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Monday, 18 June 2007
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Senator McLUCAS (12:31 PM) —The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Amendment Bill 2007 goes to governance arrangements for the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. The Great Barrier Reef is Australia’s greatest natural asset. It is unique. Nowhere else in the world do we see such an example of nature at her most diverse, her most enthralling, her most startling and, in my view, her most beautiful. The reef is not only magnificent in its natural beauty; the economic contribution of this natural phenomenon is phenomenal as well. The Great Barrier Reef not only evokes a sense of ownership within those of us who are fortunate to live beside it; all Australians rightly feel a strong connection with and ownership of it. But the bill that we have before us is about governance. This bill does nothing at all to address the real issues affecting the Great Barrier Reef. This bill does not include any element of a plan to maintain a healthy reef into the future. The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Amendment Bill 2007 seeks to implement recommendations of a 2006 review of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Act 1975. I want to pick up on the key aspects of that review and of this bill, but before I do so it is important to set the scene.

The Great Barrier Reef is an extraordinary natural wonder. It is the world’s largest World Heritage area. It is 2,000 kilometres of World Heritage wonder, with the world’s most extensive coral reef system, the world’s richest diversity of faunal species, 2,800 individuals reefs, 1,500 fish species, 175 bird species, 4,000 species of molluscs,1,500 species of sponge, 500 species of seaweed and more than 30 species of marine mammals.

Senator Boswell —How many fishermen?

Senator McLUCAS —I will get to that. There are 940 islands in the Great Barrier Reef. It is the jewel in the crown of Australia’s natural assets. The northern part of the reef is believed to be 18 million years old and the southern part two million years old. This is our inheritance and it is our responsibility to protect it for future generations. Of course, we do not just have a responsibility to maintain the ecological integrity of the reef; we also have a responsibility to maintain the jobs and the regional towns that are dependent on a healthy reef. About 200,000 jobs are dependent on a healthy reef, generating about $4.3 billion for the Australian economy. Since I wrote this speech, I have received a copy of the Australian Research Council document called Discovery. The ARC talk about the reef’s value being $5 billion a year, with 68,000 people directly employed in industries associated with the reef.

But there are real threats to the reef’s future which this government simply will not acknowledge. The science is very clear. The unreleased Australian chapter of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report Climate Change 2007: Impacts, adaptation and vulnerability lays out a bleak future for the Great Barrier Reef. By 2020, the report says, 60 per cent the Great Barrier Reef could be regularly bleached. By 2050, 97 per cent could be bleached each year. By 2080, there could be ‘catastrophic mortality of coral species annually’ and a 95 per cent decrease in the distribution of Great Barrier Reef species. There could be a 65 per cent loss of Great Barrier Reef species in the Cairns region alone.

An international team of scientists working on the Great Barrier Reef has found a clear link between coral disease and warmer ocean temperatures. World-first research at 48 reefs spread along 1,500 kilometres of the GBR, combined with six years of satellite data on sea temperatures, has revealed ‘a highly significant relationship’ between ocean warming and the emergence of a disease known as white syndrome. White syndrome is one of a number of unexplained coral diseases which scientists have observed to be increasing globally in recent years.

The Great Barrier Reef is dying before our very eyes and, frankly, I do not think the Howard government cares. The government cannot say it was not warned. It has received report after report after report for almost a decade with similar warnings growing in strength with each report received. The Prime Minister cannot use the ‘I wasn’t aware’ excuse. Report after report, articles in scientific journals and the anecdotal evidence that we hear in North Queensland all the time are there for all to see. But the response we have received in terms of protecting our reef from global climate change has been nothing.

Look at the government’s own March 2005 Climate change risk and vulnerability report. That report identifies the reef as one of a handful of highly vulnerable regions that can be identified that should be given priority for further adaptation planning and response. The report says:

  • Cairns and the Great Barrier Reef are expected to see multiple dimensions of change. The Reef itself is likely to suffer from coral bleaching events, which have long recovery times and flow on effects for the whole ecosystem. Climate model projections suggest that within 40 years water temperatures could be above the survival limit of corals.

You have to ask: what action has the Howard government undertaken in response to this stark warning?

