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Thursday, 28 August 2008
Page: 4037

Senator IAN MACDONALD (1:23 PM) —This is a very important piece of legislation because it deals with a truly Australian icon, one of the wonders of the world. It deals with the Great Barrier Reef, the world’s largest and arguably most complex ecosystem—some 2,900 individual reefs, 760 fringing reefs around islands or mainland, and some 900 islands within the marine park. It is managed for multiple uses, including a very important tourism industry which provides the means for 1.9 million visitors from Australia and around the world to experience one of the most spectacular ecosystems on the planet. It is worth nearly $6 billion a year to the regional and Australian economy. The reef supports a diverse fishing industry—important commercial line, net and trawl industries—and is widely used by fishers, including many families, along its more than 3,000 kilometres of coastline. The recreational fishing industry generates some hundreds of millions of dollars of income for communities along the Barrier Reef and for our nation.

As well, the reef has particular cultural significance to Australia’s Indigenous peoples and we have a profound responsibility to manage the environmental, social, cultural and historical contexts of the Great Barrier Reef and also to manage very carefully the evolving pressures as more and more people wish to access the reef. The outcomes of the 2006 review of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Act 1975 are aimed at delivering modern legislation for the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park to ensure that we are capable of the long-term protection needs of the future.

This is a bill that evolved during the management of the previous government and it started way back in Dr David Kemp’s time as minister and even before that when Senator Robert Hill was the minister. Certainly the bulk of the work was done by Dr David Kemp and was carried on by Senator Ian Campbell. A lot of work was done by the environment department and Mr Borthwick, its secretary. The review was a very complete one and one which suggested certain amendments to enable the proper protection of the reef. So, quite clearly, the coalition will be supporting the general thrust of this bill and nearly all of the amendments.

However, at this stage, for the convenience of the government, the Greens and the two Independent senators, I want to very briefly indicate the way that the coalition will be dealing with this piece of legislation. Later on, Senator Scullion, the Leader of the National Party in the Senate, will be moving a second reading amendment to refer the bill to the Standing Committee on Environment, Communications and the Arts for inquiry and report. Senator Scullion will speak to that later. I will not say any more except to alert the chamber that that will be raised later as a second reading amendment.

When the bill gets to the committee stage the coalition has several amendments that we will be moving. I appreciate that at this time in debate I do not need to alert the chamber to what we are doing, and some may say that it is unwise to do that—that it is always useful to catch your opponents off guard—but I think this is such an important issue that I want, in this second reading debate, to alert others to what is happening so that they can be properly informed and can properly assess the approach the coalition is going to take.

There is an amendment that I just wish to mention briefly. In relation to the board of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, the proposal in the bill is that the number on the board be increased from three to five. Of course we support that. One of those members, according to the legislation before us, is to be an Indigenous person. We will be moving an amendment to say that, as well, one of those board members should be a person with experience in the tourism or another industry associated with the Great Barrier Reef.

This amendment has come forward after consultation with those who are vitally involved in the proper management of this Australian icon, and it is an amendment that I would hope would find support from the government as well as from the minor parties and Independents here. I think it is essential, in making sure that we have the best people in charge of the authority, that we have a wide range of experience, and I think it would be remiss of the parliament if we did not insist that those in whose interests it is to make sure the reef is very carefully managed are given a say on the board. I appreciate it is not a representative board; it is a board of people with skills to do the right thing—but we are signifying an Indigenous person there, and I think we should also ensure that one of the appointees is someone with experience in tourism or one of the other businesses that deal with the reef.

The other coalition amendment that I will be moving, also on behalf of Senator Boswell, is again an amendment that I would hope would find favour with the government, if not the Greens. I certainly hope it would find favour with the Independents as well. It relates to the early stages of the rearrangement of the Great Barrier Reef. I will go into this in more detail when we are dealing with the amendments at the committee stage, but I just wanted to alert people to where we were going.

When the new zoning arrangements to the reef came in just prior to 2004, I think it was, it meant a whole new range of zones were put in place in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. They ranged from green, no-take zones to yellow zones, which allowed some recreational fishing—different zones for different things, in accordance with what is seen as best practice in managing a very fragile marine environment like we have in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. They were very controversial in some cases, and I know my colleagues Senator Boswell and Senator Joyce will be talking, among other things, about the impact those zones had on the fishing industry, on the lives of many families and on the economies of many communities up along the coastline that hosts the Great Barrier Reef. They were controversial. They were subject to a lot of discussion, a lot of arguments, but they were eventually implemented by regulation in this parliament, and the regulation was never disallowed by this parliament, so they stood.

