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Wednesday, 3 March 2004
Page: 25757

Mr TUCKEY (1:27 PM) —The legislation before us today, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Amendment Bill 2004, is quite sensible. It addresses an anomaly where a GST requirement was virtually imposed when it was not the original intention of the government to do so. This legislation makes sure that that need not occur in the future. I am interested to know whether, for the saving of 40c per transaction, many operators with a licence will take the opportunity to separate these payments out. Hopefully, they will be able to program their computers to separate the two payments they have always received but now must treat differently to the way they did in the past. It is an issue that arises on all these occasions. I think it proves the argument for a universal consumer tax with no exemptions, as exists in New Zealand. People then have a very simple rule, and the revenue is determined by the rate of the tax. That is not, of course, the ground for today's debate; that is a debate lost long ago. I think a Labour government in New Zealand got it right, but that is not the issue today.

It is notable to me, nevertheless, that in presenting this legislation, the minister chose to speak for probably 70 per cent of the second reading speech on matters relating to the environment—a word I often have some difficulty with; I am not really sure what it is meant to mean. For some, it is just an argument to do nothing—in other words, develop your economy. I have had some ministerial responsibilities very close to things that are part of the environment, including forestry and fisheries. When it comes to fisheries I am a major supporter of the precautionary principle. Fish are much harder to count than, say, trees and one must always be careful that the resource is not being overexploited. During my period as minister for fisheries, I found myself in Northern Queensland being quite forceful with fishermen in the Gulf of Carpentaria, ensuring that they undertook further conservation measures to ensure that the resource was sustained, but always on the principle that it created future harvesting opportunities.

I had a confrontation in Tasmania relating to southern bluefin tuna and the fact that the state government thought that they were beyond an international treaty—one that I am very proud of—which we have maintained with the Japanese, in particular, and which is regenerating the southern bluefin tuna stocks and the associated resource. In all my time associated with the forestry and fisheries portfolio, I constantly made the point that the ecology and the economy must travel forward in parallel. That is a very interesting point. There would be some conflicting arguments on the Great Barrier Reef, but, in international terms, one only has to go a short distance from Australia to find that national poverty is by far the greatest threat to the environment. People who have very little money have very little respect for the issues that other people, if they live in the luxury of Europe or even Australia, think are important.

It was quite interesting having representations at that time from the chairman of the international rainforest timber association, who pointed out to me that when environmental interests—green interests, if you like—went around and stopped hardware stores around the world from selling rainforest timber, the people in those countries cut down the trees and replanted them with palm oil trees. Everyone knows, even from their own backyard, that if you saw off a tree it will regrow from the original stump—it is called coppicing. If you dig out all the trees and replant with an exotic and almost feral species—in this case, palm trees—none of the rainforest grows back. But nobody parades in front of the major fast food places—McDonald's, Hungry Jack's and the rest—and complains about their use of palm oil. They seem quite happy about that circumstance, and yet that is total destruction of the forest and it arises from an economic demand from people. They have been denied by the wealthier countries the right to properly harvest their forests, saw the wood into timber and watch the trees regrow, so they destroy them completely.

In the case of the Great Barrier Reef, the minister, in his second reading speech—and, no doubt, other speakers today—highlighted the great economic value that tourism on the Great Barrier Reef can deliver. I think the second reading speech argued the case that that is the dominant economic benefit because in dollars it is probably the biggest. I happen to have the view that, if you have a $10 billion gross industry and you chase $6 billion out of it—there is $4 billion produced—that is a loss of $6 billion worth of enterprise. We may say that that the $6 billion enterprise was having a totally negative effect on the asset that was the attraction for the tourism—this is addressing purely the economic issues—but I feel that we frequently tend to try and address conservation by drawing lines on a map. The member for Herbert complained that 25 per cent reef protection is maybe not enough. I would agree with that, but the 25 per cent is a measurement of area by the process of drawing lines on a map. I do not care if it is a forest or an ocean—that is a very silly way of doing things. You should be able to have a protective protocol which would include, from time to time, certain no-go areas, and that might include tourists—they are not exactly absolutely beneficial to a pristine environment. You might then assess other areas on whether there could be limited access for certain economic purposes.

A prawn—or a shrimp, depending on where you live—lives for only a year and its contribution to the reef ceases at that point in time. Prawns go back into tidal creeks—typically on the mainland—to breed, and their young eventually float out to other areas. To my mind, it is therefore quite practical to be allowed to enter these areas inside the line on the map and harvest—working on an appropriate bottom so that you do not start hooking up on coral. I can tell you that the average fisherman or trawler does not want to be hooked up on coral; he would have to go back and repair his nets at great expense and loss of time.

I believe there is still an opportunity for controlled harvesting. The member for Herbert, a previous speaker, said, `What a great breeding ground we're going to have for fish, which will naturally swim out and get caught in other areas of the ocean.' I do not know whether that is established scientifically. It certainly does not work for prawns, because prawns breed in the creeks, so you are not saving them or creating a breeding habitat for prawns, which are the major fishery, I understand, to have suffered significantly. I hope the member for Herbert is right in what he says. My view is that confining them to smaller areas might in fact be very damaging environmentally, or from a conservation point of view, because you increase the effort.

