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Tuesday, 29 June 1999
Page: 7787

Dr WASHER (9:19 PM) —The Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Bill 1998 represents a gigantic step forward for Australia by enshrining in legislation on a federal level safeguards to preserve and maintain our unique but fragile environment. It encompasses many areas, but I want to specifically touch on a couple of these, as I am sure the bill's content will be further dissected by other members of the House tonight.

This bill helps to fulfil our domestic responsibilities in relation to the conventions and treaties we have signed as a nation over the years, including the Ramsar convention on wetlands of environmental significance and world heritage properties. Australia has 11 world heritage properties, covering more than 42 million hectares, and Australian sites are among the very few on the World Heritage List that meet all four criteria for natural heritage, with some also meeting the cultural criteria—Uluru probably being the most globally recognised in this rare group.

This legislation will complement the Natural Heritage Trust, which is Australia's first genuine attempt at an environmental rescue package. This bill will help to balance environmental protection with tourism, industry and the general community well into the next century. It is worth noting that funds from the Natural Heritage Trust have made a substantial contribution to Western Australia's single most dangerous environmental problem—salinity—through the state government's $100 million Salinity Action Plan. By simplifying the approval process for environmental assessment, the environmental protection and biodiversity conservation legislation eliminates the need to rely on indirect and ad hoc triggers. These ad hoc measures mean that currently two projects can raise identical environmental issues, with only one triggering Commonwealth involvement in environmental impact assessments.

Importantly, this bill also eliminates the duplicity for business and industry when they are trying to deal with environmental approvals at both a state and federal level. It sets time frames for industry, and this will reduce delays as well as bring more certainty to the process. We cannot have effective legislation without certainty, and we cannot make a genuine attempt at environmental protection without clear guidelines that industry will accept and support.

This bill implements the COAG agreement on the Commonwealth and state roles and responsibilities that was endorsed by all states and territories in 1997 and was open for public comment late last year. It recognised the role of the states and territories as being at the forefront of environmental management rather than the Commonwealth.

The marine environment around our nation is also protected under this legislation, a feature particularly welcomed in my electorate, which has the Indian Ocean at its longest border. The Whale Protection Act has been incorporated into the bill, and the Australian Whale Sanctuary will be created as a result of this legislation. This title pertains to the highest level of protection that is afforded whales in oceans that come under Australia's jurisdiction.

This helps species such as the humpback whale, which is more prominent in my state of Western Australia than anywhere else in this country. When the humpback became protected from whaling in 1963, the species was almost extinct. Now they number between 2,000 and 3,000 off the west coast and have spurned a rapidly growing tourism industry with whale watching. The Right whale, which was also hunted to the verge of extinction, can now be seen in increasing numbers in Perth metropolitan waters.

Another aspect of this bill deserving a mention is the provision for conservation agreements which can be used to promote biodiversity on private land. Maintaining biodiversity in this country, and indeed on a global scale, is without a doubt the most important environmental challenge we face in the next century. The State of the Environment Report in 1996, issued by the Environmental Advisory Council, identified biodiversity loss as perhaps the most serious environmental problem in Australia today. It said species in all major groups of plants and animals are at risk.

As someone who is keenly interested in the prosperity of biotechnology, maintaining our diverse gene pool and our plants is vital if we are to be forerunners in this new revolution. Being able to draw from the pool of wild genes to develop new and better strains of crops which are drought or pest resistant will be vital. Genes from a species of wild grass taken from South-East Asia were used to save sugarcane crops from a virulent disease in the 1920s. The genes from this wild grass gave the sugarcane crops a resistance to this mystery disease and even helped to increase the amount of sugar from the crops. You cannot reproduce that kind of strength in a laboratory.

Despite what some callers to talkback radio or some sections of the media believe, everything we put in our mouths has had the benefit of genetic modification, thanks to being able to hand pick the best of the genes in our plants and animals. It is an absurd statement for people to say, `I don't want to eat genetically modified food.' If they stuck to this creed, they would not be able to eat anything. So, by maintaining our biodiversity, we ensure that nature's supermarket gives us the genetic variety to choose from and continually improves crops such as sugarcane.

This bill also provides for the listing of a threatened species and the making and implementing of recovery and threat abatement plans. This measure takes over from the Endangered Species Protection Act, which has been incorporated into this bill. As an aside, another welcome development has been the establishment of a community based program known as the Threatened Species Network. Funded by the Natural Heritage Trust and the World Wide Fund for Nature, this network offers grants to community groups who need funds to take on the long-term responsibility for the recovery of threatened species in their region. These grants offer a fantastic way for community groups to demonstrate a hands-on commitment to conserving their local environment while at the same time fostering partnerships between government agencies, schools and community members that will help make sustainable biodiversity the ultimate beneficiary.

Australia's environmental diversity is remarkable, and its island status ensures that it is unlike anywhere else in the world. There has been enormous damage done to this diversity in the 200 years since European settlement, and too many native species are now extinct. In fact, we have probably lost more in the past two centuries than in the last 65 million years. This bill is just one part of a new environmental management plan for Australia that this government has taken in the past few years that provides real solutions. Australians care about their unique environment and have welcomed such initiatives. I commend this bill to the House.