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Friday, 19 April 1985
Page: 1254


Senator BROWNHILL(12.29) —For the record, I will state what the Soil Conservation (Financial Assistance) Bill sets out to achieve. Firstly, it will provide a statutory basis whereby the Commonwealth can contribute to soil conservation nationally by providing financial assistance to the States, Commonwealth departments, other institutions and individuals for this purpose. Secondly, it will establish a Soil Conservation Advisory Committee comprising members nominated by the Commonwealth and the Australian Soil Conservation Council to recommend priorities, strategies and conditions for the expenditure of funds provided under the Bill, to provide advice on soil conservation in general to the Commonwealth and to report annually on the operation of the legislation.

I commend the Government for bringing in this Bill. Obviously the Government took great heed of the Collaborative Soil Conservation Study of 1975 to 1977, a study carried out by the States and the then Federal Government. The study was entitled 'A review of a Basis for Soil Conservation policy in Australia'. It is perhaps a pity that it has taken so long for its recommendations to come into effect. In giving some of the reasons for the necessity to protect the soil I shall give some of the figures detailed in that study. The study showed that 52 per cent of the land in use in Australia needs some form of treatment for land or vegetation degradation. This area amounts to more than one-third of the entire land mass of Australia-a rather horrific figure to think of. Over 5 million square kilometres are used for agricultural and pastoral purposes. Of this total area in use, 23 per cent, or 1.8 million square kilometres, needs treatment with land management practices only, while 29 per cent, or 1.48 million square kilometres, needs conservation works of various kinds, almost invariably in conjunction with appropriate management practices. About 2.5 million square kilometres of land are not used for agricultural or pastoral purposes. This means that already a great deal of Australia's land mass is not even fit to produce any wealth for our country or food for the nations of the world. For example, some 55 per cent of the arid zone, which is about 27 times the size of Tasmania, is in a state of degradation.

The study to which I have been referring found that on about one-quarter of the degraded area the deterioration of the vegetation is accompanied by some erosion. The fact that conservation works are needed on one third of all arid grazing land gives great concern to the people of Australia. The soil is a precious and easily eroded resource. While seeking to maintain the highest returns from it in our lifetime, we should protect the soil, look after it and make it better for future generations. The study also showed that the non-arid zone, where rainfall is normally sufficient to sustain dry land crops and sown pastures, covers 2.3 million square kilometres or 30 per cent of Australia. More than 98 per cent of Australia's population lives in that zone, so obviously soil conservation schemes are needed to protect the water supplies for people living in those areas as well as to improve the soil. Australia has a limited resource and it must be protected. I could go on at length to quote from the collaborative study. It is important that something be done on a national scale. That is why the Opposition is supporting this Bill.

I can foresee problems and will now seek to deal with some of them. The administrative cost of running a national soil conservation body, we were told by the Minister, when he introduced the Bill, will be some $120,000 a year. I ask the Minister and the advisory committee, when it is set up, to look at the costs of running the service so that it does not take up all its money in running the body as another government instrumentality. If that happens, the benefits of the Bill will not accrue to those people who need it-the people who look after the soil itself. The cost of running the service must be kept low, and that applies particularly to the cost of running the advisory committee and administrative costs.

It is said that the financial impact of the Bill cannot be accurately quantified. I would have thought the Government had something in mind as to the amount that would be available in some of the forthcoming years. The Government in the first year of office gave a commitment to allocate $4m. In that first year, 1983-84, only $1m was allocated instead of $4m. In the 1984-85 financial year $4m was allocated, so we are already $3m behind scratch. Based on 1975 figures, the costs of conservation works needed to control land degradation in Australia were estimated at some $675m. That was 10 years ago. We are now 10 years down the track, the Australian dollar is now at a different value, and different costs are now associated with the problem of reclamation and so on. That was the estimated cost at that stage. The estimated cost of conservation works on non-arid grazing land and on extensive cropping land in those days was $234m. The costs involved are horrendous, and associated costs include not only government costs but landholders costs. The cost to the community is enormous. I am sad that this nation is 10 years further down the track-I speak as somebody who is vitally interested in soil conservation-and there is still a great backlog to make up.

