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Thursday, 10 May 2007
Page: 22

Ms LIVERMORE (10:28 AM) —I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Amendment Bill 2007 and about the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority and the changes the government is proposing to make in the way it does its job of protecting the reef. I also support the amendment moved by the shadow minister for the environment, which rightly condemns the government for its failure to protect the reef from damage caused by climate change. We also call on the government to, once and for all, prohibit mineral, oil and gas exploration in Australian waters adjacent to the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park.

As we have heard from many in this debate, the Great Barrier Reef is truly one of Australia’s great treasures and it stands as one of the wonders of the world. The Great Barrier Reef has an area of 35 million hectares and is the world’s most extensive reef system. The reef supports over 1,500 species of fish, 300 species of hard coral, over 4,000 species of mollusc and over 400 species of sponge. The Great Barrier Reef seagrass beds provide an excellent feeding ground for the endangered dugong as well as supporting large numbers of algae which are utilised heavily by turtles and fish as a food source. The reef also provides vast areas of breeding ground for endangered green and loggerhead turtles as well as for humpback whales that migrate from the Antarctic in order to give birth in the warmer waters. The numerous islands and coral cays in the area support several hundred bird species and are used as unique breeding grounds by many of these species.

All Australians regard it as an icon of our nation and a symbol of Australia’s natural beauty that is recognised internationally. The international community has made it very clear exactly how highly it regards the Great Barrier Reef and consequently Australia’s responsibility to protect it. In 1981 the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage area was included on the World Heritage List in recognition of its universal value. So all of us here—not just us Queenslanders, who are so fortunate to live beside this national icon—should understand that the Great Barrier Reef has enormous environmental significance as well as economic value to our nation. That economic value should not be ignored or underestimated. Some 200,000 jobs are directly dependent on a healthy reef, and a good number of those jobs are in Central Queensland. The reef generates about $4.3 billion for the Australian economy. That money is important to our national economy but it is the key to survival for many regional communities in my state of Queensland.

Back in 1975 the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Act established the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, known as GBRMPA. Since then GBRMPA has acted as the principal adviser to the federal government on the care and development of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. One of the primary functions of the authority is to recommend areas for declaration as parts of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park and it also carries out important research into the state of the reef. But in the course of doing that job the marine park authority has fallen foul of some members of the government and particularly members of the National Party. We are concerned that this bill represents yet another attempt by this government to dilute the authority and effectiveness of GBRMPA. That is certainly an aim that the National Party have held for some time and one that has become increasingly important as a thank you to the Fishing Party for their assistance to The Nationals in the 2004 election.

The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Amendment Bill 2007 implements key recommendations from the review carried out last year by the secretary of the environment department, David Borthwick. That review resulted in 28 recommendations and this bill includes the first tranche of changes to the act. The key changes in this bill include: amendments required as a consequence of applying the Financial Management and Accountability Act 1997 to the operations of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority; changes to the governance arrangements of the authority in light of the 2003 Uhrig review of the corporate governance of statutory authorities and office holders; a requirement for a periodic Great Barrier Reef Outlook report; new statutory provisions to ensure that the current zoning plan for the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park cannot be amended for at least seven years from the date it came into force; and the abolition of the Great Barrier Reef Consultative Committee, which will be replaced by a non-statutory advisory board reporting directly to the minister.

We do not have a problem with most of those proposals. The Great Barrier Reef Outlook report, for example, seems to be an appropriate and prudent way to monitor and manage the health of the reef by providing a regular and reliable means of assessing performance in its long-term protection. The bill requires those reports to be produced every five years and they must be peer-reviewed by at least three persons who in the minister’s opinion possess the appropriate qualifications to undertake such a review.

As I said, there are significant changes to the provisions in the act concerning zoning plans. The zoning plan is the primary instrument for the conservation and management of the marine park. Those plans seek to balance and manage the diverse and competing interests within the park. When it comes to zoning plans, the amendments in this bill mean that no changes can be made to the zoning plans within seven years of their coming into effect. After that, the minister will be responsible for any future decision to amend the zoning plan, not GBRMPA, but the minister’s decision will be based on the outlook report and advice from the Marine Park Authority. If the minister decides to proceed with a rezoning he or she must approve the process to be followed, including extensive consultation based on fully public and comprehensive information.

I note that there are a number of amendments aimed at increasing the amount and effectiveness of consultation to be carried out during any future rezoning process. For example, there will be an increase in the minimum public comment period for draft zoning plans from one to three months. I note also 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, with comprehensive information being made publicly available throughout the process. This 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.

