Title Environment and Communications References Committee
Australia's faunal extinction crisis
Database Senate Committees
Date 20-08-2019
Source Senate
Parl No. 46
Committee Name Environment and Communications References Committee
Page 42
Questioner CHAIR
Fawcett, Sen David
Urquhart, Sen Anne
Smith, Sen Marielle
Responder Prof. Kingsford
System Id committees/commsen/07dd2c03-d426-407a-ac3e-7e9a2ccb30b8/0007

Environment and Communications References Committee - 20/08/2019 - Australia's faunal extinction crisis

KINGSFORD, Professor Richard, Director, Centre for Ecosystem Science, University of New South Wales

CHAIR: Welcome. I understand that information on parliamentary privilege and the protection of witnesses and evidence has been provided to you. I now invite you to make a short opening statement and then the committee will ask you some questions.

Prof. Kingsford : Thank you very much, Chair. I've been in conservation biology and natural resource management for more than 30 years. I've played various advisory roles, as well as my scientific role, for state governments and the Commonwealth government. There are five points I want to make. Earth is currently experiencing its sixth greatest extinction event, and that is primarily down to the human species. Late last year, the World Wide Fund for Nature estimated that we've lost, on average, 60 per cent of each vertebrate species since 1970. This reflects our pervasive influence, in a time that is now referred to as Anthropocene because we are affecting not only biological resources but also geological resources. With this understanding there is an increased realisation that humanity derives many benefits from the environment which are seldom costed. These are generally referred to as ecosystem services. That includes things like improved air and water quality and the pollination and pest control services provided by fauna, including vertebrates and invertebrates.

Many of the major threats to biodiversity are controllable with appropriate management and policies, but governments and their communities are generally failing to do these things. It is not a lack of knowledge that is the problem, but a lack of implementation. There are commendable examples of major success stories, including the rewilding or reintroduction of locally extinct species and the restoration of large ecosystems. There is a need now to focus biodiversity conservation beyond the species and look at habitats and ecosystems, because this is likely to be much more productive and efficient and gives us the best chance of success.

CHAIR: Clearly we are in a crisis, as you have stated in your submission and in your opening statement. Our Commonwealth environmental laws don't seem to be up to dealing with that crisis. What do you think is the most fundamental deficiency in our laws?

Prof. Kingsford : The fundamental deficiency is that they are not really capable of dealing with the major threats that we have. The major threats are habitat loss and degradation, climate change, overexploitation of organisms, disease, pollution and invasive species. Of those threats, invasive species is the one we are doing best on. But the other ones, because of the interaction between environment, economies and humanity's quality of life, are very challenging. Ultimately our environment legislation tends to be subservient to development legislation.

CHAIR: How would you change it so that that is not the case?

Prof. Kingsford : Easy question! My view about this is that we should be thinking about the long-term costs of the sorts of things we are doing, the way we are using our natural resources. Currently cost-benefit analyses—a lot of decisions are political or economic—are done on a fairly short time frame and, essentially, we don't measure the long-term environmental and economic costs of that until some time afterwards. Some people have called it 'mortgaging future generations' because we are using up the natural resources capital that they have for a good quality of life. We do have some examples of where some decisions have been very costly to government, the Murray-Darling Basin being one of them: governments have had to invest more than $13 billion there for decisions that possibly could have been better made 50 years ago. We are still making some of those decisions now, which is going to have long-term costs.

CHAIR: Could you talk through that a little bit more. At page 10 of your submission, and in your opening statement, you mentioned ecosystem services and the considerable impacts on agricultural productivity and costs resulting from the removal of native vegetation. Could you talk a bit more about what those costs are. What would be the mechanisms, both legislative and policy, to deal with that as an issue?

Prof. Kingsford : In terms of land clearing, there are issues about the productivity of land in the long term and erosion and the soils. We are just beginning to get a bit of a handle on the impacts on vertebrates—the fauna, birds and reptiles—and, more recently, the insects. We are realising how important those insects are to a whole lot of agricultural crops. There are some big issues around the productivity of agriculture; it is heavily reliant on some of those ecosystem services.

