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Tuesday, 16 April 1985
Page: 1207


Mr O'NEIL(9.14) —I am tremendously pleased to speak on this important legislation, the Soil Conservation (Financial Assistance) Bill. I concur with those honourable members who have said that many farmers are dedicated to soil conservation. In my large electorate of Grey, in South Australia, farmers play a positive role in soil conservation. I am tremendously pleased as I travel around the electorate and see the farmers' dedication to protecting the soil. I am also pleased that the South Australian Government, through its Department of Agriculture, is the leading State government in soil conservation. Some of the work undertaken in areas such as Cleve and Leigh Creek is a great tribute to the Department of Agriculture of South Australia and, in particular, to the South Australian Government.

As far as the Federal Government is concerned, expanding the role of the Department of Primary Industry to include soil conservation reflects Labor's clear recognition of the serious losses in productivity in Australia's primary industries caused by land degradation, or soil erosion. Assistance directed at the economics of farming is of limited value over the longer term if at the same time agriculture's resource base is degrading. Soil erosion is the single most serious environmental problem faced by Australia today. Every day, tonnes of irreplaceable soil are lost as a result of water or wind erosion.

It is a Federal Government responsibility to join with the States to ensure that the resource base of our primary industries is restored and maintained. This is a responsibility that successive Liberal-National Party governments have ducked; their ad hoc approach to resource management, governed by political expediency, has been a major factor contributing to the critical situation which existed when this Labor Government came to office. The Labor Government actively assumed its responsibility for soil conservation with the allocation of $1m in the 1983-84 Budget. Although only a small contribution, this gave the Labor Government a window into soil conservation. There was a successive allocation of $4m in 1984-85. Hopefully in the next Budget there will be a successive allocation. Certainly funds will not be reduced. This was a big increase on recent years.

Previous Federal Government involvement in soil conservation effectively ceased in 1981 following the decision of the notorious Fraser razor gang. The funding increase has made it possible for land degradation problems of national importance to be identified and dealt with in a co-ordinated and systematic manner. This was not feasible in the past as the last Federal Government had only a token interest-if even that-in soil conservation. Although I fully support a further reduced Budget deficit this year, I trust that funding for this important work will not be reduced.

I would like to take the opportunity to give a brief history of soil conservation. In the early 1930s, interest in and awareness of the need to conserve our soils were virtually absent in Australia. The Department of Agriculture at that time had no interest at all in soil conservation. Some time later, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation turned to researching biological control of rabbits. This was to provide dramatic improvement in controlling soil erosion. It was only 10 years ago, under the Whitlam Labor Government, that the Federal Government first became actively involved in soil conservation. The Whitlam Government proposed to make direct funding available to the States for soil conservation on the condition that they agreed to participate in a study designed to develop a national soil conservation program, to be undertaken in the context of an integrated approach to land management.

This collaborative study took two years to complete. Despite clear evidence of the need for urgent soil conservation work, and a blueprint for action, the Fraser Government chose to ignore the recommendations of the national soil conservation study. The razor gang's rationale was that soil conservation was 'a function more appropriately handled by the States'. The razor gang made its decision in the face of well documented evidence that the magnitude of the problem was clearly beyond the resources of State Governments, let alone Australia's 170,000 individual producers, many of whom were already suffering the added burden of drought. Despite the warnings, the Government failed to grasp the serious long term threat posed to Australia's primary industries by land degradation. This is why there is such a need for the Soil Conservation (Financial Assistance) Bill 1985 which we are debating today.

Community awakening has been slow, and there is still a need to educate the general community. Land degradation and the issue of soil conservation is a sub-set of such things as energy, population, food supply and the depletion of forests. People now are thinking more in an integrated way, identifying the inter-relationships between parts of the whole ecological system into which man considers he must fit. We are identifying components, problems and the need to allocate resources to fix problems in a better way than we ever have before.

