THE first free-to-air screening of a film about the murder of an environmental officer by a wheat grower in northern NSW has sparked heated discussion about the attitudes of farming communities to conservation legislation.
SBS showed Cultivating Murder on Friday night, the work of pro-environment film maker Gregory Miller which tells the story of Glen Turner, a compliance officer with the Office of Environment and Heritage, who was fatally shot doing his job by Ian Turbull on an isolated public road near Moree. Turnbull died in jail serving a 35 year sentence.
The screening drew an audience of 197,500, of which 132,900 of where from metropolitan areas.
University of New England environmental policy expert Dr Tanya Howard says the case highlights a growing perception that environmental regulation is unfair, particularly to the farming community, and can be resisted.
She argues that while Turner’s murder was unequivocally a criminal act, the response - both within rural communities and at a political level - was to condemn the environmental regulations that were at the crux of its motivation and link the murder to farmers being unfairly treated.
The concept that it was “always going to happen” speaks to the growing trend of resistance to environmental regulation in rural areas.
That has created a situation where legislation is now being undermined by politics and populism, with science thrown out the window, according to Dr Howard.
The academic believes both the environmental and farming lobby have legitimate grievances with the way environmental policy is now being approached.
For a farmer trying to plan ahead and make decisions about how to manage their property, it’s a impossible situation, she said.
And the civil disobedience and activism is coming from both sides of the spectrum.
Along with the Turnbull case, Dr Howard lists the decision on brumby management in Kosciuszko National Park, in which the NSW Government ignored the advice of its own scientific advisors, as an example of the trend.
Lock the Gate activism against coal-seam gas exploration and alleged water theft in the Murray-Darling Basin were further examples she put forward of rural communities questioning the legitimacy of environmental regulation and taking matters into their own hands.
The lack of commitment on the part of governments to work through evidence and ensure policy is robust and scientifically backed is fuelling that resistance, Dr Howard believes.
“The government flip-flopping between positions says policy is being skewed by interests,” Dr Howard said.
“It says to the broader community this policy is not based on anything we can trust.”
Of course, this type of ‘political footballing’ of an issue is nothing new but where environment management is concerned, the stakes are high and the passions particularly intense.
“This involves things critical to our future - ecological sustainability and people’s livelihoods,” Dr Howard said.
Her suggestion is decision making in this sphere is too heavily influenced by economic arguments.
“For farmers, rich soil and abundant water are essential to successful business. The value of habitat corridors and biodiverse landscapes is harder to quantify,” she said.
“We’re not weighing priorities on the same scales.”
Since the Turnbull case, the NSW Government has replaced the controversial NSW Native Vegetation Act 2003.
It has significantly reduced its role in land-clearing regulation and compliance, handing over more responsibility to landholders to notify the regulator of instances of land clearing under a self-assessment code.
Dr Howard says in tasking farmers with self-regulation in their assessment of public benefit or private gain, the new legislation creates a potential conflict of interest.
“Although farmers might describe themselves as the stewards of the land, they are also business people dealing with the uncertainty of global markets and climate change,” she said.
And for the public servants whose job it is to uphold environmental protection laws, there is a fear that the new regime may further embolden anti-government sentiment, she argues.
“The risks of challenging those landholders who are intent on maximising their private benefit at the expense of the wider environmental and social good have been made clear,” she said.