Senate debates

Thursday, 18 June 2020


Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Amendment (Coronavirus Economic Response Package) Bill 2020; Second Reading

1:35 pm

Photo of Patrick DodsonPatrick Dodson (WA, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Reconciliation) Share this | | Hansard source

Labor welcomes the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Amendment (Coronavirus Economic Response Package) Bill 2020 as it provides relief for the Great Barrier Reef tourism operators who have been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic. This bill supplements an earlier measure to waiver the environmental management charge from 1 April 2020 to 31 December 2020. Combined, these measures effectively ensure that the EMCs are waived for the entire 2020 calendar year. We're also pleased that the Minister for the Environment has assured Australians that there'll be no reduction in the revenue that goes to the management of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park as a result of this amendment.

While Labor welcomes this relief for tourism operators in the north and far north, the government has been woefully lacking when it comes to supporting tourism and the reef in the long term. To support tourism, the government needs to support the reef, and to support the reef the government should work towards the overall health of the reef. Importantly, it should resist the deniers in its ranks and commit to serious action on climate change at home and show leadership internationally. The most recent mass bleaching event was the most extensive. Tragically, it was the third event to have taken place in only five years. How can Australians have faith in this government, which protects the reef, if the government can't even be honest about the major threats to it like climate change?

We need a strong reef because it supports 64,000 jobs, brings in $6.4 billion a year and is worth $56 billion. The reef is one of the best tourism experiences on the planet, and it's right on our doorstep. Those considering a visit to the north or the far north should be assured that, despite the Morrison government's lack of environmental action, there is still a great deal of beauty and wonder to be experienced on the Great Barrier Reef. Not only will you get to see the amazing natural diversity and beauty of the reef—one of the world's seven natural wonders—but you will be supporting thousands of jobs in Queensland. I commend the bill to the Senate.

1:37 pm

Photo of Larissa WatersLarissa Waters (Queensland, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak on the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Amendment (Coronavirus Economic Response Package) Bill 2020, which the Greens support. The bill seeks to waive the environmental management charge to the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority to provide financial relief to the tourism industry. But, really, the greatest relief that the government could provide for the reef and the 64,000 people who rely on it for their job and livelihood is to take strong action on the climate crisis.

Four years ago the reef narrowly avoided being listed as 'in danger', and it was a wake-up call to the government that far more needed to be done. Of course the coronavirus pandemic has delayed the World Heritage Committee UNESCO meeting that would've assessed whether the government had done its homework. But, sadly, we know things are not looking good.

On 7 April the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies released the key findings of their aerial study of the reef and confirmed that the Great Barrier Reef has experienced what is now its fifth bleaching but the third mass coral bleaching in just a five-year period. They also found that a quarter of the reefs within the marine park experienced severe coral bleaching over the past summer, and in fact the recorded bleaching is the most widespread, having for the first time struck all regions of the reef—northern, central and now the southern sectors.

It's no surprise that the marine park authority has now downgraded its assessment of the long-term health of the reef from 'poor' to now 'very poor'. The government delegation to the World Heritage Committee, however, lobbied for climate change not to be a relevant consideration when thinking about whether the site should be put on the 'in danger' list.

The government has prioritised the management of the reef by giving half a billion dollars to a small charity, which was shrouded in controversy and lacked transparency. The UN scientific reports have confirmed that, if we see a temperature rise of 1½ degrees, we will lose 90 per cent of coral reefs globally. If we hit two degrees, we will lose all coral reefs globally. We're already at one degree, and in fact the IPCC has us on track for between three and six degrees of warming. So, if you really want to help the reef and the people who rely on it for their livelihood, take action on the climate crisis, take on your fossil fuel donors and do the right thing to protect those jobs and protect our reef.

1:40 pm

Photo of Gerard RennickGerard Rennick (Queensland, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Tourism is one of the industries that have been most affected by the current pandemic due to the restrictions on travel. For Queensland, this is particularly dire as it relies on tourism more than any other state, with tourism bringing $27 billion into the economy and employing one in nine people. The Great Barrier Reef is just one of the many tourist locations in Queensland that are suffering at this time.

This bill, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Amendment (Coronavirus Economic Response Package) Bill 2020, makes amendments to the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Act 1975 that will waive the requirement for reef permit holders to remit the environmental management charge for the quarter from 1 January 2020 to 31 March 2020. This will help alleviate some of the financial pressure on tourism in the Great Barrier Reef by lifting this tax and allowing businesses to keep more of the money they earn during a time when their income is considerably less than normal. This bill comes off the back of the government's Coronavirus Economic Response Package Omnibus Bill 2020, which waived the charge from 1 April to 31 December of this year. This amendment, therefore, is only an extension of what the government has already done and comes from calls from current permit holders who have been unable to pay the charge from this year's first quarter. The bill will remove this additional financial pressure. Although permit holders are no longer remitting their charge, the government will ensure that the money spent on the management of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park will remain the same.

This bill will provide a very welcome relief to the reef and to small businesses, but it is ultimately a short-term solution. While international travel is still a long way off, what the state really needs is interstate travellers to get the tourism industry back on its feet. This remains an impossibility as long as Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk stubbornly refuses to open the state's borders. The July school holidays are a busy time for Queensland tourism, as visitors from the south come up to enjoy the warmer weather. The amount of business that will be lost if borders stay closed over these important holidays could spell the end for many small businesses, including those in the Great Barrier Reef.

