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Wednesday, 17 April 1985
Page: 1249

Mr BRUMBY(11.48) - I continue my remarks from yesterday on this important piece of legislation, when I was describing the purpose of the legislation, particularly the establishment of the Soil Conservation Advisory Committee. The main function of that Committee will be to provide advice to the Minister for Primary Industry on projects which will be funded under the national soil conservation program. The Committee also, of course, will give advice to the Minister on overall priorities and strategies which are to be pursued in the area of soil conservation.

It should be emphasised that the total appropriation of moneys under the Bill is not fixed at any level. It provides for separate appropriations to be made to the States and to Commonwealth departments. Funds which are appropriated for use by individuals and community groups will be paid into a trust account, which will be the national soil conservation program fund. That fund also has another important function; that is, it will be legislative based, it will give security to funding and it will, of course, be the location of many gifts and bequests which are provided for soil conservation projects.

There is a most important rationale for this legislation before the House and that rationale is that the problems of land degradation throughout Australia are very serious and costly and they are worsening. It is the Government's view that by establishing a statutory basis for funding we can protect to some extent soil conservation programs from the future political and perhaps economic vagaries that might otherwise lead to the Commonwealth withdrawing from soil conservation funding. In that sense, the passage of this legislation will ensure that, if future governments refuse to commit funds to soil conservation, an explicit decision of the Parliament will be required to refuse the appropriation of money under this Bill. In effect, the purpose of this legislation is to enshrine into legislation a permanent commitment, or as close to permanent as we can get, to tying governments to the future funding of soil conservation. Given the enormity of the problem that faces Australia in terms of soil conservation, I for one applaud that initiative.

During this debate many speakers have dwelt and elaborated on the seriousness of the problems of soil conservation in Australia. There is a natural limitation of Australia's land resources. Australia simply does not have a lot of highly stable or productive land. We have a fragile soil base which, on average, has a relatively low productivity. Those basic limitations of our resources are exacerbated by the often harsh and certainly highly variable climatic conditions that exist throughout Australia. All those factors-that natural predisposition, the harsh climatic conditions-predispose Australia's soil to a number of elements, such as wind and water erosion, salination and the depletion of chemical and physical fertility. If we add to that predisposition a history of what could be described as poor, or at least indifferent, agricultural land management over a century or more and certainly a history of overclearing, overgrazing and often overirrigation, we have an outcome that is very severe and rapidly worsening. This needs the attention of all people throughout Australia and certainly the attention of governments.

There are a number of consequences of that worsening degradation of the soil. The costs to the nation are enormous in terms of lost productivity and economic hardship. They also induce permanent changes to the Australian environment. It is worthy of note that the Commonwealth and State Governments collaborative soil study, which was undertaken between 1975 and 1977, found that more than half of Australian land in use for agricultural or pastoral activities required treatment for land degradation if productivity was to be maintained. At that time, in June 1975, it was estimated by that collaborative study that necessary treatment works to control land degradation throughout the affected areas was of the order of $700m. That was back in 1975. If we apply some increases in prices and costs that have occurred since, we see that as a result of that study the cost of repairing land degradation in Australia in current money values is $1.6 billion. That is a staggering figure. But it is even more staggering when we realise that that estimate deals only with the treatment and control of land degradation. The figure does not include the untold billions of dollars which have no doubt already been lost to the nation because of soil degradation and the consequent reduced agricultural productivity.

While there has been general support for this legislation from the Opposition parties, a number of speakers have been quick to attempt to criticise the Bill. There is no doubt in my mind that the enormous magnitude of the problem, and the threat which it represents to Australia's land resource base, demands active and positive consideration by the Commonwealth Government. Since we took government in March l983, we have demonstrated an active and determined concern to tackle land degradation. The national soil conservation program and the Bill now before the House which will strengthen previous legislation are tangible evidence of the priority that our Government has given to soil conservation. I have referred to the number of Opposition speakers and I think it should be stressed that their own policies in these areas left a great deal to be desired. Our Government has introduced this program and we have been able to contribute limited budgetary commitments of the order of $4m. But it must be emphasised that the Opposition when in government completely turned its back on the issue of soil conservation around Australia. In particular, the National Party of Australia is on record in a number of forums as saying that the Commonwealth has no role or responsibility in overall land management or soil conservation. Members of that Party have argued that that is the responsibility of the States or the individual land owners. The States have a responsibility but it must be a shared responsibility with the Commonwealth because land conservation is not a matter which stops within State boundaries; it traverses State boundaries and, therefore, it is genuinely a national problem. In relation to the claim that it is an individual or private responsibility, I would say that many farmers know and understand the value of their land and their resource base. But in terms of profitability, many farmers are squeezed and are often forced to overgraze or overstock their properties. They overproduce and in a competitive sense they are often stretched to find adequate or available resources to reduce the pressure on their own pastures and to put funds back into soil reclamation and conservation. Therefore, there needs to be a joint co-ordinated approach, a partnership approach to soil conservation throughout Australia. That is what this Government has attempted and is doing. We have put money, legislation and resources into this national program. It is a joint program and it works in conjunction with the States and individual land owners. It is a successful program.

In that respect I wish to mention the local project funded under the national soil conservation scheme which is in my electorate of Bendigo. I have had the pleasure of visiting that project on two occasions and have spent some hours assessing in a detailed way the value of the program. It is a soil salinity treatment and soil conservation project and it is based on the small catchment area philosophy. The project is located on private farms at Burke's Flat between Wedderburn and St Arnaud and it is the product of co-operation between the Commonwealth, the State and individual land owners. Over a two-year period-including work which is scheduled for the autumn months-more than $50,000 has been committed by the Federal Government to fencing, tree planting, pasture establishment, deep drilling and monitoring of bore and rainfall levels. I have visited the project twice and I have spoken to the farmers and the soil conservation officers responsible for it. The farmers involved have put in a great deal of time, effort and money, giving labour, fencing materials and seed. They have also given considerable strategic and planning input to the development of the project. I certainly commend all those local farmers and local officers of the Victorian Soil Conservation Authority on the energy and commitment that they have put into the project. It is already starting to show results in an area of my electorate which is, tragically, the site of enormous dry land salting or salinity.

I have mentioned the partnership approach which I think is crucial to any concerted attempt that we make throughout Australia to address this massive problem of soil conservation. It is not only a problem of preserving a future resource. It is a major environmental problem for all Australians. I believe it ought to be the subject of much greater publicity, interest, knowledge and action by the majority of Australians who are concerned about environmental issues but who perhaps on occasion tend to be diverted to those more glamorous areas of environmental concern. This is a major concern in the environmental sense and if not addressed-and we need increasing resources to do so-it will become an almost insoluble problem in the future.

In conclusion, the establishment of this program provides a degree of certainty to the forward planning of local soil conservation projects such as the one I have described at Burke's Flat. This Bill formalises the strength of the Government's commitment to soil conservation and it brings a previously absent longer term stability to the funding base of soil conservation work in Australia. I think it is a very timely piece of legislation. It is a very forward looking piece of legislation which is of vital importance to the well-being of this country. I commend the Bill to the House, and I hope that in future Budget appropriations the Commonwealth is able to continue to increase its commitment on an ongoing basis. I note that the Victorian Government recently contributed $32m of funding for salinity control over a four-year program. That is a great initiative by the Cain Government. Again it is putting something into action where previously only words existed. In co-operation with the Victorian Government and farmers throughout Australia, I am sure that this legislation will be effective in redressing this massive problem that confronts us all.