Senator BOSWELL (Queensland) (11:17): The Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Bioregional Plans) Bill 2011 seeks to reinstate parliamentary scrutiny over decisions affecting an area of 16 million square kilometres of ocean—an area twice the size of Australia. The area concerned is the entirety of Australia's exclusive economic zone—all our waters stretching from state limits three miles offshore out to the 200 nautical mile limit of the exclusive economic zone.
It is an extraordinary fact that, as the EPIC Act currently stands, the environment minister can make decisions that regulate any or all activities in this vast area without any reference whatsoever to the parliament. He can make decisions with huge ramifications for the people whose livelihoods and interests are involved in these areas—unilaterally. At the stroke of a pen he can make decisions that dictate mining activity. He can make decisions that dictate, through regulation, all scientific activity. He can dictate commercial and recreational fishing activity. He can dictate tourism activity. He can dictate absolutely every action concerning an area twice the size of the Australian land mass with one stroke of his pen.
Holding that extraordinarily ridiculous level of authority means that, by extension, he also dictates what will happen to the thousands of onshore jobs, and the communities supported by those jobs, that might be linked to any imaginable offshore activity. He can do all that unilaterally, without the slightest reference to the parliament, and, if he so chooses, with total disregard for any input from people whose livelihoods will be so impacted. Sure, there has to be consultation but at this point in time I would like to read out something—and this ought to be compulsory reading for everyone in the ALP—from a submission from Mr Cameron Talbot:
I’m concerned that lobby groups like PEW WWF and MACS seem to get access to Ministers and control of what happens. The Department does not consult us or simply ignores what we have to say. I feel that democracy has been lost and further more my faith in the Labour party has gone with it. I along with all labour supporters that I know who also fish, are so disenfranchised with this government that at the next election we will do what I never thought we would and vote LAP. This is the last chance I will give labour, if this falls thru so does my vote- for good—
and for fishermen all over. That is what Mr Cameron Talbot thinks about the consultation that is offered. To get back, the minister can do almost anything without the slightest reference to parliament if he chooses, with total regard for any input from people whose livelihoods will be impacted. That is exactly what the authority is now exercising.
Under the Marine Bioregional Planning Program, the minister is embarked on making just such huge, unilateral decisions in relation to this vast area. He is in the process of making decisions that will lead to the declaration of a system of marine reserves in the EEZ that will have massive ramifications for people engaged in all activities across the economic zone. This is occurring under the Marine Bioregional Planning process. For this purpose, the EEZ has been dissected into five huge marine bioregions. They are the South-west Marine Region, The North-west Marine Region, The North Marine Region, the East Marine Region and the South-east Marine Region. Together these bioregions cover the entire EEZ.
Within this area the government has identified 23 so-called areas for further assessment. These are the areas of focus for the development of a vast network of marine reserves that are likely to cover around 30 per cent of the EEZ. Some sections of those reserves will be general use, where constraints on activities are limited. But there will also be areas where there will be anything from minor to total constraints on most activities, especially fishing. A draft plan has been put forward for reserves in the south-west bioregion, and the government intends putting forward its edicts on the remaining bioregions by the end of the year, excepting for the south-east. The flaw in the act providing the minister with extraordinary levels of unilateral authority is not the only accountability problem with the act. There is another loophole that is already being used to consolidate his ability to totally avoid any accountability to this parliament in the management of this area, which is twice the size of Australia's landmass. There is a simple ruse by which the minister can avoid the intent of the act for ultimate parliamentary scrutiny of his actions. This involves management plans. The extent of the act is that a management plan that would give substance to the declaration of a marine reserve ought to involve parliamentary scrutiny—the plans are disallowable instruments—but the minister can sidestep that requirement by a simple delegation of the management of the reserves to the Director of National Parks with indefinite effect.
The development of the marine reserve system in the south-east zone involving waters around Tasmania and the South Australian and Victorian coast was completed under the previous government. No management plan has been brought to the parliament by this government. It has been managed through a delegation to the Director of National Parks. The government will likely use the same ruse to avoid parliamentary scrutiny of the remaining bioregions as the declarations of marine reserves occur. He will be able to, and no doubt will, simply refer management of the reserves to the Director of National Parks and thus avoid enabling the parliament to express its views on not just the reserves themselves but the regulations that will be set in place to enforce them. This whole circumstance is unconscionable. It is wrong that a minister should have such extreme powers—the powers of a dictator—in these areas. The parliament must have a say.
It is a matter of great regret to me that these fundamental flaws in the act were not identified in the original debate on the EPBC legislation in the life of the previous government. Not one of us on either side of the chamber even remarked on this aspect of the legislation when it was debated. An explanation, not an excuse for members of both sides of this chamber, is that at the time no such massive interventions in activities in the EMEZ were contemplated. The emphasis of the day in terms of reserves was exclusively on land based reserves that generally encompassed crown land and involved cooperative relationships with the state governments. Marine issues simply were not on the radar.
The extraordinary process now underway, however, has brought that fault in the act into focus. This parliament, of all parliaments, ought to be ready to address this problem. We are ostensibly operating in this parliament under a new paradigm. The Independents demanded of the Labor Party, before they endorsed them to form a minority government, a greater role for parliament, a more accountable parliament and greater respect for parliament. Here I believe is a great opportunity for them to press this government to live up to its signed commitment to the new paradigm.
