Senate debates

Thursday, 21 June 2007

Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Amendment Bill 2007

In Committee

6:58 pm

Photo of Andrew BartlettAndrew Bartlett (Queensland, Australian Democrats) Share this | Hansard source

I will deal with them separately. Basically, they are alternatives. Amendment (1) is the preferred option and amendment (2) is a fallback if the Senate, by some unimaginable eventuality, actually does not agree with me and adopt amendment (1). I will move amendment (2) if nobody likes amendment (1).

Amendment (1) basically goes to the issue of the membership of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority. I touched on this in my second reading contribution to some extent, and it is also the main issue that is addressed in the report from the Senate Standing Committee on Environment, Communications, Information Technology and the Arts on the brief inquiry that they had into this legislation.

The legislation before us increases the size of the authority by one but, in doing so, it also removes the current requirement for one of the members of the authority to be representative of the different Indigenous communities and tribal groups, which number about 70, who reside and whose traditional lands are along the coastal areas of the marine park. We are talking about an area that goes from the very top of Queensland—the Torres Strait and the top of Cape York—down to about Bundaberg, which is the vast majority of the Queensland coast. It is no surprise that there is a wide array and a large number of Indigenous groups and traditional owner groups covering that entire region. There is a huge diversity there in terms of their culture, history and make-up.

As I noted in my contribution to the second reading debate, the continuing trend—and the appropriate trend with regard to natural resource management and management of protected areas—is to increase the amount of Indigenous involvement in the management of those areas. Most of the national parks are managed at state level, but at Commonwealth level through Parks Australia three of the national parks—Uluru-Kata Tjuta, Kakadu and the one at Jarvis Bay—have Indigenous people on the board of management.

I am not sure of the full composition of all of the management boards but the one in Uluru-Kata Tjuta has 50 per cent Indigenous representation. Representation is half male and half female, and is also split between the two main groups that are the traditional owner groups from that particular area covered by the park. My understanding is that that arrangement works fairly well—it works better than it would without it—and that was the impression of the Senate environment committee when we examined the issue of national parks in a fairly comprehensive inquiry we conducted throughout last year, which included a visit to Uluru.

There are also examples at state level of slowly moving more towards joint or cooperative management. We have seen a couple of very significant announcements in Far North Queensland in recent times, both with regard to Cape York and areas just before that covered by the traditional lands of the Kuku Yalanji people, covering sections of the wet tropics of Wujal Wujal down to Mosman, an area which also contains the capacity and the recognition of the desirability of greater Indigenous involvement in the management of those parks—and not just the parks but some of the lands surrounding them.

That is the current framework. And totally out of nowhere we suddenly have a move that takes us back decades, with Indigenous representation—there is only one Indigenous representative on the marine park authority—just completely removed. I know the argument for it that has been put forward by the report that recommended this. The Uhrig principles say that you should not have people on government authorities that are there in a representative capacity and that they are meant to be there for their skills and expertise. Frankly, I think being an Indigenous representative does bring specific skills and expertise, so it is a little of an arcane point in some respects. But, leaving that to one side, the principle is fine to take into consideration, but to apply it without exception and to apply it without giving any consideration to the special and unique circumstances—both of the marine park and of the role of the Indigenous people whose traditional lands and waters are covered by the marine park—is quite extraordinary. I can only assume it was just an oversight and that this was just a matter of ticking a box: ‘We’ll run the ruler over the Uhrig principles, have a look and see how they apply and then just flick off the representative capacity there.’ I assume there was no real deeper consideration given to it than that.

From the evidence given to the Senate committee inquiry in terms of written responses from the department, there seemed to be no meaningful consultation at all with the various Indigenous communities up and down the coast. From the information we got it seems that basically when the big review started, which, as we all heard from the second reading debate, was really about commercial fishing and how angry they were about the rezoning—it had nothing to do with Indigenous representation at all—they all got sent a letter, along with everybody else, saying, ‘There’s a review on if you want to have a say.’ There was no indication in that letter saying, ‘By the way, there’s a possibility that Indigenous representation might be removed; perhaps we would be interested in your views about that specific matter.’ There was no response from them, which is not unusual, particularly given that everybody’s understanding was that this was about whether or not the authority would cease to exist at all, or taking on the Boswell-Joyce model of destroying it completely, Queensland losing the authority and it being brought under ministerial control down in Canberra. That is what it was all about, and it was quite clear that that was still what it was all about in terms of the contributions from the Nationals senators here at the start of the week when we had the second reading stage of this debate.

