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Thursday, 13 September 2007
Page: 136

Senator BARTLETT (3:35 PM) —Mr Deputy President, I seek leave to move a motion in relation to the government response to the Environment, Communications, Information Technology and the Arts Committee report on invasive species entitled Turning back the tide: the invasive species challenge: report on the regulation, control and management of invasive species and the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Invasive Species) Bill 2002.

Leave granted.

Senator BARTLETT —I move:

That the Senate take note of the document.

As the Minister for Community Services said when he tabled this document, there are 10 government responses to committee reports that have all just been tabled at once. If we do not speak to those documents straightaway they will be put off to the netherworld of even later on Thursday evenings, and I suspect these particular responses will probably not be debated before the election, so I want to speak to at least a couple of them.

I particularly want to speak to the response from the government to the report of the Senate Standing Committee on Environment, Communications, Information Technology and the Arts inquiry into invasive species. The report, which contained 25 unanimous recommendations—cross-party, constructive, non-partisan proposals to deal with the very serious environmental and economic challenge of invasive species such as weeds and other things—was tabled in this chamber on 8 December 2004. It has taken the government nearly three years to respond to that Senate committee report.

I am pleased with most of the response now that it has appeared. There are only three recommendations that the government have rejected out of the 25. Some of the others they have accepted in principle or have accepted the thrust of but have indicated other ways of achieving similar goals. That does not mean that the government have only just now started to act on those 22 things that they have agreed with; they have been doing those things. But it reinforces to me the growing degree of contempt that the federal government have. I know there have been a couple of ministers in the environment portfolio over that period of time, but there is no excuse for taking three years to respond to a report that has only 25 recommendations. Some of them were substantial and detailed recommendations but not that complex. The issue is complex—it is very difficult tackling invasive spaces—but the recommendations were not that complex.

To take almost three years to provide a response to the committee shows contempt for the Senate and for the committee. Even worse, in my view, it shows contempt for the many people who contributed to this inquiry. This inquiry was not some political stunt. It was a very considered, detailed and comprehensive inquiry into what is a very important issue. The threat to Australia’s environment posed by invasive species such as weeds is regularly cited as being in the top two or three environmental threats. It is not as glamorous as the crown of thorns starfish or whaling. Whether or not a particular type of grass is running wild or a type of weed has got into some remote national park or escaped from pastoral land into a national park is not as glamorous, but it is certainly as serious. Invasive species are a major threat to biodiversity, and that includes marine environments, where they are even more likely to be neglected because they are less likely to be seen.

The fact that this is not glamorous does not mean it is not important. It is also a massive economic danger, both in the marine environment and on land. It costs billions of dollars a year in agricultural production in particular, as well as in lost economic opportunities. So it is a very serious issue. To take three years to respond is unsatisfactory. There were 78 submissions to this inquiry, many of them very comprehensive. There were four public hearings held in different parts of the country. It is very disappointing, frankly, that the response has taken so long.

I will go to the substance of the government response. As I said, it does agree with 22 of the 25 recommendations. There has been some progress in this area at federal level, as well as at state level. There has been some increased cooperation between the federal government and the states and territories since that time. That was a message that came out through the evidence provided to the committee during its hearings and in its report. I should emphasise that the inquiry was initiated by the Democrats. It was chaired by former Queensland Democrats Senator John Cherry, who, as people may know, now heads up the Queensland Farmers Federation and works on some of the issues that were identified in this report.

The committee considered, amongst other things, a private senator’s bill of mine that sought to put up a legislative proposal to assist in dealing with invasive species. The committee rejected my legislation as a suitable way forward. I have coped with that rejection. I can live with it. But I cannot cope and live quite so comfortably with the fact that the government has taken three years to respond to the recommendations in the committee report.

There were three recommendations the government did not agree to. They did not agree to recommendation 8 in terms of its practical applicability. As for their reasons for not agreeing with recommendation 24, I can see why they were put forward. I am disappointed that they disagreed with recommendation 6, which recommended that the Commonwealth, in consultation with the states and territories, promulgate regulations under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, federally, to prevent the trade in invasive species of national importance. The Australian government took a different approach. Its response says:

While the EPBC Act is one mechanism for the control of weeds that pose a threat to Australia’s biodiversity, the Australian Government considers that in the first instance states and territories should improve the management and control of weeds within their jurisdictions.

I think it is a cop-out to say that the states and territories should improve the management and control of weeds within their jurisdiction. It is self-evident; of course they should, and they have to some degree. They need to do it better, particularly at points of entry into the country. But I believe that there is a clear role for the Commonwealth to play here, through federal environment protection laws and through the regulations, to proactively prohibit the trade in these species.

There has been some progress in general in that regard. The government’s response notes that former Minister for Fisheries, Forestry and Conservation Senator Ian Macdonald worked with state and territory counterparts from mid-2005 to try to prevent the further sale of plant species classified as weeds of national significance. There has been some progress in that regard. But, as this response itself notes, that has still not been fully addressed, in Victoria in particular. It has taken too long in some of the other states as well. It is simply ludicrous that we are identifying plant species as serious problems, in that they have the potential to become weeds, and yet they are still able to be sold. How could that even be a question for consideration?

I should emphasise that, whilst this part deals with plants, there is an issue with regard to the sale of ornamental or aquarium fish. I do not believe there are sufficient or adequate controls over the sale of some of those fish species that are sometimes released into the natural environment and present potential problems down the track. There are better controls in place now, in part due to the work of this committee and also due to the work that the Democrats have done through our implementation and strengthening of the federal environment protection act. The ability to better monitor and oversee the importation of plant and animals species into Australia and to assess in advance whether there is potential risk with regard to invasive species is a step forward, but we need to do more. There have been some advances, but the Commonwealth government can still take greater leadership in this area and can still make better use of the legislative tools and the financial resources that they have at their disposal. As we have seen with the equine virus, quarantine issues are always still very, very critical and can have a massive impact when they do not work. More needs to be done. The fact that it has taken nearly three years for the government to respond to this sends a bit of a signal that perhaps they still do not treat the issue with the seriousness and importance that it merits. I seek leave to continue my remarks later.

Leave granted; debate adjourned.