Fishing for a free ride in Macquarie Harbour
In April last year, the High Court of Australia affirmed the right of a West Tasmanian council to levy rates on the seabed within its municipal boundaries.
This precedent means, in a legal sense, land is land, even underwater. It has implications for industrial activity on submerged lands like offshore wind farms, tidal turbines and seabed mining.
West Coast Council had wanted to rate eight marine farming leases – salmon pens – but Tasmania’s Valuer General declined to value them as not ’Crown lands that are liable to be rated in accordance with Part 9 of the Local Government Act 1993’.
“The court has dismissed an appeal against a decision of the Full Court of the Supreme Court of Tasmania, holding that the seabed and waters of Macquarie Harbour were crown lands.
“The West Coast Council had sought to levy rates on eight marine farming leases on parts of the seabed and waters within Macquarie Harbour.
“It asked the valuer-general to value the leases, which was declined as it was considered the areas did not fall into the definition of “lands” in the relevant laws.
“The council began proceedings in the Supreme Court for a declaration that the valuer-general was obliged to value the marine leasings.
“The council lost, and appealed to the Full Court, which allowed the appeal.
“The valuer-general then appealed to the High Court.
Rating salmon pens makes perfect legal and economic sense. Council provides civic services to the on and off-shore economic activity generated by the pens and is obliged to regulate the salmon farmers – who need to make an appropriate contribution for the costs they impose.
After all, salmon farmers enjoy exclusive use of territory and the clean cold waters of the Southern ocean.
Rather than accept the High Court decision and its logic, the Hodgman Liberal government has now passed a bill through the lower house to exempt marine farms from paying council rates. It argues this preserves commercial equity between marine farms within and outside municipal boundaries.
A moot point and a second order argument ignoring the core equity issue: Why should any group enjoy a free ride while increasing the financial burden on other ratepayers?
Rating the market price of land is the ideal tax base. Our financial choices should decide the composition of government revenues – whether under the sea or on top of a mountain.