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Thursday, 26 June 2008
Page: 6082

Mr NEUMANN (1:10 PM) —I rise to speak on the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park and Other Legislation Amendment Bill 2008. We in Queensland love the Great Barrier Reef. It is sacred to our Indigenous people but it is beloved by all Queenslanders. Its wonder, its beauty, its colour and its majesty are so evident. The Great Barrier Reef is the world’s largest living reef system. Placed on the World Heritage List in 1981, the Great Barrier Reef is one of the seven natural wonders of the world. It is an extraordinary example of ecology, natural phenomena and biological diversity. It is a vast, interlinked web of life. All the plants and animals in the reef play a part in keeping this system healthy and strong. The relationships have been fostered and grown over many thousands of years, and we humans really are relative newcomers to the reef. The Great Barrier Reef is a fragile ecosystem, and we need to carefully manage it—not just for our generation but for the generations to come. We need to preserve the long-term health of the ecosystem that the Great Barrier Reef represents.

We know that fishing on the Great Barrier Reef is carefully managed by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority and the Queensland Department of Primary Industries and Fisheries, and they have been doing an excellent job in sustaining the Great Barrier Reef for generations to come. We know also that shipping poses a threat to the Great Barrier Reef because even before the time of Captain Cook, when there was Asian migration into the waters of the Great Barrier Reef, off the coast of the continent of Australia, they saw the benefit of the passage through the Great Barrier Reef in terms of navigation: it is easier to get through that area. Unfortunately, we have seen a number of tragic shipping accidents on or about the Great Barrier Reef.

Despite the best efforts of the Queensland department of primary industries and the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, there have been problems in terms of fishing and, if we get it wrong, there will be an imbalance in the entire ecosystem chain. We do not want overfishing of certain species, because imagine what that would do to the Great Barrier Reef and the various ecosystems involved.

The pollution of water causes difficulties in the Great Barrier Reef, and it is caused by human activities—not necessarily by going through the Great Barrier Reef; tourism itself does not exert much pressure on the reef because it is so thinly spread over such a vast area. Tourism operators, in my experience, have a vested interest in maintaining the health of the reef and they act as a kind of watchdog at times in alerting the managing authorities to problems with the reef. But it is industrialisation and human activities which cause pollution of the water, and this is one of the greatest threats to the barrier reef. This has propelled around 300 of the reefs into the danger zone, because of poor water quality. Industrial waste adds to the worsening scenario. Of course, like human beings, coral can also get infections. Industrial pollutants such as copper have proved to interfere with the growth and development of coral, which is so critical to the Great Barrier Reef.

The Great Barrier Reef contributes enormously to the Queensland economy. Reef industries alone employ about 63,000 people and add nearly $6 billion to the Australian economy, so it is essential in terms of not just the environment but our economy that the Great Barrier Reef remains vital and vibrant.

The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Zoning Plan was first implemented in 2004. It has created a network of marine sanctuaries that stretch from the north to the south. It is the world’s largest network of marine sanctuaries and it covers about a third of the marine park. Scientists have identified about 70 distinct biological regions in the park and they represent a vast array of plants and animals. It is not just sediments and nutrients, fertilisers, pesticides, toxic chemicals, sewage, rubbish, detergents, heavy metals and oil that run into our rivers, into the ocean and into the Great Barrier Reef which threaten plants and animals; another great challenge is climate change.

We on this side of the House unequivocally believe that climate change is one of the great moral challenges for our generation. It is unequivocally the case that the earth is getting warmer. It is now warmer than it has been for 2,000 years. There is a vast body of research to that effect—that human activities which release into the atmosphere greenhouse gases cause such problems to our environment. Even small changes in our temperature can have a devastating effect on our natural environment. Just imagine the impact on coral bleaching that a one- or two-degree increase in temperature could have. The impact on plant and animal life would be horrendous.

The previous Howard government, as part of their election commitment in 2004, pledged that they would undertake a review of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Act 1975. I commend the Hon. Senator Ian Campbell for undertaking that review and fulfilling that election commitment. It seems that that was a core promise which was honoured. There were 227 substantive submissions received by the review from a wide range of interested parties, and there were 36 consultation meetings with industry, communities, government organisations and conservation groups. That report was handed down on 28 April 2006 with a number of recommendations. Those recommendations are being carried out today. It has been left to the Rudd Labor government to carry out the recommendations.

The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Act was promulgated in 1975. That established the fundamental regulatory and governance landscape and operations for the management of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. In recent years we have seen lots of changes in the way we do things in terms of companies and associations and the way we do things not just in the private sector but in the public sector. We have witnessed a number of important pieces of government legislation. There was the Commonwealth Authorities and Companies Act 1997, which deals with commercial purposes and Commonwealth companies and authorities. It is appropriate that that particular piece of legislation alone deal with those sorts of entities. We also saw the Financial Management and Accountability Act 1997. These acts have an important impact on entities and companies in our public and private sectors. The Great Barrier Reef is affected by these sorts of changes in terms of its management and in terms of its operational aspects.

The Great Barrier Reef is an extraordinary place. It covers about 22 per cent of Queensland’s land area. Queensland has an enormous number of people living within 100 kilometres of the coast. My electorate of Blair is one such place. The people in my electorate holiday at the Gold Coast. We sometimes call the Gold Coast ‘our beach’ because we holiday there so often. The Sunshine Coast, Hervey Bay, the Fraser coast, Cairns, Townsville, the beaches at Bargara and others are places we visit regularly. We think of the Barrier Reef as integral to our holiday, as integral to our lifestyle in Queensland and as integral to the values that we hold dear in Queensland. It is iconic. It really is a place that Queenslanders hold as being sacred to their hearts.

