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Transcript of the Hon Sharman Stone MP,
address to the International Landcare Conference,
Friday March 3 2000.

Let me begin by saying thanks very much for the introduction and Dr Saunders for his enlightening talk in relation to biodiversity.

In terms of my talking about the Natural Heritage Trust (NHT), I think that many of you would have been at the talk this morning where Minister Hill spoke on the NHT, and I assume that most of you are aware and familiar with some recipients of NHT funding - so I am not going to go through the mechanics of "What is NHT, and Regional Assessment Panels and State Assessment Panels...", unless you want to talk about that in Question Time. I think that I will take that as a given.

Let me say that in talking about the NHT, on the one hand I wear my Parliamentary Secretary hat and one of my particular responsibilities has been the mid-term review of the NHT and looking at Bushcare, how Bushcare has impacted on the Australian landscape and more recently, the National Vegetation Framework.

But that work has been informed by the fact that I am a sixth generation irrigation farmer from Northern Victoria. I grew up with the stigma of our farm being salty, and I say stigma because when I was growing up in the 50s and 60s you blamed the farmer for the salt, you said that farmer really is a poor operator, obviously over watering or over stocking. Given that farmers follow intergenerational family farm succession and there were three sisters in my family and one brother (my brother was the youngest born and it was assumed that he would carry on the family farm) if your farm is degrading then you have failed your sons - notice the emphasis on the masculine! You have failed your sons in passing on the family farm in the condition that you received it from your father in. Being the sixth generation, you can imagine how my father felt with the family farm degenerating before his eyes and it was the salt that was affecting it and so we did not talk much about it - but I did my Masters looking at impacts in the 1970s. It was the cause of a lot of mental health problems and suicides at that time.

We now know better in the year 2000. If you have a salinity problem, especially an irrigation farm salinity problem, it is not the individual farmer's fault - it's a regional issue that can only be attacked on a regional front. The reason why your land is saline is as much to do with the taking off of vegetation from the intake areas, in the case of Northern Victoria back in the 1860s and 1870s, as it is to do with the irrigation system that was designed and put into place back in 1886 (the oldest in Australia).

So, what we have done in Northern Victoria in addressing the salinity problem I see as a bit of a microcosm of what the NHT has done nationally. What we did in Northern Victoria is we looked at the cause of the problem, looked at what education/information needed to occur for people to understand the issues. We looked at stakeholder driven strategy planning. We said it is just no good or pointless to have Phd's written on the hydrography of the Northern plains or having the Mines Department or State Rivers (as it was then) having technicians monitoring ground water systems, if none of that information was transferred to the farmers who continued to manage the land in the way they always had.

It was no good still having a pricing policy for irrigation water, which in the 70s said that whether you used your water or not you still paid a certain amount for it. So, in Northern Victoria, we had to shift all of those different aspects in order to address the salinity problem. The price of water, the transferability of water entitlement - which occurred in 1989 in Victoria, we had to look at information education of course and we had our school kids involved in Saltwatch which eventually became Waterwatch. Our schoolkids became the drivers in what eventually became a totally informed and educated population. We engaged government - local, State and the Murray Darling Basin Commission (Federal Government) with local landholders in a planning process that took two years on average in each region, which was funded by Government and had at the end of the day, a strategy which included incentives (and disincentives) and regulations. In other words a whole package of aspects which meant that in Northern Victoria we increased our productivity on what is highly saline land. Less than half a metre from the surface and often on the surface in many places.

So with the NHT - what have we done?

Well, I could give you the list. I could tell you 'Well through the NHT we have investment in small groups produced x tonnes of native seed or x tonnes of fencing around endangered habitats' or say how many stems we have planted, the number of hours put in by volunteers and the number of dollars invested, and so on. I could produce that list and that would be fine - that in itself is an outcome from the NHT which will in the long run and even in the short run, assist in our biodiversity protection. To me, all of that is critical and that has happened. In our first year of the NHT (1996/97) unless we had those sorts of outcomes or acquittals it might have been perceived that we had not succeeded. But now I think the greatest outcome from the NHT has to be a whole range of things, that are on about a new world order in Australia for natural resource management - what am I talking about?

Well, for example what the NHT has done is it has forced the Commonwealth and the States (together) to come up with agreed principles and benchmarks and standards for various natural resource management elements. Like for example, how do you define a "stressed stream"? How do you measure an environmental flow or what are the impacts of various regimes on environmental flows? These issues relate to the National River Health Program, and we are still working on those issues let me say. It has forced us, as we have gone around state-by-state to say together what in Australia is the absolute minimum standards that we have to achieve to get to a biodiverse outcome that is sustainable.

Let me talk about one outcome that I actually launched this morning - the National Vegetation Framework (NVF). The Framework has the Bushcare ideal embedded in it - and what is that Bushcare ideal? That we will have achieved by 2001 the reversal of the long-term decline in the quality and extent of Australia's native vegetation cover. The NVF says that this will occur by June 2001. Let me translate that jargon. Basically what we are saying is at the moment we have this continued loss of our native vegetation, as we know. Professor Saunders referred to the Queensland problem, NSW has broken out of late as well, there are other states with problems - Victoria has a grasslands problem as our speaker referred to a moment ago. We don't have a timber problem as such, we cleared the backside out of that by the late 1980s - when we bought in our vegetation laws in Victoria we had mostly done the job. But we now have indigenous grassland problems.

This National Vegetation Framework Agreement - one of Australia's best kept secrets. It probably would not have come about, except that we had that interstate and Federal co-operation, leveraged by $1.5 billion in NHT funding and had States, Territory and Commonwealth talking together about national standards. So instead of pre-NHT where we had each state doing its own thing, when you are talking about sharing a pot of money that size you start to get some leverage.

