Green Army initiative improves environment

The Green Army Program is a key coalition government commitment that we took to the 2013 election. It is a voluntary initiative and it will commence from July 2014. The program will see the recruitment of young people, aged 17 to 24, who are interested in protecting their local environment, while gaining hands-on practical skills, training and experience. It will become Australia’s largest ever environmental workforce, building to 15,000 participants by 2018 and capable of delivering on-ground environmental projects.

This program has the capacity to make a real difference to the environment and to the local communities through projects such as restoring and protecting habitat, weeding, planting, cleaning up creeks and rivers and restoring cultural heritage places. The coalition believes in encouraging practical, hands-on grassroots environmental action as a means of fixing environmental problems. It also believes in tapping into the knowledge of local communities, encouraging them to identify and fix their own local problems and to be a part of the ongoing management—that buy-in, that commitment in the longer term.

Clean land is essential for a cleaner environment. Our plan is focused on cleaning up and revegetating urban and regional environments, and other complementary reforms to strengthen natural resource management and delivery right across Australia in land care. The Green Army itself complements the government’s direct action approach to climate change. This provides the opportunity for individuals, communities, organisations and companies to help address our environmental challenges and to reduce our emissions on the lowest possible cost basis. Ultimately the Green Army builds on the Howard government’s successful Green Corps program that was established in 1996 to employ young people on environmental projects to preserve and restore our natural and cultural environment.

The opportunity that we have with this particular initiative to improve the environmental outcomes should not be underestimated. Just think of 15,000 young people at work. I was fortunate enough to visit the young people who were part of the original Green Corps programs. It was a great initiative. There was a project in Bunbury, in my electorate, that helped to restore healthy ecosystems, to assist with issues such as salinity and erosion. The project enhanced the biodiversity, it controlled weeds and feral animals, and it increased native vegetation. In addition, it enabled the young people involved to gain a better awareness of their actual community itself. That was probably something they had never even thought much about before. It gave them hands-on experience in fencing, revegetation, tree planting and—very importantly in my part of the world—weed control.

One of the things I saw was the sense of pride that they found in themselves. It gave them confidence—that practical knowledge of the environment—that they could actually do things they had never thought they would or never thought they would be capable of. What I saw in those young people was a real change, an absolute change.

I thought that the best way for me to judge this, how much this meant to these young people and what it did for them was to meet them when they first started their program. So before they actually started the work I went to see the launch, if you like, of the program and the group involved. Then I saw them at the end of the program. I saw the growth of these young people as individuals and what turned out to be so frequently their sheer enjoyment from having been involved in something they would never have had access to otherwise.

One thing that came across very clearly to me was their pride in starting and finishing something. Often for the first time in their lives, they had started a project and they had finished it. This gave them opportunities in pursuing an alternative career that they had never thought of. Some of the young people were actually looking at taking on traineeships or a possible career with a local council, or traineeships with environmental groups and organisations.

The other thing they enjoyed, for so many of them who were based in urban areas, was the experience of getting dirty, of actually wearing the work gear and the work boots, and of actually physically working and getting dirty. For others, the enjoyment was simply that they found they enjoyed being part of the team. For some of them it was the first time they had been part of a team. They were doing something new and useful.

Some of the things they did—like the river restoration, the wetland revegetation, the remnant vegetation management, the macroinvertebrate sampling and stormwater management—were just practical things. I saw the growth of the individuals, the new skills and the confidence in their own ability and their far greater awareness of the environment around them.

Like the Green Army, this program provided—and the Green Army will provide—an alternative learning method for some young Australians who are not necessarily suited to doing their learning in a classroom or a standard environment. They are the things that we take for granted, perhaps. This was a type of program that gave great encouragement to young people to do things differently, to learn in a different environment and to use manual, practical skills. We have so many of these great young people who do this so well.

I was delighted to see them at the beginning of the program and at the end to see the changes in these young people. They loved what they did. They grew as people. They saw another career and training opportunity. For some of them, the interesting thing was that they sometimes learned to take instructions for the first time. I found how they responded to that was just so good. I can see some great benefits in this Green Army program. There are environmental benefits and benefits to the individuals.

