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Wednesday, 26 November 2003
Page: 22972

Mr KELVIN THOMSON (3:46 PM) —A month or so back the Central Coast News reported:

Sticking the Federal Environment Minister on a fishing boat and taking him out on Tuggerah Lakes seemed like a great idea.

But things didn't go according to plan when his boat became stuck in the mud and he had to be pushed off.

It included a photo of the minister being pushed off the mud. It is a wonder being exposed to direct sunlight that he did not do himself damage. But there was more to it than that, Mr Deputy Speaker. It went on to say:

And putting a pack of reporters and photographers on another boat to tag behind also spelled trouble.

Reporters need someone to interview and Kevin Byles, the fourth generation professional fishermen driving their boat was the ideal person.

A fisherman for 40-odd years, it turned out that he is deeply opposed to the plan to dredge Tumbi Creek and spread the soil across the lake bed. That is a pretty powerful metaphor for this government's environmental policies which are just as comprehensively stuck in the mud.

Just yesterday, 420 of this nation's biological scientists sent off a letter to Prime Minister Howard and Queensland Premier Beattie calling for an end to large-scale clearing of native bushland throughout Australia. It is unusual for scientists to write letters to politicians—they are usually happier in the lab or out in the field. But they took this unusual step because of their alarm at the damage that land clearing is causing to Australia's birds, plants, and animals, and their conviction that if we do not get action to halt land clearing, we will finish up with wide-scale species extinctions and long-term land degradation.

That letter, which has been called the `Brigalow declaration', sets out a few uncomfortable, but unavoidable, home truths about land clearing: firstly, that more than half a million hectares of native bush is being cleared each year in Australia; secondly, that nearly 80 per cent of Australia's land clearing occurs in Queensland, where a recent scientific report estimated that 2.1 million mammals, 8.5 million birds and 89 million reptiles are killed by land clearing each year; thirdly, that for every 100 hectares of native woodlands cleared, about 2,000 birds, 15,000 reptiles and 500 native mammals will die; and, fourthly, that Australia's current rate of land clearing puts us amongst the world's five worst land clearers, exceeded only by Brazil, Indonesia, the Congo and Bolivia. That is the kind of company we are in. The Treasurer could, I am sure, make something of that.

Labor know this, and that is why the first policy release that we put out on the environment after I became shadow minister early last year in Adelaide committed Labor to halting land clearing. A Labor government would reverse the decline in the quality and extent of native vegetation by, firstly, setting national standards to control land clearing that states must implement and manage under bilateral agreements and, secondly, making Commonwealth natural resource management funding contingent on the implementation of these national standards.

Earlier this year, the Queensland government announced a moratorium on land clearing and there was much rejoicing. Both the Prime Minister and the Minister for the Environment and Heritage were keen to be associated with this step, and they came into the parliament indicating their support for it. A package negotiated between the federal and state governments was announced by the environment minister on 22 May. That package included the immediate protection of `of concern' vegetation, a phase-down of broadacre clearing of remnant vegetation to zero by 2006 and a joint Commonwealth and Queensland adjustment assistance package of up to $150 million. What has happened since then? Since then, some Queensland landowners have refused to accept this package, and the Howard government has capitulated to them.

When it comes to the environment, the Howard government is completely unwilling to make the hard decisions, and it has walked away from the agreement which it negotiated. Originally, the agreement was to be finalised in three or four weeks. Then the Howard government asked for a delay and was given until the end of September. Then it said that it would put the matter before cabinet's sustainability committee on 5 November. Then that meeting was cancelled. I became concerned about this delay and the backsliding, and I asked the environment minister a question about this in the House on Thursday, 6 November. The minister claimed that the reason why land clearing controls in Queensland have not been finalised is:

... that the Beattie government will not make a commitment to protect vegetation of concern ...

That is utterly wrong. It is the kind of answer which gives this minister the reputation he has in this place of being someone who will say absolutely anything. To blame the Queensland government for the delay, when it is the Howard government that refuses to sign, is a disgrace, and it is a reflection of the pitiful ministerial standards of the Howard government ministers. The Queensland government will put forward its $75 million and protect `of concern' vegetation on freehold land. All the Howard government has to do is put up its $75 million and sign the deal.

Land clearing has three strikes against it: it is the single greatest threat to native birds, plants and animals; it is the principal cause of dryland salinity; and it is a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. The Labor Party supports action to control and halt broadacre land clearing. The question is, does the Liberal Party? Misleading parliament in response to Labor's questions is no answer. The Howard government must sign the land clearing deal it proposed or be exposed as a fraud on one of the key environmental challenges facing this country.

I turn now to the issue of rivers. The most potent symbol of this government's failure to protect our rivers is the sad state of the Murray. It is a river on life support, its mouth kept open by dredging, with river red gums dying, native fish species put on the endangered list, blue-green algal blooms and alarming projections for the future regarding salinity, the state of the Coorong and the health of the drinking water of Adelaide and inland New South Wales towns. On 14 November, the Murray-Darling Basin Ministerial Council carried resolutions which, if they are carried out, will return to the Murray an additional 500 gigalitres over the next five years. This is good news, and if it happens then the river will benefit from it.

I do not suppose that Labor or Simon Crean will get any recognition for this, but there is no doubt that the reason this decision was taken was that Simon Crean's budget reply this year highlighted Labor's plan to save the Murray River. Firstly, it involved finding an additional 450 gigalitres in our first term of office; secondly, there was finding a total of 1,500 additional gigalitres over a 10-year period; and, thirdly, there was setting up a Commonwealth corporation, the Murray-Darling river bank, with an initial capital injection of $150 million to help make this happen.

