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Wednesday, 12 September 2012
Page: 10355

Mr CHESTER (Gippsland) (13:15): I rise to speak very strongly in opposition to the government's proposed amendment to the EPBC declared fishing areas. With all due respect to the member for Fremantle, who I do respect, I am afraid we are going to have to differ very strongly in this case.

I have followed this debate very closely and I am strongly opposed to both the process the government has undertaken in relation to bringing the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Declared Fishing Activities) Bill 2012 before the House, and also the actual intent of this legislation and the uncertainty it creates. Quite frankly, this is an absolutely appalling mess. It is chaotic, it is confusing, it has created uncertainty and sovereign risk for the entire fishing industry, and it is illogical.

I was interviewed today by journalists as I walked into Parliament House, and I spoke about the appalling process we have witnessed over the past 48 to 72 hours. Let us cast our minds back to Monday, when the front pages of newspapers were full of headlines about Labor MPs muscling up to the Greens. It was all very hairy-chested stuff. They were going to take on the Greens. Also on Monday we had the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry in the Senate, Minister Joe Ludwig, extolling the virtues of the Australian Fisheries Management Authority as an independent body responsible for the sustainable management of Australia's fisheries. In all his comments on Monday and leading up to Monday, he was standing by the science. In all of his public comments, that is what the minister was doing. Then we had this collapse yesterday—this absolute, abject failure of governance—as the government caved in, once again, to a little bit of pressure from the Greens and GetUp!

I am not sure why Labor members actually bother going to Labor caucus meetings anymore; they only need to log on to GetUp! to find out what their policy position is going to be; they only need to go to a Greens' party meeting to actually find out what they are going to be voting for next week. This root-and-branch review, which was also part of the minister's announcement yesterday, has just opened the door again for more Green madness. This is a classic example of a jellyfish cabinet: there is not a spine amongst them, and, just like a jellyfish, they will cave in the moment there is any pressure whatsoever. Just like a jellyfish, they will float along wherever the political current of the day may take them. And, just like a jellyfish, I am afraid they have not got the brains to chart their own direction. This is an appalling move by the minister for the environment. I knew the minister for the environment had leadership aspirations; I just didn't realise he wanted to lead the Greens!

Let us get to the substance of the issue before the House today. Let us look at the substance of the legislation and what it means to the Australian fishing industry and quite possibly the recreational sector as well. This bill, if it goes through the House today, will provide unfettered power to the minister to act on the basis of what is described as 'social uncertainty'. What is ostensibly an environmental act, the EPBC Act, will now have a clause allowing the minister to take action based on 'social uncertainty'. For the life of me, I am not too sure what that even means. I heard the shadow minister trying to describe it; he said social uncertainty was when Kevin Rudd walked into a room with Julia Gillard, and that is probably as good a definition as I have seen so far. It appears to me, though, that social uncertainty basically relates to being government by Facebook. It is government by GetUp! If you can whip up a bit of public concern on any issue, create some 'social uncertainty', the minister will have unfettered power to shut you down—and not based on any environmental considerations—based on 'social uncertainty'.

It made me think. It gave me pause for thought. Who in Australia right now is good at whipping up public concern with misinformed, emotional, half-baked campaigns? That would be the Australian Greens. The member for Petrie may laugh, but she knows it to be a fact: the Australian Greens are famous for whipping up public concern on half-baked emotional arguments. This amendment is an enormous folly by this government because it plays straight into the hands of their greatest enemy, the Australian Greens, who are the greatest threat to jobs in regional Australia. If this legislation is passed today, this will not be the end of it. The so-called supertrawler will be the sideshow to the big game as far as the Greens are concerned. This will not be the only project that is affected. This will flow on to the entire Australian commercial fishing fleet. If members opposite doubt me, they can just reflect for a moment on the Australian Greens' performance when it comes to the forestry industry. We have seen this all before. They are insatiable—they will never be satisfied. What is to stop the Greens from using this legislation to take on other sectors of the fishing industry which do not meet with their approval and their radical agenda? They can go out there now and start complaining about the size of wheat harvesters. Perhaps they will be complaining that mining excavators are too large.

