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Speech by the Minister for Fisheries, Forestry and Conservation at the 70th Annual Conference of the Western Queensland Local Government Association: Birdsville, Qld: 8 April 2005



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70th Annual Conference of the Western Queensland Local Government Association

Birdsville, Qld - 8 April 2005

Councillor Dougal Davidson your Chairman, Councillor Robbie Dare, the Mayor of Diamantina Shire, Lawrence Springborg, Vaughan Johnson, Howard Hobbs, Senator Andrew Bartlett, Senator-elect Barnaby Jones, whom I understand is here but whom I've not so far had the pleasure of meeting, Mayors, Councillors, ladies and gentlemen.

I hope your conference has been successful so far - from what I hear, the function last night was pretty special, and I'm particularly disappointed I couldn't be with you. But I have been involved in meetings in Canberra with Malaysian Ministers who accompanied the Malaysian Prime Minister to Australia this week. These meetings are important as they demonstrate our very close association with our nearest neighbours in Asia.

But I'm delighted to be back in Queensland, although it is just good to be in Queensland and to be in the north but out of Canberra!

I've attended a number of the local government association conferences over the years since the time when I was on a council myself, the Burdekin Shire, and when I was the Federal Local Government Minister. I've actually done a couple here, I think, with the western Queensland Local Government Associations. I think this is the first one I've done since I've left the Local Government portfolio.

Obviously, there's not a lot of fish and forests out this way that I can talk to you about, but I'm delighted to be here representing the Federal Government, and very happy to take some questions if you have any about communications and Telstra and things like that, and on the Federal Government's approaches to road funding.

Last time I was in Birdsville I actually drove down from Boulia and Bedourie along a road, a State road that was being repaired by the Diamantina Shire using Roads to Recovery money, which is Federal Government money that we'd given to councils to help with local roads. It wasn't really meant to absolve the State Government from its obligations to maintain the State highways but, obviously, it wasn't doing it then and, I suspect, the same applies now. The roads I see around here, the State highways are still being, I suspect without knowing, funded by the shire using its Federal roads grants under the FAGs arrangement, or the Roads to Recovery program.

And, on that Roads to Recovery program, I'm delighted that we were able to commit to continuing it for another four years. It's a program that I, and my staff, were very much involved in at its inauguration, and it's one that I'm delighted to see continue.

I'm also pleased to see governments working upon the cost shifting arrangement which

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was one of the last actions I did as Local Government Minister before the 2001 election. And the Hawker committee recommendations have gone to groups of, among others, State and Commonwealth officials, and we hope to be having some response to that in the very near future.

What I particularly wanted to talk to you about though today was the natural resource management areas for which I have some responsibility as the Federal Minister for Conservation and, of course, in doing this. I share that responsibility with the Minister for

the Environment, Senator Ian Campbell, and the Minister for Agriculture, Warren Truss.

You'd all be aware in this part of the world of the critical importance of the Great Artesian Basin and the role that it's played in the development of western Queensland. Groundwater from the Basin supports an extensive pastoral industry, very significant mining and extractive industries, and also a growing tourism industry, as well as a number of townships.

However, it has been known for some time that the uncontrolled use of this resource has had a damaging impact on water pressure in a number of areas. So, in order to restore that pressure, and to save some of that very precious water, the Great Artesian Basin Sustainability Initiative (GABSI) was introduced in 1999, to rehabilitate uncontrolled bores and to replace open earthen bore drains with polyethylene pipes, tanks and troughs.

Through funding by the Australian Government ,and matched by the Queensland Government, and from contributions from land owners themselves, 137 free-flowing bores have been capped during the term of this initiative and that is from 1999 through to 2004.

In addition to that, some 3,200 kilometres of open bore drains were replaced by 5,140 kilometres of piping. Together, this has led to estimated water savings of some 48,000 megalitres a year in Queensland at the end of the first phase. And that's something like half the water Brisbane uses in a year, so it's a very significant saving.

