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Tuesday, 2 May 1989
Page: 1565

Senator ZAKHAROV —My question is directed to the Minister for Resources. At the launch on 20 April of the national soil conservation strategy the Minister mentioned that losses in agricultural production in Australia amount to $600m each year. As the Murray-Darling basin produces one-third of Australia's total output from natural resource-based industries and is therefore an important area in terms of Australia's economy, can he advise the Senate of the outcome of the recent Murray-Darling Basin Ministerial Council meeting and of any initiatives that have been taken?

Senator COOK —The fifth meeting of the Murray-Darling Basin Ministerial Council was held last Friday in Moree, New South Wales, and was attended by Ministers from the States of South Australia, Victoria and New South Wales and by three Ministers from the Commonwealth-my colleagues Senator Richardson and Mr Kerin and me. It should be said that the Murray-Darling Basin Ministerial Council and the Commission over which it presides are one of the few very good examples of Federal-State cooperation at its best and an example of the State governments, irrespective of their political definitions, working concertedly with the Commonwealth in protecting the soils and water supply in one of the most important agricultural basins in Australia.

The Murray-Darling Basin is a major source of agricultural output in this country for both domestic and trade purposes. Twenty-five per cent of cattle and dairy farms in Australia are found within the basin. Fifty per cent of sheep and lambs and crop land is also within the boundaries of the basin. The basin contains 75 per cent of all irrigated lands in Australia. The total value of annual agricultural production from the Murray-Darling Basin is $10 billion measured in 1987 figures.

Senator Zakharov asked a question of two parts. The first was a reference to the $600m per annum lost due to soil degradation in Australia. That is lost agricultural production. The real value of the loss to the country is much greater than that, of course, as I have always said. The real cost is in the silting up of river systems, in flooding and in the works that are necessary to combat the effects of soil degradation and groundwater salinity around Australia. The $600m is just the forgone agricultural production in dollar terms that results from soil degradation in this country. The national soil conservation program that I announced a fortnight ago is aimed, at a national level, at combating that loss.

Senator Brownhill —A great idea.

Senator COOK —Senator Brownhill is right to have made that interjection. I acknowledge his role in working to combat soil degradation in this country. As Senator Brownhill is from the National Party of Australia, I also acknowledge that Mr Sinclair endorsed the objectives of the national soil conservation program when we announced them 10 days ago.

Senator Brownhill —It is a real feather in your cap.

Senator COOK —There is real bipartisan support to do something about the loss of Australian soils. In the Murray-Darling Basin area the loss caused by salting, waterlogging, eutrophication and acidification of the soil surface is about $250m per annum.

The Council last week did a number of important things. One of them was to present a draft national resources management strategy to restructure the community advisory council, which strategy is now open for discussion with the communities of the Murray-Darling Basin. For the first time in the history of the Commonwealth and the States there is an undertaking to adopt a salinity and drainage strategy for the whole of the Murray-Darling Basin. The strategy provides a framework for joint government action and includes expenditure by the four governments over the next three years of $29.4m on several salt interception schemes, of which the Commonwealth will contribute $7.8m. The strategy will result in a reduction of 20 per cent in the average salinity of the River Murray as measured at Morgan in South Australia and it will provide the opportunity for protecting up to 500,000 hectares of high value land in the basin. The salinity and drainage strategy now in place is a component of the natural resources management strategy. I take this opportunity to table in the Senate the communique issued by the joint governments from the Murray-Darling Basin Ministerial Council, and the salinity and drainage strategy adopted by the Council.