Senate debates

Tuesday, 28 February 2006

Offshore Petroleum Bill 2005; Offshore Petroleum (Annual Fees) Bill 2005; Offshore Petroleum (Registration Fees) Bill 2005; Offshore Petroleum (Repeals and Consequential Amendments) Bill 2005; Offshore Petroleum (Royalty) Bill 2005; Offshore Petroleum (Safety Levies) Amendment Bill 2005

In Committee

6:23 pm

Photo of Bob BrownBob Brown (Tasmania, Australian Greens) Share this | Hansard source

The minister is saying that commercial fishing, for example, is not allowed in marine protected areas, but along comes a multinational oil company and it can stick a drill in there. Before it does that, it can use explosive noise testing, which we know damages both the whole ecosystem in the immediate area and the potential for navigation, for example, of cetaceans—whales and so on. He says that looking after that will be in the regulations. Let me explain to the committee what that means. It means that once this parliament has passed this legislation—and the government has the numbers and the oil corporations know what they are doing; they have fashioned this legislation—out it goes to ensure that they will drill in any marine protected area they want to drill in.

The legislation from an environmental point of view is shown for what it is. It is a farce. So much of the record of the Howard government over the last 10 years is echoed in this legislation. What do you do about the environment? You abrogate the responsibility of this government to look after this nation’s environmental amenity, not least the seas, which are two-thirds of the area that the federal government has aegis over when it comes to the environment. Leave it to the oil companies! In relation to decisions being made by people who are out of reach, as far as the environment movement is concerned, the oil companies will have a field day, and they have had.

I ask the minister whether he could inform the committee when last a major and substantial prosecution was handed down under existing legislation. Under what circumstances would he find this legislation to make any difference at all? What difference would it make? The fact is that, if you are going to have marine protected areas, then you honour those three words. Pivotal is the central word ‘protected’, but this legislation, as so often with this government, abuses Australian English and uses the word ‘protected’ without meaning protected at all. It means that marine protected areas will not be protected from the threats of oil spills, of damage during exploration and of degradation in the years ahead. When there is a commercial impulse, as Senator Milne said, that will always override the environmental one.

We are talking about astonishingly rich marine ecosystems off the Australian coastline which are open to exploitation. This legislation is largely about saying that an environmental regulation will not get in the way. It would have been very simple and beyond such argument as I am putting forward for the minister to come in here with legislation which said that the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act rules, with a precautionary principle. Any threat to marine ecosystems is a matter for which the minister must insist on an environmental assessment and make a decision about that. That way there is some public ability to feed into the system. This legislation cuts the public out. The minister says, ‘When it comes to the regulations, we have ticked off with environment groups.’ Really? Is he not saying that there was consultation with environment groups which ultimately made no difference to this legislation? If it did make a difference, can he tell us what that difference is?

I ask the minister whether he would like to go through the exercise of writing to the several environment groups, including the Australian Conservation Foundation, the World Wildlife Fund and the Wilderness Society, and ask, ‘Would you prefer that marine protected areas are actually protected, or do you think they should be open to drilling for oil?’ We all know the answer that will come back. We know that marine protected areas should be protected, but the power of the oil industry over the Howard government, right up to the Prime Minister, is such that there is no such protection here.

That is what the Greens amendment that we are now dealing with simply says. If you are going to have a marine protected area, protect it. It will be protected. The vast majority of the rest of the oceans is left to the oil drillers, but not marine protected areas. The minister says that World Heritage areas are protected. If you look around, you will find that when we come to marine areas that means the Great Barrier Reef. Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen wanted to drill into that, though he did not say it to the World Wilderness Conference in Cairns in 1980. He waited until afterwards to let that be known, but public outcry stopped it. The area consequently got World Heritage listing, and there would now be pandemonium if you wanted to drill into that area.

There are other areas in Australia’s marine governance which are astonishingly rich and important. In fact, the hallmark of many of these areas is that we know so little about them. We simply do not. There are new species being found all the time—not one or two but dozens—because the areas have not been adequately looked at. The minister knows that, the government knows that, the marine scientists know that, the environment groups know that and the oil companies know that. And guess who gets control of the system? It is the oil companies. In these marine protected areas, the protection applies to everybody, including Australian commercial fishermen, but not to multinational oil companies. That is what this adds up to. That is where we are going to here, because this government has such an appalling attitude to the environment. It comes right down from the Prime Minister.

Whatever else might be said this week about 10 years of the Howard regime, there is very little to contest the fact that it has been the most negligent prime ministership when it comes to what could have been this nation’s grand environmental heritage in that period. It is not just about the government turning its back on such things as ratifying the Kyoto protocol, protecting species, ending old growth logging in this country and using its powers to prevent broadscale clearance of native vegetation, which harbours so many rare and endangered species. Offshore, when it comes to whaling, there has been a lot from this government through the years. But when this summer it got down to the test of doing something about the Japanese whaling and, at least, sending a ship to surveil them and tell the rest of the world what they were doing, this government sat on its hands. It had more important trade considerations to take up. And that is what is happening here. This is the Howard mantra: never let the environment get in the way of a dollar, particularly when it comes from a multinational corporation.

This legislation is about failing to protect this nation’s marine heritage—even the limited areas that are called ‘marine protected areas’, because the oil drillers will not be stopped from infringing on those areas and drilling for oil. That will be after a process, which can be quite damaging, of assessing the area through exploratory activities. When the minister says, ‘It will be handled in the regulations; that is the protection for these areas,’ that is not acceptable in a parliament which is worth its salt. You do not allow any government—particularly the Howard government, with its environmental record—to say: ‘Trust us. We will write regulations in the future. They are not available to you. We will not bring them out. I cannot tell you what they are, but they will look after marine protected areas.’

You do not need regulations to look after marine protected areas—you support this Greens proposal that they be protected and that is it. You have no open door for oil exploration and oil drilling, with all the dangers that come with that down the line. You protect the area. Otherwise, call these areas ‘marine areas vulnerable to oil drilling’ and just be honest about it. That is all you have to do. But this is greenwash. It is dishonest towards the Australian public. Calling these areas ‘marine protected areas’ when they are not is deceiving, and deliberately deceiving, the Australian voter, as happens so often with the environment—and not just the environment—under this government.


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