IN THIS SECTION:
Natural Resource Management
Farmers are at the frontline of delivering environmental outcomes on behalf of the Australian community, owning, managing and caring for 61 percent of Australia’s land mass.
Murray-Darling Basin Plan
The NFF has been highly engaged in the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, from the development of the Water Act in 2007 through to the finalisation of the Basin Plan at the end of 2012. The Plan, developed by the Murray-Darling Basin Authority (MDBA), had two concurrent aims: reducing existing water allocations in the Basin in order to increase environmental flows.
The NFF advocating strongly for farmers throughout the development of the Plan. Through our leadership, the NFF was recognised as the key national voice for farmers on this issue. We worked closely with our Members and other aligned groups such as the National Irrigators’ Council and NSW Irrigators’ Council to ensure we maintained a strong, consistent voice.
The Plan was, and remains, of concern to farmers for a number of reasons, but primarily because it fails to balance the social, economic and environmental needs of the Basin Plan region and communities. The areas of particular concern to the NFF include the Sustainable Diversion Limits and the potential impacts on rural communities if the Government resorts to purchasing entitlements.
The NFF strongly fought for the amount of water set to be removed from food and fibre production to be reduced, and for water to be returned to the environment via water efficiency measures (such as infrastructure and environmental works and measures), rather than through water buybacks. Although the final Plan remains flawed, the advocacy organisation achieved significant wins in both areas. The NFF was also responsible for the Commonwealth implementing an on-farm water efficiency project which has led to $450M allocated to improve farm irrigation infrastructure and efficiencies – which has been a resounding success.
With the Basin Plan passing into law at the end of 2012, the focus now shifts to the complex arrangements for implementation. The NFF continues to advocate that the implementation of the Plan must seek a balance between the environment, and the social and economic needs of the Basin.
COAG Water Reform and the National Water Initiative
The NFF played a pivotal role in the lead up to the Council of Australian Government (COAG) National Water Initiative Intergovernmental Agreement.
The National Water Initiative remains the blueprint for water reform in Australia, building on the earlier 1994 Water Reform agenda, previously under the COAG Competition Reforms. At the highest level, the Initiative seeks to increase the productivity and efficiency of Australia’s water use, return all systems to environmentally sustainable levels of extraction, provide greater certainty for investment and the environment, and to ensure that water management regimes are responsive and fair.
The key elements include water access entitlements (property rights) and water planning, providing provision for environmental and other public health benefits, resolving over allocated and overused systems, removing barriers to water trade and broadening the water market, clarify risk assignment, improving water accounting, improving water use efficiency and innovation in both urban and rural water, addressing future adjustment issues, and recognising groundwater and surface water connectivity.
The NFF supported the development and continues to support the implementation of the National Water Initiative. Successful implementation is essential to underpin secure water entitlements and enable the confidence to invest in the irrigated agricultural business, particularly in those areas where reform has been slow.
More recently, COAG has developed a water reform agenda for the next five years. This will focus on the ‘unfinished’ National Water Initiative implementation and the parallel COAG Water Reform initiatives, along with six new actions to enhance existing initiatives. This agenda is currently the subject of COAG out of session approval.
The changing climate is potentially the biggest issue facing Australian farmers in the future. As a sector so dependent on natural resources, climate change poses a significant challenge to agriculture.
As the ABARES report, Climate Change: Impacts on Australian Agriculture shows, without actions to adapt to a changing climate and to mitigate the effects of greenhouse gases, Australian production of wheat, beef, dairy and sugar could decline by up to 10 percent by 2030 and 19 percent by 2050.
The implications of this for current farm enterprises and possible future industries vary, but show the need of all farmers to deal with hotter, drier and more variable conditions across much of Australia. To do so, farmers require access to the right tools to effectively manage the risks, to capitalise on any opportunities arising from this change and to be resilient.
The NFF is active in the areas of climate change sequestration, mitigation and adaptation – sequestration and mitigation through the Carbon Farming Initiative (for more, see below), and adaptation through a policy position that supports resilience.
Resilience essentially means the ability for farmers to recover from shocks (such as drought) and return to pre-shock conditions and production levels. Resilience requires actions to help deal with changing conditions and reduce vulnerability - for farmers, this means actions around water, soil, trees, biodiversity, pastures, livestock, infrastructure, waste, energy, cropping and diversification.
We believe that Australian farmers must consider climate change (or climate variability) as a normal business 'risk', while maintaining a focus on productivity and profitability. A resilient farm is one that is profitable, sustainable and can effectively manage variations in the environment, its finances and the wider economic situation (like commodity prices, input costs and interest rates).
The NFF believes that provided with the correct tools - like research and development and robust drought policy - Australian farmers, and the agricultural sector, can continue to make an important contribution even in the face of a changing climate.
For more information on the NFF's position on climate change, view the NFF's policy on Climate Resilience (attached).
