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

Key Note Address
AGFORCE 2002 State Conference
Bioela, Queensland

29 July 2002

Check against delivery

Agriculture - Smart, Sustainable, Innovative


Thank you Larry. Mayor Glen Churchill of Banana Shire and Ron Carige, Central Queensland President of Agforce, ladies and gentlemen.

I acknowledge the 400 or so delegates -- from the far reaches of Queensland -- who have come to Biloela for this Agforce 2002 State Conference - with its tremendously important theme of Agriculture - Smart, Sustainable, Innovative.

When Larry Acton invited me to address this conference I accepted fully recognising that environmental issues have frequently been controversial and difficult issues to deal with.

In fact that seemed to me the best possible reason why I should come and talk with you directly, to listen to concerns that are being expressed, to find better ways of dealing with the issues, and to see what we could achieve together to put our shared interest in sustainable agriculture and a sustainable Australia on a proper basis for the long term.

As soon as I became Minister I made it a point to immediately seek to develop a continuing and open relationship with primary producers, and there is now I believe a strong and crucial partnership developing with the major representative bodies, including the National Farmers Federation and Agforce.

Larry Acton in particular has taken a very proactive role in making sure that the Commonwealth Government is fully aware of the issues that are in the forefront of the minds of Agforce members, and I want to take this opportunity this morning to attempt to address a number of these.

Last week I visited the sugar cane growers of the Mackay district and talked with some of the beef producers and farmers in the central area around Emerald.

Since becoming Minister I have visited and talked with primary producers from Victoria to Queensland, in every case seeking to gain a full understanding of the issues as they saw them in putting the various rural industries with which they were concerned on a sustainable basis, and the most constructive role for the Commonwealth Government in this.

As your conference theme declares, we now must be smart, and we now must be innovative, in order to achieve the goal of sustainability – because there is simply no other option open to us.

It is an important fact that you are at the absolute heart of the environmental and natural resource management issues by which we must achieve sustainability.

Farmers and graziers occupy some 70 per cent of the nation’s surface.

In Queensland according to the D.P.I. it’s even higher – at some 84 per cent.

If a range of other factors doesn’t have you in the front-line of the sustainability challenge – that single statistic – along with the fact that farmers and graziers also engage some 70% of total water use in the country – certainly does.

Earlier this year I met with many of the nation’s major conservation organisations in the National Environment Consultative Forum, which has been in existence for many years.

My message to them was that if we were all serious in wanting to put the Australian continent on a sustainable basis then landholders had to be acknowledged as crucial leaders and partners in this process. I am pleased that the great majority of those present accepted this. Indeed many were already actively involved with landholders and landholder organisations.

In fact I believe it is now becoming increasingly recognised by the wider Australian community – despite the fact that one still occasionally hears propaganda to the contrary – that many landholders are among the leading environmentalists in the country.

Since becoming Federal Minister for the Environment I have been deeply impressed by the commitment of rural landholders to sustainable agriculture, and by the extent of innovation that is occurring to bring this about.

It is no coincidence that the Banksia Award for the Prime Minister’s Environmentalist of the Year in 2002 went to a farmer in the Riverina area of New South Wales, Bill Sloane, who had not only managed his own property in an innovative and sustainable way, but was a leader in environmentally sound agricultural practices in his community.

Primary producers in this state last financial year produced beef cattle and calves with a gross value of $3.2 billion; $1.4 billion in fruit and vegetables, over $1 billion in so-called amenity horticulture products and services and almost $1 billion in sugarcane – just to mention commodities which exceed or are close to $1 billion in gross value.

There’s another $2.1 billion in a variety of other products including grains, cotton, fish, and a range of others.

Clearly, therefore, it is crucial -- to the economic and social well-being of this state, and indeed of the country -- that the capacity of Queensland’s farmers and graziers to generate wealth on such a grand scale, and to continue to be the cement that holds together rural communities, be sustained.

Sustainability is a key element of your conference agenda.

It is absolutely the key element, the key concept, in my own agenda as Commonwealth Environment and Heritage Minister.

And it sits right at the top of the Government’s overall agenda, with the Prime Minister personally chairing the Sustainable Environment Committee of the Cabinet, which he established following the last election.

The linkage between the sustainability of production, and the sustainability of the environment, is clear-cut.

We cannot – and we will not - have one – if we do not have the other.

In saying that, I would acknowledge that this linkage is a reality that has perhaps been more keenly understood among the primary producers of this country than it has been in any other industry sector – and in many instances that appreciation has been in place for generations.

What we know, however, is that we all have a capacity and a need to learn from experience.

We know that in some areas inefficient and inappropriate land and water use have created problems of national significance, such as rising salinity, and falling water quality, which not only erode the productivity of prime agricultural land, but eat into the infrastructure of rural communities and even threaten the viability of some towns and cities.

