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Joint Standing Committee on Northern Australia
Opportunities and methods for stimulating the tourism industry in Northern Australia

BANKS, Dr Simon, General Manager, Great Barrier Reef Operations, Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority

DOBBS, Dr Kirstin, Director, Environmental Assessment and Protection, Biodiversity Conservation and Sustainable Use, Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority

ELLIOT, Mr Bruce, General Manager, Biodiversity Conservation and Sustainable Use, Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority

NUCIFORA, Mr Fred, Acting Director, Tourism and Stewardship, Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority


CHAIR: Welcome. These hearings are formal proceedings of the parliament. The giving of false or misleading information is a serious matter that may be deemed to be a contempt of the parliament. As I have indicated, the proceedings are being recorded by Hansard. As such, they attract parliamentary privilege. I thought we might invite you to make an opening statement, and then we can fire off with some questions.

Mr Elliot : Thank you. We would like to make an opening statement. Firstly, I would like to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we meet—the Bindal and Wulgurukaba peoples. We pay our respects to their elders past and present. Thank you for the opportunity to address the inquiry into stimulating tourism in Northern Australia. The Great Barrier Reef is without doubt one of Australia's, and particularly Northern Australia's, greatest assets. Last month, Deloittes Access Economics reported that the reef has an economic, social and icon asset value of $56 billion. The reef supports 64,000 jobs and contributes $6.4 billion annually to the Australian economy. This figure does not include other ecosystem services the reef provides, such as the wave mitigation properties for reducing wave action on our coastlines and for our communities during extreme weather events. The report also describes the Great Barrier Reef as Australia's cultural DNA.

It will come as no surprise to anyone here that the reef is under pressure. As outlined in both the Outlook report 2009 and Outlook report 2014, climate change continues to be the biggest threat to the long-term outlook of the Great Barrier Reef. Back-to-back bleaching events and ongoing crown of thorns starfish impacts highlight the major challenges we face in managing the reef. You have heard from northern operators about these impacts and recently from Whitsundays operators, who have told you about the impacts more recently of tropical Cyclone Debbie.

A healthy reef tourism industry relies very much on healthy reef ecosystems. The authority's core business is the management of those ecosystems. Ensuring continued sustainable use of the marine park is imperative to the Australian economy and particularly the tourism operators who rely on the Great Barrier Reef. Regulatory tools, such as our permission system and our plans of management, particularly in high value tourism areas such as Cairns and the Whitsundays, are vital tools to help achieve this sustainability. We have come a long way since the 1990s, when tourism was identified as one of the key impacts on the reef. There were fears that sites were being loved to death. Now marine tourism is well managed and generally low impact, and those very regulatory tools are one of the reasons why. Just as important as our regulatory regime is the close working relationship we have with the tourism industry at multiple levels.

Since the 1990s, we have developed strong relationships with the tourism industry, including dedicated tourism staff who engage in an ongoing basis with the industry to identify and resolve issues. The interests of tourism industry are also represented to the authority through a number of key stakeholder forums. This includes a dedicated representative on the marine park authority board, a specific tourism reef advisory committee and tourism industry representation across our 12 local marine advisory committees.

In recent years, we have strengthened our links with tourism even further, working with the Association of Marine Tourism Operators and the Reef & Rainforest Research Centre to protect key tourism sites from crown of thorns starfish predation. We are also involved in the Tourism Tropical North Queensland Citizens of the Great Barrier Reef initiative. In addition, we also run our own education facility in the form of Reef HQ, which sees around 130,000 to 140,000 visitors each year. Reef HQ also provides edutourism to foreign students. In 2015-16, 360 students in 13 groups participated, injecting around $700,000 to regional economies. In 2016-17, we hosted 20 groups. We are still calculating the final value, but we are estimating that around $1 million was injected into regional economies.

The events of the past few years highlight the serious challenges to the future management of the reef. We are moving toward a phase of intervention and innovation that is new to marine park resource management in Australia and reflects the swiftly changing environment in which we live. The work that is needed to restore the reef is far bigger than anything the authority can do alone. We need partnerships with industry, researchers, government and the community to address the challenges facing the Great Barrier Reef. Our partnership with tourism is going to be more important than it ever has been before.

Tourism leaders were key participants at the reef summit hosted by the authority in Townsville last month, when we brought together over 70 great minds to develop a blueprint for change in response to the mass coral bleaching and cumulative impacts to the reef. The strong take-home message from this event was that together we can secure the future of the reef but together we have to try harder, do more and act now. Thank you.

CHAIR: Thank you very much indeed.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: You have had someone following these hearings and you have heard a number of complaints, which I will not enumerate. We asked one of the witnesses to give us a written copy of the complaints. I will not go into specifics; some of my colleagues might. On a broader level, they seem to be green tape requirements that just do not make sense. You would have had them reported to you from your colleagues, rightly, listening to what was being said. I wonder if you have a general comment. I am sure some of my colleagues will raise individual cases with you. Do you have a general comment about that? I do not want to give examples. Someone said that you were asked for a permit and was told it was for a motorised sport. They implied that they were not permitted to do it under the current plan of management. It is not a motorised sport. They were using diver aides for years. It was a Sea Walker, Sea-Doo or Seabob Jet approach. We just find those things hard to understand. As I say, we could go through them individually. I am not sure that this committee is the right place for that. Would someone want to make a general comment?

