Great Barrier Reef tourism support

Published on Mon 15 June 2020 1:14pm

Like the university sector and the arts and creative industries, our businesses and workers in the tourism and events sector are not seen for the true value of their contribution. The government’s economic response to the pandemic, unfortunately, reflects that blind spot.

 Mr Wilson (1:14pm) – I’m glad for the opportunity to speak on the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Amendment (Coronavirus Economic Response Package) Bill 2020, which seeks to support the tourism sector focused around the Great Barrier Reef. I’m particularly glad to support the second reading amendment move by the shadow minister for the environment, the member for Griffith. And I join her in encouraging people around Australia to support our tourism economies all over this country, including in Queensland, including the tourism sector focused on the Great Barrier Reef.

The measure contained in this bill is a worthy one but is relatively minor when you consider the scale of the impact we’ve seen on the sector. This measure allows operators to keep the environment management charge they collect from visitors. They collect it to then remit it to the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority in support of its very important work in protecting this extensive, precious but also fragile and at-risk marine environment. I think any move to remove this charge and therefore defund the work the authority does would be bananas. This bill follows in the footsteps of an earlier bill that covered the period from 1 April to the end of 2020. This bill goes back and picks up the period from 1 January to the end of March, which I would think is the most relevant period in terms of the value which the EMC holds for tourism operators. There will be operators that took in that charge, which they’ve either held or remitted, and they will get it back, and it will be of some value to them. After 1 March there probably wasn’t much tourism or much in the way of a charge being gathered.

I really want to take this opportunity to acknowledge all the businesses and workers who are involved one way or another with Great Barrier Reef tourism. I know it will have been a distressing and bewildering experience so far in 2020, and, unfortunately, that situation continues. GBR tourism is itself a significant part of the Australian economy and, of course, the Queensland economy. Its direct and indirect value is enormous: $6.4 billion annually and 64,000 jobs, and there are thousands of businesses that depend on and benefit from reef tourism to some degree. If you think of all those involved, there are tour operators, accommodation and transport providers, boat operators, recreational hire businesses, divers, fishers, people in aquaculture, food and beverage businesses, people in scientific research and conservation—the list goes on and on.

There’s no question that the Great Barrier Reef is an incredible and unique feature of the world’s marine environment. It’s regarded as the largest living organism on earth, and we know that a quarter of the world’s marine life depends on coral reef ecosystems. The reef is, understandably, a matter of enormous attraction, a place of wonder and curiosity and delight. It’s true to say that people are motivated to come to Australia to experience the Great Barrier Reef alone. That’s what gets them here, and other parts of Australia benefit as a result. We know the reef is an unparalleled drawcard for visitors who go on to explore other parts of Queensland and other parts of Australia. It’s a gateway attraction, a visitor magnet, and there are few destinations that are more strongly and positively associated with Australia than the Great Barrier Reef.

It not only draws people to Australia, which then allows them to visit and experience other aspects of our natural environment, our towns and cities, our broader arts and culture and food and beverage industries; the reef actually stands for one of Australia’s core values and characteristics. We are the beneficiaries of the oldest continuing culture on earth and as part of that we are the stewards of a place of extraordinary beauty and biodiversity.

The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park receives around 2.5 million visitors each year. When you look at the surveys that identify what brings people to Queensland and to Australia, there aren’t many motivations that compete with the phrase, ‘I want to see and experience the Great Barrier Reef.’ So again, like the member for Griffith, I acknowledge all those involved in looking after and showing off this wonder of the world, this world heritage marvel, for which we in Australia are fortunate to be responsible. We do need to do more to live up to that responsibility. We cannot take the health of our marine environments around Australia for granted, and I’m going to come back to that.

Almost everyone in Australia’s tourism sector has had an unbelievably rough year in 2020. We know that the tourism and visitor economy was first hit and hardest hit by the coronavirus pandemic. In March alone I understand that visitor arrivals in Queensland fell 60 per cent. As I understand it, $200 million of bookings were cancelled in March, and by the end of April that impact was estimated to have reached $500 million. There is also an estimate that 16,000 workers would be laid off—that’s a quarter of the 64,000 involved in GBR tourism: one in four. I know that Tropical North Tourism has said:

We will be one of the last destinations to recover and estimate that the region will lose at least $2.5bn in visitor expenditure which is 15% of our gross regional product in 2020.

Right now we’re coming into the period in which Queensland tourism would usually welcome a large number of visitors, especially from overseas. Obviously, that’s been heavily affected and, while everyone in this place looks forward to the resumption in due course of interstate travel and tourism—when it’s safe for that to occur—international tourism is likely to be a fair way off. So it’s appropriate—of course it’s appropriate—that we take measures like the one delivered through this bill, but it’s more important that we consider whether the government is doing enough. The value of allowing operators to keep their EMC or to have it remitted to them if they’ve already passed it through is likely to be around $2 million in the period covered by 1 January to the end of March. That’s actually not a huge amount of support. The previous member talked about tens of thousands of dollars per business; I can’t really see what that calculation is based on.

Because we know that the bill operates to ensure that the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority is not deprived of funding, the bill provides for $2.9 million to go from consolidated revenue to the GBRMPA in lieu of what it would ordinarily gain. So somewhere between $2 million and $3 million is what this measure is worth. It’s not a huge number; it’s not unhelpful, but it’s not going to make a massive difference. We know that a proper wage subsidy would have made a much more significant difference. We led the way in calling for that reform, and the government ultimately relented on creating a wage subsidy after saying it wasn’t necessary—as it did on telehealth and in a number of other areas. Initially, it thought those things didn’t need to occur. But, as we’ve seen, the government’s JobKeeper program has turned out to be a short and patchy blanket as we head into winter.