Salinity and water quality

The Prime Minister has identified salinity as the largest single threat to the sustainability of Australia’s environment, and therefore, implicitly, the sustainability of your crucially important industries.

The evidence that his judgment is right, at the national level, is now overwhelming.

Anybody who holds the slightest doubt about the potential for salinity to destroy the sustainability of primary production, should look to the Western Australian wheatbelt, or at the massive remedial efforts that are now underway to protect the productivity of virtually the entire Murray-Darling basin – which accounts for some 40% of Australian agricultural output, and for some 70% of national agricultural water use.

In Western Australia - wheat land is now being lost at a rate equivalent to eleven hectares per hour.

1.8 million hectares of the Western Australia wheatbelt are already salt affected.

There is deep concern 3 million hectares will be affected by not later than 2015.

By 2050 the estimates are that almost 9 million hectares in W.A. could be impacted.

The national land and water resources audit tells us some 5.7 million hectares across the country have a high potential to develop dryland salinity problems, and it predicts that by 2050 some 17 million hectares could be at risk.

In Queensland the rapidly increasing body of data on salinity suggests that some 3 million hectares could be at risk by 2050.

The direct costs of salinity and land degradation are already estimated to be in excess of $300 million a year.

National Action Plan on Salinity and Water Quality

Clearly, we have a massive salinity problem - and it is likely to get worse, before it gets better, and the recognition of the need to engage it led the Prime Minister to announce, in November 2000, a combined Commonwealth and State program valued at some $1.4 billion to begin the job – the National Action Plan for Salinity and Water Quality.

In Queensland, this national action plan will lead to the investment of at least $162 million over the next five years, and that is likely to be only the beginning of what will eventually be needed.

The Commonwealth and Queensland recently jointly announced some $12 million of those funds will be spent – and some millions have already been spent – on salinity mapping.

That’s a commitment of a substantial element of the overall funding -- but what we hope to achieve through that is fulfillment of specifically what Agforce, and the NFF, have indicated are cornerstone requirements on a range of these natural resource management issues – which is an ability for you to have faith that adequate science is being brought to bear before decisions are made that impact upon you.

I agree with your organisation entirely on that point.

I know there are current issues about the science that’s been engaged by the Queensland government to recently delineate the extent of the risk in the Condamine/Balonne area of the Murray Darling basin, and while I don’t want to comment on the politics, I do want to comment on the science.

What the Queensland government relied upon to draw salinity risk maps of the area are in fact the conventional, modern, well accepted overlays, of a range of baseline data that broadly delineate salinity risk areas.

That identification is through an examination of the geology, the hydrology, the topography, and the climate of any given area.

This is conventional, sound, science, as far as it goes and it enjoys the approval of C.S.I.R.O. and the Commonwealth Department of Agriculture and Fisheries.

What this level of work cannot necessarily do is to fine tune risk assessment to the paddock by paddock validity that’s ultimately needed.

That needs so-called “ground-truthing” and I know that my colleague Warren Truss is a firm believer in the use of aerial geophysical mapping, followed up by drilling, to achieve this - and to guide whatever remedial or preventative effort is required.

So, again, steering away from the local politics, I think the Queensland data is highly relevant, and based on sound science, but it will have to be refined by more work - before primary producers and governments will have a degree of certainty on which to base their actions.

The investment of the money under the National Action Plan is to be on the basis of integrated regional plans developed not by bureaucrats in Canberra or Brisbane but by communities themselves.

In particular, the Commonwealth Government believes that the wise investment of these substantial sums of money will not occur unless landholders have the opportunity to contribute their experience and local knowledge to the development of regional plans to address environmental problems.

Not only do landholders have much of the expertise that will be essential to the success of the regional natural resource management plans, but without a consultative process that gives producers a sense of ownership of the regional plans there will not be the support that will be necessary to the effective implementation of the plans.

I strongly believe that what we have to strive for is not top down solutions but solutions which have the input from those who will have to carry them out if they are to be successful, and whose ownership of them is therefore essential.

The National Action Plan for Salinity and Water Quality is a great opportunity for Australia.

Let me emphasise that the plan, and the Natural Heritage Trust which sits beside it, and which will in the priority areas overlap and support it, rely for their success on effective partnerships between all levels of government involved – federal state and local, as well as local communities, scientists, and landholders.

The Commonwealth values the partnership that it has with the State Government, and the trust on which such a partnership must be based. We look to the continuation of that partnership over the months ahead as the consultation process with the communities and landholders of the upper Murray-Darling basin roll out, and as similar consultations get under way in each of the regions of the state as a basis for the regional investment plans.

Certainty in relation to the science –at least as much certainty as science is able to deliver – is an entirely reasonable demand.

