Department of the Environment

Archived media releases and speeches

The Hon Tony Burke MP

Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities

Press Conference: Conservation

14 June 2012

TONY BURKE: It is an exciting day for conservation around the world. When people think about the environment, their minds normally turn immediately to the land. We look at our national parks. We look at our wilderness areas.

Increasingly, we've started to think as a world about the shared resources that we have, about the fact that we share an atmosphere and there's global responsibility for that and that we share our oceans and there's global responsibility for that too.

The majesty of marine life is something you can get a small window to when you visit a place like here at the Sydney Aquarium. But let's face it - here is magnificent for tourists to have a look at it because it's a small snapshot of the magnificent canvas that is our oceans.

Not many nations are islands and only one of the nations of the world is an island continent. That means, in terms of looking after and having responsibility for our oceans, there's no country in the world positioned the way Australia is.

Paul Keating, as Prime Minister, set about an objective where he said it should be possible for us to have a network of marine sanctuaries that are adequate, representative, comprehensive. Today that becomes a reality. The legislation has been sitting there for more than a decade. The Howard Government made decisions with respect to the south-east part of our oceans but went no further and today we finish the job.

When you look around our oceans, I want to take you through to the different regions. But effectively, if you think of that great Australian game that we all played as kids on the beach. A child with a bucket playing on the beach. It's been the same game for about a hundred years or more. But the contents of the bucket are different now to what they used to be. They're chemically different. They're physically different. The water is a different chemical composition now to what it was a hundred years ago, because of acidification, because of pollution. Physically it contains less life than it used to. The chemical constraints and the physical appearance of plastics in there is different to what it used to be.

It's time for the world to turn a corner on protection of our oceans and Australia today leads that next step. We have the most comprehensive network of marine parks in the world.

It's been a great process of consultation. Wherever we could achieve the same environmental outcome in a way that minimised the impact on commercial fishers, we have made those choices. Wherever we could achieve the same environmental outcome and take into account the needs of people who enjoy that recreational past-time - that great pastime of rec fishing, we've made sure that we've worked with that as well. With the oil and gas industry, wherever we could achieve the same environmental outcomes, we've made decisions that work with the economic opportunity for Australians. We've been able to do all of that without holding back the great level of ambition that is realised today.

If I start with the south-west of our oceans, that go through from the Great Australian Bight, all the way around and find their way up for the first half of the coast of Western Australia. There are marine features here that are of extraordinary importance. People have asked us, in a very big campaign, in particular in Western Australia, but in parts of South Australia as well, where they've asked us to push the boundaries and we've done that.

Off Kangaroo Island now, there's a highly protected area that's been added. There's a further area in the Great Australian Bight, known as Twilight, which has been added to the areas there. There's an oil and gas exclusion zone off the Margaret River area, which has been added in these final boundaries. Geographe Bay previously had no areas listed as marine national park. It now has two.

The Perth Canyon, an underwater canyon larger than the Grand Canyon. If it was on land, it would have been protected years ago, but because it's underwater, it doesn't get protected until these decisions are made in 2012. So the Perth Canyon will now have two areas highly protected, one further back in the depths of the canyon and one area highly protected approaching around the north head of the canyon.

Geographe Bay, I referred to. We also have an area highly protected that comes in off a canyon that runs off the back of the Abrolhos Islands and in the Jurien area as well.

We then go to the north-west area. In the north-west we have added levels of protection around Montebello and we've extended the boundaries of the protected area that goes across the top of the magnificent west Kimberley.

Then in the northern marine areas. There are some areas here in the Gulf of Carpentaria which are of extraordinary importance. There was some discussion with the northern prawn industry, where they asked us to shift the boundary a little bit, that would make a significant difference to the commercial operations there and we've done that.

We move then to the temperate east. The temperate east I know has been a hotbed of discussions around recreational fishing. I want to explain exactly what's happened here. Certainly there are some highly protected areas that you'll see, in particular in areas out near Lord Howe Island and out at Norfolk Island.

There are very few restrictions on recreational fishing along the temperate east. Effectively, if you're south of Mackay and you're powering east from where you are, you're pretty hard pressed to find an area where recreational fishing would be banned. In fact, if you're travelling from Mackay, you've got to power out for about four hundred kilometres before you'd be able to reach one of the areas that would subsequently be closed to recreational fishing.

Notwithstanding that, in particular the reserves that have been put off the coast at Lord Howe Island and at Norfolk Island, there's some incredibly important natural features and pristine areas that go into protection as part of this decision.

