Senator Alan Eggleston



Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Declared Commercial Fishing Activities) Bill 2012

I am very concerned about the sovereign risk implications for Australia of the conditions put on this matter of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Declared Commercial Fishing Activities) Bill 2012 by the government. This vessel is registered in the Netherlands and I understand that the Dutch government has demanded an explanation from the Australian government of the basis for Australia's action in putting these unreasonable terms and conditions on the operation of the vessel. It had been understand no more than two weeks ago that there were no problems at all and that this vessel could proceed in carrying out its fishing.

So there has been a radical change in the government's position. This ALP government has a pattern of undermining Australia's sovereign risk. Just look at the record of events over the last couple of years. Firstly, there was the ban on live cattle exports, done without notice to the industry or to the Indonesian government. It was a huge blow to Australia's reputation for reliable business dealings, affecting our sovereign risk and our status as a safe country in which to invest. Similarly, the minerals resource rent tax has adversely affected Australia's business reputation around the world and has increased the perception in the business community of Australia's sovereign risk—in other words, there is a view that Australia is not really a safe place in which to invest anymore.

The Senate is considering this case in which a company which owns a fishing boat had been negotiating with the Australian government for some years to get approval for their project. Approval was given for them to proceed and on that basis an investment was made to build the boat and equip it to operate in Australian waters. On the eve of starting their proposed plan of fishing—and the eve of their investment beginning to pay and earn an income—the minister decided that the venture would not be approved and the ship was told that it had to comply with a different set of conditions. The rules were changed and a series of conditions were put in place which undermined the business case for this venture.

Not unexpectedly, the Dutch government under whose flag this ship is registered was angry. They believe that the company had been treated in a high-handed way and have demanded answers and explanations from the Australian government on behalf of the ship's owners. Is that a surprise? Not to me. Does it remind us of the angry reaction when the government suddenly cancelled the live cattle trade to Indonesia? Yes, it certainly does. It is a similar scenario. In fact, this episode is almost an exact repeat of the high-handed manner in which the Indonesians were treated when the live cattle trade was banned without any notice whatsoever. The Australian live cattle trade was vitally important to their food chain as a source of protein and the Australian government, under Minister Ludwig, cut it off overnight. The same sort of action has been taken in terms of the operation of this fishing boat.

This bill and the government's decisions follow the same pattern as the disastrous chaos that the government created when it banned live cattle exports to Indonesia, which resulted in an industry being brought to its knees. Many pastoralists across the north of Western Australia, in the Pilbara and the Kimberley, and the Northern Territory suffered enormous financial hardship as a consequence of the actions of the minister at that time, Minister Ludwig—who consulted with nobody, did not ring the Indonesian ambassador and did not ring the Indonesian government in Jakarta; he simply cut off the trade as though the Indonesians did not matter and there was no need to consult with them.

In a repeat of the live cattle export debacle, during the briefing on Monday, 10 September, it became apparent that Tony Burke had not consulted with anyone with specialist knowledge of the fishery over his concerns regarding the operation of this vessel. There was no consultation with the Fisheries Research and Development Corporation or the Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies, not even with specialist individual scientists; he just had discussions with his department. It seems that someone in the department thought it would be a clever idea to impose a lot of additional terms and conditions that the boat had to meet before it could go ahead with its planned fishing operation, which had been discussed for several years. Most importantly, the Dutch embassy was apparently not consulted. They were left in the dark and there were no calls to The Hague in the Netherlands to tell them what the Australian government was doing to this well-equipped boat which had been given conditional approval to operate off our coast. This is exactly what happened when the government shut down the live export trade without advice. As was the case then, the government's action was a knee-jerk reaction that had undesirable consequences.

This decision, like the decision to terminate the live cattle export, has undermined Australia's reputation as a reliable country with which to do business. The previously good reputation of Australia as a responsible, reasonable country with which to do business is very important for us to preserve. Unfortunately, this government through a series of decisions have seriously undermined Australia's sovereign risk. And you can add to that the unbelievable decision regarding the minerals resource rent tax. Because of this tax many countries are now looking for cheaper, more reliable countries in which to operate. 

Everyone understands that the existing MRRT applied to iron ore is not going to raise the revenue which the government is seeking from this tax. This must mean, if one thinks it through, that the tax will be extended to other minerals, such as gold and nickel. The mining industry have already come to that conclusion and they are voting with their feet. A couple of weeks ago, a conference on mining investment in Africa called Africa Down Under was held in Perth. I am told that most of the new mining companies in West Africa have their offices in West Perth. That says much about the investment climate in Australia which exists post the introduction of the MRRT, and it is very much a judgement made on the level of sovereign risk which now exists in Australia. The mining companies would prefer to go elsewhere.

Should we surprised by that? Well, of course, the answer is no, because investors in mining now see Australia as a country of high sovereign risk because the present Australian government has changed the conditions which were the basis of safe investment in this country. The present ALP government does not understand the international nature of the mining industry, which means that investment can be shifted from country to country and done so very easily. Australia is suffering accordingly because there is a now a pattern of capricious variation of conditions which mean Australia is now regarded as having high sovereign risk. Why has this occurred? In all three cases—of this fishing boat, the live cattle trade with Indonesia and the MRRT—one can see the influence of the Greens. The government is, after all, a Greens-ALP alliance, and it is quite clear that the green tail is wagging the dog of the ALP government.
This legislation is just another tool for the Greens and environmental groups to campaign to restrict our fishing industry. Tony Burke's concerns were based on the capacity of the vessel to fish in one place for a considerable time. The solution to that problem could have been to amend the Fisheries Act to allow for a move-on provision or spatial arrangement management, which would have prevented localised impacts on fish stocks. The coalition would have supported those moves, but they did not occur. Tony Burke is saying, in effect, 'If you don't know—

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Edwards): Order! I ask you to please refer to the correct title of the minister please.

Senator EGGLESTON: Minister Burke, if that is the correct title, is saying, 'If you don't know everything; do nothing.' Minister Burke was not trying, in my opinion, to find a way to make this venture work. He had been looking, I think, for some time—desperately looking, in fact—for some way to lock up more water to prevent fishing to please the Greens. In so doing, Minister Burke has trashed the reputation of the AFMA Commission, and it should be remembered that he appointed every member of that commission. He has also trashed the reputation of our world-leading scientific community and institutions who have done the science on fishing and who did feel that this boat could have been approved for the purposes for which approval was sought.

This government has demonstrated that, if you do everything asked of you by the Greens and then some extra, it will not be enough. They will cause you a great deal of pain and ensure that your business and employees have difficulty in carrying on their activities. How, one must ask, can a business operate in an environment such as that which now seems to prevail in Australia, where this government is very much acting at the behest of their partners in government, the Greens party. The government now operates on the basis that if a minister is uncertain then nothing should happen. Worse still, this minister did not take steps to find the answers to the things he was uncertain about. He just took the Greens' advice and shut the business down. So yet again, driven by the Greens, this government has taken a rushed decision which has undermined the sovereign risk status of Australia and put Australia's reputation as a destination for safe investment under a cloud of doubt.

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