Senator BIRMINGHAM: (11:29): It is good to follow Senator Back, who is very knowledgeable in these areas and has highlighted particularly some of the local concerns about the impact of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Bioregional Plans) Bill 2011 and of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, which Senator Colbeck is seeking to amend on the local fishing industry.
We are often faced with choices-we are always faced with choices in this place-as to whether we empower the parliament or whether we empower the executive. At its heart, Senator Colbeck’s bill is one about empowering the parliament; it is one about ensuring that the parliament has the final say in important decisions. That is the right thing for us to seek to do because this bill, at its heart, seeks to ensure that important decisions about marine activities and bioregional planning activities come back to this parliament so that this parliament has a say rather than all the say and all the power being left purely in the hands of the minister of the day. For that I commend Senator Colbeck for wanting to open this process up to a greater level of transparency, a greater level of accountability and to ensuring that the parliament-the peoples’ houses: the House of Representatives and the Senate-is the institution that should have the final say when it comes to this marine bioregional planning process.
Senator Colbeck’s bill will reinstate parliamentary scrutiny of an area of just over seven million square kilometres of Commonwealth waters. This is a vast area of waterways, and it does demonstrate the absolute significance of the bill and the significance of ensuring that we have the parliamentary scrutiny that I have just discussed. At present these waters are undergoing assessment by the government through the marine bioregional planning process with the ultimate aim of creating marine parks. This is a process that is being applied to waters from the state or territory boundary of approximately three nautical miles out to, as I understand it, 200 nautical miles out-the outer reaches of the Australian exclusive economic zone. It is proposed that the waters around Australia be sanctioned or divided into five bioregional zones. The current government is developing bioregional plans for four of these areas.
As Senator Colbeck highlighted in his second reading speech on this legislation, the first cab off the rank with respect to the draft plans is the south-west bioregion, which takes in 1.3 million square kilometres of water from the eastern tip of Kangaroo Island in my home state of South Australia, right around to the waters off Shark Bay, halfway up the coast of Senator Back’s home state of Western Australia. For the two of us there are very real and very immediate local impacts as a result of this planning process. The north-west bioregion encompasses the remaining Commonwealth waters off the Western Australian coast-just over one million square kilometres from Kalbarri to the border with the Northern Territory. The north bioregion covers 715 square kilometres of coast across the Northern Territory, including the Gulf of Carpentaria, the Arafura Sea and the Timor Sea. The east bioregion covers 2.4 million square kilometres and also includes the airspace and the seabed below. It does not include, however, waters within the boundary of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, which are already extensively protected through very specific legislation, as you Madam Acting Deputy President, would well know and appreciate.
Within these four marine bioregional zones the government has designated 23 areas for further assessment. It is highly likely, as I understand it, that these areas of further assessment will later have designated within them areas of sanctuary zones, recreation-only zones and special purpose zones. These zones will be closed to all but a few activities. They are areas where commercial and recreational fishing will be excluded and areas where particular types of gear and fishing practice will be restricted. That will have a profound impact on the activities within those particular areas. The marine bioregional zones and the subsequent declaration of marine protected areas within them are being brought forward under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, which is the act that Senator Colbeck’s bill seeks to amend today.
Currently, the Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities has the sole authority to sign off on the boundaries of these sanctuary zones and by association would be signing off on the limitations that are imposed on the activities which will be allowed to take place within them. This gives the minister quite exclusive power at the end of this process to have the final say. Senator Colbeck’s bill, which we are debating today, seeks to return that power over these zones, over the operation of these sanctuaries and over the limitation of activities within these sanctuaries from the exclusive pen of the minister-from the exclusive judgment of the minister-to the will of parliament. It seeks to do so by making the bioregional plans disallowable instruments. As all members of this place would appreciate, making them disallowable instruments removes the absolute nature of the power from the minister. The minister would still have a say in the planning process. It would be the minister who would still approve the instrument. It would be the minister who would bring the instrument to the parliament and table it. But as a disallowable instrument it gives the parliament at least the opportunity to have a say if the minister and the processes supporting the minister have got it wrong in any way, shape or form. That is very important. It is very important that should the minister, his agencies or those involved in this bioregional planning process err and present plans that are unacceptable, this place or the other place have the opportunity to say, ‘This is wrong and we will disallow it.’ There is nothing in this legislation for the government, the crossbenchers or anyone else to be terribly afraid of-nothing at all. All it does is empower the parliament through this process. If you are afraid of the changes in this legislation, then it means for some reason you are afraid of the parliament, afraid of the judgment of the Senate or afraid of the judgment of the House of Representatives. I fear from time to time the judgment of governments. I fear from time to time the judgment of ministers. I acknowledge that from time to time the parliament approves and does things that I wish it did not, but I certainly do not fear the judgment of the parliament or of either house of the parliament. I think under our system they should enjoy supremacy of judgment, and this bill returns supremacy of judgment to its rightful place, to the two houses of parliament.
This bill will give the parliament the opportunity to have a say on those occasions that dictate it to be necessary. As we in this place all appreciate, those occasions are extraordinarily rare. There are many countless areas of disallowable instruments that are made by governments and it is exceptionally rare that the parliament exercises its authority to disallow them. But this bill provides for the exceptional circumstance, and in this place on this issue it makes sense for those exceptional circumstances to equally be provided for. The bill provides for greater parliamentary sovereignty, as I say, and would allow both houses the right, if they so wished, to have a say on whether any new marine park declaration should happen and to consider each one on its individual merits and the merits of the arguments associated with it.
