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Thursday, 24 November 2011
Page: 9470

Senator FURNER (Queensland) (10:34): I rise this morning also to make a contribution to the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Bioregional Plans) Bill 2011, which seeks to amend the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999. I do so as a proud Queenslander who has lived in that state all of my life. I travelled to the Great Barrier Reef in my early teens, joining those who now amount to some 1.6 million visitors each year, to see the beauty of that marvellous piece of our coast and its biodiversity. I, along with many others, will continue to travel to that area of Queensland to see the particular beauty of our land there.

Under the bill before us, the bioregional plans and the proclamation of Common­wealth reserves become legislative instru­ments and are therefore disallowed. That causes enormous problems for the regions and its communities, and for the workers up in that area around Cairns, right down as far as the Whitsundays. People who have visited the Great Barrier Reef realise it has a substantive area of coverage, ranging from the tip of Cape York right down to just below Gladstone.

In the past, those opposite have actively opposed any marine planning, including activities such as consultation and draft plans being undertaken to deliver the government's marine plan election commitment. It is a commitment that we proudly put our stamp on. The Labor Party have a strong environ­mental policy and we believe in the environment. We do not just make tokenistic claims or present tokenistic bills in this chamber that are disingenuous in order to claim that we are environmentalists. We are environmentalists in the Labor Party and this is why we will be opposing this bill.

The Senate Environment and Communications Legislation Committee, which inquired into this bill, recommended that the bill not be passed. The committee indicated that it may reduce transparency in decision making. In fact, in their report they said:

The committee is particularly concerned with the potential financial hardship and uncertainty that the disallowance process may cause affected businesses, communities and other stakeholders.

They went on to say:

The committee considers that the Bill, if passed, would not contribute to a more effective and efficient environmental management process.

At a time when we are just coming off the back of a global financial crisis, and bearing in mind the terrible natural disasters that we have had in North Queensland just this year—Cyclone Yasi and the flooding—we cannot afford to exacerbate issues for businesses, communities and other stake­holders on the coast of North Queensland.

One of the other things that needs to be recognised is that, if passed, the bill would make bioregional plans and marine reserve networks disallowable. If they were disallowed, the consultation process would have to be repeated. Really, this bill is just another example of an opposition who oppose for the sake of opposing, and we have had plenty of that over many months. They do not have a policy, they do not have a position on things like this. This is tokenistic, disingenuous and should not be accepted.

Conversely, however, the Gillard government are working with communities to put in place marine plans and develop marine reserves to protect our precious marine environment for future generations and to ensure sustainable fishing and tourism industries exist. This is hand-in-hand with the Queensland Labor government. Senator Mason, who is in the chamber, would know this, coming from Queensland. We have a strong environmental commitment to our constituents in the state of Queensland. It is something we are extremely proud of, and we will sustain that position as a state government and also as a federal government. We will make sure that areas like the Great Barrier Reef are protected.

In stark contrast, the Liberal-National coalition is seeking to scare and divide communities up there by spreading misinformation. I have quite often heard speakers opposite indicate the loss of jobs, the loss of fishing opportunities, the loss of businesses. The scaremongering they did in the lead-up to the clean energy bills is common knowledge. It was a case of their leader, Mr Abbott, going into communities and knocking on the doors of any businesses that would allow him access and scaring them, telling them that their businesses would be closed down, their workers shifted overseas and so on. We are not surprised that the scaremongering is continuing. It appears to be the only policy that the opposition have.

The opposition's bill would mean uncertainty for commercial and recreational fishers. It does nothing but create uncertainty for those communities, and that is an area we are extremely concerned about. I am interested, in that regard, in some of the comments made by the previous speakers. I was interested to hear Senator Macdonald indicate that the laws put in place under John Howard were put in place in the:

… best interests of marine conservation, for ensuring that our seas and oceans were well managed and well looked after.

I have not heard a greater hypocritical comment in my life than that statement. I say that on the back of what is happening in Queensland now. We have a situation up there, which you are probably unfamiliar with, Mr Acting Deputy President Back, where the opposition leader is not in the Legislative Assembly. He has not been elected by the people of Queensland; however, he is the opposition leader. I am referring to Campbell Newman. He has indicated already that he is going to wind back particular environmental laws that have protected certain areas of the environment in Cape York. I am referring specifically to wild rivers. In fact, they are going to wind back laws on four of the rivers that are listed in the cape: the Wenlock, the Stewart, the Archer and the Lockhart rivers. I have been up in that area on many occasions and seen the beautiful, pristine areas of the Wenlock. I have actually caught a barramundi in that river. It demonstrates the hypocrisy of those opposite when they come in here and claim that the Howard government legislation was in the interests of ensuring seas and oceans are well managed, yet those in the LNP in Queensland are prepared to wind back legislation that has been put in by the state Labor government. It is great legislation, it is there to protect those beautiful rivers, and the LNP leader up there, Mr Newman, wants to wind it back so that mining will be allowed on those rivers. I am genuinely concerned about what that will do to the likes of the Wenlock River.