Unfortunately, there are still some 500 bores to be controlled - 500 bores remain uncontrolled in Queensland. And that's why, last year, I was delighted to announce that the Federal Government would be committing another $42.7 million to the GABSI for a further five years to extend that work carried out by this key initiative. And Queensland, I'm delighted to say, has agreed to match that money.

The program for the current financial year includes about $8 million to cap an additional 31 bores and to replace 916 kilometres of open drains.

I do want to say to all of you, particularly those from the west, that it's not going to be possible to cap all of the remaining bores by the end of the second phase of the sustainability initiative. We have made significant progress in restoring water pressure within the basin, but we've done that by focusing on priority areas. So I just want to indicate that there should be no presumption that governments will continue to fund the GABSI.

I know there have been very good reasons for this, but the take up by land owners in the last year has been less then we would have liked to have seen, and I would urge you and your constituents, those who live in your shires, that they should really carefully consider this and while it is difficult in times of drought, the money will not always be there from government.

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While I'm on that, can I thank Mike Montgomery from NSW? And also Rod Gilmore from Miles? Who have been the local government representatives on the community consultation committee that oversees the GABSI.

In relation to water issues more generally, since 1994, there has been a national focus on trying to maximise the economic and environmental benefits from this scare natural resource. Something, again, that, in the west, you're very, very familiar with. I have some good news for you. As I flew in from Canberra I think I bought some rain with me. It may

not help your party tonight but it would look promising if we did get a bit of rain out of it.

This focus that we've had on water culminated last year in the National Water Initiative, and that provides a framework to ensure clearly defined, secure water access entitlements are established, and improved water planning processes are actually put in place.

The National Water Initiative is supported by the $2 billion Australian Government Water Fund, which will fund practical, on-ground water solutions. Now, that whole program is being run at national level by a newly established National Water Commission, and it will

run the Water Smart Australia part of the program, that's a $1.6 billion program that will do a lot of things. It will provide for major capital projects aimed at efficient water use, improving river flows, water quality and better urban water management.

That program will be available for major projects. Competitive bidding will be the primary mechanism for allocating the grants.

And that will be for projects costing more than $1 million, so I do encourage local governments to examine possible opportunities to put forward proposals under this program. The guidelines aren't yet available but they'll shortly be released.

Part of our whole National Water Initiative includes another program that we call the Raising National Water Standards program. That's a $200 million program, and it will invest in Australia's national capacity to measure, monitor and manage its water resources, and it will help to achieve National Water Initiative outcomes. The National Water Council will provide further information on these programs in the coming months.

The third part of this initiative is the Australian Governments Community Water Grants program, that's another $200 million over five years, for grants of up to $50 000 from that water fund. That particular program is being managed by myself and my colleague the Environment Minister, Senator Campbell. And while it will be allocated again on a competitive basis, after proper and appropriate independent recommendations, can I always say to you, as a Queenslander, and as an ex-local government person myself, I always look very favourably at local government applications in any grants program that I'm involved with. I know Andrew Bartlett won't tell on me as I tell you that. But do keep an eye on that program. The guidelines are about to come out.

The Prime Minister's just announced a demonstration set of projects, about $1 million worth of programs to demonstrate what that program's all about. Some of the local government projects that have been funded in the demonstration round have been a community-wide project to provide water tank connections to public facilities, to help subsidise the installation of rainwater tanks on residences, and retrofit dual flush toilets and water efficient shower hoses to houses and businesses. This project will ensure a town of 250 people will be be able to meet domestic needs without carting water.

Another good local government example is a project to harvest rainwater from the roof of

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a community centre and adjoining tennis courts for flushing toilets and irrigating gardens. And another one was a project to install a reclaimed water irrigation system, associated pump stations for re-use of effluent to irrigate sports complex used by many community groups.

So can I encourage you to keep an eye on that program. The guidelines will be out very shortly and the first open round will be called somewhere in June.

