What Ocean Protection Policies Have Parties Committed To?
Australia is home to more marine species than any other nation on Earth. We are caretakers of the world’s most important marine places; including Ningaloo and Shark Bay, the Kimberley, the Great Australian Bight and our beloved Great Barrier Reef. The Reef is the planet’s largest living structure, a World Heritage treasure, and supports a $6 billion tourism industry.
Our oceans face more threats than ever before, including from global warming, pollution and industrial development. This Federal Election is a critical opportunity for political leaders to commit to act decisively and ensure that marine protection is a priority in the next term of government.
How Have We Assessed Each Party’s Policies?
AMCS has written to the main parties to let them know what’s needed to protect our oceans and marine wildlife in the next term of government, and to seek their commitments. We have independently assessed each party’s position based on their responses, published policies, statements and election announcements.
Our assessment of the parties’ commitments as of 16th May 2022 is provided below. AMCS has assessed the policies of the Liberal-Nationals Coalition (Coalition), the Australian Labor Party (ALP) and the Australian Greens. More information about the 2022 Federal Election, including lists of all candidates by electorate can be found here.
- Protect our reef and oceans from global warming by delivering a ‘Reef-safe’ climate policy
- Clean up water pollution on the Great Barrier Reef
- Protect endangered wildlife from the impacts of fishing and improve fisheries sustainability
- Be a leader in establishing marine protected areas at home and internationally
- Tackle plastic pollution in our oceans
- Protect Exmouth Gulf, Ningaloo, from industrial development
- Reform the laws that protect Australia’s nature
- Protect our oceans from offshore oil and gas developments.
1. Protect our reef and oceans from global warming by delivering a ‘Reef-safe’ climate policy
Global warming is the biggest threat to the Great Barrier Reef, which is enduring its sixth mass bleaching event. Scientists have determined that limiting warming to 1.5°C is a critical threshold for the future of all reefs. The World Heritage Committee has called on Australia to accelerate action to address threats or risk the World Heritage icon being listed ‘In Danger’.
The next Australian Government must drastically and urgently reduce emissions by enabling a fast and fair transition to clean energy, ending public funding of coal, oil and gas, in order to do our fair share of holding global warming to 1.5oC and protect our Reef and oceans.
The Coalition has not committed to the climate action needed to protect the Reef. The Coalition has committed to net zero by 2050, but has not strengthened the interim target of 26-28% by 2030. This puts Australia on a warming trajectory of at least 3°C, a temperature rise that would see the loss of most of the world’s coral reefs. The Coalition does not have a target for renewable energy rollout and continues to directly support new fossil fuel projects with taxpayer money, such as a $175M loan for a new coal mine.
The Coalition government lobbied against listing the World Heritage Listed Great Barrier Reef on the ‘In Danger’ list, but has not increased Australia’s climate action to protect the Reef.
The ALP’s emissions reduction target is 43% by 2030, and net zero by 2050, which are consistent with a warming trajectory of 2°C, a figure incompatible with the survival of the Great Barrier Reef as we know it.
The ALP has committed to a plan to boost the transition to clean energy and transport, including committing to a 82% renewable energy target by 2030.
The ALP remains committed to supporting new fossil fuel developments.
The Greens have committed to a target of 75% emissions reduction by 2030, net zero by 2035, and a renewable energy target of 100% by 2030. These targets are aligned with limiting warming to only 1.5°C, a critical threshold for corals and a figure compatible with the best chance of survival of the Great Barrier Reef.
The ‘Teal independent’ candidates standing in certain electorates are campaigning on climate, integrity and local issues. Whilst their positions differ, they are broadly advocating for stronger, faster action to tackle global warming. Many have committed to Zali Steggall’s (the member for Warringah) Climate Change Bill, which has an emissions reduction target of 60% by 2030 and a renewable energy target of 80% by 2030. While less ambitious than the Greens, a target of 60% by 2030 is aligned with limiting warming to 1.5°C, a figure compatible with the best chance of survival of the Great Barrier Reef.
Climate action is a key issue in this election, so what does this mean for the Reef?
- The Reef needs cooler ocean temperatures, which can only be achieved by rapidly reducing fossil fuel emissions.