There was a lot of angst about the management of those zones—and, again, others will tell you about them in the course of the debate. But I want to briefly go to the issue of enforcement. Once these plans came in, there were a number—the figures vary—of charges laid against people who were alleged to have breached the rules for these new zones. In many cases, in accordance with the legislation, fines were imposed and convictions were recorded. Although some of those charged disputed they had done anything wrong, the general feeling was that if you have to go to court and have to engage a lawyer it will cost you an arm and a leg, and the fines were not thought to be particularly large, so a lot of people just let them go through to the keeper.

One person did challenge them many years after the event, and a court determined—and I speak very broadly here; I am not going into the detail—that determining someone’s position on the ocean via GPS was not a proper substantiation of their entry into a zone where they should not be, and the court ruled against the conviction in that instance. Now, if any others had decided to challenge those charges in court, they might have had the same result. But a lot of them did not, and that is understandable; it is very difficult at times to justify the financial burden of taking these issues to court.

However, many people—in fact, I would suggest, most people—did not realise that the offences with which they had been charged were indeed criminal offences, which had the result of giving them a criminal record. To that in itself you might say, ‘So what,’ although it does have some implications when applying for jobs. But it does have a more serious consequence in that we received reports that people convicted of these offences who applied for visas to foreign countries had been knocked back on the basis that they had a criminal conviction. This was far from the intention of the legislature, of the government, and, I am sure, even of the prosecutors when these offences were recorded. So there has been this unintended and quite serious consequence, a record of criminal conviction, for actions which, although they might have been offences, are a bit like speeding offences almost.

So as a result of a lot of work by my colleagues, particularly, I have to say, Senator Boswell, this issue was raised and we have been trying to work out how we can ameliorate the effects of these convictions. During estimates in May of this year I raised these issues with both the Minister representing the Minister for Home Affairs, who deals with pardons, and the Minister representing the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and the Arts, and sought their advice on how you can go about getting pardons. I want to be fair; I do not want to verbal them and say that they agreed that, yes, we should do this; but the answers I was given in estimates suggested to me that it was appropriate for these people to apply for pardons and that if applications for pardons were made they would be seriously considered. To that end, I put a proforma on my website, inviting people to use it as an application to the minister. I have no idea of the outcome; it is a matter between the convicted person and the minister. I have no idea how many applied or even whether they applied. Senator O’Brien, I think it was, mentioned yesterday that there were only four who had applied for pardons, and I accept that he is telling the truth on that. I understand, although this has not been confirmed, that none of those applications have been successfully dealt with or acceded to by the Minister for Home Affairs—but, again, I do not know that.

Anyhow, the coalition will move amendments to this act to try and ameliorate those very harsh and, I suggest, unintended consequences of convictions under section 38CA of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Act 1975 by expunging the records of convictions. I say this deliberately to alert the government and the minor parties to the fact that I have circulated two amendments, the first of which will call for those who were convicted during that period, under that section, to receive a free and absolute pardon by the Governor-General in the exercise of the royal prerogative of mercy. I would hope that that amendment will attract the support of the majority in this chamber and, indeed, in the other chamber. I have circulated an amendment to give other parties time to consider it, look at it and perhaps alert me if we have not covered all of the legal implications that adoption of that amendment might bring. In all fairness, to try and get to a result in this issue, I speak briefly about that now.

I also have what I would call a foreshadowed amendment. If for some reason the majority of the Senate is not prepared to go as far as a pardon, I have a foreshadowed amendment which asks that those convictions be treated as spent convictions, under part 7C of the Crimes Act, meaning that, although the convictions stand, the record of those conditions will be expunged from the record so that they do not have to be disclosed by anyone. Whether that will have an impact on foreign countries dealing with visa applications, I do not know—that is a matter for the law of other countries—but I think it is the best we can do. I hope the pardon amendment will receive favourable consideration; if not, there is a fallback position. I mention those openly in advance so that other parties, including Independents and the Greens, can have a look at those issues.

With those amendments, the coalition will be supporting the bill. As I mentioned earlier, and Senator Scullion will speak more about this, we hope that a committee of the parliament could have a closer look at the bill. I know Senator Joyce has concerns about some definitions, and he will no doubt tell the Senate about that later. It is something that could be looked a little more closely without interfering with the appropriate passage of the bulk of this bill, which I think all the parties do support.

In conclusion, I make the point that the Great Barrier Reef is part of our environmental heritage and it is part of who we are as Australians. It is our responsibility to protect it. All Australians—Indigenous and other Australians—are custodians of the reef and we have to play our part in ensuring that it is properly protected. The bill, as I said, introduced by the current government, has taken four or five years to draft and present to the parliament. Even after all that time, it still has issues that need to be further addressed, and they will be addressed by my colleagues in speaking to the bill. Ultimately, it is legislation which the coalition proposed and it has been adopted by the current government, with some amendments. It is the result of the desire of all of us to ensure that the Great Barrier Reef continues to be maintained in the best possible way. I commend the bill to the Senate and urge the Senate to seriously consider the amendments that I have foreshadowed for the bill.