Throughout the past two years, Simon Crean, the Leader of the Opposition, and the federal parliamentary Labor Party have been campaigning hard on the need to save the Murray River. We have done it in the face of incessant criticism from government ministers—from Minister Anderson and Minister Truss—and, indeed, from certain farmer organisations. But we have kept it up. Without the political pressure the government has felt as a result of Labor's policies to save the Murray I have no doubt that we would still be going around in circles. This is a government which has failed to deliver a single litre of additional water for the Murray in 7½ years, and without ongoing pressure from Labor it never would. Indeed, we will be watching the implementation of this decision like a hawk on a river red gum to make sure that the Murray gets the water it needs. We stand for restoring the whole of the Murray, and our $150 million river bank commitment represents money which will go into rural communities along the Murray River system to ensure that we get water for the river without prejudicing or sacrificing agricultural production.

I turn to the issue of climate change. Australia's climate is being affected by climate change. Whether it is coral bleaching on the Great Barrier Reef caused by warmer water temperatures, the loss of snow cover on the Australian Alps, bushfires or the prospect of increased susceptibility to tropical diseases like dengue fever, climate change is going to be a big issue for Australia. Recently, the ABC program Catalyst outlined a new scientific theory which says that the interaction between climate change and the ozone layer hole is causing a loss of winter rainfall in southern Australia, leading to droughts for south-west and Western Australia, South Australia, Victoria and Tasmania. The theory goes that a phenomenon called the Antarctic vortex gives rise to the winter rainfalls that southern Australia receives but that climate change is accentuating this phenomenon, sucking rain-bearing winds southwards into the ocean.

It is a matter of record that Perth and south-west and Western Australia, parts of South Australia, parts of Tasmania, Melbourne and other parts of Victoria have been experiencing record low rainfalls over the past few years. Even Minister Kemp acknowledged in answer to a question that climate change was having an impact, stating:

... the more severe impact of the current drought—

the lingering drought—

arises from the relatively higher temperatures during 2002 compared with earlier droughts such as those of 1982 and 1994.

But the government has failed abjectly to deal with climate change. It has refused to be part of the collective international effort to tackle climate change through the Kyoto protocol. It has done everything it could to scuttle and undermine the Kyoto protocol.

It has also undermined the Mandatory Renewable Energy Target program. Former Liberal minister Warwick Parer recommended that the two per cent target be abolished. Labor would increase the target to an additional five per cent. It has ruled out emissions trading and abandoned work on it. Emissions trading is a market based way of meeting the kinds of greenhouse gas emissions targets that we will have in future. It offers many advantages for business. Instead, we are in a climate of drift and of uncertainty. By contrast, Labor's policies would provide the missing national leadership. We would ratify the Kyoto protocol, increase the Mandatory Renewable Energy Target to five per cent and do the hard yards on emissions trading.

Finally, I want to refer to the Great Barrier Reef. The government has allowed the Great Barrier Reef to be attacked by climate change and land based activities and put at risk by oil exploration. Labor would act to meet these challenges. The most current issue involving the Great Barrier Reef is the question of the Representative Areas Program. This is a government which cannot be trusted to manage in good faith a process of consultation to protect our greatest natural wonder, the Great Barrier Reef.

The Representative Areas Program is a laudable project which aims to expand protected areas or no-take zones from some four per cent to over 30 per cent. It has been subverted by this government. As recently as 4 November, during a Senate supplementary budget estimates hearing, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority outlined the orderly process that should have been followed. The chair, Virginia Chadwick, told the hearing that the draft zoning plan would go to the marine park authority board meeting towards the end of November. Once accepted by the board the plan was then to be presented to the minister, who would then have the option to consider it, make suggestions and send it back to the board.

The minister was to have the plan by the end of November. It came as a great surprise to hear reports that the zoning plan has already gone to cabinet before going to the board or the minister. Labor support the zoning plan process, but we want the final product to be based on hard science, not grubby politicisation. Yet the plan has got cabinet's fingerprint all over it before the experts—the board of the authority—have had a chance to consider it formally.

It gets worse. We have reports of various Liberal and National Party members of parliament, particularly the members for Dawson and Leichhardt—

Mr Gavan O'Connor —That is not surprising.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Hon. I.R. Causley)—The member for Corio is warned!

Mr KELVIN THOMSON —lobbying Minister Kemp at the eleventh hour to water down the plan, effectively reducing the level of protection that the plan recommended. We have it on good authority that the member for Dawson met with the minister and representatives of commercial fishing interests, and several days later Repulse Bay—an area recognised as possessing special and unique World Heritage areas—was changed from a yellow zone to a blue zone. It changed colour. That change would allow trawling and netting into the bay, potentially threatening dugongs, turtles and dolphins. The Sunfish representatives say that they have now got to the point where they do not believe anything that people tell them in relation to this process and that the yellow on the map seems to be coming and going, depending on who the maps are being shown to. Mr Bateman said:

I have worked for government for 36 years and I believe I am able to pick when people are running interference, and the story here is changing week by week and day by day. I do not know if Virginia Chadwick is trying to protect the minister but this is one of the reasons that we are now not keen to believe anybody.

We know that meetings were held in Mackay on 26 September between Minister Kemp, Virginia Chadwick, the member for Dawson and guests that Mrs Kelly, as meeting organiser, had invited. After that meeting we found the yellow zoning, which had been on Repulse Bay, disappearing and the map showing only blue zoning, which allows trawling and gill netting. (Time expired)

The DEPUTY SPEAKER —The member for Braddon should realise his position in the House. He was warned during question time.