House debates

Monday, 15 June 2020


Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Amendment (Coronavirus Economic Response Package) Bill 2020; Second Reading

12:40 pm

Photo of Terri ButlerTerri Butler (Griffith, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for the Environment and Water) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to support the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Amendment (Coronavirus Economic Response Package) Bill 2020 and to move the second reading amendment circulated in my name:

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 notes that Coalition governments have mismanaged and politicised the Great Barrier Reef, which is a job-generating, economic and environmental powerhouse of global significance, that Australians need to preserve for future generations".

Labor welcomes this bill, as it provides relief for Great Barrier Reef tourism operators who've been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic. So many parts of the country have needed support as a result of COVID-19, and the tourism industry has been among the hardest hit. This bill supplements a measure that passed the parliament earlier in the pandemic period—back in March—to waive the environmental management charge from 1 April 2020 to 31 December 2020. Combined, these measures effectively ensure that the EMC is waived for the entire 2020 calendar year.

The environmental management charge fee paid by operators is usually determined by the number of visitors to the reef and is charged to them as a visitor fee. It's only fair that tourism operators aren't burdened by this cost in 2020, so Labor welcomes this sensible measure. We're also pleased the Minister for the Environment has assured Australians that there will be no reduction in the revenue that goes to the management of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park as a result of this amendment because, while the pandemic has meant many parts of our lives have been paused, time still marches on and the threats to the future of the Great Barrier Reef are on a tight and unforgiving deadline.

While Labor welcomes this relief for tourism operators in the North and the Far North, the government has been woefully lacking when it comes to supporting tourism and the reef in the long term. To support tourism, the government needs to support the reef. And, to support the reef, the government should work towards the overall health of the reef. Importantly, it should resist the deniers in its ranks, commit to serious action on climate change at home and show leadership internationally.

The Great Barrier Reef is a great asset to Australia. Our country is so fortunate to be the home of one of the seven wonders of the natural world. It is the largest coral reef on the planet and the largest living structure on earth. As a kid growing up in Cairns, I spent a lot of my childhood on the reef. Family and friends had great memories of visiting the islands. It was common for people to take up scuba-diving or at least to have used a snorkel. As well as enjoying the reef as locals, everyone really understood that the reef was a great drawcard for the many overseas visitors we saw in the streets of our town. There were jobs in cruise operations and in dive schools, but the economic reach went much further. Local small businesses—like my mum's small business and like my grandfather's small business—had a lot of tourism based customers too, all because of the breathtaking beauty of this natural wonder.

The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park covers 344,400 square kilometres. That's bigger than Victoria and Tasmania combined and larger than the United Kingdom, Switzerland and Holland combined. While many people across the globe can and do appreciate its wonder and environmental significance, it is Queenslanders in regional communities up and down the coast, like the one I'm from, who are most keenly aware of its value environmentally, economically, culturally and socially as part of the Australian identity. Those Queenslanders include, firstly, more than 70 Torres Strait Islander and Aboriginal traditional owner groups who've had a continuing relationship with the Great Barrier Reef over millennia. They include the Queensland based scientists, as well, who've studied the reef their whole lives and are evermore urgently advocating for it. They include, too, around 64,000 Queenslanders who rely on the reef for work—for their livelihoods.

Deloitte Access Economics published a report that calculated the site's full economic, social and iconic brand value. The title of the report is the same question we asked those opposite: At what price? What will this government's failure to preserve the reef cost us?

The report found that the reef contributed $6.4 billion to the Australian economy in one year and that the reef is a $56 billion asset. To continue to provide all those values—the economic values as well as, of course, the environmental, social and cultural values—the reef needs to be strong and it needs to be healthy. We need to protect it as if our livelihoods depend on it, because in Queensland they do. But, under the Morrison government's stewardship, we have seen the outlook for the reef downgraded from 'poor' to 'very poor'. Their actions in relation to reef funding have been under a cloud since the outrageous backroom deal of $444 million, which fell afoul of the Auditor-General.

Distressingly, earlier in the year we saw the third major bleaching event in five years. Australia can't afford yet another blow to our tourism industry, already hit so hard by the pandemic. But, under this government's watch, the reef is going backwards. In his first report, the Morrison appointed reef envoy, the member for Leichhardt, brushed over the impacts of climate change inaction, water quality and crown-of-thorns starfish. Instead, he devoted his attention to plastics. Tackling this issue is important, but a focus on plastics cannot be allowed to be a fig leaf for the Liberal-National government's failure to face up to the major challenges facing the reef. The government's own agency, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, states that single-use plastics constituted only a small proportion, around one or two per cent, of the overall marine debris collected at the reef.

