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Aboriginal representation shut out on Great Barrier Reef

Speeches in Parliament
Rachel Siewert 18 Jun 2007

The proposed changes to the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Act were meant to implement the key recommendations of the review. The review considered not only public submissions on how the marine park was functioning and how it could be improved but also the recommendations of the 2003 Uhrig Review of the Corporate Governance of Statutory Authorities and Office Holders. Unfortunately, somewhere between the two, it would seem that bureaucracy has gone mad, particularly in respect of the Uhrig review, which seems to have become the bible for how we will implement boards around Australia and unfortunately has not been contextualised.

We saw the same thing with the ABC board last year, when the staff-elected function of the ABC board was removed, justified solely on the basis of Uhrig. Now they seem to be doing the same thing here. Around Australia, national parks authorities have been moving not only to increase Aboriginal management-or, heaven forbid, allowing full Aboriginal management of some national parks around Australia-but also returning national park lands to the traditional owners; whereas here we are seeing a decrease in Aboriginal and Indigenous involvement in the Great Barrier Reef management. The recommendations of the review seem to focus more on the interpretation of how to implement Uhrig than on the suggestions and concerns that were outlined in public submissions.

The Uhrig review put up two different models for the governance of statutory authorities, one being a board template where the government effectively delegates responsibilities and decision making to an independent authority and the other being the executive management template, where the ultimate decision-making authority resides with the minister. The review has gone for the second model and, in doing so, has effectively increased the level of executive control and responsibility over the actions of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority. This is consistent with the general trend of increasing executive control, which I have brought attention to on many occasions when discussing various bills in this place. There has been a systematic approach to concentrating a deal of executive power in ministers, which the Greens believe should not be that excessive and should be much more exposed to parliamentary review.

The Australian Greens are concerned that, with the process of changing the nature and functioning of the Great Barrier Marine Park Authority, much of the original strength of the structure and operations of the authority will be lost. A lot of things that were built into the structure of the old authority were done for specific reasons. It is important that, if structural changes are made to improve the functioning of the authority, careful consideration is given to what is being lost and the additional mechanisms that might need to be put in place to make up for what is being lost. The Australian Greens are extremely concerned that the statutory need for Indigenous representation is being removed from the GBRMPA board and no corresponding changes are being made to ensure statutory obligation to consult with local Indigenous groups and peoples and to have their views represented in the decision-making processes of the new authority.

While we note that the intent of these provisions is to move away from having a representative board, as has been put forward by the Uhrig review, to having a board that will be based on relevant knowledge and expertise, which is supposedly in line with the Uhrig review-which I believe is not being put into the context of effective management-we now have bureaucracy gone mad: 'We will implement Uhrig come what may. It doesn't matter what the context is; it doesn't matter if you are cutting out an absolutely essential part of management of the Great Barrier Reef; Uhrig is the way we go. Let's not worry about what it will do to the authority and how it will cut out the Aboriginal community from management of the Great Barrier Reef; we're implementing the review.' We also note that this is contradicted by the requirement for the retention of a representative position for the Queensland government. So on the one hand you can have a representative from the Queensland government; on the other hand, you cannot have a representative from the Aboriginal people.

If the new skill based board is to be based truly on expertise, there is no pressing reason to retain state government representation. It is either one or the other. We do not believe that the argument of the interjurisdictional nature of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park is compelling in the way that it, on the one hand, acknowledges the relevance of state jurisdiction but, on the other hand, excludes native title rights and consideration of the unique management skills that Indigenous people bring. It is true that state and federal jurisdictions overlap, but so do state jurisdictions and those of the management of Aboriginal peoples and their lands.

There is no compelling argument presented as to why one is important but the other is not. While we acknowledge that there is an argument that a government nominee might be able to bring to an expertise based board knowledge and skills in dealing with state government jurisdictions, that is not necessarily guaranteed; they may be there just because they are the person who wears the hat for the state government. However, it is equally true that experience and expertise in dealing with Indigenous management issues would make an important and necessary contribution to the effective running of the authority. Having lived all your life with the reef and being embedded in an ancient and living culture of caring for the reef is also important.
The committee cannot have it both ways. Either it is a representative board with representatives from both the state government and the Indigenous community, or it is a skill based board where knowledge and expertise in dealing with issues of central importance to the effective running of the authority are particularly required. If it is a skill based board, these skills and this expertise-which might include knowledge of and expertise in dealing with state government and Indigenous management issues-might not necessarily be held by a nominated Indigenous rep or by a nominee of the state government. If you must have a skill based board, I believe that the act should contain a list of criteria that specifies which knowledge, skills and expertise are relevant.

The Greens are concerned with-in fact, we take umbrage at-the implications to be drawn from the evidence presented by the department, which emphasised the value of Great Barrier Reef management by a group of statutory office holders with relevant knowledge, expertise and abilities for critical thought, objectivity and judgement. The department explained that the review found this to be of particular importance given the Great Barrier Reef's complexity and size; environmental, social and economic values; the difficult task of managing multiple-use objectives; and the 2003 Review of the Corporate Governance of Statutory Authorities and Office Holders, the Uhrig review, which found that governing boards are most effective when members are appointed on the basis of relevant skills and expertise rather than of representing a particular interest.

