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Thursday, 26 June 2008
Page: 6057

Mr MURPHY (Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Trade) (11:17 AM) —As the world’s largest coral reef, the Great Barrier Reef is not only an icon for all Australians, it is an icon for the world. The protection of 344,000 square kilometres of incomparable biodiversity and unique ecosystems cannot be left to chance and for obvious reasons the protection of our unique Great Barrier Reef is of paramount importance to Australia and, indeed, the world. This was a sentiment, as you know, Mr Deputy Speaker, that was expressed in this place over 30 years ago by the government of the day when it introduced the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Act 1975, and it is a sentiment that remains true to this very day.

The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Act 1975, which the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park and Other Legislation Amendment Bill 2008 amends, has served its purpose extremely well, in my view. Like any other good piece of legislation, the act has given effect to the public policy considerations underpinning it. We need not look much further for evidence of this than the outstanding achievements of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority over many years and the international recognition in 1981 of the conservation value of the Great Barrier Reef following its inscription on the World Heritage List.

While the inscription of the Great Barrier Reef on the World Heritage List can be cited as an example of how well the act has stood the test of time, it also reveals one of the act’s weaknesses—its age. The act’s object, for example, does not contain a recognition of the World Heritage values of the Great Barrier Reef. The provision of an object section within an act is not an exercise in symbolism; these provisions provide guidance to the untrained eye when constructing a section that may leave some room for interpretation. Members would be aware of section 15AA of the Acts Interpretation Act 1901 which underpins the importance of the objects or purposes within acts. This section states inter alia:

(1)   In the interpretation of a provision of an Act, a construction that would promote the purpose or object underlying the Act ... shall be preferred to a construction that would not promote that purpose or object.

With an asset as precious as the Great Barrier Reef, having sound environmental objects within the act would seem obvious, yet the act’s objects have not been suitably updated for decades. The act’s object section is a product of the time when the act was first drafted when the predominant focus was on establishing the marine park and developing administrative and institutional arrangements for management, and at a time when the Great Barrier Reef was not yet declared a World Heritage area.

Indeed, guiding environmental principles such as ecological sustainability and the precautionary principle had not yet emerged when the act was first enacted. The act has certainly been an exemplar defender of marine management and conservation. Nonetheless, it has been in place for over 30 years and many lessons have been learnt from the challenges of the past. The passage of time has meant the act has lost some of its gloss. Its fundamental integrity as well as its acceptance by stakeholders is essential if it is to continue safeguarding the interests of the Great Barrier Reef well into the future. The bill will insert a new objects clause that not only recognises the World Heritage values of the Great Barrier Reef but also recognises the importance of applying environmental principles such as ecological sustainability and the precautionary principle to the management of the marine park, as I have mentioned. A new objects section that provides a modern, future-oriented focus to guide the administration of the act and management of the park is now an urgent necessity. In light of the fact that the marine park is now intensively used for a wide variety of purposes, including tourism, fishing, research, public enjoyment and defence training, the application of ecologically sustainable development and the precautionary principle to the marine park is long overdue.

Where there is a threat of serious or irreversible environmental damage to the Great Barrier Reef, lack of full scientific certainty should not be used as a reason for postponing measures to prevent environmental degradation. This principle should long have been central to the administration of the act and management of the marine park. Following the amendments contained within this bill, this principle will now provide a shining light on any proposed use of the marine park in the future.

This bill also implements recommendations 18 to 28 of the 2006 review of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Act 1975—recommendations which we expressed bipartisan support for while we were in opposition. Without going into the detail of each of those recommendations, the measures will broadly improve the integrity of the act and the integrity of the processes that allow conservation to coexist with reasonable marine park use.

Schedule 3 of the bill clarifies processes that must be followed and requirements that must be met when developing zoning plans, proclaiming an area part of the marine park or removing an area from the marine park by way of proclamation. The introduction of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Zoning Plan 2003, with its considerable scale and scope, affected many communities and stakeholders. Perhaps better than any other chapter in the act’s history, this example demonstrated the tension often felt by many stakeholders in the decision-making process. Managing the alternative uses of the marine park and responding to its long-term protection needs will become more challenging in the future. This bill introduces a requirement for the authority to publicly consult on the making of proclamations creating or amending the marine park, zoning plans or plans of management. This will enhance stakeholder and community engagement in the management of the Great Barrier Reef.

Schedule 4 of the bill establishes the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park as a ‘matter of national significance’ under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Act 1999. As Australia’s central piece of environmental legislation, it is appropriate that it governs any proposals that will have or are likely to have a significant impact on the Great Barrier Reef. This will ensure that a robust and best practice environmental impact assessment process is applied to any proposal that may affect the Great Barrier Reef in the future. The measures I have mentioned implement practices and procedures that are thoroughly transparent, clearly understood, engage with the stakeholders and assess the social and economic impacts of any changes affecting the Great Barrier Reef.

