By Terri Butler MP

22 June 2021

Well, thanks for being here, everyone. Obviously overnight, we've seen news that the UNESCO World Heritage Committee has provided a draft recommendation that the Great Barrier Reef be listed as "in danger".

This is a greatly concerning issue for all Australians. And it's of particular concern to the 64,000 people whose jobs rely on the Great Barrier Reef and all of the businesses who rely on the $6.4 billion in revenue generated by the Great Barrier Reef, in an ordinary year. 

We're very concerned about this draft determination. The fact is, the reef has been under pressure for a significant amount of time. The government is aware of the bleaching events in 2016, 2017 and 2020. It's also aware that its own agency, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, issued a report in 2019 downgrading the Reef's prospects from poor to very poor. And it's also aware that last year in December, the body that advises the World Heritage Committee, the International Union of Conservation of Nature, issued a report downgrading the Reef's prospects to critical. The government has had several warnings about the importance of taking action on the Great Barrier Reef. One of the criticisms in the draft report is the very slow progress towards targets including water quality targets in the government's Reef 2050 report. Now the government was due to finalise an update to the Reef 2050 report in early 2021. But we learnt in Senate Estimates recently, that at the time of those estimates, the government hadn't even provided that proposed final update to the respective ministers for their signature. So the government is late in finalising the update for the Reef 2050 plan. 

It is of crucial importance that this government steps up when it comes to the Great Barrier Reef. It's also important for the government to acknowledge that being at war with itself on climate change isn't helping anyone. The fact is, we've got a government whose leadership changed in the Deputy Prime Ministership in the junior coalition party the Nationals just this week. In an incredibly self indulgent move, we've seen the Nationals switch leaders during a global pandemic and during other serious issues. What we've seen has happened in the National Party is this ongoing battle about climate change. The fact is that everyone from the National Farmers Federation to the BCA to the oil and gas peak body acknowledges the importance of taking real action on climate change. Everyone, that is, except for this government. The government needs to step up.

When it comes to the Great Barrier Reef, what they need to do is demonstrate they are taking seriously the key threats to the Great Barrier Reef. They need to show Australians they're going to do everything they can, firstly, to try to prevent the Great Barrier Reef as being listed "in danger" by the UNESCO World Heritage Committee. And secondly, take real action for reef conservation. And that includes frankly, taking action when it is given these important reports and other warnings throughout the years, like the GBRMPA report that I talked about, like the IUCN report I talked about. 

The need to actually take action and put a bit of priority behind the Great Barrier Reef.  Because so many jobs depend upon it, our economy in my home state of Queensland absolutely - it's very important for our Queensland economy that the Great Barrier Reef be protected and preserved. And of course, Australians want our world heritage property, our global natural wonder of the world, to be protected. 

JOURNALIST: Do you think there's been procedural fairness towards Australia in this decision?

BUTLER: I don't think it's very helpful for me to speculate what might be behind this draft report. I would say I think Australians would be incredibly disappointed if there was anything other than concern for the Reef motivating this report. But really, what we need to do is we need to have a government that will stand up for the Reef. It's up to them to pursue this through the World Heritage Committee. 

JOURNALIST: Well you're using it as a political point to attack the government. So isn't it worth examining how the situation came about process wise in the first place? 

BUTLER: The question for the government is how are they going to stand up for Australian jobs and for this incredibly important natural icon. The other question for the government is what will that mean in terms of preservation of the Great Barrier Reef. The Great Barrier Reef is a natural wonder of the world, jobs rely on it and the Australian identity, frankly, partly relies on it. They need to do better. They need to stop ignoring the warning signals that have been coming to them, including previous reports, and the bleaching events. When it comes to this particular committee process and new draft listing, the government needs to stand up for Australian jobs, stand up for Australian nature and insist on doing everything they can to make sure that we can avoid an endangered listing. 

JOURNALIST: [interjecting] 

BUTLER: They also shouldn't allow other bodies to be in a position to criticise the slowness of meeting targets, failure to respond to water quality problems. This is a situation where this body has been able to in the draft report criticise the Australian Government's slowness in meeting its own targets under its own Reef 2050 plan. 

JOURNALIST: [interjecting] 

BUTLER: I ask the government to stand up for the Great Barrier Reef and stand up for Australian jobs. 

JOURNALIST: Wouldn't Labor expect the right of reply and some on the ground verification of this by the World Heritage Committee? 