So the Commonwealth can now say "Well hang on, before we share with you this money (which you are going to help match) what are going to be some of the conditions and guidelines and principles that we are going to agree to". Before NHT we did not have that leverage, because at Federation in 1901 the Constitution didn't give the Commonwealth any right to tell the States what to do in the case of land or water. It left that right in the hands of the States and Territories. The Commonwealth has not had that leverage, but the NHT gave us that leverage - $1.5 billion worth! Please do not underestimate how important that has been. This NVF agreement which has that goal of having by 2001, mid year, reduced the loss of vegetation, has State plans attached to it. And those State plans, they are already in existence depending on which State we are talking about. All of the States are supposed to be consulting their stakeholders on those plans and by April this year the Australian and New Zealand Environment and Conservation Council (ANZECC) will be re-examining those plans and then later this year we will have the second monitoring and evaluation of how the States have performed in terms of vegetation plans. For instance we have Queensland's, which says that it will have legislation in place.

So the NHT has redefined the responsibilities and accountabilities across Australia, in terms of where we go with these natural resource management issues. They are of critical importance. Professor Saunders talked about the environment and how our natural resources do not respect state boundaries. We have pre-dated the NHT of course with bodies like the Murray Darling Basin Commission (MDBC), but what the NHT has also done, with its programs, is to bring urban and rural people into the same thinking in terms of biodiversity protection.

So we have Urban Bushcare as well as Country Bushcare. We also have the Landcare groups who have been able to generate additional publicity and resources and so there is now Urban Landcare as well.

Let me talk for a minute about seeds and seedbanks. The NHT has put some $7m into Greening Australia to set up over 60 seedbanks across Australia. Now prior to NHT a lot of people had not heard of seedbanks. We have created such a demand for indigenous species and planting, that at the moment there is a crisis of seed availability. In addition to the $7m investment with Greening Australia we are now in fact, setting up across this country a commercial seedbank industry where farmers are able to perhaps for a day or two go out onto their properties where they have one or two tree species that the seed is needed from. They can earn quite good money, or their kids can earn quite good money doing that harvesting at the right time, using the florabank protocols which the NHT has funded to help develop. And so we have got an emerging seedbank industry or seed industry growing well beyond the mining companies who were originally the only ones interested in buying indigenous seed.

That is a direct outcome I believe of the NHT. We have a lot more of that work to go. But today, I find people talking about seedbanks right across Australia. Before that we did not have a real sense of the need to plant indigenous species when you went about your revegetation. In fact in the earliest days, I know we planted a lot of Tasmanian Bluegum on our place. We thought that was the thing that you did, because my God they grew fast! And they hung on longer than most before their toes got in the salt. Now what do we do? We are out there planting the boxes, the yellow and the grey boxes and some of the indigenous melaleucas. How do we do that? By using our local seed.

Let me say that CSIRO through people like Dr Judy West from the Centre for Plant Biodiversity are using DNA to work out how we stop some of the inbreeding of some our local species through that seedbank work. That sort or work, helped with NHT funding, is going to mean our biodiversity is preserved. Let me just say to you, that the NHT has been kicked of late because some people say that those dollars have just been spent as we have moved along, that it was not a real trust. We put up fences and planted stems but hey, we did not stop Queensland from doing what it is now. Or those groups that took so much effort to get their grant, the grant came late and they missed their opportunity to do their seed collecting or planting. It was all too hard. Can I say to you that it is easy to say those sorts of things but if you stand back and look at we have achieved over 2 1/2 years, if you look at the new era and the new aura that exists between the States, Local Government, Non Government Organisations, local community groups and the Federal Government. If you look at how we now have a whole range of national strategies and I can mention a lot of these to you. You probably know a lot of these, the National Strategy for Ecologically Sustainable Development, the National Strategy for Australia's Biological Diversity, the National Greenhouse Strategy, the National Forest Policy Statement, the Decade of Landcare Plan - we have got all of these national statements.

When you have got dollars attached to NHT they start to pull together and turn into real work on the ground.

That is what the NHT has managed to do. It has put dollars in people's pockets to turn those strategies into plans and action. And in particular let me say that I do not think that we would have had so much success in bringing about our new Environmental Protection and Biological Conservation Act (EPBC Act) which will commence in July. That will bring about a whole new set of relationships and defined responsibilities between the States and the Commonwealth. If you are not familiar with that Act please get familiar with it. But the sorts of relationships built with the NHT in the framework agreements between the States and the Commonwealth are now those same linkages allowing us to work on bilateral agreements for the new Act. And that new Act gives the Commonwealth for the first time in the history of Federation real powers to overview the national natural resource priorities of this country. So for me that is what the NHT has done. It has given us for the first time a national perspective. It has given us some money for leverage to make the States work with the Commonwealth Government. Not just because we are the Commonwealth Government, but because we represent the national interest. That co-operation is absolutely critical. So let me say that as far as I am concerned if the Australian Conservation Foundation shoots off arrows and says "You should not have put NHT money into irrigated agriculture" well I just think that's not an understanding of why irrigated agriculture needs to be made sustainable. If someone else says too much money was spent on admin, I say less than 30% of NHT money has ever gone into admin and many people would remember that this is more money spent on the ground than any other Government project.

What we have to look toward is life after NHT. That is the new Natural Resource Management strategy - now out for consultation. You need to think about that and participate in that too.

So I will leave it there for questions, but let me tell you that the NHT could not exist without the work that you do as Australians who care about the environment. Thank you for meeting the challenge and I hope that NHT dollars did assist you on the ground wherever you are. But think of the big picture. It also had a long-term effect in terms of future people having more than their local patch to think about.

Thank you very much.

Commonwealth of Australia