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Wednesday, 30 May 2007
Page: 136

Mr SNOWDON (7:02 PM) —The Fisheries Legislation Amendment Bill 2007 and the Fisheries Levy Amendment Bill 2007 will amend the Fisheries Management Act 1991, the Fisheries Amendment Act, the Torres Strait Fisheries Act 1984 and the Surveillance Devices Act 2004.

These bills are complex pieces of legislation that need to be looked at in more detail. Whilst Labor will be supporting the bills in this House, we will be referring the bills to the Senate Standing Committee on Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport for detailed consideration of the legislation. There are some provisions which require further analysis to ensure the best outcome is reached for the seafood industry and to ensure that the seafood industry can continue to have a voice. It is also essential to ensure that AFMA is properly resourced in order to adequately carry out any enhanced role. The main provisions include the following: firstly, to clarify the Australian Fisheries Management Authority, AFMA, to the Torres Strait protected zone fisheries. These fisheries have been subject to some conflict between the Queensland licensed east coast commercial fishermen and the traditional fishers from the Torres Strait. Access to the fisheries has been managed through a gentlemen’s agreement between licensed commercial fishers and traditional fishers. Labor believes that this legislation presented an opportunity to formally recognise this gentlemen’s agreement. Unfortunately, the government has failed to do so with this legislation.

Secondly, there is a need for us to contemplate AFMA’s role in placing observers and enable AFMA to collect information on behalf of other agencies. Due to the escalating problems of illegal foreign fishing, Labor supports the increased use of observers on both domestic and foreign vessels. There is also the increase in AFMA’s policing powers. This legislation significantly increases AFMA’s powers in relation to the collection of data for purposes other than fisheries management. In effect, it allows AFMA to become a policing agent for things such as possible breaches of the laws to Australia or to a foreign country; control and protection of Australia’s borders; and administration, management, research and monitoring of fisheries and marine resources. Mr Deputy Speaker, as you can see, and I am sure you will appreciate, these powers are extremely broad.

AFMA is a small agency and, if it is to be successful in implementing these measures, it will require additional skills and appropriate training of existing officers. It may also need additional resources. However, the government has made no mention of providing additional resources to AFMA either for staffing or for training budgets. In fact, in the recent budget, AFMA is reported to be losing three staff positions. AFMA has underspent its domestic fisheries enforcement budget for each of the past six years. The government has to demonstrate more commitment to supporting AFMA in its compliance efforts. If the government is going to legislate to provide a vast increase in AFMA’s compliance and enforcement powers, then the government should also provide meaningful support for AFMA to deliver those outcomes.

Yet the Howard government has added a whole new layer of uncertainty by proposing a radical restructure of AFMA. These changes may impact on staff morale within the organisation and on communications and consultation with industry and non-government sectors. The changes impose a raft of new responsibilities on AFMA but provide no additional resources, staff, training or skills development. And it is clear from this summary that the Howard government does not have a well thought out plan for the Australian seafood industry. The government’s approach to fisheries management has been piecemeal and ad hoc, lurching from crisis to crisis, and has lacked a comprehensive strategic approach to the seafood industry. These changes are a panicked response to a crisis of the government’s own making.

I live in the north of Australia, and the waters in my electorate of Lingiari host some of Australia’s finest fishing. I am enthusiastic about the quality and variety of the fish that are caught. And we know that seafood is becoming an increasingly important part of a healthy balanced diet. Even for the very conservative elements of the Australian community who are used to red meat and three vegies, seafood has become recognised for the health benefits it provides. Its consumption is on the rise. Demand in the domestic market for Australian seafood is growing. It is therefore critical that the Australian government secures the supply of seafood for future generations. This requires a comprehensive, long-term strategy for sustainable aquaculture development and, indeed, fisheries management. And the Howard government, in our view, has failed in its duty to provide the framework for sustainable management of our valuable fisheries resources. It has failed to plan for the future of Australia’s fisheries production. The government has failed to provide a fair trading environment for local seafood producers.

I would like now to outline seven major failings of the Howard government’s management of the seafood industry. No. 1 is the government’s failure to protect Australia’s seafood industry from exotic diseases—diseases which could potentially have a devastating financial impact on the Australian seafood industry and an unquantifiable impact on our marine ecosystems. Importantly, in February of this year, Biosecurity Australia officials were reported as saying that these diseases, such as white spot virus, could devastate Australia’s prawn industry. I have the Gulf as part of my electorate, and the landmass of my electorate has also hosted a number of aquaculture ventures, including prawn aquaculture, sadly no longer in production. In November of last year, the fisheries minister, Eric Abetz, promised a crackdown on the importation of uncooked prawns. But it may surprise you to know that, up until this day, the government has failed to act. The government still allows diseased imported prawns to enter Australia, which represents a very direct threat to the disease-free status of the $450 million Australian prawn industry. In anyone’s terms, that is a significant failure. And, as a result of that failure, there is a significant threat.