I know that this commitment to effective and meaningful consultation will be welcomed by both commercial and recreational fishers in my electorate. The fishing community as a whole took full advantage of the process offered by GBRMPA during the Representative Areas Program exercise in 2003. Representatives from both sectors made sure that they were well-informed and argued strongly for the interests of their members in negotiations with GBRMPA and won some significant concessions in the final outcome. That process showed that we need effective partnerships between all those with an interest in the long-term health of the reef. Those partnerships are only possible when the process is built around transparency and communication, so I welcome the commitments contained in this bill to informing and consulting with the public over future changes.

What we object to in the bill is any suggestion that this is a watering down of GBRMPA’s effectiveness and independence. That is why we are concerned by the abolition of the Great Barrier Reef Consultative Committee and its replacement by a non-statutory advisory board reporting directly to the minister and chosen by the minister. One problem with this new arrangement is that it removes the requirement for specific representation from the Queensland government or the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. There are also concerns from those in the tourism industry that it may not have any representation on either the marine park authority or the consultative committee. This ignores the huge contribution that tourism makes to our economy in Queensland, particularly to places like the Capricorn Coast in my electorate. It is important that all those with an interest in the future of the reef have a place at the table.

It is not clear to me why this change to the structure of the advisory body is necessary, but we do know it will have the effect of increasing the power of the minister over the activities of GBRMPA. This is exactly what the National Party have been demanding. If they had had their way, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority would have been completely abolished and its functions swallowed up by the environment department. The independent GBRMPA, currently based in Queensland, would have been replaced by bureaucrats in Canberra and decisions about the reef would be based on politics, not science. The knives have been out for GBRMPA within the government ever since The Nationals in Queensland did a preference deal with the Fishing Party in 2004.

We have seen plenty of National Party members in Queensland lining up to have shots at GBRMPA since that time. Barnaby Joyce, for example, was reported in the Courier-Mail on 1 March 2005 as saying:

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

That was following the member for Dawson, De-Anne Kelly, who said on 26 October 2004:

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

The Nationals have not succeeded in abolishing GBRMPA, although as you can see from those comments they certainly gave it a good go. We need to watch these new arrangements carefully to make sure that GBRMPA’s independence is not compromised and that politics do not take over from science in management of the reef.

In contrast to those attempts to abolish GBRMPA, it was only last month that Malcolm Turnbull, the Minister for the Environment and Heritage, was on ABC radio singing the praises of GBRMPA and the role it has played in protecting and managing the reef. On 7 April, Minister Turnbull declared that:

... the Great Barrier Reef is the best managed coral reef in the world.

He also said that the United Nations had:

... identified our management of the reef as a world benchmark for the management of coral reef systems—

‘a world benchmark’. The context of that quote is quite interesting. It says a lot about the government’s attitude to the reef and to GBRMPA. In that interview, the minister was under pressure for the government’s failure to address climate change and the findings in the latest IPCC report that the threat to the Great Barrier Reef from climate change is expected to be disastrous. The minister hid behind GBRMPA and tried to deflect criticism of the government by saying what a wonderful job GBRMPA is doing and how the reef is well placed to cope with the threat posed by climate change because it has been so well managed. That was very smooth of the minister, but what a hide! When the government is under pressure on climate change, GBRMPA is the best thing that has ever happened to the reef, but when it suits the government politically it is quite happy to sink the boot in and threaten the very existence of GBRMPA. It just goes to show that nothing is off limits for the government. It will even play politics with something as precious as the Great Barrier Reef, but it will not do anything to protect the reef from the threats it faces.

It is clear from previous comments and its general attitude towards GBRMPA that the government cannot help itself. It wants to meddle in the way GBRMPA does its job. It wants to hand over control to the minister and bureaucrats in Canberra. But what faith can we have that the government would do a better job of managing and protecting the reef? The government has completely neglected its responsibility to the reef over the last 11 years by failing to address the risks of climate change. Those risks are well known and well documented. In the latest IPCC report, Climate Change 2007: Impacts, adaptation and vulnerability, the chapter on Australia lays out a bleak future for the Great Barrier Reef. By 2020, 60 per cent of the Great Barrier Reef could be regularly bleached. We have already had serious bleaching in the Keppels in the Central Queensland part of the reef. By 2050, 97 per cent of the reef could be bleached every year. 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 65 per cent loss of Great Barrier Reef species in the Cairns region.

