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As Parliamentary Secretary in the Environment Portfolio, I am delighted to have this opportunity to open the Fourth Annual Conference on Soil and Water Management for Urban Development.
As Parliamentary Secretary to Senator the Hon Robert Hill, the Minister for the Environment, I have the great pleasure of assisting him with his crucial portfolio at a time of great challenges and even greater opportunities.
Although Senator Hill has a keen interest in this area of the portfolio and would have liked to have been here today, he has asked me to address this conference on his behalf as he is required to be in parliament for question time.
There is no doubt that in this, the driest, flattest and most poorly drained of all continents, improving the management of our precious soil and water is a critical environmental priority.
Despite the dry nature of our environment, Australia is fortunate to have a beautiful, diverse and often unique environment. Our world renowned environment is a priceless asset which we all have a responsibility to protect.
The recently released State of the Environment Report shows that Australia has some very serious environmental problems. More importantly, the Report shows that many of these problems are not beyond repair.
The Report found that the environmental problems of our large cities are among our most important environmental concerns because of the scale of human activity these cities represent.
Transport systems, stormwater and sewage, and other waste disposal systems continue to have substantial adverse impacts on our environment, particularly biodiversity and water quality. These problems, in turn, have a direct impact on people in our community who, quite rightly, expect quality water to drink and clean air to breathe.
They do not want to see precious soils blown away, our beaches polluted, or our unique flora and fauna put at risk.
The Report concludes that if we are to achieve our goal of ecological sustainability, these problems need to be dealt with immediately.
Integrating Environmental Protection and Economic Growth
You, and the organisations and industries you represent, have an important role to play in addressing some of these environmental problems.
You don’t need me here to tell you this. Your presence here today indicates to me that you are well aware of this fact.
In addressing these environmental problems, we must recognise that protection of our environment is an investment in our priceless natural capital. It is the fundamental protection of the natural resources which underpin material wealth and our quality of life.
Environmental best practice and long term profits are complementary not competing goals. Ultimately, there is no trade off between environmental integrity and economic viability.
Our Government will not be satisfied with having achieved a more sustainable growing economy with a stronger small business sector, better job opportunities and security for families, lower debt and lower interest rates.
These are all vital objectives for all our citizens and for our nation. We have a great challenge to repair the economy. We will not however be satisfied with achievement in this area of policy if we are not able to make a significant, measurable, and historic change to our natural environment.
The is a vital part of our mission and it transcends the daily political rhetoric on the floor of the Senate.
This is supported by public opinion polls which have consistently shown that a vast majority of Australians believe environment protection and economic growth are equally important.
The Australian community wants rising living standards through development that is ecologically sustainable.
The Australian Financial Review recently reported that there is a wave sweeping through world economies which is seeing business and environmental interests converge, to provide commercial gains.
This is the challenge which Australia’s natural resource managers must come to grips with - and a challenge which I hope your conference will be considering over the next few days.
This is the challenge that confronts the Senate this month.
I still regard it as not too late for the Democrats to back the Telstra/Natural Heritage Trust package.
In spite of yesterdays Senate Committee report on the partial sale of Telstra, there are far more points of agreement on this issue between the party’s than there are points of disagreement.
Even on the issue of funding of the package the Democrats have agreed to use Telstra revenue to pay for it on some occasions. On other occasions they have said that the package should be funded from the budget.
Even on the funding issue, the reality is that the effect of using the partial sale proceeds to funds the program is equivalent to an $80 million annual budget line item to fund the program.
With the extraordinary exception of the environment, Government policy is to use sale proceeds to repatriate Commonwealth borrowings and to reduce the debt interest repayments required in future budgets.
The $1 Billion investment in the Natural Heritage Trust is therefore an effective $80 million revenue forgone.
I am perhaps being unrealistic but I do believe that it is not inconceivable that the Democrats will support the sale of on third of Telstra and that if their real concerns are guarantees on service provisions that they work constructively to achieve legislation and regulations to achieve this objective.
Regardless the Government remains committed to the package and will continue to work hard to gain the support of a majority of the Senate.
Stormwater is a Valuable Resource
Often in the past we have not treated our scarce resources wisely. Stormwater is no exception.
Historically, we have considered stormwater runoff as a nuisance to be disposed of as quickly and efficiently as possible. The adverse environmental impacts of stormwater have been largely ignored.
I am pleased to see that through conferences such as this, with its theme ‘Beyond the Drain: Future Direction for Stormwater Management’, that stormwater is now being recognised as a potentially valuable resource.
I know you are all well aware of the problems caused by urban stormwater runoff - problems such as pollution of beaches, increased nutrients in rivers leading to algal blooms, sedimentation, and so on.
If we are to achieve the ecologically sustainable management of stormwater we need to consider these environmental impacts in conjunction with the social and economic impacts of stormwater, and the potential benefits to be gained from using it more wisely.
We need to consider how we can retain and re-use as much stormwater as possible while maintaining the flows that are necessary for the ecological integrity of our waterways.
There is a need to focus on stormwater management at the urban catchment scale, and recognise the downstream effects of our actions.
And, we need to examine the potential for the expanded collection, storage and re-use of stormwater for a range of purposes such as watering lawns, parks and playing fields, car washing, or creating artificial lakes and wetlands for recreation.
