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Thursday, 1 November 2012
Page: 8729

Senator MASON (Queensland) (09:49): The Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Making Marine Parks Accountable) Bill 2012 is designed to give either chamber of parliament the power to disallow new declarations of bioregional plans and marine protected areas. That is what it is designed to do. We in the coalition believe this step was made necessary by the approach and by the actions of the Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities in declaring and administering bioregional plans and marine protected areas, the exercise of which seems to be heavy on ideology and pretty light on consultation.

It is the coalition that commenced the process of establishing the comprehensive marine bioregional plans and marine protected areas around Australia's coastline, to protect and to maintain biologically and culturally significant marine areas of Commonwealth waters. We did that. It is Labor, however, that so very typically has taken on board a sensible policy and—guess what?—botched its implementation. What a surprise that would be, Mr Deputy President, wouldn't it?

The government is failing to engage in proper consultation with all stakeholders affected by its decisions, resulting in an approach to marine management and conservation that is not balanced and is not fair. The government seems more concerned with its own electoral fortunes in the heavily Green inner-city electorates rather than the legitimate interests and valid concerns of fishermen and related industries, and their local communities, directly affected by declarations of these conservation zones.

Let us be honest: this is much more about Greens preferences than about environmentalism. It is more about the swingers in Central Sydney than the strugglers in Northern Queensland. Nearly three years ago, I voted in this chamber to disallow the Coral Sea Conservation Zone declaration that was made in May 2009 by the Minister for Environment Protection, Heritage and the Arts. I am sorry to say that the motion was not carried by the Senate, with the government and the Greens voting against the disallowance motion. Honourable senators will remember that grim, black day. It was a shame for many Queenslanders along the central and the northern coast of my state. I and many others were concerned then about a number of issues and problems and with the way the minister and the department went about making their decisions—and there are several concerns.

First of all, the declaration was made after a farcically inadequate consultation process in which the government had only spoken with the Australian Conservation Foundation and a Pew Charitable Trusts, both quite partial in this context, but without bothering to talk to the affected communities, industries or, indeed, even the Indigenous representatives. This failure ultimately called into question the scientific basis for this declaration and evaluation.

Secondly, and fundamentally, there was no assessment made as to the financial costs to regional communities and stakeholders, particularly in relation to the impact the non-transferability of permits would have on local tourist businesses, particularly in the north and the far north of my home state of Queensland. Third, the Coral Sea is a very low-volume, high-value fishery, with about $10 million of fish stock being taken in 2006. A number of charter boats work the area, and the game-fishing is a catch-and-release industry for tourists operating out of Cairns. The area is in pristine condition and has been, so far as I am aware, since time immemorial. There was no evidence that any activity currently undertaken in the Coral Sea threatened that state of affairs—none.

Last, at the time this declaration was made, the Coral Sea Conservation Zone was already included in the eastern marine bioregional planning process that runs from Cape York to Batemans Bay in southern New South Wales. That process included a significant public and scientific consultation. In other words, this was the proper, comprehensive, fair and scientific process to determine the level of environmental protection that the Coral Sea needs, and not the declaration process which the minister seems to have used as a convenient shortcut to ride roughshod over all the affected parties.

The most unfortunate saga of the Coral Sea Conservation Zone illustrates perfectly what is wrong with the way the current government approaches marine conservation and therefore why we need to empower both chambers of this parliament to disallow the minister's declaration. The current requirements under section 176 of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act dictate that the minister must engage in public consultation—must. But, as we have seen, the public consultation is barely adequate, and in the end the environment minister is not achieving community support in the process. In weighing up the competing interests, the minister clearly tends to privilege what he might say are the interests of the environment over and above the economic interests of fishermen and retailers.

In reality, however, all too often the interests that the minister ends up protecting are not those of the environment but those of the environmental movement, and they are two very, very different things. We know that the two are not necessarily the same. It seems that the current Labor-Greens government follows the Finding Nemo school of marine conversation: all fish are cute, all fish are endangered and all humans are rapacious predators and despoilers. That is the view. But life is not a Walt Disney movie, and Australia is not like other parts of the world such as the Pacific coast of South America, Siberia or South-East Asia where the fisheries have indeed been depleted—that is true.

Australian fisheries—and no-one seems to want to accept this—are well managed and sustainable. That is the truth. In fact, Australia is widely seen around the world as a leader and exemplar in how to care for fisheries and for the environment. There is no strong case that we need further 'locking up' of our waters to protect from overfishing. Stopping fishermen from harvesting our waters does not lower the demand for seafood. Australian demand will instead be satisfied by what? Imports. Imports from where? Most probably from Asia. So in an attempt to relieve our fishing reserves from a perceived stress—and that is the argument—additional stress will be placed on the fishing reserves where? Foreign countries. Our well-managed fisheries will be untouched, while endangered fisheries elsewhere will be further depleted. That is what will happen.

The environmental left prides itself on supposedly thinking globally and acting locally. But the attempt to shut down Australian fisheries is simply NIMBYism—or rather NIMOism: not in my ocean. It merely exports the problem to places which are far less likely than Australia to care about proper management and sustainability of their resources.

But putting aside the debates about the state of the environment and our fisheries, the issue at hand is the process. Currently the environment minister has sole power to approve the adoption of bioregional plans—the sole power. Declarations of bioregional plans and marine protected areas have significant environmental and social and economic consequences. It is not a matter than should be treated lightly. It is therefore quite inappropriate for these declarations to be made without the opportunity for review, and that is why the coalition believes that bioregional plans should be disallowable instruments. They should be subject to the full review through both chambers of this parliament. This is a matter of balance, fairness and proper democratic accountability.