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Wednesday, 12 September 2012
Page: 10349

Mr FLETCHER (Bradfield) (12:51): I am pleased to rise to speak on the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Declared Fishing Activities) Bill 2012. To any objective observer, this is a really puzzling bill. We have a long established system for regulating fisheries in Australia which is recognised around the world for being rational, science based and allowing for a proper balance of commercial and economic considerations on the one hand and environmental and sustainability considerations on the other.

Under the operation of that system, a company based in Tasmania was awarded a quota to fish for certain species of small pelagic fish. The company decided that the way it would exercise its rights to fish up to the limit set by the quota was to bring to Australia a large fishing vessel called the Margiris, now renamed the Abel Tasman. What happened next was that activist groups like Greenpeace and GetUp!, with the enthusiastic support of the Greens political party, started an advocacy campaign designed to raise public concerns about the activities of this vessel, even though its activities will make no difference to the total amount of fish caught.

As recently as Monday of this week the Gillard government was defending the current system. The fisheries minister, Joe Ludwig, had this to say in the Senate:

This government, like those before it, takes the position that output controls, particularly individual transferable quotas, are the preferred approach to fisheries management.

He went on to share with the Senate the advice he had received from 'eminent fishery scientists' of their 'confidence that food-web impacts of the small pelagic fishery on predators and the small pelagic fishery species themselves, including through localised depletion, are unlikely'. In other words, he advised the Senate on Monday that his expert scientific advice was that it was unlikely that there would be adverse impacts on the food web from this fishery activity which had been previously authorised under the existing regulatory arrangements.

Yesterday, however, there was a complete change of position from the Gillard government, leading to the bill which is before the House today and which we are now debating. According to the minister's second reading speech, this bill would:

… incorporate a new chapter into the EPBC Act—

that is, the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act—

that will allow the environment minister to prohibit a declared fishing activity while an independent expert panel undertakes an assessment of the potential environmental, social or economic impacts of the activity.

However, this can only happen if:

… the environment minister and the fisheries minister agree that there is uncertainty about the environmental, social or economic impacts …

The other thing that the minister tells us in his second reading speech is that this prohibition can last for 24 months. That is to say that the effect of making this declaration is that fishing activities as specified in the declaration, in that particular area and using the specified methods, are prohibited for up to 24 months. This is truly policymaking on the run, overturning a well-established and world respected system of evidence based policymaking in Australian fisheries management, and the coalition therefore opposes this bill.

In the time available to me I want to make three points. Firstly, we are seeing here from the Gillard government a panicked reaction. The minister's attempts to justify the measures in this bill are threadbare indeed. Secondly, the sweeping new power which this bill would grant the minister for the environment creates great uncertainty for both the entire commercial fishing sector and the recreational fishing community. It should be opposed on its merits. Thirdly, this dramatic backflip by the Gillard government—by no means their first and, I suspect, not their last—adds to the already high perceptions of sovereign risk for those doing business or seeking to do business in Australia.

Let me start firstly with the proposition that what we are seeing here is a panicked reaction to a political advocacy campaign. I have already cited the remarks of Fisheries Minister Ludwig in the Senate just on Monday of this week defending the current system. In addition, Environment Minister Burke just a few days ago issued what at that time was understood to be the definitive response to some of the public concerns expressed in this political advocacy campaign. His measures would have imposed new restrictions on the methods that this vessel could use as it fished. For example, as he told the ABC's Q&A program, if the vessel were to catch a dolphin—something it is not permitted to do—it would then be required to cease fishing and move 50 nautical miles away before it could start fishing again.

Just a few days later it turned out that that policy response was not his definitive policy response and he now wants new and even wider powers to deal with the issues posed by the proposed activities of the Abel Tasman. Why is it that he now wants these new powers? According to his second reading speech, it is firstly because of:

… the nature of this vessel and in particular its capacity to remain in the same area of ocean for extended periods of time …

It is also apparently because of the following:

Experience over the last couple of months has however shown that the act does not provide sufficient powers to suspend a fishing activity where there is uncertainty as to the potential environmental, social and economic impacts of the activity …

It really is very odd that Minister Burke would say this now when just three years ago, as the minister responsible for fisheries at the time, he oversaw the issuing by the Australian Fisheries Management Authority of something called the Small pelagic fishery harvest strategy. When you read the Small pelagic fishery harvest strategy it describes its purpose as follows:

The development of the Small Pelagic Fishery (SPF) Harvest Strategy (HS) reflects obligations under the Commonwealth's Fisheries Harvest Strategy Policy and Guidelines … the HS is to provide—

that is to say it is required to provide—

the Australian community with a high degree of confidence that commercial fish species are being managed for long-term biological sustainability and economic profitability.

