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Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority on threats to the Reef

Senator WATERS: I would like to start by going over some of the areas that other senators touched on, but I have some follow-up questions for clarification. Last budget you lost your $2.8 million over four years, which was a projected staffing reduction. I think you ended up losing five of your most senior staff. Can you confirm for me whether you have lost any more since then, either actively by their choice or yours? Also, one of you said you were not anticipating there being any further staff losses. I am just trying to understand how that is possible with the funding cuts.

Mr Barrett: I can confirm there were 17 voluntary redundancies that we talked about at previous estimates hearings. That has taken its course from April last year through to March this year. They are the only planned staffing reductions. When we went through that voluntary redundancy process we went through a reorganisation, re-established what the priorities were for the organisation and restructured accordingly to where we needed people. That structure is now in place going forward for the next three or four years.

Senator WATERS: Are you saying you do not anticipate any further staff reductions?

Mr Barrett: Correct.

Senator WATERS: Despite the fact that the funding is continuing to reduce?

Mr Barrett: We talked about the funding reductions between 2014-15 and 2015-16. The major areas of reductions do not affect current staffing arrangements. For example, the crown-of-thorns starfish funding is not in our budget for next year, but there has been a subsequent announcement by the minister. That does not affect the staffing figures.

Senator WATERS: Again, back to something that Dr Reichelt said earlier, Senator Singh was asking you about the five new aspects of work that you will do as a result of your reef plan commitments. You said that you will move to those areas and drop away from others, but you did not get the opportunity to clarify which of those other areas you are going to drop away from in order to refocus your work on those five reef plan priorities.

Dr Reichelt: It is done within sections and within the priorities of internal sections. If a tourism group or a biodiversity group had been working on, say, the impacts of netting on turtles or something like that and we want them to take that expertise and do reef recovery plans. They finished the biodiversity conversation strategy a year or two ago, and those people have already begun working on some of these new things. Nearly everything we do has a finite life to it. The Biodiversity Conservation Strategy, with its vulnerability assessments, was a substantial piece of work. It took about four years. That was completed recently and that released those staff to take up other things.

Senator WATERS: Pardon me for interrupting. I am just conscious of time and I have a lot of things that I would like to ask you. Was anything slated to continue that you are now discontinuing early or are they all just effectively programs that had a shelf life that have reached their natural end?

Dr Reichelt: I will just check with my colleagues. I was just checking that I was not misleading you. We planned these things to evolve. With the staff reductions, probably the bigger thing is that we will plan fewer things as opposed to stopping some vital function. Or to make it doable we will find ways to deliver a policy development area by building more partnerships as opposed to assigning more staff internally to it. The cumulative impact study assessments, for instance, has already had some considerable pro bono help from CSIRO.

Senator WATERS: I was going to come to that. So, it is just that you will plan fewer things? Is there anything that you had already planned that you are not going to be able to proceed with given your refocus on the Reef 2050 activities?

Dr Reichelt: Not that I can recall here. This review of our plans has been happening now for three or four years.

Senator WATERS: So, moving quickly to staffing, how many of your staff are involved in on-ground compliance and enforcement and how many are doing assessments and approvals as at today or as close to today as possible compared with September 2013?

Mr Elliot: I cannot guarantee I will be 100 per cent accurate with these figures, but our field management compliance unit has approximately 22 or 23 staff. They are employees of GBRMPA whose main focus is compliance and, in particular, zoning plan compliance. That field management program also funds Queensland staff and Queensland Parks and Wildlife Services, some of whom do compliance work, but I would not be able to give you a figure for that. Our environmental assessment and protection section has approximately 21 staff in it and approximately half of those are dedicated to, if you like, the permit assessment process. Then between the compliance work for the environmental management charge and the post-permits compliance that would be the other half of those staff.

Senator WATERS: I am sorry, what was that last bit?

Mr Elliot: The post-permits compliance—once you issue a permit the compliance work on that permit. Between the EMC and the post-permits compliance you have probably got six staff dedicated to that at the moment.

Senator WATERS: How does that compare with previous years?

Mr Elliot: That is more staff on post-permits compliance than in previous years, and it is an area that we are looking to strengthen over the next few years.

