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Thursday, 24 November 2011
Page: 9477

Senator BACK (Western Australia) (11:09): Madam Deputy President, I thank you for the opportunity to contribute to this debate and to support the motion of my colleague Senator Colbeck. It is the fact, of course, that the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act was an initiative of the coalition government under then Prime Minister Howard, introduced by then Minister Robert Hill. It is the fact that the environment minister has the sole power to approve, in this case, the adoption of bioregional plans. It is the contention of the coalition, led by Senator Colbeck, that this amendment for it to become a disallowable instrument should be made to provide far greater parliamentary sovereignty and to allow both houses of parliament the right to debate the merits of any new protected areas in the marine environment.

This is a week in which we have almost seen the death of democracy, particularly in this chamber. So it probably would not resonate well with the Labor Party and Greens to have a process by which there would be a disallowable instrument intro­duced in the event of the minister's failure to consult prior to being given the opportunity to approve new bioregional plans.

There is not a person in Australia who does not favour the best protection of our marine and terrestrial environments. This is best evidenced in the fishing world. If you think of fishing, be it recreational or commercial, it tends to be intergenerational for many families over many years. Whether it is commercial fishing in which the grandchild is on the cray boat with their father and grandfather, or mother and grandmother, or recreational fishing, which we have heard evidence of from all of the speakers here, fishing is one of those delightful processes in Australia where generations combine over time continually.

We have heard from fishermen like Senator Bernardi and Senator Furner. Whilst I have been quite interested in fishing, I have the distinction of having only ever once caught one fish in my life and that was on an occasion when the hook was baited by others and in fact I went to sleep and somebody had to wake me up to tell me that there was a pink snapper on the end of the line! So I am certainly not one who has challenged the fish stocks around the Australian coastline. But what I can say is that there is a deep and ongoing concern by people, be they recreational or commercial fishers, to ensure the long-term viability and survival of fish stocks and other organisms in the marine environment. So I will not stand here and listen to carping and criticism by anybody about the interests and concerns of the coalition when it comes to this area.

Remember again that this legislation, as indicated by my colleague Senator Macdonald, is a world first and best practice. That particular act of parliament has become the benchmark around the world. Let us not forget in all of this conversation that is going on that Australia protects more of its marine reserves around its coastline than any other country in the world, so we have no occasion to be ashamed of our track record.

But what this is all about is the method by which this minister, Minister Burke, has gone about this process. I happen to be one person who has been a victim of the unwillingness and inability of Minister Burke to actually consult. In December last year I was consulting with recreational and commercial fishing groups on the concerns they had and the lack of information they had about the proposals to lock up areas of the marine environment around Western Australia. I was aware that the minister and his staff were going to engage in a consultation process here in Canberra. I made a direct approach to the minister's office through one of the interest groups asking, 'Could I come to Canberra to participate in that consultation and advice process?' The answer to a Western Australian senator was, 'No, you can't come.' So when I read some of these quotations—which I will read out in a few moments time—from Minister Burke about this outpouring of consultation, I know that it is absolute, utter, patent nonsense. That was not only my experience. I will also allude to witnesses at inquiries who, unfortunately, shared my experience. For seven years, from 1988 to 1995, I had the privilege of being the Chief Executive Officer of the Rottnest Island Authority. Rottnest Island is some 20 kilometres off the Western Australian coast and is probably the focus of offshore recreational activities such as fishing, diving and other aquatic activities along Western Australia's southern coast. Much reference has been made to the so-called Perth shelf. It is known universally as the Rottnest Shelf, and it would be fair to say that the vast majority of young children who fished probably started their fishing careers by throwing a line off the Rottnest jetty or over the side of a boat in that area. We made enormous advances in the time I was at the island in protecting both the terrestrial and the marine environments, for which we were awarded the first environmental tourism award in this country.

I do speak with some conviction and some knowledge, and I can simply say this from bitter experience—if you want to change the behaviour of a group of people in relation particularly to protecting an environment such as the marine environment you must undertake a number of processes. First, you must understand before you draft your plans that what you do has to be based on science. If it is not, your eventual proposal will be seen to be hollow. Secondly, you must be prepared to consult with—which does not equate to talking at—affected stakeholders. The whole process of consultation should suggest that you are willing to listen to the views of others and amend your own draft plans as a result of consultation. I can assure you that when we failed to do that it came back to bite us and those proposals failed.

