The recent axing of Land and Water Australia (LWA) and cuts to critical funding programs under the Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation (RIRDC) cast doubt on the way the Rudd government is managing Australia's natural resources. Together with the slashing of funding for regional natural resource management (NRM) groups and the mishandling of the Caring for our Country program, we have a picture of a federal government that simply does not understand the challenges facing regional Australia.
Western Australia's wheat and sheep belt faces a combination of challenges that threaten our food security, the viability of regional towns and local economies, and the health and resilience of our unique landscape. We face a drying and increasingly variable climate, shrinking productivity gains together with declining terms of trade, and an ageing regional population. These developments are occurring in a landscape located in a biodiversity hotspot, where unique flora and fauna are struggling to adapt to climate change in a highly fragmented landscape, demanding a big picture approach that focuses on the long term.
LWA is the only research and development corporation that funds quality public research into long-term, landscape-scale issues. It has been the leader in initiating groundbreaking land and water research, funding the initial work that led to salinity strategies and catchment management groups, and kicked off mixed farming systems to manage risk and boost productivity and sustainability. LWA is currently funding crucial work with CSIRO into improved seasonal forecasting and productivity for the WA wheat-belt that aims to give farmers a better heads up on seasonal risks so they can make informed decisions on livestock, crops and planting times.
When I cross-examined the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry in Senate Budget Estimates, representatives were unable to provide answers about who would pick up these key areas of research. LWA will now be given under half ($6m) its ongoing budget of $13m a year in 2009-10 to allow it to transition or shut down existing projects.
The importance of the model of research, development and extension pioneered by LWA was not just in the long-term thinking, innovation and landscape-scale focus. It was also responsible for promulgating and developing an emphasis on an active research management process that focused on delivering practical outcomes able to be readily adopted by farmers and land-managers, who were seen as key partners in the design, not just delivery, of research outcomes. LWA has built on this work, fostering communication and resources needed to build networks of experts and develop the role of knowledge brokers who can connect planners and land managers. When LWA disappears it is not clear who will fill these roles or who will keep existing databases and decision-tools up to date.
While Ministers Garrett and Burke suggest that some of these areas of research could be picked up under the Caring for Our Country program and funded directly by the Department, this is unlikely to produce practical outcomes. Indeed I think it is a formula for institutional R&D failure. To start with, Caring for Our Country is very clearly structured with a focus on direct on-the-ground funding, and seems intent on repeating the problems highlighted in evaluations of Landcare, NHT 1&2 and the National Action Plan on Salinity and Water Quality programs.
The role taken by Departmental officers is one of bureaucratic fund administration. They do not have the capacity or the mandate to undertake an active investment management role and build relationships from the lab to the farm gate. The Commonwealth also tends to focus on hard science credentials and lose sight of the needs of the industries involved, so their funding programs are biased towards research at the expense of application and delivery. When it comes to these areas the crucial thing for R&D is to be able to solve the problems and overcome the barriers for particular landscapes and systems. The challenge is to solve the specifics to produce profitable systems that are useable in real-life, but at the same time tackle the big-picture landscape-scale problems.
Industry R&D corporations which are backed up by industry levies do a good job of looking after their industries and staying in touch with their stakeholders, but they have their work cut out dealing with diminishing productivity gains. They have been willing partners in addressing sustainability and landscape-scale issues, but their core business remains delivering production outcomes for their industries. With the demise of LWA, there will be few if any funding bodies left that are actively exploring and championing the potential for new rural industries to meet the changing needs of our regions.
Caring for Our Country is simply not a research funding program, and R&D programs will always come out second best against its priorities when competing for scarce dollars with on-the-ground projects. We heard in Budget Estimates recently that they have received applications totalling $3.4b for $122m worth of funding. Caring for Our Country is guilty of the same oversight criticised in previous Commonwealth NRM programs like Landcare, NHT and NAPSWQ - the underlying assumption that they already have all the answers and simply need to convince farmers to change their practices.
The Rudd Government had a real opportunity to move forward with natural resource management, to build on the successes of the past and the strengths of the existing regional planning model, while filling the gaps and tackling the shortcomings of previous programs. It had a wealth of expertise and a stack of analysis and reports.
But rather than fix the failings of the NHT program they have thrown the baby out with the bath water, taking a big step backwards to disconnected, one-off, short-term project funding. They have undermined the regional planning work, expertise and good-will that regional NRM bodies spent the better part of a decade building. Behind these cuts and the redirection of these resources has been an insinuation that regional NRM funding was being rorted to buy votes in the bush rather than to address critical problems and invest in a healthy future.
Southwest WA has experienced one of the earliest and strongest impacts of climate change on rainfall and run-off and remains one of the areas where the projected impacts on agriculture, water supplies and biodiversity is the most serious.
Burke and Garrett simply do not understand the crucial gaps in our knowledge in sustainable agriculture and managing our natural resources for some of our most precious and threatened landscapes. Land and water research might have been due for a makeover, even a bit of a refocus and a few new faces, but it serves too crucial a role to be cut altogether. It is time to return to a focus on landscape-scale, big-picture issues and the long term, investing in building the smart green rural industries and towns of the future.