Shark control legislation questions not addressed
AN UNIMPEDED free press performs a vital role in supporting our democracy by holding the people in power to account on behalf of the public.
Following last month's Right to Know campaign launch where Australia's media organisations joined forces to call for reforms to protect public interest journalism, The Morning Bulletin is once again joining with its sister mastheads - this time to highlight examples where our press freedom continues to be obstructed by people in power.
At the time of our campaign, which featured redacted newspaper front pages around the country, our local members of parliament including Capricornia MP Michelle Landry said her government was committed to freedom of the press and keeping Australians safe.
Ms Landry said they would continue to listen carefully on this issue and if there was evidence revealing a need for further improvement of those laws, the government was open to considering it.
That brings us to a recent public interest issue where The Morning Bulletin was not satisfied with the answers provided by the Federal Government about a tough issue - fixing Queensland's shark control program.
Since 1962, the Queensland shark control program has operated with only one death at beaches protected by shark drum lines.
In September, the Federal Court dismissed a Queensland Department of Fisheries appeal and upheld an Administrative Appeals Tribunal decision that any shark caught must be tagged and released alive.
On the first day of the September school holidays, the Queensland Government was forced to halt its shark control program.
It removed 173 shark drumlines at 27 beaches within the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park area, endangering swimmers' lives and imperilling the state's $27 billion tourism industry.
Capricornia was the worst area affected. Only seven drum lines remained from the original 53.
A political war of words and blame game broke out and still hasn't ended.
On the first day of the ruling, Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk wrote to Prime Minister Scott Morrison seeking his urgent attention to fix the situation by changing the legislation.
"By making urgent changes to the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Act 1975 to permit the continuation of the Shark Control Program in the marine park, your government will ensure that the tourism industry can continue to thrive," Ms Palaszczuk said.
Her calls to legislate a solution have been echoed in recent weeks by Keppel MP Brittany Lauga and Livingstone Shire mayor Bill Ludwig.
Federal Environment Minister Sussan Ley, state LNP members and Ms Landry have all maintained that the State Government should heed the Federal Government's legal advice and return the drum lines to the water and resume the control program within the parameters of the court decision.
Queensland Fisheries Minister Mark Furner has repeatedly provided an extensive list of reasons why it's not as simple as returning the lines to the water.
He says that because of logistic and safety concerns, his government was unable to comply with a change from "catch and remove'' to "catch and release''.
"Our contractors and staff are neither trained nor equipped to handle live sharks, tow them away from where they are caught then release them alive," Mr Furner said.
"The catch-and-release method .. would mean towing sharks from one popular beach to another.
"That not only puts the lives of beachgoers in danger but also our shark control program staff and contractors.
"Our legal advice is that our staff could also be liable to prosecution if they are unable to meet the new conditions."
Mr Furner cited two independent reports making it clear such a program will not be effective in the Great Barrier Reef.
While pilot SMART drum line programs had experienced success in NSW and WA, he said they would be ineffective in the marine park given the physical constraint of the reef hemming the sharks in, and evidence showed that sharks returned to the areas where they were caught.
The Queensland Government viewed a legislative solution as the only path forward.
Mr Furner has written twice to Ms Ley strongly urging her to move quickly to change federal laws to allow the restoration of the control program.
The Morning Bulletin asked Ms Landry about the government's progress towards a legislated solution.
These were the questions asked:
Could you please give me an insight about the government's plan to legislate the issue?
How high is it up the government's legislative agenda presently?
Will it be the first thing you address when parliament returns or will it be something that is pretty far off?
Are you lobbying Sussan Ley to ensure this threat to swimmers and the tourism industry is addressed with haste?
What sort of timelines are we looking at?
These were Ms Landry's answers:
"The Administrative Appeal Tribunal decision has not brought an end to the shark control program," Ms Landry said.
"A catch and remove program was never prohibited under the court orders and the Federal Government has legal advice confirming that the drumlines did not need to be removed.
"The court orders were for the drumlines to be checked more frequently, non-target shark species to be released and target species to be tagged and relocated. The court orders also mandated a trial of SMART drumlines, not that all 173 traditional drumlines be removed or replaced.
"The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority has already issued a new permit to the Queensland Government for the operation of drumlines in the Marine Park, in accordance with AAT orders.
"After losing in the Administrative Appeals Tribunal in April and prior to the Federal Court decision, the Queensland Department of Agriculture and Fisheries did nothing to prepare for this outcome and didn't bother to begin training staff to implement the orders.
"For five months, Minister Furner simply ignored the possibility of this outcome and he is continuing to ignore his responsibilities.
"My priority is to see swimmers feel safe now and that is something Queensland Labor can do if they got off their backsides now.
"Minister Sussan Ley has made it clear that she is looking at legislative frameworks but also that these are by nature medium to long-term responses.
"The Queensland Government can put the shark drumlines back in and instantly address the situation but they have decided to cause alarm and misrepresent the facts from the get go."
Repeated follow-up questions seeking greater clarity on the government's legislative efforts were referred back to the original answers which didn't fully address the questions being asked.
When The Morning Bulletin followed up with the same questions to Ms Ley, her spokesperson gave the following response.
"The State Government has responsibility for shark protection measures," the spokesperson said.
"The Federal Government has provided the Queensland Government with legal advice that it did not need to remove the drum lines, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority has issued Queensland with a new permit for the avoidance of any doubt and it continues to offer to work with the Queensland Department of Fisheries to outline how the program can resume immediately.
"Thirty-five of the drum lines removed by Queensland were not even subject to the AAT decision."
A State Government spokesman said it was yet to be made privy to the Federal Government's legal advice regarding this issue.
Over the past month and a half, two Bully journalists following up stories about the shark control program have encountered this evasion and blame shifting from the Federal Government towards questions requiring answers in the public interest.
Numerous attempts to arrange a phone interview with Ms Ley have been unsuccessful.
At this stage, The Morning Bulletin and the people of Capricornia are in the dark about whether a start has been made towards changing legislation or when it would be started.
We don't know what stage the Federal Government is at in the drafting process, or who would be consulted during the process.
We don't know whether it was a legislative priority for the government or how quickly it would be brought to a vote in the parliament.
What we do know is that swimmers at Central Queensland beaches aren't safe and our tourism industry is in danger while this stonewalling and political buckpassing continues.
We will continue to keep asking the tough questions and we urge you, the voter, to join us in keeping up the pressure in demanding transparency and accountability from the people in power.