Senate debates

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Questions without Notice: Take Note of Answers


3:04 pm

Photo of Eric AbetzEric Abetz (Tasmania, Liberal Party, Shadow Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations) Share this | | Hansard source

I move:

That the Senate take note of the answers given by the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry (Senator Ludwig) to questions without notice asked by Opposition senators today relating to the fishing industry.

Just when you think the shambolic government cannot get any worse, oh yes, they can. Just when you think they cannot bend over to the Greens anymore, oh yes, they can. Just when you think the government surely cannot have another liability issue on their hands after pink batts, the live cattle exports, after the Australian network tender debacle, oh yes, they can. This is the one area where this government excels.

Their bad decisions are always followed up by even worse decisions. Despite having seen the Greens decimated in recent elections, the hapless ALP will still dance to their tune. So having acknowledged and praised the science of the Australian Fisheries Management Authority as late as last Monday—only two days ago—the government now claim the science is 'uncertain'. So how did the science change? I will tell you how. It was the political science that changed because you had a Greens senator telling the people of Tasmania he was not interested in the science. He was not interested in the economics. He was just against the proposal.

Can you imagine the policy discussions in the Greens party room? 'My heart flutters a few more than yours per second', or 'I have a strong emotional feeling on this issue.' That is how they decide policy. It is not on science. It is not on economics. It is about heart flutters and the vibe and the feeling. Of course, that is how the Greens make their policy decisions on the run, which the hapless ALP, in lock step with them, just adopt willy-nilly. The concept of rational debate clearly does not occur or is not understood in the Greens party room. It is all about heart flutters. It is all about feelings. It is all about emotions. Science, economics, sovereign risk and sustainable jobs all count for nought.

The other bit of political science, of course, was when Mr Rudd said that he would support the private member's bill of the member for Fremantle. And another bit was that the Twitter trolls are now determining the Labor Party policy. Having induced a trawler to Australia with discussions for well over three years and with a harvest strategy that actually refers to the use of 'large-scale factory freezer vessels' signed off by none less than the now Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities, Mr Tony Burke, Mr Burke now says, 'I am uncertain.' So he has lured the enterprise. The enterprise has abided by every single requirement, and it is still being blocked. Every other fisherman in Australia needs to be concerned about this. Indeed, the bill that was introduced included every single recreational fisher. They now, I understand, have moved an amendment to the rushed bill. That is what happens when you do policy on the run.

Of course, recreational fishers, I understand, are now excluded. But what about the charter fishers? What about the other commercial fishers, who have literally, by one ministerial decision, had millions written off their balance sheets? Small family fishermen have now had their asset devalued because the minister feels 'uncertain'—without any scientific backing—and can simply say, 'I am closing the fishery for two years,' putting family fishers out of business.

So I say to the fishing industry: you might have been against the Margiris, but be very careful what you wish for. This minister will be able to stop any fishing activity for two years. Let us make no mistake, having been embarrassed that the Greens put recreational fishing into the bill, we now know what the true full agenda is: to include the recreational fishing sector. Sure, they have had to take a backwards step, but make no mistake: the trawler has been used to ensure that fisheries can be closed at the whim of a minister.

This is bad policy. It is a policy that is reminiscent of pink batts, cash for clunkers and the live cattle exports. Now we have this fishing debacle to add to this shambolic government's exceptionally poor record.

3:09 pm

Photo of Matt ThistlethwaiteMatt Thistlethwaite (NSW, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

When I heard the subject of today's take note debate and the coalition's questions in question time, I had to have a little chuckle. I was quite amused. The subject of today's debate is of course the supertrawler. Some might say that this is a red herring to the real issue of the day, which is of course the cuts to education services that are occurring in New South Wales and Queensland. That is the issue that is dominating political debate today. That is the issue that I have received the most emails on today: cuts to education services.

Photo of George BrandisGeorge Brandis (Queensland, Liberal Party, Shadow Attorney-General) Share this | | Hansard source

Mr Acting Deputy President, I rise on a point of order: relevance. I know some latitude is given in these debates but this is a motion to take note of answers given by Senator Ludwig in relation to the issue of fisheries management. It has nothing to do with any other topic. You should require the senator to be relevant.

