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ADDRESS BY SENATOR IAN MACDONALD
KEYNOTE ADDRESS to the AMA Conference:
`AIR POLLUTION AND HEALTH - THE FACTS'


Level 3, AMA House, Macquarie Street, Barton
Monday 10 November 1997, 9.10am 1997

Senator the Hon Ian Macdonald
Parliamentary Secretary to the
Minister for the Environment

Introduction

Good morning ladies and gentlemen - let me say first how pleased I am to be here on behalf of Senator Hill, the Minister for the Environment, to outline to you today the Government's approach to the important, and topical, interlinked issues of air pollution and health.

This conference comes at an important time. Like many other countries, Australia is reassessing its air quality management goals and practices, as increased urbanisation, coupled with a strong reliance on motor cars, places pressure on the quality of the air we breathe.

The Commonwealth Government believes that the community as a whole has a significant role to play in determining and managing, the quality of Australia's air in the long term, and is therefore a keen supporter of fora such as this one which further the debate.

As earlier speakers today will have pointed out, while our air quality is mostly good, air pollution continues to rate as the number one environmental concern of the Australian community. The Government believes that timely and carefully considered action will help us address emerging problems effectively, as well as ensuring that we maintain the quality of our air into the future.

The relationship between air pollution and health was recently illustrated on our television screens with South-East Asia blanketed in smoke, which combined with the already severe urban air pollution to produce a toxic cocktail. The environmental and health ramifications of this ongoing episode are yet to be fully understood, but pictures of people wearing face masks on the street presented a very powerful image to the Australian viewer.

While the problems being experienced to our north are on a much larger scale than anything we have seen in Australia, they are a timely reminder of the importance of clean air and the need for pollution prevention at all levels.

Government responsibilities

As exposure to adverse air quality is generally involuntary, governments have an obvious duty of care. A logical way of discharging this responsibility is to work with all sectors to minimise emissions. Many of these reductions, even where standards and licence conditions are already being met, are achievable at little or no cost. Reduced exposure to air pollution has multiple benefits, not least of which is reduced health costs - an increasingly significant burden on the community.

As individuals we do not generally choose to live and work where the air quality is bad, and we certainly do not wish to raise our children under such conditions. Yet approximately two-thirds of the population live in capital city areas, and are therefore exposed to the emissions generated by the congestion on our roads, and the concentration of commercial activities and industry.

All Australian governments have recognised this responsibility, and over time have introduced a range of regulatory and management strategies to address the air quality issues experienced in different parts of the country.

Environment ministers, through the Australian and New Zealand Environment and Conservation Council (ANZECC), have a history of cooperation on air quality issues with the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC). Together these two bodies have published, and periodically revised and updated, national ambient air quality objectives for Australia for the most common pollutants. These pollutants are typically known as 'criteria' pollutants, and include such things as lead and ozone.

For many years these guidelines were used by the States and Territories in developing their own specific air quality standards or goals. Over time it has been recognised, however, that the standard of protection from air pollution should not be dictated by where you live. Rather, all Australians have a right to an equivalent level of protection from air pollution.

In addition, there has been a growing view that a level playing field is required across the country, to provide a degree of certainty and consistency for industry in respect to the standards they are expected to meet within Australia.

The National Environment Protection Council, which I will discuss in greater detail later, was established in 1994 to set national standards for air, water, noise and soil pollution. In the case of air quality, the Government's major and unique environment initiative, the Natural Heritage Trust , is providing funding to make these goals a reality.

It is this emerging national approach to the strategic management of our air quality that makes me particularly pleased to have been afforded this opportunity to address you today.

Commonwealth Action on Air Pollution

The Commonwealth's response to air pollution in Australia can be found in the Government's core environment programme - the $1.2 billion Natural Heritage Trust. The Air Pollution in Major Cities Programme has been designed to address, at the national level, air pollution problems in our cities and towns, with funding of $16 million over a five year period. It complements action underway by State and local governments. In its first years, the programme has begun with a focus on the development of national standards and strategies for the management of the six 'criteria' pollutants - ozone, particles, sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide and lead. I am pleased to be able to announce that two significant milestones have been achieved in recent days.

National air quality standards

The obvious starting point in developing and implementing a long term national approach to air quality management is to clearly establish the goalposts. This is important not only in protecting health, but in providing certainty to business and industry.

The National Environment Protection Council is a quite recent ministerial council (with members drawn from all Australian jurisdictions) which has actual law making powers to establish national standards - known as national environment protection measures - or if you are into acronyms, 'NEPMs'.

