Ocean protection of vital importance

Published on Wed 12 May 2021 5:42pm

Australians understand the literally vital importance of healthy oceans for us and for our fellow human beings around the planet. Our oceans produce the oxygen we breathe, they regulate our climate, they provide seafood that can be sustainably fished, and they sustain an incredible range of biodiversity that we have a duty to maintain and to protect. This government has weakened ocean protection, failed to improve the position of endangered marine species, squibbed the opportunity to reform the EPBC Act, refused to take climate change seriously, and been complacent about the waste crisis that sees tonnes of plastic going into our waterways and, ultimately, the sea.

Mr Wilson 5:42pm – I thank the member for Bass for bringing this motion. It’s true that we desperately need to do a much better job of protecting our oceans; like our ecosystems on land, our marine environment has suffered significant harm and is under enormous pressure. In fact, it may be that the direct effect of climate change has already been more profound for our oceans, which have absorbed more than 90 per cent of the additional heat caused by human activity. As a shock absorber, however, the oceans have reached their limit, and a great deal of damage has already been done. The devastating forest or bushfires we’ve seen in Australia and California and in the Amazon have their scorching corollary below the surface in the coral bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef and the heatwaves that have wiped out great submarine fields of seagrass and kelp in Western Australia and Tasmania. For all these reasons, it’s utterly wrong for us to think that oceans worldwide are in good shape, and we shouldn’t kid ourselves that Australia’s oceans are a particular exception. The truth is our ocean can’t absorb much more human produced carbon dioxide. It’s getting hotter and more acidic. It’s been shot through with billions of particles of microplastic. Marine ecosystems have been disrupted, and marine species are getting pushed closer to the edge of extinction. Just last week it was reported that Australia’s only endemic species of sea lion has decreased 60 per cent in the last few decades.

All those pressures—climate change, ocean plastic, harmful fishing practices—have been neglected by this Liberal government, and it’s utterly wrong and quite ridiculous for anyone to claim that this third-term Liberal government has looked after our oceans or done much to show leadership on the global stage. This is a Liberal government that began eight years ago by ripping holes in Labor’s national network of marine protected areas, a government that introduced a threatened species strategy which is badly off-track, which is late and which in any case never included a single marine species. It is a government that only woke up to the waste crisis when plastic stockpiles caught on fire and other countries refused to accept our low-grade, contaminated mixed plastic. It is a Liberal government that’s cut funds to the CSIRO yet wasted funds on the Great Barrier Reef Foundation. It tells you everything you need to know about this government that its signature manoeuvre in the marine protection space was to give $450 million to friends in the Great Barrier Reef Foundation. That was money that was never asked for, funding that had no clear structural purpose to guide it, at a time when the reef has been hammered by bleaching events in five years.

Now, in this budget, there is belatedly some funding for oceans. Any support is welcome, especially with respect to strengthening the marine parks network that this government began savagely cutting eight years ago. But, whenever we see a flashy announcement from this government, we need to remember its record on delivery. In 2019, they announced $15 million for the Pacific Ocean Litter Project to tackle plastic pollution in our region, yet we discover through Senate estimates that less than $1 million has been applied since that time, and none of that has been delivered in practical waste reduction measures.

In any consideration of the government’s environmental record, the biggest glitch has to be its awful failure to reform the EPBC Act in line with the recommendations of the independent reviewer, whose foundation assessment is that Australia’s environment is in poor shape, with a trajectory of further decline. The reviewer has provided a sensible recipe for reform: introduce clear and in some cases uncompromising national standards, and put in place an independent watchdog with real clout. Mr Samuel even provided a draft set of standards, including a set specifically for marine protection. But the government has so far totally ignored that work. It’s thrown all that work, consultation and expertise on the floor. It’s said there will be no independent compliance watchdog and has since backtracked only as far as creating a commissioner with no scope to examine individual environmental protection matters and no real independence, even though the ANAO found that 79 per cent of EPBC decisions involved failures of compliance. The government’s proposed standards have completely ignored those put forward by Mr Samuel. They are the same ineffective standards that currently exist under the same failed EPBC protection framework that we have presently.

Australians understand the literally vital importance of healthy oceans for us and for our fellow human beings around the planet. Our oceans produce the oxygen we breathe, they regulate our climate, they provide seafood that can be sustainably fished, and they sustain an incredible range of biodiversity that we have a duty to maintain and to protect. This government has weakened ocean protection, failed to improve the position of endangered marine species, squibbed the opportunity to reform the EPBC Act, refused to take climate change seriously, and been complacent about the waste crisis that sees tonnes of plastic going into our waterways and, ultimately, the sea.

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