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Wednesday, 18 February 2004
Page: 25033

Dr KEMP (Minister for the Environment and Heritage) (9:01 AM) —I move:

That this bill be now read a second time.

No government in this nation's history has done more to protect the Great Barrier Reef than the Howard government.

We have done so, principally, through three far-reaching and ambitious actions.

First, we passed the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act in 1999—opposed by members opposite—which gave this country its first national environment-specific legislation in our history. One of the significant impacts of the EPBC Act has been to give the Australian government unprecedented powers to protect the Great Barrier Reef.

I note that the Labor Party's recently unveiled environment platform continues to fall into factual error in claiming that it must protect the Great Barrier Reef from mining and from mineral exploration.

There are two indisputable facts which demonstrate that the premise of the claim is flawed, pointless and redundant.

The first is that the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Act 1975 explicitly bans mining and mineral exploration in the park.

The second equally obvious and indisputable fact that Labor cannot seem to absorb is that the EPBC Act protects the park from impacts from mining and exploration outside the park to the limit of the exclusive economic zone.

Any proposed activity within the EEZ that has the potential to impact negatively on the World Heritage values of the Great Barrier Reef, or that otherwise awakes the provisions of the EPBC Act, is captured by this Australian law, which provides a quantum advance in the protection of the Great Barrier Reef from the sorts of mineral exploration in the region that were actively promoted by Labor when it was last in control of this parliament.

The second massive contribution to the protection of the Great Barrier Reef by the Howard government has been the development of a new zoning plan for the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park that will, if not disallowed by this parliament, ensure that one-third of the reef—a six-fold increase—will be protected in so-called `no take zones'—zones where no extractive activity can occur.

This is a plan that has been hailed internationally.

It is, undoubtedly, the most comprehensive effort to protect and preserve the environmental and economic values of a coral reef system, and its associated ecosystems, anywhere in the world. This government is a world leader in this regard.

This Representative Areas Program for the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park has the intent of providing the Great Barrier Reef with such a level of protection of its unique and wondrous biodiversity as to give it a high level of resilience in the face of the threats that confront it.

The better the overall health of the reef, the better it will be able to survive those pressures.

The third great advance that this government has made in terms of protecting the biodiversity, and thus the resilience, of this national icon is the development in concert with the Queensland government of the Reef Water Quality Protection Plan.

The intent of the plan is to first halt, and then ultimately repair, the decline in water quality in the Great Barrier Reef lagoon.

The aim is to achieve a halt in the decline in water quality in 10 years, and this is an action that is completely synergistic with the Representative Areas Program and the EPBC legislation.

Together these actions comprise a suite of measures to protect the reef that are interconnected and that are singly, and collectively, unmatched.

One of the great beneficiaries of this suite of actions is the tourism industry.

Tourism is, by far, the largest single industry associated with the Great Barrier Reef and the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park.

Fishing is important. In the catchments of the Great Barrier Reef mining and agriculture are extremely important but, when it comes to the reef and the park, and many of the communities adjacent to them, tourism is far and away the biggest industry.

And that is understandable. The Great Barrier Reef is not only a great regional, state, and national tourist attraction; it is a premier destination of international tourists.

What those tourists come to see is pristine reef. The Great Barrier Reef has more pristine reef than any other coral reef system on the planet, and we have an obligation to maintain the quality of the reef as best we possibly can. That is what this government is doing more comprehensively than any other in the history of our country.

And that is in the interests of biodiversity for its own sake. It is in the interest of natural beauty for its own sake, and it is most certainly in the interest of the tourism industry, which the Productivity Commission recently estimated had an annual value well in excess of $4 billion.

That introduction to the significance of the tourism industry brings me to the bill.

The environmental management charge (the charge) was introduced in 1993 as a charge on operators using the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park (the marine park) to contribute financially to the management of the marine park. Currently the maximum charge imposed is $4.50 per visitor.

The introduction of the charge provided the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA) with revenue to apply to the management of the marine park. Moneys collected from the charge have been applied to research and management of the marine park to ensure that it is able to manage the increasing pressures caused by tourism, coastal development, mariculture, shipping, fishing, climate change and the like.

Under the current arrangements, the permission holder or tour operator has legal liability to pay the charge to the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority. The charge is paid by the tour operator based on the number of visitors participating in excursions each day, and is submitted to the marine park authority at the end of each quarter.

However, since the introduction of the goods and services tax (GST) in 2000, there has been confusion amongst tour operators operating in the marine park as to whether or not the GST is applicable to the charge.

The charge is listed in the Treasurer's determination pursuant to section 81-5 of the A New Tax System (Goods and Services Tax) Act 1999, the effect of which is that payments of the charge made to the Marine Park Authority directly by the tour operator are not subject to the GST. However, when the tour operator passes on the charge to the visitor, it is treated as one of many input costs of the tour operator and the GST applies to the full price of the services provided.

These amendments that I am introducing today are aimed at dispelling that confusion by restructuring the method of payment and collection of the charge. These amendments will place the legal liability for payment of the charge on the visitor, and not the tour operator. As the Treasurer's determination pursuant to section 81-5 of the A New Tax System (Goods and Services Tax) Act 1999 operates to ensure that the payment of the charge is not taken to be the provision of consideration, the GST will not be applicable to the charge paid by the visitor. The tour operator will then collect the charge paid by the visitor and remit that money to the Commonwealth through the marine park authority.

Given the amount of public money involved, the bill creates a new offence if the tour operator does not submit the money collected from the visitor.

In addition, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Act 1975 already contains provisions allowing an inspector to search vessels, aircraft or premises for the purposes of ascertaining a person's liability to charge, and allows an inspector to apply for a search warrant for the same. The bill will increase the scope of those powers in order to allow inspectors to ascertain that a person has collected the correct amount of the charge from the visitor and to ensure that all visitors have paid the charge.

These amendments clarify the situation regarding the environment management charge and GST payments. This will provide greater certainty for the tourism operators who depend on the reef and provide significant employment and economic benefits.

It enhances the list of actions being undertaken by this government to ensure fair and reasonable access to a well-protected natural and economic asset. I present the explanatory memorandum to the bill.

Debate (on motion by Mr Gavan O'Connor) adjourned.