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Monday, 1 September 2008
Page: 4137

Senator SIEWERT (1:11 PM) —I would like to remind the chamber what we are talking about. We are talking about a bill, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park and Other Legislation Amendment Bill 2008, that makes a number of amendments to the act which, overall, modernise and strengthen the act. We are talking about a bill that modernises and strengthens the act, and the act is there to protect the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, which is the largest and most extensive coral reef system in the world. It covers an area of 344,400 square kilometres. It is one of the richest, most complex and most diverse ecosystems in the world, and that is highly significant. It is an honour for Australia to have such an important reef. It is a unique and diverse marine system that comprises 2,900 reefs, 600 continental islands and 300 coral cays. It is home to 1,500 species of fish; one-third of the world’s soft corals; 13,000 dugongs—Australia’s entire population is estimated to be around 90,000, so it is a very significant proportion of those dugongs; six species of marine turtles, all of which are listed as threatened; and 30 species of cetaceans—whales and dolphins. It has been recognised for many years and it has been listed as a World Heritage site. It is in fact the largest World Heritage area in the world. Unfortunately, the area is facing a great many threats, not least of which, and coming down right at us, is the impact of climate change. Many predictions are that it is going to have a very severe impact on the reef. In other words, we as Australians have a responsibility to protect this reef.

I also remind the chamber that there has been extensive review of the management of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park and extensive consultation—years in the making. As Senator Boswell pointed out, there has been a big compensation package also. So I find it quite astounding that at the last minute to midnight the coalition start jumping up and down, when originally this legislation was listed as non-contro legislation. All of a sudden, at one minute to midnight, they have discovered major issues with it. The Greens, as people know, opposed the previous motion by Senator Fielding to send this off to a committee because the original date of reporting was 10 November and the Greens think there has been adequate consultation around this particular legislation. We are very keen to get moving and get this very important legislation in place. So that is why we thought that it was entirely inappropriate to send it off to a committee. We need to get these important protections in place for the reef, not to push it off yet again. Sending it off to a committee to report in November is far too late.

Let us look at what some of these changes are. The changes are to the objects and applications of the act, putting in place a new objects section, with the primary object of the act being the long-term protection of the environment, biodiversity and heritage values of the GBR. They are absolutely essential amendments from the point of view of the Greens, and it is about time that that primary objective was finally put in place. The changes also put in place for the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority a requirement for at least one member of the authority to be an Indigenous person. I do not think there will be any objection to that; I certainly hope not. The changes proclaim the new marine park, zoning plans and plans of management; improve the environmental impact assessment process; look at the investigation and enforcement regime for the park; and also, as other senators have pointed out, provide for offences and the civil penalties, under schedule 6.

All of these are important amendments. So we are deeply concerned because this legislation has been a long time in consultation and in the making, and originally it appeared to us that the intention was to keep putting it off and putting it off. Issues have been raised around the definition of ‘fishing’. As far as I understand it, the definition of fishing is the same one that currently exists in the act. What this bill in fact does is move it to the definition provisions of the act. The definition covers:

searching for, or taking, fish;

attempting to search for, or take, fish;

engaging in any other activity that can reasonably be expected to result in the locating of, or taking of, fish;

…            …            …

any operations at sea directly in support of, or in preparation for, any activity described in this definition;

We believe that this is a reasonable definition of fishing. And one wonders if all the consequences that Senator Scullion has just pointed out are going to result when it is the current definition. Have we had these troubles to date? As I understand it, they are not the issues that have been raised in relation to those people who have now got a criminal conviction. I do not think they deny fishing. I think it is about the location in which they were fishing, not the act of fishing. It is very important that we make the point that this is the same definition that was previously in the act. Yes, it has moved. Yes, there are amendments. But it is still about the taking of fish—not, as Senator Joyce pointed out, about considering the taking of fish. One wonders if the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority now have extrasensory perception and can read people’s minds about whether or not they are considering fishing.

I think that is a distraction and that what is happening at the moment is an attempt to slow down this legislation which, as I said, has been a long time in the making. There has been a lot of consultation. Yes, there is discontent in the industry. But it is time that the act was modernised and strengthened to do what the rest of Australia wants it to do, and that is to protect the Great Barrier Reef and to put in place the primary objective: the long-term protection of the environment, biodiversity and heritage values of the most important reef in the world. That is why the Greens did not support putting this off any longer by referring it to another inquiry to raise the same issues that have been raised ad nauseam in this place about dealing with the criminal convictions that fishers have faced.

I am seeking further advice, but I have never heard of putting into a piece of legislation pardons for people. Senator Ludwig last week explained to this place what provisions the government has made to move towards fixing the issues. I can appreciate that having a criminal conviction on your record can lead to problems for you and is scary. Just ask the thousands of people that have convictions on their records for protesting to protect the environment. I have never heard anybody, other than Greens senators, standing up and trying to defend those people—and those people have exactly the same concerns about criminal convictions on their records when all they have been doing is standing up for the environment. All of a sudden, because these people are fishers, we have to hear it forever and ever. I look forward to the day the same people stand up for the rights and the protections of those who stand up purely for the environment—not for self-interest, not for taking things from the environment, but to protect it. As I said, I look forward to people standing up and speaking out for them.

We accept that both the government and the opposition will be sending legislation to a committee. Thank goodness it is now for a shorter time frame. I expect that then we will have a debate on this bill and it will get passed by this place so that the necessary protections for the Great Barrier Reef are finally put in place, because these are the things that are important. Protecting this World Heritage reef is what is important. That is what we are debating here. People seem to have lost sight of the fact that this debate is about actually protecting the Great Barrier Reef—a reef that is endangered; a reef that all scientists are now saying is under extreme threat.

Australia has a global responsibility to protect this reef and it needs to do its utmost to protect it. Here we are having arguments about the definition of fishing when what we are trying to do is achieve better protection for the Great Barrier Reef. I urge senators to bear that in mind when they are considering this legislation—what we are actually talking about is the future of the reef itself, which is threatened and endangered and has many endangered species. If we do not manage it properly, future generations will ask: ‘What were you doing? You were fiddling around while the future of this very, very important place was going down the drain.’ I am extremely disappointed that these issues are still being brought up when they have been brought up, as I said, ad nauseam in this place. The government has in fact moved to fix it, yet we are still talking about it. We were told last week that only four people have applied for a pardon. This has been talked and talked about, yet only four people have applied for a pardon. Please, let’s get on with it and start legislating for the protection of the most important reef system in the world. How embarrassing: internationally they are looking at us fighting about the definition of fishing when we are talking about the most important reef in the world. Please, let’s get on with it.