The disproportionate emphasis on plastics in relation to the reef is a decoy for the other real challenges Queensland regional communities face. The member for Leichhardt is on the record as denying the greatest threats to the reef, as well as the science of coral bleaching and climate change, when he said in relation to climate change, 'It's been happening for millennia.' Instead of being a champion for the—

Mr Tim Wilson interjecting

True! I hear the interjection from the member for Goldstein. As I said, the member for Leichhardt is on the record as denying the science of climate change. Instead of being a champion for the reef, as its envoy, the member for Leichhardt is being used to detract from the damage being done to it. Instead of championing the reef, the reef envoy has questioned the science of two of its greatest threats. Of course, he's not the only impediment to real progress on protecting the reef. While not-for-profit organisations, environmentalists, scientists, experts, farmers, tourism operators, the Palaszczuk Labor government and many others are working to raise awareness about the true impacts on the reef, the member for Dawson, who I see is here in the chamber, is on the record as denying the science on water quality. This is in addition to his rejection of climate science. The Morrison government's policy has been hijacked by the extreme right wing of the party. How can Australians have faith that this government will protect the reef if the government can't even be honest about the major threats to it?

It's important to acknowledge the work of organisations big and small who've had to step in and do the work of government over the years. I want to acknowledge the work of the Australian Marine Conversation Society, who've briefed me on a number of significant issues over many years, including threatened species, corals and the mass bleaching events. The most recent mass bleaching event was the most extensive, but tragically it was the third event to have taken place in only five years.

I don't want people to think, though, that they shouldn't visit the reef. There is still so much to see, and we need people to visit the reef. People need to understand its wonder and how beautiful it is so that they feel moved to try to work to protect it. During this pandemic, the requirement for all of us to stay indoors has made Australians really miss the outside world. I think we have a new-found appreciation for the outdoors; I certainly do—the park down the road, the beach or just anywhere you can get fresh air. Queensland has already lifted its internal travel ban, so Queenslanders should go to visit the reef. It is one of the world's seven natural wonders and it happens to be in our own backyard. Queenslanders should already know that the Ekka show holiday has been moved to a Friday to encourage everyone to get out and see Queensland for a long weekend. Those considering a visit to the north or far north of the state should be assured that, despite the Morrison government's lack of environmental action, there is still a great deal of beauty and wonder to be experienced on the Great Barrier Reef. The reef is one of the best tourism experiences on the planet and it's right on our doorstep. Not only will you get to see the amazing natural diversity and beauty of the reef; you'll be supporting thousands of Queensland jobs, and I think that's absolutely worth doing.

Many of the tourism operators and other local small businesses supported by tourism are struggling, and they're currently relying on support to survive. There are estimates from the tourism sector nationally that up to 400,000 jobs might be at risk when JobKeeper ends. The sector won't simply be able to snap back if support isn't extended. The Prime Minister, I've got to say, is completely and woefully out of touch if he thinks snapping back to the way things were before is likely.

Thankfully, though, the Palaszczuk government has provided support for the tourism industry during this difficult time, with additional funds, tools and support programs. Australia's greatest national icon is open for business, and it remains one of the best tourism experiences on the planet. That doesn't mean we can be in denial about the challenges to the reef. Denial about the reef's future puts it at even greater risk.

Whilst the federal government's attention during this pandemic must be directed towards saving lives, protecting incomes and securing the safety of all Australians, we must also plan for the recovery now. Australia will need to leverage our natural advantages into economic growth, supporting jobs and bringing back international tourists once it's safe to do so. The reef has an extremely important part to play in the recovery. But with the Morrison government we're seeing asset devaluation, poor maintenance, vast sums of money being allocated without proper processes and no plan to preserve its value for the stakeholders of the reef, all Australians. If the coalition government was a private sector asset manager for a $56 billion asset and they managed it this poorly they'd be sacked in a heartbeat. The reef is a job-generating economic and environmental powerhouse for all Australians.

