House debates

Tuesday, 17 October 2023


Great Barrier Reef

4:16 pm

Photo of Bob KatterBob Katter (Kennedy, Katter's Australian Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I move:

That so much of the standing and sessional orders be suspended as would prevent the Member for Kennedy from moving the following motion—That the House:

(1) notes the Minister for the Environment may have sent a letter "in camera", on 25 May 2023, to the Director General of UNESCO, without public scrutiny;

(2) notes that this letter sets out in detail Reef and Gulf runoff regulatory impositions that will result in the closure of agriculture on Queensland's Gulf and east coast;

(3) notes that if the proposals detailed in the letter received Governor in Council assent, they would shut down the commercial fishing, severely damage tourism, much of which is based upon recreational fishing and tourist access to the reef;

(4) notes that this mortal blow might also extend to the Northern cattle, sugar and banana industries;

(5) notes that the 2021-2022 annual report of coral reef condition, prepared by the Australian Institute of Marine Science, demonstrated that the Northern and Central regions of the Great Barrier Reef have the highest coral cover measured in 36 years of monitoring, the Southern section only declined slightly due to crown of thorns outbreaks;

(6) notes that given the excellent health of the reef there is no evidence that agricultural run off is affecting the reef and as such there is no justification for arbitrary regulatory impositions that will detrimentally affect the agriculture sector and broader community; and

(7) calls on the Minister for the Environment to:

(a) confirm the letter's authenticity;

(b) provide advice as to who provided the authorization for the commitment given in the letter;

(c) specifically advise if the Cabinet was made aware of this letter and authorized its release;

(d) advise whether the Premier of Queensland was made aware of this letter and, if the Premier was not advised, acknowledge the serious breach of proper protocol; and

(e) acknowledge that the communication and commitments given were an unprecedented breach of Australian constitutional conventions.

The previous speech was about the vote on the Voice referendum, and the burning question for First Australians, if any of you have ever listened to First Australians—

Photo of Sharon ClaydonSharon Claydon (Newcastle, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Sorry; is this related to the suspension of standing orders?

Photo of Bob KatterBob Katter (Kennedy, Katter's Australian Party) Share this | | Hansard source

It's very much related because we're talking about land ownership. There's no value in land ownership if you take away our rights to use the land. Now, they've already been taken away from the First Australians. They're about to be taken away from everyone on the east coast of Queensland, so it's very much to the heart of what we are talking about.

Those of you who read history books—and I hope that we all do—will know that the American War of Independence was precipitated by James II declaring that he owned the land in the United States. The people of America said: 'Hey, wait a minute. I own my farm, not you, Mr King of England. You don't own my farm.' Of course, the ultimate result of that was half a million people dying in the American War of Independence—and, of course, Britain losing the colony which would become the great country which is the United States today.

At very few times in history have people sat down and written a document of such great consequence as the Magna Carta. Still, joyfully I can say that in our Queensland the Magna Carta is taught to every single schoolchild, as should be the case. The Magna Carta lays down clearly that my land is my land, not the government's. The government has no right to set foot on my land. The great Chief Justice Coke, in his famous statement, said, 'Even though the wind may blow through the broken windows and the door flap in the breeze, even though the rain may torrentially poor into the house, even the King of England himself cannot set foot on its portals without the permission of the law.'

Now, here we have our land ownership being degraded to nothing. Some lady here in this parliament thinks she owns my land—'my' being the million people that live along the North Queensland coastline from Bundaberg north. In this area is seven per cent of Australia's fruit and vegetable manufacturing. We already import 12 per cent from overseas, so now we're going to import one-fifth of our fruit and vegetables from overseas, are we? Is this a good outcome for Australia?

Let us turn to the Barrier Reef. Unlike people in this House—I doubt there are too many who have scuba dived on the Barrier Reef—most of my family have scuba dived there, some of them regularly. Most North Queenslanders scuba dive. We know the reef. We live by the reef. We love the reef, or we wouldn't be living there. So who knows all about the reef? Who loves the reef? Who protects the reef? It is the people that live there, of course. I'm pleased that the minister is here to hear what I'm saying. If you say that there is a problem with the runoff, unlike other people in this place, I asked around and found a person who was described to me as the best reef scientist in the world. We share different views politically—we share most certainly different views on the environment! She would be regarded as a very, very strong environment. Two years ago, at our last long meeting, I said, 'Are you reasonably comfortable with everything as it is now?' and she said, 'I would have to say yes, and I would say I'd like nitrogen to be a little bit less, but I wouldn't like to have to defend that in the public arena.'

The minister is proposing—well, I don't know if she is. A letter has been given to us. This is about what I moved in this resolution. Did it come from the minister? Is it a concocted letter? Did it have the authority of cabinet? Did it have the approval of cabinet or the party room when the letter was sent? These are questions that must be answered by the minister in this place.

