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Tuesday, 9 March 2004
Page: 21061

Senator BARTLETT (Leader of the Australian Democrats) (1:15 PM) —On behalf of the Australian Democrats I speak to the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Amendment Bill 2004. I have spoken many times in this chamber on issues to do with the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. It is something that is of great importance to my own state of Queensland as well as being of great significance in a broader environmental sense—literally on a global scale. The Barrier Reef is one of the world's great environmental wonders and one of the world's major environmental assets, particularly its marine environment. It is a source of bemusement really that marine environmental issues receive far less attention in Australia than land based environmental issues. Perhaps, in the initial stages, that was understandable because we live on the land and we are not out on the oceans. But, over time, the excuses for not having as much focus on marine environmental issues have very much diminished. Australia actually has a larger area covered by marine ecosystems than it has land or terrestrial components to its national boundaries. A lot of it is severely neglected. The Barrier Reef is one area that has had more attention than most, but it is certainly an area that needs more attention because it faces a number of severe threats that have environmental as well as economic consequences.

This bill makes a number of amendments to the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Act to correct flaws in the way in which the environmental management charge is levied and administered. More particularly, it is designed to ensure that GST is not payable on the charge when it is passed on by tourism operators to people who are visiting the Great Barrier Reef. In that sense, the bill is not particularly controversial. Indeed, the real substantial question is why it has taken so long for this bill to appear and for the government to make these changes. These amendments should have been made, at the very latest, at the end of 2002. The problem had been identified by then and there should have been prompt action taken. One has to question why the amendments were not made even earlier than that really, given the relative simplicity of the tax issues involved. It seems when there is a court decision that this government does not like that does not actually hurt anyone and might provide help to vulnerable people, such as giving some rights to refugees, it can rush in laws overnight that dramatically change the direction of legal principles. But when it is something to do with assisting small business operators in an area which causes them significant problems and confusion, it takes the government two years to take any action to address those concerns. It gives a clear example of where the priorities of this government lie in many cases.

I am sure, however, the tourism operators who rely on the marine park for their livelihood will be grateful these changes have finally been made. I am also sure that the tourism operators are happy with the recent changes this government has made to the zoning of the marine park. This new plan is a significant step forward. While the Democrats have been appropriately critical of this government on many occasions in relation to its environmental performance, its actions should be commended when necessary or appropriate. The significant rezoning of the marine park is an action that should be noted and commended. Like the amendments that are made by this bill, the changes to the zoning of the marine park are long overdue and do not go far enough. But they are a step forward.

I would like to take this opportunity to speak more broadly on some of the issues involving the marine park. This bill only goes to a small component of the environmental management charge, although this is a charge that goes directly to the management of the marine park through the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority. It has been rezoned after quite an extensive consultation process. Again, commendation must go to the government and particularly the marine park authority and those in the community, including the tourism industry, who helped drive the debate and raise community awareness about the need for a significant increase in protected areas, or what are often called `no take' zones. Close to one-third of the marine park now has no take zones or protected areas. That is a significant increase on the previous situation, when less than five per cent of the park had fully protected areas.

Coming from Queensland, I frequently speak with people from further south. Before the increase I would make them aware that less than five per cent of the marine park was protected and they would be amazed and astonished that that was the case. While increasing the area to a third is a major advance that should be acknowledged, there are still large parts of the marine park that are not fully protected. I am by no means suggesting the whole place should be locked up and people not allowed in there, but we need to acknowledge that it is still only at a phase which a lot of scientific evidence suggests is at the lower end of what is needed to increase the chances of long-term sustainability of the reef, particularly given the number of significant threats that have been made to it.

We must also note that the 33 per cent no take zone figure that continues to be pointed to is misleading to a certain extent. There was intense lobbying by the commercial fishing industry and this led the government to shift a large proportion of the no take areas to the northern and eastern parts of the marine park where there is less commercial and recreational fishing. It also left many highly significant areas without the complete protection they need, including Bowling Green Bay, Princess Charlotte Bay and Repulse Bay. The primary function of the representative areas program was to lessen the pressure on the reef from fishing by excluding fishers from ecologically significant areas. However, if the green zones are located in areas that are not used by fishers, it does not perform its intended purpose. It merely keeps the status quo and will not sufficiently improve the health of the reef to provide it with the necessary resilience to ensure it can withstand the effects of climate change and many other environmental threats, particularly in the inshore areas.

