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The shonky award for the worst research report of the year goes to the Australia Institute

Mick Keogh - Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Each year Choice - the Australian consumer organisation - gives out 'shonky' awards for the worst examples of companies taking advantage of, or deceiving consumers.  Choice explains that 'shonky' is Australian slang meaning "unreliable, unsound, dishonest, poor or of dubious quality; shoddy". If a similar award was created for public policy research, then a recent 'research report' published by the Australia Institute on the cost of native vegetation controls for farmers in NSW would be an odds-on favourite to win. 

Controls over the management of native vegetation on private land in NSW were first introduced in the form of State Environmental Planning Policy (SEPP) 46 on the 10th August 1995 by a callously indifferent Premier Bob Carr, who introduced the measures completely unnannounced, via the publication of a planning policy in the Government Gazette. Despite repeated reviews recognising the harm and inequity suffered by farmers, the Carr Government subsequently reinforced the restrictions via the NSW Native Vegetation Act. 

The current NSW Government was elected on a policy of reforming this piece of legislation, and has instigated a review that is underway at the moment.

Perhaps sensing that this review might finally bring some equity and fairness to a piece of legislation that has imposed an unfair burden on private landholders for many years, the Australia Institute has tried to pre-empt the findings by producing a research 'report' that purports to conclude that for most landholders in NSW this legislation has no impact, and even in the case where it does, the impact is not large. 

Even a quick look at the Australia Institute report leads to the realisation that it is a very shoddy and flimsy piece of work, and there is a very strong argument to the effect that it includes information that very seriously misrepresents some earlier research by ABARES that the Australia Institute relies on to reach its conclusions.

The Australia Institute cites an ABARES study into the impact of native vegetation controls that was published in 2006. Tellingly, the Australia Institute does not provide any direct quotes or cite any statistics includes in the ABARES report, which involved detailed surveys and economic analysis of some 386 broadacre farms. The Australia Institute summary of the conclusions of the ABARES study was as follows;

These ABARES studies from 2006, 2007 and 2012 all conclude that for the majority of landholders there is very little net cost from native vegetation (sic) or regulations around its management and conservation."

Here, in a direct quote from the 2006 report, is what the ABARES study actually concluded:

In the ABARE study region, around 20 per cent of farmers reported that they would like to clear rangelands for crop development. This demand for additional cleared land reflects the ongoing pressure to shift enterprise mix out of wool production as well as the availability of new crop varieties and cropping practices. The opportunity cost of preventing this development in order to conserve native vegetation for environmental services was estimated to be as much as $1.1 billion across the study region in net present value terms.

When reported on a per hectare basis, the estimates reveal that the potential opportunity cost of conserving native vegetation varies widely across the region. In some regions — predominantly in the Central Division — the opportunity costs of conserving native vegetation were as high as $1445 per hectare. In other regions — particularly in the Western Division — the costs were as low as $129 per hectare.

Further, the ABARES study also reported on the conclusions of an inquiry by the Productivity Commission into the same issue in 2004. In relation to the Productivity Commission inquiry, ABARES noted;

The Productivity Commission inquiry into native vegetation and biodiversity (Productivity Commission 2004) concluded that the current regulatory approaches to native vegetation management were having a negative impact on some private landholders by imposing signifi cant costs, preventing property development, preventing land use change to more profitable activities, preventing the introduction of cost saving innovations and restricting the clearing of regrowth vegetation and woodland thickening that results in reduced production.

So while ABARES and the Productivity Commission, both of which conducted very detailed analysis, concluded that there was a very high cost being borne by affected landholders, the Australia Institute somehow concludes from the same ABARES research that the impact of the controls on native vegetation is minimal.

The myriad of other flaws in the Australia Institute 'research report' are too numerous to list, and interestingly for an organisation that purports to support the need for equality in society, it seems entirely dismissive of the fact that the legislation in question imposes a large and unfair cost on a relatively small number of landholders in order to achieve a benefit that is widely recognised as a public good which benefits the entire community.

Interestingly, a report of the findings of the Australia Institute was initially uncritically carried in the Sydney Morning Herald, as if the report contained new information. Perhaps there should be a 'shonky assistant' award for media outlets that don't bother to check the details of 'research reports"!

 
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