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Tuesday, 5 May 1987
Page: 2601

Mr CHYNOWETH(5.03) —I suppose that as the great man of the sea, Captain James Cook, sailed along the east coast of Australia nearly 200 years ago on his voyage of discovery it would have been hard for him to imagine the future development that would inevitably take place in this magnificent part of the world. The Sea Installations Bill 1987, the Sea Installations Levy Bill 1987 and the Sea Installations (Miscellaneous Amendments) Bill 1987 will facilitate the positioning of a 12,000 tonne, seven-storey floating hotel within the lagoon of the John Brewer Reef which is located in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. The good captain arguably was the Great Barrier Reef's first tourist operator. He knew well the beauty, wonder and majesty of the reef and its menagerie of marine life. However, he also experienced the treachery of the world's largest living thing when his ship, the Endeavour, was holed on the reef.

History thus shows that Cook could have done with a floating hotel then. Two centuries later, the Australian tourist industry is about to satisfy that need-a little bit late for the old seafarer, perhaps, but not too late for the many thousands of Australians and overseas visitors who flock to the reef today and will do so in the future. In recent years there have been significant and novel changes in tourist operations on the Australian continental shelf beyond the territorial sea, mostly in the Great Barrier Reef area-principally, the permanent anchoring of pontoons and platforms and the stationing of semi-submersible coral viewing vessels over some reefs. These have enabled Australians and overseas tourists by the boatload to experience the glittering necklace of islands and the coral cays that are the Great Barrier Reef. It is truly an experience of a lifetime. I happen to be one of those very fortunate people who have swum and dived on John Brewer Reef. I have visited the other areas along the total length of the Barrier Reef.

This package of Bills legislates for the establishment of a floating hotel and other semi-permanent off-shore developments which will bring tourist facilities to a new level. Nowhere else in the world has this unique concept yet become a reality. In a move that I and this Government hope is for the better, the world's largest live coral reef aquarium will have a new life form in its tank. No longer will the coral be ringed by turquoise ocean alone and act solely as a home to a wealth of marine life that has stunned many past visitors with its sheer variety and kaleidoscope of colours. Soon the myriad of the reef will open up and 200 luxuriously appointed rooms and suites, with breathtaking views of the surrounding reef, will float on the tide and sway in the gentle tropical breezes.

Without a doubt, this package of legislation recognises the very high value of the reef as a tourist and recreation facility. However, whilst the Sea Installations Bill 1987 and cognate Bills foster further the Hawke Government's support of the vital Australian tourist industry, the package, I trust, is careful to appease another grand old master of the sea, Neptune, and the rich kingdom that he rules. A project of this magnitude presents a number of very real concerns and probing questions. There must be adequate environmental assessment procedures in place to ensure that this development and others like it are properly carried out. There must be harmony between conservation and sustainable development in the natural environment. There must be a government policy of protection, wise use, understanding and enjoyment of this unique environment.

To each of these fundamental instances a unique and positive train of action has been and still is operative. The environmental considerations, so important for the success of the venture in a delicate marine park in the Pacific, have been handled by experts from the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, the James Cook University and the Australian Institute of Marine Science. The Authority will be given the important and onerous task of policing the project and deciding whether discos, tennis courts, saunas, fishing, diving, first class cuisine 24 hours a day and seven days a week, and many other activities are compatible with the geomorphological and marine environment of coral reefs. It is an adventure into the unknown for every one of the tourists who packs his flippers and for the scientists who try to expand their knowledge and enhance public understanding and appreciation of this massive collection of coral formations.

Barrier Reef Holdings Ltd and Four Seasons Ltd will place man at the centre of a captivating environment that is, without doubt, one of the natural wonders of this world. Why was the John Brewer Reef chosen for this innovative project? To many people the reason was obvious. The reef lies in the central section of the outer Barrier Reef, about 73 kilometres north-east of Townsville, which is a rapidly developing tourist centre in north Queensland. The reef plays host to a veritable paradise of corals and marine life. Although high tide completely submerges it, part of the reef is in the water line at low water and becomes dry at extreme low water. The lagoon, which constitutes 60 per cent of the John Brewer Reef, averages eight metres in depth and will facilitate easy viewing of the delights offered.

