Senate debates

Wednesday, 25 March 2015


Environment and Communications References Committee; Report

6:40 pm

Photo of Anne McEwenAnne McEwen (SA, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

On behalf of the Chair of the Environment and Communications References Committee, Senator Urquhart, I present the National Landcare Programreport, together with the Hansard record of proceedings, minutes of proceedings, and submissions received by the committee.

Ordered that the report be printed.

I move:

That the Senate take note of the report.

Photo of Rachel SiewertRachel Siewert (WA, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak on the motion to take note of the National Landcare program report. This was a very important inquiry looking into the national Landcare program. It was very timely, given the changes to the Landcare program. The report provides, first off, a very good overview of the history of Landcare—over almost the last 30 years; not quite that long—from what people talk about as the birth of Landcare in 1989. Those of us that have worked in Landcare for longer than that know that Landcare was a concept that had been around for a significant period longer than that; in fact, I was working in Landcare in the early eighties, and there was a lot of early work done in Victoria. Then my home state of Western Australia took it up with gusto and formed a large number of Landcare groups. The report goes through some of that work. It goes through the history of some of the early programs in the National Heritage Trust, and then the rollout of the first and second stages of that, then to the Caring for our Country, and then to this new process. We travelled quite a bit around the country and spoke to as many Landcare groups and natural resource management groups as possible, and learnt a great deal. I think that people who are not that engaged and do not know that much about Landcare and natural resource management in this country will learn a lot from this report. However, what I want to get to is focusing on the conclusions and recommendations.

I think that the recommendations around funding are going to be particularly important. What we did ascertain, and it is extremely disappointing, is that the funding that is available—and here is Senator Urquhart coming in, so I will apologise that I am speaking to the motion first. As chair of the committee, I am sure that Senator Urquhart will want to make some comments on this report. The issue around funding is extremely important, and the first recommendation is:

The committee recommends that the Government provide funding to the National Landcare Programme to the same level as provided under Caring for our Country.

That needs to be at least to the level of funding provided, because we have seen a decrease in the level of funding that is provided to national resource management and to Landcare. Under the current process, after the rollout of the small grants for the 25th anniversary of Landcare which were granted last year, there will be no more funding available for small grants. That is extremely disappointing. After the government had promised there would be more funding made available for Landcare, it has been really obvious that there will no longer be that additional funding available. Funding will be made available by the NRM groups, but it is to come out of their existing funding. Some NRM groups already make that 20 per cent available, they argue. Others do not have such a clear devolved grants process. But the point there is that that will then come at the expense of the NRM groups—so their funding will be reduced. One of the other recommendations deals with landscape-scale projects. I also want to focus on that. Small grants are very important, particularly for Landcare because they do initiation projects. They are small projects that groups can get focused around and get done. Having been involved with NRM and Landcare for a very long time, I know that those landscape scale projects are also important. That is what we talked about in the report. From the information that was available to the inquiry, there is a very real concern for the future of those landscape scale projects.

We also looked at the Green Army and 20 Million Trees in the report. The point that was strongly made to us in evidence we received in submissions and from people who appeared at the hearings is that there is very deep concern that funding for those projects not replace funding for the types of programs that are provided through both small grants programs for Landcare and the larger landscape scale projects. It is only through landscape scale projects that we will ultimately achieve what we need to in sustainable natural resource management. I am not dismissing small grants at all. They play a very important role. But if we do not have the funding made available for landscape scale projects that are coordinated across the landscape and that engage everybody then we are not going to really, truly ensure that we are sustainably managing our natural resources.

There are recommendations in the report around those landscape scale projects. There are also recommendations made around needing to make sure we monitor and have a good look at the assessment evaluation next year of both the Green Army and 20 Million Trees. There is also a recommendation that the Commonwealth government consider avenues to ensure the continuation of landscape scale projects and to foster further collaboration between stakeholders on the long-term landscape scale strategic planning and action. That is the next point in dealing with the landscape scale projects. We need to ensure that they are long term. People need certainty to have the ability to plan for the long term, because we are talking about projects that need to be carried out over a number of years.

The other point that was strongly made to the committee was about the impact of funding uncertainty on staff and the ability to keep staff. I have been involved in NRM and Landcare long enough to have seen the cycle so many times—funding becomes available, uncertainty kicks in and we lose staff. Then we go through another round. The funding kicks in, we take on staff, uncertainty prevails and we lose staff. That is happening again, and that is deeply concerning.