Whilst I commend the federal government, the Minister for the Environment and Heritage, Dr Kemp, and his predecessor, Senator Hill, for what has been achieved with the significant increase in protected areas in the marine park, equally I am critical of some members of the coalition, in particular the member for Leichhardt, Mr Entsch. He went out of his way to bolster the interests of the commercial fishers and to act as a focal point for their agenda to the detriment of the broader interests of a much larger industry in his electorate, the tourism industry. Anybody can have a look at the basic core figures and see the number of jobs and the amount of money that go into central, northern and Far North Queensland from the tourism industry. In dollar terms it is far in excess of what commercial fishers bring in. When that tourism component is put at risk by overfishing and fishing in inappropriate areas and when other land based activities are impacting on the marine park—which Mr Entsch also goes out of his way to defend—then he is acting against the interests of his own electorate and those of the major industry and the major bringer of employment and wealth into his own area.

His decision to side with minor sectional interests and a noisy minority against the interests of the majority of the public, the economy and the environment in his region should be condemned. A lot of positive and constructive attempts to work with people to drive things in a direction that they need to go for the future prosperity and protection of the environment in that region were undermined by the local member. The same can be said to apply to some extent to other environmental assets in the region, such as the wet tropics World Heritage area. Senator McLucas lives up in that part of the world, so she may want to chide me for being so harsh on probably her local House of Representatives member. I do not know if she feels I am being too harsh on him.

Senator McLucas —Go right ahead.

Senator BARTLETT —Or perhaps she thinks I am being too easy on him. Certainly from my point of view as a senator for Queensland and as someone who tries to get to that area as often as possible—I do not profess to be a local; I am certainly still very much a southerner as far as people in the Cairns region are concerned—my particular focus is not just on the amazing beauty and environmental value of the marine park, the wet tropics and the Daintree area but on the immense economic value and, indeed, social and cultural value that those assets bring to the region. It has been pretty clear that Mr Entsch has been a continual underminer of attempts here, as he has been with protection of the wet tropics areas and some of those magnificent areas north of the Daintree River. Certainly some people in the coalition government have done some good things there, but the praise is far from universal. Because of the good work of some of those in the coalition and of course others in the community, including the tourism industry and the marine park authority, the new zoning plan displaced a reasonable amount of fishing effort from a number of ecologically significant areas. So it does deserve support, and I want to re-emphasise that as an overall conclusion.

However, we need to be prepared to extend greater protection to the more contentious areas of the reef if it is going to have a chance of withstanding the effects of climate change and deteriorating water quality. We need to do more to reduce the effects of deteriorating water quality. There is no doubt that there have been failings in some of the water quality management mechanisms that have been proposed. There has also been a failure to address basic issues such as land clearing and inappropriate land usage activities.

That brings me to two other aspects of Minister Kemp's plan to protect the reef. The second part of Dr Kemp's plan is the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, which he claims provides a `quantum advance in the protection of the Great Barrier Reef'. There is no doubt that the EPBC Act has the potential to improve protection for the reef, particularly from the impacts of actions outside the marine park. This is one of the reasons the Democrats supported this legislation, after forcing massive amounts of amendments to it. It clearly advanced the opportunities for environmental protection compared to what was there before. I think it is a continuing shame that the significant advances provided by the EPBC Act continue not to be recognised by sections of the environment movement. Presumably, they are still bemused by the ongoing insistence of the Greens party not to support an improved environmental act simply because it did not go far enough. That, from my point of view, and certainly from the Democrats' point of view, is simply cutting off your nose to spite your face. We do not pretend that this act addresses every issue, but it is a clear gain over what was there before, and to reject that opportunity is simply irresponsible.

Of course you can have the best act in the world but, if you do not have the political will to enforce it, you are really missing the opportunity. This government has certainly done everything within its power to avoid using the significant powers it now has under the EPBC Act. That it has not adequately examined and addressed the area of the marine park and the activities outside the marine park is one aspect of that. The government's failure to enforce the legislation and key industries to refer actions that are likely to have a significant impact on matters under the act is of great concern to the Democrats. The two industries most at fault are the fishing and agriculture industries.