Photo of Mark BishopMark Bishop (WA, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Traditionally in take note debates, as you are aware, wide latitude is given to those who make a contribution. I intend to keep to that established practice, but Senator Thistlethwaite you should of course address the topic before the chair.

Photo of Matt ThistlethwaiteMatt Thistlethwaite (NSW, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I shall. Obviously education cuts touch a raw nerve with those opposite. Turning to the issue of fishing sustainability and the FV Abel Tasman, Minister Burke introduced legislation yesterday to toughen environmental controls on vessels which undertake activities such as those of the Abel Tasman. In doing so, he was responding to community concerns, in particular to concerns in those communities to the south of Australia—in South Australia, Victoria and Tasmania—and indeed responding to the concerns of the experts in the field, most notably those who work in fishing communities throughout Australia.

I, like most of those opposite, am not an expert when it comes to matters of fishing sustainability, in particular in the Southern Ocean. But I do have an affinity with the ocean. I have an affinity with the sea, through my time as a surfer off the coast of Sydney. I have been in the water in Maroubra and many beaches around Sydney when they have dragged the shark nets up. When they have dragged the shark nets up off Bondi or Coogee or Maroubra, I have seen what gets pulled out of those shark nets on regular occasions: dolphins, small whales, grey nurse sharks. This is what has been referred to over recent days as bycatch: the unintended consequences of netting in these areas.

I believe that, when the experts in this area, the people who are commercial fishers and recreational fishers, raise issues of concern on behalf of their communities on issues such as bycatch, we should at least listen and consider the potential environmental damage and damage to fish stocks which they say is quite alarming.

When the experts expressed this concern, the government listened, as all good governments should. That is why this reform has been undertaken. Through this process that was introduced by Minister Burke yesterday, proper consideration and scientific studies will be undertaken to ensure that all environmental controls are considered. I do not see a problem with that. I see that as a prudent approach to the management of our nation's fish stocks and something that has the support of fishing communities and environmentalists throughout the country.

I draw the Senate's attention to the views of those who are the experts in this field, those who have expressed an opinion on the government's decision publically.

Photo of George BrandisGeorge Brandis (Queensland, Liberal Party, Shadow Attorney-General) Share this | | Hansard source

Quote them!

Photo of Matt ThistlethwaiteMatt Thistlethwaite (NSW, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I will, Senator Brandis. Nobby Clark, President of the Tuna Club of Tasmania says that this is 'a victory for the little guys.' He said, 'We put the science questions to the minister and pleaded that we just want these answered.

That is what the President of the Tuna Club of Tasmania has said about this, and the minister listened.

Photo of George BrandisGeorge Brandis (Queensland, Liberal Party, Shadow Attorney-General) Share this | | Hansard source

Does it make him an expert because he asked a question?

Photo of Matt ThistlethwaiteMatt Thistlethwaite (NSW, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Well, these are the people that are closest to the industry, that work in it day in and day out, and the government has listened to their concerns. I do not see a problem with that; in fact, I think that is good governance. I wholeheartedly support the decision that has been taken by Ministers Burke and Ludwig. It is the right decision. It does not ban this activity, it just ensures proper consideration of the facts.

3:15 pm

Photo of Richard ColbeckRichard Colbeck (Tasmania, Liberal Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Fisheries and Forestry) Share this | | Hansard source

What a serious embarrassment! The previous speaker talks about a 'victory for the little guy' and yet the legislation that this government has introduced impacts on every single fisher in Australia. So much for the little guy!

Just before question time, the government rushed into the other place an amendment to their amendment. Why? Because they realised they had screwed up: they had screwed the recreational fishing sector yet again. Minister Burke said yesterday that this was about new occurrences, but when you read the legislation you find it impacts on every single fishing activity—not new activities but every single fishing activity. It impacts on commercial fishing, it impacts on charter boat fishing, it impacts on recreational fishing. In fact, any fishing activity that interacts with a listed species can be impacted, not just in the ocean but also in fresh water. So today they have brought in an amendment in the House to the bill they introduced yesterday afternoon to list this declaration against commercial fisheries only. But the question is: when is a recreational fisher not a recreational fisher? The answer is: when they are on a charter boat, because a charter operation is regarded under the act as a commercial operation. So they have completely stuffed it up again. They cannot get this right.

