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Tuesday, 17 June 2014
Page: 91


Mr BURKE (WatsonManager of Opposition Business) (21:19): The government currently has an application before the World Heritage Committee with respect to the Tasmanian wilderness area. It is an action taken by this government that is without need, without cause, without support and, for Australia, without precedent. For as long as Australia has been a signatory to the World Heritage Convention—and we were the seventh country to sign on—there has been a bipartisan approach to World Heritage sites once they have been put on the list.

Do not get me wrong. Whether or not they should go on the list has often been the subject of ferocious debate, both in this chamber and in Old Parliament House. But, once something has been put on the list, there has to date always been bipartisan support. It has been accepted that when Australia tells the world that something will be protected forever, future governments will honour that commitment.

The Liberal Party has a proud history with respect to the Great Barrier Reef. It was first put on the list by Malcolm Fraser and additional marine park protection was added under John Howard. Kakadu National Park was first put on the list under Malcolm Fraser. It was extended by Hawke, further extended by Keating and was concluded, when I was the Minister for the Environment, under Julia Gillard with the Koongarra addition. The Tasmanian wilderness area was first put on the list by the Fraser government and was added to by the Hawke government. The Howard government put further adjoining areas into protection and then further extensions were made under both Prime Minister Rudd and, finally, Prime Minister Gillard.

That final extension is what is now under dispute. The Abbott government has taken a step that Australia has never previously taken. Indeed, only Oman and Tanzania have previously taken this step with respect to natural heritage. In doing so, the listing the Abbott government has gone after is the one where there was more industry, environmental and community support—more working together—than there had been on any other occasion. There are many examples of environmental protection where people have a credible argument—that it was an election commitment made by one side of politics or the other as part of an environmental political package. This was never that.

The history of this addition is different from that of anything else Australia has ever put forward. Environmental groups were willing to give up what has always been their principle—that they were opposed to all native forestry. In return, industry groups for the first time were willing to say what they wanted most was to get certification to open up their export markets, and they were willing to become supporters and advocates of a World Heritage listing.

Immediately before I told my then department to send a letter to the World Heritage Committee, I made one final phone call. It was to the head of the industry body for Tasmania to ask, 'Do you want this listing to go forward?' The answer was yes. The World Heritage Committee has before it now an application from Australia to undo what Australia had previously said, with the support of both sides of a ferocious debate—that this area should be protected forever. The only sort of support they have managed to find for this is a so-called environmental group called the Australian Environment Foundation. Its shares an address from time to time with the IPA and, from what I was able to work out during my time as Australia's environment minister, it is the only environmental group in this nation which is opposed to conservation. They oppose doing anything about the Murray-Darling Basin; they are opposing keeping these forests in the World Heritage area.

The World Heritage Committee have an important decision before them—a decision unlike many they will ever have. They are not deciding whether or not to put something up for protection; they are deciding whether or not to put something forward for destruction. If they go down this path, jobs will be lost by industry. Industry want this because they want certification, which will become near impossible if this area is taken off the list. In the same way, what will happen to precious environmental areas, including areas that have the tallest flowering plants in the world? They will be destroyed forever. No-one should think that what the Australian government is proposing is a settlement of this issue. If it is taken off the list, everyone should be on notice that the campaigns to get it back on will happen and will happen immediately. The only difference will be that part of the most precious heritage of this planet will have been lost forever in the interim. I urge the World Heritage Committee to reject the irresponsible move that has been made by the Australian government.