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Wednesday, 16 August 2017
Page: 5765

Senator WHISH-WILSON (Tasmania) (10:59): I think I can safely that none of us are going to get to go up into space, look back on this beautiful planet and see what is one of the marvels of this world: the Great Barrier Reef, the single biggest living marine organism on this planet. It is nearly 3,000 reefs, nearly 10 per cent of the world's reef systems. And how amazing would this look from space? How beautiful does it look when we go diving or snorkelling on the Great Barrier Reef or take our children, like I have? But it is actually what it looks like under the water that is truly amazing. The Great Barrier Reef is a sanctuary, a nursery to thousands of different corals, bony fish, algae, marine plants, rays, sharks, turtles and whales.

It is an absolutely amazing place to visit, and yet we know it is under unprecedented stress and cumulative pressures from overfishing, from land based pollution and run-off, from invasive species like starfish, from lack of protection and from plastics floating in the ocean. Of course, lastly but most importantly, the reef is dying because of warming waters, and warming waters are correlated to global emissions, to our changing climates and man's—I should say humanity's—stupidity.

If we want to talk today here in the Senate about a management plan for the Great Barrier Reef and we want to look at this legislation then, yes, there are lots of good things we can see in this management plan across these cumulative stressors on the reef. But we are kidding ourselves if we think we can save the reef by just focusing on things like land based pollutions, collecting starfish or contributing money to groups that clean up the plastics on the beaches of the thousands of islands across the Great Barrier Reef. If we don't take action on climate then we know from unprecedented back-to-back bleachings on the Great Barrier Reef that we will lose the reef and it will happen in our lifetime, on our watch. That's a concept that horrifies me. We may actually lose one of the great wonders of the world because of our own short-sightedness and our own stupidity. But I will get back to that later.

I want to talk about a couple things in the management plan that are near and dear to my heart. I want to start with talking about plastic pollution in the ocean. I want to acknowledge today the good folks from Sea Shepherd and Boomerang Alliance who were in the House last night along with a whole group of stakeholders who want to help clean up our oceans. Last night we also had the Humane Society International, Surfrider Foundation, Birdlife Australia and a whole bunch more people, including scientists, who had come together at parliament to meet with decision-makers and impress upon them the fact that we are slowly choking our oceans with the millions of tonnes of plastic that go into our oceans every year. It's not just what is going into the ocean off the coast of the Great Barrier Reef; this is washing up from all around the world.

I know Senator Williams recently went to visit the Solomon Islands, Kiribati and Tuvalu, and they have exactly the same problem. These places are being choked. We are turning the ocean into a plastic soup by our own short-sightedness and our own stupidity.

I know Tangaroa Blue is receiving funds under this management plan to get beach clean-ups in place on the many islands of the Great Barrier Reef. They are contributing that to a national database. But we're not doing anywhere near enough. With these islands what is most troubling and concerning is not what we see on the coastline when we walk on the beaches but what's going on under the water. We only see a fraction of the plastics. More than 60 per cent of the plastic in the ocean sinks to the bottom. The stuff we can see is nowhere near the volume of the plastics that are broken up into microplastics—particles that we know are consumed by the diverse and abundant marine life on the Great Barrier Reef. And those particles have toxins attached to them. These are scientific facts. We have even found plastic in plankton in the Antarctic; the basis of our food chain is consuming plastic.

This is one of the many threats that the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority manages in conjunction with the Queensland government. But we are not doing enough. Looking at the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority plan, all we can do is clean it up. But we're kidding ourselves if we think that's going to help. Unless in this country and internationally we look at our use of plastics—redesign, refuse and recycle, new schemes that we know will help reduce plastic going into the ocean—then we will never solve that problem.

There is another issue that's near and dear to my heart. Sadly, the Queensland Labor government recently gave permission to the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority for a 10-year program to set baited drum lines to kill sharks in the Great Barrier Reef—a 20th century technology that's not necessary. Sharks are absolutely critical to healthy oceans. This is just a crass plan based on a political decision to continue to kill sharks indiscriminately. That includes sharks that should be protected, such as hammerhead sharks, which we know are endangered but haven't even made their way onto our endangered list yet. Why does the Queensland government use this technology when we could use smart drum lines and other technologies that can help mitigate the risk of shark attacks? I'm very disappointed, considering how important sharks are to the health of the reef. We know from studies about trophic cascades that if we remove our apex predators on these reefs it leads to all sorts of negative consequences for biodiversity. I'm disappointed that recently the drum line program has been given another 10 years of life just when we're getting close to looking at how we can better manage our marine resources and balance off the protection of human life.

