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Tuesday, 16 April 1985
Page: 1201

Mr CLEELAND(8.43) —The history of land degradation commenced in Australia with European settlement. From the first day of settlement in 1788, the fragile land structure and ecology of our country has been destroyed by European farming techniques. Hence, the history of Australian agriculture was marked by the destruction, at an early stage, of the fragile surface soils and vegetation that then existed. As a nation we failed to learn from the Aborigine to understand the interdependence between ourselves and the land we inhabit. It has taken nearly 200 years to understand that fragile balance, in which insufficient allowance was made for the frequency of drought, floods and other climatic events or for limitation such as slope, soil structure or ground water hydrology. The result is a massive soil erosion and land degradation problem for Australia, ranging from wind erosion of the sand plain country to serious irrigation and dry land salinity.

The inherited problem is of enormous magnitude. Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation studies have shown that of the small amount of arable land available in Australia some 5 per cent per annum is being lost. A joint Commonwealth-States study in 1978 found that some 270 million hectares, or just over half the area in agricultural or pastoral use, required treatment for land degradation if its productivity was to be maintained. However, it must be said that to the credit of the rural industry great improvements have been made in agricultural productivity over several decades. In many areas our primary producers are among the most efficient in the world. Yet, despite these technological and social accomplishments Australian land users and successive governments have failed to introduce land use programs consistent with the use of our diminishing agricultural resources. In my own electorate land degradation is primarily concentrated in soil erosion and dry land salinity.

Australia is one of the few countries in the world which experience salinity in non-irrigated, dry land farming. Surface or near surface salinisation of land due to rising water tables occurs in both irrigated and dry land agriculture. While the problem is widespread in Western Australia, South Australia and Victoria, it also occurs in New South Wales and Queensland. It has been estimated that productivity losses due to dry land salinity currently amount to some $16m annually. In the Warranbayne and Boho districts of McEwen excessive destruction of native vegetation has created recharge areas that permit the rapid permeation of ground water on high ground which results in increased water tables on the lower ground. Land which has never historically known the leakage of sub-surface water is now being swamped by saline affected ground water, creating classical dry land salinity.

A mature gum tree, I am authoritatively informed, soaks up some 300 litres of groundwater a day and evaporates the moisture into the atmosphere. Each tree removed from the recharge areas allows increased ground water to flow to the now salt affected land. The problems and causes are recognised by the Warranbayne and Boho district landowners, who have formed a local soil conservation group, shortly to be incorporated. Mr Colin Davies of Warranbayne, a member of that group, has offered his property for experimental soil conservation techniques by the Victorian Soil Conservation Authority, one of three such experiments in Victoria. Salt affected land is being planted with salt tolerant pastures and the recharge areas are being fenced to prevent stock entry and are being re-planted with native vegetation.

Against this background of an urgent need on one hand to combat land degradation nationally, and limited Commonwealth responsibility on the other hand, in 1983 the Government initiated the national soil conservation program. The program aims to develop and implement national policies for the rehabilitation and sustainable utilisation of the nation's soil and land resources. Its broad goals are that all lands in Australia be used within their capability; that land use decisions be based on whole catchment-regional land management planning concepts; that all land users and levels of government meet their respective responsibilities in achieving soil conservation; that effective co-operation and co-ordination occur between all sectors of the community, disciplines and agencies involved in the use and management of land and water resources; and that the whole community adopt a land conservation ethic.

It is very strange to sit in this House and hear those who were once proud to call themselves the Country Party, but who now strive to be the National Party, talk about land conservation and land degradation. In Victoria their colleagues in that Party are still actively pushing to open up the Little Desert of Victoria for farming. They still have vague hopes and are still suggesting seriously in Victoria that we should have increased closer settlement. It is absolutely staggering that the National Party of Victoria is still pushing for these rather strange concepts which are so outmoded.

Mr Kerin —They never learn.

Mr CLEELAND —They never learn. They are still pushing for it, despite the fact that the Little Desert area is now regarded by all serious farmers as being of no value at all. The National Party people in Victoria want to dig up fragile top soil and farm it-for what purpose, I do not know.

Mr Tim Fischer —Why won't the Victorian Labor Government re-establish the salinity committee?

Mr CLEELAND —We will not let them break up the top soil; I can guarantee that. The program is directed at all sectors of the community with an interest or involvement in land management. That, of course, excludes the National Party.

Landholders, with whom the main responsibility for erosion control rests, are the major target, but community groups, researchers, local government and various agencies in the State and Federal governments also have important roles to play. The emphasis is on co-operation and co-ordination, as the fragmentation of responsibility amongst many government agencies has, in the past, contributed to the present extent of the damage.