The government's aim with restrictions has always been to curb the spread of infections and flatten the curve. This has been achieved, with the cases having significantly decreased since their peak in late March, and the number of active cases in Queensland is in the single digits. Yet Annastacia Palaszczuk seems to want a full eradication of the virus, saying that she will not open the border unless there are no local cases in New South Wales and Victoria, which could be as late as September, or maybe even never. This is a ridiculous and unsustainable goal and nothing but meaningless grandstanding on the part of the Premier. The goal was never to eradicate the virus, and the experts say this isn't possible in Australia anyway. While New South Wales and Victoria do have more cases than Queensland, their numbers also continue to fall, and the curve is most assuredly flattened. The Premier's medical argument is becoming less feasible by the day as Queensland continues to report no new cases.

The real reason the Premier is keeping the borders closed is that she has an election coming up in October and she thinks she can win more political points by pretending that she cares more about people's lives when they are no longer in any real danger. As a matter of fact, the lives that are in danger now are those of our small business people, who are suffering poverty and homelessness and watching their businesses slowly decline. There are measures in place to deal with any new infections that come, including widespread testing and contact tracing. It's more than safe to open the borders. Do we stop driving because there are accidents on the roads or stop going out in the sun because people get skin cancer? No. This entire pandemic has been about weighing the cost of infections against the damage done to the economy.

In this situation, the cost to the Queensland economy far outweighs the health risk of opening the border. It is vital to the Queensland economy to get the tourism industry back up and running as soon as possible. But, while the borders remain closed, estimates say Queensland is missing $2 billion per month. The destruction that the Premier's decision will cause to people's livelihoods will be far worse than anything caused by the virus. The coronavirus is serious, but life cannot stop indefinitely because we are afraid or because Annastacia Palaszczuk wants to look like she's doing more than anyone else. This popularity contest she's trying to play with Queenslanders is in her own interests rather than the interests of the people in her state and is causing real harm to real people. Her stubbornness in keeping borders closed is slowly destroying people's lives and an entire industry. This is what happens when leaders look out for their own interests, in order to hang onto power, over the interests of the people they are supposed to serve.

Support this bill to provide relief for an industry that is doing its best to get by in these unprecedented times and to support the small local businesses represented by those in the Great Barrier Reef—that is the backbone of this country. But, more importantly, support the opening of the Queensland border to really help tourism and all the jobs and livelihoods it represents. I commend the bill to the Senate.

1:46 pm

Photo of Jonathon DuniamJonathon Duniam (Tasmania, Liberal Party, Assistant Minister for Forestry and Fisheries) Share this | | Hansard source

I too am pleased to make a contribution on the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Amendment (Coronavirus Economic Response Package) Bill 2020. I thank senators who have made a contribution to this debate—Senator Dodson, Senator Waters and Senator Rennick. It is an incredibly important issue. Everyone has touched on the importance of the tourism industry. Everyone has touched on how significant an employer this industry is to, in particular, the regional communities within the state of Queensland that run up and down alongside the Great Barrier Reef. I don't think anyone in this chamber has ever understated the importance of that industry and what it means to the tens of thousands of Queenslanders who actually work in that industry.

The bill we are debating today, as others have outlined, makes amendments to the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Act 1975, which enables the waiver of the environmental management charge from 1 January 2020 through to 31 March 2020. Waiving the charging of that fee will provide financial relief to the many tourism business operators that work in that geographic area and, indeed, other relevant permission holders impacted by the coronavirus pandemic. There is a lot of talk of economic stimulus in the form of stimulus payments, taxpayers' money being handed on to a third party—a household, a business, a community group or whoever it might be—and a lot of those measures do have their place. But we are talking about businesses that are doing it tough. We are talking about businesses that, overnight, went from being fully booked to nothing. Every boat that went out onto the reef and every hotel back on shore was full, particularly as we led into the Easter holidays. So we have said: 'We are not going to charge these fees. That is money going back to you.'

We did the same in the fisheries space, with the Australian Fisheries Management Authority. I know that is a separate entity, but I think it is important to highlight that we need to provide support that is appropriate—like relief for the private sector from the burden of government charges like this. Where possible, I think we should do it. It is a move that has been welcomed by the Queensland tourism industry. I have worked hard with groups like Tourism Whitsundays and Advance Cairns. Warren Entsch, the member for Leichardt, and Mr Christensen, who has a seat nearby, have invited me to speak to those groups to understand from them exactly the hardships that tourism operators in those regions are facing. These changes are very welcome by them.

I do dispute the claims that were made by Senator Waters in her contribution earlier around support for the reef. In one statement she said we were doing nothing; in the next she said we were providing half a billion dollars to support the reef and then referred to the entity that was in charge of administering that funding as an entity 'shrouded in controversy'. I'll tell you what: the only reason there was any controversy is that political parties like the Australian Greens besmirched the characters of those who were in charge of administering that charity and the funds that were being handed over. So, to say that nothing's happening—wrong. And to say that the people who are doing it in the form of this charity are doing nothing—again, wrong.

This bill will ensure that there will be no reduction in revenue that goes to the management of the Great Barrier Reef. Indeed, we've just talked about half a billion dollars worth of funding that is going into supporting the work that needs to be done in the reef. It supports our tourism industry and it is a massive win for that sector. I commend the bill to the Senate.

Question agreed to.

Bill read a second time.