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Wednesday, 16 August 2017
Page: 5761


Senator SINGH (Tasmania) (10:42): The disarray that accompanied this bill's passage through the other place last night was by no means the most embarrassing thing that happened to the dysfunctional Turnbull government yesterday, but it was perhaps the clearest example—and there were so many examples—of this government's utter inability to govern itself, the parliament or the country in any manner that doesn't immediately descend into utter chaos.

The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Amendment Bill 2017 is a fairly simple bill. It corrects a technical issue with existing legislation, and Labor does support the bill. The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, the world's largest coral reef ecosystem, currently has four plans of management in place. They operate in Cairns, Hinchinbrook Island, Shoalwater Bay and the Whitsundays. This bill addresses those issues associated with the sunset clause in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Act 1975, and that has the effect of revoking plans of management where those regulations which give those plans effect are repealed. The changes proposed by this bill are designed to protect this automatic revocation, and the amendments do not have any further consequences for either policy or budgeting.

Labor are happy to support this bill; however, what we are unhappy about is how this little procedural bill is basically the only substantive interest in protecting the Great Barrier Reef that this government has shown since 2013. That is why the shadow minister, Tony Burke, moved a second reading amendment to this bill in the other place, so that the parliament could make clear its belief that the Turnbull government has completely failed to protect the Great Barrier Reef. That second reading amendment read:

… that:

(1) the Government is failing to protect Australia's iconic Great Barrier Reef by:

   (a) failing to act on climate change;

   (b) supporting the Liberal National Party in Queensland in blocking reef protections aimed at halting the broad

scale clearing of trees and remnant vegetation; and

   (c) winding back ocean protection, put in place by Labor, around Australia and specifically in the Coral Sea; and

(2) this Government cannot be trusted to protect the Great Barrier Reef and fight for Australia’s unique environment".

The government voted against this amendment, as you would expect. But what happened? They lost in the other place by 69 votes to 61. This government lost a vote on the floor of the other place—again. A government lost a second reading amendment on the floor of the other place for the second time since Federation—indeed, for the second time in the term of this government. The Leader of the House didn't just drop the ball on this vote, he couldn't even catch it in the first place. The government didn't lose the vote on this bill by just one vote, either; it wasn't a close-run thing. They lost by eight votes, by over five per cent of all the votes available to the government. Where was Mr Abbott for that vote? Where were Mr Falinski, Mr Entsch and Mr Ted O'Brien? Where were Minister Bishop and Mr Tehan? Where were Minister Chester and Minister Fletcher? Where was Minister Hunt, the former environment minister? Where were Minister Ciobo, Minister Keenan and Minister Dutton? Where were they for this vote? Where was Minister Wyatt? Where was the Prime Minister? Where was the constitutionally illegitimate, as he himself admitted yesterday, Minister Joyce? Where were they? Perhaps they agreed with the amendment—they should have. It was a comprehensive, humiliating defeat again for this government in the other place. It would have been bad enough if the government had happened to do this in isolation, but it happened so soon after question time. The mortification! I can just imagine it. Only one government has suffered such a defeat, and it is this government under this Prime Minister—twice.

But, to this bill: it's the only example of the government's legitimate attempts to protect the Great Barrier Reef, and it is a very, very pathetic and meagre attempt. Let me note for the Senate that the international community came together between 5 and 9 June this year, in New York, to recognise the importance of our oceans. When the Turnbull government appeared at that conservation conference it went about talking about the achievements of Australia and making its case as to why Australia should be recognised as a good citizen for protecting our oceans. What were the examples that the Turnbull government used to make the case of how good it is at protecting our oceans? They were the protections put in place by the previous, Labor, government, when Tony Burke was the environment minister. They are protections that this government is now trying to remove. At the conference, the government didn't mention that it is actively in the process of removing oceans' protections. You only have to look at what is happening to coral reefs throughout the world to recognise that the health of these areas is of extraordinary importance at this time of global warming. At a time when our oceans are under much more pressure than ever before and at a time when plastics, pollution, acidification and overfishing are all creating challenges in our ocean beyond what we have ever experienced before, what does this government decide to do? It decides to engage in the largest removal of protected areas in the history of any government on this planet. Of all the conservation decisions that have ever been made by any government in history, this government right now is engaging in the largest removal of areas from conservation ever. Look to the Coral Sea, the Osprey Reef, the Shark Reef, Bougainville, Marion Reef or Vema Reef. There are almost none that escape the cuts that this government is making. Half the areas that Labor established as marine national park, this government wants to remove.

