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Thursday, 6 March 2003
Page: 9459


Senator BARTLETT (Leader of the Australian Democrats) (3:58 PM) —The Australian Democrats are very happy to support the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park (Protecting the Great Barrier Reef from Oil Drilling and Exploration) Amendment Bill 2003 [No. 2], which has been cosponsored by Senator McLucas and me. Like Senator McLucas, I am also a senator for the state of Queensland. The Barrier Reef is one of the major assets of our state, both environmental and economic, and an absolute environmental wonder—often seen and described as one of the environmental wonders of the world. It is under significant threat from a whole range of different things. This bill does not address every single one of those things, but it very simply and neatly deals with one of the ongoing significant threats that has been there for many years and continues to exist.

Senator Eggleston just said in his speech that this bill does not add anything. I find that very perplexing, because he then went on to describe what areas would be added to the Great Barrier Reef region if the bill were passed. It is quite clear that it will add a lot of extra reef areas. As he said himself, it will add coral islands, caves, about 20 other reef complexes and a range of other ocean environments. But the key thing is that the reef is under threat at the moment from onshore activities, as Senator Eggleston rightly said. The government has recently, in its sugar package, included measures to assist in improving water quality into the Great Barrier Reef. This was done at the insistence of the Democrats, I should note. That is a clear recognition that there are threats to the reef from activities outside the marine park—in that case, from some activities on land.

This bill addresses threats to the reef from other activities outside the marine park—that is, potential oil drilling and exploration to the east of the existing marine park. Those threats are very real. As Senator Eggleston again rightly said, there is a long history of interest from oil companies in the reserves of petroleum and probably gas far off into the Coral Sea. But that interest did not magically disappear the minute John Howard became Prime Minister. As the Democrats have shown in the documents that we have been able to table in the Senate and through questions we asked in estimates, that interest is still very clearly there from many oil companies. It is also still clearly there, at least within some government agencies and Geosciences Australia. So the interest is still there—the documents are quite clear on that.

Some of the documents we were able to table included some since the Howard government came to office. In 1997, the Queensland Department of Mines and Energy wrote to the federal Department of Primary Industries and Energy suggesting that areas east of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park in the Queensland Plateau and Townsville Trough could be legitimate exploration target areas. The response from the federal level indicated that the department would write separately about the possible release of areas in the Coral Sea in future bidding rounds. A ministerial brief from the Queensland Department of Mines and Energy of 1997 indicated `a number of large international oil and gas company representatives have shown interest in exploring for petroleum in waters offshore of Queensland'. That is pretty clear-cut.

The Democrats acknowledge that regulations came into place in 1999 that prohibited mining operations or research for mining operations in the Great Barrier Reef region. The Democrats welcomed that action. Again, I would suggest that that action was taken in part because of pressure from the Democrats and our continual questioning of what was then AGSO and the then minister, Warwick Parer. But the Great Barrier Reef region only goes so far. The areas that the large international oil and gas companies are interested in include areas further east of the existing Great Barrier Reef region. That interest is still there, and this bill seeks to ensure that that interest cannot be pursued. The Democrats believe that any oil drilling, exploration or exploitation in that region clearly presents a risk to the marine park and to the reef itself. There is no doubt that you do not explore for oil or gas unless you are hoping to be able to extract it. Any prospect of significant extraction from that region in the Coral Sea to the east of the existing marine park would clearly present a risk to the life of the reef.

In many ways, Senator Eggleston's speech actually put forward arguments in support of this legislation. He highlighted that there are threats to the reef already and that there is a history of oil company interest in these areas offshore from the marine park to the east. He did indicate that the existing regulations protect the areas contained in the Great Barrier Reef region from drilling and exploration, which is what this bill seeks to address—it seeks to extend that protection. He did quite rightly point to the stronger federal environment laws that are now in place under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act. This was another significant environmental achievement for the Australian Democrats due to the major amendments we were able to make to that act. That act is not able to prevent every single potentially damaging act, not least in part because, as with any other act, it is up to the government of the day or the minister of the day to enforce it. There are already examples of the minister of the day not enforcing it and, indeed, seeking to circumvent it. So, while it is a far stronger act than was there previously, it still cannot guarantee protection, because you rely too much on the political will of the minister of the day. What would guarantee protection would be the extension of the marine park. The protection that already exists in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park would be extended if this bill went through.

