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Albury, N.S.W.
29 September 1997

Senator the Hon Ian Macdonald
Parliamentary Secretary to the
Minister for the Environment

Distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen, it gives me great pleasure to be here today at this workshop which brings together wetlands researchers and the community to tackle this question of understanding wetlands to improve their management.

One of the really important features of this workshop that is pleasing to see, is the mix, and diversity of participants I see around me. I am told that amongst you are world class scientists in wetlands research, State policy makers, local government officers, water resource managers, land holders, industry representatives, indigenous people, representatives of other community groups and perhaps some other groups I haven't mentioned.

This cross section of the Australian community emphasises two things I think. Firstly, it says that wetlands conservation and management is an issue for all of us, right across the community. Secondly, it says that the answer to best practice management of our wetlands lies in effective partnerships between all of the players.

We are slowly coming to realise what a priceless national asset our wetlands really are. Wetlands are the vital link between land and water. They are essential to the healthy functioning of our catchments and aquatic systems; they support an enormous biodiversity; they contribute to water quality and they provide a multitude of benefits to society, which we are only just beginning to acknowledge.

It has been estimated that less than 50% of the wetlands which existed at the time of European settlement are still with us. If we allow the degradation of our wetlands resources to continue, we will see water quality continue to decline, species will disappear for ever, our economy will suffer and our way of life will decline.

I believe, though, that the tide has turned, if I can use that maritime metaphor, and as a community we are slowly awakening to the need do something about our wetlands. Over the past twenty years, Australia and the world has come to appreciate the importance of wetlands.

You may remember that in 1971 the Gorton Government acted to ensure that Australia was the first nation to join the Ramsar Wetlands Convention. Many of you will know a lot about the Ramsar Convention. It was one of the earliest of the "contemporary" environment conventions, but it remains clearly relevant today because it's essential theme was conservation of wetlands through wise use.

The Ramsar Conference of Parties in Brisbane last year did a great deal to stimulate interest in wetlands conservation.

The Commonwealth Government's Wetlands Policy is a major step forward. Through it, the Commonwealth Government has given the community a clear statement that it is committed to the care of wetlands. Among the priority areas identified in the Wetland Policy is the development of "a sound scientific basis for policy and management".

The Natural Heritage Trust is making this possible by funding the National Wetlands Program. The Wetlands Program promotes the conservation of Australia's wetlands through community management planning and action, and management-oriented research, training programs and awareness raising that lead to the "wise use" of wetlands by all levels of government and the community.

The National Wetlands Program, which incidentally will work in partnership with the National Rivercare Initiative, has been successful in supporting the preparation of management plans to ensure that the Ramsar wetlands are appropriately managed. Through the resources of the Natural Heritage Trust, the Wetlands Program will receive funding of some $11 million over the next 4 years and this funding will enhance the Wetlands Program's resources for responding to current and emerging wetland management issues.

Importantly, for the first time, the Wetlands Program will support community-based projects, to research, conserve, repair, and rehabilitate wetlands.

In 1996 the Land and Water Research and Development Corporation (LWRRDC) funded a Scoping Review to assess the potential for developing a National Wetlands Research and Development Program. The Review looked into wetland management issues and Research and Development needs across Australia. Following the development of the Scoping Review, in September last year Environment Australia and the Land and Water Research and Development Corporation entered into a three year Agreement to deliver the National Wetlands Research and Development Program.

I want to make it clear just what the Commonwealth wishes to achieve through the Wetlands Research and Development Program.

The R&D Program represents an important component of the Wetlands Program. Environment Australia administers the R&D Program in close liaison with the Land and Water Research and Development Corporation. That partnership approach ensures that both conservation and sustainable development issues are addressed - and that's very important to the Commonwealth.

The R&D Program was established to support the conservation and sustainable management of wetlands in Australia through targeted research. I emphasise the word "targeted" because R&D must be focussed on key issues - issues like the role of water regimes in the biology of wetlands and the consequences of modifying those regimes. The impacts of contaminants and feral pests are other key issues and there is also an urgent need to find ways of placing appropriate values on wetlands. Finally, there is the need to develop our capacity to monitor the health of our wetlands, to detect problems as well as successes.

Just before I came here I was interested to go and have a look at the Hume Dam and what has been happening at the site over the last year or so. I found it interesting to ponder on what we've been doing to alter the flow of the river. I know that a lot of research is currently going on and I have no doubt that this conference will add to that to decide whether or not what we've been doing over the years has been appropriate or if we need to alter our practices.

The R&D Program must look to generating outcomes that are nationally applicable; once again, a priority for the Commonwealth. And finally the outcomes must be ones that can be applied to real, on-ground management. To be effective, those outcomes must be widely accessible and usable, particularly for the community landholders.

This conference provides a chance to consider how to make that happen. The central theme for today and tomorrow is, I believe, one of finding ways of turning research resources and results into better wetlands management.

I think we are on the right track. We all have information to exchange and we must build on each others ideas and understand each others pressures and problems. It's called value-adding and we need to do it if we want to make real advances in wetland conservation. This workshop will give you an important opportunity to express your views, share and importantly, to listen to the views, experiences and needs of the other participants. I encourage you all to participate fully in the dialogue, and I know you will, and that dialogue will occur throughout the one and a half to two days of this workshop. I hope that that dialogue will be a continuing one, lasting well beyond the life of this workshop.

Through the Natural Heritage Trust we are seeking to promote partnerships with the States and the community that will lead to better wetlands conservation and management and I would like to stress the importance of these partnerships between the States and Federal Governments and the community.

Beyond those partnerships though, need to be the links and networks between government, researchers, private land holders, industry, conservation groups, primary producers, and the community that will foster the exchange of information and development of expertise and capacity, that's essential if we are to achieve better environmental outcomes through the uptake and application of research results. A recent example of that joining together that comes to mind. In the north of Australia we have an exciting and even innovative initiative for wetlands involving the Commonwealth and three universities. The Environmental Research Institute of the Supervising Scientist, the Science Faculties at the Northern Territory University, my home town university, James Cook University and the University of Western Australia have formed an alliance to cooperatively develop wetland and coastal environmental science, particularly for wetlands and coastal ecosystems. Importantly it will strengthen existing efforts to link our scientific resources with those of the local communities who manage and own many of the wetlands.

In closing, I would like to return to a theme I have touched on several times already, and that is the community wide nature of wetlands conservation and management. Because it is my view, that that is where the best chance for our wetlands lies - with the involvement of the community and the tapping of their enthusiasm and knowledge. The Government recognises that the Australian people, both as individuals and through their various affiliations, have a crucial role in managing wetlands.

Wetlands represent a valuable and to date diminishing resource, under pressure from such diverse interests as tourism and recreation, food and fibre production, regulation of water quality, mining, and of course the needs of the natural environment. Increasingly, governments and managers need to be aware of all of the stakeholders and their needs when making decisions about our wetlands. Management of wetlands and waterways must be planned for long-term sustainable wise use and this is why the National Wetlands R&D Program is so valuable.

This workshop is an important element in the process of awareness raising. Ours truly are wetlands in a dry land. Our understanding of those wetlands determines how well we will manage them for future generations.

Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for having me with you and I wish you every success in your deliberations over the next couple of days.

Commonwealth of Australia