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The Hon Peter Garrett AM MP
Minister for the Environment, Heritage and the Arts

The Hon Anna Bligh MP
Queensland Premier

The Hon Kate Jones MP
Queensland Minister for Climate Change and Sustainability

Great Barrier Reef Outlook Report and response; dugong harvests; Qld LNG proposals

Transcript
Press conference: Old Red Chamber, Parliament House, Brisbane
Launch of the Great Barrier Reef Outlook Report Joint Government response and Reef Water Quality Protection Plan
2 September 2009

Download the PDF

BLIGH: The Great Barrier Reef is one of the great natural wonders of the world and we have a duty to protect it for its environmental values. We also here in Queensland understand its enormous value to our economy as it brings in hundreds of thousands of tourists every year.

The Great Barrier Reef has been at some risk for a number of years from bad water quality and run-off. It is at increasing risk from climate change and an increase in water temperatures, and a general risk of being loved to death if we don't be careful with it.

Today I am very pleased to be signing a new federal-state agreement about the ongoing protection of the Great Barrier Reef.

In 2003 John Howard and Peter Beattie signed a reef protection plan between the Commonwealth and the State Governments. Unfortunately, despite I think good efforts from a number of people, the efforts over the last five years have, frankly, not just not achieved what we need them to achieve.

This new plan commits both the Commonwealth and State Governments to considerably tougher targets to reduce reef run-off. It also, I think, is signed by myself and the Minister Peter Garrett with a renewed sense of urgency about the importance of putting in place mechanisms to protect the reef.

What this new plan does is bring together both the funding efforts of the Commonwealth and State Government with considerable increase in investment in protecting the reef and, just as importantly, it brings that funding together with the new regulations that the State Government is putting in place to limit what farmers and graziers and others can let run into the reef catchment areas.

I understand that many of our primary producers are worried about some of these regulations. We believe that between the Commonwealth and the State with our new investment in the protection of the reef, we can help ease the transition for many farmers.

But we need to get it right with the Great Barrier Reef. We simply cannot afford to stand back and do nothing when we know it is at such risk. We are the guardians of this great natural wonder. It is one of the most spectacular world heritage sites on the planet. And, as Premier, I'm determined to do everything we can to protect it.

With this new plan, we recommit ourselves with a greater sense of urgency to improve the conditions of the Great Barrier Reef and protect it from harms that we know we can see into the future.

Today we also release a major scientific report looking at the outlook for the Great Barrier Reef, and I'll invite Minister Garrett to make some comments about that, and the agreement that we'll be signing today.

GARRETT: Thanks very much Premier. And it is the case that we are here to launch three important documents today: The new Reef Water Quality Protection Plan, that the Premier has referred to. A joint response to the report that is being released today as well; that's the Great Barrier Reef Outlook Report.

And we're responding to these reports and launching these documents today because it's absolutely critical that the Commonwealth Government and the Queensland Government work together cooperatively to deal with the risks to this incredibly important national and international resource.

And this is the first ever outlook report that has been prepared and I want to take the opportunity to commend those scientists and researchers who have been involved in putting this report together. And the report allows us to take stock and make sure that we're on the right track to protecting the Great Barrier Reef, which is our most important environmental asset.

The report tells us a number of things about this premiere natural resource. It tells us that the Great Barrier Reef continues to be one of the world's healthiest coral reef ecosystems, but it also tells us that there are significant challenges to the reef. It tells us that the reef is very well managed. It tells us that governments and communities have put in place already the necessary actions to reduce the risks to the reef. But it does point out that effective action on climate change will be absolutely critical.

And I want to say that, for the Rudd Government, effective action on climate change is absolutely essential.

The governments are responding to the challenges that are identified in this outlook report, with the Commonwealth Government providing an investment of some $200 million, a significant investment in Reef Rescue through Caring for our Country. And this is important because this investment is to enable landowners, farmers and farm managers to improve their practices so that we see a significant lessening of the discharge of nutrients and chemicals and run-off into the reef lagoon.

Both governments are firmly committed to protecting the Great Barrier Reef, our most important natural asset. And the fact that we have done a number of other things as well since we came into government. A revision of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority legislation; it's now streamlined and improved, and that's passed through the Commonwealth parliament. The ministerial council that we've had with Queensland ministers on the Great Barrier Reef; reinstituting that ministerial council, because it's important that we work together closely at the federal and at the state level. The inter-governmental agreement signed by the Premier and by Prime Minister Rudd; again, a recognition of the seriousness that both governments take protecting the Great Barrier Reef. And today this plan which we've identified as being necessary for effective action into the future.