Deputy Speaker Gillespie, the government really abandoned reef communities when it decided to use such a poor process to hand over almost half a billion dollars of public money to a private foundation. They have had to spend a lot of time scaling up their operation. When the deal was done, they only had six full-time staff. It was so controversial—and people will remember this—that the Australian National Audit Office had to investigate the way the grant was handled. They found that the government failed to comply fully with the rules designed to ensure transparency and value for money. Further, the Auditor-General found that there wasn't adequate scrutiny of the foundation's proposals, specifically the capacity and capability of the foundation's delivery partners to scale up their activities, the foundation's past fundraising performance and the total administration cost of the partnership model, with basically no consideration given to the administration costs of the foundation's delivery partners.

While some of the projects and investments in the reef that are currently being explored involve incredible science and ingenuity—like shading to cool reefs by cutting sunlight to lower ocean temperatures, stabilising reef structures and helping corals adapt—these extraordinary efforts are just not enough when we have a government that will not accept the science of climate change and will certainly not do enough to do something about it. The five years to 2019 were the five hottest on record for our oceans. Ocean warming can now be observed at a depth of 1,000 metres. A warming of just one degree Celsius in our oceans is significant. One of the most challenging issues, I think, for dealing with people's confidence in whether the government is responding well to the challenges that face the reef is the way that the grant to the Great Barrier Reef Foundation was handled. That's because people need to have confidence in and transparency of governance if they are going to have confidence that a government will do the right thing, rather than thinking they have a government that will hide things, hide their own failures, not face up to the science and fail to deliver for regional communities.

I think it's regrettable the Liberals and Nationals deliberately politicise the reef in this way. They did so when they used a very shonky process to hand almost half a billion dollars to this small foundation, and I don't want to see them continue to politicise the reef. We need cooperation to save the reef because it's managed at all levels of government. But we've recently seen Liberal and National members fall afoul of that. Look no further, if you want an example of that, than the Liberals and Nationals using their position in the Senate to set up an inquiry for the purpose of trying to smear the Queensland state government over water quality laws. They should be focused on saving the reef and protecting regional economies. But, in September last year, they established a Senate inquiry that was—'Oh, what a coincidence—Diedre Chambers!'—timed to report just before the Queensland state election. They're trying to take Queenslanders for mugs, as usual. But Queenslanders can see through these sorts of games any day of the week.

Lately we've all had to change the way we do things. Can I offer some advice to those opposite? Now is the time to realise the worth of the reef and the importance of bringing people together, informed by science, to make sure its beauty and wonder is available for generations to come. The government's own reef agency, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, in its outlook report, states:

Inshore water quality is improving on a regional scale, but too slowly; poor water quality continues to affect many inshore areas of the Reef. The rate of reduction of pollutant loads has been slow, reflecting modest improvements in agricultural land management practices. Future initiatives need to deliver timely, best practice agricultural land management over a wider area to improve water quality.

Those of us who are here, in this place or in the other place, need to take our positions here very seriously, and not use the privilege of being here to score cheap political points while at the same time putting regional communities at risk by actively campaigning against science based decision-making. There are no winners in politicising science or the reef. There are no winners in focusing on short-term politics at the expense of protecting the 64,000 jobs that exist which rely on the reef. They exist in regional economies like those around Cairns, Townsville, Mackay and beyond. There are no winners in failing to protect the health of our inshore rivers that are connected to the reef, or the pristine nature of the shores and waters.

I want to protect the reef and our natural environment more broadly; it's part of the reason I'm part of a party that has advocated for and set up the institutions that have helped to preserve the reef. Federal Labor first protected the Great Barrier Reef by creating the marine park in 1975, and we're proud of our broader achievements for the environment in government. Labor ratified the World Heritage Convention, making Australia one of the first countries to do so. It was a Labor government that protected Queensland's Wet Tropics. Environmental institutions that are now fundamental to preserving our environment were created by Labor, including the proper funding and management of Australia's national parks and the implementation of environmental impact assessments. Labor governments also led the world in ozone layer protection action, commenced Australia's first serious action on greenhouse gases and led action to protect the Antarctic. On the ground Labor saw the united goals of conservationists and farmers, and established Landcare. We have stood for constantly making sure that the national government acts responsibly in relation to matters of national environmental significance. Australians are living and breathing the tangible results of Labor's record on the environment. It's imperative that this is not undone.

