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Do you remember when you bought the farm? You dreamed that at the end of the day you could retreat to the back verandah, settle into that old chair you refused to throw out, put your feet up on the rail and watch the sun set over the back paddock. The sheep are in the meadow, the cows are in the corn. This is what it was all supposed to be about.

What is the reality? You get home from the day’s toil, have a shower, play with the kids, grab your dinner and then retreat to the study to attack the mountain of paperwork on the desk. Two hours later you are still there.

Because filling in forms, justifying your existence to agencies at all three tiers of government, is the reality of farming today. Not many can afford to pay someone else to do it, so you have to do it yourself.

Everybody complains about red tape – and now we have an increasing avalanche of green tape to deal with too. (Green tape refers to rules and regulations around environmental issues – there’s so much of it now, we have had to develop a new term to describe it!)

Recently, in a rare display of co-operation, the Business Council of Australia, the Australian Industry Group and the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry warned that green tape is jeopardising $900 billion in resources and infrastructure projects. They have demanded that state and federal governments slash unwieldy environmental assessments and approvals processes. In making this call, they gave an example of one major mainland resources project that took more than two years to get environmental approvals, involved more than 4000 meetings and presentations with interest groups, and prompted a 12,000-page report. The project was approved with more than 1200 state conditions and 300 federal conditions, with a further 8000 sub-conditions.

So it is not just farmers who are complaining about the increasing administrative burden placed on them by government rules and regulations.

There’s a lot of talk about addressing red tape at the moment. The state government has recently established a “Compliance Burden Review” Project within the Small Business Unit of the Department of Economic Development. (Why it is assumed that this is only an issue for small business is a matter for another discussion.) The role of this project is to review the administrative burden for business in complying with existing regulations across state and local governments on a sector basis. They have advised they’ll be surveying businesses soon about red tape and compliance costs – and I am sure they’ll get some very frank and forthright responses!

The Australian government has a similar project underway; and the federal coalition is also looking into reducing the compliance burden on businesses. Funny how all of these activities seem to generate more work for already strapped business owners (including farmers) as they are expected to respond to yet another survey!

To try and circumvent this merry-go-round, and gather up information centrally, we decided recently to ask our members on the amount of red tape they have to comply with. The responses have left me in no doubt that they’re not happy.

Nearly 90 per cent of them rate the impact of compliance with government-imposed regulation on their business between moderate to extremely high. Eighty-three per cent say the workload has increased substantially over the past five years. There was a strong view that many of the regulations that farmers deal with are unnecessary or do not achieve the outcome for which they are imposed, with 77% agreeing and not one saying this was not the case.  More than one in five believes there is unnecessary duplication of reporting/compliance requirements between different tiers of government or between government departments.

We asked farmers to nominate the top four areas of regulation that made their lives unnecessarily complicated. The list was such a long one that I couldn’t isolate just four.

The main things commented on included: GST and BAS; farm dam regulations; Forest Practice Authority plans; water management plans; workplace rules and regulations; OH&S paperwork; local council planning and regulations; firearms legislation; game management and crop protection permits; access to 1080; council planning; and environmental requirements including native vegetation.

The list goes on.

What can be done to lessen this burden?

Top of the list is better industry consultation before regulation is formulated. Farmers often – and rightly – feel that the immediate response of governments is to use a sledgehammer to crack a nut. If there was a discussion beforehand with TFGA about what the objective of proposed new regulations, we could perhaps find a way to achieve the desired outcome with a minimum of fuss.

Often it is not the regulations themselves that cause grief; rather it is the fact that the compliance burden is hugely complicated and costly; or that with a little bit of thought, processes could have been combined or streamlined.  One farmer said that there must be a special school regulators go to to learn how to develop the most difficult and convoluted way to create more paperwork!

Farmers are also keen to see consistency of regulations across the state; and if that means some rationalisation of local planning authorities, so be it.

Nobody argues that farmers have a basic duty of care to ensure their activities don’t unnecessarily impact on others or on the environment. But things are getting right out of hand when expectations are so high that farmers spend inordinate amounts o unpaid time being data collectors for government; and when they can’t make a living off the land they own, maintain and pay rates on because of more and more regulatory requirements.

We used to hear a lot about the triple bottom line – balancing economic, social and environmental concerns. Most Tasmanian farmers do that on a daily basis; but it is not something we see or hear about very often these days from government. It is about time that some balance is brought back into the impact government has on farmers’ day to day lives. It’s well past time governments stopped talking about doing something about red tape – and actually do something – other than surveys.