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Tuesday, 19 August 1980
Page: 31

Mr COHEN (Robertson) - by leave- The ministerial statement read by the Minister for Science and the Environment (Mr Thomson) is more interesting for what it does not say than for what it says. For the last two years or more I have been trying to get some answers from the Government to the key questions. These are the questions that the people of Australia are asking. They want to know the answers before they make a judgment on the Government's policy with regard to the Great Barrier Reef. I gave the Minister a number of questions when I challenged him to debate this matter publicly. The first question is: Does the Government intend to permit drilling in the Great Barrier Reef region? I think that is a fairly clear, fairly concise and easily understood question. It is not obscure. I will repeat it: Does the Government intend to permit drilling in the Great Barrier Reef region? It is a question that the Government refuses to answer.

The second question is: If so - that is, if it intends to permit drilling- what new scientific method has it discovered which will ensure that there will never be a blowout in the reef region? The third question is: If it is not aware of any new fail-safe methods of preventing blowouts, how can it give an assurance that 'it will permit only drilling that will not damage the reef? The fourth question is: Is the Government aware of the recent blowout at Ixtoc 1 in the Gulf of Mexico which spewed 140 million gallons of light crude oil, of the most toxic type, into the ocean and which affected the fishing, prawning and tourist industries 800 kilometres away on the Texas coast not to mention the damage to the area around Ixtoc 1?

The fifth question is: What is there to prevent a similar blowout on the Great Barrier Reef or in the Great Barrier Reef region? One has to be very careful with the use of words when one is dealing with the Prime Minister (Mr Malcolm Fraser) and the Minister. When one asks one question one is given an answer to another question. They never answer the question that is asked. What is there to prevent a similar blowout on the Great Barrier Reef or in the region which would result in damage being caused to the fishing and tourist industries on the Queensland coast? The sixth question is: What guarantees can the Government give that a blowout will not permanently damage the world's greatest coral ecosystem? The seventh question is: If the Government does not intend to permit drilling, why does it not say so and why does it not declare the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park? The eighth question is: Why does the Government continue to assert that it does not have the staff to do the zoning of the various sections of the reef when it is common knowledge that the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority had completed the preparatory work on the Cairns section in January? It is only the recalcitrance of the Queensland Government that has prevented a declaration of the Cairns section. The ninth question is: Why does the Government not proceed to declare the whole of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park thus preventing oil drilling or mining on the reef, ensure the protection of the reef and proceed with zoning over the next four or five years? Those are the questions that have to be answered.

It is always very interesting to hear the Minister use words such as 'zoning'. But such words are irrelevant to the prime question. I have asked the Minister to answer these questions. I have asked the Prime Minister to answer them. I invited the honourable member for Herbert (Mr Dean) and the Minister, who represents the electorate of Leichhardt which is a key area along the Queensland coast - your electorate, Mr Deputy Speaker, is also a Barrier Reef seat - to debate this matter with me. I received the following reply to the letter I wrote to the Minister:

Dear Barry,

Thank you for your letter of 3 July concerning the debate on the Great Barrier Reef. I regret that I am unable to accept your invitation.

Yours sincerely, DAVID THOMSON

That is a very nice letter from the Minister. It is a very courteous letter as the Minister's letters always are. But it really does not explain why the Minister is not prepared to meet me out in the public arena. The Minister has said before that he is prepared to debate this matter with me in this place. Unfortunately there is no way of resolving an issue in this place. I can say something and the Minister can say something which is quite wrong or quite different from what I said. However, there is no way in which the people of Queensland or the people of Australia can cross examine either of us. This is not the case when a matter is debated on television or in a public forum. The only question is: Will the Government assure the people of Australia that no oil drilling will be permitted in the Great Barrier Reef region. Any other answer, any other qualification or any equivocation can only be interpreted as meaning that the Government will permit drilling on the reef. That is the only interpretation that can be placed on this - I have used the word 'slick'; perhaps I should not use the words 'slick and oily' - obscure, glib answer by the Prime Minister and the Minister for Science and the Environment when questioned on drilling in the reef region.

