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Restoring our Natural Capital

Speech by Senator The Hon Robert Hill
Minister for the Environment
to the World Environment Day Luncheon

5 June 1996


Thank you for inviting me here today and for the opportunity to speak to you on World Environment Day.

The international theme for World Environment Day 1996, Earth, Our Habitat, Our Home,vides the opportunity for us all to focus on the importance of protecting and rehabilitating our natural environment.

What the community wants from us as a Government is a structure for sustainable development. They want jobs, and rising living standards but through economic growth, that is environmentally sustainable.

This is demonstrated by a public opinion poll in 1993 which showed a vast majority of Australians believed that environmental protection and economic growth are equally important.

With respect to Australia, we find an environment under stress. Little of our natural environment has escaped modification over the past 200 years, and what remains is under increasing pressure.

For example, over 5 million hectares of native vegetation were cleared during the decade between 1983 and 1993. Once widespread species are declining. Some 20 mammal, 20 bird and 68 plant species are already presumed extinct. Many of our uniquely Australian animals such as the Bilby, Numbats, Quolls, Mallee Fowl and Bettongs are on the verge of extinction. Many of our wetlands have disappeared and the water quality and flows of our key rivers are dramatically reduced.

These problems have a direct impact on people in our community who, quite rightly, expect quality water to drink and clean air to breathe. They do not want to see precious soils blown away in the wind, blue-green algae spoiling our rivers and streams, or our unique flora and fauna at risk.

One of the key challenges this nation faces is to preserve its natural environmental capital for the benefit of future generations.

The new Coalition Government has the commitment and the credentials to address the major environmental issues facing our nation as we move towards the 21st century and beyond.

We are proud of our achievements in environmental protection. Many people may not realise that it was 25 years ago that a Coalition Government established the first Commonwealth Environment Department.

We pioneered the first listings under the World Heritage Convention, we stopped sand mining on Fraser Island, and we led the international charge to ban commercial whaling.

Now we are seeking to implement the largest and most comprehensive commitment to action on the environment by any national government in Australia’s history.

Natural Heritage Trust

Yesterday I released a report prepared by the Australian Bureau of Statistics which estimates that Australia’s environmental assets are worth $660 billion.

It calculated that each Australian needs 4.4 hectares of productive land to maintain our living standards. This “ecological footprint” is needed to produce a persons food, housing, transport, consumer goods and services.

Maintaining and storing this natural capital is an investment in the wellbeing of future generations of Australian’s.

Central to our Government’s efforts in this direction is the establishment of a $1 billion Natural Heritage Trust, the structure for which I expect to introduce into Federal Parliament in two weeks time.

This is the first time in the nation's history that a Commonwealth Government has established a Trust for such a purpose.

The initial capital of $1 billion to be invested in the Trust will come from the proceeds of the partial sale of Telstra.

In effect, this represents a transfer from an investment in a telecommunications company to an investment in natural capital. Investing in natural capital will benefit not only present but also future generations.

For too long Australia has taken its extraordinary endowment of natural resources for granted.

We have failed to take into account the depletion and degradation of natural capital. We have failed to make the investments necessary to arrest and reverse the depreciation of our natural resources.

The initiatives to be funded from the Trust are aimed at reversing the decline in our natural capital. They will contribute to the conservation, repair and enhancement of Australia's unique environment into the 21st Century.

The Trust will provide funding certainty for important natural heritage programs of this Coalition Government for the next five years, free from the normal economic pressures and budgetary constraints.

The Trust, and the range of initiatives it will support, is based on a recognition that an integrated approach is needed right across the spectrum of problems we face. The environment and sustainable agriculture packages that we took to the Federal election have been strategically developed around five interdependent environmental infrastructure packages:

1. Vegetation

Probably the most compelling environmental challenge for Australia is turning around the relentless long term decline in the quality and extent of our native vegetation.

Fifty percent of the original tall and medium forest and 35 percent of the woodlands have been cleared or highly modified since European settlement. In the past 50 years, as much land was cleared as in the 150 years before 1945.