- Although neither of the parties policies go far enough or fast enough to secure a future for the Great Barrier Reef, the ALP’s climate plan and commitments go further than the Coalition’s.
- The Coalition government’s inaction on reducing emissions over the past decade has put the Reef at risk of increased frequency of marine heatwaves that cause bleaching events, such as the recent event where 90% of the reefs surveyed have been bleached.
- The ambitions of the Greens and the ‘Teal independents’ exceed those of the ALP and Coalition.
2. Clean up water pollution on the Great Barrier Reef
Poor water quality, driven by sediment and nutrient pollution from agricultural runoff, is a major threat to the Great Barrier Reef. The clearing of native vegetation in Reef catchments exacerbates the problem.
The next Australian Government must commit significant funds to tackle poor water quality – what has so far been committed falls short of the estimated $4 billion needed. On-ground actions to reduce water pollution have been too slow and small-scale to improve inshore water quality of our Reef, and preventing land-clearing in catchments is vital.
The Coalition has committed $579.9 million over nine years for water quality work, dovetailing with existing funding and ramping up in 2024/25. This is part of a $1 billion funding commitment through to 2030 that also covers other Reef protection measures. The funding will be directed to land managers to remediate erosion, improve land condition and reduce nutrient and pesticide runoff.
The Coalition government took the welcome step of rejecting a proposal to clear 2,000 hectares of native vegetation at Kingvale Station. However, there have been no commitments to reduce or stop land clearing in catchment areas.
The ALP announced a $1.2 billion Reef protection package through to 2030, which includes an additional $194.5 million to be spent on water quality improvement work and other projects. This funding would be used to work with farmers on fertiliser use, monitoring water quality, gully and wetland restoration and catchment and reef restoration projects.
There have been no commitments to reduce or stop land clearing in catchment areas. Commitments to stronger laws for nature (see 7 below) should aid in addressing large-scale land clearing in Reef catchments, but do not commit the Party to significant action or to prevent it from happening.
The Greens would improve Reef water quality with a $2 billion fund over 10 years, as well as setting legal caps on water pollution by catchment. The Greens’ commitment to strong nature laws and to protect and restore native forests are also relevant and would aid in addressing large scale land clearing in Reef catchments.
Reef resilience measures are essential for Reef health, so what does this mean for the Reef?
- Experts have estimated that to reduce the impacts of poor water quality on the Reef, more than $4 billion of investment is needed.
- The funding commitments from the parties to drive improvements in Reef water quality are welcome. While there are differences in the scale of investment proposed, the parties have not fully committed the required funds (noting water quality is a shared responsibility with the Queensland Government). However, the ALP has committed more funding, with more allocated over the next 3 years than the Coalition. The Green’s commitment goes furthest in addressing water quality impacts on the Reef.
3. Protect endangered wildlife from the impacts of fishing and improve fisheries sustainability
Australia’s fisheries operate in the most biodiverse waters on the planet, home to globally significant populations of turtles, dolphins, sawfish, seabirds and species of sharks and rays found nowhere else on Earth. Bycatch in commercial fishing gear, particularly gillnets and trawls, is the most immediate threat to many species.
Monitoring of high risk fisheries around the country is inconsistent and generally poor.
The next Australian Government must improve transparency in fisheries, reduce the bycatch of ocean wildlife around the country, including in the Great Barrier Reef, and protect unique sharks, skates and rays.
The Coalition government has ensured the majority of high risk fisheries operating in Australian waters will have independent monitoring to better quantify and control commercial fishing impacts by 2024.
Funding commitments include $26.7million over 7 years for better monitoring of high risk fisheries in the Great Barrier Reef, in addition to a previous announcement of $5m to reduce bycatch of threatened species in commercial fisheries.
The ALP has made a $1.2 billion funding commitment to protect the Great Barrier Reef that includes work to ensure a sustainable fishing industry. It is not clear what proportion of this package would be allocated to species protection and sustainable fishing.
Their Oceans and Marine Parks policy, announced in May 2022, commits $4 million of funding to state and territory governments to better manage state marine parks, which the ALP says will protect fisheries. The ALP opposes the operation of supertrawlers that would undermine Australia’s commercial and recreational fishing.
