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Federal Minister for the Environment and Heritage
The Hon Dr David Kemp, MP

Salinity Summit
Parliament House
Friday, 2 August 2002

Salinity Summit - Parliament House, Brisbane


Thank you very much, Premier Beattie, Minister Robertson, ladies and gentlemen.

I want to acknowledge at the very start of my remarks the great breadth of community representation there is here today. Without the ownership of this problem by all the members of the community, land-holders, those in the towns, the local business people, conservationists, the technical experts - we will not get a solution to what could be a very major problem for Queensland that it presently has the opportunity to avoid.

Premier Beattie, I would like to thank you very much and acknowledge the leadership you are showing in convening this Summit today. This is a partnership between the Commonwealth and the state governments, which is very important to all of us, not just to Queenslanders, but also to all Australians.

The particular area we are focusing on here today, the Condamine-Balonne area, is the upper reaches of the Murray-Darling Basin. The Murray-Darling is Australia's great river system. It is the basis of the very heart of Australian agriculture and Australian rural society. It is absolutely critical that the action necessary to prevent the emergence in this region of problems which, as the Premier said, are all too evident further south, makes sure that in the future we can move on a national basis to restore the health of this great river system.

The Prime Minister has indicated that he regards the salinity issue as the top natural resource priority in Australia. It is intimately bound up with issues of vegetation and approaches to farming, to on-farm management and to issues of water allocation. All of these are very difficult issues. They are difficult issues because of the history, because decisions have been taken in the past, which do not necessarily provide a sound foundation for us to move forward. There are difficult decisions involved in this. They are difficult decisions for the Queensland government. They are difficult decisions for the communities, the land-holders and producers in the Condamine-Balonne area. They are difficult for the federal government.

We as Australians are faced now with a great opportunity, which we can seize if we are prepared to take some tough decisions. I think Australians are prepared to take those kinds of decisions. This is part of the Australian character, and no State in Australia reflects the pioneering spirit of Australians that is still there, a strong part of the Australian culture there, as Queensland. I do not think for a moment that Queensland is not going to take these decisions.

My message to you today is that when Queensland takes these decisions on the basis of the kind of community consultation and involvement represented here by this Summit, the federal government will be standing beside Queensland, because we see that it is necessary to take effective action.

Let no-one doubt that the problem is a real one. The Commonwealth's National Land and Water Resources Audit suggests that some 5.7 million hectares across the country have a high potential to develop dryland salinity problems. It predicts that by 2050, some 17 million hectares will be at risk.

In Queensland, the rapidly increasing body of data on salinity suggests that some three million hectares could be at risk by 2050.

The direct cost of salinity to the country at the present time is estimated at around about $300 million per annum. That may well be an underestimate.

The 1999 Murray-Darling Basin salinity audit was a wake-up call to all of us. It demonstrated that salt is now being mobilised on a massive scale across the Murray-Darling Basin. That mobilisation is just incipient here in Queensland. It is not obvious for the most part on the surface. But it is being mobilised further south and it has the potential to be mobilised here.

There will inevitably always be discussion and there will sometimes be argument, about the results of the science. We need to get the results right. We need to get the science right. The land-holders deserve a sound basis of information and data when they are being asked to take some tough decisions.

Premier Beattie acknowledged some remarks that I made to the Agforce conference. I want to say again that the scientific methods that we used to produce this map are acknowledged as sound methods. That does not mean that this map provides a perfect on-the-ground picture that can be mapped paddock by paddock to salinity issues. There needs to be further research.

Stephen Robertson and I, under the National Action Plan, have already taken a decision to make some $12 million available to do further research into this issue in Queensland. But let us not confuse discussion over exactly how the science is going to work out in individual properties with a discussion about whether or not there is a problem, because the problem is real, the problem is very serious and we need to take action, and it does not just exist in this region.

I have spent quite a bit of time in Queensland over the past couple of weeks. It is not just because of the bitterly cold winter weather up here that I have come so that I can feel at home, coming from Melbourne; it is because I saw a need to talk to quite a number of the people on the ground, the producers, to see what problems they are facing. Last week I was in Mackay visiting sugar growers, many of whose ground water supplies for irrigation are under threat by the intrusion of ocean water because the freshwater aquifer is being depleted. Some growers are having to shut down bores because the water is too salty to put on their crops. Others in the region are dry. A few days ago I was in Emerald where the local aquifer is also in dire straits and where some bores on the edge of the aquifer are now dry while others are producing significantly reduced volumes. Yesterday I was in the Lockyer Valley where another local aquifer is in trouble both in terms of water quality and salinity.

