Long-awaited rangeland reforms are a step closer to being finalised after passing through WA’s Legislative Assembly, but pastoralists say the new legislation is riddled with “shortcomings” and “deficiencies”. Dubbed the Land and Public Works Legislation Amendment Bill, the new legislation rewrites outdated laws governing 87 million hectares of crown land under pastoral lease by “modernising” sections of the Land Administration Act 1997 and Public Works Act 1902. The Bill, which passed through the Lower House on February 23, aims to encourage development and diversification so pastoralists can tap into complementary income sources including renewable energy. This is to be achieved with a new form of tenure called a “diversification lease” that does not restrict land use to a particular activity the way a pastoral lease does. But the Pastoralists and Graziers Association of WA has raised concerns about the practicality of the diversification lease, with pastoral committee chair Ashley Dowden noting most renewable energy projects were “very costly” and required external investment. “There’s really no opportunity for a small- to medium-sized pastoral enterprise to benefit from the diversification lease,” Mr Dowden told Countryman. “It gives pastoralists options but my concern is that the process is going to be so extended and rigorous that the average family-owned pastoral enterprise is probably never going to have the opportunity to uptake that diversification lease.” Pastoralists would have the opportunity to divest all, or a certain amount of, their landholding for uses including carbon farming, renewable energy, conservation, horticulture and tourism. But there were concerns, Mr Dowden said, that if a diversification lessee failed to comply with a provision of the Act, or of their lease, that the lease was liable to forfeiture and the land would revert to unallocated crown land, resulting in valuable grazing land removed from the pastoral estate. Mr Dowden, who runs Challa Station with his wife Debbie, said pastoralists had been seeking significant reform for about 15 years and while the Bill was “not what we wanted”, it was “better than nothing”. Though the Bill did “significantly modernise” the Land Administration Act, he said there remained “several deficiencies which will continue to hinder the growth and development of the pastoral estate”. “One longstanding issue for pastoralists has been the inability for those pastoralists who are compliant with their lease obligations to exercise, as is the case with any commercial lease, a right of renewal,” he said. “The PGA and our members remain disappointed that this statutory right of renewal has not been included in the Bill, despite prior assurances from the McGowan Government that this would be included in any reforms.” A proposed reform that would allow the term of a pastoral lease to be increased to 50 years from the current maximum of 48 was much of a muchness, Mr Dowden said. “Forty eight years to me is no different than 50,” he said. “But if you’ve got a 12 or 25 year lease, going out to 50 would offer a lot more security and allow people to borrow (more) money. “There’s a whole raft of reasons why it would be good to have the extended lease, but predominantly it’s around the carbon projects, because you must have a minimum of 25 years on your lease before you can engage in a carbon project, and a lot of properties are not able to run carbon projects because of that reason. “There’s a lot of unknowns, and the ability to extend a pastoral lease to 50 years has to still go through the Native Title process, and you may get to the point where you may not reach agreement with your local Indigenous group.” Mr Dowden was also critical of the methodology behind a new rental evaluation policy included in the Bill, which the Government claims will make the calculation of rent for pastoral leases “more transparent and predictable”. He said it was concerning there was no cap on maximum rental increases, and that consumer price index increases would be based solely on the Perth All Groups Index, rather than a regional CPI Index. “Having regional rents increase by a metro-based CPI Index creates an artificial inflation which does not accurately reflect true inflation in the regions, especially throughout the pastoral estate,” Mr Dowden said. He said he hoped the Bill’s “shortcomings” would be addressed when it was introduced in the Upper House, and that the PGA would be consulted in the subsequent drafting of regulations. Meanwhile, WAFarmers chief executive Trevor Whittington dismissed the new legislation as “another missed opportunity”. “These properties should have been converted to freehold before Native Title came along 30 years ago,” he said. “They should have been rolled over to 999-year leases at the last round of lease extensions in 2015, and now they should be allowing automatic renewal for compliant lease holders, plus allowing lease payments to be offset through funding environmental projects which would encourage pastoralists to remove feral animals or fence off high value flora. “I suspect the only reason the government has made the current round of changes is they are captured by the carbon industry and believe Twiggy’s (Andrew Forest) hype of a landscape dotted not with cattle, but with wind turbines. “It certainly was not done to support irrigated agriculture, as that might mean clearing land and building dams.” WA Lands Minister John Carey has spruiked the reforms as a way of facilitating increased investment in pastoralism, and providing greater economic opportunities for Aboriginal people. “The diversification lease will unlock underutilised crown land for a range of different uses to strengthen our economy. . . while supporting the State’s objective to reach net zero by 2050, as the world transitions away from fossil fuels,” Mr Carey said. “This Bill will facilitate, streamline and cut red tape around land tenure approvals and projects.” Former WA Agriculture Minister Alannah MacTiernan first announced the current reforms in 2018, but the Bill was not introduced to parliament until last November The State Government attributed the delay to the prioritisation of legislation to facilitate its response to COVID-19. The Kimberley Pilbara Cattlemen’s Association was contacted for comment.