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Wednesday, 3 March 2004
Page: 25749

Mr BILLSON (12:49 PM) —I rise in support of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Amendment Bill 2004 today because it is a sensible, timely and appropriate response to an unexpected interpretation of some tax law. You would be forgiven for thinking otherwise after listening to the previous speaker, the member for Wills and the environment spokesman from the Labor Party. He, I might add, has an unenviable task. He is so uninterested in the environment that a humble backbencher such as me has actually inquired to a greater degree of the government about environmental issues than he has.

I am not quite sure why there is this constant harping and whining around the government's environment agenda when the Howard government is the greenest government this nation has ever seen. It has done more to protect, enhance and nurture the health of our natural systems than any government the nation has ever seen. All that the Labor Party can say when good measures are introduced is, `That's a good start but you just haven't done enough,' without actually filling the void of what the Labor Party, if it were in government, would actually do. You have heard today another example from the member for Wills of how empty, insular and totally unconstructive the Labor Party is when it comes to the environment.

The bill today is actually remedying an interpretation by the Taxation Office of how the charge on visitors to the Great Barrier Reef would be treated and where the tax liability lies. That is what this about. The member for Wills leaves the chamber. Hopefully, he will get to read the Hansard and correct many of the statements that he made. The whole point of this bill is to amend the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Act to ensure that, in relation to the environment management charge—a charge on operators, visitors and people with a right of entry to the Great Barrier Reef to enjoy the marvellous piece of creation that it is—people make a contribution of up to $4.50 per visitor. The bill actually follows some discussions that commenced in 2002 and is not, as the member for Wills would characterise it, some eleventh hour change that people knew about but that the government failed to act on. The conversations began back in 2002, when the tax office was advising some tourist operators in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park.

Mr Kelvin Thomson —So it has taken you two years!

Mr BILLSON —I welcome the interjection—in a moment of passion and enthusiasm about the environment—from the member for Wills. He must be the Elliot Goblet of environmental passion; he is very laid-back, and I hope he does not drop into indifference. Thank you for that interjection, member for Wills.

Back in 2002, the tax office advised a number of tourism operators that, on its interpretation of the tax law, there is a requirement to pay GST on revenue received from ticket sales. In effect, the tour operators' task of collecting this tourism charge from visitors to the reef—the tour operators were acting as a collection agency and then passing those funds over to the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority—was interpreted by the tax office as something that incurred a GST liability. As the member for Wills alluded to—probably mistakenly—that was not the intention of the charge, and the tax office's interpretation of the law was not exactly as it was understood to be by the government; and so a number of conversations commenced.

There was a recognition at the point when the tax office was in touch with tourism operators on the reef that the environmental management charge should be treated as part of the revenue stream to the operators, when the charge was designed to simply be collected by the operators as a cash till, effectively, and would then be passed over to the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, and so it did not matter too much whether the EMC was embedded in the tour operator's charges or identified separately. As I said, that was not the understanding and the interpretation that the government had developed on this subject, and therefore some remedies were required.

A meeting was held between the ATO and the Association of Marine Park Tourism Operators in the middle of 2003. There were further discussions with the tax office. The tax office put its interpretation about how the GST would be applied to reef tourism services, and a fact sheet sought to amend any confusion and to address any misunderstandings that the operators may have had. The fact sheet said that, for future business activity statements, the tax office interpretation would apply. Quite responsibly, the Minister for Revenue and Assistant Treasurer, Senator Helen Coonan, put forward a proposal to bring the tax office interpretation into line with the policy goal. The law is not an end in itself. The law seeks to implement certain policy goals and choices that the government determines. In this case, the law as the tax office read it did not marry up with the policy goals. So, quite appropriately, after having the consultation and after the tax office had spent some time with the marine park tourism operators, the tax office said, `This is our reading of the law; here is how we think it should be,' and the Minister for Revenue, the local members and all those who are working on the policy and the purpose of this charge said, `That is not what was intended.'

The bill today simply brings the law into line with the policy. It was the government's understanding that the law already married up with the policy. Upon advice from the tax office, it did not. So what is the great mystery here? You would think, listening to the member for Wills, that there had been some incredible transformation in thinking and logic and some elements of inconsistency. No, there have not been. The tax office and the commissioner, acting independently—as is his brief—read the law a particular way and it did not marry up with the policy goals. So this bill is to remedy that and make sure that there is no confusion. In effect, it mirrors the air passenger levy that applies in the aviation industry, so the environmental management charge will operate in the same way as the air passenger levy—where the charge is on the tourist, not on the operator.

