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Thursday, 19 February 1987
Page: 386

Mr GEAR —by leave-As a member of the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Environment and Conservation I fully support the Committee's report entitled `Fiscal Measures and the Achievement of Environmental Objectives'. I remind the House that each generation leaves the environment in a poorer condition than it inherited it in, and today is no exception. There is much more awareness today of the environment and I hope that this report will encourage Australians to take a much greater interest in the environment and some of the problems which have been outlined by previous speakers in the debate.

I refer in particular to land degradation. The largest problem we face in Australia today is the degradation of our land. The dimension of the problem is not known, but it is a huge problem that is growing year by year as we are losing more and more land. We talk about our external debt and deficits. They are very important to our economic well-being and we can gauge the extent of them, but the problem of land degradation is as big as our external debt. In dollar values it must be that big. The amount of land we are losing each year is increasing. The Committee would be well advised to take that up as an issue. We have discussed it and I hope that, arising from this report, we will look at land degradation in a much greater way than we have in the report, owing to the constraints of time. This matter is important to farming, our national exports and our national well-being.

I am very proud to be part of the Hawke Labor Government, which was the Federal government to enact the Soil Conservation (Financial Assistance) Act. The purpose of that Act was to promote a national soil conservation strategy and to set up the Soil Conservation Advisory Committee in the Department of Primary Industry, whose annual report was handed down just this week. I will not go into that report in detail, but it leads us to hope that in the future a comprehensive program will be worked out to identify those areas where soil degradation takes place and also to work out strategies to attack soil degradation.

At the time I spoke on the Soil Conservation (Financial Assistance) Bill in 1985 I mentioned a group in my electorate called Men of the Trees. Its director, Barrie Oldfield, had a very ambitious project to plant trees in an attempt to halt soil degradation. I know that Barrie has not been successful in gaining funds for his project under the Act, but I publicly tell him not to lessen his efforts to gain help from the Government. In fact, I will be talking to Barrie when I get back to my electorate to encourage him to keep on with his plan.

This report refers also to heritage properties in the form of historical buildings. Australia is a young country which does not have many historical buildings. It is telling, when one visits other countries with histories older than our own, to look at the way in which they look after historical buildings and take a great deal of pride in them. We have not done that in Australia to the extent we ought to. In particular I am reminded of the Committee's visit to Adelaide when we looked at two private houses. The first was a very large house where the owner told us of the problems he had in maintaining it. We were of the opinion-it is in our report-that in cases where society has deemed a house to be historically significant, we should ensure that the owner is helped by way of the taxation system so as to ensure that the house is not lost to Australia. The other house we saw was much more modest, but again was freely available on the market. I remember walking through it with members of the Committee and it really was a historic building. The Committee recommended again that housing of the type should attract a taxation benefit to ensure that it is not lost the the Australian heritage.

I am reminded also of the Committee's visit to Fremantle, which hosted the America's Cup just recently and received vast international exposure. We were happy to see that Fremantle's heritage in the form of buildings has been preserved. I remember that the Fremantle City Council was always thought of as being backward because it never knocked down its old buildings to put up new ones, but we can see, in hindsight, the benefit of that approach.

Mr Milton —It was very impressive.

Mr GEAR —It was impressive, as the Chairman of the Committee says. Not only are the old buildings retained, but also the new buildings going up are built in the same style to match the existing buildings. (Quorum formed) The calling of a quorum does not daze me. It has the effect of bringing into this House many people with talent and at the same time keeping out all the dopes. Any time the Opposition wants to call a quorum to divide members of the House by way of talent, it is quite okay by me. I must point out to the Opposition that I have unlimited speaking time, so it can call as many quorums as it likes. I will keep going. All the Liberal Party is good for is wasting the time of the Parliament. I can tell everybody who is listening that it will call another quorum pretty soon. All that does is waste a lot of time. One thinks of the amount of money it takes to keep this Parliament running and the way in which the Liberal Party abuses the right to call a quorum. We are talking about Australia's heritage. The Liberal and National parties show their real disdain for our national heritage by calling quorums in a debate on such an important Committee report.

