Transcript - press conference - Great Barrier Reef

By Terri Butler MP

13 January 2021

Well, it is so great to be here today in Cairns, my hometown. I always come back to Cairns as much as I possibly can, having grown up here. But today, I'm here to be here in my capacity as the Shadow Minister for the Environment and Water.
 
I’m in Cairns today, and we were here yesterday, to visit the Great Barrier Reef, a wonder of the natural world, such an important place for the entire globe, an important place of course for Australia, and for Queensland.

We went to the reef yesterday, had a snorkel and went out Association of Marine Park Tourism Operators to talk to them about how their experiencing things at the moment.
 
The reef was absolutely beautiful, as is so often is when you go out, beautiful day, get out there with the snorkels, check out the coral and the marine environment of course, and the fish, the marine life. We had a beautiful experience at the Great Barrier Reef. Of course, everyone knows that it is facing significant environmental challenges.
 
The reef is facing significant environmental challenges. First and foremost, the greatest challenge to the reef is climate change. And it's also important that people know that the reef is very much alive and a beautiful place to visit. Because it's important for both the tourism sector, which supports tens of thousands of jobs and it's important for conservation efforts that people do continue to visit the Great Barrier Reef.
 
The more that people come here, the more inspired they will be to support conservation efforts on the Great Barrier Reef. So I want to encourage Queenslanders and Australians, COVID restrictions permitting of course, to come up to Cairns, to come up to anywhere along almost the entire east coast of Queensland, the reef is a massive property, we’re talking a thousand islands three-thousand reefs, more than that in fact, to get up to Queensland and visit the reef, to Cairns COVID restrictions permitted. And of course, Queenslanders, people who live in Brisbane like I do, wherever you are in Queensland, if you can get to the reef, please do so because it's important for this tourism sector and it's important for conservation.
 
Tourism operators told me yesterday, they are really worried. They’ve obviously been hit so hard by the COVID pandemic. And of course, they're always concerned about making sure that their economy here is actually thriving.
 
They're super worried about what's going to happen at the end of March. JobKeeper is going to be shut down. It's already been cut in January, it will be closed down in March at the moment is the current arrangements from the government. They're worried about their economic support and regional economy just falling off a cliff at that point.
 
So tourism operators and the entire economy here in far north Queensland and up and down the reef, need to know, they need some certainty from the government about what they're going to do to continue to support our economy once we get to the end of March when JobKeeper is due to expire.
 
They want to know what this government is doing. The government needs to stop stuffing around and actually give people some certainty. There needs to be targeted support, there needs to be support for our economy and there particularly needs to be support for trade exposed economic issues, like tourism and of course, we all know that here in Cairns we’re particularly interested in international tourism, it’s been so important for the economy for such a long period of time. 
 
So we need strong conservation efforts from the Morrison government, they need to do better. Now they've had a major scandal with the reef, with the awarding of $444 million to a not for profit, private foundation, done behind closed doors. They need to do better when it comes to conservation. And they need to provide much greater support for real action on climate change. And really importantly, right now, they need to provide economic certainty to tourism operators.
 
Thanks everyone, I’ll take questions.
 
JOURNALIST: Given that JobKeeper is due to expire in March, how certain should they be giving certainty around (inaudible)….for Cairns?
 
BUTLER: It's not good enough for people to have to wait and wait and wait. You know, I noticed that the local member Warren Entsch, who has not done enough to stand up for the region, is saying oh we’ll let people know closer to the time. Well, businesses and communities and households, need to plan for their future. It's not good enough to say just trust us we’ll sort it out down the track, they need to know now.
 
JOURNALIST: Just back to climate change, JCU (James Cook University) studies found baby sharks are being born smaller and malnourished if the ocean continues to warm. How alarming is this and what should be done?
 
BUTLER: Look, it's really important research coming out of James Cook University, a university I attended, an excellent university and really a world leading university when it comes to marine science. I want to congratulate James Cook for the work that they're doing in relation to marine science. This is an alarming study, sharks are important to marine ecosystems they’re an apex predator. We need to know that the government is doing everything it can to support real action on climate change because of this and so many other studies. We also need to know that the government is going to do the right thing by our research universities and our universities generally which they haven’t been doing to date. 
 
Most significantly, when it comes to marine life, we have to recognise that all of our ecosystems are so interrelated. Sharks are important, marine life is important, the government needs to step up and take notice of this study and so many others.
 
JOURNALIST: We also have acting PM Michael McCormack, in Townsville today, or just outside of Townsville, talking about the satellite expansion for AIMS do you see that as an important step for their work in conservation? 
 
