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The tide turns back towards Labor on marine parks

August 19, 2010

Posted on the Crikey Rooted Blog : August 19, 2010 – 12:56 pm

The past 12 years of conservation of our seas has been an interesting and unexpected journey. Despite the common assumption by the Australian body politic that the Liberals are poorer on environmental issues than Labor a close examination of marine protection during the Howard years compared with the last term of Labor shows the Howard government ahead. This election threatens to drown this legacy from the inside of Howard’s own party, and is turning the tide towards Labor as the future champions of marine.

The Howard Government delivered the world’s first Oceans Policy and major marine parks in the Great Australian Bight, Australia’s south-east marine region around Tasmania, around our sub-Antarctic islands, and greatly increased protection of the Great Barrier Reef. A number of Australia’s major fisheries were rationalized and restructured, underpinned with a multimillion-dollar package to provide the necessary graceful exits. One of the biggest legislative reform agendas in Australia’s history was delivered with the creation of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act. Fish became recognized as wildlife not just a commercial commodity and hundreds of millions of dollars were invested through the National Heritage Trust in Australia’s first national program for coast and marine protection and rehabilitation.

Rudd’s Labor inherited a commendable marine planning process but has failed to deliver anything on the water and have all but dispensed with deployment of any marine and coastal investment. They have dithered on everything but championing whale protection internationally. There has been policy and talk, but no tangible domestic delivery of marine conservation on which we can positively judge the past term of Government. Until a month ago, Howard’s legacy was the clear winner in delivering marine conservation.

We now face an election campaign characterized by new players without marine records — Tony Abbott and Julia Gillard. All we can do is assess their forward vision, and with that assessment the tide is turning.

Even though marine conservation is probably the only positive point of contrast the Liberals have on the environment, Tony Abbott seems intent on throwing the legacy overboard. In the past two weeks Abbott and the Nationals have spouted some very strong anti-marine park commentary and have accused Labor of timidity about marine parks as the election campaign has rolled along, presumably to pick up support from fishers in a few marginal seats.

Timidity is not a fair label to apply to the way that Gillard’s Labor must necessarily explain the government’s long-term Marine Bioregional Planning Program; especially where tax payer money may be used to buy-out parts of an industry that probably could have managed itself better. The simple truth is that large-scale and complex policy issues never fare well into the sound-grab nature of election commentary, regardless of which side of politics is selling it. It’s far easier for Abbott and co to scare monger.

This week Gillard’s Labor released the statement: Marine Parks Planning Process Under the Gillard Government. It is a clear read, articulating that the marine conservation legacy of the Howard years will continue under a Gillard Government. Gillard commits to finalize the process by December 2011, funding park management and displaced effort buy-outs, and also finalizing a network of whale and dolphin sanctuaries with the State Governments. The process promises to continue to be based on science, detailed planning and consultation with recreational and commercial fishing communities, coastal communities, marine and tourism businesses and environmental groups. They also, rightly, re-affirm that the process is only looking at Commonwealth waters which generally begin more than five kilometers out to sea.

The riptide from the other side is verbally articulated as the Coalition tearing up the map of proposed parks and starting all over again. At this stage there is no substance on paper to properly assess their plans.

Gillard has given us a national plan. We have certainty of what they will do. Ten years of progress will not be lost and Labor commits to going forward on marine parks and conserving the nation’s marine estate. Abbott commits to little more than increased uncertainty, perhaps repeating the consultation (aka dithering) of the last term of government, a few electorally targeted salves and for the Howard marine legacy to fade into history.

As thus, the tide turns towards Labor on marine parks.

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