Let me just conclude by saying this. The world's only got one Great Barrier Reef, Australia has only got one Great Barrier Reef. It is our most important natural environmental asset. Its environmental values are so high, its economic values are so high too, we redouble our commitments to make sure that the reef is protected from the risks it faces. And I look forward to us working with the State of Queensland as we get about that task.

JONES: Thank you Minister Garrett. And, as Minister Garrett outlined, we were the first two environment ministers at a state and federal level to [indistinct] with the Great Barrier Reef Ministerial Council meeting in five years, and I want to thank the new Federal Government for their support for the Great Barrier Reef.

This is a landmark occasion in us moving forward together to protect the Great Barrier Reef.

What this Outlook Report shows is that the key areas that we are making an investment going forward are the right areas. The key threats to the Great Barrier Reef are climate change, poor water quality and poor coastal development. We are delivering on all these fronts.

We are delivering on all these fronts. Since I've been the Minister, we have introduced to the house a bill to reduce runoff into the reef from grazing and from cattle farming, and cane growing in Queensland in our key priority reef catchments.

Last week, I released the coastal - the draft coastal management plan which looks at restricting the way that we build along the coastline. This reinforces what we are saying and what we are doing to protect the reef. Two weeks ago, the Premier and I launched the ClimateQ document, a new $196 million investment at a state level to reduce the impacts of climate change in here in Queensland.

The threats to the reef are being addressed through this plan, and it is being addressed by working collaboratively between the Federal and State governments.

BLIGH: The key targets in this plan are very ambitious. We commit ourselves today to reducing the run off of nutrients and pesticides into reef catchments by 50 per cent by 2013. So we give ourselves five years to halve the pesticides and nutrients running in to sensitive reef catchments.

This is an ambitious target, but one that we are absolutely determined to jointly achieve with new investment and importantly, new regulation.

Questions?

JOURNALIST: Premier, the WWF has already been quite vocal this morning on this announcement and said while they are impressed with the pollution plan they feel that Queensland — or the Queensland Government — is still lacking in addressing land clearing issues. They are still calling in response to climate change for a total ban on land clearing in this state. Do you think that is unrealistic?

BLIGH: We currently have a moratorium on the clearing of endangered vegetation, and we've been working with farming groups and environmental groups to find the right balance in putting in place further restrictions on land clearing. Ensuring we manage clearing of land is a key component of our response to climate change and to greater protections in the environment.

The Queensland Government has had a very strong record in restricting land clearing. They made an election commitment to put a moratorium in place. That is in place, and we are in the process of working through the next round of workable land clearing restrictions. And some of that will involve restrictions on land clearing in sensitive reef catchment areas.

JOURNALIST: So do you think — they are calling for a total ban in response to climate change issues — do you think that is unrealistic?

BLIGH: When we look at land clearing, we have to be I think very careful about getting the balance right. We need to protect the environment. But we also need to allow sensible clearing of land in appropriate circumstances to facilitate very important parts of our economy, as well as population growth.

Our moratorium is giving us the chance to get that balance right. But it will include further restrictions on land clearing in sensitive reef catchment areas.

JOURNALIST: How will this affect food production?

BLIGH: The provisions of the reef quality plan are consistent with the Government's regulation that is currently before the Parliament.

Our regulations will require a number of primary producers, particularly in cane growing and grazing to take further action to minimise the run off from their activities into sensitive reef catchments. But that will come at some cost, and that's why it's important that the state and the federal investment in this area comes, is worked together so that farmers can get some financial assistance to manage that.

I expect to see that many farmers will take up the opportunity that is now presented to them for the first time to significantly change their practices, to reduce their use of fertiliser, and to improve many, many of the ways that they do business.

We've got great examples of many farmers putting in place best practice activity now. There is now money on the table that will help others to do the same.

JOURNALIST: Is the reef dying?

GARRETT: Well look, I can answer that, and the answer is that the reef isn't dying. This is a healthy coral reef ecosystem. And whilst it's facing significant risks and threats, particularly through climate change, and also through the discharge of chemical and other nutrients into the Great Barrier Reef lagoon, this is a healthy reef system, and one which by world standards is very well managed.

The challenge for us, and it's the challenge not only for governments, but for communities, and particularly for those of us who are working in the area of the Great Barrier Reef, is to make sure that we now move forward with the measures that we've identified as necessary to put in place.

