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Senator the Honourable Robert Hill
Minister for the Environment and Heritage


Benefactors' Day Speech
Waite Agricultural Institute
Waite Campus, University of Adelaide
27th November 1999

Introduction

It is a pleasure to speak to you today at a function that recognises the role that philanthropy has played in establishing the Waite Agricultural and Research Institute, now Waite Campus.

I would also like to take this opportunity to discuss the important relationship between the development of Government policies and research institutions, like the Waite Institute especially in promoting the integration of sustainable primary production and environmental conservation. And naturally I wish to acknowledge the important role that benefactors have played at Waite and the role of philanthropy more broadly in addressing natural resource management issues.

History of the Waite Campus

As many of you will be aware, the Waite Institute was established as a result of a philanthropic gesture by Mr Peter Waite, who left the family property, "Urbrrae" to the University of Adelaide in 1922. The University of Adelaide then established the Waite Institute at "Urbrrae" in 1924.

Today, the Waite Campus is notable in part because it incorporates several other research groups including the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), the South Australian Department of Primary Industries and Resources (PIRSA), the South Australian Research and Development Institute (SARDI), and The Australian Wine Research Institute.

It must be a source of immense pride to know that co-location and co-operation of these groups has created the largest concentration of expertise in the Southern Hemisphere in the areas of sustainable agriculture, dryland farming and land management.

Sustainable Agriculture and the Natural Heritage Trust:

Let me talk a little about another co-operative endeavour that is now under full swing. Cooperative effort is the underlying philosophy of the Government's efforts to integrate sustainable primary production with environmental conservation through the Natural Heritage Trust. The Natural Heritage Trust is the largest environmental investment ever made by an Australian Government - an investment based on partnership and action. This Government has committed $1.5 billion to restoring, protecting and enhancing the productive capacity, of our rural landscapes.

It is a partnership with all levels of government; industry and the community aimed at establishing institutional arrangements, policies, programs and practices that encourage sustainable natural resource use.

And it is about getting things done on the ground. After two years many thousands of Australians are involved in Trust-funded programs like Bushcare, Landcare and Coastcare - a level of activity in biodiversity conservation and sustainable primary production unparalleled in Australia's history.

We're now seeing many farmers and pastoralists replanting native vegetation which they or their forebears removed. Farmers and Landcare Groups have now become the front line in our national effort to integrate sustainable resource management and biodiversity values into agricultural production.

Research has found that members of Landcare groups are more likely to be engaged in property and catchment planning, biodiversity conservation and more likely to adopt sustainable practices. So, by getting farmers and their families involved in Trust activities, we are investing in their future as well as in environmental improvements here and now.

However, national problems like land clearing, species loss, greenhouse emissions, salinity and declining inland river quality are so urgent that they cannot be dealt with just at the local scale, or only by rural communities. We need a combination of approaches to reach all Australians, and this is one area where research and development can play a critical role.

The Need to Change our Ways:

Australia has a short history of cultivation compared to other nations, but this has not prevented us from doing a great deal of damage. Many of the current problems we are experiencing developed slowly over the last two centuries, accelerating over the last four decades to the point that they are now impossible to ignore.

Much of the landscape is now on the brink. At least 89 native plant species have become extinct in the past 200 years, with farming pressures causing some 80% of those extinctions.

Dryland salinity currently affects an estimated 2.5 million hectares in the Murray-Darling Basin and the Western Australian wheatbelt, and recent predictions see this rising to 15 million hectares if current land management practices continue. Apart from the irreplaceable loss in biodiversity, this costs Australia hundreds of millions of dollars per year in lost production.

We have to face the harsh reality of environmental problems on a continental scale. Some see broadacre tree planting as a panacea to salinity and biodiversity loss. If only it was so simple. As most people here know, planting trees can lower watertables but not if they are planted in the wrong part of a catchment or only cover a small portion of it. And trees will not help conserve biodiversity if they are the wrong species mixes.

We need to use the right vegetation in the right place at the right time, and we need to know how to sustainably use the resources that we do have left. Natural resource management research is one of the keys to that.

Agricultural Research, Adaptive Management and the Role of Government:

The enormous value of research to addressing key issues facing society does not need to be pointed out to this audience. Science and technological innovation have been integral to many of society's advances, not least in providing productivity gains in agriculture.

Recent advances include using remote sensing and airborne electro-magnetic surveys to map land and river systems susceptible to dryland salinity. This helps landholders and catchment managers to develop and implement effective strategies.

New agricultural techniques and systems such as minimum tillage, cell grazing, alley farming, and precision farming are all helpful. But, the challenge is ongoing - and sustainable agriculture depends on our researchers and economists devising production systems that are much better suited to Australian environments.

There is no question that the tertiary education sector plays a primary role in the development of leading edge research into environment management issues at both a domestic and international level. The University of Adelaide's Faculty of Agricultural and Natural Resources Science here at Waite Campus is a fine example of this.