As a result of this and other poor land management practices, nearly two thirds of the continent requires treatment for land degradation, costing this nation in excess of $1.4 billion a year.

To help combat this problem, we will provide an additional $318 million from the Trust for a major National Vegetation Initiative. The initiative will integrate and build upon existing programs such as One Billion Trees, Save the Bush, and Corridors of Green.

With the guidance of a new Council for Sustainable Vegetation Management, funds will be allocated in two key areas of activity:

The National Vegetation Initiative represents an historic opportunity to develop a national vegetation management strategy and to put in place the first integrated national program for protecting and enhancing Australia’s native vegetation.

We will also provide funding for a Farm Forestry Initiative to further promote and encourage the establishment of commercial farm forestry activities in regional areas.

Our objective is for the first time since white settlement to revegetate more of Australia than that which we clear.

2. Rivers

Australia is the driest, flattest and most poorly drained continent with the most variable climate.

Yet we have not treated these scarce resources wisely. In the Murray Darling Basin, for example, if all the water allocations were implemented, 90 percent of the average natural flow would be diverted. That system now experiences drought level flows three years out of every four, compared to one in twenty years under natural circumstances.

In 1991, more than 1,000 kilometres of the Darling was affected by the largest blue-green algal bloom on record. Bank collapses have occurred along 2,000 kilometres of the Darling River.

The Murray Darling Basin has lost an estimated 15 billion trees since European settlement, resulting in, amongst other things, dryland salinity affecting 500,000 hectares.

NSW is looking down the barrel of a further 5 million hectares being ruined by salt, and an additional 1 million hectares could be affected in the riverine plains of northern Victoria.

Every ten minutes, the equivalent of a semi-trailer load of salt flows down the river Murray.

The Government will therefore implement the $300 million Murray-Darling 2001 Project, with funding from the Trust of $150 million. An additional $13 million will also be provided to expedite the return of water to the environment and to regenerate native fish populations including the control of carp.

This is a new project which will be conducted in partnership with the relevant States.

In addition to the Murray Darling infrastructure funding we will also provide an additional $85 million for a National Rivercare Initiative. This will focus on ensuring sustainable management, rehabilitation and conservation of waterways outside the Murray-Darling Basin.

We will also enhance the National Wetlands Program to encourage the conservation of Australia's precious wetlands.

3. Biodiversity

Australia is one of the dozen most biologically diverse countries on earth.

It is ecologically unique because of our isolation as an island continent for millions of years, but our biodiversity has suffered greatly since European settlement from the clearing of habitat and invasion by feral animals such as the rabbit, fox and feral cat.

To create areas to protect our biodiversity we will provide $80 million over the next 5 years from the Trust to implement a comprehensive National Reserve System.

The National Reserve System based on scientific evaluation, will be developed with the States and Territories.

The Reserve System will incorporate prime examples of Australia's biodiversity and significant natural values. It will ensure that examples of a wide range of ecosystems are protected. This will include, for example, wilderness, wild rivers, wetlands, salt marshes and grasslands. The Reserve System will also reflect the need to protect and promote the recovery of species and ecological communities that are endangered or vulnerable and to manage the threats to those species and ecological communities.

The National Reserve System will complement off-reserve conservation activities which will include other elements of this investment package, such as the National Vegetation Initiative.

The Government also recognises the importance of providing specific resources to ensuring the recovery of endangered species and ecological communities. We will therefore provide an additional $16 million for the endangered species program.

4. Coasts and Oceans

Australia's coastal zone which is 36,700 kilometres long, supports about 86% of our population and much of our commercial and industrial activity. We have the third largest area of mangroves in the world, lining about 6,000 kilometres of our coast, and our coastal waters have the world’s highest diversity of seagrasses. In addition, in 1994 we acquired an Exclusive Economic Zone which represents some 11 million square kilometres of ocean - double the size of our land mass.

Each year, sewage effluent contributes some 10,000 tonnes of phosphorus and 100,000 tonnes of nitrogen, much of which is discharged into estuarine and coastal waters. 65% of the mostly urban beaches and dunes surveyed by the Surfriders Foundation in 1994 showed evidence of pollution.

