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Northern Australia Agenda Select Committee

BUCHANAN, Mr Scott, Executive Director, Wet Tropics Management Authority

GRAHAM, Ms Lucy, Director, Cairns and Far North Environment Centre

WALLS, Mr Denis, President, Cairns and Far North Environment Centre

GORDON, Professor Ian, Director, Wet Tropics Management Authority and Chair, Scientific Advisory Committee. Wet Tropics Management Authority


CHAIR: Last but by no means least, we now have our last session for the day. So I'd like to welcome representatives from the Cairns and Far North Environment Centre, also known as CAFNEC, and the Wet Tropics Management Authority. Thank you all for coming along today. I understand that information on parliamentary privilege and the protection of witnesses and evidence has been provided to you. I invite each organisation to make an opening statement and then we will go to questions.

Mr Walls : Thanks for inviting us today. Often environmental groups don't get invited to events like this. It's a measure of the changing times, I think, that we are here today. So thank you for inviting us. I also want to acknowledge the traditional owners of this country on which we meet today.

Just to give you a sense of the organisation's coverage, the Cairns and Far North Environment Centre, or CAFNEC, stretches right up into the cape as far south as Cardwell and west out to Georgetown. Next year, we'll be celebrating 40 years of existence. So we've been around for a long time now. During that long period of engagement on environmental matters, it's become clear that the old way of doing things has not worked. So relying solely—and when I say solely I don't mean that this is always the case—on large-scale developments, extractive industries, new dams, bigger irrigation schemes and so on, has not been working in bringing social, economic and environmental wellbeing to the communities in which we are the bailiwick. So, in our view, it's time to implement a new and better way of managing our precious land—and Lucy will discuss the 'green and blue' stimulus package and present that to you more fulsomely.

I've worked for 20 years in remote parts of Queensland and, through this work, I know that community engagement and local control of projects and developments always serve the community the best and result in improved social, economic and environmental wellbeing. Aggregate funding to meet small-scale community endeavours with enhanced capacity building is a far better model for economic, social and environmental success than imposed large-scale and often destructive models that deliver sometimes very dubious benefits to the local communities in which they're based.

I put in my submission some links for you in relation to dams with a reference and also to some water in relation to dam extraction and how that can be done more effectively and efficiently in relation to particularly the Tablelands close to Cairns. I can talk about that later if you ask me a question.

We at CAFNEC have been working with the Wet Tropics Management Authority, or WTMA, to bring together different organisations across our regions to develop a package which we describe as a reimagining of a successful economic future for FNQ in a post-COVID world. The green and blue stimulus package could be a catalyst for change for us to do things better in the future and not return to the same old models and the same old ways of doing business. With those few words, I'll now pass to Lucy to say a little bit more about the green and blue stimulus recovery package that we are offering and the options for the future, particularly for a sustainable pathway for the northern Australian agenda and the NAIF funding associated with it.

Ms Graham : I think WTMA will be presenting similarly, so I will keep it fairly brief. I particularly wanted to highlight and extend my recognition for the northern Australia agenda and the importance of this agenda. It recognises the unique economies up here and the unique situation we have not only in Far North Queensland but also across the Northern Territory and northern Western Australia.

CAFNEC hasn't had a submission before now, and I think it's particularly because of our involvement with the green and blue recovery that we're sitting in this room today. So, when I prepared for today, I looked at a lot of the submissions that came in from across our different leaders in this region, and what you can see are some really clear priorities around traditional-owner-led management, localising our economy and building a skilled workforce in our regions so that our economy flows back into our regions and our young people can stay here, investing in feasibility studies and research and development for our regions, city deals, social infrastructure, water security, and the smaller loan opportunities or grant opportunities within NAIF as well. The impact that COVID has had up here, I think, is going to be a lot longer than in many other regions, and a lot of the work that we've done on the green and blue stimulus package is reflecting that.

Some of the things I want to highlight in the work, the submissions I've read and our experiences is that, so far, the projects funded by NAIF have predominantly been large-scale projects that haven't necessarily resulted in the empowerment of those local communities, which is really what we want to be seeing and is the agenda of our region. Some of the comments—and I'm not going to read this verbatim because you've all got copies of it and you can read it at your leisure, but I think the interesting thing I read was in the responses from Mr Wade, the CEO of NAIF, who has said that NAIF is not necessarily the answer to some of the issues that were raised in submissions regarding this review. That leads me to the question: if NAIF isn't the answer, then who is it serving? It should be serving the communities that it's designed for, so, if it isn't the answer, we really need to ask why it's not the answer and adjust it so it can answer the needs of our communities, rather than saying it just simply isn't the answer.

We want a northern Australia agenda that helps our economy build resilience, build skills locally, move away from a transient workforce, focus on localising supply chains so that we're more resilient and self-reliant and ensure our annual income doesn't depend on that seasonal tourism window, which it so intensely does at the moment. All of this leads us into the green and blue stimulus package that we've been talking about and that you've received in your notes. Organisations, many of whom have presented to you today, came together across some historical boundaries to express an agenda for our recovery, an agenda we believe will ensure our economy, our people and our environment prosper and grow stronger together. Economic analysis of the green and blue economic stimulus package—and thank you WTMA for helping make that happen—has demonstrated the package's ability to stimulate the economy in an immediate way, but it also highlights how we can change the economy long term to be more resilient.