There is a great debate about conservation and how best to protect fish stocks. The more popular theory is that you give people a quota, which is patently quite stupid. During my period as fisheries minister, there was a case—a bit away from the reef—in Bass Strait where a trawler man rang his boss on the sat phone and said: `Have I got good news for you! I have just caught 20 tonnes of fish and I am coming into the port.' When his boss heard what kind of fish they were he said: `Chuck them over the side. Those fish are too cheap this week. I don't want to let my quota go at that price. We'll wait for another day.' Everybody knows that when you trawl fish they die, so 20 tonnes of dead fish went over the side. There is a practice called high grading, where you catch some fish and then you catch some better ones so you chuck the little ones back—again, they are dead. That is the downside of a quota system. You can have huge catches going unrecorded.

In the Gulf of Carpentaria, where the entitlement to catch prawns is traded, they trade in a net unit. In other words, you are limited in the amount of net that you can put in the water. In my electorate, people are controlled by the number of pots they can drop to catch crayfish and lobster. In fact, the fishermen themselves campaigned some years ago to have the number of pots reduced by 25 per cent. A small minority complained about that, politics prevailed and the number was reduced by only 18 per cent. From my research, 80 or 90 per cent of the fishermen wanted to give back 25 per cent with no compensation, because, they said, the technological advances in the operating of these vessels are such that they were getting too smart at harvesting the resource.

We have got too simplistic in this legislation. We have drawn lines on the map. Twenty five per cent will no doubt become 30 per cent. Please remember that coral is a living thing that actually lays eggs. Those eggs are deposited even on bleached coral structures and they will revitalise them, just as trees drop seeds on the ground ready to replace ageing trees. Of course, we now have a policy that says you save the old trees and cut down the young ones, or you leave them all untouched until they all burn down and cause extensive damage. We are not very smart at looking at these issues in a positive way and asking ourselves where some exploitation may be acceptable. Remember that even in biblical history we humans caught fish.

The reality is that there is opportunity in an integrated process to address the conservation or environmental issues at exactly the same time as the economic issues. We certainly can recognise the value of the reef's structure for the tourism industry, and it is important to make sure that in that process we do not do damage to this living thing. But I am not sure that consequently barring any activity for kilometres each side of it, which might include areas with a purely sandy bottom, is necessarily a good idea unless there is absolute evidence that there is a measurable benefit. As I said, have the boundaries but have a process where economic activity can happen where it is not obviously doing damage. At the right limit, it will not do damage to prawn stocks. What is more, it will leave some for the reef fish, which, as far as I know, breed within the confines of the reef.

Today is a great opportunity for me to express again a view that I have often expressed before. In Queensland, not far from this reef, we have an issue with land clearing. It is quite strange because most of the trees that are now cleared in Queensland were not there a hundred years ago. If the EPBC Act is to be applied literally, we should be encouraging people to knock those trees down to re-establish the original biodiversity. As the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Industry, Tourism and Resources, who is at the table, would know, the original biodiversity was grass and the animals, insects and everything in that region were associated with that. But that was maintained by Aboriginal burning practices and, as such, the grass always remained. We came along, fenced it off and wanted the grass to be eaten in the off-season, and the trees were established and grew. They are now defined as remnant vegetation when, in fact, they have killed all the grass.

It is just another example of people thinking incorrectly whilst trying to do the right thing. I am very much in favour of doing the right thing. I am very much in favour of the government having a substantial role in protecting the reef. I have no objection to raising a levy from the people who enjoy it to aid in that effort. But I am not in favour of arbitrary decisions that mean a certain pencil line on a map differentiates between good conservation and unnecessary conservation. I do not think it works that way. I am encouraged that people are trying to look at the mainland in terms of the discharge of fertiliser remnant et cetera. I think that is well and truly worth looking at, but I am not totally convinced that, with the rates of dilution, it is a significant problem. But let us research it and understand what is going on.

Please let us remember my opening remarks: the greatest threat to the environment is poverty. If we follow the claims of many people, the WWF get a mention. They are a great environmental group! They were endorsing a green, ethical investment in Holland—and this is well recorded—at a commission of 700 guilders per policy. The investment was to go into a tree plantation of mahogany, I think, in South or Central America, whilst they held an expert's opinion that said that the trees would not grow where they were being planted. Yet they are seen as a sort of god in these issues. For the information of the shadow minister, the book that carries all that information is called Green Gold: On Variations of Truth in Plantation Forestry. He might like to have a look at it. It even contains a diskette in the back because the author could not include in print all of his sources. I think these people have to be known for what they are when they participate in activities of that nature. We do not want to be driven by them. We can certainly listen to them, but we should have the sense to look very carefully at where we are going and make sure that we achieve acceptable environmental outcomes—but not by following a `lock it up and throw away the key' principle.