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13 November 1997

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

Senator Macdonald: Thank you very much. Chairman Pat Botto, and the Honourable Howard Hobbs, Mayors, Councillors, Chairmen of River Trusts, other members of River Trusts, and ladies and gentlemen.

It's a real delight and honour for me to be with you today, and to have the opportunity of saying a few words to you. I have never actually worked on a River Trust organisation personally, but I always, as a young solicitor, took an interest in the Burdekin River Improvement Trust Act, which of course as you all know, was the forerunner to the River Trust Acts. And the Burdekin River Trust from my home town of Ayr led the way in all of these things, and has been going for almost 50 years now. When I was on the Burdekin Shire Council for 11 years, we followed very closely the activities of the Burdekin River Improvement Trust. And so it's great to be associated with River Trusts again, albeit in the greater grouping of the North Queensland River Trusts Association.

River Trusts can, and do, play a very key role in achieving on-ground environment outcomes. Your knowledge and understanding of the problems facing rivers under your care, and your combined experience in addressing those problems put you in a very good position to make a significant contribution to on-ground river restoration.

Living as we do in the driest continent, most Australians understand and appreciate the critical importance of water for sustaining life and supporting human settlements. We know all too well that our rivers are ribbons of life which flow through an often dry land. But despite this knowledge, over the past 200 years - a mere blink of an eye compared with the age of this ancient continent - we have managed to place unsustainable demands upon our rivers and waterways.

Australian rivers are amongst the most variable in the world. This variability poses real problems for sustainably managing our river systems. For example, the amount of water which can reasonably be diverted for irrigation or other human activities one year, may be beyond the capacity of that river system in the next. As a result of this variability and our limited rainfall, we have constructed large storage and extensive engineering works to move water from one part of the country to another. While irrigation schemes and engineering works have contributed to our overall standard of living and prosperity, we are also now seeing the impacts of unsustainable use and we're feeling these impacts in our back pockets.

We are becoming increasingly aware of the loss of native fish, of outbreaks of toxic blue-green algae, of rising salinity and deteriorating water quality. Our rivers and wetlands are under increasing pressure from drainage clearing and changes to water flows. The diversion of water for irrigation purposes has also altered the natural flow regimes of many waterways, causing a loss of plant and animal species diversity in the aquatic systems, and in reducing river health.

Further compounding the issue, we are on average one of the largest users of water per head of population in the world. In some areas, potential demand for water exceeds the total water available. Difficult decisions are required to strike a balance between allocating water for production, and allocating water to maintain the ecological integrity of the river system itself. We need to learn from our past mistakes. We should ensure that we do not repeat the mistakes that are so evident in the Murray-Darling Basin, where unsustainable levels of water extraction for irrigation, together with poorly informed decision making, has contributed to widespread land and water degradation.

The environmental health of our rivers requires the allocation of environmental flows to restore and protect them. We are well aware that the health of our rivers underpins our agricultural economy, as well as our urban centres and the country as a whole. Sadly, we can also see the quite dreadful impacts of water shortage and degraded water quality, resulting from the current drought conditions stretching across Indonesia, Papua-New Guinea, and some of the countries of the western Pacific. These events force us to recognise just how precious water is.

The Government is determined to reverse this decline. Together with all of the States and Territories, we have committed to the restoration of flows necessary for sustaining healthy river systems. We have specifically agreed that by the end of 1998, rivers under stress will have been identified, and flows sufficient to restore their environmental health will have been reinstated. Key initiatives under the Commonwealth Government's 1.25 billion dollar Natural Heritage Trust will provide resources for Governments and communities to protect and restore precious water resources. Some of the Trust investments such as the National River Health Program, the Murray-Darling 2001, Rivercare, and the Wetlands program will have direct benefits for our rivers. Other investments such as Bushcare and Landcare, will also provide significant assistance in maintaining the health of our rivers and our catchments.

