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Thursday, 4 February 2010
Page: 443

Senator SIEWERT (10:53 AM) —The Greens moved to refer national resource management and conservation to the Senate Standing Committee on Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport because we felt it was so important that Australia had a proud legacy of funding to the National Soil Conservation program, the Landcare program, the Natural Heritage Trusts 1 and 2 and various smaller funding systems under that. We have developed a very proud tradition of land care. In fact, there are 56 regional natural resource management organisations around the country, in various states and under different management regimes.

We were very concerned about what we started to hear from the bush, in particular about the Caring for our Country program. Unfortunately, through the inquiry, those concerns were validated. I hold very deep concerns for the future of natural resource management in this country if Caring for our Country continues without substantive review and amendment. There were many problems raised with us during our inquiry—which took longer than was initially anticipated because we kept getting more feedback and because some of the implications of Caring for our Country did not become manifest until further into the process, particularly after the first transition year. Regional organisations around the country are starting to feel the impact of reduced funding. Their funding has been very significantly reduced. Although the government persists in saying that 60 per cent of historical funding is going to regional organisations, it is not going to each regional organisation. In fact, that funding is going as a piece of pie to the regional organisations, and some regional organisations have taken massive funding cuts. There has been a massive loss of staff and, therefore, expertise and capacity from natural resource management organisations in the bush because they have not had the funding to keep the staff on. So we have seen a draining of that expertise. Those staff not only are important for those regional organisations but also provide capacity that we might not get back.

I have been travelling around the country, separate from the committee process, speaking to a wide range of natural resource management organisations. They are deeply concerned. They talk to me about the loss of staff, the loss of projects and, most importantly, the loss of volunteers, including long-term volunteers. People I have personally known in natural resource management for nearly 25 years are dropping out. That is a tragedy for natural resource management in this country. People who have worked on land care, water protection and water quality issues are giving up because they feel there is a lack of support and a lack of funding. These people, who have been expert at cobbling together grants and various funding sources for decades, have now said, ‘That’s it; I’ve had enough.’

We have also heard of trouble with the regional organisations. The traditional partners—groups that have worked together with agribusiness and with state, local and federal governments—are now finding themselves in competition. Instead of being partners in projects, they are now finding themselves in competition. So we have people competing for funds. In the past, we had groups cooperating to put in a joint funding application to get funding. But now they have to compete. So now they do not feel that they can talk to each other because the people they might be talking to may be competing for funds. Also, they cannot be involved as much in the consultation process, in the development of a business plan and in the development of targets because they may be applicants in the future and it will be claimed that they have a conflict of interest. That is a problem because the message from the ground is not getting through to the target centres or the people determining the business plan. So there is a very strong disconnect between the national targets for this program and the targets, programs and strategic plans of local and, importantly, regional natural resource management organisations.

In my home state of Western Australia the Northern Agricultural Natural Resource Management Group found it could apply for very little under Caring for our Country priorities. The essential priority in their region, salinity, is not a national priority. Salinity is still a priority in WA, despite the fact that the Commonwealth does not agree that it is a national priority. There is also the issue of wind erosion. They have a whole range of priorities that are not listed in the national targets, so they are unable to commit resources to those issues. That is a very significant fault in Caring for our Country.

One of the big issues is that the pie is being stretched further and further. The government committed the same amount of funding as was committed under NHT2. However, they made a series of election commitments that they squeezed into that pie, that they squeezed into that bucket of funding. In other words, it is being spread thinly. The term we used to use in natural resource management circles was that it was being ‘spread like vegemite’ over the landscape. What we are going back to is spreading like vegemite over the landscape a limited amount of funding so that the Commonwealth can feel good about doing stuff that does not actually achieve outcomes on the ground.

We also heard concerns around the application process. It is complex and lengthy. Thousands of hours are spent by voluntary organisations and volunteers generating applications that simply do not get funded, because there are thousands of applications for a very limited bucket of funding. So all those thousands of hours are for nought. So we need to change the application process and perhaps go to an initial expression of interest for those projects. People were very strongly concerned about the assessment process, saying that it lacks transparency and accountability. In general we have actually been able to find no rhyme or reason for some of the decisions that were made. The government said that they had to change the NHT2 process because of the Auditor-General’s report. They are seriously misusing, in my opinion, the Auditor-General’s report to justify going to a very centralised top-down approach that in itself lacks transparency and accountability.

The federal government and the department said that when organisations ask they give them a bit of a rundown on why their application was not successful. When you then ask regional organisations they say, ‘We got very little feedback. We did not get meaningful feedback. We do not understand why our application was not successful other than being told that we do not meet the targets.’ And, as I mentioned earlier, those targets are not able to be translated to the local and regional level. Again, this disempowers groups and undermines essential work.

What we are failing to do here is appreciate that unless we can get these people supported, unless we provide essential funding to those regional organisations and empower the community and regional organisations, we are never going to address the huge land degradation, the landscape repair job that we have to do. It is absolutely essential that we work with the community; otherwise, we will fail. The money that has been invested, the billions of dollars that this country very rightly has invested in natural resource management and biodiversity protection, will be lost because Caring for our Country does not build on that work—it undermines that work.

I am the first to say that NHT1 and 2 were not perfect. I do not even think that the coalition argues that they were perfect. But each time one of those programs was developed we learnt from the lessons of the past. We learnt that we need to work in better cooperation. We learnt that we needed to have integrated projects. We learnt that we needed to be working at the landscape scale. This new program, Caring for our Country, has thrown those lessons out. It is undermining regional organisations.

Again, no-one says that the regional organisations were operating perfectly in the past. I am probably one of the first ones to be critical of some of their operations and to think that they needed improvement. But here they are throwing the baby out with the bath water, undermining the regional organisations that we have invested millions of dollars in and have been supporting. We have spent money training staff and building up their expertise and it has all been thrown to the wind. That expertise is slowly draining out of the regional communities and we are desperately afraid that we are never going to get it back unless this government acts pronto to review Caring for our Country, putting more funding into it to better deliver those resources on the ground, to better work with the community, to change the evaluation process for the next round, to better consult with the community and take on board what they say. (Time expired)