House debates

Wednesday, 12 September 2012


Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Declared Fishing Activities) Bill 2012; Second Reading

9:51 am

Photo of Greg HuntGreg Hunt (Flinders, Liberal Party, Shadow Minister for Climate Action, Environment and Heritage) Share this | Hansard source

The Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Declared Fishing Activities) Bill is not about the Margiris. This bill is about unfettered and arbitrary powers that are an attack on every recreational fishing community and every family fishing operation in Australia. This bill is not about protecting fish stocks and it has nothing to with the Margiris. It has everything to do with a Trojan Horse operation that introduces a new level of ministerial power that is extraordinary, arbitrary and unfettered. We in this place are custodians of good governance and we have to deal with the issues. But this bill is the likes of which we have not previously seen. The powers are arbitrary, they are unfettered and they are plenary, and the fishing community, as well as the general community, has been sold a pup, because it has nothing to do with the supertrawler. It has everything to do with a knee-jerk reaction that will not deal with the problem but that absolutely confers unlimited executive authority on ministers, without any reference either to fact or to the ability to appeal. It confers the ability to destroy any small family fishing operation on the basis of the slightest issue of social concern raised by the Greens.

I now turn to the concerns the opposition has on three fronts with the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Declared Fishing Activities) Bill 2012, because this is the 'arbitrary ministerial powers bill'. The first of our concerns is about unlimited arbitrary ministerial powers.

The second is about a chaotic process after the Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities, in his previous role as minister for fisheries, invited the Margiris into Australia, when he called in October 2009 for large-scale factory fishing vessels to come into Australia. That was not us. That was not the fishing community. A paper was signed off by the minister calling for large-scale factory fishing vessels to come into this country.

So that is the sovereign risk issue, which has already seen the announcement by Seafish that 50 Australian jobs will now be terminated. The question for the government is, will they compensate the long-term unemployed who had finally found a job and who, as of today, will not have that job? Will the Prime Minister compensate the long-term unemployed as part of the 50 Australians who are now losing their jobs? This is the live cattle issue on steroids. And it is a Trojan Horse, because it is an attack on every family fishing operation and every recreational fishing community in Australia.

Let me do something a little unusual and turn to the deep and specific provisions within the bill. The operative provision is 390SD subparagraph (3)(a), which reads as follows:

(3)   The Minister must not make an interim declaration—

that is, to cease operations, whether by recreational fishers or commercial fishers—

unless the Minister—

that is, the environment minister—

and the Fisheries Minister agree that:

and here is the critical quote:

(a)   there is uncertainty about the environmental, social or economic impacts of the fishing activity.

We spoke with the departmental officials and with officials from the two ministers' offices and asked, what is the definition of 'social uncertainty'? We asked that because this is a new level. To be fair, it was not for them to determine that. But nobody can define what social uncertainty means in the context of this act. And it is not just uncertainty; it is uncertainty in the mind of the minister. There are a number of ministers who live in a permanent state of uncertainty. But this is a new test: 'uncertainty in the mind of the minister'. Social uncertainty has been introduced into the environment act of Australia as the test for an arbitrary, plenary power which is unfettered in its application and can be implemented without notice, without pause, without evidence but simply on the basis of uncertainty.

That can be done, whether it is raised through a Twitter troll or whether it is raised in a letter from the Greens to the minister. There are no conditions, there are no limits, there are no barriers. But we thought long and hard about a definition of social uncertainty, and finally we realised that social uncertainty is when Kevin walks into a room where Julia is present. And that is precisely what happened on the weekend. Kevin walked into Julia's room and put in place social uncertainty by saying he would support the member for Fremantle's bill. And, voila! Two days later, the government reversed the position it had supported through three previous decisions. The government reversed the decision on the basis of social uncertainty, and now they bring in the legislation to justify that definition of social uncertainty.

So we now have an exemplar of the Ruddism that has infected the government: whenever the smallest issue is raised by opponents of fishing or of anything else, we have a decision which is immediate and which has human impacts in the form of 50 lost jobs as announced by Seafish—and those are just the Australian jobs that are to be lost. The vast bulk of those who will lose their jobs, I am advised, are the long-term unemployed out of Devonport. So I would ask the government—the Prime Minister, the minister for the environment and the minister for fisheries—to go to Devonport and meet those people who will lose their jobs as a consequence of this decision.

