An attempt by a Lismore councillor to exempt farmland from a new biodiversity strategy has failed after a heated debate at last night’s council meeting.
Lismore recently finished a consultation process on the strategy, which aims to retain and restore the biodiversity of the region and to provide incentives to (and, where necessary, regulation) for its implementation.
But Cr Greg Bennett last night moved that commercial, regional and state-significant farmland ‘be protected from any impediment arising from the strategy’.
He added that Council should not use the biodiversity paper as ‘a means to apply any further regulations or restrictions on any land that is used for commercial agriculture or any land that has been identified as state or regionally significant’.
Cr Bennett told Council that ‘it can be argued that [rural land] is already over-regulated’.
He said rural landholders already have ‘bad blood’ with Council over the LEP and have lost trust.
‘This council happily ignored the pleas of landholders in the LEP and forced a koala plan of management on them that they clearly did not want,’ Cr Bennett said.
‘Again and again this council chooses to ignore my pleas,’ he told Council.
‘You say you support farmers but your actions do not demonstrate this,’ he said.
Cr Bennett compared the debate of landowner rights to the plight of landholders refusing coal seam gas (CSG).
‘We have the chairman of Lock the Gate here [Cr Simon Clough] who, I would hope, believes in the landowners’ right to choose,’ said Cr Bennett.
Cr Clough responded firstly by pointing out Council’s positive history with rural landholders.
‘Recently we agreed to dual occupancy of land, which came from the Imagine Lismore consultation,’ said Cr Clough.
‘In addition we sought permission from the Department of Planning and Infrastructure to make boundary adjustments on an LEP that was very restricted in regards to that.’
Cr Clough said it would be ‘a betrayal of trust’ to vote for Cr Bennett’s motion.
‘The community trusts that we will hear from them before a councillor knocks off that consultation before it actually happens,’ Cr Clough said.
‘Firstly a whole process has gone on with this biodiversity strategy and it is a public process; it has been put on public exhibition, which concluded on November 1,’ Cr Clough said.
‘We now have a councillor who is demanding that before the community has even had a chance to speak that this document be changed for, let’s be honest, a very vocal and quite small group of people in the rural community.
‘It [has been] on public exhibition so we can find out what the full spectrum of views is. Let’s look at the finer detail here. We are not saying we will regulate; we will look at other means and if that fails then we will look to regulation.’
Cr Clough closed by saying that ‘rural landholders and farmers are not some species that are above the law. People in urban environments have a lot of regulations which they abide by.’
Cr Bennett agreed with Cr Clough that the rural landholders should not be above the law.
Cr Bennett asked, ‘so does that mean then that rural landholders should accept CSG by your reckoning as CSG is the law?’
Cr Clough responded that ‘every individual has the right to exercise their right to civil disobedience with non-violent direct action, whether that refers to a biodiversity plan or CSG.’
Cr Matthew Schiebl told Council that they should restrict the biodiversity strategy to publicly owned land and not include private freehold land in rural zones.
‘It is unnecessary and a duplication of process,’ he said. ‘Council is in no financial position to be offering any financial incentives in this area.’
Staff told the meeting that adopting the motion ‘would pre-empt community consultation outcomes’.
‘It is not up to the wider community to have a say in what happens on private freehold rural land,’ Cr Schiebl said.
Cr Ray Houston made a philosophical contribution to the debate.
‘We are talking here about ownership of land, the very fabric of what disseminated and almost extinguished our sovereign race, the Aboriginal people.’
‘We didn’t inherit the land by birth, from the spirit of the land; we stole it from Indigenous people,’ Cr Houston said.
‘The land isn’t yours, it isn’t mine, it’s ours,’ Cr Houston said.
Cr Bennett told Cr Houston that he ‘bought his land, I paid money for it, I did not steal it from anybody’.
Cr Bennett took aim at Cr Vanessa Ekins.
‘We have a Greens councillor who at last month’s council meeting said, “keep the farmland farmland and don’t impede it”,’ Cr Bennett said.
Cr Ekins reminded Cr Bennett of the context of her comments.
‘What I did say is that I did not support putting more housing on farmland or subdividing state-significant farmland, which Cr Bennett has actually supported!’
Cr Ekins referred to the Rosebank area that illustrates the ‘hand-in-hand’ outcomes of conservation and farming activities working together.
Cr Ekins acknowledged the crucial role of agriculture but told of its impacts on biodiversity.
‘Agriculture is the largest driver of genetic erosion, species loss and conversion of natural habitat,’ Cr Ekins said.
Cr Ekins believes that the biodiversity strategy is trying to prevent this degradation via a discussion.
Cr Isaac Smith said the debate is a ‘future discussion that if regulation were needed it would come back to Council anyway’.
Council staff confirmed this.
Cr Neil Marks supported the motion, saying that the LEP process ‘failed to listen to the farming community’.
‘The E zones are now waiting for some decision because even the state government feels via the LEP that we didn’t get it right; maybe too many burdens have been put back on the farmers in the process,’ Cr Marks said.
‘In our wisdom while we are sitting here waiting for a greater power than us to decide, we are now going ahead with the biodiversity strategy, which seems to put farmers on the back foot again,’ said Cr Marks.
‘The small, vocal group Cr Clough refers to happens to put food on our tables,’ said Cr Marks.
Cr Marks said that ‘if you talk to state politicians you will find that the Native Vegetation Act is under review now as well’.
Cr Gianpiero Battista questioned the impact of the strategy if land already recognised as state or regionally significant farmland can’t be legislated through a biodiversity plan.
Council staff said that ‘biodiversity and food and fibre production can co-exist’.
Cr Battista also questioned why a further strategy is needed when land is already governed by other legislation such as the Native Vegetation Act.
Council staff explained that under that act ‘landholders can undertake removal of habitat within guidelines. We are not proposing with this strategy anything above or beyond that. Staff will wait until we receive feedback from the public exhibition period to decide what the regulatory nature of the plan is, and if that is an option.’
The motion was defeated, with councillors Dowell, Ekins, Smith, Clough, Ritchie and Houston voting against (Meineke absent).
Andrew Gordon is president of the Rural Ratepayers Association and addressed LCC on behalf of some of the rural stakeholders during public access.
‘The current discussion paper on public exhibition does not actively reflect or address the views and or the spirit of the input from the rural industry body representatives, the landholder representatives and indeed some environmental group representatives,’ Mr Gordon said.
Mr Gordon said there were currently many burdens and layers of environmental control placed on farmers and rural landholders.
‘This is just adding another layer that is unwarranted… there is little or no regard for the significant positive work and cost that most farmers currently undertake to support and protect biodiversity that exists and has flourished under current farming processes,’ Mr Gordon said.
‘Secure land titles and property rights are fundamental to the ongoing investment in the agricultural sector and therefore by definition the environment, and subsequently biodiversity,’ Mr Gordon said.
Mr Gordon continued that ‘improved biodiversity equates to improved productivity’.
Cr Clough asked Mr Gordon to expand on that comment.
‘The current biodiversity we have now is through current farming best practice,’ Mr Gordon said.
Council staff is in early stages of the consultation process and will begin analysing submissions shortly. The issue will return to Council via a workshop.