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Tuesday, 16 April 1985
Page: 1204

Mr HAWKER(8.57) —I also rise to support the Soil Conservation (Financial Assistance) Bill and endorse the remarks of the Deputy Leader of the National Party, the honourable member for Gwydir (Mr Hunt). He certainly spelt it out well, as indeed did the honourable member for McEwen (Mr Cleeland), who made some very pertinent points. I think the Minister for Primary Industry (Mr Kerin) was spot on in his second reading speech when he said that the problems of land degradation in Australia were extremely severe and costly. He said:

There can be no doubting the seriousness of the problem. Our country is not well endowed with land resources, at least not from an agricultural perspective.

The Minister went on:

The damage is already widespread. Erosion, salinity and tree decline are afflicting over half of all our agricultural land and poisoning major waterways in this country.

Naturally enough we endorse his comments. He continued:

It is of the utmost importance that the pattern be halted and prevented from recurring in the future. Furthermore, wherever possible, attempts should be made to restore degraded land.

Later in the second reading speech the Minister, almost tongue in cheek, went on to say:

This Government has a longstanding commitment to safeguard the nation's agricultural resources. Since attaining office we have moved quickly to fulfil this commitment.

I guess that is just a little point.

I turn to the content of the Bill. There is one detail which I hope the Minister will discharge very carefully when he sets up the Soil Conservation Advisory Committee. I refer to Clause 11 (1) (c), which talks about the constitution of the Committee. It states:

The Committee shall consist of- . . .

(c) at least 2 and not more that 4 other persons with experience in, special knowledge of, or educational qualifications relevant to, soil conservation.

I think that is very good and we would certainly support that, but I hope the Minister will be very careful when selecting these people. I hope he will ensure that they are people who are responsible, who will take a constructive approach and earn the respect of the community, particularly the farming community. If these people do not hold that respect, I fear that the Soil Conservation Advisory Committee will not be as effective as it should be in discharging its duties.

We have heard some mention of the size of the problem, and while it is hard to quantify there is no doubt that it is enormous. I wish to elaborate a little on some of the previous remarks. To start with, I quote from a report entitled 'A Basis for Soil Conservation Policy in Australia', produced by the Department of Environment, Housing and Community Development in 1978. The first chapter of this report states:

The Standing Committee on Soil Conservation carried out a study in 1969 and 1970 to present an overview of soil conservation in Australia and its needs for the future.

In that study the Standing Committee concluded that at the then current rates of soil conservation expenditure it would take about 100 years to achieve control of soil erosion in the non-arid regions of Australia, even if no further soil erosion problems arose. The estimated costs of the works necessary to control erosion was reported to be $350 million at that time.

I repeat that that was in 1969-70. I think in today's money it would be conservative to say that the cost of arresting the problem would be well over $1 billion. I think that illuminates the size of the problem. The report goes on to mention the problem in more detail and it subdivides the land use into four broad categories, namely, arid grazing, non-arid grazing, extensive cropping and intensive cropping. In addressing this problem the report states:

An assessment was made of land degradation in these land use categories. The results indicate that just over half the area in agricultural or pastoral use requires treatment for land degradation if its productivity is to be maintained . . . Forty-four per cent of the area needing treatment can be adequately treated by using farm practices that meet soil conservation requirements.

That is an important point which I will come back to later. The report continues:

The remaining 56 per cent of the area needing treatment requires measures which involve the construction of works such as gully control dams, drainage works and contour banks, as well as associated practices. At June 1975, these necessary works were estimated to cost $675 million . . .

The report states further down the page:

The costs assessed for construction of works do not include annual maintenance costs. These are estimated at $50 million a year.

That is in 1975. To put the size of the soil degradation in this country into perspective I quote from a book called The Forgotten Country, written by Julian Cribb, the editor of the National Farmer:

Using the CSIRO estimate, the last six years of cropping have cost Australia in excess of 860 million tonnes of top soil. That is in addition to losses occasioned by livestock, droughts, development.

If corrective measures were implemented nationwide tomorrow, it would take nearly a century to recover all our losses in the grainbelt and high rain fall areas alone.

I think that shows very clearly the size of the problem and there is no question that it is certainly an enormous problem. I think everyone in this chamber tonight who is interested in this matter is more than aware of it. With regard to the level of funding, while the Opposition would certainly welcome the commitment of the Government, and as the honourable member for McEwen said, no matter how much funding was committed it would not be enough, the $1m in the first Budget of this Labor Government and the $4m in the second Budget is not going to go very far. In addition to the Federal commitment the States spend a further $20m or so. On the next page of The Forgotten Country a soil researcher, Professor John McGarity is quoted as saying:

'There is a mere trickle of research money where there should be a flood.'

The book continues:

CSIRO Soils Division chief E. A. Martin echoes his warning: 'Unless research, development and legislation is planned now, we will find severe restraints on our productive capacity.'

Two thirds of our broadacre cropping area is in need of treatment for erosion. If the average yield loss from erosion is conservatively put at 15 per cent per year in this area, then each year we are losing around 2 million tonnes of grain, worth $300 million on our export markets.

The total bill to correct Australia's soil erosion problems is now estimated to be in excess of one billion dollars which is enormous-but then so are the potential gains. Such expenditure would be repaid with additional national income within three years, and certainly within five.

I think there is no question about the size of the problem. It is a question of education and of making those who are directly involved aware of what is happening and of what can be done to correct it. Naturally we support the Government's efforts in this. I think what the Government is doing is justified on several grounds. Firstly, in some areas the cost to individuals is far too much for them to be able to undertake the necessary works to correct the problem. Secondly, the effects of land degradation often cover large areas and affect a lot of people in the same areas. Naturally the benefits to the individuals who take action would in many cases be minor whereas it would often benefit those further downstream or in related areas. Obviously the individual land owner should not be expected to pick up the tab for doing the work for someone else.

