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


Saturday, 25 October 2003

Towards a National Strategy for Sustainability


It's a pleasure to have been asked to address you this morning and I begin by recognising the contributions of the Nature Conservation Council of New South Wales to the debate on the sustainable management of our natural resources that is now, finally, so much a part of our national consciousness.

Australians have long been extraordinarily proud of the natural resources of this country, especially those many and fascinating elements of our biodiversity that are unique to us but, as a generalisation, they have, until quite recent years, largely taken these natural riches for granted. There was an assumption that the environmental strengths and beauty of this country was somehow a permanent, an immutable, fixture.

We now know better, and much more, and we have realised that the protection and the preservation of those unique resources not only deserves, but also requires, a national and strategic approach.

That realisation is, to a significant degree, the result of efforts like those of the Nature Conservation Council of New South Wales and similar bodies around the country, in developing an awareness of the challenges we face that has, in turn, made it possible and indeed necessary for governments to give the environment the prominence that it now has in both policy and investment terms.

We now know, and are dealing with the fact that, for example, the vast amount of tree clearing that went on to establish our farming and grazing industries has not only contributed to our economic well-being but has had significant costs in terms of general land degradation, reduced biodiversity, reduced water quality, and has led to salinisation of land and water - as just some of the major impacts.

We now also widely acknowledge, and our farmers in particular are addressing the fact, that our soil types and our climate are such that many of the practices that have been followed, historically, have been shown to be inappropriate.

We know that we have stretched, and in some cases have over-stretched, our use of water in what is the driest inhabited continent on the planet. We know that has damaged the sustainability of production and the environment - and we are dealing with that as well.

As a result of what we now know the Australian government is seeking to put in place a national strategic framework that will make possible the sustainability of this country, and the putting of the Australian continent on a sustainable basis.

National Environmental Strategy

The national environmental strategy involves, inter alia, powerful environmental protection legislation, the empowerment of regional communities across Australia to engage in the task of environmental protection and repair, the establishment of marine plans for the entire continental shelf, and major funding programmes to provide key resourcing for these objectives.

At the level of the Australian Government, the national environmental strategy is overseen by the Sustainable Environment Committee of the Cabinet, chaired by the Prime Minister. In recognition of the fact that sustainability issues can only be satisfactorily addressed on a whole of government basis, the Sustainable Environment Committee includes not only myself as Minister for the Environment and Heritage, but also the Treasurer, and the Ministers for Industry (including Energy), Agriculture, Transport, Fisheries, Science and as necessary Foreign Affairs.

The effective implementation of the strategy necessarily involves partnerships between the various levels of government, local communities and landholders, and environment and conservation organizations.

Major elements of the government's environmental strategy include:

First, the resourcing of environmental rescue and repair through the Natural Heritage Trust and the National Action Plan for Salinity and Water Quality, the largest, and most strategic environmental programs in our history, to protect remnant vegetation and biodiversity, and to enhance water quality, and tackle salinity. On this first point I would note especially that there has been a major breakthrough very recently in relation to a reduction to zero of remnant clearing in New South Wales , and discussions with Queensland on a major reduction are now well advanced.

Secondly, and integrally, the establishment across Australia of community based regional strategic environmental natural resource management and investment plans to manage and undertake these actions at the regional level.

Thirdly, a strategic approach to the management of our generally stressed water resources, through the National Water Initiative, recently agreed at COAG, and The Living Murray initiative, designed to restore the ecological health of the Murray River.

Fourthly, the implementation of the National Oceans Policy, and marine planning to protect the health of ecosystems across the whole continental shelf through the National Oceans Office, complemented by the developing National Coastal Policy, and the Representative Areas Program for the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park.

Fifthly, the protection of Australia's biodiversity through the Natural Heritage Trust, the National Action Plan, the operation of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act and, most recently, through the Hot-spots program. Australia has 10% of the world's biodiversity; 80% of our species are endemic. We are the most mega-diverse of all developed countries. The protection of our biodiversity in a society of continuous development is one of our great national challenges.

Sixthly, the pursuit of improved air quality and atmospheric health through stringent fuel quality standards for the transport sector and a $1 billion investment through the Australian Greenhouse Office in the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, the promotion of renewable energy, and the promotion of technologies leading to the hydrogen economy.

It is important to add to specific elements such as those I have just mentioned that the prospects of ecologically sustainable development in Australia are greatly enhanced by the flexibility and resilience of a market economy.. Our market economy provides us with the revenues and, increasingly, the environmental products and services which contribute to effective solutions. The environmental consciousness of business is also growing through the adoption of the triple bottom line.