I want to impress on you today the importance of the priority that our community is expressing in the green and blue stimulus package. It's asking the northern Australia agenda to be our communities' agenda, which is set by our communities in northern Australia and isn't defined by the business interests outside our regions. What our region is asking for is an innovative economy for a green infrastructure and innovation.

I want to finish by referring to the recommendations that were included in your interim report. We really strongly support recommendations 3, 4, 5 and 8 as some key things that our community has expressed an interest in. They offer opportunities to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, allow for smaller projects, have grants available, work to reduce administrative requirements, have funds for feasibility studies, and increase transparency and accountability. But we also want to ask for an additional element that's not reflected in the committee's recommendations. It is an essential element that must be included in our agenda if it's really going to provide the support that our communities need, and that's an investment in our environmental resilience and protection against natural disasters. We need to ensure that the northern Australia agenda is setting an innovative agenda that can address our unique challenges, our exposure to coastal hazards and climate change. We ask that the Senate select committee include recommendations to ensure that green infrastructure and natural resource management projects are included in viable projects in the northern Australia agenda. Both the green and blue stimulus package, which we provided, and the national version of that have demonstrated the importance of the environment as an economic driver for our economy up here. That's all I'll say for now, and I'm sure you'll have plenty more questions.

CHAIR: Thanks very much, Ms Graham. Over To WTMA.

Prof. Gordon : Thank you very much indeed for the invitation to come and speak to you today, especially since I've flown from the dry plains of Townsville to come up to beautiful green Cairns, where you've obviously had rain in the past wee while. I'd also like to acknowledge the traditional owners of the lands on which we meet today and pay my respects to their elders past, present and future. I'll keep it short. I'll just differentiate ourselves a little bit from the conservation organisation. The Wet Tropics World Heritage area was gazetted in 1980, so we've just had our 30 years, and the Wet Tropics Management Authority is responsible for its management on behalf of the Queensland and federal governments. We as an independent board report to two ministers—Minister Ley, who is the federal Minister for the Environment, and Minister Scanlon, who is the Queensland Minister for the Environment and the Great Barrier Reef. So there are two different hats, and we do the management of the World Heritage area in collaboration between the two.

The World Heritage area was listed because of its outstanding universal value, particularly the natural assets that are in the region. Not many people know that the Wet Tropics is the oldest rainforest on the planet. It is about 50 million years older than its younger sister, the Amazon. There are a number of unique species that are here because of the fact that Australia has travelled the journey away from Antarctica and Africa for 50 million years and has carried with it a unique biodiversity. The Wet Tropics World Heritage area is seen as the second most important World Heritage area on the planet and the sixth most irreplaceable protected area within the planet. The natural assets that we have in this region and that the authority is responsible for managing are the foundations upon which the economy of this region is generated. We've done an assessment of the economic value of the Wet Tropics, which is about $5.3 billion dollars per year, of which about $3.5 billion is due to tourism. We get about 500,000 tourist visitors a year to this region, and they're coming here because of the natural assets for which we are responsible. The area was also gazetted on a national basis for its Indigenous cultural values. That was in 2012. The oldest continuous inhabitation of any culture on the planet is here on the Wet Tropics. The rainforest Aboriginal peoples are, therefore, an important part of the way in which this landscape is managed and also an important part of the way in which this landscape has been shaped over millennia.

Two key things are important to the way in which we determine the future economic development of the region. The first thing is that we've got to make sure that the natural asset or, as it's called, the 'natural capital' of this region is sustained, protected and made resilient, especially given the fact that we have clear evidence that climate change is significantly impacting the biodiversity within this region. Secondly, we need to make sure that we work with the Aboriginal communities of the rainforest in order to manage this area effectively. We would argue that the foundation upon which we work here, and of which the green and blue stimulus package is a key, is the fact that the economy has to be about the maintenance of the World Heritage values that determine the tourism experience.

Tourists are a key economic benefit. We can grow the tourism here by moving tourists away from the two main cities—that's Cairns or Townsville, and going up to the Daintree or Port Douglas—towards them seeing much more of the World Heritage area. That would include things like increasing the number of Indigenous rangers there are to take tourists around, having things like a gateway to the Wet Tropics, which is one of the areas based in, probably, Cairns.

You talked before about a feasibility study. Having a feasibility study is a way in which that gateway to the World Heritage area can be developed and delivered. Also, we at the Wet Tropics are currently doing a tourism destination plan, which will be a coordination across a range of different stakeholders, about developing tourism in the region. I think I'll leave it there and let you open up the questions. Have you got anything you want to add to that?

CHAIR: Thanks very much, Professor Gordon. I'm conscious that different committee members will have a different understanding of the blue and green—sorry, green and blue? Acronyms are—green and blue and orders of words. It's getting late in the afternoon. It's the green and blue strategy. Can you give us a thumbnail sketch, one of you, about what that involves and why that's important to both the regional economy and environment?

