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Transcript of interview: ABC Northern Tasmania: 26 July 2012: FV Margiris

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Fisheries Minister Senator Joe Ludwig talks to Damien Brown, ABC Northern Tasmania 26 July 2012



Brown: Well it hasn't made an application to fish off Tasmanian shores yet. It hasn't even arrived but there's no doubt the 142 metre Margiris on its way to Devonport with Seafish Tasmania having applied for it to fish for about 18,000 tons of jack mackerel and red bait - has definitely seen those rough seas.

Opponents again today have questioned the validity of the research being used to set the catch quotas for the vessel and we'll hear from Greens Bass MP Kim Booth shortly.

Regardless of which side of the fence you sit on, the question over whether or not the data being used to set the catch limits for the massive vessel is accurate and whether it can believe - can be believed remain there and does the Federal government have the powers to stop the vessel coming to Australia?

Following months of not being able to catch him, we were able to find Federal Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, Senator Joe Ludwig on his way, travelling around Queensland.

I spoke with him earlier today and started by asking him why a big vessel like this which is not allowed to fish in other areas of the world, is being considered for fisheries just off our coast.

Ludwig: Two things first, is that the Australian AFMA as commonly called, haven't made a decision as yet. So there's actually no application before it. So any decisions about where the boat might sail to, is a matter for the commercial decision of the operator.

And so to date, the AFMA has not received an application for fishing in these waters. It would have to be an Australian registered boat to begin with.

Brown: We can expect though in the coming days, perhaps weeks, that we will see this application, preparing to look at this application for it to operate here. Why do you think it's coming here?

Ludwig: Well, let's start from the beginning. Now, commercial decisions can be made by commercial companies. Obviously the commercial decision by this company is because it wants to operate within the confines of the strong regulatory regime within Australia for fishing. So I don't think it's for any other purpose.

Brown: Is there anything in the Act, once this application comes to you, for you to actually reject the - allowing this vessel to fish off Tasmanian waters?

Ludwig: What we do have is an independent government regulator, the Australian Fisheries Management Authority, AFMA, which is the regulator. It is the cop on the beat that determines what type of fishing can be done within Australian waters. They manage all of our operations right around Australia, for Commonwealth fishers and they manage them to a very high degree.

In fact, right across the world, Australia is known for its strength in its sustainable fishing. And the commercial fishers I talked to as I travel around Australia, tell me AFMA is a very tough regulator.

Brown: It's AFMA themselves that have said though the research that they're relying on to set the quotas, is actually outdated and they're looking at a scientist on-board to assess as the catches are coming in. Won't that be too late?

Ludwig: Well, AFMA is the independent regulator. They're responsible for managing our commercial fisheries and they will assess applications for particular vessels and particular units to operate in Australian waters and they will manage that to the science.

To be clear about this, the Government does not make decisions about our fisheries. It is a sensible place to leave it to the science-based decision making of an independent regulator. Otherwise you get yourself into a place of where politicians would be making decisions, not based on science, not based on what the facts demonstrate but on political decisions.

That's why we have an independent regulator to manage our commercial fishers. Our commercial fishing industry is a strong industry. If you look across the rest of it, from SBT all the way to Northern Prawn Fishery, they are strongly regulated by AFMA and it's independent of government.

Brown: It is that research that's causing this sticking point. Not only for opposition groups but actually for the commercial operators that are out there, the anglers that are out there. They're questioning whether or not the data is accurate and whether they can believe it before they're happy with the decision or an application that's pending to come to our shores. Why is this confusion there?

Ludwig: Well, I don't know whether there's confusion on behalf of those particular stakeholders or whether or not it's just created because no-one's had the opportunity of looking at AFMA's science-based decision making process.

What is important though is that people do have questions about the regulator, they can direct them to the regulator. I've got no doubt the regulator will facilitate discussions and talk to people and talk to them about the science based decision making they make. And I've got 100 per cent confidence that they will continue to do their job and do their job well.

