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Thursday, 14 March 2013
Page: 1736


Senator BOSWELL (Queensland) (13:45): On 15 January, the Australian newspaper published an article about a professional fisherman in the Gulf of Carpentaria, David Wren. The accompanying photograph showed Mr Wren sitting on a wharf pile with trawlers tied up behind him. That photograph is a perfect analogy of the outcome of the Labor government's treatment of the seafood industry. The logical outcome of what the government is doing is that a lot of fishermen are going to be sitting around on wharves and jetties, getting splinters on their backsides. And it will not just be fishermen but seafood processing workers, chandlery staff and many other employees of businesses supplying goods and services for the commercial and recreational fishing industry. Under Labor, fisheries policy is a mess. Just how bad things have become is summed up by Dick Adams, the Labor member forLyons,in a media release on 27 November. Rather heroically, given that he is a member of the government, he talks about the so-called supertrawler Abel Tasman. He said: 'The community was mobilised to oppose the supertrawler based on unfounded fear, despite the fact that scientists in the field explained that its impacts would be no greater than for other methods of fishing. We should not be managing fisheries by changing the rules in high-profile cases through emergency measures.'

It is widely recognised that the Labor government has allowed distortion of the assessment of the wellbeing of the country's fisheries and exaggeration of the impacts of fishing to mislead the public perception. A multi-million-dollar campaign by numerous environmental non-government organisations, or NGOs, has fostered this misrepresentation. The government has tried to take electoral advantage of the distortion of the perception by appearing to be green, by imposing restrictions on fishing that are not supported by available science of either conservation or food security. In fact, recent government actions are at the expense of the provision of cost-effective protection of marine environments and the fisheries they support. It is also well recognised that the government has completely failed to guarantee seafood security, failed to subject claims of threats from fishing to suitably rigorous scientific evaluation and failed to critically assess other threats and how best to conserve the marine environment. Their answer has been to ban fishing from vast areas of Australian fishing zones through green zones and marine parks. Fishing is no threat to our marine environment and banning fishing is just a sacrifice offered to try to appease the Greens and the big multinational environmental organisations.

David Wren is an excellent fishermen—a third-generation fisherman—and a good businessman. I am sure David and his business will survive the worst the Labor government can throw at him. Sadly, not all fishermen and seafood business operators will be so fortunate. David talked to the Australian about the impact of no-fishing zones in the new marine reserves and about the competition faced by local fish and chip shops and other seafood retail outlets here in Australia from the cheaper imported seafood. Impacts on David Wren's business in his home port of Karumba in the Gulf of Carpentaria matter. David employs up to 50 people in a town of 500, so that employment is vital to the economy of the town and the region. The Australian dollar is at close to record highs against the US dollar and other international currencies. This makes our exports dearer in overseas markets and it makes imports cheaper in our domestic markets. That makes trading profitably harder than ever for fishermen and seafood marketers alike.

The Labor government is not to blame for the high Australian dollar. They inherited a strong economy from 10 years of the Howard government. However, the Labor government has made it even more difficult for our seafood industry to be competitive. At the same time, there are no effective arrangements in place to allow the seafood industry to easily promote its product. This government has talked about changing the PIERD Act—the Primary Industries and Energy Research and Development Act—to make it easier for seafood industry sectors to collect levies for marketing and promotion. I would value the advice of the fisheries minister on exactly where these changes are at and whether there has been any progress.

Another very important issue for the seafood industry is country of origin labelling of seafood sold in restaurants, takeaway shops and similar venues. This is something David Wren and many other fishermen have raised with me, and it is something they believe would significantly increase demand for their locally-caught Australian seafood. I know that the fishing industry peak body, the National Seafood Industry Alliance, made a submission to the Labor government in May 2010 entitled 'Review of food labelling law and policy', in which the alliance requested that the existing country of origin labelling on unpackaged seafood be extended to apply also to seafood in the restaurant and food service sector. So far as I am aware, almost two years later this government has taken no action on that request and yet this is something the industry regards as very important to help create a level playing field for Australian seafood and to sell more local product at a better price.

Given the widespread industry view that labelling of country of origin on seafood sold in restaurants and takeaways would significantly boost sales of Australian seafood, the coalition government will make this a priority issue. It was a coalition government that previously introduced the mandatory labelling of country of origin on unpackaged seafood in retail outlets, including supermarkets. We will do the same for restaurants and other venues for cooked seafood.

This is a time consuming exercise, having the necessary changes made through the national food body—Food Standards Australia New Zealand, or FSANZ—which makes it even more disappointing that the current Labor government appears to have taken no action on the National Seafood Industry Alliance request of almost two years ago. But the coalition will certainly initiate immediate action on coming to government. We will also encourage state governments to examine whether they can more speedily introduce this country of origin labelling of seafood in restaurants and takeaways through changes to state legislation, not only on compliance and regulation.

