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Thursday, 6 March 2003
Page: 9456

Senator EGGLESTON (3:38 PM) —The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park (Protecting the Great Barrier Reef from Oil Drilling and Exploration) Amendment Bill 2003 [No. 2] is totally pointless legislation which has simply been put forward to create political mischief. The Great Barrier Reef, as we all know, is a part of Australia's natural heritage which is world renowned for its unique natural beauty and the diversity of its marine life. It is a major tourist attraction, generating revenue of more than $1 billion a year. In 1997 visitor stays averaged 1.6 days, according to the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority. It is one of the great natural wonders of the world.

The Howard government, through the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, has gone out of its way to protect the Great Barrier Reef. That, it has to be said, is in direct contradistinction to the record of the previous government, which did nothing whatsoever to protect the reef. For Senator McLucas to come into the chamber today with this bill moralising about what the Labor Party wants to do is a total nonsense. The record of the Labor government in protecting the Great Barrier Reef from oil drilling and mining within its precincts was utterly dismal. Today, mineral exploration and mining within the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park are explicitly banned by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Act. Beyond the boundaries of the park, the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act provides the reef with an unprecedented level of protection from actions that might threaten it, wherever they might be contemplated. That protection extends well beyond the mineral exploration and mining issues that this rather inadequate, pointless little bill restricts itself to.

The bill proposed by Senator McLucas fails to acknowledge the great advances in the environmental security of the reef established by the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act introduced a couple of years ago by the Howard government. I remind the Senate that, for the first time, that act gave the federal government direct power to deal with environmental issues. Admittedly, this was confined to five areas of national environmental significance, but it means that the federal government can now take action, and has taken action, to protect a great national treasure such as the Barrier Reef through legislation passed by this parliament. The McLucas bill, as I have said, fails to acknowledge in any way the great advances that the Howard government environment and biodiversity act has conferred upon the Commonwealth government in protecting the marine environment of the Great Barrier Reef.

The threats that have been dealt with— and threats of the sort that the current bill seeks to address did exist in the past—were neglected, in a very serious way, under the former Labor government. The Environment Protection (Impact of Proposals) Act was the Labor legislation used as some sort of paper thin protection for the Barrier Reef. It would have been too bad if the paper got wet, as it would have been washed away and the reef would have been left with almost no protection whatsoever during the 13 years of Labor government to 1996. That law—the Environment Protection (Impact of Proposals) Act—was the only law providing protection to the Great Barrier Reef, and the degree of protection it provided was, as I have said, absolutely abysmal. When actions were proposed that had a capacity to harm the reef, that act required only that the minister whose portfolio was enlivened by the particular proposal seek the advice of the environment minister. The decision on whether or not to enable any particular proposal to go forward was simply made by the line minister, and the environment minister had no role in that decision beyond the provision of general advice. That was a completely inadequate form of protection of the Barrier Reef, totally lacking in its protection of the environment of the entire marine park. That is the record of the ALP which, I remind the Senate, just a year or so ago did not endorse the substance of the bill Senator McLucas has now brought before the Senate when it was tabled, in much the same form, by the Australian Democrats.

One wonders what has happened over the last couple of years to change the minds of the ALP on this legislation. One must wonder why it is that suddenly they are seeking to draw attention to the Great Barrier Reef and the protection of its marine environment from mining and pollution. One can only feel that there must be some sort of hypocritical motivation behind that when the protection offered by the Howard government's environment and biodiversity act is so strong, particularly in providing such excellent protection to the Barrier Reef.

But this McLucas bill becomes even more ironic when Labor's record on mineral exploration and potential mineral development near the reef is examined. The irony comes from the fact that it was the current Leader of the Australian Democrats, Senator Bartlett, who helped remind us of the record of the Labor Party, through the material he caused to be tabled in this chamber only last year. The hypocrisy I refer to comes from what those documents revealed. What the Democrat documents showed was that, from the late eighties onwards, the then Labor government were engaged in very active promotion—not passive promotion—of offshore mineral and oil exploration in Australian waters, with only the ineffectiveness of their old act to protect any offshore area, including of course, with relevance to this debate, the area covered by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park.

So it was that under the previous legislation, as I have said, there was no protection of the marine environment of the Barrier Reef. Beyond that, the documents that the Australian Democrats caused to be tabled showed that Labor had a plan to promote exploration in areas immediately adjacent to the Great Barrier Reef, right up to the boundaries of the marine park. Exploration of the Townsville Trough and the Maryborough Basin was to be promoted, along with exploration of the Queensland Trough and the Capricorn Basin, amongst several others. The encouragement offered, as revealed in the tabled document Offshore strategy: promoting petroleum exploration in offshore Australia—which was signed off by the then Minister for Resources, Alan Griffiths, who has recently been re-elected, I understand, to the shadow cabinet—

Senator Alston —That is Alan Griffin.

