michael thomson pra agm 2006



Good morning ladies and gentlemen. It’s wonderful to be back in Rockhampton again – it sure beats the pants off Canberra.

I’d like to thank John Purcell for the opportunity to speak here today – I hope what I have to say is of some value to you all. John has asked me to deliver an overview of how the land clearing bans came about in Queensland in the same way that I did at an event which John and Mary attended in Ballarat just over a year ago. That event was the Eureka Environment Forum, which was part of the Eureka Stockade anniversary celebrations.

And even though we’re a long way from the goldfields I think I’d like to stick with the analogy I drew in Ballarat, because I’m sure everyone knows the story of the miners’ rebellion and I think it pertinent to what you organisation represents. After all, Eureka was about also government controls limiting access to natural resources and its implications for the miners’ property rights.

From a public relations’ perspective, Eureka was an amazing outcome. It took a particular confluence of circumstance for the group of violent rebels who aimed their guns at the establishment to then be hailed as heroes and remembered fondly by history. Public opinion was divided about their tactic of armed protest, but it took the strong statement of the uprising to shift the paradigm of the debate and quickly change things for the better.

If the analogy of the miners as being equivalent to today’s land managers or farmers or property holders is continued, there are further similarities. Just as public opinion was initially split over the miners’ revolt, research by the nation’s leading pollster, Crosby Textor, last year found there were anomalies in public support for present day farmers. There is great sympathy for rural landholders among the greater populus, city people today like country people, they think farmers are friendly and honest.

So why do they have such concerns about the way farmers are managing the environment? Why is it that the farmers and landholders are on the back foot in terms of driving reforms to native vegetation legislation? Is it because environmental groups have better managed the media on issues like land clearing and consequently enjoy greater influence with government?

In my view, it is essentially due to a failure by rural, agricultural, business and political groups to coordinate an integrated campaign to change public perceptions. Even at the ugly height of the recent land clearing debate in Queensland, there was no grand public stand by these groups, there was no Eureka moment to change the broader community perceptions and to shift the political paradigm. Tactically, groups AgForce and the Queensland Nationals fought the battle from the back foot, trying to rebut a campaign being driven by the green movement. In fact, it was their failings on this front which led to the creation of PRA. But even then it was a reactive campaign to the action of the green movement which was dictating the terms of battle.

These groups believed that the truth alone would set them free. But right isn’t always enough, especially when articulating right in such a difficult and complicated issue. Using the facts in backroom lobbying is important, but not enough. Public perceptions, as was again proved in the clearing debate, are more powerful than facts. That does not mean dishonesty is acceptable – the creation of those perceptions should be underwritten by fact.

There were two forces at play in the push to ban land clearing in Queensland.

Firstly, there was the experience of southern Australia and the resultant science which showed that over-clearing directly contributed to species loss, and salinity. The scientists also argued in terms of the global picture that clearing was contributing to global warming due to the role of vegetation as a carbon sink. The second force was the environmental movement, which exploited this science and the precautionary principle to promote their argument for an outright ban on broadscale clearing. On this basis, the State Labor and Federal Coalition governments together gave three core reasons for the ban – greenhouse, salinity and biodiversity.

In the case of salinity, the environmentalists used images of massive salinity damage in Victoria and Western Australia to generate fear and create the perception that the same devastating outcome would befall Queensland if land clearing continued. But our research put the “scourge of salinity” in perspective. Australian Bureau of Statistics figures revealed that just 0.07 percent of Queensland was affected by salinity, only three percent of farms were affected, and more than 20pc of farmers had changed there practices to prevent its spread. Only 0.01pc of the State’s agricultural land had been rendered useless by salinity.

This left those people aware of such facts wondering why so little land hand thus far been affected in Queensland, usually in small, isolated expressions, compared with the massive saltpans in WA. A group of scientists believe it is due to Queensland’s summer rainfall pattern as opposed to southern Australia’s predominantly winter rainfall. This means that when the rain does fall, it is during plants peak growing period, thus absorbing all the moisture and preventing the water table from rising. This confirmed the position of most landholders that clearing could continue without causing massive salinity expressions if it were to be done in a sensible, regulated fashion. But these facts on their own did nothing to change the perceptions of urban masses whose understanding was based on pictures of farms turned into saltpans. The green movement kept arguing the clearing rate was an out of control rampage.

