.
But Senator O’Sullivan remains dissatisfied with his examination of Departmental officials and has requested an additional Senate estimates hearing to be held in coming weeks.
Senator O’Sullivan said it would address unanswered questions on the Department’s decision to send “alarming” correspondence to the Queensland landholders who held valid land-clearing permits.
He said he’d only just scratched the surface of the issue and had informed Senate colleagues more time was needed to question Department officials on the land-clearing letters.
Senator O’Sullivan said Northern Australia’s economic development was a major policy pillar for the Turnbull government and decisive action was “essential to stamp out any green activist inclinations among the public service”.
“There is a great deal of concern among Queensland landholders over this issue,” he said.
“I am not willing to let it rest until I am satisfied there was no threat made to landholders in my home State.”
The Department’s Environment Protection Group Deputy Secretary Dean Knudson told the Senate estimates hearing the Wilderness Society’s letter about the land-clearing issue had stated, 'Overall, we now believe high-value agricultural approvals in Queensland total at least 132,000 hectares, which will generate approximately 11.7 million tonnes greenhouse gas emissions. We do not believe that any of these approvals were ever referred for approval under the EPBC Act’.