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Thursday, 10 May 2007
Page: 14

Ms GEORGE (9:51 AM) —I want to start by saying that I am really quite concerned that the bill before us for debate, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Amendment Bill 2007, misses the really central and pressing issue about the future of the Great Barrier Reef: the question of its viability and its good health at a time when we know that the impacts of climate change are having quite catastrophic consequences for coral reefs around the world. I would have thought that the bill would at least bring to this parliament some form of adaptation strategy to deal with the impact of dangerous climate change. Instead, we have a bill which in essence proposes some technical, administrative and machinery amendments to the functioning of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority.

I want to endorse the point made by our shadow minister in moving the second reading amendment which is before the parliament by saying it seems that the government has again missed the opportunity to provide a context in which this nation can adapt to and mitigate the impacts of climate change that are so readily evident in many parts of Australia, particularly in Northern Queensland, in the north of Australia, through developments along the Great Barrier Reef. I will return to those shortly.

The legislative amendments that are before us go to the heart of the functioning of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority. I want to put on record that I think GBRMPA has acted by and large in a way that promotes the best features of ecologically sustainable development. At all times it has sought to balance the environmental beauty of the reef, and the needs of commerce and other human activity, which has brought a lot of people from overseas and within Australia to the Great Barrier Reef to enjoy the remarkable pleasures that this unique reef provides.

It was with some concern that we heard a couple of years ago that the very existence of the authority was very much under threat. I am glad to say that the proposals that we are debating today put that issue to rest, but I think it is important that we note for the public record some of the contributions made in the debate at the time that the review of the authority was being undertaken. I say it is important to note those because the comments were really manifestations of a political tussle about the statutory nature of the authority, its autonomy and independence. I fear that some of the changes that we are debating today really do play into the hands of people that want to use the authority as a political football rather than to assist the authority to meet the very significant challenges that will come before it in the decades ahead.

You will recall that in fact the National Party and some of the more conservative elements of the government worked very hard in the public domain to destroy Dr David Kemp’s legacy, launching very strong campaigns against the authority and the zoning plans that it had enacted for use of the reef. Let me quote a few of their views. National Party Senator elect Barnaby Joyce, as he was then, was quoted in the Courier-Mail on 1 March 2005 opposing GBRMPA’s existence as an independent agency. This is what Barnaby Joyce had to say:

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.

The member for Dawson—and one would expect a more enlightened approach from someone who represents regional Queensland—had this to say:

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 ...

That was in relation to the green zones and the zoning proposals. It is important not to forget that in fact the Queensland Nationals did a preference deal with the Fishing Party at the last election on the basis that GBRMPA’s powers would be moved into the department, with the minister alone having total control of all significant decisions. There is no doubt, in my opinion, that that deal with the Fishing Party helped to get Senator Joyce elected. The National Party always saw the review of GBRMPA—and I think behind the scenes there must have been an understanding with the government as to this—as allowing the expression of this level of hostility to GBRMPA’s functioning. So, as I have said, I am very relieved that the rednecks did not get their way, that the authority has survived and that we did not roll back the protections that GBRMPA had provided for the reef. But no doubt those people and their attitudes are still out there in the community and in both houses of this parliament, so it concerns me that some of the technical amendments that we are debating today can leave open the possibility that decisions in the future will be made on the basis of politics rather than on what is in the best interests of the survival of the reef. You have only to look at what happened to Senator Ian Campbell over the orange-bellied parrot issue—and those opposite may well smile. The truth is that obviously a political decision was made to stop what was a very important project to advance our nation’s renewable capacity. Politics played its part there and no doubt some people think that through these changes it might be easier to exercise political clout in the future. As the Minister for the Environment and Water Resources said in his second reading speech:

This bill delivers the first tranche of changes that will strengthen governance arrangements and improve transparency and accountability, particularly in relation to the zoning plan process.

That all sounds fine—very technical and very economically efficient although there is not much about the health of the reef but that is okay as far as it goes as it retains GBRMPA as an authority. However, we now see that the consultative committee that advises GBRMPA will no longer have a statutory role. I do fear very much for Indigenous representation into the future. Not long ago I was privileged to visit the offices of GBRMPA in Townsville on a day when the authority and the local Indigenous community were sealing an agreement for fishing rights over different sections of the reef. I thought this was a wonderful example of a government authority actually taking on board Indigenous views and voices in a most serious and effective manner. So I am concerned that the changes in the bill do not ensure continuing Indigenous representation on GBRMPA’s advisory body. I am also concerned that the minister will retain the power to make final decisions on any future amendments to the zoning plan. I believe, based on the evidence that I have cited, that politics always plays a part in such decisions and that when you leave the final decision in the hands of a minister it does leave open the potential for political abuse of the process.

I note also that under the bill there will be no further zoning changes for at least seven years from the commencement of the act. This is very disturbing. If there are to be no further zoning changes for at least seven years, that would seem to take away the right from the authority to make plans and undertake actions which would adapt to a change in world climate and take into account global warming and prevailing environmental threats to the reef. I am not sure that it is wise to be locking the government and the minister into no further changes for seven years.

Having commented on the technical aspects of the bill, I will now speak on the broader issues on the future health and viability of the reef, both in terms of its environmental beauty and significance and in terms of the economic contribution that it makes to that region and to the nation. I do not have to convince anyone in this House that in every respect the Great Barrier Reef is one of Australia’s greatest treasures. I find it staggering that we all accept that yet this government has still not placed the reef on Australia’s National Heritage List. Amazing, isn’t it—people travel the world to visit the reef but this government cannot pick up the pen to list the reef on Australia’s National Heritage List?

