Fix needed for regional councils funding

Despite significant challenges, from a protracted drought to rising input costs, burdensome government regulations and most recently, a global pandemic, the state’s 24,000 farm businesses have continued to feed, clothe, and provide amenity to Queenslanders, Australians and many others around the world. However, farmers in the Bundaberg region have received little thanks for their continued hard work, instead receiving increases of up to 235 per cent, or as much as $30,000, in their rates notices this year. They were further dismayed when the Bundaberg Regional Council released its 2019-20 Annual Report which showed an operating surplus of $1.5 million.

The Bundaberg farmers have been very clear that they are not asking other ratepayers to cover rural ratepayers’ share, nor are they suggesting that they are disadvantaged by the increase in rural land valuations. However, they are asking for transparent and equitable rates. The state government could regulate to make rates and charges resolutions more flexible after which the Bundaberg Council could apply a concession to the whole of Category 9 (farmland) under Sections 119-122 of the Local Government Regulation 2012. Moreover, prior to the dissolution of the Queensland parliament a regulatory amendment providing extra powers for additional decisions about levying of rates and charges for 2020-2021 financial year was made. However, while the head of power was introduced, the necessary regulation to implement section 94A has not been made. This must be done as a priority.

QFF acknowledges the financial sustainability of local governments across Queensland continues to be a challenge with increasing community demand for services, population fluctuations and rising costs associated with maintenance and renewal of ageing infrastructure. In February 2020, the Queensland Audit Office reported to parliament that over half of Queensland councils spend more than they earn.

With a new Minister for Local Government this is an ideal time to fix what are complex issues. QFF is calling on the Queensland government to review the rates approaches and safeguards of other Australian jurisdictions with a view to creating a fairer funding model for regional councils as well as a review of the effectiveness of protections for all rate payers. Additionally, we encourage the Local Government Association of Queensland to ensure a level of predictability in the rates levied on parcels of land and businesses, and compulsory compliance with the principles set out in the State Government’s Guideline on Equity and Fairness in Rating for Queensland Local Governments.

Bundaberg farmers say council rates rise too high, adding to crippling operating costs

In a landscape where the cost of farming is increasing, growers say they’re struggling to cope with Bundaberg Regional Council’s hefty rates rise.

Charles Grima, who has farmed sugarcane and sweet potatoes for decades, has had one of the area’s highest increases in rates.

Previously his net half-yearly payment was $1,704 and now it’s $5,771 — a rise of more than 238 per cent.

“Farmers don’t have a guaranteed income; one year we can make a lot of money and the next year we’re lucky to break even,” he said.

“If we’re not allowed to keep some of the money from good years, you’re struggling to survive.”

Area category 9 rates — rural properties — faced hikes of between 1 and 238 per cent following increased land valuations by the State Government.

Council will take an income of almost $10 million solely from this rate category during this financial year, making up more than 12 per cent of their total budget.

This is an increase of more than $2 million from last year.

Out of the 1,796 properties in this category, only 16 will see a decrease in rates.

‘It just kills you’

Mr Grima said that in all the time he’d spent farming, he’d never seen such a severe rate rise.

“It turns everybody from the land — my son is the last generation in farming because of costs,” he said.

“My grandkids will not be farmers after they see what their parents and grandparents go through.

“It just kills you.”

Glenn Pressler, who grows cane and runs cattle on a 30-hectare property in Windermere, said his rates bill had tripled.

“It’s a fairly large increase — it’s gone from $600 to about $1800 for six months,” Mr Pressler said.

“It’s just wrong — you can’t sustain that huge rise.”

Mr Pressler said the rate rise contributed to the cost of farming becoming unsustainable.

“Everything is going up in price, input costs are going up and we’re getting less from our produce and the weather isn’t very good for us — we’re in drought conditions,” he said.

“You just can’t afford to keep going on like that.”

Bundaberg Regional Council has defended its decision for the rate rise.

In a statement to the ABC, a spokesman said the impact of COVID-19 on council’s budget had forecast a $2.8 million reduction in revenue (from the airport, Moncrieff and holiday parks) and a $5.2 million deficit.

He said individual landholders could apply for hardship relief. To do so, he said, they would need to provide evidence of financial difficulty, but farm lobby groups had provided no evidence of general hardship across the entire agricultural category.

Council’s forward plan is to keep rate increases aligned with the CPI.

This tableware made from sugarcane and bamboo breaks down in 60 days

Scientists have designed a set of “green” tableware made from sugarcane and bamboo that doesn’t sacrifice on convenience or functionality and could serve as a potential alternative to plastic cups and other disposable plastic containers. Unlike traditional plastic or biodegradable polymers — which can take as long as 450 years or require high temperatures to degrade — this non-toxic, eco-friendly material only takes 60 days to break down and is clean enough to hold your morning coffee ordinner takeout. This plastic alternative is presented November 12 in the journal Matter.

