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Wednesday, 9 May 2007
Page: 53

Mr GARRETT (12:59 PM) —The Great Barrier Reef is Australia’s greatest natural asset, an economic powerhouse and an extraordinary ambassador for Australia. The reef draws people to Australia and it draws Australians to Northern Queensland. It captures the imagination like no other Australian icon. It is a place that offers serenity and stability, beauty and pleasure. It is, as the Great Barrier Reef Foundation have noted, ‘The largest, most pristine continuous coral reef archipelago on earth’, a natural icon that links to our national identity. We in Australia are so fortunate to be able to say that we come from the home of the Great Barrier Reef. But the truth is that our greatest natural asset is crook—really crook. I often wonder whether the Howard government cares at all about the fate of the reef. The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Amendment Bill 2007 is remarkable for what it does not do. It does not offer a plan to maintain a healthy reef into the future.

The bill before the House seeks to implement recommendations of a 2006 review of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Act 1975. I want to pick up on the key aspects of that review and this bill. But, before I do, it is important to set the scene. The Great Barrier Reef is an extraordinary natural wonder. It is the world’s largest World Heritage area—2,000 kilometres of World Heritage wonder. It is the world’s most extensive coral reef system. It has the world’s richest diversity of faunal species. There are some 2,800 individual reefs, 1,500 fish species, 175 bird species, some 4,000 species of mollusc—an incredible figure—1,500 species of sponge, 500 species of seaweed and more than 30 species of marine mammals.

Dr Emerson —That’s a lot of diversity.

Mr GARRETT —There is an extraordinary range of marine biodiversity and species diversity on the reef. There are 940 islands. The GBR is the jewel in the crown. The northern part of the reef is believed to be 18 million years old and the southern part is believed to be two million years old. These are staggering statistics. The reef is a place of staggering beauty. This is our inheritance and we have a responsibility to protect it for future generations.

Of course, we do not just have a responsibility to maintain the ecological integrity of the Great Barrier Reef; we also have a responsibility to maintain the jobs and the regional towns that are dependent on a healthy reef. Around 200,000 jobs are directly dependent on a healthy Great Barrier Reef, a reef that generates about $4.3 billion for the Australian economy. That is a substantial commitment that the Great Barrier Reef makes, not only in terms of its environmental heritage and richness but also in terms of its economic productivity.

But there are real threats to the future of the reef. The science is very clear. The unreleased Australian chapter of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report Climate change 2007: climate change impacts, adaptation and vulnerability lays out a bleak future for the Great Barrier Reef. It says that, by 2020, 60 per cent of the Great Barrier Reef could be regularly bleached; by 2050, 97 per cent of the reef could be bleached each year; and by 2080 there could be ‘catastrophic mortality of coral species annually’ and a 95 per cent decrease in distribution of Great Barrier Reef species. There could be a loss of 65 per cent of Great Barrier Reef species in the Cairns region alone.

An international team of scientists working on the Great Barrier Reef has found a clear link between coral disease and warmer ocean temperatures. World-first research at 48 reefs spread along 1,500 kilometres of the Great Barrier Reef, combined with six years of satellite data on sea temperatures, has revealed ‘a highly significant relationship’ between ocean warming and the emergence of a disease known as white syndrome. And of course, ocean warming is a consequence of climate change. White syndrome is one of a number of unexplained coral diseases which scientists have observed to be on the increase globally in recent years. This is enough to make you weep. The Great Barrier Reef is dying before our very eyes and, frankly, it does not seem as if the Howard government gives a damn.

The government cannot say it was not warned. It has received report after report for almost a decade about climate change and its likely impacts—similar warnings, growing in strength with each report. The truth is the Prime Minister’s in-tray is littered with reports warning of the threat of climate change to the Great Barrier Reef but his out-tray is filled with cobwebs. Look at the government’s own March 2005 Climate change risk and vulnerability report. That report identifies the reef as one of ‘a handful of highly vulnerable regions [that] can be identified that should be given priority for further adaptation planning and response’. The report goes on to say:

Cairns and the Great Barrier Reef are expected to see multiple dimensions of change. The Reef itself is likely to suffer from coral bleaching events, which have long recovery times and flow on effects for the whole ecosystem. Climate model projections suggest that within 40 years water temperatures could be above the survival limit of corals.

And 40 years is within the lifetimes of many people in our country. You have to ask: what action has the Howard government undertaken in response to this stark warning? This is not just an environmental question. A 2005 Access Economics study found that tourism associated with the Great Barrier Reef generated over $4.48 billion in the 12-month period 2004-05 and provided employment for about 63,000 people. The marine tourism industry is a major contributor to the local and Australian economy. These employment statistics are significant, and the contribution that the reef makes to local, regional and national economies is substantial. In 2007 there are approximately 820 operators and 1,500 vessels and aircraft permitted to operate in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park.