But make no mistake, the jewel in the crown of the entire process goes to the Coral Sea. In the Coral Sea, combined with the Great Barrier Reef, what we announce today becomes the largest marine protected area in the world. The Coral Sea boundaries in the draft maps were already pretty ambitious but we have pushed the boundaries even further.

There was a significant call during the consultation period for there to be more protection of the majestic reefs of the Coral Sea. Today, in the maps that are released, we have extended the draft boundaries for the Coral Sea Marine Park to include in the marine national park area Marion Reef, Osprey Reef, Shark Reef, Vema Reef and Bougainville Reef.

Osprey Reef is one of the most highly prized dive sites in the world. Today Osprey Reef is being put forward as also being part of a marine national park, the Coral Sea Marine National Park that, as I said, combined with the Great Barrier Reef area, becomes the largest marine protected area in the world.

It's been a long time since Paul Keating first referred to there being a prospect for a great Labor reform in protection of our oceans. There's been a lot of consultation that's happened in the interim and we've made sure that we've worked as closely as we could with the different industries and the different people who look to our oceans for recreation and for livelihood.

We've kept those impacts to a minimum. But let's not pretend there aren't people who have a significant impact on their livelihood by today's decision. Any conservation decision does involve impacts of that nature. We'll be working on a case-by-case basis with individual businesses, now that the maps are out, to work out how that displacement policy should be implemented.

Effectively the template that the Howard Government set for displacement policy when they dealt with the south-east is the template that we'll be adopting on those discussions. Different industries are - different businesses are affected in different ways.

I should add when I was going through the no oil and gas off Margaret River, there will be no oil and gas across the entirety of that Coral Sea area. Anywhere that's a marine national park becomes an oil and gas exclusion zone, plus the Margaret River area, plus the entirety of the Coral Sea area, no matter what colour it is. This is a massive step forward in ocean protection. It's a bigger step forward than the globe has ever previously seen.

Australia is a good manager of its fisheries, but that doesn't mean we can't go a step further and establish a national parks estate within the ocean. There are more formal processes to go, but up until now people have been wondering and lobbying as to what the Government's position would be. Today the position of the Government is finalised as to what we want these parks to look like.

The next stage of consultation has to happen by law. It goes for sixty days. It will be formally activated in the next few weeks. When it's activated though, the question is no longer, what colour should the boundaries be, where should lines be drawn; the next question that has to be asked by law for sixty days will be, do we go ahead with it, or do we not?

I've got no doubt what my view is and how I want that consultation to run. But it's a statutory process to go through, and we go through it today, but as of now, the Government's position could not be clearer. We want there to be a comprehensive network of marine parks across our oceans. We have decided to become the world leader in marine protection and that's a decision that we take today and maps that we release formally now.

QUESTION: Minister, how do you think this compares to previous big conservations announcements in Australia's history? How big a day is today?

TONY BURKE: There has never been a time of all the previous decisions when so many hectares have gone into conservation in a single decision. In terms of number of hectares, there's been nothing like this. But number of hectares isn't the only test and there have been other areas of rich biodiversity that we're building on a very strong tradition of.

I was with Bob Hawke at Hobart celebrating the Antarctic only a couple of days ago. The Antarctic was a situation where Australia led the way on the environmental protection of an entire continent and both Bob Hawke and Michel Rocard were there.

Labor has a proud legacy in these areas, whether it be the Franklin, the Daintree, Kakadu, the Antarctic. Today we add the oceans and in particular those areas where we've gone for the highest levels of ambition in both the south west and the Coral Sea.

QUESTION: Fishermen are already saying - you mentioned there that some people will have their livelihoods affected. You must have some idea about how much this is going to cost in terms of buying people out and compensation packages?

TONY BURKE: Look there are different figures that are worked through and I don't want any figures that I refer to today to change the fact that we're going to work it through on a case-by-case basis. There have been estimates in terms of the gross value of impact on fisheries of being in the order of about one per cent of the gross value of production. But that's obviously not the only test. There's individual businesses where, for them, it's a very big impact.

The total impact in terms of displacement activity for using the formulas that we used in the south-east are figures in the order $100 million are being used. But I don't want to commit to that being precisely the number. We're working it through on a case-by-case basis.

QUESTION: Minister, under the [unclear], what sort of message do you want to send to the wider world? Are you trying to set an example that you hope other countries might follow?

TONY BURKE: Absolutely. Absolutely and conservation issues on land, people often say, well entirely, national sovereignty and they go to those sorts of concepts. Let's not forget the issue of responsibility that every country has with the oceans. We share them. The dugongs, the whales, a whole lot of the species that find habitat in protected areas under this proposal don't spend their whole lives in Australian waters and the oceans are a great shared resource.

