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Thursday, 3 February 1994
Page: 408

Senator BELL (9.35 p.m.) —by leave—I move:

  That the Senate take note of the report.

  This report is a result of a reference of the Senate on 7 May 1992. That does seem a long time ago, but between the first reference by the Senate and the presentation of this report we did experience an election. Consequent upon the election, we also experienced a change in the chair of the Standing Committee on the Environment, Recreation and the Arts.

  The committee found what common sense would expect to reveal on this matter: that there is a long history of the incidence of toxic algal blooms in Australian waterways. In fact, there is evidence to suggest that incidences of those blooms occurred before there was habitation of the Australian continent, either by Aboriginals or by any subsequent occupation. This suggests that such blooms are a natural occurrence. While that may be so, the committee learned that the occupation and exploitation of the land resource of Australia has resulted in an increased incidence of these blooms.

  The committee also found that there is an abundance of knowledge in fact and opinions derived from all sorts of sources as to what is the cause of these blooms. The committee found there was plenty of information but not a lot of collation or confirmation.

  The information tends to follow the same source; that the blooms were caused either by an abundance of nutrients or reduced turbidity or flow, or an increase in the conditions which are conducive to the growth of the toxic algae. The growth may occur because the algae is not being grazed upon, or because the conditions are so overwhelmingly suitable for that particular part of the ecology that it overwhelms all others.

  The blooms, by their very nature, tend to exhaust their nutrients and dissipate of their own accord; or they can be reduced and modified in a number of ways. The most severe way, which is being undertaken by authorities in the United States—I would say fairly typically—is the application of a few explosives, and the bloom was suitably dispersed. In other cases there is an increase in the flow in the water body; and again the bloom can be dispersed.

  The fluxion of time allows the bloom to exhaust its nutrients and disappear of its own accord. But nutrients can also be removed either in an immediate sense by mechanical or even chemical means; or they can be removed in the long term by a change in the source of those nutrients. It is that area, the change in the source of the nutrients, which holds the greatest promise for intervention by either government bodies or private individuals.

  This knowledge is well held in the community. It is a question of coordination and, I would suggest, the will actually to conduct this removal of the source of nutrients.  The committee fairly early in the proceedings found that phosphorus in its various forms was a major contributor to the nutrients. I am a little disappointed that we were unable to find a strong enough recommendation virtually to direct that the sooner we remove the sources of phosphorus from our waterways the sooner we will have a long lasting reduction in the incidence of toxic blue green algal blooms.

  Although I did not consider it necessary to use my initiative to create a minority report that came out with some stronger recommendations, I find some dissatisfaction in that we could not get to the stage where we recommended that action be more immediate or effective. I cannot really see any reason why we should extend. For example, recommendation 9 states:

The Committee recommends that if a significant reduction in levels of phosphorus in detergents has not been achieved within two years then legislation be enacted to reduce levels or to ban phosphates in detergents.

Although that does address the concern about phosphates in detergent, the committee was given evidence about examples in Canada where phosphate levels of detergents were reduced without affecting their effectiveness and where there was a considerable effect upon the incidence of toxic blue green algal blooms.

  The recommendation, although it does address this problem, is, I would suggest, a bit limp and not quite direct enough. Even though I was a member of the committee, I do not feel at all guilty about suggesting that we could have had stronger recommendations. The evidence is there and those who read the report will probably be able to come to the conclusions themselves—the urgency and the economic advantages which would accrue to Australia in reducing the incidence of those blooms; and the economic disadvantages—the huge amount of money that is wasted in Australia—and the huge amount of social pressure that should be brought to bear upon any authority which has any sort of control at all over our waterways. That, of course, is the other problem—the problem of who does control our waterways, be they internal waterways or be they the coastal waters of Australia. It is a sad indictment of the map drawing skills of our colonial forebears who tended to ignore the biological and the natural geographic boundaries.

  While this committee was investigating this matter, it found that the bio-regional concept of the management of our resources transcended the artificial cartographic skills of our former boundary makers. For example, water catchment areas were seen as the most suitable way to determine the boundaries of a group of people who were trying to do something about managing their resources properly. This often involved two, three or even more municipal boundaries, parts of municipal areas and parts of cities. In some cases such bio-regional groups even transcended state boundaries.

  The Murray-Darling Basin covers several state boundaries. Any action that is undertaken in that Murray-Darling Basin to try to govern that water resource requires the cooperation of several state governments, the local governments and many other quangos and semi-government authorities. So it is difficult but not impossible, I would suggest. I would recommend that people take very careful note of this report, read it carefully, see the wealth of knowledge it contains and perhaps even see the need to be a little bit more forthright than the recommendations would have us follow. We do need to act urgently on this matter, and I commend the report to the Senate.

  Question resolved in the affirmative.

  Consideration resumed from 25 November 1993, on motion (by Senator Zakharov):

  That the Senate take note of the report.