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Melbourne Convention and Exhibition centre
11 April 2010
[Check against delivery]
I join previous speakers in paying my respects to the traditional owners of this place, the Wurundjeri people, to custodians past and present.
Sir Gus Nossal, Premier John Brumby, Bill Jackson from the International Conservation Union, ladies and gentlemen.
I'm pleased to give the keynote address at this important congress. I join John Brumby in welcoming everyone who has come here from across Australia and overseas.
I want to especially welcome the many Indigenous participants who have travelled long distances to be with us today.
Healthy Parks, Healthy People is an idea whose time has come, and about time too!
For it is 131 years ago last month that the New South Wales Parliament debated the impact of overcrowding, pollution and the lack of recreational space on the health of Sydney's inner-city population.
Urban reformer John Lucas pointed to the higher death rate of people living in the inner city with little open space, and especially the higher death rate of children under five.
Another member, one Tom Garrett - yes, a distant, direct relative of mine - also decried what he described as the "evil of overcrowding about Sydney".
One wonders what he would think today with five and a half million people enjoined in the Sydney/Newcastle/Wollongong axis!
Tom Garrett praised the approach in America which he had visited the previous year and where, he pointed out "....every town had large reserves and the streets were wide enough to admit planting of trees".
Legislators resolved that all centres of population should have places of public recreation - to quote "to ensure a healthy and consequently a vigorous and intelligent community".
And so in an act of astonishing vision Australia's first national park was established in 1879 - the much loved Royal National Park.
This was only the world's second national park after the United States declared Yellowstone just seven years earlier.
Each time I fly back into Sydney airport and see the extraordinary expanse of green to the south of the city, I'm reminded of the amazing foresight of those early legislators.
It will come as no surprise to Victorians to learn that the New South Wales Parliament made no reference to the efforts of their colonial cousins across the Murray - where Melbourne's development as the 'Garden City' was well underway!
So, apart from a window into my ancient family history, what can we learn from the debates and concerns of more than a century ago?
In part it is to recognise how far we've come. It is now axiomatic that recreational facilities and open space should be available to everyone, included as part of day-to-day urban planning.
There will always be discussion about how much and where, but parks and gardens and natural spaces are accepted as integral to effective and healthy urban and regional communities.
Indeed in a highly surburbanised country such as ours, a playground in a local park is likely to be a much used, major meeting place.
And importantly there is a growing acceptance of the links between parks and human health. In the face of increasing urbanisation, we are placing higher store on the value of natural places to relax and recharge the spirit, in the amenity and utility of green spaces for recreation and exercise.
Green spaces, especially those that have rich biodiversity, will also be vital to ameliorating the impacts of climate change. Trees can play a role in the carbon balance, by sequestering carbon directly, but also by shading buildings in hot weather and so reduce energy use.
Biodiversity, which is the variety of life on Earth, its communities, species and the natural functions they perform, is being used to provide a range of ecosystem services that we can all value directly, and I'm encouraged that there is growing recognition of the value of this green infrastructure.
When it comes to the links to human health, the body of evidence is also growing.
In our country this is nowhere more important than for Indigenous Australians, who face a serious health crisis.
It is one of the greatest challenges facing our nation, and it is why for the first time all Australia's governments have committed to a set of six clear and ambitious targets to improve health, education and employment for Indigenous people.
It's called 'Closing the Gap' between Indigenous and other Australians in life expectancy, employment outcomes and other basic indicators of wellbeing. Closing the Gap is central to this government's mission.
In my own portfolio a range of Indigenous arts and culture programs, through to the joint management of world class Aboriginal-owned national parks like Kakadu, contribute to the national effort in Closing the Gap.
They provide training opportunities, employment and support for Indigenous cultural maintenance and well-being.
I want to highlight two flagship programs we deliver under the Government's Caring for our Country initiative, both of them highly relevant to this congress.
The Indigenous Protected Area program supports Indigenous landowners to develop, declare and manage Indigenous Protected Areas on their lands.
The program respects and contributes to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people's management of these lands.
It helps communities to develop skills, maintain connection to culture through the transmission of culture via elders, and supports landowners to develop co-operative arrangements with government agencies to help manage protected areas.