It is easy from a tourist operator's point of view to talk about the impressive armada of statistics that reinforce this reef's ideal location. In the middle of a hardy Canberra winter the new resort will bathe in an average temperature of 26 degrees centigrade and nine hours sun- shine each day. Only 12 millimetres of rain falls each month, the water is 22 degrees centigrade and for 85 per cent of the time the waves are less than 0.1 metres high. It is truly a delightful area for a large part of the year. The floating hotel convention centre forms an obvious attraction for those who want to enjoy an extended stay and view the beauty of the reef at all times of the day and night. For those who are elderly and cannot manage reef walking, for those who cannot swim and for those who dislike boat travel, the barrier will soon be broken down. Now an artificial island, moored in the middle of the reef, will make a sojourn at the resort not only a holiday, but also an educational experience that increases public awareness of the region, its problems, its qualities and its history.

Of course the price for discovering such treasures is always high. The Jolly Roger no longer flies on the horizon of the reef but one suspects that the opening special base rate tariff of $124 per person per night, without food, beverages, transfers or telephones, rising to $165 after the official opening will mean that there will not be too many able sea men or women sunbaking on the decks of the hotel or plundering the nearby colourful waters. It is indeed unfortunate that the wonderful treasure of John Brewer Reef will be on view only to an exclusive few. This Parliament must never forget that the resources of Australia, whether they be mineral, technical or ecological, belong to all Australians; they are not there just for the wealthy to enjoy. Nonetheless, the initiators of this rare undertaking are to be commended for the detailed studies they have promoted to determine whether the structure will damage the reef and any of the marine life. The Department of Arts, Heritage and Environment has stated that all possible impacts of the resort on the environment have been adequately addressed and that adequate safeguards are in place. Such issues are not open to compromise and no government can ever allow its mantle as the watchdog to falter, especially when dealing with something so vast and awesome as the Great Barrier Reef. The crown of thorns starfish has returned to John Brewer Reef to renew its attack on the corals. A potential predator of another kind-man-must not be allowed to open up the attack on another front. Again I emphasise that the aim of this development and all future proposals must be to enjoy the reef in a non-destructive or harmless way.

The construction of this complex is being carried out in Singapore, a fact which makes me very sad. Here we are in Australia needing work for our nation and the operators have to go overseas to build a barge with a superstructure on it. I am quite certain that this floating hotel could have been built even in Queensland where it could have alleviated some of that State's very shameful unemployment record. When the floating hotel is anchored in a fixed position by a multimillion dollar mooring system, the great potential threat to the reef will be exposed. That threat is people. Holidaymakers and staff unfortunately not only make fun splashing in tropical waters and exploring the marine life, but they create sewage and many other forms of waste which are totally alien to the ecosystems of the reef. They will cause damage by walking, diving and exploring the reef. The operators of the hotel have made it clear that the disposal of waste will comply with national and international requirements. No wastes, not even those which have been treated, will be released into the reef lagoon. There will be two sewage treatment plants which will be capable of treating all the waste water on the resort itself. All waste water will be treated and broken down by a process that sterilises and neutralises the matter before passing it into a storage tank. The purified water will then be carried by barge and, in the case of some treated components, deposited at selected and approved locations at sea. On board a vacuum toilet system will operate and a smokeless marine incinerator will be installed for the burning of all solid wastes. Ash from the incinerator will be stored and disposed of on the mainland. All rubbish will be disposed of in the same way by applying the right education to guests. The operators have assured the Government that the compliance of guests to these rules will ensure their strict respect for the reef.

Another important guarantee from the resort owners concerns the special measures that have been planned to keep sound from the hotel's power generating plant to virtually a noiseless level. A 2,300 kilowatt plant will power every part of the floating complex. Nonetheless, energy of this capacity has never been generated on the reef before. It must be carefully monitored and the slightest evidence of pollution must not be tolerated. If pollution occurs immediate steps must be taken to rectify the problem. If the problem is not solved the resort must be ordered to close down until it is fixed. Whilst fresh water will be supplied through a desalination plant, the increased frequency of vessels visiting the reef is of major concern. Tender barges, high speed catamaran transports and casual pleasure craft will heighten the traffic entering John Brewer Reef and increase the threat of pollution. That is another situation which must be carefully monitored.