Mr Elliot : I can make a general comment. The marine park authority manages around 5,500 permissions across around 1,300 permits, so it is a lot of permits. In any one year, we are probably assessing the continuation of nearly 400 of those permits. We do have complaints from time to time, certainly. Some of these cases that we are aware of, both from reading the Hamilton Island Hansard and from the feedback we have had from people who have been in the sessions up in Cairns, are certainly cases we are familiar with. Some of them are extremely complex. On the surface they might seem simple, but when you get down into some of the issues that are at play here, they are very complex. I think in any regulatory system, there will always be areas that fall into those complexities and are difficult to resolve. But when you consider 5,500 permissions, it is a relatively small amount. Rather than going through all those in detail now, we would certainly welcome the opportunity, once we have access to all of the Hansard, to provide a written submission addressing them in general terms. We note that some of these, of course, have privacy issues around them, but we will respond to each of them.

CHAIR: I promise you that you will have that opportunity.

Senator DODSON: I am from Western Australia so I am not clear on it.

Mr SNOWDON: Do not blame him.

Senator DODSON: We have parks there as well. What is the connectivity between the area of the park and, I suppose, the intertidal zone and the terrestrial state that abuts it? What is the connectivity? Does the management plan for the park encompass all of that, or is it just simply what is at the high water mark or the low water mark?

Mr Elliot : The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, the Commonwealth marine park, goes up to the mean low-water mark along the coastline except for those areas that have been explicitly excluded. For example, around the Port of Townsville here, there is an area that has been excluded from the marine park where the port sits. Rather than following the low water mark at that point, it departs from low water and comes back. There is a relatively small number of areas where it departs the low water mark. It also does not include any waters that are considered to be the internal waters of Queensland. So that is anything that is a bay which is captured by the jaws of the land legislation or under the submerged lands act. Anything classified as part of state internal waters is not considered to be part of the marine park or any islands that belong to the State of Queensland. Only 70 Commonwealth islands are part of the marine park. Some of those areas are also part of the World Heritage area, though.

Mr SNOWDON: Sorry to interrupt. Could you just explain that again? Commonwealth islands are not Queensland islands?

Mr Elliot : Not Queensland islands. So any island which is part of the State of Queensland under the submerged lands act is part of Queensland. Under the definition of the Great Barrier Reef region, it is not part of the region. Therefore, it cannot be part of the marine park.

Mr SNOWDON: So they are not in the park area?

Mr Elliot : They are not in the park. They are outside of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. So while they are physically surrounded by the marine park, they are not actually part of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park.

Mr SNOWDON: So they could be in the middle of the marine park?

Mr Elliot : Yes. Many of the islands that have tourist facilities on them form that category. The Queensland coast marine park extends from the high water mark and overlaps and goes out to the three nautical mile limit. That is why we have joint management arrangements with the Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service. Our zoning plans, our other plans and our spatial plans in general are done collaboratively together so that, from the point of view of the person using the marine park, it does not matter because the same rules apply in both the Queensland marine park and the Commonwealth marine park.

Senator DODSON: For the purposes of getting permits or renewing permits, would they come to you as the one stop shop, or are there a multiplicity of other agencies that people have to go to?

Mr Elliot : So if it is for a permit for the two marine parks, yes, it is a one stop shop. So there is a single application which comes into the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority. There is a single assessment done. Because it is under two pieces of legislation, one state and one Commonwealth, that permit does end up with two signatures on it from two different delegates—one from the Commonwealth and one from the state. But it is a single assessment with a single application process and a single permit with both state and Commonwealth conditions on it. Some of those would be state only conditions and some of them would be Commonwealth only. But, in general, the conditions are also for both sets of marine parks.

Senator DODSON: What is the average time or period it takes to assess?

Mr Elliot : So for a level 1 permit—I will explain the others in a minute—it is around 16 weeks at the moment. That is for a range of reasons. One of the reasons is we have about 230 permits in the queue at the moment. It is simply a matter of churning through them as fast as we can. Level 1 permits represent about 85 per cent of our permits. They are what we would call the standard. Most of your tourism permits would fit into level 1, but not all. Levels 2, 3 and 4 are the higher complexity. Once you get to things like level 4, they are usually also connected to EPBC applications. Therefore, the timeframes depend on a lot of other factors.

Mr SNOWDON: Could you give us an example of each of those categories and what sort of permit we are talking about?

Dr Dobbs : I can provide you with an example. From a tourism perspective, a brand new tourism operator wants to establish a business in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. Generally, what we do to facilitate any start-up issues they might have is grant them greater access than probably what they are needing at the immediate time. So a standard tourism permit might allow access reef wide to the zones and locations where tourism can actually be conducted, which is essentially more than 99 per cent of the marine park. Within the plan of management areas, because daily tourism access has been capped since the plans of management came in, new operators get access to the Cairns and Whitsundays planning areas for 50 days. They need to book. Otherwise they would have access across the marine park in accordance with what they want to do. There are some specific things in the legislation around if they want to access areas in a dedicated way that has not been done in the past. Often that is associated with Queensland national park islands. We will work with the Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service as part of the assessment process to ascertain whether they are going to be granted access to that national park island for daily access. Then we can manage a complementary arrangement in the marine park space as well. The intertidal, the waters around the island and the tourism operator's access to the island are complementary and do not contradict one another. So that would be a level 1 permit.