Senator ROBERTS: Could you add to that, 'Define a nature based economy'? It's used in the WTMA submission.

Ms Graham : I can speak to the first one, and maybe I can get you guys to expand on the nature based economy. There are a couple of things that I think are really important about the green and blue stimulus package. The first thing is that it brings together a really broad range of sectors. We've been collaborating with the chamber of commerce, Advance Cairns, FNQRoC, a lot of different Aboriginal groups and a lot of our smaller groups who are involved in the on-ground delivery. It's very rare to have such cross-sectoral involvement in an agenda for our region, and we're really proud of that work we've done to come together. So I think that expresses the bipartisan agreement, you could say, on this on this agenda.

Basically, there are two components of it. The first component is the boots on the ground, fins in the water, which is a very simple response to the pandemic. As you were highlighting with one of our other members earlier, the severe impact of unemployment that our region faces and the fact that natural resource management has a variety of different jobs available to both unskilled workers and skilled workers—you don't need a skilled person to plant trees but you might need a skilled person to do the soil analysis of that or being in the water, having the reef boats go out, and do monitoring and science out on the reef if they haven't got enough tourists. We have seen some really good examples of how exactly that works, which I can highlight for you later, if you like.

The second component is about the smart green capital. What we're talking about there is how we invest in innovative industries that diversify our economy and strengthen it. At the moment, we celebrate and love our tourism, but when tourism takes a hit our economy takes a big hit. What we want to do is strengthen other industries around it. That talks about innovative agriculture. It talks about new renewable energies. The northern Australia agenda has done well at setting a standard around that. It also talks about the research and development and feasibility studies we'd need to create new industries that diversify that economy and have some of those solutions that we need to adapt in our region to some of the environmental threats we face, particularly. So it's about how we develop new industries that look after our environments but also create an economy that employs people and strengthens that economy. So when we have the next financial crisis—we've all sat through the global financial crisis and now we're in the pandemic financial crisis or whatever we're calling it. There will be another one. What causes it, we don't know, but we do know we can make our economy better, to be more resilient, and that's what the component, too, is about. I'll let you guys keep talking.

Prof. Gordon : Just quickly, WTMA has already received $2.6 million, in relation to a thing called Reef Assist, so that's boots on the ground, which is helping to train Indigenous rangers. There are about 30 Indigenous rangers being trained under that program at the moment.

CHAIR: Is that federal funding?

Prof. Gordon : That's state funding. Basically, the argument is that nature is the foundation upon which the majority of our economies are based. Agriculture relies on the soil and water for its activities. Tourism relies on the aesthetics and experiential relationship that tourists have with nature. Nature itself is what's called a natural capital, in the same way as you have infrastructure capital, human capital and economic capital. Nature is the foundation for pretty well all bar the very extractive industries that you find in some areas of Australia.

CHAIR: I'm right, though, that there has been some federal funding to support. I thought that some of the work that was being done around the crown-of-thorns was related to this agenda as well.

Ms Graham : It's really interesting to explore how this agenda has been empowered by funding. The crown-of-thorns funding and the reef credits were being lobbied for before we came together for this agenda. However, that kind of funding absolutely encourages this kind of work. We wouldn't claim to have helped that funding be achieved through our work. I hope that our work has provided a positive context for it to be achieved, but we know that groups like GreenCollar and others were working really hard for the crown-of-thorns and the reef credit funding before we came to the party.

CHAIR: I'm not sure why I had it in my head that it was connected.

Ms Graham : I think it's because there are blurry lines. It does encompass that kind of work in a really positive way. That is the kind of thing we're talking about in many ways.

CHAIR: For sure. I'm interested in what you had to say around investing in natural disaster resilience. Could either of you let me know what would be some practical recommendations we could make in that sphere?

Prof. Gordon : I can start. Many of the natural systems protect against the impacts of natural disasters. Take wetlands or mangroves—

Senator ROBERTS: Reef regeneration.

Prof. Gordon : The reef itself protects against a lot of the impacts from things like cyclonic events.

Senator ROBERTS: It protects as well?

Prof. Gordon : Yes. The key here is that, if we invest in the restoration of many of the systems which have been degraded over the past 50 years, we increase the ability of those systems to protect us against natural disasters. It would be interesting to have a conversation with the insurance industry about ways in which they might invest in the restoration of natural assets that then reduce the insurance risk that might be on human infrastructure and human life. That's where I see it sitting.

Mr Buchanan : An example would be where mangroves act to reduce the impact of storm surges. Again, if you have human infrastructure that you're trying to protect, you have the option of building a levee, which comes with its own problems, or you increase the natural ability of mangroves to protect that infrastructure. Wetlands, which Ian mentioned, retard floods coming down. They take a lot of the sediment out. If you have a water supply below the flood, sometimes having to treat that water is quite an expensive exercise after a massive flood, but, if you can slow the ingress to the dam system and make that sedimentation settle a bit more, then the water quality is better for human habitation. Those are examples of green infrastructure protecting human assets, human infrastructure.