The focus is now to re-invest in Australia's natural capital in a way which protects and enhances our standard of living and the natural environment, while ensuring that future generations do not suffer as a result of over-exploitation. The Commonwealth Government established the Natural Heritage Trust to provide the funding required for projects which directly address pressing environmental issues at a local, regional and national level. The Trust provides the foundations for the future long term sustainable management of Australia's natural resources. A distinguishing feature of this Government's approach to the environment is that we have great faith in the Australian people to act cooperatively to confront the national challenge.

The Commonwealth Government is committed to developing cooperative approaches that will tap the enormous enthusiasm which exists throughout the Australian community for the restoration and protection of our unique environment - enthusiasm, I might say, which is reflected in the work that River Improvement Trusts do.

It is with great pleasure that I note, as Minister Hobbs has done, that a number of Queensland River Improvement Trusts applications have been successful under the current NATURAL HERITAGE TRUST funding round, and I commend those River Trusts, and all of you, for the work you do in enhancing and protecting the region's aquatic ecosystems. And as Minister Hobbs has mentioned, the Whitsunday, Herbert, Cairns and Cardwell Shire River Improvement Trusts will receive various forms and amounts of NATURAL HERITAGE TRUST funding for projects in their river catchment areas. And I look forward very much to seeing the results of those projects, and also to the Major Project which Minister Hobbs mentioned, the Linking Rainforest to Reef: Managing North Queensland's Rivers, which the Association has submitted as a whole.

The key initiative under the Natural Heritage Trust targeted as improving the management and condition of our rivers, is the National Rivercare Program. The primary aim of the National Rivercare Program is the sustainable management, rehabilitation, and conservation of rivers in Australia, other than the Murray-Darling River, which of course has received separate funding. Rivercare will help ensure that we better allocate resources to improving our river environments.

In taking its decision to commit 97 million dollars of NATURAL HERITAGE TRUST money to the National Rivercare Program, the Commonwealth Government has clearly recognised that there are major degradation problems facing our rivers. The problems are not limited to one particular area, but span the nation as a whole, and that existing resources were in no way adequate to address the forces of those problems. Put simply, the primary outcomes expected from the National Rivercare Program include the protection of, and improvement in, the water quality and ecologically sustainable values of our river systems. This will contribute to sustainable agricultural outcomes and complementary social and economic benefits.

It's important to stress that the significance of linkages between Rivercare and other NATURAL HERITAGE TRUST funded programs, including Bushcare and Landcare National Programs. The complementarity between NATURAL HERITAGE TRUST programs, in effect, means that projects funded under other programs will also indirectly address water resource and catchment related issues, and result in river health outcomes. The links between the various elements of Rivercare, including community education and monitoring, local on-ground actions, larger strategic initiatives, and well targeted research are important, and are expected to develop further with time. Some of the particular initiatives include the National River Health Program, which is a 13.5 million dollar program aimed to develop a nationally consistent methodology for assessing river quality and establishing environmental flow needs. The River Health Program comprises two major initiatives: the Environmental Flows Management Initiative, and one called AUSRIVAS.

The Environmental Flow Management Initiative establishes environmental flow requirements for key aquatic systems, and supports managers in implementing these requirements. It includes a suite of applied research into ecological flow requirements and ecology flow relationships, and the development and application of a decision support system which enhances the capacity of water managers to incorporate the ecological requirements of rivers, flood plains, and other waterways into water allocation decisions.

AUSRIVAS focuses on the use of biological indicators for assessing river health. The initiative is based on the development of a nationally coordinated State and Territory bio-monitoring program, and will result in the first truly national assessment of river health. It is anticipated that the assessments will take four years to complete, and they are due for completion by July 2000. Waterwatch is another program which we're very keen to sponsor, and that's a national volunteer water quality monitoring program. It's a growing network of some 50,000 people regularly monitoring close to 4,000 sites around Australia. I know that there are several Waterwatch groups in the areas that some of your River Trusts manage, and for those of you that don't have Waterwatch activities, you might like to consider fostering them in your River Trust area.