Even by the government’s own calculations—if ‘calculations’ is the right term for whatever caused them to miss the mark by three million workers and $60 billion—there are many people and businesses missing out on support. But even before that gargantuan error—that Grand Canyon, that Great Barrier Reef, of an error—it emerged that it was already clear that JobKeeper was not designed as effectively as it could have been. The exclusion of up to a million casual workers is a case in point. The 12-month requirement that left casual workers in the cold has, just as importantly, left businesses in the cold, because it meant that workers were separated from the entities to which they contributed. In many cases, that has meant that the business itself is not viable.

So, as we confront and seek to come through this global health pandemic, we’d be fools to ignore the other forms of catastrophe that threaten our shared social, environmental and economic wellbeing. In 2020, we’ve already experienced the first national climate change disaster in the form of bushfire on a scale the world has never yet seen. We’ve also watched in dismay the third mass-bleaching event in the Great Barrier Reef within the last five years. Those events—those bleaching events—are a feature of climate change. They’re a consequence of the fact that the ocean has absorbed 90 per cent of the additional energy caused by the emission of greenhouse gases. As our oceans get hotter and hotter they grow more acidic, and this affects marine life, including the algae that sustains reef ecosystems.

According to the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reefs Studies, which undertakes world-based integrated research for sustainable use and management of coral reefs, the 2020 bleaching was more widespread than earlier events. As director, Terry Hughes, said:

We surveyed 1,036 reefs from the air during the last two weeks in March, to measure the extent and severity of coral bleaching throughout the Barrier Reef region. For the first time, severe bleaching has struck all three regions of the Great Barrier Reef – the northern, central and now large parts of the southern sectors.

This year, February had the highest monthly temperatures ever recorded on the Great Barrier Reef since the Bureau of Meteorology sea surface temperature records began in the year 1900. And yet the Minister for Emissions Reduction hasn’t achieved what his title would suggest his job is to do, which is meaningful reduction, and has made it clear that the Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison tick-tick-tick government will not be updating Australia’s woeful emissions reduction target at this year’s conference of the parties to the Paris Climate Agreement.

There are 105 countries that have indicated they intend to lift their ambition in respect of nationally determined contributions this year, but Australia is not one of them. The fact that GBR operators have a direct interest in the health of the reef and, in many cases, are active in reef conservation and restoration is both understandable and welcome. While climate change, and consequent ocean warming, is clearly the biggest threat to the future health of the reef, plastic pollution is also a serious issue.

We’re facing a waste crisis in Australia. The most recent feature of the crisis is the export bans that mean we can’t send our rubbish somewhere else. That’s forcing us to acknowledge the fact that we’ve done poorly when it comes to recycling, especially in areas like plastic. We struggle to recycle barely 12 per cent of the 100 kilograms or so that each of us in Australia consumes every year. We know that, globally, something like eight million tonnes of plastic waste goes into the ocean each year, and the global production of plastic is forecast to double between 2019 and 2025. That simply can’t continue. Plastic persists in the ocean forever—or near enough. Plastic is washing up on coasts in increasing quantities and microplastics are turning up in the stomachs of 50 per cent of some marine species, marine birds and some fish. It represents a serious risk to the Great Barrier Reef. According to the Australian Marine Debris Database, 80 per cent of all items recovered as waste in the GBR region are plastic. The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority’s 2019 outlook report found that marine debris pose a high level of risk to the reef’s ecosystem and heritage values.

I’m glad—I’m sure everyone’s glad—that the government has decided waste should be a national priority, but the truth is that the work on that priority has been underwhelming so far. The areas of action are clear and they’ve been clear for sometime: we need investment in infrastructure and action on product stewardship and national leadership when it comes to single-use plastics and packaging. We need meaningful procurement commitments to build demand for recycled materials and products, but, as yet, we are still waiting to see that action.

In supporting the measure contained in the bill and, in particular, the second reading amendment, I urge the government to lift its eyes and broaden its horizon when it comes to a sustainable future for the Great Barrier Reef. The question of sustainability is and should be, first and foremost, an environmental issue. The Great Barrier Reef does not need to justify itself by reference to economic outcomes. We should be working to protect the vitality and biodiversity of the reef as a pressing matter of environmental stewardship and responsibility.

I saw a report last week about funding for some coral reseeding on the reef and it was heartening to know about that; but part of the report emphasised the fact that only five per cent of the reef is currently the focus of tourism activity. I think some people would have taken from that report the suggestion that our environmental conservation work should be limited to areas involving tourism. That should never, never be the approach we take. The health of the Great Barrier Reef, in its entirety, is paramount, as is the health and biodiversity of the oceans right around Australia and the Antarctic. Only by taking that comprehensive view of marine protection will we ensure that the Great Barrier Reef remains a World Heritage treasure, and only by doing that will we support the future strength of the very significant tourist and visitor economy. It should be one of the central pillars of our social and economic wellbeing into the future.

Like the university sector and the arts and creative industries, our businesses and workers in the tourism and events sector are not seen for the true value of their contribution. The government’s economic response to the pandemic, unfortunately, reflects that blind spot. When we focus only on road and construction projects, which are important, and housing measures, which are important, we forget the workers and businesses in all of those other sectors. When you talk about tourism, it’s a sector with a significant number of female employees and a lot of those people have been left out as a result of the blind spot in the government’s measures to date. That should change as part of our emergence into the recovery phase. There should be a more consistent focus in the future. There’s no doubt that better marine protection and a proper focus on addressing the grave threat of climate change and the growing threat of marine plastic pollution has to be at the foundation of that work. I support the bill and, particularly, the second reading amendment.

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