Ms Graham : I might add to that. I think one really important example is that, at a state level, we've seen the state government invest in the coastal hazard adaptation strategies, the QCoast2100, with 48 regional councils funded to look at the coastal hazards for their regions. Almost half of them are in northern Queensland, because we are on the front line of coastal hazards. Nine of those council areas haven't been funded because of not having expertise in those regions.

However, what we are seeing is that in northern Australia we are facing some really scary realities around the future of our cities because of sea level rise, coastal inundation and coastal erosion. A lot of the conversation at the moment is around hard infrastructure—seawalls and levees. If you do the research and you look at where this has been done internationally, you're looking at New Orleans. They built seawalls, they built levees and they created a puddle, because the majority of the city was below sea level. Cairns is mostly at sea level or a tiny bit above it. If we are investing in that hard infrastructure, we are potentially putting ourselves in a very serious situation. If we invest in these solutions around habitat restoration, talking about natural solutions, how we manage our environment positively and making sure that we're using the ecosystem services that these environments can provide, I think we're preparing ourselves for a much brighter future and not repeating the same mistakes that have been made in other cities like New Orleans, which can be used as a very good example of what could happen in Cairns. I strongly suggest you look at those comparisons.

Prof. Gordon : I think the same is also true for Townsville—

Ms Graham : Absolutely.

Prof. Gordon : especially given that Defence is highly reliant on the airport there. That is right up against the coast.

Ms Graham : Yes—and the kinds of assets that we stand to lose if we don't start seriously adjusting our coastal hazards. The northern Australia agenda has a real opportunity to be part of that hazard mitigation. I was interested to read Suncorp's submission. I absolutely agree with what they're saying about the disaster risks that our region has. I don't think they're the experts to talk about the solution. We hope that something like the green and blue package can help with that.

CHAIR: Thank you.

Senator McDONALD: I will start with CAFNEC. Earlier today we heard from the Association of Marine Park Tourism Operators. They said that one of the biggest threats to their industry is misinformation surrounding the reef being dead. These lies risk the viability of our Great Barrier Reef tourism industry and I find this really concerning, because tourism is the single easiest way to support conservation monetarily. How do we ensure that conservation is economically viable by getting the truth out there—that the GBR is still very much alive and worth visiting?

Mr Walls : I think it's a really good question to ask, and it's a really difficult one to answer because, in the world in which we live, through the fake-news environment, it's very easy for people to extrapolate from a half-truth, and then it becomes the whole truth or the mistruth. There's no simple answer in relation to how one gets that truth out as to the deterioration but the viability. I think that you could blame that, as some people do, on a tweet by somebody from Greenpeace or whatever that then gets taken out of context and becomes exaggerated, or on the green movement exaggerating and telling lies. I would like to say to you that there is a way in which we can cancel that immediately, but there will always be the opportunity for those who abuse that, who are innocent, to put something out. Volunteering and putting something out is not mischievous; often it's something that's done unintentionally. You know the old saying about conspiracy and cock-up; often it is a cock-up when something goes out and it's wrong. If that happens with the green movement and it's not correct, then on behalf of the broader green movement I apologise. But certainly we at CAFNEC do everything in our power to make sure that the facts that we put out are as true as they possibly can be. That would be balancing the viability and long-term future of the reef vis-a-vis the threats that are posed to it at the moment, with all of the issues that you're well aware of. I think it's not a one-takes-all or, as the case might be, that one side is right and one side is not. It's trying to find that middle line.

Ms Graham : I would add to that, just briefly: the reality is that our reef is in serious need of help, and I think the last IUCN decision really reflects that. But it isn't too late and the reef is still beautiful. I was out there just recently.

There are some good examples I've seen of how we can change that narrative. I'd like to thank the Wet Tropics Management Authority. In March, they hosted a forum called 'Our climate future', which brought together all of our different sectors and I think is the foundation for why we've had the relationships to build the green and blue stimulus package. But that was our region coming together and saying: 'Yes, climate change is real. Yes, it's a threat to our natural assets. We want to develop a way of talking about it that we are happy with, because at the moment we don't have a collective voice on that and we recognise the need for that.' So what I could say to you, Senator McDonald, is: it is an issue, and it is hard, and all of us feel the impact of that. The thing that makes me so enraged is when people say, 'Oh, I'm coming to the reef before it's gone.' And I say: 'No. Every single one of us has a responsibility to ensure that it is here now, and here for the future.' The answer is: that relies on our region developing a consensus on how we talk about it. That is hard work, but we at least have agreement that we're ready to do that together.

Mr Walls : Can I just say also, Senator, that it's 2,000 kilometres long, and we are a very local species. We all report on our own experience—we go to a restaurant and someone says, 'The meal was terrible.' Now, somebody goes out on the reef, which has been damaged, and they come back and they tell people, 'That was a bad reef that I visited.' But there's another reef down here which is still pristine, and, of course, up the whole stretch, as has been well documented by the scientists, there are stretches that are still extremely healthy, others that are in the middle and some that are doing less well. I think a lot of it depends, often, on the reporting of those individuals who go to visit those which are less well.