There are undoubtedly promises and expectations on both sides. Perhaps the clearest indication of the zeal of the resort to integrate with its new environment will be the presence of a marine laboratory on board managed by a full time environmental officer and made available for approved scientific study by James Cook University, the Australian Institute of Marine Science and the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority. The continuing proximity of such a laboratory to the reef 24 hours a day is expected to be of considerable assistance to the marine and environmental researchers. It must also provide an alarm if the floating complex damages the reef. I, and many other benefactors of the environment, eagerly await the results of any significant research from the resort that may be published in scientific journals. Mr Doug Anthony, Mr Trevor Butler, Mr Malcolm Clyde, Mr Owen Griffiths, Mr Allan Rector, Mr Douglas Tarca and the secretary, Mr B. Menzies, have an important precedent to set and some even more crucial promises to keep. Yes, that is the same Mr Anthony who was once the leader of the influential National Party of Australia. He must be dismayed to see the destruction of an organisation for which he had worked so very hard throughout Australia in order to ensure that it had a destiny in Australian politics. The National Party has now been hijacked by a right wing quisling from the deep north.

This first small step for man may not be a great leap for mankind. There are a number of grey areas that must clearly be defined before we can allow our off-shore regions, such as the Barrier Reef, to be covered by more large floating facilities. It is important that off-shore installations not be used as a basis for evasion of Australian laws, particularly those regulating Customs, immigration, taxation and quarantine. More importantly, certain policy conflicts reflected in different State and Commonwealth laws must not be used as an excuse to allow the abuse and desecration of the reef.

It is a matter for the public record that the developers and operators of the hotel have stated their commitment to the preservation of the environment of the John Brewer Reef. Hence, given the wonders and achievements of marine technology in the space age, there should be no reason why a predominantly land loving creature cannot enjoy the waters off the Australian coast in harmony with the sea creatures that live there. This development may precipitate a flurry of aquatic real estate activity. Already a half hectare playground, capable of carrying 6,000 people, is being constructed and will be moored 80 metres from the floating hotel on the John Brewer Reef. As developments grow so too will the strains on the environment and the pollution control mechanisms. Safeguards and changes must be carefully monitored.

The tourist industry deserves the boost it will receive from such a revolutionary development. The work that this hotel will create will generate a more buoyant local economy. However, future generations of Australians and overseas visitors deserve an unspoiled reef and the reef must be protected at all costs. Certain proposals should be instituted in an endeavour to make certain that the world's heritage in the form of the Great Barrier Reef is protected for all time. The draft environmental impact statement stipulates at page 13:

All treated water shall be loaded on to a specially constructed supply barge once weekly and shall be released in open water on the return voyage to Townsville in accordance with international regulations.

That sounds all right, but when one goes deeper into the report one finds that an amount of 805 cubic metres, or 805,000 litres, a week or 41.9 million metres of effluent a year is involved. That is a very large volume of effluent. What effect will this have? John Brewer Reef cannot be leased; therefore, I believe that the Commonwealth should ask that a levy of a suitable amount be placed on every visitor to the hotel, with this money to go into a trust account to be used for reef research and rehabilitation. I am concerned to know who pays when the one in 10,000 cyclone occurs and the hotel or other installation damage the reef.

Another matter of concern involves the anchoring of the hotel in a permanent position. It will shade some 2,500 square metres of the seabed. It will create a roost for many birds, and that may alter the nitrogen level of the water which, in turn, may increase the growth of algae. The birds will feed off the reef fish in the area. Lights will be turned on for night viewing of the coral. What will this do to the coral polyps and night animals which live on the reef? There will be hand feeding of fish. Will that attract larger and more dangerous predator fish? Further, a continuous release of highly saline water, some 225 cubic metres a day, will come from the desalination unit. What effects will that have? All those activities and more will place the local environment of the John Brewer Reef under stress. They must be constantly monitored. As a member of the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Environment and Conservation, I commend to honourable members of the House and others our report, entitled `The Protection of the Great Barrier Reef'. I trust that the recommendations that we have made will be adhered to.