Joint Select Committee on Northern Australia - Report

Senator IAN MACDONALD (Queensland) (17:19): I present the report of the Joint Select Committee on Northern Australia on the inquiry into opportunities for expanding aquaculture in Northern Australia. I also present the minutes of the proceedings. I move:

That the Senate take note of the report.

I want to spend just a couple of minutes highlighting this unanimous report of the joint standing committee. I emphasise it is unanimous and I congratulate both the chairman of the committee, my colleague and friend the Hon. Warren Entsch MP, the member for Leichhardt, and also Ms Alannah MacTiernan, the deputy chairman, a Labor member obviously of the lower house. Regrettably, I hear that she, like other sensible Labor members from Western Australia, is leaving the sinking ship and getting out while she can with some dignity. I say the 'sensible people, because not only is Ms MacTiernan the deputy chairman of this report—and she contributed quite significantly to the conclusions of the committee—but the committee also included other, if I might say, sensible Labor members like Mr Gary Gray and the Hon. Warren Snowdon, who made significant contributions to the committee's determinations.

Other members of the committee included George Christensen, the member for Dawson; Senator Canavan, who is with us today; Ms Natasha Griggs, the member for Solomon in the Northern Territory; Senator Dean Smith; and Ms Melissa Price, the member for Durack—the biggest electorate in Australia. Of course, Ms Price is particularly interested in aquaculture in that whole electorate of Durack, which takes in three-quarters of the state Western Australia and is in that northern part of Western Australia, which has great opportunities for aquaculture and development into the future.

Northern Australia has a natural advantage for aquaculture production, including a long coastline, pristine waters, the availability of suitable land and, of course, its proximity to Asia. The tropical climate also encourages high aquaculture growth rates, and there are a number of aquaculture species which occur naturally in Northern Australia. Most seafood consumed in Australia is, regrettably, imported and this provides local producers, including aquaculture ventures, with significant opportunities to increase market share through import replacement

The obstacle, however—and this has been well canvassed during the committee's various hearings around the North—is an exemption from country-of-origin labelling requirements for food prepared for immediate consumption, such as restaurants, cafes, clubs, and fish and chips shops. I mentioned in the Senate a couple of weeks ago that the Northern Territory does require that labelling. Unfortunately, the rest of Australia has not yet got to that. I continue to hope that something will be done in the future, because consumers in restaurants should be allowed to make informed choices, and the committee has recommended that this anomaly be removed.

The aquaculture industry in Northern Territory is relatively underdeveloped compared to other Australian jurisdictions. But, I have to say, barramundi and prawn aquaculture are poised to expand. The committee spent some time in prawn farms near Cardwell, north of Ingham, and near Cairns. We also saw a wonderful barramundi farm in the Northern Territory in the southern suburbs of Darwin, which is going gangbusters, if I could say that. So these people who are developing those businesses have proved it can be done.

Across the Top End and the Torres Strait there is greater potential for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander management of coastal waters and fisheries. There is the potential for sea ranching of clams, oysters, pearl meat, triton shells and trochus shells. For example, there are moves to increase the involvement of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities in crocodile farming and Trepang ranching enterprises. As well, triton shells can be produced for the environmental management of the crown of thorns starfish. These developments can boost Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander employment.

The Australian south sea pearling industry is facing significant challenges, including widespread damage arising from the oyster oedema disease. Consequently, the committee has recommended that a pearl industry recovery task force be established to fund research to identify the causative agent and possible remedial action. The committee has been encouraged by the move to create aquaculture development zones in Western Australia and the Northern Territory, which will ensure certainty for industry by defining approval conditions and reducing approval times.

In my own state, in North Queensland, I am embarrassed to say, by contrast, the development of aquaculture, which is influenced by the need to protect the waters of the Great Barrier Reef, has seen so many impediments to a degree not commensurate with the projected impact on the health of the Barrier Reef. There is a pressing need, the committee discovered, particularly in Queensland, for scientific certainty and regulatory clarity concerning potential aquaculture industry impacts. To assist science based decision making, there should be research into the potential for environmental impact arising from aquaculture ventures in areas adjacent to the Barrier Reef. We were heartened by the degree to which there is common ground amongst stakeholders as to how to resolve any development impasse, such as we have seen in Queensland over the last 15 years. The committee is confident that the aquaculture companies are taking steps to reduce their environmental impact and to comply with environmental regulatory requirements. The expansion of aquaculture in the North increases the need for a skilled workforce, and training institutions will need to provide industry-focused training courses to meet the anticipated skill set.

We had unanimity of thought from scientists from James Cook University, from the Australian Institute of Marine Science and even from GBRMPA in the end acknowledging that the impact of aquaculture on the Barrier Reef is minimal, and a figure that I recall was less than a one per cent impact on the Barrier Reef. Yet the Queensland government has enormous regulatory impediments to the expansion of the industry there. So it was good to see the scientists telling us—not us telling them—that the regulations are old-fashioned and based on science that has long past.

In a number of its recommendations, the committee has recommended that the proper science work needs to be established—some baseline science work that is up to date and takes into account modern methods and modern technology—so that we can encourage this industry, which, the evidence shows, has no real impact on the Great Barrier Reef. Yet the committee heard time and time again evidence from people who had been attempting to spend millions of dollars on aquaculture and create hundreds of jobs in northern Australia and who have just been stymied by government regulations—including to a degree, I have to say, by Commonwealth government regulation through the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority. The evidence to the committee, as I say, indicates that now all of the insiders, including the GBRMPA, believe that there is a way through it.

The committee thought it would be a worthwhile advance to do in Queensland what has been done in Western Australia and, I understand, the Northern Territory—that is, for the scientists, in conjunction with state government, who regulate these things, to indicate beforehand an area of the coastline where aquaculture could be established without any chance of a negative impact on the Barrier Reef. There would be a lot of the coast of Queensland where that would apply. That would encourage investors in, and that means wealth for Australia, it means import replacement and it means jobs, jobs and jobs for northern Australians in an area which, currently because of the mining downturn, desperately needs jobs.

I am pleased to present this report on behalf of the committee. I want to thank all those who participated in the inquiry by providing submissions, appearing at public hearings and hosting inspections. Again, I congratulate all of those on the committee who participated and contributed to the outcome of this inquiry.

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