No. 2 is the government’s failure to ensure proper seafood labelling. In this, as in many other areas, the Howard government has an appalling record. Every hardworking seafood producer in Australia knows the story. Importers were allowed to bring in cheap imported seafood from farms in Asia, and these products were being on-sold as premium products by some unscrupulous retailers at significantly higher prices. In many cases, the cheap imports were falsely labelled as premium local Australian product. This is not new. The government was alerted to this emerging problem in the late nineties. It did nothing about it then and had done nothing about it until recently, when it moved to introduce country-of-origin labelling on imported seafood products. And, significantly, the government only acted after it was embarrassed by a massive public campaign by the seafood industry, supported by concerned media organisations. However, the government has failed and is still failing to accept responsibility for proper labelling, instead blaming the states for a lack of enforcement. If the Howard government continues to allow an influx of cheap Asian imports, then it should not wash its hands when it comes to labelling. There is an absolute need—a vital need—for the Australian government to take a leadership role in seafood labelling.

Failure No. 3 is the government’s failure to ensure a level playing field for seafood imports. The Howard government has failed to respond to the longstanding concerns of local seafood producers about the lack of a level playing field for imported products. The Australian seafood industry is required to meet food safety, quarantine and environmental protection standards that are amongst the highest in the world. These requirements impose significant costs on the local industry, but most local producers are happy to meet these requirements. However, significantly—and, given the government’s record, not surprisingly—there is no such requirement on imported products. Seafood imports are not required to meet the same benchmarks as those that are imposed on our local industry. As you would imagine, this creates a very unfavourable and unfair trading environment in which Australian law imposes significant costs on local producers yet allows the import of a vast amount of imported product which does not meet the same standards as the domestic product. This has been a concern of local seafood businesses and families for much of the past decade. Indeed, it is a large part of the reason why the balance of trade in seafood products has been steadily growing in favour of imports, and it is why Asian seafood imports can arrive in Australia at such low cost. The Howard government has had more than 10 years to address this issue but as yet has done nothing.

The next failure is the Howard government’s failure to manage our precious fish stocks. Successive ministers have failed in their duty to provide for the sustainable management of fish stocks. It is not as if, in the past, the government has not recognised its own inadequacies. Indeed, way back on 14 December 2005 the then Minister for Fisheries, Forestry and Conservation, Senator Ian Macdonald, announced a $220 million package called Securing our Fishing Future—and we were led to believe that something significant was going to happen. At the time, the minister said:

The Australian Government has made it very clear that it wishes AFMA to accelerate its current programmes to prevent overfishing, rebuild overfished stocks, and to take a more strategic approach to setting catch limits in future.

He went on to say:

The message from the Australian Government is clear: overfishing in Commonwealth fisheries is unacceptable and if you think you can’t operate in that environment, you should consider applying for the buyout.

Let us put this into context. This announcement was an admission by the government that it had failed to prevent overfishing. Indeed, it can be seen as a panic response to a very serious situation in which the survival of some of Australia’s most important fish species was at threat—as was the survival of the fishing businesses that depended on these species.

Earlier this year the Bureau of Rural Sciences released its Fishery Status Reports 2005. This important paper confirmed the Howard government’s legacy of failure on fisheries management. Twenty-four of the 83 species assessed were classified as ‘overfished’ and/or ‘subject to overfishing’. This figure was up from four species when the Howard government was elected. Of the remaining species, 40 are classified as ‘uncertain’. This means that almost half of the surveyed stocks might be overfished—but the government does not know, because it has not gathered enough information. The Howard government has had 10 years to address this critical lack of information and improve its fisheries decision making. Unfortunately, it has failed. This is an indictment of the government’s activity in this area. Of the remaining species identified in the BRS report, only 19 are classified as ‘not overfished’—and there were 83 species assessed, so that means less than 25 per cent of the species identified in the report are classified as ‘not overfished’.

That raises significant questions about the government’s performance in relation to the management of Australia’s fisheries. The $220 million buyout package is the government’s attempt to fix the mess that it created by its own very poor management. Fishing families and onshore businesses have been badly impacted by the government’s poor fisheries management. According to the recent budget papers, nearly $27 million of the fisheries restructure package remained unspent this financial year and has been rolled over into 2007-08. This is pretty good evidence of the government’s unfair and uncaring attitude towards seafood producers and their families. We should not underestimate the impact of the government’s decision making, or lack of it—or lack of management—on not only the Australian fisheries but also on the lives of many Australian families involved in the fishing industry. The government should have done better.

