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The Hon Peter Garrett AM MP
Minister for the Environment, Heritage and the Arts

The Hon Tony Burke MP
Australian Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry

Announcement of $403 million under Caring for our Country, Towra Point Nature Reserve, Sydney

E&OE Transcript
SUBJECTS: Caring for our Country funding; Reef Rescue initiative; water buybacks; Christmas Island
2 July 2009

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PETER GARRETT: It's great to be here with my ministerial colleague the Minister for Agriculture, Tony Burke, as we jointly announce an investment of some $403 million in Caring for our Country: the largest single investment that will be undertaken to improve the environment and the natural productive landscape of this country. So today, the Rudd Government announces the single biggest investment of over $400 million in Caring for our Country.

It's a real pleasure to be at the Towra Point Reserve. These are important wetlands and I want to acknowledge the Tharawal Indigenous people of this area, recognise how important these wetlands were for Indigenous people. It's a Ramsar-listed wetlands so our commitment of $1.5 million to the Sydney Catchment Management Authority I think is a very strong and positive investment. Some 50% of the wetlands in the Sydneyregion here: really important in terms of our obligations under the Ramsar convention and also in relation to migratory bird species.

But today we are providing the necessary support for 1,200 community groups, 12,000 Australians, over 50 different catchment management and natural resource management bodies right around Australia to do the very important work of investing in repairing and restoring our natural landscapes: one of the most significant commitments that we will see in looking after Australia's environment.

We were absolutely astonished, can I say, at the level of interest and the applications for funding under Caring for our Country. This is a program which is setting clear targets for achievement, it's a program where we are asking communities to work very effectively together: Indigenous communities, local governments, farmers, scientific organisations and others, working together to look after our country.

This is absolutely a critical, first-priority issue for Australians because our economic health is underpinned by our environmental health. So I'm really pleased that we're able to make this announcement today. Amongst many other things, we will see a significant effort in dealing with feral and invasive species in this country, significant efforts to empower local communities — especially communities on the coast who are working hard to restore dunal areas and reduce the impact that we have on our coastal environments — significant efforts right around Australia on restoring those landscapes and dealing with some of the causes of environmental issues that we face.

So this is a very good day for Australia's environment, a very good day for all those community groups that work to protect our environment and I'm absolutely confident that the significant commitment that we've made today will see very good work happen right across the Australian environment in the year to come. And I might invite my colleague, Tony Burke, to add to those remarks.

TONY BURKE: Thanks Pete. If I can just give you a couple of examples of some of the projects that are contained within this: $50 million on Reef Rescue. Now we already have 900 farmers in the cane and cattle lands that work near the Great Barrier Reef already looking at ways they can modify their practices.

We've got, for example, businesses like CSR being involved with a product know as 'biodunder', which is one of the by-products of ethanol. What they're doing there is looking at new methods for this ethanol by-product to reduce their reliance on phosphorus and nitrogen. This creates a way that farmers can work together with that great natural icon — the Great Barrier Reef — to give it a little more space than it's had with the problems that have been there for many years with the run-off of agricultural chemicals.

Additional to that, you'll notice from the media release we've got a description of $19 million on feral camels. It's actually described as $19 million “to tackle feral camels” and probably warrants a level of explanation. Feral camels are a massive problem throughout the north of Australia, whether it's in terms of what they do to agricultural land, right through to tearing apart traditional water holes for Indigenous communities.

There's something in the order of one million feral camels and this injection of $19 million provides an opportunity to put some serious money into getting those camel numbers right back down. This is what we said we'd do when we started Caring for our Country: to have achievable goals, identifiable outcomes. Issues like doing something about feral camels, issues like trying to preserve that greatest of our natural icons, the Great Barrier Reef.

JOURNALIST: Minister, it's great that the Government is funding a lot of these projects but aren't they reliant pretty much on volunteer work?

GARRETT: Look, there is a significant volunteer effort that goes into Caring for our Country. But remember that a $400 million commitment, including a down-payment of over $50 million for the very important Reef Rescue work for this great natural icon the Great Barrier Reef, is a part of that investment.

I think the fact is, we're providing significant support and investment for communities to do the work that they want to do, and they're ready to do, to look after this country. What we've seen in the applications for the Business Plan and for the Open Grants is that communities look at leveraging the very best results that they can in their work. That does mean that there's volunteer effort but it also means that there's significant investment in evaluation, in monitoring and in delivering those on-ground activities that actually improve the environment.