Today there are 37 declared Indigenous Protected Areas found all over Australia, covering more than 23 million hectares. In the last few months, Aboriginal landowners have declared three new IPAs.
Just north of Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, the new Angas Downs IPA stretches for more than 320,000 hectares across Australia's Red Centre. In the New South Wales tablelands, Tarriwa Kurrukun and Boorabee and the Willows protect stunning wetlands and stringy bark forests.
And on Tuesday this week, just south of Uluru, Anangu traditional owners will declare another vast new protected area in South Australia's APY Lands.
It is Kalka-Pipalyatjara Indigenous Protected Area, which will protect 580,000 hectares of arid desert habit with many endangered species like the warru or black-footed rock wallaby.
This means 13 new Indigenous Protected Areas in the last year alone, adding a remarkable three million hectares - an area roughly equivalent to a small European nation - to Australia's National Reserve System since Labor came to power.
And then there's our Working on Country investment, which provides employment and nationally accredited training for Indigenous people in land and sea management, in partnership with industry and others.
By the end of 2010, around 600 Indigenous rangers are expected to be employed through Working on Country in regional and remote communities right across Australia.
This will far exceed our election commitment of 300 new ranger positions, and we're doing it because this program is making a real difference to indigenous wellbeing.
In fact, both programs, at their essence, provide opportunities for Indigenous people to maintain connections with country and at the same time deliver important environmental outcomes for their land and the nation as a whole.
But these programs are about more than just conservation and jobs. Any Indigenous Australian will tell you of the close connection that exists between people and country. People like Wanyubi Marika, who is with is us here today.
Wanyubi is manager of the Laynhapuy IPA which stretches along the north-east Arnhem Land coast.
Along with other senior elders Wanyubi helps guide the management activities of the Yirralka rangers, using both traditional knowledge and western science to teach younger generations to care for their country.
I'm sure he'll tell you that his people not only gain jobs and skills, but greater personal well-being from their work on their own country.
Indigenous land and sea managers consistently report to us that their environmental work on country is leading to better health in communities, new role models and improved social cohesion.
Around 60 per cent of communities report positive outcomes for early childhood development and 85 per cent report improved early school engagement. 1
Some 74 per cent reportthat working on country makes a positive contribution toreduced substance abuse and that their work results in more functional families.
As they put it: "If you look after country then country will look after you."
But anecdotal reports aside, there is also some hard evidence of the link between healthy people and healthy country.
In 1998, a central Australian health evaluation of Utopia outstations found lower rates of diabetes, cardiovascular disease and hospitalisation, with consistent results maintained for the same residents in a follow-up study 10 years later. 2
A recent scientific study of nearly 300 Indigenous adults from Arnhem Land shows that those people actively involved in caring for country were much healthier than those who were not.
Reported in the Medical Journal of Australia in May last year 3, the study found that caring for country was "significantly associated with more frequent exercise and bush food consumption and with better health on most clinical outcomes".
These included lower body mass index, less abdominal obesity, less diabetes, lower blood pressure higher levels of 'good' cholesterol, less risk of heart disease and psychological stress.
So it seems we are starting to get solid evidence showing the importance of the connection of Indigenous people with their country to their wellbeing-supporting the circumstantial case we have long suspected, and providing a sure foundation for future action.
Our naturally healthy areas can be seen as part of our health infrastructure, which adds to the urgency that they are well managed and protected.
I began this address by pointing out that human health was one of the factors behind the decision to establish Australia's first national park.
But the decision also marked the popular beginnings of what we would recognise today as 'conservation', the need to set aside natural areas for other than purely utilitarian purposes.
The term biodiversity wasn't in vogue then, but the idea that nature was important to people and had values that needed protection was starting to take hold.
That brings me to the other major theme I want to touch on today.
In this International Year of Biodiversity, we have the opportunity to re-focus our attention on halting and reversing the decline in our biodiversity and to pay greater heed to the implications of this decline for sustaining life on earth.
Our biodiversity - unique and diverse - is a rich store of natural capital that provides the basics of human existence and prosperity.
