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An Address to the Murray Darling Association's 52nd Conference

Official Opening by Senator Hill
Leader of the Government in the Senate
Minister for the Environment

Barmera, South Australia
6 September 1996

Mayor Mary Ridley, Leon Broster and members of the Murray Darling Association, thank you for inviting me to attend your National Conference and to open this conference on "The Murray-Darling Basin - Worlds Best Practice?"

It seems entirely appropriate- both as the Federal Minister for the Environment, and as a long-time consumer of Adelaide water -to be talking to you today about worlds best practice in the Murray Darling Basin.

Given the raft of statistics about salinity, water quality, loss of native vegetation, and European Carp, it would be very easy to say that historically, the management of our natural capital within the Murray Darling Basin is a long way short of best practice.

There is overwhelming evidence to show that river health is in serious decline. The results from the recent audit of water use in the Basin has shown that diversions of river water for purposes such as irrigation have greatly reduced natural flows and changed seasonal flow patterns.

Currently 80 percent of average natural flow is diverted and the audit predicted that it would rise to 90 percent on current allocation practices. The river system now experiences drought level flows six out of ten years compared to one in twenty years in natural conditions.

The net effect of these changes can be seen through the increasing frequency of blue-green algal blooms, elevated river salinity, loss of floodplain wetlands. significant decline in native fish populations and a proliferation of exotic species (notably Carp) which seem to thrive under the altered flow conditions.

Land degradation is also widespread and includes dryland and irrigation induced salinity, erosion by wind and water, remnant vegetation decline, water logging, loss of soil structure and soil acidity.

It was estimated a few years ago that by 2010 or 2015 the whole area irrigated in the riverine plains will be operating in a high water table.

But enough has been said about these problems in recent times. Instead I would like to focus on the future - about how we should learn from the mistakes of the past and how we should go about managing our natural capital within the Murray Darling Basin.

Without wishing to underestimate the magnitude of the problems we are facing, we should approach this challenge with confidence.

There is a growing awareness in both rural and urban Australia that we need to manage our country as if we intend to stay, rather than as if we are just passing through.

We are all beginning to recognise that our approaches need to adapt to the uniqueness of our ancient continent: our relatively infertile soils, our unique flora and fauna and the extremes of our southern hemisphere climate.

Best practice in Australia means adapting to these unique features of our natural environment, and earning wealth from its interest rather than drawing on its natural capital, which we have been doing for too long.

Since European settlement, we have created one of the wealthiest and advanced nations, privileged in many ways, thanks in large measure to generations of rural producers. But we have done so at significant cost to our natural capital.

It is clear from the environmental signposts all around us - this great river basin being a classic - that the path we choose from here on must diverge from our historic development path.

We hear a lot these days about green issues-national parks, koalas, whales, and so on. But true conservation is based on understanding that environmental protection is an investment in natural capital.

Conservation is neither an alternative land use nor an opportunity cost. It is the fundamental protection of the natural resources which underwrite our material wealth.

Conservation of native species and ecosystems and the processes they support - ie our biological diversity; the flows and quality of rivers, wetlands and groundwater; soil structure and landscapes; is crucial to the sustainability of all the industries which rely on these assets.

The value of these resources within the Murray Darling Basin to our national economy is estimated at $8.5 billion each year.

Worlds best practice in managing the Murray Darling Basin means sustaining the natural capital infrastructure whilst at the same time maximising the economic return from those assets.

When all Governments of Australia signed up to the National Strategy for Ecologically Sustainable Development in 1992, they agreed that a simple definition was that "ESD is development which aims to meet the needs of Australia today, while conserving our ecosystems for the benefit of future generations."

This definition is the benchmark by which we should measure the use of our natural resources. To me it suggests that worlds best practice in the Murray Darling Basin revolves around individual landholders, local communities, industry and the three spheres of government all working together, focussing on three simple principles:

The business plan needs to focus future management actions on three vitally important tasks:

Business Planning

The business planning in the Basin, through the Commission and its Natural Resource Management Strategy, and through the extensive consultative structures established, would already be considered worlds best practice.

Indeed, one could go as far to say that the model of community driven decision making involving the three spheres of government in the Murray Darling Basin, is the best example of catchment management on this scale anywhere in the world.

Whilst there are always improvements that can be made, you should look back at the exciting achievements that have occurred since the Commission was established in 1988 with considerable pride:

The Ministerial Council, of which I am a member, has recently approved the Basin Sustainability Business Plan. The Plan will allow the progressive identification, evaluation and implementation of the most appropriate projects for investment, their timing and level of investment to help achieve worlds best practice.

The Plan will use a form of multi-criteria analysis which will allow environmental and social costs to be factored into future decisions.

And it will focus on implementing the Murray Darling Basin Commission strategic priorities for the next two years. I understand the following speakers will expand on the objectives which include:

Just as it often takes decades for the environmental consequences of our actions to manifest themselves, so to will it take time for us to be able to fully implement ecologically sustainable development in the Basin.

For example, it has taken some 60 years or so for the widespread clearing of native vegetation and the development of extensive irrigation to be reflected in the rise of groundwater and the massive increase in both dryland and instream salt levels in the Basin.

The two other key principles for worlds best practice that I mentioned will also be critical to the future of the Basin: environmental monitoring; and providing resources to restore our degraded natural assets.

Land and Water Audit

To address the lack of quality resource information on which to base further decisions, the Coalition will be spending $32 million on the most sophisticated Land and Water Resources Audit ever developed.

It has only been made possible by new computer and remote sensing technology, combined with world class intellectual property developed in the CSIRO.

