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Thursday, 11 October 2012
Page: 7954

Senator PRATT (Western Australia) (10:50): This morning I am very pleased to rise to oppose the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Making Marine Parks Accountable) Bill 2012, introduced in this place by Senator Colbeck. It will come as little surprise to the chamber to know that I am a passionate supporter of marine parks, and I think that the action this nation is taking to protect our big blue backyard is long overdue. I am not in favour of further delay and blockage to what has already been a very robust and good quality process.

We know that the waters surrounding Australia are unique and wonderful. From the Great Barrier Reef to the migratory passages of turtles and whales in my own Western Australia state, along our west coast, we have wonderful environmental assets that should be protected. As I have remarked before in this place, and I know the minister has also said this, many of the features in our oceans, if they were on land, would have been protected decades ago.

I have been pleased with the outcome of this process, and I think Australia is likely to be one of the few countries to achieve the international commitment made at Rio+10 in 2002 to develop a representative system of marine parks by 2012. It truly is a wonderful and remarkable milestone. Indeed, our network of marine reserves will be the largest in the world, covering more than one-third of Commonwealth waters. I know some would have liked to have seen even greater protections for some areas—we all have opinions about these things—and there are some areas that I also would have liked to have seen receive greater protection. There have been, for example, arguments that we should have had greater protections over the Diamantina fracture zone in Western Australia and no-take zones that are closer to the coast.

I would really like to acknowledge everyone who has put so much effort into what has been a robust and in-depth process that does not need to be compromised or duplicated or overlaid by the process that is in the bill before us. I would like to thank those in the environment movement, in the fishing industry and recreational fishers for their involvement and engagement around these issues. I have received more than 15,000 emails in favour of marine parks from Western Australian constituents alone. It is because of this high level of engagement that we will have the opportunity as a nation to be a world leader in marine protection. It has been a very robust process involving all stakeholders, with much higher levels of engagement than under the Howard government's planning process, when they undertook a similar marine planning process under these very same laws. I think that is because of the comprehensive nature of our consultation process. On that basis, we should be far more confident of the outcome of the marine plan that is before us and its legitimacy than overlaying it with the unnecessary duplication that this half-baked process before the Senate today gives us.

However, it is precisely this robust consultation process that those opposite are attacking through the bill before us today. At the heart of this bill is an implication that the consultation process creating this network of marine parks has been flawed. There is an implication that the consultation process was not rigorous enough, that it did not take proper account of the science or that it has failed to consider the views of communities and industry. This is simply not the case. We have run a lengthy consultation process. It has been accessible to all members of the community and, indeed, it has been responsive to feedback. There has been considerable change to the plans that have been put forward and a lot of negotiation and exchange has gone on. The consultation process has been largely based on the very same process created by the Howard government during the implementation of its marine reforms.

I would add, though, that we have been far more intensive and engaged with the science and also with stakeholders. It should not be a disallowable instrument before this parliament. The stakeholders, environmentalists, fishing communities, the fishing industry, recreational fishers, the wider community, the process and the law should be the arbiters of these questions, not the parliament.

In our first term of government, Labor took the Howard government model and made it far more comprehensive. We reformed the model to have additional multiple rounds of public information campaigns and consultation, conducted as far back as 2009 to this year. That is more than three years of consistent consultation with stakeholders that the coalition is now attempting to throw out the window with the bill before us today.

To demonstrate just how comprehensive our consultation process has been, I would like to take you through some of the elements of it. I am going to reflect in detail on some of the steps that have been taken in my home state of Western Australia. There are two marine regions that cover the coast of WA: one comes around from South Australia and goes up the coast as far as Geraldton, through the Commonwealth waters; and the other is north of Geraldton, around the top of the state, through to the Northern Territory. There have been extensive consultations in both of those regions. They have been exemplary and they have led to real outcomes for both the environment and industry.

Our south-west region includes some amazing environmental features, like the Perth Canyon and the waters around Geographe Bay. Both are important resting grounds for migrating humpback whales. This region has been very thoroughly consulted. The government engaged stakeholders for further assessments as early as May 2009 in the south-west region. Following the 90-day consultation in 2011, representatives of the commercial fishing industry of the south-west region were invited to two comprehensive workshops: one in October 2011 and one in February this year. This was about going through the options for finalising the marine network reserves. The workshops were very well attended, with about 35 representatives at each, and it was a very thorough process. In the south-west region since 2009 there have been no fewer than 59 consultation meetings, including two multisector sessions, 10 public information sessions and 47 targeted stakeholder meetings. That is the formal government consultation that has taken place, but there have also been hundreds of community meetings on all sides of this debate. So there have been very high levels of community engagement.

The meetings we are talking about stretched from Esperance and all the way up to Geraldton. In the north-west there were 62 meetings in total: two multisector sessions, six public information sessions and 54 targeted stakeholder meetings. Again, those meetings took place in towns all around the north-west coast, from Kalbarri up to Kununurra and in Wyndham. No affected coastal community in WA was denied the opportunity to participate in this consultation process. There were 245 meetings held by the department between May 2011 and February 2012, with 98 of those meetings taking place in Western Australia—the most by far—closely followed by Queensland with 67 meetings.

Why did the consultations focus so heavily on these states? I can tell you why: it is because these are the states that had not yet had the comprehensive marine planning take place in them. The Commonwealth areas in South Australia, Victoria and New South Wales were largely done under the Howard government. This is why we have had such high levels of engagement in these states. I think that the outcomes from our process have been manifestly better than those delivered under the previous consultations for the other zones.