Senator WATERS: How many more given that you only have six?

Mr Elliot: It will probably only change in terms of staff allocation by one or two. It is in the systems that we are developing to assist them.

Senator WATERS: It is still pretty low, but it is going up.

Dr Reichelt: I do not have the numbers here, but over the next two years we have been allocated $1.2 million under the Turtle and Dugong Protection Plan for an Indigenous ranger compliance enhancement project.

Senator WATERS: I do have some questions on that. Firstly, how many of the rangers and other compliance staff are doing the day-to-day on-water compliance and management activities?

Mr Elliot: Did you ask how many of the field compliance staff are actively out in the field?

Senator WATERS: Yes.

Mr Elliot: That would be at least three-quarters of them, so you are probably talking about 15 or 16 whose main job is to be out in the field.

Senator WATERS: How many of those are Indigenous rangers?

Dr Reichelt: I do not have the exact figure. If I could give that to you on notice? I just need to check that.

Senator WATERS: Is that the same pool of folk from whence the turtle and dugong Indigenous rangers will be sourced or is that a separate category?

Dr Reichelt: We have Indigenous people employed within the group as well as the additional funding program. I would need to check the number of Indigenous people doing that part.

Senator WATERS: For both of those aspects of their role.

Dr Reichelt: Yes.

Senator WATERS: I would like to go to the No. 1 threat to the reef. Obviously the various reports, the reef plan itself and you here today have repeated that this is climate change. I would like to read a quote from an article by Professor Terry Hughes, who I am sure you know is one of the world's foremost coral reef experts. He states: The government wants to have coal mines operating in six years time and still hopes to have a healthy reef. The science says otherwise. Either we plan to adequately protect the reef and transition away from fossil fuels or we abandon the reef and develop the world's largest thermal coal mines. We can't possibly do both. Can you tell me what the reef plan says about the expansion of thermal coal mining?

Dr Reichelt: I doubt it says anything about that. My colleagues can correct me if I am wrong.

Senator WATERS: That is my understanding. So, the reef plan is, therefore, premised on an expansion of coal and gas.

Senator Birmingham: I do not know that one follows from the other, but we can clarify that.

Dr de Brouwer: The reef plan does not go through fossil fuels mining. What it does talk about, though, is the government's policies and international action to reduce emissions, which may also be emissions from the use of fossil fuels, which can occur in a variety of ways. It does talk about techniques and ways to reduce emissions, which is government policy.

Senator WATERS: Do you think the Reef 2050 Plan has any chance of saving the reef if the Galilee Basin coal is burned?

Dr Reichelt: Going back to Professor Hughes's comments, I will say we rely heavily on Professor Hughes's work on resilience of the reef, and his whole group. The question comes down, for the management of the Barrier Reef, to how you weave in the global issue of climate change and fossil fuel burning. Dr Vertessy, this morning, made it clear that the principal source of C02 as a greenhouse gas is from fossil fuel. But in terms of the science of the marine park management and managing for resilience, a direct link between a particular coal field and the global atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gas is something that is outside the scope of this plan. It will probably belong—

Senator WATERS: Hence my question: how is the reef plan going to save the reef if it does not do anything to stop the Galilee Basin being opened up?

Senator Birmingham: Obviously Dr Reichelt and officials talk about the content of the reef plan. There is an underlying premise of your question that seems to suggest that one particular source of fossil fuels is the cause of future climate change challenges when, of course, there is a very strong and robust market in the provision of fossil fuels around the world from different locations. One mine, if it is not in operation, it is likely to see—

Senator WATERS: It is not one.

Senator Birmingham: Multiple mines, if they are not in operation, are still likely to see fossil fuels provided from the marketplace elsewhere around the world. I know that you understand the science of climate change to a greater extent than the approach of that question. I know that you understand that it is about the totality of global emissions and not about the operation of an individual mine or a region comprising a series of mines.

Senator WATERS: Thank you for your explanation. I am across all of those issues. I have another quote here from another scientist that I will go to in a minute. I am simply putting to GBRMPA that when you have the world's foremost coral reef scientists saying that the reef plan is effectively not going to work if you ignore Galilee Basin coal mines, how is it that GBRMPA and the government can hold out the Reef 2050 Plan as this great solution to save the reef?