Despite the breadth of coverage in relation to marine issues, to date not a single action involving the fishing industry has been referred under the federal environment act. The reason is that, in effect, the government has granted fishers a de facto exemption from the act. The minister wrote a letter to the DPP informing the DPP of the government's wish that no fishers be prosecuted until such time as the strategic assessment processes were complete. The minister and AFMA then notified the fishing industry that it was not required to comply with the act. It is interesting that the Commonwealth AuditorGeneral failed to pick this up in the review of the operation of this act, because it certainly was not hidden. AFMA published a notice to this effect in its newsletter. We have repeatedly asked the minister to provide us with a copy of the letter that he wrote to the DPP; however, he refuses to provide it, claiming it is subject to legal professional privilege. Frankly, that is something the Democrats just do not accept as a valid excuse. In my view, it is a clear example of this government's disdain for the law and for this parliament.

The story for agricultural referrals is similar, although not as blatant. There are similar problems there. It is not as if there is a lack of developments that could adversely affect the World Heritage values of the reef. Inappropriate residential and resort developments have continued almost unabated along the Queensland coast adjacent to the reef since the act came into force. Despite the government now having much greater powers to act under the new act than it did under the old, the government has done nothing to stop such development. Only late last year it approved a development near Mackay called East Point that will not only adversely affect the reef but destroy the habitat of a number of listed threatened species. There is not much point doing this major advance in increasing the number of protected areas within the marine park if you are not going to use the powers that are under the broader overarching environmental legislation to prevent activities from occurring that will continue to damage the marine park.

This government is now also considering whether to approve Keith Williams's latest efforts adjoining the Hinchinbrook Channel. That is something that the Democrats will be watching closely. There has been no shortage of inappropriate aquaculture developments in the marine park and adjacent waters allowed to proceed. I acknowledge that, whilst a significant proposal at Armstrong Beach was not stopped via the use of the EPBC Act, the fact that the EPBC Act is there and there are processes that the proposal could be required to go through played a significant role in that proposal not going ahead in the form it was in.

Another aspect of the minister's strategy to protect the reef is the Reef Water Quality Protection Plan. The government's willingness to prepare management plans and action plans might sound impressive until you look at what the outcomes have been. The philosophy seems to be: `I have prepared a plan; therefore the problem is solved. We have done what is necessary.' They pour resources into the preparation of a variety of plans that are intended to improve environmental protection and management but then forget about the minor detail of implementation. The signs today are that the Reef Water Quality Protection Plan will turn out to be yet another example of a plan that predominantly spends its days on a shelf gathering dust. It is a very important area, and it should be acknowledged not just in words but also by action.

Similarly, the lack of action with land clearing in the Great Barrier Reef catchment is simply unacceptable. Both state and federal governments—coalition and Labor—have acknowledged that land clearing has a major impact not just on the land but on the water quality of the marine park. Yet the main action has been the bickering and finger pointing between the state and federal Labor and coalition parties about the fact that nothing is actually happening to address the problem.

I would also like to take this opportunity to float the environmental management charge, which this bill goes to. It is collected by commercial tourism operators solely from tourists who visit the reef and the marine park. We Democrats support that but we do note that it is only that tourism industry that is making any contribution towards the management of the marine park. We believe that it is time to explore avenues—such as through other users of the park—for raising further funding for the marine park authority, particularly now that it has so many more protected areas to manage and oversee. There is a range of ways in which that can be done—and I do not want to pinpoint just one—but I think that does need to be considered.

Similarly, we need to consider whether the charge, which I understand is currently $4.50, could be increased to $5. There are certainly ongoing threats to the marine park by things such as the crown of thorns starfish. Those extra resources could either be in a fund on the side to assist when these outbreaks occur or provide for better management by the marine park authority now that it has much greater areas to oversee, manage and protect. This would better ensure that this invaluable and priceless environmental, economic and cultural asset is protected more fully into the future for the people of Queensland.