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Great Barrier Reef: Matter of Public Importance Speech

Speeches in Parliament
Larissa Waters 7 Feb 2013

Today I rise to speak about the future of one of Australia's most treasured icons, the Great Barrier Reef. I raise this because of the warnings by the global World Heritage body that the Great Barrier Reef may soon be put on the List of World Heritage in Danger because of the rash of dredging, dumping and shipping for new and expanded coal and gas ports—and, sadly, because of the government's inaction on these issues.

The Great Barrier Reef is the largest coral ecosystem in the world, and in fact it is the largest living organism that can be seen from space. It is an internationally renowned biodiversity icon and it is the seventh natural wonder of the world. Like many Australians and international visitors I have been lucky to spend some time on the reef and I have been truly touched by it. It is a biodiversity wonderland. It was inscribed on the World Heritage List in 1981 because it met all four criteria for outstanding universal value on the grounds of its natural heritage.

Of course, it is hugely valuable economically. It brings in $6 billion each year, mostly from tourism but also from fishing, and it employs 54,000 people. That revenue mostly stays in those local coastal communities, supporting local families and local small businesses. Contrast that with the revenue from the mining industry, which is predominantly foreign owned. Recent reports have shown that in fact 83 per cent of mining profits nationally flow offshore. The reef employs twice as many people as coalmining does nationally.

There is no doubt that the reef is hugely valuable to us as Australians, and especially as Queenslanders like myself, because of its natural values as well as its cultural and economic importance. Despite this huge value, the reef's survival is at risk. The Australian Institute for Marine Sciences report released last year showed, worryingly, that the reef had already lost half its coral cover in the last 27 years and it warned that the reef would lose another half of its coral cover in the next decade.

Clearly, the reef is under threat from climate change—both temperature warming and acidification. It is also under threat from catchment run-off, crown-of-thorns starfish invasion, coastal development and, now, a new rash of ports and shipping for fossil fuel exports.

The global body charged with overseeing areas of outstanding universal value, such as the reef, expressed 'extreme concern' about this frenzy of dredging, dumping and shipping for new coal and gas ports, and came out here last Easter for an 11-day mission. UNESCO warned that unless its recommendations were acted on it would put the reef on the List of World Heritage in Danger. Australia would be the only developed nation with such an embarrassing mark against its name. We would join war-torn nations like Afghanistan, Yemen and the Congo as countries with a World Heritage site in danger. Surely we can do better than that. And yet the government has thumbed its nose at this risk and responded last Friday with a pathetically weak state party report that simply commits to business as usual bar an overdue panel to finally look into the Gladstone Harbour environmental disaster.

The federal Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities, Tony Burke, simply says that it is fine and he will keep applying the law to all of these new coal and gas port applications. But it is those same weak laws which have already failed the reef and put us in the situation that we are in. If these laws were enough to protect the reef, then, surely the 68 million cubic metres of dredging—that is, 40 Melbourne Cricket Ground's worth—would not have already occurred or been approved and there would not be another 58 million cubic metres, or 34 Melbourne Cricket Ground's worth, on the books for these six new or expanded coal and gas ports up and down the coast, about which UNESCO has said they are 'extremely concerned'. Alarmingly, those figures do not even include the Abbott Point expansion currently being re-tendered for.

If all these new and expanded gas and coal ports are approved it will almost double fossil fuel shipping through the reef. It would take us from about 3,900 ship movements a year to more than 6,000. That is one coal or gas ship every hour and a half through our reef. That is just the dredging and the shipping. On top of treating the reef like a coal and gas highway and allowing the destruction of seagrass beds and sea bottom, instead of requiring onshore dumping of that dredging, as is GBRMPA's policy, the government has allowed our reef to be treated like a rubbish tip. It has allowed offshore dumping of that dredge spoil to the tune of 55 million cubic metres approved or applied for since 2000—a massive 32 Melbourne Cricket Ground's worth—despite GBRMPA policy saying that offshore dumping should be a last resort. The law has already demonstrated that it is not strong enough to stop fossil fuel developments in reef catchments because the government is beholden to the mining industry and short-term thinking. The Greens will not stand by and let the government permit the coal and gas industries to destroy our Great Barrier Reef.

