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Biodiversity: Australia's natural asset: an address to the Evatt Foundation

One of Bert Evatt's great attributes was his international outlook.

Internationalists like Evatt believed three was a need, and that it as possible, to take a constructive international approach to issues which had effect beyond state borders.

The philosophy behind is was his view at there ere issues of global importance and effect which could only be dealt with multilaterally.

As you know, Evatt as one of the founders of the UN system, which has evolved to fill this role.

In recent years, the UN has paid growing attention to environmental issues like climate change, damage to the ozone layer and world heritage protection.

But the issue I want to talk about today is another one which is global in its dimension, and is rightly the focus of international attention.

That issue is the protection of the world's biological diversity.

'Biological diversity", more commonly known as 'biodiversity', is the variety of life, including flora, fauna and ecosystems.

But this term has never found a ready acceptance in the community.

I've had it suggested that more people equate the term 'biodiversity' with a washing powder than with environmental science.

This may not be the case, but it is true that "biodiversity" is not a word which is commonly used or understood by anyone, other an those working directly in e environmental area.

For instance, Australians openly celebrate our World Heritage areas. We talk about how spectacular they are. We agree they are precious.

But not many people stop and think about why. One of the greatest features of our World Heritage areas is at they provide a sanctuary for a diverse selection of Australia's biodiversity.

So, when I was invited to give this Evatt Foundation address, I saw it as an opportunity to expand a little on what Australia's biodiversity means, why it's important to protect it, and to share ,with you my perspective on the issue.

Biodiversity, quite simply, is the variety of life. It's the plants, the animals, the micro- organisms,, and how they interact. And the biodiversity of Australia is both rich and unique.

Australia has over half a million different species most of which are found nowhere else on earth. In all, over 80 per cent of our 280 mammal, 750 reptile, 200 frog and around 21000 flowering plant species occur naturally in Australia.

Australia is one of 12 countries in e world recognised to be outstandingly rich in biological diversity. We are the only developed country to be given the status of a megadiverse nation.

Our biodiversity is essential to our future. It provides us with food, many medicines and industrial products, as well as providing the basis for most of our recreational activities.

Many pharmaceutical products are derived from native plan species. Apart from the medical; benefits they bring, they also have great economic potential.

Ecotourism, too, provides a good example of the economic value of our biodiversity.

Over 85 per cent of Japanese visitors and 70 per cent of European and American travellers identify the natural environment as the key reason for visiting Australia.

More than 10 million people visit our parks, reserves and gardens each year.

Our natural resources also influence and determine rainfall and climate, form and protect soils, breakdown pollutants, regulate ground water tables, prevent salinity ad play an essential role in maintaining e oxygen and carbon dioxide balance.

And that has major financial implications for our economy.

For example, the water supplied to Melbourne from forested catchments is conservatively valued at 250 million dollars a year.

Land degradation, which occurs when these ecological processes are out of kilter, costs Australia billions of dollars.

So we have the evidence to demonstrate how important our biodiversity is.

In is light, it's alarming at so much of our biodiversity has been lost to Australia.

Since Cook first sailed into Botany Bay we have lost 50 percent of our rainforests, 43 per cent of our forests and 60 per cent of coastal wetlands in southern and eastern Australia.

But even more alarming, in the last 10 years, we have continued to clear millions of hectares of native vegetation in Australia.

Some estimates suggest that the rate of clearance is close to that of the Amazonian rainforests. As far as native vegetation loss goes, we are in the international big league.

And there's no doubt that this has been largely responsible for the extinction of many of our native species.

To be exact, 79 plant, 20 mammal and 9 bird species have been lost to Australia. Ninety per cent of our medium-sized mammals are either extinct, endangered or vulnerable.

But the blame can't be laid just on vegetation clearance. There re a number of contributing factors, one significant one being feral animals and plants.

When the British and Europeans first settled here, they brought with them a farm yard of animals and a garden full of plants which were foreign to Australia.

Over the years, the results of is have been devastating to our environment.

Of Australia's plant species, 15 per cent are introduced. About half of these put our nave plants in danger and about a quarter are considered to be serious environmental weeds.

Introduced wild and domestic ads have also had a major impact on Australia's biodiversity and on many of our agricultural industries.

And more than 50 of our ground dwelling mammals and birds are under threat from feral animals like foxes and cats.

There is also the added complexity of who is actually responsible for protecting the different elements of our biodiversity.

Philip Toyne, who is to join my Department next month as the Executive Director of the Environment Strategies Directorate, asks readers of his recent book, the Reluctant Nation, to imagine they are a female green turtle swimming in international waters, but heading for an island in e Great Barrier Reef to lay her eggs. He writes...

You enter Australia's exclusive economic zone 200 miles off the coast; you enter Australia's national waters 12 miles off the coast; as you approach the reef you enter the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park which is the joint responsibility of the Commonwealth and Queensland governments. While in the sea of the Marine Park, approaching the island, the waters are Commonwealth (unless you are within three miles of the coastline, but outside the Park, in -which case you are in State waters). But once you climb onto the sand and above the low water mark, you come under the jurisdiction of Queensland. You would need to be a very astute turtle to work out which law is responsible for your protection.

And that says it all.

The fact is, we can't just sit down and draw a map and divvy up the responsibility for each piece. Our biodiversity doesn't fit within State o regional boundaries. And we can't just decide to protect one piece and dispense with another.

Because the extraordinary thing about our biodiversity is that it has a very delicate balance. Each part is interconnected with the rest. And if you don't protect the whole picture, there s a real danger at gradually, it will just crumble away.

But I don't believe Australians are prepared to sit back and let it crumble. Overwhelmingly, we have a population that demands our natural environment is protected.

Australia 's special circumstances impose on us a responsibility to deal with the continuing threats. This responsibility goes beyond state and national boundaries. We really do have an international obligation.

And we're not alone. All over e world, biodiversity has been significantly reduced and its recognised globally as a problem demanding our urgent attention and decisive action.

The international Convention on Biological Diversity provides a framework for a strategic and global approach to biodiversity conservation.

Australia ratified the Convention in June 1993, following extensive consultation with State and Territory governments and other stakeholders.

Now over 170 countries have signed e Convention and over half that number have taken e next step of ratifying it.

By signing the Convention, each country signalled they were willing to pursue action to protect their own biodiversity.

The main implementation measure of e Convention is the requirement of all signatories to develop a national strategy which is relevant to their own particular conditions.

Australia has a draft National Strategy for e conservation of our biological diversity.

This Strategy is comprehensive. It deals with some of the hard issues, such as reconciling conservation and resource imperatives. And, importantly, it provides an agenda for action.

The Strategy deals specifically with how we can manage threats, such as introduced plants and ads, vegetation clearance, pollution and climate change.

It lays a path to better understanding of biodiversity and more community participation.

It also recognises that th Aboriginal community has had a relationship with Australia's biodiversity which spans tens of thousands of years.

The Government has actively promoted a partnership with Aboriginal people that has proven invaluable in the protection of internationally significant areas such as Kakadu and Uluru National Parks. The joint management arrangements at these Parks are seen as models both nationally and internationally.

But when Uluru was handed back to the Aboriginal community in 1985, there was widespread concern about giving away the control of is precious World Heritage area. Now, I think the experience of Uluru, which has been so positive, gives the community confidence in joint management arrangements.

The National Biodiversity Strategy recognises this, and aims to build on it. And it reinforces the Government's commitment to reconciliation with the Aboriginal community.

People whose livelihoods depend on our environment - such as farmers, fishermen, foresters and tourist operators - also have an important contribution to make. The Strategy recognises this and encourages their full participation.

But it's no twelve months since governments were asked to endorsed the draft strategy. The Commonwealth endorsed it in December last year and all States, except New South Wales and Western Australia, are on board.

I've made it clear a number of times that there is some urgency bout getting this strategy up and running.

The focus to date has been on seeing e strategy developed. But there's no doubt, that from now on, the focus ill be well and truly on New South Wales and Western Australia.

After two years of development, in which the New South Wales government was fully involved, they have recently submitted to me a list of 35 concerns with the Strategy.

In my view, many of these concerns are already dealt with in the strategy, and there is absolutely no merit in going through another round of drafting.

Particularly given that the strategy is acceptable to all other States and Territories. Except of course Western Australia, which isn't with us on virtually any of our national environmental initiatives.

Clearly, the strategy will be less effective if these states continue to stand apart from it. However, I cannot let tha stop the Commonweal from pushing on.

To take the implementation of the strategy forward, I intend to develop a specific biodiversity program. It needs to be progressed as a matter of urgency.

The program will complement the National Strategy.

Issues like retention and restoration of native habitats will be important and there will be strong focus on community involvement.

The program will also make use of the many research and monitoring tools that are now up and running, to ensure we make the right decisions.

If the program and the Strategy, are to be successful, they will need to build on our easting activities.

And we will also need to consult widely with the scientific community, industry and the general public.

That's why I have moved to establish the Biodiversity Advisory Council. The Council will advise me as well as State environment ministers on approaches to biodiversity conservation. And it will bring a national focus to this most important issue.

I also welcome contributions from other organisations. One interesting suggestion I have had recently is from the Australian Committee for International Union for the Conservation of Nature, who have suggested specific biodiversity legislation.

The purpose of the Act, as proposed by the ACIUCN, would be to guide Commonwealth implementation of the National Strategy.

I am looking forward to a more detailed report from the Committee on matters related to the proposed legislation. Their proposal deserves a serious response from government.

This morning, I have not specifically dealt with the 'hot issues like forests, wetlands, world heritage management and marine conservation.

The point is, that when we are dealing with these issues - as I do on a daily basis - it's about the protection of our biodiversity.

And that's why it's important that we take a step back and consider the whole picture.

There's no doubt that effective protection requires a long-term vision and national leadership. Labor has provided that leadership for more than two decades.

The challenge will be to continue the hard slog. There will be no tougher challenge and no more important job than protecting our biodiversity.

The international convention is in place. Our national strategy has been developed. It's time to deliver.