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Wednesday, 3 September 2014
Page: 6406

Senator RUSTON (South AustraliaDeputy Government Whip in the Senate) (18:07): I rise to say how hopeful the coalition was that we could achieve a consensus report in relation to this inquiry. Like the opposition, we recognise that the changing climate is one of the more significant threats to the Great Barrier Reef. We also acknowledge the need for ongoing action to ensure the protection and the preservation of our reef into the future. But we found particularly disappointing, when we went through the myriad of recommendations contained in this report of the Chair of the Environment and Communications References Committee, that the only major areas of disagreement between the government and the opposition—and, in most instances, the Australian Greens, I might add—seemed to be issues of politics, not issues that were going to have any benefit for or impact on the Great Barrier Reef at all. We were disappointed, firstly, that we could not reach consensus, but we were more disappointed that the issues that stopped us reaching consensus were political.

We certainly agree, as I said in my opening remarks, that the changing climate is having an impact on the reef. We also agree that the crown-of-thorns starfish has had a devastating impact on the reef over recent times. We certainly agree that coral bleaching is having a major impact. Agricultural run-off is also impacting the reef, particularly as a result of the cyclonic conditions that have been more prevalent in that part of the world of recent times. We also acknowledge that dredging, and the disposal of dredge spoil in particular, can have some quite significant localised impacts. As I said, on the really core, mainstream issues that impact on the reef and on the acknowledgement that something needs to be done in relation to these matters, there was no dispute between us, the opposition and the Australian Greens.

In the broader sense, our dissenting report actually reflects the fact that many, many of the recommendations of the committee report are supported by the coalition. As an example, the No. 1 recommendation that we were able to support was that there be no further capital dredge spoil dumping in the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage area until after the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority and the Australian Institute of Marine Science had finished their analysis of the impact of this work. So, absolutely, on the No. 1 key issue put forward in these reports, we actually agree. We certainly agree about the reef 2050 long-term sustainability plan. We believe, like the opposition, that this is a really important document. It is a really important study and it needs to be finalised, subject to full consultancy, as a matter of some importance. So, in looking through all of the issues that we agreed on, there were really very few that we did not agree on.

However, there were some recommendations that we just could not bring ourselves to support. The two key ones that I thought were totally politically motivated were, firstly, the opposition wishing for the committee not to accredit the Queensland development approval process under the EPBC Act. Why did we need to even have that in the report? We had agreed on the necessary actions and on what the problems were, so why did we need that? Also, the opposition wanted the committee to recommend the rejection of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Bilateral Agreement Implementation) Bill. Neither of those two very, very political recommendations would have any impact whatsoever on the reef in the longer term or the manner in which we were going to seek to look after it, so we were very disappointed in that.

We were also very disappointed at the recommendation that we seek the Australian National Audit Office to undertake a specific, broad-reaching investigation into the activities and actions of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority. Given that the evidence we heard in no way, to my mind, suggested that there was anything improper, any impropriety, any lack of governance or anything at all to indicate that we needed to have a wide-ranging, specific audit of this particular authority, I found it rather strange that that recommendation was made. The coalition senators considered that it is completely unsubstantiated by the evidence; therefore, why did we have to include such a political recommendation?

The other thing that we were a little concerned about was the emphasis on the fertilisers, pesticides and agricultural run-off and the recommendation to come up with another report and another research project in this space. In particular, the evidence that we received indicated that there had been really significant and ongoing research and implementation programs in this space that were achieving fantastic results. The only thing that we found in the whole hearing process, in taking evidence, was that many of the assumptions and much of the modelling appeared to have been wrong. So we certainly would have been happier just to see the assumptions and modelling reassessed, instead of undertaking an expensive, time-consuming and, we believe, unnecessary implementation of a new plan, a new review and a new study, which was only going to take time, money and resources away from the very important tasks that the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority should be undertaking to directly benefit the reef.

Finally, I would like to make comment about a situation that was very specific to the evidence that we took, in relation to the Gladstone Fish Markets. We got a lot of evidence to suggest that there had been some damage to the fish in the Gladstone Harbour as a result of some leakage from the bund wall. In acknowledging the contamination, compensation eventually was given to the fishers in that area because there was evidence that the fish were contaminated and could not be sold. So the fishers were compensated for the fact that their fish were no longer saleable.

However, nobody thought to compensate Gladstone Fish Markets. In the process there was a lack of compensation or acknowledgement of the huge economic impact of the inability of the fish market to access the materials that were the very basis of its business—namely, the fish. But they also had the responsibility of keeping these fish in cold storage so that they could be analysed. So they had an additional cost because of the implications of these contaminated fish. The people who caught the fish were compensated, but Gladstone Fish Markets did not get compensated. So, the coalition senators have noted in their additional comments in their dissenting report that we believe Gladstone Fish Markets was harshly treated in this process, and a case for compensation to them should be considered through the appropriate channels.

In conclusion, the coalition senators supported 90 per cent of the report. I would like to express once again my sincere disappointment that we were unable to achieve a consensus report, because the things that we agreed on were the major and important aspects of the report, which directly went to the ongoing maintenance of the Great Barrier Reef.