Schedule 5 of the bill provides amendments that will facilitate effective compliance with the act and allow a more tailored and targeted approach to enforcement. While criminal enforcement should and will always remain an option, amendments in this bill will enable the minister to impose graduated penalties that vary in severity according to the gravity of the contravention involved. Clearly, criminal penalties can often be an inappropriate and disproportionate reaction to regulatory breaches. The minister ought to have the tools to apply fitting and proportionate penalties that fit the particular circumstances—to ensure penalties are neither too lenient nor too harsh. The tools provided by this bill include the expanded availability of infringement notices, the introduction of civil penalty provisions and the introduction of alternative sanctions such as remediation, publicity orders, enforceable directions and enforceable undertakings.

Enforceable undertakings, for example, have been used with great success by a range of other regulators, including the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission and the Australian Securities and Investments Commission. Enforceable undertakings provide a new approach to compliance that avoids, where possible, the spectre of a drawn out and costly legal battle. By endeavouring to promote a working relationship between the regulator and the regulated, it becomes possible to foster a genuine commitment to the act and to avoid similar breaches in future. That can only be a good thing for the barrier reef and for our country.

The bill also delivers on a Rudd government election commitment to reinstate the requirement for the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority to include an Indigenous member on the board. I note, on the question of board representation, that the previous government abolished automatic Indigenous representation on the authority under the guise of implementing recommendations from the 2003 Uhrig report titled Review of the corporate governance of statutory authorities and office holders. In its defence, the Howard government may have cited the following conclusion from that report:

The Review does not support representational appointments to governing boards as representational appointments can fail to produce independent and objective views.

However, assuming Mr Uhrig’s conclusion is correct—and that is a legitimate question—it is interesting to note that his findings on the matter only made up one page of a 133-page report. It is important to note that Mr Uhrig also made the comment:

... there are no universally accepted structures and practices that constitute good governance.

The choice of governance model for the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority should not be formulaic but should be driven by the objectives and stakeholders of the authority. There would not be many more worthy appointments to the authority than an Indigenous member with knowledge of or experience concerning Indigenous issues relating to the marine park. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders are the traditional owners of the Great Barrier Reef. There are more than 70 traditional owner clan groups along the Queensland coast from the eastern Torres Strait Islands to just north of Bundaberg. Furthermore, for more than 60,000 years the traditional connection of Indigenous communities with the marine environment of the reef has been evident. It is right that the Indigenous community be represented on the authority.

It is important to note that the amendments contained within the bill complement measures such as the Rudd government’s reef rescue plan and our swift action to help protect the Great Barrier Reef from the impacts of climate change. It would be naive to view this bill and its measures to protect the Great Barrier Reef in the future in isolation from the destruction caused by climate change. The issue of climate change is the largest single challenge confronting the Great Barrier Reef. Reports from the United Nations have predicted the beginning of the end of the Great Barrier Reef within 13 years because of the effects of climate change. I have read reports that a three-degree rise in temperature could bleach 97 per cent of the Great Barrier Reef and that coral reef communities could be replaced by algal communities by 2030.

The effect of carbon dioxide upon the ocean waters is also starting to take its toll. Carbon dioxide when dissolved in water forms a weak acid. The Great Barrier Reef is under siege not only from rising water temperatures that cause coral bleaching but also, it appears, from rising ocean acidity. I saw that myself only a couple of years ago when I went out on the reef. I was terribly disappointed at the lack of colour from the coral on the reef. When you see it, it is certainly not what is promoted in all the tourist brochures that go all throughout our country and around the world as a great kaleidoscope of colour of marine life and coral. Just go there and have a look at it yourself. We know that it is in danger. It is quite disappointing. Despite the endless stream of evidence presented to this effect, the Howard government was unrepentant in its determination to sabotage efforts to reduce carbon emissions. Australians are entitled to ask why the Howard government ignored assessments from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Why did it ignore Professor Ove Hoegh-Guldberg of the Australian Research Council of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies? Why did it ignore warnings from Sir Nicholas Stern?

There is very little point worrying about the environmental impact assessments, zoning plans or enforcement mechanisms contained within this bill if the Great Barrier Reef faces extinction because of the effects of climate change. Unlike the Howard government, the Rudd government has not ignored the scourge of climate change. Rather than taking a wrecking ball to the international community’s efforts to reduce the volume of greenhouse gas emissions, the Rudd government seized the moment and immediately signed the Kyoto protocol. The Rudd government is heavily committed to renewable energy and an emissions-trading scheme. Rather than trying to turn the climate change debate into a mutually exclusive choice between environmental protection and job creation, the Rudd government knows that the economic costs of not doing anything about climate change will be far greater than the economic costs of addressing it. Nowhere is this more obvious than with the Great Barrier Reef.

In conclusion, as I have already mentioned, the Great Barrier Reef currently supports many sectors, including the tourism, fishing, research, cultural and recreational sectors. The destruction of the Great Barrier Reef from the effects of climate change directly puts at risk tens of thousands of jobs and over $6 billion in gross domestic product each year. A government that is committed not only to reforming the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority but also to dealing with the onset of climate change is something the Great Barrier Reef deserves. It is something the Great Barrier Reef received with the election of a Rudd government and I commend this bill to the House.