The Greens exist as a party of protest. The Special Minister of State may snigger, but he knows it to be a fact as well. They are a party of protest. That is the only way they can exist. They cannot exist unless they have something to fight. Just like GetUp!, the entire structure of the Australian Greens is based around running campaigns, calling for donations to run those campaigns, and fighting for something—fighting for anything. They are not a party of responsible government. And the day that this Prime Minister signed a power-sharing agreement with the Greens was a dark day for regional Australia and it was a dark day for the Australian Labor Party, and there are many members opposite who know that. There are many members of the Australian Labor Party who regret that day, who regret that appalling scene where the Prime Minister gave up the prime ministerial courtyard to allow the Greens come in, all beaming smiles as they took charge. There are many members opposite who know that was a huge mistake and a fundamental flaw in the judgement of the current Prime Minister.

The potential impact of this amendment to the act is obvious to anyone who has had any association at all with commercial fishermen. It effectively throws science out the door. It throws the principles of sustainable fisheries management out the door and it virtually throws AFMA out the door as well. It is a vote of no confidence in AFMA by this government.

We have got ourselves into an appalling situation. This nation already has a tightly regulated fishing industry which is one of the most sustainable in the world. I know that to be true because I have heard the minister say it himself. I heard the environment minister, who was previously the minister for fisheries, say that himself. I have heard the current minister say that himself. So we already have a tightly regulated fishing industry—among the most sustainable in the world—but GetUp! does not like one particular allocation of quotas to one particular vessel and the Greens do not like it either; therefore we cave in. Minister, grow a spine.

The Lakes Entrance fishing fleet in my electorate is, in many ways, no different to this so-called supertrawler. Every fisherman in my electorate understands this. They should be worried about the impacts of this amendment to the act. Just as the so-called supertrawler does, they each have what is called a statutory fishing right attached to their boat. They have a quota, as part of the statutory fishing rights, for species in a small pelagic fishery. Then, to generate what is called the total allowable catch, they have a harvest strategy—and the stock being harvested has been assessed by the CSIRO. So we have leading Australian scientists, recognised as some of the best in the world, making assessments. When the data is considered too old—as has occurred at times in the past—they have adopted what is called the 'precautionary principle' and reduced the total allowable catch. That is exactly the same process which has been applied to this application. That is a process the responsible minister has supported and it is a process which applies to all commercial fishing vessels operating in Commonwealth waters around Australia. That is why all those fishermen in my electorate today are deeply alarmed by the direction this government is taking.

Both the current fisheries minister and the previous minister, who is now bringing this flawed amendment to this chamber, have extolled the virtues of that system—of the way our fisheries have been run for the past five years—ever since they have been ministers. Both of them have extolled the virtues of Australian fisheries and how they are being managed in a sustainable manner. They have described it as world's best practice. Both ministers have spoken in support of AFMA on many occasions. We have had a process which has provided a level of certainty, enabling fishermen right around Australia to invest in the industry with certainty. They have had confidence that decisions affecting the future of their industry would be based on science and that the government was committed to supporting the industry. But, as of yesterday, and as we debate this bill here today, all of that certainty has been thrown away by this government.

This amendment to the act is reflective of a government in total disarray and in panic. This is a government which falls apart under pressure. I fear that this is the live cattle export issue all over again. It would not be so bad if this were just about politics, but this is about people's lives. Already we know, from the proponent of this particular supertrawler, that 50 jobs will be lost as a direct result of this government's decision. I believe the uncertainty created in the rest of the industry will lead to further job losses.

The government has form. The live cattle issue had disastrous impacts on the cattle industry. Members opposite say they care about outcomes for Indigenous Australians and I believe they do. But did they consider, in supporting the government's reckless ban on live cattle exports, the impact that would have on Indigenous stockmen? Many lost their jobs.

