Second Reading Debate – Flora and Fauna Guarantee Amendment Bill 2018

I rise to speak on the Flora and Fauna Guarantee Amendment Bill 2018 and note the coalition will not be opposing it. The bill amends the Flora and Fauna Guarantee Act 1988 to ensure that it is stronger and can more effectively protect Victoria’s biodiversity in the face of existing and emerging threats such as climate change. It amends the Flora and Fauna Guarantee Act by inserting revised objectives and principles into the act, imposing additional obligations to consider biodiversity in decision-making, improving transparency and accountability and making various other amendments to strengthen the act.

While the bill has broad support I do want to draw the house’s attention to some key issues that are being faced in my electorate in relation to vegetation and community safety. I am concerned that the flagged additional obligation to consider biodiversity in decision-making may compound these issues further. Following the fires on St Patrick’s Day the issue of roadside vegetation has been raised with me, and I am sure with the member for Polwarth, on several occasions by many people, including the captain of the local Country Fire Authority (CFA) at Macarthur, Hugh McFarlane, and many other CFA captains around my area. I know, in Hugh’s case, he has written to the Minister for Roads and Road Safety and the Minister for Energy, Environment and Climate Change.

It has also been raised by the Victoria State Emergency Service (SES). One particular SES unit went out that night to 30 episodes, clearing branches from across roads. It has also been raised by people from the general community — people who were frightened and were not able to evacuate and who wrote to Craig Lapsley, the ministers and me. They were very, very concerned by their frightening experiences. The Moyne shire also raised the matter with me and the member for Malvern during his visit to my electorate only a few weeks ago. Moyne shire is seeking that the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning initiate a basic permit process based on visual inspection to allow landowners to clear roadside reserves adjoining their properties of all dead, fallen or non-native trees and vegetation.

The reason we need to think about this is that things have changed. I listened to members across the chamber and I heard them talk about their commitment to the environment, but I think we all genuinely have a commitment to the environment, whatever political colour we come from. We all agree that we must look after the environment. But it is walking the walk that really concerns me, rather than just talking it. When I see the history of people on the land who are not being involved in the consultation process and who actually understand how it really does work, I find that we are not really getting it right. So this legislation, if it does not have consultation with landholders, the custodians and the people who have stewardship of the land, we are missing a very important factor.

I remember as a little girl that my dad’s responsibility was to slash the roadsides from a safety perspective. If there was a tree down, you actually got the chainsaw out and chopped it up. Nowadays my husband and I could no more do that than fly in the air, because we would be at risk of litigation if something went wrong. It is putting us all into a really difficult position. We had a very tragic circumstance three years ago when a limb came down in the middle of the night in a very remote area. When the locals did what they thought was the right thing, and what was the right thing, it ended up in tragedy with a death as a result of having to clear a roadside tree. It was an awful situation.

When we had the St Patrick’s Day fires and the same sort of thing happened — the winds that caused all the trees to go down — friends of mine were trapped on their property. Just by luck they owned a front-end loader. The husband, Ken, drove a tractor, and Rosemary drove a car behind. There were quite a few cars because they were having a function at their place. It was horrific. Had they not had that front-end loader available to them, they would not have got out and there could have been a tragic result. That is just
one case; there have been several cases in South-West Coast.

So when my dad would go and clear the roadside we were doing our community duty. Nowadays, because we do not have the resources to get departments to do it and we have lost that culture of responsibility that every farmer felt, the roadsides have become incredibly overgrown, and it is not always native vegetation. I am certainly not advocating that we clear the roadsides to the detriment of the environment, but I think we have got the balance wrong when we cannot get community safety right. In fact it was really lucky that those fires started in the middle of the night. It was quite frightening. In the town of Woolsthorpe, where I live, the evacuation notice never got through, so people slept on not even knowing what was going on. Had they been evacuated, there could have been mayhem. It could have been quite dangerous because there were so many limbs down. One fire truck actually hit a limb that night that was down across the road.

So Moyne shire is desperately, as are the other shires, saying, ‘Come on, guys. We were lucky to avoid the tragedy in our area with this fire’. It was a dreadful event, but no lives were lost, but was that an opportunity for us to say, ‘Let’s work more closely on this’? I think this legislation, which looks at biodiversity, could stop us from doing things responsively. We need to be aware that resources in the department are not abundant, and therefore we do not want just another excuse to say no, rather than looking at situations individually and getting on with it. And using local knowledge, like shires and farmers have, is one way of doing that. So as I said, I am not advocating removing all vegetation but allowing it to be maintained and controlled to improve safety for everyone while still achieving a positive environmental outcome.

I note the Minister for Energy, Environment and Climate Change talked about her commitment to Parks Victoria in her contribution on the budget papers in the last sitting week, and she said that under the previous government people were visiting parks to find dilapidated facilities and in some cases not even a park ranger. If we are really seriously keen about the environment, when we are reviewing legislation and doing things like we are right now, we cannot just continually ignore our responsibilities.

In her contribution she blamed the former government for the dilapidation of the facilities, but in reality it is still happening now in my electorate under her watch. It was the Labor government that axed the full-time ranger position at Budj Bim National Park and the one at the Tower Hill State Game Reserve, two positions put in place by the Napthine government.

When you look at Liberal history, we have got a very proud history of looking after the environment, because we do understand that you do need to respect it. As a farmer there is one thing I have learned very, very profoundly, and that is that you work with nature, you do not work against it, because it is always the smartest of the two. When I look at what we have done as the Liberal Party over the years — getting national parks listed, introducing some of the first environmental legislation under the Hamer government — it is a long and very proud history of actual outcome-focused behaviours, not just talking the talk like I hear so much from the other side. They say they are friends of the farmer. Well, if you are friends of the farmer, have a look at how farmers are running their businesses. The margins are enormously tight — that is an oxymoron — so tight that we are losing in many years. The cost of production last year in the dairy industry was greater than the value of the product we were producing.

When you look at that, as the Victorian Farmers Federation (VFF) has said, how can we ask the farming community, who will do the work on our behalf, to take responsibility for the community good and the community benefit financially? They cannot; there just is not the margin. I really do try to share with absolute genuineness that we cannot keep squeezing farmers and asking them to produce more and more and asking them to take custodianship of the environment for our community benefit. These guys are volunteers in the CFA. They manage roadsides and experience bureaucratic frustrations when they are just trying to do the right thing. They try to get a permit to manage the side of the road from a fire management perspective and they are just mucked around, whether it be with VicRoads, whether it be with the CFA bureaucracy or whether it be with the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning. It is just putting too much of the challenge back on the community who are looking after that environment. Consider what the VFF are saying; they are absolutely right. When it is on private land or when they are trying to manage the roadsides, have a bit of consideration, because I think we are pushing too hard.

Like I said, we are all on the same page here — we all want the environment managed better — but listen to those who do it every day from dawn to dusk. They do not always do it for a lot of money; in fact they will do it whether they are getting money or not because that is the responsibility they have taken on both for the environment, whether it be at the micro level as the member for Eildon referred to with the soils or at the macro level with the animals and the vegetation. On that note, I would like to again support the comments of the VFF.