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Wednesday, 19 June 2002
Page: 3965

Mr KELVIN THOMSON (5:09 PM) —In my response to the budget, I spent quite a bit of time talking about my concerns in relation to the Environment and Heritage portfolio. I do not need to canvass all that ground again, but I do want to recap on one aspect of it and bring to the attention of the parliament a specific issue which has come to my attention since I gave my own budget reply. One of my principal concerns about the environment budget has been underspending: the fact that the government says that for any given year, `We are going to spend X dollars on the environment'—and it does it with a fair bit of fanfare—but at the end of each year when we see the budget papers we find that this amount of money has not been spent. That was true of the department of the environment generally; it was true of the Natural Heritage Trust; it was true of the National Action Plan on Salinity and Water Quality; and it was true of the Greenhouse Office budget and the Measures for a Better Environment package. Everywhere you looked, there was substantial underspending; things that the government promised would be done and would happen simply did not happen.

One of the principal areas of concern in relation to this general problem of underspending has been the Natural Heritage Trust. I identified in looking at this year's budget that, in the five-year period from 1996-97, there has been an underspend of $209 million—a massive underspend. Indeed, for the Natural Heritage Trust there was a cut of $24.7 million for 2002-03 and no ongoing Natural Heritage Trust funding for programs as important as the Murray-Darling Basin. I have also made the observation previously in relation to the Natural Heritage Trust that it gets worse than simply this idea that, at the start of the financial year, the government says, `We're going to spend a certain amount,' and it turns out at the end of the financial year it has not spent that money. In fact, we got retrospective underspending with the Natural Heritage Trust so that the amount that the Commonwealth claimed had been spent in 2000-01 was revised downwards by a massive $110 million-plus. When we looked at the environment expenditure statement last year it said that $395 million had been spent on Natural Heritage Trust programs in 2000-01 but, when we come to this year's environment expenditure statement, that figure has been revised downwards by $110 million to $284 million. The government had been claiming that this money had been spent on environment protection and repair; it then turned out that this money was not spent in 2000-01 at all. This is retrospective underspending, and it affects virtually every natural heritage program.

My position is that spending delayed is spending denied. I do not think that other portfolios like education, housing, child care, transport or whatever would put up with this idea for a moment: `Well, as long as we spend this money on the environment sooner or later, it doesn't matter when it gets spent.' But it is even worse for the government to be claiming credit for environment expenditure which simply did not happen. I am not prepared to accept the idea of rounding errors between the time of the delivery of the May budget and the end of the financial year on 30 June. Nearly 30 per cent of the claimed Natural Heritage Trust 2000-01 expenditure simply did not happen. I do not believe that any other government department or program would be subject to such a massive downward revision.

I want to bring to the attention of the parliament a specific example of the withdrawal of Natural Heritage Trust funding which relates to a program in Tasmania titled `Patchwork: adopt a patch—building community partnerships in local bushland'. This program was established several years ago and it has achieved, as far as I can tell, some very substantial outcomes in the Tasmanian community. It was a program established by the Tasmanian Council of State School Parents and Friends Association, and it went on until September last year when the then environment minister, Senator Hill, refused to provide further funding for it. Those involved in the program were very surprised that its funding had been cut.

In fact, there had been a Natural Heritage Trust evaluation of the project in the year 2000 which was very positive. It found that participants had an increased understanding of native vegetation and that they had improved their skills in and their on-ground experience of sustainable native vegetation management and rehabilitation. The project had supported some 6,000 participants in practical bushland management in their local communities, with some 20 sites of threatened species being managed. One of the parents told me that the patch of bushland which they had adopted included habitat for the swift parrot, which is a threatened species. Some 62 management plans have been adopted as a result of this project, with 10 new sites and 20 of the existing sites to be increased by 50 per cent. This was a pretty substantial project, but the government saw fit not to provide further funding for it.

I raised this matter in the House back in February and I asked the Minister for the Environment and Heritage a series of questions on notice about it on 14 March. I have recently received his responses. It turns out that, as had been alleged to me, this `adopt a patch' proposal was ranked, by the panel that does these things, seventh out of 95 ranked projects. To my further question:

(4)Were projects ranked lower than 7th by the Assessment Panel funded.

The answer was yes, there were. In fact, 153 projects were funded all up. This is really astonishing on two counts. The first is that the Commonwealth is unable to spend all the money which it claims it is going to spend on the Natural Heritage Trust. Indeed, in the very area of bushcare, back in 2000-01, the government told us they would spend $100 million. It turns out they spent only $81.5 million. So they have this problem of underspending, yet they are unable to find money to continue this particular project. Secondly, we have got a project which has been ranked by the assessment panel seventh out of 95, and the government are not able to find the money for this particular proposal when they can find money for many other proposals which were not ranked as high. In response to my questions on the Notice Paper, they suggested:

... school-based projects ... are not a priority for the Trust, given the focus on local on-ground works.

But if we look at the independent evaluation we find that it scores very highly. I also note that the previous environment minister, Senator Hill, had launched a national schools action plan which said that the government accepted its responsibility for encouraging environmental education in Australian society and said that it was developing:

... a package of measures that complement our initiatives in policy and legislation in particular the Natural Heritage Trust ...

If you withdraw funding from a project such as this, that is completely inconsistent with those sorts of claims and objectives. Frankly, it is completely unacceptable for the government to say, `We have no money for a project of this character,' when it involves no fewer than 62 schools, when it attracted involvement from the Tasmanian education department and Greening Australia Tasmania and when two of the schools that participated won national awards as a result of their `adopt a patch' work.

It is absolutely unacceptable that the government can say, `We're not going to fund this project,' when they fund many other projects that are not ranked as highly and when they are simply unable to spend all their Natural Heritage Trust funds—to the tune of $110 million underspent in one year and $209 million underspent over the course of the past five years. It is simply not good enough. I call on the government to re-examine this particular Natural Heritage Trust program with a view to ensuring that it gets the ongoing support to which I believe it is entitled.