SPEECH: House of Reps - Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Amendment Bill 2017

Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Amendment Bill 2017

Second Reading Consideration resumed of the motion: That this bill be now read a second time.

The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Amendment Bill 2017 contains a series of amendments to the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Act to rectify a series of unintended consequences of the sunsetting regime. There are some technical changes to the legislation to prevent management plans from being automatically revoked if regulations that give effect to them are appealed. We obviously don't want to have a situation where—and the government has realised that it would be a serious problem—by repealing a series of regulations, we automatically and unintentionally revoked entire plans of management for the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park.

Under current legislative arrangements, whenever the regulations sunset and are remade the plans of management are automatically revoked and no longer exist. This would mean, for example, there would be no management in place for high-volume tourism areas such as Cairns and the Whitsunday Islands. Revocation of the plans of management would mean abandoning current arrangements that support and underpin the tourism industries in those sorts of areas. If they are revoked as a result of sunsetting, it would also mean the legislative process to have them remade would be required. Whereas the regulations can sunset and be put straight back in, the moment you try to put back in a plan of management there is an entire process of consultation that needs to kick back in, which would leave us with a period where plans of management were effectively switched off and of no effect. The plans would not be enforceable until regulations are remade, at which point the plans become operational again.

Obviously, when sunsetting provisions were put in place for the regulations, it was never with this consequence as part of the intention. Plans of management are generally prepared for intensively used or particularly vulnerable groups of islands and reefs and for the protection of vulnerable species or ecological communities in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. Plans of management complement marine park zoning by addressing issues specific to an area, species or community in greater detail than can be accomplished by the broader reef-wide zoning plans. Plans of management are a key tool that are used by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority to help protect and conserve intensively used areas of the marine park while allowing for a range of experiences and types of use for those who want to appreciate an area. At the moment, there are four plans of management within the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park—the Cairns Area Plan of Management, the Hinchinbrook Plan of Management, the Shoalwater Bay (Dugong) Plan of Management and the Whitsundays Plan of Management—currently being reviewed. Of course, it's an irony that, at the exact same time that the government has realised the dangers of revoking management plans in the Great Barrier Reef, the government is seeking to destroy management plans in the Coral Sea, is seeking to destroy management plans all around the oceans that surround Australia and, in fact, is currently engaging, with respect to the oceans, in the greatest removal of areas from conservation that any government in the world has ever undertaken.

What's happening in the oceans right now under this environment minister is something that never happened under the Howard government and never happened under the Fraser government. Those are principles where people, quite rightly, have said, 'Once an area is protected, even if it was contested at the time, there will, from that moment on, be no backward steps.' That is why, when Joh Bjelke-Petersen lost the fight to be able to drill in the Great Barrier Reef, the view was: you've lost that fight—it's over. That's why, when Bob Hawke saved the Franklin, the Daintree and Kakadu, the view was: that's been done; that's been settled. In a similar way, that's why, when John Howard, to his credit, put a whole series of zonings across the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, the view then was: that's it; that's settled—there will be no backward steps. That's not how the government is behaving with respect to our exclusive economic zone. As I said, there are countries in the world which have previously taken areas out of conservation, but it's not really a list that you'd want a country like Australia to be on when you see the countries of the world that have taken areas out of conservation. It's not only not a list you want to be on but also not a list you want to top. This government at the moment is engaging, in the oceans, in the greatest removal of areas from conservation that the world has ever seen. No government, no matter how dodgy, has ever tried to do anything like what this government's currently doing in the oceans. So, when the government does something like that with respect to the oceans, we will fight, and we will fight hard. When it does something perfectly reasonable, as it's doing right now with respect to the Great Barrier Reef, we will support these actions because they do avoid an unintended consequence, and it's quite appropriate legislation. However, we won't allow there to be a debate about what happens in the Great Barrier Reef and, because the tiny change in front of us is a good one, won't be willing to also debate all the issues around the health of the Great Barrier Reef itself. This is why I'm moving a second reading amendment. I'll move it now, then I'll say a few words about it.

I move: That all the words after "That" be omitted with a view to substituting the following words: "whilst not declining to give the bill a second reading, the House notes that:

(1) the Government is failing to protect Australia's iconic Great Barrier Reef by:

(a) failing to act on climate change;

(b) supporting the Liberal National Party in Queensland in blocking reef protections aimed at halting the broad scale clearing of trees and remnant vegetation; and

(c) winding back ocean protection, put in place by Labor, around Australia and specifically in the Coral Sea; and

(2) this Government cannot be trusted to protect the Great Barrier Reef and fight for Australia’s unique environment".

The Great Barrier Reef is under threat from all sides. The management plans we're talking about deal with the specific acreage of the reef itself, but you'd have to be kidding yourself to think that, if you simply act on the reef, you can do all the things that are required to protect the reef. When the Great Barrier Reef was first put on the World Heritage List there was an argument that so long as we look after the area itself—stop the threat of drilling—the outcomes will be okay. But now, with what's happening to the health of the Great Barrier Reef, we know that if you deal only with the acreage of the reef itself you'll never fix the problem. You need to protect the reef from every side. You need to protect it from above, protect it from the left and protect it from the right. I've spoken already about the Coral Sea. That's protecting it from the right. That's about making sure that the rich biodiversity on the right-hand side of the map—the cradle for the Great Barrier Reef—is given protections, not having a situation in which you've got the reef here and the moment you fall off the shelf the longliners are allowed in.