These statements were given by the department as the basis for its reasoning about why Indigenous representatives should be excluded but state government representatives included, and such statements have disturbing implications. They imply that Indigenous representatives are not likely to possess the relevant experience and ability for critical thought, objectivity and judgement and, at the same time, that it is possible or even likely that a state government representative will possess the relevant skills, expertise and objectivity in their judgements, despite their clear obligation to their employer, the state government.

I struggle to think how many state government nominees on committees that I have dealt with have been able to transcend the views and interests of their employers-and, believe me, I have been on so many committees throughout my career that I have lost count. A state government representative has never argued any point other than that of the state government, despite what they may have had to contribute on a skills base. Never at any time have they done other than run a state government line; that is what they have done every single time. Quite frankly, this strikes me as very discriminatory language. In fact, I think the minister needs to look into the statements that have been made and their implications.

Under these proposals, it looks as though there is the potential for all Indigenous representation to be lost. Our concern is that the proposed changes to the act mean that there is no statutory guarantee that Indigenous people will be consulted and considered in the management of the marine park. The only provision remaining for Indigenous input into the park's management would then be through a non-statutory advisory committee to the environment minister, with no legislative agreement that this committee will be formed and maintained and that its views will be considered or that it will contain any level of Indigenous representation. We believe that ensuring Indigenous consultation in the management of the GBR is essential.

To this end, if there is a move from a representative board structure to a skill based structure, we believe other statutory provisions need to be made to ensure that both the appropriate skills set is used as a basis for the selection of board members-in this case, including Indigenous management skills-and there is a clear statutory mechanism for relevant Indigenous interests to be consulted in park management decision-making processes. We do not believe that Indigenous representation has been adequately considered in this process, and we are deeply concerned that the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Amendment Bill 2007 excludes Indigenous people from the management of this critical area.

I would like to go back to the requirement for state representation. While I believe that state representation is needed on a board like this, I believe equally that there needs to be Indigenous representation on a board like this. That goes back to the heart of what I believe is blind adherence to the Uhrig review, which does not enable it to be contextualised; it does not enable the specific needs of specific cases to be put.

In addition, I should clarify the statement I made previously about state government employees, in case any of my former colleagues are listening. I have a great deal of respect for the work that state government employees put into authorities, committees and boards, but there is no getting away from the fact that they are employed by the state government and, therefore, must stick to that government's policies. The people with whom I have worked in the past have done that very well, but they have had to run the state government line, which is what they would do now on this skill based board.
The bill itself does not address the implications of climate change for the reef. This is a very important and pressing issue. And, while we are considering these changes, we also need to be considering the urgent impact of climate change. Scientists say that just 1½ to two degrees represents a significant threat to the reef's survival. Even below this is not considered safe. There are many reports already that suggest that we have moved beyond the threshold of danger. We know that parts of the reef are already dead and that others are bleached; if you add to that the effect of acidification, the reef is in mortal danger.

If we are serious about saving the reef we need to increase the number and extent of protected areas to build resilience. We need to look at stopping or limiting all the things that stress the reef; for example, the ongoing issue of nutrients from agricultural run-offs, sewage and other human impacts. Reefs around the world are facing an absolute crisis. Australia, a developed nation with more resources, is in an almost unique position to look after all its reefs because ours are the healthiest in the world.

Acidification is another issue that is increasing in importance around the world; we need to invest far more resources into addressing it. Last year scientists came up with a list of 10 questions about acidification that they are still unable to answer. Australia needs to jump on board in investing heavily in the science of acidification to gain a better understanding of it.

Last year there was a proposal which many people, including me, laughed at. It was from the Queensland tourism minister, who said we should put a shadecloth over the barrier reef.

Senator Boswell - The tourism minister did not say that; GBRMPA said it.

Senator SIEWERT - A statement was made. Wags from my office called it the 'Great Australian Roof'.

Senator Colbeck - You misquoted the minister.

Senator SIEWERT-I beg your pardon. Whichever minister it was, she was from Queensland. The point is that we cannot rely on those sorts of interventions to save the Great Barrier Reef. There needs to be a focus on how we can truly save the reef and there needs to be greater effort put into the science of trying to protect it. Such issues are still not being adequately considered, but they need to be. We must also bear in mind again that we need the best possible management for this area. Taking the requirement for Aboriginal representation and involvement out of the act, off the authority, with no statutory requirement for Indigenous involvement, not only undermines Aboriginal people's management, identification and ownership of these areas but also does not allow for the best management practice possible for the reef. So not only are we undermining Indigenous Australians but we are undermining the best possible management of this reef. The Greens do not support the part of the bill that takes out Aboriginal involvement and the requirement for representation on the authority. We believe the government needs to amend this bill so Aboriginal involvement is required in the management of the Great Barrier Reef.

The Greens, therefore, will be supporting the Democrat amendments to this bill. I hope the government has very serious second thoughts about what it is doing by cutting out the statutory requirement for Aboriginal involvement in the management of the reef, and about the message that it is sending to Aboriginal Australia in saying and implying that the people of this region-the 70 groups that are involved - do not have the skills or expertise required to be involved in management of the reef. The government so undervalues Aboriginal Australia that it has cut out their statutory involvement in the management of the Great Barrier Reef.

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