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Wednesday, 3 September 2014
Page: 6403


Senator URQUHART (TasmaniaDeputy Opposition Whip in the Senate) (17:56): Pursuant to order, I present the report of the Environment and Communications References Committee, Great Barrier Reef, together with the Hansard record of proceedings and documents presented to the committee, and move:

That the report be printed.

Question agreed to.

Senator URQUHART: by leave—I move:

That the Senate take note of the report.

Firstly, I want to thank the committee secretariat for their tireless efforts in putting together this comprehensive report. Thank you to Christine, Sophie, Hari, Meryl, Dianne and Ruth, from all of the senators on the committee. Secondly, I want to thank the senators on the committee for their work in almost pulling together a consensus report.

As is highlighted in this report, Australia needs urgent concrete action and political will for change to seek to preserve this national icon, the Great Barrier Reef. The report provides clear evidence that, while it is not too late to save the reef, urgent action is needed. It is clear that the health of the Great Barrier Reef has declined and appears to be on a continual downward trajectory. The recent Great Barrier Reef outlook report 2014 concluded that the overall outlook for the Great Barrier Reef is poor, that it has worsened since 2009, and that it is expected to further deteriorate in the future. The outlook report 2014 identified climate change, poor water quality from land based runoff, impacts from coastal development and some remaining impacts from fishing as the main threats to the health of the Great Barrier Reef ecology.

A 2012 study by the Australian Institute of Marine Science showed that in the past 27 years the reef has lost around 50 per cent of its coral cover. That study attributed the decline in coral cover primarily to three factors: tropical cyclones, predation by crown-of-thorns starfish, and coral bleaching. These factors are linked to the key underlying concerns of poor water quality and climate change. While progress has been made by Queensland and Australian governments, there is still more to be done. If more is not done, the overwhelming number of witnesses said that the reef will be lost for generations—something that I am not prepared to countenance, and something I am pleased to say the committee is not prepared to countenance.

The first recommendations make it clear that it is time to reconsider the issue that it is acceptable to dispose of dredge spoil in the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage area. The committee was also persuaded by evidence that some of the long-term and indirect impacts of dredge spoil disposal are not well understood. The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority and the Australian Institute of Marine Science have co-convened an expert dredging panel to examine what is known about the impacts of dredging and dredge disposal, and to address knowledge gaps. The committee agreed that it is vital that no capital dredging is undertaken until the expert dredging panel has reported.

There is a need for dredging—particularly maintenance dredging—however I was concerned to hear that there are numerous proposals for increased dredging, particularly capital dredging, which would also potentially involve the disposal of large quantities of dredge spoil in the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage area. The committee recommends that the Minister for the Environment examine whether a cap or a ban should be introduced on dredge spoil disposal in the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area.

The committee heard about the impact of the Abbott government's cut of $40 million to the Reef Water Quality Protection Plan. Under the plan, reef managers have worked with the agriculture sector in Queensland to reduce run-off and to improve water quality entering reef waters. Funding cuts will undermine the significant achievements of the plan. The government placed the $40 million into Reef Trust—an untried program that may improve water quality entering the reef—but it is vital that the Minister Hunt provide regular reports on the work of Reef Trust and the Reef Water Quality Protection Plan to ensure the efficacy of both programs.

The Department of the Environment needs to maintain strong oversight of the monitoring of relevant developments. The Great Barrier Reef is a World Heritage Area with international significance, and it is important for the Commonwealth to retain a significant role in the oversight of the area. Evidence demonstrated clear problems with the Australian government's one-stop shop proposal, particularly in the context of developments in Queensland, where the state government may be the proponent.

Federal approval powers should not be delegated to the Queensland government. The bill before the Senate on bilateral agreements should not be passed. It is clear that the one-stop shop proposal may further undermine the role and independence of the Great Barrier Marine Park Authority. I note that government senators have provided comments in support of bilateral agreements. I hope their arguments are more compelling than those in the chair's report from the Senate Environment Legislation Committee's recent inquiry.