Both the Queensland government and the Australian government, no matter who has been in power since 1975, have demonstrated a long-term commitment to work together to protect the reef. That has been evident in a collaborative approach. It is necessary because of course the Commonwealth has jurisdiction up to the low-water mark and Queensland has management for the fisheries within its coastal waters, including the marine park.

The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Act established the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority; it is a statutory authority and a body corporate. There is a chairperson, a person nominated by Queensland and two other members, a statutory consultative committee, other interested bodies, a number of reef advisory committees, and a number of local marine advisory committees. There are hundreds of staff employed by the authority. Both sides of politics have contributed and both levels of government have contributed to the management of the park.

The report of the review of the act found that, whilst globally about 27 per cent of coral reefs have been lost due to human activity, the Great Barrier Reef was in pretty good shape, and that is a credit to governments of all persuasions since 1975. But there need to be effective operational and institutional frameworks for the management of the place in the future.

The review recommended that a dedicated statutory authority responsible for advising and acting on behalf of the Australian government was necessary and stated that it was well founded that we had established one. It recommended that the body corporate should remain to provide a collective decision-making entity. It recommended that information in relation to monitoring, assessing and analysing should be brought together in a report on a five-year basis. I would urge whoever is in government in the future, no matter who that is, to adopt that practice. It recommended that there was a need for greater alignment of legislation between acts that governed the Great Barrier Reef and the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act. There are a number of overlaps and gaps. I have had a look at the legislation and I can see why the recommendation is needed.

We need to say what we believe about the Great Barrier Reef. We need to specify in our objects what we actually believe is necessary. We need to identify the concepts of ecologically sustainable development. We need to think about recognising and improving the role of the authority. We need to ensure that we do not duplicate legislation. We need to cohesively integrate our legislative frameworks. What we have done in the past 30 years is establish the marine park and the framework for the management, but we need to get the legal aspects right.

There were a number of recommendations in the review. This bill is carrying out recommendations 18 to 28. One of the things that I find interesting and am very pleased about is the recommendation that came forward about considering applying, when necessary, the national heritage management principles and the idea that we need to put plans in place. That is what this bill is all about.

This bill is a credit to the government, just as the 1975 bill was a credit to the Whitlam Labor government over the objections of the former National Party Premier of Queensland Joh Bjelke-Petersen. As a young teenager, I well remember Joh wanting to drill for oil in the Great Barrier Reef. It just seemed like he wanted to drill for oil everywhere, mine everything he possibly could and knock down every building he could. So I am pleased that, over his objections, the Whitlam government brought forward this ground-breaking legislation. The people of Queensland and the people of Australia were right to oppose the plan to drill. I think at that stage they grasped the importance of the reef to all Australians and to the world. It would be unconscionable today for the government to propose to destroy such an environmentally important natural asset by simply exploring for oil. When the legislation came through on 22 May 1975, it was proclaimed that it was all about the ‘protection of our unique Barrier Reef’ and it being ‘of paramount importance to Australia and the world’. Nothing much has changed in over 30 years. It remains unique and is still of paramount importance to Australia.

This bill establishes a modern framework for administration under the legislation to enable better management of the park in the future—streamlining environmental impact assessment and permit processes and enhancing our capability for investigation and evidence collection for the future. It also includes a wide range of enforcement options to better target and tailor our enforcement approach. It enhances deterrence and encourages responsible use of the marine park. It establishes a new emergency management power as well.

I just want to say how wonderful the Great Barrier Reef is for its marine life. I mention just a few examples. There are 5,000 to 8,000 molluscs, thousands of different sponges, worms and crustaceans, 800 species of starfish and sea urchins and 215 bird species, of which 29 are seabirds. It is home to diverse habitats ranging from fringed coastal reefs, mangroves, seagrass beds, sandy and coral cays, sandy- and muddy-bottomed communities, continental islands and deep ocean areas.

I think this bill is very timely. The old act is out of date. When I had a look at the act I saw just how very out of date it is. It does not recognise the World Heritage status of the reef and it does not incorporate concepts of ecological sustainability or the precautionary principle. The precautionary principle puts forward the common-sense idea that decision makers should be cautious when assessing potential environmental plans in the absence of full scientific facts. It is a well-established principle of environmental law and it has been on our statue books, in our courts and recognised for decades. Yet the 1975 act mentions nothing about it. This bill seeks to remedy this.

The purpose of this bill is to ensure it is contemporaneous. As the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and the Arts stated in his second reading speech, the bill is about placing the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park on a modern footing. A lot has changed since 1975. Our society, our belief in the environment and our green beliefs have changed. John Grey Gorton, a former Liberal Prime Minister, once famously said, ‘We are all socialists now,’ and I think if he came back today he would say, ‘We are all green now.’ This bill is about protecting a green aspect, and we are doing that. This bill is about having the strongest legal basis for the protection of our environment. It promotes the responsible use of the marine park and encourages compliance with all relevant laws. I am pleased that it recognises the three-score-and-10 traditional owner groups which have had a profound and continuing relationship with the reef. I am pleased that they are going to be better involved by having at least one Indigenous person as a member of the authority.

The change to governance will enhance the management and improve the protection of the environment and particularly the Great Barrier Reef. It will maintain the health and resilience of the Great Barrier Reef and its ecosystems. It will do wonders in terms of the protection of so much flora and fauna and it will enhance this wonderful natural asset of Australia and the world. This bill is a great investment in helping provide security for our coastal communities and significantly benefiting both the Australian economy and the Australian environment. I commend the bill to the House.