There are some really interesting things going on. People are beginning to understand what those ecosystem services are and starting to do much more sustainable farming. Ultimately we will have agriculture and we need to become more sustainable in the way we use agriculture and embrace some of those ecosystem services. From a policy point of view, that may mean doing more with what we have got already developed rather than developing more in areas that are not yet developed. That has big implications for Australia and also for other parts of the world in terms of ensuring quality of life for humanity increases and you are not denying people the trajectory path that the Western world has had in terms of developing natural resources. That is a very difficult issue but, in my mind, we are clever enough and we can actually do some of these things. This is starting to happen. We are starting to grow more of our produce in our cities and trying to use less from agricultural areas in terms of a growing humanity.

CHAIR: Taking account of the long-term impacts and value of ecosystem services, how would that change how we are managing our agricultural lands today?

Prof. Kingsford : We would be stopping land clearing. We would not be developing new areas. We would be trying to resource those areas that are already farmland and make them more efficient. We need to be as efficient as possible in terms of the water that is diverted from rivers to grow food and fibre. We should be looking at opportunities to grow our food and fibre not necessarily on agricultural land. Certainly there is a growing idea of our cities becoming better producers of food and fibre.

CHAIR: We have heard a lot of evidence this morning about the big increase in land clearing in New South Wales. It has been proposed that land clearing is necessary to maintain efficient agricultural production. If we were to stop that land clearing for the protection of species and for ecosystem services, how would that impact on the economic strength of agriculture?

Prof. Kingsford : It is obviously going to impact on the economic strength of agriculture unless there is a way of potentially providing farmers an opportunity to become more efficient with the land they have. One of the challenges we have is that there are short-term economic gains but long-term costs in terms of the economy. That is the difficulty we have here: we are making a lot of these decisions for the next two or three years rather than the next 100 years.

CHAIR: How would you control for that and what sort of legislative processes would there be?

Prof. Kingsford : The New South Wales government legislation has some good things in it—for example, stewardship payments. Under the Biodiversity Conservation Trust, there are funds to manage farmlands in perpetuity—and the high value ecosystem and biodiversity land. That is one mechanism that can be used. Ultimately it depends on how strong your legislation is to stop land clearing. We should recognise that, in some places, there are regeneration processes underway, so there might have been land already cleared. I think it is in the legislation that you can still use land and clear it regularly if it is has already been developed.

CHAIR: At page 8 of your submission you say:

Unfortunately, laws, policies, regulations, incentives and funding initiatives that halt the extinction crisis will remain ineffective and inefficient, despite their potential, until Australian governments, communities, industries and businesses show public leadership in changing the pervasive misperception that environmental values (including threatened species) are an obstruction to progress.

But what you are saying is that there would still be misperception that there an obstruction to progress in the short term?

Prof. Kingsford : That's inevitably going to be the case, because, if you are going to look at the long-term benefits of some of those species, you're going to have short-term costs. People aren't going to be able to develop a new piece of land or develop a new river system. The consequences are what will be perceived as lost economic opportunities. I think we need to look at what other economic opportunities there may be in these places. Everybody talks about tourism; that's one. But there may be other ways of utilising that land and that water that are not quite so destructive. We've started to see, for example, use of indigenous fauna and flora in terms of bush foods—things like kangaroos and so on—which I think probably offer a better path in terms of feeding some of the world. But ultimately our big challenge is that there are more and more of us. I think there are three of us arriving on this planet every two seconds, and they all want to be fed and have our same quality of life. That's the inevitable challenge, particularly if that quality of life is about consuming more and more things.

CHAIR: When I sit in the Senate, we have lots of people—particularly from the government side—talking, in terms of water resources, about the potential of northern Australia. We have the Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility, and there is a sense of northern Australia as the new frontier for economic development. Given the ecological constraints that you're talking about, what sort of legislation and what sort of development should be in place so that we don't make the same mistakes in northern Australia as we have in the already overdeveloped parts of the rest of Australia?