Let us go further into this notion of social uncertainty. The Environment Act is now guided by a new principle: social uncertainty. That means whatever the minister wants it to mean. 'Social uncertainty' means whatever the minister wants it to mean. A minister can now exercise powers that will close down and destroy a family fishing operation, which can close a recreational fishing ground, on no basis—simply that there is uncertainty. There is no requirement of proof of damage. There is no evidence required of fact. There is no evidence required of anything. It is a Trojan Horse to give the minister unfettered, arbitrary powers to be exercised without notice to the detriment of any fishing community.

I understand that people were genuinely and legitimately concerned about the issue of overfishing—but this bill does not address the quota at all. The quota today will be exactly the same as the quota of yesterday. But what has happened is that there is a new level of uncertainty. Let me give an example of this arbitrary power in the eyes of the fishing community. The Australian Marine Alliance have today issued a statement. Their headline is 'sustainable environmental economic'. They are supporting Australia's commercial and recreational sectors. They say:

We make no excuses for arguing that if this bill passes we will see dozens if not hundreds of businesses exit the industry. In our view the answer is not to give the department of the environment in Canberra greater control over fisheries management but rather for the fisheries portfolio to secure a competent minister who can effectively fulfil their duties as minister for fisheries. As an example, if this bill passes, it will give the department of the environment in Canberra the authority to stop recreational anglers all the way down the east coast from fishing for Bluefin tuna in Commonwealth waters.

That is a quote from the Australian Marine Alliance.

But let us take this further and go to the actual definition of 'uncertainty'—because there is no definition of 'social uncertainty'; it means whatever the minister wants it to mean. The government have created their own problem by inviting the Margiris in. The minister invited the Margiris in in October 2009 with the reference and the call for large-scale factory fishing vessels. They are not our words, but words from AFMA, in a paper signed off by the then minister for fisheries, the now Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities. They invited, they argued for, they created the problem, and now they are creating arbitrary powers.

But it goes further than that, because you then ask: how wide is the range of activities to which the social uncertainty clause can apply? I will turn to paragraph 2 of section 390SD 'Interim declaration' in the bill before us today. It reads:

(2)   When making an interim declaration, the Minister may identify a fishing activity by reference to all or any of the following:

  (a)   a method of fishing;

  (b)   a type of vessel used for fishing;

  (c)   a method of processing, carrying or transhipping of fish that have been taken;

  (d)   an area of waters or of seabed.

So let us understand this: we have an arbitrary power, an unfettered power, an absolute power, which can be used without any just cause, which is non-renewable, which cannot be questioned, and which applies to anything anywhere. So the first part is the power and the second part, as contained in paragraph 2, is the scope and the extent of that power. It says 'an area of waters or of seabed'—any part of Australia, any fishing activity, anywhere at any time. This is not about the fact that there has been damage; there only needs to be social uncertainty.

So we now have the environment act being run on the basis of social uncertainty—giving arbitrary powers for application anywhere, anytime, to anyone. If you are a recreational fisher you might have had legitimate and understandable concerns about the Margiris. I had raised those concerns myself in calling for an independent scientific panel, and there was a genuinely independent scientific panel. I was surprised by the result. The independent scientific panel came down some weeks ago. It was clear and categorical and I had called for it. I accept that.

But when we look at this, the government's response is the same as it was for live cattle. It is the same as it was for the home insulation program. It is the same as Green Loans and Green Start. It is this example—again and again—of a position taken on the basis of any small public campaign, but with no concern whatsoever for the human consequences. Today, of all of the legislation we have seen in the last nearly five years, this is the most arbitrary, most extreme and most unfettered. It is quite extraordinary.

I turn again to the words of the Australian Marine Alliance, which refers to this bill: 'The more immediate concern is the bill to be debated in parliament today that has been hastily drafted by Minister Burke and that will give the minister for the environment and his department almost unfettered authority over all forms of fishing.' So this is a new arbitrary power on the basis of social uncertainty. This government is defined by social uncertainty. The vast majority of ministers live in a permanent haze of social uncertainty, and we have just enshrined that as the basis for the destruction of the livelihoods of small fishers.

This bill has nothing to do with the Margiris, about which people have genuine concerns and for which we have a solution. It has everything to do with a rank extension of authority in an arbitrary and unfettered capacity over the livelihoods and the recreational habits of Australian fishers everywhere. That brings to Australia a broader risk. We heard much from government ministers last week about sovereign risk. This bill introduces sovereign risk on a grand scale in Australia. This bill came after three consecutive decisions from the government.

