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Speech by the Federal Minister for the Environment and Heritage Senator the Hon Robert Hill

to the

International Landcare 2000 Conference

Melbourne, 3 March, 2000

The care and protection of our natural environment is a never-ending task.

Despite the huge leaps forward that we have made in environmental awareness and the translation of that awareness into action, it seems we always face a new challenge.

Media reports tell us of algal blooms in our rivers, increasing areas of once fertile land being laid waste by salinity, and broadscale landclearing being continued at an unsustainable rate.

In the face of these challenges it would be easy to slip into a defeatist attitude.

It is a tribute to your efforts over more than a decade that Landcare has survived and grown as a movement and still faces these challenges with a determination admired by all Australians.

As usual, there's always more to be done. But that should not detract from our achievements to date.

I recently gave a speech in Sydney where I questioned why it is that Australians are reluctant to acknowledge the good work we do in the environment.

Australia is a world leader in so many areas of environmental endeavour - yet it seems that so few of our own people are prepared to give credit where it's due.

Landcare is just one example where the international community has looked to Australia's lead to provide the inspiration and direction for their own environmental and land management efforts.

The development of the Landcare movement is analogous to the development of the environment as a mainstream issue in Australia.

In establishing Landcare we recognised that our past management of the ancient and fragile soils of this continent was both inadequate and unsustainable.

Individual farmers and farming communities came together to develop a solution - to right the wrongs of the past, if you like.

Governments provided financial support to back the voluntary effort as these plans were put into effect.

Suddenly, farmers were not just part of the problem - they were part of the solution.

This simple, logical progression has been the model for what our Government has sought to achieve through the Natural Heritage Trust.

The Trust is not meant to be a prescriptive cure-all for Australia's environmental problems.

It uses the Landcare concept of community driven action. Communities across Australia - both urban and rural - are aware of the mistakes they've made in the past in treating their local environment - whether it be local bushland, rivers and waterways, or beaches.

These communities have shown the commitment and passion to come together to work out a solution.

Through the Natural Heritage Trust - funded by the part sale of Telstra - we have been able to provide them with the one thing that always seemed to be missing from the equation - financial support.

Through the Trust, we have now been able to invest $700 million in thousands of projects across Australia.

More importantly, an estimated 300,000 Australians have been involved in these projects. That's about six times the workforce of Australia's largest company BHP - and remember these people aren't being paid.

You only have to look at the Natural Heritage Trust Journal to gain a snapshot of the wonderful projects being undertaken across this vast continent.

I hope that one day these Australians get the public credit and appreciation that they are due for their efforts.

As you may be aware, the Commonwealth recently released the results of a comprehensive mid-term review of the Natural Heritage Trust.

This review consisted of 28 individual reports compiled by 12 independent consultants at a cost of about $2.1 million.

They ran to in excess of 3000 pages.

Not surprisingly, media reporting of the review focussed in on two lines of criticism in the executive summary of the review of the Bushcare program.

One newspaper headline screamed "Heritage Fund wasted".

It had me thinking that perhaps I had read the wrong 3,000 pages - or, dare I suggest, perhaps the journalist hadn't read them at all.

Overall, the independent reviews offered a strong endorsement of the Natural Heritage Trust and it individual programs.

The review found that "the programs that constitute the Natural Heritage Trust have been able to deliver a seven-fold increase in Commonwealth expenditure on natural resource management, sustainable agriculture, and environmental protection from 1996-97 to 1998-99."

On top of that, the Trust has been successful in stimulating additional investment in the natural environment from State and local governments.

For example, the review reported that through the one-stop-shop process, for every one dollar of Trust funds invested in Bushcare projects, an additional $2.60 has been contributed from other sources.

It was a similar story in the review of dryland salinity which reported that the Trust had had a major influence on expenditure levels.

The review found that the Commonwealth's contribution of $38 million had leveraged a further $75 million from State agencies and the community.

It also found that the Trust contribution may indirectly influence as much as 80% of the overall annual investment in improved management of dryland salinity by all providers.

Clearly the facts show that the Trust has been hugely successfully in mobilising on-ground action and in generating substantially increased investments to support this action.

Now that is not to say that the Mid-Term Review found no areas of the Trust which are capable of improvement.

The whole purpose of commissioning an independent review was to identify any shortcomings and provide guidance to the Government to address them.

If these reviews had come back with no suggestions for improvement I would have been asking for our $2 million back.

In all there were some 600 recommendations on issues ranging from the structure of application forms through to the focus of specific projects.

Many of these simply confirmed fine tuning of the Trust which was already under way while the Government responded positively to others at the time of the Review's release.

But the recommendations need to be viewed in context of the overall tick given to the Trust's programs by the review.

For example, the report on the Murray Darling 2001 Initiative stated that "the review provides strong evidence that funding has initiated work, catalysed action, and expanded or speeded up activity already under way."

While that is good news for anyone with an interest in the restoration of this major river system, the review also came up with 29 recommendations for improvement.

It is a similar story with Bushcare - the Trust's major revegetation program - which I mentioned earlier.

The independent review found that Bushcare is a well managed program which has developed a logical strategic plan and has a commendable network of facilitators located throughout Australia.

It also reported that Bushcare has made an important contribution to raising people's awareness of the importance of native vegetation, conservation and raising skill levels in the community on appropriate native vegetation management.

The review did find, however, that Bushcare would not achieve its stated goal of no net loss of native vegetation by June 2001 while broadscale landclearing continues in both Queensland and New South Wales.

