Senate debates

Monday, 9 December 2013



10:12 pm

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

Slaughter season in the Southern Ocean has begun. This weekend three vessels left the Japanese port of Shimonoseki to join the factory ship Nisshin Maru on their way to the Southern Ocean. They headed south, as they have done annually for the last 20 years, to hunt minke and fin whales in the Southern Ocean. In particular, they will be entering the whale sanctuary declared by Australia back in 1999, which is part of the Australian exclusive economic zone in the Southern Ocean.

For most of the last 20 years, the Japanese fleet has taken between 400 and 500 whales on average but up to 1,000 whales each year. Since Sea Shepherdhas taken to interfering with the Japanese hunt, the numbers of whales slaughtered have dropped dramatically. In the Southern Ocean this year alone, Sea Shepherdclaimed to have saved 932 whales. When Sea Shepherdsay that they save lives, they are talking about the lives of whales. In fact, that is what the organisation judges its success on. It is not by its membership or how much money it raises but by how many whales' lives are saved each year, particularly in the Southern Ocean.

This issue is very popular with the Australian people. Polls have shown that up to 94 per cent of Australians oppose Japanese whaling. Various polls have also shown that more than eight in 10 Australians have said the previous federal government was not doing enough to prevent Japanese whaling in the Southern Ocean. A Sea Shepherd vessel, the Bob Barker,is currently moored in Hobart in preparation for its 10th Southern Ocean conflict this summer, to be joined by other boats from the fleet that is currently in Melbourne. This issue has been so popular with the Australian people that it has been on the radar of the coalition for quite some time now.

Dating back to 2008, current environment minister Greg Hunt has continually thrown his support behind more action to prevent Japanese whaling in the Southern Ocean. In The Australian on 25 February this year, it was written:

Mr Hunt indicated the Coalition would make defending Australia's Southern Ocean interests an election issue, promising to restore regular patrols and also to deploy a Customs vessel to monitor Japanese whaling.

And the coalition did make it an election issue. On 23 August 2013, the coalition leased a whale and dolphin protection plan. It said:

Should the whaling season continue, the Coalition commits to sending a Customs vessel to the Southern Ocean. It is important that Australia has a Southern Ocean presence given the ongoing risk of confrontation between whalers and protestors.

In fact, Minister Hunt is such an antiwhaling activist that, each summer, when he was opposition spokesperson on whaling, he criticised the government for its lack of action. He regularly used rhetoric that even the Greens could not get away with. This February, Greg Hunt said:

Reports of the slaughter of whales in Australian waters are deeply disturbing. The Government must make a statement immediately, have whales been slaughtered in Australian waters, if so what are they going to do about it. We've got blood in the water and a blind eye in Canberra, it's completely unacceptable. These are Australian waters that should be protected. Whaling should never be occurring but for it to occur in Australian waters is an utter failure in Canberra.

Yet it is not just Minister Hunt from the coalition who has been critical about not sending a patrol boat to the Southern Ocean. Senators Colbeck and Abetz, and the Hon. Michael Keenan, are also on the record on the need to patrol our Southern Ocean with a Customs vessel. That is a fair swag of the Abbott ministry who seem to be advocating keeping an eye on the Japanese this summer in the Southern Ocean.

As for the government's response so far, despite this election promise, when asked in recent weeks—prompted by a sense of urgency leading into the whaling season—the government has refused to commit a Customs vessel to the Southern Ocean. All we have had are weasel words and confusion. Minister Hunt has only answered journalists' questions through a spokesperson. The promise has gone from sending a patrol boat to simply 'monitoring and surveillance'. When Senator Cash was asked directly about this in this chamber last week, she waxed lyrically about the government's plans for whale trails and temporary protection visas but was silent on the actual promise to send a Customs vessel.

It is important to have a Customs vessel in the Southern Ocean for various reasons but, most importantly, to provide a disincentive to the aggressive behaviour that we saw there last summer, when the 500-tonne Bob Barker was sandwiched between an 8,000-tonne fuel vessel and a 5,000-tonne whaling vessel. During the attempt to refuel, the Japanese also threw flash grenades—while there was petrol around. In fact, had the captain of the Bob Barker not put out a mayday, warning the Japanese captain that he had 34 souls on board, it is very likely that the Bob Barker would have sunk. This year, we know that the Japanese have been training for action in the Southern Ocean this summer, and Sea Shepherd refuses to stand down.

I remind the government tonight that this is illegal whaling, deemed illegal by the Australian Federal Court. This is in our waters, in the EEZ that is so important to Australian fisheries and so important to the Australian people. These are the grounds where whales go and have gone for millions of years. These are the same whales we see when we surf and swim, frolicking off our coastlines with their calves, heading south, doing what they have always done. These are Australian whales. My party and I and, in fact, most people in this chamber do not believe that they should be slaughtered. Whales are only just increasing in numbers.

Now, there was a good reason the government acquired the Customs vessel Ocean Protector for over $150 million—because it is one of only two ice-rated vessels Australia has. It was acquired to detect, deter and apprehend illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing vessels in Australia's EEZ, especially in protecting our precious Patagonian toothfish stocks; undertake marine patrols for a minimum of 120 days per year in the Southern Ocean; and be on hand for medical evacuations. But, currently, this specialist Southern Ocean boat is off the coast of Christmas Island as part of Operation Sovereign Borders. Meanwhile, we are ceding the sovereignty of our Southern Ocean waters.

We do believe there is serious risk of injury or loss of human life during the whaling season this summer. I am not the only one to have said it. The Sea Shepherdpeople have said it, as has my predecessor, Bob Brown. The vessel needs to be there not only to monitor the illegal slaughter of whales in Australian waters—which we have documented evidence of from last whaling season, in Australian sovereign waters—but also to monitor the Japanese whaling fleet and let them know that the Australian government is watching. There are many Australian citizens on board the Sea Shepherdantiwhaling fleet.

So I ask the Prime Minister, given that there are obviously conflicts within the cabinet about the use of this boat, to call an urgent cabinet meeting and force Minister Morrison to cede control of the Ocean Protector so it can do the job that it was acquired to do.    Minister Hunt also needs to face the people and explain his plans to send the Ocean Protector south or admit to another broken promise by this enfeebled government. It is time for action, not for words. It is very important to highlight that these have been consistent messages sent by the coalition over the last six years. They are not my words but Minister Hunt's words. He was constantly on the back of the previous, Labor government for not sending a Customs vessel to monitor illegal whaling activities in the Southern Ocean. It is absolutely imperative that the coalition follow through with their election promise and immediately send this boat to twin the Japanese whaling fleet and make sure not only that the lives of our whales are saved this season but also that the lives of those on board the Sea Shepherd fleet are also protected.

Senate adjourned at 22:22