In October 2009 the fisheries minister at the time called for large-scale factory freezer vessels. The small pelagic fisheries harvest strategy released by the Australian Fisheries Management Authority, signed off by the minister, revised in October 2009, refers to the 'economies of scale in the fishery and the most efficient way to fish may include large scale factory freezer vessels'. The Margiris has been in play for seven years and this was a green light. This strategy was a green light to say 'come on down' to Australia. We did not invite the Margiris, Minister Burke invited the Margiris. That is what large-scale factory freezer vessel means. The Margiris is the definition. It is the response. It is the outcome of the October 2009 decision to release this strategy.

Seafish, an Australian company, then worked with the government. At no point was there an indication, according to the owners, that they were outside of the law, or that they were even outside of the policy. They operated on the advice, on the belief, on the understanding that the government wanted them here.

What is the result? Seafish director Gerry Geen—and let's start with the human consequences—said today that unfortunately the decision would mean that 50 Australians, including the 45 people engaged in Devonport, would lose their jobs. He went on to say:

It is going to be hard to have to tell those employees, some of them who were long-term unemployed, that we no longer have a job for them.

So there is a direct, real human consequences to Australia's long-term unemployed people. He continued:

It seems that after we have met every rule, regulation and request made of us, after years of working with the relevant authorities, that in the end the government reacted to the size of the Abel Tasman and not the size of the quota and the science that supports it.

I want to emphasise a point about sovereign risk. This decision sends an awful message to all potential investors in Australia to be very, very afraid. It shows that this government will change the rules after you are committed to a venture, putting at risk the investment, jobs and all the hard work of many people over many years. Then, when you have met all the new rules and requests, they can still just shut you down. That is sovereign risk. Sovereign risk is where people rely on the word and the law and they act, to their detriment but to the benefit of the country, on the basis of the word and the law and of the undertakings of ministers. Then, the government takes it away with no warning, with no ability to adapt and with no concern.

This is a very serious moment in Australia's parliament. We had the live cattle decision, which by the way is wreaking havoc right now in Indigenous communities across Queensland and the Northern Territory, according to meetings I have had with their representatives in the last few weeks. Those communities of Indigenous pastoralists and Indigenous cattlemen and women still are being affected by the live cattle decision, because of the ramifications in Indonesia, which has cut the quota to Australia. The government will say, 'Gosh, it is just a coincidence they cut the quota to Australia after we slashed their protein in half and after we made an arbitrary decision.' It is not a coincidence. It is a direct response and anybody saying otherwise is in denial.

That was the live cattle decision, but this is worse because these unemployed people had been taken on board. They had been employed and the firm had acted on the basis of following every law. And the ministers encouraged them. How can anybody ever again trust this government? How can anybody ever again do business with this government? How can any firm ever again invest with confidence in Australia? Whether it is the carbon tax, the mining tax, the home insulation program, Green Loans, Green Start or live cattle or whether it is this instance, where there is arbitrary executive power over our fisheries, the rules change overnight on the basis of an email. That is the truth of it and that is the problem. That is why this government is no longer fit for office.

They have made Australia an international laughing stock in terms of sovereign risk. We have seen that in our plummet down the World Economic Forum lists in terms of reliability and wastefulness of governance. What more of a message could this government have had?

With regard to sovereign risk we see that the minister created the problem when, as fisheries minister, he called for large-scale factory freezer vessels. The ministers, both of the them, created the problem when they gave comfort, succour, aid and invitation to Seafish to bring the Margiris into Australia. We know about the discussion and the negotiations. This government invited the Margiris into Australia and then they turned around and made Australia a laughing stock. That is Ruddism. That is what has happened to the modern Labor Party. It does not matter who the leader is. There is a deep infection in the culture of a political party that no longer believes in anything.

I now turn to the issue of science. I want to deal with the statement AFMA made on their web site on the issue of the Margiris. That statement was updated on Monday of this week.

It is headed, 'Why is AFMA confident that the boat's operations would be sustainable'—this is the scientific agency—'Because', they say, 'these catch limits are strictly enforced by AFMA using high-tech systems', 'Australia's fisheries management is consistently ranked among the world's best by international experts', and:

AFMA has found no evidence that larger boats pose a higher risk to either commercial species or broader marine ecosystems when total catches are limited and the limits are enforced. This type of fishing, mid-water trawling, is one of the most selective, which means the bycatch will be very low. AFMA works closely with fishers to minimise bycatch, and they will be required to follow several rules to ensure wildlife isn't impacted …

And it concludes:

The science shows that localised depletion is unlikely in this fishery, but AFMA will be keeping a close eye on this issue, given the concerns raised.

