The past 5 years has seen an ongoing relaxation of the effects of the millennium drought and recovery in many areas (the millennium drought in southern Australian lasted from 2000 to 2010, although in some areas it began as early as 1997 and ended as late as 2012). Australian Government ‘exceptional circumstances’ support ceased in 2012, with $4.5 billion provided since 2001 (Cranston 2012). Water flowed into Kati Thanda (Lake Eyre) in the summer of 2015–16, and 2010–11 was Australia’s wettest 2-year period on record. However, dry conditions developed again in Queensland in 2013, and by 2015 some 86.1 per cent of Queensland was drought declared—the highest proportion in the state’s history.
The severe tropical cyclone Yasi affected large parts of far north Queensland, including large parts of the Wet Tropics of Queensland World Heritage Area, in what has been described as a 1-in-1000-year event (Nott & Jagger 2013); the cyclone caused the death of an estimated 302 million trees (Negrón-Juárez et al. 2014). Dry weather and lightning strikes in early 2016 caused large bushfires in Tasmania, which burned approximately 124,000 hectares, including 19,963 hectares of the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area (DPC 2016). Concerns have been raised that regeneration of some iconic and threatened communities, including endemic alpine flora and pencil pine stands, is unlikely.
Domestically, Australia’s population has grown by about 1.5 million people in 5 years (2010–15) to 23.8 million (ABS 2016a), and there has been a net movement of people from regional areas to cities. This puts greater pressure on Australian agriculture to feed the urban population, while urban sprawl and the resources industry continue to compete for agricultural land. Australia’s agricultural industry has continued to amalgamate into fewer, larger enterprises, and the median age of farmers has increased relative to other industries, with fewer under-35s entering the industry. The mining industry has declined, particularly for coal and iron ore, although there has been a slight growth in oil and gas extraction (ABS 2016b). Unconventional gas exploration and extraction have slowed, but expansion of shale gas and coal-seam gas extraction is still highly contested.
The most significant legislative change has been the creation of the new National Landcare Programme to unify the existing Landcare and Caring for our Country programs, and bring core environmental management resourcing into a single scheme. Additionally, reviews of initiatives such as the Australian Pest Animal Strategy, the Australian Weeds Strategy, the Intergovernmental Agreement on Biosecurity and regional forest agreements, and the release of the Australian Government’s white papers on agricultural competitiveness and developing northern Australia help to set the scene for the coming years.