Here again, the ABS figures painted a different picture. The actual number of trees in Queensland was increasing, rather than decreasing, while this ‘out-of-control’ clearing was taking place. It reported that 26 percent of trees cleared in 2000-01, took place on land that had no trees on it in 1991. More than 80pc of Queensland is still in a remnant state. Again, not many people in the wider voting public were aware of such facts – their perceptions were driven by television images of dozers ripping through bushland.

The same occurred in the debate about biodiversity. Environment Australia estimated that 16,000 species could be prevented from becoming threatened or endangered if broadscale clearing was banned. To reach that figure a multiplier of 600 was used, making its accuracy dubious. But they were big numbers that the green movement used to paint a devastating picture to influence the perceptions of the voting masses. The fact that their claims failed to take into account the impact of not clearing the country was irrelevant to their campaign.

Forever and a day before white man arrived in Australia, the indigenous peoples managed the environment with fire. When white man arrived the early explorers described rural Queensland as an open savannah plain. But since then trees have exploded across the Queensland landscape unchecked by fire and as time has gone on those woodlands have got thicker and thicker until now, as you all know, it is hard to even walk through the scrub, let alone graze it. Vegetation thickening has encouraged the spread of some species, while choking out and endangering others, including grasses and many bird species.

So when the environmental movement and the governments argued on behalf of protecting biodiversity, they were arguing for a flawed plan of returning the country to a so-called pristine wilderness, but one which would be unmanaged and actually vastly different from that which the early settlers found 200 years ago. They were actually endorsing a plan which would endanger some species. But in political terms that didn’t matter because the environmentalists had already successfully created the perception that clearing was wiping out thousands of species.

The idea of vegetation thickening wasn’t just based upon the observation of a few old graziers, but endorsed by 40 years of research by internationally renowned woodlands scientist, Dr Bill Burrows. Dr Burrows and a team of Primary Industries and Natural Resources scientists and economists were asked to prepare a paper for submission to the Productivity Commission. What that team found was distinctly unpalatable for the Queensland Government, which decided not to participate in the PC inquiry, and took Dr Burrows research into cabinet to prevent its release to the public. Queensland Country Life obtained and published the details of the report.

The report found that if this phenomenon of woodland thickening were to continue unchecked under the proposed ban on broadscale clearing, not only would there be severe environmental implications, but it would cost the Queensland economy more than $900 million due to lost grazing lands and the subsequent lost production. It would cripple communities and force families off their farms. Compare this to the $150m in compensation offered by the State government. When looked at in terms of the triple bottom line, the scientific research showed the broadscale clearing ban to have failed all three aspects, the society, the economy, and the environment.

But the findings of Dr Burrows’ team differed so radically from the already accepted wisdom on clearing that the story in QCL was immediately labelled a ‘beat up’ by the State Government and environmental groups. It seemed arguing with these heavy facts was useless without someone first gently changing the public’s perceptions.

However, persistent argument of the facts about vegetation thickening did result in a minor concession allowing for thinning of remnant vegetation, but NOT by the only economically viable means in broadacre Queensland, that of dozer and chain.

Then there was the third element of the environmental argument – that of greenhouse.

Arguing that landholders should not clear their country in order to compensate for the massive emissions of a fossil-fuel driven consumer society in the cities, does not seem a fair nor sensible solution, because it does not address the source of the CO2 emissions. But like all things in a dollar-driven world, it was a question of economics and politics and the bush was a soft target. For the Federal Government to achieve its greenhouse targets under Kyoto, it would be cheaper and electorally safer to lock up the Queensland bush than force industry and the great masses of voters in the cities to cut back fuel consumption and do without their air conditioners. Documents obtained by QCL revealed the Commonwealth deliberately ignored the impact of vegetation thickening in its greenhouse accounting to ensure its emission reduction targets were lower – a piece of deception that would save the energy sector $4 billion a year by not having to reduce their emissions by a further 20 percent.

