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Wednesday, 12 September 2012
Page: 10321

Mr JOHN COBB (Calare) (10:37): I rise to speak about the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Declared Fishing Activities) Bill 2012 proposed by the government. I wish I did not have to. Even though Australia has come to expect no bounds to the incompetence and knee-jerk overreaction of this government I do find myself despairing at this latest effort by them to undermine business in this country and at the scale of the sovereign risk it is subjecting its hard-working people to.

This is not just about foreign investment, this is about domestic investment. Let us be clear. This government's decision to shut down the fishing trawler is not based on science but simply on a massive sell-out of industry as they trawl for green votes. This decision is using a sledgehammer to crack a nut—a peanut. Instead of providing conditions for the ship's operation so that it would have no more a footprint on the environment than one of the five smaller boats it could have replaced, the minister is moving to deliver himself sweeping new powers that will enable him to shut down the fishing industry and destroy statutory fishing rights simply on the back of any media campaign, no matter how misinformed.

This bill allows the government to shut down any commercial or recreational fishing activity for 24 months if there is any level of uncertainty about environmental, social or economic impact of the fishing industry. As the old saying goes, there is nothing certain in life except death and taxes—and under this government that is a heck of a lot of uncertainty and a heck of a lot of taxes. There is always uncertainty, so there will always be an excuse to shut down the fishing industry. This will make the statutory fishing rights of our hard-working fishermen worthless and let me tell you that they are hard working.

This bill gives the minister unlimited powers and threatens every Australian commercial fishing operation at a virtual whim. In an attempt to address community concerns about the Margiris, the minister has gone to the extreme, by giving himself unlimited powers, which will impact on every family fishing boat around the country. The new powers will allow the minister to shut down industry for two years whenever there is social—in other words, perceived—uncertainty over the science, no matter how uniformed. Instead of ensuring conditions that could have ensured that the larger boat had no greater footprint than five smaller boats, this minister has just decided to shut down the industry for two years and leave it to another minster with a backbone to solve the issue.

Minister Ludwig has again been used as a doormat by the rest of the Labor Party to pander to the Greens—and as one of the better ones, Minister Ferguson, you know I am telling the truth. Rollover Joe is still reeling from the last time the government rolled him and made him shut down live exports completely devastating the industry and telling our major trading partners around the world that there is too much sovereign risk to trade with Australia and that they should take their business elsewhere. However, this time it is not just foreigners; it is Australian investors who are being told, 'Bad luck.'

Minister Burke was the Minister for Agriculture, when the Australian Fisheries Management Authority, in his portfolio—and, I understand, Minister Burke himself—approved the Small Pelagic Fisher Harvest Strategy. He did that as the Minister for Agriculture and now, as the Minister for the Environment, he is acting as someone who is totally unconcerned and uncaring about his previous strategies—basically inviting a ship of this type to come to Australia and provide efficiencies and now has changed his mind. What can you say? As the member for Flinders has already pointed out, this strategy—approved by Minister Burke in his previous portfolio as the Minister for Agriculture—clearly states on page two: 'There are considerable economies of scale in the fishery and the most efficient way to fish may include large-scale factory vessels.' I wonder what those opposite think of that when it comes to the legislation we are currently debating. That is a straight-out invitation to bring exactly that sort of ship here to Australia. What another Labor stuff-up! Minister Burke, as minister for agriculture, in fact appointed all the current board of AFMA—the authority he says he now cannot trust.

Minister Burke clearly invited this boat to Australia and has now changed his mind. Australian investors, with clear signals from Minister Burke on this, invested time and effort and significant resources to bring this boat to Australia. Over years, they complied with every requirement. This Australian company employed 50 Australian staff to drive the business. Seafish Australia has now been put in the terrible position of having to tell these staff they are no longer needed. Like the live exports debacle, this government has again sent a signal to all the countries of the world—and, in this case, the domestic investors in Australia, all our major trading partners and businesses large and small—that it is way too risky to do business in this country and that this government cannot be trusted. If Minister Burke had an ounce of gumption, an ounce of honesty, he would resign if he does not trust the authority he was responsible for—that he appointed, that he approved and that he agreed with. This is the authority he appointed, he approved and he agreed with.