There is no doubt that there is a growing reserve of goodwill. A lot of farmers are becoming far more aware of what is happening. In my area we are seeing a lot of people who are prepared to go out and start tree planting, do their own research and workout how they can reduce erosion and the salinity problem. I hasten to add that there is a problem, which I alluded to earlier, which is that the Government has policies that discourage farmers from taking a long term attitude to their farming. I believe this can be far more detrimental than all the things that have been mentioned. The amount of money we are talking about is certainly large in anyone's language but the real way of solving this problem is going to be through the individual farmers. That is why I believe it is so important for the Government to be made aware that if it has policies which are contrary to farmers taking those long term views of their land, the money spent on soil conservation is going to be more than lost in the counterproductive effects of the Government's actions.

Turning specifically to these government policies, I believe that any policy that fails to pay full attention to the importance of successive generations being put in the position of being able to carry on the farm will lead to farmers adopting a short term perspective. I cannot over estimate the importance of this. I hope that the members of the Government who are interested in this problem will take this on board. The sorts of things I am talking about that will cause this short term perspective are death duties, which are being freely mooted in some sections of the Government, a capital gains tax, a wealth or assets tax-

Mr Andrew —An assets test.

Mr HAWKER —As the honourable member for Wakefield points out, the assets test is one such thing that is already doing that. I have examples of farmers who have put their properties on the market because due to the assets test they can no longer put their sons on their properties to carry on. These are the sorts of policies that the Government has to look at very closely because they will do far more to undermine the efforts of soil conservation than anything else. That is why I was very disappointed when the Minister, on 26 February, in answering a question without notice, refused to recommit himself to saying that he would oppose, in the strongest terms, a capital gains tax, an assets test and death duties. He gave that commitment before the last election. By the answer he gave on 26 February he appears to be running away from that commitment. That is very disappointing, particularly in the light of the sorts of things we are talking about tonight. We have touched on the magnitude of the problem. While we welcome the Government's move, I think we still have to admit that it is only a drop in the ocean. Nonetheless we are hoping that this Soil Conservation (Financial Assistance) Bill will result in good advice and a lot of encouragement to individual land owners. There is a reserve of goodwill and given the right lead a lot of people will continue their work. As I have also pointed out, these land owners are the ones who are going to make the big advancement in the soil conservation program. That is why I have warned about the effect of capital taxes, death duties, assets taxes and the assets test.

Mr Hunt —They have stripped them of everything.

Mr HAWKER —Exactly, as the Deputy Leader of the National Party of Australia says. The other problem facing farmers right now is low profitability. We have already seen the estimate of the Bureau of Agricultural Economics that in real terms net farm income will be 17 per cent lower than it was last year. Last year was not a particularly good year. Seeing things worsening will only add to the problem.

Mr Braithwaite —The return on capital is only about 2 or 3 per cent.

Mr HAWKER —Exactly. If there is low profitability, farmers will find it very difficult to put aside money for soil conservation measures. These are the sorts of things on which the Government has to take a broader perspective and say: 'If we are fair dinkum about soil conservation, we have to address these major problems that are related to it'.

The Government has been well informed on this matter. When the National Farmers Federation made its submission on farm costs, it gave the Government a stark exposure of the cost problems facing farmers and, in particular, the lack of international competitiveness. I must admit that since that farm costs submission was made to the Government we have seen the Australian dollar decline in value. I am sure that to some extent that will alleviate the problem, but only if the Government's policies continue to encourage the international competitiveness of farmers.

Obviously, the Government has to tackle the problem of excessive tariffs on imported goods and the excessive spending and borrowing at the Federal, State and local government levels; but most importantly, it has to tackle the problem of our inflexible centralised wage fixing system. It is ludicrous to hear the Government talking on the one hand about freeing up the Australians currency and, on the other, saying: 'If it happens to go against one section of the community, we will give you full indexation, even to allow for the effects of the devaluation of the dollar'. The Government must look at that point again if it is serious about addressing the problems of farmers' competitiveness.

Other problems outlined in the farm costs submission were the over-regulated service industries, particularly freight, both land and sea, and, of course, the level of Government taxes and charges. The NFF went as far as to quantify these charges. It has estimated that it is costing every farmer an additional $16,700 a year because of the penalties he has to pay through these various measures. The importance of the Government tackling these costs cannot be overstated. It is only by doing so that farmers can increase the cash flow that will be needed to allow individuals to put money aside for soil conservation. Many of them want to do so, but when they are faced with very low incomes, obviously soil conservation cannot be the number one priority. When they are faced with paying for the essentials of life or paying for soil conservation farmers are only human.

We certainly support the Bill. The size of the problem has been very much misunderstood by the general public. By and large people are becoming more aware of it. But we have to keep in perspective the size of the effort that the Government is making and the importance of encouraging people to help themselves. When encouraging farmers, we must look very closely at encouraging succeeding generations to continue on their farms, because if there is no reason for a farmer to think that his son or daughter will carry on his farm, it is highly unlikely that he will be too worried about the future of the soil and its condition in 50 years. The Minister for Primary Industry must be aware of this problem, but he must make sure that some of his colleagues are, too. This is why I hope he will restate his opposition to a capital gains tax, death duties and an assets tax. In particular, I hope that he will work a bit harder to get the assets test thrown out of the window. I hope that he will be heeding the NFF's excellent farm costs submission. It put forward constructive suggestions to improve farmers' competitiveness on the international market. It is only by a combination of all these policies that the enormous problem of soil degradation can be successfully tackled.