The Audit will provide the first ever national appraisal of the extent of land, water and vegetation degradation in Australia, and its environmental and economic costs to the nation.

Critically, it will underpin better decision making and priority setting.

Financial Resources

The Government's Natural Heritage Trust package provides a terrific resource platform on which we can develop world best practice outcomes for the Murray Darling Basin and other catchments throughout Australia.

The themes and principles of the Trust have been taken from best practice methods of natural resource management.

The Trust will be managed jointly by the Minister for the Environment - or as some are calling me the Minister for Biodiversity; and the Minister for Primary Industries and Energy -whom we could probably refer to as the Minister for Sustainable Agriculture.

The Trust will manage the Commonwealth's sustainable agriculture and biodiversity programs through five integrated program packages: Vegetation; Rivers; Biodiversity; Landcare; and Coasts. (I have brought some fact sheets on these program packages with me).

We will ensure that the Board receives the best available advice, through the existing National Landcare Advisory Committee, the newly established Biological Diversity Advisory Council, through the Murray Darling Basin Community Advisory Committee and through the soon to be established Council for Sustainable Vegetation Management, to name a few.

The success of these programs will depend largely on the extent to which local communities identify with these programs, and are willing to get involved.

Value for money will come from the multiplier effect already evident in landcare programs, and also from careful targeting of public investment into well planned, professionally managed, strategic projects at a catchment scale.

The centrepiece of the Government's determination to facilitate worlds best practices is the $1.15 billion we are seeking to spend over the next five years through the Natural Heritage Trust - to be established from the partial sale of Telstra.

Of special relevance to the Basin are the Murray Darling 2001 and the National Vegetation Initiatives.

The $300 million, five year Murray-Darling 2001 project is a visionary initiative first proposed by the Premier of South Australia, Dean Brown, as a major project to celebrate the centenary of Federation.

We are committed to providing the Commonwealth's share of $150 million to be funded from the partial sale of Telstra, and complementing this initiative with an additional $13 million for environmental flows.

This project is without doubt worlds best practice in environmental management. It has four core objectives:

Increased implementation of on ground works is one of its key objectives. Funding for the Murray Darling Basin has, despite severe budget pressures, been increased in 1996/7 over last year.

Funding of $4.5 million has already been committed to the Murray Darling 2001 project, and once Parliament passes the Telstra legislation we will immediately consider supplementing this year's spending to accelerate the introduction of this and the other Natural Heritage Trust programs.

The National Vegetation Initiative is another exciting program that will provide $318 million over 5 years to ensure that, for the first time since European settlement, the rate of revegetation in Australia exceeds the rate of clearance. We see this initiative as the next major step towards revegetating the vast areas of Australia that have been overcleared in the past.

The National Vegetation Initiative, together with the 2001 Project, will provide a strong push to the achievement of worlds best practice in the Basin.

Provided we can secure the necessary resources through the partial sale of Telstra, we will have a unique opportunity to implement worlds best practice in addressing the degradation of our natural resource base in the Basin by actioning the three principles I mentioned at the beginning of my address:

Community Action

But instituting a land and water audit, a business plan, and a funding base for restoring our natural capital, will not by themselves be sufficient to deliver ecologically sustainable development to the Murray Darling Basin.

The key challenge for implementation of worlds best practice in the Basin is to build upon the widespread recognition that the environmental challenges we are facing can only be solved by a sense of cooperation amongst all the stakeholders in the Basin and to recognise that all levels of government have a role to play in helping local communities, landholders and industry to achieve these goals.

Unlike a private individual who is control of their own cash flow and their own capital accounts, worlds best practice in a Basin of over one million square kilometres and home to 2 million people, requires a cooperative community driven approach, because as we all know, the actions of one individual can have positive or negative impacts on their neighbours and on down stream users of the resources.

Many landholders have recognised the benefit to themselves of improving the natural resource base. They have made their own management practices more sustainable and participate in planning and implementation for their wider catchment tor region.

Australia's natural resource use can only be sustainable if such practices are applied at the catchment level and also adapted to the local and farm level.

Government has a role in facilitating this cooperation, through such structures as the Murray Darling Basin Commission, and in providing financial assistance to implement agreed action plans.

Having recognised this, and having set the broad national priorities, the Commonwealth Government will assist, through the Natural Heritage Trust, by developing integrated approaches to minimise the number of separate programs and consequent paper warfare.

We hold a strong conviction that good government means facilitating decision making responsibilities to the lowest practicable level.

These programs will deliver resources, where possible, through the existing One Stop Shop framework.

Dr Joe Baker, Chair of the National Landcare Advisory Committee, has challenged us to develop a system based on One Application, One Guideline, One Cheque and One Report - to avoid duplication and to streamline project funding, while mindful of the need to be accountable for the efficiency and effectiveness of that funding.

John Anderson and I envisage developing a partnership agreement between the Commonwealth and each State and Territory, specifying respective rights and responsibilities and encouraging devolution of funding and decision making to the lowest practicable level. Our overriding goal will be to get the resources to where they can do the most amount of good.


As I stated earlier, enough has been said about the problems we face in the Basin. The challenge for us all is to now learn from the mistakes of the past and set about managing our natural capital in an ecologically sustainable way.

Best practice in Australia means adapting to the unique features of Australia's ancient landscape and involving and empowering all stakeholders to work towards this compelling challenge.

Once again, thank you for inviting me to open your conference on behalf of the Prime Minister, and I wish you well for the rest of the conference.

Commonwealth of Australia