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November 15, 2010

Mr CHESTER (Gippsland) (9.39 pm) — I join the grievance debate this evening to raise several issues of concern to the people of Gippsland in relation to both the federal election and the current state election that we are faced with in Victoria. The first issue I wish to raise relates to the future management of Gippsland Lakes and the catchment of the lakes system.

Under the current arrangements, the Victorian state government has primary responsibility for the Gippsland Lakes. The Gippsland Lakes Taskforce was, I believe, established in 2002. At that time, the Victorian state government allocated in the order of $3.2 million per year to assist in practical environmental projects to enhance the environment of the Gippsland Lakes and to reduce the amount of nutrients entering the system. The CSIRO had undertaken an audit of the Gippsland Lakes and its catchment areas and had found that the system was in dire need of funding support to reduce the amount of nutrients that leave the agricultural land but also which run off our streets and towns and enter the waterways and then go down through the lake system. The target was set to reduce the amount of nutrients by 40 per cent by 2020. To its credit, the state government allocated $3.2 million per year over a four-year period to target that type of work.

It is fair to say that the landholders, particularly in the Macalister Irrigation District, and our farmers in the dairy sector made an enormous effort with that seed funding provided by the state government and then used their own capital to invest in whole-of-farm plans to find ways to reduce the amount of fertiliser, for example, that was leaving their properties and entering our waterways. Over that period of four years, a lot of great work was done by our landholders leveraging off the amount of money that they had been provided by the federal government.

From 2006 to 2009 the state government reduced that amount of funding to $6 million, or $2 million per year, and then in 2009 the recurrent funding was ceased altogether. This was from a state Labor government that claims to care about the future of the Gippsland Lakes and its catchment areas. There is no recurrent funding in the current Brumby Labor state government budget for the Gippsland Lakes Taskforce. It is a disgrace, and the people of Gippsland know when they are being short-changed.

The federal government has in the past also made commitments to the Gippsland Lakes. Under the previous coalition government, there was money allocated through the Natural Heritage Trust and under the previous Rudd government there was $3 million allocated over a period of three years. That funding has been exhausted as well. So we are faced with the situation where the Gippsland Lakes and its catchment areas have no recurrent funding on offer from either the federal Labor government or the state Labor government. These are wetlands, lakes and rivers which are recognised internationally. The wetlands of the Gippsland Lakes system are recognised in the Ramsar convention and, under that, there are obligations for the federal government and, of course, our state colleagues in terms of protecting and maintaining the environment.

As I referred to earlier, we are in the middle of a state election campaign in Victoria. To me, the future health and the management of the Gippsland Lakes system are critical issues facing the people of Gippsland. The state Labor government has made no policy commitments whatsoever in relation to the Gippsland Lakes. I am very mindful of the fact that we are going to go to the election in about 10 days time, and the people of Gippsland will have no idea what this Brumby Labor government is prepared to do in terms of practical environmental works to protect and enhance the Gippsland Lakes system.

To their credit, the state Liberal and National candidates have met with local community groups, environmental organisations and the agencies involved in delivering services in Gippsland, and I believe they will be making a positive announcement in the days ahead. I cannot pre-empt that announcement but I am well aware of the fact that they have been meeting with different agencies and community groups with a view to making an announcement to provide some recurrent funding for the Gippsland Lakes system. So I am very hopeful that that will happen in the days ahead. It will give the people in the state seat of Gippsland East, the people in the state seat of Gippsland South and the people in the state seat of Morwell a clear choice between the Liberal and National candidates and a Labor Party which talks a lot about the environment but delivers precious little in terms of direct action on the ground. This is the same Labor Party that comes in here and lectures us day after day about the great moral challenge of climate change and indulges in propaganda advertising campaigns on climate change but in the same budget cuts the funding for Landcare by $11 million over the forward estimates.

I refer to Landcare quite deliberately, because it is another area that I grieve for in this House. We have in Australia 100,000 volunteers from different Landcare organisations. I think there are about 4,000 different Landcare organisations across Australia. Last year we celebrated the 20th anniversary of Landcare. There probably is not another environmental organisation in Australia that has contributed more in terms of direct and practical environmental action than Landcare. If you happen to get a chance to look at the brochures or the newsletters sent out by members opposite, you will see plenty of photos of them with their local Landcare groups, planting trees and joining in that sort of activity. But when it comes to actually providing the funding to support Landcare into the future the government goes missing in action again.

Eleven million dollars was cut from the budget this year for Landcare—$11 million which could have been used to hire the facilitators, who then leverage their good work and work with the volunteers to deliver that practical action on the ground. I condemn the Labor government for its failure to invest in the future of Landcare and deliver those valuable projects in regional communities. It is the people who live in those rural communities—the landholders, the farmers—who are prepared to give up their time and do that direct action in terms of planting trees, erosion control, eliminating pest weeds and doing their best to reduce the impact of feral animals on our national landscape.

On a more positive note, in the time I have left to me I would like to refer to a recent community action day that I organised in my community with the support of the Nationals candidate for Gippsland East, a gentleman by the name of Tim Bull. Tim and I organised a clean-up day on the Gippsland Lakes because we wanted to prove to the government that the people of Gippsland are so interested in the future health of this system that they are prepared to give up their time to clean up after other people who neglect their responsibilities and leave rubbish lying around. We had about 50 people join us in this clean-up activity. While you would say that having 50 people who are prepared to turn up and help clean up rubbish was a success, the fact that we were able to find so much rubbish in such a short time along the foreshore at Lakes Entrance and at Metung and Paynesville was quite disheartening.

Of greatest concern to me was the state of our riverbanks—we went to the Tambo River and the Mitchell River. A local volunteer and I walked along a 200- or 300-metre section of riverbank and we filled six 30 kilo bags with beer bottles, nappies, newspapers, plastic cans and assorted debris that had been left behind by, I assume, recreational anglers. I believe that the vast majority of recreational anglers using our waterways and our river systems do so in a responsible manner, but when you can find that much rubbish lying around in one small section of riverbank I am greatly worried about what we would find if we went along all the popular riverbanks throughout Australia and started picking up the rubbish that has been left behind. My concern is that our riverbanks in many parts of our community are being treated like tips. If the results from that small section of riverbank are repeated in other parts of our community it would be fair to say that we have an enormous task ahead of us.

We have a problem in Victoria in that the responsible agencies have taken away a lot of the rubbish bins from most of the riverbanks. It is a deliberate public policy, the view being that, if you take the rubbish in, you should take it out yourself. That might work well for the responsible people in our community, but there are some irresponsible elements who will just throw the rubbish up on the bank—and it seems to me that, once you get a little bit of rubbish there, you will accumulate more. It is nothing to go along to a tree and find 20 or 30 empty stubbies sitting there or a pile of plastic bags in the one place. It seems to me that, once people see a bit of rubbish, they are prepared to keep adding to it.

I have raised these issues tonight in the context of urging both state and federal governments to invest more in practical environmental action. We have groups like Landcare and the volunteers who were prepared to join me on a community action day. These are people in our community who are prepared to do the responsible thing but there will always be an element in our community who will treat the environment with contempt. The government needs to work with the people who have the interests of our waterways at heart. So I urge both the Victorian and federal governments to start backing up their rhetoric with direct action by supporting Landcare and other organisations which protect and maintain the environment of the Gippsland region.

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