I will give an example of where the consultation process works. Because of what is known as the Leeuwin Current, which comes down the Western Australian coastline, the waters around Rottnest Island in the winter months are three to four degrees Celsius warmer than the waters along the mainland, only 20 kilometres to the east. The result is that Rottnest has a greater number of tropical fish species in the winter months than there are along the mainland coast. The most southerly growth in the Southern Hemisphere of a coral called pocillopora exists in a beautiful bay at Parker Point on Rottnest Island. People were throwing anchors over the side into this coral area so that they could go snorkelling off their dinghies—there are beautiful pink corals and of course the fish those corals attract. These corals were being unwittingly destroyed.

I sat down with stakeholders and with my management team and marine and other environmental people and I said we would put a string of floats across the area so that the reef could be protected. Everybody laughed their heads off and said the first person past would cut the floats and the idea would fail. We consulted with the boat owners who used that bay and convinced them of the reason we were doing it. They became the owners of that protected area, and when I left the island seven years later there had not been one instance of vandalism in the area. The message for Minister Burke is simply that you must take the people with you. There must be sound reasons for protecting an area. If you give ownership to the affected people, they will become the most powerful weapon.

Inherent in everything at Rottnest Island was that we were beholden to the Rottnest Island Authority Act. I reported directly to both a board and through the minister to parliament but, most importantly, it was the parliament that had the opportunity to oversee the activities of our management of the island. This is the very point that Senator Colbeck is attempting to make with his bill—we should give to both houses of this parliament the opportunity to examine and if need be disallow, so causing the minister to go back and do the work that he must do in these critically important areas. We learnt a lot and they were lessons well learnt. If you fail to take the community with you, if you fail to convince the community of the good of an activity because it is based on ideology and not based on good policy, it will fail. This is the evidence we have seen, unfort­unately, with this minister's refusal to consult and to take action based on the science. A recent media release from Mr Burke on the proposed marine plan stated:

The Gillard Government is working with communities to establish a marine reserves network to support a sustainable future for our marine environment and ensure our oceans stay healthy and productive.

The release quoted Minister Burke as saying:

Through our initial consultation in the development of these draft plans, where possible, we have avoided having an impact on local jobs or people who love to fish.

Those words sound fine, and if they had been followed through we probably would not need the bill being proposed by Senator Colbeck. This marine plan is inherently directed at Western Australia. When it was first announced in May this year the Minister for Fisheries in Western Australia, Mr Moore, came out immediately with a media release in which he encouraged the com­munity to engage with the federal govern­ment on the key issues of environmental significance, in this case to the south-west bioregion, and he encouraged people within the community to make submissions. He said in May:

Although I have not yet had the opportunity to study the documents in detail, I remain hopeful that the Commonwealth has taken a balanced and pragmatic approach to proposed marine reserves which minimises the social and economic impact on stakeholders such as the fishing sector.

If this man is the Minister for Fisheries in the state with the greatest marine reserve around the Australian nation, why is it that Minister Burke personally and/or his senior staff had not already consulted with Minister Moore? Nevertheless, the WA Department of Fish­eries, under the direction of that minister, did proceed to put in a submission. Regrettably, despite this 'consultation process' that has gone on, I will refer again to Mr Moore, who said in a media statement on 19 October, just five weeks ago:

We are still yet to receive any information about the points raised and about the process going forward. This leaves the State Government and WA community uncertain and concerned about the future access to our most precious waters and aquatic resources.

What right has Minister Burke to run roughshod over the state of Western Australia and its fisheries minister? Incidentally, the proposed zones include the western rock lobster fishery, which has been regarded as a world benchmark for many years.

Senator Siewert: What's happening to it now?

