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Thursday, 5 December 2013
Page: 1780

Mr BUTLER ( Port Adelaide ) ( 13:30 ): I rise to speak on the Environment Legislation Amendment Bill 2013. I think that it is fair to say that as a first legislative outing on environmental protection by the new Minister for the Environment it would be generous to call this a modest piece of legislation. Of course the new minister is already out there on climate change, reversing course on a range of different forms of positive actions to improve our natural environment, most notably today to abolish the Clean Energy Finance Corporation in spite of increasing amounts of evidence about the way in which that initiative will clean up our energy supply while also returning money to the budget. I noticed that the Assistant Treasurer, Senator Sinodinos, indicated today that he was willing to relook at the abolition of the Clean Energy Finance Corporation, so perhaps the new minister is to be overruled by the Assistant Treasurer and the new government will see some sense on the environmental protection benefits of that initiative.

But this is the new minister's first outing in the traditional environmental protection space. I think it is fair to say, given the platform that the Liberal Party took to the community before the election around environmental protection, that this new minister will not trouble the Hansard reporters too much because it is a platform that is wafer thin. It is a wafer-thin platform. Much of it is conducted in reverse gear.

Mr Frydenberg interjecting

Mr BUTLER: As the member for Kooyong well knows, in the quieter moments of reflection that he has with himself, this is a platform conducted in reverse gear. The government are reversing protections around our marine environment, the third great area of environmental protection—our oceans. The government are, remarkably, seeking to reverse a World Heritage listing of around 100,000 hectares of some of the most beautiful forests in the world, located here in Australia in Tasmania. We are still trying to find a precedent for a nation actually reversing a World Heritage listing. But we read again in the paper today, in spite of opposition from the forestry industry in Tasmania, that this government still intends to seek a reversal of the World Heritage listing of 100,000 hectares of forests in Tasmania.

They have taken money from the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, a plan that was about 110 years in the making. Again, they are in reverse gear. Scandalously, this government want to hand over their crucial protection powers over matters of national environmental significance to state governments with environmental protection records like that of Campbell Newman's. This is a platform overwhelmingly conducted in reverse gear.

But I will say that in a couple of limited areas, to their credit, the Liberal Party and this minister have decided to piggyback on some of the excellent work done by my predecessor, then Minister Tony Burke, now Manager of Opposition Business. I will give a couple of examples of this, and one of them is contained in this bill.

Particularly I was very pleased, as I think everyone on this side of the chamber was, that the new minister announced that they would extend the extraordinary work that we were able to do with the Queensland government, with Queensland landowners and with Queensland environment groups around the reef protection plan—a $200 million investment in not only Australia's greatest environmental asset but perhaps one of the world's greatest environmental assets to partner with landowners in the canegrowing and cattle industries to start to bring down the amount of agricultural run-off, particularly nitrogen run-off, from the land into the reef waters that is causing the reef so much damage. It is particularly causing the crown-of-thorns starfish to spawn. They are particularly rapacious around coral, causing around 42 per cent of all damage to the coral reef. So I am very pleased this excellent work that our government was able to do in partnership with the Queensland government and local landowners along the coast of Far North Queensland was continued by this new minister.

I am also, relevantly for this bill, very pleased that this new minister decided to extend and piggyback on the work that was undertaken by former Minister Burke, in partnership with traditional owners and local Indigenous communities in Far North Queensland, to protect Australia's and particularly Queensland's turtle and dugong populations. Schedule 2 of this bill reflects part of the commitment that the new minister made to piggyback on the work of former Minister Burke.

It is well known to some members in this House just how special the turtle and dugong populations in Far North Queensland are in our natural environment. Dugongs have an interesting history. It is rumoured that Christopher Columbus mistook a dugong for a mermaid. It was long thought that particularly shapely and attractive dugongs were mistaken for mermaids as people hundreds of years ago plied the oceans to discover new lands. So dugongs have a particular history. But the six species of turtle that are part of Australia's natural environment are particularly covered by this bill as well as dugongs. All of those six species which are particularly located in Far North Queensland are listed as either vulnerable or endangered under the EPBC Act, the act which is proposed to be amended by this bill. Dugongs and turtles are also listed as migratory species under the act. They are listed as marine species under the act. Also both categories are listed as protected under the marine parks act. So they are species which are subject to significant legislative protection in the environmental sphere. As I said, they are extraordinary, majestic species known to the communities, particularly the Indigenous communities but also more broadly, who have the very good fortune to live along the beautiful coast of Far North Queensland.