Prof. Kingsford : The brutal reality of that is, if we are going to develop the rivers, which inevitably will mean clearing the land, we will have those two major destructive forces in northern Australia, which will have the long-term impacts that we've seen play out not just in the Murray-Darling but in other river systems, whereby there'll be impacts on traditional owner communities and grazing communities. We are also increasingly realising that, particularly around rivers, there will be impacts out at sea in terms of fishing resources. There is now a very solid body of scientific evidence saying that these things come at a fairly serious long-term ecological cost, which also translates into an economic cost. But some of those costs are not realised for decades, or centuries.

CHAIR: I want to then go to how our laws and our planning now should be dealing with that.

Prof. Kingsford : I think we need effective environmental assessment processes which don't just look at what might happen in the next five years; they look at what might happen in the next 100 years, and they have local and broadscale assessments. Those pressures are always going to come on. Ultimately governments will have to make a decision about whether they develop or do not develop. I don't think we are making those decisions with the right information currently. I was arguing earlier that we probably shouldn't be developing those areas. Those are the last wilderness areas in the world and maybe we should be protecting them and thinking about other forms of economic return that are more sustainable in those areas, recognising what has happened in areas that we've already developed, and trying to concentrate our footprint and water print in those areas that we've already developed.

CHAIR: As a consequence, we would then have resources going to stewardship mechanisms to make up for the fact that the same sort of exploitation of the land and water that's occurred in the rest of the country isn't going to occur.

Prof. Kingsford : Yes. Currently a lot of that land is utilised for grazing, I think, so there is some economic return coming off a lot of that land already. The question would be: would you remove that livestock, or would that livestock remain? There might be further stewardship payments, in terms of which are the most important from a biodiversity point of view, but also from a process point of view, in terms of their being functionally important in the landscape in terms of making it work properly. I think the New South Wales legislation has a mechanism for looking at areas of outstanding biodiversity, so there are potential legislative and policy mechanisms for trying to find where those priority areas are and identify how you might ensure that they're there in perpetuity.

CHAIR: Going back to your point on population, in your submission you suggest that a 'socially and racially equitable' population policy can play a role in mitigating the extinction crisis. Could you elaborate on that.

Prof. Kingsford : It does come back to the point I made earlier that we all aspire to the quality of life we have in the developed world. That quality of life relies on a number of things. It relies on adequate food and adequate fibre and energy and places for us to live. All of those resources come from the natural world. The only way we're going to essentially mitigate against the long-term decline, or this extinction crisis, is to work out ways of having less of an impact on the natural world. That means all sorts of things around sustainability—real sustainability. Obviously in terms of the energy debate it's about how we think about renewables. In terms of food and fibre, are there other ways that we can look more at the demand side of the equation? We have a tendency to look at the supply side, and that means going somewhere else to get what we want to feed more people; whereas if we looked at how much we're using and had some economic or policy instruments that perhaps reduced the amount of consumption that we're currently taking from the planet then ultimately we might have less impact—or we should have.

CHAIR: And you see that as being essential to tackling the extinction crisis?

Prof. Kingsford : Absolutely essential. Ultimately nothing else will stop that long-term decline. For example, we're seeing the new Brazilian government starting to clear more of the Amazon because it sees its ticket to a better economic livelihood as being through having more beef and exporting that beef. So that will have huge impacts on the biodiversity of the world as well as the Amazon.

CHAIR: On that population policy, you say 'socially and racially equitable'. Could you expand on the implications of that.

Prof. Kingsford : I think sometimes a population debate is used to discuss issues around Australia picking the right sort of people to come to this continent, and when people talk about populations that tends to be where that discussion goes, as opposed to: what is a sustainable population? It doesn't matter where you come from or what your origins are; it's about humanity's impact on this continent and globally.

Senator FAWCETT: Professor, you made some comments earlier in your oral evidence about the potential as you saw it for funds or payments to assist with the management of productive agricultural land, in terms of environmental sustainability, and highlighted that there would be short-term opportunity costs from investing in the environment. In that context, I'm just wondering if you have read Wendy Craik's report around the interaction with the aid sector?

Prof. Kingsford : Yes. I think we put a submission into that.