It is the largest coral reef ecosystem in the world. It houses an incredibly diverse range of species, including fish, coral and marine turtles. It was the reef that originally made the area famous. As is pointed out in many of GBRMPA’s publications, the area also comprises an extraordinary variety of plant and animal communities, habitats and their associated ecological processes, ranging not just from the fringing coral reefs but to mangroves, seagrass beds, sandy and coral cays, sandy- or muddy-bottom communities, continental islands and, of course, deep ocean areas that surround the reef. The reef is loved and valued by all our citizens but it is also loved and recognised as an amazing environmental icon by many people across the world.

As well as the environmental majesty that is associated with the reef, we can never underestimate the economic activities that are associated with the reef. I give credit to GBRMPA for finding that fine balance between ecological preservation and human and commercial use. A recent document from GBRMPA stated:

Today the Great Barrier Reef contributes $5.8 billion annually to the Australian economy. This comprises $5.1 billion from the tourism industry, $610 million from recreational activity and $149 million from commercial fishing. This economic activity generates about 63 000 jobs, mostly in the tourism industry, which brings over 1.9 million visitors to the Reef each year.

For the nation, the reef is a particularly special icon. Tourism and recreation have been the primary uses for the reef, and many of us have enjoyed the pleasure that the reef provides, or know people who have. Even though there has been debate about the use of the reef, particularly from some people in the commercial fishing sector, commercial fishing is still a very important industry with the richly-stocked waters offering considerable catches. The economic significance of the reef cannot be discounted but the question is: how do we maintain the health of the reef so that we can continue to derive economic benefit while at the same time preserving one of our national icons?

It is not scaremongering to say that our Great Barrier Reef today is at great threat and at enormous risk. Let me quote Mr John Schubert, a well-known reputable businessman who, thankfully, is now heading up the Great Barrier Reef Foundation. They are doing a terrific job in promoting awareness about the risks to the reef and looking at research projects that may shed light on how we can preserve the health of the reef in perpetuity. John Schubert said:

Until my appointment as chairman of the Great Barrier Reef Foundation two years ago, I was something of a sceptic. However, the marine scientists who advise the foundation convinced me that climate change is the most pressing threat to our Great Barrier Reef. The evidence presented by these scientists, the literature they have shared with me and my visits to the reef have proved to be so compelling as to prompt something of an epiphany.

John Schubert knows that climate change could devastate our Great Barrier Reef. He has the evidence, but so too does the Prime Minister and so too does the Minister for the Environment and Water Resources. This government has failed to act to protect the health of the reef just as it has failed to ensure that we mitigate and adapt to the worst possibilities under a regime of dangerous climate change.

In 2002 we had coral bleaching in the southern part of the Great Barrier Reef. The authority at the time estimated that 60 to 90 per cent of the reefs around Keppel Island were affected. We cannot afford to lose 60 to 90 per cent of any of the reefs along the Great Barrier Reef without enormous impact on not just the biodiversity of the reef but also its many functions. I also like this quote from Mr Schubert in which he described our coral reefs as ‘a canary in the mine in the context of climate change’. When you see coral bleaching and coral disease along the reef, that surely rings alarm bells to say to the Australian parliament and to the nation that it is time that we gave effect to the precautionary principle and it is time we began to understand the impact of dangerous climate change on our reef. Just in the last two days we have had further scientific evidence which points to the clear link between coral disease and warmer ocean temperatures. A team of scientists from Australia and the US studied 48 reefs spread along our Great Barrier Reef and, in the words of one of the researchers:

We’ve long suspected climate change is driving disease outbreaks ... Our results suggest that warmer temperatures are increasing the severity of disease in the ocean.

...         ...         ...

Our results suggest that climate change could be increasing the severity of disease in the ocean, leading to a decline in the health of marine ecosystems and the loss of the resources and services humans derive from them.

Our own Dr Bette Willis, from Australia’s Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, had this to say:

Knowing that [the reefs] may be particularly vulnerable to disease outbreaks highlights the need for caution when it comes to permitting activities that add additional stress, especially during times of high temperatures.

The scientific evidence is there. It is there without dispute. It is reputable. It is accepted by intelligent people. And it is time that this government took this issue very seriously. Just a few weeks ago, in its most recent report, the International Panel on Climate Change had this to say about coral reefs:

Corals are vulnerable to thermal stress and have low adaptive capacity. Increases in sea surface temperature of about 1 to 3°C are projected to result in more frequent coral bleaching events and widespread mortality ...

I conclude by saying that this government has watched over the gradual destruction of the Great Barrier Reef for the past 11 years and has provided no positive response to the impact of dangerous climate change on one of the world’s most delicate ecosystems and one of Australia’s national treasures. Some time ago we heard the absurd proposal from the federal tourism minister that we should investigate the use of shadecloth over parts of the reef to protect it. Have you ever heard anything more absurd?

A three degree rise in temperature would see the destruction of the Great Barrier Reef, with 97 per cent of the reef suffering coral bleaching. Let us hope we never get to the stage where we see a three degree rise in temperature. But even a one degree rise is very problematic for the health of the Great Barrier Reef.

The government knows about these threats. It has received report after report warning of the damage. Instead of acting it has delivered a decade of delay, denial and inaction on climate change. You can only help the reef if you take serious action on climate change and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The government needs to heed the urgent warnings of all scientists who have expertise in this area before it is too late. And, regrettably, this week’s budget and this bill fail the test of providing any proactive strategy by this minister and the government to secure the long-term health and viability of the Great Barrier Reef.

We urgently need an action plan to protect the reef from coral bleaching and coral disease. We need more research and we need a plan which not only protects the beauty of our reef but which protects the jobs and industries that depend on a healthy reef into perpetuity.