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Monday, 17 September 2012
Page: 7101

Senator XENOPHON (South Australia) (20:35): I am afraid I am going to have disappoint Senator Williams tonight by being one of those so-called do-gooders that he refers to. I have genuinely enormous regard for Senator Williams and the contribution that he makes in this place, but I would have to disagree with him on this matter. And I do not think it is fair to categorise this debate as being that on the left of politics and that activist groups such as GetUp! are simply behind this. I think there are many other groups involved here. In my home town in South Australia there is one talkback radio host, Leon Byner on radio 5AA, who has been outspoken in his concern about the super trawler, and I do not think anyone could reasonably consider Mr Byner to be part of the left of politics. He has reflected his views and he has reflected the views of many of his listeners in relation to this matter. So I think we need to take that into account. But I think Senator Williams does make a number of points that deserve to be reflected on carefully and respectfully in relation to issues of compensation, which I will refer to shortly.

I can indicate that I will support the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Declared Fishing Activities) Bill 2012. I support this bill with some reservations in the sense that it is important that issues of compensation are appropriately dealt with. I think Senator Williams alluded to the fact that there will potentially be a legal action by the proponents of the Margiris. I am not sure whether the government has sought advice in relation to any potential claims for compensation, as to whether this would invoke the constitutional safeguard in relation to compensation for the acquisition of property on just terms. So that is a matter that needs to be considered.

This bill, if passed, will enable the Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities, with the agreement of the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, to make an interim declaration that a fishing activity is a prohibited declared commercial fishing activity, while an expert panel assesses the potential environmental impacts of the activity. The minister will be able to make a final declaration for a period of no longer than 24 months that a fishing activity is a prohibited declared commercial fishing activity. Clearly, this does not affect recreational fishers.

It is interesting that this issue—a bit like the coal seam gas issue—has brought together quite disparate groups; groups that you would not normally see on the same platform—recreational fishers and the Australian Greens, for instance. Senator Whish-Wilson is in the chamber, and I do not know whether you could say that recreational fishers are the natural constituency of the Greens, but it appears that they have been brought together by a common concern in relation to this, much in the same way as the unlikely alliance on coal seam gas mining, when we saw Bob Brown, Bob Katter and Alan Jones on the same stage. That is when you know something is brewing and something big is happening, in that it is not politics as usual.

While I recognise and support the reasoning behind this bill, it is also important to reflect on what has led to this juncture and to the government making an eleventh-hour decision. The Dutch supertrawler the Margiris has been shrouded in controversy since it arrived in Australian waters and, in fact, well before that. I know that there are a number of African nations that have expressed concerns about the Margiris'sactivities. It is a big boat. It is capable of catching 250 tonnes of fish per day and of storing over 6,000 tonnes, or 545 busloads, of frozen fish.

The presence of this trawler, and the science that it had apparently relied on, were cause for great concern in the town of Port Lincoln in my home state of South Australia although, of course, there were some proponents for the Margiris there who spoke in favour of the Margiris. I am interested to hear the contribution of Senator Scullion, who has been involved in commercial fishing and who knows a thing or two about catching fish.

I think it is fair to reflect on the processes involved here. Those processes give me some real concern in terms of how the fishing quota was set. The Margiris's main proponents argued that the trawler's quota was sustainable, that it would be policed, and that the venture would create jobs. Detractors suggested that the supertrawler would damage local tourism industries and impede the rights of recreational fishers. They suggested that the environmental impacts had not been fully realised and that the data that was used to establish the Margiris's quota was not sound.

This was raised by Graham Pike, a member of the Australian Fisheries Management Authority, in a letter to the editor in the AustralianFinancial Review just last week. I think it is worth reading into Hansard what Mr Pike said. It is not a long letter, but I think it is very important that it be put on the record. This is what Mr Pike wrote to the editor of the Financial Review:

I am a member of the Australian Fisheries Management Authority (AFMA) committee, which paved the way for the super trawler Margiris/ Abel Tasman.

I must express my deep personal concern about the inadequacy of the research used to double the jack mackerel eastern quota to commercially justify the super trawler (a decision suggested by the Margiris proponent, also a member of the same committee, which raised the conflict of interest situation currently under investigation by the commonwealth ombudsman).

The data on which the quota decision relied were 10 years old and the stocks of fish sampled had long since gone, to be replaced by stocks that remain unresearched. The scientist who conducted the research warns in his report that the data are largely imprecise and hence need to be treated with caution. There is also a complete absence of research into stocks of small pelagic fish, such as jack mackerel and redbait, in waters off Western Australia, South Australia and in the Great Australian Bight-exactly where the super trawler plans to fish.

The federal Environment Minister's proposed changes to the EPBC Act are sensible; they will allow time for comprehensive research into fish stocks and are essential to protect the small pelagic fishery from overfishing.

Studies show that small pelagic fish in other parts of the world have been fished to near extinction by the Margiris and her kind. These stocks had not been researched enough.