A level 2 permit, from a tourism perspective, might be something along the lines of installing moorings. Moorings can create dedicated use at a site if it is a brand new mooring that is at a location that has not had moorings in the past. It involves understanding other people's use of that area. If it is going to become a daily access for a tourism operator, what other uses are currently occurring in that area? That may or may not require public advertising. It would depend on the specifics of the proposal and the location. If it has been used quite heavily by tourism in the past and the general community is aware of that, we might not require public advertising. Otherwise we may. When you get to levels 3 and 4 type applications, the level 3 application is generally where a public environment report is required. A level 4 application is when an environmental impact statement is required. As Bruce indicated, they are often tied up with quite large proposals. I will give you an example.

CHAIR: Like dredging?

Dr Dobbs : It could be some dredging. Not necessarily entirely, but it certainly could be. We have various scales of dredging that happen on the reef from small boat ramps up to those associated with ports. I will use an example of an island resort being redeveloped and the desire for a marina or other marine infrastructure associated with it. The Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act would most likely trigger—not necessarily always—that to be a controlled action. An environmental impact statement or a public environment report would be required. Back in 2009, the processes between the EPBC Act and our act were joined together. So if someone applies for one of those activities under the EPBC Act and there is a marine park permit requirement, it is automatically an application for us. We work together with the Department of the Environment and Energy throughout the process, so we streamline environmental impact statement requirements. We streamline consultation with the proponents et cetera. I hope that gives you a sense of the scale. That is from a tourism perspective. I could talk about the other range of activities, but it is probably not as relevant to this committee.

Senator DODSON: Is there a cost associated with the applications?

Dr Dobbs : Yes, there is. GBRMPA has partial cost recovery for our marine park permit applications. We recently completed a cost recovery implementation statement under the Australian government's charging framework. That is available on our website. A standard tourism permit would cost in the order of—I am happy to take this on notice and get the exact figures—about $700 to $800, depending on how many passengers are going to be taken to a location. So the smaller the operation, the less the fee. The bigger the operation, the fee is more. The fees are only in place for commercial activities. They are not in place for the range of activities that we permit that are non-commercial. Those fees go up in accordance with the consumer price index once a year at the beginning of each calendar year. The information is available on our website.

Senator DODSON: So is there an appeal mechanism if someone is dissatisfied with their application?

Dr Dobbs : At the time of application, no. But when we make a decision, there is certainly an internal reconsideration that can be requested by either the applicant or a third party who may be affected by the decision. We then usually raise up the delegation for that to the next person in line to make that decision. If that decision is not satisfactory to the person who requested the reconsideration or someone else, there is the ability to go to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal and appeal that decision.

Senator DODSON: This is my last question. Does recreational activity require a permit?

Dr Dobbs : Generally not, no. The zoning plan sets out the arrangements for where recreational use can occur without a permit.

Senator DODSON: Are you seeing more recreational activity as opposed to commercial type activities?

Mr Elliot : In general, recreational activity has grown with the population along the Great Barrier Reef coast. It is everything from people using beaches to going to places like Magnetic Island. Obviously, recreational fishing has seen significant growth over the last decade or so.

Senator DODSON: Do you monitor the impacts of both of those?

Mr Elliot : We do. We manage commercial and recreational fishing through the zoning plan, which determines what sort of fishing can occur and where, including 33 per cent of the park being closed completely to all types of fishing. We have a compliance arm through our field management program that works with the Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service to provide compliance actions on the water to enforce the zoning plan.

CHAIR: You mentioned in your introduction that you have a number of tourism representatives on your various advisory boards et cetera. I am curious to know how much actual tourism experience they have. Are they drawn from the operators that work as operators in the marine park, or are they nominated to be there as a tourism operator?

Mr Elliot : I will start with our board. The requirement under the marine park act is for one of the members of our board to be a person who has—

CHAIR: I am talking the next level down.

Mr Elliot : I will go down to that one in a minute. They have knowledge of, or experience in, tourism in the marine park. Certainly our current board member, who is appointed under that requirement, does have a strong experience—they are Cairns based—as a tourism operator in the marine park. Most of the members of our Tourism Reef Advisory Committee—that is the one dedicated to tourism; I will hand over to Fred in a moment—are current operators. Would that be correct, Fred?

Mr Nucifora : Yes. The Tourism Reef Advisory Committee is made up of representatives that represent sectors of industry as well. We have representation on there from large tour boat operations, island based tourism, and Tourism and Events Queensland. Queensland parks and wildlife also is. We also have the head of the Association of Marine Park Tourism Operators, who represents a very broad suite of operators.

CHAIR: You would aware of this because you have had people shadowing this all the way through. Why is it that since we have started this inquiry, overwhelmingly the issues that have been raised here in relation to tourism have been the actions of the GBRMPA? They relate to tardiness and difficulties with permits, be it renewals or variations. We have examples where they have been waiting 10 years for outcomes. You mentioned $700 or $800. One person in Townsville said that they were told they had to put up $8,000 for an application for a water sports permit to be considered. A number of complaints have come through.

A good example was in the Whitsundays. A mum and dad operation had been there only for a few years. They actually have a permit for sports fishing in a particular bay. They are a sports fishing operation and they are introducing fly fishing, catch and release. They can go in there, but they are not allowed to put a line in the water. They are excluded from doing that, yet it is open slather for all the recreational fishermen to go in and catch whatever the limits are. These guys go in with a selected clientele fly fishing and they are not allowed to put a line in the water. The reason is that it is a yellow zone. However, there is another operator—this is consistency—that has five extractive permits allowing them to fish in the yellow zone. They were offered one of those fishing permits so that they could get their business operational. GBRMPA knocked them back and said, 'No. You cannot transfer that permit.' They can buy another permit for another yellow zone fishing from somebody overseas. It is a latent permit that has been sitting there forever. They offered it to them for $150,000. This is a bit of gouging. A small operation like this could not do that. There was no flexibility or recognition of the needs of this business. We are talking fly fishing here. We are not talking about putting it in the freezers, as all the others can do, and taking it home.