Waterwatch has built pictures of the health of waterways and catchments through a variety of biological and chemical tests it performs. Waterwatch has now moved beyond scientific testing in many areas. Volunteers are actually using the data they collect to inform the wider community, and to catalyse action to fix up problem spots.

The Murray-Darling Basin, I have mentioned, is one which is of great importance to the nation as a whole, and one which the Government is putting a substantial amount of funds to. We're also promoting through the Land and Water Resource Research and Development Corporation, and the Murray-Darling Basin Commission, the National Eutrophication Program. The program will increase understanding of the causes of excessive algal activity in Australian fresh and estuarine waters, and it will help managers to use that understanding to reduce algal blooms.

The National Landcare Program, which Minister Hobbs has mentioned, also provides an impetus for whole of catchment approaches to water quality and land resource management, through projects and related structural measures implemented jointly with the community and local and State Governments. Landcare also encourages the demonstration of cost effective and environmentally sustainable approaches to waste water management in country towns.

The National Vegetation Initiative - Bushcare - will receive some 350 million dollars over the next four years in projects that enhance Australia's native bushland. The NATURAL HERITAGE TRUST aims to support Bushcare projects which combine the management of native vegetation with extensive revegetation to achieve many beneficial outcomes, including the rehabilitation of degraded areas, lowering saline water-tables, and improving water quality generally.

Ladies and gentlemen, before I conclude, I wanted to stray from the topic I was asked to address, by making a couple of comments on the Position Paper which you kindly sent to me. It's your Position Paper to the Queensland Government on River Management in North Queensland.

Now, River Trusts are, of course, a creation of the Queensland State Government, and the Commonwealth Government, which I represent has absolutely no jurisdiction, although I was pleased to see that the Commonwealth Government was able to make some payment from the Natural Heritage Trust in conjunction with Howard Hobbs and Brian Littleproud, and the Queensland Government, to a number of projects, including that major project: Linking Rainforest to Reef.

That project of yours, which is in total, as I understand, something around 2 million dollars, will enhance the region's waterways to optimise their bed and bank stability, aquatic ecology, aesthetic amenity, flood mitigation, and economic potential.

The role of River Trusts has certainly changed since the Burdekin River Improvement Trust first received legislative support. As your Position Paper notes, you are broadening your perspective to promote environmental values as well. You are, as you say, no longer just 'engineering' oriented agencies, but you perform a range of other functions vital to the management of our waterways.

Many Trusts have played a major role in Integrated Catchment Management Committees. Your goals recognise society's environmental expectations, and the demands of natural stream processes.

As a North Queenslander, one who has lived and made my living from sugar most of my life, I know of the importance in so many ways of the Sugar Industry - not only to the North, but to the nation's economy as a whole.

And your Trusts cover what is, I say without fear of contradiction, some of the best and most productive and most efficient sugar producers in the world. It's important then, that the expansion and development of the Sugar Industry proceeds in harmony with nature.

There is a concern that development and expansion is taking place in a way that is not environmentally sustainable. I don't at this stage want to enter into that debate, but I do urge you in the leadership positions your Trusts, and the members of those Trusts, hold in the local community - and in many cases in the Sugar Industry as well - to ensure that the development and expansion of the Sugar Industry that we must have, does happen in a way that does not adversely impact in ecologically sustainable use, and that you use your influence to protect our unique rainforests, our reef environment, for future generations of mankind.

Your goals also recognise your important role in that regard. I also note in your Position Paper your call to the Queensland Government for greater flexibility in appointments to Trusts for bringing in expertise. And I'm not sure quite where that process has got to yet. But if the Queensland Government does look favourably at the recommendations you make, can I suggest that in the circumstances, you might consider, amongst other appointments, expertise in the repair and enhancement of our environment.