I understand from Greg Hallam and others that there has been some concern about the difference between what happens to those projects between $50,000 and $1 million that councils might be involved in. I would be interested to hear if councils, or perhaps groups of councils, have projects that they might be interested in. We're always looking to help and, although I can't promise there will be any changes in those particular guidelines, I'd be interested if you do have concerns about that to talk to you about it, and to see if we can achieve something.

Ladies and gentlemen, I just want to briefly mention the Natural Heritage Trust and the National Action Plan for Salinity and Water Quality. Again, $1.4 billion is going into the National Action Plan and $3 billion into the Natural Heritage Trust over the life of the programs. In Queensland, the Natural Heritage Trust is being delivered through 15 regional natural resource management bodies covering the entire State, and the National Action Plan is delivered in four regions, largely in the eastern part of the State. These are based on catchments and other natural resource features and, in western Queensland, there are two groups - South West and the Desert Channels group, and the boundaries of those have been agreed.

Both the South West NRM Limited and the Desert Channels Queensland Inc are regional bodies that have been established to manage and protect the natural resources of these regions. Both regions share, of course a range of priority natural resource management issues, notably grazing pressures, pests, weeds, animals and water quality. These two groups have also developed regional plans that have been accredited by governments, and the Desert Channels has had its first investment package approved by the Commonwealth. The South West group is expected to have its first investment package approved over the next month or two.

Ladies and gentlemen, many of you will be involved in these two bodies, and I hope that they are working very closely with councils. In some parts of Australia we've had some difficulties in getting councils involved, or I might say councillors have had some difficulties in getting involved. I'm determined that councils should be involved, and I'm one of those people who believe that councils are the most accountable and representative of people in these areas, and they should be involved. If you do have troubles getting involved please again let me know.

Those regional bodies, by and large, have done a great job and it's clear that local government will be involved in them. I might just mention the LGAQ have been involved in one of those projects, a capacity building project and, again, I thank LGAQ for its involvement and I hope that that capacity building program does in fact do things. And I do want to commend local government's interest and its involvement in both the Natural Heritage Trust and National Action Plan initiatives to date, and I look forward to this continuing into the future.

Ladies and gentlemen, I just wanted to briefly touch on land clearing. Many of you would be aware of the recent Productivity Commission report into Native Vegetation and Biodiversity Regulations, which found that existing State and Territory native vegetation

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and biodiversity regulations are imposing quite significant costs on land owners, and they're not actually achieving their environmental outcomes.

The Productivity Commission has recommended that greater flexibility be introduced in the application of regulatory regimes to allow variations in requirements at local level. The Commission also recommended use be made of the extensive knowledge of local land owners and local communities, and it as well recommended that greater emphasis be given to market approaches that provide better incentives to land owners to retain and

manage native vegetation appropriately.

Now, that recommendation is by the Productivity Commission. The Prime Minister has written to all State and Territory governments advising them that he will be asking them at the next COAG meeting, to join the Commonwealth in supporting the Commission's recommendations, and in building shared understanding agreements around the roles, rights and responsibilities for the delivery of natural resource management outcomes. Now, there's a long way to go on that and we do have to get the States on board. The Commonwealth itself doesn't have many land management jurisdictions as you'd be well aware, but we do hope through COAG to involve the States in implementing those recommendations. And if they are it could see a new approach to that sort of activity in Australia.

Ladies and gentlemen, Councillors can I just briefly mention our weeds initiatives because there will be money available from the program as well.

Of course weeds and their control are principally a local government and State government activity, but weeds do actually have a national impact, in that they cost Australian farmers about $1.5 billion a year and a further $2 billion is estimated to be lost annually from agricultural production because of weeds.

We are providing, at national level, an additional $40 million over the next four years to support coordinated and strategic action against the national weeds menace. And that is on top of, I might add, the $24.5 million that had been provided by the Australian Government for weed action under the NHT in the past five years.

