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Address to Conference Delegates by the Chief Executive, Department for Environment and Heritage, South Australia

Allan Holmes

Chief Executive, Department for Environment and Heritage, South Australia


Thank you to the Kaurna people for the warm welcome and the recognition of being on your land. I also acknowledge the Honourable Alfred Huang, Lord Mayor of the City of Adelaide; The Honourable John Tate, Lord Mayor of the City of Newcastle; the Honourable Sharman Stone, Parliamentary Secretary to the Commonwealth Minister for Environment and Heritage; distinguished speakers and conference delegates.


You might well ask what is a Chief Executive doing speaking on behalf of the State Government at a major international conference. As the result of our recent election is still not clear we are in a caretaker period and Chief Executives are sometimes asked to speak on behalf of Ministers. I hasten to add that this does not represent a lack of commitment by the State, as there is bipartisan support in SA for the sustainability agenda. The SA government was invited by the conference organisers to participate in the opening session and speak about the role of State Governments generally in working with local government to address issues of sustainability.


In response I propose to talk about three things.

  • What can Governments do?
  • Some observations on success and failure in our own Partnership for Local Agenda 21; and
  • The importance of leadership.

So what can Governments do?

The first and most important thing Governments can do is develop and promulgate frameworks and settings, for their policies on sustainability — the policies that influence social and economic activity.

Clear policy settings, make it apparent what governments stand for and make them accountable to their constituency.

Policy settings are translated or are expressed:

  • through Laws, law making and the interpretation and administration of those laws
  • through programs and activity that influence, advocate, persuade, educate and assist
  • through monitoring, investigation, research, analysis and reporting and finally through direct action.

Obviously I do not have sufficient time to describe what the SA government is doing in detail, however I can provide a brief summary of a framework that has emerged here. We now talk about five outcomes for Government in the environment arena.

They are….

  • A sustainable and eco-efficient society

• viable, innovative and sustainable communities where individuals, households, businesses and governments use resources efficiently with minimal waste and minimal other environmental impacts.

  • Clean air, water and land

• healthy environments capable of supporting richly diverse life into the future.

  • Conserved ecosystems

• viable populations of native plants and animals and viable ecosystems for future generations.

  • Celebrated and conserved heritage

• conservation of significant heritage to identify and celebrate our landscapes, our human history and our sense of place.

  • Sustainable use of natural assets and resources

• sustainable use and enjoyment of natural assets and resources to enhance prosperity, a sense of community and quality of life.

We are developing goals and ambitions around these 5 outcomes — goals and ambitions that will lead to measurement and reporting of progress.

Now to my second theme.

Some observations on ingredients for success from our Partnerships for LA 21 project

We spend a great deal of time worrying about our place and our influence in the 3 tiered Australian political system. Too much of our time is spent arguing about boundaries and turf. Too little time is spent talking about what it is that we want to achieve and how we should go about it.

What then should we worry about?

Here are a few observations about successful ingredients or success factors.

In SA, Partnership for LA 21 began in 1995. The Department for Environment and Heritage, Local Government Association of SA, and five Councils agreed to work together to promote the uptake and implementation of LA 21. From 6 years of experience, several things have emerged.

First, the importance of an agreed approach, one where roles and responsibilities are described and guiding principles accepted, is most important.

An approach that has had local control, local ownership and local direction — in essence, one that has come from the bottom up.

Secondly, it is very difficult to progress without ongoing support and commitment, support that is catalytic and enabling. In our case it has been as rudimentary as providing a LA 21 coordinator, establishing a LA 21 network, and funding a variety of initiatives to demonstrate action.

The third factor is one of engagement. In SA, we have more than 50% of our councils involved in The Partnership For LA 21. All 18 metropolitan councils are participating and many more Councils are involved but not under the partnership banner. During this conference you will hear first hand about many of these experiences. And the important ingredient is a commitment to cooperate, a commitment to work together.

A great example is the Water Conservation Partnerships Project, which is a project to conserve water, reduce consumption and reduce our dependence on River Murray water. In SA, 37 councils and one and a quarter million people draw their water from the Murray. The WCPP has pilot projects in 17 councils.

The final ingredient is the one that leads me to the third theme of this brief presentation.

The importance of leadership

Leadership comes in many forms and from many places. The session chair talked about David Suzuki visit to Adelaide and the leadership role he has taken. Our own Tim Flannery, of course we can claim him as our own, Director of the Museum, used the National Australia Day address to talk about the dysfunctional relationship between Australians and Australia. Stephen Forbes, the recently appointed Director of Adelaide’s Botanic Gardens, yesterday challenged the fashion business of the nursery and garden industry to reflect on the unsustainability of our household gardens. Was it gardens of delusion — I am not sure!

However it was someone else who had the most impact on me. On Saturday morning I had the pleasure of listening to an inspirational address from a young woman at our Youth Environment Council’s Youth for environmental action workshop. Her name is Emma Porter. She is a 15 year old, secondary school student who also happens to be our national champion for the environment. She told her story, a story of her personal journey as an environmental activist in her school community. She talked about her trials and her tribulations of speaking up and speaking out, of her extraordinary hard work, discipline and persistence. Emma spoke with humility, humour and good grace.

I see around me, people in many roles, fail and succeed in affecting change towards a more sustainable society. For individuals that is life but for those of us in public service and in public office the judgement will and should be much harsher. We need to face up to the challenges of achieving a sustainable society and heed the lessons and learning’s of our Partnership For LA 21.

Remember an agreed approach, long-term commitment, engagement and cooperation.

It’s a bit like Tony Blair’s ‘A Third Way’ and just as he is finding the going tough, there is no easy path.

To conclude, I go back to Emma Porter’s speech to her colleagues — it didn’t just happen — it was the result of careful thought, preparation, and the courage to speak up and to speak out. And that must be what conferences like this are about.

Thank you

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