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Wednesday, 3 September 2014
Page: 6407

Senator WATERS (Queensland) (18:16): I too rise to speak on this inquiry into the Great Barrier Reef, which the Greens had the great pleasure of moving to set up. We would like to thank all of the other parties for participating in the inquiry, and the secretariat, for the work they did in allowing this very fulsome and very damning inquiry to occur.

We know that unfortunately at this time in history the Great Barrier Reef is facing more threats than it ever has. We took some incredibly scary evidence from eminent reef scientists saying that the reef's coral cover might disappear by 2050—that effectively we might not have a Great Barrier Reef as we know it today. This is within my lifetime. That is of huge concern to me as I am sure it is to so many Australians and citizens of the world.

As a youngster I had the wonderful pleasure of visiting the reef, and it has stayed with me forever and has influenced my passions in this place. So when the report was formulated I was really pleased that we were, I believe, able to move the two big parties closer towards the action the reef really needs to survive. Unfortunately, it was not quite close enough, but we welcome any steps in the right direction.

We have had three years of warnings now from the World Heritage Committee, who have said that they intend to place the reef on the list of world heritage sites in danger, if the Australian government does not change direction. They have made a number of recommendations over those three years of warnings. I am really worried that we will not get another warning, unless we heed and adopt those recommendations. That makes me worried for the 67,000 people whose jobs rely on the reef staying on the world heritage list, and it makes me worried for the loss of the $6 billion in tourism income. Perhaps equally, it makes me worry for the loss of the beauty that I was so fortunate to experience and that I want my daughter and every other person in the world, if they get the chance, to see with their own eyes, because it is truly wondrous.

That is why when we set this inquiry up we were at pains to emphasise the key threats to the reef. We know the biggest threat to the reef in the long term is climate change. I found it slightly ironic that Senator Ruston, who is perhaps not quite as extremist as some of her colleagues, did at least acknowledge in her contribution that the climate is changing. We will take what we can get from this climate denying government. Unfortunately, that same government has just repealed the carbon price—perhaps more strength in Senator Ruston's arms in her own party room.

The other key threat to the reef is a new an emerging threat that the World Heritage Committee is recognising and the Great Barrier Reef outlook report has recognised—namely, coastal and port development. What we have seen happen in the last few years is the biggest ever dredging and dumping program in the history of the reef's existence. It started off in Gladstone and it is now creeping everywhere, and it is mostly for fossil fuel export. So we are digging up the reef and in the main dumping that sludge into the waters of the world heritage area, all to facilitate additional ships to transit the reef, with the increased risk of shipping accidents and damage to marine wildlife, carrying a cargo that, when burnt, will again threaten the reef through exacerbating climate change. So we are incredibly worried, as is the World Heritage Committee, about this course of action. That is why in our additional comments to this report we have recommended that the Australian government ban offshore dumping of dredge sludge in the world heritage area, not just in the marine park, and not just for capital dredging, and not just for future projects, which Minister Hunt has alluded to committing to, and not just a commitment that actually does not mean anything when you factor in all of those exclusions, but a genuine ban on offshore dumping of sludge into the waters of the Great Barrier Reef. That is what we need, and that is what the evidence to this inquiry established that the reef needs. That is our first recommendation.

We also make the related point that the Abbot Point approval should be overturned. I am really pleased that in the last few days it seems like the proponent for that port expansion, the North Queensland Bulk Ports Corporation, has now said that it will consider land based disposal of the dredge sludge from digging up three million cubic metres of the Great Barrier Reef world heritage area. They will consider not acting on the approval that this government gave them to dump that sludge into the waters of the world heritage area. I welcome that, but what a crying shame that it is the voluntary good-heartedness of this corporation that is leading them to consider not dumping sludge in the world heritage area waters. What a shame that we do not actually have a policy, a law, that says 'Sorry, I know it is cheaper, I know it is more convenient for you port corporations and big mining companies, but you cannot treat the reef like a rubbish tip.' That is what the Greens would like to see happen, so we have recommended that the Abbot Point approval for dumping not proceed. I might add that, even if there is no offshore dumping of that sludge, any approval for the world's largest coal port in the Great Barrier Reef world heritage area in this age of climate change is an absolute travesty.

We took some incredibly concerning evidence in the course of this inquiry about the lack of independence of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority. It built upon documents that the Senate had helped to reveal over the course of this year, through freedom of information with the wonderful work of community environment groups and also orders for production of documents through this chamber, which showed, alarmingly, that scientists inside the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, GRMPA, had warned time and time again against approving the Abbot Point offshore dumping. They said this was the highest risk option and that it was going to have incredibly damaging impacts that, they believed, were irreversible. Yet a bureaucrat, who, we discovered at the hearing, does not have scientific training, approved the dredging and dumping of 3 million cubic metres with that final tick off.

I have been a big supporter of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority. They have done good work. I would like to see them continue to do good work in a way that is not compromised by political pressure and that has science driving their decisions not politics. We have included some recommendations about increasing their funding as opposed to this government's funding cuts, about increasing their independence and about increasing the level of scientific knowledge on their board. They have one scientist on their board; they have two people on their board who have active links to the mining industry. If that is not a conflict of interest, then I do not know what is. Our recommendation says that anyone with coal or gas interests should not be able to serve on the board of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority.

I have already talked about how climate change is the biggest threat to the reef. We include a recommendation that says, 'You need to leave 80 per cent of fossil fuels in the ground, if the reef and, frankly, humanity are to have any chance of survival.' We also talk about the $40 million cut to an otherwise very successful program, Reef Rescue, which was brought in several years ago and has received successive support from different colours of government. Sadly, the Abbott government has cut $40 million out of that program, which works with farmers to improve farming practices and constrain run-off of fertilisers and pesticides, which not only saves water quality impacts but also saves farmers money. Why you would want to cut money out of that program is completely bemusing to me.

I have been following the issue of Gladstone for many years as a Queensland senator and a passionate supporter of our reef and sustainable fishing. I was heartbroken at the personal turmoil that has been imposed on the Gladstone fishers and tourism operators. The dredging and dumping program in Gladstone, approved by both the former government and the Queensland government in 2010, allowed 46 million cubic metres of dredging to occur and 11 million cubic metres of that to be dumped offshore in the waters of the reef. After that dredging program began, we saw mass fish deaths and fisherfolk getting sick when they came into contact with the fish or the water. There was an environmental disaster unfolding in the harbour, and I believe we have not got to the bottom of what caused it, because all of the various investigations have been, in the view of many witnesses, tainted by those undertaking the inquiries. We need an independent inquiry. I had hoped that this inquiry would have a chance to flesh out those issues. We took much of their evidence in confidence. It is clear that we still need an independent and comprehensive investigation into what on earth went on in Gladstone and how we can stop that from happening up and down the coast.

There were some recommendations about offsets, and I will go on the record and say that the Greens do not support offsets, particularly in a World Heritage area. It is all precious, since it is all World Heritage. You cannot just protect some bits but not others. It is all part of one of the seven natural wonders of the world. I commend this report to the Senate, and I am grateful for all of the input of the witnesses, all of the great work of the environment and community groups. I remain hopeful for the future of the Great Barrier Reef.