BUTLER: We absolutely ask the government to stand up for a fair go for Australia and for Australian jobs. We absolutely ask them to continue to press this body and to do everything they can to avoid an "in danger" listing. We absolutely expect the government to do better when it comes to speaking up for Australia's national interests on the international stage at all international bodies. The government must make sure that they protect Australians from the potential consequences of this. This draft recommendation is of great concern to all Australians, including the 64,000 Australians whose jobs rely on the Reef. The government needs to explain what they're going to do to prevent this draft recommendation from becoming a formal recommendation. They also, I think, need to do everything they can to work with the international community on this. It's not helpful, as I said, for us to speculate on what might be behind this draft decision. But as I've also said, it is incredibly important that Australians can feel confident that there's nothing behind this decision except for concern for the Great Barrier Reef and I think that they would be disappointed if there were any other motivations behind it. 

JOURNALIST: Will Labor support the Murray Darling Basin Plan in full and on time? 

BUTLER: Well Labor's called for this week in the Senate the government to make sure that the Murray Darling Basin Plan will be delivered in full and on time. The National Party under very new leadership with Barnaby Joyce decided to vote against that proposition. It's very clear that the National Party doesn't support the Murray Darling Basin Plan, under Mr. Joyce's leadership. It's very clear that everyone living in the Murray Darling Basin has every right to be concerned about whether or not this government is serious and standing up for the Plan. Water Minister, and he is still the Water Minister, Keith Pitt has insisted that the government is committed to the plan but what we need to see now is a response from the National Party under Barnaby Joyce's leadership. Unfortunately, this is a government that's so self indulgent, they're too busy focusing on themselves, and not on the issues that have concerned Australians, and that goes for the Murray Darling Basin and the Great Barrier Reef. 

JOURNALIST: The suggestions are that it is specifically China who are refusing [inaudible] and is there difficulty for Labor and environmental bodies to use this to pressure the government over the Reef, when it could be politics behind it, rather than the actual environmental concerns? 

BUTLER: Well, what I've said and what I'll say again, is it's not helpful for us to speculate on what might be behind this decision. But Australians, I think, would be very disappointed if there was anything motivating it other than concern for the Great Barrier Reef. What's really important, though, is that we don't lose sight of the importance of the jobs that rely on the Reef, of the revenue that comes from Reef businesses, and of the natural value of this outstanding global icon. So the government needs to make sure that they are taking action to protect the Great Barrier Reef and they also need to be doing everything in their power to avoid the Reef being listed as "in danger" by this committee. 

JOURNALIST: So Venice had its World Heritage listing, an “in danger” listing was foreshadowed in 2016, 2017, 2019, and in 2021 it's still awaiting a decision. Yet for the Great Barrier Reef, this draft decision came up virtually overnight, without even being mentioned since 2015. Don't you find that a little bit strange? 

BUTLER: Well what I'm alarmed about is the prospect of an “in danger” listing and the government, the Morrison government, needs to do everything they possibly can to avoid that from coming to fruition. They also need to take heed of the advice that has been provided to them to make sure that they are stepping up when it comes to the Reef 2050 Plan, when it comes to water quality targets, when it comes to dealing with the threats to the Great Barrier Reef. They need to avoid any suggestion that they haven't been doing enough. But the fact is, it's not helpful as I said for us to speculate what might be behind this, but if there are any motivations that aren't related to the health of the Reef, then the Australian people will be very disappointed to hear that.
JOURNALIST: How is the Labor 2050 target going to save the Reef?

BUTLER: I'm talking about the Reef 2050 plan, which is the 2050 plan for the Reef. It goes to a range of targets, including water quality targets. This is the document that's been cited in the draft report by the committee in relation to their reasoning for why they would provide a draft recommendation for "in danger". The draft report says that the committee is concerned the Australian progress towards the targets including the water quality targets in the Reef 2050 plan has actually been too slow. They commend Australia for the efforts that have been made, but they've said that the progress has been too slow. That's the point they made in 2017. The concern I think for everyone who's worried about the Great Barrier Reef and worried about their jobs, and revenue that depend upon it, is whether or not the Australian government is doing everything it can to protect Australia from criticisms of this nature. Have they done enough following the three bleaching episodes within five years? Have they done enough since their own body, the GBRMPA, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, told them in 2019 that the Reef's condition, the prospects for the long term future of the Reef have been downgraded from poor to very poor. The government actually needs to be able to demonstrate genuine commitment to protecting the Reef. They need to be able to do that for all of the jobs that rely on it, the revenue that relies on it. This is incredibly important. And apart from all of those things, they also need to show that they're doing everything possible to stand up for Australia's interests on the world stage, including preventing this "in danger" listing that's been proposed from actually happening.