We had an example in Cape Tribulation, which I am sure you are well aware of, where their business shut down eight months ago because of the inflexibility and the use of a management plan that clearly is dated. How old are the management plans? How many years have they been in operation? That is a good starting point. How long have the northern one and the one in Hinchinbrook been in operation?

Mr Elliot : I will make a general comment first. There is a whole lot of issues that you raise in that question.

CHAIR: There are pages of them.

Mr Elliot : First of all, as Mr Nucifora mentioned, the Tourism Reef Advisory Committee is reef operators. Yes, they bring up these issues with us as well. So the tardiness of permits is certainly something we are very cognisant and aware of. We identified that ourselves in 2015, which is why we now have a multiyear program in place to improve the response inside our permission system. For the first couple of years, it has been focussing on the recommendations from the ANAO audit report to improve our consistency and transparency. That will be probably about 80-odd per cent done by the time those changes are all implemented around 4 October this year. Future tranches of that are going to introduce things like our permits online system, which will make applications not only easier for permittees but also faster for us to process. So there are those bits to respond to that part of the question. In terms of the plans of management themselves, yes, the plans of management have been around for a long time. I think they date back to—

CHAIR: What is a long time?

Dr Dobbs : To 1998.

Dr Banks : To 1998.

CHAIR: So decades?

Dr Dobbs : The original plans of management for Cairns and Whitsundays.

CHAIR: They are used as a reason not to do anything. We cannot do anything because the plans of management are there and we have no flexibility. Is that it?

Mr Elliot : I will throw over to Dr Banks in a moment. What I wanted to say is that, yes, we recognise that they do have to be contemporised every now and then. That is what we are doing with the Whitsundays at the moment. Dr Banks will be able to speak to that. He is taking a lead on that. Some of the things in those plans of management are negotiated at the time, such as, for example, the 365-day permits. When the existing plans of management were put in place, it was very strongly wanted by the tourism industry that there be no more 365-day permits issued because they were already at capacity. They did not want too much more capacity. So they thought there was enough capacity.

CHAIR: That is fine. But in the crocodile one, it is different. They had that. All they needed was a variation because of government inaction in relation to the management of crocodiles. Suddenly it was a serious risk for their clients, because the crocodiles were stalking them in their kayaks. They just wanted to use within the confines. They are required under their permit to have a vessel that follows them around. All they wanted to do was to transfer the pressures temporarily over to that safety vessel so that they could continue their business until such time as another government sorted out the issue of crocodiles. They have now been out of business for eight months because they could not get a decision from GBRMPA. They used the management plan as an excuse to do nothing.

Mr Elliot : In that case, we were bound by the management plan. It is a piece of legislation. We cannot breach that legislation.

CHAIR: So there is no flexibility whatsoever in management plans?

Mr Elliot : There are certain flexibilities. In particular, one in the Cairns plan of management specifically prohibits non-motorised water sport to be converted to motorised water sport. I would like to hand over to Dr Banks, who can talk about where we are taking the Whitsundays plan of management, which will address some of those issues.

Dr Banks : As Mr Elliot said, the Whitsundays plan of management has been in place since 1998. It was last updated in 2008, so there are periodic updates. We have just been going through a process to update the Whitsundays plan of management. That commenced in about 2015. As part of that, we did a lot of consultation with industry and other community members in the Whitsundays region. One of the issues that was raised with us was the flexibility of the Whitsundays plan of management to accommodate changes in technology and things like that. So that has certainly been a matter that we have considered in finalising the plan, which is now under consideration by our board. We certainly gave it serious consideration. In our amendments that were released for public consultation in April, we included amendments around flexibility. That gave industry and the community an opportunity to respond and raise other issues around flexibility with us. So it is certainly something that has been clearly brought to our attention. We are sort of finalising—

CHAIR: There is not sufficient flexibility in the plans at the moment. This does have a serious negative impact on businesses operating within the marine park if they have permits there and they need to make changes.

Dr Banks : Yes. From an authority perspective, we have to get a balance between ensuring that we have a healthy ecosystem in the Whitsundays area that sustains a healthy tourism industry. That balance needs to be struck with providing flexibility to enable operators to adjust to changes in technology and things like that. Where they are low risk and low impact or no impact type activities, they are the sorts of things that I suppose we are looking towards the flexibility around.

CHAIR: I suppose it is fair to say that the GBRMPA also needs to be able to adjust to the changes in technology to accommodate the needs of the operators.

Dr Banks : Yes. More broadly within our business, we are looking to embrace innovation and technology. The use of drones and things like that is an important part of how we need to adjust and shift our business going forward as well.

CHAIR: Of all of the issues raised in relation to opportunities and impediments, there were no greater ones raised everywhere we have been than the management of GBRMPA and the management of permits. Bonds is another major issue. You have millions and millions of dollars sitting as bonds for various ones. This is coming from the tourism operators themselves. There have been issues raised from all levels within the tourism industry. There is bonds, for example.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: And they require insurance as well.