I will wrap up by saying that the other area we touched on was around monitoring and evaluation but also looking at how we measure outcomes into the future. This has been another persistent issue for Landcare and NRM. We can count the widgets when we are doing our monitoring and accounting, but how do we know we are actually achieving long-term outcomes? That is why I think there is a lot of appeal in the proposal of the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists on national environmental accounting. I think recommendation 11 is a very important recommendation. It recommends that we investigate the feasibility of implementing such a system or a similar system that incorporates the merit reporting process that is already underway. I think that is a really important recommendation for the future so that we can put in place a proper system of national environmental accounting. I recommend that people look at that report from the Wentworth group, and I really urge the government to seriously look at the group's proposal on national environmental accounting.

I commend the report to the Senate and urge senators to read it. If you care about Landcare and the future of natural resource management, please read it. Take on board the issues around funding. Funding is absolutely essential if Landcare and NRM are going to continue into the future.

6:49 pm

Photo of Anne UrquhartAnne Urquhart (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Thank you, Senator Siewert. I was in another meeting and had to scurry in here, so I thank you for speaking on this. I rise today as Chair of the Senate Environment and Communications References Committee to table the report into Landcare. Firstly, I would like to put on the record my appreciation for all the people and groups who took the time to make submissions but also to come along and provide testimony before the committee. Seventy-three submissions were received from across the country, and we held committee hearings in Perth, Melbourne and Canberra. I would also like to thank the secretariat for their very hard work in managing the inquiry and in providing excellent support to committee members. Yet again, committee secretary Christine McDonald and her small team have done a fantastic job.

This was a particularly timely report in light of the government's decision to cut a massive $471 million from the Landcare budget, despite promising before the election that this would not happen. Landcare has achieved incredible outcomes in its 25 years and should be recognised for that. Landcare offers a unique community based approach to delivering environmental outcomes across Australian landscapes. Millions of trees, shrubs and grasses have been planted. Riparian zones have been repaired. Native vegetation has been protected. Agricultural, Indigenous, urban and coastal lands have been rehabilitated and revitalised by the work of Landcare's wonderful people. Agricultural productivity has also been improved through better grazing methods and soil management.

Local communities have been mobilised and united around a goal that they all share. In fact, Landcare projects have attracted participants from across the length of the demographic spectrum in communities. People of all ages, from schoolkids to grandparents, and people from many different cultures have come together to create better environmental outcomes in their own communities.

Along the way, Landcare has also raised awareness of local and broader environmental issues. Significantly, Landcare has delivered enormous returns on the government's investment. In fact, for every dollar invested by the government in Landcare projects, up to $12 in value comes in kind from the community and local landholders. Now that is bang for your buck.

Through the submissions, and as a result of the expert testimony provided to the committee, it quickly became very clear to the committee that these gains are in great peril as a result of the government's cuts. Before the election, the government promised not only to maintain Landcare funding but to increase it. Environment minister Greg Hunt said in August 2013:

The Coalition will give Landcare significantly greater access to the Caring for Country pool of funds, as well as the current Landcare funding.

He went on to say:

We have listened to local communities and we will put Landcare at the heart of our land conservation programs.

Fairfax papers reported that Minister Hunt also announced $1 million in new funding per year to support the operating costs of running the national network which coordinated local groups.

Well, what a difference an election makes. In the very first budget these solemn promises were tossed aside with the news that Landcare would lose close to half a billion dollars. This puts all the great work that has already been done in jeopardy. Many in the Landcare sector were quick to point out that this is clearly a broken promise from the Abbott government. The committee heard from submission after submission about how the Abbott government's cuts are putting decades of gains at risk. NRM bodies submitted that staff would have to go. Organisations would have difficulty planning. There would be a haemorrhaging of skills and corporate and local knowledge, not to mention the impacts on jobs, social cohesion and capacity. The committee found the cuts imposed by the government to be short-sighted and counterproductive. They clearly run in direct contrast to the government's promise to place Landcare front and centre.

For all of these reasons, the committee found it difficult to support any reduction in funding for NRM programs. It recommended that the government provide funding for the National Landcare Program to the same level as under the Caring for our Country program. The committee also recommended that the 25th Anniversary Landcare Grants program should be maintained as a small continuing grants program over the forward estimates. We also considered it would be of value for the government to review the funding model with a view to reinstating funding for facilitators and community support staff.

Quite frankly, Landcare cannot sustain the cuts that have been imposed by this government. I hope that government members take the time to read the report and to understand the impact that their cuts will have on this long-honoured Australian institution. As committee chair, I look forward to receiving the government's response and hope that they seriously consider the recommendations made by the committee in this report.