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Australia has long recognised its annual road toll as being a matter of national concern. We have had considerable success in reducing it - last year's toll was 40 per cent lower than in 1985, just 14 years earlier. And this achievement comes despite Australia's population growth over that period. I could point to many factors which have contributed to this success - increased public awareness, better car design, improvements to road design and safety, moves toward uniform national road rules and the like.
But some hard decisions were also taken to target the areas which remain the two largest contributors to deaths on our roads - speeding and drink driving. It wasn't enough to provide safer roads and cars - we also needed tough regulations. The results speak for themselves and while efforts continue to reduce the road toll, our roads are safer thanks to the steps we have taken.
But I raise this issue as a comparison to a new national challenge which Australians are having to come to grips with - the challenge of sustainably managing our natural resources.
Australia is one of the great agricultural producers and exporters of the world but in achieving this status we have, often unintentionally, inflicted serious damage on our natural capital. We have, for example, cleared too much of our native vegetation resulting in dryland salinity and other forms of soil degradation. We have taken too much water from our waterways resulting in up to one third of Australian rivers being in extremely poor condition with another 40 per cent or more showing clear signs of degradation. We have not developed sustainably along our coastlines leading to threats to key fish breeding grounds and poor water quality in large numbers of our major estuaries. And, of course, our record on loss of species is not one to be proud of.
The economic costs associated with this are enormous - even the Secretary of our Federal Treasury Department has warned that we need to start factoring the repair bill into our future economic planning. Figures recently presented to the government are as alarming as they are staggering. It was estimated that on a business as usual scenario, natural resource degradation could one day cost Australia up to $29 billion a year in terms of lost production and treatment costs.
Given this startling estimate, it is apparent that the degradation of our natural resource base will pose severe limitations on future opportunities for growth within our agricultural production sector. More than that, it raises the question as to how much longer our natural capital will be able to sustain the current levels of production.
When our Government came to office in 1996 we delivered on an election commitment to sell part of one public asset - our national telecommunications carrier - and commit part of the proceeds to a special fund to promote environmental repair and sustainable agriculture practices. That fund, the Natural Heritage Trust, has now seen $870 million invested in around 9,000 projects across Australia. Around 300,000 people have been involved in these projects, a clear indication that a growing number of Australians are aware of the problems we face and want to be a part of the solution.
The $1.5 billion Natural Heritage Trust is the largest reinvestment in the environment ever undertaken by an Australian government. But the rate of degradation of our natural resource base is running faster than the rate of repair.
It will be important to continue and expand the efforts we are taking to repair the damage we have already done and minimise the risk of future degradation. Programs such as Landcare and Bushcare played a key role in supporting community and landholder involvement in on-ground repair efforts. They have also been important in raising awareness both within rural communities and the broader population of the extent of the problems we face, how they can be solved, and the importance of improved practices. They have also contributed to improvements on the ground in a micro level. We recognise that to achieve improvements on a landscape or macro basis will require much more - in particular solutions to the failures of both governance and markets that have created the problem.
So we decided to again look at the whole issue of natural resource management from the perspective of Commonwealth policy and administration. In parallel we agreed to a COAG process whereby the Commonwealth and the States at head of government level would seek to identify and implement the way forward from a national perspective. But while this fundamental examination of rules and responsibilities takes place we can't afford to lose momentum in the programs we are already delivering.
I understand that many of you will get some first hand experience of the challenges we are facing over the coming days when you visit parts of the Murray Darling Basin. I thought it might be useful to share with you the latest developments in the programs we are implementing in the Basin.
The Murray Darling Basin is, of course, our most important agricultural region, covering just over one million square kilometres. The Basin accounts for 41 per cent of the nation's gross value of agricultural production. Perhaps more importantly, its rivers provide drinking water for more than 3 million people, more than one third of whom live outside of its borders. But the Basin and its rivers are facing serious degradation problems, particularly in relation to salinity. This is largely the result of the cumulative effects of excessive landclearing within the basin combined with growing levels of water extractions. It is estimated, for example, that some 15 billion trees have been removed from the Basin since European settlement just over 200years ago.
At the same time, water diversions have increased so greatly that the Murray River has been reduced to just 21 per cent of its natural flow at its mouth.
In 1997, all States with an interest in the Basin, with the exception of Queensland, agreed to set a limit on water extractions and diversions at 1993/94 levels. The Cap was never intended to be a solution to the problems of the Murray Darling. It was agreed to as a precautionary measure to ensure further damage from excessive diversions wasn't done to the river system while further scientific assessment and research was undertaken.
Last year, we received a further wake up call about the state of the Murray Darling Basin when a salinity audit conducted by the Murray Darling Basin Commission estimated that within 20 years, Adelaide's main source of drinking water would not pass World Health organisation standards on two days out of five.