For more on the carbon tax and the Carbon Farming Initiative see below, while for more information on drought policy reform and research and development, please visit the Farm Business and Productivity policy page.
After years of intense debate, the NFF expressed its disappointment at the passage of the carbon tax legislation through Parliament in November 2011.
While the NFF remains opposed to the carbon tax, we have been successful in securing agriculture’s exclusion, and our continued reinforcement of the costs the tax will have on Australian farmers resulted in the Government making additional concessions to agriculture:
2013 saw the Federal Government decide to bring forward the floating emissions trading scheme (ETS) by one year. Between this decision, and its corresponding budget decisions, the Government has clawed back over $600 million from agricultural and environmental programs, particularly the Biodiversity Fund and Carbon Farming Futures (the Carbon Farming Initiative remains unaffected).
The NFF has cautiously welcomed the decision to move to an ETS, but has expressed its concern about the budget cuts from these important environmental programs. The biggest concern is the decision to cut funding to the science and extension programs that will assist farmers deliver carbon mitigation and sequestration. This is likely to have a long term detrimental effect on agriculture’s ability to deliver outcomes, particularly for cropping and grazing land management.
In addition to the cuts to the agricultural programs, the Government also cut $162 million from programs that assist the agricultural processing sector reduce its emissions. This is also likely to have flow on impacts to farm level costs.
Coinciding with the move to the floating ETS is the inclusion of heavy-vehicle fuel, which was previously exempt for two year period. This is likely to see an increased cost burden to farmers for both products used in production and products being sent from the farm, as a result of the cost of the tax being passed down the line to agricultural businesses.
In terms of the potential cost from a floating carbon price on Australia’s agricultural sector, the impact to agriculture from 1 July 2014 will very much depend on the price of carbon credits in the EU rather than in Australia. While the carbon price remains low, the cost to agriculture will remain low, but as it rises (as it is expected to do so), agricultural costs will increase.
Thus, the NFF remains concerned about the impact the indirect costs of the carbon tax will have on the competitiveness of our sector, and from 1 July 2014, much of the impact will be driven by what happens in the EU rather than in Australia.
Carbon Farming Initiative
The Carbon Farming Initiative (CFI), passed by the Australian Parliament as legislation in August 2011, enables farmers to be rewarded for carbon mitigation practices undertaken on-farm.
The NFF remains broadly supportive of the concept and intent of the CFI, as it recognises the positive role agriculture can play in mitigating against carbon emissions through on-farm management.
The NFF believes that voluntary, market-based mechanisms, using a carrot rather than a stick approach to carbon abatement, is the best way to engage with farmers in the carbon challenge. The CFI fits this description.
We also believe that the CFI will not transform farm income, particularly in the short- to medium-term. With the loss of much of the research and extension programs, the development of methodologies underpinning abatement projects will be critical. Nevertheless, the NFF hopes that the CFI can make a meaningful contribution to Australia’s carbon mitigation effort.
The NFF had raised a number of key concerns regarding the draft legislation with Government, particularly surrounding the potential for shifting regional land use away from agriculture and towards forestation. These concerns were addressed prior to the passing of the legislation, however the NFF continues to closely monitor outcomes under the CFI to ensure that no unintended consequences emerge in regional Australia to the detriment of our farmers.
The priority now for the NFF is on education around the CFI. Farmers need to be aware of the responsibilities that come with the CFI and the NFF believes a detailed education program is vital.
Australian farmers have a proud record of environmental management. They recognise that the preservation of their natural resources is vital for their future livelihoods.
The desire for governments to regulate environmental outcomes must be viewed in this context. The property rights of farmers must be respected in relation to government decisions affecting land and water entitlements. Full and adequate compensation must be provided where property rights are compulsorily acquired by governments or where farmers are required to undertake management practices above and beyond their duty of care.
Unfortunately, the NFF believes there has been a substantial decline in support for the security of private property rights by courts and governments over the last 50 years. Too often we are seeing emergence of the modern problem of governments assuming the property right while leaving the title with the owner. This is unacceptable. The NFF believes that this balance must be urgently corrected, whether it be in relation to rights surrounding carbon credits, water, natural resource management or mining's interaction with farming resources.
Native Title Claims
The NFF continues to advocate for farmers’ interests in relation to native title claims on agricultural land. The NFF remains deeply concerned about the cessation of respondent funding for native title claims.
This funding provided for a Native Title Officer and legal representation in each state and territory to manage native title claims. The funding ceased from 1 January 2013, and representations to the former Attorney-General to overturn this decision had been unsuccessful. However the NFF is pleased that the Coalition announced the reinstatement of this funding, should they win office at the 2013 Election, and thus the NFF is now working with the Abbott Government to ensure this respondent funding is reinstated promptly.
