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Wednesday, 12 September 2012
Page: 10438

Mr ALEXANDER (Bennelong) (18:36): I rise to speak on the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Declared Fishing Activities) Bill 2012. Despite lengthy processes to determine the legislative agenda for our nation, yet again, under this government, we see a bill come from nowhere, with no consultation, no discussion, no warning and no science. Many may wonder: what would cause a government to act so rashly—what event of such national significance would cause our federal cabinet, the most senior decision makers in the country, to pause their legislative agenda to urgently rush in new laws? The answer? GetUp! took out an ad in the Australian and Greenpeace circulated a petition. This is the way policy is made under this government. This is the most blatant example yet of the green tail of the Labor-Greens alliance wagging this dog of a government.

This is history repeating itself. As the shadow minister said this morning, this is live exports on steroids. This government is developing a unique precedent for rash decisions based on questionable substance. Rather than learning from its mistakes, this government again shows a total lack of process in its decision making. Repeated examples of policy on the run continue to demonstrate that this government has lost its way. The greatest shame in this is the subsequent embarrassment for us all, with the rest of the world increasingly considering us a nation with sovereign risk.

This bill has been rushed into this place in an attempt to appease green groups such as Greenpeace and GetUp!, groups who argue very effectively from the heart. They take up issues which, on the surface, appear wholesome and can therefore drive the passions of people and get them to act—to write a letter, send an email or sign a petition. However, action at government level must be based on a consistent approach to well-thought-out policy development and implementation. This bill highlights this government's abject failure, by any reckoning, to achieve this goal.

The arrival of the Margiris has sparked an important debate on sustainable fishing practices. We manage a system with quotas and checking mechanisms to ensure the highest standards. We invite investment into our country as long as our transparent established rules are strictly followed, and we threaten strong sanctions if there is any deviation from these rules. Large investment requires long-term planned strategies. Companies like the one that runs the Margiris spend years assessing the guidelines, applying for permits and implementing changes to their practices to ensure compliance.

In this case, company directors flew from Holland to Australia nine months ago to meet with government department officials to ensure they could meet all our requirements. They would even have read the minister's words from his 2009 Small Pelagic Fishery Harvest Strategy:

There are considerable economies of scale in the fishery and the most efficient way to fish may include large scale factory freezer vessels.

Based on this government giving them the tick of approval, the company chose to invest time and money in a process that would create jobs in Australia. But, at 11.59 pm, after the company had jumped every hurdle and complied with every law, the government changed the rules.

Such changes damage relationships and hurt investment. This was perfectly summed up by Seafish Tasmania director Gerry Geen, who this morning said he was:

… absolutely astonished that this could actually happen in Australia, bitterly disappointed. It feels like a third world country reaction to me. I think this is just unbelievable.

This truly is a repeat of the live cattle debacle, in which total chaos was created by a knee-jerk reaction of this government to a TV show, resulting in an important export industry being brought to its knees.

It even appeared during the briefing session yesterday, as with the live exports announcement, that Minister Burke had not consulted with anyone with specialist knowledge over his concerns regarding the operation of the Margiris—not with the Fisheries Research and Development Corporation, not with the Institute of Marine and Antarctic Studies, not even with individual specialist scientists. All he had had was a discussion with his department.

His concern is now about the size of the ship and the potential for the bycatch of protected species. Bycatch is a risk with every fishing vessel. The difference with the Margiris was that, with the extent of government controls being imposed and media scrutiny faced, it would have been required to have more independent observers and analysis of its catch than any other vessel. The arrival of the Margiris was not going to change the total fish catch quotas. The same number of fish will be taken out of our oceans, but now this will likely be done by a larger number of smaller vessels facing less scrutiny over their fishing practices and their bycatch. In other words, as with the live exports debacle, this announcement to placate green groups will likely result in a worse environmental outcome.

