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Wednesday, 25 June 2008
Page: 5941

Mrs D’ATH (5:46 PM) —I believe I was at the point, just before question time, of outlining to the House the rescue plan and other initiatives of the Rudd Labor government in relation to climate change and the Great Barrier Reef. The rescue plan is a key component of the $2.2 billion Caring for our Country initiative to restore the health of Australia’s environment and to build on improved land management practices. The $200 million five-year reef rescue plan includes $146 million for a Great Barrier Reef Water Quality Grants Program, $12 million for a Healthy Reef Partnerships Program, $10 million for a Great Barrier Reef Water Quality Research and Development Program, $22 million for a Water Quality Monitoring and Reporting Program, and $10 million for the Land and Sea Country Indigenous Partnerships Program. In addition, the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Climate Change, Water, Environment and the Arts has announced an inquiry into climate change and environmental impacts on coastal communities. The committee will inquire into and report on issues related to climate change and environmental pressures experienced by Australian coastal areas, particularly in the context of coastal population growth.

As a World Heritage listed area, the Great Barrier Reef is one of the most significant coastal zones of Australia. It is important that, in addition to the commitments announced in the budget and the work being undertaken by the standing committee, the government take other measures to conserve and protect our most precious natural assets. The protection of areas such as the Great Barrier Reef is provided for through legislation—most specifically the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Act 1975. It is through this legislation that we are able to have 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 coral reef, covering some 344,400 square kilometres of unparalleled biodiversity and unique ecosystems. The Great Barrier Reef is one of the richest, most complex and diverse ecosystems in the world. The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park begins at the tip of Cape York in Queensland and extends south almost to Bundaberg. The area is larger than Victoria and Tasmania combined and stretches more than 2,300 kilometres along the north-east coast of Australia. The Great Barrier Reef consists of a network of reefs—about 2,900 in total—and is home to thousands of species. Extensive areas of seagrass meadows, mangrove stands, salt marsh, and sand and mud areas provide a diverse range of habitats for many species. The diversity of the Great Barrier Reef’s natural values makes it a particularly unique and valued ecosystem.

In addition to the importance of preserving the natural beauty of the Great Barrier Reef and the many species that rely on it to survive, we must ensure the protection of the Great Barrier Reef for the benefit of the economy. The Great Barrier Reef is extremely important to the local, state and national economy. The reef and the surrounding coastal and catchment areas support substantial economic activity. The catchment area adjacent to the Great Barrier Reef comprises 22 per cent of Queensland’s land area and 20 per cent of its population. Around 80 per cent of land in this area supports agricultural production. The major urban centres are Cairns, Townsville, Mackay, Rockhampton and Gladstone. Each is a key port and has a population of between 26,000 and 140,000. The population along the Great Barrier Reef coast is currently around 850,000 and is expected to grow to one million by 2026.

There is significant economic activity in the Great Barrier Reef and surrounding coastal and catchment areas. Some of these activities occur solely or partly within the marine park itself, such as tourism and fishing. However, these two activities in particular also have strong links to many land based businesses such as equipment suppliers and seafood processing. Many industries that contribute to Australia’s overall economic prosperity, such as coal and sugar, rely on access to or passage through the marine park. An efficient and cost-effective port system is essential to such industries. Mining and tourism are the largest industries in catchment areas adjacent to the Great Barrier Reef. Shipping activity within the Great Barrier Reef region and the Torres Strait facilitates substantial economic activity in Australia. There are approximately 6,000 ship movements of large vessels exceeding 50 metres in length in the Great Barrier Reef each year, plus some 1,500 tourism vessels, and 25,000 commercial and recreational fishing vessels. Bulk carriers make up around 40 per cent of ships using the Great Barrier Reef—10 per cent are oil tankers, 24 per cent container vessels and 22 per cent general cargo.

Tourism and recreation are important ways for people to experience and learn about the wonders of the Great Barrier Reef and help conserve this World Heritage area. I am one of those fortunate people who have had the opportunity to visit the Great Barrier Reef and in fact had my honeymoon scuba diving on the reef. To those who have never been there I strongly encourage you to go and experience this amazing area. It is so extraordinary that it cannot be adequately described. It is one of those areas that you truly have to see to believe. That is, of course, part of the reason why the Great Barrier Reef is a World Heritage area.

Approximately 1.9 million tourists and 4.9 million recreational visitors visit the Great Barrier Reef each year. The total contribution of tourism to the regional economy is estimated to be $4.2 billion, with some 9.3 million visitors to the region in 2003. This is projected to increase to $6.5 billion by 2020. Around 19 per cent of international visitors to Australia visit the Great Barrier Reef catchment area. In 2004 there were over 1.9 million visits to the Great Barrier Reef. Around 75 per cent of overnight visitors to the Great Barrier Reef are domestic, with about half of these coming from interstate. The tourism industry is the largest employer of all industries in the coastal and catchment areas of the Great Barrier Reef, providing approximately 40,000 jobs in the region. There are 840 commercial tourism operators in the marine park.

