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Wednesday, 19 March 2008
Page: 1263

Senator SIEWERT (1:15 PM) —I would like talk today about the need for a strategic, science based approach to natural resource management and conservation. Natural resource management, NRM, is complex and of vital importance to Australia. Unfortunately, it is not well understood in the community or, I would also be brave enough to say, in this parliament. I do not think that people understand properly the need for landscape-scale interventions, the need for community engagement with multiple stakeholders, the long time frames that are involved and the need to tackle the major problems that come at a very big cost and have huge impacts on the environment.

Australia has a long history of natural resource management, particularly in relation to engaging land managers and communities in large government programs and in cutting-edge natural resource management resource and development. We have had programs in various iterations to address this, including Landcare, Bushcare, the National Soil Conservation program and the Natural Heritage Trust. These have been going for a number of decades; we have a long history of involvement. I personally have been involved in these programs for over 24 years.

With our large and ancient continent, unpredictable and extreme climate and fragile soils we also face some of the most difficult natural resource management problems you can find. These problems are complex. I think it is important to note that for every complex problem there is a simple solution that does not work. These problems require long-term interventions which take time to have a measurable impact in many cases. They can be difficult to measure and attribute outcomes to and there are complex interactions between factors. For example, it can take 10 to 20 years between changes in catchment management—in other words, putting in place deep rooted vegetation—to see the impacts at the base of the valley on water quality or groundwater tables. There are many other examples.

We believe there is a need for a consistent and concerted approach to tackling our natural resource management problems that can manage our land and water, protect our precious ecosystems and ensure that we have the food, fibre, clean air and water that we will need into the future. These are challenges that must transcend the short-term horizons of the terms of government and the political cycle. We need a strategic and integrated approach that engages all stakeholders. It must be strategic because the scale of the problem we face and the limited resources at our disposal mean that we need to make every dollar count. We need to focus and prioritise our efforts to deliver maximum bang for our very limited dollars.

It needs to be an integrated approach because we are dealing with complex interactions between systems and actions in one part of the landscape—for example, in the marine environment—that can cancel out, overwhelm or undermine the actions or lack of action in another. We need a joined up approach that ensures that we are not duplicating efforts in different areas or regions or repeating the mistakes of the past, that the actions we undertake and the assessments we conduct give us data and knowledge that is transferable and that we learn from this.

We must engage all stakeholders, we must all agree on the priorities and targets and we must all be speaking the same language. The scale of the problem means that we cannot achieve our interim targets with the limited level of public investment available. We need to engage a substantial level of community action, involvement and participation to make a difference. We need to foster a high level of volunteerism and engagement of land managers. I repeat that this is absolutely essential because we do not have government or public resources to do this without the engagement of the community. That has driven Landcare and all the different funding programs that have been devoted to natural resource management and environmental protection.

These are the lessons we have learnt, or I was hoping we had learnt, from the successes and mistakes of the last couple of decades of the various natural resource management programs such as Landcare, Bushcare, Coastcare, the National Soil Conservation program, the Natural Heritage Trust and NAP, which is the National Action Plan for Salinity and Water Quality—the list rolls on. That is why over the last couple of iterations of the Natural Heritage Trust there was a move to the regional planning model and the catchment based approach because it was recognised that we needed to be doing things on a large scale, we needed to be doing it on a landscape scale, we needed to scale up our level of investment, we needed a coordinated approach, we needed to have a strategic approach and we needed to engage the community.

Having said all that, it brings me to an issue that Senator Boswell also touched on, and that was the announcement last Friday of the government’s latest funding proposals on the environment and natural resources funding—that is, the Caring for Our Country program. This program seems to be sending very mixed messages to the community and there is very little information to date. That is a cause for concern. To me it seems to be a grab bag of programs to address both natural resource management and also the government’s rather ad hoc environment promises. It smacks to me of having been rushed. It is, as I said, a grab bag and that is not strategic. I cannot find the word ‘salinity’, one of the biggest land management and environmental problems facing this country, particularly in my home state of Western Australia, and I cannot find mention of the word ‘science’ there.

A very important thing we have learned through the process is the need for a better information base that uses the science that is available to us in order to refine, target and be strategic about our investment funding in natural resource management. I am very worried that we seem to be repeating mistakes of the past. Having been there towards the beginning of our involvement in natural resource management investment and these care programs, I am very worried that we are about to repeat the mistakes of the past.

The ANAO report came out in the middle of February, I think, and highlighted yet again some of the problems that have been identified through the years with these funding programs. Minister Garrett’s announcement used the ANAO report as the rationale for scrapping the NHT3. Of course, it is up to a government to rebadge programs and come out with its own; I acknowledge that. My concern here is that we are throwing the baby out with the bathwater. In particular, there seems to me to be a move away from the regional delivery model.