In mentioning the Wenlock River, can I say that this is where the hypocrisy really hits home. Everyone knows Steve Irwin in this place—a lot of people around the world know Steve. When Steve passed away, as an acknowledgement of his commitment to the environment—Steve was a true conservat­ionist—John Howard, as the Prime Minister at that time, presented him with the opportunity to have a piece of land, about 130 hectares, on the edge of the Wenlock River and taking in the Wenlock River. Mr Acting Deputy President, I would love to take you there one day. You would understand the importance of this and you would understand the hypocrisy of those opposite in saying, 'We are environ­mentalists.' Maybe John Howard was an environmentalist; I do not know. He was one person whose policies I despised. In fact, the manner in which he dealt with workers and Work Choices was the catalyst for my decision to enter politics. But he may have had a bone of conservationism or environ­mentalism in him because he gave that land to the Irwins in recognition of the great work that Steve had done. I spoke to Terri Irwin recently about this and she is just horrified that we will lose beautiful, pristine rivers like the Wenlock River. In fact, she has been quoted in the press as saying:

Considering that a child dies every 20 seconds ... from drinking polluted water, I think it's absolutely ridiculous to be considering anything other than supporting wild rivers.

An environmentalist like Terri Irwin has come out and said that, yet you have the likes of Campbell Newman wanting to destroy the Wenlock River by allowing mining on that river and on four other rivers up on the cape.

I enjoyed Senator Bernardi's comment about having no fear of catching any fish. I have had that same issue at times, but the cape is one of those areas where—and I am sure Senator Scullion will concur with these comments—there are places you can go where you are guaranteed a good catch of fish. When I was up there earlier this year, I had the opportunity to go out around Weipa and I caught a bagful of fish—not to take home but to release. We only kept one fish and that was the only barramundi we caught.

This is what we are about as a Labor government. We are about protecting certain areas to make sure the opportunity exists for our children and grandchildren to throw a line in the water and catch a fish—generally to release them, because that is what true environmentalists and fishers are about up there. They understand the importance of their children having an opportunity to fish and that that is something we need to preserve for future generations. I do understand where Senator Bernardi was coming from, but there needs to be protection when we are doing these sorts of things and certainly this bill does not allow that.

I have had the great opportunity to be involved with the Reef and Rainforest Research Centre in Cairns. Several years ago they took me out onto the reef and they expressed their concerns about damage being done to the reef, they expressed concerns about issues associated with the environment and they expressed concerns about what was happening with land management. But farmers in the region, as a result of consultation, have been taking a responsible approach and have been considering the way they conduct their agriculture and their land use in those areas. That is, to some degree, lessening the impact on the reef. But on that visit I was quite alarmed to see certain parts of the reef suffering from bleaching. I have been to reefs in other parts of the world where all you see is white coral—it is dead. I would hate to see us end up in a situation where that is what we present to the 1.6 million visitors who travel to the reef each year.

Given that we are talking about the reef, I should record a few things about it. It is certainly an international tourist icon. An amazing number of people travel there, not only from our country but from throughout the world, just to see this amazing living reef. It is 2,900 unconnected coral reefs and, when you fly from the cape down to Cairns in a light aircraft, you can see this amazing structure. It is one of those structures you can see from the moon, I think. It stretches over 2,000 kilometres from the south of Papua New Guinea to Bundaberg. So it is a broad expanse of reef. There are also about 900 islands within the Great Barrier Reef. You see them, surrounded by all the different colours of the reef, as you fly down from the cape.

The reef is largely made up of complex and diverse coral reef systems, but it is also home to over 1,500 species of fish, 400 species of coral and many rare and endangered species in addition to that. It also supports the largest dugong populations in the world and it is an important breeding and feeding ground for whales and dolphins as well. Six of the world's seven species of marine turtle can be found there.

Complementing the reef's natural wonders is a rich cultural heritage. For thousands of years, this unique marine environment has been central to the social, economic and spiritual life of nearby coastal Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, many of whom I met with in my visits up around Cairns. I enjoyed the Dreamtime stories they told about this beautiful part of the world.

This amazing part of our state of Queensland makes a major contribution to tourism. As I indicated, there are 1.6 million visitors per year and the marine tourism industry generates $1 billion per annum for the local and Australian economies. That number of 1.6 million visitors has remained relatively consistent since the 1990s, demonstrating that people continue to want to travel there and see part of the reef and, no doubt, other parts of the hinterland around the back of the reef. People realise it is an important tourism area. Of the 1.6 million visitors, about 85 per cent visit the marine park. So not only do they go there to visit the wetlands, the rainforests up in the Daintree, the lakes at the back of Mareeba or the other activities around that area but 85 per cent of them go to visit the marine park in the area offshore from Cairns out to the Whitsundays, the marine park making up about 10 per cent of that larger area. There are approximately 730 tourist operators and 1,500 vessels and aircraft permitted to operate in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. About 60 per cent of these operators are actively undertaking tourism operations in the marine park. So you can see that the reef is sustaining lives and the operation of businesses up there. We are concerned that, should this bill be passed, that will all be jeopardised by the issues I have identified. We cannot afford to allow businesses—when we are off the back of the global financial crisis and the floods and cyclones in North Queensland recently—to be affected by the likes of this particular bill. The Gillard government are committed to working with communities and we will continue to do that to establish a system of representative marine reserves. Our marine environment is under long-term pressure from climate change and increasing industry activity. Fortunately a couple of weeks ago we passed clean energy bills to deal with this issue. Those opposite, of course, never sup­ported that legislation. They voted against it several years ago and this time—a surprise to no-one—they voted against it again. I find it a bit rich having to listen to those opposite claiming they are environmentalists. Never, in their entire lives, have they shown a bone of environmentalism.

Honourable senators interjecting

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT ( Senator Back ): Order! Allow Senator Furner to continue his remarks.

Senator FURNER: To hit the nail on the head, the Leader of the Liberal Party, Mr Abbott, has referred to the environment as 'absolute crap'—disgraceful words, which I would not use. Irregardless of what I think of the environment, I would not use those words in public. Those words are on the public record now and that is the opposition's position. That is what they stand for. That is why we will not be supporting this bill. (Time expired)