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May 30, 2011

Debate resumed, on motion by Mr Chester:

That this House:

(1) notes that: 
    (a) 2011 marks the fortieth anniversary of the Ramsar Convention and the establishment of a list of wetlands of international importance; and 
    (b) the existence of 64 Ramsar-listed sites in Australia covering 8.1 million hectares; and

(2) highlights the:
    (a) social, economic, environmental and cultural importance of conserving wetlands through wise use and management; and
    (b) need for ongoing Commonwealth funding to other agencies, including volunteer organisations, which play an important role in educational initiatives and practical environmental projects to protect and enhance Australia’s wetlands.

Mr CHESTER (Gippsland) (19:20) – In speaking to this motion on the 40th anniversary of the Ramsar convention I want to highlight the critical importance of wetlands in Australia but particularly in the Gippsland electorate, where we have two Ramsar listed wetland sites—Corner Inlet and the Gippsland Lakes. With this anniversary of the convention, it is timely to reflect on the mission statement:

The conservation and wise use of all wetlands through local, regional and national actions and international cooperation, as a contribution towards achieving sustainable development throughout the world.

The term ‘wise use’ is one which appeals to me personally. ‘Wise use’ has at its heart the conservation and sustainable use of wetlands and their resources for the benefit of humankind. I make that point because it is central to my view of natural resource management, particularly when we are talking about vast holdings of public land, like we have in Gippsland, and the complex environmental systems at play in areas such as the Gippsland Lakes and Corner Inlet.

While the Greens in this place advocate a policy of lock it up and leave it, I believe in practical land management and engaging the local communities. I believe we need to have a balanced approach with a focus on working with our local communities and listening to those communities, not inflicting policies from the cities. Our wetlands are a treasure trove of biodiversity, but they are not museum pieces. They certainly need active management and we need to get amongst them to fully appreciate what is available to us.

Many of our reserves of public land in Gippsland are overrun with feral animals and introduced weeds, and the environmental features which led to the decision to establish a protected area in the first place have been severely compromised by lack of action on the ground. When we are talking about wetlands, the impact of foxes and cats in particular has had a devastating impact on a wide variety of bird species. The underinvestment in programs to reduce the impact of noxious species is a fault of both state and federal governments. I do not lay the blame before one side of politics over another. I believe there is a critical need for ongoing Commonwealth funding to state agencies and volunteer organisations, which play a critical role in practical environmental management.

To make my point, I cannot go past the current government’s failure in relation to Landcare. This government stripped $11 million out of the forward estimates for Landcare but can still find room in the budget for $13 million worth of climate change advertising. Given a choice between propaganda and propagation, there are no surprises here—the government has opted to preserve itself rather than preserve the environment.

I recently attended the Yarram Yarram Landcare awards and spoke to people who are making a difference every day through their stewardship of their own land and the work they do as volunteers on public land. Their work in the catchment areas is undoubtedly providing benefits to the Ramsar listed wetlands of Corner Inlet, and I thank them on behalf of all Gippslanders for their willingness to make such an important contribution. In this the 40th anniversary year of the Ramsar convention, the current federal government should be investing more in supporting the volunteers who are keen to protect and enhance their local environment, and it should begin by reinstating the money it has stripped from Landcare to help employ facilitators to maximise the value of the volunteer effort on the ground in regional communities.

It might surprise some opposite that the National Party is advocating such a strong position in relation to the Ramsar convention and wetland areas, but it is the people of regional Australia who have been at the forefront of practical land management over many generations and we will not sit back and allow ourselves to be painted as being somehow anti-environment when it is our communities doing the hard work on a daily basis, getting our hands dirty and actually getting out there and supporting the environment.

For people to value our wetlands they need to be able to visit them, and so I support the development of infrastructure and facilities that allow humans to gain a close-up appreciation of our fragile wetlands. Again, we need a balanced approach. This is not to suggest there should be open slather on development; it is to make the point that local communities, which are often called on to be the custodians of such assets and provide a great deal of the practical environmental work in regional areas, should be able to benefit commercially from our wetland areas. There are economic opportunities to be found in our world-class wetlands but the lack of facilities on public land is a major issue for the Gippsland tourism industry. Wise use of our wetlands should involve the development of facilities such as boardwalks, viewing platforms, environmentally appropriate accommodation and other infrastructure which allows locals to benefit from the jobs which exist in ecotourism. It is an opportunity that we have failed to capitalise on in Gippsland, and the federal government should be working in partnership with the state government to support such activities in the future.

I recently wrote to both the state and federal environment ministers in relation to the Rotamah Island Bird Observatory, on the Gippsland Lakes. I will give House a more fulsome account of the island at some stage in the future, but suffice it to say that there is an opportunity there for both state and federal governments to work in partnership with the passionate members of my community to achieve some great environmental outcomes.

Briefly, in the time that I have left, I would like to reflect on this government’s lack of commitment to the Gippsland Lakes and their Ramsar listed wetland areas. While the federal government commits over $200 million over a five-year period for the Great Barrier Reef, it has committed just $3 million for the Gippsland Lakes, which the locals regard as the Great Barrier Reef of the south, and this funding expires this year. There are many individuals, community groups and landholder organisations that are passionate about our lakes and rivers and are ready to do their share of the practical work that is required. It is a pity that the same level of passion does not exist in the ministerial offices in Canberra. (Time expired)

(Time expired)

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