Mr Beddall —They are Bjelke's storm-troopers.

Mr GEAR —As my friend the honourable member for Rankin reminds me, they are Bjelke's storm-troopers. Before the calling of the quorum, I was talking about Fremantle, Western Australia. It is a town of great character where heritage is taken seriously. I was reminding the House of the Committee's visit and how impressed we were at the way in which buildings in Fremantle are preserved. I am sure that the Committee will remember the building near the Roundhouse which was being redeveloped into housing units. The outside of the building was preserved by propping up the facia. The inside was taken out and the new development was put in. When the building was finished, one could not tell that any development had taken place.

Mr Peter Fisher —The same as the marina!

Mr GEAR —Yes. There is no doubt that Fremantle has shown Australia how to preserve a town and its heritage, and attract tourists to it. I am quite proud to come from Western Australia and to see what has been done in Fremantle. It is a town that is on the map. Fremantle has really benefited by not tearing down its old buildings, as Perth has done. I am afraid that Perth has not taken the same stand.

Mr Ronald Edwards —It is very poor.

Mr GEAR —Very poor, as the honourable member says. In Perth, we have taken down many of our historical buildings, in particular the old Esplanade Hotel. That is one building I can point to which was torn down. It was a very historical hotel at which many international visitors stayed; certainly the great cricketers of our time stayed there every time they came to Perth. When the building was torn down, it was found that the proposed skyscraper could not be erected because there was too much water in the basement. All the developers had to do was ask the yardman because he used to go down there every morning to pump it out. But, no, the hotel was torn down and then it was discovered that the skyscraper could not be put up. The lot stood empty for two years. The wonderful, old and historic Esplanade Hotel had been torn down, never to be seen again. That part of Perth down by the Esplanade would have been a fitting place to preserve a bit of our heritage.

Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Blanchard) —Order! I remind the honourable that this is most interesting, particularly to a Western Australian, but we must keep to the report.

Mr GEAR —Mr Deputy Speaker, with all respect, I am. I am talking about the heritage of our buildings. I am outlining to the House ways in which we can go about preserving our heritage. I am pointing out that, when we do not do that, the town concerned loses a lot of character. Between Fremantle and Perth there stands stark evidence of the fact that where we do preserve our buildings as part of our heritage they are there for future generations to enjoy. I am sure that the Committee kept that in mind in its deliberations. Honourable members will see that the Committee, in its report, made a number of recommendations that deal specifically with keeping our heritage. That has tremendous tourism potential. I notice that the Minister for Sport, Recreation and Tourism (Mr John Brown) has entered the House. People will not come to Australia to see skyscrapers; they will come here to see buildings of historical and heritage value.

I move on to the issue of trees and forests in Australia, which the Committee also considered. I attended a breakfast in Fremantle a few weeks ago. Everything happens in Fremantle because of its historical significance. The breakfast was hosted by Greening Australia. We were told of the ambitious project it has of planting two million trees in Western Australia for the Bicentennial. That is a wonderful thing. It fits in with everything that the Committee has been saying in its deliberations and report. As the honourable member for Braddon (Mr Miles) said, if we harvest trees and do so in a systematic way, we will get much more production and we can also preserve significant stands of trees, as has been done in parts of Tasmania, New South Wales and other parts of Australia. We have not always agreed on areas that have significant stands of trees. Probably one of the most significant areas which the Committee considered was the Daintree forest in north Queensland. The Committee recommended that a significant stand of trees should be preserved in that area, but the Queensland Government pushed a road through.

Mr Chynoweth —Chopped it into blocks.

Mr GEAR —That is right. The result has been significant environmental damage in Queensland. That could have been prevented if the Queensland Government had heeded the advice that was given to it not only by the Committee but by other people who were in the area at the time. If it had listened to people with common sense--

Mr Kent —It didn't want to listen to anybody.

