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Thursday, 26 June 2008
Page: 6064

Ms GEORGE (11:52 AM) —I am pleased to be able to add my comments on the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park and Other Legislation Amendment Bill 2008, which is a very important piece of legislation. I do so because we all recognise what a wonderful asset we are blessed to have in this country. I did not know until I heard it from my colleague the member for Dawson that, had it not been for the reef, he may not have ended up here in parliament. That is another aspect of this debate that is very interesting.

On a more serious note, the bill before us is necessary in order to put in place a new regulatory framework to ensure that we have the best management for the long-term protection and ecologically sustainable development of this wonderful icon. The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Act 1975 provided first for the creation of the marine park and it also established the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority. There is no doubt it was groundbreaking legislation at the time and I think we all agree that it has served its purpose well for over 30 years. But in that 30 years there has been a lot of change and the 1975 act really needs to be amended to keep pace with some of the modern issues and challenges facing the reef. For example, the earlier legislation did not recognise the World Heritage status of our reef and nor did it incorporate principles such as ecological sustainability and the precautionary principle. Both are principles that have been developed as we have moved forward to look at good environmental management systems. The bill is important also in that it establishes our primary legislation, the EPBC act, as the primary basis for environmental impact assessments and approval arrangements applying to the marine park. In doing so, as I read the bill, it importantly recognises that the Great Barrier Reef will now be considered a matter of national environmental significance, which, I believe, will provide a strong legal base for its protection for decades and generations to come.

I am also delighted that the bill addresses a specific election commitment made by the Rudd Labor government—that is, to appropriately and properly restore Indigenous representation on the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, which was deleted by the Howard government back in July 2007. As we know, there are more than 70 traditional owner groups along the coast from Bundaberg to the Torres Strait who have a long historical and continuing relationship with the reef. Obviously, their knowledge and perspective as people with such lengthy experience will be invaluable in achieving ecologically sustainable management of the reef into the future. Several years ago I happened to be in Townsville at the GBRMPA headquarters when the first agreement was reached between GBRMPA and one of the local Indigenous groups for the use of the resources on the reef. I know that GBRMPA plans to do more in this regard in the future.

I think all Australians understand how blessed we are to have use of the reef. That also carries with it an obligation to act as guardians of one of the world’s most important natural assets. The reef as we know it today has evolved over the 10,000 years since the last ice age. It is the biggest single structure made by living organisms and it is one of the most complex natural systems on earth. It is home to around 1,500 of the world’s marine fish species, a third of the world’s soft coral species, six of the seven species of marine turtles and, very importantly, it is home to one of the world’s remaining dugong populations, a species that has been listed internationally as being vulnerable to extinction.

So, as I said earlier, it is no wonder that its natural values are internationally recognised through its inclusion on the World Heritage List. Inclusion on the World Heritage List, I think, imposes an additional moral obligation on its guardians to protect it for generations to come.

The international recognition of this icon has supported substantial economic activity. My colleague the member for Dawson discussed some of the very important economic outcomes of the reef. The most obvious is the tourism it generates, which now underpins approximately $6 billion of income on an annual basis. We are aware too of the importance of other recreational activities and commercial fishing in areas so designated. The Great Barrier Reef is undoubtedly a great drawcard, not just for our own tourism industry but also for international tourists, because of its iconic status.

But as good as that is, the Great Barrier Reef also has the potential to be made an international symbol for the understanding of the impacts of climate change. In my contribution today, I want to address some of these impacts so that we have a good understanding of the fact that our policies and programs are aimed at preserving this iconic reef for future generations and at ensuring that, in the meantime, we have a coherent set of adaptation strategies to ensure that the huge pleasure and interest that is derived from the value of the reef is there in perpetuity. We know that the world’s scientific body of knowledge points to the fact that corals are vulnerable to thermal stress and that they have a low adaptive capacity. Increases in sea surface temperatures of about one to three degrees centigrade are projected to result in more frequent coral bleaching events. Climate change has a number of potential detrimental effects on coastal regions and on our reef. We are aware of this because we have lived through two large bleaching episodes on the reef—in 1998 and 2002. Eminent scientists warn us that by mid-century, on the current trajectory, we will be well above the line that we know causes temperatures to impact on coral bleaching. So that is a very significant factor that needs to be taken into account in our adaptation strategies.

Rising sea levels, which we also know from worldwide scientific expertise is projected to be a consequence of climate change, will also have an impact—not so much on the potential threats to a healthy coral reef but related impacts, such as temperature increase and increased turbidity which can negatively affect reef development. In addition, decreased decalcification rates due to increased atmospheric CO2 can reduce a reef’s ability to grow and keep up with the projected rates of sea level rise. I want to quote from a statement by Professor Iain Gordon from the CSIRO. We are lucky that we have eminent scientists focusing their minds and their research capacity on what is needed to protect the reef in its iconic status. Professor Gordon said:

… water quality has a negative impact on coral biodiversity and coral cover through a range of different effects … like smothering the coral and also by blocking light that is happening through silt and mud.

