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Monday, 22 April 1985
Page: 1312


Senator BOSWELL(5.49) —I support the Soil Conservation (Financial Assistance) Bill 1985. I support any action that will assist soil conservation in Australia and any help that will remedy the land degradation that Australia is experiencing. Australia suffers from the misconception that it is a food bowl-both at home and abroad. Australian rural producers are efficient and provide 40 or 45 per cent of our export earnings, which contribute greatly to the economy. Unfortunately we have an old and fragile soil composition. Climatically, we experience the diversity of wind erosion, flooding and extremes of temperature.

Erosion causes continuing loss in the productivity of agricultural land. It is also costly, and it causes damage to public facilities such as roads and bridges and to water resources. At the outset, I point out that the consequences of soil erosion have long term major implications for the nation's economy. Consequently soil conservation measures in the various States have to be directed at the diverse problems of wind erosion and salinity damage and, in Queensland, the erosion caused by the intensity of the rain. It is quite common in my home State of Queensland to have five or six inches of rain fall within an hour. This carries the topsoil from the farms and the grazing stations and deposits it in the creeks. Ultimately, it finds its way down into the rivers. Unlike the southern States, where higher rainfall coincides with winter crops, Queensland receives most of its rain during the months of October, November and December when the winter crops have been harvested and before the summer crops have been planted. In the last two decades, Queensland has seen an increase in areas under crops, as is the case in many other places in Australia. A great proportion of that land requires soil conservation measures. The soil conservation service in Queensland has been quick to adopt the latest in technology, using laser equipment and computers to deal with and plan conservation measures. It is doing very commendable work in the area of soil conservation.

The Soil Conservation (Financial Assistance) Bill provides assistance for conservation projects undertaken by the Commonwealth, the States, individuals and organisations. The Commonwealth has been involved in soil conservation in an administrative role since the end of the Second World War, but the States have the prime responsibility for soil conservation and have played an active role in this area for many years. This Bill gives the Commonwealth a legislative basis for involvement. The Commonwealth's role, as envisaged by this Bill, is to enhance the States' input. The Commonwealth's contribution is to be part of the States' efforts to maintain and increase their own contribution to soil conservation.

It was good to note that the Minister for Community Services (Senator Grimes), in his second reading speech, gave a commitment on behalf of the Commonwealth to co-operate with the States in their soil conservation activities. On that point, there is some concern in Queensland and, I believe, in other States, that this could be an invasion of a State's responsibility; however it is a proposal that we are prepared to accept in the interests of land conservation. Land use is the responsibility of State governments, but there is obviously a national interest involved when the conservation of the soil and its long term effects on the nation's economy are concerned and, clearly, the Commonwealth should have a financial input in helping the States to conserve their resources.

This Bill establishes a Soil Conservation Advisory Committee, consisting of five to seven members. The Committee is to advise the Minister on the Commonwealth's strategies and priorities and on the proposed agreements and arrangements for project funding. Conservation projects will be funded after a written agreement is signed by the project proposer, whether that proposer be a Commonwealth or State department or organisation or an individual. This agreement sets out the financial accountability terms and controls relating to the manner of a project's operations and conditions, which must be met before the funds will be paid.

The Soil Conservation Advisory Committee that this Bill establishes will consist of five to seven members. There are to be two members representing State government departments and one member from the relevant Commonwealth department and as many as four members described as having 'experience in, special knowledge of, or educational qualifications relevant to soil conservation'. Another concern I wish to express to the Senate is that the four people nominated to the Committee have a rural or primary industry background. I would hate to see this Committee get into the hands of special interest groups. As the Bill indicates, the Committee will have a number of additional members apart from the State government members and the Commonwealth representative. Control could get into the hands of some interest groups such as a greenie group or special conservationist groups that are not prepared to face the reality of the situation.


Senator Peter Baume —Will you accept some soil scientists?


Senator BOSWELL —Yes, certainly I would accept such people. The four non-governmental members could hold the balance of power on that Committee. I suggest that some of the four members come from a rural or primary industry background because most erosion concerns the agricultural sector, and the philosophy is held that landholders must bear the cost of the soil conservation measures. It is most necessary that producers have a say as to how land degradation problems should be treated. It would indeed be unfortunate for the well-intentioned national soil conservation program if its direction were to fall into the hands of those special interest groups that I mentioned before.

It is to be noted that the Bill does not clearly state the length of time for which allocations will be made for projects. It provides that projects will be selected on an annual basis. As the Minister no doubt appreciates, soil conservation schemes often take lengthy periods to be completed and involve the commitment of personal and equipment. Many of the projects envisaged in the national program would require three to five years work before completion. It is to be hoped that continuity of funding will be possible under the annual selection process proposed in this Bill.

The Federal Government's financial commitment to soil conservation is applauded by everyone. It is noted that this commitment is not supported in this Bill by a specific commitment at least to a minimum level of Federal Government financial assistance. Of the allocation of $4m committed to the program this year, Queensland will receive approximately $610,000, which it will be able to use to employ 16 people to help with soil conservation project work in that State. If the objectives of the national conservation program which this Bill encapsulates are to be supported, the landholders and the general public must be made fully aware of the importance of and their personal contribution to soil conservation.

Effective soil conservation measures will cost enormous sums of money. A joint Commonwealth-State study published in 1978 found that just over half the area under agriculture and pastoral use required treatment for land degradation if productivity was to be maintained on those rural and farming areas. Capital works alone were estimated to require the expenditure of $2,000m at today's values. If we are not prepared to accept that, the alternative is to lose productivity. This figure alone illustrates the enormous costs involved. At the same time that this national program is educating the landholder and the public on the need for soil conservation measures, it is also putting an enormously costly obligation on the landowners and the farmers of this nation.

Independent studies taken amongst rural Australians have shown a high degree of awareness of soil conservation needs and improvement procedures, and their willing participation in State-run soil conservation programs is very high. If the landowner, however, is being asked to contribute to soil conservation measures he must be given the financial incentive by the Federal Government in the form of reduced interest loans and greater tax deductions and rebates. This is an area in which the Commonwealth could also make a positive contribution to soil conservation by assisting the landowner and farmer.

In recent years the farmer has found his costs increasing, with higher wage bills, loss of international markets and lower returns in general. Farm incomes will fall this year by a massive 29 per cent. In many cases, the landowner, despite a great commitment to soil conservation, may find that he simply cannot afford to implement soil conservation practices because of the costs involved. Assistance should be provided to the affected farmer by means of a combination of tax rebates. I am referring to a farmer who has a taxable income. The income earned by many people in rural areas is below the taxable level. At present, the average annual income of a farmer in Australia is $7,000. In the case of those people in the rural areas, and those involved in primary industry, who do pay tax, those deductions would be very much appreciated.

The national soil conservation program is in its second year of operation. To date it has proven to be useful in creating general awareness and providing assistance for the implementation of measures to counter soil erosion in co-operation with the States. Under the national soil conservation program to date, the State authorities have borne most of the responsibility for distributing funds for projects in their own States under acceptably defined guidelines. It is hoped that the new arrangements for funding provided by this Bill will work equally well.