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Monday, 17 September 2012
Page: 7085

Senator WATERS (Queensland) (18:16): I rise speak on Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Declared Commercial Fishing Activities) Bill 2012 as a Queensland senator concerned that the Margiris, now insultingly renamed the Abel Tasman although I will continue to call it the Margiris, is now licensed and flagged in my home port of Brisbane. Queenslanders, like many Australians, have been outraged at the potential for the Margiris to denude Australian waters of fish. My inbox has been overflowing with such concern and with good reason. The massive 9,500 tonne, 142-metre supertrawler is twice the size of the largest trawler that has ever fished in Australian waters. This boat has the capacity to catch more than 90,000 tonnes of fish every single year. Australia's oceans have never been subjected to an onslaught like this.

Supertrawlers around the world have trashed the local marine environments, destroyed vital food chains by clearing the local environment of tonnes of baitfish and left a wake of dead dolphins, seals and turtles in addition to untold volumes of other bycatch species. Fishing communities, some marine scientists and a whole host of community organisations have asked to see more work done on the science backing supertrawlers, especially in the area of potential local depletion of fish stocks from this huge fish vacuum cleaner. So in the view of the Greens, the onus of proof must be reversed—supertrawlers must be banned until the best possible science has proven that supertrawlers are not causing the untold damage the community is so concerned about.

The Australian Greens put forward amendments to this bill in the House which sadly did not get up. These amendments would have made it an offence for ships capable of processing and storing more than 2,000 tonnes of biomass to fish in Australian waters. As the Magiris is the only ship with a storage capacity of 2,000 tonne or more this was an effective permanent ban on the supertrawler. All other fishing vessels currently operating in Australian waters would not have been affected by this ban. The minister's bill before the Senate allows a ban of up to two years, but sadly this means that our oceans only get a brief relief from the Margiris—whereas the solution put forward by the Greens would give our oceans permanent protection from mammoth fishing operations like this.

I want to talk now about the selective application of the precautionary principle by this government. Our national environmental laws say that major decisions which involve a high risk of causing irreversible harm to our precious species and wild places should be made in accordance with the precautionary principle. It is commendable that in this instance this principle seems to be guiding the government's approach. In announcing these changes last Tuesday, Minister Burke said he was seeking to amend the national environmental laws to give him the powers he had hoped to have to 'be able to apply a much more precautionary approach to the supertrawler'. He set out that the purpose of this amendment was to ensure that the federal government could intervene to better protect our fisheries when there is uncertainty about the impact of a particular fishing activity. When this uncertainty is identified, the process allows the environment and fisheries departments to jointly undertake the scientific work and seek out the expert advice which the government believes is lacking. Most importantly, while that work is being undertaken the relevant fishing activity cannot take place within Australian waters for a period of up to two years. That is, you press pause while you do the science. You do not let the activity roll out and you do not issue any new approvals while you are doing the science. Yet unfortunately this is the exception rather than the rule.

Coal seam gas is a perfect example. Today the House has debated setting up an advisory committee on coal seam gas to do the science on coal seam gas as regards groundwater impacts. But approvals will not cease while that five-year research program is being done. This is despite the science that we do have around the impacts of coal seam gas saying that we lack understanding of long-term impacts on groundwater. For example, the National Water Commission says:

… potential impacts of Coal Seam Gas developments, particularly the cumulative effects of multiple projects, are not well understood.

The commission goes on to say:

… the Commission strongly argues for the careful, transparent and integrated consideration of water-related impacts in all approval processes.

Likewise CSIRO says:

Predicting long-term impacts of CSG production can be difficult due to potential cumulative and region-specific impacts of multiple developments.

CSIRO also says:

Prediction of specific impacts of CSG developments requires ongoing research because groundwater responses may take decades or even centuries to move through aquifers, especially when groundwater flow velocities are slow.