As if the current onslaught of fossil fuel developments was not enough for the reef and reef communities to contend with, it is worth noting that uranium mining and export is back on the table too. With the ALP federal government looking to export uranium to India, and with the LNP's Campbell Newman lifting the ban on uranium mining in Queensland, I wonder how long it will be until radioactive material is shipped through the reef. Sadly, the Australian government energy white paper of November 2012 foreshadows precisely that. This is a new risk to the reef that was not even on the cards when the World Heritage Committee undertook its reactive monitoring mission in Easter last year. Of course, the government did not mention it in its report card back to the World Heritage Committee last Friday. I will bring this to the attention of UNESCO, as I am sure many Queensland communities will. I want to move now to the recommendations that UNESCO clearly made. They could not have been stronger, and in fact we should sit up and pay attention simply based on the strength of their recommendations. They said, 'No new ports.' They even said no new port expansions if they will impact on the overall universal value of the reef. They said, 'Don't issue any approvals at all until you finish doing the strategic assessment that won't finish until 2015.' They said, 'Put some additional money into reef water quality and management.' They said, 'Do a comprehensive assessment of what the reef can actually handle.'

UNESCO gave the Australian government until last Friday to respond to those recommendations. Sadly, the Australian government did hand in its homework but, frankly, deserves a fail mark. The Australian and Queensland governments have both continued to treat the reef like a highway for coal and gas and like a rubbish tip for dredge spoil. The government has not pushed pause on either new or expanded coal and gas ports. They have not declared pristine Port Alma and its indigenous dolphins off limits. They have approved the Abbot Point coal terminal expansion, and the belated panel to investigate the Gladstone Harbour environmental disaster is not required to use independent data. What is more, the flimsy strategic assessment that the government has begun will not actually be able to stop any of those coal ports that UNESCO had their concern about. Moreover, it will end up putting Campbell Newman, who says, 'We're in the coal business,' solely in charge of new developments in the reef.

To add insult to injury, the Queensland government since just last week has begun treating the reef like a toilet bowl and letting the big miners dump their contaminated waste water into waterways that flow to the reef instead of simply requiring them to spend a bit of extra dough to properly treat that water. This is further risking the World Heritage listing for our most precious tourism icon. The Newman government's decision to allow this much mining discharge simply demonstrates that they care far more about short-term mining profits than the long-term health of Queensland communities or Queensland's environment. But I want to return to the UNESCO recommendations and the federal government's failure to comply with them.

On the point of pressing pause on new port developments and new dredging and dumping approvals, Minister Burke last year approved the largest coalmine in the Southern Hemisphere for Gina Rinehart. That is Alpha coalmine. Then he approved the associated coal port expansion to allow export of that coal from Abbot Point. Minister Burke has said, 'That's fine; UNESCO just said don't allow any new ports.' Abbot Point was fine. But of course he is overlooking the second part of the recommendation, which clearly said: 'If you expand an existing port and it's going to have an impact on the overall universal values of the reef, just don't do it. Refuse it. Don't give it approval.' Unfortunately, the very fact that Abbot Point needed federal approval, which is only required when there is likely to be a significant impact on the reef, itself proves that it would have the very impact that UNESCO said was unacceptable. UNESCO were really clear that no approvals should be issued at all until the conclusion of the strategic assessment—a moratorium on coal and gas port approvals, if you like.

Minister Burke claims that he is legally not able to press pause on those current applications. I disagree. I have been an environmental lawyer for 10 years. I have had a close look at the provisions of the act and I think that, if he had the will, he could press pause on those applications. But, if his legal advice is correct, the Greens have said countless times and have moved motions in this place saying we will help clarify the law so that it is beyond doubt that you can act. Sadly, all of the old parties voted against that change.