Financial assistance, although just one facet of the overall program, is an essential ingredient for the support of a range of other policy measures to be employed such as education, training, demonstration, research, publicity, provision of technical assistance and construction of works. Funds have been provided for projects in these broad areas of activity.

Structurally the program has three components. The first provides funds to State soil conservation agencies to enhance their training, demonstration, research, public awareness, advisory, data collection, design and construction activities. The second component provides funds to other organisations which can contribute to the attainment of the aim of the program through training, education, innovation, research, program development and liaison or co-ordination activities. Projects of national importance involving State co-operation or national co-operation are accorded priority. The third component of the program is still being investigated. It is intended to provide incentives to individual landholders to adopt effective soil conservation practices. It is hoped that all landholders in Australia will be encouraged to accept their responsibility for the mitigation and prevention of all forms of land degradation.

An amount of $1m was allocated for the program in the 1983-84 Budget. Despite my interjection during the speech of the honourable member for Gwydir (Mr Hunt), when I asked him to specify the amount that the former Government spent on these programs, he failed to give us that information. The reality is that the previous Government did not do anything about it. Of this $1m, $600,000 was provided to State soil conservation agencies under the States' component of the program for a total of 25 projects. The remaining $400,000 was distributed under the national component of the program to a range of institutions and organisations and was used to fund a further 15 projects. Widespread interest has now been shown in the program and grant applications totalling $10.1m were received in 1984.

The sum of $4m was provided for the program in the 1984-85 Federal Budget. Of this amount, $3.5m has been allocated under the States' component of the program to the various State soil conservation agencies in the following manner: New South Wales, $825,000; Victoria, $498,741; Queensland, $610,000-I would like to know how much the Queensland Government puts in-South Australia, $396,000; Western Australia, $610,500; Tasmania, $161,259; Northern Territory, $165,000; Australian Capital Territory, $33,000. Those of a group catchment works-type nature encompass a total area of about 465,000 hectares, with State and local government as well as landholders contributing to the costs. Funds under the national component in 1984-85 have been committed to other organisations and institutions in respect of 25 projects, eight of which are continuing projects from 1983-84.

Various options for the third component of the program are being examined. Meanwhile, taxation concessions on investment in soil conservation are being provided under section 75D of the Income Tax Assessment Act. This section allows 100 per cent of certain capital expenditure to be deducted in the first year. Items covered by this provision include the eradication of pests from the land, the destruction of plant growth detrimental to the land, the construction of levee banks or similar works having like uses, the construction of surface or sub-surface drainage works for the purpose of controlling salinity or assisting in drainage control, and other work to prevent or combat soil erosion.

The Warranbayne/Boho soil conservation group is the type of group this Bill is intended to assist-the present generation farmers who are prepared to tackle the difficult and costly task of repairing the damage to our history. These people seek from Government a contribution and a lead and they will find this government is providing both the contribution and the lead.

The problem is of vital concern in Victoria. Only recently, on 11 April 1985, there was an article in the Age, entitled 'Its time to stop talking and start planting'. The article, by Mr Rod Usher, pointed out that the problem in Australia has arisen largely from the overall destruction of our native vegetation. It may be fair to say that our original farmers-the early settlers-were not aware of the very fragile nature of our soil and our ecology, but it saddens me to find that, even with the knowledge we have of our own nation and of the fragile ecology, we still have in this country groups who are prepared to undertake agricultural activities on land that is not suitable for such activities. The rarest resource we have in this country is our very thin topsoil, which is reducing at five per cent a year. This is the major problem we face if we are to survive and feed ourselves and if we are to have export capacity. Yet in the broader farming community there is still no recognition of this very sad fact.

This should be a matter of gravest concern to this Parliament-to all members of all parties. The message must go out to our farming communities, to those who use our fragile land, that it is not just their land, it belongs to the whole community; that the fragile soil and its agricultural produce is the produce of the nation; that they are only temporarily on the land and on the soil and that they cannot use that soil or that land to the detriment of the nation and our future history. That is a matter of the most vital concern. It concerns me as an individual and I know it concerns the Government. I commend the Government for again showing the initiative to do something about a grave national problem, unlike the Opposition, which in 30 years of government talked a lot but did nothing about it. Opposition members come into the House and bleat about the insufficiency of this Bill, but it is a start. It can never be enough, but at least it is a start. I believe that the Minister for Primary Industry (Mr Kerin) deserves the warmest thanks of all farmers in this country for the work he is doing in an effort to stabilise the agricultural industry and prevent further degradation of the soil.