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Tuesday, 12 June 2007
Page: 43


Ms LEY (Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry) (5:08 PM) —in reply—I thank my colleague the member for Tangney, who has just concluded his remarks on these bills for the government, and also the member for Lingiari, who spoke earlier. They have both made contributions to the debate on the Fisheries Legislation Amendment Bill 2007 and the Fisheries Levy Amendment Bill 2007. These bills contain important amendments to Commonwealth fisheries legislation, and I look forward to their passage through this House.

Given that there are other important bills that need to pass today, time is limited. But there were a couple of claims made by the member for Lingiari that I would particularly like to address. The member for Lingiari spent a good deal of his time criticising the Howard government for its efforts on illegal fishing. But, as Australians know, we have taken a tough approach to border security, and illegal foreign fishing is no exception. In the past three years alone, this government has committed over $800 million in new money—an absolutely unprecedented amount—to tackle illegal foreign fishing and the very serious threat that it poses to our fish stocks, our biosecurity and our national sovereignty. As a result, in the first four months of this year, sightings of illegal foreign fishing vessels in our northern waters were down 90 per cent on the same period in 2006—and 2006 was already 40 per cent down on 2005. We have achieved these results not only through the additional funding and hard work of our very efficient and effective border security agencies but also because the Howard government is prepared to take innovative approaches.

The introduction of the Triton, Customs new 98-metre armed trimaran, is one such example. Many Australians saw it cleaning up trochus poachers on Australia’s Ashmore Reef with clinical effectiveness on A Current Affair recently. I hasten to say that I do not really watch that program. I record here my congratulations to the men and women of the Triton, as well as all our border protection agencies, for the enormously important and difficult work they do. Speaking of the Triton, I was reminded during the member for Lingiari’s contribution of his now infamous press release following the government’s announcement of the tender for the Triton. He said of the vessel whose effectiveness has been so graphically displayed on A Current Affair that it showed a desperate lack of imagination on the part of the Australian government and was yet another admission of failure. He went on to say:

... they seem to think making over our highly professional Customs Service into a bunch of floating prison goons is going to do the trick.

I can tell you that what the Australian public saw the other night on national television was not a bunch of goons, as the member for Lingiari described them. The Australian public saw a bunch of dedicated and professional Australian officers doing very important work, very efficiently, in a dangerous environment, using the innovative assets that the Howard government has supplied them with. So on the one hand we have the Australian public seeing graphic evidence of the real contribution the Triton is making to the border security of this country and on the other we have the member for Lingiari, who thinks it is a failure and, presumably, that we should do away with it. It is no wonder that Australians are concerned about the consequences for border security should the Labor Party be elected.

I am pleased to report that in our southern waters the results are even better. As a result of the Australian government’s visionary $217 million Southern Ocean patrol program and our joint patrols arrangement we have been able to negotiate with the French, there has not been a single sighting of illegal patagonian toothfish poachers for at least two years in the case of our Macquarie Island exclusive economic zone and three years in our Heard and Macquarie islands exclusive economic zone. While the Howard government is very encouraged by these results, there is still much work to do. We are not about to rest on our laurels. We know the fight against illegal foreign fishing is an ongoing one and we need the strongest possible options available to us to defeat this international scourge. That is why we are introducing these laws to further strengthen our regime of deterrence against illegal foreign fishing.

I will also pick up on another point made by the member for Lingiari. At one point in his speech he made the rather bizarre claim that the Howard government is unfair and uncaring because $27 million from our unprecedented $220 million Securing our Fishing Future package has been scheduled to be spent in the 2007-08 financial year and not in 2006-07. I would like to inform the member for Lingiari that this shift in funding was actually in response to a request from industry that we extend the closing date for our onshore business assistance and fishing community assistance schemes. ‘Unfair and uncaring’? Is it unfair and uncaring to put aside $149 million to assist industry to adjust to difficult economic circumstances beyond their control? Is it unfair and uncaring for government to set aside almost $50 million to assist onshore businesses and communities to adjust to reduced fishing activity? Is it unfair and uncaring to provide $15 million in levy subsidies to the Commonwealth fishing fleet? The answer, of course, is no. An unfair and uncaring government would not have set aside $220 million in the first place.