I had a relatively short duration as minister for the environment. I suspect that as long as the Commonwealth of Australia exists there will not be an environment minister who has as short a duration as I did. In that very short duration of a matter of weeks I spent some great time in Far North Queensland, from Townsville up to Cairns. I know the member for Leichhardt, who is in the chamber, is keen to talk on this bill through his experience in Far North Queensland. While there, I saw some of the wonderful work being done by landowners and small environmental organisations and by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, including in its turtle hospital in Townsville, which I visited. I was able to release a turtle that had been looked after by the hospital for about 12 months. Those species—the six species of turtle and also the dugongs—are a wonderful, majestic group of species, but they are very much populations under stress.

Raised with me when I was travelling in Far North Queensland—I am sure the member for Leichhardt has had this raised with him too—was the concern about nesting populations on Raine Island, which is the largest nesting location for green turtles in the world and one that is under very, very great pressure. Numbers are significantly down for a range of reasons. No-one can identify the major cause, but they are significantly down.

The former Labor government—under former Minister Burke and his extended, relative to mine, period as minister for environment—took strong action in concert with local Indigenous communities, who have been dealing with these turtle and dugong populations for many, many thousands of years. This work was targeted at helping to sustain the populations of the six species of turtles and the dugongs of Far North Queensland. Former Minister Burke invested around $5 million last year in a number of Indigenous-led programs that funded Indigenous ranger positions to implement the plan, providing employment to local Indigenous communities and tapping into the knowledge about the habits, strengths and weaknesses of these turtle and dugong populations that is passed down from generation to generation in those local Indigenous populations. I am very pleased, and give credit to the new minister and to the member for Leichhardt, who has advocated for this, that one of the elements of the new government's plan piggybacks on the investments we made on Indigenous ranger positions.

Also importantly, we provided funding to support, with traditional owners, the development of sea country management plans to ensure sustainable harvesting by local Indigenous communities of these turtle and dugong populations. Minister Burke pulled together a turtle and dugong task force to develop a legal framework that would underpin sustainable harvesting that would also deal with illegal hunting and poaching of turtles and dugongs, particularly some of the turtle populations. This is a very serious concern and I think is at the heart of why the member for Leichhardt has sought the introduction of this bill. That these majestic populations are at risk of being poached and illegally hunted is a very significant concern not only for communities in Far North Queensland but I think for most Australians. We see from reports, sometimes from hunters coming from outside Australia to target these populations, that often the turtles and dugongs die in very cruel and painful ways. Part of the work that we were doing through the task force was to ensure that Indigenous traditions and customs in relation to these populations were able to continue, where appropriate, but that we could deal with illegal hunting and poaching, which has been a cause of significant distress for the communities in Far North Queensland.

We in the Labor Party are strongly of the view that working with local communities is the most effective way to stamp out poaching and illegal hunting and to ensure that traditional practices in relation to turtles and dugongs are carried out in an appropriate way. This also allows us to tap into the local knowledge—the eyes and the ears—of locally Indigenous populations to trigger a response to illegal hunting and poaching wherever it comes from, when it happens. It is disappointing that the new government, though well motivated to protect these majestic species, has moved from the task force based approach, working with local communities, that we initiated last year to a more high-handed approach through the Australian Crime Commission, directed from Canberra rather than from the local communities themselves.

This bill incorporates one element of the dugong and turtle protection plan that was announced by the new minister during the election campaign. The plan piggybacks on the Labor Party's funding last year for Indigenous ranger positions, which is to be commended. This is a very successful program and I am very pleased to see the funding extended. But the $2 million to the Crime Commission, without any real local consultation, according to our reading of the local response, is something that could have been done significantly better.

Schedule 2 of the bill increases penalties for poaching or illegal hunting of the six turtle species and dugongs. According to the minister's second reading speech, it is his view, or it was put to him, that the crux of the problem around poaching and illegal hunting of these populations is that the level of the penalties in the legislation is inadequate. We remain unclear about the evidence for that. As far as we have been able to ascertain there is no record of these penalties ever being used. They have never been used at the existing level, so we remain unconvinced that this really is the crux of the problem. That the minister suggested that in his second reading speech indicates to us that the problem is more complex than that and that it lies elsewhere. Having said that, Labor will not oppose the passing of schedule 2 of the bill. I have already expressed the Labor Party's views about other elements of the Liberal Party's turtle and dugong protection plan.

However, the Labor Party does not support the provisions in schedule 1 of the bill. I foreshadow that I will be moving during the consideration-in-detail stage of this bill an amendment to omit schedule 1. We will support the bill without schedule 1 passing. The proposed amendments within schedule 1 look modest at first blush but, in our view, they go to the heart of the biodiversity conservation provisions of the EPBC Act. For that reason we cannot support them.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER ( Hon. BC Scott ): Order! The debate is interrupted in accordance with standing order 43. The debate may be resumed at a later hour and the member will have leave to continue his remarks.