These are just examples of one issue involving ground water from just a few days of travelling around the state. Similar problems are being experienced in every state of Australia. They represent significant natural resource management problems both in the local areas and with significance far beyond those local areas. I do not want to particularly highlight the ground water problem, it just happens to be the one that has hit me in the face in my visit to these particular communities, but it symbolises many other problems.

Just taking the Queensland examples on this one issue shows how entwined agriculture and our social structures are. About one-quarter of the Queensland sugar crop is grown in the Mackay area. Emerald is an extremely important grazing and cropping centre. The Lockyer Valley is one of most important areas on the whole east coast of Australia for the production of vegetables. In each of these areas there are significant problems. Water, generally from another source, drawn mostly from unregulated rivers and the overland flow, is a major issue in the Condamine-Balonne, which has achieved a new lease of life from that water.

We cannot afford to lose the production, the wealth that flows from any of these areas. Importantly, in each of these areas I have seen people committed to solving the problem.

I think the thing that has surprised me the most since I have become the Minister for Environment at the federal level is just how much these issues have moved into the mainstream of people's consciousness.

The canegrowers in Queensland made it very clear to me that they see that there are environmental problems and that the industry has a role in solving those problems. That is equally true for every producer group that I have spoken to. Let me remind you, and Larry Acton knows this very well as the general president of Agforce, that the theme of the conference this year for Agforce was sustainability, smart innovative farming to produce sustainability. That is the kind of ownership that in the end is going to produce solutions.

This is an enormous window of opportunity that is open now. We have the National Action Plan, to which Queensland is contributing $81 million; the Commonwealth is contributing $81 million. That is $162 million available for wise investment. That investment will take place, under the agreement on which that whole plan is based, when the communities involved put forward and own the solutions.

In the long term, no government is going to solve this problem. The governments can create the frameworks, they can try to put in place wise and sensible laws and regulations, and maybe not all the regulations that we have at the moment are wise and sensible; but governments can do only so much. In the end, it is the Australians on the ground who are going to have to acknowledge the problem and evince the determination to come forward and solve it.

That is not easy, because there are very long lead times here. Some of these problems might not become evident for 20 or more years. Some of them may be evident during the lifetimes of the current producers farming the land. Some of them may become evident in the lifetimes of their children. But today we have something that previous generations did not have: we have the information, knowledge and science available to us that can forewarn us.

In Queensland, you only have to look south over the border to see what is already happening in the rest of the Murray-Darling Basin, to the heart of Australian agriculture, to know that this is something that could happen to agriculture here in Queensland. So this generation has a unique opportunity, and the putting into place of the national partnership to solve it is something that is of immense importance. It is quite historic.

I get to go to some of these overseas conferences to talk about global issues in the environment. I do not believe that there is another country in the world that is attempting on a continental scale, what Australia is now attempting in relation to the salinity, water quality and vegetation issues. No other country is attempting to save a continent in the way that we are now attempting to do. Why is this happening? Because Australians are among the best educated people in the world, they have incredible farming experience, the people on the land know the land and they understand the land and believe in the land and they believe that that land should be sustainable, and we have a culture of change and innovation.

Sure, some people say that Australians are at heart a deeply conservative people, and in many respects that is probably true. But no nation is quicker to pick up technological changes than Australia, no nation is prouder of the way this country is carving out the future and no nation has the cultural resources, that energy, that vitality-to seize a problem the way that this country has and to put the solutions into effect.

I just want to ask you today to take this seriously, to seize this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, which it is, to really look hard at the issues, to ask the tough questions. Nobody is saying, 'Just accept a top-down solution to this.' That would be the wrong way to go. Ask the tough questions, 'What is the problem here? What is the nature of the problem here? How do we solve that problem? Why don't you address that law or that regulation and make it easier for us to do this?'

These are all the kinds of issues that need to be raised in this discussion. That is what today's Summit is all about.

Premier Beattie, I am sure, does not want to finish his time as Premier and say, 'This is a problem that I let go.' Stephen Robertson, as Minister, does not want to do that; he wants to be able to say, 'I tackled it.' I want that as the federal Environment Minister. The Prime Minister wants that. That is why he has put it at the top of the national agenda. I believe that every responsible person in this room wants that, because it is our problem; and if we do not solve it, our children are going to say some very harsh things about us.

So take advantage of the opportunity, take advantage of the information that is here today and know that, in coming to conclusions through the workshops and ultimately having a situation where the community owns it, you have a situation where the federal government, the state government, and I hope the local governments, the local community organisations and the farmers, are all going to be part of the solution.

Thank you.


Commonwealth of Australia