This is no way to treat such a valuable resource. Clearly, the ecologically sustainable management of our coasts and oceans is integral to our way of life and economic prosperity.

The Natural Heritage Trust will fund a $100 million Coasts and Clean Seas Initiative to tackle coastal pollution hot spots and threats to Australia's coastal water quality and marine biodiversity. We will focus on previously neglected areas of policy, such as ocean outfalls, stormwater pollution, and marine research.

In particular, we will assist State and Territory Governments to reduce the environmental impacts of ocean outfalls and to address the threat of stormwater pollution to our urban beaches and environmentally sensitive coastal areas.

Funds will be provided to provide opportunities for local groups and individuals to become directly involved in coastal restoration works.

We have previously indicated our intention to maintain the Commonwealth Coastal Policy and a range of initiatives under the Coastal Action Program and we will develop a comprehensive Oceans Policy.

5. Landcare

Between 1985 and 1994, the number of Landcare groups in Australia increased from 76 to some 2,200. Approximately one in every three farmers is a member of a Landcare group.

Despite this success and rapid growth in Landcare and the commitment by the Australian community to the Landcare ethos, we believe that more action is needed.

The Government’s environment and sustainable agriculture package provides the logical next step in the evolution of Landcare, as an essential component of an integrated approach to overall land and water management. We must enter a new phase of landcare development, which some people have dubbed Landcare Mark II .

The Trust will fund a National Land and Water Resources Audit. This will provide the first ever comprehensive appraisal of the extent of land and water degradation in Australia and its environmental, social and economic costs to the nation, and will provide the knowledge necessary to better target community resources.

The Government is also committed to provide a significant increase in funding to help meet the needs of these landholders and communities through the National Landcare Program.

It is now widely accepted that we must move away from an awareness raising phase to on-ground action.

Australia has a strong public interest in supporting farmers to take practical action. In return, the community must see changes in farming practices to ensure its investment has lasting environmental benefits.

Increased support will be provided for the development of community initiated and managed projects on public and private land, for expanding the popular property management planning campaign, and for placing greater emphasis on the conservation and restoration of biological diversity.

These measures will be reinforced by the provision of income tax rebates and credits for qualifying landcare works on private land.

Recognising the importance of dealing with weeds and feral pests as part of the overall natural resource management task, additional funding will also be provided for a National Feral Animal Control Strategy and for the implementation of the National Weeds Strategy.

The Trust as a New Approach

It is not by chance that the Government's natural heritage package I have described is focused around some of the big issues of our time:

But we have also seized the opportunity to take a new approach to environmental protection and natural resource management. We are determined to use each initiative to produce a multiple outcome.

For example, it is a critical priority to stem land clearance and to replant lost vegetation. Properly conceived, however the National Vegetation Initiative will drive other desirable outcomes such as:

Cooperative Approach to Implementation

Another distinguishing feature of the Coalition’s approach to the environment is that we have much greater faith in the Australian people to act cooperatively to confront this national challenge.

It fits well with the aims of World Environment Day which are:

We aim to develop a cooperative approach that will tap into the enormous enthusiasm which exists throughout the Australian community for the restoration and protection of our unique environment.

We are committed to achieving a greater level of cooperation between the three spheres of government, to deliver resources to local communities and landholders. Too many reports currently sit on shelves and too many programs are too inflexible for local needs.

We will work with the community, farmers, local and state and territory Governments, volunteer organisations, industry, environmental groups and the scientific community in a cooperative and coordinated manner.

We will ensure that communities and landholders will have an important role in priority setting processes, and that the delivery mechanisms will be as streamlined as possible.


In conclusion, I acknowledge with gratitude those nationwide who do a little bit extra to protect our natural heritage. I again commit my Government to providing the lead, but acknowledge that the most effective outcome will occur when we all work together.

We will be responsible for what we pass to future generations and they deserve an unselfish effort and commitment.

Commonwealth of Australia