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Level 3, AMA House, Macquarie Street, Barton
Monday 10 November 1997, 9.10am 1997
Senator the Hon Ian Macdonald
Parliamentary Secretary to the
Minister for the Environment
Good morning ladies and gentlemen - let me say first how pleased I am to be here on behalf of Senator Hill, the Minister for the Environment, to outline to you today the Government's approach to the important, and topical, interlinked issues of air pollution and health.
This conference comes at an important time. Like many other countries, Australia is reassessing its air quality management goals and practices, as increased urbanisation, coupled with a strong reliance on motor cars, places pressure on the quality of the air we breathe.
The Commonwealth Government believes that the community as a whole has a significant role to play in determining and managing, the quality of Australia's air in the long term, and is therefore a keen supporter of fora such as this one which further the debate.
As earlier speakers today will have pointed out, while our air quality is mostly good, air pollution continues to rate as the number one environmental concern of the Australian community. The Government believes that timely and carefully considered action will help us address emerging problems effectively, as well as ensuring that we maintain the quality of our air into the future.
The relationship between air pollution and health was recently illustrated on our television screens with South-East Asia blanketed in smoke, which combined with the already severe urban air pollution to produce a toxic cocktail. The environmental and health ramifications of this ongoing episode are yet to be fully understood, but pictures of people wearing face masks on the street presented a very powerful image to the Australian viewer.
While the problems being experienced to our north are on a much larger scale than anything we have seen in Australia, they are a timely reminder of the importance of clean air and the need for pollution prevention at all levels.
As individuals we do not generally choose to live and work where the air quality is bad, and we certainly do not wish to raise our children under such conditions. Yet approximately two-thirds of the population live in capital city areas, and are therefore exposed to the emissions generated by the congestion on our roads, and the concentration of commercial activities and industry.
All Australian governments have recognised this responsibility, and over time have introduced a range of regulatory and management strategies to address the air quality issues experienced in different parts of the country.
Environment ministers, through the Australian and New Zealand Environment and Conservation Council (ANZECC), have a history of cooperation on air quality issues with the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC). Together these two bodies have published, and periodically revised and updated, national ambient air quality objectives for Australia for the most common pollutants. These pollutants are typically known as 'criteria' pollutants, and include such things as lead and ozone.
For many years these guidelines were used by the States and Territories in developing their own specific air quality standards or goals. Over time it has been recognised, however, that the standard of protection from air pollution should not be dictated by where you live. Rather, all Australians have a right to an equivalent level of protection from air pollution.
In addition, there has been a growing view that a level playing field is required across the country, to provide a degree of certainty and consistency for industry in respect to the standards they are expected to meet within Australia.
The National Environment Protection Council, which I will discuss in greater detail later, was established in 1994 to set national standards for air, water, noise and soil pollution. In the case of air quality, the Government's major and unique environment initiative, the Natural Heritage Trust , is providing funding to make these goals a reality.
It is this emerging national approach to the strategic management of our air quality that makes me particularly pleased to have been afforded this opportunity to address you today.
The National Environment Protection Council is a quite recent ministerial council (with members drawn from all Australian jurisdictions) which has actual law making powers to establish national standards - known as national environment protection measures - or if you are into acronyms, 'NEPMs'.
In June 1996, the Council directed that work should begin on preparing a Measure which would establish national ambient air quality standards and harmonise the manner in which air quality is monitored and reported across the country. The Council's decision was a direct response to community concerns about air quality as an environmental issue.
It was agreed that the protection of human health and well-being should be the objective of the new national standards and that standards should be developed in the first instance for the criteria pollutants.
Draft standards and a protocol addressing monitoring and reporting have been prepared over the last 12 months. In addition, an impact statement which considers the potential environment, social and economic ramifications which would flow from the adoption of such standards has also been drafted. A discussion paper was released for public consideration and input in June of this year, and submissions from the public were extremely useful in identifying issues of community concern. The redrafted measure was considered by the National Environment Protection Council last Friday (7 November).