This parliament knows that the coalition supports sustainable fisheries management and sustainable fisheries practices. We oppose this legislation, which gives unlimited power to the minister on the basis of so-called social uncertainty and which creates a sovereign risk. There is no indication what the term 'uncertainty' means, providing scope for the minister to stop any fishing activity without a substantive case. All fishers should be concerned. These powers could be used against any of them and, indeed, could easily be extended to further reduce access to any natural resource. One problem should not create a bigger problem for an entire fishing community. This is policy on the run.

Only this afternoon, after the coalition had exposed the flaws in the bill, the member for Dobell put forward an amendment trying to preclude recreational fishers. The amendment, however, fails in this objective. The amendment will not help charter boat operators, who are an important part of the recreational fishing sector but are classified as commercial operations. This is a sure sign of a panicked government—relying on their fallen comrade to try to save this dodgy legislation. What other bandaid solutions are going to be implemented by this government?

This issue is no longer about the trawler; it is about how we do business in Australia. Already 50 job losses have been announced as a direct result of this decision, and I am sure that every resource based industry is watching closely, with great concern about this legislation and the government's approach to making policy. The decision today creates sovereign risk issues for existing fishers who hold licences to fish in Australian waters. Australia's commercial fishing industry will not have the confidence to continue to invest if any quota and/or licence can be overturned at the whim of the government.

The decision today makes a mockery of the whole Australian Fisheries Management Authority process which the government relies on for its scientific advice.

This is another backflip of Olympic proportions. Just a few weeks ago, Minister Ludwig said in response to a Greens' motion that was trying to stop the Margiris:

This disallowance motion is a message that the Greens political party do not support sustainable catch limits based on science. It is a message that says the Greens want fisheries managed by politics, not qualified fisheries managers. And it says that the Greens do not support the commercial operators who fish in some of the world's best managed fisheries. That message should be well understood, because I have no doubt that the same disregard for the science and management of our commercial fisheries will be extended to the legitimate pursuit of recreational fishing.

As minister for fisheries, I will not allow the emotive politics of the Greens political party to run fisheries management policy in this country. We will ensure that the Australian Fisheries Management Authority is independent, that it makes independent decisions based on the science through its expert commissioners and on the facts that are presented to them. They will continue to make decisions based on sound judgement to ensure that fisheries are sustainable and meet all the ecological requirements—and, moreover, predicated on the precautionary principle so often espoused by the Greens. Why? Because AFMA will continue to apply sound policy to ensure that we will have sustainable fisheries now and into the future. For those reasons, the government oppose this motion.

Yet here we are debating legislation that is just another tool for the Greens and environmental groups to use to campaign against our fishing industry.

Minister Burke's concerns were based on the capacity of the vessel to fish in one place for a considerable time. The solution to that problem could have been to amend the Fisheries Act to allow for 'move-on' provisions or spatial management that would prevent localised impacts. The coalition would have supported those moves. Minister Burke is saying, 'If you don't know everything, do nothing.' He is not trying to find a way to make it work; he has been desperately looking for some way to lock up more water. He has trashed the reputation of the AFMA Commission—and he appointed every member of that commission! He has also trashed the reputations of our world-leading scientific community and institutions that have performed the science to develop the existing best practice. This government has demonstrated that, if you do everything asked of you, and then some, it is not enough; it will shaft you, your business and your employees. How can any business operate in an environment such as that? This government now operates on the basis that if a minister is 'uncertain' then nothing should happen. Worse still, this minister did not take steps to find the answers to the things he was uncertain about; he just shut the business down. What message does this give to our researchers and innovators? 'Don't explore. Your science means nothing.'

I would like to conclude with a quote from the Parliamentary Secretary for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, who wrote on this issue in the Advocate just last month:

Sometimes you've got to stick with what you believe is right when popular opinion might not agree. …

You have faith in your institutions and you demand they be accountable, but if through anecdotal or sheer populist sentiment you push your institutions aside, what hope have you got?

The Australian people expect and deserve a consistent, well-thought-out approach to government. Yet again we see that this government has failed to deliver on that most basic of expectations.