Monday, 24 June 2013
Private Members' Business
Protection of National Parks
That this House:
(1) notes with concern the lifting of restrictions, by State governments, on activities that present biodiversity and environmental risks to designated conservation parks within their care and control;
(2) recognises the importance of conservation parks in protecting natural environmental assets, creating biodiversity corridors and refuges for threatened flora and fauna; and
(3) calls on the Government to consider measures that can be implemented to protect national parks from activities such as land clearing, mining, grazing and hunting.
Over the years, state and territory and national governments have set aside areas of land and water as designated national parks. They have done that not only to preserve natural areas so that future generations could experience and appreciate the beauty and wonders of nature, but also as much in recognition of the importance that a healthy biodiversity has to sustaining all forms of life. Biodiversity includes not only the diversity of species of plants, animals, fungi, bacteria and viruses, but also the genetic material within those species. It also includes the diversity of ecosystems, habitats and communities within which they live and the diversity of processes that are performed by genes and species and the interactions amongst them.
Australia has a rich biodiversity with between seven and 10 per cent of the earth's species found here. Many are unique to Australia. The Australian Bureau of Statistics reports that Australia has experienced the largest documented decline in biodiversity of any continent over the past 200 years. More than 50 species of Australian animals and 48 Australian plant species are listed as extinct. Australia's rate of species decline is amongst the world's highest and is the highest amongst OECD countries. It is not a rating that we should be proud of. Only last week Birdlife International reported that since colonisation of Australia, 27 bird species have become extinct, 20 are now on the critically endangered list, 60 are endangered and 68 species are vulnerable.
The cause of those losses has to date almost entirely been because of human activity. In recent years climate change has begun to impact on biodiversity. However, the more profound effects of climate change on the natural environment are yet to come and will more likely be felt in the years ahead. The latest report from Australia's Climate Commission, released only this month, notes that one quarter into this, the 'Critical Decade', many consequences of climate change are already evident and the risks of further climate change are better understood now. Extreme weather events are becoming more frequent and climate change, in combination with other stresses, is increasing the risks of species extinctions and threatening many iconic ecosystems including the Great Barrier Reef, Kakadu National Park and the alpine zones of Australia. Australia's ecosystems are already subject to considerable stresses including habitat loss and degradation, pests and weeds, overallocation of river flows, overharvesting of commercial species, pollution and other similar kinds of threats. Climate change will interact with, and in many cases exacerbate, those existing threats.
Critically, our ability to lessen the added risks of climate change is very much dependent on having a healthy ecosystem to begin with—having biodiversity corridors for species to travel through and protected areas for threatened species to take refuge within. A healthy natural environment is critical to all forms of life and the production of food which sustains all of us.
That is why our national parks are so important, why previous governments established them and why more than ever before they need to be protected. That is also why decisions in recent times by state conservative governments along the eastern coast in Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria to ease restrictions that protect national parks from human risks are so irresponsible and will undo all the good efforts of so many people over such a long time, people who have devoted their lives to carrying out research or volunteers who have given so much of their time, energy and money to conserving the natural environment. For all the protestations by vested interest groups that land-clearing, mining, cattle grazing, logging and so on can be compatible with protecting natural areas, the fact remains that all of those activities pose serious risks and threats to the natural environment. Pests and diseases are easily brought in. Natural vegetation which harbours endemic species is destroyed and waterways are contaminated. As Dr Graeme Warboys, Vice-Chair of the International Union for Conservation of Nature, Mountains and Connectivity Conservation, and an executive member of the World Commission on Protected Areas, told the Standing Committee on Climate Change, Environment and the Arts, when he was giving evidence to our last inquiry on managing Australia's biodiversity in a changing climate and when he was responding to a question in respect of the risks in the alpine areas from cattle grazing:
The assessment of the expert managers shows that the Alps are not in a good condition for responding to climate change in the long term.
… … …
Grazing is a disaster for the high country. The mountain soils are deep, usually, organic and easily disturbed.
The Climate Commission's report, in referring to the alpine zone, states:
The alpine zone, which has already suffered significant loss of snow cover over the past few decades, and is home to many rare and threatened species, is considered one of the most vulnerable regions.
Decisions such as those by the Queensland government to allow cattle grazing in national parks, reversing progressive efforts by the previous Bligh government to expand Queensland's national park network from five to 7½ per cent of the state's land area, are short-sighted and grossly irresponsible. In New South Wales I understand that the O'Farrell government is allowing amateur hunters into 77 national parks to kill feral animals whilst logging in protected areas is also being contemplated.
Further south, the Victorian government is opening up national parks for fossicking, prospecting and tourism. As we saw in 2010, cattle grazing in the alpine regions was also allowed by the Victorian government. As well there are reports that the Victorian government is preparing to allow 99-year leases of some of the land that is currently under conservation.
Given the time constraints I have in this debate, I have not even begun to touch on the similar risks that are associated with our oceans and coastal areas where we also know that many of the state governments are allowing human activities which also pose real threats to the coastal waters and to the waters that come within the jurisdiction of the Australian government and which are also critical as natural habitats for the biodiversity of the oceans and life in the sea waters.
The federal government's powers to intervene are limited to the powers found in the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act. These powers cover matters such as World Heritage sites, natural heritage places, wetlands of international importance, nationally threatened species and ecological communities, migratory species and Commonwealth marine species.
I note that the COAG discussions and negotiations currently under way relating to the EPBC Act and the efforts to streamline processes and avoid duplication are currently being considered by the Council of Australian Governments and the federal government. Such reforms, however, should not undermine the preservation of the natural environment or devalue it. Australia's natural reserve system covers just 13.4 per cent of Australia. That means that nearly 87 per cent is still available for use and Australia, as we all know, is a large country.
Regrettably, conservative state governments have demonstrated that they cannot be trusted to protect Australia's natural assets. I therefore call on the federal environment minister, the Hon. Tony Burke—who has shown in the past that he understands the intrinsic value of our natural environment and the biodiversity that it sustains and that he is prepared to intervene when necessary, as he did with respect to the alpine areas of Victoria when the Victorian government was allowing cattle grazing to resume—to consider what powers are available to him under the EPBC Act and to use those powers to protect Australia's natural assets; and, if the powers are not there, for him to consider appropriate amendments to the act.
The damage we do is quite often irreversible. If we fail to responsibly manage our natural environment, it will be our children and future generations who will carry the burden of our mismanagement. As the ancient American Indian proverb says: we do not inherit the earth from our ancestors; we borrow it from our children. I commend the motion to the House.