If we do not have a government which can provide certainty and be responsible in the face of adversity, the Australian people have no reason whatsoever to have faith in any decision this government makes. If we do not have a sustainable fishing industry based on science, what do we base it on? Do we base it on the number of emails we receive? Do we base it on the number of tweets on Twitter? Do we base it on the number of people who have signed the electronic petitions posted by GetUp!?

A government with any spine whatsoever would go out there and start arguing its case. You could go out there and start arguing the case based on the quota concept. You could argue that the quota has been allocated according to science and that there will be no extra fish caught just because the vessel might be larger. That is a fact. I do not think anyone opposite would argue against that point. So you could make a case based on that argument. Hell, we have done that for the last 20 years or so. That is an approach the government might like to take.

The government might want to mention that we have an independent authority in place called AFMA and that AFMA is using the best available science Australia can provide. It might want to argue the case on that basis. The government might want to argue the case on the basis that AFMA has found this application acceptable on environmental grounds. Instead the government just caves in—too gutless to make a decision and stick with it. The government could have pointed out that Australia has a long and proud history of sustainable fishery management. It might have pointed out that the Australian fishing industry pays millions of dollars in levies every year to fund these independent assessments and scientific evaluations. It could have done that—or it could just cave in to GetUp! and the Greens. Clearly the environment minister has chosen the latter course of action.

It is especially disappointing to me because I represent, based at the port of Lakes Entrance, the largest fishing fleet in Australia. Today I have had the chance to speak to fishing industry representatives and they are worried about this government. They are worried the government has closed the door on science and opened the door to the environmental radicals. They know that the quota was sustainable and very precautionary. They know that many scientists, both within AFMA and independent, have made public comments supporting the quota. They make the point, quite rightly, that fisheries management must be based on science and not on politics. They also make the point—and this is the kind of point that fishermen would make—that fish do not actually care if they are killed by a large boat or a small boat. The size of the quota does not change according to the size of the boat. It is the quota allocation which matters; it is the science which matters.

In conclusion, I will let AFMA themselves provide the final words. As you would expect, AFMA have put out some media releases during the course of this debate. One from 31 May said:

Quotas are set at sustainable levels using the best available science that takes broader ecosystem impacts into consideration.

Because total catch levels are strictly limited by total allowable catches not quota, the size of the boat does not matter from a sustainability perspective.

…   …   …

As always AFMA will apply strict management, monitoring and compliance powers to ensure any boat operating in the fishery is doing so sustainably.

On Monday, they put out a further statement which said:

As an independent government regulator, AFMA takes advice from Australia's and the world's best scientists to set sustainable catch limits. Total catch limits are less than 10 per cent of the fish stock, which is far more stringent than internationally accepted standards.

…   …   …

This type of fishing, midwater trawling, is one of the most selective which means the bycatch will be very low. AFMA works closely with fishers to minimise bycatch and they will be required to follow several rules to ensure wildlife isn't impacted.

The science shows that localised depletion is unlikely in this fishery but AFMA will be keeping a close eye on this issue given the concerns raised.

It says 'AFMA will be keeping a close eye on this issue' because that is what AFMA does. It is a tightly regulated industry. AFMA will often have observers on our boats. In this case, I understand, there is going to be some video monitoring of the activities.

We had a system in place. People understood it. It provided certainty, it provided confidence, and the fishing industry could invest in the future knowing that the government would stand by it—until yesterday and until this bill came before the House this morning.

In closing, I simply say: the coalition support sustainable fisheries management and sustainable fisheries practices. All fishermen should be concerned that the powers in this bill could be used against any of them and, indeed, that they could easily be extended to further reduce access to any natural resource in the future. This legislation is just another sad example of this government caving in to the Greens. It is just another tool for the Greens and other environmental groups who campaign against our fishing industry and another example of why Australians want an election. They simply do not trust this government to get anything right.