Senator ROBERTS: Mr Walls, given the fact that there are parts of the reef that are still really beautiful and other parts that are temporarily bleached, and other parts in between, doesn't that indicate that the problem is not global? What the doomsayers are saying is that it's all wrecked and it's all due to global forces. And I don't see the evidence.

Mr Walls : I don't agree with you that they're saying it's all wrecked—

Senator ROBERTS: Some are.

Mr Walls : Well, it just depends on how you read the way the information is disseminated, and I think that's a really complex semiotic discussion, and we could have one about that. But the fact is that individuals will report what they witness. Some will abuse that privilege—I've already said that—and some of it, as I say, may not be mischievous but may be simply down to misinterpretation. I think it would be wrong for me to respond to you and say that some parts of the reef are doing just fine. Some parts are not doing fine. As to your comment that they'll bounce back: well, the jury's still out, very much, on that. But one of the things the professor just said, in relation to resilience, and that Lucy also said, was that we are looking at ways—through the reef restoration project and others—in which we can build resilience in corals, and that has been highly successful recently, as you've probably been reading. There are corals being planted and placed in areas that are building up a resilience to increasing temperatures, which is very heartening. In relation to your inquiry, that's a way in which we can provide something that is also of economic merit, because it's going to provide jobs and benefits long term, if we can build those reefs which are in decline, through this capacity of resilience.

Senator McDONALD: Can I just keep going, because I'll have to leave at five o'clock; I'm sorry, Senator Roberts. Just further to that: I think this encouragement of the UN listing of the reef moving to 'endangered' or 'at risk'—or from 'at risk' to 'endangered'—

Mr Buchanan : It was listed at critical through its outlook report.

Senator McDONALD: Right. I'm intrigued because your whole submission is around expanding tourism and encouraging people to come, yet I know that all throughout Europe and the US people are choosing not to come because they believe that it's so bad, so what's the point of paying a thousand dollars a day for a family, or whatever it might be, because everybody's got a choice with their hard-earned dollars. Are we not at risk of jeopardising exactly the sort of green and blue agenda that you want to have by encouraging this sort of language around the reef's health?

Prof. Gordon : That's not pointed at us, because we are not encouraging comments around reef health. The authority has a responsibility for the Wet Tropics.

Ms Graham : We can probably answer that better. We are not at liberty to control the agenda of global scientists. We can't tell the IUCN how to talk about the reef. As a regional organisation, it's certainly not within our remit. We have a very small area we are responsible for. We are passionate about talking about how we can build resilience for our region and make sure the reef is a part of our future. It's not our job to tell the scientists how they communicate the impacts to the reef, which are very real. If we as a nation don't acknowledge what's happening, we won't—what I can say is: no matter what we do with the green and blue stimulus package, we need to be looking after the reef and working for its future health. That's what we think the green and blue stimulus package would do, and that's why we've brought this narrative here today. But we can't control what scientists at a global level will do when they talk about the impacts to the reef.

Senator McDONALD: I have a different view—which is why I'm involved in politics—which is that it's the responsibility of all of us to speak up. If Australia's agenda is to encourage tourism and if it's to encourage Indigenous engagement and genuine jobs and a future, then our not speaking up on this issue and allowing a sense of crisis around people visiting the reef will, because we already are down—

Ms Graham : I'm sorry, but we haven't—

Senator McDONALD: Would you like me to finish?

Ms Graham : No. We haven't brought an agenda of crisis to you today. What we've brought to you—

Senator McDONALD: I'm not suggesting you are. I'm saying that, by us not speaking up on being a part of that solution agenda—

Ms Graham : That's because we are a part of it. This is exactly what we've brought to you today—our agenda for a solution. And I'm passionate about having a solutions focus. We haven't talked to you today about the reef dying. We haven't talked to you about the rainforest dying. That is happening. But our agenda is the solutions our region sees, and we will continue to talk about those solutions. And I'm really happy to hear that that's your agenda too.

Prof. Gordon : All of us understand that there are significant impacts that human activity is having on not just the reef but also the rainforest and a whole range of other ecosystems. The thing that we're also bringing to the table is the fact that there are opportunities for us to build resilience into these systems around future impacts. That's what the Reef Restoration and Adaptation Program has recently been funded for, and the conversation that we're having in here within the green and blue stimulus package is about the ways in which we, within the area of our responsibility, can build resilience into the rainforest for the future impacts. The March workshop was based around the climate adaptation plan that the Wet Tropics Management Authority published last year. That was a very forward-looking and very optimistic plan which said that we can do things about the impacts that humans are having.

Mr Buchanan : Senator, you did talk about messaging and the tourism market. Part of the green and blue is about that messaging. We do have a community out there. We do know the market. People don't want to be part of the problem when they're tourists; they want to be part of the solution. So the green and blue is about starting to do that work, which we can then market and say, 'If you come to this region, you're part of the solution; you're not part of the problem. This is a region that is stewarding its World Heritage assets and looking after the reef and looking after the rainforest.' So it is built into that longer-term tourism narrative, and we have been talking to Tourism Tropical North Queensland, Tourism and Events Queensland and Tourism Australia about that positive messaging that we build into the narrative.

