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Thursday, 16 May 2002
Page: 1792

Senator CARR (4:24 PM) —The Great Barrier Reef is one of Australia's great national treasures, and yet this national icon is under enormous pressure. The recently released State of the environment report has demonstrated that:

The pressures on Australia's coral reefs continue unabated from downstream effects of land use and other human activities.

Coral reefs are under great pressure globally, and a recent assessment from the reef monitoring network, an assessment made in 2000, suggests that about 20 per cent of the world's reefs are seriously degraded or may even be lost. Reefs such as the Great Barrier Reef are rich and yet fragile ecosystems that are sensitive to subtle changes. Maintaining their health is important to not only our environment but also our economic prosperity. As a result, the Labor Party supports this Great Barrier Reef Marine Park (Boundary Extension) Amendment Bill 2002 receiving a second reading.

The bill extends the boundaries of the Great Barrier Reef region to the boundaries of the Australian economic exclusion zone. This bill does not include this new area within the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park itself, and consequently it does not extend to this new area the full protection that the park itself enjoys. It is designed to prevent oil exploration and exploration in the area described in schedule 1 of this bill, and it will rule out other mining activity as well. Having said that, the opposition reserve the right to examine the detail of the bill in committee, particularly detail relating to the precise area to be included in the region. Further, the opposition make it clear that, while we maintain our commitment to excluding exploration and mining operations in the area, we also say that the bill should not support the exclusion of other economic activities, including fishing and tourism, in this whole region.

What I am suggesting is that there needs to be added value, affording a greater degree of protection to a number of pristine reefs in the Coral Sea—reefs such as the Osprey, Marion and Lihou reefs, which are currently located well outside the boundary of the marine park. This is an area of overwhelming environmental and cultural significance, but it is beset by predators. Oil exploration and other exploration—prominent among the latter, seismic testing, far beyond the needs of scientific research or what might be called reasonable park management—is occurring on the margins of the marine reef, notably in the Townsville Trough. To the south, shale oil leases impinge on the Great Barrier Reef, with the prospect of mining and ground water pollution potentially threatening the reef. The chairman of Southern Pacific Petroleum has indicated during stage 3 of the Rundle project near Gladstone that they wish to mine that part of their Stuart leases that extends into the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage area, despite the opposition of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority.

Further, the various environmental impact statements about the Rundle project have failed to alleviate concerns about the quantum increase in the possibility of ground water and marine pollution. Because the methodology and information necessary to satisfy the environmental impact statement terms of reference is incomplete, the protection of the environmental values of the Great Barrier Reef has not been demonstrated and cannot be taken for granted. Despite the universally acknowledged significance of the Great Barrier Reef and its environmental and economic importance, the Howard government has done very little to protect it from the potentially devastating impacts of oil drilling and climate change. When it comes to protecting the reef from the twin threats of oil exploration and drilling, this government has shown little resolve. International experience has shown that seismic exploration does harm marine life. The potential for damage to the reef from highly mobile oil spills as the result of exploration and of any subsequent drilling is also significant.

This government has chosen to sit back and wait for the results of an environmental impact assessment to determine whether a proposal to explore for oil or gas in the Townsville Trough may have a significant impact. Our concern is that this is a gamble that need not be taken. There is nothing stopping the minister, Dr Kemp, from protecting the reef now, extending the boundary of the Great Barrier Reef region and curbing such exploration. Such inactivity can only lead to the conclusion that this government is keeping its options open, with a view to exploiting such resources at some future stage. The government's approach treats oil exploration in a piecemeal fashion, treating each new application as an isolated event to be determined at ministerial whim. But the protection of an asset of such importance as the Great Barrier Reef demands a more considered, decisive approach. The window of opportunity for exploration near the reef continues to be left open by this government. For the sake of the reef and for the future generations who will wish to enjoy it as we do, it is time for this loophole to be closed permanently. For this reason, as I have already indicated, Labor supports this bill receiving a second reading.