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Monday, 4 May 1987
Page: 2265

Senator POWELL(9.22) —I rise to support the disallowance motion moved by Senator Boswell and note that the Northern Prawn Fishery (Special Provisions) Management Plan was tabled on 17 February and that Senator Boswell first moved a disallowance motion on 19 March. That motion was to disallow the whole of the management plan which had been tabled. The objectives of that management plan are worth looking at. They are to reduce by 1990 the total number of class A units, including surplus units and suspense units, by not more than 70,000; to reduce by February 1990 the number of class B units and class C units by approximately 40 per cent; the prevention of an increase in the number of boats in the fishery; and the collection of a levy in relation to that program. To us they seemed to be laudable objectives. We took particular note of the factors underlying the measures in the management plan for attaining those objectives. According to the plan, those factors were said to be `Scientific advice that there is a need to reduce the fishing effort in the managed fishery to enable the stocks of tiger prawns to recover from their present depleted condition'. It was in respect of that point that we looked very closely at the original disallowance as moved by Senator Boswell. We had particular concern with that because, as was pointed out in the plan, there was seen to be a problem with the tiger prawn resource itself. We were most concerned about that.

The fact that tiger prawn stocks in the Gulf of Carpentaria are threatened by over-fishing is recognised not just by the Government but also by the industry. The fact that an orderly reduction in the number of boats is essential if the fishery is to remain sound seemed to us to be quite self-evident. As a result of this reduction, the prawn stocks would be given an opportunity to recover. We were aware, and we have become increasingly more aware, of the efforts which the industry was prepared to undertake and of the concern which is shared by the industry for its resource. This is not unnatural because any responsible industry, particularly any responsible primary industry, must have a real concern if it is to expect to survive. So it is no surprise that the industry itself shares that basic concern.

It is a fact, as has been already stated in the debate so far, that the industry itself had already played a significant role in accepting, supporting and, indeed, moving for the introduction of drastic effort reducing and other measures to protect the resource and to allow it to regenerate appropriately. These measures, as has been stated already, included the closing of the whole fishery for nearly six months in 1987; gear restrictions involving a reduction from four to two in the number of nets able to be used from; and a three-months ban on daylight trawling during the tiger prawn spawning season.

In particular, one of the strongest pieces of evidence of the industry's concern and preparedness to act to take very concrete action is its own financial commitment in terms of the establishment and support of the voluntary adjustment buy-back scheme. That scheme has seen a very large financial input from the industry itself-$900,000 in 1986 and a preparedness for a 300 per cent increase to $3m in 1987. Given all that, naturally we were nonplussed with the suggestion that the whole plan, which incorporated all of those measures to assist the industry, should be disallowed. However, Senator Boswell's subsequent amendment came before us on 1 April. That amendment basically sought to remove section 3 and allied clauses-that section of the plan which sets up the system for reduction units.

It is perhaps very important to understand what the impact of this particular exercise was seen to be by the industry. Basically, reduction units in practical terms are really a measure of an operator's progress towards his surrender liability, to get boats out of the fishery by a means which the Government had wanted to put in place but not by the means supported by the industry-that is, through the voluntary buy-back system. I think it is perhaps useful to look at the history of the voluntary adjustment scheme. We should realise that we have here a very important Australian primary industry which has been prepared to face the reality which unfortunately faces a great many sectors of our primary industries-the reality of restructuring the reality that because of the nature of the resource, because of the history of the industry and for the sake of its future, the industry needs to take steps to see that it becomes more efficient, more effective and that it preserves its own resource.

Indeed, the voluntary buy-back adjustment scheme was first proposed by the Northern Fishing Companies Association Ltd in a submission to the advisory body, the Northern Prawn Fishery Management Committee, in February 1983. The industry does not see this as a problem that has arisen recently. The industry endorsed in principle the proposal which was implemented in 1984. In so doing, the industry agreed, as I have said, to fund the scheme itself by way of a levy to be collected by the Commonwealth. The appropriate committee was established and the system has been coming to grips with its responsibility in the meantime.

That is not to say that the operation of the scheme is now, or has been, perfect. It has been a very concrete exercise by the industry which we believe should be encouraged and supported. As I said, the industry has agreed to a very steep increase from its own funds going into that scheme to see that it can work. We have examples from overseas and Australia of buy-back schemes. Such a scheme in South Australia to reduce the number of trawlers in the Gulf of St Vincent prawn fishery proved successful for government and industry. It is worth looking at such examples. The Northern Territory barramundi fishery in the 1970s was another successful example of a voluntary industry scheme which we believe should be supported.

However, having established such a scheme it is important that it should be effective. The Australian Democrats appreciate that a letter from the office of the Minister for Primary Industry (Mr Kerin), which was sent to a colleague in the Senate, has expressed the Government's concern in these terms:

The real question is whether the control of the fishery through such measures-

as those that I have outlined-

is acceptable in the national interest. Fishermen in the northern prawn fishery are highly protected and highly regulated. The introduction of these additional restrictions on efficiency without a real attack on the problems of overcapacity means that these additional regulations will become a permanent feature of the fishery.

That was the opinion as expressed from the Minister's office. I agree that that is likely to be the case, but only if under the voluntary scheme as outlined there is no reduction of capacity. That really is the point at which the decision needs to be made. The decision which the Australian Democrats have made is that given the efforts and the commitment-who can deny that the commitment by the industry is strong when it sinks millions of dollars of its own money into the scheme-the scheme should be given a chance. Based on history and examples from elsewhere, we are confident that if it is given a chance and if that commitment is recognised it will work in the best interests of the industry as a whole.

The impact of the imposition of the reduction unit system on top of the voluntary adjustment buy-back scheme is of great concern to us. We believe that the reduction unit scheme, through competing in a sense with the voluntary scheme, goes a long way to negating the benefits of that scheme. As an instance, the buying up of limber licences which has been a feature thus far is not reducing capacity. There is considerable speculation in the industry by a few large operators distorting the system and putting at risk that voluntary scheme which we believe needs to be given a genuine chance. People in the industry accept strongly not just the need for reduction of effort through those measures earlier stated but also a reduction in the capacity of the industry in order that the resource should not be depleted.

During consultations in the interim period we have been disturbed by the concerns of the industry at the lack of genuine consultation and the industry's feeling that its expertise and its sense of responsibility were not being recognised sufficiently. The advisory body was not being as effectively listened to as it should have been. Obviously if such schemes are to work, there is a need for co-operation between government and industry, particularly in the sensitive area of industry adjustment. It is a difficult time financially for the industry and it is difficult at a personal level for the people involved because of their great personal commitment, not to mention the financial commitment. On balance, we believe that part 3 and the allied clauses represent an overreaction by the Government, possibly with the best of intentions, to the problem of the fishing resource. We believe that the voluntary scheme is well based, well supported and needs an opportunity to work. There are distinct signs of a growing co-operation between the industry and the Government. It is encouraging that the recommendations for appointment of a consultant have been taken up and that direct discussions have finally been held between the Minister and the industry. I hope that sort of co-operation will continue.

I stress that the preservation of the resource is paramount for the Australian Democrats. We believe that concern is shared by the industry and that the voluntary scheme, that the effort reduction measures will be studiously carried out and improved and that the necessary capacity reductions will take place. If this does not happen and if between now and 1990 there is evidence before us that this is not happening, the industry and the Senate should be assured that the Democrats will act to support whatever measures may be necessary to redress the imbalance. I reiterate that we are pleased to be able to support the motion to preserve those aspects of the northern prawn fishery plan which we believe are valuable. We will vote to give the industry's voluntary scheme a chance to operate.