The bill is not about whether the government’s declaration of marine park areas goes ahead but whether the parliament has the right to have a say, to represent the millions of people who put us here, to represent the South Australians who put me here. They have interests in the protection of our marine areas and in fisheries activities both commercial and recreational within our marine areas off the coastline of South Australia, just as Senator Back highlighted those many industries and interests equally concerned about the coastline of his home state of Western Australia.
The coalition has a proud history in this space. We have a proud history as the original authors of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act. It was a massive reform to the way the environment is protected in this country and it was a piece of legislation that the Howard government should rightly be proud of. I am confident former South Australian senator and former leader of my party in this place, Senator Robert Hill, is proud from his time as environment minister of his authorship of that act and his stewardship of it through the parliament.
So we have a proud record that stretches way back. It was the Howard government that in 1998 secured agreement with state governments to commit to establishing a national representative system of marine protected areas. The Howard government did not rest on its laurels there but made further international commitments to establish such a representative network by 2012 at the World Summit on Sustainable Development held in 2002. Of course, it was the Howard government that in 2005-06 initiated the investigation and subsequent implementation of the south-east marine reserves network.
You may recall, Mr Deputy President, that at the beginning of my remarks-well, you probably wouldn’t because you were not in the chair at that time, but the chamber may recall that at the beginning of my remarks-
Senator Payne does. That is nice to hear. Somebody is listening out there! At the beginning of my remarks I said there are five bioregional areas and I outlined four of them that are under consideration at present. The fifth is the south-east marine reserves network. It is one where the implementation was conducted under the Howard government. In fact, it was conducted and implemented by Senator Colbeck, the author of this bill before us today. Senator Colbeck, as the then Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, was right there at the coalface working on the development and implementation of the south-east marine reserves network. So nobody in this place, I suspect, has a better appreciation of these issues and of this process than Senator Colbeck, who has been following this issue and working on it. He was intensely involved in it in government for such a long period of time.
Senator Colbeck highlighted his experience in the development of that south-east marine reserves network during his time in government in his second reading speech on this legislation. He highlighted the very thorough process of investigating and subsequently implementing that marine reserves network. In doing so there was extensive and open consultation with each and every stakeholder who felt they had a claim or a vested interest in this process. Senator Colbeck highlighted that the overwhelming success following the consultation with stakeholders on the draft proposal allowed the government to make around 20 changes to boundaries and zoning that act for the protection of marine species in that space. Senator Colbeck said that the result was a network that is both larger and more representative of the region than the original proposal and has far less impact on the fishing industry. It sounds like, as Senator Colbeck described it, a win-win outcome-an outcome that provided for a network of zones that protect marine species covering an area larger than was originally proposed but that does so with minimal impact on the fishing industry. That shows how these processes can be managed, can be undertaken and can be done in a sensible way, but it takes sensible people like Senator Colbeck to be able to do it and implement it. Unfortunately, since the change of government, we have not seen a level of consultation, cooperation and engagement with all stakeholders that has allowed this process to be shepherded through for the remaining four proposed marine bioregional areas. Instead we have seen, as is so often the case under this government, failure to give stakeholders effective input and to ensure that stakeholders have confidence in the outcomes of the process that is being undertaken. It is this loss of confidence, this loss of stakeholder engagement and this loss of faith at the grassroots level that require these changes and necessitate bringing this bill here today.
People will rightly say, ‘Why didn’t the Howard government provide for this final parliamentary oversight of these marine bioregional plans?’ Perhaps the Howard government just had too much faith in the capacity of ministers of the day to exercise that power responsibly and sensibly and come up with sensible, sound outcomes at the end. Sadly, the Howard government had that faith but that faith has been proven, with the change of government and the change of ministerial personnel responsible for the administration of these schemes, to have been misplaced. Unfortunately, that requires us to look and say that perhaps the minister of the day cannot be trusted with open slather. Perhaps we erred way back when the EPBC Act and these processes were first put in place. And perhaps it is better to return the ultimate say to the parliament so that, when you have a bad minister who undertakes bad processes and delivers a bad outcome, the parliament can at least still do something about it. That, of course, is the nub of what this legislation is all about.
There have been real concerns that both the Rudd and Gillard governments have not engaged in appropriate levels of consultation with local communities and have not engaged in appropriate consultation with those commercial fisheries affected, nor have they engaged in appropriate levels of conversation or engagement with the marine recreational fishing interests. Equally, even some environmental groups have highlighted to Senator Colbeck that they have felt left out by the federal government when it comes to genuine consultation.
As I highlighted before, the South-east Commonwealth Marine Reserve Network, the one implemented by the Howard government, the one that Senator Colbeck had the direct engagement and involvement in, was a successful process that achieved bigger areas of protection than initially foreshadowed but still left sustainability and viability for the commercial fishing industry and for the recreational fishing industry. I do want to say, Mr Deputy President-and I know this is something that you in particular would appreciate-that all too often, when people talk about recreational fishing, there is a belief that it is just somebody dangling a line and it is of little consequence. But it is not of little consequence.
It is a massive industry, as Senator Edwards indicates-a massive industry that supports many, many jobs and many, many small businesses in particular throughout Australia. It is not just an activity that brings families together but an industry in and of itself that supports significant economic activity and significant jobs throughout Australia. That is what is at risk if we get this wrong. If the government gets it wrong, what is at risk is effective environmental protection as well as lasting opportunities for our commercial fishing industry and our recreational fishing industry.
So we urge the government and the crossbenchers to take out some insurance. If a bad process results in a bad outcome, put it back in the hands of the parliament. Bring it back to the parliament, accept this bill, allow these plans to become disallowable instruments and allow the people’s representatives in this place and the other place to have the final say on these important planning processes. I commend the bill to the house.