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Monday, 22 April 1985
Page: 1314

Senator MASON(6.00) —In this session of Parliament we have sat through the introduction of one of the least consequential bodies of legislation I have seen in my seven years in this place. Perhaps bold initiatives will come from the Government as the session draws to a close, but I somehow doubt it. This is happening in a nation which faces probably one of the most serious bodies of crises it has faced since World War II. They are problems which are gradually increasing and closing in on society. The shortage of money, the necessity for financial constraints, the fall of our dollar and the fall of our productivity are all due to what one can describe only as a series of leaks in the ship in which we are all travelling. One of these problems is the subject on which we are now speaking. It is a great pleasure for me to see that the question of the need to conserve soil has come forward in this session of Parliament.

The Australian Democrats would agree that the most urgent action is required to halt the accelerating deterioration of the quality of soil in Australia. At first that must sound like a pious remark with which we would all agree-like the fact that motherhood is great-but it is rather more than that. There are those who would say that soil conservation is a boring, tedious subject. In fact it is not, because every one of us depends for life on the few fragile inches of topsoil on this planet. Australia has a lesser resource of topsoil than virtually any other country in the world. It is a resource we tamper with at our peril. If we do not starve to death as a result of the lack of topsoil, then perhaps our children or grandchildren will. It is of that order of importance. All over the world there is an increasing demand for food and more and more is required of us in export grains. More and more areas of the world are not self-sufficient in food. We therefore have a responsibility to the future in this very grave and serious area.

As with so many of these things, the situation is worse than most of us suspect. Dr Brian Roberts, Dean of the School of Applied Science of the Darling Downs Institute of Advanced Education in Queensland, has estimated that while the rate of natural soil formation in this country is approximately ten to 15 tonnes per hectare per year-manufacturing soil is a very slow process which can in no way be hastened-the rate of loss from soil erosion, salination and general degradation of the soil is up to perhaps 300 tonnes per hectare per year. That is very much like overspending money. It is like having a chronic, gross overdraft at the bank which increases all the time, except that, in the last analysis, one cannot eat money; one can eat only the products of the soil. Far too little effort has been made by the Government to awaken the people of this country to this danger and the necessity to do something about it.

I commend the Australian Conservation Foundation, which has this year identified soil conservation as a major problem of society. I hope that it can secure the support of the people of Australia. Members of the Australian Conservation Foundation have been listening to this debate, which indicates the degree to which they are on the ball. They have asked me to repudiate the contentions of the previous speakers that the ACF should not be represented on the Soil Conservation Advisory Committee. Soil conservation is rated by the ACF as number one priority, with good reason. It has written to the Minister for Primary Industry (Mr Kerin) seeking participation in any future review. We say that that is absolutely right and proper and that its input, having been one of the few successful ones in this community, ought to be heightened rather than otherwise. We should recognise that at least the Australian Conservation Foundation has made some effort to bring the people of Australia the idea that this is an important--

Senator MacGibbon —Rubbish!

Senator MASON —Senator MacGibbon said 'Rubbish'. That is an entirely unjustified comment.

Senator MacGibbon —All the bits of paper that have come into my office from the ACF are about rainforests, free rights for druggies, and things like that, but it has never taken a public position on soil conservation.

Senator MASON —Senator MacGibbon has not taken the trouble to do his homework or he would not say that. I find it extraordinary that an honourable senator should get up in this place and not have an understanding that an initiative of this kind has been going forward. There is another tragic aspect of this, and it is very important indeed. Senator MacGibbon has not heard about the ACF initiative and the work that is being done, and probably many other people have not heard about it either. The reason for that is that the media in this country are interested in dissension, trouble, the latest crime and things of that kind. An important problem of this type does not get the amount of media coverage it should. Because of that, very little has been done to overcome this problem since the first national assessment of soil erosion was made in 1970, which is 15 years ago. A decade and a half has passed without this problem being in any way brought properly to the attention of the public.

The Government knows full well that if the people want something badly enough, if they understand a problem sufficiently, they will insist that sufficient money is brought forward for the problem to be dealt with. It is like reafforestation. It is intolerable that any community should lose trees faster than it plants them, and it is equally intolerable that it should lose topsoil faster than it is replaced.