This legislation is a huge overreach, a huge overreaction to the issue before the government—and, I might say, it is an issue that the government themselves invited. When Minister Burke—now the Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities—was the minister for fisheries he signed off, not once but twice, on the Small Pelagics Harvest Strategy that said:

    That is exactly what the FV Margiris/FV Abel Tasman is—a large-scale freezer vessel. Tony Burke, as fisheries minister, effectively invited this vessel to Australia. What he has since done, in bringing this legislation into the parliament, is move a vote of no confidence in the commissioners of the Australian Fisheries Management Authority, AFMA. The ridiculous thing is that Tony Burke himself appointed those commissioners and gave them the responsibility to oversee fisheries management in Australia and yesterday he intervened to take away their powers by giving him the power, on the basis of green scare campaigns, to intervene in a fishery. If he gets enough emails based on a green scare campaign he will intervene in a fishery. That is the mess that has been created here.

    The government have hugely overreached, and today they are scrambling to resolve the problem they themselves created. But they have not fixed it because the charter boat operators, who are very important in the tourism industry and the recreational fishery up the east coast of Australia, are still caught in the web. So the minister has only half fixed the problem. He has completely messed it up. At a time when we should be seeing extreme confidence in our research and development corporations and our research institutions, the government have trashed their reputations and trashed the work that they have been doing.

    Then we find today that the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry has let the board of the Fisheries Research and Development Corporation expire. It is not the first time he has done this—he did the same thing to the Grains Research and Development Corporation last year. You really wonder how much attention this minister is paying to his portfolio. Obviously the rest of the cabinet do not have much faith in him because he has been rolled twice now: once on live cattle and then yesterday on fisheries management. There is no confidence in Minister Ludwig within the cabinet. He comes in here and tells us that he has reappointed the board today. I bet he has gone back to his office to look for the briefing note so that he can sign it off this afternoon so he has not misled the chamber. I bet that is what he has done. I hope he does sign off on it today, because this is a time when fisheries management and fisheries research is at its most important yet this minister has not even signed off on the board and is completely incompetent.

    3:20 pm

    Photo of Anne UrquhartAnne Urquhart (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

    I rise to take note of answers from Minister Ludwig, the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, to questions on the government's decision to seek to extend the legal powers of the environment minister over the supertrawler FV Abel Tasman, formerly the FV Margiris, fishing in Australian waters. This action demonstrates that this government is a government that listens to community concerns and is respectful of science. There has been immense public interest in this. People have seen the dangers if something goes wrong, whether they be people with environmental concerns or the huge recreational fishing community that wants to make sure their fish stocks remain in place. There has not been a strong public campaign from the proponents of the supertrawler or from other members of the fishing industry who are now saying that they support the supertrawler.

    Throughout this whole debate I have been firm in my stance that we need to focus on the facts. We need to try and move beyond comments based solely on emotion. The proposed delay of up to two years will allow for further scientific research to be undertaken. With my Tasmanian Labor colleagues, I took the concerns of recreational fishing and environmental groups to the responsible ministers. I am a strong supporter of both our commercial fishers and our recreational fishers and the contribution they make to our communities. These changes are needed to ensure continued confidence in the supplementary environmental protections that work with the strict fisheries controls. While our fisheries regulator is world leading, it is important that the community has confidence in the environmental controls which regulate it. This comprehensive review of the fisheries management system will ensure it is in line with community expectations, socioeconomic concerns and environmental measures. We need to remove the emotion and concentrate on the facts. Our world-leading fisheries management system was established under the Hawke government in 1991 and is a proud Labor legacy. However, times change and after 20 years it is due for a refresh. We need to be certain about the system, and after 20 years, we need a fresh look. This will give our system and our fishers the confidence they need to continue to be some of the most productive, profitable and sustainable in the world. It will also lead to increased community confidence in Australia's world-leading fisheries management system.