Dr Reichelt: It has to be answered in the two parts that you were discussing a second ago. There are several pages in the plan. It is not that it does not discuss it, but it separates it as a problem for coral reefs worldwide and not just the Great Barrier Reef. It talks in here about things that are outside the scope of the Marine Park Authority but in relation to emissions—

Senator WATERS: It does not mention the Galilee Basin mines, does it?

Dr Reichelt: I do not believe so. It is talking about the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and that separation. The strategy for managing for resilience in the reef has had a lot of input from the same professor, who has written some great papers on it.

Senator WATERS: The government still has not stopped opening up new coal mines.

Dr Reichelt: The rational response for us locally is to address the other major locally manageable risks to build the resilience of this coral reef system. Worldwide coral reefs are vulnerable. That involves cleaning up water quality, improving its ability to bounce back from things like storms, starfish and other effects. As to the linkage of the mine and so on, there are other quotes in recent times from Professor Hughes. As of this morning he was quoted as saying that the government has made significant progress with this reef plan. I think it is probably joining two parts of the debate that to me are not logically connected.

Senator WATERS: If the Galilee Basin coal is burnt it would increase the global thermal coal trade by about 30 per cent.

Senator Birmingham: Not necessarily.

Senator WATERS: Excuse me, Minister. Do not interrupt me. I am asking the officials a question. You can interrupt when I have finished.

CHAIR: Excuse me. One moment, Senator Waters. I think it might be appropriate if we address people with a little bit more civility in this place.

Senator WATERS: Agreed. I will not interrupt you if you do not interrupt me.

CHAIR: Yes, but if he does interrupt you, just the way you interrupted him, I do not expect you to respond the way you just did. It is rude.

Senator WATERS: Let us agree not to interrupt each other, then. If I could continue, Dr Reichelt. How does increasing the global thermal coal trade by 30 per cent off the back of the Galilee Basin square with the reef plan saving the reef?

Senator Birmingham: I take issue with the premise of your question. It ignores the fact that there is a global trade in fossil fuels, and it seems to work on an assumption that the Galilee Basin is the sole potential source of any future burning of coal and generation of emissions. That is transparently not the case. If you want to ask Dr Reichelt questions about the projections around the future of the reef based on certain climate change outcomes, that is fine—based on certain global actions in terms of the use of fossil fuels, fine. But to bring it down as you do to the specific geographical area as the source of those emissions betrays what I know you know to be a global problem. It is taking your campaign against coal mining in one location and trying to make it the cause of climate change when I know that you know much better than that.

Senator WATERS: I am sorry, but you cannot deny it would increase the thermal coal trade by 30 per cent and hence I feel perfectly comfortable in asking these questions and will continue to do so if you will let me finish.

Senator Birmingham: If it is not bought and burnt from the Galilee Basin it may well be bought and burnt from some other location in the world. That is not the sole source of coal in the world.

Senator WATERS: Given that the Galilee Basin is in Queensland, which is where I am from and where the authority is from, it is much closer to the reef.

Senator Birmingham: As far as I am aware, in terms of the climate change projections, it does not much matter where the coal has come from.

Senator WATERS: Perhaps you might like to have a conversation with the Prime Minister and the Foreign Minister to just that effect. Dr Reichelt, given the 30 per cent increase in thermal coal export trade should the Galilee Basin mines be opened up and proceed as this government is keen for them to do, what effect will that have on climate change and hence on the reef?

Dr Reichelt: I am not aware of any modelling of that direct effect on the global concentrations. It is such a complex question to funnel that into the global picture. It is really outside my expertise and that of my agency to draw that link. Where we have expertise is in the atmospheric effects on the system globally and then translated to the reef specifically. It is not a question I can easily answer, because I am not an expert in that.

Senator WATERS: Given that your agency has identified climate change as the biggest threat to the reef, as have many other scientists, is it not something that the agency might start to look at?

