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Wednesday, 25 June 2008
Page: 5876


Mr HUNT (1:08 PM) —The coalition supports the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park and Other Legislation Amendment Bill 2008. It gives me great pleasure to speak on this legislation. It is in fact almost overwhelmingly our legislation. The previous government, when in government, completed a review of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Act and Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority in 2006. The coalition cabinet then released a response accepting all the recommendations contained within the report. The bill is therefore largely and overwhelmingly the result of this and almost wholly the work of the coalition government.

I want to deal with this bill in two phases: firstly, putting the Great Barrier Reef in its broader social, environmental and historical context; and, secondly, dealing with the specific provisions within the bill itself. First, turning to the importance of the Great Barrier Reef—this majestic zone—to Australians, it is interesting to chart just how far we have come as a nation, as a people, and as custodians of the environment in our attitude towards the Great Barrier Reef, which is truly one of the world’s modern natural wonders. The reef is the world’s largest, and arguably the world’s most complex, ecosystem. It comprises not one continuous reef but approximately 2,900 individual reefs. It includes about 760 fringing reefs around islands or along the mainland. There are also 900 islands and quays within the boundaries of the current marine park. In short, the reef is one of the most visually spectacular and richly diverse ecosystems on the planet. We are its custodians. We are its managers. We are proud to have this responsibility and we work on a bipartisan basis across this chamber on this profound responsibility.

In 1969, however, the Queensland department of mines received an application to mine limestone on Ellison Reef, and legislation was drawn up to govern the granting of offshore oil exploration permits. In 1969 an oil company was granted a permit covering the entire reef. Soon afterwards, though, concern began to grow about the potentially catastrophic impact on the reef of any major future oil spill. The Royal Commission into Exploratory and Production Drilling for Petroleum in the Area of the Great Barrier Reef was held between 1970 and 1974. This resulted in the banning of petroleum drilling and a recommendation that a statutory authority be set up to protect the reef and regulate research and development within its boundaries and within its vicinity. At the same time, a committee of inquiry into the national estate deemed the reef to be of World Heritage standard and found that the Queensland and Commonwealth governments had a responsibility to preserve and manage the reef. It was a far-sighted act. It was early, visionary work by people who cared about our environment. If we play a small role today in continuing that work, this House is doing a service to and honouring those who took early action to protect the majesty of the Great Barrier Reef.

These recommendations subsequently received bipartisan support and resulted in the enactment of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Act 1975. Over the following 25 years or more, additional sections of the reef were progressively proclaimed to be part of the marine park. In 2004 the coalition government consolidated all sections into a single unit and introduced integrated zoning with the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Zoning Plan of 2003. It was not without controversy. It took considerable leadership on the part of the then government. It took considerable leadership on the part of successive environment ministers, David Kemp and Senator Ian Campbell, but it has, I believe, made the long-term future of the Barrier Reef sustainable. It was strong work, it was courageous work and it was visionary work. I commend those two ministers; the Prime Minister of the time, John Howard; and all of those departmental officials and others who have worked to achieve this outcome for taking that step.

In order to get a sense of the impact and importance of that step forward in the period 2003 to 2004, it is worth while understanding the extent of the various marine park zones before 2004 and afterwards. The marine park zone, which is coloured green on all of the maps, prior to 2004 was 4.6 per cent of the marine park. Post 2004 it was a third, or 33.3 per cent. The buffer zone—the olive green zone—was 0.1 per cent prior to 2004 and was increased to 2.9 per cent as a result of the changes in 2004. The habitat protection zone, which is the dark blue zone, was 15.2 per cent prior to 2004 and became 28.2 per cent as a consequence of the changes. The area that decreased was the general use or light blue zone, which decreased from just under 78 per cent to 33.8 per cent. The important thing is that it was the marine park area, buffer area and habitat protection area as well as a small increase in the conservation park area which made this change. That was a gift from one generation of Australians to all future generations of Australians and to people throughout the world. It was an act of profound importance, and I pay tribute to all those who advocated for it and who brought it into being.

The park now covers around 98 per cent of the World Heritage area, and an additional one per cent is covered by the Queensland National Parks and Wildlife Service and the Great Barrier Reef Coast Marine Park. The reef is one of Australia’s most internationally recognised tourist icons—if not, along with Uluru and the Opera House, Australia’s most recognised feature. Its value to the Australian tourism industry is immense—close to $6 billion a year. Recreational and commercial fishing generate hundreds of millions of dollars more in income. It would be difficult to overestimate the reef’s importance to Australia—to our sense of self, to our sense of who we are, to our belief in the environment and to our passion for this area—as well as its economic significance, its cultural significance to Indigenous Australians and its interconnected nature with the entire natural marine ecosystem.

Against that background, while the Great Barrier Reef has been well served by the Great Barrier Marine Park Act 1975, as the previous government found, it was in need of work in order to fill in some gaps and modernise it. In particular, the former Minister for the Environment and Heritage, Senator Ian Campbell, oversaw much of that transition, which delivered on a coalition election commitment to review the act and improve the performance of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority. The review consulted with a wide range of stakeholders with a diverse range of views. It held 36 consultations, considered 227 submissions and produced the basis for the changes which are incorporated in the act today.

I want to turn to the legislation itself. As I said earlier, the coalition support this legislation as it is—in fact, it is our legislation in large part. The previous, coalition government completed the review in 2006 and released a response accepting all of the recommendations. Proposed changes included updating the act to reflect the fact that the Great Barrier Reef had been World Heritage listed and the fact that the coalition government had introduced the EPBC Act, and to close any gaps in emergency management powers. The new act also picked up the coalition cabinet’s decision to move beyond a criminal penalty only system to allow for greater flexibility of enforcement options, such as reef recovery or civil penalties for breaches such as fishing on an unintended basis in no-take zones.

In addition, the bill expands the number of board members from three to five in line with our recommendations. One of those places, in line with the government’s policy, will be filled by an Indigenous representative under this legislation. We do not oppose that; we accept that and endorse that. In the Senate, however, we will move to ensure that there is an appropriate opportunity for industry representation as part of those five members.

I should note that there are also two other points which we wish to raise. Firstly, the timing of this bill’s introduction serves to highlight the fact that the Rudd Labor government’s legislative program is in disarray. I do not actually blame the department or even the minister’s office for this. I think they have acted in good faith. We were informed that the bill would lie on the table and not come in until after the winter break, and then the bill was brought forward at short notice. That is not catastrophic or a significant problem; it is simply an indication that there is a broader issue here in that the government have no legislative program for this House and they have had to bring forward a bill which would have been available to industry, the community, environmental groups and others to assess over the coming months. Secondly, the Rudd government need to ensure that there is, as I said, at least one person with tourism and other industry skills and experience on the board of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority.

Overall, we are exceptionally supportive of this legislation. We think it is our legislation. There are a couple of changes in a couple of areas, but we are proud of the work which has been done on the coalition side. I want to acknowledge the great work of those within the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, the work of all of those who contributed to the 2006 review and the work of the department. Many people have worked on this legislation for many years. It is detailed, technical and a tribute to their work. Ultimately, the Great Barrier Reef is part of our environmental heritage and part of who we are as Australians, and it is our responsibility to protect it. We are custodians, along with Indigenous representatives, of this magnificent area of our water, our undersea and our marine life. It is a great honour to support it and to be able to say that, effectively, this is our legislation which we brought to this place—and, if there is bipartisan support, that is a good thing. That is why the coalition give our wholehearted support to the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park and Other Legislation Amendment Bill 2008.