The national soil conservation program is a good start. The Soil Conservation (Financial Assistance) Bill, which has provision for financial assistance to the States, Commonwealth departments and other institutions for soil conservation, is a further step in the right direction. We support it, as we would support any initiative of this kind. The Australian Democrats raised this issue in the Parliament six or seven years ago, and we have been raising it on and off ever since. I have spoken on this matter no fewer than six or seven times in the Senate over that time.

The point I make is that what we are doing now is too little too late. A small effort is being made in a direction where a massive effort is required. Part of the problem is the existence of so many State and Federal bodies with interests in soil conservation. Sometimes I believe that we as a nation are hag-ridden with overgovernment. This is another one of those situations where lengthy debates and difficulties with the division of power between the States and the Commonwealth lead to a lack of action. It is something we can accept as a truism, something that will go on forever in this country, but I hope that will not be so in this case. In this area of importance, I hope we might be able to get ourselves to the stage where there is co-operation between the States and the Commonwealth for the common good of this country. Unfortunately, up to now it has been a question of division of power-who does what, and which public servant is in charge of this, that and the other. Although this is not the only area of that kind, it is one of the most important.

The problem of so many Federal and State bodies with interests in soil conservation arose many times before the Senate Standing Committee on Science, Technology and the Environment in its inquiry on land use. I was a member of that Committee and I recall witness after witness pointing out the grave difficulties of co-ordination in this area because the States and the Commonwealth were in on the act. This, of course, tends to lead to a buck-passing situation in which everyone thinks someone else is doing something about the problem, where the complexity of individual and joint responsibilities make action difficult and therefore improbable. It is that improbability of action which is one of the millstones around the neck of this country-the lack of a clear definition of the respective rights and duties of government of the States, or of any form of government, if it comes to that. I suggest that it is quite erroneous for us to have a situation in which Federal Parliament and the State parliaments are seen as separate power groups, which they are. Really, we should have a rational situation where the Federal Government has quite clear responsibilities within which it operates, the State governments have clear directions for their operations and, beyond that, local government has clear and definite areas of responsibility. Other countries have managed to achieve this. It has been done in France where there is a government with departments. I do not recommend that necessarily for this country because we are a very much larger country, but at least there has been an attempt to get the mechanisms of government right so that they work. We have not yet done that in this country and the question of soil conservation is one of the most serious matters in this area.

The Soil Conservation Advisory Committee with its proposed role of co-ordination of Commonwealth efforts in relation to soil conservation, amongst other things, should be a definite step in the direction of simplifying the bureaucratic tangle in this area. The Australian Democrats believe that that should be very much its first priority-that it should get to the stage where action is possible. Meanwhile, the quality of our topsoil deteriorates every day. This is due to a large extent to the means of agriculture. Dr Brian Roberts, whom I mentioned earlier, estimates that the topsoil on the Darling Downs is disappearing at the rate of one centimetre a year. At this rate the Darling Downs will be useless for most sorts of crop production within 30 years. That relates to the areas that are at present under cultivation, as most of the Downs are. The Darling Downs are one of our most valuable heritages from nature. When we consider that figure of 30 years and set it against the fact that it is 15 years since this problem was identified, with very little having been done about it, we begin to get some idea of the enormity and the urgency of this problem. It is a matter of great urgency for government and it should not be underestimated simply because land in Queensland is still being cleared for new production at the rate of some 80,000 hectares a year. How long can that go on? We will get to the stage again where we will exhaust our natural bank balance to our discredit.

The other point is that whereas one can restore most things in this world fairly easily with money and effort, one cannot restore topsoil in this way. If one destroys the soil one simply cannot restore it quickly. It is gone forever. This is part of a world problem, which is perhaps even worse and more aggravated in other parts of the world because of the sheer pressure of population on the diminishing resources of the soil.

