Scathing audit highlights issues with ACT government’s handling of rural land agreements

By Shannon Jenkins

February 9, 2021

ACT Legislative Assembly Letter to the Prime Minister
The most recent ACT State of the Service report is out.  (Image: ACT Legislative Assembly)

The value of the ACT government’s Land Management Agreements with rural leaseholders is “questionable”, according to a scathing report from territory auditor-general Michael Harris.

The deals aim to promote a cooperative land management regime between rural leaseholders and government agencies, while also facilitating agreement on the sustainable management of rural lands.

In a recent report, Harris noted that many of the agreements are out of date, and “lack a depth of information and assessment”.

Under the 2020 Land Management Agreement Form, agreements are required to be reviewed and replaced every five years, although this is not a legislative requirement.

There are roughly 180 Land Management Agreements in existence. The audit examined 63 of these, and found 31 of them had not been reviewed and replaced in the past five years. Of those 31, 24 were more than 10 years old, 10 were up to 17 years old, and two were up to 19 years old.

The age of the agreements shows the Environment, Planning and Sustainable Development Directorate (EPSDD) has failed to manage the development of agreements in a way that ensures they remain current and relevant, Harris found.

“This impairs the ability of the agreements to be used to establish appropriate sustainable agricultural management practices and good farm biosecurity for the subject land while maintaining ecological and cultural values present on the land, and protecting the environment from harm across the territory,” he wrote.

“The value of Land Management Agreements is questionable.”

Harris said rural leaseholders who were consulted during the audit had also questioned the value and utility of the agreements.

The audit found that the EPSDD — through the Rural Services and Natural Resource Protection Team or the Conservator of Flora and Fauna — doesn’t maintain an overarching risk management framework to help mitigate risks associated with rural leasehold land, or to guide the management and administration of Land Management Agreements.

Harris noted that monitoring and compliance guidelines for Land Management Agreements were first put in place in 2009, and have not been reviewed or updated since, despite providing “little practical administrative or procedural guidance on how to undertake monitoring and compliance activity”.

ACT government agencies, such as the Rural Services and Natural Resource Protection Team and Access Canberra, have also failed to properly monitor and enforce compliance with the agreements, the audit found.

“There is no regular and systematic program of compliance activity to monitor rural leaseholders’ compliance with their agreement obligations and there is no evidence of any enforcement activity being undertaken by any ACT government agency in relation to rural leaseholders and their agreements,” it said.

Rural leaseholders don’t trust the agreements process, viewing the agreements as a necessary “inconvenience” in order to attain their lease, the report noted.

“Their attitude seems to be that the agreement should contain as little detail as possible, which minimises their obligations over the 5 year review period,” it said.

“The LMA process has received scant regard from lessees in the past due to their awareness that Parks, Conservation and Lands staff have not been consistently undertaking compliance and enforcement activities.”

Harris has made six recommendations to the EPSDD, including that it identify and document roles and responsibilities for the establishment of the agreements.

The directorate should also set up an ongoing forum to discuss issues related to the development of agreements, the report said.

The implementation of policy and procedural guidance for the development, management, administration, documentation and record-keeping of agreements was also recommended.

Risk-based frameworks should also be created for the development, administration, monitoring and enforcement of agreements.

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