Senator FAWCETT: She talks about—and I'm quoting here:

Rather than the regulatory "small project by small project" approach currently used, an incentive/market based approach is seen by farmers as likely to be more successful in achieving the Act's objectives.

Have you done any work, or are you aware of any work, that looks at different models of funding that essentially incentivise farmers to offset those opportunity costs, as opposed to using a stick to enforce compliance?

Prof. Kingsford : I haven't done any. The New South Wales model is supposed to be based on that, but it's only just starting up with the Biodiversity Conservation Trust. Applicants can come to the New South Wales government and set aside land, and the government provide some funding towards that. I haven't done any of that economic analysis—it's only what I've read—so I can't really offer a comment except to say that I agree. I think there are some real opportunities in a carrot rather than a stick approach.

Senator FAWCETT: We've had evidence from previous witnesses who have said that there have been obligations under the New South Wales act where, for example, if you remove a tree you have to plant eight—those kinds of things. The inference was that it would never happen, or the saplings would die; it's not effective. With the work you have done to date, do you have any view or experience on the extent to which those offsetting measures are actually followed through, by some or the majority of farmers, and the extent to which they are—at least in the short term, if the saplings survive—successful?

Prof. Kingsford : There are a couple of points to make, one of which is clearing one area and growing another is one mechanism of offset. The other is to clear one area and protect another, which is different. That's a different process, because that was already protected in some ways; it wasn't cleared. Quite a bit of science is now coming in on the effectiveness of restoring land. Our understanding is pretty patchy. It's largely because these ecosystems are very complex and take a long time to mature into a fully functioning ecosystem, and we're not very good at designing them. Just planting trees doesn't really work very well. You have to think about how those trees would be in a landscape, about what sort of understory there would be, about the fungi. Those are the sorts of issues that are tripping us up. Even in places that have been monitored for 20 years, where everything seems to be going well and the trees are growing, when they're compared to natural systems of similar types of habitat, they're found to be depauperate in diversity—the number of species of birds, invertebrates and a whole range of other ecosystems. There are a whole lot of issues around that. The science is probably not very mature around understanding what else you need to make things tick over properly, but it's partly because we have a very imperfect understanding of the way the world works. We can, if you like, create gardens—and, in a sense, these are gardens—but they're always going to be, to some extent, constrained by our imagination or understanding of what's going on there.

Senator FAWCETT: Can you give any examples to the committee of collaborative activities between academia and the farming sector where research and/or practical programs around environmental preservation have worked well, and what are the key strengths of those that we should seek to build on and expand?

Prof. Kingsford : Most of my experience is in the river world. I work quite a lot with farmers in the Murray-Darling. These tend to be farmers who rely on flooding for their grazing livelihoods. I also work a lot with farmers and traditional owners in the Lake Eyre basin. I think there is a lot of opportunity there for understanding what impacts their farming practices have. For example, one of the issues is livestock where birds nest. There are very collaborative approaches where farmers will keep their livestock out of areas that could damage waterbird nesting at a critical time. There are things about overgrazing that farmers are getting very good at—ensuring that they don't overgraze areas, in terms of their future livelihoods but also for the biodiversity.

I come from a farming background and I think there are lots of opportunity and lots of goodwill on all sides to engage in some of these practices, and there is lots of very good local knowledge. I find the most important thing that I learn when I go to a new place is when I talk to the farmers, because they tend to know a lot about the place. It's part of how you bring those two types of knowledge together to understand the best way of managing things. And there's a whole range of practical things that are in place, from how to reduce the impacts on biodiversity to understanding from farmers what's going on in that biodiversity, because they're often very good observers.

Senator FAWCETT: I have a final question. We've had a number of people calling for the creation of new commissions or bodies at a federal level that would be 'based on the science'. What I'm hearing from you supports what I hear from a lot of farmers groups, which is that they actually have a lot of local knowledge of what works in their local area and that they're actually very engaged in the whole process of protecting their land. If we were to look at getting more harmonisation across the states and territories and federally in setting these new standards, how would we engage the agricultural sector and farmers—noting that there's a diversity from mums and dads through to corporates—into that process so that we get a process that works practically and meets what may be purely objective scientific goals?