“To be honest, the first time I came to the US in 2007, I was shocked by the available one-time use plastic containers in the supermarket,” says corresponding author Hongli (Julie) Zhu of Northeastern University. “It makes our life easier, but meanwhile, it becomes waste that cannot decompose in the environment.” She later saw many more plastic bowls, plates, and utensils thrown into the trash bin at seminars and parties and thought, “Can we use a more sustainable material?”

To find an alternative for plastic-based food containers, Zhu and her colleagues turned to bamboos and one of the largest food-industry waste products: bagasse, also known as sugarcane pulp. Winding together long and thin bamboo fibers with short and thick bagasse fibers to form a tight network, the team molded containers from the two materials that were mechanically stable and biodegradable. The new green tableware is not only strong enough to hold liquids as plastic does and cleaner than biodegradables made from recycled materials that might not be fully de-inked, but also starts decomposing after being in the soil for 30-45 days and completely loses its shape after 60 days.

“Making food containers is challenging. It needs more than being biodegradable,” said Zhu. “On one side, we need a material that is safe for food; on the other side, the container needs to have good wet mechanical strength and be very clean because the container will be used to take hot coffee, hot lunch.”

The researchers added alkyl ketene dimer (AKD), a widely used eco-friendly chemical in the food industry, to increase oil and water resistance of the molded tableware, ensuring the sturdiness of the product when wet. With the addition of this ingredient, the new tableware outperformed commercial biodegradable food containers, such as other bagasse-based tableware and egg cartons, in mechanical strength, grease resistance, and non-toxicity.

The tableware the researchers developed also comes with another advantage: a significantly smaller carbon footprint. The new product’s manufacturing process emits 97% less CO2 than commercially available plastic containers and 65% less CO2 than paper products and biodegradable plastic. The next step for the team is to make the manufacturing process more energy efficient and bring the cost down even more, to compete with plastic. Although the cost of cups made out of the new material ($2,333/ton) is two times lower than that of biodegradable plastic ($4,750/ton), traditional plastic cups are still slightly cheaper ($2,177/ton).

“It is difficult to forbid people to use one-time use containers because it’s cheap and convenient,” says Zhu. “But I believe one of the good solutions is to use more sustainable materials, to use biodegradable materials to make these one-time use containers.”

Death on North Queensland sugar cane farm

A company has been fined $150,000 after a worker was crushed to death while trying to repair a haul-out vehicle on a North Queensland sugar cane farm.

The man was working for Warland Brothers, a diesel mechanic repair and sugar cane harvesting business, when the incident happened on October 7, 2017.

The Cairns Magistrates Court was told that three workers, including a company director, were harvesting cane at a Mowbray farm when one of the haul-out vehicles developed a hydraulic line leak.

The director, believing it was simply a hose that needed tightening, instructed the driver to fix the fitting in the assembly area about 500m away.

The man did the repair alone, but some 20 minutes later, a colleague discovered he’d been crushed between the haul-out vehicle and a stationary bulk fuel trailer.

The court was told the company had in a place a system for field repairs, which would normally involve a mechanic being called in. But on this occasion, the process wasn’t followed as it was considered to be an ‘easy fix.’

It was noted that to protect staff, the company should have prohibited workers doing field repairs alone, and developed and instructed workers on the appropriate system for field maintenance.

“In this instance, the duty holder failed to comply with primary safety duty and exposed a worker to a risk of serious injury or death,” the court was told.

“It appears the driver had attempted to fix the problem without turning off the machine and was crushed to death.”

Magistrate Joseph Pinder accepted the company directors had previously told the driver not to work on a machine when it was operating, though noted this instruction hadn’t been given on the day of the incident.

Mr Pinder took into consideration the company’s significant co-operation in the investigation by Workplace Health and Safety Queensland, an early guilty plea and remorse expressed by the directors.

Mr Pinder also noted the company had no prior WHS convictions.

Warland Brothers was fined $150,000 plus court costs of about $1100.

A conviction was not recorded.

QSL sales unaffected

Australia’s largest sugar marketer, Queensland Sugar Limited (QSL), believes any ban by China on Australian sugar exports would be a concerning development for the industry but was unlikely to negatively impact QSL growers’ sugar returns. 
QSL General Manager Marketing Mark Hampson said China was not traditionally a large market for QSL and no shipments were due to be loaded for China.
“At the moment, stronger returns are available in other Asian markets and so that’s where our sales program is focused,” Mr Hampson said.
“As a result, we’re not expecting any impacts on our 2020-Season pool returns should sales into China be restricted, and based on current market dynamics, we remain confident that our measured approach to the Shared Pool valuation stands us in good stead to improve on our present estimate before the end of the season.”

Despite QSL’s current focus on other export destinations, Mr Hampson said it was never good to lose a potential high-value market. 
“QSL, like other agricultural exporters, relies on a number of markets for our goods and so we are doing our utmost to ensure trade flows to China are supported,” he said.
QSL exports approximately 2 million tonnes of Queensland raw sugar each year, with the vast majority of these sales made to refiners in Indonesia, South Korean and Japan.