This document issued under the auspices of then Fisheries Minister Burke went on to say:

SPF species—

small pelagic fish species—

are an important food source for many threatened, endangered and protected species (TEPs) and other species and it is therefore important that the SPF HS takes into account the ecosystem role of these species …

Finally, this document went on to say:

there are considerable economies of scale … and the most efficient way to fish may include large scale factory freezer vessels.

I need hardly add that 'large scale factory freezer vessel' is a good description of precisely the kind of vessel which is now the subject of controversy.

In other words, there has already been a thorough process carried out which balances up the commercial considerations on the one hand and environmental and sustainability concerns on the other, a process overseen for much of the period, as it happens, by Minister Burke. We are now expected by Minister Burke to believe that, when this process occurred, nobody thought about or considered the possibility that a vessel of the size of the Abel Tasman might be used, and nobody thought about or considered the possibility, which is now so alarming to him, that it could stay in one place longer than smaller vessels. Nobody gave this a second thought, even though such vessels are now and were at that time, just three years ago, in common use in many parts of the world.

If Minister Burke were genuinely concerned about this issue, there are a range of other measures that he could use to address it, including, for example, imposing additional conditions requiring the vessel to move on from a particular location after a particular period. But the reality is that he is clutching at straws, desperately trying to find a justification for this measure, which in substance is a response to a short-term political campaign. It is difficult to understand the rationale for the mechanism set out in the bill, which is that, under clause 390SH, there will be an expert panel established to look into the declared fishing activity. We know that the establishment of an expert panel is a preferred tactic of the Gillard government. We saw it with Julia Gillard's 'citizens' assembly', which was going to achieve a 'deep and lasting consensus' on climate change; we saw it in her appointment of Angus Houston and other panellists in an attempt to cover up her backflip on asylum seekers; and now we see the same preferred tactic being used here. On any analysis, it is an empty charade when you consider the very thorough and comprehensive process already undertaken to assess the relevant fisheries activity, including its environmental and sustainability impact.

The second point I would like to make in the brief time I have is about the extent of the uncertainty created for the entire commercial fishing sector, on the one hand, and the recreational fishing community, on the other, by the wide provisions set out in this bill. Under this bill, if it passes into law, the minister will be able to make a declaration that he and the fisheries minister agree that 'there is uncertainty about the environmental, social or economic impacts of the fishing activity'. That is in clause 390SD(3). 'Uncertainty' is a very low bar indeed. It means that the minister will be able to overturn any fishing activity on the basis of even the slightest social complaint. Everyone who has ever dropped a line over the side, and every commercial fishing operator anywhere in Australia, should be alarmed about the potential for their intended fishing activities to be banned at short notice based on 'social' considerations. The wording appears to have been specifically chosen to give the minister the power to act in response to political campaigns by particular activist groups. The mere existence of such campaigns will automatically qualify as generating uncertainty about the 'social impacts' of the fishing activity.

One point that strikes you on reading the bill is whether there is any limit on the minister's power to use this mechanism repeatedly. Nowhere in the bill is there a provision that the declaration can only be made in respect of a particular fishing activity if no such declaration has previously been made. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that this mechanism is really a smokescreen for the real motivation of delaying the activity which has caused political offence. It is also noteworthy that nowhere in the bill is there any provision requiring the minister to have any regard to, or do anything in response to, the report of the expert panel once he receives it, other than to publish it on his website and table it in the parliament, under clause 390SL.

My third point is to join with my coalition colleagues in highlighting the way that this dramatic backflip by the Gillard government yet again adds to perceptions of sovereign risk. In industry after industry we have seen the same story play out: businesses invest to carry out lawful operations, and then the Rudd or Gillard government in a political panic changes the rules. We saw the abrupt cancellation of Home Insulation Program after many operators had invested heavily and built up inventory in reliance on the existing rules. We saw the sudden decision to cancel the live cattle export trade, also involving this inglorious Minister Ludwig. And now we see this abrupt eleventh-hour reversal of position on the conduct of fisheries activities by the holder of an entitlement to fish and to catch a certain amount of fish, an entitlement issued by the government under the law after a thorough analysis of the relevant commercial and environmental factors and after setting total catch limits based on scientific evidence. This decision creates sovereign risk issues for anybody who holds a licence to fish in Australian waters and it is likely to dramatically reduce the confidence of Australia's commercial fishing industry to continue to invest—if any quota or licence can be overturned at the whim of the minister. Today's decision makes a mockery of the entire Australian Fisheries Management Authority process on which the government relies for its scientific advice.

I conclude as I started, by noting that this bill is a panicked political response to a campaign initiated by certain groups of activists. It is policymaking on the run. It overturns a well-established, world-respected system of evidence based policymaking in Australian fisheries management. The coalition opposes the bill.