CHAIR: And they require insurance. My understanding is that somewhere up to about $150,000 has been used out of the bond pool since its inception. Quicksilver has about a million bucks tied in it. An operator in the Whitsundays has a couple of million bucks tied up in bonds. It beggars belief that the administrators of the Barrier Reef marine park authority do not realise that the insurance and getting those bank guarantees are an impost on businesses. The fact that you have used possibly up to $150,000 since the inception of this bond regime tells you that maybe this is an area where there can be some serious consideration. A lot of this stuff just beggars belief. It does not pass the common sense test.

Mr Elliot : First of all, I would like to make a quick comment on the plans of management and then go to the bonds issue. It is worth noting that the Whitsundays tourism area, for example, is approximately one per cent of the marine park yet accounts for around 43 per cent of all paying visitors to the marine park. So it is a fairly intense area in terms of the number of visitors going there each year. The plan of management is designed to manage that. It has had great growth over the last several years. Until Cyclone Debbie, it had been getting record numbers of visitors. So within the existing regulatory regime, they were experiencing good, solid, healthy growth and getting lots of visitors. At the same time, it got to the stage where operators were saying, 'We have congestion issues now so we want fewer permits, not more permits.' We need to manage things like latency. So on the one hand they want flexibility to be able to do more things but on the other hand they also want our assistance to try to manage congestion.

CHAIR: We have not come to the latency issue. They have raised the latency issue as well. Why is there not a use it or lose it approach? I talked about our friend with the fly fishing. They are forced by GBRMPA to be looking somewhere else. He has a permit to go in there, but he just cannot put his line in the water so he is forced to look overseas to somebody that will never use the licence. He is being told he can buy it off him for 150,000 bucks. This guy is sitting over there. Why has that licence not been cancelled? Why would he allow him to keep it so that he can then make a quid out of it because somebody else cannot get permission to use it?

Mr Elliot : I will come back to latency after bonds. We do have a policy on latency in that there is a use it or lose it policy. We do believe it needs tightening, because obviously people are finding ways around it.

CHAIR: What is the timeframe? If you do not use it in how many years?

Mr Elliot : It is averaged over the life of the permit.

Dr Dobbs : Yes. So latency is also known as reasonable use. It is determined at the time the permit comes in for continuation. Most of our tourism permits are either six-year permits or 15 years for high standard operators.

CHAIR: So if they have a 15-year permit and they do not use it in that 15 years, they have how long before they are going to get it taken off them?

Dr Dobbs : So, under our legislation, they need to commence their operations within a specified number of days or as per the permit conditions. That is followed up on a regular basis through our permits compliance team.

CHAIR: Why are there so many latent permits out there if you are following it up?

Dr Dobbs : There are two aspects here. There is latency and commencing operations in the marine park. When someone obtains their permit, they need to begin commencing operations. I believe it is 120 days under the regulations. Latency deals with how much they have used the permit over the term of the permit. Mr Nucifora can correct me if I am wrong. It is calculated at the time the permit comes in for continuation to see whether they have been using it over the life of the permit. I think we have discovered that, as Mr Elliot said, there is a need to review that policy. That policy has been in place for quite a number of years now.

Mr Elliot : The current requirement does not require them to use it for a minimum number of days each year. It is an average of a minimum number of days each year over the life of the permit. So if they use it very intensively for a couple of years and then they do not use it at all for a couple of years, it averages out okay. We are looking at changing that policy so that it becomes a tougher test.

Senator DODSON: Is there a statutory review period or is it just ad hoc? When do you actually do the review?

Mr Elliot : That is managed by policy as opposed to a regulation, the way we enforce latency.

Senator DODSON: I am just asking about the review of the plans.

Mr Elliot : There is not a statutory review period. We normally try to apply a five-year review period on most of our policies. That one would be older than five years at the moment, so it is definitely ready for review. I would like to now, though, go back to the issue of bonds. Bonds are a very contentious issue; they always have been for the authority. The purpose of a bond is to ensure that if a piece of infrastructure permitted in the marine park that someone has built and uses for commercial purposes is abandoned or damaged in some way and the business goes out of business or something like that, we can have that rendered safe and/or removed from the marine park without it being a burden on the taxpayer. That is the purpose of bonds. Unfortunately, insurances do not provide sufficient guarantee for that to occur.

CHAIR: Or in a timely manner.

Mr Elliot : Or at all.

CHAIR: However, the fact that there has been about $150,000 drawn on the bonds since their inception and you are holding literally millions and millions of dollars in bank guarantees or whatever tells you that maybe the balance is not right. Of course, insurance on top of that tells you that maybe the balance is not right and it is an unnecessary impost on business.

Mr Elliot : Which is why we have been working with the reef advisory committee to examine options other than the bond system we have at the moment. I think Tony Baker mentioned that in Cairns to the inquiry.

CHAIR: He did mention it. It has had a huge impact on a lot of people. It seems to me that there needs to be some level of sensitivity to the actual costs of doing business. There are a number of other things. Lady Musgrave Cruises had a classic example. They missed a deadline because of delays in maintenance work. When they eventually got it approved, they were told they had to move the bloody thing 11 metres. That beggars belief—11 metres. I am sure you guys have a rough idea of what it costs to be able to do something like that. So would it not have been better just to say, 'Go away. We don't want you there?' The problem has gone away because the boat got burnt. Nevertheless, would it not be better for your reputation to tell them to just go away?

