QFF president Stuart Armitage

Agriculture’s relationship with the Great Barrier Reef (GBR) continues to attract government interest and media headlines. The topic has never been so pertinent with election promises and governments eager to be seen funding initiatives that will ‘fix the reef’.

Over the past few years, federal and state governments have commissioned a number of reports into the health of the Reef and what needs to be done to address the problems. Significantly for agriculture, the GBR Water Science Taskforce report released in May this year provided advice to the Queensland government on how to achieve the ambitious water quality targets for the Reef.

​Delivering the level of pollutant reduction outlined in the Taskforce’s report will be an ambitious, challenging and expensive task. Resourcing long-term reef management will require bipartisan economic commitment by all levels of government, reef-associated industries and coastal communities.

The Queensland Farmers’ Federation (QFF) and its members acknowledge and accept the significant role agriculture will play in meeting these targets. Through industry-specific Best Management Practice (BMP) programs farmers have been mitigating losses of soil, fertiliser and pesticides from their farms to improve the quality of water entering the GBR.

Last week the state government released a new report that estimated the costs of achieving the water quality targets for the GBR by 2025 at $8.2 billion. Of concern to agriculture, the $8.2 billion true price tag is a quantum leap from the level of government investment currently provided. Our industries will not be able to achieve the ambitious targets that have been set under the current funding framework, and governments must address this shortfall.

Another concern for agriculture is that one of the 10 recommendations in the Taskforce report is regulation. For the government, regulation may be seen as a relatively easy option, but it is a blunt instrument that supports minimum standards of compliance at the expense of true practice change and a culture of innovation and excellence.

Regulation should be seen as a last resort. It is widely accepted that the best way to achieve real practice change is through leading by example, incentivising people and giving them a sense of ownership towards the change. QFF and members consider that industry owned and led BMP programs are the ideal vehicles to achieve this.

Governments must accept that they are not doing enough to realise the public expectations that have been set around Reef recovery. A financial commitment on the scale of the Murray Darling package will be required as a first step to meet the water quality targets agreed to by the Australian and Queensland governments.

The time for political posturing about the Reef must end. Governments must now engage in open and constructive discussions with key stakeholders about how they will fund delivery and implementation of the Taskforce’s recommendations. A good starting point for these discussions is the Reef Alliance; a partnership between agriculture industries, Natural Resource Management (NRM) groups and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF).

If the full $8.2 billion investment cannot be financed, governments need to start communicating the compromised water quality targets and detailing the funding and plans to achieve them.

Agriculture has a committed seat at the table to strengthen existing initiatives and implement new plans to protect the Reef. However, we will not sit by idly and allow our industries to become scapegoats if the targets are not achieved.

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