We know that the government has failed to protect the reef, but what about its record of managing the reef? While there were howls of criticism from members of the government about GBRMPA during the RAP process in 2003 and 2004, it was the government that completely mangled the structural adjustment package to the fishing industry and related businesses along the coast of Queensland. The Howard government has ignored repeated warnings from the Queensland fishing industry about flaws in its socioeconomic assessment processes. Initially the government grossly underestimated the economic impact of the RAP program on the Queensland fishing industry, announcing a package of just $31 million. Since then, it has had to significantly increase the package to $87 million in May 2006. We have never seen any compensation to the recreational fishing sector for the impacts on that sector of the zoning changes.

While GBRMPA is a convenient scapegoat, the government has to lift its performance in protecting and managing the reef. The government has sat back and done nothing while the Great Barrier Reef is threatened with destruction. The government has failed future generations of Australians.

In contrast to the government’s neglect of the reef, there are good things happening in Central Queensland amongst the many people and organisations committed to keeping the reef healthy. I am pleased to say that Rockhampton was fortunate to get one of the community partnerships offices which was set up by GBRMPA in 2005. The community partnerships team, led by Dave Lowe, has done a great job building relationships with those groups who use the reef and want to be part of keeping it strong and healthy. The team get out and about to public events right throughout Central Queensland, to educate people about the reef, the activities of GBRMPA and the things we can all do as individuals to play our part to help protect the reef.

The community partnerships team has really given a human face to GBRMPA in Central Queensland. Through efforts to facilitate education and to reach out to groups with an interest in the reef, it gives us more direct input into the management of the reef and the decision making that goes on with GBRMPA. It also means that when information is sought or when issues arise, when things are happening in Central Queensland which need the involvement of GBRMPA, the right people in Townsville can be contacted very easily so that GBRMPA can come on board very quickly to be involved in things that are happening at the local level. The community partnerships body has worked really hard to link in with tourism bodies, Indigenous groups, recreational and commercial fishers and regional natural resource management bodies, like the Fitzroy Basin Association, that are working on reducing the impact of upstream activities on the reef.

Another exciting initiative in Central Queensland is the number of reef guardian schools we now have in our area. Reef guardian schools sign up to incorporate education about the Great Barrier Reef into their curriculum. Through that the students are taught about the reef and, importantly, about the impacts that we all have on the reef. The schools undertake projects so that the children can understand those impacts; they work in the school but also use the school as a demonstration to the broader community through projects that reduce litter, carbon emissions and run-off from our onshore activities into the reef.

I am told that 30 schools in Central Queensland have signed up to be reef guardian schools, and have been awarded that recognition by GBRMPA. Those 30 schools give Central Queensland the highest proportion of schools within Queensland participating in that program. I think there are something like 200 schools throughout Queensland, but in Central Queensland we have the highest proportion of schools participating, which is great to see.

Another great development that we have seen in Central Queensland is the establishment of CapReef—that is, the Capricorn Reef Monitoring Program, chaired by Graham Scott. Bill Sawynok from Infofish Services coordinates the activities of CapReef. CapReef is a community based monitoring program established to improve community involvement and knowledge of the management of the Capricorn Coast part of the Great Barrier Reef ecosystem by the monitoring and analysis of the local effects of management changes on the Great Barrier Reef ecosystem. As the fishing industry was most affected by the management changes, the focus of CapReef has been on collecting data that will help understand those effects, particularly in relation to recreational fishing.

CapReef has done a great job of reaching out to the fishing sector and using the information that so many recreational and commercial fishers can feed into the monitoring and analysis of what is going on in the reef. For example, in their first 18 months CapReef logged details of over 1,300 fishing trips, primarily off the Capricorn Coast and Gladstone. This year we already have 1,000 fishing trips feeding in their data to CapReef, and then CapReef will feed that into GBRMPA’s research.

CapReef is working with the James Cook University on a project to understand the social effects of the management changes on fisher behaviour and fishing locations, and it is also working with the Central Queensland University to obtain expenditure data on recreational fishing.

There is currently an application before the government under the recreational fishing community grants to enable CapReef to continue for a further 18 months from July 2007. The application is very well supported within the Central Queensland community, and you can understand why when you read just a few of the highlights of what CapReef has been able to achieve in its first 18 months. I call on the government to continue its support for CapReef in the good work that it is doing.

Back to the government’s role in all of this—its shocking neglect of the Great Barrier Reef and its responsibilities for its protection. The government has to explain to all those people in Central Queensland who are working so hard to protect the reef for the enjoyment of future generations why it continues to ignore the warning signs. (Time expired)