Prof. Kingsford : I think the scientific aspect is very important. Also, it gives you the overall scale and breadth to look at a big issue, rather than a piecemeal approach. But I think there are lots of really engaged farmers in land care groups and catchment management groups. It would be the mechanism by which you go about doing that—which are the major groups that are heavily engaged in that long-term sustainability?—and crafting a legislated governance policy mechanism which adequately engages those people and, at the same time, obviously, adequately engages traditional owners, because, essentially, they are living on a lot of the land in Australia. Those two major groups, within the context of the carrot-and-stick approach to how you might manage natural resources, I think are the way to go.

Senator FAWCETT: Sure. Thank you.

Senator URQUHART: I just want to go to your submission. On page 14 you've got a couple of recommendations around establishing a clear, transparent process for identifying and nominating critical habitats et cetera, and there are a couple of other recommendations in that section. We heard earlier today about the issue of monitoring and how effective early monitoring can be in terms of investigating species that are in decline but not yet to that critically endangered level. I'm just wondering what your thoughts are around monitoring and the fact that there is literally no funding at all for it and that only a couple of areas are being monitored now and that that monitoring is being done by private individuals. What is the importance of monitoring and how would that then fit into the recommendations that you've outlined there?

Prof. Kingsford : Perhaps I'll use some of my own work. I currently run a monitoring program that has been going for 35 years. I've been running it for 30 years. We cover a third of the continent and we count waterbirds and wetlands across eastern Australia. That data is fundamentally important for looking at the health of our river systems. We monitor more than 50 waterbird species, but we understand what's happening to the rivers because they're good indicators of what the fish and the invertebrates and so on are doing. It has been fundamental and it's used by the Murray-Darling Basin Authority to look at how the Basin Plan might work. So there are real opportunities to use that data. It's also important in terms of identifying areas of high biodiversity.

The other example I'll use is: we currently have a big project working on platypus. Platypus are not an endangered species. They're defined as 'near threatened'. Our data is indicating that, for about 40 per cent of the catchments where platypus occur, we have no data for them. This is one of the most iconic species in the world. It's looking like, where we do have data, this is possibly going to enter into the threatened species list, and we would recommend probably at the 'vulnerable' status. That is an example of where, without good information, you don't know until it's too late. So it's very important to be able to identify those species that aren't on the list and make sure they don't get there.

I will just go back to one other issue that I mentioned at the beginning. I don't think that a sole focus on threatened species is going to really be the solution. We do need to think about ecosystems. There's now a fundamental understanding in the scientific community that we need to operate at the scale of understanding what rainforests or deserts or coral reefs are doing—being able to understand not only what their status is, how they are travelling, but also what things we can do to stop this happening. Australian governments are a bit slow in adopting that aspect. There is commitment to having a common approach to ecosystems under the common assessment method. New South Wales has signed up to it. The Commonwealth hasn't yet signed up. I think WA is signing up and maybe Victoria. I'm not quite sure about those states. Essentially that is going to be the way of the future in terms of making for more efficient ways of tracking and reporting and dealing with the extinction crisis.

Senator URQUHART: Why are governments slow to sign up to those sorts of tools?

Prof. Kingsford : The federal government has been very good and proactive in terms of assessing the status of things like birds and mammals, and maybe reptiles and amphibians, but not so good with plants or invertebrates. There are obviously limited resources.

Senator URQUHART: It comes back to money?

Prof. Kingsford : It comes back to money but it also comes back to trying to get some of that understanding about the ecosystem level within the current policy and legislative framework.

Senator URQUHART: Back on the monitoring program that you've been dealing with for 35-plus years: how do you do that? Do you get funding? What's the process? How much does it cost?

Prof. Kingsford : It's difficult to get the funding each year.

Senator URQUHART: But you get it?

Prof. Kingsford : I get it from the states currently, but it's a challenge each year to get that funding, even though they rely on that for state-of-the-environment reporting. As you would be aware, there is no monitoring program. We are very good at monitoring economics and health but very poor at monitoring the environment.

