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Wednesday, 18 June 2008
Page: 5129

Mr GARRETT (Minister for the Environment, Heritage and the Arts) (9:17 AM) —I move:

That this bill be now read a second time.

The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park and Other Legislation Amendment Bill 2008 will put in place a modern, future-focused regulatory framework for securing the long-term protection and ecologically sustainable management of the Great Barrier Reef.

The Great Barrier Reef is the world’s largest and most complex coral reef ecosystem and is indeed one of our great national treasures, extending approximately 2,300 kilometres along the Queensland coast and covering an area of over 344,400 square kilometres. The Great Barrier Reef contains unparalleled biological diversity and globally unique ecosystems. Its significant natural values are internationally recognised through its inclusion on the World Heritage List. The Great Barrier Reef supports substantial economic activity. Tourism generates approximately $6 billion per annum, recreational activities $554 million per annum and commercial fishing $251 million per annum.  The reef is also used for a wide variety of non-commercial purposes, such as research, public enjoyment, traditional owner cultural practices and Defence Force training.

Coral reefs, including the Great Barrier Reef, have been specifically identified by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change as areas where climate change impacts will occur. We have already seen this through bleaching events. We are fortunate in Australia that the Great Barrier Reef is well preserved compared to reef systems elsewhere in the world. This makes it a drawcard for domestic and international tourists but its iconic status also has the potential to make it an international symbol for the impacts of climate change.

The government is addressing the impacts of climate change through initiatives aimed at increasing the resilience of the Great Barrier Reef and through measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The release of a vulnerability assessment in relation to climate change and the Great Barrier Reef, the Great Barrier Reef Climate Change Action Plan 2007 to 2012, and the $200 million Great Barrier Reef Rescue Plan demonstrate the level of importance the government is giving to this threat.

The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Act 1975 is a key component in the framework for protection of the Great Barrier Reef. The act provides for the creation of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park and establishes the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority. The authority is responsible for managing the marine park and advising government on matters relating to the marine park.

The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Act has been in place for over 30 years. It was groundbreaking legislation at its inception and it has served its purpose well. However, a 2006 review of the act found that it is now starting to show its age and that substantial updating is required to put in place a regulatory framework capable of meeting the challenges of the next 30 years and beyond.

A great deal has changed since inception of the act in 1975. The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park has been progressively established. The Capricornia section of 12,000 square kilometres was the first area to be declared in 1979 and the last 10 coastal areas were declared in 2001 to give us the marine park of today that covers some 344,400 square kilometres. Use of the marine park has steadily increased and will continue to do so.

In 2004, a zoning plan establishing a comprehensive network of zones and a high level of protection was put in place throughout the marine park. The zoning plan provides a strong framework for protecting the Great Barrier Reef and ensuring use is ecologically sustainable. Delivery of this framework requires a modern, robust regulatory system providing ‘on the ground’ administrative and enforcement capability. This bill will put in place such a system.

In 1999, the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (EPBC Act) was established as the Commonwealth’s primary environmental law. The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Act and the EPBC Act are poorly integrated and overlap in places, for example in environmental impact assessment, and this places unnecessary imposts on business and the community.  Moreover the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Act provides minimal flexibility for enforcement action and for penalties to vary according to circumstances. There are also gaps in the protection offered by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Act, for example, in relation to responding to emergencies presenting a risk of serious environment harm. The bill will address these issues.

Finally, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Act is simply out of date. For example, it does not recognise the world heritage status of the Great Barrier Reef or incorporate concepts such as ecological sustainability and the precautionary principle. The bill will update the act to reflect modern realities and approaches to environmental protection and management. This bill will put in place a robust, comprehensive, regulatory framework for the Great Barrier Reef fit for meeting the challenges of the future.

The bill will establish a modern framework for administration of the act and for management of the marine park that is integrated and aligned with the EPBC Act and other relevant legislation. It will put in place robust and streamlined environmental impact assessment and permit arrangements. It will enhance investigation capacity and allow for a more tailored and flexible approach to enforcement and compliance. It will encourage responsible and ecologically sustainable use of the marine park by ensuring appropriate incentives are in place and management tools are available.

