Property rights

Queensland’s proposed tree laws are the very worst kind of red tape


Today I have a piece in Queensland Country Life arguing the new proposed vegetation clearing laws in Queensland will halt economic growth, suppress entrepreneurship, and damage our international competitiveness.

The strict changes will also reverse the onus of proof, retrospectively enforce the laws back to 17 March 2016, and remove exemptions for clearing high value agricultural land.

This is the latest in a series of contentious political games between the left and right of politics, with farmers and land owners sitting in between:

Jointly understanding that clearing is necessary for growth, and that farmers have the incentive to protect and cultivate their own land, meant very few clearing controls prior to the 1990s.

However, as the 1990s came so too did the growth and spread of conservation campaigns. Legislation changes in 1999 and 2004 largely phased out broadscale land clearing by the end of 2006.

Thankfully, in 2013 the then Newman government relaxed the clearing laws. But now the Labor government, following through on an election promise, will take us back to the 2006-2013 era when almost no broadscale clearing occurred:

Of course the environment must be protected and conserved. But what happened to the importance of economic growth and development?

Effective agricultural regulation draws a reasonable line between environmental protection and agricultural production.

It is undeniable that efficient agricultural production requires the felling of trees. By entirely preventing such clearing—even for high value productivity land—policy makers have clearly lost sight of the real purpose of regulation.

The proposed bill has been referred to a state parliamentary committee, which is due to report in June this year.


We don’t need laws to tell farmers to like trees

If you ask the strident environmental lobby they will tell you that farmers basically hate trees. They will paint a picture of a stereotypical farmer who wants to bulldoze his land for his own short-term economic gain, with no thought of the longer term environmental costs. This is the reason that we apparently need punitive native vegetation legislation across the country.

A recent study by UWA academics¹ has debunked this myth, concluding that farmers actually like trees. The study examined 7,200 property sales in Victoria since 1992 and found that farmers “on average, pay more for land that includes a proportion of woody native vegetation on it compared with land that is fully cleared”. The authors suggested a number of reasons for this result, including the high amenity value of woody native vegetation and its contribution to agricultural production.

This begs the question – if the private market values native vegetation, why does government have to interfere at all? The above study concluded that “there is scope for improved targeting of investment in the study region by incorporating the private benefits of environmental projects”. In other words, the free market has a role to play in environmental protection and farmers themselves have a commercial incentive to engage in sustainable environmental management practices. Who would have thought?

Rather than stripping away private property rights by imposing punitive native vegetation legislation, perhaps we would achieve better environmental outcomes by actually working cooperatively with our farmers. But – of course – common sense and environmental protection aren’t phrases that are natural partners in Australian public policy.


Proposed flag laws burn property rights

Reported in the Herald Sun today:

Burning or desecrating the Australian flag would become a crime in Victoria under laws proposed by a state MP.

Shooters and Fishers Party MP Daniel Young plans to ­introduce draft laws to state Parliament today in a bid to protect the flag’s image and stop protesters from using it as a tool to incite riots.

Burning the Australian flag is undoubtedly a despicable act. But even a despicable act doesn’t warrant the abrogation of property rights. Andrew Cohen from the Foundation for Economic Freedom:

To forbid flag burning is to forbid you from disposing of your property in ways that offend others. But property rights protect freedom of action for which one need not solicit the permission of others. A right to your flag guarantees a right to burn it, stomp on it, spit on it, or turn it into underwear if you so choose. Your flag is your property. If someone does not like what you do with your property, he should not lock you up; he should persuade you to change your ways or he should have nothing to do with you. Consider the absurdity of having rights to use your property only in ways others find acceptable.


Historic home demolition could be FIRB’s fault

The leafy suburbs of Australia’s major cities are full of laments about historic homes being knocked down and replaced by McMansions or units.

One of the chief recipients of blame for this phenomenon is overseas buyers, particularly the Chinese. However, an article about a historic federation home slated for demolition in the Melbourne suburb of Kew has highlighted the fact that one of the causes of demolitions is actually a measure designed to restrict foreign ownership.

Current foreign investment rules only allow foreign investors to buy residential property if they intend to construct a new dwelling on the land. They cannot buy property just to live in, or rent out, the existing dwelling. This distinction is designed to increase the housing stock and stimulate the building industry but, as with so many government regulations, this one is having unintended consequences.

Kew locals have perceptively pointed out that the restriction is one reason for the spate of demolitions of historic homes in their neighbourhood. The particular house in this case was recently renovated and has a tennis court and swimming pool, so would seemingly be very liveable for the new overseas owners, who bought it for $9.4 million.

However retaining the historic home is not an option for the owners when FIRB rules state that “the existing dwelling must be demolished and continuous substantial construction of the new dwellings must commence within 24 months”. Further, if the owners fail to comply, FIRB will take a dim view of any application for residency they might subsequently make.

Who knows whether these owners might demolish anyway, but next time you see a beautiful historic home being demolished, please consider the real culprit might be the federal government, not the overseas owners.


Wrong perspective on native vegetation

Here’s this issue with native vegetation, with environmentalists and the like concerned by how many trees are cut down to build roads:

However, there is encouraging evidence VicRoads is willing to find ways to reduce the environmental damage of its projects, if road users are also willing to accept a cut to the speed limit.

In recent weeks it changed its proposal for a road widening project in Rushworth in northern Victoria that would have killed 100 trees, after the authority met with community anger.

