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Wednesday, 1 December 2004
Page: 46

Senator BROWN (1:02 PM) —I want to talk to the Senate about Recherche Bay in far south Tasmania—it is about as far south as you can drive; in fact, Cockle Creek, which is as far as you can drive, is on the southern edge of Double Bay—which is named after one of the two French scientific expedition ships. The expedition commanded by D'Entrecasteaux set out from France in 1791 and arrived in Tasmania in January 1792. The ship stayed for five weeks, and they gathered many botanical specimens, including the blue gum, which is now the floral symbol of Tasmania. They were aware that Aboriginal people had been in the area but they did not meet any. However, they made extensive exploratory forays in various directions from Recherche Bay, including quite a remarkable overland trek to a peak to the south of Mount La Perouse, then to the south coast and back to Recherche Bay.

The ship circumnavigated the continent of Australia and went back to Esperance in Western Australia, named after the other ship, in early 1793. They had such great recollections of Recherche Bay in Tasmania and were in need of repairs and fresh water, so they set sail across the Great Australian Bight back to Recherche Bay and stayed for a few more weeks. This time they met the Aboriginal people, the Palawa. The first meeting came after four of the officers walked overland from Recherche Bay and camped overnight at a creek entering what is now Southport Lagoon. In the morning they woke up and decided they would walk along the southern part of Southport Lagoon to the entrance which they had visited the year before. On this walk they heard human voices and found the Aboriginal people fishing in Southport Lagoon. They put down their muskets and, to cut a long story short, there were a couple of hours of intriguing communication between the French and the Palawa, neither understanding each other's language but a lot of understanding, enjoyment and exploration of each other's similarities and differences during those couple of hours.

When the French decided to go back to the ship a couple of warriors went with them and, much to the amazement of the French, when they got back to the camp site where they had slept the night before, the warriors pointed out where each of them had been sleeping. This brought home to the French that this was Palawa country and the Palawa knew what was going on and it was not the other way around.

The French had put in a garden in 1792. When they went back in 1793 they found the remnants of the plants in the woods and were again amazed that one of the warriors came and pointed out which were their plants—that is, the Palawa plants, the indigenous plants—and which were the French imported plants put in the garden the year before. Quite remarkably the remains of that garden, the wall, were discovered last year by two Tasmanians, Helen Gee and Bob Graham. The remains of the observatory that the French set up onshore at Recherche Bay in 1792 were also discovered. This was a very important breakthrough in navigation, which was to have a big impact on global navigation in the following century. The observatory was set up after the French had failed to set up their scientific equipment rapidly enough to witness the transit of Venus across the sun, which brought heartbreak to the astronomer on board the ship.

The thing about Recherche Bay and the north-east peninsula, where the French walked so frequently and saw Tasmanian tigers and a whole range of other marsupials, is that it is effectively intact but is under great and imminent threat from logging. There is an imminent proposal to complete a road across the Southport Lagoon conservation area which was started over a year ago to allow logging of the very forests from which the French entered and collected their specimens and on the edge of which is the remnant garden and observatory.

One-hundred and forty hectares of this peninsula is in private hands, owned by the two Vernon brothers. Unfortunately, the Tasmanian government has not secured an arrangement with the Vernon brothers to buy this private land to ensure that it is kept because of its extraordinary global importance as a meeting place between the scientists of the European enlightenment and the extraordinary knowledge of the Palawa people in Tasmania, the Indigenous people. Last Friday, with Cate Weate and Margaret Blakers from my office, I walked across the peninsula, in the vicinity of where the road will be completed if allowed to go ahead, and also in the vicinity of what is one of Australia's rarest plants, the Tasmanian swamp eyebright, listed by the federal authority, internationally and by the Tasmanian heritage unit as critically endangered. I was astonished to find that this plant, which is down to 40 mature species in one area of about a quarter of a hectare, has a four-wheel drive track going straight through the middle of its habitat. There is a fence being built against the remnant plants—goodness knows how many were destroyed by this four-wheel drive track—with some star pickets, and that is it. This is a failure at state and federal level of the authorities to protect a magnificent flower, arguably one of the rarest plants on the face of the planet, by neglect.