I wish again, because I think it is very important, to refer briefly to what is perhaps an unusual aspect of this problem as it exists in my own State of New South Wales. It is a fact that all products of life contribute to the topsoil; when we die we go back to it and our natural wastes go back to it, or they should do. I refer now to the crass and quite criminal decision that has been made by the State Government of New South Wales to spend millions and millions of dollars in piping sewage from Sydney and Newcastle miles further out to sea instead of returning this material, in a properly processed or composted form, to the land. This is one of the enormities of government. We talk about all sorts of things in this place and the New South Wales Parliament debates many issues hotly, but that issue is one which concerns and touches the very future of the people of New South Wales and the very future of humanity as it occupies this continent. About a decade ago I was in Shanghai, China, looking at those beautifully organised rural communes around the city, which feed it and many other parts of China. This is a highly organised and very well disciplined form of agriculture and it is well worth seeing. If any other senators ever go to China I suggest that it is far more important to see such communes than to look around Peking. The sewage of Shanghai is composted and used entirely by the surrounding communes, which are the food bowl of that great city. I spoke to the gentleman who was called, in the quaint terminology of the cultural revolution of that time, 'a responsible member of the revolutionary committee'-basically he was the mayor-and he pointed out to me that it would be impossible to sustain the population of China unless this were done. The people of China would die unless the wastes of the city were composted and used. I looked at that fairly thoroughly and I could see nothing objectionable in the process. There was no smell, no disease or anything of that kind. The Chinese have that situation under control. They are doing what is natural and proper for what is called in the cliche 'spaceship earth'-they are returning to earth what they are taking from it. If one does not do that, one fails at one's peril. To undertake the bizarre step of spending millions of millions of dollars of taxpayers' money merely to pipe sewage further out to sea in the hope that that will prevent it from being washed back onto New South Wales beaches, as it is now, often in its raw state, is quite crazy.

Senator Watson —Have you not heard of Werribee, in Victoria?

Senator MASON —In other parts of the country these things are not done. Someone just mentioned Victoria. There are areas where very reasonably, very rationally and very successfully sewage is composted and returned to the land.

Our situation in Australia is really only an extension of that in China, where the people would die if they did not carry out this kind of operation. Just because we can manage for the moment does not mean that we can continue in the same crass and stupid way in the future, the way which the New South Wales Parliament is forcing on us now. We live on this planet in a state of symbiosis with living and growing things and it seems to me the idea that there is something foul or bad about sewage being returned to the land is a Victorian concept which we should consider doing without. The gross indecency or stupidity is that those people with so-called finer feelings say that the sewage should be piped out to sea. That is disposing and dumping at sea every year probably thousands of tonnes of our topsoil, because that is what it amounts to. If we take things from the soil and the residue is wasted, we will have a situation in which that soil cannot be replaced quickly or easily.

What this all adds up to is an immediate, drastic and very expensive problem throughout Australia. We must face up to the fact that it will be very expensive to deal with it properly. Many chickens are coming home to roost from the past. Land clearing, agriculture and grazing are not the only causes of soil degradation. Recreation, urban development, mining and manufacturing all leave their mark. In fact, no comprehensive statistics are available in Australia of the effects of these activities on soil degradation or, indeed, of the effects of soil degradation on these activities. That is a step forward which we must take, and take soon. The fact that water resources can be affected, the pollution of streams and rivers, the increase in flood frequency and intensity due to bare, eroded soil surfaces which are partly sealed by rain action and the gradual filling of dams by erosion products are all major problems. Are we going to be immune from them here? Of course we are not. In China for centuries the Yellow River, which is called 'China's scourge', took millions of lives; the river changed its course and eroded more and more of the fertile rice lands. Those problems have been recently overcome by the Chinese through an enormous program of afforestation in the upper reaches of the river and control of the river's flooding by building hydro-electric plants. That was a massive commitment in capital terms for the Chinese Government but it did not flinch from the task, any more than we should flinch from it if we want to maintain our proper obligations to the future.

Land and water degradation lead to a decreased habitat for flora and fauna and, in extreme cases, to the absolute extinction of plant and animal species. That is something that we have accepted in the past-the fact that it is good enough that these creatures with whom we share this planet should be wiped off the face of the planet permanently. That is a very platonic view arising from the ancient idea-still from Plato-that man is somewhere between the angels and the devils and that everything here on this planet is here to serve our purposes. I suggest that that is a fundamental arrogance that we can very well do without. We should recognise that everything on this planet justifies its existence, or should do so. Those who destroy or contribute towards the destruction of any species on this planet are vandals of the worst order and in history in the future will be just as much looked at as vandals as those who burn cities and libraries. There is no difference whatsoever between them except that, after all, flora and fauna are living things; a library can be rewritten and a building replaced but the living species, and their diversity on this planet, are miracles of life and cannot ever by replaced once they have disappeared. I suggest that we should be concerned about this. It should be one of our motivations as a society to see that this problem is reasonably and well taken into account.

