Senator the Hon. Simon Birmingham

Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for the Environment

Senator the Hon. Simon Birmingham

Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for the Environment

Speech: Developments in Global Oceans Governance and Conservation Seminar

Thursday, 7 November 2013

Well, thanks so very much, Penny [Penelope Figgis AO, Director, Australian Committee for International Union for Conservation of Nature] and ladies and gentlemen. I think it's very clear, having heard Paul [The Right Hon. Paul Martin, Commissioner, Global Oceans Commission] just speak, that I have the worst speaking slot on today's program in getting to immediately follow such a knowledgeable and erudite presenter as Paul. It is wonderful to have you in our country. Welcome. Thank you for the work that you are doing on preparations around the G20 [G20 Australia 2014] as well as for your comments today. It really is great to have somebody with such experience across such a breadth of issues championing an issue as important as the one under discussion today.

Can I thank Penny and the IUCN, Humane Society International and, of course, our hosts at the United States Studies Centre for hosting today's program and the important conversations that you are facilitating, which will be an important input into the thinking and actions of the new Government.

Paul said to me, when we were sitting down and introductions were happening and it was mentioned that I was the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for the Environment, that I would have to explain to him later quite what that meant and, whilst I will do that when we chat in the break, my responsibilities, as delegated from Minister Hunt, are for freshwater resources in Australia, are for terrestrial national parks... you might notice a common theme here... that is, that the oceans are a long way out of my responsibilities, so I'm perhaps not the most knowledgeable person in the room today. In fact, I'm quite confident there are many more knowledgeable people. What's important today is that discussions and findings from this group will be fed into our processes at the Commonwealth level - inform myself, inform Minister Hunt, inform the Government overall, of the directions we intend to take.

It is important that we have discussions like this and that we have the footing, setting, in the international arena for discussions like this, led by people like Paul, Robert Hill - my former one-time employer a long time ago; nowadays friend and occasional mentor as somebody who has stepped into the Environment portfolio recently.

It's important we have people like Paul and Robert contributing to these international debates and providing the type of leadership that they're doing and especially on this issue around global oceans governance.

Like the atmosphere, as of course we've heard, oceans are a shared global resource and they're the lifeblood of a healthy planet. Oceans accouters, as you would all appreciate, for some 97 per cent of all water on Earth. The services they provide sustain, of course, our vital fish stocks, the marine life and biodiversity that is so critical to that sustaining of those fish stocks and they support, of course, the livelihoods of communities across the world.

The critical resources, the vital resources, of our oceans are, of course, important not just now but to the future of mankind. People have lived off of the produce of the oceans and required it forever. It, of course, dates way back beyond old Biblical sayings and stories and those resources will remain important with our growing global population and growing demand for food that comes from that and it is vital that we see their sustainable management in the future, not just for the very important environmental and ecological reasons that will be discussed here today but also, of course, for the economic and social factors that are so important to providing and sustaining mankind's reliance on the resources of those oceans. Without sustainable management, we don't just lose the biodiversity, we don't just lose the environmental asset; we also, of course, ultimately risk and lose that economic and social asset that is so very important.

Australia does recognise that we have a really important role to play and the new Government recognises that firmly. Australia is a marine nation with the third largest marine jurisdiction in the world and, as a consequence, we do have a strong interest in conserving and sustainably managing more than 16 million square kilometres of ocean within our jurisdiction. With 36,700 kilometres of coastline and approximately 85 per cent of our population living within 50 kilometres of the coast, our oceans define much of our national identity and lifestyle. It's estimated that oceans contribute approximately $44 billion per annum to the Australian economy - underlining my comments about the importance of the economic debate around sustainable management of our oceans just as much as the environmental debate - which is projected to increase, in terms of the contribution to the Australian economy, to some $100 billion per annum by 2025.

Unlike, of course, many other nations, we have no shared terrestrial borders, nor the trans-boundary issues associated with managing the natural systems that straddle those borders. Our trans-boundary management issues relate to that biggest shared resource in the world - our oceans.

Our regional neighbours - ranging from small island states in the Pacific and Asia to, of course, large nations such as Indonesia with a population of just under a quarter of a billion people - all recognise the need for us to work cooperatively on trying to manage those shared resources.

