Wednesday, 27 August 2008
Great Barrier Reef Marine Park and Other Legislation Amendment Bill 2008
Referral to Committee
That the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park and Other Legislation Amendment Bill 2008 be referred to the Environment, Communications and the Arts Committee for inquiry and report by 10 November 2008.
The reason Family First has put forward this motion to refer the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park and Other Legislation Amendment Bill 2008 to the Senate Standing Committee on Environment, Communications and the Arts for an inquiry and report is that there is concern about the changes in the definitions and direction of the management of the park and about the definition of the precautionary principle, which basically could end up stopping any recreational fishing in the marine park. Everybody is rightly concerned to make sure that the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park is looked after, but we need to make sure that we do not stop recreational fishers from legitimately fishing within those boundaries. There have been serious concerns raised by various groups that warrant and justify the Senate looking into this legislation and those concerns before making a decision. I do not want to pre-empt the outcome of any Senate inquiry, but quite clearly there are concerns from various groups. Given those concerns, I think it makes sense for the Senate to look into this bill because it proposes some significant changes to what is currently in place.
There is no need to rush this bill through. The reporting date of 10 November for the inquiry would allow the government to get the legislation through this year, so we are not wanting to frustrate the government. The reporting date gives plenty of time and scope for various interest groups to have their say and for the Senate to listen to both sides of the arguments and make sure there are no unintended consequences. The Senate is the house of review to look at legislation, so I think an inquiry makes sense. I appeal to all senators, not just to the government of the day, to support this motion. It is for an inquiry into a bill that various community groups have concerns with. I think we need to have an inquiry to hear those concerns, to hear both sides, and then the Senate can look at the committee’s report.
The concerns that have been raised by Senator Fielding have been raised over a period of time by some of the peak body groups in Queensland and have also been well and truly addressed within the coalition. I note that a media release was circulated the other day from my office and I also note the strong attention that has been paid to this matter by Senator Macdonald and Senator Boswell. In particular, two sections of the bill come to mind. One of them—I think it is section 9—pertaining to the definition of fishing is ludicrous in its explanation. We get a definition of fishing where you can be in the process of a criminal activity if you even consider fishing rather than actually engage in it. This is an Orwellian type of oversight. I would say it is an extreme environmentalists’ oversight that has completely taken the place of people’s liberties in certain areas, and they are no longer given the benefit of the doubt. This is a serious issue that needs to be the subject of an inquiry. Likewise, the precautionary principle as a catch-all is an issue that also needs discussing.
I would also like to note the work that has been done within the coalition in bringing this matter to the fore. The coalition and others who wish to support this issue will determine the number of inquiries, where they will be held and the outcome that is obtained from them. It stands as a matter of course that the outcome of the vote and the inquiry will be determined by a majority in the Senate. It will be the weight of the Senate majority rather than any individual senator that will determine the outcome of this bill. It is important that the people who engage in commercial and recreational fishing, to whom this process is truly important, have the opportunity to clearly understand this issue. We must now engage in this debate in such a way as to garner a majority vote in this chamber.
This is one of the issues on which I hope we can shine a strong light. If people do not see it from the context of fishing, they will see it in the context of how a law can become unreasonable and oppressive when the definitions of certain terms that have worked their way into the legislation become so all encompassing that all manner of people will not be given the benefit of the doubt under this legislation that they would be given in any other facet of law and order and as they should. As I mentioned, particular attention should be paid to the definition of ‘fishing’. This definition will now include not only people who are caught in the act but also those who may intend to go fishing or look like they may go fishing. If I were driving down the coast near an excluded zone and were looking out the window considering fishing and someone truly knew that, would the act allow someone to convict me for it? So it is more than just a matter of a fishing issue; it is a matter that goes to the sentiment of the law. We must be ever vigilant in this chamber to ensure that laws do not become overarching, and remain reasonable. When we start putting forward unreasonable laws, we start to lose our validity and the respect that we hope this chamber would attract.
I know that others will wish to speak on this. In closing, it is very important that I note the work that people such as Senator Boswell and my LNP colleague Senator Ian Macdonald have done on this issue. This work will be ongoing throughout this inquiry. I look forward to the inquiry, which I hope will be conducted in various centres around Queensland in proximity to the fishing zone. I hope that those who are concerned about this issue will attend the inquiries so that they can discuss their concerns.
