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Thursday, 26 June 2008
Page: 6086


Mr CHEESEMAN (1:30 PM) —The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park and Other Legislation Amendment Bill 2008 is important for two reasons. It is important in itself because it is about the regulation of one of the wonders of the natural world, the Great Barrier Reef. It is also important as an indication of how Australia is now becoming a world leader in marine conservation. The bill shows the sophistication we are developing in our approach to marine conservation. I am very proud of the direction we are heading in marine conservation and of the leadership we are now showing the world.

But I have to say that we need to place this in context, and the context is this: for over a hundred years the oceans of Australia and around the world have been subjected to increasing industrial harvesting techniques. It started off with more than one hook on a line, moved to nets, and has ended up with giant mother ships hoovering up vast populations of fish. Around the world today there is virtually no marine environment that has not been affected, including most Australia marine environments. The Great Barrier Reef itself is not exempt from that of course. To put it bluntly, the world has hammered its marine environment, with often only a veneer of respectable management. The marine environment, up until recently, was treated as an inexhaustible resource. It clearly is not. Many marine species, as we know, are now on the brink of extinction as a result. Many marine ecosystems are now very degraded. So the context is that we are coming off a low base. It might sound a little churlish, a little negative, to say these things when we are passing a very positive and groundbreaking piece of legislation in marine conservation, but it has to be said. We have done a lot of damage and we are just beginning to understand what we have done.

I want to talk today about what this bill does, to put it within the context of the history of impacts on the marine environment and the other important marine conservation initiatives Australia is undertaking. The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park bill puts the act, which first became law in 1975, on a modern footing. It focuses on long-term protection and ecologically sustainable management. It introduces the precautionary principle. It will help protect the World Heritage values of the Great Barrier Reef. The bill establishes the EPBC Act as the central environmental impact assessment system tool. The bill provides a clear and strong environmental investigation regime for the marine park through the EPBC Act. This bill strengthens enforcement mechanisms and introduces a more appropriate range of penalties including civil penalties.

I want to go back a bit to the underpinnings of the marine protected areas. Concern about what has been happening within our marine environment escalated more than a decade ago. Over-exploitation of marine biodiversity resulted in the marine environment being one of the first significant issues to be addressed by the parties to the International Convention on Biological Diversity. In Jakarta in 1995, at a Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity, Australia signed the Mandate on Marine and Coastal Biological Diversity. Ultimately an international agreement was established urging the nations of the world to establish a ‘comprehensive, representative and adequate system of ecologically viable marine protected areas’. Thirteen years later, those deliberations resulted in this bill.

This bill progressing through the parliament is another important step for the protection of the Great Barrier Reef and it is the fulfilment of our international obligations of protecting marine diversity. The Great Barrier Reef is clearly one of the wonders of the natural world. This coral reef system extends for around 2,300 kilometres along the Queensland coast and covers over 344,400 square kilometres. It contains unsurpassed biological diversity and globally unique ecosystems. It is also of great significance, of course, to our economy. The international and domestic interest in the reef generates approximately $6 billion per annum.

The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, which includes a range of different areas with different levels of protection, is now a flagship in terms of Australia’s leadership in marine conservation internationally. An increasingly sophisticated management system is being built around the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. There are carefully thought out and well-researched areas within the marine park that have specified protections. Some have limited fishing; others are no-take whatsoever areas; and some areas are complete no-go except for science use only.

Importantly, the management system relies on a lot of education, and the whole management system relies on an ongoing research base. And, most importantly, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park is underpinned by very significant resources. It is not one of those park systems that has been declared with no resources, then been left to rot. The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park system has a flagship environmental reserve management system. However, I would point out, with the indulgence of the Deputy Speaker, that the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park legislation is only one aspect of Australia’s growing reputation for leadership in marine conservation around the world.

I would like to point out that in my own state of Victoria we have led the way in this area—and I know that would please you, Madam Deputy Speaker Burke, being a Victorian. If we can boast a bit, we have done something that is quite remarkable; in fact, it is a world first. We were the first state in any country to establish a comprehensive, adequate, representative system of marine protected areas. No other state anywhere in the world has undertaken this. There have been particular parks declared here and there, such as the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park and the marine park in the Great Australian Bight, but never before has a comprehensive network of marine parks been implemented across a whole state. What we did in Victoria, in a process that took a decade, was to comprehensively survey and analyse the habitats and ecology of our marine environment and then put in place a network of marine parks and reserves of high integrity.

Just over six per cent of Victoria’s marine environment is now contained within the marine national parks, and they are all no-take areas. I would like to put on the record my thanks to the former Premier of Victoria, Steve Bracks, for his vision, courage and foresight in implementing this system of marine national parks and reserves. And it did take courage, as all big and significant decisions do. I would also like to put on record my thanks to another former Premier of Victoria, Joan Kirner, who kicked off this process and was still there at the end of the process lobbying hard for its completion. Thank you, Steve and Joan.