I would encourage all Queenslanders who have the means to do so to visit the reef. It's a beautiful place: the people, the sun and the corals. Whether you head up to Port Douglas and go out to the Low Isles; whether you go to Green Island, Fitzroy Island or the islands off Cairns, where so many of us kids spent a lot of time growing up; whether you go down to Dunk or up to the beautiful corals of the outer reef; or whether you go to Cod Hole, there are so many beautiful places to go and so many opportunities. Head up there, support those tourism operators and make sure you do spend as much time as you can, because it's so important that people see that the reef is so worth saving.

It's another world. As I said, it's the largest living structure on earth and it's right in our backyard. We need to keep it clean, we need to keep it safe and we need to take serious action on climate change at home and abroad. It's a $56 billion asset and it supports 64,000 jobs. So Labor will continue to stand for the reef.

Photo of David GillespieDavid Gillespie (Lyne, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Is the amendment seconded?

Photo of Brendan O'ConnorBrendan O'Connor (Gorton, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Employment and Industry) Share this | | Hansard source

I second the amendment and reserve my right to speak.

Photo of David GillespieDavid Gillespie (Lyne, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The original question was that this bill be now read a second time. To this, the honourable member for Griffith has moved as an amendment that all the words after 'That' be omitted with a view to substituting other words. If it suits the House, I will state the question in the form that the words proposed to be omitted stand as part of the question.

12:59 pm

Photo of George ChristensenGeorge Christensen (Dawson, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

As the member for Goldstein quipped to me during the last speech, that's the kind of speech you get when your seat has become reliant on Green votes and you've become reliant on Green votes to actually get across the line. It's very, very sad, because the bill before us is quite an important bill. This is all about providing a remedy for the plight of tourism operators in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. What we just heard is a return to arguments of the past and divisions of the past; and I'm referring not just to divisions in this place but also to divisions among local workers, local industry, local jobs, local farmers and local tourism operators. It is an argument of the past, an argument that we as a government are leaving behind because we are on the side of tourism workers and tourism businesses.

I am so disappointed that the main Labor speaker here, the member for Griffith, would come forward with this speech—and with motions and amendments—that is all about politics. She talks about not politicising the reef. I don't know what that amendment and that speech are if they aren't politicising the reef. Goodness me, to put in a do-nothing amendment like that to a bill that is about assisting tourism workers and tourism businesses really does beggar belief. I'm so passionate about this, because this change, this relief to tourism operators that goes on to help tourism workers, actually came from my electorate, from the Dawson electorate. It had a lot of support. I didn't see too many people on the other side of the chamber—I didn't see the member for Griffith—arguing the case for tourism operators at the time. The people who were advocating for that were me, the member for Leichhardt, the member for Herbert, the member for Flynn, the member for Capricornia and the member for Wide Bay—all of those up and down the coast of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park area. We know how many businesses rely on this great asset and how many workers rely on jobs from that great asset.

I went in to bat for tourism operators that were saying, as this pandemic rolled out, 'We need to waive the reef tax', otherwise known as the Great Barrier Reef Environmental Management Charge. That tax, sadly, has gone up and up and has become a massive impost on tourism operators. I think it needs to be looked at in the future to see whether it actually continues or not. But, for now, what we did initially was suspend that tax for the rest of the year. I was at a meeting where the Minister for the Environment actually announced this to Whitsunday tourism operators, and they were so enthralled at the decision that the room burst into applause. That was what this measure would do for the tourism operators. It was so good they burst into applause. Actually, as it turned out, a week later the whole industry pretty much had been shut down because of the pandemic, so this measure probably wasn't saving them much at all because no-one was going out to the reef.

I went in and fought to have this decision backdated to 1 January. It took a while to get there because it had to be legislated, as we're doing right now. But, the day that it happened, I got this letter from the Whitsunday Charter Boat Industry Association, who were the crew that were advocating for this, so that I could advocate for it; they came to me with all the information that led to this decision here today. This shows how grassroots politics—businesses, workers and individuals actually getting involved—can actually facilitate major change like what's before us today. This group from Airlie Beach did it.

What they wrote to me, the Minister for the Environment, the Minister for Trade, Tourism and Investment, the Deputy Prime Minister and the member for Leichhardt was this: 'I'm writing to you both personally and on behalf of the Whitsunday Charter Boat Industry Association to offer our sincere and heartfelt thanks for the support you have shown to our industry in what will be long remembered as one of its darkest of times. The announcement yesterday of a backdate in the environmental management charge (EMC) waiver to 1 January, and the $3 million in further relief for our industry that this will mean, could not have come at a more opportune moment. An increasing amount of economic studies are putting the Whitsundays and its marine tourism industry at the top of Australia's list of regions and business sectors that have been severely affected by COVID-19.