But I believe the key breakthrough that has occurred during the tenure of this Government, and through it, has been the recognition of the need for a strategic, and a national, approach by engendering and leading a cooperative effort between all levels of government and theAustralian community to deliver national results, region by region, community of interest by community of interest.

Community Ownership the Key

The centrepiece and the key to the approach is undoubtedly the decision to seek and achieve the engagement of the community.

If the Australian community does not have ownership of the challenges, and ownership and direct involvement in the solutions, then we will not have the degree of support that can assure success.

This has presented particular challenges for us in the move from the first phase of the Natural Heritage Trust, which ran to 2002, and the second phase, where the emphasis has shifted to a regional and more strategic base - and Warren Truss and I have been conscious of the need to maintain the social capital represented by the involvement of over 400,000 Australians in that first phase, through a wide variety of groups.

There have therefore been recent announcements that ensure a role for the long established Landcare movement, within the new regional structures, and in addition earlier this week I announced 35 positions to support the activities of groups associated with Coastcare, Waterwatch, and Bushcare that will also support the regional arrangements.

We can debate, as I'm sure you do, constantly, whether governments, at all levels, are doing enough and have the priorities right. We can debate the skills and priorities of scientists and environmental advocates - but I am utterly convinced that the path of engaging and empowering the wider Australian community, through information, and avenues for action, is the key element of the framework that is now deliberately under construction to deal with our environmental challenges.

Two specific initiatives of the current Australian government are the centrepieces of this strategic, and historic, community based approach.

The first is the Natural Heritage Trust, and the second is the National Action Plan for Salinity and Water Quality.

Separately, they are the two largest single environmental programs ever embarked on in this country: The investment under the Natural Heritage Trust from 1996 will reach $2.7 billion by 2006-2007 and the National Action Plan is a $1.4 billion program to 2007-2008 - funded 50/50 by the Commonwealth and the States.

Together these programs indisputably represent the largest environmental rescue effort undertaken in Australia since federation - which is a source of great pride to us in the Australian government - but it is the strategic nature of these efforts, as much as their scale, that I want to stress.

Both involve the establishment, or the adaptation, of community based structures, and the development of funding mechanisms with the States to deliver funds and autonomy to the community.

An Australia-wide Regional Framework for Environmental Action

The National Action Plan and the Trust involve a degree of interface and cooperation between the Commonwealth and the States - and the community - on natural resource issues that has simply not been attempted before in this or any other country.

It was always going to be difficult, and it was always going to be time consuming. But the effort will be worth it.

The community based structures - 56 for the Trust, covering every square centimetre of the country - and 21 NAP regions, covering the areas deemed most at risk from salinity, either have prepared or are now preparing integrated natural resource management plans that will be backed by the Trust and, and where relevant the National Action Plan, with Commonwealth, and State, and community resources.

I believe the format, and the agreements between the Commonwealth, the States, and the community, towards the common goal of sustainability, through these new and historic arrangements, will be a great legacy, not only of this Government, but of the States, the NGO's, and the communities and individuals who have called for and have helped develop just such a strategic approach.

They represent, I believe, a coming of age of environmental policy and action for Australia, and it is particularly pleasing to me, as the Federal Minister for the Environment and Heritage, to see the way in which the approach, and goodwill that has built up over these common national goals, through the interfaces that the Trust and the National Action Plan have engendered, is spreading.

The National Water Initiative

A new strategic and national approach is now also being developed into relation to that most crucial of our natural resources - water.

The framework for a National Water Initiative that was agreed by all Australian Governments through the Council of Australian Governments, earlier this month is built on the first steps that were taken towards getting a genuinely national approach on water through the 1995 National Competition agreements - one of which related specifically to water.

The new COAG agreement, however, represents a crucial breakthrough in the new commitment to develop a plan for a nationally consistent system of water access entitlements and water trading, and sustainable allocation systems based on perpetual water rights for consumers who will be guaranteed a fixed share of sustainably available water.

It is COAG's intention that these base level agreements will lead to a more detailed agreement at the next COAG meeting, in April next year.

The development of a nationally compatible water market, and an allocation system that covers both ground and surface water and that reverses the trend of the past to over-allocate are both key precursors to water finding its real value, and to our ability to preserve sufficient water in the environment to sustain economic and environmental resources.