Our Australian ecosystems are under siege from a range of invasive plant and animal species. This is a real challenge in my electorate, because some of them have become quite common. Feral animals are rife in certain areas; weed species have been overtaking natural ecosystems. What a great idea and a great job for a Green Army. For instance, we have arum lilies along the coast infesting Busselton, Capel and the Margaret River regions. Blackberry, for instance, continues to run rampant in state forests around Balingup and Donnybrook. Cotton bush is unfortunately becoming quite endemic in farming land around Harvey, Dardanup, Capel and Donnybrook-Balingup shires.

I can see some really good work here for some of those 15,000 Green Army participants. They are the part of the workforce that could focus on eradication or control. There is no shortage of work to be done. We see a range of issues right throughout Australia. It is not just in my part of the world. We do need to get serious about invasive species. It is also an opportunity to reinvigorate native ecosystems.

In my part of the world, I can see the Green Army perhaps directed towards managing some of the remaining native wildlife in some of the isolated pockets of vegetation in wildlife corridors. They could even assist with some of the great work that is being done by our Coastcare groups. I could see that being enhanced. Some very good environmental outcomes could potentially be achieved.

It could be and will be a major contributor to the work of climate change adaptation. I think this is a practical way of dealing with climate change adaptation. That is why we need a flexible and adaptable program, such as the Green Army. I would like to see a primary focus on future-proofing vulnerable ecosystems in the Green Army Program. Systems like those are found right throughout the south west of WA.

We have, in my part of the world, one of the world’s recognised environmental biodiversity hotspots. It is one of those. It is internationally recognised. There are the jarrah forests in my part of the world; we know about the effects of drying. The jarrah forests and karri forests of the region are susceptible to change, especially from invasive species.

There may be a way to involve volunteers from the Green Army in perhaps something like marine ecology, such as assisting with the development of artificial reefs off the Western Australian coast, which is constantly changing. Australia has a strong history of delivering local environmental programs through all sorts of programs. One of them is Landcare. These programs were developed with strong links to Australian landholders, especially our farming community. The resulting synergy has provided sound local outcomes—local outcomes that work on the ground, and people who live and work in the community are committed to the longer term and stay involved with projects. We know that farmers are the primary Landcare group. It is something to repeat in this place because this fact is frequently overlooked. Our farmers manage vast areas of Australia; in fact, they manage 61 per cent of the nation’s land area. It is a statistic that perhaps the member for Grey would know because he comes from a similar area to me. Ninety-three per cent of farmers practise land care on their properties. We often underestimate and undervalue their commitment and their efforts in relation to land care and to the environment.

This program is expected to be delivered by service providers who will be responsible for recruiting, establishing and managing the Green Army teams across Australia. They will work alongside and with communities. What a great result: you have local communities involved with local young people on local projects. I hope that a number of these young people from a particular community go on to work in that community and take an ongoing active role—they will not want to see what they have done go backwards. They will not want to lose what they have achieved and they will develop a direct commitment to their community and the local environment. There will be things they have never thought of and things they will have taken for granted as they passed by. They will gain a lot of knowledge and they will get to work day after day with some wonderful people on simple projects. We have some of the most amazing people with incredible amounts of local knowledge. That knowledge often cannot be taught and cannot be bought; it comes from intergenerational transfer. I see this over and over in our farming group—knowledge about particular land and what happens to it over the various seasons. I am hoping more of that wealth of knowledge will be passed on to the younger generation through this type of program. That sort of knowledge is incredibly valuable not just to the individual farmer but also to the community. We need this local information and we need it to be enduring.

I have many reasons to support this program, especially for the environmental benefits. The thought of 15,000 young people around Australia involved in local projects, working with local people and communities and what they will gain from that and what the environment will gain from their involvement is tremendous. This is a great opportunity and I hope many of our young people take it. I know that Australia will benefit from that.