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Wednesday, 4 February 2009
Page: 345

Senator WORTLEY (6:53 PM) —I rise today to speak on the importance of wetlands to our nation. Hailing as I do from our nation’s thirstiest state, South Australia, drought, heat and the closing peril that is climate change are never far from my mind. Even over the past week or so my home state has endured record temperatures and yet another unrelenting heatwave. Such heatwaves seem commonplace in South Australia these days. Each year they are more extreme and more unforgiving, scorching an already arid land, wiping out crops and gardens, threatening wildlife and even putting human lives at risk.

As I left South Australia during this most recent hot spell to come to Canberra for this parliamentary sitting I was struck by the fact that I was flying over such a parched land on World Wetlands Day. This day is celebrated each year on 2 February to mark the anniversary of the signing of the Convention on Wetlands of International Importance in Ramsar, Iran, in 1971. World Wetlands Day was first celebrated in 1997. Since then, government agencies, non-government organisations and community groups have recognised it by working to raise awareness of the benefits of wetlands and to promote the conservation of wetlands. We know that sustainable river basin management is extremely important to maintain the functions and ecosystem services of wetlands. World Wetlands Day aims to raise awareness about ways in which communities can support river health and how the action of those upstream affects those downstream.

Australia was one of the first nations to sign the Ramsar convention and we designated the world’s first wetland of international importance, the Cobourg Peninsula Aboriginal Land and Wildlife Sanctuary in the Northern Territory, in 1974. Today, Australia has 65 wetlands classified as being of international importance and covering an area of approximately 7.5 million hectares.

We have come to understand that wetlands are vital to the health of our environment. They provide a habitat for plants and animals and they may have cultural significance and provide recreational environments. They help control flooding by absorbing water during heavy rainfall and slowly releasing it back into the ecosystem, and through the plants they host they can help to stop erosion. They also help to purify water by processing nutrients, any suspended materials and pollutants.

Not surprisingly, therefore, the Rudd Labor government is committed to the protection of these precious resources. Among our pledges to this cause is a $400,000 rolling review program under development for Australia’s Ramsar estate. Also, more than $10 million has been committed for 2008-09 towards wetland projects through the Caring for Our Country initiative. Around Australia 16 open grant projects worth more than $3.6 million and 76 community coast projects valued at more than $6.5 million have benefited from this money.

Unfortunately, our predecessors were not so committed to the survival and expansion of our nation’s wetlands. In fact, a report that reviewed the management of Australia’s Ramsar wetlands, the Ramsar Snapshot Study report for the previous government, is a tale of woe, of inaction and of poor administration. The Ramsar Snapshot Study looks at the management and status of 65 Australian Ramsar sites up to the end of 2007. The results make for disheartening reading. The Minister for the Environment, Heritage and the Arts, Peter Garrett, has rightly called this document a damning indictment of the former government. He said:

This study shows just how much the Howard Government and Malcolm Turnbull as environment minister took their eye off the ball when it came to the management and protection of our internationally recognized wetlands, including the Coorong.

Page after page highlights the serious ecological and management issues and challenges regarding Australia’s Ramsar convention administration and the failures of the past. It suggests a number of areas where implementation of the Ramsar convention in Australia can be improved. Deficiency after deficiency is noted and many of the reports recommendations are listed as absolute priorities.

Since receiving the report last year, the Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts has been working with states and territories through a wetlands task force to address the report’s important recommendations. This show of leadership from the Commonwealth is crucial, as its principal role regarding wetlands is in coordination and management funding, while also liaising with the Ramsar secretariat. Under the Ramsar Management Planning Program, the Australian government is providing more than $4.5 million over four years to develop and update documentation, including management plans, ecological descriptions and information sheets. Of course, water management and use is a key threat to a number of wetland sites. So, as part of the government’s $12.9 billion Water for the Future plan, we are buying water allocations from willing sellers to put back into the environment. Funding has also been allotted to the Living Murray initiative to boost environmental flows and improvements at Murray River locations, including six Ramsar sites.

While the former government denied, delayed and deferred, the Rudd government have embraced this report as a cornerstone on which we can build protection for our precious wetlands and meet our obligations as a party to the Ramsar convention. Many challenges remain as we aim to better manage our wetlands in the face of dangerous and debilitating climate change and drought. But we have already taken important steps down that path through our investment in the restoration of the health of our rivers and waterways. We are committed to working for a more effective, efficient and targeted approach to the conservation of our wetlands. We are not afraid of the hard work needed, because we know this is too important to our environment and to our future.