I am concerned about the way in which the Soil Conservation Advisory Committee is to be appointed. The Minister may end up having too much control over an area which most probably should be looked after by State interests. The Minister could have a big influence on matters about which he may not know as much as he should. My remarks apply to such a Minister at any time. Let me deal with how the Committee is to be elected and its constitution. It will have between five and seven members. The two members appointed by the Australian Soil Conservation Council-or, until that body is fully functional, by the Australian Agricultural Council-will probably be State government employees, but will represent the Council rather than a State or States. The Commonwealth will be represented by a single member. Between two and four other persons will be members. The Minister is to appoint all members but will be obliged to appoint the two members nominated by the Council. My view is that if people appointed to that Committee are more interested in conservation measures of an extreme nature-they would probably receive Press coverage-than in our vital resource, the soil, this legislation could get out of kilter.

I urge the people who will select the Committee members to see to it that those who are on that body are practical people with special expertise. I suggest that they be brownies rather than greenies. Our precious resource, the soil, does not get enough publicity in the Press compared with the attention given to people who are interested in conserving our natural resources. I am on side with people who wish to conserve all natural resources, but the vital resource, the soil, needs to be represented by the brownies. That is an apt name for them, because that is the colour of the water that flows down the rivers taking our lifeblood, the soil, away to the sea. I hope that we have on the Committee people with special expertise and people who are vitally interested in the soil.

The Bill provides for funding of individuals. I cannot quite understand why the Commonwealth wants to get into the act of giving money to private individuals in the States. In my home State of New South Wales that is completely and properly done at this stage. The New South Wales Soil Conservation Service looks after individuals. This Bill draws together all the States to share the common problem of soil degradation. I think it is very good that the Bill provides money for universities and other instrumentalities. However, again, there might be duplication of some State matters.

The advances to the States are not clearly set out but they should be equitable and fair. I quote from a recommendation in the 'Collaborative Soil Conservation Study' report of the Standing Committee on Soil Conservation of some years ago:

Encouragement would thereby be given to initiatives in particular States so that the total expenditure on soil conservation in each State would reflect State priorities, based on perceived need and capacity for action.

The report continues:

The increased level of funding should be provided on a consistent basis and not be subject to sharp annual fluctuations.

I entirely agree with the setting up of the Trust Fund because hopefully it will alleviate the problem of sharp fluctuations. The report goes on to say:

The actual rate of increase in Commonwealth funding would be determined in part by the ability of soil conservation authorities to expand their activities as well as the availability of matching funds from State government sources.

As I said, the advances should be fair and equitable to the States. Let me put in a plug for the Soil Conservation Service in my home State of New South Wales It is the largest soil conservation service in Australia. It employs some 722 people and 500 of those people are at the coal face. If this Commonwealth Advisory Committee is going to put all of the powers in the hands of the Commonwealth and take power away from the States I will be very much against it. I hope that the good offices of the Department that is going to administer this will make sure that that does not happen.

In New South Wales we have project areas. I hope that the money available from the Trust and from the Advisory Committee's recommendations goes to project areas rather than one-off-type schemes. I believe that the complete valley systems that are tackled by co-operation between land holders and instrumentalities within a valley catchment is the most sensible way to tackle soil erosion problems. In New South Wales we have implementers of soil conservation, not just talkers. We have a Soil Conservation Service that assists farmers in practical ways and tackles the problems of damage to rail, road and public facilities in such a way that the whole community benefits. The New South Wales Soil Conservation Service gives resource guidance and ensures that catchment areas which supply water to cities and towns get good quality water. Rural production is our lifeblood and it is dependent upon soil. We must keep soil on our farms. We support the Bill, but ask that the points I raised be noted. The prospect of co-operation, co-ordination and communication between individuals, farms and Government agencies on conservation leads me to support this Bill wholeheartedly.

Debate interrupted.

Sitting suspended from 12.45 to 2 p.m.