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"Learning the Lessons - Toward a Sustainable Future"

A speech by the
Federal Minister for the Environment and Heritage
Senator the Hon Robert Hill
to the
Central Council of the Queensland National Party

April 8, 2000

Shortly after accepting the invitation to speak here today I was talking to one Federal National Party MP from Queensland about which topics I should be covering.

I told him I usually like to start my speeches with a significant quote and that for this speech I was thinking of using a quote from the Bible.

I said that given that I'd be expected to speak about some controversial issues such as landclearing and prawn trawling, that it might be appropriate to start with a quote from the Old Testament - perhaps the story of Daniel going into the lions' den.

He thought for a moment before responding, "There's only one problem with that, Hilly - Daniel actually got out alive."

Still it's a honour to be here for what I understand is the first time a Federal Environment Minister has addressed your Party's State Central Council.

Australia is facing many environmental challenges on issues such as dryland salinity, soil erosion, loss of biodiversity and fresh water management to name but a few. Most of these issues are the result of mistakes we have made in the past in how we managed our natural resource base. Many of these mistaken practices date back to the time of settlement when we believed we could simply import European-style farming practices to an ancient and fragile continent, far different from the European environment.

Only now are we beginning to understand the full consequences when we see, for example, dryland salinity threatening to render useless an area of land about half the size of Victoria.

Fortunately there is a growing awareness of both the need to change the way we manage our natural resources and to act to repair the damage we have done.

The Howard Government has sought to support such efforts through the establishment of the Natural Heritage Trust. The Trust, funded through the first two part-sales of Telstra has delivered an unprecedented investment of $1.5 billion in support of environmental and sustainable primary production projects.

The Trust has already invested $700 million in more than 6,400 projects across Australia. Queensland has also benefited with Trust supporting projects worth more than $111 million throughout the State. This includes an investment of more than $60 million through Bushcare and Landcare for revegetation and land repair efforts.

The success of the Natural Heritage Trust reflects this government's approach to natural resource management issues.

Local communities have identified the problems, developed solutions, and provided the workforce to put them into practice. The Commonwealth has been able to provide these communities with the financial support they need through the Natural Heritage Trust.

This approach represents our Government's philosophy that communities and stakeholders must be involved in making decisions about local issues and they must be supported through the process of repairing the damage and planning for the future.

But there needs to be an understanding and a commitment at all levels to the principles of sustainable management of our natural resource base. We can't go on making the same mistakes of the past and then crying poor when the consequences of those mistakes are inevitably visited upon us and future generations to deal with.

Dryland salinity resulting from overclearing of native vegetation is one example where the environmental and economic consequences have been so catastrophic that I would hope we had learned our lesson.

The scientific community has already given us a taste of what is to come with predictions of up to 12.5 million hectares of land, including some of our most productive agricultural land, being gripped by dryland salinity. In the Murray Darling Basin alone - Australia's most important agricultural production region - an estimated 3-to-5 million hectares are likely to be affected. And the economic costs are rising. Already salinity is estimated to cost $130 million annually in lost agricultural production, $100 million annually in infrastructure damage, and $40 million annually in lost environmental assets.

But salinity is more than just a list of scientific facts and figures, it is a harsh environmental and economic reality. The words of farmers featured in last Sunday night's 60 Minutes program have helped put a human face to this reality. For example, Murray River farmer Graham Winter who said "we can't afford to let the situation get any worse ... we are on a knife edge ... this is just a disaster and our business is at risk." Or fellow farmer David Clarke who said "we get 920 kilograms of salt per hectare per year and only 50 kilograms of wool - we are growing more salt than wool."

Their stories are telling us that salinity has the potential to destroy farms and ruin farming families and the communities they support.

Salinity, like all of our environmental problems, is a nation-wide challenge - it has no respect for State boundaries arbitrarily drawn on a map.

Your State is not immune to this growing problem. The recent Salinity Audit by the Murray Darling Basin Commission predicted a sharp increase in salt loads and salinity in the Condamine-Balonne, Border, and Warrego Rivers. Within 20 years, salinity levels will, on average, exceed the World Health Organisation drinking water standard in all three catchments 100% of the time.

