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Wednesday, 9 May 2007
Page: 137

Mr MURPHY (7:09 PM) —The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Act 1975, which the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Amendment Bill 2007 amends, has served its purpose extremely well, and remains a fundamentally sound piece of legislation. At the time of its enactment, the government of the day stated, ‘The protection of our unique barrier reef is of paramount importance to Australia and to the world.’ Like any other good piece of legislation, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Act 1975 has, over time, been successful at giving effect to the public policy considerations underpinning it. We need not look any further for evidence of this than the many achievements of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority and the international recognition, in 1981, of the conservation value of the Great Barrier Reef following its inscription on the World Heritage List.

There can be no doubt that the act has stood the test of time as an exemplary defender of marine management and conservation. Nonetheless, the act has now been in place for over 30 years and many lessons have been learnt from the challenges of the past. The manifest integrity of the act—and the general acceptance of that integrity by the stakeholders which it serves—is essential if the act is to have any hope of safeguarding the interests of the Great Barrier Reef well into the future.

The report of the review of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Act 1975 identified numerous concerns about the inadequacy of the processes in place for engaging with stakeholders—as well as concern that decisions under the act were not being conveyed clearly enough to those stakeholders. The introduction of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Zoning Plan 2003, with its considerable scale and scope, affected many communities and stakeholders. Perhaps better than any other chapter in the act’s history, this example demonstrated the tension often felt by many stakeholders in the decision-making process. Whether for valid reasons or otherwise, many stakeholders disagreed with the scientific basis of the zoning plan, considered the processes to be biased and felt that it failed to consider the impacts on individuals and communities.

While the final criticism ought to be levelled directly at the Howard government for ignoring repeated warnings from the Queensland fishing industry about flaws in socioeconomic assessment processes, the other criticisms are symptomatic of the inherent weaknesses in the act. The review panel executive summary recognised this when it noted that:

... an effective relationship with recreational and commercial fishing stakeholders is lacking. To an extent, such tensions between the Authority and affected stakeholders were inevitable in view of the substantial change to zoning arrangements proposed.

And said:

... the Review Panel is of the view that the processes for engagement with all stakeholders can be improved.

The processes involved in the 2003 zoning plan should be considered with a view to learning lessons for the future. Managing the alternative uses of the marine park, and responding to the long-term protection needs of the future will become much more challenging in the future.

The integrity of the act and the integrity of processes that allow conservation to coexist with reasonable marine park use—and the general acceptance of that integrity by stakeholders—depends on practices that: are clearly scientific, are thoroughly transparent, engage with stakeholders, are clearly understood, and assess the social and economic impacts of any changes affecting the Great Barrier Reef. That is why I welcomed a review into the act to:

... improve the performance of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, its office holders and its accountability frameworks.

It is also the reason why I am generally supportive of the measures in this bill.

While the bill is by no means perfect—and I will come to that later—it is certainly not as bad as many of us had feared at the time of the review’s announcement by the former Minister for the Environment and Heritage. The review into the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Act came against a backdrop of a National Party push to abolish the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority and give full control to the minister. No doubt the abolition of the authority has only been avoided because of the intense campaign from members on this side of the chamber and the resulting public outrage. The review also came against a backdrop of the Howard government gutting the independence of other key environmental agencies such as the Australian Greenhouse Office—have we forgotten?—the National Oceans Office and the Australian Heritage Commission.

The review also came against the backdrop of the Howard government’s use of notions such as ‘accountability’ and ‘best corporate practice’ as powerful rhetorical weapons but then acting in a venal manner that made a mockery of those very notions. Who could forget the Australian Broadcasting Corporation Amendment Bill 2006? When announcing plans to restructure the board of the ABC under the guise of implementing the Uhrig report, the Review of corporate governance of statutory authorities and office holders, many held hopes of genuine reform. Many held hopes of a restructure that would result in an open and transparent process for making appointments to the ABC board, appointments based on merit and free of political patronage. We all know how wrong we were, and we will rectify that on the election of a Rudd Labor government.

These are not trifling matters that can be dismissed when considering the substance of the bill before us today. The backdrop I have just provided is most relevant to several matters of concern in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Amendment Bill 2007. As I have mentioned, it is true that there are many lessons we can learn from the execution of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Act over the last 30 years. However, it is true that there are still many lessons we can learn from the Howard government’s approach over the last 10 years to so-called improvements in accountability and performance frameworks of statutory authorities.

At face value, the bill does fulfil the objectives the member for Wentworth has set out. At face value, the bill strengthens governance arrangements, transparency and accountability. This is particularly so for the zoning plan processes. There will be far greater engagement with stakeholders in the development of new zoning plans which regulate the use of the marine park. A system will be in place which better balances and manages the diverse and competing interests involved in any proposed zoning plan.

