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Department of the Environment and Heritage annual report 2005–06

Volume one
Department of the Environment and Heritage, 2006
ISSN 1441 9335

Executive summary

Secretary’s review

The Department of the Environment and Heritage has broad and diverse responsibilities, evident in the range of our achievements over the last year. We deal with a broad spectrum of issues, deliver many different programmes and operate in a number of different and sometimes difficult locations.

Some parts of the department focus on conserving a single species while others deal with problems on a continental or global scale—such as climate change.

Our people work in locations from the Antarctic to Kakadu, from remote areas to the national capital— all show a commitment to improve the management of Australia’s natural resources and thereby contribute to the sustainable growth and prosperity of our nation.

At the same time, we are working to lessen the impact of urbanisation through better management of water consumption and waste production.

The scale, diversity and significance of our work make the department an interesting, exciting and challenging place to work.

I am pleased to acknowledge the efforts that our people have made and invite readers to delve into this report and learn more about the activities and achievements in the past year, and our priorities for the year ahead.

David Borthwick

David Borthwick

Progress report

In 2005–06 the department administered a budget of $906 million to support the Australian Government in delivering its environment and heritage objectives. The priority this year has been to implement the most recent of the government’s commitments, particularly in relation to saving water, developing marine protected areas, responding to climate change, conserving Tasmania’s forests, protecting cultural heritage, and supporting environmental research including in Antarctica through the construction of an ice runway.

There was an enthusiastic response to the first round of Community Water Grants, the community action element of the $2 billion Australian Government Water Fund. Over $55 million was provided for 1 750 community-based projects, to rehabilitate about 15 000 hectares of land and save approximately 18.5 billion litres of water each year. An important component is the contribution made by communities themselves—they will contribute more than $60 million to these projects, including 345 000 hours of volunteer time. I am heartened to see the high levels of cooperation between government and the community to save water in this country.

Australia’s reputation as the world leader in marine environment conservation was reinforced with agreement to a network of 13 marine protected areas off the south-east of the continent in May 2006. The network will protect an area of ocean almost the size of Victoria. Australia now has about one-third of the world’s marine protected areas.

This year the department continued its efforts to develop practical, long-term solutions to climate change. On the domestic front we began investing in the next generation of cleaner technologies to reduce Australia’s greenhouse emissions, such as carbon dioxide capture and storage and renewable energy technologies. Internationally, the department has been instrumental in the formation of the Asia–Pacific Partnership on Clean Development and Climate whose member countries account for roughly half of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. This partnership is a new way forward for countries to work together to reduce greenhouse emissions.

I particularly welcome the appointment of my deputy secretary, Howard Bamsey, to co-chair future international talks to be held under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. This appointment recognises Australia’s expertise and constructive approach to addressing climate change.

The Australian and Tasmanian governments are investing $250 million over six years (2004–2010) through the Tasmanian Community Forest Agreement to enhance the protection of Tasmania’s forest environment and to promote growth in the Tasmanian forest industry. This year the department began implementing the environmental aspects of this agreement through the Forest Conservation Fund, Tarkine Bushwalk Programme, Tasmanian Forest Tourism Development Programme, Tasmanian Devil Facial Tumour Programme, and River Catchment Water Quality Initiative.

This year has seen a renewed interest in the protection of Australia’s cultural heritage, particularly in relation to the early maritime exploration, with 2006 marking the 400th anniversary of the first documented European contact with Australia. Two places associated with early European maritime exploration—Cape Inscription in Western Australia where Captain Dirk Hartog landed in October 1616, and the site of the 1629 shipwreck and survivor camps of the Dutch ship Batavia—have been included in Australia’s National Heritage List. A number of Australia’s iconic sites have also been nominated or added to heritage lists, including the Sydney Opera House (nominated for the World Heritage List), the Melbourne Cricket Ground, and the Australian War Memorial and Memorial Parade (added to the National Heritage List).

Scientific research is essential for the development of sound environmental policy. There is a surprising array of research funded by the department into specific environmental issues. However more research is needed to address critical gaps in our understanding of the pressures facing Australia’s unique environment.

The $100 million Commonwealth Environment Research Facilities programme is a key platform to progress environmental research in Australia. In July 2006 the first grant recipients were announced for the first four research hubs. These will support world-class research and assist collaborative environmental research in Australia. These grants complement the $40 million Marine and Tropical Sciences Research Facility being established in far north Queensland.

Antarctic research is very important to our understanding of the Southern Ocean ecosystem and the effects of a changing climate upon it. The Australian Antarctic Division’s scientific contributions to developing non-lethal research methods have also highlighted the flaws in so called ‘scientific’ whaling and helped Australia to counter pro-whaling countries’ proposals at the 58th annual International Whaling Commission meeting.

