Australia: Rangelands land tenure reform back on the WA Government agenda

Last Updated: 25 November 2017
Article by Scott Girdler

With a fresh round of consultations underway, pastoral industry participants and other stakeholders have another opportunity to shape the principles which will guide the reform of WA's rangelands land tenure.

The WA Government has again taken up the cause of land tenure reform over the rangelands, which comprise 87% of Western Australia. To gather thoughts and agreement on the reform the Pastoral Lands Board (PLB) is running a series of regional consultation meetings. This follows the previous Government being unable to get draft reform legislation into Parliament despite concerted efforts over eight years. The consultation process is intended to develop pastoral industry consensus on the principles of a reform package to be put together during mid-2018.

Why reform?

There is broad recognition that, in order to be able to address significant historical land degradation issues and maximise the value of pastoral lease holdings and the larger rangelands estate, greater diversity in land uses and more secure land tenure are required.

The need for reform has been highlighted by a recent Auditor General's report Management of Pastoral Lands in Western Australia - Office of the Auditor General which found that:

  • ecological sustainability of pastoral lands is not adequately protected by the State's current system of land monitoring and administration;
  • pastoral lands have been under threat for over 75 years and during that time there has been limited progress to halt the decline in pastoral land condition; and
  • the PLB is unable to fulfil its mandated function to ensure individual leases are managed on an ecologically sustainable basis.

Rangelands reform is complex. Numerous interests across various stakeholder groups, including multiple government and non-government agencies, Indigenous organisations and many individual pastoral lessees, need to be taken into account. Pastoral leases cover about 39% of WA rangelands. The support of Western Australian pastoralists and their representative bodies is critical to any rangelands reform measures.

The specific challenge of ensuring the ecological sustainability of pastoral leases was neatly summarised by the PLB's observation in its response to the Auditor General's report Board and agency responses - Office of the Auditor General that "any industry reliant on the presence of native vegetation, such as pastoralism, has a vested interest in ensuring sustainable use of natural resources; a key challenge in the context of a lease that allows for the grazing of non-native animals in an environment which is not well adapted to them along with wild dogs, goats, horses and camels. Subsequently, pastoral lessees have an incentive to work within a 'triple bottom line' management framework."

For pastoralists, the rangelands reforms are about enabling them to work within that "triple bottom line" management framework.

What will reforms offer?

Effective rangelands reform will enable land use which is most consistent with the sustainable management of the rangelands. Facilitating more sustainable pastoral use will be the main focus. In large part, that will involve allowing additional land uses to reduce grazing pressure.

Carbon farming, with its potential for adding a valuable income stream for land managers while helping to redress land degradation issues, has been slated as an important part of the mix for the sustainable use of the rangelands. At present there is no Government policy framework under which carbon farming on WA Crown land could take place. Developing the principles of such a framework, including the allocation of carbon sequestration rights and appropriate tenure to conduct carbon farming, would be an important practical outcome of a new rangelands reform package.

Other potential land uses which could be pursued alongside pastoral operations include agriculture, tourism and conservation.

What are the reforms likely to look like?

The previous Government's rangelands reform package was centred on the introduction of the rangelands lease as a new form of tenure which will permit multiple and varied land uses, including (potentially) agriculture, tourism, conservation and carbon farming, as well as pastoral use. The rangelands lease would supplement, not replace, existing pastoral leases. In addition, the reform included provision for:

  • statutory right of renewal for compliant pastoral leases;
  • increased terms for pastoral leases (to 50 years);
  • transfer of diversification permits to incoming pastoral lessees; and
  • the dissolution of the PLB and the creation of a new Pastoral and Rangelands Advisory Board.

The proposal for the dissolution of the PLB drew particular criticism from pastoral industry bodies. The current Government has indicated that it is not committed to this measure. However, as the Auditor-General's report underlines, fundamental changes are required so that the PLB can fulfil its statutory obligations to support the sustainable management of pastoral leases.

A new reform package is likely to borrow significantly from the previous reform package but will be shaped by the current consultation process. Various stakeholders have welcomed the new round of consultations, acknowledging that effective reform has to be driven through effective consultation with pastoralists and other interested parties.

What can I do?

Minister for Agriculture and Food Alannah MacTiernan is leading the rangelands reform agenda, together with the Minister for Lands, Rita Saffioti. Ms MacTiernan has called for the pastoral industry and its main representative bodies - the Pastoralists and Graziers Association and the Kimberley Pilbara Cattlemen's Association - to work towards a consensus on the direction of reforms.

The PLB is working towards providing advice to the WA Government on strategic priorities to enhance economic, social and environmental outcomes for the rangelands by early 2018. It is holding a series of workshops with pastoralists throughout the State to this end.

For pastoralists in particular, this is another opportunity to contribute to the shaping of vital reforms for their industry. Pastoralists can attend the PLB workshops, make submissions to the PLB or talk to their representative bodies.

Other stakeholders in the use and management of the WA rangelands will also have an opportunity to help shape the reform principles.

Reform timetable

The Government has indicated that the immediate future of rangelands reform in WA will depend on whether the pastoral industry can demonstrate a clear consensus on rangelands reform principles by April 2018. If that can be achieved then the aim is to present draft legislation to Cabinet by mid-2018.

Hopefully for the WA rangelands and its people, effective reforms can be developed and implemented this time around.

RELATED KNOWLEDGE

Clayton Utz communications are intended to provide commentary and general information. They should not be relied upon as legal advice. Formal legal advice should be sought in particular transactions or on matters of interest arising from this bulletin. Persons listed may not be admitted in all states and territories.

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