7 – Government inquiries into salinity

Last week, another government report on salinity was released. This one was by the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Science and Innovation, under the optimistic title, “Science Overcomes Salinity”. The point of the inquiry was to see whether the Australian Government is making appropriate use of science in its National Action Plan for Science and Water Quality (the NAP). In short, it isn’t. The 24 recommendations of the Committee document lots of room for improvement. We knew that, of course – I’ve made complaining about it since the week the NAP was announced in November 2000 – but it is nice to see the issues so thoroughly documented and clearly articulated by a Government committee.

Amongst other things, they point to the lack of realistic options for farmers to deal with salinity, and the need for R&D to develop a broader range of options that are not just effective against salinity, but also profitable for farmers. There has been a remarkable complacency about the availability of suitable salinity management options, when the reality in most regions is that the available options for salinity prevention would send farmers broke long before they would deliver salinity benefits. Only since 2001 has there been any concerted effort to turn this around (with the commencement of the Cooperative Research Centre for Plant-Based Management of Dryland Salinity), and this has nothing to do with the NAP. The CRC program is completely independent of the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, which runs the NAP.

I commented on this in my submission to the House of Reps Committee: “The success of Australian efforts to contain and manage salinity in the long run will depend substantially on the success of efforts to develop new farming options and farming systems that are commercially competitive with existing farming systems. It seems quite inappropriate that the setting of the level of investment in R&D in this area is left to chance – the actual level is whatever emerges out of funding sources and processes independent of the national salinity program.”

You might imagine that such important findings by a bi-partisan committee of parliament would lead to the problems in the design of the program being addressed. However, all my contacts with policy experience have said that reports from House of Reps inquiries are usually ignored. The Committees have no power to enforce their findings and there is no requirement for the department that runs the program in question to even respond in writing to the report, unless their minister requests it. In many cases, the best that can be said of such reports is that they are useful to reinforce arguments by others who are pushing for change.

The report itself is thick (358 pages), thorough, balanced, and generally pretty good (with one exception being its over-emphasis on issues in communication and agricultural extension). It represents a major expense and a huge amount of work, both by the Committee and by the 100 or so groups and individuals who made submissions. I find it rather disturbing that the accepted norm for such reports is that they sit on shelves and achieve little. Surely, if it is just going to be ignored, the resources used in its preparation could have been put to much better use. The only defense for the system that has been put to me is that it helps to educate back benchers, and there is a chance that they will eventually become ministers. It is a pathetic defense.

The next government report on salinity will be by the Australian National Audit Office, who are inquiring into the NAP. They at least have more teeth than a House of Reps Committee, and they cannot be ignored so easily. Hopefully they too will recognise some of the flaws in the current design of the program.

David Pannell, The University of Western Australia

Further reading

Pannell, D.J. (2001). Salinity policy: A tale of fallacies, misconceptions and hidden assumptions, Agricultural Science 14(1): 35-37. full paper (26K)

Pannell, D.J. (2001). Dryland Salinity: Economic, Scientific, Social and Policy Dimensions, Australian Journal of Agricultural and Resource Economics 45(4): 517-546. Final journal version (212K pdf file) also available via the Journal homepage: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/1467-8489.00156/abstract

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