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Northern Australia

 The DEPUTY PRESIDENT—The President has received a letter from Senator Parry proposing that a definite matter of public importance be submitted to the Senate for discussion, namely: The Rudd Labor Government’s continued fail ure to meet the development needs of Northern Australia preventing the region from advancing.

Senator SIEWERT (Western Australia)(4.36 pm)—I must admit I was pleasantly surprised when I read the report of the Northern Australia Land and Water Task-force. It is a balanced report. It is not one that simply goes full steam ahead. You see a lot of these task force reports saying, ‘Yep, it’s a free-for-all.’ It is a well-written, well-considered report that represents a truly refreshing approach. When you read it you realise that the participants in the task force have sat down and truly looked at the facts. They have looked at them given where each other comes from, so you have got the full range of stakeholders involved—as Senator Crossin pointed out—and you can tell that they must have seriously listened to each other and seriously listened to the advice that they were given.

Senator Ian Macdonald—But not to too many others, though.

Senator SIEWERT—They have represented all the stakeholders, as I will point out again, and they have seriously considered the issues and have put down a structured report that looks at the issues and that looks at the science. They have also put down the basis on which they have done their decision making. They have actually set down a set of principles which guided their decision making and their recommendations. I think that is a refreshing approach. It is certainly different from the approaches in many of the other similar sorts of reports that I have seen in other areas.

What it is saying is we should not make the mistakes of the past. We should not make in the north the mistakes that we have made in the south, given the way that we have developed land and the way that we have developed unsustainably so that we are in the fix that we are in with the Murray-Darling system right now. In this debate Senator Macdonald made a comment that we have got to find a new food bowl because of how the Murray-Darling is and because other places around the world are not going to be able to produce the food needed. The Murray-Darling is in the state that it is in because we have abused that system. It has not been developed in a sustainable manner. We have overused it. We have not planned properly. We have overcommitted the landscape and we have overcommitted the water resources, and that is why it is in the mess it is in now. In the north of Australia we can do things differently.

I really liked the outline that the chair of the task force committee, Joe Ross, gave. He makes comments in the front of the report about the vision that they have put down. They are not saying this is the vision. They are saying it is a vision that the task force had. They are saying the vision could include the elements that they have outlined, which I also think is a good approach. He says:

Our vision for northern Australia is based on mutual respect. Respect for the rights and interests of the Indigenous Peoples of the north. Respect for the environment. Respect for the critical role that land holders have in caring for country. Respect for Indigenous and western knowledge. Respect for the communities of the north and the need to empower them to create opportunities for their own future.

I think that is a very important statement and I was very pleased to see it in the report. But of course certain people are getting upset because it does not say, ‘Right, let’s go full steam ahead, Guys! Let’s develop the north!’

Senator McLucas—‘Guys’ being the important word there.

Senator SIEWERT—Exactly. The point is that it is not saying it is the food bowl of the north. It is saying that the potential of Northern Australia to become a food bowl is not supported by the evidence; in other words, there is not unlimited water. There may be a lot of water but it is part of systems. It is not wasted water. It is part of important, beautiful ecosystems. It is part of functioning ecosystems.

The other point as to Northern Australia is that, while we have not had any extinctions in the north of Australia, with some species we may be on the brink. Scientists are saying there are a number of species up there that have had dramatic declines in numbers for reasons they do not know. It could be a changed fire regime. That plays an important part. There could be other issues that are impacting on these species. The fact is we do not know. Despite the fact that the north is not significantly developed, it is being used by the people who own the land and live up there. It might not be being used in the way that some people want but it is being used. But our current land management practices are unfortunately having an impact on the species up there. Australia already has the unenviable record of having the most number of mammalian species that have become extinct. Do we want to keep adding to that? Do we want to keep adding to the loss of biodiversity that we have generated in the south?

Senator Ian Macdonald—A minute ago you said it was okay.

Senator SIEWERT—Senator Macdonald, I sat here and listened to you without interrupting you, even though I passionately disagreed with you. I would appreciate it if you would do the same for me.

Senator Ian Macdonald—Sorry.

Senator SIEWERT—Thank you. The point here is that our current land management practices are also already having an impact on the environment. We already know that many species could be on the brink. We need to investigate that issue. The report points out that we could increase our water use by 100 to 200 per cent—it does say that—but when you look at how much water is being used up there you see there is very little water being used. There is a capacity to increase agriculture from 20,000 to 40,000 hectares, which I acknowledge is a relatively small amount. It points out that the water is not necessarily available where some of the best land is available and it also points out that we should be looking at a mosaic style agriculture that has a reduced impact.

There are things in this report that I have to admit I do not agree with. I am a bit nervous about the issues around changing land tenure until we have some of the other issues sorted out. I am a bit nervous about their recommendations about continuing extensive grazing, if that is not done in a sustainable manner. We already know that some grazing in the north has had an impact on the environment. It is linked to changed fire management practices. It is linked to introduced pastures that can become weeds. But I think that, given the overall direction of the report, it is worth supporting. The point that people are nervous about is the fact that, as I said, it is not going full steam ahead. It is not going to be the food bowl of Australia, or of the world for that matter. But carefully managed it will.

A very important point as to this report is the absolutely essential role of the Aboriginal Australians who live in and own this country, so there is the need for them to be at the heart of decision making and to get the benefits of any development in the north. They absolutely need to be. The report makes that very clear, and I strongly support that element of the report. It clearly points out the constraints as to the way we should be developing the north of Australia. But I will go back to the point that this is a blueprint with a suggested vision and it is now up to the government to implement the recommendations and to support communities of the north to develop their own vision based on the set of principles that are articulated in this report, which I think are very sound. I think the recommendations are very worthwhile and worthy of support. I urge the government to take them up and to take on the challenge that this report sets out, because it is different, because it is saying we need to take a different approach and because it is saying we can avoid the mistakes of the past. But that actually requires the government to be very brave in the face of a whole lot of development pressures that say: ‘Ignore the science. Why you would want to pay attention to the science?’ We have ignored the science in the past and look where we have ended up with the landscape of Southern Australia, where we are having to spend billions and billions of dollars to repair that landscape.

We will never get back the ecosystems that have been damaged or the species that have become extinct. Unfortunately, there are threatened species that continue to edge towards extinction. We do not want to repeat this in the north. We can learn. This is 2010. We have moved into a new century. We should be managing that land in a different way. But if you listen to the voices of the past we will end up with the same mistakes of the past. We will alienate our Aboriginal community. We will send species into extinction. We will have a massive land repair job on our hands. I have not even got to the point about the impact climate change is going to have on the north of Australia. It will change those ecosystems. It will bring climate variation. If you look at the projections for the impact of climate change on agriculture in the north of Australia, you will see there will be a significant impact. We need to learn from the mistakes of the past. We need to do things differently.

This report confronts those challenges head on and says that there is a different way of doing it. Please, Australia, listen to it. Please let us do things differently. Let us support these recommendations and see how we can truly learn from the past and work with Aboriginal Australians to have a different future for Northern Australia. It will develop, but it should develop sustainably. This report clearly outlines there is a future for the people living in the north. It is not the traditional view that some people like to see, where you send in the bulldozers, clear the land and put in more and more agriculture and use all the resources without consideration for the future and without consideration for the science or the ecosystems. This report says: do it differently. (Time expired)

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