    There have been strong legitimate community concerns about the potential operation of the vessel, particularly relating to its local impacts. That is why Mr Sid Sidebottom, the member for Braddon, organised and convened a forum of environmental and recreational fishing representatives to air these concerns directly with Seafish Tasmania. I congratulate Mr Sidebottom on this initiative, which got everyone together to logically work through people's legitimate concerns. Unfortunately, the conversations between the recreational fishing, environmental groups and Seafish Tasmania were unsuccessful in achieving an agreed resolution. Therefore the government has decided to take action to delay fishing by supertrawlers.

    The amendments proposed by Minister Burke will incorporate a new chapter into the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act to allow the environment minister to prohibit a declared fishing activity while an independent expert panel undertakes an assessment of the potential environmental, social or economic impacts of the activity. The provisions would only be activated if the environment minister and the fisheries minister agree that there is uncertainty about the environmental, social or economic impacts of the identified fishing activity, and that further assessment is required. A final declaration would provide for prohibition of the fishing activity for no more than 24 months. Prior to making a final declaration, the environment minister would be required to consult with fishing concession holders who may be detrimentally affected by the prohibition of the declared fishing activity over an extended period. An interim declaration will prohibit the activity for no more than 60 days while the environment minister undertakes this consultation. This ensures procedural fairness for affected fishing operators.

    The expert panel would need to undertake the assessment against terms of reference, and their report, once made available to the environment minister, would have to be tabled in the parliament. This amendment to the act is important because it will restore confidence in our fisheries management system. We have one of the best managed fisheries in the world and we will continue to have that. There have been many countries around the world that wanted to take a highly precautionary approach to this particular vessel. Australia is not alone in this. The government has recently established that we were not able to be as cautious under current law as we wanted to be. We need to remove the emotion and concentrate on the facts. (Time expired)

    3:25 pm

    Photo of George BrandisGeorge Brandis (Queensland, Liberal Party, Shadow Attorney-General) Share this | | Hansard source

    There is one thing Senator Urquhart said at the start of her speech that I agree with: this is about an expansion of ministerial power. If you want to understand just how absurd, how lunatic this act is then understand this: this act gives the minister a power to make unlawful any declared fishing activity. The act defines a declared fishing activity as 'an activity that constitutes fishing'. That is the definition. Were this bill to be passed into law the minister could by ministerial fiat make it a criminal offence for any Australian to engage in any fishing activity. That is what the bill says. How extraordinary!

    Even more extraordinary is the criteria according to which the minister may make that declaration that would ban any fishing activity by anyone in Australia. Proposed subsection 390SD(3) says:

    The Minister must not make an interim declaration unless the Minister—

    that is, the minister for the environment—

    and the Fisheries Minister agree that:

      (a)   there is uncertainty about the environmental, social or economic impacts of the fishing activity …

    Let me make two observations about that. First of all, the word 'uncertainty' has no legal meaning whatsoever. There is no act of this parliament that I can think of which makes a minister's power conditional upon the existence of uncertainty. So the act provides no guidance and no limitation whatsoever on the capacity of the minister for the environment and the fisheries minister to exercise that power. Secondly, the relevant uncertainty must be an uncertainty in the mind of the minister—not an objective uncertainty, if there were such a thing, but merely an agreement by two individual ministers, the minister for the environment and the minister for fisheries, that they were uncertain about something.

    I suppose this bill, expressed in this way, is the absolute climax of the Rudd and Gillard Labor governments. The basis of the existence of a ministerial power to make any fishing anywhere in Australia by any Australian a crime is that two Labor Party politicians are uncertain about something. That is the criteria. If the minister does not understand the operation of a particular activity, if the minister cannot understand the science, or if the minister is incompetent, like most ministers in this government have been, then presumably they are uncertain about it, and that is the jurisdictional hook upon which they can then exercise these draconian powers. As I said, I have never seen a more absurd piece of legislation in my entire career. I have never seen a more draconian overreach of power. This legislation says that if two Labor Party politicians do not understand something, that provides them with a jurisdiction to make any fishing activity by any Australian anywhere a crime. That is what the parliament is being asked to agree to.