In addition to native title funding, the NFF is also working on amendments to the Native Title Amendment Bill 2012. This Bill proposes three areas of amendments – clarification of good faith negotiations; improvements to Indigenous Land Use Agreements and native title body corporate; and a proposal to disregard historical extinguishment of native title on parklands. The former are largely supported but the latter is of concern to the NFF.
The NFF continues to work with the Government to seek amendments to this Bill.
Mining and Coal Seam Gas
The rapid rise in mining and unconventional gas exploration and production has emerged as a major issue for farmers, who are concerned about the perverse affects such developments may have on agriculture, land and water resources.
The NFF established the Resources Taskforce (formerly the Mining and Coal Seam Gas Taskforce) in 2011 to tackle Federal issues around competing land use changes, the relationship between the agriculture, mining and unconventional gas industries, and to assist member organisations to work collaboratively on state based legislation.
The Taskforce's three main priorities are ensuring mining and unconventional gas developments pose no damage to productive agricultural land, no net negative impact on valuable water resources, and a demonstrated respect for farmers and regional communities.
Environment Protection & Biodiversity Conservation Act
The Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (the EPBC Act) is Australia's national environmental law. It is important for all Australian farmers to be aware of this law, as some agricultural activities may need Federal Government approval - in addition to state or local government approvals.
The EPBC Act protects matters that are of national environmental significance. Those most relevant to farmers are:
New farm activities, such as land clearing, may require approval from the Federal Environment Minister under national environment law.
In 2008, the EPBC Act underwent an independent review undertaken by Dr Allan Hawke (the Hawke Review), and in 2011, the Minister for Environment released the Government's response as part of a broad package of reforms for Australia’s national environment law. Under these reforms, the Government has committed to deliver better environmental protection focusing on whole regions and ecosystems, faster environmental assessments, a national approach to environmental impact assessments that removes duplication and cuts red tape and provide better upfront guidance on legislation requirements.This was to have been implemented by a broader legislative reform of the Act, but this did not occur prior to the 2013 Federal Election.
In addition, through COAG, the Federal Government undertook to reduce red tape through a streamlined regulatory process with the states (via a bilateral agreement) and to streamline all jurisdictions protected matters into one list (a multilateral negotiation). However, these reforms have stalled when environmental groups successfully lobbied the Federal Government. While the intent remains, the process has been mothballed.
In March 2013, an amendment to the EPBC Act was introduced to Parliament. The amendment was to create a water trigger, requiring an assessment of the impact of coal seam gas and large coal mining developments on water resources, prior to their approval. The water trigger amendment was passed in June 2013. The NFF remains concerned about the water trigger because of the precedent set by targeting an industry rather than an environmental matter; the risk of binding agriculture to the water trigger; and the fact that the COAG Intergovernmental Agreement regarding these industries was still being implemented at the time of the legislation passing, and had not failed. The NFF continues to closely monitor this issue.
To help farmers understand the EPBC Act and how it applies to their farm activities, the NFF has an Environment Liaison Officer, Jol Taber, on secondment from the federal Department of Environment.
For more on NFF's position re the EPBC Act, view our recent submissions.
Caring for our Country
Caring for our Country is the Australian Government's environmental management program, providing funding support for farmers and land managers to engage in natural resource management. Important initiatives such as Landcare, the Environmental Stewardship Program, regional NRM bodies and the National Reserve System are funded from the Caring for our Country program.
The NFF has been actively involved in this program: providing advice to the Government as part of the Caring for our Country Review in 2011, and lobbying for the continuation of the Environmental Stewardship Program in the lead up to the 2012 Federal Budget. The NFF has welcomed the Government's decision to continue the program for another five years, with a $2.2 billion commitment to Caring for our Country for 2013-2018.
From 2013, Caring for our Country has been split into two streams: Sustainable Agriculture and Sustainable Environment. The design of the Sustainable Agriculture stream has been finalised, and funding is now available. The NFF was a part of the consultative process for the design of the stream. More information on grants and application procedures is available via the Caring for Our Country website.
The NFF is currently working with the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry to develop a series of sustainable agriculture indicators, with funding through Caring for Our Country.
The national Landcare program began in 1989 with a joint agreement between the National Farmers' Federation and the Australian Conservation Foundation. Then Prime Minister Bob Hawke announced government support for the national program, declaring the 1990s as the Decade of Landcare and pledging an unprecedented level of national funding for landcare and nature conservation.
Today, Landcare consists of approximately 6,000 Landcare and Coastcare groups across the country, with some 100,000 volunteers dedicated to planting trees and shrubs, fencing off streams and gullies to protect regrowth and restoring wetlands.
Farmers are active participants in Landcare, making significant contributions to combating soil salinity and erosion through sound land management practices and sustainable productivity. According to a recent survey by the National Landcare Facilitator, some 93 percent of farmers practice Landcare on their farms.
NFF National Congress 2014