JOURNALIST: Minister Burke, can I ask you about water buybacks. There's been criticism of NSW for suspending environmental buybacks until Victoria does the same. What do you think of NSW's point of view on that?

BURKE: Well Penny Wong is the Minister responsible for that area. As you'd know, she has been negotiating with Victoria for a long time to try to make sure Victoria would have a look at the current limitations on how much can be released from any individual catchment. But the important point to realise with water buybacks is for the amount of money that the Commonwealth is putting on the table on water buybacks, nearly double that is also on the table for improving water efficiency.

We've got a river system that has been over-allocated over so many years. We have a situation now where the real problem facing our farmers is that we have an irrigation drought: there's less water to start with. That's why the Government's commitment to water buybacks is important; it gets most of the publicity. But let's not forget that nearly double that amount actually goes into the efficiency for the water that we have.

JOURNALIST: But the big buybacks aren't coming out of NSW. Does it worry you about the future of NSW agriculture if big environmental buybacks are coming out at this stage?

BURKE: Well take a look at the most recent of those buybacks, the Twynam purchase as a major purchase. All of that land is still in agriculture. The farm business itself made a decision that it wanted to shift from irrigated agriculture to broadacre agriculture. That's a decision they made and then they put their water on the water market.

We're not the only buyer on the water market. But I don't think anyone should stand in the way of a farmer that wants to make their own decision. If they want to shift from irrigated agriculture to broadacre, that's their call and I'm not in the business of telling them what to do with their land.

JOURNALIST: So you think NSW shouldn't be intervening if someone wants to sell their water?

BURKE: There's important pressure to be put on the Victorian Government. Penny Wong's been doing that. We just have to recognise that the decisions we're talking about ultimately are from willing sellers and if a farmer makes a decision as to what they want to do with their farm business, if that decision goes to selling their water and switching from one form of agriculture to another, that really is their call.

JOURNALIST: One more question, we've known for some time about the endangered bats on Christmas Island, why has it taken so long to act?

GARRETT: I acted as soon as we knew the situation on Christmas Island in relation to the pipistrelle bat but I wanted to make sure that before we embarked on a captive breeding program that we had the best available science to inform us in that. I commissioned an expert working group to provide me with that relevant advice. It did take some time for the taxonomy of the bat to be properly identified. I'm confident with that information now we've got the best prospects of both bat capture and hopefully getting a captive breeding program underway.

The issues on Christmas Island are complex and far-reaching and that expert's report says to me not only what we can do for individual species on that island like the pipistrelle bat and also some of the lizards, but also the larger range of threats that ecosystem and the species that rely on it are actually facing.

We've had a recovery plan that's been in place for some seven years on Christmas Island for the pipistrelle and it hasn't succeeded and worked up to-date. I've taken the best available science and it's been provided to me, as soon as I've received the recommendations, I've taken what I think are the necessary actions.

JOURNALIST: Can you just outline again for us what's happening on the Great Barrier Reef with this funding?

GARRETT: We will provide a down-payment of some $50 million for the Great Barrier Reef for Reef Rescue. This is the most significant investment any Commonwealth Government has put into our most important natural treasure — the Great Barrier Reef.

Critically, it involves the support and investment too of a number of catchment management groups, Natural Resource Management groups, farming organisations, AgForce, the Worldwide Fund for Nature. We have got an extraordinary coalition of cooperative interests happening because we know for all Australians that the health of the reef is critically important.

This will be targeted investment. We want to reduce the nutrient and chemical discharges into the inshore areas of the reef. That's important to make sure that the ecological quality of the reef is maintained because it does face significant pressures, not the least of which is climate change. Remember, the scientists said to us before we came into Government: if you want to look after the Great Barrier Reef you've got to provide significant investment, you've got to work cooperatively with the farming communities.

Most of this investment is on-land investment, it's working with the farming organisations that Minister Burke works very closely with. But it's done in concert with scientists, with non-government organisations and with Indigenous groups in that area. It's a very important and powerful partnership and we have high expectations that we can start to take care of this important natural asset.

[ENDS]

Commonwealth of Australia