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Thank you for the opportunity to open this Natural Resource Management Forum.
Over the past six years Australia has enjoyed a resilient period of strong economic growth.
Despite the turmoil of the Asian economic crisis of the mid-to-late 1990s, which affected many of our major trading partners, Australia's economy has continued to grow at an average of around 4 per cent a year.
We've also enjoyed increased company profits and enjoyed strong employment growth with 800,000 new jobs since 1996, spurred along by a continued low inflation/low interest rate business environment.
By any measure, the Australian economy has been a remarkable success story.
But economic growth in itself does not guarantee the continued success of either individual companies or the industry sector within which they operate.
The media has focussed recently on two high profile corporate debacles - the insurance company HIH and the telecommunications company One-Tel.
While the juries are still out on why these companies failed and who might be to blame, the spectacular losses incurred by them should be ringing warning bells within all sections of corporate Australia.
The message it sends is that even in times of favourable economic circumstances, wise and prudent decisions must be made to ensure the long-term future of any business operation.
It is a message which is just as relevant to rural Australia as it is to the boardrooms of corporate Australia.
The latest figures available estimate that the meat and livestock industry is worth around $7 billion a year to the Australian economy in terms of direct production.
With the majority of this production going to the export market, it is not surprising that the lower value of the Australian dollar has delivered another shot in the arm to the industry.
The industry is also a major generator of employment - both in direct and indirect jobs - and is a significant contributor to the economies of many communities in rural Australia.
So the economic significance of this industry should not be under-estimated.
The near term economic prospects of the industry are good.
But what of the long-term viability and sustainability of this industry?
It is easy to measure the performance of your industry in terms of the dollar value of production or exports, in terms of the area of land which you control, or even through estimates of the number of head of sheep or cattle.
The problem is that these are all measures of immediate success, not sustainability.
They give us an immediate snapshot of the economic performance of your industry compared with past performance but give us no indication as to whether that performance is sustainable.
It is remarkable, if that is the right word, that while statistics on current economic performance of the industry are close at hand, information about the impact of your industry on our natural environment appears to be almost non-existent.
The concept of sustainable natural resource management demands that we respect and conserve the natural systems that support our industries.
It also demands that we take prudent action to minimise our impact on our natural eco-systems.
In urban Australia that has meant industries examining their use of materials and energy, minimising their waste, and in some cases identifying means of turning wastes into a resource through recycling.
Many of them have found along the way that this improved environmental performance delivers a better economic bottom line.
Similarly in rural Australia, sustainable natural resource management means that we have to assess what impact our actions are having on the quality of our soils and water supplies - without which our agricultural industries cannot survive - and then act to minimise that impact.
This in turn will deliver economic benefits. It is far less expensive to modify behaviours to prevent ecological damage than it is to mount repair efforts once the damage has been done.
In terms of your export markets, with Britain and Europe currently coming to grips with foot and mouth and mad cow disease, it would seem to be a major selling point to emphasise the clean and green image of a sustainable meat and livestock industry.
At this stage, as I said, we have little capacity to assess the sustainability or otherwise of your actions.
Given that the grazing industry is responsible for managing more than half the land area of Australia, that lack of basic information is surprising.
Without it you cannot take the precautionary steps required to ensure the long-term viability of your industry.
Without it you cannot confidently say to me that in the long term you are not headed for the same fate as an HIH or a One-Tel.
One assumes those companies must have seen the warning signs but failed to take the necessary action early enough to avoid their ultimate demise.
Issues such as dryland salinity, soil and riverbank erosion, increasing sedimentation and the declining quality of our water supplies are sending those warning signals to our rural producers.
We will ignore them at our own peril.
If our actions push our natural systems to the point of collapse, then our rural industries will collapse with them.
It is clearly in our national interest to work together to avoid such a scenario.
I do take heart from the organisation of conferences such as today's as a sign that there is a growing acceptance within your industry of the need to confront sustainability issues.
I note that the mission statement of Meat and Livestock Australia is "to create opportunities for growth and profit in the industry."
Perhaps our starting point should be to amend that statement to read; "to create opportunities for sustainable growth and profit in the industry."
Our challenge then would be to back those words with actions.