'Even prior to the pandemic we were still reeling from the impacts of Tropical Cyclone Debbie and a cluster of shark attacks. Notwithstanding this, our region and our industry has continued to account for over 40 per cent of the $6.3 billion, 64,000-job Great Barrier Reef tourism sector. Our contribution is estimated at over $2.8 billion. We carry one million passengers per year into the Whitsundays section of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. In short, we are worth saving, and yesterday's announcement demonstrates your clear understanding of that. As you know, operators will only begin to realise the benefit from the initial EMC waiver from 1 April to 31 December 2020 once business resumes. Without customers, there is no EMC paid, which under these waiver provisions operators will be able to use as much-needed cash flow.'

She goes on to thank the government for backdating it and listening to the industry on what was needed. And it really is needed, because, again, with what we just heard in the last contribution to this debate, there was hardly mention of the plight of tourism businesses; it was all politics. There were old arguments about funding to foundations and old arguments trying to separate one industry from another industry and so on. But what wasn't mentioned was the fact that in the Whitsundays right now 100 per cent of tourism businesses are directly impacted by this Wuhan coronavirus pandemic; 118 businesses have actually suspended operations within the Whitsundays. Over 3,000 jobs have been lost in the Whitsundays because of this event. Almost 30,000 room nights have been cancelled. Almost 24,000 tours and activities have been cancelled. The total estimated dollar value of cancellations caused directly by this event and the bushfires is around $150 million—to a single community. It is unbelievable.

They are staggering figures, and this is part of the reason we have built up this COVID-19 relief and recovery fund that has helped do things like provide this extra environmental management charge relief to tourism operators. It is something that has been very well received. And lest we think that this is just a little kick in the can for the industry, I can tell you that it's worth tens of thousands to businesses, who are suffering on a number of fronts. It is not just because they don't have customers walking in the door at the moment. If I can segue into one area that is impacting on the financial viability of tourism businesses right now, it's the fact that we've got all of these online booking agents that are withholding funds for tours that have been conducted for tourism operators right now. I'm not going to go too in-depth into this, because the industry is trying to sort it out and doesn't want the issue made bigger than it is, for them to sort out. But the fact is that they are hurting quite badly because we have booking agencies—a lot of them foreign owned—that are just not handing over the funds for tours that have actually been conducted. So, we've got tourism operators that are, again, tens of thousands of dollars out of pocket.

So this money that we are providing—handing back this environmental management charge for the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority to the operators—is a godsend; it really is. It's going to mean the difference between businesses shutting up shop and staying open. It's going to mean the difference between people keeping jobs in the Whitsundays, in Cairns, down at Yeppoon and probably at Gladstone and in so many other places. It really is a godsend.

I want to state my position on a few other things that will assist the tourism industry beyond this. As I said at the start of this, I think there needs to be a severe review of this environmental management charge going into the future. The EMC started off as a buck, mind you—one buck, as I understand it—and that dollar that was charged for each night or each time that a tourist went out onto the reef went into a consolidated fund that basically spent money on infrastructure and projects that the industry wanted to see happen. It's really, really gone way away from its original intent. It is now just basically a tax that goes to fill the coffers of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, and, as good a job as they do, it really has gone against the initial intent, which was about projects and infrastructure that the industry said were needed.

So we either need to get back to the original intent of the program and what its funding was for, or we need to get rid of it altogether—one of the two. Because the Great Barrier Reef, as so many people like to say, is a national asset. Why then should businesses that are in the Great Barrier Reef be the ones that are slugged with the bulk of the administration of the asset? It's a national asset. The nation should pay and it should come out of the normal consolidated revenue rather than as a direct tax for the industry.

It might be an ambit claim to have businesses that are getting the benefit of the reef to not pay anything, but I'm putting it anyway, and I dare say that the least that can happen is a severe reduction in this charge and a reorientation of the funds that come out of this charge to actual tourism infrastructure and tourism projects within the Great Barrier Reef area. That is what it was initially designed to do. I've got the paperwork—the letters from ministers, the press releases, the reports and all the rest of it—to prove that fact. But, like with so many other programs, they just go every which way but loose as time goes on.

