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Wednesday, 13 September 2017
Page: 7216

Senator RUSTON (South AustraliaAssistant Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources) (18:35): I thank Senator Hinch for raising this extraordinarily important issue, not only in this chamber but for taking the time to come and raise it with me as well. It is an issue that, unquestionably, will resonate with all Australians. Nobody, absolutely nobody, wants to see cruelty to turtles or dugongs. Anybody who wasn't horrified by the stories and the images that Senator Hinch has brought to us—and by some of the alleged practices in the northern part of Australia in relation to these beautiful creatures—is nothing but heartless. Nobody supports the illegal slaughter of these or any other animals; anybody caught doing this should, and will, have the full weight of the law thrown at them.

However, we also need to be mindful that we in this place all support Indigenous Australians who want to exercise their rights and interests under native title—that is, in this instance, the hunting of turtles and dugongs for personal, domestic or non-commercial communal needs in accordance with their traditional laws and customs. We also acknowledge that dugong and turtle are a very important source of protein for traditional inhabitants, particularly those who inhabit the area of the Torres Strait. Outside of this very limited take, no dugong or turtle should ever be slaughtered. In fact, I doubt that you're going to get any argument at all on this position from the Indigenous community. I'm really looking forward to hearing, in a little while, the contribution of Senator McCarthy, who is very close to this issue. She can speak for the Indigenous community on this particular issue, but I hope I'm not speaking out of turn in saying that I believe that the Indigenous community is equally concerned about any illegal take of these beautiful animals which are such an important part of Indigenous culture. I also know that the Indigenous community is working really hard with the federal government to stamp out some of the barbaric behaviours which Senator Hinch referred to.

If there is a good news story in this very sad and tragic affair, it's the Indigenous rangers program that Senator Scullion raised. That program is operating successfully in the northern part of the country, particularly in the Torres Strait. These rangers are the frontline warriors who are defending the turtle and the dugong, and who are reporting illegal findings, unacceptable behaviour and non-compliance. Not for one minute do I want to diminish what you have put on the record, Senator Hinch, but it is comforting to hear that arrests have been made and charges laid, and most of this has been made possible through the fantastic work of Indigenous rangers.

I also want to acknowledge the dugong sanctuary in the western part of the Torres Strait, where hunting is now prohibited. My understanding is that the Torres Strait community is working hard to have a similar approach applied to the hunting of turtles in that area. We probably need to be clear that there are a number of issues that have been raised by you, Senator Hinch. The threats to the existence of turtles and dugongs are, we know, not just the activities that you were talking about but also marine pollution and habitat decreasing. The impact of Indigenous fishing has been proved to be a reasonably small component of that. But we're not talking, necessarily, about legitimate Indigenous fishing; you're talking about illegal, barbaric activities and things that none of us in this place can possibly condone. We're also talking about cruelty. There is not a person in this place—I'd like them to stand up if there is—that condones cruelty of any kind against these beautiful creatures.

I acknowledge that this is a really sensitive issue for many who find the activities and actions that you talked about very confronting—and, I have to say, Senator Hinch, I'm one of those people. We must use all the tools that are available to us to protect these much-loved creatures. I'm happy to continue to work with you to ensure that turtles and dugongs have the highest possible protection and to ensure that, when they are killed under traditional law, it's done so without unnecessary cruelty. (Time expired)