It has been said that, ideally, stormwater run-off from urban areas should be approximately the same as it would have been before the cities were built. Obviously this aim is not easy to achieve, but with governments, industry and communities working co-operatively together, I believe it is a relevant framework.
Commonwealth Programs/Natural Heritage Trust
How can the Commonwealth Government help in achieving this goal and in addressing our other environmental problems?
The State of the Environment Report I referred to earlier, calls for a strategic, integrated approach to tackling the environmental problems facing our nation.
This is precisely what the Federal Government will deliver through the Natural Heritage Trust.
The Trust will be funded through a one third privatisation of Telstra. The remaining two thirds of Telstra will be retained by the Government.
This will be enough to encourage a more commercial philosophy into the company, encourage its modernisation and assist it to become an internationally competitive multi-media company.
What we are essentially doing is transferring funds from one government asset to perhaps Australia’s most important asset, and the asset in the greatest need of maintenance, our environment.
The financial returns from the sale will not be immediate. It is a long term investment, an investment for Australia’s future, an investment for the generations to follow.
The sale of Telstra will provide a long-term and identifiable source of environmental funding, free from the vagaries of annual budget negotiations.
The soil and water management programs, quite appropriately, make up a large part of the Natural Heritage Trust.
Through the Natural Heritage Trust, the Government has committed over $633 million to tackle these problems.
The National Land and Water Resources Audit will provide the first ever national appraisal of the extent of land and water degradation in Australia. At a cost of $32 million over 5 years, the audit will undoubtedly be comprehensive.
The Trust will also fund a comprehensive package of measures, which includes the National Rivercare Initiative, with $85 million to be provided over five years.
The Government recognises that urban stormwater is a major source of pollution affecting some of our most important river systems. As part of the National Rivercare Initiative the Government will assist in the funding of pilot stormwater management projects.
These projects will develop cost effective means of stripping stormwater of nutrients and pollutants and wherever possible making use of the stormwater.
We will also provide additional assistance to communities to enable the development of low cost water reuse projects in regional areas of Australia.
The Rivercare Initiative will be complemented by the Murray-Darling 2001 Project, which will provide $150 million to contribute to the rehabilitation of the Murray-Darling Basin.
A key component of this Project will involve improving water quality in the Basin through salt and nutrient reduction, including re-use and off-river disposal of sewage and stormwater.
The Government also recognises that removal of vegetation for urban development has impacted on the water cycle, with poor ground cover leading to increased surface runoff.
The Government is therefore funding important conservation and community education projects in urban areas through programs such as Save the Bush, One Billion Trees, and the Urban Forests Program.
Under the umbrella of the Urban Forests Program, for example, the Commonwealth has committed some $200,000 over four years to the Greener Sydney 2000 project.
This project aims to conserve and establish vegetation along Sydney’s land and water transport corridors prior to the Sydney Olympics.
The Olympic marathon route was chosen as the Greener Sydney 2000 pilot project and seventeen community planting days have already been held along the 42 kilometre route.
These vegetation activities will be significantly enhanced through the $318 million to be allocated from the Natural Heritage Trust to the National Vegetation Initiative.
The aim of this initiative is to reverse the long term decline in the extent and quality of Australia’s native vegetation cover.
The Trust will also provide $100 million for theCoasts and Clean Seas initiative, to tackle coastal pollution ‘hot spots’ and significant threats to Australia’s marine biodiversity.
Funds for on-ground works will aim to improve problems associated with ocean outfalls, stormwater pollution and oil spills. Support will be provided for the preparation of local water quality management plans.
The Commonwealth Government is also actively involved in the National Water Reform Agenda, being developed by the Council of Australian Governments for implementation by 2001.
Stormwater management and wastewater re-use are key issues being examined as part of this process. Reducing the level of wastewater from its source by appropriate pricing and demand management is another key issue that needs to be addressed as part of the reforms.
This Government has great faith in the Australian community to act co-operatively to confront our environmental problems. We firmly believe that the people who live in a community, a catchment or a region, are central to any efforts to improve management of natural resources.
Real progress will only be achieved if all Australians - all sections of the community, all levels of government and businesses large and small - work together in an integrated, catchment by catchment approach.
This is a key principle which will underpin all of the Natural Heritage Trust activities.
Consistent with this approach, we believe that urban stormwater problems can only be solved with active community involvement. The Government will support, through the Rivercare initiative, community education programs on river health.
The aim of these programs will be to inform the commercial sector and the general public about the importance of keeping pollutants such as litter, garden refuse, chemicals, oils and greases out of our urban waterways.
In partnership with the States and local communities, this initiative will also support the development of community based river action plans. Community projects in areas such as waterway rehabilitation, bank stabilisation, river clean ups, erosion control and wetland rehabilitation will be encouraged.
The Government will also continue the successful community monitoring program, Waterwatch, which now operates in nearly 90 river catchments across the country.
The Natural Heritage Trust demonstrates this Government’s commitment to addressing land and water degradation in this country.
I hope that through this conference you are able to take away some new and innovative ideas and practical solutions for soil and water management in our urban areas - ideas and solutions which recognise the benefits in merging commercial and environmental objectives.
Thank you again for the opportunity to open this important conference. I wish you all the best in your endeavours over the next few days.