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Tuesday, 15 October 2002
Page: 5180


Senator IAN MACDONALD (Minister for Forestry and Conservation) (6:05 PM) —First of all, I thank all of those who have contributed to this debate for what have been very thoughtful contributions. Particularly I acknowledge the contribution which Senator Scullion just made. Senator Scullion is a person, as he indicated, who has had a long history with the seafood industry and matters maritime throughout Australia. It is indeed a delight that the parliament is able to draw upon his experience over the years in these issues. Having said that, I also appreciate the contribution from the other senators, particularly Senator O'Brien's praise of the current board of the PZJA. I do concede, Senator O'Brien, that Mr Palaszczuk does make a very worthwhile contribution and we do get along very well, and my predecessor and Mr Palaszczuk also operated very harmoniously in this role.

It seems to me that there are three issues that people have raised. I am not sure that it is the intention of the Senate to go into the Committee of the Whole to clarify some of these issues. In case it is not, I will try to address them in my second reading speech, but it may be that some senators will want to look into it in greater detail in the Committee of the Whole. There was a lot of valuable contribution, but there were three issues which I might be able to assist the Senate with by responding. There was the reason for getting this bill through now. Senator Ridgeway was suggesting that there is no need to rush it through, that it could be delayed. Senator McLucas spoke about the Torres Strait Prawn Entitlement Holders Association requiring a position on the PZJA. There was another issue: the position generally raised by some people about representation on the PZJA.

I will start with the reason for this bill being dealt with now. The Torres Strait Fisheries Amendment Bill 2002 has had a long gestation and was, I understand, initiated some years ago. It has been around for a long time. It was an election promise that the coalition made prior to the last election and it was a commitment that was very much supported by the Torres Strait Regional Authority. I am not persuaded that what we have is not the right formulation but, Senator Ridgeway, if there are other people who should be represented—and I am not suggesting for a moment that I think there are— there are always opportunities to amend the bill in the future, as we are amending it today.

The current bill has been in place for almost 20 years and it is able to be amended. We are amending it today and if there is merit in what you say and you are able to convince others of that then there is nothing to stop the bill being amended at some future time. Certainly at the last meeting of the PZJA we did invite Mr Terry Waia, the Chairman of the Torres Strait Regional Authority, to sit with us at the table and to participate as a full member. We did that because I think at the time the legislation had been drawn, the commitments had been made previously and we understood it to be a formality for him to do that. We had him sit with us, and I think it is appropriate for the people of the Torres Strait that their representative is made a formal member as soon as possible. So that is why we want to proceed with this at the present time.

Senator McLucas raised the issue of the Torres Strait Prawn Entitlement Holders Association. Again, those people, and anyone who really has an interest in the Protected Zone Joint Authority and the fisheries, are invited to the meetings. There is nothing exclusive about it. Mr Palaszczuk and I currently have the formal legal power to make decisions but we do invite everyone into the room. We certainly give everybody an opportunity to participate, to have their say and to make sure their views are known.

The authority is a decision making fisheries management authority. It is not a representative body whereby you have everybody represented. Having said that, it seemed sensible, when this proposal we are debating today was first put, that you had the Commonwealth minister, as Senator Scullion said, broadly representing the Commonwealth and the national interest and the Queensland minister representing the Queensland interest—and, of course, the Torres Strait and its waters are part of the state of Queensland. So the original idea was that those two ministers would manage the authority.

The Torres Strait Regional Authority— and I am no expert on this, so I will give you an amateurish layman's understanding—was to consist of the elected representatives of the people of the Torres Strait. It seemed that that `level of government' should be the other party to the Protected Zone Joint Authority board. It was thought that there should be a representative of the Commonwealth government, a representative of the Queensland government and a representative of the `government' of the people of the Torres Strait. The Torres Strait Regional Authority is elected by the people of the Torres Strait and, until I am convinced otherwise, I understand it to fairly and democratically represent the interests of the people of that part of Australia. That is why those three people are there. I never say never but I would need a hell of a lot of convincing for the Prawn Entitlement Holders Association to be made a formal member of the authority. Certainly, for as long as this government is here—and I am sure for as long as the opposition is in government, whenever that will be—there will be an opportunity for them to be involved in a very full and appropriate way.

There are difficulties in the fisheries up there, as I think a lot of the speakers have mentioned, but they are the sorts of difficulties you have in any fishery management arrangement. There is a limited stock and it has to be managed sustainably. There are always more people than can be accommodated wanting to catch the stock. Everybody agrees that it has to be managed sustainably but always everyone wants their share and it is someone else who should bear the pain of any cutback to ensure ongoing sustainability. This does not just apply in the Torres Strait; it applies everywhere. It is an element of fisheries management anywhere in the world. In Australia we try to allocate the resource fairly and we ensure that it is done in a sustainable way. We usually find that the best way to address these issues is not for politicians to get involved in the detail of the decision making but for the people who are directly involved in the issues to get around the table with the scientists and the professional managers and work through the issues as they come along.