Mr Elliot : As I said, we would welcome the opportunity to respond to these in writing. In that case, we did not ask anyone to move a pontoon 11 metres. The pontoon had not been—

CHAIR: Well, that is the evidence that was presented to us.

Mr Elliot : The pontoon had not been installed and had never been permitted in the place where he wanted to install it, which was part of the issue.

CHAIR: That is not what we have received.

Mr Elliot : They are the facts.

CHAIR: Flying 1,500 feet over an area, you are saying, 'No, you can't because it is a light aircraft and there is a noise issue.' They are 1,500 feet in the air and you cannot do that. There was an issue with a jet ski on Magnetic Island. They said they want to call in there for a lunch and were told, 'No. You can't do that because of the noise.' However, when they showed us the technology, there was bugger-all noise. They said if you want to reconsider the application, it is going to cost you eight grand and we cannot guarantee it is going to happen. Small operators do not have that sort of money. They do not have a government pit that they can dig it out of. They have to generate it themselves. I will finish up on this. As I said, there is so much. There are many others that we could use as examples. There are many others that have been brought to me as well prior to this inquiry. It just beggars belief that there would be so many. Many of the people, as you say, are operators and highly respected within the marine park. I think there need to be some serious looks at this. It is not about destroying the park but about a bit of common sense trying to manage these things. You have a lot of very unhappy users out there. I think that is fair to say.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: You mentioned that the Whitsunday plan is under review and is just about finished. What about the other plans? What is the timetable for review of them?

Dr Banks : Our focus at the moment is working through finalising the Whitsundays plan of management. When we have done that, there is a process to implement, which requires getting booking systems and other arrangements in place. I suppose at that time we will give consideration. We are certainly aware of representations around particularly the Cairns plan of management, seeking to open it up for review. We want to close one off and then we will be in a position to consider it.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: Is there any way you can do a mini review and change for the example that has been mentioned? It is one example about transferring the kayaks into a power boat that is already going there. The only reason seems to be that it is not allowed in the plan of management. I suspect even your relevant officers would agree that that should be allowed, but they cannot. Is there any chance of changing those things more quickly than doing a full review that goes for years and has this process?

Dr Banks : In short, no. There are requirements under the act in terms of consultation and things like that, which we can do. So you potentially could confine it to one small thing, but inevitably—which I think is what happened with the Whitsundays—there will be a range of other issues that people raise through consultation or other processes.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: Perhaps it is for us as legislators to look at amendments to the act to allow some flexibility.

Mr Elliot : Let us say, for example, we work to make a small change to allow the flexibility to make that sort of change. We would still have to go through the full process of consultation et cetera. Whether it would be restricted to that simple change would be determined by industry and everybody else as part of the consultation phase. Once it we have opened it, we have opened Pandora's box and we have to see what comes in.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: These things were all implemented in a day when consultation was king. Quite frankly, I think we have moved on from that. We have got to do what is right. Anyhow, that is another issue. Very briefly, sea sculptures were mentioned to us. Can you give us an uninformed or an informed view on whether each one would be specific to its own individual situation—they are generally allowable or not allowable? Is there a general prohibition or unhappiness about them?

Dr Dobbs : I have had conversations with the former person who was sitting there who raised that. Essentially, the marine park authority is not opposed to sea sculptures. There are a range of issues of the people who are proposing them that we have asked them to consider. Those things include, obviously, location. We have specifically in the case of the Palm Island group said that we would want to know that the traditional owners on Palm Island and the people who live there are supportive of what is being proposed. But there are also issues around—

Senator IAN MACDONALD: Is that part of your role? It is an important consideration what the traditional owners want, but is that for GBRMPA?

Dr Dobbs : Part of GBRMPA's requirements in assessing applications is to assess the impacts to cultural heritage values, and that includes traditional owner values. They could potentially be considered affected third parties by a decision that we make. They could ask for a reconsideration or appeal.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: Forget Palm Island. Let us go to Magnetic.

Dr Dobbs : If we go with Magnetic Island, certainly looking at location, location is important. Would they want to allow fishing activities or anchoring activities near the sculptures? Essentially someone owns the structures. I have indicated to the potential applicant that if you want to exclude fishing activities, for example, have a look at zone placement. Otherwise it would potentially require us to do a regulation change to prohibit fishing in the immediate vicinity of such a structure. These are questions for the proponent of how they would like to see the sculpture used.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: That is probably as far as I can take that now. Thanks for that. It is very concise.

Mr Elliot : It is probably worth noting, though, that we have not received any applications at this stage.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: I think he made that point too. Are your decisions generally subject to appeal to the AAT?

Dr Dobbs : Yes. Through our regulations, we publish our decisions on our website. There is a reconsideration, as I said, and an appeal except when an application is deemed under the EPBC Act and it is essentially a joined up process. In that case, that decision is only appealable to the Federal Court.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: Yes. That is right. I briefly want to go to Reef HQ, which you manage, run and finance. I appreciate that you do not have enough finance. Tell me briefly what needs to be done and how it needs to be done and why it is not being done. I guess the why it is not is no money. But you tell me.

Dr Banks : Do you have any more context in terms of improving the facility?

Senator IAN MACDONALD: Well, it has been suggested to us that the inside is good—the science and the facility—but it is very tart. It needs refurbishment and refreshing to attract more customers. They are just some things that have been said to me over the years. Do you have a comment on that?

Dr Banks : I suppose there is—

Senator IAN MACDONALD: Or do you think it is fine as it is? That is probably the question.

