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Wednesday, 14 March 2012
Page: 2799

Mr BURKE (WatsonMinister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities) (09:55): I will begin on a point that has been raised by the member for McMillan and the member for Gippsland, both of whom I get along well with and have a high regard for. They have both said a number of things I disagree with, but there is one thing I want to take head-on from the beginning. My gripe is not with the mountain cattlemen—they are not the people I believe deserve to be publicly denigrated—but with the Victorian government. It is the behaviour of the Victorian government on this matter that I believe is worthy of every single criticism we have levelled at it over this decision. Make no mistake—

Mr Forrest: It is the same thing.

Mr BURKE: Interjectors get thrown out before the vote—that would be terrific! Issues have been raised about who is behind this, what the reason is and what the real motivation is, as though somehow there are people pushing Labor to adopt this view. Getting the cattle out of Alpine National Park was a Labor reform led by a Labor deputy premier when he was Minister for Environment—John Thwaites. It was done by a Labor government and is a Labor reform of which we are proud. We do not need anyone to tell us—and I will let other parties speak for themselves—that national parks deserve to be treated differently.

Let us not allow this argument to get caught up in the pretence that no grazing occurs in the high country. In all the areas where there is state forest, alpine grazing continues to occur, and it occurs without any objection at all. But we draw a line and have a different view when a national park is involved. People then want to raise the non-environmental uses of national parks—the different tourism ventures and things like that. I have no problem with things happening inside national parks that are directly aimed at people enjoying a national park and enjoying nature. I just do not have the same view on that level of enjoyment being offered to cattle. I think national parks have a role as places people can go to enjoy nature and see things in the most natural environment possible. Families can go there for their picnics, people can go for walks there and people can enjoy and love one of the most special parts of our nation.

That is why you do not find the same objections being made to alpine grazing in state forests. It is also why I have no truck at all with the argument that somehow this is a states rights issue. If they are meant to be entirely of state interest, then why on earth call them national parks? We are the government of the nation here. This is a parliament of the nation. If states do not believe national parks are of national significance, then they should not call them national parks—call them state forests or call them something else. But the moment there is an acknowledgment from the states that this deserves to be treated and publicly acknowledged as of significance to the nation then the national parliament and the national government have a role in looking at whether the principles are being applied appropriately in the management of national parks.

The examples that were given by the member for Gippsland, within the Australian Capital Territory, were not examples of national parks. You will find examples within national parks, when they are first declared, of activities that I would not regard as ideal. And there are pre-existing uses that occur in national parks. It even happens with forestry sometimes, when a final rotation of different coups goes through and then the regrowth is allowed to remain there for conservation purposes. These sorts of non-ideal uses of national parks happen all the time, but the one principle that has always been there—until the Victorian government broke it—is that in a national park you do not take backward steps. Once you have achieved a better environmental outcome within a national park, you draw a line. You do not see it as a resource to be used. You do not see it as a resource to be dug up, shot down or grazed over the top of. You see it as a national park so that the citizens of this nation can have somewhere to go and enjoy nature. That is what it is for. It is so significant that, even though it has been done at the state level time and again, state jurisdictions want the federal parliament to put the word 'national' in the title because they believe, and they are right to believe, that it is of significance to the whole nation.

The Victorian government's implementation of this—the principle is wrong and the motivation is wrong—has been a bumbling farce. On the principle of no backward steps in national parks, there is a difference between access for people and access for cattle. There are some people and some environmentalists—maybe some people within this chamber—who have a different view to me and who would take a much tougher line on the enjoyment by people and the access to tourism facilities and things like that within national parks. I do not draw that line. I have always been positive about opportunities for people to enjoy these places. But I do not see national parks as opportunities for commercial ventures which have nothing whatsoever to do with the enjoyment of the national park for anyone other than the grazier or the owner of the business.

The member for McMillan, though, raised an important matter of principle: how do we weigh up the heritage issues? You would think that this parliament was being asked to make a decision as to whether grazing cattle will now have to leave the Alpine National Park. The truth is that alpine grazing finished some years ago. This is about a reintroduction; this is about a backward step. The heritage issues have already been consigned to the past. We happily celebrate the heritage of the First Fleet. It does not mean that if we want to travel back and forth to London we have to get on board a square rigger! When we celebrate and acknowledge heritage, it does not mean that how things were done in the past must be the way forward for ever. There is alpine grazing, but it is not within the national park, nor should it be. There is an important principle here about how we deal with our national parks.

