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Tuesday, 11 November 2008
Page: 1

Senator IAN MACDONALD (12:33 PM) —I move opposition amendment (1) on sheet 5510:

Schedule 2, item 1, page 12 (after line 10), after subsection 10(6A), insert:

       (6B)    At least one member must have knowledge of or experience in the tourism industry or another industry associated with the Marine Park.

It is now two or three months since the second reading debate on the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park and Other Legislation Amendment Bill 2008, so I thought it might be useful for the chamber and for participants in the debate to recap briefly on the nature of this amendment and other amendments being proposed by the opposition. As the minister has just mentioned, the government has two amendments relating to prohibiting geological storage operations and in relation to the definition of fishing. Both those amendments from the government have been in response to calls by the opposition, both in this chamber and in the other place, for further work on those. So I am pleased to see that the government has taken the opposition’s lead and addressed those two issues, and I will speak more about them later.

The opposition, whilst generally supporting this bill as being appropriate for the management of one of Australia’s greatest natural icons, the Great Barrier Reef, does believe that there are some inefficiencies in the bill that need to be addressed. They are only relatively minor amendments but they would improve the operation of the bill, and we are certainly hopeful that other senators will support the amendments that we raise.

The first amendment, the one we are discussing now, relates to the new board of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority. We are suggesting in this amendment that one of the board positions be for someone who has experience in industries associated with the Great Barrier Reef. I will speak a little further on that later. Senator Joyce is considering moving an amendment on the definition of fishing, which was raised in the inquiry by the Senate Standing Committee on Environment, Communications and the Arts. By all reports coming from that committee, the existing definition came under some scrutiny, and I notice that the government has also taken up that issue and has its own amendment.

Perhaps the most significant amendment being proposed by the opposition—and I hope it will be supported by all senators—relates to the convictions that were recorded against people breaching the green zones when the green zones were first dramatically altered and increased, back in 2004 I think it was. This was an initiative of our government for all the right reasons, although many would perhaps not agree with that. It was an initiative that the then Howard government brought in to protect even greater areas of the Great Barrier Reef. This, of course, continues the coalition’s very strong support for this natural icon that was initiated back, I think, in the Fraser years in declaring a marine park in the Great Barrier Reef area. The amendment is in line with the coalition’s strong support for the Great Barrier Reef over many decades through legislative action, which, as I say, was initiated by the coalition government.

When the zones were increased, a fairly dramatic enforcement and penalty arrangement came into place. There were some quite substantial fines and the offences were treated as criminal offences. There were quite substantial fines—ranging anywhere from $500 up to, I think, some at $60,000—but, as well as that, the convictions gave criminal records to those convicted. In many cases, these were mums and dads out fishing with the kids in the wrong area. They were fined quite substantially but, in addition to that, they had a criminal record which many found in years to come would inhibit them in certain ways. One person at the inquiry gave evidence that his application for insurance had been treated differently because, when he was answering a question, he had to indicate that he had a criminal record. There were other instances of people travelling overseas who had trouble getting visas because they had to disclose that they had a criminal record. And there were many other instances that were brought to the attention of senators. I particularly acknowledge Senator Boswell, who has been on this case for some time, as have I—and I know Senator Fielding and Senator Xenophon have been concerned about these issues as well.

The then government, after a couple of years of this legislation, realised that this was really using a sledgehammer to crack a nut—as they say—and realised that, whilst the fines were appropriate, this having of a criminal record was quite inappropriate for this type of offence. So the then government changed the arrangements so that on-the-spot fines could be issued. These infringement notices then became the norm, and the infringement notices issued to offenders still involved very substantial fines. So there was a real penalty involved. But, with the use of infringement notices, there was no criminal record on the offenders—most of whom, as I say, were family people out for a day fishing in the Great Barrier Reef who went into the wrong zone, either deliberately or innocently, and that attracted a substantial fine, and no-one argues about that. So the criminal conviction matter was dealt with by the infringement notices.