Before returning to the details of the Great Barrier Reef bill, can I say that the Victorian MPA initiative has led me to closely follow developments in marine conservation policy areas in other states, and what I see does concern me a bit. I see a hesitancy, maybe a fear of sectional interest groups, in other states in implementing the policy of establishing a system of comprehensive, adequate and representative marine parks.

In South Australia I have not heard much about no-take areas, which must be at the heart of any system. There seems to be a fear of talking about that. I know there are some very important waters in South Australia—on the Great Australian Bight, where the Commonwealth has established another MPA, and along both sides of the Eyre Peninsula and in some of the island areas. The government in South Australia are committed to marine parks, but the sectional interests are lobbying hard, just as they did when the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park was declared. The Commonwealth showed fortitude, and the South Australian government need to show it now. I think I am right in saying that South Australia was the first Australian state to establish a coastal management act, a very significant piece of work, way back in 1975. They were our nation’s leaders in this area, but they have slipped back and need to take some bold steps to re-establish their leadership.

In New South Wales, in Western Australia and in other states, although there are increasing areas under marine reserves or marine parks, there are very small percentages of no-take areas. There seems to be a preference for marine parks which are largely ‘multiple use’, which everyone knows to be ‘multiple abuse’ marine parks—Clayton’s marine parks. No-take areas are like the control sample in a science experiment. They are the heart of the integrity of the system. I say to all Australian states who are nervous about the political consequences of marine conservation: think about our kids. Think about future generations. Show courage. Show leadership.

We are an island continent. We have a massive coastline, and a massive responsibility that goes with it. Let us make Australia the world leader in marine conservation. The Rudd government is showing leadership through this bill.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature is on record as being ‘deeply concerned’ by the slow progress made by countries to meet their commitments. Despite the repeated calls for urgent action and the increasing and overwhelming scientific evidence for protection of marine environments, overfishing and illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing persists and the plundering of sharks continues. Environmental quality continues to deteriorate from pollution and invasive marine species. These threats are aggravated by the ongoing and predicted impacts of climate change on the oceans.

The IUCN estimates that, unless progress is accelerated, the agreed international goals establishing representative networks of marine protected areas by 2012 will not be met until 2060. The IUCN analysis of data from five ocean basins reveals a dramatic decline in numbers of large predatory fish—tuna, blue marlin, swordfish and others—since the advent of industrialised fishing. The world’s oceans have lost over 90 per cent of large predatory fish, with potentially severe consequences for the ecosystem.

There is widespread public concern over the worldwide decline of our coral reefs, changes to temperate kelp bed communities, decline in seagrass beds and loss of salt marshes and mangroves. Although there are obvious examples of marine mammals and birds that have either become extinct or are considered endangered, little is known of this problem for the vast majority of marine animals, including fish and invertebrates.

Of course, it is not just the impacts of fishers and others involved in marine harvesting. The impacts of global warming have added a new layer of threats across a wide range of marine environments. Thousands of Antarctic marine species, adapted to constant temperatures over millions of years, now appear to be uniquely vulnerable in the face of predicted temperature change, new research has revealed.

Coral reefs, including the Great Barrier Reef, have been specifically identified by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change as areas where climate change impacts will occur. We have already seen this through bleaching events. We are fortunate in Australia that the Great Barrier Reef is well preserved compared to reef systems elsewhere in the world.

The government is, of course, addressing the impacts of climate change through initiatives aimed at increasing the resilience of the Great Barrier Reef and through measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The government has also undertaken a Great Barrier Reef Climate Change Action Plan and a Great Barrier Reef Rescue Plan, underlining the levels of threat the reef and our marine environment face.

The Great Barrier Reef is an absolutely awesome natural wonder. But it is not untouched. The Great Barrier Reef is a reef system that has felt the impacts of industry, of human activity and of climate change. Like every other marine environment in the world, it has been impacted by human activity. Too often we hear the nonsense come up about the untouched environment of the Great Barrier Reef. In some parts of Australia the word ‘pristine’ must be the most abused word in the dictionary.

The Great Barrier Reef Management Authority, whilst acknowledging that there is still an enormous amount of information they do not know, have clearly stated that there are many species under threat along the Great Barrier Reef. These include: helmet shells, triton shells, clams, seahorses, pipefish, sea dragons, potato cod, Queensland grouper, barramundi, cod, whale shark, grey nurse shark, great white shark, freshwater sawfish, sea snakes, crocodiles, marine turtles, birds, seals, whales, dolphins and dugongs. That is the ‘pristine’ marine environment that we now know.

There are some enormous challenges to protecting species and protecting habitats. This bill is crucial to addressing those matters. It adds to Australia’s improving record in marine conservation; a record that has put us in a leadership group in the world on marine conservation. But there is still a lot more we can do. If I look at my own environment in Victoria—the Great Ocean Road, the Surf Coast, the Bellarine Peninsula—there are some magnificent reef systems and some magnificent places where all of us can participate in our environment. However, there are significant threats to those environments. I look forward to working with the Rudd government in continuing to protect our environment over the years to come. I commend this bill to the House.

Debate interrupted.