Senator SIEWERT (Western Australia) (3.45 pm)—by leave—I move:
That the Senate take note of the document. I am particularly keen to talk about this government response. It was in fact me who referred this matter to the Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport References Committee, which is now called the Rural Affairs and Transport References Committee. I got the support of the chamber for this reference because there are a number of members, I will acknowledge, from the coalition who were also very concerned about the progress of natural resource management in Australia with the introduction of Caring for our Country. We were concerned that the considerable progress that was being made under the NHT and Landcare was being undermined by changes to the process in Caring for our Country. I will say from the outset that it was acknowledged that NHT was not perfect, but it had developed through evolution and an iterative process to something that a number of us thought was at least heading in the right direction—in particular with regard to the role of regional natural resource management groups, of which there are 56 around this country. While they are not perfect—and I have never argued that they are— they were evolving to take responsibility for natural resource management and Landcare, particularly at the landscape scale, which is especially important.
I am pleased to see that the government has finally responded to our recommendations, of which we made a number. We are pleased that it appears to substantially agree with a number of the recommendations. However, when you read the detail—as the common saying goes, the devil is in the detail—I do not think it agrees with them as much as it first appears to. Recommendation 1 was:
The committee recommends that a more rigorous and comprehensive approach is taken to the identification of national priorities for inclusion in the Caring for our Country Business Plan. This process must include engaging regional and local expertise to ensure that targets established in the Business Plan are relevant at the regional and local level.
Anyone can read through the 2010-11 business plan and talk to some of the stakeholders. I do not think it is fair to say that there was extensive consultation over the development of that business plan.
We are concerned that the inquiry very clearly demonstrated that there are serious and fundamental issues with the current approach to natural resource management. I am pleased that the government has finally acknowledged that, by undertaking a review of Caring for our Country. I have to put on the record that I am disappointed that it is an internal departmental review. It is the department and the government processes that in fact have taken us to where we are with Caring for our Country. I think it is very fair to say that there has been a significant lack of community consultation and meaningful—and the key word here is ‘meaningful’— consultation with natural resource management groups and Landcare.
The national priorities, which look good on a big scale, are not translating very well into many regional areas, and many regional groups have had their funding cut by a very substantial amount, to the point where you are seeing people leave Landcare and natural resource management. Not only are we losing paid staff from a number of these areas—very good people who we may not get back into natural resource management; we are losing volunteers. I personally know volunteers who have been involved for three decades in natural resource management who have either walked away or are walking away.
So it is imperative that we get Caring for our Country fixed so that we can start delivering against these national priorities and translate them into regional outcomes. What we are seeing in my home state of Western Australia, for example, is that the issue of salinity has been dropped as a national priority. We are going back to the bad old days of trying to treat some problems such as wind erosion in isolation rather than at the landscape scale. One of the issues that came out in the report was the competitive grants process. In theory it sounds really good to have a competitive grants process, but what we found happened was that competition within the regional organisations means that people are not taking a collaborative approach anymore to the way they develop projects, which is what they used to do. They used to collaborate, and now you are finding that small groups within regional groups have to keep their ideas to themselves, without sharing them and thus getting a much better project.
So the review needs to be very comprehensive and needs to do a lot of consultation. I asked about this in estimates. I note that news of the review was released an hour before we were due to ask questions about it in estimates, at 4.30 pm on the first Monday of estimates. While I was very pleased that it had been released, I found the timing quite interesting. It meant the department could say it had been released but none of us could have a look at it and question them about it. So we will be watching this process very carefully. At the time, the department could not tell us their plan for consultation, which I find disturbing given that one of the major complaints at the moment is the lack of con-sultation and cooperation within NRM groups. But there is an urgent need to get the Caring for our Country program back on track so that we can start getting our natural resource management issues sorted. There are still major natural resource management issues facing this country. We need to make sure that Caring for our Country is refocused, that it is delivering real outcomes and that it is fostering a cooperative, landscape-scale approach that genuinely deals with the issues.
One of the many other issues we addressed was the issue around bilateral agreements with the states and territories, which we used to have under NHT and which required the state and territory governments to come to the party to cooperate with landholders, natural resource management regions and Landcare groups. We no longer have those bilateral agreements, and some of the state governments, in my opinion, are walking away from some of their responsibilities under NRM. While the government in their response say that they are going to be looking at them, I think we need a stronger response by government.
It is clear from this that the government are acknowledging that there are issues, and I am pleased and congratulate them on that. They will be judged now, though, on how they handle the review. It is a shame that it is a purely internal review. I urge them to bring some more independent people in to help with that review, to provide advice on that review, and ensure that they have a thorough, meaningful consultation process so that we get some good outcomes from the review. I then urge them to implement those outcomes as a matter of urgency.
Senator IAN MACDONALD (Queensland) (3.53 pm)—It is not often that I congratulate the Greens political party on anything—in fact, I will not break my long-held ‘paranoia’—but I will congratulate Senator Siewert, who, without embarrassing her and putting the kiss of death on her future, is the one member of the Greens political party who is a genuine environmentalist and who actually knows something about environmental management. In fact, I humbly suggest that she knows more than practically anyone in this chamber about the issues she was just talking about. I am very pleased to support Senator Siewert in what she has said on the report Natural resource management and conservation challenges, which, as she said, she initiated and which the coalition wholeheartedly supported.