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Thursday, 14 March 2013
Page: 1733

Senator BACK (Western AustraliaDeputy Opposition Whip in the Senate) (13:32): I rise to continue my contribution to the Fisheries Legislation Amendment Bill (No.1) 2012. It was interesting to reflect on the comments of Senator Brandis in his contribution to the Customs Amendment (Miscellaneous Measures) Bill in which he was observing the failure of this Labor government to protect borders to the north of Australia. In my contribution last night on this bill, I also referred to the exact same failure of this government to protect our Southern Ocean and the borders to the south, making the point that it was the Howard government in 2000, with fisheries ministers Abetz followed by Macdonald and then customs minister Ellison, who actually ensured that the Southern Ocean, and particularly the fishery, would be protected.

One would assume from reading the information on the Australian Customs and Border Protection Service website that the vessel, the Ocean Protector—which I, during the course of my contribution, will be suggesting be renamed 'the ocean taxi'—is actually the vessel that is tasked with that particular duty. The website very proudly says that the vessel is available for 300 days of operations per annum and a minimum of 120 days—I say that again: a minimum of 120 days—in the Southern Ocean for all sorts of purposes associated with intercepting illegal fishermen, protecting Australia's southern borders and, of course, providing a level of protection to those of our industry that are fishing for the Patagonian toothfish and other related species in the Southern Ocean.

When you look at all that, you think to yourself, 'How wonderful those Southern Ocean protections are by the Ocean Protector'—or ocean taxi—but you then, of course, inevitably come to the truth. When we look at the truth we can reveal that the last time—not the 120 days that are indicated on the Customs website—that this vessel was actually in southern waters was between January and February. And you then think, 'How marvellous; only two months ago and last month.' But, no, it was not January and February of 2013; it was 13 and 14 months ago. That was the last time that the Ocean Protector was actually doing its job in southern waters.

The Labor government has just given up on policing the Southern Ocean. Its only Antarctic capable vessel is now of course taxiing asylum seekers in the waters to the north of Australia. It has been a long, long time since that vessel has been doing its work in the Southern Ocean. You might ask whether this matters, because we have an arrangement with the French government whereby French officers are accredited on our vessels—should there ever be one there again—and, likely, Australian officers are accredited to operate on French vessels in the region to provide some level of protection. Well, the French, needless to say, have become a bit grumpy, given the fact that they have not actually seen an Australian vessel in these waters for some 13 or 14 months. They are saying, 'We thought it was a fifty-fifty arrangement,' but of course they have overlooked that it is a Labor government that they are dealing with, not the coalition government under then Prime Minister Howard with whom that particular arrangement was negotiated.

So we have a circumstance now where the ocean taxi or—I am sorry—the Ocean Protector is now operating solely in northern waters, having no involvement at all in the Southern Ocean. You might then say, 'Does it matter? Is there any evidence that those illegal fishers are once again in the waters?' Well, they understand this situation as well as we do—they probably know the failure of this government as well as we do—because, yes, over the last few weeks illegal fishermen have once again returned to the Southern Ocean and they have resumed illegal fishing operations. You might ask, 'Isn't it marginal? Does it mean much money? Do they make much out of this? Is it worth their while?' I learned last week from the industry that 200 tonnes of this highly valued fish will net illegal fishermen some $4 million—200 tonnes alone will net some $4 million. So, yes, it is very important that that vessel, the Ocean Protector, returns for at least 120 days a year to do what it is tasked to do—and that is to protect our interests in the Southern Ocean and indeed to protect the viability and the sustainability of fish stocks in the Southern Ocean.


I come now to the lamentable story of a vessel now having left Australian waters under the name of the Abel Tasman. The ship's interests came to this country and met with fisheries and agriculture minister Burke with the intention of reviewing the possibility of sustainably fishing a quota in the mid ocean where they could take up to 10,000 tonnes of fish in place of smaller vessels—for example, 10 vessels taking 1,000 tonnes of fish. The Australian Fisheries Management Authority was at that time trusted by this Labor government. The Dutch behind this project know very well that we are arguably the best-managed fishery in the world—or if not the best then right up there with them. They know the rules, the restrictions and the excellence of the fisheries authorities, and they came to Australia to say, 'This is what we want to do; do we have your sanction and your blessing?' The mistake they made was to believe then fisheries and agriculture minister Burke, because he actually welcomed them. He said, 'Yes, that's a great idea.'

