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Christine Milne: Our Reef is under threat like never before

Speeches in Parliament
Christine Milne 11 Dec 2013

The Australian Greens Leader, Senator Christine Milne, speaks in the Senate on how the big coalminers of Australia have pulled the strings of the Abbott government to the detriment of the Great Barrier Reef.

Senator MILNE (Tasmania-Leader of the Australian Greens) (16:47): I rise this afternoon to speak to this matter of the future of the Great Barrier Reef. The Great Barrier Reef is dying and this decision by the Abbott government to allow this massive port expansion development at Abbot Point, as a way of facilitating expansion of coalmining out of the Galilee Basin, will hasten the death of the reef. There is such a thing as being too late. For a very long time scientists have warned about the impacts of global warming on the Great Barrier Reef from coral bleaching, ocean acidification and extreme weather events bashing against the corals, which are already weakened by acidification.

The Great Barrier Reef was listed as World Heritage in 1981. It is the largest coral reef ecosystem on Earth. It was regarded and listed as World Heritage because its values are of outstanding universal value to humankind. All Australians are proud of the Great Barrier Reef. But not all Australians are prepared to accept that it is dying. It is dying and we have to do everything we can to save what we can and build resilience, and you cannot pretend that allowing this massive coal port expansion, with the dumping of three million cubic metres of seafloor dredgings into the reef's waters, is going to do anything other than help to destroy it.

If you think about the reef, there are something like 1,500 species of fish, 360 species of hard corals and 1,500 species of sponges. There is the seagrass, which supports dugong populations and loggerhead, green, hawksbill and flatback turtles. There are 215 bird species. All these are sustained by the Great Barrier Reef ecosystem and what we now know, about that three million cubic metres to be dumped into the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park waters, is that that sludge and those silts can travel for 80 kilometres. Please, do not expect anybody here to take seriously the notion of offsets-so we will dump all of this sludge into the Great Barrier Reef and then, however, we will say to the farmers, 'Don't you dump 4½ million cubic metres of sediment onto the reef,' and therefore we will have the farmers stop dumping theirs so we will dump from the coal port and that will be all right. Well, on the basic facts it is not all right. One basic fact is this. In its first five-year phase the reef rescue program, which was well resourced and had huge efforts from farmers backing it, only reduced the sediments entering the reef's waters by one-twentieth of the amount of sludge planned to be dumped offshore from Abbot Point, so 20 times more than has been able to be stopped in the last five years is being planned. So let us abandon this notion of enforcement and compliance-it will not happen.

This is a death sentence for the reef. Not only that, it will accelerate global warming because it is going to facilitate the Galilee Basin coalmines. That coal should stay in the ground. There is no way we should be opening up the Bowen Basin or the Galilee Basin to coalmining, because those two basins alone, if they were a separate country, would be the seventh largest emitter on Earth. So when we hear the coalition go on about what a small emitter Australia is in the global context of climate change, let us note that the seventh largest emitter on Earth would be the two basins in Queensland if you let this go ahead. So not only is this being done for the sake of the coalminers but it is going to kill the reef and accelerate global warming and a feedback loop also goes on towards killing the reef. This is a crime against humanity. That is what it is, and it has got the Prime Minister, Tony Abbott's, and the Minister for the Environment, Greg Hunt's, names all over it.

Last year, at the World Heritage Committee meeting in Cambodia, the World Heritage Committee was asked to consider the Great Barrier Reef for inscription on the list of World Heritage in danger, for it to be recommended and to be thought about for the 38th session in 2014. I would suggest that the result of the Abbott government's decision to go ahead with this massive industrialisation of the reef is going to lead to the Great Barrier Reef being listed as World Heritage in danger. That is a major blow to jobs and tourism in Queensland. I can tell you that tourists, divers, people interested in the marine environment are not going to come to Australia, to the Great Barrier Reef, if it is listed as in danger. That is a signal that Australia does not care about it, is letting it go, that it is in bad condition, and they will go to other coral reefs around the world. New Caledonia, for example, has the world's second largest barrier reef. That will become a preferred destination, as will other coral reefs elsewhere in the world.

Up to 63,000 jobs depend on the Great Barrier Reef, and that has a major flow-on for Queensland. I was up there during the federal election campaign and, make no mistake, businesses along the reef are very worried about it. They are also worried that the tourism bodies along the Great Barrier Reef should be shouting from the rooftops about this but are not doing so. The reason they are not doing so is that they have been taken over and they are being financially supported by the mining industry. So when Premier Newman said Queensland is open for the coal business, he meant it! He meant that Queensland was prepared to sell out, and now the Abbott government is going to be complicit with him in destroying the Great Barrier Reef in order to massively expand Queensland's appalling coalmining when, in fact, it should be left in the ground.

The same goes for coal-seam gas, which is facilitating loss of water and loss of farmland; it is climate destroying. In fact, the latest greenhouse gas inventory shows the greatest increase in emissions is in fugitive emissions from coalmines and coal-seam gas. So we are not only going to see a shocking contribution to global warming, we are also going to see a loss of jobs, a loss of tourism and the listing of the reef as in danger. But the overwhelming issue here is the loss of the reef itself. I do not think Australians can actually take in the fact that there will come a day when the Great Barrier Reef is dead. That is something that people refuse to accept. You hear people say-quietly-when they go to Queensland and have a look at it that it is in a worse state than the last time they saw it. We are also seeing the impacts: when you have deteriorating water quality, you have also the expansion of the crown-of-thorns starfish. What we are seeing is a disaster for the reef and a disaster for the planet, and the world is not going to stand by and watch Australia do this. We are going to have a major issue to contend with in terms of where this goes.

What will happen to the Queensland economy? We know the Great Barrier Reef is a major economy from the tourism and from the small businesses that will be impacted. The dredging will also impact on fisheries, not to mention what it will do to us, as a nation, to be a rich nation that is prepared to destroy outstanding universal values for humankind. This contempt that the Abbott government is showing for the environment is something that you would not even have been believed a few years ago-that you could see in one week a government taking away the powers to look after threatened species, taking away the critical listing for the Murray-Darling Basin, attacking the Tasmanian wilderness World Heritage area and threatening to pull down and change the boundaries to open up the old-growth forests for logging. And now today we have this decision by the government to proactively turn the Great Barrier Reef into a coal ship highway, and to allow the dumping of three million cubic metres of sludge into the reef to smother corals and to smother seagrasses on which dugongs and turtles are reliant.

This is a disgrace and people will be held accountable for this, not just now but by future generations. They will look back and say, 'This was environmental vandalism, and never let it be said that they did not know what they were doing'. You know exactly what you are doing. Scientists around the world have condemned you for what you are doing to the Great Barrier Reef. They have pleaded with you not to proceed with this industrialisation of the Great Barrier Reef, and yet you are going on to do it in the interests of the supporters of the coalition. The big coalminers of Australia have now pulled the strings of the Abbott government to the detriment of the Great Barrier Reef.


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