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"Take care of your oceans"


A speech by
the Federal Minister for the Environment and Heritage
Senator the Hon Robert Hill
to the
Coast to Coast "Beyond the Beach" Conference

Melbourne, March 7, 2000

It's not often that Hollywood can deliver a serious message about the environment - and sometimes it turns up in the most unusual places.

Last year's movie remake of the iconic 1960's television series My Favourite Martian is one such example.

In an early scene, set on the beachfront, the visiting alien - having come from the dry red planet - is captivated by the vast expanses of water stretching out before him.

At the conclusion of the movie, as he sets himself for his return to Mars, he tells his human friends,

"I'm beginning to see a glimmer of potential amongst you earthlings. But one word of advice - you'll never completely advance as a culture until you take care of your oceans."
I'm sure it's a message that resonates with everyone here today.

I should note that he also added that neither would we advance as a culture while we continue to watch daytime television talk shows.

I suspect he was right in both cases.

While unfortunately the movie was a bit of a box office flop, I hope that those who did see it, particularly our young people, heard this message - at least in relation to taking care of our oceans.

Here on planet earth we have made mistakes in the past in the way we have treated our coasts and oceans.

For too long our coastal-based population misused our oceans as a convenient repository for our storm and wastewater, effluent and rubbish.

We paid little regard to the fragile ecosystems of our coastline as the urban sprawl crept further along our beaches in an often unplanned and unchecked manner.

Further out to sea we plundered our oceans' resources of marine life for food and profit with little regard for the impact or sustainability of our actions.

But, if you can pardon the obvious pun, there has now been a sea change in our attitude.

Australia now leads the world in the new wave of environmental action which places a high priority on caring for our coasts and oceans.

One of the unfortunate things about Australians and the environment is that we sometimes appear unwilling to take a bow for the good work that we do.

This often leads to our environmental achievements receiving more recognition overseas than they do here in Australia.

Our push to improve the management and protection of our marine environment is one such case.

The international community has been quick to embrace and applaud Australia's efforts in this important field.

We are acknowledged as a world leader in efforts to protect marine wildlife such as whales, dugong, patagonian toothfish, the albatross and other migratory birds.

The OECD in its most recent review of Australia's environmental performance, praised Australia for what it described as "the active, often leading role it has played in developing national responses and new international regimes for marine issues."

It cited our management of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park and our protection of marine species near Antarctica as examples of the difference we are making in the marine environment.

International biodiversity expert Dr Thomas Lovejoy - who is the chief adviser to the World Bank on biodiversity issues - also holds Australia's marine performance in high regard.

Dr Lovejoy has stated "I think some of the work Australia is doing in looking at marine environments, strict protection and management way out into the zone of economic interest, are probably leading efforts globally."

I mention these ringing endorsements as confirmation that the efforts that we are making are being taken seriously by the international community.

But the work doesn't stop there. Our efforts must be on-going.

The Commonwealth is preparing for the official opening next month of our National Oceans Office, although work has been underway for some months now.

The Office is a result of the National Oceans Policy released by the Howard Government - another marine first for Australia.

The Office will oversee the implementation of the National Oceans Policy which has been backed with a Commonwealth commitment of $50 million.

Again the international community is recognising the visionary nature of this policy with the US, Canada, New Zealand and the Pacific Island nations all seeking our advice on how to go about preparing and implementing strategic plans to protect and manage marine resources.

The Oceans Policy and the National Ocean's Office are practical expressions of the commitment of the Commonwealth to deliver better outcomes in the management of our marine environment.

That commitment is shared by many individuals and community groups around Australia.

We have also been able to support these Australians in their efforts through the Natural Heritage Trust, funded through the part sale of Telstra.

The Trust has delivered $125 million to coastal and marine programs through the Coasts and Clean Seas Initiative.

The recent Mid-Term Review of the Natural Heritage Trust included a glowing report on the achievements to date of this successful program.

The Review stated that "Coasts and Clean Seas has been enthusiastically embraced by a broad range of stakeholders from the community, industry, research organisations, water management authorities and State and Local Government."

The Coasts and Clean Seas Initiative has also been successful in leverage additional investment in coastal projects.

For example, the $4.8 million approved from the Trust for Coastcare projects has helped generate projects with a total value of $28.4 million.

Your conference title "Beyond the Beach" also points to the impact that on-land activities can have on the marine environment.

Again the Natural Heritage Trust is delivering results with the $50 million Living Cities program helping to attack the problem of urban stormwater washing run-off and rubbish into our coastal waters.

So all the fundamentals are in place for Australia to continue its push toward a sustainable future for our marine environment.

The Commonwealth is providing leadership through the Oceans Policy, we are involving the community through programs such as Coastcare, and we are delivering the financial support that has so often been missing in past efforts.

But to build on these fundamentals also requires the involvement, commitment and goodwill of both State and Local Government.