The ANAO criticisms are valid and a number of us have been pointing out weaknesses in these programs for a number of years. However, I think that the minister’s announcement and the program misunderstand these criticisms and fail to address them. The key criticisms of the ANAO report are not addressed by the Caring for our Country program. The Caring for our Country background documents focused on the rorting of the previous programs and sought to recast NRM as a form of regional pork-barrelling. Its criticisms of the previous programs were valid, and there would have been some individual rorting going on. However, that is not the main game we should be talking about here. The big problem that the ANAO report identified was that it is not possible to report meaningfully on the extent to which program outputs actually contribute to the NRM outcomes sought by the government. The problem was that the planning and assessment processes focused more on activities and outputs—for example, where the money was spent or how many trees were planted—than on progress towards outcomes. This has been an ongoing failure with these programs. There was insufficient evidence of the economic costs and benefits of different actions on the ground.

The challenge the ANAO report outlined for the next iteration of future funding programs such as NHT was the need to ensure stronger targeting of investments to the highest priorities and the most critical national assets and to greater focus investment to ensure it is at an intensity and scale to produce real outcomes. That is the critical lesson that we need to be learning from our past investment in natural resource management. It is time to move beyond just capacity building. It is time to move on from the small-scale projects. A favourite saying of ours in natural resource management in Western Australia is that, when you get a bunch of money, you spread the vegemite as thin as you can across the landscape to give everybody a bit of money and make everybody feel they are engaged, but you actually achieve nothing on the ground. That is exactly what we are worried about for the future under Caring for our Country. It is going back to delivering small grants to people who are not strategic and are not backed up by science. This is a significant problem if we are trying to address natural resource management at the landscape scale. You cannot do that with small-scale projects that will not be able to be traced back to produce outcomes.

The government says that it wants to reduce administration. It wants to make this process more accountable and to reduce the rorting. Where we have got to in natural resource management funding has been developed in accountability mechanisms over the last two decades. The government does not say how it is going to improve accountability; it just says that it is going to. As for what it is going to expect the regional groups to deliver now, again the information is very scant. It says that the regional groups will get 60 per cent of current funding. But what is it going to ask the regional groups to deliver? Will it ask them to deliver against their already clearly articulated regional strategic plans and investment plans? Some regions have done them better than others. We should be looking at those plans to see which ones are actually delivering effectively in order to continue their funding and our investment there.

We also need to be assessing these against the science. Have we actually been able to deliver the protections that are needed with the funding that we have invested? Are we investing that money in the best way possible? There is work going on in the community that has been looking at this. One mechanism that is being developed, supported by NHT funding, is the Salinity Investment Framework. That looks at a proper and rigorous scientific method for investing our funding in natural resource management to address what the government says it wants to—and that is the highest priorities and looking after our national assets.

We need a process to get there. The government has not articulated that. The program that it released last week is very short on details, which I think is designed to keep quiet some of the regional groups and environment groups that have been asking questions about the future of NHT funding, the same as I have been asking questions about the future of NHT3 funding because it is absolutely of critical importance. I was expecting a much better thought-out process from this government than the scattered, ad hoc programs that it has announced that are designed around its ad hoc election promises.

On their own, the programs are good. I am not saying that putting $200 million into the Great Barrier Reef is not important; it is important, but it needs to be strategic. The other programs that the government are investing in all look okay on their own, but I would ask: where is the government’s strategic approach? Where is their framework for investment? How are they making the programs more accountable? What are they going to do now if they cut the funding to regional organisations? How are they going to scale up their investment at the landscape scale, which is what we need to be doing? We need to be clearly showing how investment of funds is going to produce better natural resource management and environmental outcomes. I challenge the government to tell the community how it intends to do that, because I see nothing in the limited amount of information that is available at the moment that gives me any confidence that they are using a science based, strategic, well-targeted approach to address the dire issues that are facing the environment and natural resource management in Australia.

Do they intend to continue to invest in salinity management? Are they going to repeat the mistakes of the past when we had small amounts of money? In the past—and I had been in these meetings—we would get small applications that said, ‘I want to put trees in the landscape here.’ In the past we had no idea what the hydrogeology of that catchment was and we had no idea whether those trees were going to survive. Let me tell you that I know very well that trees were planted at the bottom of a catchment and they died. So we planned and paid for a very expensive experiment on how to plant trees and to get them to die. That is what we are in the process of repeating now. We are in danger of not having learnt from the past.

We could make a significant leap forward. The government could really make a difference in natural resource management by actually looking at some of the work that is going on now and being much more focused, strategic and targeted in the way they allocate these resources. They are missing a golden opportunity just trying to keep more people happy by giving them small, ill-targeted grants. I have to say that it smacks to me of them wanting to keep a little money aside so they can spread it in the regional areas for a little bit of what they have accused the opposition of doing—pork-barrelling—into the future. I can only think that is the reason for having small projects back again—it is to keep more people happy. (Time expired)