While research provides solutions to problems of natural resource conservation, it is governments that play a crucial role in establishing an enabling framework for sustainability.

Governments are best placed to support integrated regional natural resource management planning; to support implementation of landcare principles with incentives commensurate with the public good; to set appropriate standards backed by regulation; and to encourage both commitment to and investment in, sustainable development.

The Commonwealth Government recognises that results from scientific research are needed to underpin government investment in sustainability, to ensure that public money is invested wisely.

There is a clear role for government funded research where the nature of the research involves a public good, such as biodiversity and the ecological services that native vegetation provides. Currently, Trust funded programs prioritise and manage their own R&D efforts. This approach is working well and is underpinned by good logic. It enables program managers to directly control the direction of research in a way that serves program objectives.

Natural Heritage Trust program managers have developed a good understanding of broader R&D activities and have a good knowledge of the capabilities of the major R&D practitioners in their respective field. Because funds for research are limited, it is crucial adaptive management techniques are used to make sure that research funds are directed to areas of most need. It is also essential that research and development activities be clearly focussed on informing improved management responses.

This means using the best available information to start to manage a situation before it gets even worse, rather than hesitating until every piece of information is in and all systems are fully developed.

These approaches require on-going monitoring of the natural resource condition, so that necessary adjustments can be made to management practices, and performance can be measured.

Because adaptive management tends to fail when land managers do not take up answers provided by research, it is essential to have a consistent two-way flow of information between researchers and managers

Too often the messages are not getting through quickly enough to make a difference on ground, or worse still, the wrong questions are being addressed. Natural Heritage Trust research funds are therefore largely directed towards scientists working directly to disseminate information to stakeholders at the property or catchment level.

A strong partnership between researchers and landholders, and research which is relevant to the needs of landholders is the key to preventing communication gaps.

Communication of the results of research can be as important as the research itself - if no-one hears about great research or people cannot understand or use the results, for all intents and purposes it might as well not have happened. This is something researchers and policymakers all need to keep under constant review.

The Work at Waite:

Much of the great agricultural research happening, happens here in the Faculty of Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences, and much of your work parallels the objectives of the Natural Heritage Trust, as can be seen in the Commonwealth's decisions to support projects here at the University of Adelaide. I wanted to mention just one.

In 1997, the Waite institute and the South Australian Research and Development Institute set the wheels-in-motion to investigate the plant disease, Mundulla Yellows, which is threatening a wide range of our native plant species. The Commonwealth contributed some funds to form a small working group to investigate the cause as a foundation for providing directions towards eventual management and control of the threat.

Most recently we have dedicated a further funding from the Bushcare program to continue investigation of the cause and impacts of Mundulla Yellows. The project aims to identify the causal agent, develop diagnostic procedures and survey the incidence and distribution of the disease as initial steps towards the development of control strategies.

I am delighted that this money will be committed to the group working in the Waite Institute based on recognition of their existing expertise and experience to continue this work.

The Benefactors

Since today is dedicated to the Benefactors of Waite, it is fitting to mention the role of philanthropy to natural resource conservation. Certainly without the generous support of former benefactors, the Faculty of Agricultural and Natural Resources Sciences would not be as it is today.

I am sure you will be interested to know that some of leading philanthropists in Australia recently contributed to a useful discussion paper identifying policy initiatives that could create a strong and vibrant market for private investment and philanthropic donations of land, for nature conservation.

The paper, called "Philanthropy sustaining the land", explores issues such as tax deductions and exemption from capital gains tax related to donations and other mechanisms for land to be protected for conservation. It also considers tax incentives and the need for legislation to foster establishment of private land conservation trusts.

I, for one, am determined to do what I can to ensure that we provide a very fertile environment for a flourishing of private investment in the conservation of our priceless natural heritage, in the same way as occurs for heritage buildings and works of art. In fact, this is one taxation incentive we are legislating in the next fortnight

As part of Benefactor's Day, I am honoured to be able to launch the booklet Do and hope: realising the Waite vision. This colourful publication provides a vision for the future and highlights the many benefactions that have assisted and supported the development of the Campus over its 75-year history. It details benefactor-funded research which has focussed on pastoral pursuits and managing environments, production and livestock. The booklet outlines how Waite graduates have contributed to the community.

I am advised the publication will be made available to everyone at Benefactors Day and afterwards a copy will be mailed to the Wait's list of existing and prospective benefactors.

Public money has never and will never be enough if we are to meet our responsibilities and realise our goals. Private contributions have helped build and still sustain the world's best research institutions so we should properly recognise and encourage those who give in this way.

Conclusion

Finally, in focussing on the many problems that face us in the management of Australia's natural resources, it is all too easy to lose sight of what an extraordinary continent this is, with landscapes, plants, birds and animals like no other.

The vastness, uniqueness and sheer attraction of 'natural Australia' is a defining element of everything Australian. But we must manage our landscapes and our biodiversity as if we are here to stay, rather than just passing through.

Commonwealth of Australia