Dr Banks : Well, the building that has received some attention in the media is a building that is not owned or run by us. Reef HQ is separately on its own lease. Yes, there is some work there that we need to do to tidy up.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: What is the building that is not owned by you?

Dr Banks : The main office block, which is the main entrance where you walk through the concourse and things like that. That is not part of the government-run facility. When you go in through the doors, you are into the facility that is—

Senator IAN MACDONALD: So it is privately run, is it?

Dr Banks : That is right. We have a lease arrangement on that building for our offices. Reef HQ itself is a separate arrangement to that. Look, in terms of improving the facility, we have done work recently, for example, to put new carpet in to tidy up the inside of it. We want to continue to keep it as a contemporary tourism facility that does attract and continues to attract visitors. We have had—

Senator IAN MACDONALD: So you are happy with it as it is? Is that what you are saying?

Dr Banks : No. The facility on the outside does need work; there is no question about that. We have got, at least for the aquarium component of the facility, capital to assist us with maintenance and things like that. Look, there is a range of issues that have been identified with the whole facility there. From our perspective, we will do what we can to improve the look of it because we do want it to remain as a really important tourist facility.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: So you accept that it does need work. You are telling me you have that under control? This is your chance.

CHAIR: What is the cost? We have been given a figure today on what they believe is necessary to do the work to bring it back up to scratch. I am interested if you guys are aware of it.

Dr Banks : The difficulty is there is one part of the facility or the building that is part of the whole facility owned by another party. We have an arrangement on the Reef HQ component of it, which is the aquarium. So I think the commentary has been around probably the whole facility. Yes, there needs to be some work. I think the authority's position is we want to see that change and basically get some decent accommodation.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: Do you have a plan for what needs to be done?

CHAIR: And costing.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: Well, do you have a plan, first?

Mr Elliot : For the overall complex, because we do not lease most of that and we do not own it, of course, we do not have a plan for that because it is outside of our control. All the plan—

Senator IAN MACDONALD: Does it affect the financial viability of it?

Mr Elliot : It does affect the appeal of the whole precinct. That land is all owned by the Port of Townsville. I think they are in discussions with various people about what could and could not be done in terms of developments. In the recently provided additional funding that the authority was given, there were some additional capital funds for the infrastructure of the Reef HQ aquarium itself. So that is the inside plant and equipment et cetera.

Dr Banks : At the moment, we are doing condition reports of the facility. We are looking at the sort of core structure—the mechanics of it and all those sorts of things. We have consultants or experts coming in to provide advice to us about the condition of the facility, which will then inform a longer-term plan around capital and ongoing maintenance within the facility.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: You are in charge of it. Even though some of the elements of it are beyond your control, it affects your financial and management operations of it. I would be curious, perhaps on notice, even, if you could give us a couple of paragraphs, non-binding to you, to give us a bit of a concept of what you as the managers think needs to be done to tart it up and do whatever needs to be done.

Dr Banks : To take that on notice and be able to provide feedback to the committee on that would be good. We have seen good numbers of visitors over the last couple of years. There are over 140,000 visitors per year. As Mr Elliot said in his opening remarks, through edutourism and the initiatives there, we are seeing growth in attracting international students to the Townsville region that actually undertake a range of activities in the aquarium.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: In spite of what Mr Entsch says, it is the only Commonwealth government funded and badged educational reef aquarium we have in Australia.

Dr Banks : That is correct. It is the national education centre for the Great Barrier Reef. It provides an important low-cost opportunity for visitors to experience something of what the reef looks like.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: The new Cairns one is brilliant as an entertainment venue. Yours is a bit more—

CHAIR: It is an education one too.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: Well, yes, okay.

CHAIR: And it has been privately funded.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: Yes. I acknowledge all that.

Mr SNOWDON: Can you two blokes stop fighting?

Senator IAN MACDONALD: This is the one that has the Commonwealth government coat of arms on it. It is an educational and scientific facility.

CHAIR: How much money do you want from the Commonwealth to rebuild it?

Senator IAN MACDONALD: Anyhow, give us a couple of paragraphs. Do not go into any great detail. Qualify it, as you guys are good at doing. It is just so we have a concept of what needs to be done.

Senator DODSON: One of the other matters put to us is that the impact on the reef by the tourists to this part of the world means that the reef is dying. Have you seen any noticeable evidence of drop-off in numbers coming to visit the reef?

Mr Elliot : We have only got anecdotal reports back from the tourism areas at the moment. Obviously, you would have expected a bit of a drop-off in the Whitsundays area in the aftermath of tropical Cyclone Debbie. So it will be probably hard to see what the impact specifically of that one cyclone is versus the broader rhetoric around coral bleaching. Mr Nucifora is probably more in contact with our tourism operators on a regular basis.

Mr Nucifora : Thank you, Senator Dodson, for your question. The visitation levels to the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park in 2016 are the best that we have seen since 1994, on the graph that I am looking at here now, with around 2.4 million visitor days out to the Great Barrier Reef in 2016. As Mr Elliot suggested, we have had some reports from industry partners of a softening in visitation, but I was heartened to see the announcement of direct flights from Guangzhou via China Southern into Cairns beginning in December, which will certainly be a shot in the arm for the industry in that region.

