Auditor General report reveals Outback WA let down by years of policy failure – but bigger reform is needed

A statement from Partnership for the Outback

Governance of pastoral leases has failed to support both lessees and the long term sustainability of land in Outback Western Australia, the findings of a government audit released this week highlight.

The report released by the Office of the WA Auditor General shows that a generation of failed policy across one third of the state has led to a significant decline in the productivity and condition of WA’s Outback.

Spokesperson for Partnership for the Outback, Suzannah Macbeth, said: “The Auditor General’s report identifies a range of critical problems and puts forward some common sense solutions that will be strongly welcomed by all stakeholders. But this report falls way short of addressing the bigger reforms which will provide many of the long-term solutions needed to restore the productivity and health of our Outback lands.”

The Office of the Auditor General was tasked with investigating how the state manages the environmental condition of pastoral lands. The report found:

  • Pastoral lands have been declining in health for over 75 years and there has been limited progress towards halting this decline.
  • Unclear policy direction means opportunities for social, environmental and financial outcomes aren’t being realised.

“While the common-sense solutions offered by the report are welcome, they dance around the real issue – that the system for managing WA’s pastoral lands, which make up one third of our state, is fundamentally flawed and has let down almost every stakeholder who cares about the future of our Outback,” Ms Macbeth said.

“Outdated pastoral laws have failed to keep pace with market conditions and opportunities, so the regulation and legislation which governs our Outback is not fit for purpose in the 21st century. Since the 1930s it’s been illegal to own an Outback station in WA and not earn your living primarily from livestock.

“Yet the solution – reforms developed by government through extensive consultation with Outback stakeholders over the past decade – is gathering dust on the shelf.

“The creation of a new form of lease which offers greater flexibility to Outback families would be the centrepiece in long overdue reforms to modernise land use laws. The Auditor General’s report highlights the changing mix of land uses and of people living and working on pastoral lands in WA. These reforms would take the brakes off people in the bush and open the door for diversification into other, more sustainable enterprises.

“New enterprises that would be made possible under these reforms, such as carbon farming, tourism and conservation, would help to strength the social and cultural fabric of our Outback while also breathing life back into the land.”

Previous reports have identified the need for reform of pastoral legislation and policy. A 2009 report led by former MP Wendy Duncan identified a range of reforms needed to spark economic opportunity and keep people on the land, including modernising land use laws, enabling carbon farming and supporting the development of sustainable enterprises such as tourism. These conclusions were supported by Outback sectors including pastoralism, tourism, conservation and others at the time, and support for obvious and long-needed reform has only broadened in the years since. 

The Auditor General's report is available here. A response from WA Government Ministers Alannah MacTiernan and Rita Saffioti can be found here.

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Our Outback is an amazing place, but what makes it special is at risk. 

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