On all three counts – salinity, biodiversity and greenhouse – the policy to ban broadscale clearing in Qld was flawed and the science proved it.

Unfortunately for QCL, its campaign to scrutinise the policy and expose its stupidity, resulted in nothing more than confirming what our readers already knew to be true about the environment and about politicians. On the other hand the greens and even members of the State Labor government used QCL’s reports to accuse it of bias and label the paper a branch of the National Party. Unfortunately, we became viewed by some as a player in a political battle instead of as an independent media. It seemed to me that government perception of our alleged political position became more important than the facts we presented.

The way the State Government discredited our coverage probably discouraged the mainstream from following our lead, which brings us back to media and political populism. Governments, like the one Queensland, will take the path of least electoral damage and most electoral gain. So when land clearing became a key election issue, the Queensland Government knew it was on a winner with its choice to ban clearing and damn the consequences. In the urban heartland where elections are decided, opinion is formed by impressions and perceptions and not detailed analysis of all the available facts. Only the minority of people with an active interest in a particular issue will seek out additional information from specialist publications, rather than rely on the perceptions given by the superficial coverage of the mainstream media.

Political parties, like the green movement, realise that changing the opinion of the masses is not done by detailed argument, but by simple, recurring messages; for example, pictures of pristine rainforests or koala bears along side violent pictures of dozers clearing scrub, and a slogan about how clearing was killing the environment. The green movement used this technique at a several levels, from protest marches, to billboards, to letter drops.

The only seats where the move was unpopular – the seats where it would hurt people the most – were seats held by the State’s National Party Opposition. And as for the Federal Government, it received the sweetest deal of all. At first whiff of a backlash in National Party seats, they ditched the joint State-Federal proposal to ban clearing, and hid behind the Productivity Commission inquiry. On the one hand they appeared to be standing up for their National Party constituents, while on the other they let the State Labor government cop the flak for introducing a policy which would hand the Feds their Kyoto greenhouse commitments on a platter, saving the national economy something like $600 million annually, and all the while the Federal Coalition did not have to pay a red cent in compensation to the Queensland landholders.

Both governments were complicit in this poor legislation and their regard for open transparent government was disgraceful.

The mainstream media also failed in its duty to thoroughly scrutinise a policy that was a key issue at the 2004 State election. Surely there was scope for some great work by good investigative journalists. They should have done better. As for their general news reporters, they provided brief superficial snippets of each day’s events, reporting what was shown to them and repeating the messages of those who yelled loudest and most often and with the most controversial opinions.

To that end the environmental movement is very good at achieving its goals – its campaigns play on people’s fears, the images they use tug at the heart strings, they are loud and in your face, they appear credible – a combination which guarantees coverage. Most of all their campaigns target the great masses of uninformed urban voters who know least about the issues and are least affected by the outcomes, yet who decide elections.

These are the very areas that rural Australia has failed not only itself, but also the environment. It’s handling of the issue has been reactive, forever on the back foot defending the accusations of the greens, rather than conducting its own campaigns to influence the urban masses with their side of the argument.

The situation is the same in other states. New South Wales is becoming increasing hostile. The tree police there recently used the riot squad to lock down farms they wanted to inspect for suspected illegal clearing. In some districts farmers are refusing to allow departmental staff on to their property, but that hasn’t stopped the use of aerial surveillance. This action by the NSW Government has only served to antagonise the farming community, while doing nothing to address the problem farmers face in trying to control the woody weeds that are overtaking their land. The use of vegetation offsets, where hundreds of trees are required to be locked up in return for the right to clear one tree, are being imposed inconsistently between farm development and urban development. Meanwhile, the Wilderness Society continues to campaign in Sydney on the grounds that hundreds of thousands of hectares are being wiped out by illegal clearing. So frustrated are farmers at losing the PR war that a group of Nyngan farmers have each chipped in $1000 to hire a Sydney PR firm to influence major media – an action that arguably should have been taken by the NSW Farmers’ Association.

All of this is occurring despite regular reports from the Australian Bureau of Agriculture and Resource Economics (ABARE) in estimating the cost to farm businesses and the environment from these ridiculous laws – I think at last estimate every farmer in NSW was $35,000 worse off because of the regulations.