UNESCO has explicitly stated that they do not think Port Alma, Balaclava Island or the north of Curtis Island are part of an established major port area. They want those areas off limits. As I mentioned, that spot is critical habitat for our indigenous snubfin dolphin, and yet the Queensland and federal governments have ignored that. The feds have refused to rule out development in the Fitzroy Delta, and the Queensland government have said it is part of Gladstone Harbour, which is 90 kilometres away. On Gladstone Harbour, we were pleased that the government announced a public review into environmental management practices in the harbour, to be chaired by Ms Anthea Tinney. That is welcome news, but it is long overdue. There have been major water quality problems in Gladstone since dredging began, of course compounded by the floods of 2011 and again just a few weeks ago. We have seen wildlife disease and the fishing industry brought to its knees, and yet this issue remains unresolved. It is long past time that the federal government investigated what is going on in Gladstone Harbour. But I was really disappointed that Minister Burke did not say that he would properly resource this body and did not say whether he would allow them to conduct their own investigations based on their own data or whether they were simply going to rely on the data collected by the dredgers themselves at Gladstone Ports Corporation. If you are claiming independent science, you need independent data.

Likewise, we welcome the additional funding for water quality programs in the reef. While the Australian government has committed to extending Reef Rescue, which has been a really successful program working with farmers to help them buy new equipment to help constrain fertiliser and herbicide run-off, the government has not yet put a dollar figure on it. They have said, 'Yes, we'll extend it,' but they have not actually shunted up the figures. That needs to be announced immediately. That program is due to run out, and we need the security of knowing that that money will be forthcoming.

Likewise on funding, the additional money for crown-of-thorns management is very welcome but does not really address UNESCO's recommendations. Frankly, we know crown-of-thorns thrives on poor water quality and high temperatures, so it is all the more reason to stop this dredging, dumping and shipping frenzy which is making the water so muddy and, of course, worsening climate change with all of its coal exports.

The minister talked about the comprehensive strategic assessment that the government is doing hand in hand with the Queensland government, and yet that same assessment certainly does not deserve the title of 'comprehensive'. It will not actually be able to affect whether or not any of those coal ports that UNESCO were concerned about will get approval. So I am afraid it is looking at everything but the core issue. Under the federal environmental laws as they stand, that so-called 'comprehensive strategic assessment' will end up putting Campbell Newman in charge of approving development in the reef, which just beggars belief. The strategic assessment is also reviewing Queensland laws and whether they are up to the job of protecting the reef, but it is a movable feast because Premier Newman keeps repealing all of those laws. I do know what laws the strategic assessment folk and the poor bureaucrats who have to do it are going to be looking at. Premier Newman has just repealed the coastal state planning policy in Queensland, and we have a temporary measure in place which is weak in itself and do not know what will replace it. Campbell Newman, I am afraid, cannot and should not be trusted with the future of our reef. We do not need a weak strategic assessment to tell us that the state and federal laws are not up to the job of protecting the reef, otherwise we would not be in this situation. We need a strong and comprehensive strategic assessment which actually says, 'Here are the no-go zones,' and which keeps the federal government involved. I am afraid there can be no other conclusion than that the government is simply putting the interests of industry squarely ahead of the concerns of UNESCO and the community and ahead of a healthy reef. Unfortunately, we cannot expect any better from the opposition: they, too, are wedded to the mining industry. Whilst they have made some small announcements they have not said anything about industrialisation of the Queensland coast. And, of course, we know that they will seek to repeal the carbon price, the greatest threat to the reef being climate change.

I cannot see that there will be any other outcome than a World Heritage in Danger listing at the Cambodia meeting in June. We can expect the Australian government to try and apply as much political pressure as it can to avert that, but it simply will not stump up and make the change we need to protect the reef. This will be an election issue, and we have a government and an opposition that simply will not prioritise the environment over the fossil fuel industry, making the choice at the election absolutely stark.

You can also read this speech on the Hansard website

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