A third of those trees will be retained in the new design, which reduces the road’s speed limit from 100km/h to 80km/h. The lower limit means a narrower road reserve can be created.

That’s right: the speed limit was slashed to spare approximately 33 trees.

Of course, there is a serious native vegetation issue: that landowners are not compensated for the loss of rights over what they do with their own land arising from native vegetation laws.


The battle for Ningaloo Station


Ningaloo Station is a large pastoral lease about 130 kilometres south of Exmouth, WA.

The station has been managed by the Lefroy family since the 1930s. The Lefroys currently run the station as a camp site, dedicated to conserving this pristine slice of Australian natural beauty.

The Lefroys have been in a long-running battle with the Western Australian government over the future of Ningaloo Station. The current lease has been renewed from 1 July 2015, however a condition of renewal was that the lands minister could remove parts of the land to be managed by government, as provided for under the Land Administration Act 1997.

In 2002, the then-Labor government attempted to do just that. The 22 hectares of land represented not just 48% of the entire pastoral lease but also the lion’s share of the critical infrastructure, including watering points, laneways, holding paddocks, sheep yards, an air strip, workshops, and the heritage-listed Ningaloo homestead.

After initially agreeing not to excise land from pastoral leases in the lead up to the 2005 state election, the Coalition government is now attempting to do just that. Lands Minister Terry Redman has indicated that he wants to incorporate a series of local pastoral leases into the neighbouring Ningaloo Marine Park.

The land should remain in the hands of the Lefroy family. From both an economic and a conservationist standpoint this is the most sensible course of action, a point well made by Pastoralists and Graziers Association of Western Australia president Tony Seabrook:

“People up there who know that country and know it well.

“They are far better off to manage it than a government department working a five-day week with little understanding of how the rangeland works.”

Bureaucratic management of the station will not improve the environmental outcomes in this beautiful part of the world. Private operators are incentivised to manage resources well.

The Lefroy family has also spent considerable sums of money over many years improving and developing the land. They have the right to enjoy the fruits of their labour.

The Lefroys should be left to manage their own small piece of paradise.


One-size-fits-all legislative approach not the solution


Strata law isn’t the sexiest issue, but it has significant consequences for an increasingly large proportion of the urban population in Australia.

Last month, the NSW parliament passed a raft of amendments to the strata regime that operates in the state. Perhaps the most significant change contained in the bill was a provision allowing for the demolition of an apartment block where 75 per cent of owners agree.

Concerns were raised about the impact of the proposed laws back in July this year:

One of the most controversial proposals will be the ability of strata owners to terminate the scheme – and sell or redevelop the building – and if 75 per cent of the strata owners agree, based on one vote per unit, not on different unit entitlements.

At the moment 100 per cent agreement is required and many apartment owners, particularly older residents, will be discomforted by the thought that the building could be sold from under them – even with safeguards on the fairness and transparency of the process.

It’s clear that certain apartment blocks are in desperate need of urban renewal. However, the issue of imposing development on apartment owners via strata law is one that raises questions about property rights.

What is the appropriate threshold point at which the majority can override the wishes of the minority?

This is obviously a question that needs to be resolved in a strata agreement, but is it a question that needs to be resolved by government?

To my mind, this is something that ought to be left to contracting parties. There’s no need for a one size fits all legislative approach – allow for different strata to determine their own thresholds. Choosing to buy into an apartment building is a decision based on a range of factors, and the rules of the strata agreement should be one of those factors. Those with a preference for development are likely to want to buy into a building that stipulates a lower majority than those who wish to buy and hold over the long term.

The current 100 per cent threshold is not for everyone. But neither is the new 75 per cent figure. The NSW government should give more room to strata flexibility.


IPA welcomes government scrapping bank deposit tax


The Abbott government’s announcement to scrap plans for a tax on bank deposits of up to $250,000 is welcomed by free market think tank the Institute of Public Affairs.

“It is pleasing that the Abbott government has come to its senses on the bank deposit tax, providing welcome relief for Australian savers in an uncertain financial environment,” says Dr Mikayla Novak, Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Public Affairs.

“The 0.05 per cent tax on bank deposits, estimated to raise $1.5 billion over the budget forward estimates, was unwarranted given the relative strength of the Australian financial sector.”

“In the current climate of ultra-low interest rates the imposition of the tax would have hurt ordinary Mum-and-Dad bank deposit holders, and would have taken us back to the pre-GST era of inefficient financial transaction taxes,” says Dr Novak.

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Heritage protection for commission housing?


The Sirius apartment complex has been called a ‘brutalist eyesore’, but the Heritage Council is seeking to have it listed by the State Heritage Register


That’s it – Australia is now officially heritage crazy.

In Sydney, the Heritage Council is eyeing off an old and precious building: a 1978 public housing monstrosity. A heritage system designed to protect the magnificent buildings of yesteryear now includes 1970s commission housing blocks.

Only last week, a similar story appeared in the UK Evening Standard. A 1998 British library – denounced as ‘one of the ugliest buildings in the world’ when built – is now protected under Grade I listed status.

Any logical consistency of heritage listings seems to have been thrown out the window. Although the line between ‘to heritage list’ or ‘not to heritage list’ remains blurry, we are certainly travelling in the wrong direction. It seems almost any claim for protection will be awarded.

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