Dr Reichelt: We have made it very clear what the risks for the reef are and the ways that it can play out. It is a much longer story than the two factors I gave you this morning. It is not something where we are authorised, where we have jurisdiction and we have capability to do more than analyse the impacts on the system. We are charged with protection and making it as publicly available as possible. You can appreciate the outlook report is very direct in both 2009 and 2014. The language is quite strong. Climate change and rising greenhouse gases are the single biggest long-term risks to the reef. Our response to it should be, on the one hand, encourage action on a global scale and, on the other hand, build the resilience of that system to enable it to withstand the pressures in the face of climate change. That is the context that we operate in.

Senator WATERS: Have you brief the Prime Minister on the effects of climate change on the reef, both current and projected?

Dr Reichelt: Not to my knowledge directly. I am sure the Prime Minister is well briefed. Our information is widely publicly available.

Senator WATERS: So, you have not been asked to nor have your proffered such a briefing?

Dr Reichelt: Not directly.

Senator Birmingham: As I said earlier when somebody asked a similar question of the Bureau of Meteorology, the department, when they provide advice and information for all manner of decisions to be taken, takes of course expert information from agencies like the Bureau of Meteorology, GBRMPA and consolidate that in the information provided to ministers and the government generally. That is the standard operating procedure.

Senator WATERS: So, you have been able to directly communicate your expertise filtered through the department?

Dr Reichelt: I did have a conversation on the launch day and the opening explanation from the Prime Minister and our Minister for the Environment was to acknowledge the risks of climate change in the launch of this plan. There are two pages of that acknowledgement in the plan itself as well. Our information is widely publicly available. It is very clear.

Senator WATERS: My concern is whether it is being read by the relevant people. I would like to go to funding that was mentioned earlier—the accumulated figure of $2 billion over 10 years which, as we started to gather, is indeed a cumulative figure of funding for Marine Safety Queensland, AIMS, Queensland Premier and Cabinet, Queensland Department of Fisheries research funding, the federal Department of Environment, GBRMPA and quite a handful of others. Obviously that is a figure that is incredibly expansive.

Senator Birmingham: As our efforts are to work to preserve the reef, I am pleased you acknowledge they are expansive efforts.

Senator WATERS: I am certainly not acknowledging that. I would like to know how much of that funding is new since 2013. Maybe Mr Thompson could assist with that if Dr Reichelt does not have that information to hand.

Mr Thompson: Not off the top of my head. I can take that on notice and come back tomorrow.

Senator WATERS: I will pursue that, because it does seem a little disingenuous. Of that $2 billion over the next 10 years about $500 million is to be spent on marine safety, and clearly that is warranted, but it is not directed at water quality and yet the minister has been marketing that money as first and foremost about improving water quality. Do either Dr Reichelt or Mr Thompson know how much of that $2 billion is, in fact, going to water quality?

Senator Birmingham: Marine safety—if you look at it for example in relation to AMSA, the focus is then described as 'promoting marine safety and protection of the marine environment, preventing/combating ship sourced pollution of the marine environment, providing infrastructure support, safety and navigation in Australian waters and providing a national search and rescue service for the maritime and aviation services.' There is a range of actions in there, ship sourced pollution being a notable one just to pick out of the list relatively quickly a point that highlights that even in that space there are very clearly measures that relate not just to the effective management of the reef but also to improving environmental outcomes for the reef.

Senator WATERS: Hence my question to get some specificity on how much is dedicated to water quality specifically.

Mr Thompson: I think that would be difficult for us to determine with any great accuracy, because a number of the activities identified there would cross into water quality. Some of the research activities and education activities would cross into water quality as well. There are others, for example, the Queensland Department of Science, Information Technology, Innovation and the Arts, which does water quality report card modelling. That is clearly about water quality. But some of the others would have elements addressing water quality.

Senator WATERS: So, you are not too sure? Should I come back to that or can you take that on notice?

Mr Thompson: I can seek to get a more definitive breakdown, but I am managing expectations about how well we will be able to do that.

Senator WATERS: All right. I will not hold my breath, but I appreciate your investigating. One of UNESCO's central requests was about cumulative impacts. You mentioned earlier, Dr Reichelt, that one of the goals of the plan is to develop guidelines for assessing cumulative impacts on matters of national environmental significance. Given that it took two years to do Reef 2050, why is there only a commitment to develop guidelines on cumulative impact assessment? Why are we not further advanced and what is the timeframe to get the cumulative impact guidelines finished and operational?

