Probe into pastoral leases

Brad ThompsonThe West Australian

A powerful parliamentary committee has launched an inquiry into pastoral leases in WA with a focus on animal welfare and land tenure issues.

The move comes after pastoralists blasted a State Government plan to give Lands Minister Brendon Grylls unprecedented powers to terminate leases on financial, animal welfare and environmental grounds.

The inquiry will also target the Department of Parks and Wildlife's management of former pastoral leases. DPAW controls all or part of 60 former pastoral leases, at a huge cost to WA taxpayers.

Liberal MLC Liz Behjat, who chairs the standing committee on public administration, said pastoralists were concerned about management of the DPAW properties.

"People are saying it has taken back leases and just turned off the water, and that there has been no thought as to the management of those leases," Ms Behjat said. "The land has gone 'back to nature' but feral animals have taken over."

The Pastoralists and Graziers Association has warned that the terms of a draft lease due to replace all existing agreements in 2015 will discourage investment and create uncertainty in the industry.

In a letter to the PGA, the Department of Lands says legal constraints of the Land Administration Act 1997 and the Native Title Act 1993 make it "very difficult" to make substantial changes to the draft lease.

The letter appears to contradict claims by the Department of Lands that any changes to the terms of the existing lease issued in 1965 are "minor" and designed to bring the lease into line with new legislation.

The PGA said responsibilities under the Animal Welfare Act 2002, the Environment Protection Act 1986 and other legislation which did not exist in 1965 could trigger termination under the new lease.

Ms Behjat said the inquiry would consider the impact of a snap ban on a key market, as happened with cattle exports to Indonesia in 2011. Any such ban had the potential to create overstocking and animal welfare issues for pastoralists.

The inquiry will ask the Department of Lands, DPAW, the Department of Agricultural and Food WA and other relevant government agencies to make submissions by next month and could call senior bureaucrats to give evidence.

"There are great concerns with leases coming to end in 2015 . . . about pastoralists being able to have security of tenure because banks won't look at them until they know there is some certainty," Ms Behjat said. Pastoral lease agreements cover about 90 million hectares of WA.

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