I want to zero in on nitrogen. This scientist said: 'The levels are acceptable, but I'd be a bit more comfortable if they were a little tiny bit less, but I couldn't argue that point. If you're asking me if I'm comfortable—yes, I'm comfortable with the current regime.'

What people in this place don't understand, and what you must understand, is how nature works. You've got to be very careful here. If you stop the nitrogen run-off from going out onto the barrier reef and its environs, there is a result. It's been going out for 200 years now, and if you stop it from going out then there are ramifications. Suddenly you've changed what's going on with the barrier reef and its environments.

Let me be very specific. They did research on whether dugong numbers were going up or down, and the environmental movement came out and said, 'There you go. The dugong numbers have dropped clean in half. Everything in North Queensland and everything in Central Queensland has got to be stopped because the dugong are dying.' Well, no-one read the report. I'm one of these foolish people who read reports. I read the report and, of course, the environmental movement had, once again, flagrantly lied, as they lie again and again and again and again.

What had happened was that they quoted the dugong numbers in the southern half of the reef but not those in the northern half of the reef. In the southern half of the reef the dugong numbers had dropped in half and in the northern part of the reef the dugong numbers had doubled. Why did it occur? Because there'd been a huge drought in Central Queensland, there was no nitrogen run-off and the seagrass wasn't being replenished by nitrogen, so the dugong had a choice of staying there and dying or moving north to where they could get a good feed. If you take the nitrogen away, it'll be goodbye dugong, and it'll be goodbye to a hell of a lot of other things as well, because, whether you like it or not, for 200 years that has been the way that nature has worked.

We are very, very disappointed. I've had very great respect for the minister, and I've said this on many occasions in this place. I greatly admire her very, very great depth of knowledge and understanding, but if that letter is authentic then this is very, very bad indeed not only for this place but for Australia. (Time expired)

Photo of Sharon ClaydonSharon Claydon (Newcastle, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Member for Kennedy, just to assist the House, I will take your two contributions as you having spoken in continuation. So that's a 10-minute allocation. Now that your speaking time has been completed, I will ask the member for Mayo to second the motion.

4:27 pm

Photo of Rebekha SharkieRebekha Sharkie (Mayo, Centre Alliance) Share this | | Hansard source

I second the motion. I second it because I know that the member for Kennedy cares very deeply about his electorate and that, if this letter is indeed authentic, he's very concerned about what it will mean for his cattle and his cane farmers in particular, as well as for the sea environment. Of course, my electorate is a very long way away from the Great Barrier Reef, but I'm pleased, as a fellow—

Photo of Bob KatterBob Katter (Kennedy, Katter's Australian Party) Share this | | Hansard source

You visit regularly, though.

Photo of Rebekha SharkieRebekha Sharkie (Mayo, Centre Alliance) Share this | | Hansard source

Not as regularly as some people do, Bob, and I'm not there as much as you are, certainly. But I'm here as a fellow crossbencher, providing support by seconding the motion.

4:28 pm

Photo of Tanya PlibersekTanya Plibersek (Sydney, Australian Labor Party, Minister for the Environment and Water) Share this | | Hansard source

I want to thank the member for Kennedy for raising this issue and I note his very strong interest. He's mentioned cattle and cane farmers in particular and his great love of the reef, including the time that he has spent snorkelling and diving on the reef, and I don't doubt for a moment that his interest is very sincere, but I think he's got the wrong end of the stick on this one.

The letter that he's referring to is indeed a letter that I wrote. It's not secret. I tabled it in the Senate in July. I'm proud that our government has backed strong action to protect the Great Barrier Reef. We've worked very closely with the Queensland government to do that, and because we've been able to work very closely with the Queensland government—and with farmers, including cane farmers and cattle farmers, and with local government right up along the coast of the Great Barrier Reef, and with tourism operators, and with fishers, and with a range of other stakeholders—and because of the investments we're making, we actually managed to prevent the Great Barrier Reef being listed as in danger by UNESCO. The member for Kennedy might say, 'Who cares what UNESCO thinks about our Great Barrier Reef?' In one respect, I know what he's saying is that no-one loves the Great Barrier Reef and no-one cares about the Great Barrier Reef more than Australians.

Photo of Bob KatterBob Katter (Kennedy, Katter's Australian Party) Share this | | Hansard source

And the people who live there.

Photo of Tanya PlibersekTanya Plibersek (Sydney, Australian Labor Party, Minister for the Environment and Water) Share this | | Hansard source

And the people who live there: I completely agree with him. However, having an endangered listing from UNESCO does have serious consequences for the people who live there, including putting at risk the 64,000 jobs and the $6.4 billion a year tourism industry that depend on the Great Barrier Reef's status as one of the natural wonders of the world—the way that we love and appreciate and see it. The fact that we have invested $1.2 billion in the reef has actually meant that the international community sees that we are serious about protecting the reef, and we have managed to prevent the Great Barrier Reef being inscribed on the endangered list.