Amendments to section 32 of the act will increase the minimum public comment period for draft zone plans from one month to three months. Proposed sections 34 and 35 will make the zone planning process more transparent, with comprehensive information being made available to stakeholders. The process will be built on principles that must consider robust scientific and socioeconomic information. These principles, and a report considering the environmental, economic and social values of an area, must be made available to communities, users of the marine park and other interested persons and organisations. It is pleasing to see that a comprehensive socioeconomic assessment is necessary prior to making any changes to zoning.

The disinterest and indolence shown by the Howard government to repeated warnings from the Queensland fishing industry that inadequate attention had been provided to the social and economic impacts of zoning plans is staggering. Perhaps this is being generous. Some would say the attention paid was perfunctory. The initial failure to consider the social and economic implications of zoning plans for the commercial fishing industry is, at best, regrettable. However, the Howard government’s need to review and upgrade its fishing industry structural adjustment packages on four separate occasions was embarrassing and a sign of incompetence. It has been the cause of much frustration for stakeholders, and it has unfairly subjected the integrity of the act itself to unnecessary scrutiny. For the government’s sake, we all hope this embarrassment can be avoided in future as a result of the amendments contained in this bill, although there can be no panacea for incompetence.

Proposed sections 53 and 54 will establish a periodic Great Barrier Reef outlook report that provides a regular and reliable means of assessing performance in the long-term protection of the Great Barrier Reef. The peer review assessment will include an analysis of the condition of the ecosystem and the long-term outlook for the reef. The outlook report may be used during any review of a zoning plan which is currently in place. So as to allow the consequences of an existing zoning plan to take full effect on the ecosystem, amendments to or reviews of zoning plans may only take place after seven years.

The requirement that significant amendments may only be made to zoning plans after seven years leads me to a concern that pressing issues which may be identified in an outlook report, which is prepared every five years, may not be acted upon for a further two years. Notwithstanding this minor concern, there can be no doubt that the amendments have ostensibly been drafted for a proper purpose. At face value, the amendments improve transparency and accountability and strengthen the governance of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority.

This is in no small part because the health of the Great Barrier Reef is to be regularly reported on, and considerations of changes in future planning and zoning arrangements will appear to be undertaken in a robust and transparent manner. However, as with any reform of a statutory authority by the Howard government, it would be prudent to scratch the surface of the proposals because the devil is often in the detail. Superficiality has always been a strength of the government, but it is often the motives behind its proposals that can leave a lot to be desired. This bill is no exception.

While I would not be prepared to throw the baby out with the bathwater, there are elements of this bill which all members should have serious concerns about. The Great Barrier Reef advisory board, which will be structured to provide the Minister for the Environment and Water Resources with specific advice relating to marine park protection and use, will comprise appointments hand-picked by the minister.

Outlook reports, which will be structured to regularly provide the minister and the public with information about the health of the Great Barrier Reef, will be drafted by an authority whose members have been appointed by the minister. The outlook report will be peer-reviewed by persons who the minister thinks have the necessary qualifications to undertake the task.

The bill does not give any indication as to whether the bona fides or qualifications of those undertaking the peer review of an outlook report will be subjected to public scrutiny, because there is no indication as to whether the peer review itself is public or confidential. The principles upon which a zoning plan is based are, in the final analysis, approved by the minister alone. Furthermore, any decision to amend a zoning plan will rest not with the authority but with the minister. The minister may retort that any decision to amend a zoning plan will be based on the outlook report and advice received by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority.

However, we cannot easily forget the backdrop to this bill, which I identified earlier. The Howard government has drafted this bill against a backdrop of government members seeking to abolish the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, against a backdrop of damaging the independence of other key environmental agencies and against a backdrop of using rhetorical weapons of reform and restructure to make political appointments to statutory authorities.

Under the present government there has been an appalling tradition of politicising board appointments and elements of the bureaucracy. Who could forget the frank and fearless advice received by the government on such matters as ‘children overboard’, ‘weapons of mass destruction’ and ‘AWB kickbacks to Saddam Hussein’s regime’?

In the best spirit of Christian charity, if one accepts that the government has not lied about these appalling incidents then one cannot forgive the government for its incompetence on those matters. It is clear the Howard government does not tolerate criticism well. It is a tragedy that many agencies and departments have become shells of their former selves because some members of the government do not want to hear of any evil or see any evil—even if the agency knows the evil exists. This backdrop should not allow us to fall for the government’s disingenuous attempt to employ shallow words to give soothing assurances that there are the necessary checks and balances on the minister’s powers under this act.

