Looking forward for the National Landcare Program
So, an Australian Environment and Communications Senate Standing Committee is examining the “history, effectiveness, performance and future of the National Landcare Program”…
There is a fair bit of material to draw upon about the history, effectiveness and performance of the Landcare program. There have been reviews previously, including by the Australian National Audit Office (it wasn’t pretty), other Senate Committees, the Departments themselves and the occasional think-piece from academia and stakeholders. Of course there will be the necessary attempts to understand the tangled nature of the Landcare movement, where the money has gone, and what has been achieved. This reflection is important, very important, but only really important as an enabler to help shape a positive future for the Australian landscape – its biodiversity and its people.
So what of the future? This is the bit where vision and leadership is required – and who better to help forge that vision than those elected to represent the States and Territories of our federated nation.
I was reflecting recently with a colleague that much of the Australian identity was forged by the woodlands landscape, we are surrounded by its symbols and stories – the wattle defines the national colours we all wear proudly, our currency is adorned with internationally unique and amazing flora and fauna, and at every important event we are reminded that our land abounds in natures gifts.
However, the day-to-day experience and expectation of our environment seems less inspirational. In an increasingly environmentally abstract existence, does the Australian community still care enough to pay for landscape or biodiversity protection and repair?
My sense is that people do care but are generally burnt-out by the crisis-mentality purveyed by environmental activists over the last two decades. The challenge with crises as a source of inspiration to act is that they, by definition, are finite in time. After you have discovered and prosecuted the case for acting to avert a crisis, in future you need a bigger or different crisis to prosecute. And the punch-line? Well unfortunately we haven’t solved any of the crises and even where we have made progress, haven’t communicated back to the community to update them. So the community is left wondering “hang-on, what about that last crisis I donated to/volunteered for/rallied against”?
The most fundamental challenges we face in the Australian landscape are not finite in time, they are mostly not of the time scale most people associate with ‘crises’, and will continue to require attention, investment, management and communication for generations. To engage the Australian community today we need a new approach to communicating and building buy-in for our landscape investments.
We have never really asked what it means to the Australian people to have a healthy and diverse environment, why they value it, and what we should invest to secure its health. While ‘business plans’ have been developed in the past to signal investment decisions, we haven’t documented, considered, or communicated the returns of those investments – to whom they accrue (directly and indirectly), when they accrue and their value.
With the increasing sophistication of the public service and public policy discourse, it is timely to consider a step-change in the thinking and approach to environmental investments by the Australian Government (and other investors), on behalf of their shareholders (voters). There are numerous background reasons why the Australian Government should invest in the landscape, including its international obligations and the blindness of the landscape to state boundaries. If we were to use a business planning framework and recognise the Australian landscape as an asset we can build a much stronger case for strengthening the investment by the Australian community – we can report returns on investment, cost savings, and the value of the asset base improving. The shareholders of the Australian environment, the voters, can then make informed decisions about future investments – their scale, portfolio, and expected returns.
Whilst Landcare is celebrating 25 years of development, this milestone also highlights a relative immaturity of the industry. The health, defence and infrastructure portfolios or sectors are ahead of us by, in some cases, millennia. We need to transition away from maintaining the environment’s relevance to our community via crises, and recognise its central position as a defining thread in the fabric of Australian experience and identity. The future health and wellbeing of the Australian landscape will not only help underpin our economic future, if we keep it in top shape our environment will continue to be a source of pride and inspiration for generations of Australians.
When we can prosecute the case for investment in landscape health and repair as well as we can in the defence of our country, with the same economic nous and community buy-in, the future of the National Landcare Program will be very bright.
Once the case is made and the shareholders are on board, the capital will be found easily, as simply as adding 1% to the GST on fresh food and hypothecating the revenue raised to a landscape repair trust fund.