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Monday, 22 April 1985
Page: 1321


Senator WATSON(8.15) —In large areas of Australia much of the country has been eroded, is eroding or is at risk of erosion. Therefore an acknowledgment by the Commonwealth of this problem, by way of a statutory form of giving financial assistance for soil conservation, is indeed welcome. The Bill before the Senate, the Soil Conservation (Financial Assistance) Bill, does two things-it authorises financial assistance for certain soil conservation projects, and it establishes a national soil conservation program and a Soil Conservation Advisory Committee to advise the Federal Minister for Primary Industry.

A recognition that 90 per cent of the agricultural and pastoral area of New South Wales needs some type of soil conservation indicates the enormity of the problem. This Bill is but a small gesture to a massive national problem where the gap between soil degradation and conservation is widening.

Soil erosion is but one part of the soil degradation crisis facing Australia; soil compaction, salinity and diminishing soil structural conditions are other aspects of the degradation processes. Unfortunately Australia is a drying continent. Since the Ice Age, forests and an adequate rainfall have covered diminishing areas. The process was gradual and was due to three factors-the changing world climatic conditions, the continental drift, and Australia's latitudinal position placing it in the dry climatic belt of the southern hemisphere.

Unfortunately soil erosion in Australia was not officially recognised as a problem until the mid-1930s when some research work was carried our in the Victorian mallee. The arrival of the white man, with his overstocking of the native vegetation with sheep and cattle, his excessive use of fire and his applying of European-style agricultural techniques to often fragile soils has hastened the erosion problem. These delicate Australian topsoils have been loosened and degraded with the result that huge wounds have been opened up across the earth; roads and railway tracks damaged; streams, rivers and harbours polluted and clogged; and environmental and recreation values diminished. Even city folk in the eastern seaboard cities are not unaccustomed to dust storms resulting from drought and disturbance by wind of the light textured soils unprotected by vegetation.

Land has traditionally been regarded by European society as an indestructible object for ownership and use. A land owner was free to use and manage his land as he wished. But these attitudes are now changing. The idea of stewardship is spreading; in other words, we have an obligation to consider the needs of future generations. The land's limitations and fragility are becoming more appreciated. It is now recognised that the rate of topsoil formation is very slow. Australia's land resources are limited in spite of our large land mass. No more than 10 per cent is arable; 5.8 per cent is under extensive cropping and we all know that only 4 per cent is under native forests.

There is now increasing concern over the quality of Australia's land resources. In 1975, half of the land used for agriculture and grazing was shown to need some form of treatment for degradation. Educational programs, changes in land management practices, structural earth works and support for tree planting are all necessary to arrest a major national problem. I believe there is a role for the most humble members of our society. There is a role for the wider community, not only the land owner. How can people participate? For example, if people wish, they can support the Greening Movement of Australia in all its valuable work of encouragement and support that it gives to the planting of trees. This legislation is welcome for there is a need for a co-ordinated approach in the allocation of resources. I believe it is now up to the States to enact uniform or complementary legislation to ensure that there is a uniformity of attack against the problems of soil erosion and to make sure that we transfer concern into concerted action. I commend the Bill to the Senate.