Mar 28, 2017

Hansard – Protection of the Sea (Prevention of Pollution from Ships) Amendment (Polar Code) Bill 2017 – 2nd Reading Speech

1990 song of the same name. In this song, my former ministerial colleague Peter Garrett sings, ‘There must be one place left in the world where the water’s real and clean.’ Antarctica is indeed the last great wilderness, and we need to keep that way. While mankind has a footprint in the ice continent and while climate change looms as a serious threat, decades of international cooperation have protected the ice continent from much of the environmental degradation that we see in other parts of the world. While that is partly to do with isolation and extreme weather conditions, it is nonetheless a wonderful thing.

The legislation before us today is the latest step in that process of international cooperation to protect not just Antarctica but also the northern Arctic region. It amends the existing Protection of the Sea (Prevention of Pollution from Ships) Act 1983 to incorporate Australia’s obligations under the new international code for ships operating in polar waters, which is also known as the Polar Code. The Polar Code was developed by the International Maritime Organization, which is the United Nations agency responsible for improving maritime safety and preventing pollution. It came into operation on 1 January this year. The code is not perfect—indeed, moves are already afoot to strengthen it further—but the opposition will support this bill because it is an important step forward. Protection of the environment is a responsibility that we all share. The Polar Code sets out minimum mandatory requirements for the design, construction, operation and manning of vessels that operate in Arctic and Antarctic waters. Its creation amended the safety related provisions in the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea and the environmental protections in the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships.

Under the changes in this bill, all large vessels operating in polar waters will need to hold a Polar Ship Certificate. To be certified, a vessel will need to undergo a survey to check it meets the requirements of the code. Certification will be conducted by the Australian Maritime Safety Authority and will cover a vessel’s structure, fittings, machinery, electronics, communications and navigation equipment as well as its fire safety and lifesaving capacity. The code also toughens rules on the discharge in polar waters of oil, noxious liquid substances, sewage and garbage. In particular, it provides for fines of up to $360,000 for the discharge of sewage within three nautical miles of an ice shelf or fast ice. In addition to the bill before us, the government also proposes to amend the marine orders of the Australian Maritime Safety Authority to ensure the code is properly implemented.

In practical terms, these changes will affect very few Australian vessels. The Aurora Australis, which is the government’s Antarctic research and resupply ship, will definitely need to comply, as will the vessel that replaces it in 2020. However, it is expected that growing international trade will increase the number of vessels passing through polar areas. For example, it is expected that by 2020 about 15 per cent of China’s trade, worth about $500 billion, will pass through the Arctic. As trade increases around the globe, it is critical that the international community stays ahead of the regulatory game. Just one major accident could have dire consequences for the pristine environment.

As a former transport minister, I have seen firsthand the kind of damage that can be caused by maritime accidents, particularly those involving the release of oil. In 2010, I inspected the site of an accident on the Great Barrier Reef involving the Shen Neng 1, which hit the reef off Rockhampton and cut a swathe through the coral, causing damage and leaving authorities with a significant bill to clean up the resulting oil spill. But that was, of course, in Australian waters. One of the great risks of accidents in polar areas is isolation. Because of that isolation, clean-up operations are much more difficult as well as much more costly. In the event of an accident in these areas, it can take a long time to get clean-up crews in place. That is why we need tougher standards for polar areas. We need to do everything possible to reduce the likelihood of accidents.

While there is broad support for the new code internationally, there is also an acceptance that more needs to be done to protect our polar regions. Indeed, a select committee of the British parliament has called for another wave of reform to toughen even the measures we are putting in place today. The committee’s 2015 report points out that black carbon, heavy fuel oils and discharged ballast water all pose threats to the Arctic environment and that these issues need to be addressed as the code evolves. Likewise, John Kaltenstein, marine policy analyst with Friends of the Earth, warns:

The Polar Code doesn’t do nearly enough to tackle substantial risks posed by shipping: use of noxious heavy fuel oil in the Arctic, vessels operating with inadequate ice-strengthening and structural stability, and disturbances of wildlife, to name a few.

Some of the issues that the next wave of reform should examine include further toughening of the minimum structural requirement for ships and the fact that the code applies only to ships with a gross tonnage of more than 500 tonnes, meaning it excludes fishing boats. As well, while the code covers management of ballast water and antifouling paint, complying with these provisions is voluntary. It also allows for food to be thrown overboard as little as 12 nautical miles from the ice, which, for example, is not allowed to happen—not surprisingly—in the Mediterranean Sea.

These are the types of issues that are already on our forward agenda, and I say to the current government that, whilst it is in government—for the next short while—we on this side of the House are prepared to cooperate on any of these matters. The New Zealand government has produced a proposal for phase 2 of the code. This is a great place to start the next wave of reform, and I congratulate the New Zealand government, now led by Bill English, on its initiative and on showing leadership in this area—as New Zealand has on many maritime issues.

Australia has an excellent record when it comes to protecting the Antarctic. It is something that we should be proud of. We were one of the founding signatories to the Antarctic Treaty in 1959, which placed restrictions on activities in the southern continent other than scientific research. More recently, the Hawke Labor government played a leading role in the development of the 1991 Madrid protocol, which imposed a 50-year ban on mining, prospecting and exploration in Antarctica. That initiative showed extraordinary vision by the Hawke Labor government at a time when this was not front and centre of the national political debate. It is a great example of the responsibility that we, as policymakers, have to look to not just immediate concerns but our responsibility to look after the aspirations of future generations and to ensure that the planet that future generations inherit is in better condition than the one that we inherited. It is possible for that to happen, but it will not happen just by accident. It requires vision and it requires political determination and, when it came to Antarctica, the Hawke Labor government certainly showed that. So we come to this issue with strong credentials and a demonstrated willingness to take a reformist role. That is as it should be. This parliament has a responsibility to future generations to continue to play a central role in the protection of Antarctica, and I commend this bill to the House.