Senator BACK: Thank you, very much, Senator Siewert; I was hoping that interjection would be made. As you and I both know, as soon as the drop in crayfish numbers was raised Mr Moore acted without hesitation, in the face of enormous criticism, to introduce quotas so that he could get on top of that issue. Are they on top of it? I do not know. But you and I both know, Senator Siewert, that has been—through you Madam Acting Deputy President Boyce, I apologise—an exceedingly well-managed fishery over many years and that the minister acted on the scientific advice of advisers, industry and others in making his decisions. I have no doubt that he will review its performance over time. He will review those outcomes and, if need be, make further changes. That is all we want from Minister Burke. Because he has failed to deliver it, it is essential that these actions come back to this parliament, to both houses of parliament, so that they can be reviewed. I will quote again, if I may, from Mr Moore's statement:

Western Australia’s fisheries are well managed and regarded as some of the best managed in the world and as such, I do not see the need for the extensive network of ‘no take’ zones proposed by the Commonwealth.

Ideology replacing good policy and replacing science: it is regrettable. Mr Moore went on to say:

The Federal Government is always saying we should pursue evidence-based policy. In this case, it is just drawing lines on a map without any real regard for environmental outcomes or the long-term impacts on the Western Australian and broader Australian communities and businesses.

That is the circumstance in which we find ourselves.

Minister Burke has assured the parliament and the community that he has participated in a widespread consultation process as part of his bioregional planning process. Let me quote from just a couple of those who have made submissions to inquiries regarding this and put to the test whether my experience of last December, when I was refused the opportunity for a briefing from Minister Burke's staff, has been shared by others. Dr Ken Coghill, a former Speaker of the Victorian parliament said:

My clear perspective is that it is absolutely important to effective parliamentary democracy that the parliament have the opportunity to scrutinise and, if appropriate, disallow any action taken by the executive.

Let us hear from the Abalone Industry Association of South Australia, which said in its submission to the inquiry:

It is a real slap in the face to the good work done by our Government Fisheries Managers and Industry.

That is presumably the South Australia government—

We are very uncomfortable with the fact that the final decision of adopting the bioregional plans rests with the Minister for Environment only. We would prefer to have a far more rigorous and robust process through the parliament that doesn’t have the potential to be clouded by extreme green views.

A Mr Cameron Talbot also made a submission, in which he said:

I’m concerned that lobby groups like PEW, WWF and AMCS seem to get access to Ministers and control of what happens.

They certainly did far better than I did when I made my approach to the minister. Mr Talbot went on to say:

The Department does not consult us or simply ignores what we have to say. I feel that democracy has been lost and further more my faith in the Labour party has gone with it.

He goes on to speak about the fact that many fishermen and fisherwomen are Labor Party members and about how disappointed they are. I could go on and on about this process. I ask the question of those who would say that they are not supporting this motion by Senator Colbeck: what do they fear? We are elected senators of the Australian parliament sent by our states and territories to this place, and those in the other house are elected by their electorates to come here, to make laws. When there are circumstances in which legislation as it is currently formulated is deficient or incorrect it is up to us to correct it. There is no difficulty with the process of introducing disallowance legislation. It simply means, as we see in other instances, that it requires that the minister be diligent and that he and his staff, and those of the departments who are backing them up, do what they say they are doing. We have seen in this case that, demonstrably, there has not been the consultation and there has not been the science. There also has not been the rigorous approach in the areas to which we on this side of the chamber have drawn attention—that is, the functions and obligations of the Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities.

One of the wonderful things about this whole topic is that our capacity to come up with scientific validation is improving all the time. Senator Siewert and I are both well aware of work done at the University of Western Australia and other institutions, which enables them to monitor in real time fish stocks: numbers, ages, sizes et cetera. Let us use this data; let us develop plans; let us take the community with us and then let us review it over time. There are areas and times when we do have to stop fishing, be it commercial or recreational. For example, because of a breeding cycle or in response to the population size, density, pressure and age of the fish species concerned. But let us do it based on the science. Let us have the con­fidence in ourselves to feed this information back to the community. Let us not be so arrogant that we are not prepared to change our policies or our plans so that over time we can actually achieve what we all want to achieve: a sustainable marine bioregion and a sustainable terrestrial environment in this country