BUTLER: I'm glad to hear that Michael McCormack is taking an interest in marine science. But what I do want to say about Michael McCormack, is that he needs to actually take some responsibility. He's the Acting Prime Minister of this country, it's not good enough for him to just think it's okay for members of the Morrison government, to be out there mounting crackpot conspiracy theories. He needs to be saying in the interest of public health and the interest of public policy in support for our country, that members of his government should be doing the right thing and not spreading disinformation.
 
JOURNALIST: Just in terms of that announcement though, is that going to be beneficial for the work that AIMS is doing in marine conservation?
 
BUTLER: We obviously welcome any support and funding for marine science in the Great Barrier Reef, it has to be done the right way and it has to be targeted. As I've said, the government has a bit of form when it comes to scandals with reef funding. Massive amounts, massive amounts of 444 million dollars in funding, behind closed doors, in a backroom deal with a not for profit foundation that at the time had only a handful of staff, I think rightly worried people. 
 
Now of course, we want to see, funding going into marine science, going into the institute, going into GBRMPA, going into projects that will actually assist. I know that the tourism operators here in Cairns and up and down the reef, want to see greater support for conservation, as well, because of course they know, conservation assists the ecosystem and assists the economics as well (inaudible). So of course we would welcome any tourism support, but we want to see it done properly. We want to see Australian’s being able to have confidence in the money that is being spent. 
 
JOURNALIST: Just back to JobKeeper, would you envisage that it’s only FNQ (Far North Queensland) that gets extended support or other communities as well affected by the tourism downturn?
 
BUTLER: Look FNQ has been very hard hit. I know that the Cairns Post, for example, today was saying that this is the area, Cairns is the area, which has the most JobKeeker recipients in Queensland.  It’s in the top five areas in the country for JobKeeper. It’s important that we do take serious notice of the economic challenges here in Cairns, its particularly international trade exposed as an area.

But of course, we've been saying and along that the government needs to be really careful, not to withdraw support from the economy too soon. We’re in one of the worst economic situations we’ve been in for almost a century. First recession in nearly three decades but the worst in almost a century. Removing economic support too soon, is bad for the economy, and will make the downturn last longer than otherwise would. 
 
That's why we've been saying the government shouldn't be rushing to take support out of the economy, they need to do it at the right time. And at the moment, we're very concerned that they're moving too swiftly. We've also been saying they of course need to have targeted economic support, when need them to be thinking about how they can spend the money, where they can spend the money, in order to maintain support for the economy and avoid prolonging the downturn, and making it deeper than it otherwise could be.
 
So what the government needs to do in relation to Cairns and JobKeeper, and in relation to every sector of our economy that’s is struggling, every area where they’ve been hit really hard, is give them some certainty, and a well-designed targeted economic support, that will avoid prolonging or worsening downturn.
 
JOURNALIST: There seems to be some encouraging signs of improvement in the July markets within the South East but Cairns (inaudible) we rely on fly in fly out tourists, more so than pretty much any other region. Though our Chamber of Commerce president has attracted some criticism from the state government over that attitude. Do you think that’s right to try to detract that criticism for pointing out that we are so far away?
 
BUTLER: The fact is, we need Australians when they travel domestically to be coming to our tourism areas.
 
Cairns is a beautiful place, I was so lucky to grow up here, I spent my childhood going out to the Great Barrier Reef, going to Fitzroy Island, the other islands that are around here, the outer reef as well. We are so lucky to have one of the natural wonders of the world on our doorstep. So I do encourage people to get here and of course, I encourage our airlines to make sure that they're supporting tourism in the area as well.  
 
We have to also recognize that during the pandemic, areas like Cairns with a reliance on international trade, on international tourism, have been hard hit. It's just a fact. We need a situation where our Commonwealth Government, the Morrison Government, are stepping up to do what they can, to support regions that are exposed because of international border closures and Cairns is one of them.
 
It's not good enough to say just trust us we'll sort it out down the track when it comes to economic support. Tourism operators particularly, but the entire region, because let's face it, it's all connected. And this region's main industry is tourism, the entire region needs some certainty, they need to hear what the Commonwealth Government is going to do to provide that economic support.
 
And yes of course Queensland’s a massive state. It's a decentralised state. You know, if you were going to drive from here to my electorate in Brisbane, it’d take you about 20 to 24 hours, it’s a big state. In fact, one of the great things about Queensland is that it is so big, it is so diverse but having grown up here I know, it can feel like you are absolutely a long way away from anywhere else. 

That's why we need support from the Morrison Government to support to the economy and to support tourism into the future. And we also need Australians to know that the reef itself it’s facing environmental challenges, we must engage in conservation efforts and those conservation efforts will be assisted by people coming to visit, by being inspired to support calls for greater conservation and a range of things that (inaudible) need support in Cairns and the local area.