This was seized upon by some critics of the Trust and some sections of the media as proof that Bushcare was a failure.

But in referring to the on-going landclearing in these States, the review clearly stated "It is beyond the control of Bushcare to have any direct effect on this outcome."

Those who have chosen to attack Bushcare on this issue have done nothing more than allow the State governments of Queensland and New South Wales off the hook on what is clearly their responsibility.

The most surprising of these criticisms came from the Australian Conservation Foundation.

As recently as August of last year, the ACF was repeating its attack on the Trust over the issue of cost-shifting by the States.

The ACF then claimed that there was ample evidence that the States had attempted to gain NHT funds to replace existing programs or projects within state agencies, "or to undertake what is clearly a core activity of the state agency."

There is no question that landclearing is a core State responsibility.

No Australian State has received Commonwealth funding to compensate landholders for the introduction of landclearing controls.

But the ACF is now trying to use its distorted representation of the Bushcare review to justify its call for the Commonwealth to pay the Queensland government $103 million to meet its core responsibility in regard to landclearing.

The hypocrisy of this backflip is breathtaking.

It also defies the finding of the Bushcare report that funds should be withheld from Queensland until there is greater compliance with the tree clearing provisions of the State Partnership Agreements.

While the ACF appears willing to go soft on recalcitrant Labor administrations in NSW and Queensland, the Commonwealth is not so inclined.

We expect governments in both of these States to implement effective controls on landclearing to meet their environmental responsibilities.

The Mid-Term Review also identified a number of key areas in the Bushcare program where change would be beneficial.

In the words of the review, "marginal changes are recommended to the balance of portfolio investments but significant reforms are needed within key elements."

Central to these recommendations was a call for a greater emphasis on regional approaches as opposed to the funding of smaller scale, individual projects. The review said this shift should be supported through the greater use of devolved grants.

I am pleased to say that the Howard Government is already ahead of the game on these issues.

In December of last year I made a ministerial statement to Parliament outlining a process of fine tuning a number of aspects of the Bushcare program.

High among these priorities is improved regional action through devolved grants.

I signalled then that increased emphasis would be given to funding participants in larger scale, regional projects.

As I noted then, the Trust has been hugely successful in supporting thousands of landcare groups around Australia.

Our next challenge is to assist landholders who are not members of landcare groups to undertake similar important work.

Devolved grants allow a regionally based organisation to assist landholders through programs such as fencing initiative schemes and bush corridor revegetation projects.

This approach also minimises the paperwork and funding delays, while ensuring the funds are available at the time of the year most appropriate to the region.

The Trust has already successfully invested about $17 million through devolved grants, confirming the potential of this approach.

But this approach relies on State governments providing the resources and legislative backing for effective regionally based organisations.

In order for these devolved grants to be effective, we need the regional organisations to set out clear revegetation strategies for their region. Otherwise these investments will not be directed to priority areas such as endangered species habitat, aquifer recharge areas to help control salinity, or river corridors to help improve water quality.

To date, the performance of the States in this regard has been mixed and will need to be improved considerably for us to be confident of successfully expanding the use of devolved grants.

The Bushcare review also highlighted what it saw as deficiencies in the biodiversity outcomes of the program.

While I believe these deficiencies have been overstated, the Commonwealth is committed to delivering better biodiversity outcomes.

Again, I foreshadowed several measures to achieve this in my statement of last year.

Bush for Greenhouse is a relatively new program aimed at leveraging greater investments by corporate Australia in bush regeneration as part of our efforts to meet our Kyoto greenhouse gas reduction target.

The new Bush for Wildlife initiative ensures that Bushcare guidelines now give greater priority to projects which include a component which protects or restores habitat for endangered native plants and animals. It also supports State based 'land for wildlife' schemes.

The Commonwealth is also committed to the introduction of new revolving funds in cooperation with other governments and non-government organisations to enable the purchase of land with high wildlife habitat values and its subsequent resale to buyers committed to management for conservation.

The government, and the Prime Minister in particular, has worked to increase the level of corporate and individual philanthropy in Australia.

Legislation already introduced by the government would give tax deductibility to donations of property for environmental purposes.

I find it deeply regrettable that this legislation, which could have had major benefits in preserving remnant native vegetation, has been blocked in the Senate by the ALP and Democrats.

I hope that the pressure of public opinion will see this legislation passed in the near future.

Meanwhile the Government, landholders and communities will get on with the job of protecting and regenerating our native vegetation through programs such as Bushcare.

Through its program of community grants Bushcare has helped mobilise thousands of Australians in this task.

The review of Bushcare has confirmed the Government's message - we must build on the work being done by thousands of community groups across Australia.

The achievements to date of programs such as Bushcare alone will not be enough to achieve our ultimate goal.

To repair the damage we have done to our natural resource base and to manage that natural resource base better in the future will require efforts over and above what we have already achieved with through this predominantly community grants program.

It will require investment in good science and technology, public education and training, an effective legal framework, and a broad range of economic instruments to influence sound investment and land management decisions.

We also need effective regional and local administration as well as financial support for community based solutions.

To deliver all of this it is clear that we will need all levels of Government to shoulder their fair share of the burden and meet their constitutional responsibilities.

The Commonwealth is committed to delivering such an outcome - I look forward to all State and local governments matching that commitment for the benefit of our natural resource base.

Commonwealth of Australia