Economics, Environment, Natural resource management, Policy, Politics

92 – Future Natural Resource Management policy in Australia

The Australian Government has released a document that indicates the broad direction of future policy for natural resource management.

Over the past 20 years or so, natural resource management (NRM) policy in Australia has proceeded through a series of major national programs, typically of five to seven years duration. For about the last year, there have been various processes under way to decide what the next phase of policy should look like beyond 2008, at the conclusion of two of the main current programs: the Natural Heritage Trust and the National Action Plan for Salinity and Water Quality. There have been consultants’ reviews, a panel of eminent people has toured the country, a senate enquiry on salinity has reported, there have been inputs from commentators (e.g. here), and the wheels have turned in various internal government processes. Recently, a brief document outlining an agreed “Framework for Future NRM Programmes” was posted on the internet. Here are some observations about the process so far, and the directions outlined in the new document.

It must be difficult for government agencies to manage a transition process like this. There are so many different people involved, and there is clearly a diversity of views about what should happen. It seems to me that many of them have been heard in the various reviews and processes that have influenced the current position. From where I stand, it doesn’t appear that any one individual or group has a strong hand on the rudder, steering the process to a clear, pre-determined outcome. In that sense, there is a flavour of democracy about it, helped by the fact that the issue is not polarised on political party lines, so that reasonably rational discussion is possible. It helps that the resource issue with the highest political profile – water availability and allocation – has its own major programs that operate separately from the issues focused on in this document.

The new Framework document is essentially an agreement between the State governments and the Australian Government. Viewed in this light, perhaps the key thing about it is not its content, but the fact that it exists at all. It represents a broad consensus that governments do want to continue with a major program in this area, merging the two old ones. The document allows them to continue to work on the content in more detail. I expect that there is still a fair bit of flexibility in how the details pan out, but little or no flexibility in the five broad themes of the program, which are specified as: biodiversity decline, salinity and water quality, coastal and peri-urban areas, productive and sustainable landscapes, and capacity-building and institutional change.

Because it is a consensus document, it is somewhat conservative. I can sense that some of the pressures for changes to the programs have been influential to some extent, but there is also a lot of continuity from the old programs. The process of planning and implementation by regional NRM bodies will remain central. The core paradigm of the old programs remains, perhaps best reflected in this statement: “Strategic landscape-scale change is most effectively achieved where communities have a sense of ownership over planning and investment decisions.” It is a community-focused paradigm, based around a planning process, and supported by local facilitators.

This is no surprise to participants in the current programs, of course, but in my view the evidence shows that, at least for some resource problems in some areas, the above-quoted statement is wrong. There are cases where strategic landscape-scale change has been achieved effectively through government-dominated processes, including approaches like compulsory acquisition of land in water resource catchments (e.g. see Bennett, 2003). And on a different tack, the experience with the blue gum industry in southern Australia shows that profit drivers can achieve dramatic landscape-scale change even without “ownership” or planning, at least in regions where commercial agriculture is still the dominant land use.

Notwithstanding the above quote, the program will include elements that focus on priority investments at the national and state scales, not solely at the regional scale. Hopefully this will allow different approaches to be used where appropriate.

Other features of the Framework that I like include that there is recognition of the need to improve monitoring, evaluation, standards and targeting, and there is discussion of the need to use best-available scientific and socio-economic information.

One element that may or may not be good depending on how it is handled is “capacity building”. I was surprised to see this featured so prominently, given that I was aware of questions being asked in Canberra about the extent of outcomes from the big investment in “capacity building” in the current programs. If it means yet more investment in extension, education, communication, etc. (which have been the focus of “capacity building” for landholders in the current programs) then I think its contribution to real NRM outcomes will be pretty limited overall and it will need to be carefully targeted if it is to make a major difference (see Ridley and Pannell, 2005; Pannell, 2006a). On the other hand, another way to build capacity is to develop improved land-use options that are both sustainable and adoptable by landholders. This hasn’t featured in the existing programs, but our analysis indicates that it should be a significant element.

Several elements from existing programs are flagged for expansion: market-based instruments (MBIs – meaning economic policy mechanisms, like conservation auctions), “stewardship arrangements”, and environmental management systems (EMS). It is interesting that these three things have been grouped together in the document, since they are so very different. Indeed, market-based instruments and “stewardship arrangements” are opposites in some respects. One is about trying to make sure that program expenditures achieve the greatest possible NRM outcomes per dollar spent, and the other seems to be largely about transferring public money into private hands. It seems to me that what they have in common is that they are each strongly advocated by certain groups and that there is a bit of false hope around each of them. (That’s obvious enough for stewardship payments and EMS. See Pannell (2001) for some comments about the limitations of MBIs.)

My favourite part of the document is this:

“Critical aspects requiring enhancement include the following: The better integration of scientific and socio-economic information into regional planning and investment review, to ensure that investments are better calibrated towards delivering strategic outcomes, and providing better measurement of these outcomes.”

If this can be achieved, it will make a big difference to what the program funds are spent on, and to the achievement of major outcomes. It would be wonderful to see this come to fruition. This will require some supporting changes, such as enhancing the technical support provided to regional bodies, strengthening the accreditation process for regional plans, and removing the silly constraint that regional NRM bodies cannot spend program money on research.

Overall, the new document is quite a mixture of things, ranging from some new ideas that look like they’ll be good if they’re implemented well, through to some older ideas that were never that good. Our experience working with regional NRM bodies in the North Central region of Victoria and the South Coast region of Western Australia shows that they are keen to improve their planning and prioritisation, are willing to be challenged and stretched to achieve that, and are prepared to make some hard decisions in recognition of the need for strong protection of key assets (e.g. see Pannell and Ridley, 2007). I really hope that this can be reflected and supported in the new program as it evolves.

David Pannell, The University of Western Australia

Further Reading

Bennett, D. (2003) Rethinking community-based integrated catchment management. Paper presented at the 47th Annual Conference of the Australian Agricultural and Resource Economics Society, Fremantle, Western Australia, February 11th to 14th 2003.

Pannell, D.J. (2001). Harry Potter and the pendulums of perpetual motion: Economic policy instruments for environmental management, Connections: Farm, Food and Resource Issues 1: 3-8. (39K)

Ridley A.M. and Pannell D.J. (2005). SIF3: An investment framework for managing dryland salinity in Australia. SEA Working paper 1901. CRC for Plant-based Management of Dryland Salinity, University of Western Australia,

Pannell, D.J. (2006a). Public benefits, private benefits, and the choice of policy tool for land-use change,

Pannell, D.J. (2006b). Seeking more effective NRM policies, Pannell Discussions, No 82, 3 July 2006

Pannell, D.J. and Ridley, A.M. (2007). A new approach to public investment in dryland salinity