It is hard to find an issue where it is easier to criticise the motivation of the Victorian government than this one. I was actually weighing up whether I acknowledge this or not and whether it is taking the low road too much to talk about this stuff, but the member for Gippsland did it for me. Upfront he said, 'This issue is so important that people involved have made donations to the National Party,' as though they have somehow bought into the outcome by making a political donation and therefore their views become more important. There is no way in the world that this government will have a moment of sympathy for anyone who wants to argue that, because you make a donation to a political party, you increase your rights as a citizen to access and use national parks for commercial purposes. You have had the media at different points referring to whether or not this might be the motivation. You have had different members of my own political party asserting that it probably is the motivation. Ten points, the card ought to go up, for the honesty of the member for New England and 10 points for the honesty of this admission from the National Party. If we ever wanted to see an example of a donation and a policy outcome being inextricably linked, we have had not just a speech about it but a confession about it on the floor of the House of Representatives today. This was a cheap deal to provide free agistment for a number of farmers.

Let us not forget that these same individuals, when they left the Alpine National Park, were paid compensation for leaving. They were actually paid compensation for leaving. Did the Victorian government say that that compensation money, if the graziers wanted to come back in, would be returned? Not for a moment. The idea of the Victorian government was: you leave for a few years, you get the compensation for leaving and you make your donation to the National Party, but that is the only money you will lose—paying back to the National Party is enough; you will never have to pay back the taxpayers' funds. That is what has happened here.

That also explains why we have ended up with the bogus fire management argument as the reason. The Victorian government have wanted to claim this is about fire management for one reason only: they needed to circumvent the compensation issue. They needed to design contracts that said, 'This is not for the benefit of the farmer; this is for the benefit of the National Park.' That is why they landed at the fire management issue—for no other reason. They went to the fire management issue as a way of making sure that people who had made their donations to the National Party got to keep their compensation funds and got the benefit anyway. That is what the Victorian government have done. This one is as grubby as it gets.

The scientific argument was shown to be a fraud from the moment the implementation began. If you are going to conduct a scientific study on the impact of alpine grazing, the first thing you would do is let the scientists have a look at the site before the cattle arrive. How are you meant to know what the impact of alpine grazing is unless you do your baseline survey, unless you let the scientists in? The Victorian government was in such a rush to make sure that it could say to the mounted cattlemen that it had delivered it did not even let the scientist who was allegedly in charge of the study know that the cattle were on their way in. As far as science was concerned, no survey could be done. The scientists did not even get half a chance to have a look at the Alpine National Park before the cattle were rushed in so that the donors to the National Party could be made happy. That is the precise order of events. We ended up with members of the Victorian parliament trying to come up with ways of saying why the science was true. We ended up with a member of the Victorian parliament, who I must say has become my favourite member of that parliament, Donna Petrovich, saying:

In many respects we are quite lucky that there are still a few remaining lead cows in those herds that know the areas that are being trialled. If we did not have that, we would have an environmental problem. Those cattle stick to the areas and the tracks, and they teach the other cattle the appropriate way to move through that country.

The best defence the Victorian government can come up with is a mutual workshopping education plan amongst small groups of cattle, where they teach each other and explain which wetlands are safe to trample all over and which wetlands are listed under the EPBC Act as vulnerable! The lead cow gets to show the smaller cows where it is safe to go and where there might be an endangered species! And this is meant to be a scientific trial. This is the best that the Victorian government has been able to come up with.

Up until now, members of the federal coalition have avoided making a public stand on this issue. They have allowed the issue to go through quietly. They have allowed the member for Gippsland to fly the flag and make his own comments. They have just wanted the issue to go away. But, in a classic own goal, in a classic favour that the member for Gippsland has decided to do for his coalition colleagues, today he gets to put every single one of them on the record.

On this side of the House, we are very proud to be on the record defending a Labor reform from the previous Victorian Labor government. We are very proud of our relationship with the cattle farmers—whom I met during the time that I was Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry—who actually pay for land to feed their own cattle, who do not have this special bonus, who do not use this side way of trying to get free agistment through donations to the National Party.

In this own goal, members opposite who have national parks in their electorates—whether it is the Blue Mountains, Mount Buffalo, Diamantina or Ku-ring-gai Chase—draw a line today when they sit in this chamber and put themselves on the record. They decide today, for the first time, whether the view of this parliament is that it is okay to take backward steps inside a national park, whether it is okay within a national park—even though it has been declared, even though it has been determined to be of national significance—to continue to see that area as a resource to be chopped down, dug up or grazed over the top of. No member of parliament gets to avoid that today. On the Labor side, we are really proud to be able to get our names on the record, but there is no shortage of members of the coalition who will not be thanking the member for Gippsland for what he is making them do today.

I made an offer to the three governments that are responsible for the alpine areas—the ACT government, the New South Wales government and the Victorian government—to work together on how to deal with bushfire mitigation and how to deal with other ferals and invasives. Guess which of the three governments has still not responded to me. The Victorian government, because they are not interested in the reasons for weeds and bushfires. There have only been excuses to get around a compensation issue, to look after some donors, in a grubby deal that should end today. (Time expired)