Speech in Parliament on Coral Bleaching

1.20pm | November 28, 2016

The One Nation family holiday to the Great Barrier Reef is a joke. It is hilarious that Senator Roberts, who is so keen to insist on—so keen to demand—empirical evidence from others, is happy to conclude that the Reef is healthy based on a single dive. Now, where was that dive? That dive, according to media reports, was off Yeppoon, hundreds of kilometres away from the more serious bleaching at places like Port Douglas and Lizard Island. Diving where Senator Hanson did and concluding that the reef is fine is a little bit like auditing the Prime Minister's harbour-side electorate and coming to the conclusion that the economy is doing just great. Some parts of the reef are healthy—yes, of course they are—but some parts are not. The issue is that more parts are unhealthy now than they were 30 years ago, because the system is deteriorating. The cause, in part, is climate change.

We need to look at the empirical evidence about the reef. Over the last 30 years, hard coral cover has declined from 28 per cent to 13 per cent. That comes from the strategic assessment undertaken by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, the government authority. What did they say? They said:

Even with the recent management initiatives to reduce threats and improve resilience, the overall outlook for the Great Barrier Reef is poor, has worsened since 2009 and is expected to further deteriorate in the future. Greater reductions of all threats at all levels, Reef-wide, regional and local, are required to prevent the projected declines in the Great Barrier Reef and to improve its capacity to recover.

The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority undertakes actual surveys of the reef, and they are far more rigorous than four senators in wetsuits having a splash. The surveys for this year are yet to be completed, but it is suspected that the rate of bleaching is going to be higher than the initial estimate of 22 per cent, due to higher ocean temperatures. The director of reef recovery, Dr David Wachenfeld, has said, 'Essentially, this is confirming that this is the worst bleaching event that the reef has seen by a very, very long way.' A few months ago, the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies conducted extensive aerial and underwater surveys about how much coral has been killed. They found that 35 per cent of coral in central and northern parts of the Great Barrier Reef have died. We know and, of course, we accept that parts of the reef that have been affected in this way will recover, but the problem is that, over time, placed under greater and greater stress by a range of interventions from humans, the reef's ability to recover is deteriorating. There will be very real consequences for our kids and for future generations who might want to go and try scuba diving on the Great Barrier Reef.

The underlying issue which I suspect One Nation senators are trying to suggest—because they tell us about it fairly regularly—is that they consider that climate change is not real. I hesitate on the need to repeat this here in this chamber, but climate change is real, and that is accepted by all those on this side of the chamber. It is also accepted, as it happens, by 97 per cent of climate scientists. It is reinforced by the ICCP reports. The truth is that this is not an open question. Climate change is real; the question that we are now trying to answer, that scientists are trying to answer, is: how bad is it going to get? On the other hand, media stunts are not science. Senator Roberts's flirtation with the American far right is no substitute—no substitute at all—for the peer review process.

We have heard coalition senators stand up and say that they take climate change seriously. Senator Paterson talked about the government's actions to protect the reef and to take the references to it out of the UN's climate change report. That is more a triumph of lobbying than a triumph of environmental policy. More seriously, the only remaining pieces of the coalition's climate change policy lie in tatters. We will be able to make our 2020 climate change targets only because of reductions in land clearing. In Queensland and New South Wales, laws that were introduced in Queensland and that were sought to be introduced in New South Wales to halt land clearing threaten that outcome. The Direct Action carbon reduction policy is running out of steam. The Clean Energy Regulator announced this month that it would pay a further $367 million to polluting industries, in return for them to commit to reducing carbon emissions by 34.4 million tonnes. It is the smallest of four auctions held by the regulator, and it leaves about $440 million in the Emissions Reduction Fund for further carbon abatement contracts. About 83 per cent of that fund has now been spent. The federal government's climate policy is pretty much exhausted. There is no further funding committed to the program and there is no signal from government about what they intend to do to put Australia on a pathway toward decarbonisation. The very sad thing is that climate change is very real. It is very real, it is affecting the reef and it is affecting other ecosystems, but, unfortunately, on the government side, there is no credible policy to tackle it.

Senator Roberts said in his remarks, 'The casualties of the theory of global warming are hardworking Aussies.' Actually, One Nation's climate change policy is going to hurt the very people that they claim to represent. We do not help the tourism industry by pretending that there is not a problem. Senator Macdonald likes to say that the senators on this side who do not agree with him in some way do not care about jobs. I can tell him that that is not true. That is not true at all for me or for many of the other senators in this chamber who regularly speak about the impacts of climate change on our economy.

Tourism is our largest services export and employs more than one million Australians. There are more than 276,000 tourism businesses in Australia. Our pitch to tourists is, more often than not: 'Come to Australia. Come and see our amazing natural environment.' The problem is that it is threatened by global warming. In many of our ecosystems—in the alpine area, in the southern forests, in the wetlands, in the Wet Tropics, in Kakadu and on the reef—unless we take action, we will start to see ecological decline. In some instances we are already seeing it. It is up to us as parliamentarians, as people in this place, to deal with this honestly. Putting our heads in the sand and pretending that it is not happening, pretending that it is somehow un-Australian to refer to these threats, is not the way we should be approaching a very serious problem.

Senator Burston asked a question of Senator Canavan today about fisheries in New South Wales—concerned, I think, about the families and communities that rely on fishing. Well, global warming threatens the very ecosystems that these families and these fishing communities rely on. Oysters and other shellfish, for example, are harmed by the acidification of the ocean that is caused by global warming. In other examples, the Climate Change Council has recently taken a look at the exposure of rural and regional Australia to climate change. And what do they find? They find that far from this being a problem that preoccupies only inner-city dwellers, rural and regional Australians are particularly vulnerable to climate change at an economic level because of the increased risks of severe weather events, because of the deepening of El Nino cycles, because of the intensification and frequency of drought and because of the warmer oceans, which causes more tropical storms and more hurricanes. The consequence of this is that agricultural businesses and farming families have used up their financial reserves or are taking on more debt in response to extreme weather events.

Climate change has real consequences for communities and it is time this chamber started taking them seriously. It is not enough to pigeonhole this as some ideological crusade that you can use to please some small group of preselectors. This is an issue that deserves our most serious attention. One Nation is perpetrating a fraud on the Australians who believe in them when it comes to climate change. Senator Roberts's flirtation with the far Right of Australian politics is no reason to jeopardise the livelihoods of thousands of Australians.