I'm already on the record saying this publicly, so I'll say it again right now: we will need to keep supports in place for the tourism sector beyond September. That is quite clear to me. We're talking about a continuation of JobKeeper and a continuation of cashflow for businesses supports. We're probably talking about a replenishment of the COVID-19 Relief and Recovery Fund in order to continue to allow businesses and sectors to apply for relief for things like rates, insurance and all the other charges they go through. There will need to be a bit of leaning by the government on the banks to continue supporting businesses that are not back to normal as a result of this pandemic.

Certainly in the tourism sector they will not be back to normal. There are businesses in the tourism sector, particularly in the Whitsundays, that are completely and utterly geared towards the international market. The don't get much domestic clientele. It will be very difficult, if not impossible, for them to re-gear themselves to the domestic market. The domestic market is, despite all the best intentions, probably going to be lukewarm, because consumer confidence is low because of this pandemic. I wish it were higher, and I encourage people to holiday in the Great Barrier Reef communities and in the Whitsundays, but it's probably going to be lukewarm. If we just simply divert all businesses, including those that are now pretty much fixed on international, into the domestic market, we could oversaturate it, leading to a situation where nobody wins in the tourism sector.

Really, there needs to be that absolute continuation of support, if your income has dipped or turnover has dipped below 30 per cent. A lot of them will have dipped below 30 per cent and will continue to be below 30 per cent, not only as we open up the domestic borders—which should have happened a long time ago; that's one of the things hampering domestic tourism at the moment—but with the international borders closed and, beyond that, with commercial flights not getting back into full swing, and, beyond that even more, there is local consumer confidence in international travel. We really do need to wait for these things to be cleared before we let people get back to situation normal.

Thank you very much. I'm very pleased that this bill supports tourism workers and tourism businesses in the Whitsundays.

1:14 pm

Photo of Josh WilsonJosh Wilson (Fremantle, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for the Environment) Share this | | Hansard source

I'm glad for the opportunity to speak on the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Amendment (Coronavirus Economic Response Package) Bill 2020, which seeks to support the tourism sector focused around the Great Barrier Reef. I'm particularly glad to support the second reading amendment move by the shadow minister for the environment, the member for Griffith. And I join her in encouraging people around Australia to support our tourism economies all over this country, including in Queensland, including the tourism sector focused on the Great Barrier Reef.

The measure contained in this bill is a worthy one but is relatively minor when you consider the scale of the impact we've seen on the sector. This measure allows operators to keep the environment management charge they collect from visitors. They collect it to then remit it to the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority in support of its very important work in protecting this extensive, precious but also fragile and at-risk marine environment. I think any move to remove this charge and therefore defund the work the authority does would be bananas. This bill follows in the footsteps of an earlier bill that covered the period from 1 April to the end of 2020. This bill goes back and picks up the period from 1 January to the end of March, which I would think is the most relevant period in terms of the value which the EMC holds for tourism operators. There will be operators that took in that charge, which they've either held or remitted, and they will get it back, and it will be of some value to them. After 1 March there probably wasn't much tourism or much in the way of a charge being gathered.

I really want to take this opportunity to acknowledge all the businesses and workers who are involved one way or another with Great Barrier Reef tourism. I know it will have been a distressing and bewildering experience so far in 2020, and, unfortunately, that situation continues. GBR tourism is itself a significant part of the Australian economy and, of course, the Queensland economy. Its direct and indirect value is enormous: $6.4 billion annually and 64,000 jobs, and there are thousands of businesses that depend on and benefit from reef tourism to some degree. If you think of all those involved, there are tour operators, accommodation and transport providers, boat operators, recreational hire businesses, divers, fishers, people in aquaculture, food and beverage businesses, people in scientific research and conservation—the list goes on and on.

There's no question that the Great Barrier Reef is an incredible and unique feature of the world's marine environment. It's regarded as the largest living organism on earth, and we know that a quarter of the world's marine life depends on coral reef ecosystems. The reef is, understandably, a matter of enormous attraction, a place of wonder and curiosity and delight. It's true to say that people are motivated to come to Australia to experience the Great Barrier Reef alone. That's what gets them here, and other parts of Australia benefit as a result. We know the reef is an unparalleled drawcard for visitors who go on to explore other parts of Queensland and other parts of Australia. It's a gateway attraction, a visitor magnet, and there are few destinations that are more strongly and positively associated with Australia than the Great Barrier Reef.