Let us not forget that the documents the Democrats were able to table also highlighted that, as recently as 2001, leg 194 of the ocean drilling project drilled for core samples inside the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park—16 holes at four sites were drilled, as well as a number of holes outside the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park in the Coral Sea. The marine park authority did not require any impact assessment of the drilling, provided no opportunity for public comment or input and permitted the drilling despite the 1999 regulations prohibiting research for mining operations. Even with those regulations you are still relying on the minister to actually have the will and the ability to enforce them. Despite claiming that it was only investigating climate change issues, that vessel just happened to carry representatives from both the oil industry and the drilling industry. The Democrats have confirmed the presence on board of at least half a dozen people from the industry. It was very nice of them to be interested in climate change, but one suspects they were even more interested in the oil underneath. And there is little doubt that there are significant oil reserves in these areas.

This legislation is quite straightforward and quite simple. Mr Lindsay—who is the member for Herbert, which is based around Townsville—said that he would like to expand the whole marine park completely. That is great, and I would love to see it, but the marine park authority has a pretty big and difficult job and is underresourced already. If Mr Lindsay thinks he can get the marine park expanded, that would serve the same purpose as this bill. Why that means this bill is unnecessary is beyond me, because his suggestion would simply be overlapping this bill if he pursued that prospect. But I would point out that the marine park authority already has a hell of a job. It is operating under an act which is now 25 or more years old. It was good for its time but it could certainly do with upgrading. Before the authority gets too panicked, I would note that it does have a very big job at the moment with the representative areas process under way. I think it needs to finish that important rezoning exercise in the entire marine park before we look at the legislative underpinnings.

Quite simply, this bill would automatically prevent oil exploration and exploitation in the Barrier Reef region, thus protecting some of the natural values of the Coral Sea. There are extensive reef areas in the Coral Sea that are well outside the boundaries of the World Heritage area and the marine park as it currently exists. By extension, the bill would protect the existing marine park from the effects of oil drilling and the prospect of spills being carried into the park and onto the reef with the extra tanker traffic that would clearly occur if there were any oil drilling. It is a simple and very cheap measure. It would not add to the burden of the marine park authority and its management requirements but it would provide clear-cut, unequivocal protection for the Barrier Reef, which is not there at the moment because that threat from oil exploration and drilling is still very real. The longer the interest continues from oil companies, the greater the pressure will be on governments of the day, today or into the future, to release some of those areas for exploration and exploitation. The only way to protect those areas from that is to clearly prevent it by regulation. This bill achieves that very simply and very elegantly, and it is one that should be supported by the Senate.

I congratulate Senator McLucas for her interest and for her initiative in putting forward this bill and building on the Democrats' initiative from last year. It was introduced on 31 March, so it is nearly the one-year anniversary. We have an enhanced bill with the support of the Labor and Democrat Queensland senators. It is pleasing to see the cooperation that is achievable there. I hope that cooperation can be extended to the government. They should not be so fearful of actually working together on issues, because that is the best way to achieve what I am sure all Queensland senators in this place and, hopefully, all senators would like to achieve: a halt to all the threats to the Barrier Reef and the protection of that unique area into the future for future generations. It has plenty on its plate already in terms of trying to protect the reef from serious deprivation. The least we can do is remove one threat from now and the future to ensure that it can be preserved for not just our own generation but generations into the future. We have that responsibility. This bill goes some way towards fulfilling that responsibility, and I urge all senators to support it.