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Thursday, 30 April 1987
Page: 2092

Senator VIGOR(4.05) —I move:

That the Senate take note of the paper.

This report of the Australian Soil Conservation Council concerns the resolutions of the second meeting of that Council. It is worth while noting in introduction a very interesting parallel between the report of the Senate Standing Committee on Science, Technology and the Environment, of which I am now a member, on land use policy in Australia in 1984, and the contents of the report of the Australian Soil Conservation Council. The Senate report outlined the findings of the Lake Pedder inquiry. These include consideration of multi-resource development projects and of a range of feasible alternative schemes for regional development. It also included management of social well-being and other natural resources. The Lake Pedder issue and its ramifications were forerunners of the present highly controversial environmental issues. It is encouraging to see that the Australian Soil Conservation Council has developed similar policies to those which were proposed by the Senate Committee.

The deterioration of soil quality in many parts of Australia since European settlement is, I believe, one of the most serious long term problems facing Australia's primary industries. The report noted that some States, to prevent soil erosion, had also embarked on the development of a State soil conservation strategy, incorporating elements of a national strategy. I believe this is a very positive move. I share the Council's affirmation that it would be valuable if plans were developed outlining how strategies are to be implemented, given the variations between States, regions and particular farms, and given the whole diversity and range of areas that we have in Australia.

The report recommends that priority be given to completion of a joint national soil conservation program in conjunction with a Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation project of national assessment of land degradation and research priorities. This would involve a database to provide valuable material for policy formulation in this area. I think that such a database would be most helpful in implementing such a national strategy, and I would recommend that the Government quickly provide the funds for it.

A concern that I have for long term conservation emerges in the section on the taxation of soil conservation activities. The report indeed expressed concern that landholders involved in soil conservation advisory activities may be liable for fringe benefits tax. The Council noted that taxation authorities had offered differing advice as to the taxation status of expenditure incurred by landholders in voluntarily attending meetings, workshops and field days organised by soil conservation groups. It was not able to obtain from the Australian Taxation Office any reasonable advice on whether such expenditure was deductible from income tax and, where grants were made for employees to attend, whether that was considered to be a fringe benefit. The Treasurer (Mr Keating) has been advised that the voluntary involvement of landholders is directly related to both increasing the income of farmers and protecting their own and the national resource of soil. As a result of an Australian Democrats' intervention in the debate the Government eventually gave up trying to make soil conservation measures claimable over five years. We also managed to decrease the time for claiming a deduction for water conservation resources to three years.

Australia is the driest continent in the world and we should be assisting as much as possible to ensure the protection of our resources. The Australian Soil Conservation Council is right to seek clarification from the Treasurer as to those supporting activities for conservation which may attract taxation liabilities. Farmers are already struggling to eke out a living from the land and to make a worthwhile contribution to this nation's prosperity, quite apart from having problems with this type of conservation measure. We should be giving landholders, farmers and concerned groups every type of assistance that is possible in this area.

Question resolved in the affirmative.