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Thursday, 17 October 1996
Page: 5745

Mr McARTHUR(12.41 p.m.) —There can be no question that the environment has become increasingly important to Australians in the last two decades. It is equally true that much of Australia's natural environment is substantially degraded or in need of repair. The $1.15 billion Natural Heritage Trust of Australia Bill 1996 is a response to these two undeniable facts.

The Natural Heritage Trust, subject to the one-third sale of Telstra, which the previous speaker, the honourable member for Prospect (Mrs Crosio), referred to in her speech—and I have no doubt the good sense of the Senate will pass it—has the potential to reverse the decline in our environment and rebuild Australia's natural capital. If we are to achieve this, we need to be mindful that it will take more than money. The government alone cannot fix problems. It is an illustration that the emergence of the welfare state may assist people in need, but it does not fix the problem. In fact, it perpetuated the underlying cause of poverty by eroding personal responsibility and crowding out the private charity and community effort.

We must avoid at all costs these same things happening to the environment as a result of increased government involvement. We need to make sure that private individuals continue to take responsibility for their own environmental backyard and that voluntary associations continue their valuable work on the ground. To do this, the Commonwealth must make use of structures which already exist in local regions to tackle environmental problems and must be mindful of the fact that commercial incentives and property rights can often be the most effective in promoting conservation.

In my electorate of Corangamite, I have organised meetings of local landcare groups to discuss common experiences, funding issues and strategies for the local implementation of the Natural Heritage Trust, if it comes about. The issues they raised with me included the eradication and control of the serrated tussock weed, which I have raised in this House, tree planting for salinity control and biodiversity importance and the erosion and pasture productivity improvement with the control of rabbits through the calicivirus.

They raised the issues of absentee landholders and increasing their environmental awareness, soil degradation—that is, the blowing away of soil and dust and the washing of the soil down the river systems—the environmental problems that average farmers are facing as well as salinity with raising water tables and dry land salinity increasing in all parts of Australia, particularly in parts of my own electorate of Corangamite.

Other issues include the support for landcare groups either voluntary or with some government funding and the processes of government funding; rivers, drainage and run-off and the supply of water to both Melbourne and Geelong; the control of roadside weeds, which is now a major problem facing urban and rural communities; feral animals, which other members have mentioned already in the debate—foxes, cats and rabbits; and, finally, pasture improvement to maintain good environmental control throughout farming lands in my electorate of Corangamite.

In addition, the Corangamite Catchment and Land Protection Board has been established to oversee local resource management, especially water quality and availability. The key question is: who pays for the collecting of nature's rain and distributes it to thirsty city dwellers? The board completed an environment stocktake of the local region last year. The results have been a coordinated approach but one with a voluntary grassroots flavour.

Another key conservation group is the salinity implementation group, which works with government and community groups to attack salinity where it emerges and take preventive measures wherever it threatens. Voluntary community structures are there for the Commonwealth to tap into to ensure that spending outlined in the Natural Heritage Trust of Australia Bill is well spent on constructive and fruitful action.

The government must not displace the community goodwill and involvement which has emerged through the landcare movement over the last 10 years in Victoria. We must recognise that often the most effective strategy is to provide commercial market based incentives for conservation work. For example, farmers in western Victoria are seeing the benefits, both commercial and environmental, of increased tree planting.

The Otway Agro-Forestry Network and Timber 2000 are two groups which have been at the forefront of this change of attitude at the local level. These groups sell the benefits to farmers of planting trees for commercial profit as well as for soil improvement and wind protection for livestock. The new techniques involved, especially those used by the Timber 2000 group, of deep ripping, moulding and weed control have seen tree growth expand dramatically. We now see the possibilities of commercial harvesting of eucalyptus globulus at 10 and 12 years. It used to take 30 and 40 years to reach a commercial objective.

But these landowners will only invest in farm forestry if they are assured that they will be able to harvest their trees with certainty and that they will be able to sell their product, for example, woodchips, on the best available market, possibly the export market. No-one will be encouraged to grow more trees if they cannot be cut down and sold as a commercial product. Harvesting rights and woodchip exports, far from destroying the environment as claimed by some, actually ensure increased plantings and more forest cover.

