Senate debates

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Matters of Public Interest


1:11 pm

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

Over 12 months ago I got to give a speech in the matters of public interest discussion and I talked about the problem of plastics in our oceans. Since I made that speech billions of tonnes of garbage has made its way into our oceans and hundreds of millions of tonnes of plastic has made its way all through our ecosystems. We still have a long way to go. We have made some progress in the last 12 months, including a plastic bag ban in my home state of Tasmania, but we still need to look at market based schemes to try to stop plastic bottles getting into our oceans.

Today I rise to speak about another issue of marine conservation—whaling in the Southern Ocean. This is a matter of long-running interest to all Australians and to all parties in this chamber. Australia once had a whaling industry; we no longer do. We have ended that chapter in our history, but it was an important part of our story.

Over Christmas I was visited by a Chinese cable television station. They came to Tasmania to interview me about what was going on in the Southern Ocean with the Japanese whaling fleet. I asked them to visit Bicheno on the east coast of Tasmania, because that is where I was staying, and they came. The reason I wanted them to visit Bicheno was that it was a whaling town. I took them to the whaling lookout and showed them where the old-timers used to stand and spot the whales. We went to where the whales were slaughtered and processed, and I showed them the beaches where the carcasses were laid out in the sun.

My message was very clear: whaling was part of our heritage. It no longer is and we no longer use it as a justification for slaughtering whales. The narrative that whaling is a tradition lies in the past, not in the present nor the future. Australia's role in whaling is now simple—we study them, we conserve them and we fight on the international stage to prevent their slaughter. I am pleased to say that there is tripartisan support in this parliament for those three objectives. What is in dispute is how much fight is needed to actually, physically prevent the barbaric slaughter of whales.

I am briefly going to quote some excerpts from an article by Terry Barnes, who probably puts it more eloquently than I could. It is worth noting that he is a former Howard government adviser and is considered a conservative commentator in this country. Sometimes the most biting and honest criticisms come from your own political brethren. Terry Barnes's criticism of Greg Hunt and the Abbott government's efforts to prevent any action on whaling deserves a wide audience for this reason alone. Earlier this year, incensed by Hunt's abandonment of the Liberal-National government's whaling election promise to the send the ACV Ocean Protector, Barnes was inspired to write the following for The Age:

Four months ago, I looked into the eyes of a huge yet gentle humpback whale.

We were in Tonga, on a photographic trip, snorkelling near a mother humpback and her playful calf. I detached myself from my group to return to our boat but, to my amazement, mum followed me.

Gently, slowly, she eased her way through the water until we were nose to nose, leaving no more than a couple of metres between us. Just as I thought we'd collide, she suddenly stopped.

Her eyes searched mine, and we looked intently at each other for what seemed an age.

…   …   …

Having been looked in the eye by a humpback, it's impossible to stand by idly as the latest Southern Ocean whaling season begins. If they are there now, my mother and calf may encounter humans who are not harmless tourists: the Japanese whalers bent on killing them, ostensibly in the name of science, while upholding spurious national honour in the face of global condemnation.

…   …   …

In these pages in October, I praised Hunt for his passionate anti-whaling stand. To his great credit, he treats whale conservation as a mainstream political matter, and fought for his election promise to be honoured fully. But I worried then that not all Hunt's colleagues share his vision: sadly, I was right.

If the government has gambled that this will upset only hard-core greenies who would never vote Coalition, it's seriously mistaken. The anti-whaling message resonates strongly in middle Australia, too.

…   …   …

Hunt's promise-breaking colleagues should remember that, while whales don't vote, millions of Australians who want them conserved do.

It is my experience in life that most people who become conservationists, greenies or green-tinged have been touched by something bigger than themselves.

I think of my own experience last year at my colleague Senator Siewert's wedding in Western Australia. Senator Di Natale and I went surfing together at a point break near Yallingup. There were only two of us out in the water. After about 15 minutes, a large humpback breached about five times about 100 metres from us. A couple of minutes later, as if on cue, a pod of dolphins appeared. As it turned out, I caught a wave in and left Senator Di Natale out in the ocean on his own. He very quickly followed me, having seen a shadow go underneath him—which I told him later was probably a dolphin. Nevertheless, it is those sorts of encounters with nature that can change your life and make you rethink your priorities.

Australians want their government to take strong action to prevent the slaughter of whales in our waters. I know this, Terry Barnes knows this and Greg Hunt knows this. But Greg Hunt and the Liberal-National government have failed the whales and failed the Australian people. Year after year, then opposition spokesperson Greg Hunt would pop up every summer calling on the Labor government to do more about whaling. There were press releases, media conferences, questions in parliament and speeches. He gave the impression that he cared, that in government he would act.

I will just read through some of the headings of Greg Hunt's media releases as spokesperson on whaling: 'Letter to Garrett—the time has come for action on whaling', 'Free Peter to deliver on his whaling promises', 'Harpooned by his own whaling promise', '   Garrett loses passion for whaling campaign', 'PM jets out for sushi and sake—but no real action against whaling', 'Will Peter Garrett finally announce his whaling envoy on National Whale Day?' and 'A cracker record and a broken promise on whaling, Garrett scraps plans for whaling surveillance'. All in all there were dozens of these media releases. They were often highly personal and aimed directly at Peter Garrett. No wonder, when Greg Hunt broke his promise—and this government's promise—to send the ACV Ocean Protector to the Southern Ocean to monitor whaling this year, that Peter Garrett tweeted: 'No surprise as Liberals break promise to send vessel to whale hunt. This after Hunt grandstanding every Christmas and January for years.'

Other things that Greg Hunt has said are also worth reviewing if you are interested in the subject—and I know most Australians are. We have heard rhetoric such as:

We've got blood in the water and a blind eye in Canberra, it's completely unacceptable.