That seems to be it. There were a range of meetings held between the review group and lots of stakeholders, but again, from all I can see, there were no specific meetings with Indigenous communities and representatives to discuss this specific issue. It really was just a footnote. Unfortunately, it might seem like a fairly minor matter, but it is a very significant matter not just for Indigenous people but, I would argue, in terms of the effectiveness of the authority in being able to manage the park. We are not moving towards greater Indigenous involvement in the management of protected areas because it makes us feel good or it is some token thing. We are doing it because it has been recognised that this improves the effectiveness of management—both because there is an enormous amount of expertise and traditional knowledge in the management of many of these areas that we have been ignoring and that we will be able to tap into more effectively if we have Indigenous involvement at the management level, and because, as in so many other areas of activity involving government authorities around Australia, one of the areas that we do not do particularly well, that we have struggled to do effectively, is engage with Indigenous communities in all sorts of areas.

One way to improve that—it is not the only way; it is not the fix for everything—is to have direct Indigenous representation at management level so there is more understanding within the board of management of the Indigenous perspective and Indigenous realities, more trust within Indigenous communities that they have representation there at the highest level, and just greater understanding all round that they are a key stakeholder and a unique stakeholder. You cannot just stick them alongside fishers, rec fishers, the tourist industry, residentials and local government and everything else, which is basically where they are being relegated to now.

There is a promise that they will have a seat or two at the minister’s table when he puts together his advisory group, but it is a promise that is not reflected in legislation. That is not good enough. We know it is not good enough because we have moved on from that model in natural resource management in so many areas. I must repeat: the Senate environment committee in its comprehensive inquiry into national parks and protected areas unanimously found and unanimously recommended that we increase Indigenous involvement in the management of protected areas and national parks. No coalition senator dissented from that—they all signed up to it, as they should have. It was a very cooperative and constructive report. That was tabled probably within weeks of this legislation appearing, with its line that removes Indigenous representation. You would not know from the explanatory memorandum that the specific consequence here is removal of Indigenous representation. There is simply the statement that the board would no longer have people there in a representative capacity. There is no special attention or focus given to this. I do not think there is any real realisation of how significant this is.

I urge the government to consider this. It is already on the record saying that it is going to be making further amendments to the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Act in line with other recommendations in the review to bring it more into line and make things more efficient in how it interconnects with the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act. There is every argument to say that this issue about whether to remove Indigenous representation should be put off to allow direct consultation about this specific issue, particularly with Indigenous communities. If it still felt that it should go ahead then it could put it in the next one. I would be very surprised if, after proper consideration, it was seen that this was a good idea. But if it was and it was actually given proper consideration then the option is still open.

The minister responded very briefly to this point—I think with about one sentence in his second reading speech, which I know was curtailed because we were coming up against question time—in saying that the option was still there for an Indigenous person to be appointed to the authority. Of course it is, and I hope that happens, but it is not guaranteed at law. You are relying on the decision, circumstances and competing factors of the minister of the day in making appointments. That is not good enough. I do not think it is a strong enough guarantee for what should be a clear-cut requirement.

This amendment goes along with the expansion of the authority by an extra position, as was recommended by the review, but as part of that ensures that one of those people has to be appointed as an Indigenous representative. My fallback amendment, which at least takes on board the Uhrig principle of people not being there in a representative capacity, suggests that, if you are totally obsessed about not having anybody there that has the word ‘representative’ next to them, you at least have somebody there who is required to be there specifically because of their knowledge and expertise about Indigenous issues.

It should be put on record that the Indigenous representative that is currently there, Evelyn Scott, a very esteemed Indigenous person from Northern Queensland, has been very effective, certainly in my understanding and awareness—I am not all-knowing, but I do know a little bit—about how the authority has operated in recent times. The fact that they are appointed as an Indigenous representative does not mean that they act and say, ‘I’m the Indigenous vote and I’ll go back and do what I’m told; I don’t have a mind of my own.’ They are not representative in that narrow sense of the word; they are there to bring that perspective in there. That is what will be lost, and that would be a major and very serious loss. I urge the Senate not to make this change and to adopt this Democrat amendment. It is not necessary to remove this representation, and certainly not without proper consultation and proper consideration. I see no evidence that that has happened.


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