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Wednesday, 23 October 2002
Page: 8541


Mr FITZGIBBON (10:34 AM) —I am pleased the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry has joined us. He might be able to take the opportunity during this debate on the Torres Strait Fisheries Amendment Bill 2002 to inform us whether he has been successful in achieving some payments for those people in the drought-affected areas of Brewarrina and Bourke. He indicated to the House yesterday that he was hopeful some payments might be forthcoming today.

Comprising more than 100 islands and stretching over 150 kilometres between Australia and Papua New Guinea is the area we know as the Torres Strait. It has a population of about 8,000 people dispersed over 19 small island communities. Deeply influenced by the sea, the Torres Strait people maintain a strong cultural maritime tradition. To protect the way of life and the livelihood of the traditional inhabitants and the marine environment, the Torres Strait treaty was entered into by the Australian government and the government of Papua New Guinea in 1985. Treaties, if properly and fairly constructed, are a means of achieving a win-win outcome for all the parties involved. For Australia, they maintain the sustainability of our natural resources and ensure an equable and fair sharing arrangement of those resources between nation-states and can provide a means of empowering economically our poorer regional neighbours. In other words, with respect to the last point, treaties can provide the best and most effective way of providing foreign aid to our near neighbours.

A case in point is the Timor Sea Treaty. When that treaty is ratified, the fledgling country of East Timor will enjoy the lion's share of revenue from what is known as the joint petroleum development area in the Timor Sea. Australia will also gain from that treaty. It will provide guaranteed revenues for the Australian people, and certainty and security for those investing in the area. Indeed, it is critical to Australia's economic development and, in particular, to the development of the Northern Territory. Projects like the development of the Greater Sunrise and Bayu Undan gas projects cannot proceed without it—and the $3.4 billion Bayu project may not proceed if the treaty is not signed this year.

It disappoints me that the government is displaying a distinct lack of urgency with respect to this matter. Bayu Undan venture partner Philips Petroleum has expressed fear that delays in the finalisation of a unitisation agreement in the JPDA could result in the loss of its LNG contract with its Japanese customers. One of the conditions precedent of the project is the ratification of the Timor Sea Treaty. Appearing before the Joint Select Committee on Treaties on Monday of last week, the First Assistant Secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Dr Raby, indicated the government's preparedness to risk, in the national interest, the $3.4 billion Bayu Undan project and its estimated $2 billion in revenue. I have asked the Minister for Industry, Tourism and Resources whether Dr Raby's comments reflect the views of the government. My fear is that the government has in mind not the national interest but that of a particular venture partner in the Sunrise field. It certainly does not have in mind the interests of the people of East Timor.

It is premature in the extreme for the government to be insisting on the completion of the unitisation agreement prior to the ratification of the treaty. Rather, it should be concentrating all of its efforts on having the unitisation agreement finalised in the interests of all parties involved. I know that the East Timorese government has taken offence at claims by Woodside representative David Maxwell that they were deliberately delaying the unitisation agreement to gain economic leverage. I believe that this was a most unfortunate development. For the government to overtly communicate an insistence that the treaty not be ratified until the unitisation agreement is complete would be a mistake. Like the East Timorese, the government should reaffirm its commitment to completing the IUA by year's end and to the ratification of the agreement, because anything short of that will bring problems for the East Timorese people and potential disaster for the people of the territory with respect to the Bayu Undan project. The government says that Sunrise is more important than Bayu, but we can have both if this matter is handled properly. Of course, a bird in the hand with respect to Bayu is worth two in the bush; members would be aware that there is really no firm plan for the development of the Sunrise field.

If the conditions precedent is not met for the Bayu project by March next year, the contract with its Japanese customers will collapse and, even if reconstructed, it may be reconstructed in a form that delivers to Australia a much cheaper price for its LNG—driven of course by the recent contract with China. It is time for the government to act and show some urgency with respect to that Timor Sea project.

To go back to the treaty I was originally referring to, the treaty established the Torres Strait Protected Zone, in which each country exercises sovereign jurisdiction for swimming fish and certain species on the respective sides of the agreed jurisdictional lines. In 1984, the Torres Strait Fisheries Act was passed, coming into force on the same day as the treaty, 15 February 1985. The purpose of this act was to give effect in Australian law to the fisheries elements of the treaty.

The purpose of this bill is to amend the Torres Strait Fisheries Act 1984 to allow for the appointment of the chairperson of the Torres Strait Regional Authority as a full member of the Torres Strait Protected Zone Joint Authority, a move fully supported by the opposition. The Protected Zone Joint Authority was established under the Torres Strait Fisheries Act, and its role is the management of commercial and traditional fishing in the Australian areas of the Torres Strait Protected Zone and designated adjacent Torres Strait waters. The Protective Zone Joint Authority is currently made up of the Commonwealth Minister for Forestry and Conservation and the Queensland Minister for Primary Industries and Rural Communities. The chairperson of the Torres Strait Regional Authority has been representing Torres Strait Islander interests at recent meetings in an advisory capacity. The amendment bill will formalise this arrangement and will allow the chair of the TSRA to become a full member of the Protective Zone Joint Authority. The formalisation of the role that the TSRA chairperson will play in the PZJA recognises and strengthens the role of Torres Strait Islanders in the management of the area's fisheries resources, and is strongly supported by the opposition.

It is important that we recognise the significant cultural, social and economic ties that the members of these communities have had for thousands of years with the sea and that their contemporary culture is intrinsically embedded in these maritime traditions. Although this has been a positive and responsible move by the minister, and one the opposition strongly supports, I understand that there are current issues associated with representation and consultation in the Torres Strait and an element of frustration by one group who were refused individual consultation on this bill. The minister might care to clarify that. The government has far from a good record in Indigenous affairs and should be mindful that, unless it allows a fair, equitable and transparent process of consultation on Indigenous issues, it will undermine the entire process.

Established in 1994 under the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission Act 1989, the TSRA is a statutory authority with the stated objective to `strengthen the economic, social and cultural development of the Torres Strait to improve the lifestyle and wellbeing of the Torres Strait Islanders and Aboriginal people in the region'. This objective complements, reinforces and validates the role of the TSRA chairman as a full member of the TSPZJA. Significantly, section 8 of the Torres Strait Fisheries Act specifies that, in the administration of the act:

... regard shall be had to the rights and obligations conferred on Australia by the Torres Strait Treaty and in particular to the traditional way of life and livelihood of traditional inhabitants, including their rights in relation to traditional fishing.

Formal representation from the Torres Strait Islander community on the TSPZJA will ensure that their interests are truly represented and that they are not just observers of a process that governs their resources, traditions and culture. Labor commends the bill to the House.