What is more, off-road vehicles crossing the peninsula have created massive environmental damage. Besides the introduction of the root rot fungus Phytophthera cinnamomi, in places the squalid broadening of the tracks by off-road vehicles trying to get through swamp areas is as wide as 80 metres. There is debriding of all the native vegetation, there is soiling of the streams and there are enormous ruts built through the very country through which the French walked to meet the Indigenous people in 1793. This is a matter of state government neglect and failure to properly equip Parks and Wildlife to prevent that destruction. There is in place a draft management plan which would prohibit four-wheel drive vehicles south of Southport Lagoon and therefore in the region of this rare plant, but it has not been brought into being.

This whole region is extraordinarily beautiful. East of Recherche Bay is Black Swan Lagoon on the other side of the peninsula—I counted 162 black swans on this lagoon on Friday—and then a long white beach, along which the French walked in 1793 and met a group of 40 Palawa people coming south. The French carved a tree, by the way, just off the beach which disturbed the Indigenous people greatly as introducing a bad spirit to their forest. Thirty years later, one of the local warriors told a European that the Indigenous people destroyed that tree after the scientific expedition had left. What we have here is an intact historic landscape, as it was when the French arrived, except for some past selective logging and these four-wheel drive impacts that we see today. We have the opportunity here in this nation, in the interest of international human history, culture and remarkable ecological intactness, to prevent the loss of that landscape and to preserve its integrity by preventing the logging and the procedure of that road.

I noted yesterday in question time that there is no forest practices plan covering the completion of the road. Whether or not the minister has been able to establish that, there is an enormously wonderful opportunity here for the new Minister for the Environment and Heritage, Senator Ian Campbell, and for Prime Minister Howard to rescue this area by paying fair compensation to the owners of the private land out of, if necessary, the $50 million or so that the Prime Minister has said will be allocated to Tasmania as part of the compensation package, or from other Commonwealth moneys, to ensure the integrity of this area for the nation's benefit into the future. But it needs urgent and clear-headed action. It is a really great opportunity for this government to show that it understands the nation's history, that it celebrates it, that it understands the ecological value of remnant places which are as intact and as beautiful as Recherce Bay and that it is prepared to put aside the minimal amount that would rescue the area and then manage it so that it can be presented for Australians to go and see. With signage and proper presentation, it would be one of the most fascinating places for all of our citizens now and in the future to visit and to see the country just as the French saw it and, more particularly, just as the Palawa people lived in it. It is an incredibly wonderful opportunity. When I was there on Friday, there was Mount La Perouse to the west, as described by the French, still with snow on it. They noted that snow was there in January and February, in those days before global warming.

I appeal to the government to seize this opportunity for a remarkably good outcome at Recherche Bay. I understand that the French Ambassador is in the state at the moment and is going to Recherche Bay. Negative international attention will come to Tasmania and to Australia if the logging and this obscene road, with its two-metre deep ditch and up to four-metre pile of what was the native cover piled to the side, resumes. That has been proceeding through the Southport Lagoon conservation area. It has been stopped, but it certainly needs to be seen that it is not resumed and in fact that reparation is made there.

Mr Howard committed himself during the election campaign to releasing the defined details of the maps of the 170,000 hectares of old-growth forest to be protected by the government today. It is a promise that has not been kept. It is the first breach of promise from the election campaign. We have to accept that there are good reasons behind that breach of promise, and if they include the rescue of the north-east peninsula, the Southport Lagoon conservation area, Recherche Bay and its potential to become part of the glorious World Heritage area of Tasmania, then I will be one of those who will overlook such a lapse. Here is a great opportunity for this government to do something very lasting for the nation and for the international community interested in history and ecology. (Time expired)