And if I can add to the Premier's comments just briefly, the initial commitment of some $26 million sees some 900 farmers involved in beginning to work and to have the opportunity in terms of improving farm practice on land so that we get basically a reduction of nutrients happening into the lagoon.

Minister Burke and I in July announced another $50 million which will enable up to 2000 farmers, additionally, to be involved. Now this is the Government putting down significant down payments to enable farming communities to improve their practices which they want to do, and for us to specifically focus on what we know is one of the major risks to the reef - and that's water quality.

And what this Outlook Report says is that Australia has well managed this critically important natural asset, but we do recognise that the resilience of the reef is of increasing importance because of the likely threats of climate change in the future, and some of the issues that we've identified here; and by providing for that specific capacity for farming communities to start addressing those practices, we do expect to see significant improvement.

And together, the governments have set that target, reducing those nutrients by 2013 by 50 per cent.

JOURNALIST: But $26 million for 900 farmers, that is about $30,000 each [inaudible]

GARRETT: Not at all, and it represents the most significant commitment to communities who are working on country near the reef that we have ever seen. And I would add one other thing to that question, and that's farmers are already engaging in improving their practices.

What this particular support enables them to do is to do more and to do it quickly. Whether it's changing their machinery mix in terms of say, for example, the spraying equipment where you get a narrower focus on your spray nozzles. Whether it's getting the sort of machinery in which produces lighter tillage and doesn't see as much nutrient run-off necessary.

Whether it's just the simple business of changing the farming practice itself, so that there's not as much chemical herbicide and fertilisers and the like applied. There's a significant level of support and to have some 3000 farmers, in Queensland, with the ability to roll up their sleeves and get on with this job, gives me great confidence that we will see significant improvements in water quality in the reef, and in a relatively short period of time.

JOURNALIST: Minister a few years ago there was quite a lot of controversy about the Ok Tedi mine in Papua New Guinea and the sediment I think washed out of the flow was heavy in cadmium, copper and other heavy metals, the impact that was having on the Great Barrier Reef and the Torres Strait. Up to five years ago those concerns were being expressed. What does this do to address that issue?

GARRETT: The Outlook Report doesn't specifically address heavy metal concentrations at the northern end of the reef. It's looking at the risks to the reef that have been identified and what measures are necessary. And my understanding is that the analysis that was done in the '90s of those heavy metal agglomerations, said that it was inconclusive as to whether there were higher than normal elevated levels in the northern parts of the reef system.

So for the purposes of this Outlook Report, what is clear and what is identified by the scientists, is that the risks are climate change. Likely risks in terms of increase in water temperature, potential for more coral bleaching events. Sea level rises. Acidification of the ocean environment itself. The question of nutrient, pesticide and fertilizer run-off, development issues and a range of smaller issues which have been identified.

JOURNALIST: So apart from the study in the 90s, there's no plans for [indistinct] intervention?

GARRETT: No.

JOURNALIST: Does it identify over fishing. That is another threat which conservation groups have identified which none of you have mentioned this morning?

GARRETT: Well fishing practices are identified in the risk analysis. But what I think is particularly telling from this Outlook Report is the identification of the progress that's been made in management and the fact that we now do have in place, working both cooperatively with the State and with the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, a management and regulation regime, which is continuing to improve the performance of fishing in terms of sustainability and the likely impact on the reef.

JOURNALIST: Is there room for improvement though, I mean conservation groups are saying this morning that the reef is still being over fished. Is that the case?

GARRETT: Well look, I'll invite the Premier to respond to that as well. What I would simply say is that from my perspective, the fact that we were able to, for example, when considering the East Coast Inshore Fin Fish Fishery, work collaboratively with the Queensland Government and with the fishing industry to see questions of by-catch and also sustainable levels set, for example, for shark; that was something which we were able to agree. I thought that was an extremely positive and useful step and will continue to work like that.

JOURNALIST: So without making you repeat all that again…

GARRETT: You mean you don't want to hear East Coast Inshore Fin Fish Fishery?

JOURNALIST: Is the Reef still being over fished or not, in your opinion?

GARRETT: Well, what I would say is that the reef is well managed in terms of its fishing and I'd say no to that question. And I would say that we will continue to work closely with both the Queensland Government, Fisheries Department here and the industry to identify what additional measures might be necessary over the longer term, to ensure the sustainability of fish stock on the reef.

