Department of the Environment and Heritage, 2005
ISSN 1441 9335
This is the first full financial year that I have led the Department of the Environment and Heritage. For me the clear 'take home message' of the past year is the need for a sustained effort to follow through on the government's major environmental reforms.
Environmental degradation is often an insidious process; the cumulative result of multiple causes, each appearing insignificant in the initial stages and when viewed in isolation. The damage can escalate until it reaches the point where it affects entire ecosystems, and an enormous effort is required to prevent further harm.
There are no quick solutions to continental-scale problems like the over-allocation of water resources and the loss of native vegetation, or global problems like greenhouse gas emissions.
It will take years of consistent hard work on many fronts before improvements become noticeable.
The government has established strong foundations for this work. Major environmental programmes like the Natural Heritage Trust, the implementation of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999, and regional marine planning are driving important reforms to the way Australians manage natural resources. For the first time the continuing health of ecosystems is fundamental to resource management, and not just a secondary consideration. In addition the high level of protection afforded by the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 now applies to places of outstanding national heritage significance. The total government investment in the environment and heritage continues to increase.
The department can report progress in carrying out this work (see the summary). Support for 'on-ground' activities continues to expand, including $200 million for water-saving projects initiated by the community. More native habitat is being protected, notably an additional 171 300 hectares of forest reserves in Tasmania. New programmes to address climate change have been established and Australia is still on track to meet its internationally agreed greenhouse gas emissions target.
During the year real progress was made in international diplomatic efforts to develop practical solutions to the problem of climate change, culminating in the July 2005 announcement of a partnership between the United States, China, India, Japan, South Korea and Australia. Australia also had a success with its diplomatic effort to oppose commercial whaling. International engagement on issues like climate change and whaling will continue to be priorities in the year ahead.
However many of the department's activities, although fundamental to solving environmental problems in the long term, typically make only incremental improvements to the overall condition of the environment in any given year. Activities like managing the Natural Heritage Trust, improving the management of major river basins and administering legislation covering a wide range of environmental issues (including ozone depletion, wildlife protection and sea dumping, to name a few) have to be viewed in context. It will take many years of sustained effort over the entire catchment-to-sea continuum before the department can report major environmental outcomes from these activities.
Moreover, it is simply not feasible to monitor many key indicators of change in the condition of the environment on an annual basis. This is why the department produces Australia's State of the Environment reports—independent stocktakes of the condition of our environment— on a five-yearly cycle, with the next report due in 2006.
Other departmental activities—corporate support functions like providing assistance to the minister, maintaining our buildings and our records, and managing the department's accounts—tend not to make it onto lists like the one on pages 6-7 but are absolutely essential to the department's ability to achieve these results. I encourage readers to explore the relevant chapters of this annual report to find out more about what was achieved.
In looking back over the year a single event overshadowed all others: the Boxing Day tsunami in the Indian Ocean. Like other Australians I was appalled by the scale of the human tragedy. The tsunami was also the single most significant event affecting the environment in Australia's region so it was important that the environment and heritage portfolio contributed to the Australian Government's response. The portfolio's contribution included assistance from the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, involving assessing the impacts on coral reefs. The Bureau of Meteorology is helping to establish an early warning system for future tsunamis in the Indian Ocean.
The year saw a significant change to the portfolio, with the government bringing the Australian Greenhouse Office and the National Oceans Office into the department (they were previously separate executive agencies in the portfolio). This kind of transition can be trying for employees as well as for our clients, so I was particularly pleased with the way everyone adapted to the new working arrangements. Both offices are continuing to operate within the department, enabling a more integrated approach to delivering the government's climate change and marine programmes.
There was also a shift in the way government works with Indigenous communities, with Indigenous programmes now distributed across a range of portfolios. The department already has a strong record of engagement with Indigenous communities on park management, natural resource management, heritage protection and marine planning. New whole-of-government coordination arrangements will enhance the ability of these programmes to meet local and regional needs.
I am of the strong view that the department's success in delivering the government's programmes rests on the quality and dedication of its staff. Following on from last year's comprehensive staff survey, the department is making a number of changes to improve support for its staff.
The department's senior executives are leading a concerted effort to improve internal communications. For example I have made a point of meeting regularly with the department's section managers. The department's intranet is being improved; innovations during the year included a regular staff newsletter and a feedback mechanism.
This year also saw a major information technology review and upgrade. New systems will roll out over 2005-06. Other improvements include new recruitment procedures, and initiatives to develop the leadership potential of managers.
The department will survey its staff again in 2006.
The department's vision is 'a sustainable Australia'. Achieving this vision means planning for the longer term to maintain the health of our natural resources while our economy continues to develop. Getting the right balance between environmental, social and economic priorities is an ongoing challenge. In order to do this effectively the department often finds itself seeking to influence activities that are the primary responsibility of other portfolios. It is essential, therefore, that the department forges effective ways of working with other portfolios.
In most cases it will take time before the benefits of the government's environment and heritage programmes become apparent. It will be critical to work with and maintain the confidence and support of the Australian community over these long time frames.
The department has proven its ability to broker innovative solutions. It needs to become a leader in demonstrating the effectiveness of environment and heritage programmes.