Ladies and gentlemen, I will also just digress slightly to try and pick up what your Chairman said when she indicated some annoyance at Senator Hill. And I'm not quite sure exactly what she was talking about, although Minister Hobbs did sort of whisper to me when I asked what it might have been referring to. But, ladies and gentlemen, the Natural Heritage Trust as you know - 1.25 billion dollars - is the greatest investment any Government of Australia has ever put into the environment.

It's being paid for by the sale of one third of Telstra, and I hope you're all helping by going out and buying your Telstra shares this week - or last week. But it is a massive injection.

But by the standard of environmental problems we have in Australia, it's only a pin-prick, and it won't go very far in all of the huge number of projects that have been put to the Commonwealth Government for support. We would have liked to have supported every project, and we would have liked to have supported every project to the fullest extent., but that hasn't been possible because there has been so many projects that have to be done across the board.

There has been some concerned mention about the process of the application, and we - Senator Hill, and I, and Mr Anderson - have been as embarrassed as any at the length of time this process has taken. Setting up such an enormous new program has been more difficult than we thought.

The 'getting it together' and starting was delayed quite considerably in the problems we had in getting the legislation for the sale of Telstra, and then the legislation for setting up the Natural Heritage Trust, through the Senate. And it surprises me, if I might say, and in a short digression into political matters, which I shouldn't do - but it surprises me that the parties that claim to have a great environmental concern fought so hard to stop that 1.25 billion dollar injection into the environment. And so we were late starting.

The process hasn't worked as well as we would have hoped, and there have been delays. There have been complaints from a number of you, and from a number of people who put in applications, about the regional assessment panels. Some of you support them very strongly; some of you - some not in this room - don't support them so much. But that is an issue that we will be addressing in the next few months. As you know, the next rounds are open for application now. We urge you to get them in. The grants next year will be well and truly with us by June.

Ladies and gentlemen, with the environmental initiatives under the Natural Heritage Trust, Australians are now in a position to make significant progress in protecting and restoring our environment. And I'm indeed honoured to be part of a Government which is committed to achieving cost effective, efficient, high quality environmental outcomes for all Australians. I do want to place on record and thank you all for the part you play in doing that as well.

The Government is committed to working to protect and restore the health of our rivers through targeted investment and effective cooperation with all levels of Government and the community. Investments being made under the Natural Heritage Trust will not only benefit us, the current generation, but will ensure that future generations inherit an environment which is both healthy and sustainably managed.

Again, thank you for inviting me here today to be with you. I hope that some of the information I have provided you with about the Natural Heritage Trust is useful, and some of the information about the Rivercare projects may be of assistance, and I do hope that your conference over this day and the next will be fruitful and rewarding. Thank you very much.

Question: This is a point of clarification. You made the comment about grants being made available by June next year. My understanding actually is the closing of the State's submissions is by June, and that the grants would be made after that. But it's important that delegates do know what you intend.

Senator Macdonald: We're very keen - when I say they'll be 'made', the decisions, from the State Assessment Panels, will be made by June next year. We're very keen to see that happen. I think the closing of the applications is March, is it not - 6th March? But we want to have the - it has been a massive exercise trying to go through these. I sat with Senator Hill on a number of nights until 3 o'clock in the morning, trying to go through every application. You might understand, any of you that followed the Hinchinbrook saga, that in Government today, it's essential that the processes be followed. Because if you don't follow the processes, you leave yourself very much open to challenge in the Courts. The regional assessment panels and the State assessment panels did a mighty job in ploughing and priortising them. But the Act requires that the Natural Heritage Trust Board, which is Senator Hill and Minister Anderson, do in fact make a conscious decision on the projects put before them, which meant that they really had to go through every one of literally thousands of applications that had been made.

And the Departments of the Environment and the Departments of Primary Industry and Energy really weren't set up for this quite enormous process. They've learned a lot in the first round, and we're very much hopeful that by next year - early next year - that the process will be much simpler, much quicker, and that you will all have results of the applications you make at a very early time.

Question: Senator, will those applications remain in, or do you have to re-submit?