The outcome was not inevitable. In fact, before the change of government, the Great Barrier Reef was headed for an endangered listing, which would have had very serious consequences for tourism. Sources close to UNESCO told the French newspaper Le Monde that on climate change and the environment 'the approach has changed completely between the new government and the old one; it's a bit like night and day.'

What have we done? We've invested a record $1.2 billion in the reef. We've legislated to reach net zero carbon emissions—43 emissions reduction target by 2030 and 82 per cent renewable energy by 2030. We've invested—and this is the thing I think is troubling the member for Kennedy—$150 million to improve water quality, but the projects that we're talking about are revegetation, grazing management and engineering work like gully stabilisation. The member for Kennedy and I have had excellent talks about the problem of gullies eroding because of the impact of feral pigs, in particularly, and feral goats and other animals like that. So we're working with farmers to do that gully bank stabilisation, including, most particularly by managing some of these are feral animals that are eroding the banks.

I did also reject a proposal for a coalmine that would have potentially impacted the water quality of the reef. It was eight kilometres away from the reef and it had water courses going down onto the reef. I've withdrawn federal funding for dams that would have had a detrimental impact on reef water quality. The member for Kennedy might not like that part of it. In the budget in May I invested an extra $163.4 million to guarantee the future of the Australian Institute of Marine Science, effectively doubling funding for marine science on the Great Barrier Reef. The member for Kennedy knows what trouble AIMS were in before that. They actually had laboratories they couldn't use because they were in such a degraded state due to a lack of investment. I know the member for Kennedy supports AIMS's investigation into how we repopulate some of those areas where we've had coral bleaching events and how we deal with crown-of-thorns starfish. This is world-leading science. People come from around the world to learn from our reef scientists, and we have to back the work that they're doing.

Of course, we're also working to engage more Indigenous rangers—for example, to do some of that work on crown-of-thorns starfish. I know the member for Kennedy is a great supporter of job creation in those areas right up and down the coast that faces the Great Barrier Reef and having Indigenous rangers doing work managing crown-of-thorns starfish.

I'm struggling to both inform the member for Kennedy and listen to his interjections. We might have to have this conversation offline a little bit later. Those Indigenous rangers are doing great work in the water with crown-of-thorns starfish. They're also doing great work on these scattered islands right through the Great Barrier Reef that are affected by feral animal and weed incursions. They're doing great work both in the sea and on the land.

Marine plastics and ghost nets are another great example of the work that's being done particularly by Indigenous ranges but more broadly by people working to protect the Great Barrier Reef. Of course we're working with the Queensland government on better management of fisheries, as well.

We know that there is still a great deal of work to do to protect the Great Barrier Reef, but Australia is not unique in this. Climate change has potential impacts on every coral reef around the world. The Great Barrier Reef is not the only World Heritage property in Australia that is at risk from climate change. We're worried about, for example, salt water incursions in the Kakadu National Park, from rising sea levels. Of course we need to deal with that underlying issue of climate change, as well as these reef-specific issues.

Senator Nita Green, who is the Special Envoy for the Great Barrier Reef, is doing fantastic work to advocate for the reef, including going to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, where the meeting was being held to decide whether the Great Barrier Reef would be listed as 'in danger'. I think, in the fantastic work that Senator Green is doing as the special envoy for the reef, she would be the first to tell you that more of that work is actually on the land than in the sea, because she is working directly with farmers, tourism operators and other stakeholders to protect the reef.

I'm tabling the report to me, the Minister for the Environment and Water, by Senator Green, the Special Envoy for the Great Barrier Reef, which details some of her excellent work.

Finally, I also want to table a copy of the letter that the member for Kennedy is referring to. The letter, indeed, is directed to the Director-General of UNESCO. It very briefly details some of the work that we're doing to protect the Great Barrier Reef and it includes a list of commitments that we have made. I have to reassure the member for Kennedy: these commitments, by and large, have appeared in our budgets in recent years, and there's no mystery to them. They are commitments that we are absolutely proud of and absolutely determined to stand behind. In fact, I'm really pleased that the member for Kennedy has brought this debate on today because it gives me a chance to reassure him that we are, just as he is, committed to ensuring that Queensland has a viable agricultural industry and, just as he is, committed to ensuring that Queensland has a viable tourism industry there on the reef and jobs in fisheries and all of the areas that he has mentioned today. We absolutely support that. But we also know, as he does, that we have a commitment and a determination to protect and preserve this jewel of natural wonder for generations to come. I'm tabling the letter to the UNESCO director-general, as well.

Photo of Lisa ChestersLisa Chesters (Bendigo, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

There being no further speakers, I put the question that the motion be agreed to.

Question negatived.