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Thursday, 14 November 2002
Page: 6464

Senator McLUCAS (8:43 PM) —Tonight I want to make some comments about the Wet Tropics Management Authority annual report which was tabled earlier this week in the Senate and, at the outset, note that the structure of the report has changed this year with the move to triple bottom-line reporting. I welcome that and look forward to a continuation of an analysis of the environmental, social and economic indicators for the area.

The first part of the report includes the comments from the chair. Mr Tor Hundloe is the retiring Chairperson of the Wet Tropics Management Authority and he has written a very honest and excellent report that prefaces the report of the authority. Mr Hundloe is a person who is always prepared to tell it as it is. In his report, he identified that progress has been made over the last 12 months at the Wet Tropics Management Authority and in the management of the wet tropics, but he says:

Notwithstanding this progress, we are limited in our capacity to implement these strategies.

He is referring there to the nature based tourism strategy and to the walking strategy. The reasons he gives for that are quite significant and they are why I am speaking about this subject tonight.

Mr Hundloe puts it in context and reminds readers that, when he first came to the authority in 1996, the government had just cut the authority's budget by a massive 40 per cent. If you lost 40 per cent of your budget six years ago and worked through six years with that cut budget, it would mean that it was pretty hard for the staff and the board to deliver what they wanted to do. However, they have done an enormous amount of work. Mr Hundloe puts that into context as well. He says that the reasons given for the 40 per cent cut in the budget had to do with poor outcomes of the authority because there was no management plan in place even though the authority had been around since 1988 and because there was division in the community at the time. I think Mr Hundloe is actually being a bit polite there. That was the first year of the Liberal government and that was when the massive cuts occurred in their first budget. However, I acknowledge Mr Hundloe's comments in his report. An enormous amount of work has been completed in a very short time, and I believe that it is time for the federal government to recognise their responsibility and to replace the funding that was removed in 1996.

Mr Hundloe identifies two impediments to the authority's ability to receive the level of funding required. He says that neither the board nor the staff of the authority are involved in any way in a budget bidding process—something which any other government department would naturally be part of. He says that that is very unusual, and I have to agree with that. He also says in the annual report that on repeated occasions he has asked the Minister for the Environment and Heritage in the Commonwealth parliament to change the situation so that the Wet Tropics Management Authority can make a budget bid like any other government department. However, those requests have been to no avail.

He says that the second impediment to achieving some sort of recognition of the authority's need for funds is the fact that there is no estimate of the value of the wet tropics forests to our community, to the tourism industry, to agricultural production and to clean water, and no estimate of the expected value of the biodiversity to pharmaceuticals. Unfortunately, Mr Hundloe has to solve his own problems if the government is not going to listen and fund the authority appropriately. In the report, he suggests that an appropriate funding mechanism would be a conservation management charge. As senators will be aware, the Great Barrier Reef has a similar model, and an environment management charge is applied to visitors to the reef. Whilst it was a very controversial issue when first implemented, it is now successful and I believe accepted by the industry and certainly accepted by tourists. The only point I would make there is that there needs to be care in changing the rate of the EMC or any conservation management charge that may happen in the future without any advice to industry, because tourism products are sold many years in advance internationally and, if we changed our charge and did not give the industry a couple of years to work with it, that could cause enormous costs to operators.

I will return to the conservation management charge suggested for the wet tropics. My personal view is that we need a broader community consultation process and a broader debate about whether that is the appropriate methodology to fund, in an ongoing way, the operations of the authority. There has to be very sound consultation with the tourism industry and there also has to be a recognition that not only package tourists would be charged but free and independent tourists would also need to be included. There has to be consultation more broadly with the community.

I put on record my concern about the use of user-pays methodology as a general rule to fund natural resource management. However, I am prepared to wait before I make a final decision. It is important to note that even Mr Hundloe recognised that a balance between government funded management and more of a move to a user-pays, or beneficiary-pays, system is necessary. There has to be a balance. The wet tropics are not only a tourist icon; they are there for the broader community.

I also want to put on record my concern that local residents need to be exempted from any conservation management charge. We are fortunate to live in the wet tropics World Heritage area but I would hate to see our local community having to pay to go to places they go to now as a matter of course for their Sunday afternoon swim or a walk through the rainforest. There needs to be a recognition that that is our home and we do not have to pay to access it. I reiterate that it is time for the government to reinstate the funding that they cut in 1996. I want to express concern about the current situation facing the Wet Tropics Management Authority. The report states:

Our funding agreement has now lapsed and funding for the authority continues on a year-to-year basis. It is very hard to do forward planning when you are not quite sure when or how much money is going to be applied to the authority.

As of a couple of weeks ago, there was no approved budget for the Wet Tropics Management Authority. The budget outcomes were dependent on bilateral negotiations on NHT2. The other point that I am very concerned about is that all World Heritage funding is now going to come from Bushcare. It is not a very sound situation where agencies that are managing World Heritage areas have to compete with community organisations and other state departments for what is basically core funding. That is not very sound management at all. Finally, I would like to acknowledge the work of Mr Tor Hundloe as the Chairperson of the Wet Tropics Management Authority. His term finished on 21 September this year, and it is disappointing that his replacement has not been found. It is very difficult for an organisation to manage the most significant rainforests in Australia without a budget and without a chair.

Senate adjourned at 8.53 p.m.