Clean water, clean air, food and the products we make are all ultimately derived from this natural capital. Our superb natural areas also inspire us and enrich us both spiritually and artistically.
But for far too long we have taken these fundamental ecosystem services for granted.
While many natural assets have been converted into goods andservices that are of real and sometimes lasting value, too many have been lost due to unnecessary waste and a lack of knowledge. The fact is we have a system that rewards over-using resources often times more than conserving them.
Biodiversity conservation is a particular challenge under Australia's Constitution, where regulatory responsibilities for land management are split between State and Commonwealth levels.
When it comes, for example, to seeking agreement to a National Biodiversity Strategy which has been recently developed, I rely on cooperation from each State and Territory.
I'll be meeting with Natural Resource Management Ministerial Council in a couple of weeks where I'll be aiming to finalise a National Biodiversity Strategy which, for the first time, will have national targets. I'm very keen to see the full participation of all States and this crucial strategy agreed in this International Year of Biodiversity.
There are a number of other areas where I think fundamental reforms are needed in our approach to conserving biodiversity, and as Environment Protection Minister I am keen to pursue them. Two of those are particularly relevant to the subject of this congress.
Firstly, we need much better scientific knowledge about biodiversity,about the species we have, how they interact across wider landscapes and ecosystems and how to better deal with the various threats that assail our biodiversity.
But secondly, we also need much better understanding and awareness of the value of biodiversity to human health and wellbeing. We need policy makers and the public to understand the critical role and importance of ecosystem services to society and individuals.
I am glad to see that this is a core focus of this congress, and I look forward to hearing the reports of distinguished speakers such as Aaron Bernstein who have made major contributions in this field.
Conservation reserves are rightly regarded as the cornerstone of our effort to protect our natural capital. The science is clear that reserves do secure habitat and quarantine biodiversity, particularly in the context of a well managed landscape.
As a Minister I have championed and secured significant investments to build Australia's conservation network, with a strong focus on parks and reserves.
We have committed $230 million over five years through Caring for our Country to support expansion of the National Reserve System and Indigenous Protected Areas.
My commitment through Caring for our Countryis to increase the National Reserve System by 25 per cent or 25 million hectares by 2014. This means by 2014 in around 4 years, 15 per cent of Australia will be dedicated to parks, reserves and protected areas.
I've also been keen to see the economic value of protected areas recognised. To this end, the innovative National Landscapes partnership between Parks Australia and Tourism Australia is promoting Australia's exceptional natural and cultural experiences to the international market.
There are currently 10 National Landscapes across the country, including Victoria's fantastic Great Ocean Road, the majestic Australian Alps and the stunning Coastal Wilderness. I'm pleased to announce today that the Alps have developed a brand new experience development strategy -designed to give visitors the chance to better connect with this incredibly beautiful environment.
The corollary of this effort in high growth urban areas, where medium density development will be necessary, is better planning for green infrastructure. Parks and healthy places need to be recognised as the valuable community assets they are.
Overall, we need to ensure our parks and reserves, our botanic gardens and open spaces, are more widely understood and acknowledged as vital to the health of people and society as a whole.Only then will we secure the public and financial support to help these places remain healthy for future generations.
Let me conclude by wishing you all well for this inaugural Healthy Parks Healthy People Congress. I hope it will be as significant a milestone for the health of the country as the great debates in the New South Wales Parliament which established our first national park 131 years ago.
1 IPA monitoring and evaluation program data 2008/09
2 Rowley, K.G., O'Dea, K., Anderson, I., McDermott, R., Saraswati, K., Tilmouth, R., Roberts, I., Fitz, J., Wang, Z,, Jenkins, A,, Best, J,D,, Wang, Z and Brown, A. 2008. Lower than expected morbidity and mortality for an Australian Aboriginal population: 10-year follow-up in a decentralised community. Medical Journal of Australia 188: 283-287.
3 Burgess, C.P., Johnston, F.H., Berry, H.L., McDonnell, J., Yibarbuk, D., Gunabarra, C., Mileran, A. and Bailie, R.S. 2009. Healthy country, healthy people: the relationship between Indigenous health status and "caring for country". Medical Journal of Australia 190: 567-572.