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14 August 2019

Second Reading Debate: Flora and Fauna Guarantee Amendment Bill 2019

Today I rise to speak on the Flora and Fauna Guarantee Amendment Bill 2019. This is a bill that strengthens and modernises the Flora and Fauna Guarantee Act 1988, delivering a more solid approach to biodiversity. The bill amends the act to ensure that it is stronger and can be more effectively protective of Victoria’s biodiversity.

The reforms in the bill were first introduced in the last Parliament. We are here again today, I think, because the priority of this government actually is not the environment, so we will have another go in this term.

The government claims in its second-reading speech to be having ongoing commitments to Victoria’s biodiversity to keep it healthy, active and valued, but today I am going to talk about some of the biodiversity issues in my part of the world which demonstrate that this is not at all the case.

But before I go into some of that I would like to raise some of the issues in the bill that are slightly concerning.

Obviously we want to protect biodiversity and strengthen our approach to biodiversity—there is clear evidence that we are not doing a good enough job—but we need to make sure that we do not compromise our food producers in Victoria, and we need to have an approach where there is no net loss.

So this is a necessary consideration in any biodiversity changes. With the ministerial discretion that will be allowed in this bill, hopefully a commonsense approach will take place.

But as rightfully the Victorian Farmers Federation point out, they are very concerned, and we should not have the right to farm compromised, because we all need to remember that there are some basic facts.

They are that farmers actually keep us warm, they keep us fed and they keep us sheltered.

They are the basic rights we have, and they are needed to protect what we are very capably able to do in the state of Victoria very well, particularly in my part of the world, where we are the largest producer of agricultural product in the state and where we are the second largest in the nation—very proud facts from south-west Victoria.

I will come back to the biodiversity aspect of the bill and how the government is claiming in their second-reading speech that this is their priority.

Clearly we do need to ensure biodiversity, but when you see the state budget actually has 1 per cent designated to the environment, then it demonstrates exactly how much of a priority this is for Victoria.

When you see areas of bushland and forests left with no management plan, not enough money and not enough resources to actually address some of the species that are causing the bush to be threatened and lose diversity, then you can see quite clearly that no action plan, not enough money—less than 1 per cent of the budget for the total of the state—tells you a lot about the priority of this government and the environment that they say they are caring about.

So let me tell you about a place over in western Victoria, quite close to the South Australian border—so a very western part of the state—the Heywood-Bolwarra area.

I was recently shown the area around by a community member who described to me the issue with a plant called sweet pittosporum.

Sweet pittosporum is actually not an introduced species, but it has the title of being a potentially threatening process.

This particular weed is native, so it is a local weed to this area, but I saw big trees around 8 feet or 12 feet and the understorey is completely lost in the forest. The Brumby government set this area aside in the 1990s because clearly it is an area of significance, but rather than actually resource the area they set it aside and said, ‘Look, it is really important that we look after it’. But now we are in the situation that within a generation the forest will actually be lost. There is actually no management plan. Rather than getting rid of the weed when it is small and can be ripped out, they are waiting until it is at least 8 feet tall and doing small areas at a ridiculous cost.

The area I looked at the other day was maybe 2 hectares and there was a cost of around $300 000 to rip out the weeds underneath the trees, which were quite large bushes by that point in time.

It is a flawed approach. The resources are not being put into a management plan so that it can actually be wisely managed. As a consequence we will have lost this within a generation. It is really quite heartbreaking and unconscionable.

That is a hard word; I have always struggled with it. I should know it because I used it a lot previously. Anyway, Labor appears to have forgotten that sweet pittosporum and other weeds do substantially reduce our biodiversity. So that is one area, and I would like to thank Garry Kerr for taking the time.

He is a volunteer, a retired fisherman and an extraordinary man who knows a lot about our history as well as our natural environment. I would like to thank him for teaching me a lot about the environment that I did not know.

I would now like to talk a bit more about another area in our part of the world. Going out on Nelson-Portland Road or going out to Cape Bridgewater, what you will find is a plant called coastal wattle.

Again, it is actually native to Australia but it was introduced to our part of the world in the 1950s and 60s. It grows like a weed. When I was driving to Nelson the other day I actually pulled over to take a photo because I could not believe how much it was encroaching on the road—on the white line. I had another constituent, Bernie Mills, write to me and say this is an absolute disaster waiting to happen because you cannot see—kangaroos come out at you and you have got no time.

So I wrote to Minister Pulford in the other place and I got a really interesting response. It is here in my notes. In the response, where it talks about how important our road network is of course it says:

I can assure you that RRV—Regional Roads Victoria— is always working towards this by adherence to strict inspection and response standards outlined in VicRoads’ Road Management Plan.

Then she goes on to say that RRV have prioritised and:

RRV advises that maintenance crews are currently undertaking minor trimming works to improve sight distance on the Bridgewater Road and on Portland Nelson Road.

Well, that is the biggest joke I think I have ever heard, because if you trim coastal wattle, it is like putting petrol on a fire.

It is not how you manage it. It is a disaster to do that because it just makes it grow faster. It is a real shame that we have got the silos that this current government is working in.

This is a problem for the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning (DELWP). It is a biodiversity issue. The understorey of the bush is being lost and this weed—which I know is native but has that title of ‘potentially threatening process’—is threatening. It is taking all the understorey away and destroying the bush and putting motorists at risk and it needs to be addressed properly, not by trimming.

The last issue I want to talk about is Tower Hill.

I was recently invited by the Friends of Tower Hill to come and meet with them because they are very, very concerned about how Tower Hill is being managed. They have been working very hard, for 20 years some of them I have been speaking with, to try and get the weeds managed in Tower Hill. Tower Hill is a 600-hectare piece of land.

It is an old extinct volcano. It is a magnificent piece of the world and I take all my overseas guests there to see kangaroos, koalas, echidnas, snakes—you see everything at Tower Hill, you never miss out. Koalas I said, I think. Emus—not so nice, a bit scary. But this area is being managed by volunteers and by a member of DELWP.

Sammy is doing a terrific job, and the team are doing a great job, but they really want it to be made a national park. The reason is because they believe they will get more money. The real issue here is that state government are responsible whether it is a national park or whatever park it is. They are not going to get more money unless the government gives them the money to do the job—a new title will not change things.

Daphne Hester told me she has been trying very hard to get Tower Hill prioritised for 20 years. These people are working with backpacks and just have no management plan.

If I ran my farm, which was about the same acreage, without a management plan, did not address weeds, did not have a rotational grazing approach—and obviously there is not going to be a rotational grazing approach in a national park or a forest area, but still the same principle applies—you cannot just attack things without a plan.

So the government needs to recognise what good works these people are doing and assist them with a proper management plan and the resources to do it. The three volunteers that I spoke to, I worked out, have put in 60 years of their time over the last 20 years, the three of them together added up, and they have spent 60 years trying hard.

It is real shame that this government which claims to care about biodiversity puts a bill through like this but when you look out in the field—especially way out west—there is no evidence that they are supporting the people.