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Thursday, 18 April 1985
Page: 1216

Senator GRIMES (Minister for Community Services)(1.01) —I move:

That the Bill be now read a second time.

I seek leave to incorporate the second reading speech in Hansard.

Leave granted.

The speech read as follows-

Mr President, I am very pleased to be able to speak in support of this legislation which will provide a statutory basis for the involvement of the Commonwealth in soil conservation.

It has long been a belief of mine that the Commonwealth has an important role to play in actively encouraging and co-ordinating the conservation of our land resources. In the long term it is the capacity of these resources to sustain use which will determine the well being of our primary industries.

This Bill will allow for the provision of financial assistance for soil conservation projects undertaken by the Commonwealth, by the States, or by individuals and non-government organisations. It also provides for a Soil Conservation Advisory Committee to provide advice to the Minister concerning the allocation of financial assistance and the Commonwealth's role in soil conservation in general.

The problems of land degradation in Australia are extremely severe and costly. There can be no doubting the seriousness of the problem.

Our country is not well endowed with land resources, at least not from an agricultural perspective. Our soils are fragile and limited. It is our responsibility to husband these scarce resources in a manner that reflects the fact that they are finite and cannot be taken for granted.

Yet the damage is already widespread. Erosion, salinity and tree decline are afflicting over half of all agricultural land and poisoning major water ways in this country.

Regardless of the historical reasons for the loss of this most vital resource, it is of the utmost importance that the pattern be halted and prevented from recurring in the future. Furthermore, wherever possible, attempts should be made to restore degraded land.

There is already a strong awareness in all sectors of the community that we have reached a critical point in the process. Should land degradation continue at the level experienced in the past, there is no doubt that the longer term economic welfare of this nation will be placed at grave risk.

This Government recognises the problem as one of, if not, the most important in the natural resources area and one which is clearly beyond the resources of State Governments alone to tackle effectively. The national dimension of the problem calls for an adequate response by the Commonwealth in the interests of the long term welfare of the nation. This government has a longstanding commitment to safeguard the nation's agricultural resources. Since attaining office we have moved quickly to fulfil this commitment. In fulfilment of one of its major pre-election agricultural policies, the Government established the National Soil Conservation Program. I would like to take this opportunity to briefly discuss this initiative. The Program aims to develop and implement national policies for the rehabilitation and sustainable utilisation of the nation's soil and land resources. In essence, this is being done by enhancing the expertise and administrative authority already available in the States and Local Governments and by encouraging the efforts of farmers and the general community. The Program's philosophy is consistent with that of the National Conservation Strategy, namely, that Australia should maintain the essential ecological and life-support systems, such as soil regeneration and protection, on which human survival and development depend. As such, the Program represents a major practical attempt to achieve objectives set out by the National Conservation Strategy. The National Soil Conservation Program is not just concerned with providing funding to other bodies to spend on soil conservation. It embodies its own policies and philosophy which seek to provide a national approach to combatting land degradation in Australia. It recognises the basic interdependence of soil, water and vegetation and the role each plays in land stability. Land is perceived as a complex entity made up of each of these resources and the interactions between them. It also emphasises a preventative rather than a corrective approach.

The Program is based on five major objectives.

(i) That all lands in Australia be used within their capability;

(ii) That land capability assessment and whole catchment/regional land management concepts be used as a basis for land planning;

(iii) That all land users and levels of Government meet their respective responsibilities in achieving soil conservation;

(iv) That effective co-operation and co-ordination occur between all sectors of the community, disciplines and agencies involved in the use and management of land and water resources; and

(v) That the whole community adopt a land conservation ethic.

These objectives provide the National Soil Conservation Program with its direction and act as a guide in project selection. They are not set in concrete and may change as the Program develops and progress is made.

I am pleased to be able to report that the Program has received a high level of support from the public. This support has translated into active co-operation from primary producers, conservation groups, State and Local Governments as well as academics and researchers. A major task of the Program is to continue to raise the level of public awareness about this often insidious problem of land degradation.

Of course it is in the interests of all Australians that the damage caused by land degradation is minimised. Not only does it undermine productivity but also results in severe off-site costs that are borne by the public at large. No where is this more drastically obvious than the lower reaches of the Murray-Darling system where water quality is often very poor as a result of erosion and salination occurring throughout the catchment.

The Bill establishes a Soil Conservation Advisory Committee which is constitute as an expert and impartial body charged with several responsibilities. The main function of the Committee will be to provide advice to the Minister on projects to be funded under the National Soil Conservation Program. It will also provide advice on priorities and strategies for activities by the Commonwealth relating to soil conservation.

As such, it will allow the Commonwealth to have a co-ordinating function in soil conservation-not in competition with the States but complementing and co-ordinating efforts nationally.

This Committee will provide an opportunity for non-government groups such as producer organisations and public interest groups to have an input into how the problem should be tackled by the Commonwealth.

The Department of Primary Industry will, through appropriate processes, publicise the fact that applications may be made for financial assistance for proposed or existing soil conservation projects. The Committee will consider such applications and advise the Minister as to which candidate projects should be funded out of moneys appropriated under the Bill and on areas where soil conservation projects need to be commissioned.

It will also make recommendations as to the terms and conditions that should apply to the agreements under which the assistance should be paid. This selection process would normally take place annually. The Soil Conservation Advisory Committee will also assess the success of projects funded by the Commonwealth and of the workings of the Act itself and will report through the Minister to Parliament each year.