I want to talk a little bit about marine protected areas. As much as I have always supported marine protected areas, I am very concerned about this government's short-sightedness, on the back of a few stakeholders, in removing the protections that were in place under current plans for marine protection areas, especially in the Coral Sea and around the Great Barrier Reef. We should be doing everything we possibly can to increase our protection of the ocean at a time when we know oceans are under unprecedented stress and threats. It boggles my mind, it is not fathomable, that any government would be reducing protections in this day and age. We should be doing everything we can to protect our ocean for future generations. And yet we have before us—it's now in a consultation phase—a plan to reduce protections for marine protected areas. I think most would Australians agree that we need to do everything we can if we are to save the Great Barrier Reef. Let me also be very clear: marine protected areas aren't going to stop coral bleaching. They may help reduce the stressors in these hotspots of biodiversity—and they do; it's scientifically proven—but the reef will die unless we cut our emissions and act on climate change.

Building one of the world's biggest coalmines not that far from the Great Barrier Reef—even putting aside the impact of more ports and turning the Great Barrier Reef into a coal, oil and gas superhighway by running thousands of tankers through these delicate and pristine areas every year, putting them at risk of oil spills, as we know from around the world—will be absolutely devastating to the Great Barrier Reef. And this government is actively courting giving taxpayer funds to a project that will become the biggest coalmine in the world. There should be no new coalmines if we are to be serious about tackling the dangerous emissions that lead to global warming. It is a black-and-white thing.

Why is this government so intent on rolling back renewable energy? Why is this government so intent on sticking its head in the sand on climate change? I know why the Labor Party support coal mines. That's black and white. They don't have any negotiating power on this with their unions, with the CFMEU and others that want coalmines. I understand what their position is; I don't agree with it. We have to be very clear: if we want to protect the Great Barrier Reef, which is what we are debating here today, we need courage, we need some political spine and conviction to move our generation of energy to being 100 per cent renewable in this country. We need to leave coal in the ground. Coal not only kills people but, we know, is killing the Great Barrier Reef.

It is not about me going diving on the Great Barrier Reef and enjoying that experience with my kids; it is the biodiversity and the abundance of marine life. This is the nursery of the ocean. If we want to have fishing, be it commercial or recreational, then we need to understand that marine protected areas are insurance policies on a healthy ocean for the next generation. We are taking out insurance policies. And to Senator Williams, through you, Chair: of course there may be costs associated with this kind of mitigation and adaption. If you take out an insurance policy, you have to pay a premium, but it is worth it when the risks are catastrophic. If we don't take action to protect the Great Barrier Reef through marine protected areas and through action on climate, we will lose this natural asset, this wonder of the world that you can see from space. It's been there for tens of thousands of years, yet we will lose it in our lifetime.

I am chairing a committee that is shortly going to the Great Barrier Reef, and all senators are invited to join me if they wish to participate. We'll be hearing from scientists, we'll be hearing from the tourism industry and we'll be hearing from the fishing industry—people with different views on this. We collect the evidence and data we need to make an informed report in this Senate. That's what we do. I can tell you from what we've heard already, from some of the world's best scientists in their areas who are looking at warming waters off the Great Barrier Reef, that 25 years ago, when they started measuring water temperatures in the Great Barrier Reef, they could never have predicted not only that we would have the major coral bleaching episode a few years ago but that we would then have back-to-back coral bleaching episodes. That was unthinkable 25 years ago. What is going on with our climate now that we are seeing huge parts of the Great Barrier Reef bleaching and dying? Then there are extreme weather events—another stressor on the Great Barrier Reef. Last year's cyclone—the physical, mechanical activity of the wind and the swell—caused immense damage to the reef that is already, in parts, on its last knees. I should have said that differently, shouldn't I? It is already on its knees. This is the point: these are cumulative stressors. We acknowledge, and that's why we'll be supporting the legislation, that the stressors on the reef are many and they're cumulative.

