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Maintaining the commons

Queensland government opens up common resources to private interests

The Queensland government recently pushed through legislation that allows cattle grazing in five national parks and eight reserves. At the same time, they removed protections for remnant vegetation on private land therefore encouraging land clearing in areas deemed to be of high-value to agriculture.

The state government has claimed this policy will help farmers and particularly the starving cattle suffering under drought conditions. On animal welfare grounds, they have the backing of the RSPCA and Animals Australia. There have also been claims that the policy helps to protect biodiversity because the cattle will control weeds and “vermin” in national parks.

No one likes seeing starving cattle and this is naturally an emotive issue. However, the Queensland government’s decision is not being made on the basis of animal welfare or biodiversity as they claim. It is not even about farmers, although they will undoubtedly benefit. It is a decision based on an ideology of opening up the commons to private interests.

Economic analysis reveals why the decision is short sighted and why it will have the opposite effect on animal welfare and biodiversity.

This is a short sighted policy if it really is about animal welfare and biodiversity Wonderlane

In economic terms, the Queensland government is providing a fodder subsidy to farmers. They are not providing food delivered in trucks of course (although the Federal Environment Minister has suggested this as an alternative) but the implication is the same. The food is provided for free by opening up national parks.

A fodder subsidy relieves the suffering of farmers after the event of drought. However, it creates a moral hazard by simultaneously encouraging farmers to overstock their land and discouraging them from taking measures to prepare for droughts before they occur. This is similar to slack bankruptcy laws which encourage financial risk taking.

Drought relief programs in Australia are steadily moving away from such subsidies because of their short-sighted nature. For example, the aim of the Federal government’s latest drought package is “to help farmers prepare for and manage the effects of drought and other challenges, rather than waiting until they are in crisis to offer assistance”.

The animal welfare implications of the short-sighted policy are obvious. Yes, the currently starving animals get short-term relief. However, the risk taking which is being encouraged is likely to lead to more starvation events in the future. This in turn may lead to more parks being opened up to relieve suffering, but the cycle will continue.

Similarly, the claims about biodiversity being enhanced rely on short-sighted thinking. For example, it is claimed that the national parks are not properly managed and are overrun by weeds and vermin which the cattle would help to control. The alternative view suggests that better parks management is required. In fact, cattle actually spread weeds and destroy native-species habitat ultimately compromising biodiversity.

However, a consideration of the longer term identifies that the current policy encourages risk taking. As more and more overstocking and starvation events occur in the future, more parks are opened up, and biodiversity will necessarily decrease. Further to this, the removal of protections for remnant vegetation on private land speeds this process up by removing connectivity between protected ecosystems.

Thus, the policy is not about animal welfare or biodiversity protection. Instead it is based on an ideology of opening up the commons to private interests. The starving cattle are merely a convenient catalyst for policy change.

The ideological foundations are obvious from the statements of policy proponents. For example, the Federal government, who oppose the policy but are powerless to stop it, are being described as captives of the “radical Greens agenda” and having a “blind green ideology”. There are also repeated references to lost property rights and land being “locked-up” during the previous State Labor government’s fifteen years in office.

The current policy, then, is about reversing this trend and reclaiming the commons for private profit purposes. In the eyes of the Queensland government, it seems that the commons were never commons at all but simply loans until private interests required them.

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