The sixth failure is the failure to properly address domestic illegal fishing. Last week Senate estimates heard that the Howard government has presided over a 16 per cent reduction in spending on domestic fisheries enforcement. Senator Kerry O’Brien, the opposition spokesperson on primary industries, fisheries and forestry, asked the Minister for Fisheries, Forestry and Conservation, Senator Eric Abetz, to explain why the government had reduced its fisheries enforcement spending in the face of worrying statistics. It is worthwhile hearing and understanding what Minister Abetz said. I quote him:

... Look, there are undoubtedly a whole host of reasons as AFMA have indicated to you. I have not heard any complaints from the fishing sector that AFMA have been too soft or not pursuing investigations or prosecutions with sufficient rigor.

Australian Fisheries Management Authority annual reports show spending reductions every year since 2002. In 2002-03 the actual dollars spent on fisheries enforcement was $4.12 million. In 2005-06 it was $3.46 million. Despite an increase of 15.66 per cent in the number of offences detected, the government has underspent the enforcement budget every year since 2002.

I come to the seventh of the failures. We should not describe them as the seven deadly sins but, nevertheless, they are failures which need to be highlighted. The seventh is one which attracts my attention on a continuing basis: the failure of the government to stop illegal foreign fishing. Illegal foreign fishing has become and remains a major problem under the Howard government. The government has reported that sightings of motorised illegal foreign fishing vessels have recently been in decline. The government claims that this is due to its much publicised crackdown on illegal foreign fishing.

However, there are several possible reasons for the reported decline in sightings of motorised illegal foreign fishing vessels. One of them might be—and I would have thought logically it could be—the overfishing of shark stocks in northern Australian waters. A recent assessment of the northern shark fishery by the former Department of the Environment and Heritage found that there was no evidence that shark stocks targeted in northern Australia were separate populations from those right across the Indo-Pacific. If that is the case, then it is likely that any overfishing of the stock in one area will have a consequential flow-on effect to another. It is therefore possible—although clearly we do not really know, but it is certainly possible—that this is exactly what is occurring in the case of sharks in northern Australia. This concern is supported by anecdotal reports that illegal foreign fishers are coming further down the Australian coastline in search of shark and other fish. The Australian government has not published the data which shows the geographical distributions of illegal foreign fishing vessel sightings. If it did, this data would reveal whether it is the case that illegal fishers are coming closer to the Australian coastline.

There is firsthand experience of illegal foreign fishing vessels off Australia’s coast coming very close to the shoreline and going up rivers. This has been the case off the coast of the Northern Territory, around Groote Eylandt, where there has been evidence, through observations made, of illegal foreign fishing vessels in fact making landfall, with people disembarking from these vessels and bringing on to Australia’s shores who knows what potential diseases. Who knows what the potential impact would be on the quarantine of Australia’s northern borders of the incursions of these illegal foreign fishing vessels? I know that it is a major cause of concern to Indigenous communities right across the Top End of Australia. In the case of my electorate of Lingiari—and I know this applies to neighbouring electorates—large numbers of Indigenous Australians are participating in observing these illegal foreign fishing vessels and are now working, thankfully at last, a lot more closely with quarantine and Customs officials and with the Navy and Coastwatch and are reporting the sightings of these illegal foreign fishing vessels and monitoring their movements.

Unfortunately, there was a time when, despite the work which was being done by these rangers, little notice was being taken of the reports that they were providing and the responses were not timely. As a result, a number of illegal foreign fishing vessels which would otherwise have been intercepted were not. However, I am glad to inform the House that things are changing: there is far more and much better cooperation with these Aboriginal rangers, many of whom are unpaid, except for those who are working on Community Development Employment Program schemes in the north of Australia. It would be proper for those who are not paid to be paid for the work they do. I note there is a capacity in the recent budget for this to happen in part, and I am hopeful that we will see some of these rangers properly remunerated for the work that they are doing on behalf of the Australian community in involving themselves in monitoring the movements of these illegal foreign fishing vessels off Australia’s shores. This concern that is shared by many in the Australian community, about what happens and the potential danger when people off these vessels make landfall, should also be a concern of all of us.

Against a backdrop of mismanagement by the Howard government of the seafood industry, at a time when demand for seafood is on the rise, the detail of these bills requires a great deal more analysis and consideration before they can be fully embraced. As I said earlier, Labor, despite supporting this legislation in this chamber, will be moving in the Senate that further consideration be undertaken.