Senator URQUHART: Is that across all the states?

Prof. Kingsford : It's in the eastern states: Queensland, Victoria, South Australia, Tasmania.

Senator URQUHART: All those state governments contribute to that?

Prof. Kingsford : Yes.

Senator URQUHART: How does that work? Just give me a very quick overview of how that works. Do you have people on the ground in those states?

Prof. Kingsford : No. We do aerial surveys. We fly at treetop level with tape recorders and we identify and count up to 50 different waterbird species in 30-kilometre-wide survey bands that start up near the Whitsundays and go out to Mount Isa. They go every 200 kilometres down, and the last one is south of Melbourne. We count every lake and river and wetland in that 30-kilometre band. We fly exactly the same path across it.

Senator URQUHART: How long does it take to do that?

Prof. Kingsford : It takes a month. We also do all of the major wetlands in the Murray-Darling Basin over a period of two or three weeks in November. We have two major monitoring programs.

Senator URQUHART: What's the cost to do that?

Prof. Kingsford : It's about 150K.

Senator URQUHART: That covers that whole area?

Prof. Kingsford : Yes. That's that, and then the other program, for all the Murray-Darling, is about 150K as well.

Senator URQUHART: So about $300,000 all up.

Prof. Kingsford : Most of that money is for the cost of flying the aeroplane. The states are involved as observers. We run it out of UNSW, but it's a collaborative program across the states.

Senator URQUHART: Finally, what do you do with that information? Once you've collected it, what happens to it?

Prof. Kingsford : We produce a summary report. It goes into a database that's accessible by the public.

Senator URQUHART: Where is it accessible? Is it on the university website?

Prof. Kingsford : It's on the university website. We also run a blog, so we have a report about what we've seen every day. That runs all the way, with videos and photos, so people can get an idea of what the rivers are doing in any particular year. Then there's long-term analyses at the wetland scale. We would look at, say, Lake Eyre and what's happened over the last 30 years; what a catchment has done, so you might look at the Cooper Creek catchment into Lake Eyre; and then, at the basin scale, what's happened to waterbirds in the Murray-Darling. But anybody can pick that data up, extract it and do the analysis. I think another very important thing is to have publicly available data.

Senator URQUHART: My very last question is: over those 30-odd years, paint me a picture of what it looks like.

Prof. Kingsford : We've had about a 60 or 70 per cent decline in waterbird numbers.

Senator URQUHART: Right. Is that across the whole area, or is it predominantly—

Prof. Kingsford : It's predominantly in the Murray-Darling, and it's occurred from pelicans to migratory wading species. That's occurred since 1983.

Senator URQUHART: Sorry, I have a supplementary as well! Is that concentrated on specific species, or is it 60 to 70 per cent across the board with different species? And how many species do you actually pick up? Is there a greater than 60 to 70 per cent reduction in some species as opposed to others?

Prof. Kingsford : We monitor more than 50 species. We can't tell the difference between a little grebe and a hoary-headed grebe—

Senator URQUHART: That's because you're up there.

Prof. Kingsford : That's right.

Senator URQUHART: You're up too far.

Prof. Kingsford : And they die. So there are a few issues around what things we can see and what we can't see, because we're going very fast. The other issue is that some of these species are quite rare, so we don't pick up many of them. If you've got a rare species, you'd need a thousand years to detect a trend. I think the data shows that about 30 to 50 species are in decline, and they're at various levels of decline. But the overall number is about a 60 to 70 per cent decline in abundance. And we're monitoring about 10 per cent of the land area.

Senator URQUHART: Right. Fantastic. Thank you.

Senator FAWCETT: Chair, could I ask one follow-up question on that?

CHAIR: Okay. We're going to go over, because I know Senator Smith's got some—

Senator Marielle SMITH: I've got a follow-up as well.

CHAIR: All right. I've got a follow-up too!

Senator FAWCETT: Very quickly, in terms of your saying that cost is an issue, is all of your data what you collect through the video and still cameras, or do you rely on the observers to collect data? If it's cameras, have you costed RPAS—remotely piloted systems—that make less noise, have less impact on the environment and are far cheaper to operate?

