Protecting our local environment

Federation Chamber on 23/03/2017

Appropriation Bill (No. 3) 2016-2017, Appropriation Bill (No. 4) 2016-2017 - Second Reading

I rise to speak on Appropriation Bill (No. 4) 2016-2017, and today I want to focus my comments on our environmental commitments, our achievements and future considerations. I find it remarkable, even today, that I was the only candidate in Brisbane in last year's election who made local environmental commitments. There was a Labor candidate; there was a Greens candidate. But I was the only candidate, it seemed, who had thought deeply about the local environment, who had considered local environmental priorities and who had successfully lobbied my party and my minister, seeking resources to make local environmental commitments.

It was my strong belief then and it remains the case now that, while some inner-city Brisbane residents may not immediately be conscious of our significant local environmental concerns, in fact, right there under our noses, is the Brisbane River connecting the Brisbane River catchment, which contains most of the green space in South-East Queensland, with the vitally important Moreton Bay. The Brisbane River, its catchment and Moreton Bay are without doubt our biggest and most significant local environmental assets. The river is also culturally important to our people. It is significant to our traditional owners of the land, and every day, subconsciously or consciously, it forms a backdrop to the lives of local residents going about their business. The Brisbane River and Moreton Bay, incidentally, are also economically important. Some estimates of the economic activity around the Moreton Bay and catchment rival the total economic activity and value of the Great Barrier Reef. But back to its environmental significance.

The Brisbane River catchment obviously contains most of South-East Queensland's fresh water. It links many of our important parks and forests, and it also contains most of our iconic and endemic species. Moreton Bay itself includes a Ramsar site of international significance for dozens of bird species, including some of those famous migratory species that Attenborough documentaries showcase travelling such tremendous distances all around the globe. It supports iconic and threatened species, including three species of large turtles, and it is also one of the top 10 habitats in Queensland for the dugong. I conclude that all of these factors mean that the Brisbane River and its catchment are a logical place for policymakers to start when we consider the priorities for our local environment and when we consider the opportunities and the strategies for protecting and growing the resilience of the local environment right across South-East Queensland.

Following my advocacy, informed as it was then by my work with Seqwater and my tree planting and catchment activities over many years, this government has committed over three-quarters of a million dollars to projects that will protect and improve the environmental condition of the Brisbane River and its catchment. The projects include $80,000 for water-smart street trees, rain gardens and other water-sensitive urban design to reduce stormwater and road run-off into the catchment; $70,000 to tackle sediment run-offs, specifically at Tenerife Park; $360,000—over a third of a million dollars—towards riparian planting and erosion control projects for tributaries into the Brisbane River, including around the Enoggera Creek; and $50,000 to support the waterways clean up program to directly remove litter from the river. The commitments also include a Green Army project, which will enhance the local Brisbane River riparian areas to improve water quality and species retention, to protect and improve habitat, working in conjunction with the other elements of the local plan, and looking at rejuvenating the local environment through the removal and the control of invasive species and replanting with native species. These projects, in conjunction with projects being delivered by others, such as the Brisbane City Council, have been prioritised and chosen in consultation with groups like SEQ Catchments and other catchment groups, and they should help to improve the environmental condition of the Brisbane River, in line with the priorities and the challenges and opportunities outlined in Healthy Waterways' annual report on the condition of our catchment areas all along South-East Queensland.

While I represent the mostly inner-urban seat of Brisbane, the Brisbane River catchment is obviously a much broader environmental asset, and I want to encourage my colleagues right across South-East Queensland and right across all three levels of government to work together to consider regional priorities. Yesterday the South-East Queensland Council of Mayors was here in Canberra, and I spoke to some of their representatives about these issues. We discussed, actually, the South-East Queensland Resilient Rivers Initiative, a document that I am very familiar with because it has formed a part of my discussions as I have been seeking out and meeting with all of the different stakeholders and leaders in the environmental space across South-East Queensland. The Resilient Rivers Initiative is a good document. It is an important vision. The costs of implementing this vision are not insignificant, but the potential benefits are also substantial, and the vision, I believe, is a commendable one, considering the conclusions that I have just outlined about the central role of the Brisbane River and its catchment and how they play out in terms of habitat conservation, biodiversity and environmental management across South-East Queensland.

I understand that some of the biggest opportunities for environmental work in some of the locations where the condition of the Brisbane River catchment is most challenged mean that the responsibility could fall disproportionately and unrealistically on some of the areas least equipped and least able to afford to contribute to such a vision. I accept that, in some cases, the residents of Brisbane will be better equipped and better placed, and possibly also very willing, to contribute and to lead in terms of the holistic approach that may be required.

The South-East Queensland area is characterised by a fairly contiguous and mostly coastal urban footprint, stretching right from the New South Wales border up to the Sunshine Coast. Some say that that urban sprawl is reaching its natural limits, and others say that further steps need to be taken to limit that urban sprawl. While inner-city development certainly causes challenges for those of us who represent inner-city areas, in terms of managing the strain on the local services and amenities, it is also the case that inner-city residential development has lower environmental impact, if the alternative is bulldozing bushland and commuting from the fringes.