Queensland, however, is uniquely placed to learn from the mistakes of overclearing in other States. Every other mainland State has introduced controls on landclearing but as the growing salinity problem confirms, they have been introduced too late. Queensland has the chance to introduce such controls in time to hopefully avoid the disastrous consequences now being faced in other States.

Unfortunately what is clearly lacking is leadership from your State Government.

In his attempts to legislate on the issue Mr Beattie refused to work cooperatively with landholders and refused to offer adequate compensation. Every other mainland State has accepted the financial responsibility which goes with its land management responsibilities. My home state of South Australia, for example, has paid more than $80 million to affected landholders.

But Mr Beattie has ducked his responsibility in what I can only assume was a deliberate attempt to derail the process while trying to lay the blame on Canberra. His failure to talk meaningfully to farmers and other landholders, characterised by his unfounded allegations of panic burning and his tactic of ramming through legislation on the final day of Parliament last year, has destroyed much of the goodwill required at a community level to accept a regulatory bottom line.

He has also tried to bully farmers into agreement with baseless threats about the impact of the Commonwealth's new Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act. For the record, our new Act is not a substitute for appropriate State vegetation clearance controls and does not seek to establish a regulatory regime for vegetation clearance across Queensland or any other State.

But let us make no mistake - effective landclearing controls are needed in Queensland. The former Borbidge Government acknowledged this when it signed the Natural Heritage Trust agreement with the Commonwealth. This agreement commits Queensland to working with Commonwealth toward the aim of "reversing the long term decline in the quality and extent of Australia's native vegetation cover." In particular, Queensland agreed to:

Queensland has been clearing land at a rate of more than 300,000 hectares a year for many years, including 25,000 hectares of endangered vegetation. Around 40 per cent of the State's clearing is in the Murray Darling Basin. This is clearly not sustainable land use - it poses severe threats to endangered ecological communities and animal species, it has major consequences for our efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and it is an open invitation to the ravages of salinity. And as I have said, it defies the logic we supposedly had learned from the mistakes in other parts of Australia.

The Commonwealth has indicated that it is willing to consider support for the Queensland Government if it gets serious about this issue.

From the Commonwealth's perspective a system must be introduced which requires authorisation for the broadacre clearing of native vegetation. Applications for such authorisation should be assessed on a regional basis. There should, however, be state-wide benchmarks. For example, there should be no clearing of vegetation in danger of extinction, or vegetation communities which are vulnerable to extinction. Land otherwise of high conservation value should not be cleared. Areas which could be at risk from land degradation such as salinity should obviously not be cleared.

The Commonwealth recognises that such restraints will deliver benefits to the general community but may also impose costs on landholders. Therefore the costs of new restraints need to be fairly shared between landholders and the broader community.

Another area where the Beattie Government has failed to meet its leadership responsibilities is in the management of fresh water resources.

Again the consequences of Australia's past mistakes in managing our water resources are posing a major threat both to the health of our river systems and to the farms, industries and communities which depend on these rivers. And the calls for action are not just coming from scientists, green groups and politicians. As I said earlier, it is the voices of the farming community which are sounding the warning that the situation is in danger of getting out of control.

To some extent, those warnings have been heard. Governments decided in 1995 that urgent action was needed to prevent further damage to our most important river system, the Murray Darling, and introduced a "Cap" on diversions of water. The Cap, which pegged diversions at 1993/94 levels, was seen as an essential first step in ensuring the long-term health of the river system. Queensland, however, did not accept a Cap on its extractions arguing that it would wait until it had Water Allocation Management Plans in place for its key rivers. Those plans are now more than two-and-a-half years overdue.

An independent audit on the Cap reported last year that there was sufficient data to justify Queensland capping its water diversions at 1997 levels until the plans were finalised. The Beattie Government refused and significant increases in water diversions through actions such as floodplain harvesting continue unchecked.

Immediate impacts of this lack of action can be seen in the threat to major wetland systems such as the Narran Lakes Nature Reserve in the Condamine Balonne system where environmental flows have been substantially reduced. The dramatic increase in water diversions is illustrated by amount of natural flows still reaching the Narran Lakes. In 1993/94, 60 per cent of the median natural flows would reach the Lake. By last year, that had dropped to just 26 per cent. Water diversions had doubled in less than a decade.