Prof. Kingsford : We've looked into that. I'm sick of sitting in an aeroplane! The problem is that we are in a very difficult space in terms of the way the plane flies. These birds are around the edge of the lake, so the plane is doing that all the time. None of the remote systems that we can come up with can cope with that. They can't cope either with the difference in focal length. We do a lot of other work using drones to look at nesting birds that are static, and that works extremely well—and we use machine learning to make all that happen—but we have not come up with a solution yet as to how we can do this. Maybe in the future we might have something that's capable of doing it, but we're still a fair way away from that. The human eye is so good at recognising different birds and also being able to go in and out in terms of focal length.

Senator FAWCETT: Sure. Thanks.

Senator Marielle SMITH: It sounds like you've got quite a good dataset for these species. Obviously we can't change things we don't know about, but you know quite a lot here. Can you see evidence that having access to this information and this data is leading to policy changes or measures to protect these species which is absent for species where we don't have this kind of dataset?

Prof. Kingsford : We have done analysis to work out why there's a decline. It's quite clear that the decline is as a result of changing flooding patterns in the Murray-Darling, for example. These areas are drying out, and there are fewer opportunities for these birds to breed. In many cases, these sorts of indicator species become like an umbrella indicator for a whole range of different things. We're never going to be able to monitor all of the frogs or all of the invertebrates. So the signals that come out of this data were initially very important in terms of even the environmental flow discussion that was had in New South Wales. The first example of doing that was when an environment minister in New South Wales used some funding from waste management to buy some water back. That data was already informing that process. Am I answering your question in terms of policy?

Senator Marielle SMITH: Yes, you are. I want to get a sense of whether having this data actually changes outcomes and changes policy, because it seems that we've got quite significant gaps which stagnate government action on these issues.

Prof. Kingsford : I don't think it's an excuse to have gaps. We have good data, and we're increasingly getting better data in terms of remotely sensed data. We are able to track land clearing; we are able to track flooding in wetlands; we are able to track blue-green algal blooms, potentially. There are a whole lot of tools that are coming that could be better linked to biodiversity. So you might understand this type of lake would tend to have this sort of biodiversity, but, if you can see what the flooding patterns are over a long period, you can track changes. I think the real challenge is to try to come up with the index for long-term changes in biodiversity—the same as the CPI or something like that—that allows us to track what's going on in biodiversity at different scales. We're never going to be able to do everything. One excuse of inaction is that we need to measure more. Yes, we need to measure more and we need to fund more, but we still do have quite a lot going on—though it's not very well coordinated—that we could use that could and does tell us the story.

CHAIR: My concluding question is: where else should we be doing monitoring like this? When you talked about the monitoring programs that you're running, how much should they be multiplied by to adequately cover the expanse and the diversity of our continent?

Prof. Kingsford : It comes back to my comment about ecosystems. I think we need to work out the main ecosystems that we want to monitor and the indicators we can use to monitor. I would say—this is just a guess—we're probably at about five or 10 per cent of where we should be in terms of monitoring across systems. I think the mistake we've made up to now is that everybody wants to monitor everything, and we get paralysed by it being too difficult. We should be identifying those programs that are currently helping us. When the CPI started, nobody thought a basket of things in supermarkets would be a powerful index, but we have a number of these things going on and we should capitalise on those and then start to get better and better in terms of the accounting.

CHAIR: Just a quick calculation in my head: if we're at five to 10 per cent, and each of your programs is about $150,000, we're still only talking about—

Prof. Kingsford : It's not a great deal.

CHAIR: $6 million or something, if you're at five per cent for those two programs.

Prof. Kingsford : It's not a great deal. That is one of the big challenges, I think. We have no real investment. A lot of these programs rely on researchers getting money out of the Australian Research Council or the states and running them on a shoestring. There are real challenges in terms of that.

CHAIR: Thank you very much, Professor Kingsford, for your evidence today and your very comprehensive submission. It's been of great value to the committee.