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Wednesday, 3 March 2004
Page: 25761


Mr ENTSCH (Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Industry, Tourism and Resources) (1:45 PM) —I would like to contribute to this debate on the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Amendment Bill 2004. The bill seeks to amend the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Act 1975 to restructure the environmental management charge, or EMC as it is known, to remove the payment of the GST from the EMC where the tour operator passes the cost of the EMC on to the visitor in the ticket price.

I was involved some years ago—I think in 1996 or 1997—with the marine park tourism operators in working very closely with the then Minister for the Environment, Senator Robert Hill, in raising issues in relation to the impact of the EMC on the tourism industry. At the time there was a proposal for a significant increase in the EMC, a charge that was introduced in 1993. There was a proposal that that charge be increased to $5 or $6. That had a significant impact on the operators, none of whom had any problems with contributing to the management of the reef or to the management of the impacts that they have through their various tourism operations.

However, talking about the magnitude of the cost that was proposed, and the fact that a lot of lead time is required for these operators to promote their fares through their brochures et cetera, showed that it was a cost that they could not afford to absorb. At the time, some negotiations were carried out and there was an agreement that the cost would in fact be reduced. From memory, I think it was down to about $3.50. On the reduction of that cost, an agreement was entered into whereby the operators agreed to collect the EMC on behalf of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority and to pass that revenue on to them. Prior to that there had been discussions about ways in which the marine park authority were going to look at collecting it. They were talking about ticket machines at the wharf and a whole range of other initiatives, none of which were practical. The cost of the actual implementation was going to be greater than the revenue that they were anticipating. The compromise whereby the operators very responsibly agreed to collect on behalf of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority was very practical. So that was what was implemented back in 1996 or 1997. It went very well for some years.

In 2002 the Australian Taxation Office gave further consideration to this charge. They advised the tourist operators that they were going to be liable. Previously, we got written advice from the tax office confirming that there would be no GST applied to the EMC charge. This was done in 1998, when the new tax system was proposed and there was some concern about the additional cost. We got a letter from the tax office confirming the advice that there would be no GST on the EMC, given the government policy at that time. So it came as something of a surprise in 2002 when the tax office decided to make a ruling whereby the operators would in fact be liable for a GST on the EMC, the environmental management charge. The implications of that were very serious. Some of the operators were facing costs of hundreds of thousands of dollars in GST for the charges that they had been collecting on behalf of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority over the period of time since it was implemented in 1998. You can understand the concerns. Those sorts of costs would have put those businesses out of business completely and sent them broke. There was no question about that.

It was on that basis that the issue was raised initially with Senator Coonan, who is responsible for the tax office. She was very receptive to the concerns. She certainly appreciated the issues that we were raising with her. We were directed then to the current Minister for the Environment and Heritage, Dr Kemp, who I see has just arrived in the chamber. I have to say full marks to the minister, because he took on board the concerns that were raised by the marine park operators. We worked on it for a time. It was a challenge. We were not quite sure how we were going to do it, given the way in which the GST legislation is structured and the requirements that we had in relation to getting cooperation from all of the states—which, quite frankly, we thought was not going to be forthcoming. The opposition was playing around with this and was certainly not offering any positive contributions to finding a solution.

So we referred back to the arrangement that we had originally intended. That original intention was for the cost to be carried by the end user, the visitor. As a consequence of the tremendous cooperation from the good minister sitting here, we were able to turn that around. We now have a situation where these businesses continue to flourish and contribute in their own special way to supporting the management of this wonderful icon, the Great Barrier Reef, without being at all impaired by the additional cost of the GST. I would particularly like to acknowledge David Windsor from AMPTO, who worked very closely with me and the minister in finding solutions to this. His very positive contribution in highlighting the issues certainly gave us an opportunity to find a solution.

I noticed the member for Wills came in here earlier and took a negative, bleating attitude about his concerns for the Barrier Reef. I wonder whether he has ever been there—unless he has seen it in one of those little snow domes that you can buy in one of those Melbourne convenience stores. It was obvious from his contribution that that is probably as close as he has been to the Barrier Reef. He has absolutely no idea about issues relating to the Barrier Reef, which is disappointing given that he is the shadow minister to our very capable minister here. He obviously has very little understanding in talking to the marine park operators themselves, but he is certainly very capable of playing the political side of things without offering any contribution at all.

Our achievements in the time that we have been in government in the protection of this magnificent icon through the improvement of the reef water quality protection plan, the Great Barrier Reef Coastal Wetlands Protection plan—which, again, looks after the water—the end of river pollution targets that have been set for all the 26 river catchments that flow onto the reef and the prohibition of mining are impressive. There is a whole range of positive things that we have done to contribute to this issue. I think it is very much a credit to the current minister. There is the new Representative Areas Program in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, where we have extended the no-take area within the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park from 4.7 per cent, which is what it was prior to us coming into government, to over 33.3 per cent. A third of the entire area is now protected as a no-take zone. It shows that we do have a serious commitment to taking care of the reef.

The unsung heroes in the protection of the reef, in my view, are those tourism operators that over the years have contributed huge amounts of their own resources to the protection of the areas of their interest. A good example of that is the partnership that they enjoy with the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park in facing the crown-of-thorns menace. These operators use their own resources, their own staff and their own cash to get out there and remove huge numbers of these crown-of-thorns starfish from these areas. The biodiversity of the areas that are being protected by these operators is quite often much greater and better than that of the areas outside those zones of protection. Admittedly, the operators do focus on those areas, but they also see it as a commitment. The operators are true environmentalists. They see it as an area that they—



Mr ENTSCH —Quite frankly, in most instances I have to say that they have been quite mute. They tend to talk in very broad terms, but when it actually comes down to on-the-ground support and practical work being done in these areas a lot tends to be left lacking. Nevertheless, we have some outstanding operators in our region—Quicksilver, Dive Down Under, Sun Lovers and a lot of smaller operators—all of whom contribute very significantly to the management of the reef. I think it is important—and we are starting to see it more and more now—that we accept that we, as a government or as a government bureaucracy, cannot do these things alone. The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority cannot manage the area on its own. It needs the cooperation and support of those operators and the general public. It is great to see a culture starting to develop within that bureaucracy of including more and more of our operators in the management of those areas. If we continue to do that, we will ensure that over time there is an even greater improvement in the overall management of those areas.

We also have to acknowledge that the Barrier Reef is an area where, apart from the tourists, other commercial and recreational activities, such as fishing, take place. When we debate issues like this we need to talk about ecologically sustainable activities and to focus on making sure that these activities are sustainable. If they are, I think it is important for the economies of those regions that they be allowed to continue. In talking about the ecological sustainability of these resources, the people who access these areas contribute very significantly to their overall management because they protect the integrity of those areas to ensure their livelihoods can be continued. I congratulate the minister again for a magnificent job in listening to the concerns of marine park operators. I think we have achieved an excellent outcome.


The SPEAKER —Order! It being 2.00 p.m., the debate is interrupted in accordance with standing order 101A. The debate may be resumed at a later hour.