174 – Assessment of the National Action Plan for Salinity and Water Quality

Next month marks 10 years since the announcement by then Prime Minister John Howard of the National Action Plan for Salinity and Water Quality. Anna Roberts and I conducted a comprehensive retrospective assessment of the program and its achievements, and this has just been published in the Australian Journal of Agricultural and Resource Economics. The assessment is highly negative.

The National Action Plan (or NAP) was the policy response to a perceived salinity “crisis”. It spent A$1.4 billion of public funds (and drew in a larger volume of private funds) in 1700 projects over seven years.

When it was announced, I was publicly critical of its design. In fact, my anger at its obvious failings was what first got me actively engaged with environmental policy. I wrote a brief paper called “Salinity policy: A tale of fallacies, misconceptions and hidden assumptions”, which went viral in salinity circles, and I mouthed off in the media and at a national conference held at that time. I gave presentations to anybody who would listen, including to senior people in the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, who were responsible for the program. I kept up my criticisms throughout the life of the program, but also was constructive and co-developed decision tools and frameworks to overcome some of the problems (Ridley and Pannell, 2005; Pannell, 2008).

It wasn’t just me who was unhappy. There were four government reviews of the program conducted during its life (two by the Australian National Audit Office (ANAO), one by a Senate committee and one by a House of Representatives committee), and all of them identified serious concerns.

The NAP did not result in the large-scale land-use change in dryland landscapes that would be needed to contain salinity. A consultant’s report near the end of the program concluded that “NAP investment by itself was always unlikely to do so, due to the lack of suitable landscape ‘best practice’ options, the scale of investment and the time required to implement landscape change and achieve a landscape response.” That was more or less what I was saying at the start of the program. A program that took account of these understandings would have been designed completely differently.

The ANAO’s 2008 review was particularly damning: “There is little evidence as yet that the programs are adequately achieving the anticipated national outcomes” (Auditor General, 2008, p. 16). “Where the impact [of NAP investment] on resource condition is identified by regional bodies, the expected results were often low (frequently less than one per cent of the longer-term resource condition target)” (Auditor General, 2008, p. 19-20).

I’ve heard people claim that the ANAO report did not conclude that the program was ineffective, just that they couldn’t tell whether or not it was effective. That last quote makes clear that this claim is not true.

In our recently published assessment of the program (Pannell and Roberts 2010), we identified 12 criteria that it would have had to meet to be successful.

  1. Appropriate prioritization of potential projects
  2. Use of appropriate policy mechanisms
  3. Use of technical information
  4. Use of socio-economic information
  5. Balance of investment between current works and knowledge or technology
  6. Balance of investment between mitigation and adaptation
  7. Avoidance of adverse side-effects
  8. Monitoring and enforcement of compliance
  9. Setting appropriate targets
  10. Monitoring and evaluation linked to management
  11. Supporting, and creating appropriate incentives for, environmental managers
  12. Consistency with an appropriate role for government

The National Action Plan didn’t meet any of the criteria. Overall, with a few exceptions, its 1700 projects generated few worthwhile salinity mitigation benefits and will have little enduring benefit.

One of my big lessons from the NAP experience is how difficult it is to change a policy program once it has been announced. Despite me putting forward what I still feel were compelling and very serious criticisms, and despite those criticisms basically being confirmed in the various government reviews, no fundamental changes were made to the program. Pretty early on I came to the conclusion that we would have to wait until we’d wasted that $1.4 billion before there would be an opportunity for meaningful change, and so it proved to be.

David Pannell, The University of Western Australia

Further reading

Auditor General (2008). Regional Delivery Model for the Natural Heritage Trust and the National Action Plan for Salinity and Water Quality, Report No. 21 2007–08, Performance Audit, Australian National Audit Office, Canberra.

Pannell, D.J. (2001). Dryland Salinity: Economic, Scientific, Social and Policy Dimensions, Australian Journal of Agricultural and Resource Economics 45(4): 517-546. Full journal paper (212K pdf) also available via the Journal homepage: here

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. (2008). Public benefits, private benefits, and policy intervention for land-use change for environmental benefits, Land Economics 84(2): 225-240. Full paper (140K)

Pannell, D.J. and Roberts, A.M. (2010). The National Action Plan for Salinity and Water Quality: A retrospective assessment, Australian Journal of Agricultural and Resource Economics, 54, 437-456. Journal web site here

Ridley, A., and Pannell, D.J. (2005). The role of plants and plant-based R&D in managing dryland salinity in Australia, Australian Journal of Experimental Agriculture, 45: 1341-1355. Full journal paper (127K pdf)

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