The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, as I have already mentioned, will be comprised of members stacked by the minister. The outlook report will in turn be drafted by this authority. The outlook report will be peer-reviewed by individuals stacked by the minister. Zoning plans will be amended by the minister. Zoning plan principles will be determined by the minister. Members of the Great Barrier Reef advisory board will be stacked by the minister. Members of the government should not feign surprise at the concentration of power in the hands of the minister and nor should members of the government feign surprise that one of the few structures in place that could have provided a check on the minister’s powers will be abolished by this bill. The bill no longer provides for automatic representation on the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority from the Queensland government.

The minister has already noted that the bill encompasses the outcomes of the 2003 Uhrig report, the Review of the corporate governance of statutory authorities and office holders. In defence of the abolition of Queensland government representation on the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, the minister may cite the following conclusion from that report:

The review does not support representational appointments to governing boards as representational appointments can fail to produce independent and objective views.

However, assuming Mr Uhrig’s conclusions are correct, it is interesting to note that his findings on the matter only made up one page of a 133-page report. It is important to note that Mr Uhrig also made the comment that ‘there are no universally accepted structures and practices that constitute good governance’.

The choice of governance model for the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority should not be formulaic but should be driven by the objectives of the authority. Guidance can be taken on this point from the executive summary of the Review of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Act. It notes, inter alia, and I quote:

 ... many points of intersection in both policy and legislation that apply to the Marine Park and surrounding area, which require the two governments to work closely together.

The review continues:

 ... officeholders should not be representational but appointed for their relevant expertise, with one member being nominated by the Queensland Government ...

In light of the need for effective collaboration between the Commonwealth and Queensland governments, this bill ought to have allowed for the Queensland government to be automatically represented on the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority. I would have thought that that would be the minimum requirement. This, to some degree at least, would also have installed an independent voice on the authority which could keep a check on the minister’s sweeping powers. Given the health of the Great Barrier Reef, and bearing in mind that it is at a crossroads, it is more vital now than ever before for the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority to provide frank, fearless and independent advice to the minister. This is particularly so given the minister’s propensity to dismiss environmental advice which is extremely pertinent for the long-term survival of the Great Barrier Reef.

The issue of climate change is the largest single challenge confronting the Great Barrier Reef. Despite overwhelming evidence to this effect, the government remains unrepentant in its determination to sabotage efforts to reduce emissions. Reports that the Great Barrier Reef is facing extinction because of the effects of climate change have amounted to nothing. It is a disgrace that the government has ignored UN reports which predict the beginning of the end of the Great Barrier Reef within 13 years. Members of the public are entitled to ask: why has the Howard government ignored assessments by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change? Why has it ignored Professor Ove Hoegh-Guldberg of the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies? Why has it ignored Australian climate change expert Dr Geoff Love? And why has it ignored warnings from Sir Nicholas Stern?

While the oceans have been a convenient dumping ground for our waste, the effect of all of this carbon dioxide upon the ocean waters is beginning to have serious consequences, because carbon dioxide when dissolved in water forms a weak acid. The Great Barrier Reef is not only under threat from increasing water temperatures that cause coral bleaching but also, it now appears, besieged by increasing ocean acidity. It is breathtakingly hypocritical for the minister to suggest that ‘the Australian government has remained committed to the long-term protection of the Great Barrier Reef’ when the government will not seriously address concerns that a three-degree rise in temperature could bleach 97 per cent of the Great Barrier Reef and that coral reef communities will be replaced by algal communities by 2030. The government has now cynically announced, four months before an election, initiatives which will placate the growing anger of Australians. But we know what members of the Howard government really think about the threat of climate change. They are climate change sceptics. They have thrown the precautionary principle out the window. Some members opposite believe—indeed one has openly stated—that climate change is an issue for ‘trendy coffee sippers’. What a disgrace.

The government has not only spread misinformation about the consequences of global warming, particularly for the Great Barrier Reef, but also deliberately taken a wrecking ball to the international community’s attempts to establish a treaty to reduce the volume of greenhouse gas emissions. It has tried in vain to turn the debate about climate change into a mutually exclusive choice between environmental protection and job protection. This is nonsense. The destruction of the Great Barrier Reef from the effects of climate change directly puts at risk 200,000 jobs in a $4.3 billion tourism industry. While some members opposite sit back and ridicule scientists from home and abroad as ‘trendy coffee sippers’, the Great Barrier Reef and many tourism jobs are slowly facing destruction as a result of their inaction. This is a scandalous and disgraceful situation. It is vital that the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority be given every opportunity to provide independent advice to the minister, and it is important that this advice is taken heed of. (Time expired)