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Monday, 22 April 1985
Page: 1319

Senator MacGIBBON(8.00) —Speaking to the Soil Conservation (Financial Assistance) Bill 1985, I start by quoting from paragraphs (1) and (2) of the outline in the explanatory memorandum, because they set out very succinctly what the Bill is about. They are as follows:

(1) to 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.

(2) to establish a Soil Conservation Advisory Committee comprised of members nominated by the Commonwealth and by the Australian Soil Conservation Council, to recommend priorities, strategies and conditions for expenditure of funds provided under the Bill, and to provide advice on soil conservation in general to the Commonwealth, and to report annually on the operation of the Bill.

The importance of soil conservation to Australia cannot be over-emphasised. As other speakers on this Bill have said, it is the most important environmental issue facing Australia today. Needless to say, none of the environmental groups or protest groups have recognised that we have a problem with soil conservation; but then, they are always much more interested in Ayers Rock, rain forests and things such as that. Whilst on the subject of rain forests, I suggest that maybe one of the ways of constructively tackling the problem of disappearing rain forests is to talk about soil conservation. Undeniably, there is very high soil loss in those high rainfall areas on steep slopes which are covered by rain forests. Despite what Senator Mason has said, in all the seven years I have been a senator I never heard that august body the Australian Conservation Foundation say one word about soil conservation. It has certainly not sent me one bit of paper about it. It is very keen to send paper concerning the Daintree River and the dams in Tasmania, and all the other important issues of life and death with which it has become so passionately involved. But I have yet to hear, directly or indirectly, one word from the ACF in relation to this most important of all Australian environmental issues.

It is known that Australia is a very arid land. We know we have a problem with water conservation. We have invested a lot of money over the years on that problem. Parallel with the shortage of water, we have a shortage of soil. The topsoil in Australia is extremely shallow, and it is that productive sector of soil, the topsoil, that feeds all of us and gives us a very big export income. Compared to that of other countries, the topsoil in Australia is very sparse; it is very meagre. I well remember flying over the United States, from coast to coast, for the first time about 25 years ago. It was in daylight, and the thing that struck me, having flown across Australia beforehand, was the agricultural productivity of that vast country. There are over 3,000 miles of farmlands, all the way except for some desert around the rockies; thousands and thousands of miles of rich productive soil. Of course, there are places such as the Dakotas, where the topsoil of the black soil plains, the wheatlands and the prairies goes down to 40 feet. There are millions of acres of this. Unlike England and unlike Europe, we do not have those vast areas of productive topsoil that the other continents have.

Not only is the soil that we have very sparse; it is very readily lost. It is readily lost through the action of wind and rain. When it is being lost through rain, in low rainfall areas it is a slow process; but it is very rapid and dramatic in some of the high rainfall areas in my State of Queensland. As I have said, the soil provides us with our food. In Australia, 45 per cent of our export earnings comes from agriculture or rural production. That comes from only 1.2 per cent of the Australian population. It is a pretty fair comment to make that the 98 per cent of the population who are not involved in food production give very little thought to the problems of soil erosion, and it is probably fair to say that the majority of land users, that 1.2 per cent producing the food, do not have as a high a level of consciousness as they could have of the problems of soil erosion.

The Opposition supports this Bill and will vote for it. I would enter the qualification-because it has not been done in the Senate previously-that was entered by the honourable member for Gwydir, Mr Hunt, in another place, when he said:

The Opposition is not committed to the establishment of a Soil Conservation Advisory Committee or to the statutory nature of this legislation.

In other words, we shall review the situation in due course when we regain office, in six months or 12 months time, whenever this Government falls.

We see great importance in supporting these practical steps that are embodied in the Bill to control soil erosion. We see a need for this at a Federal level. The States vary in the interest that they have shown in soil erosion. But it is a national problem, because just as one cannot run a soil conservation program on one farm-one really needs to be looking at a watershed or a valley catchment areas-so one has to be looking beyond State boundaries and planning and co-ordinating it on a national basis. That is why we support the legislation on a national basis.

My own State has some excellent legislation on soil conservation, but it is said that no one in Queensland has ever been fined for breaching the legislation. The great problem with these erosion measures is that one has to have a regional co-operation from all the producers in the particular area. It is no good having 20 farmers on the Darling Downs, where soil erosion is a serious problem, supporting the legislation that is on the books, and one or two farmers in the district not supporting it. It all depends on the geography of the particular area, but it is not an uncommon situation to find that one or two farmers-probably because they know the local member of parliament or something like that-decline to co-operate and, in the absence of the enforcement of any legislation, the procedures adopted by the other farmers are very much compromised.