In October last year, the Hon. Warren Entsch, who is well known in the reef community and in Far North Queensland for his great passion for the wellbeing of the reef and its tour operators, announced that there would be some amending legislation introduced; and that is what we are talking about today. So there is no great mystery. It is simply re-emphasising, through the black-letter law, that the policy goal of the government is to have the tour operators act as a collection agent, and that is all; not to have the operators treat the charge as an expense that then needs to be carried through BAS and the like and to have the GST apply. That is what this bill seeks to do, and it is a perfectly responsible and reasonable step to take where there is some interpretation by the tax office that is inconsistent with the government's policies. That is what this bill is about. It is not that complicated. It is very straightforward, and I am surprised that the member for Wills would seek to represent it as something it is not. It is simply ensuring that the black-letter law marries up with what the policy goals have always been, and have always been said to be, and making sure that the detail in the tax laws marries up with that goal.

The reef is a remarkable place. It is an extraordinary place, and it needs the support, the protection and the resources that the environmental management charge brings to it to make sure that the natural systems of the reef remain healthy, viable and sustainable for the longer term. There is nothing worse, if you are a diver or a snorkeller, than to be sucking air through a pipe, hoping to see some fish, and there are not any. The point of the health of the reef as a virtuous environmental goal in its own right is strengthened and buttressed by the economic benefit that the reef brings to that part of our country. The reef is not only an international icon but also a crucial driver of economic activity, employment and living standards in the reef communities that adjoin this magnificent piece of our country. It is one of the world's greatest natural wonders.

We are the custodians of nearly 350,000 square kilometres of reef. The reef is the world's largest World Heritage area and the world's largest protected marine area. The reef itself is actually substantially larger than Ireland, Austria, Holland, Switzerland and Denmark put together. It is huge. In fact, it is the largest structure ever created by living organisms. It is remarkable. The reef has an 80,000-year history. It has been a breeding area for many rare and endangered species, and the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park comprises about 99.25 per cent of the World Heritage area. The reef is home to 1,500 species of fish, 400 species of sponge, 4,000 species of mollusc, 500 species of seaweed, 215 species of bird, six species of sea turtle. It needs to be protected and managed with great care. That is why measures such as the environment management charge are making sure that the reef does not suffer from its own popularity, so that those visiting the reef are contributing to its ongoing care and management.

This bill seeks to make sure that that is done in such a way that it marries with the government's policy objectives. The member for Wills tried to suggest that the government is not doing all that needs to be done to look after the reef—what a remarkable statement. That is the sort of thing that frustrates me in public life: that the member for Wills, a decent person, would make such a reckless and inaccurate statement. Since 1996 the Howard government has done more than any other government to protect, preserve and enhance the sustainability of the reef—and, therefore, to underpin the vast economic activity that depends upon it. Nearly $150 million has been spent since 1997 protecting the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park and World Heritage area.

Since 1996, work has been carried out to improve the water quality of the reef itself, and a protection plan has been prepared, ensuring that there is robustness in the ecosystems of the Great Barrier Reef. There has been work going on in the Great Barrier Reef Coastal Wetlands Protection Program, which has received another $16 million. A further $15 million has been provided through the Natural Heritage Trust to look at Queensland's wetlands, including the wetlands of the Great Barrier Reef. Work has gone into targeting end-of-river pollution loads from the 26 river catchments that are adjacent to the reef—looking at what is happening on the land adjoining the reef area to see what activities are contributing silt, pollutants and other potentially unhelpful additions to the riparian environments of those catchments that may pose a threat to the reef; in other words, looking up the catchment, recognising that the reef, magnificent as it is, is part of a broader natural system and not an isolated piece of the environment. Work has gone into providing better control of the pollution caused by waste from land-based aquaculture and from other production activities. Work has gone into identifying crucial habitats. The prohibition on mining has been extended.

It cannot go without remark that at the stage-managed event called the ALP national conference the environment got very little attention. What it did attract were some statements relating to the new Labor Party environmental platform. What a great platform! There is nothing quite like undertaking to do something that is already happening. The Great Barrier Reef got a mention in the Labor Party's platform in terms of the need to protect the reef from mining and from oil exploration. That is an odd thing to commit to, given that that protection is already there. It is a pointless, flawed, redundant and superfluous statement from the Labor Party. It makes them look like they are interested in the environment. They are trying to develop some credentials through the Great Barrier Reef by promising to put in place something that is actually already in place. The 1995 Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Act explicitly bans mining and mineral exploration in the park. What a novel commitment to make. Are they simply saying that they are not going to repeal the protection that is already in place? That is a pointless statement. It is hyperbole at its best, trying to develop some undeserved environmental credentials.

