Appropriation Bill 2017 - Environment Potfolio

05 July 2017

Mr SPEIRS (Bright) (19:50:12): I would like to spend some time this evening reflecting on the government's recent budget and its impact on the portfolios I am fortunate enough to be able to shadow. I had the opportunity to enter shadow cabinet at the beginning of 2017 as the state shadow minister for the environment. This portfolio covers areas which I have a lifelong passion for and which I have pursued since my youngest memories growing up on the land in rural Scotland.

In fact, it was my interest in Hallett Cove's coastal environment, and in particular the restoration of the lower Field River, that led me into public life, first running for council and then entering state parliament in 2014. It was great to spend a couple of hours last Saturday down at the Field River at Hallett Cove during a planting day and to continue the great environmental restoration work there. It was also great to see the fruits of 11 years of labour where trees once planted as tiny saplings now tower over the river, a great example of grassroots community action delivering for our natural environment.

By way of introduction to my remarks about the impact of the 2017-18 budget on the portfolios I shadow, I acknowledge that governing is not an easy task. Balancing the multiple competing interests between multiple competing portfolios is part of the art of governing. Ministers must strike the right position between funding the day-to-day operations of their departments and their statutory obligations that must occur by law while evolving their projects, programs and initiatives to meet the ever-changing needs of an evolving society.

They must also go about the business of pleasing to an extent, or at least trying to please, a cacophony of stakeholders and interest groups who will energetically and rightfully advocate for their sector. Since becoming shadow minister for the environment, I have met with an incredible number of stakeholders, interest groups, businesses, passionate individuals and peak bodies keen to build a relationship with me and tell me about their work and why it should be supported. This is part of the political process, a necessary part of it and a good part of it. It has been the way in which I have learned about the portfolio areas, building an initial personal interest into a deeper knowledge and understanding of the environment and water sectors.

The balancing of many interests is a difficult task for any government or minister regardless of their political persuasion, and I acknowledge publicly that this is the case. While there are parts of the budget I disagree with, there are equally many components I think are worthy, whether they be new or existing activities. That is the case across the entire budget as well as in the environment and water portfolios. My time as shadow minister has taken me around our beautiful state, although I have plenty more places to go and people to meet, and into discussions with informed, interesting, interested and engaging people. I have also been appointed to the state parliament's Environment, Resources and Development Committee.

In all my activities, I have been struck by the fact that the government does not have a lot of goodwill left amongst environmental stakeholders. Even groups and bodies that would traditionally be regarded as left wing or leaning towards the Labor Party feel that the environment is not the priority of a 15-year Labor administration. The environment department has endured cuts at every budget for the last decade. This year is no exception to this sorry situation, with a further 43 full-time equivalent positions disappearing from the department as the agency contracts even more.

To take a more historical look at this, if we go back less than a decade to the 2008-09 budget we find that the environment department had 2,236.6 FTE positions. That is now 1,505.1 FTE positions. That is a catastrophic decline in this department. While I am and always will be a proponent of smaller, leaner, less intrusive, more effective government, I also believe that there are areas like the environment that require government to step in and help facilitate positive action. I want to see an environment department which builds capacity in communities and which forges relationships between landowners, land managers, volunteer groups, local government and which leverages activity for multiple sectors to benefit our environment. That is why I believe it is so devastating that our state's front-line environmental workers have borne such significant cuts.

When the Liberal Party was last in power in 2002, there were more than 300 park rangers working in the state. Today, that figure is a mere 93. That is why I am delighted that, if a Liberal government is elected in March 2018, we will increase this figure by 20, which I believe will be an excellent start to rebuilding our front-line environmental workforce. As mentioned, the 2017‑18 budget sees a further decline in the number of staff in the environment department in what I can only characterise as an underwhelming budget for South Australia's amazing natural world.

The budget's high-level overview document did not even contain a stand-alone section for the environment, instead rather strangely co-locating environment in a section called Environment and Neighbourhoods. It is apparent that that this co-location occurred because the budget does not include many significant environmental highlights and so had to be beefed up with some other projects more suited to a community development-style category.

The environmental highlights the government has chosen to showcase include $13.5 million over three years for the River Murray, in partnership with the commonwealth, to restore natural flow patterns in key SA tributaries of the River Murray. It is a commendable project, which I will certainly not criticise. It was a pleasure to be able to visit the Riverland last week with my colleague the member for Chaffey and to be able to meet with many people who rely on that precious river environment for both their lifestyle and economic livelihood. It is an important part of the state, and I have said on a number of occasions that the Murray-Darling Basin Plan should be delivered on time and in full. I believe that politics needs to be taken out of the debate when it comes to dealing with that river.

The government's budget also includes $2.7 million over three years to address environmental issues from the previous closure of the Dry Creek salt fields. We have $200,000 for the construction of a dedicated new pedestrian bridge within the Brownhill Creek Recreation Park. I know this is a project that my colleague the member for Davenport has raised with me on a number of occasions. It was a pleasure to meet with Ron Bellchambers from the Brownhill Creek Association a few weeks ago in a meeting facilitated by the member for Davenport. I am pleased to see that the government saw fit to fund that project.

The budget contains $4.2 million to extend the Community Wastewater Management Systems funding agreement with local councils, $1 million over two years to kickstart the carbon offset industry in South Australia, $2.5 million for the creation of a comprehensive master plan for Cleland Wildlife Park and there is also funding of $12.7 million over two years to repair assets, particularly in national parks, damaged by severe weather in September 2016. There is also money to deal with the development of a dog and cat management database in partnership with local government.

Those projects are all worthy, but it is disappointing that there are no real reformist or exciting projects being offered up by our state's environment department. Unfortunately, that does appear to be characteristic of the environment department under its current bureaucratic and ministerial leadership. I am very disappointed with the budget's lack of innovation and creativity in what I think is an incredibly important and exciting area for our state.

Often I am asked: what would the Liberal Party do differently if they were elected to government next year? That is a very fair question. I think we have a very strong suite of environmental policies that we can be proud of, a suite of environmental policies that we will build on as we approach the election. I am certainly committed to working with my colleagues to build that sturdy and exciting range of environmental policies.

We have put a clear line in the sand when it comes to our environment and said that we will not support a nuclear waste dump taking international waste for South Australia. I think that is just a step too far for this state. We are also saying that we will put in place a moratorium on fracking in the state's South‑East, protecting precious water resources there. I have already said that we will increase the number of park rangers by 20. We of course have the exciting vision for Glenthorne National Park in the southern suburbs of Adelaide, a transformational project which will preserve and revitalise open space there.

We are also committed to reforming our state's natural resources management system. When I became shadow minister, it quickly became apparent that many people, particularly those in regional communities, feel disengaged and disillusioned by a centralised natural resources management structure that is now in place. NRM boards are disempowered and, again, goodwill towards that bureaucracy has really drained away.

We are certainly committed to building the partnerships with rural communities and reforming that natural resources management process. With that, I commend the budget to the house and in particular draw attention to those environmental initiatives.