Bringing the Margiris to Australia without any apparent prior approval or formal undertakings from AMSA or AFMA was misguided, and at worst an arrogant assumption by Seafish Tasmania and the Margiris's Dutch operating company, Seafish Tasmania Pelagics.

That is what Graham Pike said as a member of AFMA, the committee which was part of the decision-making process.

I think it is fair to say that his concerns need to be heeded. His concerns appear to be considered, and they are matters that ought to have been the subject of forensic investigation; in my view, they have not been. This bill gives us some breathing space in relation to this. I share Graham Pike's concerns, which is one of the reasons I will be supporting this bill.

I believe we must take every step to ensure we are acting on the best available science and the most comprehensive data when making a decision that could irreversibly impact the environment and the communities that rely on it. You need not look past the difficulty the federal government is having in implementing the Murray-Darling Basin plan to realise that it pays to think about the long-term environmental and social repercussions before making a decision of this nature, not after the horse has bolted. We need to get the science right. We need to get the information right.

Members of the coalition have raised concerns about the government's decision to introduce this bill and those concerns have been well articulated. I know that the member for Cook, Scott Morrison, lambasted the government, accusing it of:

… making up policy on the run, oblivious to or regardless of the sovereign risk they have created for this nation.

I think that we need to consider the issue of sovereign risk. I find it a bit curious that the Treasurer has attacked the Leader of the Nationals in the Senate, Senator Barnaby Joyce, for raising the sovereign risk spectre over the Cubbie Station decision. I thought that attack was not reasonable because it was all about transparency and accountability in the context of a decision made by the Foreign Investment Review Board. Similarly, I think that sovereign risk as it relates to this decision needs to be considered in the context of broader community concerns and with respect to flaws in the decision-making process. Any valid arguments about sovereign risk in respect of this decision need to be considered in the context of any potential claim for compensation the proponents may have—and I am not suggesting they do—at law with respect to the decision that has been made.

But if the government is doing the right thing by the science, by the marine environment—given the concerns expressed by Graham Pike and others—then that needs to be considered. It may well be that this decision will be reversed after the appropriate science in relation to this has been investigated. I think we need to put any arguments about sovereign risk in context. Just as I thought the Treasurer was not fair in characterising Senator Barnaby Joyce's comments about Cubby Station as invoking issues of sovereign risk—I do not think they were valid arguments—I similarly have concerns about the coalition saying that this is a sovereign risk issue in this context.

Senator Boyce: I'm not saying there is a sovereign risk in dealing with this government.

Senator XENOPHON: Senator Boyce, they are not the same thing—I agree with that. I think it is fair to say that whilst they are different issues it is worth considering more closely arguments in relation to sovereign risk. In these circumstances we also need to reflect on what the Commonwealth Ombudsman has said. I have a letter from the Commonwealth Ombudsman that is on the website of member for Denison, Andrew Wilkie. The letter is dated 14 September and it is about the complaint. Whilst the Commonwealth Ombudsman has not dealt with the complaint and has not concluded investigating the complaint there are some issues in relation to the South East Management Advisory Committee's compliance with section 64C of the Fisheries Administration Act 1991. The letter raises issues of potential conflicts of interest and whether that made the decision-making process defective in any way. The Ombudsman has not concluded his views in relation to this matter, but in the third to last paragraph of the letter to Mr Wilkie he states:

Please note the admission by AFMA regarding the defective procedure at the SEMAC meeting of 26 March 2012, and information from AFMA that the dissenting SPFRAG members' views were included, in due course, in the SEMAC meeting papers of 26 March 2012.

Other matters have come up in the course of our investigation. We are in the process of giving further consideration to these matters before we will be in a position to conclude our investigation.

This is an ongoing matter by the Commonwealth Ombudsman, so I think we need to take that into account as well and proceed with caution. The government has taken a cautious approach in relation to this.

I note the comments of leading scientific opponent Jessica Meeuwig, the director of the Centre for Marine Futures Oceans Institute at the University of Western Australia who argues that nobody can say what is a 'conservative' catch if they do not know how many fish are out there in the first place. She said:

That's pretty clever math when you don't know what the total biomass is. There are lots of caveats about modelling and out-of-date data.

I think that reflects some of the concerns of Graham Pike.

This is a difficult issue. It is an issue that has quite rightly raised controversy, given the way it has been dealt with. But despite the concerns that I have I believe that this is, on balance, the right decision to make. I support this bill. I support the federal government's decision to start taking the necessary steps to ensure that there is a robust scientific process in place that can assess the environmental impacts of such commercial fishing activities. I think we need to get this right, and it is important that we do not go down a path that is irreversible and may lead to damage that cannot be remedied in future years. It is also fair to say that the Margiris has been a controversial vessel in some of the areas where it has fished. That is why there has been some community suspicion about this vessel. Having said that, I am most guided by the comments of Mr Pike and the fact that there is an ongoing investigation by the Ombudsman in relation to this matter. I can indicate I will be supporting the bill, but I would like to hear from the government what they say about the assertions of what jobs may be affected by this and whether the government consider that they have a liability at law in respect of those jobs that may be affected.