Tourism attracts approximately 1.9 million visitors each year. That is an extraordinary number of people who come to enjoy the beauty, amenity and qualities that the Great Barrier Reef' has to offer. The reef is simply the lifeblood of regional and local economies. That is why the Howard government’s line—a calculated line—that Australians have to choose between a healthy economy and a healthy environment is so wrong. The Great Barrier Reef’s extraordinary environmental values and its profound contribution to our national economy go hand in hand and provide the clearest rebuttal that Australians could ever seek of the false choices that are put forward by the Howard government when the Prime Minister and others put the line that we have to maintain protection of jobs at the expense of looking after the environment. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The Great Barrier Reef brings billions of dollars into the Australian economy and is directly responsible for the employment of tens of thousands of Australians. So the question is this: how much new money do you reckon the government allocated in last night’s budget to deliver a healthy reef? The answer is that at last night’s budget, the 2007 budget, $30 million over four years—some $7 million or so a year—was allocated to the Great Barrier Reef in new funding. That, frankly, is pitiful. The government has announced $15.9 million over four years for field management. Labor would like to see the details of the field management, but that is something which we broadly support. The government has also announced $14.2 million for the continuation of the water quality monitoring program and that that money will come from the Natural Heritage Trust. So we will wait to see whether that is new money, but it is a program that we would welcome.

These are small initiatives by any reckoning, made by a government that does not understand the huge climate change challenges facing Australia. A forward looking government would have used a federal budget to develop and implement an action plan to help protect the Great Barrier Reef from the effects of coral bleaching and to protect Australian jobs and industries dependent on a healthy reef. A forward looking government would have used a federal budget to implement a national climate change strategy that would include ratifying the Kyoto protocol, cutting Australia’s greenhouse pollution by 60 per cent by 2050, establishing a national emissions trading scheme and seriously investing in renewable energy and clean coal.

A forward looking government would have announced serious long-term measures to cut Australia’s soaring greenhouse pollution. But that is not what we got in last night’s federal budget. Climate change is a massive challenge for Australia but the Howard government is simply trying to slay the dragon with a feather. The federal budget will not stop Australia’s greenhouse gas pollution from soaring by 27 per cent by 2020. The federal budget will not build a strong Australian clean energy industry. The federal budget will not create new Australian clean coal jobs. The federal budget failed the climate change test. That is what happened last night when the Treasurer brought down his budget: the government failed the climate change test.

The other thing a forward looking government would do is to cherish Australia’s past—to recognise that our natural and cultural heritage is the cornerstone of our modern society. That is why I find it staggering that the government still has not placed the Great Barrier Reef on Australia’s Natural Heritage List. A Natural Heritage List without the Great Barrier Reef is like a cricket hall of fame without Sir Donald Bradman—but that is precisely what we have. The Natural Heritage List came into force in January 2004; it is now 2007. It beggars belief that the government has not got around to putting the reef on the Natural Heritage List. We are entitled to ask ourselves whether it is incompetence, tardiness or forgetfulness, or whether the Howard government is just taking the Great Barrier Reef for granted. Is it taking the people who depend on a healthy reef for granted, as well? The government seems to have given up on the Great Barrier Reef, our greatest national natural treasure.

Previously the government took a very courageous step when it announced it was protecting 33 per cent of the Great Barrier Reef from fishing and other extractive industries. I want to take this opportunity in the House to pay tribute to the then environment minister, David Kemp, who will always be remembered for that initiative—one which Labor supported. But what has the government done since then? It announced a structural adjustment package for the fishing industry. Initially, the structural adjustment package was worth $31 million. Now it has increased threefold, flowing out to more than $87 million—an extraordinary miscalculation. Fishermen and land based businesses that rely on reef derived income are entitled to compensation for economic loss caused under the Representative Areas Program, which increased the reef green zones. They deserve compensation; they do not deserve the mess that is the compensation package.

The National Party and some of the more conservative elements of the Liberal Party have worked hard in the past to destroy Dr Kemp’s legacy. Strong campaigns have been launched against the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority and the zoning plan. On 1 March 2005, the then National Party senator-elect Barnaby Joyce was quoted in the Courier Mail as opposing the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority’s existence as an independent agency. He said:

GBRMPA is out of control ...We are having too many problems and we should bring it totally under government control and baby-sit it for a while.

On 26 October 2004, the member for Dawson said:

What we’ve had is a statutory body in GBRMPA that is out of control that has put, I think, no real scientific basis for the arguments they’ve put forward.

It must never be forgotten that the Queensland Nationals did a preference deal with the Fishing Party at the last election on the basis that GBRMPA’s powers be moved into the department where the minister would have control of all decisions. This helped get Senator Joyce elected.

