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Speech by the Federal Environment & Heritage Minister

Senator the Hon Robert Hill to the
National Oceans Office Conference


14 April 2000

More than 200 years ago, British settlers first brought their European farming techniques to Australia. In the two centuries since, this ancient continent has fed our population and provided us with great wealth through agricultural and mineral exports. Its vast sweeping landscapes have challenged explorers and adventurers and inspired our poets, authors and painters. The sheer size of our continent has helped protect us from invasion.

I'm not sure that we have been so kind to it in return. The land management techniques we introduced were not always suited to this rugged but fragile land. We are now seeing the consequences of our actions through, for example, the spread of dryland salinity which now threatens a land area half the size of Victoria and the plight of the once mighty Murray River.

It's almost as if the vast size of our continent lulled us into a false sense of infallibility - surely a landmass of this size could take anything we could throw at it.

We have learnt, at considerable expense, that it could not and we must now set out on a path to ensure we treat our natural resources with greater care.

And of course the lesson of managing our natural resources in a sustainable manner is as relevant at sea as it is on land.

Our continent is vast - but it is dwarfed by our marine area. By the year 2004 we will have jurisdiction over approximately 16.2 million square kilometres of seabed - that is more than twice the landmass of Australia.

Our marine industries - fisheries and aquaculture, oil, gas and petroleum extraction, and tourism - already contribute an estimated $30 billion a year to the Australian economy, or around 8 % of GDP. In addition to that, 97 per cent of the volume of our trade is moved by sea.

Our oceans are an immense natural resource. Pardon the pun, but it is difficult to fathom the extent of the wealth which could be gained from them.

We would, however, be foolish to allow the vast size of this resource to instil in us the same false over-confidence which has marred our past management of our land-based resources.

The Howard Government has been keen to ensure that we do not take our marine resources for granted.

On coming to office in 1996 we quickly learned that marine policy was an area which had been badly neglected by the former Labor government. I can only assume they didn't see any votes in it or perhaps they considered oceans to be un-newsworthy because unlike land-based issues such as forests they weren't characterised by rowdy protests.

This was also a mistake made by some but not all green groups. It is difficult to see, for example, Senator Bob Brown playing to the TV cameras by chaining himself to a bulldozer on the seabed.

Unlike others, our government has chosen to make marine issues a high environmental priority.

This has included our determination to make Australia a world leader in marine conservation and sustainable marine resource use.

There have been three key planks in the development of our overall marine strategy - addressing land-based impacts on the marine environment, effective planning and management of our coastal regions, and the development of a National Oceans Policy to take our efforts right out to the boundaries of the Exclusive Economic Zone.

The 1996 State of the Environment Report estimated that 7 billion tonnes of debris enters the world's oceans each year.

Australia is a strong supporter of the global efforts to combat this growing problem and has taken a leading role in encouraging action in the Asia-Pacific region.

We will be hosting an Asia-Pacific workshop in Townsville in May and we are also developing a project aimed at assisting China with preventing land and ship based marine pollution to give just two examples.

Here in Australia we have provided significant financial resources to tackle the key threats to our marine environment - stormwater and the rubbish which it carries to our oceans, and the impact of sewage and wastewater outfalls.

Through the Natural Heritage Trust, funded through the part-sale of Telstra, we have been able to support projects to reduce or effectively eliminate discharges to coastal or inland waters.

One of the more high profile projects targets the amount of rubbish being washed into the waters of Bondi Beach.

With the support of a Trust grant of $185,000, the Waverly Council is set to install pollutant traps on stormwater drains which will capture an estimated 100 tonnes of rubbish each year before it hits the beach.

The project has sound environmental credentials and will also deliver a benefit in terms of tourist presentation of what is one of Australia's most famous beaches.

On a larger scale, one of the most successful projects funded under the Clean Seas Program is here on the rural outskirts of Hobart.

A grant of almost $800,000 to the Brighton Council helped them implement a major regional wastewater and stormwater reuse scheme to remove discharges to the Derwent Estuary.

I am advised that this partnership between industry, government and the community achieved its target of being the first region in Australia to have no sewage discharges to any coastal or inland waters by the Year 2000.

Effluent is being totally reused for irrigation onto horticulture and forestry and in the future onto a new golf course and viticulture.

The project has been so successful that the Council is now heading up a larger regional project to provide bulk irrigation water for the wider region of Southern Tasmania.

The simple concept of reducing ocean pollution by reducing the amount of wastewater and stormwater which enters our rivers is being replicated around Australia with the help of the Natural Heritage Trust.

The Commonwealth recently announced it would invest $10 million from the Trust into two new programs to clean up urban waterways.

These programs will again build on the partnership between governments, industry, and local communities to achieve the best outcome for our marine environment.

This partnership has been central to delivering the second key plank of our marine strategy - the effective management and planning of our coastal regions.