That was Monday! And on Tuesday, the government said they were uncertain. On Monday there was an express statement on the science. But, just in case anybody missed it, other people have commented on this. Minister Ludwig said in the Senate on Thursday, 23 August:

The setting of catch limits in the small pelagic fishery are based on strong precautionary principle. Under the harvest strategy for this fishery, the catch limit is capped at a maximum of 20 per cent of the estimated available biomass …

He goes on to say:

This is a very conservative limit … Even with that cap, the current management plan sets the quota to less than 10 per cent … These stock limits are based on science and assessed by the experts.

He then went on to say, in relation to a disallowance motion on the quota for the relevant fishery:

The disallowance motion being moved by the Greens is misplaced and could harm fisheries across Australian Commonwealth waters.

…   …   …

This disallowance motion is a message that the Greens political party do not support sustainable catch limits based on science … As minister for fisheries, I will not allow the emotive politics of the Greens political party to run fisheries management policy in this country.

It could have been a work from Monty Python, given what happened, because the government then turned around and did completely the opposite.

But it is not just confined to that minister, because here is what Tony Burke said on Q&A on 3 September:

So what I have signed off on today is effectively the big vessel will have to fish with the rules so the impact it has on the environment is no more than for fishing like a small vessel.

How about that? So, in terms of the official targeting, that part has already been measured as sustainable.

The question with this one, though, is: instead of 20 boats going out to all different parts of a huge fishery that goes all the way around Queensland and South Australia, you get a different impact.

He then goes on to say, 'If there's a problem, they have to move on'—so he had a move-on provision.

So let us understand what all of this means. All of this means one thing: this decision today, perversely, means there will be not one fewer fish caught. The quota that was in place yesterday is the same today, only there will be more boats catching the same number of fish. How does that work? The government have led people to believe there would be a lesser catch of fish. That is what is actually said here. There is not. Their scientific agency does not believe there needs to be a lesser catch. The minister for fisheries does not believe there needs to be a lesser catch. The minister for the environment does not believe there needs to be a lesser catch. So, three boats, or five boats, or 20 boats can now catch exactly the same number of fish. As has been said in the media in the last 24 hours: it is not the size of the boat; it is the size of the quota that matters. And the size of the quota does not change; only that there will be more boats catching the same number of fish. So, as a matter of logic, it has reached a point of perversity. Science has been displaced.

To finish, let me deal with the Magiris. We have said that we would be willing to work with the government to amend the Fisheries Act to ensure that there are stronger move-on powers. We are happy to sit down with the government to give greater move-on powers under the Fisheries Act, and we would be happy to do that now, to walk out of this chamber and support greater move-on powers. We will be moving an amendment to that effect, and I will be moving an amendment to the effect that the Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities should explain the reasons for his decision to reverse the policy that he introduced as fisheries minister in 2009 which stated that there are:

… considerable economies of scale in the fishery and the most efficient way to fish may include large-scale factory freezer vessels.

And he should explain why he invited the Magiris into Australia by promoting large-scale factory freezer vessels, and explain what actions he will take to compensate the 50 Australian workers who are losing their jobs as a consequence of this legislation. I move:

That all words after 'That' be omitted with a view to substituting the following words:

'whilst not declining to give the bill a second reading, the House calls on the Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities to explain:

(1) the reasons for his decision to reverse the policy that he introduced as Fisheries Minister in October 2009 which stated: "There are considerable economies of scale in the fishery and the most efficient way to fish may include large scale factory freezer vessels";

(2) why he effectively invited the Margiris into Australia by promoting ‘large scale factory freezer vessels’; and

(3) what actions he will take to compensate the 50 Australian workers who are losing their jobs as a consequence of this legislation.'

However, knowing that we will also move an amendment to discuss the move-on provisions in the Fisheries Act immediately, we are happy to sit down with the government to provide a way forward for better protection on the Magiris today, this moment, this second—no problem. We will look for stronger actions. This bill keeps the same number of fish being caught. This bill creates sovereign risk. This bill, above all else, gives unlimited, arbitrary powers, an executive blank cheque, to the minister on the basis of social uncertainty. As of today we have a new standard in Australian legislative activity. Social uncertainty is the basis for executive absolute unlimited authority and that is why we oppose the bill. (Time expired)


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