As an example of the jurisdictional complexity of coastal issues, it could be argued that the behaviour of irrigators as far north as Queensland and the lack of due care shown by that State's government in implementing even basic water allocation management plans for its rivers is ultimately having an impact on the coastal environment of the Coorong at the mouth of the Murray in South Australia.

But again, the Commonwealth has been active in promoting action to overcome the jurisdictional problems sometimes involved in coastal planning.

Through our $5 million Coastal and Marine Planning Program we support the involvement of approximately 600 coastal and marine management agencies and participants from government, the community and industry in marine planning issues.

This program aims to bring local governments and communities together to develop an understanding of the simple concept that what happens on one stretch of coast covered by one local council, impacts on the quality of management of coasts covered by adjoining local councils.

Local governments are now taking the basic step of consulting with neighbouring local authorities in making coastal planning decisions.

The program already covers more than 90 per cent of Australia's coastal population with projects spread over 40 per cent of Australia's coastline.

This is quiet and unspectacular work but work that will pay dividends in the long run.

The Commonwealth would also like to see a greater level of action from our State Governments to progressing marine and coastal management issues.

For example, most State coastal policies are guidelines rather than planning instruments. Victoria is the only the State which has responsible managing agencies linked to State and regional coastal policies.

Victoria's Regional Coastal Boards and their Coastal Action Plans represent a significant advance in traditional Australian coastal management - another legacy of the former Kennett Government.

Better protection of our coastal environment will require more effective planning at a regional level under a State framework backed by legislative force.

Marine Protected Areas are another marine issue in which cooperation is necessary to achieve the best outcomes.

These areas of sea are specially dedicated to the protection and maintenance of marine biodiversity, and of natural and associated cultural resources.

They do not specifically preclude resource use by industry but such use must be sustainable and consistent with the conservation values of the area.

The Howard Government has declared three such areas covering the Tasmanian Seamounts, Macquarie Island and the Great Australian Bight.

We are currently considering two more.

In comparison, over the same period of time only 3 areas have been declared in State waters - 2 in New South wales and one in South Australia.

There is now growing interest in the global community in Australia's proposal for such protective areas to be implemented in international waters using the powers of the laws of the sea.

The Commonwealth would also like to see greater support from the States for our efforts to develop national marine and estuarine water quality standards.

In 1992 the Commonwealth and State Governments signed the Intergovernmental Agreement on the Environment which provided for the development of such standards.

So far the States have not been prepared to join in developing a consistent national quality standard for estuarine and coastal environments under the National Environment Protection Council. We are, however, proceeding unilaterally with a scoping study which we should be able to release in July.

On an issue closely related to marine water quality, we need to start thinking seriously about the impact our land-based activities are having on our marine environment.

I think we all understand that sewage discharge, and stormwater and wastewater runoff is having a detrimental impact on our coastal waters.

It is heartening to see so many local governments and also State governments acting in this regard and I am pleased that the Commonwealth has been able to support these efforts through the Natural Heritage Trust.

But we also need to do more to address pollution from land-based industries.

Land management issues are the Constitutional responsibility of the States and more needs to be done to meet that responsibility.

In some cases we have even witnessed open defiance from State governments.

For example, the Commonwealth recently introduced regulations to ensure that proper environmental assessments are carried out for aquaculture projects on the Queensland coastline adjacent to the Great Barrier Reef.

We did so because of the potential for the discharge from such operations to seriously impact on the values of the Reef and because we believed the Queensland State regulations were deficient.

This followed the approval of a new aquaculture project at Armstrong Beach by the Queensland government without a proper public environmental assessment.

The response from the State Premier was typically over-the-top, branding me a jobs destroyer and calling for the Prime Minister to sack me.

Somewhat embarrassingly for Mr Beattie, his own State Environment Protection Agency has since had to slap an environment protection order on the Armstrong Beach operation - even though it had been approved by the Queensland regulations which Mr Beattie so vigorously defends.

The challenge facing State Governments is to engage their land users in the debate over how their actions may be affecting our oceans.

Constructive dialogue usually leads to constructive solutions.

Finally I would like to reiterate the Commonwealth's commitment to being a part of a better, sustainable future for our marine environment.

We understand and support the right of industries such as fishing, oil extraction, and tourism to create wealth and jobs from our marine resources.

We also support the right of land-based industries such as farming and aquaculture to continue to grow and employ more Australians.

But we are only fooling ourselves if such uses are not sustainable.

A fishing fleet, for example, will make no profit from an exhausted fish stock.

Tourism operators will attract no tourists to polluted beaches or degraded reefs.

The communities that such industries support will also suffer if the actions of these industries are not sound and sustainable.

We must learn from the mistakes of the past and respect and protect our natural resource base.

And to achieve that outcome we must learn to work in a cooperative way with all levels of government accepting their share of the responsibility and all tiers of government supporting a community that now sees itself as part of the solution and not just the problem.

Commonwealth of Australia