The reality here is that the industry approached us, saying: ‘We are struggling. We know there are too many fishermen in some fisheries. We know that fish stocks need rebuilding in some fisheries. We know that there is no legal obligation on the Australian government to fund a restructure, but we are in desperate need of a restructure. We have no capacity to fund it ourselves and we would like you to fund it.’ An unfair and uncaring government would have said: ‘Go away. It is not our responsibility’—but not this government. The Howard government said to the industry: ‘We will help you. We know this kind of restructure money has never been offered before, we know it is unprecedented, but we will help.’ We set aside $220 million—the largest structural adjustment package ever offered to the Australian fishing industry—to decisively tackle the problem of too many fishermen chasing too few fish. We allowed those who wanted to get out to do so with some dignity, and we better positioned those who remained to be profitable. We did not do so because we were required to by law; we did so quite simply because we think the Commonwealth fishing industry has a fantastic future and it was the right thing to do.

I am pleased to say that the package has been almost universally welcomed. I say ‘almost universally’ very deliberately, because one group has conspicuously failed to support the package. The commercial fishing industry welcomed it, the recreational fishing industry welcomed it, the scientific community welcomed it, and the conservation sector welcomed it. I understand that even the Greens may have said positive things about it. But, quite conspicuously, there was one group that did not support it, and that was the Labor Party. Here we had the most important reforms in the history of Commonwealth fisheries to end overfishing, an unprecedented sum of money to assist the industry to restructure, everyone else thinking it was a great idea, and the Labor Party never even supported it.

Let me return to the substance of this legislation. As I informed the House when the bills were introduced, commercial fishing is a key economic activity for Torres Strait communities. This legislation will facilitate the resolution of longstanding concerns held by Torres Strait Islanders about resource allocation in the Torres Strait Protected Zone fisheries. It will enable the Protected Zone Joint Authority to establish management plans under which all parties will have a clear understanding of their access rights. Provisions in this legislation affecting the Torres Strait Protected Zone fisheries were drafted after an extensive process of consultation with all of those with an interest in the Torres Strait Protected Zone fisheries. This included the provision of comprehensive information to Torres Strait Islanders, especially those who hold a licence to fish for commercial purposes, to their representatives on the community fishers group, to Torres Strait native title prescribed bodies corporate—including relevant entities in the northern cape area—and to non-Indigenous commercial fishers and their representatives.

When I introduced this legislation into the House, I mentioned the importance of Queensland and the management of the Torres Strait Protected Zone fisheries. I can assure the member for Lingiari that the Queensland Department of Primary Industries and Fisheries, which administers various aspects of the Torres Strait Fisheries Act, has been comprehensively briefed and has provided valuable advice and comment. Unnecessary delays to the implementation of these bills will only serve to prolong the uncertainty for islanders and commercial fishers in the Torres Strait.

The legislation will enhance the monitoring of fishing activities in Commonwealth fisheries and facilitate the effective collection and sharing of information with environment and law enforcement agencies. This will be achieved through the introduction of a general head of power into the legislation. The details of how this exchange of information will occur will be provided in regulations, which will be the subject of consultation with the industry and are disallowable instruments and therefore subject to parliamentary scrutiny. These amendments will better protect Australia’s fisheries resources and will assist investigations concerning serious crime, border security, fisheries and wider marine monitoring and enforcement.

Additionally, the bills contain measures to deter illegal foreign fishers. Strong forfeiture and offence provisions in our fisheries legislation reflect the Australian government’s commitment to border protection and recognise the inherent violation of sovereignty caused by illegal fishing activities. These amendments will ensure Australia can continue to give strong messages to foreign fishers about the consequences of fishing illegally in our waters. The legislation also contains amendments which will complement the decision to make the Australian Fisheries Management Authority, known as AFMA, a commission in line with the outcomes of the Uhrig review. One of the key aims of this decision was to ensure that the new arrangements improve the governance of AFMA with minimal disruption to the fishing industry. The current amendments support those aims and will provide the minister with a temporary power to appoint AFMA directors for up to nine months at a time without running a selection process. This amendment will have no financial or operational impact on the fishing industry and will provide greater certainty over AFMA’s ongoing management during its transition to a commission.

In closing, can I clearly say to the opposition: this legislation is important. It will ensure that the Australian government is equipped with modern fisheries management tools as well as more robust enforcement, compliance and administrative systems to secure sustainable fisheries for future generations. It is necessary to progress reforms to ensure the sensible management of Torres Strait fisheries which the Queensland government and the Torres Strait Regional Authority have been actively involved in. It is also necessary to further strengthen Australia’s border protection regime against illegal foreign fishing. I thank members for their contribution to the debate and I urge the swift passage of this legislation through both houses.

Question agreed to.

Bill read a second time.