The total appropriation under the Bill, as I have already stated, is not fixed at any level. While it would be true to say that it would be almost impossible to provide too much support for soil conservation, I would like to make it clear that the Bill is not an attempt to have the Commonwealth shoulder the entire responsibility for soil conservation-this is neither possible nor desirable.

The Commonwealth, by establishment of the National Soil Conservation Program and by providing financial assistance under this Bill, is seeking to act as a catalyst to stimulate improved soil conservation by those with more direct responsibility in this area.

The Bill provides that separate appropriations be made for the States, for Commonwealth Departments and for other persons-such as research or education bodies, tertiary institutions, or private companies or researchers. The relative size of the three appropriations will reflect the general capacity of each sector to contribute to the national soil conservation effort and the probability therefore is that the States will be the major and the Commonwealth the minor recipients, with the other group falling between.

Funds appropriated for use by organisations and individuals will be paid into a trust account to be known as the National Soil Conservation Program Fund. Payments for projects, other than State or Commonwealth projects, will be made from this Fund. These projects will be more numerous and usually smaller than State or Commonwealth projects. Experience has shown that in such cases the flexibility offered by a trust account is necessary to ensure efficient use of the Budget allocation.

Individuals and organisations may not always be able to conveniently operate in conformity with the budget cycle while at the same time efficiently managing a project. For example, a project undertaken by an academic institution will usually operate on a calendar year, not on a financial year basis. The Fund will also serve as a repository for gifts and bequests where appropriate, and for paying the expenses of the Soil Conservation Advisory Committee.

The Bill provides that financial assistance be subject to a number of conditions, and that each project further be subject to an agreement. The conditions specified in the Bill relate generally to accountability for funds, observance of the agreement, repayment or withholding of funds where there has been misuse or error in the conduct of the project or the handling of funds, provision of records and reports, and the fate of revenue or windfalls derived by the recipient of assistance.

In short, the Bill provides for the sort of responsible control that would be expected where Government expenditure is being incurred. The agreements between the Commonwealth and those undertaking projects with the use of financial assistance provided under the Bill will be more specific documents which, in addition to containing any of the conditions set out in the Bill, will specify the financial assistance to be provided and describe the purpose and nature of the project in question.

I should like to make it clear that the soil conservation projects that can qualify for financial assistance under the Bill are not limited to actual construction works and field activities. Soil conservation consists of prevention as well as correction, and projects involving education, publications, training, demonstrations and research will all be considered by the Advisory Committee. Indeed, given that conservation is a national issue and that the Commonwealth is able to bring a perspective that is not always available to the States, I expect that the Bill will prove particularly effective in this regard.

It is difficult to provide any quantifiable financial impact of the Bill. The Commonwealth has made $4 million available to the National Soil Conservation Program in the current financial year but I have earlier indicated that there is no fixed appropriation under the Bill. Administrative costs within the Department are currently in the order of $180,000 a year, about half of which includes the services of officers seconded from State soil conservation services to assist in the development of the National Soil Conservation Program. When these secondments are terminated in about two years, the cost will therefore be approximately halved. However, with the passage of this Bill, the expenses and allowances of the Advisory Committee (as determined by the Remunerations Tribunal) will have to be met. It is estimated therefore that administrative costs to the Commonwealth will eventually settle at about $120,000 per annum and that this will not vary significantly even if the amount of financial assistance for soil conservation were to be considerably increased. On the positive side, the benefits of the National Soil Conservation Program are expected to be considerable. It is not possible to predict a likely figure for the savings in terms of future productivity and reduced off-site costs, but they are certain to greatly exceed any outlay by the Commonwealth.

Before concluding this speech, I would like to emphasise the Commonwealth's commitment to soil conservation and the place of this Bill within that overall commitment.

Historically, the Commonwealth Government's involvement in soil conservation has been on an in-and-out basis. The previous Government opted out of soil conservation completely so that at the time the present Government took office, there was no involvement at all. This Government turned around that disastrous decision and established the National Soil Conservation Program.

The National Soil Conservation Program, as I have explained, has the overall aim of ensuring that the use of our land resources takes place on a sustainable basis. The Bill, limited as it is to the provision of financial assistance, is only a part-albeit a significant part-of the Government's commitment. This significance extends beyond the actual benefit that will accrue from projects undertaken by means of financial assistance provided under the Bill.

The previous Government justified its dilatory attitude to soil conservation on the grounds that because the direct constitutional responsibility for land use rests with the States, the Commonwealth need not become involved. However it is now obvious that the magnitude of the land degradation problem is such that a national perspective must be obtained, with the Federal Government providing a means of co-ordinating this perspective, as well as making its own direct contribution to soil conservation.

This Bill is one means of ensuring this. If future Governments refuse to commit funds to soil conservation this can no longer occur by convenient administrative measures; it will require a conscious and public act not to appropriate monies under the Bill. Any failure by future governments to appropriate funds will be explicitly reflected in the Annual Report of the Soil Conservation Advisory Committee. The Bill is therefore explicit and enduring evidence of this Government's commitment to the National Soil Conservation Program and to the fight against land degradation.

I commend this Bill to the Senate.

Debate (on motion by Senator Kilgariff) adjourned.