The audit was confirmation that the Cap, in itself, is not enough to stem the rate of degradation within the basin. In setting the Cap we had not, for example, factored in the full consequences of dryland salinity. The audit provided further evidence that we will need to seriously consider taking still less water from the river system.
Since the release of the audit, the Murray Darling Basin Ministerial Council has been pushing to implement programs that will achieve real gains in dryland salinity, biodiversity conservation, and water quality.
In March of this year the Ministerial Council directed that salinity targets be developed for river valleys in the basin. This would mean action being taken within each river system to control salinity. This week a Salinity Management Strategy will be released which will include these end of valley targets for 21 river valleys - a significant step forward in ensuring the future health of the river system and guaranteeing the supply of safe drinking water for Adelaide.
To hold the line will require each State and each tributary river valley community to take the necessary actions to keep salt export under the agreed targets. All States have accepted the commitment in principle to meeting those targets by 2015. This will require a combination of new salt interception works, new farming systems that don't leak their rainfall to groundwater, substantial revegetation in recharge areas, effective regional implementation and new market-based incentives for change, such as salinity credits and maybe even biodiversity credits.
The Ministerial Council has also sought to go the next logical step on from this salinity Management Strategy by commissioning a Sustainable River Audit.
This would take the salinity target for each river a step further by setting broader river health objectives. These would include targets for other aspects of catchment health such as water quality, water sharing between consumptive uses and the environment, riverine ecosystem health, and territorial biodiversity.
The Council was also concerned that there is still no plan to manage environmental flows of the Murray - there is a plan to manage diversions for agricultural, commercial and domestic usage but not for environmental flows. To maintain environmental health in a much-modified river requires flows that mimic the natural system and the Council called for a report on technical options for environmental flow management of the River Murray by March 2001.
There is no doubt we are making some progress, although the challenge remains daunting. Ministers are seeking to have a full framework for catchment health in place by 2008.
But while progress is being made toward a comprehensive policy framework for management of the Murray Darling Basin, much more could be being done at present to directly influence the behaviour of the users of natural resources within the basin.
Inappropriate landclearing and excessive water diversions from our waterways remain the main causes of the problems within the Murray Darling Basin. They have required States to take difficult decisions.
Yet the performance of State governments on these key issues in which they have constitutional has been at best, patchy, and at worst, completely irresponsible. I believe there are growing numbers in the general community who are questioning whether the Commonwealth should be taking a more interventionist role in natural resource management.
Queensland's performance on the two key issues - the real tests of a commitment to the environmental future of the Murray Darling - has been nothing short of appalling.
Queensland landclearing this year is expected to be about half-a-million hectares, including about 25,000 hectares of endangered vegetation. Around 40 per cent of the State's clearing is in the Murray Darling Basin.
The Queensland Government has refused to accept its constitutional and moral responsibility to control landclearing. It has manufactured a conflict with the Commonwealth over the payment of compensation to landholders that may be affected by laws to control landclearing. One can only suspect it has done so to provide some justification for its unwillingness to take the hard decisions required to reduce landclearing on both freehold and leasehold land.
But it's not enough to just write laws into the statute book - they must be enforced. New South Wales, for example, has had landclearing laws in force for almost two-and-a-half years but in that time has reportedly not mounted a single prosecution on a case of illegal landclearing. This is despite the relevant Act being breached on up to 270 occasions.
Queensland's efforts in relation to the Cap have been not better. When all other States accepted a Cap on diversions at 1993/94 levels Queensland refused saying it first needed to finalise Water Allocation Management Plans for its key rivers. Those plans are now more than three years overdue. The draft plan that they have produced for the important Condamine-Balonne has been widely criticised for failing to prevent the further decline of the river system and the internationally recognised Narran Lakes wetlands. The Independent Audit Group has labelled the draft plan inadequate. None of the scenarios presented in the plan provide adequate water for the environment and none of them are ecologically sustainable..
After more than three years of procrastination the best Queensland can come up is a vague proposal to be ready to set a cap in another 12 months. According to Queensland the reason for this further delay is that the State is yet to finalise its Water Allocation Management Plans. It all has a depressingly familiar ring to it.
The impact of Queensland recalcitrance on this issue is best illustrated by the rapid expansion in water diversions in that State while other States have been trying to implement the cap. Off-stream storages in the Condamine Balonne have more than tripled in the period from 1993/94 to mid 1999 while total annual diversions have almost doubled.
At a time when the science is telling us we need to take less water from our rivers, Queensland has allowed a 'tomorrow never comes' mentality to flourish.
Mr Chairman, this is no doubt why more in the community are calling for a more interventionist Commonwealth approach - something that certainly wasn't happening even a few years ago. There is a growing sense of urgency. As I mentioned earlier, we need to have the courage to make some hard decisions in relation to how we deal with the causes of our problems, not just rely on taxpayer funded repair efforts once the damage is done.
These are interesting times in which to be a rural journalist.
I wish you well in your deliberations over the coming days and I have pleasure in declaring your conference open.