Mr GEAR —As my colleague points out, it did not listen to anybody. One can see the result. Not only the trees but the fringing reefs were ruined.

Mr Peter Fisher —I take a point of order. This is a most interesting debate, but I want to speak and also get to my office in a short time. I hope that the honourable member for Canning adheres to the contents of the report.

Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER —Order! There is no point of order.

Mr GEAR —I would have been much more advanced in my speech if the Opposition had not called a quorum. If it had not called a quorum I would be two or three minutes further into my speech. By calling a quorum the Opposition wasted time of the House and cost the taxpayers a couple of thousand dollars. But that does not matter to the Liberal Party. Now the Opposition is complaining because I am taking the time that is allotted to me. What about a bit of fairness?

I shall continue to talk about forests because it is a significant heritage and environmental issue to this House and this nation. The Committee looked at Tasmania and at what could be done there. I was impressed with what the Tasmania Government was doing in terms of harvesting trees. However, that threw up a problem which was alluded to by the Committee Chairman; that is, private forests. In Tasmania we looked at some significant private forests. One of the real tragedies, from our point of view, was the fact that significant stands in private forests were being cut down because of the effects of the rural decline. It seemed to us that those stands of trees should be allowed to grow to their full height so that we could harvest a greater amount of wood from them. However, because of the need for capital in the farm now, the private owners were chopping down the trees and selling off the wood.

I think that it took 15 to 20 years for the trees to get to the height and weight that they were at when we saw them. We said that, to gain the maximum potential, they should be allowed to grow for a further five to 10 years. However, the need for short term capital on the farm meant that the trees had to be chopped down. Therefore, not only the farmer but also the community lost a valuable resource. We have alluded to that in our report. We hope that the report's recommendations will go some way to easing the plight of the farmer when he is confronted with that situation.

In Western Australia there are significant stands of trees in the south west. When one sees photos of the old trees that used to be cut down in the 1930s, one sees, with hindsight, that it will take 300 to 400 years for significant stands of trees to grow to the height of the trees that were cut down at that time. Karri trees are a resource that takes a long time to mature. They are magnificent.

Mr Milton —There is a great push to woodchip there.

Mr GEAR —As the Chairman of the Committee pointed out, and as you, Mr Deputy Speaker, would be aware, coming from Western Australia, there is a great push in Denmark in Western Australia to go ahead with woodchipping in that part of the country. Woodchipping is the most inefficient way of gaining money that I can think of. The most efficient and the best way to gain the best value from our trees is not to chop trees down and turn them into woodchips but to add value to them by making furniture or carvings from them. For goodness sake, we should not sell tonnes and tonnes of woodchips at 3c a tonne when we can sell furniture overseas at a significant price increase. As an example of that point-this touches upon what we stated in the report-is that when visiting Japan I saw a cured sheepskin selling for $270 which we would have flogged off for $1. That is a price increase from $1, for which we would have sold it, to $270 in the shop. We are sending the raw material away when we could be sending away the finished product and gaining a lot more for this country. This example runs parallel with many of the problems we face.

Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER —Order! When the honourable member sought leave to make his statement, he said it was to be a short statement. I hope the honourable member will make it a short statement.

Mr GEAR —I am sorry, Mr Deputy Speaker, I did not think there was any time constraint. The clock has not been turned on and from my knowledge of the running of the House I have unlimited time. If the Opposition had not called a quorum I would have wrapped up my speech a lot faster. But it called a quorum, wasted the taxpayers' money, abused the House and now I am forced to take a bit more time than I would have otherwise. Before giving me your advice, Mr Deputy Speaker, I was saying that the recommendations of the Committee, I hope, will go some way towards convincing Australians that we should be giving tax incentives to allow the trees to grow higher in order to get the maximum value from our products.