The issue here is not just the extraordinary scale of the unilateralism that has been seized by the minister in terms of the size of the area—it is an area twice the size of Australia's landmass—but the leverage that he claims over the lives and livelihoods of many thousands of Australians engaged in the fishing industry, the tourism industry, the mining industry and their support and associated industries. Members opposite, as well as members on this side of the chamber, will be aware that how the government was handling this whole matter in the last term was one issue that gave it a very near-death experience at the 2010 election. There was outrage amongst fishers especially, both professional and recreational, over the conduct of the marine planning process by the former minister for the environment. That outrage was reflected at the ballot box, especially down the eastern seaboard, at the last election. Consultation was barely at lip-service level and was well known by all affected parties to be at lip-service level unless you happened to be a green NGO, in which case you had the ear of the minister.
I signal to members opposite that the same movement will likely be marshalled against them at the next election unless they are prepared to much more significantly involve affected groups and the parliament in this process. There have been some indications that since the election the quality of consultation with affected parties has improved somewhat. Whether this has been driven by altruism or by clear recognition of the power of this issue at the last election is a moot point, but members opposite should not delude themselves—this issue can certainly come back to bite them again. Passing this bill will not necessarily avoid that outcome if they subsequently seek to pander to the minority party that will shortly hold the balance of power in the Senate.
Greens policies in this area are as extreme as anything on their agenda. Their policy calls for 30 per cent of the EEZ to be no-take zones. They will press the government to achieve that goal. They will be pressing for very high levels of protection within a marine reserve system. The Greens are as antifishing as they are anticoal, and they will have the numbers in this chamber, if the government is silly enough to back them, to get the outcomes they seek. There will be temptation for the government to treat marine reserves as a means to deliver the Greens' concessions that might be denied them elsewhere in their policy framework. Fishermen in particular could become sacrificial cows for the government in appeasing the Greens.
The best outcome for the government is, therefore, to grab our bill with both hands. It gives them the best chance at a sensible outcome. I think I can virtually guarantee the government that any move by the Greens in the Senate from 1 July to turn a potentially sensible marine reserve plan into a bad marine reserve plan will not pass in the other place. This reality should help the government ensure that what it brings forward for the consideration of the parliament, should this bill pass, is sensible. The alternative for the government will, I absolutely promise, not be pretty. There have already been signs that the government will take steps to delay debate on this bill until after the Greens achieve the balance of power. I suspect they will try to talk it out today.
The government should understand that this will be seen by fishers in particular as a concession to the Greens and to extreme outcomes in terms of marine reserves. Extreme outcomes will come back to bite members opposite—I can promise them that. Fishers already comprehend that the likelihood they will be treated fairly by this government if their interests are impacted in this process are slim. A consultancy report to the government proposed extremely limited compensation or structural adjustment support for fishers and none for the thousands employed in support industries for both the professional and recreational fisheries. In the end, and very belatedly, the government agreed to use the same policy that the former government used to determine these issues in the rezoning of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park some three years ago. The Howard government interpreted that policy very generously, and in the end the cost of it was around $230 million. There is potential that the outcome in the areas where declarations are yet to be made will involve a multiple of that. The northern areas are Australia's premier prawning grounds. The east coast involves the bulk of all other forms of fishing, both professional and recreational. Extreme outcomes in these areas, given the record of this government since 2007 and its indebtedness to the Greens since the election last year, are going to be a real threat.
The best way for the government to proceed is to support this bill. It is also the proper way for the government to proceed. As I said at the beginning, it is simply unconscionable that a single minister has the authority, as the act now stands, to make unilateral decisions affecting so many interests across a vast area without any reference whatsoever to this parliament. Under the old or any other paradigm, let alone the new paradigm, these are matters on which the parliament should have its say.
I sincerely hope that the parliament will support this bill. There are a number of people absolutely depending on it. There are 72,000 people who get a living from the sale of boats and other things—the sale of fishing tackle. Many of them have come to me and expressed extreme concern for the people that work for them, their businesses and their investments. They are extremely worried, and that is why so many submissions were put forward to the committee. There were submissions from professional fishermen, boatbuilders and others, including Cameron Talbot, Tin Can Bay Chamber of Commerce and Tourism, Marine Queensland, Superyacht (SYBA) Australia Inc., Sunfish Queensland Inc., Australian Marine Engine Council, Queensland Seafood Industry Association, Recfish Australia, Australian Underwater Federation, Coral Sea Access Alliance—all these submissions urging support for this bill. There was also one from Dr Ben Diggles, a very prominent scientist.
If this bill does not go through parliament, it will be no good regretting it when fishing industries close down and the amateur fishermen—and there are four million of them—come to us as members of parliament and say, 'Look, we need support.' What are we going to say? Will we say: 'We had the chance to give you support, but we rejected it. We passed the whole management of this bill back to the minister. We've given him unilateral, almost 100 per cent, control of this by one flick of a pen'? By one stroke of a pen he will be able to declare what fishing will take place, what boating will take place, what industries will take place in particular zones, and we will not be able to do a thing about it.
Surely parliamentary representation is the ability of a constituent to bring their problems and their concerns to parliament. We are rejecting that if we do not pass this bill. We are saying to people out there: leave it to the minister; he knows better than your elected representative. That is not what Australians believe their elected representative is about. It is not what the four million amateur fishermen want. They want to come and have their views heard and they want to express them to their elected members of parliament. If we reject this bill we reject their opportunity to do so.