What are the origins of soil loss? In Australia they relate to two broad categories: First, to State legislation and management practices; and, secondly, to the landowners' management practices. Generalising in a very broad way, those two groups have operated in the past out of ignorance and sometimes out of greed. Much of the State legislation, up to recent times, was based on the very simplistic view that it was best if land was cleared and only grass was growing on it. I know that in my own State it was a condition of the granting and the maintenance of grazing leases in the cattle industry that land clearance programs had to be undertaken. Many cattle properties in Queensland were cleared on this basis-and cleared, I think, to their long term detriment. Whilst most of the cattle lands are in low rainfall areas, the removal of timber from the hills and ridges-because very little land is perfectly flat-involves and predisposes towards erosion over the years, even though that rainfall might be quite low compared with rainfall on the coast.

Happily, those practices are no longer persisted with by the Government in the way in which they were in, say, the first 60 or 70 years of this century. The governments at the time simply did not know any better. But the governments do know better now; they see the consequences of it. Much the same situation applies with respect to land-holders. There is no doubt that the average land-holder wants to pass on his possessions, in the form of his property, to his children, and he wants his children to derive a living from it every bit as much as he has done. Most of the sins have been sins of omission, not committed with a wilful intent for short term gain.

However, as I mentioned earlier, the problem is very widespread. It exists throughout the length and breadth of Australia. To illustrate its extent, of the 7,500 farms on the Darling Downs-an area that I know quite well-it is estimated by the responsible agricultural authorities that at least 84 per cent of those farms need to practise some degree of soil control. Another problem, apart from the widespread nature of soil erosion, is the immediacy of erosion in high rainfall areas. I refer again to my own State and to the problems of the sugar industry. It is estimated that a third of all assigned sugarland in Queensland is affected by erosion; that is, of in excess of 350,000 hectares of land cultivated for cane, 117,000-odd hectares have an erosion problem. Over 50 per cent of recently developed land in the State has a soil erosion problem, and the loss of soil from sloping land in high rainfall areas can be dramatic. For example, it has been recorded in tests in the Mackay area that soil has been lost at a rate of between 42 tonnes and 227 tonnes per hectare on trial sites. At that rate we would end up with no soil at all after a year or two. At Innisfail losses of up to a staggering 300 tonnes per hectare have been recorded. I would like to quote briefly three sentences from the Australian Sugar Journal of March 1983 in which, in a special paragraph on soil erosion in the central district, it stated:

It has been estimated that about 40,000 hectares of cane land in the Mackay-Proserpine region are at risk from soil erosion. Some 40 percent of the central district's cane land had serious erosion problems requiring soil conservation measures. There are pockets of bad erosion all over the district.

The answer to this problem is to arouse the level of awareness in the community through a public education campaign, the object of which would be to prevent this erosion happening. Any soil conservation measures take some effort and some money, and if we look at it, as previous speakers have, in terms of the whole nation we are dealing with truly huge sums of money. However, as the Chinese say, a journey of a thousand miles starts with one step, and the simple steps open to all landholders do pay off. Simple practices such as building contour banks, of ploughing furrows parallel with the contour lines rather than against them so that channels are not created in which water can pick up velocity, of grassing the channels that must be provided on the slopes so that we do not have the scouring effects of high velocity water flows, of leaving stubble and of retaining bushes and other vegetation on slopes are all simple measures which cumulatively over time have a great effect in slowing water velocity, which is the key element in high rainfall areas that leads to soil erosion.

It would be quite improper for me to close on the note on which the previous speaker closed-one of doom and gloom. He said the measure before the Senate was too little too late, and that the world was collapsing all around us. I take the opposite view to that because I think it would be improper not to recognise the great advances that have taken place in rural Australia in the last 10 years. Sure there is a long way to go, but we have certainly broken the former position of ignorance in the community. There has been a commendable increase in awareness, and corrective measures have been taken all around rural Australia, both by landholders themselves and State governments. The Queensland Government is paying a 50 per cent subsidy on erosion work in hazard areas and, of course, the Federal Government allows some tax concessions. What has been done has been successful. It shows that it is possible to arrest this problem, and it is a problem that we must arrest because no landholder wants to be deprived of his livelihood and Australia certainly does not wish to be deprived of its export earnings. Least of all do we want to be in a position where we will have to import food. It is a big task because this is a big country, but it is a task that is well worth undertaking. I commend the Government for bringing this Bill forward because it provides the assistance to soil conservation that we so desperately need.