Let me distinguish between the Great Barrier Reef and the Great Barrier Reef region. The headlines in the newspapers say ' "No drilling on the Great Barrier Reef, says the Prime Minister'. That is terrific; everyone relaxes. But, that does not deal with the key question of the region. The reef constitutes only a small fragment of that whole area from the Torres Strait right down to near Fraser Island and the Capricornia section of the coast. It extends about 200 miles from the coast. It takes in all those waters and all that coastline. That is the Great Barrier Reef region. It does not matter very much whether one drills on the reef or near it. In fact, if there were a choice I would rather drill on the reef because at least on some of the islands there is solidity and stability. It is in the waters off the reef that the real damage can be done. If a blow-out occurs at an oil well on the mainland, the oil can be contained. However, these oil blow-outs cannot be contained in water, unless one happens to be King Canute. I do not believe that the Minister is King Canute. That is the difficulty, and that is where the obfuscation arises. The Government talks about the reef, but not about the reef region.

The Government claims it has control of the region under the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Act. That is not true. The Government will have the power only when the Act is declared. Queensland has the power, and who would trust Queensland with anything to do with mining? In Queensland they would drill the gold out of their grandmothers' teeth if there were a quid in it. The Government does not have the power. It has the power if it wished to use it, but it has shown no signs of willingness to use it to protect the whole of the region. The Government now has power over the Capricornia section, for which the Minister has just provided the zoning details. We may assume that soon the Government will have power over the Cairns section. Power over these regions is irrelevant in terms of the total protection of the reef. If oil drilling is permitted in any other part of the reef, the same amount of damage can occur. It could be the case that 99 per cent of the reef is declared as a national park and one per cent is undeclared, but if there is drilling in that small area and a blow-out occurs, the whole area will be ruined. The Minister says that that would not happen and that the Government would not draw little circles around the oil rigs and drill only in those areas.

Why would it not do that? It did it in Kakadu National Park. That was the most cynical exercise of all time. The Government declared one of the great eco-systems in Australia, and the world as a national park and then put little squares around Jabiru, Jabiluka, Nabarlek and Koongarra. It said that those places were not in the park. The Government was able to tell the conservationists that it did not permit mining in national parks. It is unbelievable. That is what can happen in the Great Barrier Reef region. The Government can draw little circles around all the oil wells and say, We are drilling in only a fraction of one per cent of the Great Barrier Reef region'. That is enough. It is like me saying I will cut out one per cent of the Minister, but unfortunately for him it will be his heart.

It has been said that this Government is following an Act introduced by a Labor government. With all due respect, Mr Deputy Speaker, it is a quite different situation. It really is amusing to hear the Government say that the Labor Government did this and that it must follow suit. Since when has anything done by the Labor Party become holy writ for the Liberal-National Country Party Coalition? Usually if it is something we have done members of the Government run around and change it. That used to be the golden rule - 'The Labor Government did it so we will do the opposite'. Suddenly, the Government is quoting what we did. There was one difference. When we were in government there was not even a skerrick of a suggestion that we would permit drilling on the reef. There is nothing to stop the Government from changing the Act. The Opposition would support that; the procedures can be changed so that the Park can be declared and the zoning can be done afterwards. In fact, I believe that that can be done now. The Government can make the declaration to protect the reef and then it can go ahead with the procedures afterwards.

I want to know why the Minister for Science and the Environment is so scared to debate this matter publicly. Is it because he knows that what I have said is correct? He knows that he has a brief that is impossible to defend in public. The stock answer is that there will be no harm to the reef. I know that the Minister is not a bad bloke but he does not have supernatural powers. If drilling is permitted there is a risk, and if there is a risk, this country, to its everlasting shame, will place the greatest coral eco-system in the world at risk and future generations will spit on our graves for having done that. Once it is ruined it cannot be brought back. The Minister's statement is interesting. It is an academic exercise. I think the people of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority have done a good job, but the real job will be done when this Government declares the whole of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. If this Government does not do it, I promise that one of the first acts of a Labor government, in about 10 weeks time, will be to do just that.

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