In March 2008, the Australian Government (1) announced its intention to replace the previous national
Government's natural resource management programs, the Natural Heritage Trust and National Action Plan
for Salinity and Water Quality with a new initiative - Caring for our Country.
In doing so, the Government stated that it was recognising a pressing need to improve Australia's performance
in protecting its unique natural environment and that it wanted to make real and measurable progress towards
the sustainable management of Australia's natural resources. The Government also wanted to put its own
stamp on its commitment and was keen to redress what it saw as defects in the existing programs whilst
also retaining their best elements. While the Natural Heritage Trust and the National Action Plan for Salinity
and Water Quality were due to wind up in June 2008, the previous Government had given a commitment prior
to the 2007 federal election to continue with the Natural Heritage Trust for a further five years. Bilateral
renegotiations were well advanced with several jurisdictions when the federal election was called in
In announcing its new natural resource management initiative, Ministers Peter Garrett (Environment) and Tony
Burke (Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry) identified the goal of Caring for our Country as
"An environment that is healthy, better protected, well managed, resilient, and provides essential ecosystem
services in a changing climate". To achieve this objective, Caring for our Country focuses on six national
• The National Reserve System, including Indigenous Protected Areas
• Biodiversity and national icons
• Coastal environments and critical aquatic habitats
• Sustainable farm practices
• Natural resource management in remote and northern Australia, and
• Community skills, knowledge and engagement.
The Australian Government has committed $2.25 billion in the first five years of Caring for our Country
(from 2008-09 to 2012-13) or almost $450 million each year to the program. In announcing Caring for
our Country, the Government stated it would be delivering its initiatives in partnership with regional natural
resource management groups, local, state and territory governments, Indigenous groups, industry bodies,
land managers, farmers, landcare groups and communities.
Unlike the previous programs, Caring for our Country will be an ongoing program. In other words, it does not
have to go back to Cabinet every three or four years for its continuation, as was the case with the Natural
Heritage Trust. Caring for our Country commenced on 1 July 2008 and brought together a range of natural
resource management programs and initiatives into an integrated package, including the Natural Heritage
Trust, the National Landcare Program, the Environmental Stewardship Program and elements of the Working
on Country Program. The new program has one clear goal, a business approach to investment, clearly
articulated outcomes and priorities, and improved accountability.
In September 2008, the Government released an Outcomes Statement, containing clear and measurable
outcomes for the first five years of Caring for our Country's operation. It specifies outcomes deliverable
|over the five years, and potential strategies for achieving them. The Statement also places these outcomes
in the context of 20 year projections of the program's expected results in each of the six national priority areas.
The annual business cycle for Caring for our Country has six main stages at which decisions are made.
1. Policy development determines the focus and priorities of the initiative, setting the context for the
2. The business plan sets targets associated with each five-year outcome and guides investment activities.
3. Investment calls for, and selects projects to meet the targets and five-year outcomes.
4. Contract management establishes project funding and deliverables.
5. Delivery is the implementation phase.
6. The report stage demonstrates performance of projects and the initiative.
Each of the stages within the above cycle generates and benefits from monitoring, evaluation, reporting
and improvement activities.
With the release of the Business Plan each year, the Australian Government invites proposals from relevant
organisations to undertake activities that will contribute to the six national priorities and outcomes. The
Government has stated that it will invest in the best combination of delivery arrangements, delivery mechanisms
and integrated activities for a particular region or natural asset. Delivery agents could include regional natural
resource management bodies, local governments, universities, Australian and State/Territory government
agencies, non-government organisations, industry groups and Indigenous organisations. Delivery mechanisms
could include Landcare grants, other small grants, direct purchase, incentives such as stewardship payments,
or negotiating planning system reforms.
The previous Government's natural resource management programs and the new program arrangements
introduced by the Rudd Government are not without their critics. For example, in late 2009, the CSIRO
launched a book titled ‘Contested Country: Local and Regional Natural Resources Management in Australia' (2)
which offered a critical analysis of the Natural Heritage Trust and the National Action Plan for Salinity and Water
Quality. In February 2010, the Senate Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport Committee tabled the final report
of its inquiry into the new programs, titled ‘Natural Resource Management and Conservation Challenges' (3) and
recommends a number of changes to the way the Caring for our Country program is being administered.
There can be no doubt that the investments by Federal, State and Territory Governments of both major political
persuasions over the last two decades have been the most significant environmental planning and management
experiments on a national and continental scale anywhere in the world. The fact that the Rudd Government has
made investment in natural resource management a continuing program, rather than one that is subject to budget
and electoral cycles, is a significant step in the right direction.
However, that does not mean the program can escape annual budget cycles and the risk of funding cuts
when the economy is going through hard times or if governments decide to invest in other priorities instead.
In May 2010, the Australian Government announced ‘cost savings' amounting to $83.1 million for Caring for
our Country, spread over four years. The Government stated that the savings would be achieved through
administrative efficiencies and minor adjustments to the program.
Nevertheless, as one regional natural resource management group commented after the budget, the funding
cuts will take a heavy toll on the willingness of volunteers, small and regional natural resource management
groups, and the science community. The dissatisfaction with funding cuts across these groups could
represent more unhappy people than the membership of the two major political parties combined. The
regional resource management group also commented that the funding cuts can be likened to "poisoning the
soil around the roots of a tree - slowly but surely, bit by bit the tree bears less fruit and dies".
1. Headed by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd