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Thursday, 6 March 2003
Page: 9464

Senator SANTORO (4:25 PM) —I want to commence my contribution to this debate on the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park (Protecting the Great Barrier Reef from Oil Drilling and Exploration) Amendment Bill 2003 [No. 2] by agreeing in part with my distinguished colleague Senator Moore, who has just spoken, on the other side. I agree particularly with her last stated objective and aim, and that is that we preserve the Great Barrier Reef as a pristine natural area that not only we but also those who are to follow us can visit and enjoy.

Senator Crossin —You can sit down now; that's all you need to say.

Senator SANTORO —That is wishful thinking on your part, because I have a lot more to say than the few kind and benign comments I have just made about the contribution we have just heard. I accept that my colleague Senator Moore and others before her did speak with sincerity about the beauty of the Great Barrier Reef, but I just do not believe that they are saying everything they need to about this bill, in particular about their record of neglect and non-action when they were in government and able to influence policy, and the implementation of policy, in a way that genuinely protected the reef.

I will highlight a few of the things neglected by the Labor Party when it was in government, at the risk of being repetitive. I asked for some briefing material as to the Labor Party's record, because I was very young at the time they were in government and I perhaps did not take as great an interest as I could or should have. I know that Senator Eggleston has put on the record the woeful neglect by the Labor Party when in government, but in case you missed that I want to drill home a few truths that I know will be uncomfortable but, because my Queensland Senate colleague is a basically fair person, I hope she will accept them as fact.

As Senator Moore has just said, the Great Barrier Reef is unquestionably Queensland's greatest natural asset except for the 3.6 million people who live in Queensland. They are its greatest natural asset, but the Great Barrier Reef is certainly up there. Sometimes it seems to me that those who push the environmental cause too far forget that human society is in fact the greatest natural asset globally. That is not to say that something as precious as the Great Barrier Reef, the largest coral formation in the world, does not deserve maximum protection.

I do not think there is anyone in this place, elsewhere in this parliament or indeed in Australia who would for a moment countenance malevolent interference with that reef. That is precisely why this bill, the brainchild of the Labor Party, is such a waste of time. This private member's bill is, as others have said, ultimately and simply a piece of political mischief. It is a stunt. It is something that, with respect, we just should not be debating here today when there are so many other issues about which we could be debating that have relevance to people who need the protection of parliaments and senates like this.

Before I go on to talk at some length about the reef and what it means to Queensland, Australia and the world community, I believe I should reinforce for honourable senators the facts as they relate to the present protection of the reef and its precious and fragile environment under legislation. Let us take this bill's proponents—the member for Wills in the other place and my Queensland Senate colleague Senator McLucas—through the facts. Mineral exploration and mining are explicitly banned within the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Act, which this bill seeks to amend.

Senator McLucas —Yes, that's right.

Senator SANTORO —It is. Beyond the formal 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.

Senator McLucas —That's not right.

Senator SANTORO —That is where we are going to disagree and that is where I am going to talk about your record in government, which is clearly illustrated from the documents tabled in this place and in other places on various occasions. If we look, for example, at what your government allowed to happen, such as—

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Ferguson)—Order! Senator Santoro, could you please address your remarks through the chair.

Senator SANTORO —Of course, Mr Acting Deputy President, always. The documents that have been tabled in this place on various occasions reveal that, from the late eighties onwards, the then Labor government was engaged in active promotion of offshore mineral and oil exploration in Australian waters, with only the effectiveness of the EPIP Act to protect any offshore or onshore area. That cannot be denied. If you look—

Senator McLucas —Tell us the whole story, Santo.

Senator SANTORO —I am telling the whole story. If you look at the powers that the Environmental Protection (Impact of Proposals) Act gave to the minister, you will see that it only gave advisory powers. That they were advisory only can be gauged by the sort of exploration that was allowed offshore and beyond the boundaries of the reef. Exploration of the Townsville Trough was in fact promoted. Exploration of the Maryborough Basin was to be promoted, along with exploration off the Queensland Trough and the Capricorn Basin among others. That was under your act. It cannot happen.

Senator McLucas —It can happen.

Senator SANTORO —It cannot happen now. Listen to the encouragement in extraordinary terms offered in this document, Offshore strategy: promoting petroleum exploration offshore Australia, signed off by the then Minister for Resources, Alan Griffiths. It says, for example:

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

That is what it said. How much more blatantly exploitative can a policy be?

Senator McLucas —Keep telling the story, Santo—just get to the end.

Senator SANTORO —Of course. I do not know how you can sit there with no shame and ask me to keep telling the story, because it is your story. It is the story of the Labor Party in government. It is your story and you are just sitting there and laughing as if it were a joke. It is not a joke. It is fact; it is history. As I was saying, the document says:

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

I quote the very next paragraph, which says:

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

That is the history of the Labor Party when it comes to offshore exploration and offshore exploitation of natural resources.

Senator McLucas —You haven't told the whole story.

Senator SANTORO —I will continue to tell the whole story—

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Ferguson)—Order! Senator McLucas, you had your opportunity to speak to this bill at an earlier stage. Senator Santoro has the right to be heard in silence.

Senator SANTORO —Mr Acting Deputy President, of course I will always be guided by your rulings, but in fact I cherish the interjections on this occasion from Senator McLucas and others, because they enable me to again underline just how ineffective the regulatory regime was when the Labor Party were in government in the eighties and just how disastrous they potentially were for the preservation of the Great Barrier Reef.

It is obvious that I do not think very much of the bill before us, and I do not intend to canvass in great substance what this bill provides for, because I want to talk about the reef and what it really means to Queensland. But I do think it is important to make the point—and it is a point that has to be made and remade in this place and elsewhere—that this bill is another Labor Party stunt. They obviously have no policies, just as they did not have policies or regulatory and legislative regimes in the late eighties. They had no positions. On this issue and many others they are rapidly running out of any moral authority whatsoever. That is largely their problem, and I do not think it is up to us on this side of the chamber to educate them. They should want to educate themselves. I could recommend `Relevance 101' as an excellent starting point.

In Senator McLucas's second reading contribution which was incorporated in Hansard yesterday, she asserted that the government had no desire to protect the Great Barrier Reef. I think she knows that that is simply not true—with respect, you know that that is simply not true, Senator McLucas. Her argument appears to be that the minister for the environment will not do what she would like to tell him to do. Senator McLucas also noted in her incorporated speech:

Labor has consistently opposed oil prospecting and drilling on or near the Great Barrier Reef.

That is a sensible policy position but not one that is uniquely held by the Labor Party. We can all be glad that Labor, while it searches for relevance, supports the government's policy of not permitting such activity on or near the Great Barrier Reef. We can all be glad—and friends of the Great Barrier Reef here at home and around the world can feel reassured—that this government ended the inadequate protection of the reef offered by the Environment Protection (Impact of Proposals) Act, which was left in place during 13 years of federal Labor rule. I have just informed the Senate of the woeful record that weak act, which only gave the minister advisory power, represented in terms of protection of the Great Barrier Reef.

I have gone over some previously travelled territory briefly for two reasons: first, to reinforce the point that this is an unnecessary bill, and second, to put my subsequent comments into context. In her first speech to the Senate in 1999, Senator McLucas made these comments, which I also believe should be repeated here today.

Senator McLucas —You've done your research—very good!

Senator SANTORO —Yes, Senator McLucas, I have taken a great deal of interest in what you have had to say previously on this topic in this place.

Senator Abetz —You're the only one who has read it!

Senator SANTORO —There were some good points. She recognised good people and the great place of Queensland that she came from, in particular her more immediate political and natural environment. I join her in recognising the significance and the beauty of Queensland, as well as the good work that people did in order to help her get into the Senate—all that sort of thing. But there were some other things that Senator McLucas said:

In North Queensland our tourism industry depends on our natural environment—the reef and the rainforest. I pay tribute to those in the environment movement who worked to have both of these wonderful natural resources protected through their listing on the World Heritage register. It is now our responsibility to ensure that these special ecosystems are protected and enhanced through sound management. However, it is not always a straightforward matter. Recently Greenpeace released a research report on coral bleaching, a phenomenon causing corals to die, lose their colour and turn white. It predicted that bleaching could become a regular occurrence on the Great Barrier Reef by the year 2030 resulting from a rise in ocean temperature of just one degree.

While scientists may not agree as to whether ocean temperatures will rise at the rate predicted by the Greenpeace report, the link between ocean warming and coral bleaching is not in dispute. As we know, the key contributors to global warming are greenhouse emissions. The body charged with the management of the Great Barrier Reef, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, has no control over greenhouse reduction targets; neither does the tourism industry or the fishing industry, which rely on the reef. We do. The plight of the Great Barrier Reef and the many jobs that depend on it is an illustration of why governments and parliaments must have a commitment to tackling the hard decisions—decisions which will determine the future of our communities, decisions like how to manage environment and industry sustainably.

It may be that some would want to argue with the detail of what Senator McLucas said in that part of her first speech, but I am sure no-one would argue with the sentiment. It points up the incredible fragility of the reef—in the context of coral bleaching—and the fact that the reef, the world's largest living organism, deserves the best protection human ingenuity can provide it with.

The reef is our primary tourism attraction for thousands upon thousands of Australians and international visitors alike. It is—with apologies to the Sydney Opera House—the image that the world instantly recognises as Australia. We know, as Australians, that we hold the reef and its wonders in trust for all the peoples of the world. We know that the reef must be protected not just because it makes us money from the passing tourism trade but also because we owe it to the environment, to the whole ecosystem that is planet Earth, to do so. No-one I know would for a moment shy away from that sacred trust.

But I believe that when we are considering the Great Barrier Reef we need to do so mindful of the fact that it is an area that attracts human activity and is a major economic driver within the Queensland economy and most particularly in the long stretch of coast and hinterland that is settled and extends from Bundaberg in the south to Port Douglas in the north. The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority recognises and is reacting to issues of water quality in the reef lagoon. It notes that the reef is a relatively unspoiled environment, although the region is a focus for agricultural production, tourism, shipping and of course expanding urban centres, all of which present a threat to the reef from pollutants. Run-off resulting from land based agricultural activities and from urban development is, as all honourable senators here would recognise, a further threat.

It is central to tourism. Domestic and international visitors to Queensland contributed 6.4 per cent to Queensland's gross state product in 1998-99. Sale of goods and services to international visitors makes tourism the second biggest export earner, accounting for 11 per cent of total Queensland exports overseas, which, coincidentally, is more than coal. The tourism industry directly employs more than nine per cent of employed Queenslanders and accounts for over 151,000 jobs. That is a massive contribution to employment and to economic growth. Tourism directly accounts for more than half of the employment in accommodation, cafes and restaurants; 21 per cent of the retailing industry; 19 per cent of the cultural and recreation industry; and 13 per cent of the transport and storage industry. It is estimated that on average one job is created or supported in Queensland for every 167 domestic visitors or 65 international visitors. Indeed, tourism is becoming an important economic contributor in many regional areas—up to 29 per cent of jobs in some regions—and it contributes to community access to improved leisure facilities, cultural diversity and a greater appreciation of Queensland's attractions.

All of these things are directly relevant to the Great Barrier Reef and its unchallengeable position as our premier natural drawcard. They are figures and statistics that should make it blindingly obvious that no-one is going to be allowed to put the reef at risk from the sort of thing that Senator McLucas's bill is apparently designed to forestall. As Virginia Chadwick, Chair of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, says:

Our fundamental obligation is to protect the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park and the World Heritage Area. But obviously, it must do this in a way that manages human impact on the reef and provides scope for growth in demand for services.

As I said, tourism is the principal commercial use of the reef marine park.

In conclusion, the essential question is: is this government's position good enough to protect the Great Barrier Reef, unlike the position that the Labor Party—Senator McLucas's party—adopted when they were in government? Clearly, our government has declared exploration a controlled action. The government has issued guidelines for an environmental impact statement when needed. To date there has been no indication from any company as to whether it will proceed with the EIS. If it does not proceed, the seismic testing program simply will not be able to proceed. If it does complete an EIS and that EIS suggests there is a threat to the reef, the seismic testing program will not proceed. They are just a couple of examples of how, in an administrative and legislative sense, the position of this government is far more advanced in terms of protecting the Great Barrier Reef than the position taken by your government in the 1980s.

This debate is a very simple one. Do we really need the provisions of this private member's bill to be implemented in order to protect the Great Barrier Reef? I would respectfully suggest that, no, we do not. That is simply not the case. After listening to some of the debate prior to my speaking, I am not convinced. Clearly, this side of the Senate is not convinced. When we debate issues such as this, I think we need to be honest about our record when in government—and I am talking particularly about the record of your party, Senator McLucas. I think that we should also be honest about what legislative protection exists at the moment for the Great Barrier Reef. So I join others on this side of the chamber to oppose this bill, because it is a stunt. It represents political hypocrisy and, unfortunately, as often is the case in politics, it just refuses to give due credit to a job well done by a government of which I am a very proud member.