The Living Murray Initiative

There is further evidence of the new and welcome level of national engagement in our natural resources in the way that the Murray Darling Basin states are committing, with strong national community support, to the Living Murray Initiative. This is another massive undertaking that began before this Government with the interim cap on extractions in 1995, but which is maturing under the leadership of the current Australian government.

Much of the history of our association with our one great river system has been to tame it for an economic return, without great regard for its environmental value - and the economic return from that process has of course been significant, with the Murray Darling Basin generating some 40% of Australia's agricultural product, and around one third of our agricultural exports.

We have become increasingly aware, however, since the early nineties in particular, of the flip-side of that great economic success story, which is that there has been a very considerable environmental cost - with more of those costs to come if we do not act to head them off, particularly in relation to salinity, water quality, and biodiversity.

The threat of very high salinity levels in the river in the coming decades, the decline of native fish, the threat to red gum forests in wetlands and on the floodplain, the massively decreased average flows in the lower reaches, are some of those well known costs.

What I wish to point out, however, is again the positive: That, as with the Natural Heritage Trust, as with the National Action Plan, and as with the National Water Initiative, with which it is being integrated, the movement to restore the River Murray to a healthy working river is now an agreed aim of the basin States, the Commonwealth and, importantly, the community.

There remains concern, reach by reach, and indeed in the wider Australian community, about precisely how the river will be returned to a healthy working state, but there is near unanimity on the need to address the challenge and at its meeting in Melbourne next month I am confident that the Murray Darling Basin Commission Ministerial Council will be putting forward a proposal for consideration by the basin community in particular to begin returning environmental water to the Murray for clearly delineated environmental results.

I believe that the move towards specific measures of accountability, through icon sites, represents, in my view, a crucial refinement of the Initiative in that we first have to identify what we want to do - and we then have to be able to measure whether we have done it.

There is no doubt in my mind, and there is no doubt in the minds of the scientists guiding this process, that additional environmental flows, of themselves, will not do the job of restoring the River Murray to a healthy working stream.

In such a highly regulated river, which it will inevitably remain, we are going to have to maximise the environmental benefit of both current and increased environmental flows by manipulating and managing those flows to more closely mimic a natural river - in terms of the seasonality of flows for those environmental outcomes, in terms of their duration, so that they are long enough to provide the benefits we want, perhaps a bird breeding event, or a flow for floodplain vegetation, and not so long, or so short, that an environmental benefit becomes and environmental negative - so I say very firmly that I fully support the emphasis on accountable outcomes. We have to have them to be able to measure our success.

The Protection of Biodiversity on the Great Barrier Reef

Another area where I believe we are seeing a new and multi-tiered level of recognition of the importance of our environmental assets, and of the need to protect them, is in terms of the Great Barrier Reef, where the Australian government is developing, through the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, a program to provide a very high level of protection for significant areas of the Park in order to protect the vast and precious biodiversity of the reef.

This is perhaps the first example of the many significant environmental works, with national repercussions, that I am emphasising to you today that does not directly engage the cooperation of another tier of government in its development - but no review as to where we stand, as a nation, on environmental issues could leave out the very major efforts that are being made to protect this national, and international, environmental icon.

The Representative Areas Program, now in the final stages of development aims to protect at least 20% of each of the 70 bioregions within the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park.

We are seeking to achieve this with minimal disruption to current users of the park, which is a difficult task, but I can assure you that I am personally deeply committed to achieving a high degree of protection for the reef.

This is important because of the pure environmental values of the reef, and it is important to help make the reef more resilient in the face of threats over which we have limited control, such as global warming. It's important in terms of maintaining the health of the reef for the quite massive tourism industry - which is totally reliant on the maintenance of vibrant biodiversity.

A further important action in relation to the reef that is also being developed by the Australian government through GBRMPA, and in a full and cooperative partnership with the Queensland Government, is the development of a Reef Water Quality Protection Plan, to deal with the threat posed to water quality in the Great Barrier Reef lagoon by human impacts across the 27 river catchments adjacent to the reef.

And attention to the reef is symbolic of what this government seeks to achieve, environmentally, through national, cooperative, integrated effort on and adjacent to our extraordinary coastline.

Obviously, the coast and adjacent oceans are crucial areas environmentally, and socially for this country. Some 85% of us live within 50 kilometres of the coast, which of itself creates environmental pressures, which can translate readily into reduced amenity and natural values if we do not take care to preserve it -and we are seeking to do that in a number of ways.