At that meeting, Council agreed to release the draft standards and impact statement for public consultation. It did however stress that the release did not signify Council endorsement of every aspect of the document other than as a suitable basis for consultation with the community. The Measure will be widely publicised and distributed, with a minimum of two months allocated for public consultation.
I understand that the conference organisers have been provided with the new draft standards, to assist this afternoon's panel debate. I'm sure it will be a useful opportunity for health and environmental professionals, together with members of the community, to take an active role in progressing this important national process. Senator Hill and I look forward to the outcomes of this afternoon's debate.
I am advised that submissions from the public were extremely useful in the development of the draft. In particular, I would like to note that submissions from State health departments, health interest groups such as the Australian Lung Foundation and the Asthma Foundation of WA, and also the NHMRC were appreciated.
In October last year, Senator Hill commissioned the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering to conduct an independent Inquiry into Urban Air Pollution in Australia. By using a body outside the Government to conduct the Inquiry, it was hoped that innovative ideas would be brought to the fore by the professional community. The terms of reference were designed to draw out outcomes based recommendations, so that it would not turn into another government document to line the shelves of bureaucrats and academics.
The object of the Inquiry was to identify management options which governments, industry and the community could undertake to improve urban air quality in Australia, concentrating on the same six criteria pollutants for which national standards were being developed.
The terms of reference for the Inquiry were structured around the main sources of air pollution, and as a result particular attention was directed to emissions associated with motor vehicles.
A significant part of the work undertaken by the Academy was the development of a report identifying the current trends, scale and likely future sources of these pollutants in urban areas. I believe that Dr Alan Reid will be speaking at this morning's session with a presentation on the Academy's work in this area.
The Inquiry report will be formally handed-over by the Academy to the Minister for the Environment, I believe, sometime later this week, and then released to the public. The release is timed, as far as is practicable, to coincide with the release of the proposed national air quality standards. I would encourage you all to obtain a copy of the report, when it becomes available, and consider the two documents together.
Over the next few months the Government will need to decide which of the management options put forward by the Academy it wishes to adopt. Public input into this process will be important, and I would urge you, after reading the report, to write to the Minister with your suggestions.
Work on the national standards and feedback from the Inquiry have highlighted one of the most fundamental challenges in the management of Australia's air quality. This is, that each State and Territory has different systems for monitoring and reporting air quality.
This has made meaningful comparisons between different parts of Australia problematic, and raises problems in ensuring that national resources are targeted to areas where they are most needed.
As a result, the Commonwealth's Air Pollution in Major Cities Programme includes a monitoring component. The Programme is exploring ways to improve monitoring and reporting of air quality in major population centres. It is critical that monitoring provides a reliable indication of general population exposure. This is important in the broader objective of protecting susceptible groups in the population from the health impacts of air pollution.
The monitoring and reporting protocol component of the national air measure, together with the findings of the Inquiry will be the first steps in achieving a harmonised monitoring and reporting system across Australia.
The Air Pollution in Major Cities Programme has two more components which I will touch on briefly.
Firstly, the Government is actively supporting scientific research aimed at improving the basis of policy actions related to air quality. The majority of research has focussed on the broad and complex field of motor vehicle emissions, but has also examined emissions from lawn mowers, the chemical and physical properties of particulates and the growth of photochemical haze.
Secondly, we are working on helping the community understand air pollution problems, so that individuals are empowered to make change. For example, in the winter of 1997 we ran trial woodsmoke education campaigns in Tasmania and Western Australia, with the aim of minimising emissions from woodheaters.
Improving Australia's air quality requires a commitment to change, not only from governments, but also industry and the community at large. The Commonwealth government has taken on this challenge, and we are gradually moving from the identification of the problem, to the implementation of solutions. But this is not something that governments can do in isolation.
The release of both the findings of the Air Inquiry and the draft ambient air measure are ideal opportunities for the public, and health professionals in particular, to become more closely involved in the management of Australia's air quality.
I would encourage you to maximise both of these opportunities to further debate and understanding in this expanding field and to contribute your professional advice.
I would like to thank the AMA for organising today's conference, as it will further debate on these important issues. Your increasingly active involvement in air quality issues is compatible with the very high priority the government places on fighting air pollution. Thank you.