The National Party always saw the review of GBRMPA as the vehicle for destroying GBRMPA and rolling back the protection of the Great Barrier Reef. On 25 March 2006, the Courier Mail reported that the Howard government was planning to reduce the marine protection boundaries of the Representative Areas Program and to abolish the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority as an independent agency. I am pleased to say neither of those two things happened. I am also pleased that GBRMPA remains a statutory authority. I want to pay tribute to the member for Grayndler, who was my predecessor as shadow minister for the environment, to Senator Jan McLucas and to Labor’s candidate for Leichhardt, Jim Turnour, for their hard yakka and dedication to the protection of the Great Barrier Reef.

Labor prevented the destruction of GBRMPA, but there are still aspects of this bill that are concerning. The bill replaces the Great Barrier Reef Consultative Committee with a non-statutory advisory board and removes the requirement for specific representation from the Queensland government or the interests of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. Labor is concerned that the partnership with the Queensland government, which has been such a hallmark of the work of GBRMPA, has in effect been shredded. The opposition is also concerned that there may not be the opportunity for proper representation from Indigenous communities, which ought to be a feature of the proposed new arrangements. Labor is also concerned that other interests, including the tourism industry, may not be adequately represented on GBRMPA or the advisory board. That is a matter the government ought to give full consideration to. I call on the environment minister to make a commitment to a genuine partnership with the Queensland government, to a genuine engagement with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and to a real and genuine engagement with all the industries that are dependent on a healthy reef. A place must be found for everyone at the table.

I am pleased—and Labor welcomes—that the government is establishing a five-yearly outlook report for the Great Barrier Reef. The environment minister has stated that a regular and reliable means of assessing the protection of the Great Barrier Reef will be provided through a formal outlook report that will be tabled in parliament every five years and that this report will cover the management of the marine park, the overall condition of the ecosystem and the longer term outlook for the Great Barrier Reef. This report clearly is an important measure and it has Labor’s support. This report will be peer reviewed by an appropriately qualified panel of experts appointed by the minister. Labor welcomes those measures but seeks confirmation from the minister that the peer report will be a public document, as this is not provided for in the bill before us.

Labor notes that the minister will be responsible for any future decision to amend the zoning plan and that any such decision will be based on the outlook report and advice from the authority. Labor also notes the minister’s commitment that engagement with stakeholders on the development of a new zoning plan will be improved and the process made more transparent—that is clearly necessary—with comprehensive information being made publicly available throughout the process that will include the rationale for amending the zoning plan, the principles on which the development of the zoning plan will be based, socioeconomic information, and a report on the final zoning plan and its outcomes. In addition, each of the two public consultation periods will be increased from one month to three months. We welcome the extension of the public consultation period.

It is important there is integrity in the process, and it is important there are ongoing commitments to better protecting the health of the Great Barrier Reef. That is why I call on the government to join Labor in opposing oil drilling and exploration near the Great Barrier Reef. I foreshadow now that I will move consideration-in-detail amendments to extend the boundary of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park region to the Exclusive Economic Zone, and I call on the government to support those amendments.

I am deeply concerned that the government’s agenda is to proceed with the oil exploration and drilling near the Great Barrier Reef. Just last year, Geoscience Australia published a map which indicated the potential for exploration and drilling in this region. Under the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Act 1975, any oil drilling or prospecting in the Great Barrier Reef region is prohibited. My consideration in detail stage amendments will seek to extend the region so that oil drilling and prospecting in the Great Barrier Reef region, the region east of the boundary of the current marine park to the Exclusive Economic Zone, will be prohibited.

Whilst it is the case that the governance and associated measures contained in this bill are supported by the opposition, it remains a fact that the government’s abysmal record in seriously addressing climate change is a significant impediment to ensuring protection of the great natural treasure that is the Great Barrier Reef into the future. I hereby move:

That all words after “That” be omitted with a view to substituting the following words: “whilst not declining to give the bill a second reading, the House:

(1)   affirms the object of the Principal Act - the protection of the Great Barrier Reef - but notes that the future of the reef is threatened by both short term and longer term factors, including climate change;

(2)   notes that the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change stated in 2007 that by 2050, 97% of the Great Barrier Reef could be bleached every year as a result of climate change;

(3)   condemns the Government’s incompetent handling of the structural adjustment package for the Great Barrier Reef Representative Areas Plan, which has seen the budget blow out from $31 million to more than $87 million;

(4)   calls on the Government to develop and implement an action plan to help protect the Great Barrier Reef from the effects of coral bleaching and protect Australian jobs and industries dependent on a healthy reef as part of a national climate change strategy; and

(5)   calls on the Government to prohibit mineral, oil and gas exploration in Australian waters adjacent to the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park”.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Hatton)—Is the amendment seconded?

Dr Emerson —I second the amendment and reserve my right to speak.