Agricultural Chemical Regulations

In November 2011 the Legislative Council threatened not to pass the new Agricultural and Veterinary Chemical (Control of Use) Regulations plus the Agricultural and Veterinary Chemical (Control of Use) Amendment Bill (the Bill is required so that many functions previously contained in the codes of practice can be incorporated into the greatly enhanced and expanded regulations).

Guess what? The state government caved in and granted a three-month extension until 1 April 2012. The minister should have defended his own legislation and insisted that the councillors either vote on the legislation or put forward specific amendments. But the councillors got what they wanted without even voting down the legislation.

The TCT follows the public debate on this issue closely and there was hardly a murmur in the media from aggrieved farmers and contractors. This was a classic case of the Legislative councillors huffing and puffing and the minister caving in. The actual Hansard account of the debate amounted to the councillors saying they were not ready to vote on the Bill and claiming that the department had not explained the changes well enough to the farming community.

When the TCT gave briefings to 11 of the 15 Legislative Councillors in late February, the Councillors could not point to more than one specific clause in the new regulations, (in our opinion, a rather minor concern, that can be addressed) which they wanted changed. They repeated claims that the department could have done more to explain the proposed changes. The additional three months extension was to allow the department to better explain the changes and, as far as we can see, this had been done.

By mid-March 2012 it was clear to the minister that the Legislative Councillors had only hardened their position, and some in the farming community were becoming more vocal.

The minister announced via a media release on 11 March 2012 that he had delayed the new regulations indefinitely. The statement said ‘Bryan Green is seeking more time for Legislative Councillors to consider reforms’ and, ‘he also wanted to consider further feedback from industry’.

The minister did not provide any timeframe for seeking passage of the new regulations and amendment bill and we feared that he was going to abandon the results of the previous two broad public consultation processes and go through it all again, or just consult industry.

The minister ignored the balanced approached recommended by his department, which was already a compromise based on the range of views received during the public consultation processes in 2008 and 2011. Department documents show that the public submissions made in 2011 were evenly split, with 50 per cent wanting stronger controls on chemical use and 50 per cent who thought the proposed regulations were too strong.

The current draft regulations were weakened slightly in response to industry lobbying after they were released for public consultation last year and it is vital they are not weakened any further. The proposed new regulations represented a compromise between the farming and environment and community concerns and any further compromise is unacceptable to the TCT.

The minister’s decision and media release went unanswered by the opposition parties. It was particularly disappointing that the Tasmanian Greens failed to stand up for the community and environment at this critical time.

The minister also made some very worrying media statements. For example, Minister Green was quoted in the Advocate on 10 April 2012:

‘The Advocate contacted Mr Green, who said the government remained committed to achieving a balance between industry needs and community concerns in respect to chemical spraying in farming, forestry and municipal weed control.

‘It’s clear that parts of the proposed regulatory reforms didn’t achieve that balance, despite extensive consultation.

‘Further consultation was needed. It will consider both regulatory and non-regulatory settings for achieving best practices.’

The TCT fears that the minister believes the 2011 draft regulations went too far towards protection of the environment and human health and that the government would revise them and return to the largely unregulated code-based approach that is currently in place. The minister may ignore the people who participated in two open public-consultation processes and respond to lobbying from vested.

A government should not ignore the results of public consultation and keep conduct new consultation processes in the hope of obtaining the result it wants. The minister has now announced that he has asked his department to carry out only limited one-on-one stakeholder consultations; this is probably in part due to the TCT’s media statements on the subject.

The minister has established a group of high-level DPIPWE bureaucrats to meet with all groups who made submissions during 2011. The TCT’s position is unchanged, in that the regulations as drafted at the end of 2011 should not be further weakened, although there may be better ways of achieving the same outcomes. As suggested to the Legislative Council back in February, the department can make it easier for contractors and farmers to implement the new regulations if it is willing to work more actively with them, e.g. to help coordinate and resource voluntary neighbour notifications prior to spraying.

And what will the Greens do to contribute? After hearing nothing publicly from them in March and April when the government was sliding dangerously backward on this issue, can we expect the Tasmanian Greens to expend any political capital on this key election issue?

It was only in February 2012 that Nick McKim released the Greens election policy, ‘Taking Chemical Trespass Seriously’, which commences with the fine words from the party leader: ‘Tasmanians deserve their drinking water, rivers and waterways, and their land to be free from chemical contamination.’

Well, Nick, the legislation presented to parliament, while stopping well short of the lofty standards imagined by the Greens during the election, was a significant step forward which deserved some effort from the Greens to help get it over the line. Please do not miss the next opportunity.

Peter McGlon