The Commonwealth seems to be the only government listening to the cries of the bush on native vegetation and I fear that its strong stance has only strengthened the resolve of Labor to oppose reform on ideological grounds. The good news is that the Federal Government is pressing ahead with pilot programs aimed at paying farmers to conduct environmental remediation, which could include thinning vegetation. The long-term goal is for this to be included as part of the next round of the Natural Heritage Trust program. I understand participation would be voluntary, meaning that property rights per se would not be eroded.

In Queensland the Opposition has been supportive, but my question to Lawrence Springborg is this: given that the Liberal Party voted with Labor in passing the clearing laws, what assurance can you give that the Liberals will now vote with you under the current Coalition arrangements to reform the clearing laws?

As for the farm lobby groups, the National Farmers’ Federation has been lobbying the Commonwealth hard on the issue, but ultimately the resolution lies with a change of attitude from the states. To that end the NFF has been preparing a Campaign for Australian Agriculture to win back the hearts and minds of the community on a range of issues, not least of which is vegetation management. That’s been on the cards for some time now, but we are yet to see the fruits of their planning. In Queensland AgForce should be congratulated for being the first to bite the bullet and run its television advertisements on the theme of Every Family Needs a Farmer. While they may not have succeeded in changing the clearing laws, they have at least won the attention of Labor – an improvement on the open hostilities of a couple of years ago.

The other piece of good news is that elements of the mainstream media are waking up to these issues. Channel Nine’s Sunday program recently delivered an excellent expose about the scientific shortfalls of salinity policy. And you’ll be happy to know they are now following up with an investigation of the poor science behind land clearing laws. But that has only come about by the relentless lobbying of Jennifer Marohasy, who has smartly used the facts as the basis for overcoming perceptions.

And coming from the Eureka conference where I first spoke on this issues, has been the formation of the Australian Environment Foundation which aims to take on the greens at their own game, but with science, practicality and landholders at the centre of their lobbying.

A couple of final words about PRA and where it fits into the picture. I’m not going to second guess what your legal update is going to be this morning regarding your proposed High Court challenge against the Queensland laws. But what I can tell you is that more than a year ago AgForce also sought legal advice on the issue and they told me that the chances of success were slim. In your minds that slim chance may be worth pursuing, but the clincher for AgForce in not acting was the ‘even if’ scenario: even if they won the case, the chances are that Peter Beattie would immediately amend the laws to ensure the clearing ban was constitutional, and then your back to square one.

And square one is fighting to change perceptions and winning the debate with the facts at your disposal. I know I talk a lot about perceptions, which I know frustrates a few people, but that is how politics works. And you’ve got to ask yourself the question, how would a High Court challenge be perceived? Would the public look at that and say, this is just a bunch of greedy farmers with more land than they know what to do with, who want to continue getting rich by ruining the environment? Would the move mobilise the green movement’s fundraising and PR campaigns? Would it steel the resolve of Peter Beattie to protect his so-called environmental credentials? If you do press ahead with a legal challenge, I would urge you to take steps at the same time to ensure the broader public perceives the action as being in their best interests and in the interests of the environment, and also raising awareness of the general trend of governments eroding everyone’s property rights, regardless of whether they live in the city or the bush.

My final comment is this though: PRA was most effective in garnering supportive media coverage, and thus encouraging the perception that you are a credible and responsible organisation, when it clearly, concisely argued the facts and the impacts of the laws. I know you had a very good PR man working for you at the time in Brad Henderson, who now works for Mr Springborg, so hopefully he’s continuing the fight for you.

Whatever you do you must be mindful of creating the perception in the public’s mind that you are responsible, that you are acting in their interests and the interests of the environment. Self-serving, angry, vitriolic rants are rarely effective in garnering media, public or government support. These are all factors you must consider in taking you battle forward, because farmers can complain all they like about green lies, but in the end they have to make use of their powerful facts as the basis for a broad, multi-layered, integrated campaign to change public perceptions.

They need to emotionally, intellectually and financially tap into that community support for farmers that is out there. Farm groups need to create Eureka-like moments that will shift the publicity paradigm in their favour.