It not only draws people to Australia, which then allows them to visit and experience other aspects of our natural environment, our towns and cities, our broader arts and culture and food and beverage industries; the reef actually stands for one of Australia's core values and characteristics. We are the beneficiaries of the oldest continuing culture on earth and as part of that we are the stewards of a place of extraordinary beauty and biodiversity.

The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park receives around 2.5 million visitors each year. When you look at the surveys that identify what brings people to Queensland and to Australia, there aren't many motivations that compete with the phrase, 'I want to see and experience the Great Barrier Reef.' So again, like the member for Griffith, I acknowledge all those involved in looking after and showing off this wonder of the world, this world heritage marvel, for which we in Australia are fortunate to be responsible. We do need to do more to live up to that responsibility. We cannot take the health of our marine environments around Australia for granted, and I'm going to come back to that.

Almost everyone in Australia's tourism sector has had an unbelievably rough year in 2020. We know that the tourism and visitor economy was first hit and hardest hit by the coronavirus pandemic. In March alone I understand that visitor arrivals in Queensland fell 60 per cent. As I understand it, $200 million of bookings were cancelled in March, and by the end of April that impact was estimated to have reached $500 million. There is also an estimate that 16,000 workers would be laid off—that's a quarter of the 64,000 involved in GBR tourism: one in four. I know that Tropical North Tourism has said:

We will be one of the last destinations to recover and estimate that the region will lose at least $2.5bn in visitor expenditure which is 15% of our gross regional product in 2020.

Right now we're coming into the period in which Queensland tourism would usually welcome a large number of visitors, especially from overseas. Obviously, that's been heavily affected and, while everyone in this place looks forward to the resumption in due course of interstate travel and tourism—when it's safe for that to occur—international tourism is likely to be a fair way off. So it's appropriate—of course it's appropriate—that we take measures like the one delivered through this bill, but it's more important that we consider whether the government is doing enough. The value of allowing operators to keep their EMC or to have it remitted to them if they've already passed it through is likely to be around $2 million in the period covered by 1 January to the end of March. That's actually not a huge amount of support. The previous member talked about tens of thousands of dollars per business; I can't really see what that calculation is based on.

Because we know that the bill operates to ensure that the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority is not deprived of funding, the bill provides for $2.9 million to go from consolidated revenue to the GBRMPA in lieu of what it would ordinarily gain. So somewhere between $2 million and $3 million is what this measure is worth. It's not a huge number; it's not unhelpful, but it's not going to make a massive difference. We know that a proper wage subsidy would have made a much more significant difference. We led the way in calling for that reform, and the government ultimately relented on creating a wage subsidy after saying it wasn't necessary—as it did on telehealth and in a number of other areas. Initially, it thought those things didn't need to occur. But, as we've seen, the government's JobKeeper program has turned out to be a short and patchy blanket as we head into winter.

Even by the government's own calculations—if 'calculations' is the right term for whatever caused them to miss the mark by three million workers and $60 billion—there are many people and businesses missing out on support. But even before that gargantuan error—that Grand Canyon, that Great Barrier Reef, of an error—it emerged that it was already clear that JobKeeper was not designed as effectively as it could have been. The exclusion of up to a million casual workers is a case in point. The 12-month requirement that left casual workers in the cold has, just as importantly, left businesses in the cold, because it meant that workers were separated from the entities to which they contributed. In many cases, that has meant that the business itself is not viable.

So, as we confront and seek to come through this global health pandemic, we'd be fools to ignore the other forms of catastrophe that threaten our shared social, environmental and economic wellbeing. In 2020, we've already experienced the first national climate change disaster in the form of bushfire on a scale the world has never yet seen. We've also watched in dismay the third mass-bleaching event in the Great Barrier Reef within the last five years. Those events—those bleaching events—are a feature of climate change. They're a consequence of the fact that the ocean has absorbed 90 per cent of the additional energy caused by the emission of greenhouse gases. As our oceans get hotter and hotter they grow more acidic, and this affects marine life, including the algae that sustains reef ecosystems.