Dr Reichelt: The idea for cumulative impact analysis globally itself is not new. Canada and others have done some. In our environmental approvals process our view was that it was underweighted and that we needed to have explicit policies. That was done in the strategic assessment. That piece of work included quite a lot of data gathering, synthesis and communication, and we are now moving into an implementation phrase. There simply were not time and resources to develop a new policy. We were also asked by the partnership group that when we did it could we do it in a publicly transparent way—make drafts visible. I think it will take one or two years possibly.

Senator WATERS: Another one or two years?

Dr Reichelt: Yes, I would think so. This development is not just for the authority. We would like it to be nationally adopted with national and state laws. We would want all of those jurisdictions and ours to work together on it. It is a new area on the scale of the Great Barrier Reef region. I think we need to do it carefully and thoroughly. What it actually addresses is the shifting baseline problem that you would be aware of—the fact that small incremental changes add up over time. That is a key thing. For me, after the information/monitoring, that would be the next most significant development in that plan. We want to take the time to do it properly.

Senator WATERS: I would be pleased if there are not too many other development applications that are proceeding that will significantly damage the reef in two years' time, but it does seem like the horse has bolted. I am wondering whether, if more staff were able to be dedicated to that particular guideline development, it could be expedited.

Dr Reichelt: We would certainly look at it. Given what I have said, it will be trading off in monitoring work. I think we will look at that, because we are still working out the exact distribution of resources over the coming 12 months. Our annual operating plan is due out in the next four to five weeks. We will look at that. There was something else. With the importance of that—in a sense we are already moving down that road in some applications where what we have done is develop guidelines for the Barrier Reef for what is healthy water along our coast, and what should it be. That is one area of thresholds and standards that is better advanced. In consideration of some developments in recent times we have actually applied that where we consider that this net benefit thinking is also part of it. We have, in consideration of a particular aquaculture venture, thought about it being not just the quality of water coming out of an aquaculture facility, it is what the water going in looks like. In other words, it is a kind of cumulative effect analysis that we are already doing.

Senator WATERS: But the guidelines are still two years away?

Dr Reichelt: The nationally accepted ones that would then inform other decision makers. Within the authority we have begun thinking about it already. What is in this plan is a more considered, visible and publicly debated set of policies. Why it is sensitive is that it has the effect of a proponent coming along seeking to do something that someone earlier was approved and found to have an acceptable impact being refused a permit for the same thing because of the accumulating changes.

Senator WATERS: Which is entirely appropriate.

Dr Reichelt: Yes. We think that is the only way to manage the recovery of the reef.

Senator WATERS: I wish you good speed on that one. In the 2012 recommendations of the World Heritage Committee they asked for spatial policies that will identify appropriate and limited locations and standards for coastal development and also identify areas that should not be subject to development. That was in the context of when they were asking for a long-term comprehensive plan for the reef. I read that as effectively wanting no-go zones or a map, if you like. There is not such a map or designated no-go zones in the Reef 2050 Plan and apart from some changes that the state government has made I am not aware that the federal government has actively ruled out anywhere in the reef catchment for development. How is the government holding out that they are meeting that recommendation?

Dr Reichelt: In the context of the long-term plan and the response of the World Heritage Committee, the issue of where development should and should not occur was explicitly mentioned. Inside the reef region, the zoning plan is quite clear on the relative effects of human activity in the different zones. It is not just about fishing. In the water, it is clearer. On the land, it would be something that I would direct to the Environmental Assessment Compliance Division, EACD, if I have the division right?

Mr Thompson: Yes.

Dr Reichelt: It would be where the department operates in facilitating decisions under the EPBC in conjunction with Queensland approvals, I would think, that that relates to.

Mr Thompson: Certainly, as you said, in terms of that coastal planning, that is a matter which is for the Queensland government to determine. As I understand it, the new Queensland government has identified that it will be re-entering a coastal management legislative regime for the state there. As I understand it, that request in part was met by the strategic assessment on the land side, which the Queensland government undertook and identified.