Where the soil is degraded by salination-that is, where soluble salts accumulate on the surface soil-these problems become particularly acute. Of course, this can happen as a result of irrigation, as in the Murray River Valley where salts and irrigation water are retained in the root zone and also are transported there by a rising water table. There can be changes in the pattern of water consumption by plants, as when native woodland is replaced by annual crops. This can also happen by evaporation of surface water from soil made bare by cultivation or grazing and by over-use of water in irrigation areas and a failure to use those irrigation waters properly. Again, I think one has to look at the allocations of water to people farming those areas. In the past there has been a feeling among traditional farmers that, because one has a certain amount of water, one has to use it. But the proper way of handling this on irrigated land of that kind is to make sure that no more water is put on than is absolutely necessary.

Salination, whatever the cause, may kill the native vegetation and many commercial crops and pasture species. That is what motivates people. It is not until we find that we cannot grow anything on land any more that we do anything about it. That is an appalling attitude for any society to take. We should deal with the problem of salination before it arises. That is not impossible. There has been plenty of experience in the world to tell us what sorts of agriculture and irrigation cause these problems. It is a question of using that experience and doing something about it. Vegetation on salinated land is restricted for quite some time to just those species of plants which can tolerate high concentrations of salt. This has obvious disastrous effects on natural local ecosystems and on the potential economic return of the land. It is interesting that the Australian Institute of Marine Science in Townsville, of all places, when I was last there was carrying out a very interesting area of research into salt tolerant plants. Perhaps this can give us an answer. If we can get to a situation where we have useful plants that tolerate salt, it will be possible for us to use those areas again. That may well be a better alternative than some of the things that have been suggested so far. Some of the ideas that have been seriously proposed have involved no less than canals virtually from the irrigated areas right to the sea-almost another Murray River dug from the centre of the continent right through to the coasts. I think we have to find, through science or better methodology, an easier way than that of overcoming the problem.

In 1983 the Department of Home Affairs and Environment published a booklet on land degradation in Australia. At the end of the booklet this conclusion appears:

Progress toward treatment and prevention of land degradation has been slow. Some progress has been made: e.g. data collection, some increases in funding, limited publicity and increased environmental awareness. But much more is needed before land degradation in Australia is even contained. An actual reduction would require substantial effort and resources over several decades.

That identifies the true nature of the problem we face. Let us not muck around with it or say that we are doing something sensible when in fact we are not. I will quote the strategies in the booklet:

Strategies toward the control of land degradation include:

expansion of catchment or group soil conservation projects;

That in itself is a useful and important area of practical work which needs to be undertaken soon. It continues:

use of all related government policies and programs by inclusion of conservation objectives and incentives;

promotion of appropriate land use and management; and

promotion of public awareness.

I commend those words to honourable senators.

In conclusion, I wish briefly to mention the promotion of appropriate land use and management. One of the real problems we face in this country is a consensus on land use. It is absurd that, whenever an environmental matter comes up, there is confrontation between a group of environmental greenies, if one likes to call them that-I am one myself-and some established interest. That is madness. It is an extraordinary situation for people in a civilised society. There should be a considered land use inquiry which would lead to a virtual consensus in the community on how various exploitative undertakings could be carried out. We should know what environmental parameters are permitted so that everybody-the environmental movements and the organisations themselves-know what it is they are doing and what guidelines they should operate within.

It is an extremely wasteful process when large numbers-sometimes tens of thousands-of concerned citizens have to have meetings, collect money and march in streets as in the case of the Gordon below Franklin dam. A massive amount of public attention was devoted to that. There is some sort of feeling on the part of government that this waste of community assets is justifiable. In other words, political action is taken only when literally tens or hundreds of thousands of Australians get up and say that something has to be done. That is an enormously wasteful way of looking at things and it is an extraordinarily crazy attitude to be taken by a government. In other words, in a decent reasonable society there should be a mechanism available which tackles the problem before then.

Hopefully, the Senate Standing Committee on Science, Technology and the Environment will continue into the future this massive task of a reasonable consensus on land use. I do not in any way understate or underrate the enormous amount of work that is required but I also do not understate its importance. We should aim to get to a stage where we know exactly where we are going in all areas of endeavour so that in future we have the reasonable expectation of a continuing society which is becoming more rather than less prosperous and which is increasing or at least maintaining its natural resources rather than diminishing them. I can think of very few things more worthy of the Government's effort. If we cannot guarantee that what we are given when we are born into this world is at least maintained until we leave it, we will fail ourselves and all future generations.

Sitting suspended from 6.28 to 8 p.m.