A National Strategy for Coasts and Oceans

First, we are seeking to develop a National Coastal Policy to bring some uniformity to the environmental tests and standards applied across a wide range of coastal activities by the State and Local agencies that have primary responsibility for them, and that is going more slowly than I had hoped, because of the concern of the States that what's proposed is somehow a Commonwealth take-over.

New South Wales, in particular, has been concerned at that level but the reality is that what we seek is simply the same degree of national cooperation in the service of the environment that is now being reflected in programs such as the Natural Heritage Trust and the National Action Plan.

I believe we can achieve a set of sensible principles to guide coastal issues at the national level and that we will do so.

Another, quite extraordinary area of activity, is the development under this Government of a National Oceans Policy, which is another world first.

What we are seeking to do is to develop a regime to govern activities throughout the 200-kilometre Exclusive Economic Zone, which means the development of policy for an area twice the size of the Australian landmass.

Development of Marine Protected Areas is a closely related area - again with a national, strategic, cooperative focus.

The South-East Regional Marine Plan is now nearing completion, and we hope that the holistic regime that it seeks to set in place, guarding environmental values and guarding economic values, in full consultation with the industries and communities adjacent to the candidate areas, will lead to the sustainability of near coastal ecosystems - in a manner that minimises disruption to current users.

While we can do much ourselves by proper planning and whole of government approaches to protect the econological systems of our seas and oceans, clearly this is also a task that requires international co-operation. Australia continues to play a leading role in the international conservation of whales and dolphins, and the recent Berlin Initiative at the International Whaling Commission to establish a Conservation Committee of the Commission is a further key step in moving the IWC from a body concerned with the killing of whales to one which recognises that the world has moved on, and that the economic future of whales is in whale watching - already a $1 billion world wide industry.

The Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act

The Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 is another of the milestone achievements for the environment, through this government, that I believe further demonstrates the scale of its commitment to a strategic, national, approach to sustainability.

This is the first piece of Commonwealth law that has, as its sole purpose, the protection of the environment, and especially its threatened species, on the national scale, and its authority extends to the limit of the EEZ.

Before it there was piecemeal coverage, but now we finally have a holistic piece of legislation that provides us with a means of tracking our environmental well-being and, where necessary, and in certain key areas, to intervene to protect that heritage.

There is now, too, an over-arching, whole of government, attention to the environment that is as unprecedented as the key components and integrated approach that I have described, and perhaps the most striking evidence of that is the level of the personal involvement of the Prime Minister.

John Howard took a major, personal, leadership role in the development of the National Action Plan for Salinity and Water Quality.

He has established, and leads, the Sustainable Environment Committee of Cabinet where the key elements of environmental policy and activity are tested for their complementarity, their integration, their effectiveness, and their contribution to the strategic approach by which we seek to maximise the bang from the very big bucks that are now being directed to the sustainability task.

These are, I believe, very sound foundations for the task that is now well begun, but that stretches ahead of us all.

What Australia now has is a degree of integration of the institutional and community based tools for delivery of environmental outcomes that has simply not been there in the past, and that, I believe, is a pivotal development.

Before closing there is one other key ingredient that I would like to mention and it is one that is often overlooked or under-rated in the development of this all-important strategic approach under the current government, and that is the work of the National Land and Water Resources Audit which has, in my view, been one of the quiet but great, and indeed central, achievements of the Natural Heritage Trust.

The National Land and Water Resources Audit

The Audit has now produced a series of reports on the status of all of Australia's major natural assets, by drawing together, and synthesizing into national portraits, the various and often differentiated data bases held by the States.

The result is the first nationally coherent report card on our natural resources and it is genuinely precious work that has established a base that can now be constantly refined and updated to guide policy makers at all levels, and communities at all levels, in terms of the most effective courses to take, deep into the future - if successive governments are wise enough to maintain it.

Conclusion

I again thank you for the opportunity to address you today.

This is obviously an environmentally extremely well informed group of people, and I have not therefore laboured on fine detail or fine elements of policy, or gone to some of the areas of significance that I might have - in order instead to emphasise some of the most significant elements of the strategic effort that is now being undertaken.

I sincerely do not believe that the environment movement, or the Australian community, has ever had a government that has so broadly engaged the core environmental challenges that we confront, or done so in such a strategic manner - with a clear eye to establishing sustainability.

I believe we now have the right foundation - based on cooperative effort between governments, and the community, that can deliver results. And that is a much more positive position that we were in a decade ago.

Thank you, and good luck with the rest of your conference.

Commonwealth of Australia