Commercial and recreational fishing, including charter fishing and spearfishing, are another major and longstanding use of the Great Barrier Reef. Major commercial fishing began in the 1950s. Currently there are 17 commercial fisheries operating solely or predominately in the marine park. It is estimated that there are around 198,000 recreational fishers using the Great Barrier Reef, including the catchment areas adjacent to the reef. The annual catch of these fishers is estimated to be around 8,500 tonnes. Recreational fishers are estimated to have spent between $80 million and $201 million on fishing activities in 2003.

Uniquely for a marine park and World Heritage area, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park abuts and overlays some of Australia’s most important military training areas and facilities. With regard to cultural values, there are around 470 shipwrecks in the marine park. Approximately 30 of these have been identified as historic. Various islands have operating lighthouses, ruins and other sites that are of cultural and historical significance. Two such sites are listed on the Commonwealth Heritage List. The sites comprise cast iron and timber light stations constructed in the 1870s that were important navigational aids in the development of regular coastal shipping in the difficult waters of the inner route of the Great Barrier Reef.

Importantly, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have a long and continuing relationship with the Great Barrier Reef and its natural resources. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are the traditional owners of the Great Barrier Reef region. For over 60,000 years their traditional connections have been part of the unique living maritime culture. There are more than 70 traditional owner groups along the coast from Bundaberg to the eastern Torres Strait Islands. Their traditional customs, spiritual lore and beliefs continue to be practised today. Their values for and interests in the islands, reefs and waters within the Great Barrier Reef and Torres Strait include physical places, story places and a range of other cultural and historical values.

It is for all of these reasons that the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority has such a significant role. The authority is the principal adviser to the Australian government on the care, development and management of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. The authority was established by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Act. The bill before the House seeks to enhance the capabilities of the authority.

This bill arises from a review of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Act 1975 which was released in 2006. That review, not surprisingly, found that the act has served its purpose well over the past 30 years but needs to be updated and better integrated with other legislation to meet future needs and challenges. This is understandable considering the changes over the past 30 years in scientific evidence on climate change and also the changing nature of the economy. The bill implements recommendations 18 to 28 of the 2006 review and will establish, through this implementation, a modern and robust regulatory framework. This framework will provide the capability for the efficient and effective protection and management of the Great Barrier Reef into the future.

I turn now to the specifics of the bill. It will establish a modern framework for the administration of the act and for the management of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. This framework will be aligned and integrated with, but not duplicative of, the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 and other legislation. It includes a new objects section, recognition of the World Heritage values of the Great Barrier Reef and application of principles such as ecological sustainability and the precautionary principle. The bill will establish the act as the basis for environmental impact assessment of and approval for actions in the marine park that involve significant environmental impacts. This includes establishing the marine park as a matter of national environmental significance under the act.

There will be enhanced capability for investigation and evidence collection as a consequence of the passing of this bill. In particular, inspectors appointed by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority will be allowed to use the investigation related powers of the EPBC Act for the purposes of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Act. The bill will also provide a wider range of enforcement options, allowing for a more tailored and targeted approach to enforcement. This includes new administrative mechanisms, expanded availability of infringement notices and the introduction of civil penalty provisions.

Enhanced deterrents and encouragement of responsible use of the marine park are also provided for in the bill. This includes the adjustment of penalties to ensure they are neither too lenient nor too harsh, depending on the circumstances; the introduction of alternative sanctions such as remediation and publicity orders; and the establishment of an ‘environmental duty’ that will apply to marine park users, similar to that which applies under state legislation. As we would all appreciate, with so many users—domestic and international, recreational and commercial—it is important to have this flexibility in applying penalties. The bill will also establish new emergency management powers allowing the authority to respond to incidents presenting a serious risk to the environment of the marine park. These powers will complement and be subservient to those of the Australian Maritime Safety Authority.

I have already spoken about the significance of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park to Indigenous people. This bill will rectify one of the Howard government’s failings. It will honour an election commitment by the Rudd Labor government to reinstate a requirement for the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority to include an Indigenous member.

As I have stated, the act has served its purpose well but needs to be updated and better integrated with other legislation to meet future needs and challenges. That is what will be delivered by the changes I have briefly summarised. As noted in the overall findings of the review, the Great Barrier Reef is iconic to Australians and internationally. This is recognised in its listing as a World Heritage area. As a party to the United Nations Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage, 1972, Australia has acknowledged a duty:

... of ensuring the identification, protection, conservation, presentation and transmission to future generations of the cultural and natural heritage ...

and that it will:

... do all it can to this end, to the utmost of its own resources ...

Arising from the 2006 comprehensive review of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Act, we now have before us a bill that seeks to implement key recommendations. This bill demonstrates the Australian government’s commitment to securing the future of the Great Barrier Reef and it strengthens our capacity to preserve this important feature of our nation’s and the world’s heritage for future generations.