The impact of threats to healthy oceans such as increased nutrient loadings and lowered oxygen levels, rising temperatures, stronger and more destructive storm events, ocean acidification, marine pollution particularly marine debris, and unsustainable fishing practices are all felt by nations that share this fragile resource and particularly felt by some of those developing neighbours within the region.

The way in which Australia and our neighbours manage this resource will directly impact on our national livelihood, now and well into the future, so we recognise it's in the interest of all potentially affected countries to work hard for healthy oceans nationally, regionally and across the globe and Australia has strong and proud history of engaging in international fora but also of managing our waters and our neighbouring waters.

We've invested significantly in understanding our marine ecosystems through successive governments. We've developed world-leading expertise in marine science, policy development and management and I acknowledge the Commonwealth officials here today, particularly Donna Petrochenko, who you'll hear from later, as somebody with longstanding work in this space but also Peter Cochrane, the outgoing Director of National Parks, and thank Peter very much for his work over a long period of time in Commonwealth policy development.

We've established strong governance and legal arrangements to underpin the conservation and ecologically sustainable use of marine ecosystems and resources. We've delivered on and exceeded our commitment at the Johannesburg World Summit on Sustainable Development to establish a representative network of marine protected areas.

The new Government is equally committed to having that national representative system of marine protected areas in Commonwealth waters. As promised at the election, the Government is reviewing the management plans for the new marine reserves that were declared last year but the Government is committed to providing a fair and reasonable opportunity for all users to meaningfully contribute to the future management of these reserves. It's worth remembering, though, that South-east Commonwealth Marine Reserves Network was created in 2007 by the last Coalition Government and its Management Plan, already in place and operation, gives effect to arrangements we developed at that time in close consultation with fishers and other stakeholders. The Government is retaining that Management Plan whilst reviewing others so that we provide, in that case, ongoing certainty for the users of reserves. The Department, on behalf of the Government, will ensure there's strong consultation through this process, not just with fishers but with other stakeholders so that new arrangements can be put in place to ensure there is ongoing engagement in reserve management and a pathway to effectively advise the Government. We want to ensure that the management of our marine reserves is effective and that we do so in accordance with robust scientific, economic and social evidence.

Australia's equally been at the forefront of international efforts in coral reef conservation and sustainable use for nearly 20 years as a founding member of the International Coral Reef Initiative. We are leaders in conservation and non-lethal scientific research around whaling and we have a strong track record in developing regional partnerships such as the Coral Triangle Initiative.

We, of course, are also, as major territorial stakeholders in Antarctica, leaders in Antarctic protection. We're disappointed that the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources was not able to adopt marine protected areas in East Antarctica and the Ross Sea at its meeting this year. However, progress was made and this is something that we'll retain our commitment to.

At that meeting, we were pleased that most Members spoke in favour of the East Antarctic marine protected areas and we've made substantial advances and we hope to refine that proposal to ensure its success in the future. The Australian Government, the new Government, certainly remains committed to seeing those marine protected areas in Antarctic waters.

The East Antarctic contains, of course, some of the most unique and diverse ecosystems in the Southern Ocean and, as with all areas of Antarctica, because of the limited touch of mankind over the years, there is a real opportunity to preserve the biodiversity at its most natural element and we must work hard to seize that. The East Antarctic marine protected areas we've proposed, with France and European Union, offer widespread protection for the area. They recognise the importance of ensuring that these areas are maintained for science and conservation and in total they would cover an area of some 1.6 million square kilometres.

We've been working with all Members of the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources and its Scientific Committee for a number of years to develop this comprehensive system of marine protected areas and we are hopeful and will continue to work to try to get a positive outcome on that, we hope, in the near future and, of course, after decades of domestic and regional progress, we now have discussions around biodiversity beyond national jurisdiction - the oceans - and that is now at the forefront of international discussion, as Paul so wonderfully explained before, specifically the question there of how the global framework that we have in existence, especially the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, can be improved to better address the challenges that we face and to protect and provide the sustainability that we seek for those oceans.