Senator McDONALD: My last question is around that. We heard evidence today that in Cairns there are simply not enough tourists to support the current industry and that the structural problems were evident within the industry prior to COVID. If we're talking about expanding tourism, how many jobs are there? How many people can this support? How do we ensure that when the next GFC, the next pandemic or the next crisis comes we're well prepared, because what we're talking about is building resilience, isn't it?

Mr Buchanan : That's right. As Lucy mentioned before, the first part of the green and blue is to get jobs; let's get that economic stimulus happening. The second part is about the transition. It's about looking at what the opportunities that come out of having a nature based economy are and taking advantage of the fact that we have researchers and that we have Central Queensland University and James Cook University in this region working really well—taking advantage of that and starting to develop that as part of the economy. It already is, but it is about building it and building it, and also building the health sector and professional services up here. It is about transitioning to a longer-term economy that has low to no emissions, that has looked at its waste and has dealt with it properly and that has looked at alternative energy sources. We are looking into the future, and that's what it's about.

We know that having all of our eggs in that basket has proven to be a risky strategy. We're not going to be a region that moves away from tourism—it's always going to be a key component—but we do need to diversify.

Mr Walls : It's very interesting what you say, because of course there is always an upside and a downside to any crisis. At the moment, the upside is that the domestic market is booming. You'll have seen hotels posting that a lot of the campervans can't be hired and that the cars can't be hired. People are giving up on even making small trips because everything's fully booked. So there is the upside of domestic tourism: local people, regionals and nationals are coming to Cairns in big numbers. Yes, there's been a big downturn in the international market, and sure that is an issue for the long-term job prospects with regard to those international tourist.

I'll just make one final point in relation to this, before Lucy speaks. I go out to the reef regularly. At the beginning of the year, before COVID—I know it's anecdotal—a number of people I came across were saying that they wanted to come here because they had heard that it was in poor health and that they were here because of that. It was attracting a lot of tourists at that time. I think a lot of tourists who at that time were thinking it was in its last throes were going out and were amazed at what they saw. Many of these people had never seen a fish in the water before. A lot of the time one has to balance the people who have been going out and seeing a decline with those who have never been and are seeing it for the first time with fresh eyes. We know what that experience is like. When you go to see something for the first time, it's magic. When you go back somewhere and you remember it from 20 years ago when it was better, you don't want to go there again. I just wanted to make that point.

Ms Graham : The last bit I'd add is that cultural tourism is such a huge opportunity up here. We had the year of cultural tourism in Queensland, but it's been extended to next year because of the pandemic. There are so many incredibly suitable Aboriginal groups who are ready to have support to do Indigenous tourism, whether it's in Cairns, in Cape York or up in the gulf. We could support our Aboriginal communities. You had TCICA present today and other groups like that. I think there is a real opportunity there.

Another example is that there were a number of our tourism operators who were able to continue operating through the pandemic because they were deemed to be an essential service. Those were the tourism operators who were doing science projects in conjunction with universities like Sydney uni. Where we see our tourism operators diversifying their business model to include science and those kind of programs, it makes them more resilient to those future events. We need to support industry growth around tourism, but on your question, 'How do we support tourism to recover from the lack of international tourists that we have now?' cultural tourism, having science integrated into our tourism models and appealing to our local market are where our big opportunities lie.

Senator ROBERTS: Ms Graham, you raised the issue of a global scientist agenda. My understanding is that a true scientist has no agenda other than understanding.

Ms Graham : I guess that was just a poor choice of words. I meant the science that the scientists are presenting globally—what the IUCN is presenting as the science that they know.

Senator ROBERTS: With any initiative, whether or not it be developing the whole of northern Australia, the intent is the key.

Ms Graham : Yes.

Senator ROBERTS: I mentioned Peter Andrews because I've supported his work. I don't know if you're aware of his fabulous work. All he's done is studied and observed the natural environment in this country. Better farming techniques, better water conservation techniques and more efficient water usage will come out of that, but very few politicians are listening. So let me ask you then—because the goal is important for the drive and the intent—what is the goal?

Ms Graham : The goal for the green and blue stimulus?

Senator ROBERTS: Yes.

Ms Graham : The goal is to have an economic model that reflects the reliance that we have on the environment as a unique economy.

Senator ROBERTS: Is the goal preservation of nature or is the goal human happiness and welfare, or is it both?

Mr Walls : It's both.

Ms Graham : It's both. The economic model that we're proposing acknowledges that we must keep the environments that we rely on healthy for the people and economy to be healthy.

Senator ROBERTS: That's good, because what I've seen with quite a few people these days, unfortunately, is it seems to be that we must preserve nature at all costs. Professor Gordon said that the oldest rainforest on earth has been through hundreds of millions of years and it has gone from being down where Antarctica is up to here. That is phenomenal change, on a scale we can't even imagine—that we've never experienced before. What some people seem to be saying—and this may be where your movement's getting into trouble; not you, but your movement—is that we must preserve nature. I find that highly arrogant and offensive, because the real goal for me is human happiness and human welfare.