At Rio+20 I know many of the Pacific Island nations are deeply concerned about over-harvesting within the oceans by some countries and the impact for them that has - where it's not simply an environmental issue, it's a food security issue as well for them.

Oceans are something which we share and therefore we have to share responsibly. That means, where we're using resources within them, they have to be managed in a responsible way and it also means that there are some areas that should be preserved as an equivalent to the national parks estate.

And today, we decided as a nation, that Australia as a one-island continent with massive ocean resources and therefore a country that could be seen as with the - why would we lead the way, we've got so much at stake? Well that's why we lead the way. That's exactly why and we do want to see the rest of the world see this as an opportunity and a benchmark that everybody can step to.

QUESTION: Are you concerned that the Nationals are about to fight this proposal?

TONY BURKE: Ron Boswell has wanted to argue that this somehow flies in the face of the interests of every recreational fisher. I've got to say, you're hard pressed to find too many recreational fishers who are powering out for four-hundred kilometres before they decide to drop a line. So I've no doubt that Ron Boswell in particular, but there will be some members of the National Party who decide that they want to pretend to people that somehow this is a risk to everybody who loves to get into a tinny and go out and fish.

It couldn't be further than the truth. I can't stop them from running campaigns of misinformation, but I've got to say, I think the rec fishing groups generally, while they'll be some aspects of this that they oppose, they're smarter than to buy the rhetoric that'll be put forward by some members of the National Party.

QUESTION: Minister some of the fishing groups have said they feel their being unfairly picked on and that oil and gas has been allowed to proceed in some of the areas that they've been banned from. Why is it appropriate to stop commercial fishing but not oil and gas exploration?

TONY BURKE: It depends on what areas you're looking at. We've got areas where there are massive exclusion zones for oil and gas. We've got some areas where we're specifically protecting the bottom of the sea floor, for example - and long-lining is allowed in some areas and your pelagic activity through the middle of the water is allowed. But what happens on the sea floor, whether it be demersal trawl, demersal gill nets, things like that gets banned.

So it depends on what environmental asset you're protecting in different parts and the simplicity that they've wanted to - some people have wanted to put out, they put it out before they'd seen the maps, which I think says something about how the maps actually line up with their arguments. And it's ignored facts like oil and gas are excluded from every marine national park. There is a large oil and gas exclusion zone around the Margaret River and a complete ban, no matter what colour it is on the map, from your oil and gas within the Coral Sea.

QUESTION: And Minister can I just ask you one question on another issue…?

TONY BURKE: Okay, I haven't been dealing with much other than this today, so I'll do my best for you.

QUESTION: Yeah, our colleagues in the Northern Territory have told us that the Northern Territory Government is about to announce a trial of safari hunting crocodiles. And is this something that you've signed off on or are aware of?

TONY BURKE: Look it's something that will eventually come to me. There'll be a consultation process before we get to that. There are different views among different traditional owners on this and I really want to make sure I get the opportunity to hear those different views.

QUESTION: Do you have an idea at this stage about [unclear]?

TONY BURKE: I'm not going to compromise consultation period, so I'll leave my remarks as I've given them.

QUESTION: Can I just ask you, how did your meeting go with state ministers about the revised draft plan for the Murray-Darling Basin and also what do you expect to get out of the informal meetings with Canberra?

TONY BURKE: The Murray Darling Basin meetings, I have to say, they're hard for every jurisdiction. There's a lot at stake for every jurisdiction and therefore the fact that we haven't reached agreement across the states simply puts me in the same boat as every water minister for the last hundred years. But I've got to say, there is a constructive relationship of goodwill across the jurisdictions at the moment.

Now that doesn't mean that we'll end up landing on an agreement, but it means we've got a chance at one. I still reserve the Commonwealth powers that I have for the Commonwealth to go it alone on a decision. We've got those powers under the Water Act, but my hope is that I don't have to use them and if there - I've got to say, while we don't - we haven't reached agreement across the states yet, we've got the best chance of agreement that I think we've ever had. We don't have states off in their corners just throwing rocks at each other; they've come to the table with a constructive attitude to it. And so I'm very hopeful with Murray-Darling that we can still end up with a cooperative approach.

But the bottom line is immovable; and that is that I do intend to fix the health of the river system. I do want to make sure that we do that. I want to do it in a way that minimises the impact on communities and on industry, but we can't ignore the fact that the reason we're having the conversation in the first place is because too much water has been pulled out of the system over the years and that means that by the time you hit a drought, the system's been living as though it's in drought for years already. And we can't let that be the way we approach the next drought.

Thank you very much.