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Monday, 3 November 2003
Page: 21771

Mr HUNT (5:00 PM) —I rise to take the opportunity to propose to the House the concept of a national sustainability initiative. I propose this initiative in the context of a 30-year vision for Australia's environment, focusing on the notions of priority areas of need, identified indicators and specific targets and programs across the core areas of water, land and biodiversity, atmosphere and also energy in human settlements.

In setting out this need and desire for a national sustainability initiative, I particularly want to first put it in the context of two events. In the last week we saw the passing of Garrett Hardin. Garrett Hardin was a US biologist, a Republican, who in 1968 wrote one of the great seminal works of the 20th century. In the journal Science, he wrote `The tragedy of the commons'. `The tragedy of the commons' set out a thesis, and that thesis was a very simple one. To quote his own words:

The rational man finds that his share of the cost of the wastes he discharges into the commons—

that is, the land which we all own—

is less than the cost of purifying his wastes before releasing them. Since this is true for everyone, we are locked into a system of “fouling our own nest,” so long as we behave only as independent, rational, free enterprisers—

not locked into the system established for a group and a collective. There is a local example of that in my electorate of Flinders where, at Gunnamatta beach, the eastern treatment plant pipe flows out, carrying with it 420 megalitres a day of secondary treated sewage—150 billion litres every year. That water is discharged off the coast, but only by a matter of metres. It has three effects. It has an environmental effect, a health effect and it represents a ridiculous waste of 150 billion litres of captured water that we have in our possession every year. It is a classic example of the tragedy of the commons: we take that which is the action of an individual in disposing of his or her waste, we throw it into our collective resources and we damage them.

But this is writ large across Australia, because this example is one of 142 ocean outfalls. Those 142 ocean outfalls put approximately 1.5 trillion litres of waste water onto our coasts, into our seas and into the areas where people swim, at the same time wasting a valuable resource that we have captured and which represents an extraordinary opportunity for use. Interestingly, that 1.3 trillion litres is approximately the amount that has been recommended for the regeneration of the Murray-Darling Basin, dependent upon different estimates. But that is water which we have, which we own, which we use and which we waste, and that is all an example of the tragedy of the commons as it plays out.

Hardin's thesis is a simple thesis. It is that there are those resources which are common to all of us. If we draw upon them in moderation, if we draw upon them collectively and if we draw upon them in a way that is sustainable, then we will all benefit. But if, as is the case, it becomes a rational action for one individual to draw more than his or her fair share—such as a fisherman who cheats on their licence or a polluter who dumps more than their fair share by putting in and fouling the common areas—we are led to a situation which is damaging for all. The impact is one of two things: either exhaustion of resources, whether it is our fisheries or our lands, or destruction of our resources, whether it is our water, our land through salinity or our atmosphere through pollution.

What do we need to address this? We need two simple things: we need prevention and we need remediation. This is where I turn to the notion of the national sustainability initiative. I believe that we have a unique opportunity to establish a 30-year vision, with clear milestones and clear objectives across the four spheres of the Australian environment: water, land and biodiversity, atmosphere and energy in human settlements. If we establish a national sustainability initiative which sets out the 30-year targets that we can agree on in those areas—targets such as ending all of the ocean outfalls in Australia by 2025, a percentage increase in the total biomass of all fish within the Australian exclusive economic zone waters by the year 2030, an agreed percentage increase in the total biomass of all fish within the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park by 2030, and similar examples; and I commend the Minister for the Environment and Heritage, Dr David Kemp, for doing exactly that in relation to the Great Barrier Reef—then we can make real progress. On the atmospheric front, we would look at a percentage reduction by weight in the emissions registered under the National Pollutant Inventory, with a date and target. Similarly, we would look at a percentage reduction in salt affected lands by the year 2030 and attainment of a certain percentage of all human energy consumption from renewable resources by 2030.

Those are the types of goals needed. It is easy to set goals. In this country we have a history of goals which have been set and then disregarded—including the goal that `no child shall live in poverty by the year 1990'. It is very easy to set a headline. It only becomes meaningful when it is attached to a concrete rational program. I wish here to propose a concrete mechanism for achieving those goals, which would work together to comprise a national sustainability initiative. The essence of the mechanism is two-fold. First, there has to be a recognition of the core priority areas and the setting of national targets across the generations—so it has to be a generational goal. Secondly, we have to decide how we fund it, how we achieve it and how we bring it into being. Here I wish to deal with a particular mechanism.

The government has already used the Natural Heritage Trust as a percentage return to the public from the transfer of assets from the sale of Telstra part 1 and part 2. There are advantages to the sale of Telstra. It allows for the investment within our national telecommunications carrier of equity rather than debt as the basis for raising future investment. Also, on today's prices—and here is a fascinating figure—there would be a recurrent benefit to our budget of $340 million a year. What do we mean by that? It is very simple: if you were to sell Telstra, you would obtain approximately $1.75 billion in annual debt relief; $30 billion in debt relief would have an effect on the budget of about $1.75 billion. As opposed to that, the loss of the dividend receipts would be about $340 million less—and that is on today's prices.

No matter what the argument, by holding it in its current form, every year we are wasting $340 million of taxpayers' potential revenue for hospitals, kidney machines, schools and the environment—for all of these things. In that context, I suggest that the vast bulk of that money—the vast bulk of the capital receipts—should be returned for paying off debt. However, I would also suggest that if, as occurred with the Natural Heritage Trust and Telstra part 1 and part 2, approximately 10 per cent of the sum were returned, on the sound economic basis of making investments now to heed, to ward off and to address exponential costs in investment in the future, that should be the basis for the national sustainability initiative. That money, drawn from capital, going back to capital, with a visible and clear return to the people in our urban fringes and in our rural areas, could directly address our water resources, our water sustainability and our coastal protection. This notion of a national sustainability initiative would then be economically sound and also about preparing ourselves for a longterm generational view.

I return very simply to the `Tragedy of the commons'as represented by the threat to my own electorate and to the area of Gunnamatta beach. We see there a problem of individual actions collectively mounting to create damage. We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity. I commend this proposal of a national sustainability initiative. I am disappointed in those who would oppose this mechanism, and I urge the House—(Time expired)