Soil Conservation Service
Debate resumed from 3 March 2005.
Mr RUSSELL TURNER (Orange) [12.03 p.m.]: The honourable member for Upper Hunter moved a motion in March 2003 to restore the Soil Conservation Service, and it has been debated on at least one occasion since that time. Although the Government maintains that the Soil Conservation Service continues to provide a service, it is fragmented at best and few farmers, particularly hobby farmers who recently have come to regional areas, would not know it as we knew it in years gone by. In the 1950s and into the 1960s, when we had enormous problems with soil erosion as a result of the rabbit plague, the Soil Conservation Service was successful in correcting the erosion in our creeks and gullies and returning them to a productive state. During that time the service undertook work on my farm. Anyone who flew over areas in which the Soil Conservation Service had completed work could not help but notice the quality of that work. I am sure all employees of the Soil Conservation Service were efficient and loved what they were doing. They ensured that their work was absolutely A1.
General overgrazing and the rabbit plague caused enormous damage. These days most farmers are aware of the impact of overgrazing and conduct most of their farming practices in a more workmanlike and professional manner. The Soil Conservation Service offered low-interest loans. Quite often the service took a whole-of-valley approach by working with all the farmers in a valley to restore its quality. These days farmers are confused about whether the Soil Conservation Service exists. The White Pages telephone book for my area covers Bathurst, Cowra, Lithgow, Mudgee, Orange, Rylstone and Young. If a farmer chose to use the telephone book to determine what assistance was available, he might look up the Department of Environment and Conservation. The phone book shows that it comprises the Environment Protection Authority, the National Parks and Wildlife Service, Resource New South Wales and the Botanic Gardens Trust. He will not get any help there.
A farmer might then look up the Department of Sustainable Natural Resources. The phone book says it is the Department of Infrastructure, Planning and Natural Resources and lists various telephone numbers. If he rings those telephone numbers he usually hears: If you want such and such press 1; if you want such and such press numbers through to 8 or 9. Today's farmers do not know what help is available and which department they can contact to seek help. I know that Government members will contradict me, but it is a fact of life. I have spoken to many farmers and they do not believe that what we used to know as the Soil Conservation Service exists. If it does exist, they do not know how to contact it and what assistance it might provide. The Soil Conservation Service should be restored to provide services to farmers who need help and do not know where to get it.
Mr IAN ARMSTRONG (Lachlan) [12.08 p.m.]: It is with great pleasure that I support the motion moved by my colleague the honourable member for Upper Hunter. I am surprised that the Government will not support the motion, because on many occasions in this place the Labor Party has claimed credit, rightly or wrongly, for the creation of the New South Wales Soil Conservation Service as a policy initiative of William McKell, after whom the McKell building at Railway Square was named. When the building was dedicated to his memory it was said that he was the father of soil conservation. When the Coalition came to government in 1988 and I became Minister for Agriculture and Rural Affairs, some Labor members told me what a great honour it was and how the Labor Party had been so influential. But now I find that the Labor Party will vote against one of the great authorities in this State that it claims to have invented. I do not agree that the Labor Party invented the Soil Conservation Service, but I believe that we should leave aside historical matters and concentrate on the users of the service and its importance to the community.
I would have thought that the current drought—being the worst drought in New South Wales in 100 years—would be bad enough, but when we add the fact that Australia has the most degraded soils in the world and is the lowest, flattest and hottest continent in the world, the importance of soil conservation cannot be overstated. Moreover, the past four months have been the hottest months on record for this time of the year, and the Government continually complains about the soil degradation caused by land clearing. In spite of all that, Labor members will vote against supporting a highly respected professional organisation that has been applauded for its profitable work in soil retention, enhancement of the environment and expertise in techniques for living in an arid continent. I suggest that members of the Labor Party will vote against this motion purely because of bloody-minded politics. I do not think they have given any thought to the significance of this motion.
Not many years ago the Soil Conservation Service had approximately 114 machines ranging from Tauna pulls, bulldozers and graders, as well as a staff of approximately 300. The staff advised country and city communities on matters such as the rehabilitation of degraded soils, land clearing, the positioning of farm dams and public dams, and major infrastructure such as roads and bridges. It also advised local government and Federal Government departments. The Soil Conservation Service has been one of the most respected services the New South Wales public service has ever had. During all the years I have been a member of this House I cannot remember criticism of any veracity being directed at it. It is a respected organisation that simply does a good, honest job.
So why is the Soil Conservation Service necessary? As other speakers have said—in particular, the honourable member for Upper Hunter, who moved the motion—the service is necessary because it provides a quality benchmark for soil conservation services in this State. It is all very well to say that other departments or private enterprise can handle soil conservation services and that money can be saved by getting rid of bulldozers, graders, surveyors and soil experts. But who will establish soil conservation benchmarks if that happens? It has always been my view that one of the fundamental responsibilities of government is to maintain standards of professional excellence as benchmarks for the entire community. Members may be surprised to know that people who display great expertise in driving major machinery undertook their training in rehabilitation and conservation of soils while they were officers of the former soil conservation department. The service was not a costly organisation; indeed, it managed to attract considerable funding from private enterprise and other government authorities, and was run very economically.
The Government has not presented any cogent arguments for its failure to support the restoration of the role of the Soil Conservation Service. The Government has failed to recognise that by denying support it is turning its back not only on the people of New South Wales, especially the greenies, the farmers and other interest groups, but also on what it used to refer to as an important part of Labor Party history. What a philosophical contradiction! This Government is making a fool of Labor's early history and the Jack Hallams of the world. [Time expired.]
Mr GEORGE SOURIS (Upper Hunter) [12.15 p.m.], in reply: I thank all members who contributed to the debate, and in particular the honourable member for Lachlan, the honourable member for Orange, the honourable member for Ballina and other members of the Liberal Party and The Nationals. The essence of the motion is the reinstatement of the Soil Conservation Service of New South Wales to the role it played before the election of the Carr Labor Government. While the service maintains a nominal presence, its current role is nothing like the functions it carried out prior to 1995. Where in this State is the Soil Conservation Service conducting broadacre soil erosion mitigation works, contour bank construction and other remedial works?
Soil conservation is one of the most important environmental issues facing Australia. Soil degradation caused by water erosion occurs throughout Australia and is one of the most important conservation, land management and environmental issues confronting government. The purpose of the motion is to reinstate the Soil Conservation Service to the role it played in the past instead of maintaining its reduced level of service under the Carr Government. The honourable member for Monaro referred to the advisory role played by the service in the rehabilitation of bushfire-affected areas in the Monaro electorate. That is precisely the type of work that the service should be performing throughout the State, not just in one isolated area. The Soil Conservation Service should be an organisation that performs a major government role in arresting soil degradation. One can easily imagine that its advisory role during the Monaro bushfires would have been a highlight. That is a sad reflection on its current status.
If I were to ask Government members to name the Soil Conservation Commissioner in New South Wales, I dare say they would not be able to tell me: I doubt that they would even know whether New South Wales has a Soil Conservation Commissioner. So they are unlikely to know anything about the essence of the role and status of the service, or the value in dollar terms or projects of its service delivery. It saddens me that during the debate Government members were unable to cite the achievements of the Soil Conservation Service, but that might have been because of the dearth of projects undertaken by the service in recent times. It is tragic that the Soil Conservation Service has been gutted. I am firmly of the view that it should be reinstated to its original role and status. I commend the motion to the House.
Question—That the motion be agreed to—put.
The House divided.
Mr J. H. Turner
Mr R. W. Turner
Question resolved in the negative.