In June 1996, the Council directed that work should begin on preparing a Measure which would establish national ambient air quality standards and harmonise the manner in which air quality is monitored and reported across the country. The Council's decision was a direct response to community concerns about air quality as an environmental issue.

It was agreed that the protection of human health and well-being should be the objective of the new national standards and that standards should be developed in the first instance for the criteria pollutants.

Draft standards and a protocol addressing monitoring and reporting have been prepared over the last 12 months. In addition, an impact statement which considers the potential environment, social and economic ramifications which would flow from the adoption of such standards has also been drafted. A discussion paper was released for public consideration and input in June of this year, and submissions from the public were extremely useful in identifying issues of community concern. The redrafted measure was considered by the National Environment Protection Council last Friday (7 November).

At that meeting, Council agreed to release the draft standards and impact statement for public consultation. It did however stress that the release did not signify Council endorsement of every aspect of the document other than as a suitable basis for consultation with the community. The Measure will be widely publicised and distributed, with a minimum of two months allocated for public consultation.

I understand that the conference organisers have been provided with the new draft standards, to assist this afternoon's panel debate. I'm sure it will be a useful opportunity for health and environmental professionals, together with members of the community, to take an active role in progressing this important national process. Senator Hill and I look forward to the outcomes of this afternoon's debate.

I am advised that submissions from the public were extremely useful in the development of the draft. In particular, I would like to note that submissions from State health departments, health interest groups such as the Australian Lung Foundation and the Asthma Foundation of WA, and also the NHMRC were appreciated.

Air quality management strategies

Having set in train the process whereby the 'goalposts' for air quality management would be set, the Commonwealth turned its attention to identifying strategies to help achieve the standards in the medium to long term.

In October last year, Senator Hill commissioned the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering to conduct an independent Inquiry into Urban Air Pollution in Australia. By using a body outside the Government to conduct the Inquiry, it was hoped that innovative ideas would be brought to the fore by the professional community. The terms of reference were designed to draw out outcomes based recommendations, so that it would not turn into another government document to line the shelves of bureaucrats and academics.

The object of the Inquiry was to identify management options which governments, industry and the community could undertake to improve urban air quality in Australia, concentrating on the same six criteria pollutants for which national standards were being developed.

The terms of reference for the Inquiry were structured around the main sources of air pollution, and as a result particular attention was directed to emissions associated with motor vehicles.

A significant part of the work undertaken by the Academy was the development of a report identifying the current trends, scale and likely future sources of these pollutants in urban areas. I believe that Dr Alan Reid will be speaking at this morning's session with a presentation on the Academy's work in this area.

The Inquiry report will be formally handed-over by the Academy to the Minister for the Environment, I believe, sometime later this week, and then released to the public. The release is timed, as far as is practicable, to coincide with the release of the proposed national air quality standards. I would encourage you all to obtain a copy of the report, when it becomes available, and consider the two documents together.

Over the next few months the Government will need to decide which of the management options put forward by the Academy it wishes to adopt. Public input into this process will be important, and I would urge you, after reading the report, to write to the Minister with your suggestions.

Other Commonwealth actions

This year we also funded the Conservation Councils to run Smogbusters, a joint programme with the Commonwealth. The programme is designed to encourage higher patronage of public transport and reduced reliance on motor vehicles. I am pleased to see that the Smogbusters national coordinator, Bronwen Machin, will be speaking here later today.

Conclusion

Heightened public awareness about the health effects of urban air pollution means that health and environmental issues cannot longer be considered in isolation. Public concern is providing the impetus for the integration of health and environmental issues at the highest level. Today's conference is indicative of this.

Improving Australia's air quality requires a commitment to change, not only from governments, but also industry and the community at large. The Commonwealth government has taken on this challenge, and we are gradually moving from the identification of the problem, to the implementation of solutions. But this is not something that governments can do in isolation.

The release of both the findings of the Air Inquiry and the draft ambient air measure are ideal opportunities for the public, and health professionals in particular, to become more closely involved in the management of Australia's air quality.

I would encourage you to maximise both of these opportunities to further debate and understanding in this expanding field and to contribute your professional advice.

I would like to thank the AMA for organising today's conference, as it will further debate on these important issues. Your increasingly active involvement in air quality issues is compatible with the very high priority the government places on fighting air pollution. Thank you.

Commonwealth of Australia