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Abbot Point: a Matter of Public Importance

Senator WATERS: I rise with great sadness to talk about the fate of the Great Barrier Reef after the so-called Minister for the Environment last night approved the world's biggest coal port at Abbot Point in the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage area.

Mr Deputy President, you might think that coal ports do not really belong in a World Heritage area, and you would be right.

Call on Minister Hunt to treat the Great Barrier Reef as a natural treasure, not a coal and gas highway.

But that did not stop their approval last night which, sadly, also included the fourth coal seam gas liquefaction plant on Curtis Island in Gladstone Harbour, which is now infamous for the terrible environmental destruction that it has faced following the biggest-ever dredging program in Gladstone Harbour that the reef had ever seen-of course, all for coal seam gas export. We know that coal seam gas is terrible news for our farmland and for our water, as well as for our reef, pockmarking our best food-producing land and contaminating and potentially reducing the groundwater levels of our aquifers in Queensland and right across the country.

Certainly, Mr Hunt's approval last night of these mega-fossil-fuel projects within the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage area came as a shock to many. I think the testament to that is information that Australians last night were calling the minister's office until about midnight, protesting against his decision. It is clear that people actually want the reef protected. They acknowledge that it is one of the seven natural wonders of the world, that it is the biggest living organism that can be seen from space and that it is a biodiversity icon that the world has charged us with protecting. We should be proud of that and do everything we can to protect it.

I was very pleased when Australians last night told the Minister for the Environment that they do not want the reef sacrificed for the private profits of overseas mining companies-because that is who will benefit from these approval decisions. There will be spurious job claims made, as they often are and, naturally, they will not stack up in the numbers promised. That is just how it goes, sadly. But what we will see in terms of jobs is a real threat to the 63,000 people who need a healthy Great Barrier Reef for their jobs and for their livelihoods-be they fisher folk, tourism operators or small business folk up and down the coast.

I think it is a crime to prioritise the private profits of offshore mining companies ahead of the beauty of the reef and ahead of those 63,000 Australians who need that reef for their livelihoods and for their families' livelihoods. For all of the talk we hear about the economy and jobs, we have seen the true colours of this government-the Abbott government-that actually they care more about big mining companies than they do about Australian jobs, let alone the environment. Sadly, the latter was no news to anyone; but perhaps the former does come as news to people who might have thought about supporting the Abbott government.

Minister Hunt has been on the airwaves today trying to justify his decision. In fact, I thought it was quite amusing to hear Senator Cormann say that this world's biggest coal port is going to be good news for the reef, because it is going to fix water quality! I all but laughed. One of the conditions that Minister Hunt has imposed would require the dredging company to save 4½ million tonnes of sediment from entering the reef catchment. That is a noble aim, in fact an aim that has occupied the Commonwealth, the Queensland government and many hard-working Queensland farmers for the last five years, whereupon with all of that resourcing-200 million bucks-they have been able to save 200,000 cubic metres of sediment.

So now, miraculously and magically, Minister Hunt thinks that the dredging company can do better than the Commonwealth, better than the Queensland government and better than those farmers are already doing and save 20 times that amount of sediment just so it can have permission to dump that sludge offshore. It is not going to work; we all know it is not going to work. Sadly, we also know that nobody is going to be watching to make sure those conditions are complied with. I wish they were, but they have been sacked! The Campbell Newman government in Queensland has already sacked 220 workers from the environment department and we know that there have been unfortunate retrenchments already from the federal environment department, and we are expecting more under this government's pre-election promises and the Commission of Audit-headed of course by none other than the Business Council of Australia head, Tony Shepherd.

So where are those people who will actually enforce those conditions? They have lost their jobs, much like the tourism operators and the fishers on the reef who will lose their jobs when the reef gets put on the World Heritage endangered list because this government would rather see profits flow offshore to big mining companies than to actually act in the interests of the reef. It is a criminal shame. I have no confidence that the conditions can even be complied with, nor will anyone be paying any attention as to whether they are in terms of the regulators, because they have been sacked.

We had the World Heritage Committee come out and visit the reef the year before last and express extreme concern at the future of the reef. It warned the Australian government and the Queensland government about the effects of mass industrialisation of the reef. It gave the Australian government a very clear warning: if you do not stop this trajectory of destruction we will put the reef on that international list of shame-the list of World Heritage in danger-and downgrade its World Heritage status. Not many other developed countries-in fact, only one other-has a site on that list. That would be a huge blow to our tourism industry. We already know the employment figure, 63,000 people, and much of that is from tourism. People do not come to see World Heritage in danger. They do not come to see coal ports and they do not come to see coal ships. They do not come to see coral that has been smothered with sludge that has been dug up from World Heritage waters and dumped further out into World Heritage waters because it is cheaper for the big mining companies to do that than it is to treat that spoil and dispose of it safely on land. We know what a blow a World Heritage in danger listing would be to our tourism sector and we know it would recognise the peril that the reef is in. Why is this government courting that outcome? Why is it daring the UN to downgrade the reef's status to World Heritage in danger? That is what last night's approval really did. It was like a red carpet invitation to downgrade the reef's status-reckless in the extreme.

Sadly, it has come off the back of a pretty tough week for Australia's environment. On Monday in the House of Representatives this government sought to weaken threatened species protection under those same environmental laws by saying that it was all right for the Minister for the Environment to ignore expert advice on threatened species and the effects a particular project might have on those species-it was okay to ignore expert advice because it is science and they don't really like science that much. They don't need a minister for science and it is kind of inconvenient when science tells you that you shouldn't do the things you want to do, so let's just ignore it! They sought to change the law to allow the environment minister to ignore expert conservation advice. It passed the House of Representatives. I hope it does not pass the Senate.

They did not stop there. I have already spoken of last night's coal port and CSG liquefaction plant approvals, but also yesterday this government sought to abolish the Clean Energy Finance Corporation, that wonderfully successful renewable energy bank that is not only reducing greenhouse gas emissions but making money for the taxpayer. This is a profitable investment. They are making a profit. Why on earth, when we are in such a confected budget crisis, would you want to slash a body that is actually making money as well as saving the climate? I do not understand the rationale, but I suspect logic simply does not come into it with this government.

That was yesterday. Today they are moving to abolish protection for the Murray-Darling. The listing of those endangered ecological communities earlier this year has now been disallowed by the House. They do not actually want to protect the wetlands and the Macquarie Marshes that feed and sustain the Murray-Darling Basin. And this Friday, at the Council of Australian Governments meeting, the COAG meeting, the Prime Minister is seeking to sign up yet more states to take over Greg Hunt's job. Minister Greg Hunt does not want his job anymore. He has decided he cannot be bothered giving approvals to big mines anymore. He is happy to let Campbell Newman do that and Barry O'Farrell do that. This plan unwinds the 30 years of history where the Commonwealth has been able to step in and protect icons and species places that are nationally significant. The Prime Minister wants to get rid of that on Friday.

This has been an atrocious week for the environment. It has been a terribly sad week for the Great Barrier Reef and for all of those who love it. We know that it is not just Australians who love our reef. It is hugely popular with international tourists and, in fact, it is sacred in the hearts of many people across the world. We can and should be doing so much better. I will be reintroducing a bill in this place shortly to adopt those World Heritage Committee recommendations to save our reef. It is not that hard. We just have to start putting the reef and the people who rely on it ahead of the interests of the big mining companies. We can do that. It is not that hard. Will this government do it? They have not yet and I remain hopeful, for the sake of those 63,000 Queenslanders and for everyone who loves the reef, that they will soon change their tune.

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