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February 25, 2010

Mr CHESTER (Gippsland) (11.59 am)
— I rise to present a petition approved by the Standing Committee on Petitions. The petition contains 506 signatures and is on a topic which is very dear to my heart and to the hearts of many Gippslanders: the future of Landcare funding in Australia.

The petition read as follows—

To the Honourable The Speaker and Members of the House of Representatives.

This petition of certain citizens of Australia. Draws to the attention of the House that the Federal Government has restructured its approach to Natural Resource Management resulting in the loss of Landcare facilitators/coordinators who play a vital role in Landcare groups and projects. This change to funding is short sighted and will mean the destruction of Landcare as we know it and another blow to struggling rural Australians.

We, the undersigned, call on the House of Representatives to immediately reinstate the funding of local Landcare facilitators and coordinators in order to allow Landcare groups to function effectively and to address the Caring for Our Country priority of community skills, knowledge and engagement.

from 506 citizens

Petition received.

This petition is a direct result of the government’s flawed Caring for our Country program—a program that has directly resulted in decisions by natural resource managers in Gippsland to scale back the number of facilitators employed to coordinate voluntary activity by Landcare members and other landholders. I understand that the West Gippsland Catchment Management Authority is just one organisation to cut its staff numbers; something in the order of five facilitators have been lost due to a lack of funding from this government.

Last year, Landcare celebrated 20 years of outstanding, practical environmental service across our nation. There were 100,000 Landcare volunteers across Australia and 4,500 community based groups, and they stretch right across Gippsland. The work these volunteers do is vital for our community. They are the practical environmentalists: they are involved in revegetation programs, erosion control, removal of weeds, assistance in the elimination of pest animals—the list is endless. The volunteers are an essential part of this program, and the coordination of that effort through professional facilitators is also a critical component.

The Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, who was in the chamber previously, is aware of my concerns but he disputes my view that there has been a reduction in commitment from the government. I doubt that the minister actually understands the importance of Landcare to regional communities, beyond the environmental impacts—let alone the contribution that Landcare groups make to the social fabric of rural and regional areas.

Landcare brings people together, particularly during difficult times such as the drought we have experienced over many years. It is a reason for people to come together. They communicate and discuss common issues. There is a real sense of community and belonging and, at a time when social issues and mental health issues are of real concern for us in rural and regional areas, it is hard to underestimate the benefits from these Landcare groups. In recent months, my office has been contacted by dozens of Landcare volunteers and paid staff members who believe this government has failed to understand the need to employ the facilitators and coordinators who play such a pivotal role in managing the volunteer programs, assisting the community groups, providing professional advice and mobilising volunteer effort. The Victorian Landcare Network shares my concerns about the federal government’s cuts to funding for natural resource management under the Caring for our Country business plan. The network wrote to the minister in August last year, and I will quote from that letter by secretary Kevin Spence.

It read:

We are concerned that, under the business plan, Landcare coordinator positions and facilitator positions will no longer be funded by the Australian government unless they are linked to priority projects.

As I have told the chamber previously, a senior catchment management authority executive in Victoria has also written to me and commented:

Whilst the Caring for our Country business plan talks about the importance of Landcare and community capacity building, there is not one single dollar being allocated to the capacity, skills, knowledge and engagement targets. There is no doubt that facilitation of Landcare funded by the Australian government is dead and whilst this may not mean the total destruction of Landcare, it will dramatically reduce the number of groups and participants. And there is this, from a departmental staff member who wrote to me.

It reads:

Minister Burke has been very clever in passing the blame to CMA’s for sacking their staff ‘at the regional level’ but would not acknowledge that CMA’s cannot keep these positions funded as CFOC will not allow it. Not long ago he has released funding for 56 facilitators which were the old National Landcare Program facilitators but when you investigated these guidelines, CMA’s were only eligible if they had not laid off the employee when the funding was cut in December 2008. I think only 2 positions in Victoria were eligible but it was a good diversion from all the heat Burke was getting about facilitator losses.

I will give the final word to a person who typifies the heart and soul of Landcare—one of the volunteers. Dawn
Parker, the secretary of the Far East Victoria Landcare Group wrote in a letter to the Snowy River Mail:

Both the potential for practical environmental works and the health and vitality of rural communities are being damaged by the cuts to the number of Landcare facilitators across Victoria.

The role of group facilitators was to be in close contact with local communities to encourage and enable their engagement in natural resource management activities.

Dawn goes on to say:

Every government dollar invested in support personnel returns at least three more dollars from local input and co-contributions

The Caring for Our Country business plan endorsed by Messrs Burke and Garrett is undermining core functioning capacity of Landcare.

Over 50 per cent of Victorian facilitator positions have been lost and more are to go. … … …

Was this what Tony Burke and Peter Garrett intended?

I invite either minister to answer that question that is on the lips of the 506 people who signed this petition and the countless volunteers who are working right across Australia now to assist in the practical restoration of the environment.

(Time expired)

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