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Monday, 18 June 2007
Page: 6


Senator BARTLETT (12:55 PM) —As a Queensland senator as well as a Democrat, I am obviously very interested in any changes to arrangements regarding the management of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. It is an icon not just for Queensland but for Australia. It is an environmental icon, almost a spiritual icon in many respects, and it has been a particularly crucial iconic area for many Indigenous communities and tribes going back for millennia. I have said a number of times in this place that perhaps the largest single, positive environmental achievement of this government in its time in office is its rezoning of the marine park to significantly increase the number of protected areas and significantly improve the chances of the ecological and economic values of the park being maintained and strengthened into the future. It is one of their biggest achievements and it should be acknowledged.

One of the reasons it was so essential and important is because of the many very significant threats to the reef and to the wider marine park. Climate change, as we all now know, is a major, if not the major, threat—it is an enormous threat—to the health of the reef and the marine park. It puts an enormous amount of biodiversity at risk, it puts a lot of Indigenous cultural heritage at risk and it also puts a lot of economic flow-on effects at risk. It is a clear-cut example of the inextricable intertwining of environmental values and economic values, because, if the environmental health of the reef declines and collapses, the impact would be enormous on the economy of Central Queensland, northern Queensland and Queensland more broadly.

That is not to dispute that there were not some economic consequences for particular groups in that significant rezoning. The commercial fishing industry is obviously the group that got the most attention. It is appropriate that assistance and compensation be given to those who are affected, but we do need to look at the big picture, the broader context. To have not acted to strengthen the protection of the reef because of short-term economic costs would have led to much larger economic costs and human pain for a whole range of industries, particularly the tourism industry. But it would have affected a lot of other people and groups as well, including some within the commercial fishing industry.

I note Senator Macdonald’s comments about there being absolutely no intention to have any mineral or other exploration in or near the marine park, and that is good to hear. That being the case, I am sure the government would have no problem in supporting in the committee stage an amendment such as Senator McLucas has put forward. Indeed, in the past, Senator McLucas and I had a joint private senators’ bill in this place to do precisely that. So if it is not on the agenda and it is not going to happen—no way, never ever—it should not be a problem; we can support the amendment and it will all be crystal clear. We will not need to keep pointing to the fact that it is still being singled out on a range of resource maps as a potential area for future exploration.

The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Amendment Bill 2007 came from a major review of the marine park authority and the management of the marine park flowing on from the rezoning. There was, of course, a lot of controversy flowing out of the rezoning, particularly from the commercial fishing industry. I do not have a problem with people wanting to re-examine things. What I do have a problem with is the way that has happened and one aspect of the end results we have before us.

We have heard interjections from Senator Joyce or Senator Boswell—probably both. They are obviously very unhappy about the impact of the rezoning on the fishing industry, and they were quite keen to see this review lead to the authority being dismantled and being taken to Canberra to be run from the department and the minister’s office. Frankly, I find it extraordinary that Queensland senators could be advocating that management of Queensland’s marine park should be given to a bunch of bureaucrats in Canberra when we have a world-renowned marine park authority in northern Queensland. We are without doubt the world’s leader with regard to reef management and reef science. Townsville has become a reef science centre of global significance. For Queensland senators to talk about ripping the heart out of that and throwing it to a bunch of bureaucrats in Canberra—no offence to the bureaucrats in Canberra, but it is not their job—


Senator Boswell interjecting—


Senator BARTLETT —Oh, great! We will give it to the minister—that is even better! Let us just put it in the heart of a minister’s office in Canberra. Perfect! Let us just take away the world-class, world-leading management authority of the world’s best marine park and reef system and put it in the hands of a minister. It is possible, Senator Boswell—I know you would not like it—that the Labor Party might win the next election. Do you want to put it into the hands of whomever ends up being the Labor minister after the election? Think ahead. I know you are annoyed, and I can understand that, but just look at the bigger picture and the consequences.

I am pleased that the review did not end up at that. That is obviously what everybody was concerned about. That is what everybody was focused on through the process of the review—what is going to happen to the authority? Is it going to lose any independence it has—I know it is not totally independent by any means at the moment—and just be subsumed into a department or minister’s office? Or is it still going to be able to operate at least to some degree at arm’s length? That is not to say that the authority is perfect by any means, but if you think getting bureaucrats from Canberra to run it is going to improve it then you are crazy. There would be a loss to Queensland and the Townsville region. The resource and the economic value that the authority provides to Townsville and the northern region in general by being based up there is quite significant. There are all the extra add-ons that it draws in. All of that was at risk. So I am certainly pleased that that did not happen.