Either way, though, it strikes me as a sound observation that South-East Queensland already has the makings of a natural green belt around it, if you consider the Border Ranges and Lamington national parks down south around the Gold Coast, heading up through the main ranges and state forests at the end of the Scenic Rim and around the Darling Downs, to Brisbane Forest Park, Wivenhoe, Somerset and the D'Aguilar National Park and forests, up to Jimna, Imbil and all the state forests around the Sunshine Coast, leading up to the Great Sandy National Park and Fraser Island. The rough semicircle created by these parks and forests, incidentally, holds a significant proportion of Australia's native species. I wanted to be a zookeeper when I was a kid, and here I am now in this house of animals! And when I was a kid, at every Christmas and every birthday, and on every trip to the library, I wanted to get my hands on books describing our native species, showing their photos, their habitat and their distribution. When you look at those texts, it does not matter whether you look at bird species, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, fish—you name it—a disproportionate number of Australia's native species seem to fall within the semi-circle created by the parks and forests surrounding South-East Queensland. We are talking thousands of species, actually, of native fauna and flora, some of which are found nowhere else in the world. My best research indicates that there are about 4,000 plant species and about 800 freshwater and terrestrial vertebrates native to the region and distributed across our mountain ranges, hills, valleys, rivers, lakes, floodplains and islands.

When we consider how we balance population growth and productive development, along with the need to conserve and protect native species and habitats, it is a good start, I feel, that we have the makings of this green belt around South-East Queensland. Yet I am also coming to the conclusion, following my discussions with stakeholders in this space, that there is no comprehensively planned approach to the management of these areas or specifically looking at how we could take advantage of the opportunities that they present.

There are some very good initiatives and programs at all three levels of government as well as projects led by corporations and not-for-profit organisations, but I am seeing evidence that these projects could be better coordinated. Specifically, by way of example, some of the initiatives aimed at tree-planting, reforestation, carbon sinks and habitat corridors do not seem to be led or guide by any South-East Queensland wide strategy that could help to direct their proponents to the best locations to carry out those endeavours. Not all habitat corridors, for instance, are equal. Some initiatives are being taken in areas where there is possibly marginal benefit compared to other potential projects which would be of much greater significance to the local environment.

When you think about what the underpinnings of a good strategy might look like and where it would start, I think we will find ourselves looking very closely at river catchments, given how they spread right across the region and link so many of our existing green spaces, parks and forests, and can act as natural corridors for wildlife. The Resilient Rivers Initiative is probably the closest thing that we have to that strategy, along with the priorities and the projects that are being prioritised and worked on by groups like Healthy Waterways. I have already spoken to a number of stakeholders about these issues, about the local priorities and the opportunities for us to take a more coordinated regional approach to the environment in South-East Queensland, and I certainly invite other interested parties to contact me with their thoughts and their ideas.

I just want to make two points here in passing. Firstly, I am not proposing that it should be a priority of any government to fight over access or rights to productive land. I want our farmers, our industrialists and our developers to be more gainfully productive, not less. I observe that the places around the world that are doing the best environmental work today are the societies most able to afford meaningful environmental investments. Our environmental work here in Australia, and all the funding that underpins it, is probably most threatened whenever our economy is threatened.

Everything that I have seen so far in terms of practical and local environmental achievement, makes me a big believer in mixed land use solutions. As a policymaker in a past life, my experience is that blanket bans are generally a terrible and clunky first response to most policy problems. I am realistic about the history that we inherit. South-East Queensland is not one of those Northern Hemisphere sort of alpine glacial waterways where the terrain prevented human activity. We are working with what we have. It is already a mixed-use catchment. That is an unavoidable fact. So I consider that some of the most productive and gainful steps that we can take will not necessarily involve locking up land presently being used for various purposes. Rather, the quickest and the most critical environmental wins in front of us in South-East Queensland are likely to come from working cooperatively with landowners, farmers and businesses.

By way of a quick example from a former life of mine, half a million dollars might have bought Seqwater a block of land near Wyaralong Dam, for instance, so that they could lock it into a catchment and it might provide some marginal future gains in terms of water quality and environmental habitat, and that would come at the cost of a farmer's livelihood. But that same half a million dollars could be used to work with up to 10 farmers, say, to encourage them to plant quite widely for kilometres and kilometres along a creek or a river that flows into the Brisbane River and ultimately into Moreton Bay—so the same half a million dollars but very different impacts for the environment and for the productive capacity of our region and very different forward management costs to continue to manage those outcomes.

That brings me to my second point. My experience already as a new MP is that there are, unfortunately, some groups and bodies in the environmental space that I feel do their members and their supporters a disservice by their approach to government and to politics. I want to remind everybody that it was a Liberal government that declared the Great Barrier Reef a marine park. It was a Liberal government that banned whaling in Australian waters. It was a Liberal government that placed the Great Barrier Reef on the World Heritage List—and Kakadu, Willandra Lakes, Lord Howe Island and South-West Tasmania. And, when the Great Barrier Reef was, sadly, recently listed on the World Heritage Committee watch list, because of how the former Labor government planned five massive dredge disposal projects, it was this Liberal government that took the action to stop those dredge projects and followed that step up by now being the government that is making the biggest investments—more than any government ever before—in measures to protect the Great Barrier Reef. I encourage stakeholders to engage with me and with the party that has this strong record of environmental achievement. Achievements matter more than words and promises, and I consider conservation actually to be an inherently conservative thing. We are probably the party who are best placed to work constructively with farmers, industrialists and business interests to make many projects a reality through collaboration.

In closing, I want to refer to one more significant Liberal environmental achievement that ties everything together. When the Howard government made what was then the biggest investment ever in Australia's environment by setting up the Natural Heritage Trust, they established the NRMs, the natural resource management bodies, and these have become the managers of our nation's river catchments—managers including SEQ Catchments, which has just merged with Healthy Waterways in Brisbane. When we consider the future challenges and opportunities for environmental conservation—for instance, when I talk about the significance of the Brisbane River—we are predominantly working with and following, today, the great work that was done by the NRMs set up by a Liberal government. I encourage feedback on the projects I have discussed today and I encourage interested parties to contact me with their thoughts and contributions.