Land has traditionally been regarded by European society as an indestructible object for ownership and use. A landowner was free to use and manage his land as he wished. These attitudes are now changing in several very important ways. The idea of stewardship is spreading. The landowner and society of today are beginning to be regarded as stewards of land with an obligation to consider the needs of future generations and to hand it on without loss of productivity or use potential. Land's limitations and fragility are becoming more appreciated. The area of productive land is quite limited. The rate of soil formation is so slow that for all practical purposes once soil is gone its loss is permanent. Nature takes from 100 to 400 years and even more to generate 10 millimetres of topsoil and 3,000 to 12,000 years to generate soil to a depth of about 25 centimetres. Soil is essentially a non-renewable resource.

Land is easily degraded by erosion, loss of fertility and pollution as a result of inappropriate use and management, but this degradation is usually not rapid enough or sufficiently obvious to create concern until it is far advanced and difficult or impossible to treat. Although Australia is a large country, its land resources are relatively limited, a fact which is not widely appreciated. No more than 10 per cent of Australia is arable, 5.8 per cent is under extensive cropping already and 0.3 per cent is under intensive cropping. Areas with recreational and scenic potential tend to be fewer and more dispersed than is usual in other countries. Considerable concern has been expressed about the quality of Australia's land resources. In 1975, half of the land used for agriculture and grazing was shown to need some form of treatment for degradation.

It has been stated that the major pollutant of water is soil from erosion. This far exceeds the threats from salinity and pesticides. Those of us who live in my vast electorate of Grey, in the north of the driest State in the driest continent, depend very much on water from the River Murray for personal use. Soil erosion has had a diabolical effect on our water supply, which is not fit for human consumption.

I would like to take this opportunity to describe soil conservation work which is presently being carried out in my electorate of Grey. Brian Hughes, a representative of the Department of Agriculture for the Upper Eyre Peninsula, who is based at Cleve has a very comprehensive and positive plan to combat soil erosion and is to be commended. Brian is presently involved in two projects, one of which is near completion. In 1982 a project designed for water erosion control commenced. This project, which involved contouring and flood control dams at Cockabindi Creek, north of Cleve, will be completed this financial year. A project at Heggaton, north-east of Cleve, started approximately one month ago and is due for completion in late 1987. This project also included water erosion control through contouring as well as reclamation of badly wind eroded country. Work at Heggaton has included improved drainage and the fencing of susceptible areas, as well as the seeding of salt areas with salt tolerant grasses.

The cost sharing arrangement for the Heggaton project is that $60,000 over three years will be funded through the national soil conservation program, with the farmers paying that much again. I certainly commend the farmers in that area for playing such a positive role. For the future, there are plans for a project to commence at Campoona Hill, which is situated in between the other projects mentioned. Planning will start this year with work due to commence in 1986. This will involve water erosion control and the reclamation of salt area.

The existing critical situation in Australia has been made even worse by drought, the recent bushfires and floods. As a result of drought and consequently bushfires pasture has deteriorated, leaving topsoil with little protection from wind and rain. Heavy rain storms take a particularly severe toll of our exposed soils. Downpours in drought affected areas have washed away the nutrient build-up of the past 30 years. It will take generations, and careful land management, to regain the loss in soil productivity. In my own State of South Australia, floods coming on top of drought and fires resulted in walls of mud-the topsoil from some other farmers' paddocks-swamping low land areas.

This Government is committed to restoring Federal Government involvement in soil conservation-hence this Bill-and to tackling the problems of land degradation in general. Labor recognises that this is essential if the future prosperity of Australia's farmers and fishermen is to be preserved. Grass roots soil conservation services are essential to help land users adopt management practices consistent with restoring and conserving the long term productivity of agriculture's resource base. If we are to expect permanent production from our farm land we must develop and nurture a land ethic among all our people-not just the members of government-and a respect for, and an appreciation of, that thin layer of the creation entrusted to us, that precious commodity that occurs on no other planet that we know of.

In conclusion, Madam Deputy Speaker, I take this opportunity to commend the Minister for Primary Industry (Mr Kerin). As a member of the Federal Government's primary industry committee, I sincerely believe that he is an inspiration to the members of that committee and to the farming community in general. I also wish to commend a young lady in my electorate, Mrs Teresa Lynch, who is also dedicated to soil conservation and who has played an important role in research on this subject. Although some members of the National Party of Australia might like to rubbish us over this legislation, we are definitely committed to it and I take great pride in supporting the Bill and confirming the Government's commitment to soil conservation.