The ALP’s commitment to stronger laws for nature (see point 7 below), is relevant to the protection of endangered wildlife, and is welcomed, as is the creation of a Native Species Fund, which should apply to ocean wildlife.
In its Healthy Oceans Plan, the Greens have committed to banning all supertrawlers over 95m in length, to introduce a national seafood labelling scheme and to reform federal government fisheries management using an ecosystem and science-based approach.
The Greens proposed investment of $24.4 billion over a decade to address the extinction crisis would have application to the marine environment and species, and its commitments to ending the extinction crisis are relevant to the protection of ocean wildlife.
Australia’s wildlife is under threat from high-risk fishing activities, so what do these mean?
- There have been modest, direct commitments to making fisheries more environmentally sustainable, with a welcome focus on Reef fisheries. The drive to reform high-risk fisheries by the Coalition government has been welcome, and will lead to improvements in transparency and accountability in the fishing industry. Better transparency has led to reductions in the catch of endangered ocean wildlife in other fisheries.
- Funding commitments from both the Coalition and ALP in Reef fisheries, while unquantified at this point, are solid foundations for the next term of government to address species protection and fisheries compliance issues.
- The commitments from the ALP and Greens in relation to supertrawlers and those that cover the environment and species protection generally are welcome.
4. Be a leader in establishing marine protected areas at home and internationally
Marine protected areas (MPAs), or marine parks, are the backbone of ocean conservation efforts, protecting ecosystems and building resilience to climate and other impacts. Australia has built the world’s first and largest nationwide network of MPAs but not all our most important ocean values are adequately protected, so more must be done to secure the future of our marine life.
In the next term of government, Australia must make sure statutory reviews of current marine parks are transparent and timely, and champion international efforts to protect global oceans, including expanding the network of MPAs in Antarctica and agreeing to a High Seas treaty that enables the establishment of MPAs.
The Coalition government recently declared two large new MPAs – Christmas Island and Cocos (Keeling) Islands Marine Parks in a major step forward in the protection of Australia’s tropical marine ecosystems.
The Coalition is committed to the statutory reviews of management plans for marine parks and to make any adjustments required based on scientific evidence and feedback from stakeholder consultations.
The Coalition government announced a $100 million Ocean Leadership package in 2021, of which $39.9 million was allocated for grants to support management of MPAs.
The Coalition supports global commitments to protecting 30% of the oceans 2030 (‘30 by 30’). There are no clear commitments to a High Seas treaty, but the Coalition has taken a leadership role in pushing for new Antarctic MPAs at the international level.
The ALP has a strong track record on establishing MPAs, including the designation of Australia’s national network, the coverage and level of protection of which was significantly reduced by the subsequent Coalition Government.
The ALP’s Oceans and Marine Parks policy, announced in May 2022 commits to supporting the Christmas Island and Cocos (Keeling) Marine Parks, as well as $4 million to support the states and Northern Territory in management of their MPAs.
The ALP has committed to undertake timely and properly resourced reviews of the management plans for the national MPA network, with any changes considered on the basis of science and stakeholder consultation.
The ALP supports global commitments to ‘30 by 30’ for protection of both land and sea; they have also committed to playing a leadership role in negotiations for a High Seas treaty, and to the creation of new Antarctic MPAs.
The Greens Healthy Oceans Plan supports the expansion of the national MPA network to the original extent established by the ALP. It supports the designation of the Christmas Island and Cocos (Keeling) Marine Parks, as well as the creation of new Antarctic MPAs. The Greens have not made specific statements on a commitment to a High Seas treaty.
Marine protected areas are essential for ocean resilience and ecosystem protection, so what does this mean for the ocean?
- All parties are committed to undertaking the statutory reviews of management plans for the current national MPA network, and have committed to make changes on the basis of scientific evidence and stakeholder consultation, although in 2018 the Coalition undertook a major reduction in the level of protection afforded by the network declared by the previous Labor government, one of the largest ever windbacks in conservation protection. The Greens have committed to growing the current network.
