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March 27, 2014

Mr CHESTER (Gippsland—Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Defence) (13:13): It is with great pleasure that I join the debate in relation to the Social Security Legislation Amendment (Green Army Programme) Bill 2014. I congratulate the Minister for the Environment for the work he has already done in consulting, particularly with coalition members, on a whole range of programs throughout Australia, especially in regional Australia.

When this election commitment was made by the coalition, it was very warmly received across the electorate of Gippsland. I encourage people in my community, particularly groups involved with Landcare, Coastwatch and other organisations with a focus on practical environmental measures—those groups welcomed the announcement because it gave them the opportunity to put forward programs and projects within the electorate, which would have a real practical benefit in terms of environmental management. In bringing this bill to the House today, the coalition is delivering on an important election commitment. There is one very significant difference between this coalition government and the former Rudd-Gillard-Rudd Labor government, and that is we take our election commitments seriously. When we make promises to the Australian people we intend to deliver them. Our election commitment was to build a 15,000-strong Green Army across our nation. I am very proud of the role that members on this side of the House have played today in delivering on the Green Army promise.

When the policy was first announced it was very warmly received across the Gippsland electorate because it gave Landcare, Coastcare and other organisations the opportunity to put forward projects to be considered by the Minister for the Environment and Minister Hartsuyker, who has a role in delivering the program. I have been impressed by the quality of the projects that have been put forward by community groups, individuals and councils across the entire Gippsland electorate.

What I like about the Green Army Program is that it draws very much on the inspiration of the previous Howard government’s Green Corps program, which was implemented almost 20 years ago. In my previous roles as a local newspaper journalist and an advocate for community issues I had the opportunity to work with the former member for Gippsland Peter McGauran on the implementation of several Green Corps projects in the Gippsland region. Without exception, they were well received because they provided opportunities for young people with a particular passion for environmental projects to develop new skills and make a real difference in their communities in terms of restoring our natural and cultural environments. I refer specifically to the cultural environment because in Gippsland with previous programs under these types of initiatives we had the opportunity to involve the Indigenous community directly in projects which they were passionate about in the Gippsland region.

This program will provided some extraordinary opportunities for hands-on, practical, grassroots environmental action. Not the type of environmental action we see from the Greens political party, which likes to indulge in grand rhetoric but never gets its hands dirty. The people of Gippsland and the people involved with Landcare, Coastcare and other organisations want to do practical work and actually make a real change within the environment on either a local scale, such as a small gullying project or reducing pest plants and animals, or a more broader landscape scale, such as improving the quality of the water coming into streams, fencing off parts of the riversides to prevent stock access and doing more broader land management action.

I am very pleased to see that the focus of both ministers involved in this project is on making sure that the young people who get involved in this program have the opportunity to develop real skills. It is an opportunity for them to develop skills and job training in areas like land management, park management, landscaping and horticulture. They can pick up important skills that will assist them to obtain full-time employment in the future. I would hate to see a program like this become just a make-work scheme. I want it to be a pathway towards gainful and sustainable employment for the people who participate. I will be working very closely with my electorate, the community groups and the local councils to make sure the projects we put forward under this program allow young people to have a pathway from unemployment into the Green Army, where they will learn practical skills and make a real difference in their community, and then hopefully to full-time and sustainable employment within my region.

The work that the Green Army will be undertaking across Australia will be vital to the regeneration and the preservation of vital areas of our natural environment. I understand that already the minister has indicated to many members in this place the projects that have been successful and will be funded under the initial rounds. These include the propagation and planting of native seedlings across the nation, weed control initiatives, the revegetation and regeneration of local parks, habitat protection and restoration, improving water quality by cleaning up waterways, the revegetation of sand dunes and mangroves, creek bank regeneration, foreshore and beach restoration, the construction of boardwalks and walking tracks to protect local wildlife, and cultural heritage conservation.

In relation to the control of pest plants and pest animals, in particular I want to mention an announcement this week that I was particularly heartened by—the agreement between the Victorian government and the new federal government that aerial baiting of wild dogs will now be allowed in Victoria. Again, you can see a clear difference between this government and the previous government on issues relating to the management of the environment. It appalled me that the previous government refused to allow the Victorian state government to aerial bait wild dogs in Victoria when across the border in New South Wales aerial baiting had been allowed. It was a bizarre circumstance. The excuses and the obfuscation that went on by the previous minister in relation to this issue were quite ridiculous. So it is very pleasing that as of this week an agreement has been reached between the Commonwealth and the state government to allow for the aerial baiting of wild dogs in Victoria. I encourage Victorian minister Peter Walsh in his efforts to control wild dogs in Victoria. We know and we accept that you will never eradicate the problem of wild dogs, but you can certainly do a lot more than the previous Commonwealth government was prepared to do to assist in that regard.

In Victoria the impact of wild dogs on our environment is significant. It is often referred to as a farmers’ issue because of the stock losses that are associated with it. It is very much an issue for people who make a living from the land, but it is also an environmental concern. The fact that we had wild dogs feasting on our native fauna on a daily basis while very little effort was being made by the Commonwealth to control them, I think was a condemnation of the previous federal government in that regard.

I am very pleased that this week the Victorian state government and the new Abbott-Truss coalition government have been able to reach an agreement that will allow aerial baiting to be introduced in Victoria in the future. It will be a combined measure. There will be ongoing measures of ground baiting and shooting, but aerial baiting will give the government the opportunity to reach areas which are very inaccessible. In the aftermath of the bushfires we had in Victoria, there is no doubt that predation by wild dogs will be an issue for us as they are forced out of the bush and onto farmland. Our landholders are going to need every bit of support they can get in terms of reducing the impact of these wild dogs.

It is just another example of how this new government is prepared to work in a practical way with measures to improve the natural environment and work with local communities to make sure we can deliver sustainable results and assist people as they undertake practical environmental works across our community.

In closing, I would simply say that I am a very strong supporter of the Green Army Program. I look forward to working with the relevant ministers and working with my community to help make a real difference to improving the environment in our communities. We have done some great work in Gippsland over the past 20 or 30 years with Landcare organisations and other organisations which have been instrumental in making very significant improvements to our region.

I refer to the work that has been done, in particular, with the management of the catchment of the Gippsland Lakes. One of the great icons of Australia is the Gippsland Lakes network. It is the largest network of lakes in the southern hemisphere. It is fed by six major rivers, and there has been a lot of work undertaken by both the Labor and the coalition governments in partnership with local communities to improve the water quality entering the Gippsland Lakes and to reduce the impact of things like algal blooms, which are obviously a major concern for the tourism industry and also for the enjoyment of the lake system by local residents.

It is very important that the government—in this case the coalition government at federal level—works with the state government, works with the local government and works with local communities to make sure that we can deliver programs on the ground which actually make a real difference to the environment. I commend the bill to the House.

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