What I see as an argument developing in the way the environmental protagonists are propagating their argument is that it's either or—it's human civilisation or nature. As far as I can see, if we destroy nature, we destroy ourselves. We're of nature; not just a part of nature. For human civilisation to survive in whatever form it will be in 100 years requires nature, and nature requires human civilisation. The human population is increasing dramatically. The thing that's minimising our human footprint is more and more civilisation, because we get a better understanding and we get better use of our resources. We now use far fewer resources to live well than our ancestors did 200 years ago to live poorly. That's a fact. Our human footprint is much smaller. Mr Walls, you actually said that dams and other parts of infrastructure are ruinous—'ruinous' may not have been your word. But Cape York communities actually lack the very things that you were saying are ruinous.

Mr Walls : As I said earlier, you have a balance. Our policy has never been no dams; it has been no new dams. That is reinforced by many of the commentators, academic and others. I could refer you to many of that view. I was most recently involved in the Nullinga Dam inquiry. I was on that stakeholder group. A lot of people think that that fell over because the government had a prepared agenda. But, in reality, it fell over because it simply wasn't viable. And it wasn't even an environmental matter; it was simply one on pure economics. I think you're misleading me a little bit there in the sense of trying to force me into a corner of saying yea or nay. It's not a matter of saying what is right and what is wrong; it's a matter of trying to get that balance right between the two. I certainly wouldn't disagree with your premise that a sound civilisation is one where we integrate well with nature. The balance sometimes is: are we pushing too far against nature? Probably, on our side of the equation, we think that's the case at times, and therefore we want to redress that balance. Where people are highly consumptive, we have a growing population and so on, the demands on those precious places become greater and greater.

In an ideal world, I would concur with you that human beings could well integrate into that natural world. What we find ourselves doing in the modern world is segmenting and carving off places because of the crowding of humanity in the open space. So, over time, we've created these oases, if you like, of nature so that people can get away from the agglomeration of the urban space. I think that is unfortunate, but it's the world in which we live. Oftentimes, people go into those areas knowing that they can breathe and that there's no traffic, and that is something they delight in. I think it's an unfortunate concomitant, if you like, of the modern world, but certainly in the case of the far north—and both of my esteemed colleagues here would support that—our support of Indigenous engagement in those sacred spaces is very great, and we recognise their continuity with the country and the land over millennia.

Senator ROBERTS: Here is my last question. You've mentioned consensus a lot. To me, consensus is quite often the road to mediocrity at best. I prefer to have an objective decision based on data.

Ms Graham : In what context?

Senator ROBERTS: Well, quite often, Ms Graham, people strive for consensus rather than consultation, and they strive to end up with everyone agreeing—and that may be contrary to the data—with whoever has the loudest voice, has the most emotive argument or is the most influential. So I don't see consensus. If we are seeing consensus as the goal or the judgement or the decider, I think we're in for problems in northern Australia. I think data and objectivity are the key.

Ms Graham : I think you'll find—which I think is the most impressive thing about the green and blue stimulus package—that you have a collection of people who have a lot of things we disagree on, but we have decided to agree and work together on things we agree on. If you look at CAFNEC's agenda and Advance Cairns's agenda, there are definitely things we still disagree on, but is there work that we agree on? Absolutely. Are we willing to work for that shared agenda? Absolutely. So do we have a consensus on absolutely everything in our region? No, and we never will, and we're not striving for that. Have we found an agenda that we're willing to work for across sectors? We have, and I think that's monumental and something to be celebrated.

Senator ROBERTS: What I see as a higher goal is objectivity based on data.

Ms Graham : Yes, and that is at the foundation of the work that we're promoting

Senator ROBERTS: Sea levels around the country for the last 20 years have been rising at an average rate of 0.3 millimetres a year, which gives us a one-inch increase over the next hundred years.

Ms Graham : I feel right now is probably not the moment to argue about the scientific rigour of the individual things in there. What you will find is that the component that we already have funded is scaling up projects that have been accepted by our levels of government, and this is why we encourage feasibility study funding as a part of our package as well. I'll let Gordon speak to this—sorry, Ian.

Prof. Gordon : Yes, that's the trouble with having a surname that's a given name. One of the things in the green-blue stimulus package is about scientific monitoring, because we've been very fortunate in having work done by Professor Steve Williams of James Cook University, who has shown that over the past 20 years there's been a significant decline in many of the unique species that we have in the rainforest. He originally predicted that, given the trends, we were going to see lemuroid possums, which are those very photogenic albino-looking possums, declining and becoming locally extinct in the next 20 years. We had an event—two years ago?—

Mr Buchanan : Yes, in 2018.

Prof. Gordon : in 2018, in which we had six days above thirty—

Mr Buchanan : Thirty-seven degrees.

Prof. Gordon : Thirty-seven degrees. We lost a number of local populations of those possums then. And we were only able to show that—and use that as a driver for the work that the board and the Wet Tropics Management Authority has done in relation to pushing for investment in building resilience in rainforest—because of the long-term monitoring of the likes of Steve Williams's work.

Senator ROBERTS: Yes, and then we think about the hundreds of millions of years that these forests have moved from Antarctica to here, and we also realise that, in the 19th century, the 1880s and 1890s were warmer than today in Australia.

