18th November 2005
North Queensland Register Editorial
Senior people in the Department of Natural Resources and Mines must be heartily wishing they had never heard of Shane Watts. For 17 months, the department doggedly pursued the Collinsville grazier, finally winning a court victory when Mr Watts was found guilty and fined $2000 for clearing one-third of a hectare without a permit.
But it’s doubtful this victory tastes particularly sweet, with NRM earning widespread condemnation from the rural community, a towelling from key lobby groups and general embarrassment for its efforts.
Now, more stories of problems within the department, and in the implementation and compliance for the Vegetation Management Act and Water Act are emerging from the woodwork. There are the Nebo producers who are facing a nine-month wait for a decision on whether they can put in a 250m-long fence to protect a degraded natural watercourse. There are tales of people who had contemplated property improvement work, with significant environmental advantages, who have abandoned their plans – they’re not prepared to risk getting it wrong, there are too many pitfalls, it’s not worth the hassle.
NRM objects to phrases like “tree police”. The department insists its officers want to work with, not against, producers. That may well be the intention. But, as it’s been pointed out by several prominent people in the past few weeks, the presence of an NRM staffer on a rural doorstep doesn’t exactly inspire confidence these days. The landholder’s immediate reaction is likely to be defensive and anxious rather than a warming spirit of co-operation and harmony.
The ball is firmly in NRM’s court. Without a major review of, and changes to, the current natural resource legislation, it is nigh impossible to see any improvement in the levels of trust and communication between farmers and government.
As in any community or business group, there will always be a handful which make it tough for the majority – that applies equally to irresponsible landholders and to overzealous government staffers. But both are very much in the minority. With an open-minded, practical approach, real, workable changes could be made to the controversial legislation – changes that would genuinely benefit the environment and future generations, and which would still allow producers the chance to develop thriving, viable operations. With fear removed from the equation, the former trust could again be rebuilt, with little incidents dealt with through discussion rather than the courts.
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