Senator EGGLESTON —My apologies; it is Mr Griffin. I thought that perhaps we were seeing the resurrection of a previous figure—who could be said to be someone with little respect for the environment—to the current shadow cabinet, but that is apparently not the case. However, if this bill of Senator McLucas's is anything to go by, the current Labor opposition do not have the level of respect for the environment that one would expect them to have in this day and age. Returning to the tabled document, it states:

Where an exploration permit holder makes a commercial discovery, there is an automatic right to a production licence over that discovery.

So the Labor government were proposing not just that there should be exploration but that there should be an automatic right of production over any minerals found in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. The document continues:

And where production requires a pipeline to transport petroleum to shore, a pipeline licence will be granted.

There is no doubt that the intention there was not only that exploration should occur but also that production should occur and that petroleum should be transported by pipeline through the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, with all the potential hazard that involves and implies from the possibility of rupture of the pipeline and the destruction of the reef by oil leaking out from such a pipeline rupture were it to occur. So it was hardly, one would have to say, a program and a proposal designed to protect the Great Barrier Reef.

There is another irony to recount, and that is that last year there was an application to this government for approval of seismic oil exploration in the Townsville Trough, one of the several troughs that are adjacent to the Great Barrier Reef and one of the troughs specifically among the many troughs around Australia and near the reef that Labor sought to actively promote to oil explorers. Under Labor's legislative regime that application would have barely been influenced by environmental issues. Under the Howard government, that application is required to run the very demanding gauntlet of the EPBC Act. The Howard government have also declared exploration within the confines of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park to be a controlled action and issued guidelines for an environmental impact statement should any such action be proposed. To date, there has been no indication whether or not there has been a proposal for any company to proceed to undertake an EIS on a proposal to explore for oil within the confines of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. I suppose one could say that that is not surprising, given the strength of our environmental protection rules.

An environmental impact statement is required as a prerequirement should a seismic testing program be proposed. It is necessary that it be completed before any seismic testing is undertaken. If an environmental impact statement suggests there is a threat to the region, any seismic testing program is neither allowed nor permitted to proceed, but it would have been under the previous Labor government. Given that the present Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act introduced by the Howard government a couple of years ago ensures that protection of the environment is so strong, one has to question why Senator McLucas is bothering the Senate with this rather ridiculous little bill today. It does not add anything and seems to be a bill with no purpose. One wonders at the hypocrisy of the Labor senators in supporting this bill when their own government's record was so dismal on environmental protection of the Great Barrier Reef.

The Howard government has sought to expand the size of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. This means that a much larger area is now protected by the provisions of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act from a variety of environmental attacks which could be made upon the Great Barrier Reef area. Again, one is left to wonder why on earth Senator McLucas is putting forward this rather funny little bill when we have such strong protection already for the Great Barrier Reef under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, which this government put in place two or three years ago.

The Prime Minister has signed a memorandum of understanding with the Queensland government to enhance water quality in the Great Barrier Reef lagoon. The Howard government has ensured that there are elements in the recently developed sugar industry package which will significantly enhance wetland protection in important areas of the reef catchment. The National Action Plan for Salinity and Water Quality will also help deliver better quality water to large sections of the Great Barrier Reef lagoon and the Natural Heritage Trust will help generate a better quality of water in the Great Barrier Reef lagoon area.

This government has performed very well in significantly enhancing protection of the reef, as I have said. The McLucas bill seems to have the objective of scaremongering and can only be, I think fairly, described as a piece of political mischief. It is fair enough in a political game to create concern that the Barrier Reef may be under some kind of environmental threat and to go around Queensland saying, `Look what we are doing. We have tried to introduce an additional piece of legislation which would protect the reef from environmental threats.' But the Howard government's Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act has provided the strongest possible protection to the Great Barrier Reef from environmental attack. One can only wonder what Senator McLucas is about in seeking to introduce this bill.

It is very similar—no different at all—to a bill introduced by the Democrats in March last year. The McLucas bill proposes to extend the Great Barrier Reef region eastward to the extent of the exclusive economic zone, which is now defined under the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Act 1975. The area proposed for inclusion in the region is deep oceanic waters and around 20 reefs and reef complexes in the Coral Sea. A number of these reefs have permanent coral islands or cays associated with them. There are anecdotal and Coastwatch reports of increasing fishing pressures around some of these small coral reef complexes and, while they are generally remote, there are a number of tourist operations and charter fishing operators who access these reef areas. Nevertheless, the fact remains that, while the intent of this bill is to ensure protection of the Great Barrier Reef from oil drilling and exploration, this protection already exists. Oil drilling and exploration is already completely banned under the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Act 1975. More to the point, the provisions of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 already apply to all Commonwealth marine waters, which include those areas intended to be covered by this bill. I put it to the Senate that this is a pointless piece of legislation. (Time expired)