Ms Graham : All of the traditional owners who have the stories of that time, throughout time, acknowledge that this is unprecedented change.

CHAIR: I think we're starting to stray well outside of the terms of reference of the inquiry! Senator Roberts, as you know, you have many other opportunities to argue climate science, which you often take up. In closing, can I ask about two more things, and tell me if this goes beyond your organisation's expertise. Firstly, we have had a lot of evidence today about the potential for new agriculture developments, which immediately takes us to issues of water allocation. Does either of your organisations have any views on the water research that was conducted by the CSIRO as part of the northern Australia agenda? It was looking at the potential of agricultural developments in particular catchments, like the Gilbert River, the Fitzroy River et cetera. Secondly, it has been advanced a number of times that certain agricultural developments, even quite intensive ones, should be seriously looked at because they proposed to secure water through off-stream water harvesting rather than traditional dams. That's being put forward as a more environmentally sensitive way of meeting the water needs of these developments. Do you have any views on either of those things: the CSIRO stuff or off-stream water harvesting? But, again, tell me if that's outside your expertise and you don't want to comment.

Mr Walls : I can say a few words about both, because I've been on the water committee, as I mentioned earlier, and so I'm quite familiar with the discussion. Certainly, the CSIRO inquiry was an interesting one. It was a rather ambivalent sort of answer, but it was one where it did answer, correctly as you say, the possibilities for water usage. In relation to the broad thrust, we, of course, are very much in the camp of non-wastage and of demand management. The one I'm most familiar with, as I've mentioned, is Nullinga Dam. But this is broadly the case with many of the dam proposals—and that is, what is the proposal? What kind of agriculture are we talking about? There may well be cases where—you know, in market gardening there are many instances where people are growing mangoes, avocados or bananas, and no-one would dispute the merits of that growth. Where we often have a problem is—and this has been mooted with many dams—where we're growing crops which are, at best, non-productive, and perhaps on the out. Sugar, of course, is one of the key ones, where we're in a global crisis when it comes to it as a health issue as well, and people are asking the question: why are we to support perhaps one large entity like MSF? Why is it we're suggesting that we grow more sugarcane in an arid part of the world where it climatically is not well adapted? And there is also the issue, of course, that's being mooted of growing silage, which is, in other words, alfalfa and crops that are then used to export down to the marginal country down in the south where farmers are already in crisis. And it just exacerbates the problem of growing cattle in marginal country. So this is a complex issue around what we call 'food'.

Most of the time in the media, we refer to food and growth as something good: 'the farmers; we must help the farmers'. And no-one disputes the need to help the farmers, but we also need to discuss ways of a better future for those farmers. We're already seeing that: we link very well with our farmers down in the Mulgrave area, for example. We've got very good relationships there with the farmers that are working there on very modern techniques, and using water correctly and putting nice littorals along the sides of the riverbanks and so on. So there's a very positive relationship. Also, on the tablelands, particularly in the southern part of the tablelands, we're getting a new version, a new positive way in which farming can be done in a much more productive and ecological way.

I know it's a long answer, and you're running out of time, and I could go on forever, but the fact is that it is a difficult question when we're looking at 10-second grabs: build a dam, more water, more food, more export. Ah! Bing! The six o'clock news! This is a complex issue, and the issue is around what is viable, what crops are viable and where the future lies in relation to climate change and in relation to the shortage of water that we experience in this part of the world. For example, the dam in Nullinga was only going to be filled two months a year. Nobody was being told this. It's dry for the rest of the year, and it's a flat, flat dam. So there are many, many issues that need discussing around why dams are not always the answer, and that's something we very seldom have the space to have in our discussions, unfortunately.

Ms Graham : Before you go on, Ian, I'm just going to quickly add one thing, and I'll be very succinct. In regard to the CSIRO, I think it's specifically looking at the potential for agricultural development and the water available for it. I think what we really need in Far North Queensland is a look at our water future. Even if we don't develop agriculture in our north, we have water issues, and they need really innovative solutions. Looking at what happened in the Murray-Darling catchment is important. The Lakeland irrigation scheme will have a catchment impact, and I think we need to start looking much more broadly at what our region needs and the catchment impacts of irrigation schemes and, apart from dams, how we take water from streams generally. There are more innovative ways that different regions around the world have responded to a lack of water. We don't have a problem with potable water. We are the driest populated continent on earth. We have a problem with water availability and we need to be really careful about how we manage it, even if we don't start developing more agriculture in the north.

Prof. Gordon : You'll be pleased that I'll give a very short answer, which is that the two topics you asked about are outside the jurisdiction of the Wet Tropics Management Authority.

CHAIR: I thought they might be. Thank you. We have gone over time. I appreciate you staying back. That concludes today's proceedings. With the committee's agreement, all answers to questions on notice that were taken today—we did have a couple—should be provided four weeks from the receipt of the Hansard transcript. I thank all witnesses who've given evidence to the committee today. I also thank broadcasting, Hansard and the secretariat for their assistance. I declare this hearing adjourned.

Committee adjourned at 17:22