Equally, I am very conscious that there is a widespread demand for certainty in relation to the application of environmental legislation, both state and federal.

Undoubtedly the federal act that has given rise to most of the concerns currently being expressed by landholders is the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act.

Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act

Last week I went with Larry Acton to visit several properties affected by the listing of varieties of vegetation under the act, to get a first hand sense of how the legislation is impacting on the capacity of landholders to manage their properties. In one case uncertainty about the application of the legislation was hindering the sale of a property, and in another case, uncertainty was hindering development.

It is quite apparent that the application of the Act to protect threatened species of plants and animals has the capacity to give rise to uncertainty. While laws will always need interpretation, if adequate information about the meaning of key provisions of the legislation is not readily available, it is difficult for organisations such as Agforce to give their members advice on the impact of the legislation.

There is, clearly, a responsibility on the Commonwealth to provide adequate consultation, and clear data, when species are to be listed under the EPBC act.

As a result of these uncertainties I have put in place new arrangements to consult with the National Farmers Federation before any new species of plants or animals are listed under the act as vulnerable or endangered. These arrangements are now operating and they appear to be working well.

The purpose of the arrangements is to identify any listings which could cause problems or uncertainty for landholders and ensure appropriate action is taken to reduce uncertainty to a minimum.

As a result of my meetings last week I have asked Agforce to work closely with me to identify how greater certainty can be provided to landholders in the interpretation of the Act.

I want to take this opportunity today to further announce that I have offered to fund a new full time position with the National Farmers Federation to ensure effective communication and information in relation to the EPBC Act.

Let me say that I have been pleased at the recognition by all those I have spoken to that there is a strong need, and indeed a responsibility on us all, to protect the unique biodiversity of the Australian continent.

Australia is universally recognised as one of the great wonders of the natural world, and while I appreciate that this, again, is a fact perhaps better understood by people in this room, whose lives are so intertwined with the natural world, than is the case for much of the rest of the population – I wonder how many of you might be aware that we are one of a small handful of megadiverse nations.

There are now seventeen of 230 countries recognised as megadiverse - but even when just 12 were recognised – in many categories of biological richness, Australia ranked among the most diverse – of the most diverse.

Between them, the top 12 of the 17 megadiverse countries have some 70% of all the species on the planet.

In the area of endemic species, Australia’s rating is even higher.

We have more species unique to Australia than 98% of countries.

We have more unique mammals, and reptiles, than any other country.

We have more birds that are unique to our country than 99% of countries.

This is an extraordinary, and by definition an often unique, natural heritage – yet because of the relatively recent development of the country, many species have already become extinct or are under threat.

We have the highest record of higher plant extinctions on the planet. We’ve lost 83 species.

43 animal species have gone – including 19 mammals. 20% of our remaining mammal species and 13% of our bird species are threatened.

Almost 7% of our vascular plants are threatened. We have more threatened reptile species than any other country.

These circumstances create one of the great challenges of sustainability that the nation confronts, and another part of the challenge where you, and your colleagues around the country, are again particularly in the front line: as Ian Donges said, you collectively occupy some 70% of the landmass – and in the case of Queensland, some 84%.

In a megadiverse country such as ours, that simply and inevitably means the chances that you are going to have a species that is under some level of threat on your property, or in your district, is far greater than if Australia was not so diverse, not so naturally bountiful.

It is this situation that the EPBC Act attempts to deal with.

It is frankly as important a tool in ensuring the sustainability of our environment and of our productivity as any other remedial or preventative program we are now undertaking to that end.

But I would again assure you that I am determined to continue the efforts that have now begun to better engage your constituency as it comes into play -- in what is a thoroughly valid and necessary effort to ensure that we act in a responsible way to maintain our unique biodiversity.

I will be having discussions with the states and regional groups to assess the extent to which specific assistance can be directed to landholders who are willing to undertake measures that support the conservation of threatened species and ecological communities. By way of example as to how this could be done, in Victoria there is currently a bush tender process being trialled, under which landholders can tend to provide conservation services in identified areas and for identified purposes. Covenants and stewardship agreements provide other options.

The great virtue of such arrangements is that they recognise that where landholders are being asked to take action to protect a public interest which restricts them in the use of their property, payment or benefit accruing from this public good behaviour is appropriate. I have recently asked my Department to investigate means of using NHT funding to assist rural landholders in the Wimmera region in Victoria to protect the habitat of an endangered species of bird.

A similar approach may well be the best way to approach the issue of maintaining vegetation cover for greenhouse purposes where no or little private benefit accrues to the landholder for such action.

The latest indications from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change are that concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere have increased by 30 per cent and will double by the latter part of this century. In addition, late last year, the CSIRO released the results of its latest work on the impacts of climate change for Australia. The CSIRO projects an average annual warming of 0.4 to 2 degrees (relative to 1990) over most of Australia by 2030 and 1 to 6 degrees by 2070.

