Mark Coulton MP, Federal Member for Parkes

National Landcare Week

Monday, 26 October 2009

I follow my friend and colleague the member for Shortland. While I appreciate her contribution I am afraid she is grossly out of touch with the sentiment that is flowing through Landcare organisations right throughout Australia. Indeed, I have spent much of the last 12 months visiting Landcare groups and natural resource management groups from Cape York throughout the rest of Australia and there is a degree of anger there that I do not believe I have ever seen before in such a large volunteer organisation.

Indeed, Landcare is one of the greatest volunteer organisations in Australia, with the largest number of members, and people are walking away from it in droves. In July last year a decision was made by the Rudd government to rebadge the former coalition government’s Natural Heritage Trust and National Action Plan for Salinity and Water Quality programs and rebrand them as Caring for our Country. This was the first step in the government’s dismantling of grassroots conservation in this country. In just over 12 months the Caring for our Country program has virtually decimated the extremely successful conservation and resource management work that was undertaken through the Natural Heritage Trust program. It has also left natural resources management organisations in tatters and jeopardised the future of Landcare groups across Australia.

The initial reworking of the Natural Heritage Trust and the National Action Plan for Salinity and Water Quality programs saw funding cut for catchment management bodies by 40 per cent and Landcare by 20 per cent. Over the past year the size of these cuts seems to have risen dramatically resulting in Landcare groups across Australia, particularly in regional New South Wales, facing an increasingly uncertain future. Last year has been disastrous for Australia’s grassroots environmental movement. Many Landcare groups have had their funding halved and are running on little more than the smell of an oily rag.

What was once a remarkable example of nationwide grassroots conservationism is slowly being destroyed by a ballooning environmental bureaucracy. Moneys that were previously allocated for improvements in water quality, salinity management and biodiversity are now going to government agencies and staff who are managing these programs without having ever spent a day of their lives amongst the weeds on the riverbank or the cracked earth of a drought affected paddock. Indeed, this is a classic example of top-down, government-knows-best bureaucracy.

I believe the failures of the Caring for our Country program perfectly illustrate the hypocrisy of this government. When it suits him, the Prime Minister is more than happy to tell anyone who will listen that combating the threats posed by climate change is the greatest moral challenge of our time. However, when the opportunity presents itself to do something practical to ensure the long-term productivity and sustainability of our natural environment the government do not want to know about it. While publicly masquerading as a green tinged party with an environmental conscience the government are privately destroying the grassroots community groups that form the backbone of conservation in this country. If the government were serious about combating climate change, the first thing they would be doing is boosting funding to Landcare groups and giving expert local environmentalists certainty in their careers.

It is telling that of the 1,300 applications that were lodged for natural resource management funding under the Caring for our Country program 1,243 were rejected. This was an incredible rejection rate and one that has disheartened Landcare groups across Australia. The fact that just 56 applications were approved—and in New South Wales not one single cent went west of the Blue Mountains—highlights the serious design flaws of the Caring for our Country program. These applications are not easily done. To have any chance of obtaining funding Landcare groups are required to navigate an exhausting 30-page application that asks groups to fill out their funding needs in intricate detail.

Some groups have said the application has taken up to 200 hours to complete, often at great expense. One natural resource management group, for example, spent $80,000 putting together a professional submission for a Caring for our Country grant after being encouraged to apply by the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry. They were very optimistic after being assured by the department of the importance of the unique conservation work they were carrying out. They did not receive one cent.

The changes forced upon Landcare groups through the Caring for our Country program are causing great angst among Landcare managers. One senior manager has told me that the federal government’s approach to investing in Landcare and biodiversity conservation is creating many tensions within the community, industry and project staff. Among the long list of concerns that have been raised by groups about the new process, the three that feature consistently are that it completely fails to support regional and remote land managers, that it stripped funding available to continue critical projects and that the process is leaving the dwindling number of natural resource management project staff with no job security due to the government’s insistence on month-on-month -- time expired

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