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Thursday, 17 December 1992
Page: 5474

Senator BELL (1.59 a.m.) —The Democrats support the thrust of the Natural Resources Management (Financial Assistance) Bill, which is to develop and implement an integrated approach to natural resource management based on ecologically sustainable development. We recognise that the aim of the Bill is to facilitate efficient, equitable and sustainable management of Australia's natural resources. We also recognise that the Bill has the support of such groups as Greening Australia, the Australian Conservation Council and the National Farmers Federation.

  In brief, we agree with the description that has been given by Senator Tambling of the purposes of the Bill. We applaud the fact that it establishes arrangements for the financial assistance between the Commonwealth and the States specifically for natural resource management projects. The way it goes about this in terms of legislative replacements and making the National Water Resources (Financial Assistance) Act and the Soil Conservation (Financial Assistance) Act redundant is recognised as well. The fact that about 1,400 Landcare groups will be funded through this mechanism provides a slightly more efficient and a less circuitous method of funding. That is also to be applauded.

  I will refer later to the structure of the committee which is to be established through this Bill, the National Landcare Advisory Committee, to provide advice on the priorities and strategies for natural resource management programs. But the fact that a committee is being established is also recognised as important. To have that committee with a non-government majority is also important.

  We think that the strengths of the Bill are that the integrated management of land, water and vegetation is encouraged and that there is an introduction—that is an important word in this context—of the principles of ecologically sustainable development as a context for the development and implementation of natural resources management in Australia. The value of a community oriented approach to natural resources management is recognised by this Bill. But, for all those strengths, it is particularly noticeable that this Bill does not provide for a definition of `ecological sustainable development'—and that is a significant weakness.   The composition of the National Landcare Advisory Committee is also questioned by us. We congratulate the Government for the reforms that it is undertaking in this area of resource management and the integration of the financial arrangements. But we think it is important to support the whole systems approach to natural resources management and to recognise the conservation of a biodiversity.

  The soil productivity and water quality of Australia are matters which have received considerable press recently. If this is a means by which we can maintain those ecological processes, then I hope that it has the capacity to deliver. Perhaps I will refer to that a little later. It is good to see that we have the Minister for the Arts, Sport, the Environment and Territories (Mrs Kelly) and the Minister for Primary Industries and Energy (Mr Crean) working together, even if only in a tentative manner here, to develop a more integrated approach to natural resources management. This Bill can only be one part of the new approach but, as I have said, even if it is tentative, it is to be recognised.

  What we need and what I understand is being developed is a whole new program framework which includes land, water and vegetation and the national landcare program. The discussion paper on the national landcare program, which was produced in April 1992, proposed that a single natural resources advisory committee be established to guide the Commonwealth on community attitudes to natural resource issues, issues of national significance and priorities for action. The paper stated that the membership of the committee would comprise parties affected by the outcomes of natural resource management policies and programs.

  Comments were received on that paper from, amongst other groups, Greening Australia, the Australian Conservation Foundation and the National Farmers Federation. Amongst other things, those groups made three recommendations about the advisory committee. The Government has here accepted two of those: that the advisory committee should include a majority of community representatives and that it should be chaired by a person from the non-government sector. However, a third point was not accepted and that was that the community sector should be given the right to appoint community positions to the advisory committee.

  I foreshadow a Democrat amendment, which I will be moving in the committee stage, which addresses that problem. The reason that amendment is necessary is that it is so important that the community itself be recognised for its capacity to understand what is involved here. That has been demonstrated, as has been mentioned by Senator Tambling, by those hard working, well informed and expert practitioners of landcare who are the community—not the bureaucrats, not the academics and not the people who are removed from the actual practice of landcare. We strongly believe that the community sector should have the right to choose who represents them. The community, rather than the bureaucracy and the Minister, is more in touch with those who can best represent them on such an advisory committee. The expertise, experience and the established networks that we see operating in such groups as Greening Australia should be recognised and strongly supported. The process which we have here I do not think pays sufficient regard to those qualities I have just mentioned.

  The other problem we have with this Bill is that it lacks a definition of `ecologically sustainable development' which can be followed through. The problem with this is that we end up with a situation where, unless that concept is defined, we have further decisions made and subsequent actions taken either by the Commonwealth or by State governments which are able to choose their own definition and are able to provide qualifications to what is ecologically sustainable development. A recent decision by the newly formed Council of Australian Governments was to endorse ESD, without defining it, and greenhouse strategies subject to budgetary constraints and priorities. Such a qualification by the States and Territories makes the whole commitment a non-commitment, an absolute nonsense. The conduct of the business in the States and Territories can be business as usual.

  The biophysical constraints of those States and Territories have been ignored; they are being exceeded in many cases. We cannot sustain such a practice of conducting our affairs. There will always be economic constraints operating in the economy. That is what it is about; that is what it is; that is what it means. To use that as a caveat of recognition for ESD is so faulty it is ridiculous. The constraints are not temporary. Action to implement the ESD recommendations needs to occur now. Action cannot be delayed any longer. We have to demonstrate fully and clearly the axiomatic statement. I am sure Senator O'Chee would be interested in this as he is terribly interested in axiomatic statements; here is one for him to stick away in his little book. The governments of Australia do not recognise that unless ecology is sustained there cannot be an economy.

  I have foreshadowed amendments to be made in the committee stage. They are amendments which do not detract from the thrust of the Bill and support rather than militate against the Minister's reforms in the agricultural sector.