Address to IUCN World Parks Congress

  • Speech, E&OE

President, excellencies, ladies and gentlemen. I am delighted to welcome you to Sydney, Australia.

It's not often, in these days of accessible travel and instantaneous communication, that things happen only once a decade – so that makes this event all the more valuable and memorable.

And it seems fitting that we've gathered here at Olympic Park. For this place is a prime example of the commitment to the environment of modern Australian state and federal governments. For the best part of a century, this part of Homebush Bay had been a centre for industry and military activities – home to a brickworks, an abattoir, an armaments factory and eight rubbish dumps. In the late 1990s it was rehabilitated and transformed into a spectacular venue for the year 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney. In the years since, it's become a hub for sports and cultural events, and a destination for families who enjoy the parklands and outdoor activities. The natural landscape is now an intrinsic part of Olympic Park. Its waterways are revived and full of bird and other animal life. It's a good story of cooperation and commitment that we are seeing replicated elsewhere in Australia and across the globe.

Australia has more than our fair share of spectacular and treasured environments. We're home to more than 10,000 parks and other protected areas, covering 137 million hectares – now that's bigger than the whole of South Africa, or Peru. We have 19 precious world heritage sites. The 11th highest number of any nation in the world – which is remarkable for a nation without millennia-old built history. It shows how precious and diverse our natural environment is. Places like the Blue Mountains – not too far from here – Fraser Island, Kakadu National Park, Macquarie Island, Uluru and our magnificent coral reefs – Ningaloo off the west coast and the Great Barrier Reef off the east coast.

As Australians, we know we are blessed to have these natural wonders at our doorstep. And we have shown time and time again that we are responsible guardians of World Heritage sites and of the other natural wonders across our enormous and incredibly diverse island continent. We are balancing the many competing demands on our land and waterways – economic development, agriculture, tourism and environmental preservation.

Some of the best examples of this can, and do, occur around our World Heritage Sites. Take for example the Ningaloo Coast, a stretch of remote coast along the Indian Ocean on Australia's West Coast. It's an area I know well, for I hail from West Australia. It is a remarkable place, and a relatively new addition to the World Heritage list. Ningaloo is one of the world's largest fringing reefs and is unique not only because it's the world's only fringing reef on the west coast of a continent, but because of the large group of whale sharks that visit there every year. It's home to ancient fossilised reefs, a continental shelf, and a vast array of marine life.

And yet Ningaloo is an area that's used harmoniously for multiple purposes.It has various zones – including areas for general use and recreation and areas of sanctuary allowing interaction with the reef while at the same time protecting its unique qualities. Australia has shown, at Ningaloo and elsewhere, that we can balance the competing needs of our unique environments and our economy.

In Western Australia alone, World Heritage sites generate nearly $150 million in revenue each year and account for over 500 jobs. Because in a nation like Australia, with so much natural heritage – protected areas covering 17 per cent of our land and 36 per cent of our marine jurisdiction – it is inevitable that human activity will interact with that environment.

The Great Barrier Reef is perhaps our greatest example of this harmonious co-existence. Indeed, a case study, more than one million people – from our population of only 23 million – live in its catchment area. We are finding sustainable ways to balance the extraordinary importance of the reef with the economic and social well-being of the people living in its midst.

But few people realise what an enormous task that is. We're talking about a reef that's about the size of Italy. Bigger than the United Kingdom, Switzerland and the Netherlands combined. A maze of 3000 coral reefs, more than a thousand islands, stretching nearly 2500 kilometres along Australia's north-east coast. If you haven't visited the Great Barrier Reef, please do so – put it on your bucket list at the very least!

Australia has always shown our commitment and capacity to preserve the reef – and we have worked together with UNESCO to ensure it remains as healthy and protected as humanly possible. The Great Barrier Reef is undoubtedly one of the best-managed marine ecosystems in the world. We treasure this environmental icon. It attracts some of the best marine researchers from around the world to our centres of excellence in coral reef protection – places like the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority and James Cook University in Queensland. Tourism alone around the reef supports nearly 70,000 Australian jobs and contributes more than $5.6 billion a year to our economy.

As an island nation, Australia relies heavily on shipping and ports to trade with the world. Indeed, goods shipped from the reef's four ports are valued at $40 billion dollars a year. We are working hard to balance those economic needs with the needs of the reef. For example, ships are confined to a few well-defined routes through the reef and movement through the reef region is monitored 24/7. All ships transiting the reef must use an experienced local pilot. Mining, drilling and gas exploration are banned by law from Great Barrier Reef region. We've acted to prevent the dumping of capital dredge waste in the marine park and as my colleague Minister Greg Hunt said last night - it will be banned by law.

The national Australian and Queensland State Governments are developing a long term sustainability plan – looking ahead to 2050 – to ensure the reef is protected in an evidence-based, consistent and sensitive way for decades to come. Consideration of the Reef by the World Heritage Committee has the potential to be a success story for the World Heritage Convention. Australia has worked closely with the World Heritage Committee - addressing each of the concerns the Committee has raised.

Already, one third of the reef is in highly-protected – which means no development of any kind is allowed. Australia is proud of our protection of the world's largest coral reef – but we are by no means complacent.

Unfortunately, the fact remains that we are not in control of the single biggest cause of reef degradation: storms and cyclones are, for better or worse a fact of life in Australia's tropical north. These natural weather events account for nearly half of all coral loss.

Equally, Australia cannot alone address the ocean warming that causes coral bleaching. Realistic global action to meet this challenge – with every country playing its fair part, particularly the major emitters – will help all countries better preserve the vital natural and cultural heritage.

But wherever Australia can act to better protect the reef – we are doing so. That's why the Australian and Queensland Governments are investing $180 million a year, around $2 billion over the next decade, in the reef's health. Declining water quality, especially elevated nutrient levels, is linked to more frequent crown-of-thorns starfish outbreaks. That's been the second biggest cause of coral loss on the reef over the past three decades. We know this is a serious problem. And we know – better than anyone – what needs to be done to address it.

More than 50 research projects worth almost $30 million have been funded by the Australian Government to improve land, marine and catchment health. Graziers and sugar cane growers have been supported to develop better management practices to minimise nutrient run-off.

The good news is it is working. The latest reef water quality report card shows that we have halted and even reversed the decline in the quality of water entering the Great Barrier Reef. It's a significant achievement – we are turning back the clock – and it's an achievement we will continue to improve upon.

All of the things Australia has done to preserve the reef are a testament to the seriousness with which Australia takes our responsibilities as custodians of this precious natural asset. We are determined to ensure the Great Barrier Reef remains recognised for its Outstanding Universal Value.

There are no quick fixes – but over many years there's no doubt that we have succeeded in identifying threats and finding solutions to those problems that are within our control. There can be no doubt that the Great Barrier Reef remains amongst the best protected of the World Heritage Areas.

With the commitment of the Australian Government and conservation and environmental leaders including many here today, I am optimistic about our capacity to continue to preserve this unique ecosystem for future generations.

With 17 per cent of our land mass a protected environment and an additional 36 per cent of our marine jurisdiction, we understand the challenge. It's a big job to be caretaker for a nation the size of our land mass, 7.7 million square kilometres, sixth largest country in the world, five per cent of the world's land mass and 0.3 per cent of the world's population and with such a diversity of climates – from Antarctic territories to tropical rainforests; arid deserts to snowy mountains.

The Australian Government is confident we are more that up for the challenge. We are a nation with the scientific knowledge and the expertise to do so. And I look forward to the contribution this Congress can make to helping all countries meet these goals.

Please enjoy your time here in beautiful Sydney, Australia.

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