The minister has said, completely disingenuously, 'Look, it's not a problem because the boundaries are being kept the same; we're just changing the rules on what you can do inside them.' Imagine if the Labor government took half the national parks established under Malcolm Fraser on land and said, 'Look, it's fine, the boundaries are still the same; you are just allowed to go in now and shoot all the bandicoots.' This is just bizarre and offensive in the extreme, and it's exactly what this government is proposing to do with the national parks that have been established in our oceans.

When an area is first protected, there is often the political argument about the boundaries and the level of protection, like when Joh Bjelke-Petersen wanted to drill in the Great Barrier Reef or like when Bob Hawke was determined to make sure that we save the Franklin, the Daintree and Kakadu. Once these have been protected, there have been no backward steps. Even though the Fraser government might not have liked some of the decisions the Whitlam government made, once they were made they respected them and there were no backward steps in environmental protection. At the time some World Heritage listings were made, even though the Howard government opposed some of the protections that had been put in place by the Hawke and Keating governments, once Howard came into office they had a decision of no backward steps.

National parks in the ocean make a real difference and we've got proof that they make a real difference. The proof comes from when the Howard government did the right thing on this. The Howard government established the zoning in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. The Howard government—quite bravely at that time, and against the views of some of its own membership—put in some areas where no fishing would be allowed at all and other areas where sustainable fishing would be allowed. And now the science is in on what the Howard government did. Coral trout inside protected areas of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park have 80 per cent additional biomass above the coral trout in the non-protected areas. It has been established and proven by the Howard government itself that protected areas make a substantial difference in the health of the environment, but this government has decided to break that accord that Australia has observed ever since environmental protection first began.

The 44 large-scale marine reserves that Labor established are the areas that science says we should and ought to protect. The Marine Bioregionalisation of Australia—out of which most of the existing marine reserves are based, including those in the south-east of the country, like around Tasmania—is drawn from integrating multidisciplinary data into a picture of how biodiversity is structured across Australia's oceans. The understanding allows us to know what we need to protect and where the areas most at risk are if we don't act soon. These reserves remain an incredible opportunity to turn the tide on the protection of oceans. These marine reserves are the most comprehensive network of marine protected areas in the world and represent the largest addition to the conservation estate in Australia's history. If left alone, this new network of marine reserves would help ensure that Australia's diverse marine environment and the life it supports remain healthy, productive and resilient not just for this generation but, of course, for future generations.

But that hope, I fear, is swiftly dwindling. The Abbott and Turnbull governments are the first governments we have had in this country which have been willing to remove areas of protection. We saw it with the World Heritage areas in my home state of Tasmania, where this government sought to get the World Heritage Committee to take areas out of protection. The World Heritage Committee dealt with that application in just three minutes. Portugal—where the meeting was held—described this government's application as 'feeble', and the committee threw it out unanimously. But this government has kept on keeping on, doing this now to the oceans.

In fact, the Turnbull government is worse on this than the Abbott government. The Abbott government commissioned a review into Labor's marine national parks, and, after all the claims that those opposite made that this wasn't science based, the Abbott government review then came back and said, yes, it was. And then the government decided to gut the protections anyway. This government's own review said the principles upon which these plans were put in place were science based, and yet this government is now looking at making the decision to remove the largest areas of conservation that have ever been undertaken by any country in the world.

Labor has a proud history of protecting and defending the Great Barrier Reef. This includes the Whitlam government's implementation of Australia's first marine reserves over the reef. Labor also more recently established Australia's marine reserve network, the largest network of marine protected areas anywhere in the world. In the light of the extensive loss of coral and significant threats to the reef's health posed by climate change, it is ever more pressing that this legacy be upheld today.

One important practical tool to protect and support the Great Barrier Reef is its plans of management. Plans of management assist with the implementation of ecologically sustainable practices and effective environmental management, especially for at-risk or vulnerable species or ecosystems in desperate need of protection.

Labor's environmental policy commitments go much further in their protective efforts. Specifically, Labor's Great Barrier Reef marine plan involves more-coordinated and efficient long-term management of the reef that is appropriately funded and resourced. This includes investing up to $100 million to review and improve current management practices in the reef, in consultation with relevant stakeholders, and this is further supported by Labor's comprehensive Climate Change Action Plan, which will deliver real action on climate change and, in so doing, preclude its harmful effect on the reef, including coral bleaching.

This government has a job to do and should get on and do it, instead of navel-gazing at its dysfunction constantly. It should get back to the consensus that existed throughout the Howard government and throughout the Fraser government. Our Great Barrier Reef has been here for generations. Once an area is protected, there can be no backward steps. A process of protection that began under Keating, continued under Howard and was concluded in the last Labor government is now potentially being gutted by this dysfunctional, out-of-touch Turnbull government. Is that to be Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull's legacy—to turn the Great Barrier Reef into just a barrier? Well, Labor won't allow that to happen. We will always stand to protect the Great Barrier Reef, and we have a plan to do so.