Literature reports that there are weaknesses in global oceans governance with respect to the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity beyond national jurisdiction. These include, firstly, the coordination across different sectoral and regional regimes. There's a lack of effective framework for coordination of those different sectoral and regional regimes that needs to be integrated into any future arrangement. The second failing is the lack of area-based management - there's no global framework for area-based management arrangements, including the identification and management of, in particular, marine protected areas at the global level; the third, relating to environmental impact assessments and the lack of a detailed regime specifying how the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea provision on the conduct of environmental impact assessments is actually to be implemented and, finally; fourthly, around marine genetic resources, there is no global framework for the regulation of marine genetic resources including issues of access and benefit sharing and environmental protection; so, we've identified, as a Government and through work at the global level already, four key areas there for consideration in future global arrangements.

The Government, the new Government, is currently considering its policy position on whether the development of an international instrument, a new international instrument, is the most appropriate means to address the conservation and sustainable use of marine biodiversity and marine genetic resources in areas beyond national jurisdiction.

This is a matter that is common to similar considerations across government at present and I should emphasise that nothing should particularly be read into this consideration of a new international instrument being a matter of consideration of the new Government. We are working methodically and systematically through all similar matters across different portfolios to determine and ensure that ongoing Australian involvement in such processes is consistent with the policy objectives of the new Government but certainly, as a Government, we believe that the process mapped out to further debate this issue internationally is a useful one and that dialogue and negotiation supported by good science is the best route to effectively address gaps in global oceans governance with respect to biodiversity beyond national jurisdiction. And although a decision is still pending in terms of Australia's exact role in future discussions, we know that it is in Australia's national interest to promote effective management of oceans beyond national jurisdiction; that, with maritime jurisdiction such as we have bordered by high seas in parts of the Pacific, Indian and Southern Oceans, that we want to ensure that ecosystems, biodiversity and marine resources extend beyond not just our boundaries and that there is complementary management in those oceans bordering Australia's jurisdiction, and that our trans-boundary marine industries operate in a regional and global context and that they not only will face, may face in the future and operate in the future hopefully along the types of high standards that Australia imposes in its territorial waters, but also that they will benefit hopefully from a clearer and level playing field regulatory environment in those open waters.

We know that Australia has an interest in ensuring that an international instrument on biodiversity beyond national jurisdiction does not adversely affect Australia's position on matters of international law and ensuring that, of course, is important to us. Australia does need, though, to fully consider the relationship between the international instrument and existing legal arrangements, existing instruments in place, and how we make sure that it is consistent across those and I'm sure that Donna, in some of her remarks, will probably touch on some of the technicalities around some of those issues. We want to make sure that it's consistent with existing conventions, treaties and arrangements and that we and others consider that they operate effectively and in harmony.

We must ensure that it doesn't undermine the existing work of forums where Australia enjoys significant influence, such as the International Maritime Organization and a range of regional fisheries management organisations and arrangements, which Paul spoke of, so there's much work to be done ahead in 2014 and 2015 to work towards the type of deadlines that have been set around international discussions but we are hopeful that we can be, and confident that we will be, productive participants in discussions that are had and that we can see, certainly, better options - whether it is in treaty arrangements or alternatives - put in place for the management of our oceans.

Paul issued, in his concluding remarks, a challenge around our place at the G20. It's a challenge that I'm happy to take back to my colleagues in government. It certainly is high on the Government's agenda that we recognise the opportunity provided by the G20, that we seize that opportunity in terms of providing global leadership next year across a range of issues and this indeed is an important area that can be factored into those considerations and I certainly take the challenge on board and will be sharing that with my colleagues.

We in particular, though, look forward to receiving a summary of today's proceedings. I regret that I can't be here all day to hear from the other presenters but I have no doubt that Donna will be sharing the findings from today with Minister Hunt and me so that we can be well informed about the type of direction stakeholders such as yourselves want us to take.

I wish you every success in your deliberations today. I thank you very much for the chance to come and be with you and particularly once again thank you, Paul, for taking the time to travel to Australia and to share your very wise words with us today. Thanks very much.

Simon Birmingham