There was a second and equally obvious error. The Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act actually protects the park from activities, whether they be related to mining or exploration, outside the park to the limit of Australia's exclusive economic zone. So, if things are being proposed that may cause detriment to the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, there are tools already in place through the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act. So what are the Labor Party going on about? It is hard to work out what that part of the ALP's environment platform is aiming to achieve, because those outcomes are already locked in, secure and in place. It seems to infer, as the member for Wills did, that something is not quite right. By making the claim and hoping that nobody is aware of what is actually in place, they can put forward this falsity that there is some risk to the reef. That is blatantly incorrect, particularly with regard to those two points that managed to get mentioned in the Labor Party's platform.

But look further. A policy decision for the generations is the way I would characterise Minister Kemp's announcement that 331/3 per cent of the reef will be protected in green zones. What is the point of that? The point is that to sustain their species and their health those ecosystems in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park area need to be protected from intrusion and damage. There is clearly a benefit there for tourism operators, to go back to my earlier point. Sucking air through a pipe and paying cash for it is not the visitor experience we are looking for. Having people enjoy the experience they have when they visit the Great Barrier Reef and see the great marvel that that living organism represents is worth paying for, and it is an important value for tourism up in the Great Barrier Reef area—but also for the commercial fishing industry.

The research is broad and it all consistently says the same thing: that where there are these no take green protected areas the fish stocks actually prosper. A worldwide phenomenon is `fishing the line'—that is the jargon for the situation where commercial fishing operators with their GPS systems go and park themselves right on the very edge of these green protected areas. Why? That is where the best fish are: that is where the largest stocks are and it is where the healthiest, largest and most substantial fish are. So increases in volume and in size are achieved through these measures that Minister Kemp has introduced, and that is not only good for the health of the reef—and that is a virtuous outcome in its own right—but also underwrites the value of the tourism industry in the area. It supports the activities of the tour operators and provides some assistance for people in the commercial fishing industry.

I have already mentioned the prohibition on mining, but 28 new coastal areas have also been established in the marine park, ship safety has improved and there has been a 300 per cent increase in the detection of illegal fishing—that matters, because there is no point in having these green zones and not enforcing them. All these things have been achieved under the Howard government's watch. Another important achievement has been the understanding that dugongs are important there and the consequent effort to balance traditional Indigenous hunting practices with the conservation of dugongs and turtles. As well, the Whitsundays' bareboat industry has been accredited. There have been reef protection programs and there are now 86 public moorings and 43 reef protection marker buoys installed in the Whitsundays, supporting in a sustainable way the activities of those commercial providers. In the revised zoning plan there has been a sixfold increase in the amount of protected areas, and that was done with wide consultation and was done cooperatively. There were 31,000 submissions received, and everybody who had a view—and then some—had a chance to influence that process. The outcome is outstanding.

When we come to the issue of bleaching, the work being done by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, with the encouragement and support of the Howard government, is developing international understanding of how bleaching events occur and what is needed to enable those reef areas to recover. The resilience of the reef goes hand in hand with a rapid recovery after a bleaching event, so all the things I have mentioned previously underline and reinforce the resilience of the reef ecosystem and enable it to bounce back after these coral bleaching events—coral bleaching events that have been with us for centuries.

There is a bleaching response program to guide management actions to make sure that early interventions after a bleaching event best support the recovery of the reef. Other management tools are being developed in conjunction with the US Coral Reef Task Force. GBRMPA also runs the BleachWatch program. These are all world class initiatives that are leading the way in showing others around the world how to manage reefs after a coral bleaching event without substantial loss to those coral reef ecosystems—and in the face of future global warming.

That brings me to the issue of global warming. The Labor Party is very quick to say, `Sign Kyoto,' yet the shadow minister gave up the ghost today. He referred to a report suggesting that there needed to be an 80 per cent reduction in the amount of greenhouse gas emissions. That is what the shadow minister in his report said was needed to redress climate change. Climate change is like a big doona around our globe. CO2 and other greenhouse gases are adding to the thickness of the doona and that is adding to the climate change which anthropogenic activity—man-introduced activity—is creating. There is no dispute about that. What is also clear, though, is that the doona will not thin overnight and that there is a need for about a 50 per cent reduction in current greenhouse gas emissions at a global level to bring about any discernible change in the climate. The Kyoto protocol, fully signed and fully implemented, will create an outcome of a reduction of less than half of one per cent in greenhouse gas emissions. It shows their nonsense, and it is time the opposition minister fessed up to what is really on the Labor agenda. (Time expired)