I acknowledge that the Torres Strait prawn entitlement holders do have some real concerns. Solutions to these issues are difficult, but, really, we are trying to work with the people of the Torres Strait and in fact to get them to work with the scientists and the managers to come through with what, in the circumstances, is hopefully the right decision. It will not be a decision that will make everyone happy; very rarely is this possible in fisheries management matters. But we hope that the parties themselves will come up with a conclusion which they understand is fair. Of course, that is what we are looking for with a lot of the difficult decisions that have to be made in the fisheries in the Torres Strait area.

There was the issue of the representative nature of the Kaurareg people. For the record, I might just indicate the sorts of things that I indicated to Senator Ridgeway when he raised the matter with me. It is fairly obvious that the TSRA does support the passage of this bill. The proposal contained in the bill for the TSRA chair to become a member of the Torres Strait Protected Zone Joint Authority was actually generated by the traditional inhabitants of the Torres Strait and pursued by the TSRA as their representative body. There have been several opportunities for groups concerned about the proposal to raise their concerns through the TSRA, through the PZJA or directly with the Queensland or Commonwealth governments.

Senators would be aware that the proposal for the TSRA chair to become a member of the PZJA was made shortly after the Cultural Maritime Summit held on Thursday Island between 22 and 25 March 2001. The summit was attended by chiefs, elders and young people from the 22 inhabited islands of the Torres Strait. Representatives of the various land councils and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission also attended. The Kaurareg people had a strong involvement in the summit, with Kaurareg elders delivering the welcome and a Kaurareg representative chairing one of the sessions. The summit dealt with many issues relating to the economic development of sea-based resources for traditional inhabitants of the Torres Strait, community empowerment as it relates to fisheries, and traditional fisheries management concerns.

In response to concerns raised at the summit, my predecessor, Wilson Tuckey, and the Queensland minister, Mr Palaszczuk, travelled to Badu to meet Torres Strait community representatives on 12 April 2001. At this meeting the ministers agreed to pursue the appointment of the chair of the TSRA to the PZJA to ensure formal Torres Strait Islander participation in the management of the Torres Strait fisheries. I understand that the Kaurareg people were represented at this meeting, along with many of the diverse islander communities with an interest in Torres Strait fisheries issues. At the next meeting of the PZJA, on 3 October 2001, the PZJA welcomed the full participation of Mr Terry Waia, then and now the chair of the TSRA.

At the earlier TSRA meeting, between 24 and 27 June 2002, the TSRA endorsed the proposal that the TSRA chair become a full member of the PZJA. As Senator Ridgeway mentioned in a letter he wrote to me, from 1997 to 2000 a Kaurareg person had represented the Kaurareg people's interests on the TSRA board. The current Kaurareg representative on the TSRA board is from Horn Island, where the traditional Kaurareg people reside. I am informed by the TSRA that this member meets with elders regularly and brings their issues to the board's attention. As you mentioned, Senator Ridgeway—and I think Senator McLucas mentioned it too— the Kaurareg people were granted native title rights to seven inner islands and were officially recognised as traditional owners of the area. All of these islands and their surrounding waters lie outside the Torres Strait protected zone. However, they are included as part of the `outside but near' waters set out in the Torres Strait Treaty.

Senator Ridgeway informed me that the Kaurareg people had concerns about the passage of the bill. I indicated in my letter of response to him that the exact nature of those concerns had not been conveyed to me, although Senator Ridgeway has again touched on this in his speech. I am aware that there are issues surrounding the Kaurareg people's representation on broader matters in the Torres Strait but I suggest, with respect, that the passage of this bill does not compromise the settlement of these issues with the Torres Strait Islander representative organisation. Of course, this bill in no way affects the native title rights of the Kaurareg people.

I hope this is a satisfactory explanation of the major issues that were raised in the second reading debate. I conclude by emphasising that the amendment does mark an important recognition of Torres Strait Islanders' ancient cultural connections to the marine resources which are abundant in the Torres Strait protected zone. The appointment of the chair of the TSRA to the PZJA, sitting alongside both the Commonwealth and Queensland ministers, is a significant recognition of the importance of Torres Strait Islander input into the management of both traditional and commercial fishing in the Torres Strait protected zone. The appointment, as I mentioned, is the result of extensive consultation with all islander communities by both the Commonwealth and Queensland governments, through the TSRA, and it spanned some 18 months. It is an appointment that the Torres Strait Islanders want. As I say, this was confirmed by their official endorsement of the amendment in June of this year. The appointment will play a significant role in the self-determination and economic development of the Torres Strait Islander people.

The amendment is also consistent with both the Torres Strait Treaty, entered into by Papua New Guinea and Australia in 1985, and the Torres Strait Fisheries Act 1984, which specifically states:

In the administration of this Act, regard shall be had to ... the traditional way of life and livelihood of traditional inhabitants ...

I am personally proud to be associated with a change such as this. I give credit to my predecessor, Mr Tuckey, and to Mr Palaszczuk on this change. It is an improvement to a management model which I do say has worked well so far and which, I am sure, will work even better in the future. I conclude by again thanking senators for their contributions and by commending the bill to the Senate.

Question agreed to.

Bill read a second time.