This is not just an environmental question. A 2005 Access Economics study found tourism associated with the GBR generated over $US4.48 billion in 2004-05 and provided direct employment for about 63,000 people. The marine tourism industry is a major contributor to the local and Australian economies. In 2007 there were approximately 820 operators and 1,500 vessels and aircraft permitted to operate in the GBR Marine Park. Tourism attracts approximately 1.9 million visitors each year. That is the lifeblood of regional and local communities. That is the lifeblood of my city, Cairns, of Port Douglas in the Douglas shire, of Townsville, Mackay, Airlie Beach, the Whitsundays and areas further south. That is the economy that is being jeopardised by the inaction of the Commonwealth government on the issue of climate change. And that is why the Howard government’s line—a very calculated line—that Australians have to choose between a healthy economy and a healthy environment is such a dangerous one. Think about this: the reef brings millions of dollars into the Australian economy and is directly responsible for the employment of tens of thousands of Australians.

A forward-looking government would have responded to the reality that our reef is at serious threat and implemented a climate change strategy—a climate change strategy that should include the ratification of the Kyoto protocol and the cutting of Australia’s greenhouse pollution by 60 per cent by 2050. It would have included establishing a national emissions trading scheme and seriously investing in renewable energy and clean coal. A forward-looking government would have announced serious long-term measures to cut Australia’s soaring greenhouse pollution, but that is not what we have seen. Climate change is a massive challenge for Australia, but the Howard government is only now even acknowledging it exists, and only because the Prime Minister has read the opinion polls.

The other thing a forward-looking government would do is to cherish Australia’s past, recognising that our natural and cultural heritage is the cornerstone of our modern society. That is why I find it staggering that the government still has not placed the Great Barrier Reef on Australia’s National Heritage List. A National Heritage List without the Great Barrier Reef is like a rugby league hall of fame without Wally Lewis. But that is precisely what we have. Our National Heritage List came into force in January 2004. It is, frankly, astonishing that the government has not got around to putting it on the list. You can ask: is it incompetence, tardiness or forgetfulness? Or is the Howard government just taking the Great Barrier Reef for granted? Is it taking the people who depend on a healthy reef for granted? Frankly, climate change, not governance arrangements, is the real threat to the Great Barrier Reef.

The government did take a very courageous step when it announced it was protecting 33 per cent of the Great Barrier Reef from fishing and other extractive industries. I do pay tribute to the then environment minister, David Kemp, and Senator Robert Hill, both of whom seem to have a real interest in protecting our Great Barrier Reef. But what has the government done since then? It did announce the structural adjustment for the fishing industry. Initially the structural adjustment package was predicted to be worth $31 million. Now it has increased threefold, blowing out to more than $87 million, an extraordinary miscalculation on behalf of the government. Fishers and land based businesses that rely on reef derived income are entitled to compensation for economic loss caused under the Representative Areas Program, which increased the reef green zones. They did deserve compensation, but they do not deserve the mess that is the compensation package.

The National Party and some elements of the Liberal Party have worked hard to destroy Dr Kemp’s legacy, launching strong campaigns against the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority and the zoning plan. The then National Party senator elect, Senator Joyce, was quoted in the Courier-Mail on 1 March 2005 as opposing GBRMPA’s existence as an independent agency. He said:

“GBRMPA is out of control ...

…       …            …

“We are having too many problems and we should bring it totally under government control and baby-sit it for a while.”

Senator Joyce —Hear, hear! I stand by it.

Senator McLUCAS —I am sorry, Senator Joyce, but that is an appalling suggestion. We have an agency which is internationally recognised as the best in the world at managing marine parks, and you want to babysit it for a while. The member for Dawson, Mrs Kelly, said on 26 October 2004:

What we’ve had is a statutory authority in GBRMPA that is out of control—


has put, I think, no real scientific basis for the arguments they’ve put forward ...

It must never be forgotten that the Queensland Nationals did a preference deal with the Fishing Party at the last election on the basis that GBRMPA’s powers be moved into the department where the minister would have control of all decisions. This deal, as we know, helped get Senator Joyce elected.

Senator Joyce —Absolutely, and it was a great deal for everybody.

Senator McLUCAS —It was a great deal, was it?

Senator Joyce —Absolutely. Put it on the record.

Senator McLUCAS —That is on the record, is it? A great deal. A deal.

Senator Joyce —Put it on the record: Senator Joyce said it was a great deal.

Senator McLUCAS —I am glad that is on the record.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Ferguson)—Order! Senator McLucas has the call.

Senator McLUCAS —The National Party always saw the review of GBRMPA as the vehicle for destroying the Marine Park Authority and rolling back the protection of the Great Barrier Reef.