Finally, I suggest that, if this legislation goes forward in its current overarching form, it will become an onerous precedent to other legislation in similar fishing areas around our coast. What will start with the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority will soon become legislation for Moreton Bay, Tasmania and Western Australia. When they see the precedent that this bill sets, they too would have good reason to be concerned about where this is going. It is not just about fishing; it is about the precedent set by a law that not only applies to those committing an act but includes the ridiculous principle of applying to those considering an act. How can anybody possibly determine whether someone is considering an act? It is onerous in the extreme. I believe the Greens may want to look at this as well because, if they believe in this principle for fishing, they must also believe that it should apply in terrorism and everywhere else.
The coalition will be supporting this motion to refer the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park and Other Legislation Amendment Bill 2008 to a committee. I assume that, in accordance with past practice, the Greens will also be supporting it. And I suspect the Labor Party will not have any objection to it either. So, on behalf of the coalition, I indicate that we will be supporting the motion to refer the bill to a committee.
The bill arose from a widespread review of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Act. The review took place last year and the year before. It was conducted by a very senior group of public servants, including the secretary and some independent people. They reviewed the whole act and came forward with recommendations. I think the bill was prepared by the previous government but it was not dealt with before the parliament rose for the election. The new government has brought the bill forward, basically in accordance with the recommendations of the review committee, although there have been some amendments to it by the new government. These will be debated and looked into by the committee that will be reviewing this and by the Senate itself.
I have already given notice that the coalition will be moving an amendment in relation to appointments to the board, requiring that one of the appointments to the board of GBRMPA be a person with experience in the tourism industry or another industry related to the Great Barrier Reef. We have also tabled today a further amendment raising the issue that I mentioned briefly earlier this afternoon of the fishermen who had been convicted under the original law and received fines—perhaps not great in a monetary sense—for offences under the act as it was then.
They were treated as serious criminal offences and the impact of that was that those who were convicted have a permanent criminal record, which can have an impact on them when they apply for international access arrangements, for example, visas to the United States. That of course was an unintended consequence of the original legislation. That is why the former government previously had amended the act to provide that, in future, for people breaching the no-go zones, the green zones, the offences would be dealt with by an on-the-spot ticket which carried a substantial fine but which did not have a criminal record attached to it. That is an amendment that we will be moving.
Senator Boswell, Senator Joyce, Senator Trood and others have done a lot of work on this over the last 12 to 18 months. I did mention earlier this afternoon, and will only briefly repeat it now, that I raised this in the May estimates session with the Minister representing the Minister for Home Affairs, Mr Debus, whose department I understand deals with pardons and also with the Minister representing the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and the Arts. I received from public officials and the ministers—I will not verbal them by saying encouragement—certainly not discouragement from the process of applying for pardons, which I then took further and encouraged those convicted to apply for a pardon. I put a proforma application form on my website hoping that people would take it up and that the government would realise that this needed to be addressed and in fact then address it.
I again mention that before the last election some good work by Senator Boswell had then Prime Minister Howard giving an election commitment to have these convictions overturned should the then government win the election. As we know, that did not happen of course. At that time Senator Kerry O’Brien, who was then the opposition’s shadow minister for agriculture, fisheries and forestry, promised that a Labor government upon election would also overturn these convictions. That is recorded in the Townsville Bulletin and people went to the election accepting that both major parties would overturn those convictions. It has been somewhat of a disappointment to me that the Labor government have not honoured that commitment by introducing separate legislation. According to Senator Ludwig there were four people who applied for pardons and, as I understand it, they have been rejected by the government. I am disappointed about that. This amendment that we have already tabled will allow the Senate, the government and Senator O’Brien in particular to have those convictions treated as spent convictions under the Crimes Act. There are other issues involved in this bill that require investigation and Senator Joyce has mentioned some of them; there will be others. In supporting Senator Fielding’s motion for reference to a committee the coalition takes the view that it would be good to expose this to the widest range of people.
I conclude by saying that, whatever we do, it is essential that the government, legislation and the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority do everything possible to protect what is one of the nine wonders of the world—that is, Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. It is a magnificent and quite unique reef that is worth millions and millions of dollars to the tourism industry and worth uncountable dollars to our marine environment. It is very important that we do protect it. It is one of the best managed coral reefs in the world and all credit to the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority and, might I say, to Malcolm Fraser, who first introduced legislation in the federal parliament—
It was the Liberal Party and we Liberals have always been the party of the environment. It is good that Malcolm Fraser all those years ago took this initiative, as we took with the Greenhouse Office, Senator Evans. We are the party of the environment.