Remember that the zoning that exists on the reef now, in terms of the marine park zoning has seen a significant improvement in the health of fish stocks in those areas. So the zoning regulations that were in place, are working. There are no plans to change them at this point in time. But we'll continue to work cooperatively with the industry and with the Government.

JOURNALIST: Minister, there's been some controversy up in Cairns about the Traditional owners taking dugong and turtles up that way and some people have been saying they've taken too many. Is there a plan to review the Traditional fishing practice methods on the Great Barrier Reef?

BLIGH: Not that I'm aware of.

JOURNALIST: You have a program called TUMRA, Traditional Use of Marine Resource Agreements under this plan, other than the Great Barrier Reef plan [indistinct]. It's funded to, I believe, about $10 million by Reef Rescue

GARRETT: Yeah, look, I can take that question by simply saying that look, if there are any issues or allegations of activities which need to be considered and investigated in relation to unauthorised taking say, for example, a dugong or turtle, then they will be investigated by the relevant authorities, GBRMPA and state authorities.

In relation to TUMRAs themselves, they are working very well and I'm confident that the support that we provided to Indigenous communities, which enables traditional use — hunting practices to be undertaken in a sustainable fashion — will continue to proceed?

JOURNALIST: You have only signed four or five TUMRA's so far, how many are you planning to roll them out? There is more than 70 traditional owner groups along the coast of the reef?

GARRETT: Well, look, I think the key to those TUMRAs and the speed in which we actually roll them out is to make sure that we get in place the right set of understandings and support for groups. And also to make sure that we're very clear about what the agreement is going to deliver.

Now the TUMRAs that have been done up to now have worked effectively. But it's a case of doing it in an orderly and in a robust and focused fashion.

JOURNALIST: Minister, in approving the Gorgon LNG development off WA, you expressed a desire to be involved in the process much earlier considering some of the environmental decisions. Will you take a much earlier role in the LNG projects proposed for Gladstone [inaudible]?

GARRETT: In relation to the Gladstone proposal, we don't have a situation in place where I will approach it in a different way, other than I'm required to under the regulations. So I'll approach it in the way that I'm required to, under the regulations.

But I will make sure that I'm well aware of potential environment issues at an earlier enough stage, to be able to both consider them and where necessary have negotiation or resolution considered.

JOURNALIST: Are you aware of those issues now?

GARRETT: Only in the most general sense. There's no documentation that's in front of me. Clearly we're already receiving submissions from the public and from conservation organisations and from others. And, of course, I've seen issues that have been raised in the media as well.

That is a long way away from my desk in a formal sense. But I simply make the point that we've already had good and productive discussions with the Queensland Government about the potential in the future for strategic assessments, where we actually do better integrate the Commonwealth and state planning processes, so as to enable the assessment to take place, co-existent with the decision making. And I think that's something which everybody would welcome.

BLIGH: And I should note in that regard that we are now at the early beginning stages of the environmental processes. One project, last weekend, advertised its draft terms of reference for its EIS and another project that's more advanced launched its environmental impact statement for public consultation. So we are now in the early stages, I know that both the proponents and interested community organisations have not only been raising issues with the State Government but they have been meeting with relevant Federal Government officers

JOURNALIST: Premier, we had a major oil spill here [inaudible]. Previous reports by GBRMPA have said that one of the major management issues for the Torres Strait is how to deal with an oil spill in one of Australia's busiest, if no busiest sea lanes. What is in this report that will help deal with a situation like that?

BLIGH: This report doesn't go to those sorts of issues. This report goes to the major, ongoing threats to the reef that need to be managed with a consistent joint plan by both levels of government. The question of oil spills obviously are dealt with through the emergency procedures applying to both the Australian Maritime Safety Authority and the relevant state government agencies. We learnt a lot from the oil spill that we had here in Moreton Bay. All of the scientific reports that have looked at the response have certainly backed the fact that the state and local government response here was a very good one. But there are always lessons. Obviously the oil spill on the other side of the country will teach not only us, but the rest of the world lessons. I hope we never see a spill like that anywhere near the Great Barrier Reef but if we do it will be managed through all of the existing emergency provisions and they are updated every time there are learning's to be taken.

JOURNALIST: So you're confident the resources are in place up in Far North Queensland and the Torres Strait to deal with an oil spill if it occurred there?

BLIGH: Absolutely

Okay, we might sign the document folks.

[ENDS]

Commonwealth of Australia