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Thursday, 21 June 2007
Page: 139

Senator O’BRIEN (5:08 PM) —There are two pieces of legislation before the chamber, the Fisheries Legislation Amendment Bill 2007 and the Fisheries Levy Amendment Bill 2007. We will be supporting these bills, not because we have a view that this government has a great record in the management of fisheries—in fact, we believe that this government has the worst record in the mismanagement of fisheries of any Australian government. This was confirmed in the recent Bureau of Rural Science Fishery Status Reports 2005, which concluded that the number of fisheries classified as overfished or subject to overfishing rose from four when this government took office in 1997 to 24 in 2005. In November 2005 this record of mismanagement culminated in the government announcing the latest restructure of Commonwealth managed fisheries in Australia’s history, with $150 million allocated to buy back commercial fishing licences and a further $70 million in complementary assistance.

The former minister, Senator Ian Macdonald, was sacked due to incompetence, and the government was forced to impose a raft of tough new policy measures on fishery management agencies, particularly AFMA. Soon after, the government flagged a major restructure of AFMA, and the package of changes announced is the government’s legislative response to the policy announcements made back in 2005 and subsequently in part. At the same time, the government has presided over major failings in fisheries compliance and enforcement, in relation to both domestic fishery and illegal foreign fishing vessels. Frankly, the government took its eye off the growing problem of illegal foreign fishing in Australia’s north and south, forcing it into a panicky policy response and throwing hundreds of millions of taxpayers’ dollars into an illegal foreign fishing crackdown. However, at the same time the government has allowed significant underspending in domestic compliance. All this while there was a growing and dramatic increase in the number of overfished fish species.

This record of mismanagement has angered Australia’s fishing industry and has generated unprecedented concern in the community about the status of Australia’s fisheries, resources and oceans. Many fishermen feel vilified and victimised by harsh government policy, which has been developed and implemented in an atmosphere of crisis and panic due to a decade of mismanagement. This government has run out of ideas for assisting the local seafood industry and it is not interested in addressing the unfair playing field for local seafood producers.

There are eight major failings of this government, but one failing that ought to be highlighted is the campaign being run about dodgy prawns. This horrifies the Australian industry, but Minister Abetz is completely incapable of convincing his ministerial colleague Mr Downer that the very poisonous campaign that is being run on the television and in the print media is damaging the Australian prawn industry. Indeed, it is clear that the Department of Foreign Affairs well knew that the campaign would attract interest to the problems that might be occasioned by eating a prawn and would well have known that, whilst the stated intention was to do with consuming seafood overseas and the need for health insurance, the spin-off for the Australian industry was palpable. That is the view of the industry. So that is another shot in the eye for the industry from this government.

This is a government that has failed to protect Australia’s seafood industry from exotic diseases, and one only has to refer officials from Biosecurity Australia being reported as saying that disease such as white spot virus could devastate Australia’s prawn industry. In November last year, Minister Abetz promised a crackdown on the importation of uncooked prawns, but there has been no action—nothing has happened. We are nearly halfway through the year and the government still allows diseased imported prawns to enter Australia. This represents another direct threat to the disease-free status of the $450 million Australian prawn industry.

The government has an appalling record on seafood labelling. Every hard-working seafood producer in Australia knows the story: importers are allowed to bring in seafood from farms in Asia, these are on-sold as premium products by some unscrupulous retailers and in many cases cheap imports are falsely labelled as a premium local Australian product. The government was alerted to this emerging problem in the late 90s and has done nothing about it. Only recently has it moved to introduce country-of-origin labelling on imported seafood products, and the government only acted after it was embarrassed by a massive public campaign by the seafood industry. The government has also failed to respond to the longstanding concerns of local seafood producers about the lack of a level playing field with imported products. The Australian industry is required to meet some of the highest standards in the world for food safety quarantine and environmental protection, and these requirements impose significant costs on the local industry. Most local producers are happy to meet them; however, no such requirement exists for imported seafood products. Seafood importers are not required to meet the same benchmarks as those imposed on our local industries, and this creates a very unfair trading environment where Australian law imposes a significant cost on local producers yet allows a vast amount of imported product which does not meet the same standards as domestic producers. Frankly, it is a large part of the reason why the balance of trade in seafood products has been steadily growing in favour of imports and why these seafood imports can arrive in Australia at such a low cost.