The legislation does make a range of changes, and those flow from the review. The key change that I will focus on and about which I am extremely annoyed is that in restructuring the authority—fairly mildly in lots of ways, and almost in passing, with barely a comment—the current situation of having an Indigenous representative on the authority is being removed. That is something that I find absolutely inexplicable. It moves completely in the opposite direction from management approaches in parks and protected areas over recent decades. It has been done solely on the basis of referring to the Uhrig review principles about management of government authorities. That is an appropriate principle to refer to, but I find it breathtaking to simply grab it and whack it over the top in a tick-a-box fashion without any consideration of the wider issues involved. And I find it offensive that it has been done without talking to the Indigenous communities themselves. It shows a complete lack of recognition of what you are dealing with here, and it shows the danger of letting a bunch of bureaucrats apply a bureaucratic principle to an environmental management authority that has crucial interconnections with Indigenous communities and is only just starting to make progress on doing the job with regard to engaging with Indigenous people.

It is not just about engaging with stakeholder groups in the same way as you would engage with the recreational fishers, commercial fishers or tourist industries. Indigenous people are not just an economic stakeholder group to invite along to another meeting and to listen to or not. They are an integral part of this region. We are only just starting to recognise and tap into the management knowledge that traditional owners and Indigenous people have over a range of regions around the country. That is why we have Indigenous representatives on the boards that runs Uluru-Kata Tjuta, Kakadu or Jervis Bay. That is why the people on Cape York fought for so long to hassle, pressure and cajole the Queensland government into introducing Indigenous representation and involvement on the management of national parks in Queensland. Just a few weeks ago we saw a significant announcement in Cape York. People might remember it, because it got a fair bit of coverage in the Australian newspaper, amongst others. Noel Pearson was saying: ‘Finally, after decades of struggle, we are going to have some control over our lands through the joint management of national parks. They are going to put a national park over our land and we are still going to be able to have engagement with it.’ That process still has a way to go, but that took decades of arm-twisting. That is a key principle; it is an environmental management principle as well as a principle for the maintenance of cultural heritage.

The committee brought down a report late Friday afternoon. It was tabled after the Senate had finished sitting. The government members said, ‘This is okay; it does not matter if we lose Indigenous representation.’ The absurdity is that, less than two months ago, the same committee, with the same government members, tabled a comprehensive report into Australia’s national parks and protected areas systems, and every government member signed off the recommendation that said, ‘We need to increase Indigenous involvement in the management of national parks and protected areas.’ No wonder Indigenous people get cynical. We had a unanimous recommendation saying that we need more involvement of Indigenous people in management and, within weeks of that report coming down, legislation was tabled that took that involvement away from one of the areas where it had actually been in place and had been working for well over a decade. And you wonder why they get cynical!

And that was done without even talking to these people. When this legislation was sent to an incredibly brief Senate examination and we asked the department about this, we got answers saying, ‘Well, we sent them letters saying that the review was on.’ Everybody in Queensland knew the review was about whether or not the authority was going to be ripped to bits and taken down to Canberra, about whether the politicians were going to take over the authority, about whether the authority would survive and, if it did, how to get better consultation and engagement with it all. And that is how everybody engaged with it. The department did not send people a letter saying, ‘Have you got a comment on us taking away Indigenous representation?’ And, from everything I have seen, there was no meeting, through the whole review process, with any Indigenous group about the possibility that they might lose their representation on the authority.

Then this legislation finally appeared. If you look at the recommendations from the review of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Act 1975 you will see that there are quite a lot of them. It is a long report and there are 28 recommendations, many of which have five, six or seven different parts, so if you broke them down there would probably be over 100. And the only thing that even referred to this issue in the recommendations is that the membership of the authority should be appointed for their ‘relevant expertise’ and independence, which is absolutely right and as it is now. And it says:

The officeholders should not be representational ...