His reasons were valid. Let me explain why. The waters that this vessel was to fish in are so far from shore that any of our smaller trading vessels could not hold sufficient fish stock in their freezers or chillers for the protein to be used for human consumption. Therefore, the fishmeal was being turned into pigmeal for protein for livestock. Where the Abel Tasman had its capacity was in the fact that, being a vessel of larger size and having better processing facilities on board, it was able to catch these fish in the mid ocean—no more fish than would otherwise have been allowed by, say, 10 vessels catching 1,000 tonnes each. It was the same 10,000 tonnes, only this time—you would not believe it—the fish could actually be used for human consumption, not pigmeal.

Nevertheless, they invested, they mobilised and they brought the vessel here. Then they were the subject of a GetUp! social media campaign which so successfully run this Labor government, only to be thwarted by none other than now environmental minister Burke—the very person who gave them the nod, the wink, the word of approval when he was fisheries and agriculture minister. Needless to say, under the influence of ill-informed people, people who were much happier for high-value protein to go to pigmeal rather than human consumption, the whole exercise was terminated. The Abel Tasman sat up in Port Lincoln for a time, and I understand it has now left Australian waters. And who are the losers? The Australian Fisheries Management Authority is a loser because its reputation has been trashed. The good science that dictates and oversights the Australian fishery—one of the most sustainable fisheries in the world—has had its reputation trashed because science had to give way to political persuasion and the social media. And, needless to say, our international reputation, which has been so sullied in mining, oil and gas and other operations around the world, has had another blow to its sovereign wealth, sovereign value and the sovereign reputation of this country simply because an overseas organisation attempted to do the right thing and brought their vessel into Australia waters, only to be thwarted.

It will end up in court, and once again the Australian taxpayer will foot the bill, as it so often does for this government as a result of hastily implemented and unfortunate decisions. It is poor judgement from this Prime Minister reflecting itself in poor judgement by her ministers. In this case, it is mainly Minister Burke. I do not know whether Minister Ludwig had an opportunity to have common-sense come into the equation, but if he did he certainly did not have enough influence.

In the few moments left to me I reflect on the marine park situation. Again, we would all applaud sensible marine park policy around Australia's waters. We are all proud of our waters, recreationally and commercially. But, once again, did we see good consultation by this minister and those who report to him? Did we see genuine effort to be able to include the science? Did we see, for example, good negotiation and consultation with state and territory ministers, those on the ground who have the wherewithal, the capacity and the near-coastal waters to be involved? No, we did not. As usual, under pressure from environmental groups, we ignored science and put arbitrary lines all across the water. The last time I looked, fish could not read, and I do not think they can see, particularly the imaginary signs under the water. We have inadequate compensation being given to commercial fishermen. We once again have a scenario in which they are left scratching their heads, saying, 'Why should we be investing in this industry when it is being torn apart around us?'

The community does not understand why in this country, one of the largest, if not the largest, island states in the world, we are now importing 70 per cent of the fish that we consume by volume. Imagine that! Imagine an island continent with tens of thousands of kilometres of coastline, with hundreds of thousands of square kilometres of economic zone, importing seven out of every 10 kilograms of fish that we consume—all in the name, apparently, of sustainable fishing. What about the fisheries from which we are taking this particular fish stock? What about the excellence of science in fisheries authorities who are saying it is unnecessary?

In my concluding comments on this particular issue, on the day that a new Pope has been elected, I cannot help but reflect on the fact that the Australian people are seeing this place as akin to the Sistine Chapel. All they are seeing day after day is black smoke. As Senator Cash and I both know, having been at polling booths last Saturday, the overwhelming consensus of people we spoke to from all political persuasions was that they want to see some white smoke.

We want to see the end of this government. Australia is now in limbo, Australia has stopped, business has stopped, new employment has stopped—every single solitary parameter you look at. When we see the legislation that will come into this place today by the government leader, Senator Conroy, sitting opposite me, everybody in Australia—Labor voters, Green voters, Christian Democrat voters and Liberal National voters—is saying, 'Just stop it. Just do what the democracy allows, just go to an election and let us get rid of the black smoke. Let us for heaven's sake see some white smoke come up, let us see a new government and let us get Australia going again.'