But now is not the time to be reducing protections. Now is not the time to be in the pocket of the commercial fishing industry, like this government is. Now is the time to be getting the balance right and actually protecting the reef. If we want fishing for future generations and we want to keep alive the biodiversity that is so essential to our healthy oceans, we need to tackle these big issues and we need to make some hard decisions. That is what the data tells us now. That is what the evidence is telling us.

If we have more coral bleaching events in the next five years then, the experts tell us, the reef will die. If you were a betting person and I asked you to put money on it, Acting Deputy President, which way would you bet, based on what the data's telling you? You'd be a fool not to bet that we're going to have more bleaching events.

During the double dissolution last year, I went down to the measuring station at Cape Grim and did a social media video in 120-kilometre-an-hour winds, and I saw that we'd just passed 400 parts per million, Senator Chisholm, through you, Chair—400 parts per million. We are now on track, based on the last year, to be at 420 parts per million within the next 10 years, or possibly even 450. That is what scientists tell us is runaway global warming. We are that close. And it will happen in our lifetime, based on current emission projections. The signs are there. The siren is sounding. Why are we ignoring it? Why have we got our head in the sand? Why have we got our hands over our ears? They're the questions I think Australians are asking. Well, from what I've seen in here, it's vested interests that run the big parties; it's special interests. It's not for the public good that we're delivering a lack of action on things like climate change or marine plastic. We need to step up.

My party is a party that will stand in here, time and time again, and take the strongest line. To quote an ex-MP, Mr Peter Garrett, who I think I might have quoted twice this week, 'Sometimes you've got to take the hardest line.' When we are facing these kinds of risks and what the evidence tells us, we have to take the hardest line if that's the choice we make—that we want to save the Great Barrier Reef. If we don't, I'd be devastated, and I think most Australians would. So let's at least be honest about it. If, in balancing the risks, we choose more coalmines, and the biggest coalmines in the world, which will have a material impact on global warming, then we've made a simple choice. And it is a binary choice in my opinion. It is black and white: it's the reef or it's more coal. You can't have both; you can have one or the other.

With each year that goes by, new events tell us that the ocean is in trouble. We have ocean acidification—another thing that, unfortunately, this management plan can't do anything about. If the ocean continues to acidify—because carbon dioxide, from emissions of carbon, is absorbed by the ocean—at the rates that science is suggesting to us, then our corals will also die. I mean, these are black and white.

This is why I wonder that this government tried to essentially get rid of CSIRO's Oceans and Atmosphere and climate change divisions. I am proud to say that Senator Rice and I—and, I will acknowledge, Labor's Senator Carr, Senator Singh and others—fought really hard to stop that happening. We not only managed to get most of those scientists' job losses reversed but actually got new funding for the climate change research centre in Hobart in my home state of Tasmania.

But it is nowhere near enough. These scientists are telling us: we need to act. This plan in front of us today helps us manage some of the stressors that we know the reef is under, but—let's not kid ourselves in here today—it's not enough. If we truly want to do something for the Great Barrier Reef, whether we want to fish there, dive there or take our kids there, or whether we just care about having a healthy ocean and about biodiversity and marine life, for the sake of nature and the things that we put value on, then we need to take strong action.

While we'll be supporting this legislation, I suggest to Senator Macdonald, who is in the chamber—he'll be coming up to the Great Barrier Reef with me in a few weeks' time and others are welcome to join us; Senator Chisholm, you're welcome to join us—that we get the evidence in front of us to make better decisions.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT ( Senator Bernardi ): Before I call Senator Chisholm, I would just remind honourable senators in the debate—and I recognise that there was absolutely nothing inappropriate in how it was directed—not to refer to the chair or any other honourable senators as potentially being a fool or anything else. Notwithstanding personal thoughts, there should not be direct references to the chair in that respect.

I understand that in the context of Senator Whish-Wilson's speech there was no negativity attached to it, that it was just the phraseology chosen in the context of saying, 'You would be a fool to bet against it.' It was personalised, and I just think, if we can refrain from that, it would be advantageous for all of us.

Senator Whish-Wilson: Mr Acting Deputy President, I rise on a point of order, just to get this on the record. That definitely is not what I was implying.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT: I understand that perfectly, and it is just a general caution for everybody that it is easier if we don't personalise these things, even if it is inopportune.

Senator Gallacher: What about disorderly conduct?

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT: You may take that approach.