The starting point would be sufficient research that deals explicitly with the impacts of grazing on biodiversity conservation, habitat fragmentation, soil, fauna, managing climatic variability or whole of landscape conservation.
For example, such a record program would examine the dramatic decline in woodland communities over the last 100 years. These communities previously covered some 50% of the land area of Australia. Today woodland communities are the most threatened wooded ecosystem, with estimates ranging from 2% to 10% left intact. In most regions of Australia, the grazing industry is heavily reliant on grassy and shrubby woodland communities, yet there is no empirical information to guide development of industry standards or targets to assist in the conservation or rehabilitation of these severely degraded communities.
This research must also help create a greater awareness among meat and livestock producers of the indirect impact of their actions on the environment.
For example, landclearing is the major cause of land erosion and dryland salinity - impacts which are directly apparent and relevant to your industry. But landclearing is also a major contributor to Australia's greenhouse gas emissions profile.
The industry also needs to understand that the environmental consequences of its actions are not felt by meat and livestock producers alone but can have serious economic consequences for other industries. The actions of your industry in some areas has significantly increased levels of sedimentation and nutrients in our major waterways. Taking Queensland as an example, these increased nutrient and sedimentation levels in the Burdekin and Fitzroy rivers have a significant downstream ecological impact on the Great Barrier Reef. In turn, this ecological impact has significant economic consequences for the key fishing and tourism industries.
The success of one Australian industry should not come at the expense of another - and it need not.
Again, better research and an increased knowledge base can help create a greater awareness within your industry for the need to modify production. It can also show you how to achieve better environmental performance without sacrificing the growth and economic benefits that you seek.
The Howard Government has also shown that it is prepared to play a leadership role in this regard.
We have acknowledged the previous shortcomings in our national knowledge base on natural resource management. Through the $1.5 billion Natural Heritage Trust we have invested $40m in a National Land and Water Resources Audit.
This Audit, the preliminary findings of which will be discussed by other speakers today, will not only serve as an assessment of where we currently stand, but will also be used to guide efforts to repair the damage we have already done and to prevent further degradation of our natural resource base.
In addition to this important research work, the Trust has also invested more than $1.1 billion in projects across Australia to support environmental repair and promote sustainable agricultural practice.
Our Government has recently announced an additional $1 billion commitment to the Trust to build on what has already been achieved to date.
We have also set down a $1.4 billion National Action Plan on Salinity and Water Quality which will target further on-grounds in around 20 key catchment areas across Australia.
Significantly, the investment of the Commonwealth's funds under this program will be dependent on the adoption of better natural resource management practices in the catchment areas, in particular in relation to landclearing and water extractions.
The investment of such substantial amounts of public money in this national effort is a clear signal to rural industries such as yours that our Government acknowledges the public benefit derived from improved natural resource management.
It is also an acknowledgement that the problems facing our rural producers such as dryland salinity and soil erosion have not been the result of deliberate actions but more the result of a lack of knowledge of how our natural systems would react to production practices developed elsewhere.
Finally, Mr Chairman, if we expect producers to forego present income in favour of the longer-term condition of the resource they are managing, we must also recognise that this results in both a public and private benefit.
For example, the costs of revegetating a property may occur entirely on-site, however, the benefits will be distributed among a number of parties such as adjoining properties and river users downstream.
Therefore a key element of most of the Natural Heritage Trust programs is the emphasis on cooperative arrangements and sharing the costs of on-ground works.
The high level of interest and support for Trust programs, such as Bushcare, indicates the degree of support in the community for practical conservation works, even where such works primarily benefit the landholder.
But in return landholders must accept that they have a duty of care in the way they manage our nation's natural resource base.
The investment of public monies in environmental repair works is pointless if landholders seek to continue to gain private benefit from unsustainable management practices which simply inflict further damage on our natural systems.
In conclusion, the challenge for Meat and Livestock Australia is to ensure an ecologically sustainable approach for the industry that incorporates continuous environmental improvement as well as maximising profitability.
And I would urge your industry to face these challenges now while the economic environment is favourable and while there is considerable goodwill and support within the general community.
In meeting that challenge I can ensure you that you will have the unconditional support of the Federal Government.