Ultimately such rapid increases in diversions will not only undermine the ecological health of your state's rivers, they will also threaten the security of supply for water users both in Queensland and downstream in other states.

The Coorong may be several thousand kilometres away in South Australia but when the mouth of the Murray threatens to close for only the second time since European settlement, it is not just a sign that there is a problem in the Coorong - it is a sign that there is a problem with the entire river system.

I am given some hope by the recent meeting of the Murray Darling Ministerial Council which has agreed to set end of valley targets for salinity within the next 12 months.

The agricultural and pastoral industries are vital to the economic growth of both Queensland and Australia. Our government wants these industries to continue to prosper and provide wealth for our nation and jobs for our young people.

But the message nature is giving us is clear - we must use our resources sustainably or there simply will be no industry. In the words of an Australian country song from the mid-1980s - "stock won't graze on pastures turned to salt."

The fishing industry is also important to Queensland and the message of using your natural resources wisely is as relevant at sea as it is on land.

The Commonwealth does have a direct interest in this industry where it has the potential to impact on the values of the Great Barrier Reef. As part of our efforts to protect the world heritage values of the region, the Commonwealth committed $3.4 million to increased efforts to target illegal fishing. Surveillance was increased by more than 40 per cent and as a result 38 convictions were recorded from July of last year through to January. What was particularly pleasing was that in one of the most recent incidents, the investigation was initiated by complaints from within the commercial fishing industry. Clearly, responsible fishing operators have no time for cowboy operators who threaten both their immediate livelihood and the long-term security of their fish resources.

The issue of prawn trawling, however, has again been made more difficult by the irresponsible actions of the Beattie Government.

A landmark five-year study by the CSIRO found that although trawling could be sustainable, the Queensland management plan was deficient. The Commonwealth alerted both the government and the industry of its concerns and stated that we expected the Queensland Government to develop and implement a management plan which would ensure the ecological sustainability of the trawling industry. Our concerns were not only that the industry may be doing itself irreparable damage by depleting its resource base, but that other important industries such as tourism could also be affected by poor fishing practices within the Park.

We sought to work cooperatively with the state and industry and agreement was reached between the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority and the Queensland Fisheries Management Authority on management arrangements which would have ensured sustainability.

Mr Beattie's Government, with the support of the Queensland Commercial Fishermens Organisation, has refused to implement this agreement. As a result, the Commonwealth has been forced to implement its own safety net through the adoption of the Far Northern Section Zoning Plan which will require trawlers to obtain a permit from GBRMPA.

Mr Beattie has since submitted to me a changed state management plan which is currently being assessed. I have given a commitment to him, and I am happy to repeat it today, that provided his plan will ensure an ecologically sustainable trawl industry, there will be no requirement for operators to seek permits from GBRMPA.

The message, however, is the same - industries will only be truly profitable if they operate on a sustainable basis and respect their natural resource base.

One final example I would like to leave you with involves the person who was responsible for inviting me here today - the member for Dawson, Deanne Kelly. Some months ago Mrs Kelly raised with me the issue of a proposed aquaculture operation near Armstrong Bay. Tourism operators, local fishing operations, and community groups had raised concerns about the potential for waste run-offs from this project to impact on the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. They were proud of the quality of their marine environment and wanted it protected.

The Commonwealth found that the Queensland Government's level of environmental assessment for projects of this type was inadequate. In some instances it was non-existent. We therefore enacted regulations to ensure that the environmental assessment of projects of this type met the high standards we expect for protection of the Reef. This prompted the expected mock outrage from the Beattie Government which claimed our actions were completely unnecessary. Rather embarrassingly for Mr Beattie, his own Environment Protection Authority has since been forced to slap an environmental order on the Armstrong Bay operation.

Once again, sensible action has been taken early enough to avoid the inevitable consequences of unsustainable practices.

It is a simple message which at times appears complicated to put into practice.

Which is why I return again to our Government's commitment to work with, not against stakeholders in dealing with these issues.

We understand the importance of primary industries to your State's prosperity and also the role they have played in the development of your society.

Our ultimate aim is to see these industries continue to prosper for generations to come which is why we urge everyone with an interest in these industries to make the wise, but sometimes difficult decisions now.

Commonwealth of Australia