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Tuesday, 24 November 2009
Page: 12765

Mr RAMSEY (7:55 PM) —I rise to speak on the Seasonal forecasting in Australia report of the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Industry, Science and Innovation. From the outset, let me thank the chair of the committee, the member for Calwell, and the secretariat for the work that has gone into this. I was one of those who were urging the committee to adopt the study into seasonal forecasting as I have a long-standing interest in this area. I was a farmer before I entered parliament, and have to say that, from a farming perspective, seasonal forecasting is the holy grail. Farming has become highly technical and mechanised. We have tractors that basically do not need to be steered anymore. Harvesters are the same. We are able to sow our grain each year to within about two centimetres of our target. We are able to specify what fertiliser should be used and how much fertiliser should be applied in any given part of the paddock depending on the soil type and previous productivity. We are able to spray chemicals across a paddock at variable rates depending on which chemical is needed where. But the last great variables are the rain and the season. We have absolutely no control over those and are never likely to have, but perhaps we may be able to predict what is in store. Our predictive capacity is still found wanting.

During this inquiry I was hoping that we would uncover the missing science and find the great answer to all these difficulties. In that sense, I am a little disappointed, but I think the recommendations we make, and the information we gleaned out of the inquiry, are very valuable nonetheless. I will focus on a few things. We took extensive evidence from the CSIRO and the Bureau of Meteorology, as of course we would given they are the leading bodies in this area in Australia. There was some concern amongst the committee, as raised in evidence, that their process is somewhat insular. We have some concerns that other bodies were not being welcomed with open arms to conduct their science through their institutions. In particular, some of the universities might have much to offer.

We have recommended to the CSIRO and the Bureau of Meteorology that they should have to justify the climate models they have chosen to use as the prime dynamic models behind their science. There are a number of other models around the world. In the end, you have to make some kind of decision. I do not think, though, that we heard enough evidence to suggest that all other options should be ruled out—neither were they saying that; but they have predominantly gone with one model. We would like them to at least re-examine that and to justify their position. Sometimes you do not know what your weaknesses are. It is like a SWOT analysis. If you sit down and go through a program, you may well revisit some of your decisions and identify some of the weaknesses in your argument. In particular, we believe that there are some areas that are under-researched in Australia at the moment. We took some strong evidence about the influence of particulates on our climate. It is claimed that the South-East Asian smoke plume has the ability to cool the oceans to the north-west and the north of Australia and to perhaps induce the long periods of drought that we have been experiencing in recent years. That particular haze coming out of South-East Asia is unlikely to diminish even though there are some hopes in other spheres of politics that we will be able to limit the forest burning which is causing the bulk of it.

But I do not think we can just dismiss the science. Certainly the CSIRO and the Bureau of Meteorology both recognised the fact that they needed to do more work in this area. It is always a question of resources, so there is a recommendation that this area should be properly resourced. It has the potential to unlock some of those great secrets. We were given the opportunity in Melbourne to inspect the bureau’s newest supercomputer. We were probably a little crestfallen to find that the supercomputer is almost superseded before it has been superstarted, as it were, and that our computing capacity in Australia, while much improved on where it was, is still lagging behind that of the Europeans and the North Americans. We are only a small nation, and the collaborations we make around the world are a very important part of the way we progress our science. But you can be sure that no-one is more interested in the weather in Australia than those of us who live in Australia and are affected by it.

As I said at the beginning, the potential for gain from accurate seasonal forecasting in Australia, in our very dry climate, is immense. It will give farmers the ability to work out whether or not they are even going to sow a crop, what kind of crop it might be and whether or not to fertilise heavily. So it has a great effect on inputs, but it also gives them the ability to adjust to the season. In fact, we could eliminate sowing crops in seasons when we should not do so. I have often said in the middle of a drought that if only I had been able to predict the season at the start it would have been far more profitable to go the beach for the year. An average farmer may well go out and risk half a million dollars on the strength of the seasonal rains.

One of the things that was also highlighted, particularly in some evidence we took in Adelaide from Sharon Starick, is that farmers have a fairly healthy scepticism about seasonal forecasts. While that may not be easily addressed until there is more accuracy to the forecasts there is a reasonable amount of respect in the farming community for the weekly and the daily weather forecasting services, which have improved in accuracy markedly, on a steady incline, over the last 20 years. When the bureau is predicting 10 millimetres of rain, for instance, people are making farming decisions—to go and place fertiliser on the paddocks and other things—based on that, but we still do not have that kind of confidence in the seasonal forecasts. If people take any notice of seasonal forecasts and make decisions based upon them, only to find that they are wrong, then I can tell you that once bitten, twice shy is the experience they take away from that, and their scepticism becomes deep and ingrained.

I think it has been a valuable inquiry. I think our recommendations are sound and good. It is a science that requires more attention from Australia. I know we can look at almost anything and say that if we invested more strongly we would have a better result. But when it comes to seasonal forecasting we have a great stake invested because, while Australia no longer rides on the sheep’s back, agriculture is still one of the biggest sectors that contributes to our export income and is very important. In a world that is presenting many challenges to our agriculturalists, it is vitally important that we adopt the most modern and up-to-date science to keep us competitive with the rest of the world and in front wherever possible. In the case of our seasonal forecasting ability, it is important that we have the best available information in the world in order to be able to compete.

Debate (on motion by Ms Vamvakinou) adjourned.