So, post 14 December 2006, most of the people breached for conflicting the green zone laws got this infringement notice and paid a fine but there was no criminal record. Those who had been convicted under the old legislation—before 1 July 2004 and 14 December 2006—were left with the monetary penalty and, in addition, they had a criminal conviction recorded against them. The coalition—through approaches from the recreational and commercial fishing industry and through, as I say, a lot of good work done by Senator Boswell, amongst others—brought this matter to notice, and the previous government indicated in 2007 that it would legislate to remove the criminal convictions of those people convicted between 1 July 2004 and 14 December 2006. This was agreed to not only by the coalition but also by the Labor Party, the then opposition. The then opposition spokesperson, Senator O’Brien, in, I think, Townsville, when approached regarding this issue, said on behalf of the then Labor opposition—and I am sure Senator Boswell will quote his words later, but they are well recorded—’We should have a bipartisan approach to this; we should both adopt the same thing.’

Senator Boswell interjecting—

Senator IAN MACDONALD —Well, more than that, Senator Boswell. He gave the clear impression that the Labor Party was at one with the coalition in addressing this issue. Unfortunately, the then government was not in a position to amend the law when the parliament resumed after the election. We thought and hoped that the current government would honour its election commitment to change the law, but it has not done so. We have inquired about it at estimates on a number of occasions, and I and a lot of other people have written a lot of letters to the government about it, but it has found a deaf ear with the government. So, as a way of implementing not only what the coalition promised but also what the Labor Party promised before the election, we have come up with an amendment.

That is the background to the amendments that are going to be moved by the opposition. I just want to deal briefly now with the amendment before the chair, which relates to at least one member of the board having knowledge of or experience in the tourism industry or another industry associated with the marine park. Appointments have been made to the board, as it now stands, by the current minister. An Aboriginal person, Melissa George, has been appointed—and that appointment is appropriate. Mr Russell Beer, a solicitor from Cairns, has also been appointed to the board. He is a very significant businessperson in Cairns, in Far North Queensland, and he has had a role in government advisory committees previously and is involved with Advance Cairns, which a sort of business-commercial and government promotion bureau in the Far North Queensland area—and that is quite an appropriate appointment.

But neither of the appointees, as far as I am aware—and I do not know either of them terribly well personally—has any direct experience with the Great Barrier Reef. I assume Mr Beer, as a solicitor in Cairns—and I once used to practise that profession in North Queensland myself—would be doing things related to the Great Barrier Reef, but his principal activity is commercial law, which I understand he does very well. But I think the board would benefit by having someone on the board who had direct experience in relation to the Great Barrier Reef.

Our amendment says ‘the tourism industry or another industry’, and that could be a fishing industry, a boating industry or anything that has a relationship to the reef. I would certainly like to have someone nominated by the Association of Marine Park Tourism Operators considered by the minister as an appointee to the board. I say that because the Association of Marine Park Tourism Operators—a very good organisation—are very responsible people who understand that their future depends on keeping the Barrier Reef in a very pristine condition. In fact, they already spend a lot of their own money dealing with the crown-of-thorns starfish and in many other ways enhancing the unique experience that is the Great Barrier Reef.

There are very substantial monetary benefits to Australia from tourism activity on the Great Barrier Reef. Many thousands of Australians are employed by the tourism activities along, across, near and adjacent to the Great Barrier Reef. The administration of the marine park would be better served if we could be assured that there would always be someone there who had some direct experience on the reef. I understand that these are not representative bodies—at least, I understand that that is the government’s position; it was certainly the previous government’s position. They are not representative board members. They do not represent anyone in particular. They are there because of their experience and expertise, as board members, related to the Barrier Reef. But it would certainly benefit the administration of the authority if there was someone there who had a direct and constant association with the reef, an understanding of what is happening day by day, week by week and month by month, an understanding of how the reef acts and an understanding of the importance of the industries that are associated with the reef.

I guess the government would say, ‘Well, look, we’ll consult widely and we’ll appoint people to the reef.’ That is the prerogative of the government. But I think that this amendment would ensure that the government, when picking whomever they like, at least would pick someone who has that direct experience and direct connection with the reef. I urge all senators to support this amendment. It has no cost and is otherwise unexceptional as an amendment, but I think it would improve the bill before us.