On 25 March 2006 the Courier-Mail reported that the Howard government was planning to reduce the marine protection boundaries of the Representative Areas Program and abolish the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority as an independent agency. I am pleased to say that neither of those two things has occurred. I am pleased that GBRMPA will remain a statutory authority. Labor, along with many others, played an important part in preventing the destruction and the demolition of GBRMPA. But there are still aspects of this bill that are troubling. The bill replaces the Great Barrier Reef Consultative Committee with a non-statutory advisory board. It also removes the requirement for specific representation of the interests of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. I am concerned that there may not be proper representation from Indigenous communities, and there are amendments to ameliorate that effect. I am also concerned that Queensland play its important role in finding the direction for the management of the Great Barrier Reef. I call on the Minister for the Environment and Water Resources to make a commitment to a genuine partnership with the Queensland government and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and a genuine engagement with all of the industries that are dependent on a healthy reef. A place at the table must be found for everyone.

We are pleased the government is establishing a five-yearly outlook report for the Great Barrier Reef. The minister for the environment has stated that a regular and reliable means of assessing the protection of the Great Barrier Reef will be provided through a formal outlook report that is tabled in the parliament every five years. This report will cover the management of the marine park, the overall condition of the ecosystem and the longer term outlook for the Great Barrier Reef. It will be peer reviewed by an appropriately qualified panel of experts appointed by the minister. I welcome that report. I note the minister will be responsible for any future decision to amend the zoning plan, and any such decision will be based on the outlook report and advice from the authority.

I note also the minister’s commitment that engagement with stakeholders on the development of a new zoning plan will be improved and the process made more transparent, with comprehensive information being made publicly available through the process. This will include the rationale for amending any zoning plan, the principles on which the development of the zoning plan will be based, socioeconomic information and a report on the final zoning plan and its outcomes. In addition, each of the two public consultation periods will be increased from one month to three months. The Labor Party certainly welcome the extension of the public consultation period. It is important there is integrity in the process, and it is important there are ongoing commitments to better protect the health of the Great Barrier Reef. That is why I call on the government, and particularly Queensland senators, to join Labor in opposing oil drilling and exploration near the Great Barrier Reef.

Senator Boswell —There’s no oil drilling on it, and there was never going to be.

Senator McLUCAS —The word used is ‘near’, and that is important.

Senator Abetz —What’s your definition of ‘near’?

Senator McLUCAS —I will give it to you in the committee stage. I foreshadow now that I will be moving amendments in the committee stage to extend the boundary of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park region—and this is important—to the exclusive economic zone and thus rule out the prospect of prospecting or drilling for oil or gas in waters adjacent to the Great Barrier Reef. I call on the government to support these amendments. I particularly call on Queensland based senators to recognise that this is an important protection that our reef requires. I am deeply concerned that the government’s agenda is to proceed with oil exploration and drilling near the Great Barrier Reef.

Senator Boswell —It’s a red herring, and you know it.

Senator McLUCAS —Just last year, Senator Boswell, Geoscience Australia published a map which indicated the potential for exploration and drilling in this region. If you are saying that this is not on the government’s agenda then rule it out. This is another real threat, and one that Labor are committed to removing. The Great Barrier Reef deserves protection—protection not afforded by this bill. This is why I move the second reading amendment standing in my name:

At the end of the motion, add: “but the Senate:

(a)    affirms the object of the principal Act—the protection of the Great Barrier Reef—but notes that the future of the Reef is threatened by both short-term and longer-term factors, including climate change;

(b)    notes that the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change stated in 2007 that by 2050, 97 per cent of the Great Barrier Reef could be bleached every year as a result of climate change;

(c)    condemns the Government’s incompetent handling of the structural adjustment package for the Great Barrier Reef Representative Areas Plan, which has seen the budget blow out from $31 million to more than $87 million;

(d)    calls on the Government to develop and implement an action plan to help protect the Great Barrier Reef from the effects of coral bleaching and protect Australian jobs and industries dependent on a healthy reef, as part of a national climate change strategy; and

(e)    calls on the Government to prohibit mineral, oil and gas exploration in Australian waters adjacent to the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park”.

This amendment identifies the potential, listed in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, for significant bleaching of our reef in a short period of time. This will affect the economies of our region. The second reading amendment condemns the government’s incompetent handling of structural adjustment, particularly—and I am sure Senators Boswell and Joyce will agree with me on this—the structural package for fishers and those who depend on fishing. The amendment calls on the government to develop and implement an action plan to help protect the Great Barrier Reef from the effects of coral bleaching and protect Australian jobs and industries dependent on a healthy reef as part of a national climate change strategy. Finally, the second reading amendment calls on the government to prohibit mineral, oil and gas exploration in Australian waters adjacent to the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park.