That does not provide the same level of protection. If you want an example of how you establish the fact that putting areas into protection in the ocean actually provides a real positive outcome, the answer's simple: have a look at what John Howard did in the Great Barrier Reef. I'm very happy to acknowledge when the Howard government did things that were good. This was one of them. And now, years later, the science is in. When people say , 'There's no evidence as to what actually happens when you lock areas up', well, sorry: there is. The evidence is what happened when the Howard government did it. That decision was made, I think, in 2002, from memory. Now the scientists have been able to go back and look at the same areas and look at what happened in the areas that were designated as no fishing and what happened in the adjacent areas. In the areas designated as no fishing, the improvement for a species like coral trout, for example, was an 80 per cent increase in the biomass. Some of that's small fish; some of that's bigger fish. But it was an 80 per cent increase in the biomass in the protected areas compared with the unprotected areas. That's why many of the recreational fishers supported the zones when they came in. Some opposed them, but it didn't take long before they worked out that the place to catch the biggest fish was right on the edge of them, because they work.

They do deliver a healthier ocean. So you get an 80 per cent improvement in the biomass in these areas. That's what we need the Coral Sea to provide, as the cradle for the Great Barrier Reef. Instead, the government's currently proposing to gut half of the area that was put into marine national park—half of it. Look at the impact on Osprey Reef, on Vema Reef, on Marion Reef, on Shark Reef—some of the top dive sites in the world, protected. And now this government—they haven't done it yet, but they're down the track—are making clear that they want to take not simply a backward step but the largest backward step any country's ever taken in terms of the area under conservation, and to do that in the Coral Sea, the cradle for the Great Barrier Reef. But that's protecting the Great Barrier Reef on its right-hand side. You've also got to protect it on the left. And this is where the changes to land-clearing rules that have been put to the Queensland parliament are so important. Land-clearing events change how much run-off there is, which then changes, in terms of the Great Barrier Reef, what sediment comes in every time there's a major weather event and what chemicals come in every time there's a major weather event. Most of the farmers and graziers there have done a really good in participating in government programs that we started and that this government has continued in order to improve their work, to engage in landcare work, to engage in intensive farming practices—highly scientific—that radically reduce their chemical use.

But at the same time that they are doing the right thing, they've got a handful of neighbours—not that many, but enough—who are doing absolutely the wrong thing and engaging in large-scale land clearing and completely undoing the good work not only that good farmers have been doing but that the Australian taxpayer has been funding. Yet the Liberal National Party in the Queensland parliament has consistently blocked the changes to those land-clearing rules, no matter what the outcomes are for the Great Barrier Reef, no matter what the outcomes are for Australian tourism and no matter what the insult is to those farmers and graziers who do the right thing.

And then you've got to protect the reef from above. We often talk about ocean acidification and connect it to climate change, and it is actually not connected. Ocean acidification is caused not by climate change but by the causes of climate change. When we talk about the ocean being the largest carbon sink, we think, 'Great news, the ocean is a good carbon sink.'

But that is the good news and the bad news. The way it becomes a carbon sink is by turning the CO2 into carbonic acid, and in turning the CO2 into carbonic acid in that process where it acts as a sink, we get the acidification of the ocean. What does that mean? It means that when the same coral gets hit by a major weather event or a bleaching event it grows back more slowly; it grows back in a more brittle fashion. It is also competing with the fact that the chemicals it's dealing with—because of what is happening with land-clearing laws—and the sediment it's dealing with mean the fight is that much harder. So, in an awful way, because 'perfect' is hardly the right term, you get a perfect storm of bad influences on the Great Barrier Reef. You get ocean acidification, meaning the coral grows back more slowly; increased chemicals, nutrients and sediment, meaning the coral grows back more slowly; and then increased intensity of major weather events, meaning the coral gets knocked out more often. And that is all before you even get to the issue of climate change. Given the position of the lectern, one of the sceptics of the parliament is going to follow me and give his own view of the science, and I respect his right to do so in the parliament. But you don't have to get to climate change before all of these threats are real and verifiable and dangerous. When you do get to climate change, you then have the issue of major heat events. And I know the argument that goes, 'These last coral bleachings are completely coincidence.' I've got to say, it's happening to coral reefs around the world; we've just got the biggest one. It's happening to coral reefs around the world.

No matter how passionate our debate in this parliament is, we can't undo the fact that, whenever the scientists have presented projections on what would happen to the Great Barrier Reef, exhibit A when we've seen the actual impacts has been at the worst end of those projections. And that's been the consistent story. So, yes, people can always argue the toss about the projections and try to get inside the science and come up with an argument that might work rhetorically for the sake of a speech. But there is the ultimate control group going on here, the ultimate control group which is the greatest living thing on earth: the Great Barrier Reef. And that ultimate control group keeps answering the question. I could have given a very different sort of speech today on the Great Barrier Reef. When something is as alarmist as this, the government deserves some pretty strong rhetoric. But I've got to say, I don't want the political debate; I just want it fixed. I don't want the political point; I just want to have a Great Barrier Reef that's healthy and that continues. We in this chamber talk a lot about inequality. It's hard to think of many worse examples of inequality than the concept that our children and grandchildren won't get the environment that we get. It's an extraordinary level of arrogance that would let any of us think that, somehow, we've got the entitlement to enjoy it, profit from it, and wreck it, and they can just put up with the consequences. So I urge the government: it's not on the World Heritage List for nothing. It's one of the prized possessions on the World Heritage List. I remember meeting with the World Heritage Committee when I was environment minister. They said if they were to start the list and were allowed only four things on it, this would still make it. You can't have natural heritage without including the greatest living thing on earth. So I simply urge the government: stop fighting against responsible protections on land clearing. Don't undo the protections in the Coral Sea. Act on climate change and act on the causes of climate change. If we continue to allow a situation where the level of CO2 in the atmosphere increases without limit, without cap, then the outcome's really simple. It doesn't matter how we negotiate around the chamber, the reef itself will come to the negotiating table and prove itself to be the most uncompromising negotiator of all. I don't want that.

Tony Burke