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Wednesday, 17 November 2004
Page: 83

Senator BROWN (2:36 PM) —My question with very little notice is to the Minister for the Environment and Heritage, and I ask him about two great iconic Australian species in peril, the Tasmanian devil and the river red gum. What evidence does the government have as to the vector for the disease killing 95 per cent of Tasmanian devils which is sweeping across Tasmania into the World Heritage western wilderness? What percentage of the government's $2 million being spent on this matter is going into research into the actual vector or cause? Are the organophosphates or organochlorines being used in forestry plantations and agriculture being investigated? On the matter of red gums, what urgent action will the government take within the next 12 months to turn around the awesome statistic of 75 per cent of the nation's total red gum population that are stressed or dying? Will both species be urgently listed as threatened?

Senator IAN CAMPBELL (Minister for the Environment and Heritage) —It is very good to get a question on green issues from the Greens—it is a first in my time in the portfolio. Both issues that Senator Brown raised are very important issues for the Australian environment. Australia has a unique environment on a unique continent, including many hundreds of thousands of species which are entirely unique to Australia. I am quite sure that these two species in different parts of our wonderful land do fall into those categories. The Tasmanian devil is plagued by a quite unique, virulent disease called facial tumour disease. It is affecting a very large number of these incredibly unique Australian creatures.

Senator Brown would have noticed that during the election the Prime Minister did announce, and I announced in our environment policy, a special $2 million contribution to addressing the disease. I say to Senator Brown that we will be ensuring that the $2 million is invested in a way that improves the level of research, looking at and trying to identify possible trigger factors. We are certainly not going to rule out looking at any potential triggers, so organochlorines or any other chemicals used in either forestry or agricultural activities will be part of the investigation.

We have just announced a further special allocation of $46,200 to the Tasmanian government to support the disease monitoring of the Tasmanian devil population within the World Heritage area. The diagnostic investigations that are currently taking place in collaboration between a number of institutions such as Murdoch University and the University of Tasmania should get further support. But we particularly need to find, and Senator Brown would understand better than most people, whether there is more than one tumour type and to confirm whether the cancer that is affecting Tasmanian devils is similar or dissimilar across the whole of Tasmania. We need to identify that, and then of course seek to identify ways of resolving the problem.

Senator Brown has asked about listing the species as threatened. Senator Brown would know that under both state and Commonwealth legislation there are formal processes to go through to make those assessments. As I understand it, they are conducted by independent experts and I think we would all respect that to be the best way to proceed. In relation to Tasmanian devils—and I will get onto the river red gums on the Murray—we would not sit around waiting for a formal process to define them as threatened species before we act. It is the reason the government put in policies which related to Tasmania, the forests and the environment—we wanted to invest more money in this.

I also congratulate those Australians such as Don and Margie McIntyre, two great Australians that have done so much for environmental causes. They are a couple of individuals who have raised public awareness of the Tasmanian devil. Don and Margie entered the Targa Tasmanian Rally in a Peugeot and used their entry into that rally to raise public awareness of the plight of Tasmanian devils. They raised about $20,000 from private sources which will go to that fund. So I commend private individuals and companies for doing that. I am sure that if Senator Brown was to feel inclined to ask a supplementary question I could turn my remarks to the very important degradation of red gums within the River Murray.

Senator BROWN —Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. Consequent upon that answer, I ask the minister: is it true that there is no process under way to urgently list either species as threatened? Is it the case that with the Tasmanian devil there is no knowledge by the government or their Tasmanian counterpart of the cause of the disease and no timetable for coming up with the discovery of the cause of the devil facial tumour disease in Tasmania? With regard to the river red gums, is it true that government policy will do nothing in the immediate future to protect these marvellous trees, particularly to see that they get the water they need to recover and survive? Is there no government process in place which is materially going to save them from their march to extinction?

Senator IAN CAMPBELL (Minister for the Environment and Heritage) —I am sure Senator Brown will be pleased to know that the answer to his questions is that in fact he is wrong. There are significant processes and significant investment going into each of those. In relation to listing of the Tasmanian devil as a threatened species, the very work that needs to be done to lead to that process is being done. Tasmanian government funds and Australian government funds are being used to do the field monitoring work that is required to make the assessments so that we do not make just a politically motivated listing of this species. Firstly, we go about doing the field monitoring, and Commonwealth and Tasmanian taxpayers' money is being used to invest in that. You have two governments, one Labor and one coalition, working side by side to help protect and save this important species. Equally, on the River Murray, where you have seen this massive wipe-out of red gums across the flood plains because of the lack of flooding and the need to restore flows to the River Murray, there will be at the end of this month a meeting of the Murray-Darling Basin Commission. (Time expired)