I now turn to specific elements of the bill. The bill places the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Act on a modern footing. The objects of the act are updated to focus on long-term protection and ecologically sustainable management. Administration of the act and management of the marine park will be guided by modern concepts such as ecologically sustainable use and the precautionary principle, as well as protection of the world heritage values of the Great Barrier Reef. The bill improves integration and alignment of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Act with other relevant legislation—notably the EPBC Act but also Queensland legislation. This will reduce regulatory and administrative red tape and facilitate a more consistent and integrated approach to environmental regulation and management by the Australian and Queensland governments.

The bill establishes the EPBC Act as the primary basis for environmental impact assessment and approval arrangements applying to the marine park. In doing this it recognises the Great Barrier Reef as a matter of national environmental significance, providing a strong legal basis for protection. The best practice environmental impact assessment provisions of the EPBC Act include streamlined assessment processes, statutory time frames for decision making, transparency mechanisms and opportunities for public involvement. The changes will remove circuitous and, at times, duplicative arrangements. The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority will continue to be responsible for managing activities in the marine park.

The bill establishes a consistent and robust environmental investigations regime for the marine park through the EPBC Act. The EPBC Act provisions were reviewed and updated in 2007. Under the changes in the bill, inspectors appointed by the authority will be able to use a single set of powers to investigate compliance with both acts. The bill establishes a broader range of enforcement mechanisms. This includes a civil penalty regime, expanded availability of infringement notices for minor offences and administrative enforcement options backed by legal enforceability. This provides flexibility so that enforcement action can reflect the particular circumstances of each contravention, allowing legal requirements to be enforced more efficiently, effectively and fairly.

The bill includes a number of measures designed to encourage responsible use of the marine park and compliance with relevant laws. Penalties are amended to ensure they are neither too lenient nor too harsh. Aggravated offence and civil penalty contraventions are established, carrying higher maximum penalties differentiated from base offences and contraventions which carry lower penalties. This will help provide adequate deterrence while ensuring that penalties are not excessive for minor offences.

A range of alternative and additional sanctions will be available. For example, a person convicted of an offence could be ordered to take steps to publicise their conviction or remediate any environmental harm caused by their action. Perverse incentives will be removed by ensuring that people are not able to profit from illegal behaviour. Park users will be expected to be aware of their location within the park and the rules that apply. Executive officers of corporations, permit holders and fishing licensees would be expected to exercise due diligence in ensuring that people under their supervision comply with legal requirements. Such measures recognise that deterrence is the most efficient approach to compliance.

The bill introduces an environmental duty requiring marine park users to take reasonable steps to avoid or minimise any environmental harm associated with their use of the park. Breach of this duty would not be an offence but could be enforced through administrative means. As happens at state level, this duty will facilitate a flexible and collaborative approach to the achievement of desired environmental outcomes. Guidelines, best practice standards and industry codes of practice will articulate what is required to meet this duty. The bill enhances the capacity of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority to respond to emergency incidents presenting a risk of serious harm to the environment of the marine park. This complements the powers of other emergency response agencies such as the Australian Maritime Safety Authority.

Finally, the bill addresses a specific election commitment of the government to restore an Indigenous member to the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority. This requirement was removed by the previous government in July 2007. There are more than 70 traditional owner groups along the coast from Bundaberg to the Torres Strait who have a long and continuing relationship with the sea country of the Great Barrier Reef. The knowledge and perspective of persons with expertise related to traditional use of the marine park, and Indigenous issues more generally, is invaluable in achieving ecologically sustainable management of the Great Barrier Reef.

The Great Barrier Reef is undisputedly one of the world’s most important natural assets. It is the oldest living system in the world and began to form over 600,000 years ago. The Great Barrier Reef as we know it today has evolved since the last ice age—that is, over a period of 6,000 years. It is the biggest single structure made by living organisms and is large enough to be viewed from space. No wonder it is one of the richest and most complex natural systems on earth. The Great Barrier Reef is home to 1,500 of the world’s marine fish species, over a third of the world’s soft coral species and six of the seven species of marine turtles. It is also home to one of the world’s remaining populations of dugong—a species that has been listed internationally as vulnerable to extinction. This bill demonstrates the Australian government’s commitment to securing the future of the Great Barrier Reef and strengthens our capacity to preserve this important feature of our nation’s and the world’s heritage for future generations.

Debate (on motion by Mr Randall) adjourned.