A great piece by Margi Prideaux…
Printed in the National Times, link here.
It is a routine assumption by the Australian body politic that the Liberals are poorer on environmental issues than Labor. The debate over climate change in recent years has reinforced this notion. However, a forensic examination of Howard years versus the last term of Labor shows that this is at best a patchy truth.
While not engaging or delivering on climate change the Howard government did deliver strongly in improved conservation of our seas.
During the Howard years there was major policy reform in the environment portfolio, particularly in the area of marine policy. The world’s first Oceans Policy was developed, a groundbreaking ecosystem-based integration of ocean use and conservation mechanisms.
With it came a steady stream of delivery — a major marine park in the Great Australian Bight, greatly increased protection of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park (an achievement of global significance), a series of large marine parks in Australia’s south-east marine region around Tasmania and massive marine sanctuaries around our sub-Antarctic islands, which protects them from foreign fishers.
A number of Australia’s major fisheries were rationalised and restructured, underpinned with a multimillion-dollar package to provide the necessary graceful exits. One of the biggest legislative reform agendas in Australia’s history was delivered with the creation of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act.
For the first time the marine environment became a legislative priority for federal government scrutiny and action, and also for the first time, fish became recognised as wildlife not just a commercial commodity, with export licenses thereafter subject to sustainability assessment. Hundreds of millions of dollars were invested through the National Heritage Trust (NHT) in Australia’s first national program for coast and marine protection and rehabilitation.
These are major achievements for which the Liberals should deservedly take great credit. In contrast, in its last term of government Labor has dithered on everything but championing whale protection internationally.
Labor inherited the marine planning process but has failed to deliver anything on the water and have all but dispensed with deployment of any marine and coastal investment through the son of NHT, Caring for Our Country.
As with the rest of Labor’s promises on the environment, there was policy, there was talk, but there has been no domestic delivery.
This makes marine conservation probably the only positive point of contrast for the Liberals on the environment.
On this issue they can rightly point to being far ahead of Labor. It is, therefore, bemusing to see Opposition Leader Tony Abbott throwing that out the window with his announcement of a freeze on the consideration of the marine planning. He has followed up with some very strong anti-marine park commentary, undermining the Coalition’s successful legacy on the Great Barrier Reef.
Since protection was increased, more than a third of the reef, fishing and boating sales have continued to grow unabated while reef health bounces back in the highly protected Green Zones. Ironically, Abbott’s anti-marine park catch cry of ‘‘man and nature must live together’’ is playing out under his nose in this park that boasts the highest level of marine protection in the country.
The target of Abbott’s announcement was almost certainly to prey on confusion about the government’s marine planning process to pick up support and preferences from the fishing parties in a few Queensland marginal seats.
However, the result has been an outcry from environment groups around the country, effectively trashing the Coalition’s record on environment. The announcement even bought new groups to the debate as the Surfrider Foundation weighed in.
A fisherman from that organisation describing the announcement as a ‘‘dog-fish whistle’’ to men who fish in tinnies, before going on to describe the Coalition announcement as scare-mongering, ignoring the evidence of existing marine sanctuaries and their benefits for fishing, and blatant ecological vandalism.
It was a fair criticism of the announcement and commentary that came with it. Recreational and commercial fishers opposed to marine parks have since pointed out that the Liberal policy offers no guarantees that there will or won’t be any new marine parks or process nor compensation to commercial fishers if new parks are declared, ignoring one of their key concerns. Neither ardent opponents nor supporters of marine conservation will be satisfied.
The Liberals could have authentically cited marine conservation as a major environment issue where they have delivered and Labor has dithered, but Abbott has now thrown out the barramundi with the bilge-water.
In a world where environmental issues are increasingly concerning the electorate across Australia, sensible heads might rightly be asking whether a handful of votes in regional Queensland are worth the damage to the Coalition’s brand.
Dr Margi Prideaux is an independent specialist in migratory species protection policy and law, with 20 years of marine policy and negotiation experience.