Senator Macdonald: Look, on that aspect, I don't - I'm not an expert on the details, more on the policy. I think that perhaps Howard might be able to have - yes. I think you do have to re-submit, but, of course, if you think the project is good enough, you can put it back in. But I might say to you, one other thing we're very, very keen to do with the Natural Heritage Trust money is we really think over the last decade there's been enough strategies and there's been enough reports, there's been enough plans, there's been enough bits of paper written. We really want to see things happen, and we want to see them in a whole of catchment or a regional basis. So some projects which might have been quite good by themselves, but were little isolated projects, really weren't terribly favourably looked at. If you have a little project that is good, you really should try to get it involved in a bigger project of the catchment, as part of a bigger project, because we really just don't want bits of money going off to little projects. We really want to make this - what is in fact a limited amount of money really work for the environment, and that really requires a coordinated approach in the area. So if you did miss out, please try again.

But there will be Departmental officials in the Queensland Government and in the Federal Government who will be able to better help you this time. And in many cases it will be just the way you approach it. The project you may have had may have been very good, but it perhaps just needs a bit more approach, a bit more building into wider things.

Question: Senator Hill (inaudible) question I guess the process where the Commonwealth needs to streamline things (inaudible) after going through a regional assessment panel, the State assessment panel (inaudible) I was wondering what value that could have been added by the extra layer (inaudible)

Senator Macdonald: Well, look, I'm sure it won't come as a surprise to you that the Commonwealth Government doesn't always trust all of the State Governments. Now that doesn't apply in Queensland, of course, because we have very, very high regard for the Queensland Government, and certainly I personally do, and I know the Commonwealth Government does. But there are some State Governments that you can't trust. The Act, of course, requires - and it is Commonwealth money - the Act does require that the Board of the Natural Heritage Trust, which is the two Ministers - Hill and Anderson - do actually make the decisions. The Act requires that they be advised by an Advisory Committee which has just recently been set up. The Act also provides for - or the administrative arrangements provide for a regional and State assessment panel. But I think it's legitimate that the Federal Government who are providing the money should have the opportunity to ensure that its approach and its guidelines and its philosophy behind the Natural Heritage Trust, are actually being complied with.

And it's for that reason as well as the legislative one that it is essential that it go through the Federal Government. We also, I might want to say, ensure that each State gets a fair share of the projects, and we also want to make sure that if - this wouldn't happen in Queensland - but if in New South Wales the State assessment panels were all influenced in Sydney and the State assessment group came forward and recommended all the projects in Sydney, but none in Northern Rivers, none in the Southern Highlands, none in western Queensland, we would want to make sure that we then didn't follow their recommendations, but gave a more equitable allocation of the available funds. So there are a number of, I think, fairly valid reasons why that should be done. But look, the Queensland Government could always sell the railways - and put the resulting proceeds into some environmental projects and deal with it all locally.

Question: (Inaudible) as you know we have five regional assessment panels for the whole of Queensland, and I have only just been recent to the process, and I'm not (inaudible) the work the regional assessment panels have done, but I heard a rumour over the last couple of days there could be pressure on Commonwealth, for instance, to establish more regional assessment panels along the lines of some of the other smaller States. I was wondering if you could comment on that, or whether you're happy with (inaudible) the five regional assessment panels.

Senator Macdonald: Look, in true political style, I never comment on a rumour. And the other reason I wouldn't comment is that I really don't know. What I do know is that there has been some complaints across Australia about the regional assessment processes. Now, as you no doubt understand with Government, politicians generally deal with broad policy issues and the implementation is left to others more qualified. So I'm not aware of the detail. That is, of course, a matter in Senator Hill's ministerial jurisdiction, rather than mine which relate to the Antarctica, and the Bureau, and a couple of other things. But there has been that concern, and it will be looked at very closely. I know Senator Hill and Minister Anderson will in anything they do in that line, closely consult with all of the State Governments for their input.

Commonwealth of Australia