In addition, climate change and global warming will bring more extreme weather events. We have already witnessed the impact of cyclonic and storm activity in the northern part of our nation. It is predicted that there will be increased cyclone and related rainfall intensities. Much of this can cause damage to not just human and physical infrastructure but also the natural habitats that are very much part of the beauty of the northern part of our country. More intense rainfall events can also alter the nutrient loads of rivers and increase the risk of toxic algal blooms.

Recently, I had the opportunity to visit the Great Barrier Reef in my capacity as Chair of the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Climate Change, Water, Environment and the Arts. I want to place on record my thanks to the chair of GBRMPA and the wonderful staff with whom he works for making our visit such a productive one and enabling us to better understand the consequences of climate change on the reef. However, I would also say that understanding the potential consequences means that with the passage of this bill we will be better placed to put in place effective adaptation strategies.

I also want to place on record and acknowledge the constructive work undertaken by the Australian Greenhouse Office in a very important report entitled Climate change in the Cairns and Great Barrier Reef region. When we look at the preservation of the reef into the future and for the benefit of future generations, we need to understand that development in Cairns and in the surrounding land areas has a significant impact on the reef, particularly on water quality. In that report, the Australian Greenhouse Office outlined a series of recommendations to ensure effective monitoring and climate change adaptation policies. I want to refer to a number of these because I think they are an important component of our plans for the future. The report pointed to the need for development of a high-resolution climate change projection for the Cairns and Great Barrier Reef region and development of regional model models of land use. This is very important because sugar cane farming, grazing and other agricultural uses of land along the coastline have a downstream impact on the quality of water and that affects the potential of the reef to remain one of the natural wonders. The report also points to the importance of development of spatial hazard and other vulnerability maps, a series of integrated assessment models, a cost-benefit analysis of proposed adaptation measures and improvements to long-term monitoring in the region—particularly in regard to determining regional rates of sea level rise—and provision of more appropriate data to improve our current understanding of biological processes and simulation of these systems. We are going to be very well informed by a great body of scientific knowledge that will help guide the Rudd Labor government’s efforts to protect and enhance the reef in its iconic status.

In the lead-up to the last election, as well as campaigning on climate change and the need for better adaptation and mitigation strategies, I was very heartened that the minister and the Prime Minister announced a specific package of $200 million known as the Great Barrier Reef Rescue Plan. This plan will help secure the reef from climate change and declining water quality. I am pleased that a substantial amount of funding was allocated to a new water quality grants scheme. The government has also made a commitment to extend the Reef Partnerships Program so that people engaged in agricultural activity can better appreciate the consequences of land use and its impact on the water quality of the reef, particularly from increased urban development and agricultural use. The government will be investing more funding to ensure that the reef water quality monitoring and reporting program can be enhanced. We have a $10,000,000 commitment to the Land and Sea Country Indigenous Partnerships program and we are committed to publishing an annual Great Barrier Reef water quality report card.

Professor Terry Hughes from James Cook University, who I had the opportunity to hear from as part of our visit to the reef, has importantly referred to some possible strategies for the future that we need to build into our thinking. He talks about the importance of the food webs on the reef. Zoning plans are an important component in ensuring that the food webs are not altered in a way that is deleterious to the coral formation.

Importantly, we need to give greater consideration to land use practices. I was concerned to see some of the plans for future coastal development near the hub of Cairns. This is not an issue just peculiar to the Cairns region; along the coastline people are starting to be quite anxious about the impact that unsustainable economic development and housing developments can have on our natural environment. I think the Great Barrier Reef and the Cairns region have been identified in a number of reports as particularly vulnerable hotspots. We need to ensure that land use practices are more sustainable in the future.

I think we are very fortunate that, with the scientific body of knowledge that is now accumulating with an emphasis on some of the vulnerable places in Australia—like Kakadu, Cairns, the Great Barrier Reef and others—we can now have more effective regional analysis and regional programs and responses to the hotspots that have been identified.

Having said all that and maybe dwelling too much on potential problems that may exist, I will say that we are well placed to ensure that with appropriate action we can continue to have a magnificent reef which is, by all accounts, very well preserved and protected compared to many reef systems elsewhere in the world. Obviously that is the way we want to keep it for future generations. The Labor government’s commitment of $200 million to the Great Barrier Reef Rescue Plan demonstrates the level of importance the Rudd Labor government is giving to the protection of the reef in order to build its resilience and to begin setting in place plans to deal with the impact of dangerous climate change.

In conclusion, the bill before us is a timely update of the powers that we extend to the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority. The initial legislation was probably quite groundbreaking 30 years ago, but it does need to be updated. Very importantly, the consequence of this legislation will be to recognise the Great Barrier Reef as a matter of national environmental significance, which I believe will provide it with a strong legal base for protection. And that, together with a coherent range of adaptation and mitigation strategies, means that our generation will bequeath to future generations a world iconic reef.