According to the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reefs Studies, which undertakes world-based integrated research for sustainable use and management of coral reefs, the 2020 bleaching was more widespread than earlier events. As director, Terry Hughes, said:

We surveyed 1,036 reefs from the air during the last two weeks in March, to measure the extent and severity of coral bleaching throughout the Barrier Reef region. For the first time, severe bleaching has struck all three regions of the Great Barrier Reef – the northern, central and now large parts of the southern sectors.

This year, February had the highest monthly temperatures ever recorded on the Great Barrier Reef since the Bureau of Meteorology sea surface temperature records began in the year 1900. And yet the Minister for Emissions Reduction hasn't achieved what his title would suggest his job is to do, which is meaningful reduction, and has made it clear that the Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison tick-tick-tick government will not be updating Australia's woeful emissions reduction target at this year's conference of the parties to the Paris Climate Agreement.

There are 105 countries that have indicated they intend to lift their ambition in respect of nationally determined contributions this year, but Australia is not one of them. The fact that GBR operators have a direct interest in the health of the reef and, in many cases, are active in reef conservation and restoration is both understandable and welcome. While climate change, and consequent ocean warming, is clearly the biggest threat to the future health of the reef, plastic pollution is also a serious issue.

We're facing a waste crisis in Australia. The most recent feature of the crisis is the export bans that mean we can't send our rubbish somewhere else. That's forcing us to acknowledge the fact that we've done poorly when it comes to recycling, especially in areas like plastic. We struggle to recycle barely 12 per cent of the 100 kilograms or so that each of us in Australia consumes every year. We know that, globally, something like eight million tonnes of plastic waste goes into the ocean each year, and the global production of plastic is forecast to double between 2019 and 2025. That simply can't continue. Plastic persists in the ocean forever—or near enough. Plastic is washing up on coasts in increasing quantities and microplastics are turning up in the stomachs of 50 per cent of some marine species, marine birds and some fish. It represents a serious risk to the Great Barrier Reef. According to the Australian Marine Debris Database, 80 per cent of all items recovered as waste in the GBR region are plastic. The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority's 2019 outlook report found that marine debris pose a high level of risk to the reef's ecosystem and heritage values.

I'm glad—I'm sure everyone's glad—that the government has decided waste should be a national priority, but the truth is that the work on that priority has been underwhelming so far. The areas of action are clear and they've been clear for sometime: we need investment in infrastructure and action on product stewardship and national leadership when it comes to single-use plastics and packaging. We need meaningful procurement commitments to build demand for recycled materials and products, but, as yet, we are still waiting to see that action.

In supporting the measure contained in the bill and, in particular, the second reading amendment, I urge the government to lift its eyes and broaden its horizon when it comes to a sustainable future for the Great Barrier Reef. The question of sustainability is and should be, first and foremost, an environmental issue. The Great Barrier Reef does not need to justify itself by reference to economic outcomes. We should be working to protect the vitality and biodiversity of the reef as a pressing matter of environmental stewardship and responsibility.

I saw a report last week about funding for some coral reseeding on the reef and it was heartening to know about that; but part of the report emphasised the fact that only five per cent of the reef is currently the focus of tourism activity. I think some people would have taken from that report the suggestion that our environmental conservation work should be limited to areas involving tourism. That should never, never be the approach we take. The health of the Great Barrier Reef, in its entirety, is paramount, as is the health and biodiversity of the oceans right around Australia and the Antarctic. Only by taking that comprehensive view of marine protection will we ensure that the Great Barrier Reef remains a World Heritage treasure, and only by doing that will we support the future strength of the very significant tourist and visitor economy. It should be one of the central pillars of our social and economic wellbeing into the future.

Like the university sector and the arts and creative industries, our businesses and workers in the tourism and events sector are not seen for the true value of their contribution. The government's economic response to the pandemic, unfortunately, reflects that blind spot. When we focus only on road and construction projects, which are important, and housing measures, which are important, we forget the workers and businesses in all of those other sectors. When you talk about tourism, it's a sector with a significant number of female employees and a lot of those people have been left out as a result of the blind spot in the government's measures to date. That should change as part of our emergence into the recovery phase. There should be a more consistent focus in the future. There's no doubt that better marine protection and a proper focus on addressing the grave threat of climate change and the growing threat of marine plastic pollution has to be at the foundation of that work. I support the bill and, particularly, the second reading amendment.

Photo of David GillespieDavid Gillespie (Lyne, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The debate is interrupted in accordance with standing order 43. The debate may be resumed at a later hour.