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Federal Minister for the Environment and Heritage
The Hon Dr David Kemp, MP

4QR Brisbane
Friday, 31 January 2003

Great Barrier Reef, NHT Funding for Douglas Shire Council for Great Barrier Reef Water Quality Improvement Program, Baker Report, Sugar Package

David Kemp you've announced this extra money into studying the problem. What further examination is needed? I thought, I understood it that it was very clear that farm run-off was affecting the Great Barrier Reef.

Dr Kemp:
Oh good afternoon Steve. The $150,000 that I've announced today is not to further study the problem, the $150,000 is to support Douglas Shire in one of its great initiatives which is to develop a water quality improvement plant for its waterways as they flow into the Reef. In other words what this does is to recognise that there is a community which is saying water quality in the Reef is a problem and we want to do something about it and we want to have a proper catchment management plan and we want to have a water quality improvement plan to continually monitor water quality as it flows into the Barrier Reef Lagoon so that we can do something effectively to improve that quality. So it really has nothing to do with looking further into the matter. As you quite properly say the scientific panel report is pretty clear. It's clear about what is known and what isn't known. And I think Joe Baker and his team were very up front and honest about what we do know which is that sediment and pollutants and chemicals are coming into the lagoon from developments right along the coast but at the same time there are some things that science hasn't really got clear data on at the moment and we need more science on that. But ...

What is the unclear data at this point Minister?

Dr Kemp:
Well it's what is really monitored and just the number of studies that have been done. What is quite clear, I'm not trying to say that we don't know enough to act, I mean we do know enough to act. In fact I am quite concerned about the pollutants that are flowing into the Barrier Reef Lagoon. It's quite clear that there's an impact on the inner reefs from the sediment that is flowing out of the rivers. It's clear that sediment flow has increased in the last fifteen years or so. The impacts on the outer reef are not nearly so clear. But as the report says, we can't wait until they become clear because then it may well be too late to take any effective action. So far as the Commonwealth is concerned we are absolutely determined to protect the Reef and that's why the Prime Minister entered into the memorandum of understanding with Premier Beattie in August last year on water quality. The other document of course that came out that hasn't had nearly so much discussion but which is going to need a lot of discussion is the draft Water Quality Protection Plan which the Commonwealth and the government of Queensland have been working on together. At the moment it's now out there for stakeholder consultation, including with the canegrowers, the pastoral industry, urban communities up and down the coast and when they've had their input into it will be revised and released for general public consultation. So there's a very transparent process under way so that the whole of the Queensland community which so values the reef as does the rest of Australia can take effective action to protect it in the longer term.

Minister the sugar industry in particular is a very large one here in Queensland and they feel that they have been wearing the brunt of a number of impacts on their industry here, industry deregulation, you know tariff barriers, environmental concerns, particularly some elements of this report which seem to indicate that agricultural farm chemical run-off is one of the primary causes of, if you like, degradation of water quality on the Reef. Do you understand their concerns? Is there anything you can say to allay their fears about the pressures on the sugar industry?

Dr Kemp:
Well there are pressures on the industry and of course that's why the Federal Government has recently announced the $150 million sugar industry reform program and about $120 million of that is coming from the Commonwealth. It includes some $16 million specifically to restore the health of wetlands along the case, in the sugar areas, because it's clear that those wetlands perform a very vital environmental role. So the Commonwealth is putting its hand in its pocket, putting its money where its mouth is and saying that it really wants to help the industry. But the other thing I'd like to say about the industry is that I think there is a lot of resentment amongst environmentally conscious sugar growers that what they are doing is not being recognised. And I think it is fair to recognise that the industry has actually developed some very good environmental management practices, it's adopted farming techniques over recent years through trash blanketing, through sediment catchment areas that are having a very positive effect. And I would like to take this opportunity, not so much to point the finger at the industry but to comment the leadership of the industry for saying that they do see the industry has an environmental impact and where there is clear science pointing the way they want to do what is environmentally responsible. I've been talking with sugar growers today, I've seen some of the work that they've been doing, I've talked to them in the past last year and on each occasion I've been impressed at the willingness of the leadership really to face up to the issues ...

Minister if I could just, I am just getting very squeezed for time, forgive me for this - the report released yesterday, how much of the blame for the effect on the Barrier Reef do you think should be sheeted home to agricultural farm chemical run-off in the degradation of water quality in the Great Barrier Reef? Can you quantify it?

Dr Kemp:
Well I can't put a precise figure on it but of course the sediment run-off is a result of farming practices but not necessarily by any means, wholly or even mostly in the sugarcane growing areas. It has to do with over-grazing, it has to do with over-clearing of vegetation and of course the urban areas up the coast also make a contribution to polluting the lagoon. So the sugar industry is just one of the industries along the Reef that recognises that it has a responsibility to do something to put its practices in an environmentally sound basis. And I commend the industry for that and I hope that the sugar industry and the other industries that are identified as contributing to that pollution will respond positively to the draft Water Quality Protection Plan that is out there, make their comments to it so that we can give the wider community then the opportunity to say what it really believes should be done to protect the Great Barrier Reef for the future because it is a great national icon and it's the foundation of so many communities and so much of the economy up the Queensland coast.

All right now I know you are a busy man and I've pulled you out of a meeting that you are in the middle of, I appreciate you giving me your time. I just need to ask you finally before you go, the Wilderness Society has just released a statement to the media calling on you to, as they say "sink plans for a four storey concrete monstrosity planned for the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage area off Cairns in North Queensland". They're talking about a proposal by NYK shipping lines for a 125 metre long facility to provide scenic flights and overnight accommodation for tourists off Cairns. Can you say anything about that particular matter?

Dr Kemp:
Well the only thing I can say is that that proposal hasn't come through to me as yet. If it does come through under environment protection legislation or through the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority then I'll have a very close look at it.


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