Mr White —I raise a point of order. Mr Deputy Speaker, twice you have asked the honourable member to bring his speech to an end. There are other people--

Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER —There is no point of order.

Mr GEAR —I accept the point of order, but of course the honourable member was not here when--

Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER —The honourable member does not accept a point of order or refuse it.

Mr GEAR —No, but I accept the spirit in which it was raised. I remind the honourable member that if the Opposition had not called a quorum I would have been finished much sooner. But the Opposition called a quorum, wasted the time of the House, wasted the money that taxpayers are paying to keep this Parliament going, and it has lengthened my speech somewhat.

Mr Robert Brown —Now they whinge.

Mr GEAR —And now they whinge. Members of the Opposition come in here and want it all ways. I may as well talk about this because they do not have anything to talk about. They will not talk about their policies or their record and, therefore, I will talk about the report before us.

I will make a couple of general comments relating to the report-unless a quorum is called. The report highlighted the need for co-operation between the Federal Government and the States. That is always a touchy issue and, in particular, I refer to the Daintree Rainforest, which I alluded to earlier. This Government tried to convince the Queensland Government not to go ahead with the vandalism with which they ultimately went ahead by pushing a road through the Daintree, wrecking the canopy that protected the rainforest and allowing all the silt from the road to pour down into the fringing reef, killing it and significant stands of the Daintree Rainforest.

When we talk about co-operation between the Federal Government and the State governments there are areas where we do not have a very happy record. The argument we always hear is one of States rights. I have never heard of a State having a right; people have rights. In areas as significant as environment and conservation issues, the co-operation between Federal and State governments should be of the utmost importance. Another area of conflict was the Franklin Dam. You will recall, Mr Deputy Speaker, when we first became the Government that the first piece of legislation we put through this Parliament was to save the Franklin Dam. Once again, there was to be vandalism, this time by the Tasmanian Government. It intended to wipe out significant stands of forest by flooding them. We stopped the Tasmanian Government from doing that. In hindsight, the Federal Government was correct. Tasmania did not need the electricity that it said it needed. In fact, the Tasmanian economy is collapsing. If it had had more power I do not know what it would have done with it. It could have lit up Tasmania like a Christmas tree I suppose but that would not have been too good. There are sorry examples of breakdowns of States rights, but I hope that in the future State governments take a much more responsible view of States rights.

Another area I wish to touch on before I finish is the use of the taxation system to encourage tree planting, soil conservation, and preservation of the National Estate. It is an area that needs investigation. I am happy that the Committee made that recommendation because I believe it is one way in which the Federal Government can play a constructive role in ensuring that we preserve our heritage to the maximum extent possible, that we look after our significant stands of forest, and that we look at preserving our National Estate.

The use of the taxation system is one area which I think is worthy of recommendation by this Committee. But one aspect concerns me. When an area of taxation is opened up we always get the tax dodgers. Of course the tax dodgers and the loopholes go hand in hand. I point out to the House the situation with arts funding. There was a significant tax incentive for people to donate art to galleries which was a very laudable proposal, but as we say that incentive was abused by people who gave insignificant amounts of art but overvalued it by many times. They gained a taxation advantage at the expense of the arts. That is one area on which the Committee should keep a close eye. When we try to do something good for the community, whether it is in the arts or the heritage area, we always get the smarties, people who try to exploit those tax loopholes. They always have their mates who sit on the other side of the House who are prepared to support them even to the extent of allowing the old boozy free lunches and other things. The Opposition promises to bring them all back in.

Mr Humphreys —All the old rorts.

Mr GEAR —All the old rorts; the Mercedes cars and the boozy lunches at the expense of the taxpayer. That is one area on which we should keep an eye because whilst the recommendations of the Committee are laudable in trying to preserve our National Estate, our soil and our trees, we want to ensure that the tax dodgers do not move in. I thank the House for allowing me to make this short statement. I damn the Opposition for calling a quorum, wasting the time of the House and taxpayers' money.