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Wednesday, 13 March 2002
Page: 1186

Ms LIVERMORE (4:12 PM) —I support the shadow minister for the environment and heritage in criticising the government's failure to protect the Townsville Trough, located just 50 kilometres from the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage area, from oil exploration. It is now very clear that this government really needs to get some help; maybe it needs to get into some therapy before it does some serious damage to itself and this country. I am talking about the government's gambling problem, because its reckless, risk-taking behaviour is showing all the signs of becoming a compulsion it cannot break away from, with disastrous consequences for our country and, in this case particularly, our natural environment.

We have seen in the last few weeks the Treasurer exposed for losing billions of dollars in currency swaps. He kept rolling the dice for years after he was advised about the risks of continuing the policy in light of new economic circumstances. Now it seems that the Minister for the Environment and Heritage has caught the bug as well. Instead of gambling with taxpayers' money—which is bad enough—he is preparing to gamble with something even more precious: the Great Barrier Reef. The minister has been called on repeatedly to make the government's position very clear to the Australian people. He had another opportunity to do that in question time today. Will he protect the reef from the effects of oil exploration? It is very simple.

This is not a hypothetical question. As we have just heard, there is a proposal for a company to conduct seismic tests in an area just 50 kilometres from the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage area. In light of this proposal, Australians deserve to know how serious this government is about protecting the environmental values of the Great Barrier Reef. Will the minister continue to leave open the prospect of drilling activity near the reef or will he close the door once and for all on drilling for oil near the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage area?

The minister should not try to bluff the Australian people about what is going on here. He has been playing a very tricky game, choosing his words carefully, in his statements about this issue. We have seen another example of that today. In the minister's press release on 9 March this year, he stated that no exploration will be allowed outside the reef if it significantly impacts on the World Heritage area. We heard the minister today redefining what he means by that. He is now talking about limiting activity outside the World Heritage area that might damage the World Heritage site, so he is changing his tune. He is changing the policy on the run, when what we are asking for is a very clear, unambiguous statement on this issue.

The minister has had a lot of coaching in word games from his predecessor as environment minister, Robert Hill. If you look at the answers that Robert Hill gave in the Senate last year at the time he approved the environmental impact assessment for seismic testing in the Townsville Trough, you can see those word games very clearly being played. For example, he was very careful to only ever refer to activity `on the reef'. There was no unequivocal rejection of drilling for oil `near the reef', which of course in the marine environment is just as important to deal with. He was also very dismissive of the threat to the reef because of the distance of 50 kilometres between the test site and the World Heritage area, as if somehow 50 kilometres was going to mean something in terms of the Great Barrier Reef.

Also, he insisted again and again that this is about seismic testing, not drilling for oil—splitting hairs over that distinction. What is seismic testing about if it is not about looking for oil? Does the government seriously expect us to believe that companies go around looking for oil with no interest in ultimately extracting it? The minister knows exactly what he is dealing with here, and that is why it is so important for him to unambiguously rule out drilling for oil near the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage area. Not everyone is as lucky as I am to live near this incredible Treasurer—

Honourable members interjecting

Ms LIVERMORE —I mean incredible treasure. It is one of the wonders of the world. All Australians regard it as an icon of our nation. It is a symbol of Australia's natural beauty that is recognised internationally. In fact, the international community has made it very clear exactly how highly it regards the Great Barrier Reef and consequently Australia's responsibility to protect it. In 1981, the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage area was included on the World Heritage List in recognition of its universal value. The Great Barrier Reef has enormous environmental significance, as well as economic value to our nation, so we are talking about very high stakes here.

The Minister for the Environment and Heritage must be feeling very lucky indeed to entertain any prospect that will allow drilling to take place anywhere near the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage area. Of course the minister says that this is about exploration, not about drilling, but, while he says that drilling will never happen, he has already started the process by which drilling can eventually occur barely 50 kilometres from the World Heritage area. Looking at what happened at the Ranger mine just some weeks ago, perhaps we should ask the people up at Jabiluka how long their luck held out.

If the minister is going to gamble with the Great Barrier Reef, he should at least read the form guide to figure out the odds he is dealing with. TGS-NOPEC Geophysical, a subsidiary of an oil company and an applicant for an exploration permit, had this to say about the likelihood of exploration leading to drilling:

Our technical team is always scrutinising opportunities within this region to lead to potential oil and gas fields.

A company spokesman also said:

Australia's oil self-sufficiency will decline rapidly over the next few years, and we believe the Townsville Trough represents the only major opportunity for significant new oil discoveries.

Yes, clearly, this is all about seismic tests! I would say those are pretty short odds. This is a huge risk. The government has to stop its gambling now. The Great Barrier Reef is too valuable to be put at risk, whether from exploration activities or, heaven forbid, oil drilling.

I will cite an example from close to my electorate in Shoalwater Bay. Quite significant defence exercises are conducted in Shoalwater Bay. I was talking today to some of the people who have responsibility for the environmental management of Shoalwater Bay just to see how they conduct themselves when they are in this very precious area. For example, when they are doing exercises involving the transfer of fuel—testing and practising techniques are a part of their exercises—they do not even use fuel. This is quite a long distance from the actual reef itself, but they do not even take that chance when transferring fuel in a defence exercise. They use water to test their expertise in that particular technique. That is how seriously they take their small impact on the Great Barrier Reef area. Meanwhile, we are talking today about an application for seismic testing, for exploration that could potentially lead to drilling for oil. It is not even worth thinking about.

The minister got another opportunity in question time today to clearly put the government's position. I notice that he has been asked by members of his own side. I notice that the member for Herbert is not speaking in this debate today which probably speaks volumes in itself. The member for Herbert has made his own suggestions about how to deal with this issue and to protect once and for all the Great Barrier Reef from the threat of this kind of damage and exploitation. The minister should listen to those calls from his own side of the House. Importantly, he should make it clear to the Australian people and to the world that he takes his responsibility to protect the reef seriously.

As the shadow minister has outlined this afternoon, the minister does have options if he really choses to take the steps and to take seriously his responsibility to the Great Barrier Reef. He has those options under the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Act and other mechanisms which have been detailed today. I say to the minister: get out of this gambling habit that the government seems to have fallen into; you have to stop having a bob each way on this issue and must send an unambiguous message that the Great Barrier Reef will be protected from the threat of exploration and also drilling.