Brown: They've started - that AFMA are using has your support.

Ludwig: I've got 100 per cent confidence in AFMA themselves, that they will take and have a rigorous process to ensure that the decisions they make are science based and their decisions are peer reviewed and they will consider stakeholder's views, including those of the NGOs and anyone else who raises issues with them.

That's what I've got 100 per cent confidence in. I'm not familiar with the individual data nor should I be. AFMA is the regulator, they will have the confidence of me to make the science based decisions.

Brown: The message from rallies around the states at the weekend was, as I say, this concern particularly again from commercial operators and anglers concerned, that they want to accept that this vessel may be on our shores. But again, want to be sure that the catch figures are okay. What is your message to them?

Ludwig: What I have asked that to do, is to facilitate community consultation about this issue. Why? Because there is community concern around this particular boat coming - potentially coming into these waters.

So I think the community should be engaged and understand and have an opportunity of raising the issues with AFMA. Sitting down in a room with AFMA and going through the available data to test all of that.

Because I think that it would be a sensible - of course, it's a take to ensure that we have got a clear community consultative process in place. That's why I've made the decision to encourage that and facilitate that community consultation.

Brown: With the decision pending - and again you've got the - you're waiting for the information from AFMA to come to you before a final decision is made. Can these people have the assurance that even - if they still haven't been won over, I guess by the research that you have power to, to stop this, to listen to their concerns and stop this?

Ludwig: I think we're getting into the realm of hypotheticals. I think what is important - if we just get through the process - is that I think it's a sensible opportunity for people to sit down and consult with both the company and the stakeholders. That is those people who have issues to raise.

So that even where there are additional measures or where the company might say look, even above the science we'll take a voluntary undertakings to assure people that we can continue to operate in a sustainable way that meets people's expectations. And people should avail themselves of the opportunity of that consultation.

Brown: This may be a hypothetical but is it not also a safety net for these people that are trying to make up their mind whether or not to support this, to know that the Government has

the power to say well, I'm sorry. Yes, the data is there and it's saying that it is a sustainable fishery but we're listening to your concerns. We won't allow this to fish.

Ludwig: I think it's important to come back to what I keep saying. It is an independent regulator. The independent regulator makes the decisions. What I have done is facilitate that consultation with interested stakeholders, so that both the commercial fishers, the stakeholders, the rec fishers and the company can sit down and look at the issue.

They can raise their concerns and if there are additional matters that the company wants to voluntarily undertake, then they can agree on that because I think community consultation is extraordinarily important.

Brown: So there would be actually no legislative powers for a Federal Government to then come in and say this can't go ahead?

Ludwig: Well I'll put it to you in another way, Centrelink make decisions about payment systems, Medicare makes decisions about Medicare, independent decisions. The government does not interfere in the individual decisions that both Centrelink and Medicare make. Why? Because the [framework] that underpins it, that wraps it around, makes sure that the Government has overview but not the day-to-day management or control. And you wouldn't want that for an independent regulator. That's why we call them an independent regulator.

Brown: But at the end of the day, the Government would be able to step in?

Ludwig: And again, we have independent regulators for the ACCC. We have independent regulators for ASIC. The Australian Federal Police are independent of government and make decisions.

All of the regulators, in other words like the cops on the beat, are independent. The government does not make their decisions, does not step over the top and those independent decisions are not based on science but based on some third or fourth reason.

Brown: How much pressure are you getting from local Labor members, both state and federal now to make a decision on this to ensure that this confusion's gone?

Ludwig: [Through] community consultation I have sought to facilitate [this]. I've met with the NGOs. I requested a meeting very early last week and I met with them within the week.

In fact, less than a week because of the concern that they expressed in a communication to me. Having met with them, I thought the best way forward was a community consultation.

They've now rejected that, unfortunately, which is very sad. But a range of other groups that were also at that meeting said that they would actually benefit from community consultation. So that will continue.

Brown: Senator Joe Ludwig there, Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry. ENDS