Yet, despite 68 per cent of Australians wanting a moratorium until we have a better understanding of the long-term impacts of coal seam gas, the government has continually failed to take a precautionary approach, which I have moved for in several motions in this place as well as in my amendments to that bill, which unfortunately got no support. It appears a precautionary approach is a political tool to be used when pushed, rather than a principle to guide good, sensible decision making in the face of huge threats to land and water.

Unfortunately, it is the same with the Great Barrier Reef. UNESCO expressed grave concern for the survival of the reef given the plans for six new and expanded coal and coal seam gas ports, and have said that unless we change direction—

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT ( Senator Furner ): Order! Senator Waters, I have been listening carefully to your debate on this bill, and remind you that we are debating the bill related to the super trawler. Can I bring you back to that issue, please?

Senator WATERS: Thank you, Mr Acting Deputy President, that is precisely what I am doing. I am talking about the selective application of the precautionary principle, which has been applied for the super trawler but not in countless other instances.

As I was saying, UNESCO have said that unless we change direction on the reef it will put the reef on the World Heritage 'in danger' list by March. The government's response was to commit to a strategic assessment which they say promises to ensure development proceeds in a way that our reef can survive, but it has holes so big you can drive a coal ship through it. The strategic assessment will not be able to affect whether current developments, including those six ports, are approved. Project assessments and approvals will continue business as usual.

Time and time again the Greens have called for a moratorium on reef port development until a decent strategic assessment is done and we actually know what the reef and its delicate ecosystems can handle. The government claims it cannot put a moratorium on because it does not have the power. We disagree, but if the government is correct, why is it not moving to give itself powers like it has done with the Margiris? Why does the reef not deserve a precautionary approach, as has been taken with the Margiris? The uncertainties and the risks of irreversible harm are without question—

Senator Ronaldson: Mr Acting Deputy President, I rise on a point of order. I think the honourable senator is defying your ruling.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT: There is no point of order.

Senator WATERS: The government continues to react in an ad hoc, populist way, drawing on the precautionary principle when it suits it. Frankly, the reef has been hung out to dry, as have all those rural communities facing coal seam gas.

I return now to fisheries. For all the talk of stepping up to assure the sustainability of our fisheries, we are on the brink of a federal handover of national environmental responsibilities to AFMA, the Australian Fisheries Management Authority. As part of its upcoming EPBC reforms, the government appears committed to amending our national environment laws so that, rather than having the final approval of strategic assessments of fisheries, the minister will simply accredit the systems of AFMA to allow them and not the environment minister to assess and approve fisheries. This will mean the government's and COAG's approach to offload the environment minister's approvals to the states is now going to be reflected with fisheries management in offloading that to AFMA.

This is a tragic development, and it will see major decisions that have the potential to trash our most value national environmental assets being made by state governments and fisheries agencies, not our national environment minister. This undermines three decades of work to build stronger environment protection in this country. Anyone asking about the implementation risks and the risks to our environment of this handover would know from looking at the atrocious record of the states and territories of late that this is a high-risk, totally non-precautionary approach taken by our government.

I return now to the bill before the Senate. Although our amendments would have made this bill stronger had they not been rejected, we will be supporting this bill. This bill demonstrates that when the political risks are low, and when it is forced to by circumstance, the government can step up and act in a sensible way and apply the precautionary principle.

The tragedy is that across Australia our ecosystems, threatened species and irreplaceable wilderness are facing a fight for their lives. Yet where is the government responsible for protecting the values that we have agreed are of national importance? They are not seeking to be informed by the best science, they are not prepared to press pause despite enormous threats involved in barrelling ahead blindly, and they are not prepared to give our scientists and experts the time to do the work that is needed to make sure our biggest decisions are well informed about what is really at risk, and Australia's environment and our communities are suffering as a result.

In short, on too many of the key issues the government is shirking its responsibilities. It is not stepping up and it is not showing the leadership that is needed—not on the reef, not on coal seam gas and not on the protection of threatened species and ecosystems. I call upon the government to apply the precautionary principle with consistency and to govern like the environment matters.

Proceedin gs suspended from 18:27 to 19 : 30