Legislative arrangements for the management of public lands are relatively stable, notwithstanding periodic changes in institutional arrangements, such as changes to the names, roles and structures of government agencies with land management responsibilities. Similarly, while private and Indigenous landowners may be subject to increasing levels of regulation and constraint (e.g. in the terms under which they are permitted to clear or harvest native vegetation; see McDermott et al.86 for a national review), the institutional arrangements under which they manage land are also relatively stable. At the national level, the development in 2009 by the then Natural Resource Management Ministerial Council of a consultation draft of Australia’s Native Vegetation Framework (to complement existing national strategies such as the National Strategy for the Conservation of Australia’s Biodiversity and the National Forest Policy Statement) provides an important national foundation for future management of Australia’s land environment.
The discussion here therefore focuses on those arrangements that have been most volatile over the past decade—the ‘natural resource management arrangements’ under which the Australian Government directs funding to state and territory governments, private landowners and the community to improve management of the environment. There have been significant changes in these arrangements associated with development and implementation of the regional model of natural resource management (NRM), established by the Australian Government in 2002. Under this model, policies and programs ‘focused on developing regional-level strategic plans through which to channel joint federal-state NRM funding; … a designated network of 56 regional NRM organisations governed by community-based boards of management were given significant responsibilities to deliver more strategic NRM outcomes under the aegis of national programs’.96 The arrangements that prevailed from 2002 to 2008 were a more devolved and community-based form of NRM governance than had applied previously in Australia, under which the regional NRM organisations had a substantial role in both setting and helping to deliver NRM investment priorities.97-98
These institutional and funding arrangements changed in 2008, with the introduction of the Australian Government’s Caring for our Country program.99 Partly as a response to criticisms from the Australian National Audit Office and others that it was difficult to assess the outcomes and impacts of NRM investments, Caring for our Country recentralised decisions over NRM investment funding under six priority areas, and focused on measurable, short-term outputs.96 There is now a body of literature discussing the advantages and disadvantages of various models of institutional arrangements for Australian NRM.96-98,100-102
The Australian Government is conducting a review of the Caring for our Country program to assess its effectiveness and achievements and future options for NRM arrangements.103 The key themes that emerge from the literature are well characterised by those emerging from consultations under the Caring for our Country review, which include the need to consider:103
- alignment of national, regional and local NRM priorities
- recognition and alignment of the roles of governments and regional NRM organisations
- continued strong support for community skills, knowledge and engagement activities
- quality and accountability in NRM decision-making
- funding certainty for NRM delivery agents, including community groups
- improved efficiency of funding arrangements, and the potential to leverage funding from industry, the private sector and philanthropic individuals and groups
- national environmental accounting to support monitoring progress in NRM delivery
- integration of the successful elements of the Working on Country and Indigenous Protected Area programs (i.e. well-funded, multiyear contracts, alignment with Indigenous caring for country needs and aspirations) with other Caring for our Country programs.