There is just that single sentence, in amongst pages and pages of recommendations; that is the only reference. You would have to be reading the code to know that that means ‘and therefore we will take away Indigenous representation from the authority’—Indigenous representation which the authority themselves and many others have said is working very effectively and which, most importantly, Indigenous people themselves say is important. And then the explanatory memorandum to this legislation simply says that the legislation:

... expands the maximum size of the Authority by one member. It also removes a requirement for one appointment to be done on a representational basis.

Such appointments are allegedly ‘contrary to best practice’. Sometimes they are, but to say that they always are in all circumstances is, I think, being simplistic in the extreme. There is no mention of the word ‘Indigenous’, either.

It is almost as though we have just sleepwalked into this without anyone even knowing that what we are doing is just tearing away Indigenous representation from the authority and thus from the management role in what I would argue is one of the most significant protected areas in the whole country. To do that without even talking with the people who are affected is inexcusable. It is an absolute case study in structural racism. When people use terms like ‘structural racism’ they do not mean that we are all nasty, mean people; they mean that the whole way that the structure is set up is completely blind to Indigenous people, to their perspective, to their situation and to their unique status. Yes, they have a unique status. A few weeks ago, when we had the anniversary of the referendum, we were all making noble speeches about the special role of Indigenous people and how we recognise how fantastic they are. And then, a few weeks later, what we do? We just tear away one of their key areas of representation in an absolutely critical protected area, and we do so without most of them even knowing.

When this was sent to the Senate committee for a very brief examination, we initially got no response at all from people, and it was only as word got out as to what was actually contained in the legislation—because, as I said, if you read the explanatory memorandum you would not actually realise that that was what was happening—that the responses started coming in from people saying, ‘What’s going on?’ How can we be taking away Indigenous representation from something as significant as the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority when Indigenous people do not even know that it is happening? We have not met with them; we have not sat down with them. I know that is not always easy; I know it takes a bit of time. That is the whole point.

I point this out as being a sort of unintended consequence. That seems always to be the way. I appreciate the political reasons why people wanted to generate a review of the marine park and all that sort of stuff. Everyone had their skirmishes over their particular positions on that. Let us look at what has happened along the way. The commercial fishers got their millions of dollars in compensation. There has been some power going out of the authority and some extra control going to the minister in terms of some of the other structures dealt with in this bill. I am not completely happy about that but we will see how things pan out. But, as always, the collateral damage along the way is to the Indigenous people; they are the losers. They lose their representation. They will just get thrown in amongst the non-statutory consultative committee, which ministers can listen to or not as they wish. It has been set up as someone else to listen to if they want to hear different advice, if they do not like what they get from GBRMPA itself. So everybody else has managed to get bits and pieces out of this but it is the Indigenous people who get shafted. So, well done everybody! We have all done very well. We have all scored our points. We have all had bits and pieces of wins along the way. Meanwhile, the Indigenous people lose their representation without anybody even seeming to notice or to think it was a matter for even a little bit of examination, a bit of further inquiry, a little further consultation. Instead, they seemed to say: ‘No, we’ll just pull out the Uhrig review; we’ll just tick the box. No representation. That’s that one done.’ That was about as much thought as it got. As the review of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Act 1975 noted:

There are more than 70 Traditional Owner groups along the Great Barrier Reef coast from Bundaberg to the eastern Torres Strait islands. Their traditional customs, spiritual lore and beliefs continue to be practised today. Their values and interests for islands, reefs and waters within the Great Barrier Reef and Torres Strait include physical places, story places and a range of other cultural and historical values.

The review also talks about the high number of Indigenous people who participate in fishing, and it notes:

Fishing is not only important for food and nutrition but also for ceremonial occasions, exchange, trade and barter. Fishing is an essential component of Indigenous cultural lifestyle and is connected to the traditional responsibilities of land management and kinship.

The review noted all these things and that there are native title claims over parts of the marine park that have been accepted and recognised. It noted that there is a whole range of other native title claims over other parts of the marine park. These people have direct native title interests here. And, in part because of the fact that there was an Indigenous representative on the authority who provided a direct line into the authority and gave Indigenous people some confidence that they could work with the authority and trust them, the authority produced a very significant marine park regional agreement, similar to an Indigenous land use agreement. It was highly important not only from an environmental management point of view but also because of the way that it linked Indigenous communities in with other people in the use of these areas. We have a government which is continually lecturing Indigenous people about getting more connected to the wider community. And yet, when Indigenous people have a mechanism for connection that has worked and is working, they take it away. Hopeless!