    I wondered what prodigy of legislative draughtsmanship was responsible for this? But we cannot blame the Office of Parliamentary Counsel for this absurd provision because it comes not from them but from Senator Ludwig's press conference yesterday when he said, 'I have a degree of uncertainty'. So because Senator Ludwig is stupid, he can ban fishing anywhere in the country. That is the way this bill works.

    3:30 pm

    Photo of Peter Whish-WilsonPeter Whish-Wilson (Tasmania, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

    Not being of a legal mind myself I would be very happy to defer to the senator's comments there about the veracity of this bill in legal terms and just say that our proposition a few days ago to bring in a disallowance motion which would make this quota illegal would have been a much simpler solution to putting this on ice and dealing with the propositions that we have in front of us.

    I just want to explain where this debate started today. It started with a question, a question that was put up by a number of rec fishing groups and environmentalists at a working group with the Labor Party two months ago. The question was very simple. It was: what impact would we expect if a supertrawler took 2,000, 5,000 or 10,000 tonnes of fish from a small area which our fishing spot was close to? And how long would it take that area to repopulate in terms of these small pelagics, which we know are very mobile fish?

    The lack of answers surrounding that very simple question was what led to rec fishing groups walking away from that working group, which they had entered into with good faith in terms of the government trying to come up with a fisheries management plan. They also would not accept the voluntary plan; they wanted something legislated.

    Once again, contrary to what Senator Abetz said today, they approached the Greens with these concerns and asked us to go in to bat for them, which is exactly what we have done. In the last few days we have arrived at the extraordinary circumstance where we now have agreement from the government that all our concerns over the lack of science in a very specific area—localised depletion—were valid; and that a management plan to manage the risks of localised depletion—let us call it 'uncertainty'—was also valid.

    So I think that it is very rich to be saying that the Greens are antiscience. We have always supported the scientists—AFMA, CSIRO and IMAS are the groups. I would like to get it on the record also, for Senator Abetz's and everyone else's attention, that I have never said that the science does not matter or that the economics do not matter. The context of my comments were made very clearly at a forum, and also on ABC morning radio in Hobart the following morning. I had done a trip along the east coast of Tasmania, visiting hundreds of fishermen, personally and at a forum, and my comments were made while I was talking about our disallowance motion to put in place the chance for a management plan. The fishermen and the people who I spoke to were not interested in hearing about science or economics; they simply did not want the trawler, and they could see that no good would come of this to them. So suddenly, the Greens and I are antiscience and anti-economics.

    Another thing about the science that is going to be fascinating following on from this debate is the proposition of marine protected areas. It is my understanding that Senator Colbeck has a bill before the House to give the parliament the chance to disallow the Commonwealth Marine Protected Areas program, which I may say is not based on just a few years of science but on 20 or 30 years of science. And a lot of the scientists behind that marine protected areas program are the ones who Senator Colbeck quotes supporting the lack of risks on localised depletion. I think it is also worth pointing out that the only science we received on localised depletion—and the quote was very clear to me when I was listening to Senator Colbeck a few weeks ago—was commissioned by him; if not paid for by him, certainly it was asked for by him. And that arrived on the day of our disallowance debate. We had no science in localised depletion to look at at all until that day.

    I do not blame the scientists for that; I blame that on a lack of funding. I certainly hope that when the government reviews AFMA and fisheries management in general that they will look at the funding for this group which, incidentally, is provided by the industry. It is a user-pays system. Unless we have one of the world's biggest supertrawlers in Australia, we do not have the funding to do the scientific research—talk about putting the chicken before the egg! All these things need to be sorted out, and the Greens feel very clearly that, given a lack of public interest in this debate and the lack of trust, we would rather see a ban put in place on supertrawlers, with the onus of proof being that the ban is overturned once the science, economic and social concerns are proven— (Time expired)

    Question agreed to.