The only place restaurant labelling of seafood occurs at present is in the Northern Territory where all imported seafood must be labelled with its country of origin, including cooked seafood sold for immediate consumption in restaurants and takeaways. This is working very well and the seafood industry there believes it really does increase demand and sales of local seafood.

In the rest of Australia, when someone goes into a fish and chip shop and buys a piece of fish, it could have come from anywhere. For example, fish such as the farmed Vietnamese catfish, called basa, is far cheaper for shops to buy than good quality Australian fish like mackerel. Our top quality Australian fish is competing with cheap product from countries that do not have to match our environmental record, our controls on fishing methods or our sustainable fisheries management. Those countries also do not have all the extra burden that Australian fishing businesses are forced to carry, like a carbon tax, renewable energy tax, the exorbitant price of refrigeration gas and all the add-on costs of complying with government red tape in this country. It is time we helped level the playing field and made sure that Australian seafood consumers, who want to buy Australian fish in restaurants and fish and chip shops, can identify the local product. That is what we will do.

Surveys show that Australian seafood consumers, including restaurant diners, are prepared to pay extra for Australian seafood. However, they have to able to recognise it as Australian. At present, there is nothing to distinguish Australian produced seafood from imported seafood on restaurant menus. We will make this change and make sure labelling is applied to restaurants and takeaways. The fact that the present government has taken no action demonstrates how little interest they have in assisting the industry to prosper. They just want to police it and limit it and even close it out of valuable fishing grounds, just making life even harder for this important industry, and harder to be profitable and provide important regional jobs in often remote areas around our coastline.

These are dire times for the Australian seafood industry, faced with significant cutbacks in access to resources and, hence, in catches of seafood, due to fishing closures in the new Commonwealth government marine reserves to be implemented next year. Extending the country of origin regulations to restaurants is a practical no-cost means of demonstrating support for the seafood industry and assisting its future growth. As I said, this will be a priority issue in government for the coalition.

Labor's mismanagement of fisheries is a shameful mess. The case of the Abel Tasman has already been mentioned. The government took its lead from Greenpeace. This is the so-called supertrawler that Dick Adams, the member for Lyons, spoke about. The government invited this trawler to Australia. Its Australian based operators went through all the proper procedures and yet the government went to water when the vessel arrived.

On 4 September the environment minister Tony Burke announced the vessel would have to meet what he called 'tough new environmental conditions' to operate. However, a week is a long time in politics. Just a week later, on 11 September, the environment minister announced the vessel would not be allowed to operate at all, and that he was legislating to extend his legal powers to prevent it fishing in Australian waters, at the same time effectively increasing the powers of the environment minister to dictate what could happen in all forms of fishing. On 20 September the environment minister announced the vessel would be banned from fishing for 60 days, and then, on 19 November, he announced it would be banned for at least two years. The vessel has now left Australia, no doubt to the cheers of environmental activists and their mates in Minister Burke's office.

I find myself in complete agreement with Dick Adams: the government should not be managing fisheries by changing the rules in high-profile cases through emergency measures. It is the opinion of the Greens and Big Environment that matters to the Labor government. They certainly do not care about recreational or commercial fishermen's opinions, and they have clearly demonstrated that.

For example, with the huge marine parks that the government wants to bring in—2.3 million square kilometres—the government released draft management plans for the new marine reserves, with just the minimum 30 days' consultation, in the middle of the Christmas school holidays. Of course, many of the people most interested in commenting on these very detailed plans for future fishing bans in vast areas of ocean around Australia were on holidays.

Recreational and commercial fishing representatives requested the government to extend the period for consultation from 30 days to 90 days. The Australian Recreational Fishing Foundation, the national peak body, said the 30-day consultation period was too short to comprehensively comment on the 40 reserve areas and the hundreds of management zones within them. The Commonwealth Fisheries Association pointed out that this was the biggest change likely to be experienced by most Australians in their lifetime as to how Australia's marine areas would be managed. The association said the marine industries and the community expected to be given a proper opportunity to consider the draft management plan and to provide the government with feedback. It said that 30 days, over the holiday season, was inappropriate and unacceptable. The very reasonable requests of both these organisations and others were, of course, totally disregarded.

If you want to know what the real problem is with Australian fisheries, I quote Professor Robert Kearney, Emeritus Professor of Fisheries at Canberra University. He says:

Australia has one dominant problem with its fisheries research and management—and that is that fisheries scientists, fisheries management agencies and the fishing industry have allowed public perception of fishing to become seriously besmirched. The responsible authorities do not counter the misinformation that continues to support the public perception that Australia's oceans are in peril from fishing and that as a result it is environmentally irresponsible to eat many species of fish. It is arguably dereliction of duty by Australia's fisheries management and research agencies to allow this incorrect perception to exist and for it to increasingly dominate attitudes of seafood consumers.