Senator WATERS: How was it met, though?

Mr Thompson: It was not spatial. That is true. It did not go to zones and was not spatially based.

Senator WATERS: How was it met, then?

Mr Thompson: It did go to the processes by which the Queensland government made decisions about developments on the coastal zone. That is my understanding.

Senator WATERS: I have a few more questions. I will move on quickly.

CHAIR: It has already gone five minutes past. Are you prepared to give up time on something else?

Senator WATERS: Yes, I am. I will move on quickly. I have some questions about the proposed dumping restrictions, which obviously have not come into force yet. I am not sure whether you can answer me or not, but I am interested in how they will apply to projects that are already approved—for example, Gladstone and Townsville. Is that something that I should take up with you or should I take that up elsewhere in the department?

Dr Reichelt: Both of those would be in the marine park.

Mr Elliot: Yes. It will apply to requesting approvals for disposal within the marine park. There is only such approval, which is Abbot Point. The Gladstone and Townsville approvals are outside the marine park.

Dr Reichelt: So that would be something that—

Senator WATERS: On the lobbying trips, I understand that GBRMPA staff have gone along with various ministerial and departmental representatives to do their reef lobbying. Have any of the GBRMPA officers been allowed to speak with World Heritage country/nations without the minister or the department present?

Dr Reichelt: Yes, we have. I am just looking for the exact figures here. I have met with my counterparts in 11 member countries. I was on my own. I had no colleagues with me other than a Foreign Affairs person who helped facilitate the travel and took notes at the meeting.

Senator WATERS: You were meeting with whom?

Dr Reichelt: The natural expert advisers to the governments who were taking an interest in understanding the Great Barrier Reef and committee members.

Senator WATERS: Can you provide a bit more detail on notice about that? In those meetings, did you bring to the attention of the folk with whom you were conversing that statement in the outlook report which says that the overall outlook for the Great Barrier Reef is poor, has worsened since 2009 and is expected to further deteriorate in the future?

Dr Reichelt: Yes. Some of the meetings were short, an hour or so. In some cases the longest was nine hours, where I was quizzed in great detail about that report.

Senator WATERS: You drew that statement to their attention in every meeting?

Dr Reichelt: Yes, very much so. I was able to explain that it operates at different scales. It is the climate change effects, it is the long run changes in catchments, it is the fact that at the time that report was written there were five new ports proposed, and extensions. It was actually written in advance of the changes that have occurred in the past 12 months in ports policies. I was given unfettered access to those, to the extent that they wanted to meet with me.

Senator WATERS: I will put some other questions about shark finning and drumlines on notice. Just quickly, with respect to the Shen Neng clean-up, it has been five years now since the Shen Neng ran into Douglas Shoal, obviously doing huge damage. My understanding is that tributyltin, the TBT anti-fouling paint, is still in situ. Why has no clean-up effort been started to remove that TBT yet?

Dr Reichelt: We have documented this several times now, and confirm what you say. The paint is still there in concentrated depressions in the sea floor. It is a toxic capped TBT paint. We are in the middle of a legal action against the ship owner, the Shenzhen Energy Company. We are seeking for them to meet the costs of the cleanup. It is our view, as briefed to the minister, and it is the minister's view that it should be done as soon as we possibly can. It is urgent. It is preventing the natural recovery processes in that 50-plus hectares of sea floor.

Senator WATERS: Why is GBRMPA not cleaning that up and then seeking reimbursement from the company? Why are you letting it sit there?

Dr Reichelt: It is a resourcing issue. It would be a substantial cost, beyond the capacity of our budget.

Senator WATERS: In what order?

Dr Reichelt: It would exceed $50 million.

Senator WATERS: Have you sought to have additional support from government to clean up that toxic mess?

Dr Reichelt: The litigation that is underway comes under the head of nationally significant with AttorneyGeneral's. It remains our best avenue to achieve those funds. It is an issue for the authority. We have repeatedly made it clear through the courts to the company and the insurers, Protection and Indemnity Club, London, of our wish. There is an insurance system for shipping accidents, and so we are seeking that pathway as well.

Senator WATERS: Thank you very much.

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