Community involvement has been essential to the success of the Natural Heritage Trust. For example more than 10,000 people have been involved in our community-based coastal program, Coastcare, which has invested $8 million in more than 1750 projects.

Coastcare funds a range of small to large scale projects aimed at on-ground coastal management and protection.

As the Mid-Term Review of the Natural Heritage Trust reported "Coastal vegetation is being regenerated, coastal access is being improved and controlled, weeds and feral pests eradicated, important marine species such as sea dragons are being monitored, and community awareness of coastal values and issues is being raised."

As the review noted, this is being achieved because "Coastcare is bringing people together to find solutions to local problems."

On the broader scale, the Commonwealth has been at the forefront of moves to improve regional planning for our coastal areas.

Given the love Australians have for living near the beach, development in our coastal regions is inevitable. What has been missing in the past is the strategic approach required to minimise the impact of this development on the very natural asset that had attracted people in the first place.

Through the $5 million Coastal and Marine Planning Program we support the involvement of around 600 coastal and marine management agencies and participants from government, the community and industry in developing better, more coordinated planning processes.

This work already covers more than 90% of Australia's coastal population with projects spread over 40% of Australia's coastline.

Again I can point to a local success story - the Integrated Environment Strategy for the Derwent Estuary. This project is developing an environmental management plan that outlines the responsibilities and actions to be taken by State and Local Government to improve the water quality of the Derwent for both recreational and aquaculture purposes.

The plan will focus on water quality issues - land pollution, contaminated sediments - and protection/ rehabilitation in areas of high conservation value.

With efforts to reduce land-based impacts on the marine environment, coupled with a push for better regional management, the next logical step has been the development of a truly national marine strategy.

Our Oceans Policy represents the first time that a national government has attempted to pull together all our marine and coastal actions under a coordinated framework.

And as a logical progression, it extends these efforts out to the boundaries of our Exclusive Economic Zone.

There is a raft of some 400 actions outlined in Australia's Oceans Policy.

Further to the policy, Environment Australia is implementing a range of projects addressing such issues as:

The policy also endorses our push for a National Representative System of Marine Protected Areas. The Howard Government has set the pace in the development of these multiple use areas which protect our marine biological diversity. We have already created three new Marine Protected Areas and have announced notices of intent for two more. We will be looking for greater efforts from the State's to complement these to create a truly representative national system.

Another recommendation of the policy is the establishment of a National Oceans Office. Today we are opening the office.

The Office will drive the development of Regional Marine Plans for each major region of our marine jurisdiction, starting with the South-eastern waters off South Australia, Tasmania, Victoria and New South Wales.

Regional marine planning for such areas has never been attempted before and this first one presents a great challenge in that it will cover 2 million square kilometres and a diverse range of marine habitats.

Its success will depend on the full involvement of all levels of government, industry and the community. This National Oceans Forum is the perfect launching pad for this cooperative effort.

We will use the outcomes of this Forum to quickly develop a formal scoping paper setting out the detail of Government's intentions for the South-east Regional Marine Plan and the consultation processes which will be used.

And I take the opportunity to invite State Governments to participate in [this] vitally important project. In fact, the Commonwealth Government is committed to complementing and integrating with States management arrangements where that is productive.

For those who fear the burden of a new tier of regulation I can assure you that one preferred approach is to apply only the minimum regulation necessary to meet the preferred environmental, economic, social and cultural outcomes.

And, to demonstrate that the Commonwealth Government is committed to the outcomes of the regional marine plan we have agreed that these outcomes will bind all Federal agencies.

As we have set out in the Oceans Policy, we will make an assessment whether we need additional legislation to give effect to the regional marine plan.

I would hope that everyone involved in this Forum will commit to making this process a success.

The development of this first Regional Marine Plan would be a signal that we have learned from the mistakes made in developing our land-based resources and are committed to not repeating them at sea.

It would also be another run on the board for Australia's already impressive international reputation on marine conservation issues.

Australia is recognised for our world-leading role in the protection of marine wildlife such as whales, albatross, dugongs, turtles, southern bluefin tuna, and the Patagonian Toothfish.

We can also be justifiably proud that our Oceans Policy itself is considered to be an international benchmark in best practice, and I know that many of you here today had a great deal of input to the policy.

The effective implementation of the Oceans Policy will further add to our global marine credentials.

In closing, I would like to introduce to you the new Director of the National Oceans Veronica Sakell and congratulate her on her appointment.

Veronica comes to the position with experience in both the public and private sector.

In particular, she has previously done extensive work for the former Tasmanian government in inter-governmental and inter-sectoral issues relating to natural resource management.

She appreciates the importance of striking the right balance between the conservation values which we all would like to see protected, and the provision of resource security for industry to operate on a sustainable basis.

These are the principles which the Federal Government would like to see reflected in the implementation of our Oceans Policy.

I wish Veronica and her staff every success in our combined effort to ensure the conservation and wise use of our marine resources.

Commonwealth of Australia