LANDCARE funding cuts and environmental threats linked to farm production were raised in an explosive Senate committee report handed down this week.
An extensive inquiry into the history, effectiveness, performance and future of the National Landcare Program (NLP) was instigated after a $471 million funding reduction in last year’s federal budget.
The report was handed down this week in the final sitting period in Canberra in an effort to ramp up pressure on funding before the federal budget is delivered on May 12.
The 146-page Senate Environment and Communications References Committee report made 15 recommendations on the Landcare program.
But it also contained an additional contribution from government Senators Anne Ruston and James McGrath defending the government’s position.
Broken election commitment
The report said in the 2014–15 federal budget, the Coalition government announced the NLP’s establishment through the merger of Caring for our Country and Landcare.
The budget provided $1028.1 million over four years in the forward estimates to establish the program.
“The Department of the Environment and the Department of Agriculture in their joint submission noted that, together with complementary program, the total investment in NRM (Natural Resource Management) would be $2 billion over four years,” it said.
“This funding represents a reduction of $471 million over the next four years, in addition to a reduction of $12.8 million for 2013–14.
“In addition, savings are to be achieved through the termination of the National Produce Monitoring System in June 2014 and funding reduction and early termination of the Environmental Stewardship Program.”
But the report said last year’s budget announcement of a $471m funding reduction over four years for Landcare and new funding initiatives, including the Green Army and 20 Million Trees, were “seen by some in the Landcare sector as a broken election commitment”.
“It was argued that the reduction in funding shows a failure by the government to understand, and appreciate, the role that Landcare plays in natural resource management, the strong environmental outcomes from Landcare and the value returned to government and the community of continued investment in Landcare,” it said.
“Many submitters pointed to the significant value derived from government investment with research indicating that for each $1 invested by government, there was community and landholder investment of up to $12.
“Submitters from the farming sector also pointed to the increase in agricultural productivity through Landcare activity.”
The report acknowledged that the federal government had pointed to its funding commitment over the next four years, including programs with a limited relationship to Landcare activities.
But it said: “The committee considers the actions of the Government to be short-sighted”.
“The funding cuts have the potential to undermine the government's stated aim of placing Landcare back at the centre of land management programs,” it said.
“It has the potential to undermine the gains in environmental improvement over the past 25 years and moves to secure increased agricultural productivity into the future.
“While recognising the current budget constraints under which the government is working, the committee considers that the benefits arising from Landcare are too important to be ignored and thus funding should be reinstated to previous levels.”
But the additional comments from Senators McGrath and Ruston said the report failed to acknowledge the government’s effort to “put Landcare back at the heart of natural resource management”.
They said the Australian government is investing more than $2 billion to manage natural resources, enabling communities to take practical action to improve the environment.
“This includes investment in the National Landcare Programme, together with complimentary initiatives such as the Green Army, Working on Country and the Reef Trust,” they stated.
“The government's redesign of the NLP is focussed on: returning decision-making back to local communities, rather than a top-down approach from Canberra; a simpler and more effective reporting and application process; and a commitment to long-term projects and programme design,” they said.
Their additional statement also said the Green Army Program was complimentary to but not replacing Landcare.
“Young Australians care deeply about, and are interested in, working in the environment,” it said.
“For many young people, the Green Army could be their first opportunity to work in the environment and undertake paid work experience.
“This experience in the Green Army could have a profound impact on their lives, their community and the local environment.
“These young people are the next generation of Landcarers.”
Blatant redirection of funds
The report cited concerns about the budget cuts from a range of groups that gave evidence at public hearings last August and October in Canberra, Perth and Melbourne and provided 73 submissions.
Some of the strongest comment came from the National Landcare Network (NLN) which said the program received a funding cut of about $400m while the Green Army Program went up about $200m.
“This was viewed by many in the Landcare community as a blatant redirection of funds away from Landcare and local communities and into a Youth Employment Training Program,” the report said.
NLN chairman David Walker was also quoted in the report saying the program cuts came amid a strong intention to cut expenditure the new government.
“There has been a lot of debate about the budget emergency and whether or not revenue should have been looked at as well as expenditure,” he said.
“The Commission of Audit took a very strong position.
“They were the ones who recommended a 50 per cent cut to Landcare.
“We were actually quite staggered at the disconnect between reality and their, I guess, strong doctrinaire economic view.
“I think the comment was made that the people who put that report together might know the cost of everything but know the value of nothing.”
Evidence from the National Farmers Federation (NFF) said the initial National Landcare Program was very much about agriculture, “the joint relationship between environment and production”.
“However, there has been a movement away from that and 'we want to make sure that it does not lose its focus on the sustainable agriculture component',” the report cited.
Committee chair and Tasmanian Labor Senator Anne Urquhart said the $470 million cut to the Landcare program, was “yet another broken promise from a government that refuses to stand up for the environment”.
“Before the election the Abbott government promised to maintain funding to Landcare and then went ahead and cut it by 40 per cent in their first budget,” she said.
Recommendations of National Landcare Program Senate inquiry:
The committee recommends that the government provide funding to the National Landcare Program to the same level as provided under Caring for our Country.
The committee recommends that the 25th Anniversary Landcare Grants Program be maintained as a continuing small grants program over the forward estimates.
The committee recommends that the further information about Green Army projects be made publicly available. This information should include project timeframes, project status, and an assessment of the environmental outcomes both immediately following completion of the project and after a suitable monitoring period.