The challenging job of constructing Australia’s new Antarctic ice runway is progressing well with the first regular intercontinental flights expected in 2007. The air link between Hobart and Antarctica will open up new opportunities for the conduct of research in Antarctica, allowing scientists and support personnel to spend less time travelling by ship and more time on their projects.

I am keen to provide educational material to Australians to promote an awareness of environmental issues and provide information for people of all ages and walks of life to become involved in protecting their local environment.

Managing the department

A number of changes have been made to the department over the year to improve the way we go about our business.

This is the first full year of operation of the department’s Marine Division created in early 2005 and the announcement of the network of marine protected areas was the division’s first major achievement. The creation of this division has brought together regional marine planning and marine protected area development into a single process. It has improved coordination between sustainable fisheries, migratory and marine species, and marine protected area management, and established closer links between domestic and international marine policy.

This year I formed a new Environment Quality Division to give additional emphasis and a higher priority to the department’s work to minimise the impacts of human settlements and human activities on the environment. Our work on managing waste and improving air quality through national standards for clean petrol and diesel is having a positive and real impact on urban environments.

I have rebalanced the responsibilities across the department and its senior executives to ensure we make better connections between common work themes where they are shared across divisions. I have also reprioritised departmental funding this year to further build our capacity to administer the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999.

An increased emphasis has been placed on investing in our staff and recruiting new staff with the necessary skills, a challenging task in an increasingly competitive labour market. Last year the department recruited a record number of graduates and we are intending to increase the intake again in 2007. We also have a dedicated officer working to attract and retain Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander employees in the department.

The department has been working on a new collective agreement for 2006–2009 and Australian Workplace Agreements that provide an attractive and competitive package of employment conditions and remuneration for all staff. The new agreements began in August this year.

Ensuring the health and well-being of our staff is extremely important. The department takes its obligations in this regard very seriously. We have also been committed to reducing our own impact on the environment such as through systems to minimise our water consumption. It was particularly galling and disturbing to staff to discover that water provided by the department to officers of the Australian Greenhouse Office through a roof catchment and tank system did not meet potable water standards. Our immediate concern and priority has been to understand whether there are particular health and well-being issues for the staff affected. Fortunately, the testing undertaken has revealed no adverse health consequences. Our objective has been to keep staff informed throughout this episode. Clearly there are lessons to be drawn and in that regard, the report under the Occupational Health and Safety (Commonwealth Employment) Act 1991 by Comcare has been helpful.

The department is committed to developing and training its staff and allocates funding to each staff member for learning and development. We also provide corporate, department-wide information and training opportunities. This year we provided an online occupational health and safety programme, records management training, cultural diversity development programmes and a series of executive seminars for senior managers of the department to share their knowledge and experience with staff. We are also developing a number of training programmes to ensure our staff are aware of current issues and trends in public sector performance including an in-house executive leadership programme to improve leadership skills in the department, an environmental economics programme targeted at non-economists, and a workplace diversity programme.

Looking ahead

The department moves into 2006–07 with clear objectives. The first is the further development of the government’s flagship environment initiatives, the Natural Heritage Trust and the National Action Plan for Salinity and Water Quality. Continued on-ground activities applying established and emerging science, monitoring changes to the condition of natural resources and adapting our management practices will be critical to long-term success.

We will also continue the roll-out of the major environment protection programmes mentioned previously as well as others including Solar Cities, the Low Emissions Technology Demonstration Fund and Biodiversity Hotspots.

A key focus of the Marine Division over the next four years will be to drive the development of marine bioregional plans around the continent. The development of these plans under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 will reinforce Australia’s reputation as the global pioneer in the sustainable development of ocean resources.

The minister is currently reviewing experience with the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 after six years of operation and is considering measures of a legislative and administrative nature to improve its efficiency and effectiveness. We expect an amending Bill to be introduced into the parliament in the coming year that will streamline the Act and provide more strategic approaches to securing better environmental outcomes.

The third State of the Environment Report will be released later this year. The report will provide a crucial guide to current and emerging environment and heritage issues and will help shape the agenda for future policy development. While I am sure the State of the Environment Report will find we have made gains in many areas in the last five to 10 years, it is also likely to highlight the challenges still to be addressed, and in some cases, show that we still lack quality baseline information against which we can assess change over time. One of the challenges in the coming years will be to improve this information base to enable better measurement of progress towards our outcomes. The Commonwealth Environment Research Facilities programme will be an important element in this.

The performance of Australia on managing the environment sustainably will be benchmarked against other OECD nations in 2006–07, with publication of the OECD Environment Performance Review in 2007. The report will provide an analysis of our performance over the decade since the last review in 1997.

There are a number of emerging policy debates that are central to the department’s work, which we can contribute to, such as the use of nuclear energy and the future efforts to address climate change. It is important that the department participates in and informs these debates.

Through the professionalism, dedication and quality of its workforce I consider the Department of the Environment and Heritage is well placed to respond to future challenges.

[signed]

David Borthwick

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