The government, as I said, has failed to manage fish stocks. As I outlined earlier, the government recognised its own inadequate management of Commonwealth fisheries back in December 2005 when the then minister, Senator Ian Macdonald, announced a $220 million package called Securing our Fishing Future. At the time he said:

The Australian Government has made it very clear that it wishes AFMA to accelerate its current programs to prevent overfishing, rebuild overfished stocks, and to take a more strategic approach to setting catch limits in future. The message from the Australian Government is clear: overfishing in Commonwealth fisheries is unacceptable and if you think you can’t operate in that environment you should consider applying for the buyout.

Put this into context: this announcement was an admission by the government that it had failed to prevent overfishing. It was a panicked response to a serious situation where the very survival of some of Australia’s most important fish species was at threat, as was the survival of the fishing businesses that depended on them. Earlier this year, the Bureau of Rural Sciences released its Fishery Status Reports 2005. That is an important paper. It shows that 24 of 83 species assessed are classified as ‘overfished’ and/or ‘subject to overfishing’. This is up from four when the Howard government was elected. Of the remaining species, 40 are classified as ‘uncertain’. This means that almost half of the surveyed stocks might be overfished but the government does not know because it has not gathered enough information. Of the remaining species identified only 19 are classified as ‘not overfished’.

The $220 million buyout package is the government’s attempt to fix the mess that has been created on its watch. Fishing families and onshore businesses have been badly impacted by the government’s poor fisheries management. According to the recent budget papers, nearly $27 million of the fisheries restructure package remained unspent this financial year and has been rolled over into the coming financial year.

In terms of illegal fishing, I am still waiting for the minister to correct the record from an answer he gave, because I have asked many questions about this in estimates—indeed, 61 in the February round, I think. I asked the minister in the last estimates to explain why the government had reduced its fisheries enforcement spending in the face of worrying statistics about an increase in the occurrence of breaches of fishery law under current inspections. The minister said:

Look, there are undoubtedly a whole host of reasons AFMA have indicated to you. I have not heard any complaints from the fishing sector that AFMA have been too soft or not pursuing investigations or prosecutions with sufficient rigour.

I will say this: despite the 15.6 per cent increase in the number of offences detected, the government underspent the enforcement budget every year since 2002. What does that say about a commitment to monitoring the industry?

It is certainly the case that there has been a lot of comment about illegal foreign fishing. The government has of late thrown resources towards that. The jury is still out as to whether the reduction is due to the fact that some of the species fished are so overfished that some fishermen are not coming and others are moving closer to the Australian coast to catch fish, in particular the sharks that are being targeted in northern Australian waters.

The opposition really does think that it is time for the government to accept responsibility for its failures. We support the legislative measures that this bill takes in relation to the Torres Strait fishery and the joint protected zone. We did receive some indications, when the legislation was introduced, that some measures were not satisfactory to the communities from the Torres Strait because of their desire to have more control over the fishery in their waters. Those concerns have apparently been addressed in recent times, because we have been advised by the Torres Strait fishery representatives that they are happy for this legislation to pass in the form in which it has been presented to the parliament.

There was a matter that I think has been referred to in the most recent Scrutiny of Bills Committee report. That report, I believe, deals with a problem in terms of the standard of proof required for the prosecution of certain offences. I think we need a very short committee stage to have an explanation from the minister as to how this scheme will work, given that, at the time the Senate committee looked at this matter, we were not made aware of the problems that were arising in the Scrutiny of Bills Committee. I think we need to have something on the record here about that.