- All parties have committed to Australia being an international leader on MPAs, especially in establishing new MPAs in Antarctica, the process for which has stalled due to difficult international negotiations and geopolitics.
5. Tackle plastic pollution of our oceans
Plastic pollution is devastating to our coasts and seas, inflicting a huge toll on marine wildlife. An estimated 130,000 tonnes of Australia’s plastic waste leaks into the natural environment every year, entangling, suffocating and starving our turtles, whales and seabirds. So much plastic is entering our oceans, it is estimated that by 2050 there could be more plastic in the oceans than fish.
The next Australian Government must deliver on targets set in government policies and strategies, and commit to global action on plastics.
The Coalition government has supported the development of a legally binding global treaty on the reduction of global plastics. While in government, it has committed $280 million to the Recycling Modernisation Fund, which is designed to improve recycling and waste management. The Coalition government has set a voluntary target of 70% by 2050 for plastic recovery and reduction, which it is failing to meet, with only 16% of plastic packaging recovered in 2019-20.
The ALP is supporting the development of a legally binding global treaty on the reduction of global plastics, and has affirmed its commitment to supporting the states and territories to reduce single-use plastics. The ALP supports current plastic recycling targets, however, similar to the Coalition, it has not committed to making the targets mandatory.
The Greens Circular Economy Policy includes commitments to support a legally binding global treaty on the reduction of global plastics, make packaging reduction targets mandatory under law and a national commitment to phasing out problematic single-use plastics, as well as $500 million over 5 years into infrastructure and recycling programs.
Tackling the plastic crisis is vital for ocean wildlife, so what does this mean?
- The reliance on voluntary targets to reduce plastic pollution means there are no compliance measures able to be taken if the targets are not met. As it stands, the Coalition Government is not on track to meet these voluntary targets, signalling a need for greater investment and commitment to meeting the targets by mandating the targets.
- The commitment from all parties to a global treaty on plastics is vital to drive global reductions in plastic pollution.
6. Protect Exmouth Gulf, Ningaloo, from industrial development and support a positive, sustainable vision for the area
Exmouth Gulf is a globally unique ecosystem, intricately connected with the Ningaloo Coast World Heritage Area. It is a stronghold for threatened species, including dugongs, manta rays, and sawfish, and an important area for one of the world’s largest humpback whale populations. However, it is under threat from industrialisation.
The next Australian Government must facilitate economic opportunities that are compatible with the area’s values, not support industrialisation, establish a clear process to deliver National and World Heritage listing for Exmouth Gulf, and boost funding for joint management with First Nations people.
The Coalition government announced a $100 million Oceans Leadership Package in 2021 which included $20 million of funding for action to restore and account for blue carbon ecosystems, and funding for projects to restore and protect threatened marine species and restore coastal habitats. This should provide opportunities for Exmouth Gulf, which hosts significant mangrove and seagrass habitats and a range of threatened marine species.
In its Oceans and Marine Park policy, the ALP has stated it will work with states to assess the adequacy of the protection that covers breeding and feeding grounds, including coastal zones and ecosystems like seagrass, kelp forests, mangroves, and offshore sites like reefs. This should provide opportunities for Exmouth Gulf, which hosts significant mangrove and seagrass habitats and feeding grounds for a range of threatened marine species.
The Greens’ Healthy Oceans policy commits to expanding the network of Marine Protected Areas and to $50 million to wetlands and coastal restoration. Their Care for Country policy includes $767 million to expand First Nations ranger programs and Indigenous Protected Areas.
Exmouth Gulf is under threat from industrialisation, so what does this mean?
- Stronger, more specific commitments to protect Exmouth Gulf’s globally significant environment would be welcome. However, the parties’ broad commitments to funding for blue carbon, coastal restoration and protection of threatened marine species should provide opportunities for the greater protection of Exmouth Gulf.
7. Reform the laws that protect Australia’s oceans and environment
Successive independent reviews have found that the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act) is failing to safeguard Australia’s internationally significant nature. If reforms to the Act are not urgently progressed, Australia’s natural heritage will continue to decline and the biodiversity crisis will continue unabated.
