Senator NASH (New South Wales) (4.47 p.m.)—I rise to make a few remarks on the Senate Standing Committee on Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport Implementation, operation and administration of the legislation underpinning carbon sink forests report. It is a bit of a mouthful, but it is a very significant report. To start with, I want to echo Senator Milne’s comments that she made at the outset. This committee does, by and large, act as a bipartisan committee. We work very hard on the committee to make sure that we work to achieve the best outcomes that we can collectively for rural and regional communities—but, unfortunately, not on this issue. On many occasions we have spent time trying to see if we could find a common position, but with this one it was completely impossible due to the nature of the report. There were so many areas that we disagreed with—the Greens, the Nats, Senator Heffernan—that it was impossible to come to a collective viewpoint and, hence, we see the dissenting report.
The impact of this legislation is potentially highly significant for rural and regional communities. This legislation is under the cover of regulatory guidelines that you could drive a truck through. They are loose, there is nothing specific at all about them that would give us any comfort in believing that the issues that we have will be addressed—certainly that issue of prime land. Using prime agricultural land for carbon sink forests—we do not have an issue with that. What we have the issue with is having specific legislation that is providing a tax deduction to put those carbon forests on that prime agricultural land. One of the issues surrounding this, and which we are discussing at length these days—not just in this country but around the world—is that of food security. Our government, and governments around the world, need to be extremely careful about the policy decisions that we make that are going to impact on food security, and my good colleague Senator Heffernan is continually referring to the increase in the world’s population and the pressure that is going to be placed on the provision of food to people right around the world. We cannot understate how important this is, that the government gets it right.
As my colleague Senator Joyce said, we are appealing to the government to be sensible and practical and open-minded about reviewing how they have written the guidelines for this piece of legislation. It is not incredibly onerous on them to make the changes we are suggesting. What they will provide is good outcomes for regional communities. The report says:
The committee further notes that carbon sink forests do not appear to be activities that offer high returns over a short period of time. The committee therefore believes that it is unlikely that the availability of a tax deduction for a limited range of expenses would be sufficient incentive to cause the large scale planting of these forests.
It is ‘unlikely’. We cannot give any certainty with the guidelines at the moment that we will not see carbon forests appear on prime agricultural land. So what we are saying is we need to exclude that land. It is quite appropriate that they may be placed on marginal land, but not prime agricultural land that should be used for the purposes of food security and for the provision of food—not only to this nation but right around the world.
I would also like to raise the issue that there is no requirement that a hydrological study, including interception, be taken. This very same committee is doing a lot of work at the moment on water and the Murray-Darling Basin—the impact of the lack of water right throughout the basin and the causes and effects of that lack of water. What we see here is absolutely no requirement for a hydrological report to be done. There is no requirement to study the effects and the impacts of the planting of those forests on the water and on the environment. There is compliance with the NWI that water plans need to be in place by 2011. We had evidence from witnesses that, even if we get to that point, which may well be after plantings have been done, there are virtually no penalties that could be put in place. We are appealing to the government to consider what we are putting forward. We have a very collective view on this. These are very serious matters that need to be addressed, and the government should certainly be considering these with an open mind and doing the right thing by rural and regional communities.