There was also:

Sea Shepherd have had to do the Australian Government's work and that in part has contributed to this conflict.

On another occasion, he said:

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.

Just before the election, we were told:

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.

He could not have been more clear than that. Mr Hunt was so strong in his language and so clear about what he would do and why he would do it.

Did he lie to the Australian people? Was he just using whaling for political gain when he had no intention of acting? Was he just fundamentally incompetent and did he fail to understand how he could use his portfolio to protect whales? Was he rolled by his cabinet colleagues? Minister Morrison commandeered the ACV Ocean Protector for Operation Sovereign Borders. Minister Robb went on the record saying trade deals are more important than whales—signalling to the Japanese that, whatever they wanted to do with whales, the Australian government would roll over. Most likely it was a combination of those things: a weak minister and a dishonest government—an unprincipled government willing to promise something in opposition, and in an election campaign, that it was never going to deliver.

It became apparent it was starting to unravel for Mr Hunt when his language shifted to:

We remain committed to surveillance in the Southern Ocean.

He was no longer committed to sending the Ocean Protector, now he was just 'committed to surveillance'. Apparently, in Hunt's mind, this met the promise. Then we had the farce of him being questioned about the Ocean Protector on the doors. 'Just give me 10 more days to give you an answer,' he begged. Finally there was an announcement just before Christmas that he was supporting sending a chartered Airbus instead of a vessel—and that this was meeting his promise. He said, in fact, that it was better than his promise.

It beggars belief that he thought the public would buy that a passenger plane could play the role of, in his words, 'a cop on the beat' better than a $150 million vessel purpose-built to protect Australia's interests in the Southern Ocean. This is the sort of cynical spin that is responsible for the public losing faith in this government so quickly. The first flight, a flight which cost the Australian taxpayer $93,000, saw the whaling fleet for no more than eight minutes and then flew home. There were a few aerial photo shots which we never got to see—more secrecy.

The final straw for Greg Hunt's cynical attempt to cover up his broken promise was in Senate estimates. I asked the chiefs of the defence forces what they thought of the surveillance capacity of an Airbus A319 for the Southern Ocean. This is how the Chief of Air Force replied:

The A319 is not suitable for that task.

  …   …   …

The word surveillance can mean many things—surveillance out of a passenger aeroplane is a pretty limited operation.

There you have it: the last vestiges of credibility of the coalition's approach to whaling were torn down by our Chief of Air Force.

This summer, as over previous summers, the organisation Sea Shepherd has succeeded where our government has failed. After one of the longest and toughest Southern Ocean campaigns, Sea Shepherd has claimed it has reduced the whale slaughter by 75 per cent, and we will find out in coming weeks just how many whales have been slaughtered this season. Greg Hunt once claimed that Sea Shepherd was doing the government's job. I agree.

I hope, like all Australians, that this summer just gone will be the last whaling season ever in the Southern Ocean. The case brought forward by the former Labor government against the Japanese whalers in the International Court of Justice has, or at least had, tripartisan support. In that respect, I thank Labor and acknowledge the work that it has done to get this to the international court, and I acknowledge the support that the Liberal-National government have also given and the resources that have been provided. This court case looks at whether the Japanese whaling program breaches the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling. Australia has argued for a long time that the Japanese are undertaking commercial whaling, that their program is not scientific and that the program breaches the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species.

I hope, as many do in this country, that we will have a decisive finding handed down in Australia's favour next week, on 31 March. I hope that the International Court of Justice will find that the whaling can no longer continue. I hope that Japan pledges to abide by this decision. I am optimistic. I look on the bright side. But I know that this result may not happen. In fact, there is a strong chance of a middle-ground decision being issued. The Australian government needs to be ready to think on its feet. What happens if the court legitimises Antarctic whaling? What happens if Japan refuses to accept the verdict? What happens if Japan threatens to leave the whaling convention and continue its slaughter of whales unabated? I hope that somewhere in the environment minister's office, in the foreign affairs minister's office, in the Attorney-General's office or in the Prime Minister's office a brief outlining all of Australia's options in light of this court case is being thoroughly examined. I hope there are high-level meetings occurring between agencies as we speak. We need to be prepared for any eventuality.

This is what I think should happen. Australia needs to appoint a special envoy on whaling to Japan. We cannot let this issue spiral out of control, and ongoing dialogue with Japan is vital. The government needs to urgently establish a ministerial task force featuring the Attorney-General, the environment minister and the Minister for Foreign Affairs. There needs to be whole-of-government coordination on this matter. The left hand must know what the right hand is doing. This task force should be supported by an interagency working group from the relevant agencies.

Australia should never accept that Japan should be allowed to continue the slaughter of whales. Allowing the slaughter of non-endangered minke whales but not endangered species of whales is not a compromise that we should accept. This is a moral question that I and the Greens and most Australians will take a stand on. Whales being harpooned and allowed to drown in their own blood is simply unacceptable.

If the court fails to find in our favour, there are so many other legal, political and diplomatic paths we can follow to end whaling. We must exhaust all of these and not simply roll over. Whatever the verdict, next summer Australia must send the Ocean Protector to the Southern Ocean to be the 'cop on the beat' that this government promised. Whether to enforce a positive court verdict or to monitor the efforts of a continuing so-called scientific or commercial whaling, we need to be there. As Mr Barnes said in the passage I quoted in the beginning of this speech, we cannot stand idly by and watch these amazing creatures get slaughtered. We are better than that. This should not happen on our watch. Sadly, it is happening with sharks in Western Australia. We are seeing turtles and birds entangled with plastic. We have polluted, hunted or crowded out so many species on this planet. Enough is enough. Let us call a spade a spade and stand up for our whales.