Changes in annual rainfall are likely to vary from one region to another, and there are significant projected changes in seasonal rainfall distribution.

Needless to say agriculture, fisheries, forestry and water resources are all sensitive to these climate changes, and our natural ecosystems are vulnerable.

The Prime Minister has indicated to the Queensland Premier Mr Beattie that the Commonwealth would be prepared to provide financial assistance to Queensland to deliver significantly reduced land clearing rates, and a sustained and guaranteed greenhouse outcome over and above the combined outcomes of Queensland’s existing vegetation management arrangements and the National Action Plan for Salinity and Water Quality.

A scheme to achieve this objective could include market and incentive based approaches such as carbon purchases, in addition to regulation.

In order to reassure you on this point I can do no better than to quote to you what has been said by the Prime Minister on this topic, and it is a quite unequivocal declaration of his position, and the position of the Commonwealth.

He has said, and I quote him directly from an interview he gave during the last federal election campaign: “…we are committed to ensuring that if people’s property rights are affected they get compensated.”

The Deputy Prime Minister John Anderson has been equally clear. He said, during a speech on environmental management issues in Canberra in March, and I also quote him directly: “The Government believes that landholders who give up property rights in the interests of the environment should receive proper compensation or adjustment assistance.”

They are very clear expressions of the position of the Commonwealth. The issue now is therefore not the principle, which is established, but the reality, and I assure you that I seek, and actively promote within government, a sense of urgency in developing clear definitions of property rights.

I want to reassure you the Commonwealth is undertaking this work – as was promised to you by the Deputy Prime Minister in the election campaign last year.

An Interdepartmental Committee, now established under the auspices of Prime Minister John Howard, is actively working towards seeking a national framework for these matters.

It will be considered by Cabinet, and the Commonwealth’s view will subsequently be presented to the meeting of the Council of Australian Governments late this year, on the current schedule, and I would hope that the Commonwealth’s leadership role in the effort to establish the clear set of property rights you so fairly seek will be, thereafter, quickly agreed and developed by the states which, in the end, hold the primary legislative tools, and the primary responsibility.

It would be a great mistake however to see the issue of biodiversity as being raised only by the threats to vulnerable species or as it is related to climate change.

Again, I have been impressed by the extent to which there is a growing recognition that the maintenance of biodiversity plays an important role in maintaining the productivity of the land, whether we are talking about the avoidance of monocultures in pastures, or the importance of vegetation for birds and their capacity to control insect pests, or the importance of vegetation in combating salinity.

I think that if we knew in the latter half of the 19th century, and the first half of the 20th, what we now know about the impacts of the rates of clearing we have engaged in nationally -- on salinity -- on threats to our biodiversity -- on the decline in our water quality and on the general state of health of our rivers – on general degradation -- and thus on our ability to achieve sustainability of production, our landscape would look very different – and we would not now confront the scale of challenge to achieve sustainability that we so clearly do.

In conclusion, I want to assure you of the extent to which the Commonwealth, under the clear and decisive and committed leadership of John Howard, has demonstrated, and will continue to demonstrate, an affinity with, and a deep appreciation for, the work that you do -- and the challenges we jointly face in this vast arena of natural resource management.

On the latest figures available to me, some one thousand four hundred and forty four million dollars have now been committed by the Howard government to the environment, and to natural resource management, through the Natural Heritage Trust alone.

This makes the Trust the largest environmental/natural resource management undertaking in this country since federation. It thus is a very clear example of the commitment of this government to ensuring that the cost of remedial and preventative work -- to ensure sustainability -- is properly shared.

It is our estimate that by the time all of the monies from the first phase of the Natural Heritage Trust are invested that the commitment will be only a few thousand dollars short of one thousand five hundred million dollars – from a fund which started with a balance of just short of $1.3 billion in 1996-1997 – the first financial year of the first term Howard government.

As I’m sure you are aware -- the Trust has now been extended for another five years - with an injection of a further one thousand million dollars.

The other massive symbol of this government’s commitment to helping you achieve sustainable natural resource management is through the $1.4 billion national action plan for salinity and water quality -- which in turn is the largest single cooperative effort between the Commonwealth and the States -- on a natural resource management issue -- since federation.

Together, these two major programs dwarf the engagement of -- and the commitment to -- natural resource management by any other government in our history.

These interlocking commitments have but two interlocking, aims – which taken together epitomise the approach of the government towards natural resource management.

Environmental sustainability means economic sustainability, and social sustainability -- for the nation’s crucially important agricultural sector.

There is no other goal that we can possibly have.

I look forward immensely to working with you to achieve smart, sustainable, innovative agriculture for the members of Agforce, for Queensland, and for the country.

Thank you.

Commonwealth of Australia