It was a great success. We actually started it. The Labor Party never did anything about those sorts of things, so these are environmental issues on which the Liberal Party is proud to be judged. It is a very important asset for Australia and whatever we do with this legislation, which is meant to protect the reef in the best possible administrative way, it is important that that underlying principle remains. As I mentioned on behalf of the opposition, we support the motion to refer the bill to the committee.
The Greens will not be supporting this motion. There has been enormously extensive community consultation over this important legislation to modernise the antiquated legislation to protect the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park and World Heritage area, which is one of the great icons of the world. It is also to be noted here that this is legislation drawn up under the previous government. It essentially comes from that government, and now the opposition, having moved to the other side of the House, are saying that they want another inquiry into it. It is quite untoward and unnecessary. We want to see this legislation in place and working after the extensive consultation and stakeholder support for it. We will not be supporting this motion.
The government will not be supporting this motion on the referral of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park and Other Legislation Amendment Bill 2008 to committee either. We are a bit confused by the opposition’s position on this. They seem to have had another change of heart. I do not know whether there has been another party room meeting and a revision of their policy position. When this was before the Selection of Bills Committee earlier this year and when the report was adopted by the Senate on 25 June 2008, the opposition then supported the recommendation that the bill not be referred to a committee. So, as late as 25 June, the opposition were quite happy for the bill to be brought on for debate and did not require it to be referred to a committee. It seems that today they have another position. I am not quite sure what has changed. If you look at when this bill was debated in the House, you see opposition members supported it quite enthusiastically, as I understand it. I am getting used to the situation where the opposition seem to flip-flop on issues but this seems to be a bit remarkable.
Senator Macdonald quite rightly made the point that there has been a very long and effective process, and coalition senators played a very important role, as did other senators, in that consultation process. The outcome, as I understand it, has been largely supported by stakeholders. The first of the bills arising out of that review was passed through the parliament in June 2007 on the initiation of the previous government. This bill is the second, which I understand was contemplated by the previous government and which seeks to implement the review that they supported. So it is of some surprise to us today that the opposition have again reversed their position and now seek to refer the bill to a committee. As late as June, senators from the opposition were prepared to support its passage and it being brought on for debate.
Now we have a motion by Senator Fielding that this bill be referred not only to a committee—and I understand that Senator Macdonald may have some concerns now which he might not have been aware of before, even though the position of his party was clear—but to a committee that will report on 10 November 2008. A process has been extensively carried out by this parliament over a number of years, with a lot of stakeholder consultation, a report endorsed by the parliament and the first stage of the legislation passed. At the eleventh hour, Senator Fielding comes in here and wants it to be delayed to November with, to be honest, not much rationale for such a long delay. It is not like he is asking for it to be deferred until next week or for a Friday committee. Despite that extensive consultation, which Senator Macdonald and the opposition have lauded, we are going to do it all over again. I am not sure why we are going to do it all over again and, quite frankly, no cogent case has been made.
I understand that, if there is support for this from the opposition and Senator Fielding, it may well be carried. But, quite frankly, we do not understand the opposition’s about-face on this issue. We do not understand what seems to be a rejection of all the work that they put into it. We do not understand the rejection of the stakeholder consultation and the extensive processes that occurred. We do not understand what changed between 25 June 2008, when they supported the proposition from the Selection of Bills Committee that it not be subject to inquiry and now. We are confused by the opposition’s position. We do not think that there has been a cogent argument made, given the extensive process and the wide support that it enjoyed from the then government and now opposition and the support that it enjoyed weeks ago in the House of Representatives. I am a bit bemused.
I do not know whether Senator Fielding has had a long interest in this, but he has to explain why this legislation—which we think is important—will be delayed again for months and why, if there are particular concerns, they could not be addressed in the committee stage of the bill.
I heard what Senator Evans had to say, and I can tell you that it was not that convincing. He talked about the eleventh hour and Friday committees. It sounded as though he wanted to just rush this bill through without a decent hearing. There are legitimate concerns about this issue. You can talk about what others have done, but there are serious concerns that warrant an inquiry. I can assure you that there is no rush to this legislation. I look forward to the chamber supporting this inquiry.
That the motion (Senator Fielding’s) be agreed to.