We'll be hopefully providing a leadership role to ensure that the weeds laws make sense and that they are consistent across the country. I'm determined to make sure that declared invasive weeds are not sold from nurseries while local and State governments are spending money to eradicate weeds from the bush.

I was told just yesterday, in fact, that a nursery in the Northern Territory is actually selling rubbervine plants. And that's something I will be taking up with the Northern Territory government very shortly, but it's just crazy that we spend so much money trying to eradicate rubbervine, while nurseries somewhere in Australia are actually selling it as a garden plant.

Ladies and gentlemen, I am, as I mentioned here in my capacities as the Australian Conservation Minister and Forestry Minister, and I must say how very disappointed I was at the attitude of the Queensland Government to the timber industry in rural Queensland. The industry, as many of you would know, is the lifeblood of a lot of rural communities. But it seems to be solely for the purpose of shoring up some votes with the radical greens in the city areas that the Premier has sold out the timber workers and communities in rural Queensland.

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Last December, the Premier announced that a further million hectares of hardwood forest in western Queensland would be put into reserves. Twenty-five per cent of current log allocations will be withdrawn and the remainder of the industry will have to find its future timber supplies in either plantations or on private property.

I have very grave doubts, and those grave doubts are supported by very good advice, about the ability of plantations to supply the industry. Even if they are planted today, plantations will actually take decades to mature to the stage where they can be harvested for sawlogs.

Despite Mr Beattie's statement it's highly unlikely, according to my advice, that private property can supply the volumes required to maintain the industry at anything like its current levels. I am aware thatg particularly in recent years, a lot of the south-western communities are becoming increasingly reliant on the timber industry and I do have some concern as to the future of timber operations in some of these areas.

Last May, I released a report by the Australian Government's Bureau of Rural Sciences on private property timber resources in the Western Hardwoods Region of Queensland. This study found that the Western Hardwoods Region contains around 50 million cubic metres

of timber, but up to half of this volume was not commercially available.

However, the Australian Government does recognise the potential of private forestry to contribute to the well-being of rural communities in Queensland. In August last year, I announced a $700,000 grant for a joint venture proposal put forward by Timber Queensland (that's the timber organisation in this State) and also Agforce. And Agforce and Timber Queensland are working together on this joint venture, that has three broad

objectives that will assist landowners to assess and understand the potential of forests on their land, it's also to promote the sustainable management of forests as a viable land use for land owners in western Queensland, and to develop a self-sustaining system that can deliver an orderly supply of timber to industry.

The Government is funding a pilot project in the Eidsvold Shire, and I'm confident that this pilot project will lead to a new recognition of the environmental, economic and social benefits that private forestry can bring to rural Queensland.

Ladies and gentlemen, Councillors, it can be seen I think that while great progress is being made in western Queensland, and in rural Australia more generally, on a range of issues in the natural resource management area, issues that are vital to the continued prosperity and sustainability of these areas, much indeed remains just as 'work-in-progress'.

It should be no surprise to anyone, given the complexity of some of the issues being addressed. But like all 'work-in-progress', progress can only be made if all of the stakeholders work cooperatively together.

You can be assured that the Australian Government remains committed to working with all levels of government, but importantly with land owners, with industry, with Indigenous people and other community organisations to actually progress these natural resource management issues.

So ladies and gentlemen, it's great to see my State colleagues here, unfortunately, say I, they are from the Opposition, hopefully that won't be for all that long. But, certainly, I know and I understand some of the issues raised by those who have spoken to you before. But we really are to use a hackney saying from the government 'we're here to help'. I look

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forward, Dougal, to continuing to do what I can do to help local government and to help the people of western Queensland. Please don't hesitate to call upon me or my Senate colleagues, Andrew Bartlett and Barnaby Joyce or any of the other Queensland Senators if we can help you and your councils with your work.

Thanks very much for having me. I look forward to having a beer with you all tonight.

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© Commonwealth of Australia 2002-2005 | Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry | Other DAFF Ministers | Prime Minister

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