On the general governance arrangements under the EPBC Act, Minister Hunt needs to ensure that conditions of approval are stringently worded, monitored and enforced, and the department has sufficient resources to do so. Evidence demonstrated concerns regarding the lack of independence of environmental assessments, whereby the assessments are commissioned and provided by proponents. Also, there was an issue with inquiry into threatened species last year and the inquiry into environmental offsets earlier this year. Minister Hunt should conduct a review, including a public consultation process, to examine ways to improve the independence and rigour of the environmental assessment process.

The committee heard evidence about the many and varied problems in Gladstone Harbour. It was clear that the problems at Gladstone appear to have been an environmental disaster. Minister Hunt must ensure that lessons are learned from the Gladstone Harbour experience. Further north, at Abbot Point, the committee heard evidence that the recent approvals by the environment minister and the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority to dispose of three million cubic metres of dredge spoil in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park could lead to another environmental disaster.

The committee has watched with interest as the member for Dawson has asked North Queensland Bulk Ports Corporation to exhaustively investigate every land-based option and has stated, 'If a viable option emerges I will ensure that the spoil is dumped on land, not at sea.' Subsequently, it has been reported that North Queensland Bulk Ports Corporation is considering altering its plans to dispose of dredge spoil material at sea. Finally, last night on ABC Lateline, Minister Hunt finally weighed in, and stated that he would welcome and consider alternative options to offshore disposal. However, the fact remains that the approval was signed by Minister Hunt—an approval which is currently not creating jobs in North Queensland, and which may cause irreparable damage to the reef.

It is clear that even if the best management practices were universally adopted by the agriculture sector, damage to the reef would still occur from fertiliser run-off. Further, a considerable amount of work has already been done to contribute to our understanding of agriculture and methods to lessen its footprint on water quality. For example, the use of nitrification inhibitors and control release technologies in fertilisers have achieved good results in reducing fertiliser run-off in other parts of the world. However, further scientific studies into the effects of pesticide run-off on the health of the reef are needed.

Over the next two decades, the population growth in catchment areas will result in more urban sewage discharge into the waters of the Great Barrier Reef. Queensland government has a policy requiring all coastal sewage treatment plants to meet high ecological tertiary treatment standards before discharging sewage. However, Queensland local government authorities lack adequate funding to upgrade works. The Queensland government should allocate funding to assist local government authorities to undertake the necessary upgrades.

Furthermore, there are insufficient land-based facilities for the disposal and treatment of sewage originating from vessels. Evidence to the committee stated that this lack of land-based disposal facilities may encourage illegal dumping within the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park of sewage from vessels. The Queensland government should provide funding for improved facilities at ports throughout the reef.

I am concerned by evidence about recent cuts to funding and staffing in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, and that experienced staff have left the authority in recent months. Aspects of the authority's management have been exemplary—including, for example, its management of the rezoning within the marine park. However, the committee is concerned that community confidence in the authority has been damaged, particularly by the recent Abbot Point decision.

There is merit in the Audit Office expanding its proposed audits to include a broader audit of the performance of the authority in executing its functions under its act, including whether it is acting in a manner that is consistent with the objects of that act. It is vital that management and decision-making in relation to the Great Barrier Reef is underpinned by robust and independent science. Evidence suggests that the science in relation to the Great Barrier Reef is becoming politicised by this government

I am really concerned by the Abbott government's funding cuts to the Australian Institute of Marine Science, which is one of the leading authorities on marine science and ecology, including the Great Barrier Reef.

Finally, climate change is the major long-term threat to the Great Barrier Reef. Evidence clearly stated that the Great Barrier Reef is already feeling the effects of climate change in the form of coral bleaching, which is likely to increase in the future, along with ocean acidification. While Australia cannot ameliorate climate change on its own, it needs to show international leadership on the issue of climate change. (Time expired)