Members of the House will be interested to note that when I was a member of the Australian parliamentary delegation to India, Bangladesh and Nepal in 1993, I saw first-hand a good example of private incentive leading to good environmental work. The Nepal-Australia community forest project is a community based attempt to reverse the effects of total deforestation, resulting from 400 years of poor practice and exploitation by rich merchants of Katmandu, using timber products without consideration to growing the next forest. The report of the delegation in relation to the Nepal-Australia community forest project states:

The success of the . . . project is based on the principles of profit and sustainable development. Villages look after the forest because of the community gain.

The main point in the report is:

Trees are grown for commercial exploitation and the plantations are safeguarded by the villages who use the prunings for fuel. There is a financial incentive to increase the amount of land under forestry, and so regeneration is encouraged.

There is another performance indicator . . . officers reported an increase in the number of leopards seen in the hills, indicative of the increased forest cover.

This is how the Third World countries have managed to regenerate their natural assets, not by regulation or government spending money they did not have but by changing attitudes. They have managed to regenerate forests in an area where forests had been completely depleted and ravaged by people who had the resources to use the timber. The answer has been to assign a property right and give villagers incentive to look after their own environmental assets.

Mr Jeff Bennett, who edited the recent Institute of Public Affairs publication entitled Tall Green Tales, discussed the experience of elephants in Zimbabwe. He stated:

The elephant in Zimbabwe was, until recent years, a publicly owned resource. The incentive for individual villagers to care for the animals was negligible, particularly as they were perceived as a pest that would periodically destroy their gardens. Poachers were therefore unhindered or even assisted by locals.

In a shift of policy, the rights to elephants have now been transferred to local villages. The bounty that these animals confer on the villages through the sale of viewing or even hunting rights has given them a status worthy of care.

Poachers are now reported to the authorities. A reversal of the population decline of the species has occurred, and now culling programs are required to prevent overstocking from causing land degradation.

These examples indicate the need to get away from the old stereotype of profit versus conservation. Profit and conservation can go hand in hand where there is a financial incentive to preserve or enhance the natural environment. We do not necessarily need government schemes. Often it is a case of allowing commercial market incentives. For example, in the electorate of Corangamite, Midway Forest Products, a Geelong based woodchip exporter, has been pro-active in establishing hardwood plantations on farmland through joint ventures with landowners west of Geelong.

The rise of ecotourism along the Great Ocean Road has increased the incentive to look after the coastline as an important natural asset. Ecotourism gives the locals an incentive to preserve the pristine eucalypt forest and rugged coastline with its unique scenic features like the Twelve Apostles.

Alcoa, a private company, has been pro-active in a number of landcare activities in the local area, including the Woady Yaloak catchment project. Farmers and industry are working cooperatively to enhance the local environment which had suffered damage from rabbits, erosion, salting and tree removal. By the end of 1995, Alcoa had contributed $9 million to various landcare programs across Western Australia and Victoria. Again, the private sector is leading the way.

If positive environmental outcomes are to result from the Natural Heritage Trust, it will require that the Commonwealth make good use of existing local structures, and that the role of the private sector and the commercial profit motive are not forgotten as a means of delivering conservation of natural assets.

The bill devotes $1.15 billion over five years to five main environmental packages, subject to the partial sale of Telstra. The five main packages are the national vegetation initiative, the Murray-Darling 2001 project, the national reserve system, the national land and water resources audit, and the coast and clean seas initiative.

One significant and much needed change is the introduction of tax credits for on-farm landcare expenditure. There has been considerable criticism of the national landcare program for its emphasis on rehabilitating public land. Ultimately, if we are to make any overall environmental difference we need to encourage greater environmental efforts on farm. Farmers have been eligible for tax deductions on their on-farm conservation efforts under section 75D of the tax act; however, tax deductions are only of benefit if farmers are profitable enough to be paying tax. Wool growers and some beefgrowers in my electorate are simply not in that position. What is required is tax credits for on-farm conservation works, thus providing an incentive to improve land, even in poor years.

Other useful elements of the trust for farmers in the Corangamite region and other land-holders will be the $19 million devoted to the national weed strategy, $16 million devoted to feral animal control, $85 million to the rivercare program and $8 million to enhance the national wetlands program. However, the success of the package will depend upon its ability to encourage rather than displace wider community involvement. The $1.15 billion Natural Heritage Trust has enormous potential to encourage practical conservation, but we need to be vigilant that we do not allow greater government spending on the environment to become the new welfarism of the 21st century.