Australia's fisheries are independently benchmarked and recognised as one of the most sustainable in the world. The management strategies are developed from sound science and extensive consultation with a broad range of stakeholders. The coalition has every reason to have confidence in the quota and management conditions applied to the small pelagic fishery.

This decision will open a Pandora's box. This is a major precedent that opens the door to other natural resources. Will the minister seek the same sweeping new powers to be applied across other natural resource sectors? Mining could be stopped for two years because of a public campaign suggesting that a new mining method which may actually reduce the impact on the environment creates too much public uncertainty as to its actual impact. The irrigation sector could be shut down for two years while they finalise the Murray-Darling Basin Plan because there is community concern about the impact on the basin. Even worse, Minister Burke may shut down the farming sector for two years because of perceived social uncertainty about the impact of new farming methods aimed at improving soil management because of perceived uncertainty. This will not only shut down resource sectors but also stagnate research and development that would lessen the environmental impact and increase public uncertainty.

To use an analogy, with recreational fishing, this government is saying that not only do you have a bag limit but you are also not allowed to go fishing with your mates and the industry cannot conduct fishing competitions, as the collective impact could be too great. The recreational fishermen are also on this minister's hit list already with the world's largest national marine park network not based on science, and now the minister is saying he can shut down any fishing activity if there is uncertainty, regardless of the science. This has really undermined the good work of the Australian Fisheries Management Authority and their dedicated staff, who are committed to sustainable management of the fisheries within government policy. The key here is that they implement government policy, policy which was overseen for three years by Minister Burke—this very same minister—when he was minister of the agricultural portfolio. And he now says that AFMA cannot be trusted.

This is so like the live exports issue. This is groundhog day for this government. The ineptitude of this government never ceases to amaze me and never ceases to amaze the Australian people. But, when it comes to the agricultural, fisheries and forestry portfolio, you can add to that a distinct element of, 'I couldn't care less', and you begin to understand why the live export issue escalated to such an incredible crisis. I never thought I would say this, but I am not sure that this decision by Labor, this legislation that they are putting forward now, is not worse than their actions in relation to the live cattle trade.

That was one of the worst decisions ever made—and certainly the worst business decision made by a government up to this time. It set back international efforts for animal welfare, and the sovereign risk has alarmed our trading partners. Indonesia wanted to work with Australia, and publicly said so, to solve that issue and they picked up the paper and read that they had been told that they were no longer needed at that time and that they would have to wait for cattle because they were not getting them.

While this government—and every government—have struggled to deal with Aboriginal welfare issues, particularly in Northern Australia, they also crushed the livelihoods of tens of thousands of people both directly and indirectly affected by that government decision. The effect of that decision on the North—which at the time I thought could never be worsened, but I am not sure that it has not been now—on 82 Indigenous stations and a community of some 17,000 depending on this trade, was enormous. These people do not want welfare; they just want to get on with their lives. And I can assure you that the fishing industry does not want welfare; they want to get on with their lives.

This government are far more worried about the lefties within their party room than they are about our relationships with our neighbours and with business and whether or not Australia is able to proceed domestically, let alone whether in a foreign sense we can get investment in our country and investment in our businesses and be able to create jobs.

The government is seeking a new arbitrary power unfettered and with no chance of review for the decisions. The government invited the ship into Australia and has now backflipped on its own decision. Minister Burke should resign—in any moral situation you care to name. He oversaw the department that invited the boat to this country and is now saying that the decision was wrong. It was a decision that only last week, in fact I would say as recently as Monday, he agreed with.

The implications of this bill for our international reputation are catastrophic. The implications in terms of sovereign risk are catastrophic and enormous. I support the amendment by the member for Flinders and I implore the parliament to get behind it and bring common sense back into this debate. This is without doubt just about the worst decision I have ever seen been put to be ratified by the Australian parliament. The issues of principle here are just gigantic. You tell people what the rules are and invite them to participate and then, at a whim, you say, 'I have changed my mind.' Forget about the investment, the years for compliance, the fact that we set our own quotas and forget about the fact that we agreed with the authority we appointed, because we now suddenly do not think they are good enough. Why? There must be a social issue somewhere. I think it is a disgrace and a shame that we are debating this here today.