Under these consultation processes the government received feedback from a full range of stakeholders, including the scientific community, commercial fishers, oil and gas companies, tourism operators, rec fishers, Indigenous communities, environmental groups and members of the public. As I said, the entire process has taken more than three years, with proposals refined on the basis of stakeholder and public input. Information also produced very thorough socioeconomic evaluations—precisely the kinds of things that the bill before us is asking for. They have already been done, and the bill before us has a much narrower scope and focus for exactly the kind of work that has already taken place and been done thoroughly. The process has taken more than three years—just think about that.

I would also like to comment on what I think has been exceptional leadership by Minister Burke in this area. He has been incredibly thorough and a responsive administrator. On a number of environmental decisions, including this one, I have witnessed his willingness to meet with and to listen to all concerned parties. I know that through the consultations on the creation of marine parks the minister has ensured that everyone, even those with a passing interest, has had several opportunities to comment on the plans. The proof of that is in the changes that have been made to drive plans. These changes are evidence that the government has listened and that we have acted on community advice.

In the south-west bioregional plan, parts of the Marine National Park Zone on the continental shelf in the proposed Eastern Recherche reserve were shifted to reduce impacts on the Esperance rock lobster fishery. That is just one example of the kind of exchange and consultation that has taken place. In the north-west plan we know that there were changes to the Eighty Mile Beach reserve that have significantly decreased the impact of the marine reserves on the Western Australian Nickol Bay prawn fishery. So we know that the current north-west reserve network has significantly reduced the potential impacts on a number of fisheries from the network proposal taken out for public consultation in August 2011. Overall, the potential impact of the reserve network has been halved from 0.2 per cent for all fisheries in the region down to 0.1 per cent. These are minimal impacts on those fisheries—really quite, quite small.

There have certainly been those who have argued that we should not have made those compromises, and that in fact we should have maintained the boundaries as they were or been even more ambitious. This just goes to show, I think, the kind of level of engagement that you need around these issues. What the coalition has before us today seeks to throw all that away—to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

I would like to comment on the concerns of recreational fishers. Ninety-six per cent of the ocean within 100 kilometres of the shore remains open to recreational fishers under this scheme. So you can see that the Commonwealth has had a very thorough consultation process, and one that I would argue has world's best practice—very much so.

But what has the coalition's response to all of this been? The bill before us today that we are debating tells us exactly that. The bill before us today has provisions that would require that the government establish a so-called independent scientific reference panel, as well as a stakeholder advisory group that would go through another process of assessment before a marine protected area could be declared. I really think that the coalition is trying to have its cake and eat it too. Ultimately, they do not want to look like they are overtly opposed to these marine parks so they have put forward this delaying model that would have massive duplication in it. But their heart is not in it; they simply do not want to support the marine parks that are before us.

I think that the coalition believes that the government has deliberately ignored feedback from industry, despite all evidence to the contrary.    The coalition's answer to this charge is this baseless bill which is before us today. It is a bill that would essentially require the government do more consultations with two advisory groups. The two advisory groups that are put forward in this bill are more exclusive than the consultations that have already taken place. They are also less accessible to the public than the consultations that have already taken place and less transparent than the process the government has pursued over the last few years. This bill is their answer; it is fudging their way through what they think they have as a political problem.

This bill has been brought into this place in the final hour when the marine plans are just months away from being finalised, and following years and years of consultation. This bill essentially requires us to rip up all of that work, those detailed submissions, and go back to the drawing board. It is a bill which is entirely, I think, about the Liberals looking for a headline.

I would like to comment on the impact of the coalition's plan. There has been a great deal of dithering; the coalition wants us to believe that their proposal will not have any negative impacts. But they are completely silent on the costs of this bill.

The costs are, I think, greater than you could at first imagine. There are the obvious costs of establishing new bodies and resourcing them appropriately, and then there is also the question around the types of consultation processes that they would have to go through. They are essentially asking us to redo what has been a thorough three-year process that we have just been through, seeking to add these costs to the budget all over again.

But, in addition to these costs, there are significant opportunity costs. The tourism industry, the fishing industry and the diving industry are already gearing up around the plan that is before us, but this bill is designed to create material delay—perhaps, I would argue, even permanent delay—in the implementation of marine parks. Every day that we unnecessarily delay is another day in which our precious and unique marine biodiversity is being pushed closer to the brink. Every day that we unnecessarily delay is another day in which our fisheries are inadequately cared for. Every day that we unnecessarily delay is another day that we do a disservice to the legacy that we want to leave the children of our nation. Those delays could also cost our economy millions and detrimentally affect our environmental assets in ways that we can avoid by acting now and continuing on the good path that we have already established.

By acting now and rejecting this bill, we can also end uncertainty for industry. What the coalition has put before us does not assist industry; it simply puts yet another layer of bureaucracy over the current decision-making process. Throughout our consultation process, the government has had strong communication with stakeholders so that they know where they stand. Under the coalition's bill, industry and local communities have no idea. They cannot know that the outcome of the processes will be any better for them, nor can they be confident that their voices will be heard in what is a much more closed and exclusive model of consultation.

Overall, I think that it is clear that we cannot afford to support this bill. It is not in the interests of the environment or industry. It is being driven by a small, vocal minority who do not support marine parks or the science behind them. That is not the legacy that I want this place to leave for the next generation. They deserve much better, as do the wonderful and beautiful marine ecosystems of our nation.