Just flowing on from our previous conversation with regard to the aquarium, through our outreach education technology, which is reef video conferencing, Reef HQ is working really hard to support both the Queensland and Australian tourism industry in attracting visitors to Australia and the reef. It is helping to provide a very balanced voice with regard to the health status of the Great Barrier Reef. Earlier this year, in February, we supported the Australian Tourism Summit in Pasadena, California. Just so you are aware, our tank is still to this very day, after 30 years of operation, the largest living coral reef aquarium in the world. We can put a scuba diver in that tank with full face communications mask, high definition underwater video camera and beam that living tropical coral reef anywhere on the planet. In the last five years, we have gone to 700 locations around the world and to over 65,000 participants showcasing the Great Barrier Reef as a place to come and visit. That technology alone is being used to help bolster the tourism industry and get that positive messaging out there.

Senator DODSON: Thank you for that.

Mr Elliot : It is also probably worth noting that whilst the reef has had the effects of two coral bleaching summers in a row plus a cyclone and those in different ways have affected two different tourism areas, as we know with these things, and as we certainly have seen with the bleaching, it is also very patchy. So while a lot of coral has been lost, in a 344,000 square kilometre marine park there is an awful lot of very healthy coral still left in that system, including in those tourism areas. I realise that there is an issue with messaging around the world which is impacting. The only final comment I want to make is that when we look at the graphs of the up and down of tourism numbers, we have probably seen good growth. We saw a dive after the GFC, and it stayed suppressed for a while. But as the Australian dollar started to soften, tourism started to improve and has been improving probably ever since that time.

Mr Nucifora : There has been a special trend upwards since 2009 in visitations to the marine park.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: I want to follow on from Senator Dodson's question. It was a very good one. Mr Elliot, the statistic you just mentioned or the comment you just made is the one we rarely hear. I mentioned how at another hearing the Premier of Tonga said to me, 'Oh, you're from Australia. Isn't it terrible the Barrier Reef is dead.' That's the message that is going out internationally. Can you repeat what you said about some under challenge?

Mr Elliot : You will find this in the media releases we have put on our website. In our coral bleaching updates, you will find it, and in our recently released summary of the 2016 bleaching events you will find it as well. The reality is that, first of all, bleached is not dead. Coral can recover and does recover. In actual fact, the majority of the coral that bleached recovered in both those events. There was still high mortality. Whilst that mortality had severe gradations from north to south in 2016 and then was most intense in the central reef in 2017, even within those areas and even within single reefs, you will find high variability. So you will find patches of dead coral and patches of good, vibrant, healthy coral. And that is really important, because that healthy coral is what will seed the recovery in those other reefs. So in terms of the system, it is still very resilient. We know it has the capability to bounce back.

It is more about what happens next rather than what has happened. That will determine how quickly it recovers and what the full prognosis is. Certainly there is still plenty of good, vibrant coral to see, including in those tourism areas. I am not meaning to make a pun here, but the Whitsundays are a bit murkier, of course, because it is still unfolding there. That was a very big, very powerful cyclone, and it did an awful lot of damage. But even there we are expecting the tourism operators will adapt. Whitehaven Beach has had quite a lot of attention since that cyclone so we can get tourism visitors back to that location. A lot of the stuff in the Whitsundays is also island based. It is not just about seeing coral. So they are probably a bit less vulnerable to impacts that are exclusively on coral.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: You should not ask these questions unless you know the answer, of course. Do you have statistics of the brilliant coral as a percentage of the total coral?

Mr Elliot : The best thing would probably be the Australian Institute of Marine Science long-term monitoring program, because what they do—

Senator IAN MACDONALD: I mean now, today.

Mr Elliot : Today, no, because any survey you do, you can get an indication. So when we go out and do a reef health impact survey, one of the things we measure is the coral condition and the coral cover—coral biodiversity. So we get all that information.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: So if I am a German wanting to come to Australia, I know that there is millions of hectares, or however you quantify it, of brilliant coral that is worth coming all the way across the world to see?

Mr Elliot : Yes. We still probably have some of the best and most diverse healthy coral. There are areas in the Great Barrier Reef which still have very good coral cover.

CHAIR: We are going to have to wind up. I will leave you with another little gift, and that is in relation to permit transfers. I will give you two examples. One has almost cost him a $15 million sale because of the inflexibility or the reluctance of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority to transfer the permit. A signature from the original permit signatory could not be found. It does not exist. They cannot find him anywhere in the world. That almost cost them a sale. In the second one, they found out one of the partners had died. Despite getting the widow to be a signatory and say, 'Yes, it is okay to go ahead'—he had to travel to Thailand to get the signature—GBRMPA would not accept that to allow the transfer. Luckily, they had a second permit in their pocket that they could use to get across. Otherwise the sale would have been off. I put you on notice on those two. They are the sort of things that are really upsetting operators here, and it is costing them money. One is Reef Magic; I am sure you are aware of it. It almost cost them a $15 million sale because of a signatory they could not find in spite of all of their best efforts. GBRMPA refused to accept that even though there were statutory declarations and everything else to that effect. You wonder why that would be the case. In the other case, they knew the person was dead. The next of kin signed the authority to say, 'Yes, it is not a problem'—it took them a couple of years to sort it out—and even then they had to go and use another permit to be able to get the transfer. I do not know whether that is the role of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority. It makes it very difficult for them to do business. We will wind up there. If you have anything else you would like to pass on to us, please feel free to do so by Friday, 21 July. If there is anything else you would like to pass on, we would very interested in hearing it. Thank you for your time.

Proceedings suspended from 13.09 to 13.37