The Environment Department has been subject to successive budget cuts, to the point where there are critical delays to endangered species listing decisions and progressing recovery actions. The Department and Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA) are not adequately resourced to undertake the necessary work.
The next Australian Government needs to deliver better laws for nature, an independent Federal Environment Protection Agency (EPA) and significant funding for recovering threatened species.
The Coalition government has unsuccessfully attempted to weaken the EPBC Act by devolving powers for environmental assessment and approvals to the states and territories that have weaker laws. Although they have posed reforms, these are insufficient to tackle the extinction crisis. There is also no commitment to setting up an independent EPA.
Funding for the Environment Department has been cut significantly by the Coalition Government, weakening the ability of the Department to function.
The Coalition government has committed $10 million of funding to address recovery actions for 100 species prioritised under the Threatened Species Action Plan.
The ALP has committed to reforming the EPBC Act, including setting up an independent EPA, and to ensuring that Australia meets its obligations to international conventions, including the World Heritage Convention, which affects the World Heritage listed Great Barrier Reef. The ALP has committed $224.5m in its Saving Native Species program which aims to address the extinction crisis facing Australia’s wildlife.
The ALP has outlined rebuilding the public service, which includes the Department of Environment and the GBRMPA in its National Platform, as well as supporting a properly resourced sector and the institutional capacity to administer the Act.
The Greens have committed $24.4 billion over the next decade towards a goal of zero extinction by 2030 in their Green Australia plan. They commit to strengthening environment protection laws including the creation of an independent watchdog to enforce these laws.
The Greens have also committed to $90 million in extra funding for GBRMPA and the Australian Institute of Marine Science, as well as giving them stronger powers.
Strong laws for nature are critical to halt the extinction crisis, so what does this mean for ocean wildlife?
- All parties recognise the need for reform of environmental laws however the extent of their commitments differ.
- Although the Coalition government committed funding for threatened species recovery work, it is far from the amount needed. Its actions to further weaken the EPBC Act run counter to essential measures required to strengthen and modernise the Act.
- The ALP has made a commitment to fund threatened species recovery work that, while not enough to stop the extinction crisis, should help halt the decline and support the recovery of endangered ocean wildlife. The ALP has committed to an independent EPA, an essential component of ensuring the law is enforced and so protects Australia’s environment, and has indicated support for a better resourced public service.
- The Greens extinction goal and funding package for addressing the extinction crisis are what is urgently needed to address the issue.
8. Protect our oceans from offshore oil and gas developments
Offshore oil and gas development threatens the marine environment through exploration (including seismic testing), building of infrastructure, operations, shipping, and in the failure to adequately maintain and decommission facilities. Carbon emissions from the production, processing and burning of these fossil fuels drive ocean warming and acidification.
The next Australian Government must ensure companies are financially responsible for infrastructure decommissioning and that developments are excluded from critical ecosystems and habitats and from within marine parks.
The Coalition government remains committed to the oil and gas industry. It has not made any specific commitments on this matter but it appears that the Coalition does not intend to prevent the oil and gas industry from exploring or developing within marine parks or vital habitat and ecosystems, as evidenced by the rejection of a Senate Enquiry recommendation in 2021 to keep seismic testing out of MPAs.
In May 2021, the Government introduced a welcome levy on oil and gas companies to cover the estimated $200 million cost of removing facilities and cleaning up the Laminaria-Corallina oil fields in the Timor Sea.
The ALP remains committed to the oil and gas industry. They have not made any commitments on excluding oil and gas exploration and development from marine parks or vital habitat and ecosystems.
The Greens have committed to ban the construction of new oil and gas infrastructure in order to transition to a zero carbon economy. While the Greens have not specifically committed to company responsibility for infrastructure decommissioning, they have a policy to stop government subsidies to fossil fuels, including oil and gas companies.
Oil and gas operations, emissions and infrastructure all threaten marine ecosystems, so what does this mean?
- There has been little conversation or commitment to addressing the impact of, and increased emissions from, expanding oil and gas operations in Australia’s oceans, although the Greens policy is a significant point of difference. The International Energy Agency makes it clear that for the world to hit net zero emissions by 2050, there should be no new fossil fuel developments.
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