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Federal Minister for the Environment and Heritage
The Hon Dr David Kemp, MP
Parliament House, Canberra
Thursday, 16 May 2002
(Inaudible) … immediately responsible for land management in Queensland. It's important that the Beattie Labor Government take effective action. It's not a matter that requires the Commonwealth to do anything. It can establish controls and enforce those controls as it chooses. And it should go ahead and do that.
Where there are national issues involved, for example where there's a greenhouse benefit from the halting of land clearing in particular areas, then the Commonwealth has indicated that it's prepared to be a partner in addressing any compensation issues.
That's imperative for you, because you have to stop Queensland clearing by 2008, don't we?
Well, it's not a question of stopping it, but it's a question of making sure that land clearing is on a sustainable basis. And the rate…
What is a sustainable basis?
… and the rate of land clearing that we've been seeing up till now in Queensland has been excessive. And, indeed, it has the potential to destroy much of the agricultural land in the northern part of the Murray Darling Basin. Because research that's been completed in very recent times shows that there is an exceptionally high salinity hazard across most of the Murray Darling Basin area in southern Queensland. And unless land clearing is stopped by landholders, in their own interest, they will find that their own land becomes unfarmable within a decade or so.
So this is a matter not just of national interest, it's not just a matter of interest to the government of Queensland, but it should be a matter of interest to the landholders themselves in terms of the management of their own properties and making sure that they are on a sustainable basis.
Sustainable land clearing, could you kind of explain how you see that concept?
Well, sustainable land clearing is land clearing which is able to be maintained over a period of time and will largely be clearing of revegetation in areas where there is not a need for vegetation to maintain and control the salinity problem.
Where we've got land clearing in areas of high salinity, we've got essentially unsustainable land clearing. Because the land clearing itself is greatly increasing the danger that the agricultural productivity of the land will be completely destroyed.
We've already seen that in significant areas of the Murray Darling Basin. The productivity of the Murray Darling Basin is less than it should be. We should be able to manage the Murray Darling Basin in a way which actually allows us to increase its productivity in the future. And that's what the National Action Plan is all about.
Dr Kemp, (inaudible) at the report. Is there any sort of hot spot in there that has surprised even you?
Well, I think the key hot spots really do relate to the land clearing in areas where there is still a very high salinity hazard. And the areas of southern Queensland, some areas of New South Wales and the Murray/Darling Basin are really very key areas for focus under the National Action Plan.
Of course in terms of broader issues of water quality and landscape health, the Murray River itself, the Darling, the tributaries, are all key foci of interest for the Federal Government and the States under the National Action Plan. And it's very pleasing that the budget that the government has just brought down, confirms the full Commonwealth commitment, both to the Natural Heritage Trust with an extra $1 billion; and $1.4 billion with the States for the National Action Plan on Salinity.
As far as New South Wales is concerned, there's no data on vegetation clearing rates as there is in Queensland. Is that something you'd like to see changed?
Well, we're now moving to an era where satellite data is able to tell us the extent of vegetation and vegetation clearing down to very small areas of land. I believe that from the satellite photographs we can now monitor areas as small as 25 metres square and so we are able to tell whether or not land clearing has taken place, whether a permit has actually been exercised and trees have been cleared. And we're also able to monitor very closely the extent to which revegetation is taking place.
One of the interesting outcomes, and important outcomes of the successful development of the calici virus by the CSIRO, is that the dramatic decline of the rabbit population, particularly across the dry areas of Australia, has actually led to the regrowth of vegetation across much of the continent.
Now, that doesn't mean that we're still not very concerned with quite deliberate land clearing in areas where it is putting agricultural land at risk.
The Opposition is saying your environmental budget figures are shonky. What do you say to that?
Well, that's an entirely political comment which is completely untrue. And I refute that. Each year this government has invested more in the environment than any previous Australian government. This is the greenest budget of the greenest Australian Government in our history. It projects an expenditure next year of $1.8 billion on the environment. And that follows a record year of expenditure in the current year.
No government has ever invested more in restoring and rebuilding the Australian environment than this one. Our expenditure this year is some two and a half times the expenditure that the Labor Party budgeted for in 1995/96.
Is that partly because you're including the surveillance and patrol boats in the north of Australia in the environmental figures?
Well, that's a very minor part of the total budget. But let me just say that there is a very important environmental partnership between the Department of the Environment and the Department of Customs. We need to monitor what is happening in the marine environment. Whether there is illegal and unregulated fishing taking place. The sustainability of our fisheries is dependent on that. We need to know whether there are oil spills. We need to have constant counts made of key marine species, including bird species.
Australia has taken a very strong stand on whaling and the marine surveillance that the Customs Department undertakes is an important part of us being able to monitor whale numbers and whale aggregations.
The Customs Department is also a partner of the Environment Department in the administration of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act. The most powerful piece of environmental legislation that any Australian government has put in place. And, indeed, a number of Customs officers are already sworn in as wardens for the administration of that Act.
So that's a very important partnership, and it's an important part of the government's total environment expenditure.
On whaling, how confident are you that the government will achieve its objective at the IWC - the coming IWC meeting?
Well, I'm confident that we will continue to get strong support for the South-Pacific Whale Sanctuary. We've had majority support up till now. We'll certainly be seeking that again. There are a number of new countries coming into the Whaling Commission. They're joining up virtually as we speak, for various reasons, and they can join us until 20th May when the meeting gets underway.
I would strongly urge Japan to take notice of the fact that the South Pacific countries do not want commercial whaling in the South Pacific. We've just heard today that the Government of French Polynesia has declared its exclusive economic zone a whale sanctuary. That's an area of some two million square kilometres. Papua New Guinea, a week or so ago, had declared its exclusive economic zone a whale sanctuary. Australia and New Zealand have done the same.
And I would urge the Japanese whaling industry to respect the views of the nations in the South Pacific and to accept the proposal that the South Pacific be declared a whale sanctuary. Thank you.