11 August 2021: Marine Park for Christmas Island and Cocos Islands

11 August 2021

Marine Parks: Indian Ocean Territories, Cashless Debit Card, Asylum Seekers
Wednesday, 11 August 2021

Senator McCARTHY (Northern Territory—Deputy Opposition Whip in the Senate) (13:20): [by video link] The Indian Ocean Territories of Christmas Island and the Cocos (Keeling) Islands are an incredibly unique and fascinating part of my constituency of the Northern Territory. The government, through its agency Parks Australia, has moved to establish the marine national parks around both territories, covering up to 740,000 square kilometres, which will make it the second largest of Australia's marine parks after the Coral Sea Marine Park. Christmas and Cocos (Keeling) Islands have some of the most fascinating ecosystems in the world. It's a critical area for spawning bluefin tuna and has many unique habitats and species. Adding the marine park to the Indian Ocean Territories is an opportunity to benefit the aspirations of the Christmas and Cocos (Keeling) communities and bring about a globally significant conservation outcome.

But it didn't happen without a battle. Thankfully, this has superseded plans, initially by the department of regional development and territories, to impose fishing regulations on the Indian Ocean Territories—something that was universally opposed by the islanders, as it would have unfairly impacted their cultural practice of sharing the seafood catch amongst the community by the imposition of bag limits, meaning that those who own a boat and were fit enough to fish couldn't take a larger catch to share with the elderly or infirm to assist them with their diets. This was particularly so for the Cocos Malay community, who are rich in culture but not so materially rich, and who do rely on the bounty from the ocean as their main source of protein and a big part of their staple diet.

The regulations also proposed to ban fishing altogether in the most accessible areas to shore fishing within the stunning Cocos Lagoon. The Cocos Malay and Christmas Island communities have traditionally fished their waters for generations without an apparent impact on fish stocks. Yet the proposed regulations were based on data collected from Western Australian coastal waters with no suggestion or evidence that communities were fishing unsustainably. They're small communities and the catch has always been for consumption only. So, after nearly two years of apparent indifference by the territories department and Assistant Minister Marino during which the communities' universal opposition to those fishing regulations seemed to fall on deaf ears, it is a relief now to know that those ridiculous plans have been shelved in favour of the proposed marine parks. I'm advised that community led fisheries management models and ranger programs will be developed, and I'm keen to see that and will be watching very closely to see that these initiatives do take place. I have been briefed by personnel from the Pew Charitable Trusts who were working closely with both communities on what they would like these cooperative management models to look like, and I certainly commend the work of Pew and their dedication and passionate advocacy in pursuing these things, in particular with the Christmas and Cocos islanders. I will certainly be assisting to make those representations to Parks Australia. I commend Pew for their work.

It is a shame, though, that it took so long for the government to respond to what was overwhelming opposition by the islanders, who put forward many constructive suggestions to improve the draft fishing ordinance but were ignored, despite strong advocacy by influential community members. On Christmas Island, these included local government president, Gordon Thomson, an incredible figure on the island and a great representative for the people there; Chris Su, another incredible young man who's got an outstanding career in the region and speaks very passionately on behalf of the people he represents; and Regine Anderson. On Cocos (Keeling) Islands, advocates included local government president, Aindil Minkom, Siti Yaserie, John Clunies-Ross, Jamil Ibram, Rahmat Madi Signa, Tini Signa and Shakirin Keegan. These are incredible people who represented very strongly the concerns of the Cocos (Keeling) islanders.

Even the younger generation of Cocos (Keeling) islanders joined in the advocacy, because they wanted to protect and preserve their ability to fish naturally for their families. The younger ones wrote an open letter objecting to the proposed new laws, and I want to mention their names because they deserve to be mentioned. I hope they're listening. The letter was signed by Zabidi Abedin, Alfin Wezen, Mazuansha Bentley, Daud Radal, Jufri Jason, Syukire Ennery, Siddiq Juljali, Musa Shakirin, Adi Mansa, Ismah Mansa, Azrul Azah, Zahlan Hamiril, Zamani Charlie, Fadulah Balmut, Fikrie Balmut, Akmal Abdul Halim, Zain Zaikat, and Izahan Fazli. I mention all of these people because I hope they are listening. I commend every single one of you in your battle to preserve your way of life as Christmas and Cocos (Keeling) islanders. I am incredibly proud to represent you.

I'd like to go to another issue in the few minutes that I have left: the cashless debit card. We know this government has plans to force as many welfare recipients as possible onto the cashless debit card. We know that, despite there being absolutely no evidence that the card works to reduce social harms—just the opposite, in fact—the government still continue to push this agenda. We know they have no qualms about doing whatever they can to bring in an Australia-wide cashless debit card, to penalise and demonise people receiving social security payments, to control their lives and to punish people for the crime of poverty.

But I must say that I was very surprised to see the federal government is now pushing its agenda on to local government councils in the Northern Territory. The July edition of the Alice Springs Town Council newsletter has a complete page singing the wonderful praises, supposedly, of the cashless debit card. On page 11 of the newsletter, there's nearly a full page item pushing the cashless debit card, telling people how they can manage and how they can change from income management to the cashless debit card. As well as talking about the so-called benefits of the cashless debit card over a basics card, the Alice Springs Town Council newsletter informs residents that the Department of Social Services will be visiting their communities in the coming months to talk about it. That's not such a bad thing, of course; you want to communicate what you are doing. But the question here is about the federal government advertising in a local council newsletter. Nowhere in that newsletter does it say that this is a federal government promotion or federal government advertisement. So there are a lot of questions that need to be asked about the integrity of that particular process. I guess it's just a coincidence that the lord mayor and the deputy mayor of Alice Springs just happen to be running for the conservatives in the next federal election.

In the last minute that I have left, I do make a plea again to the Senate on behalf of the Maghames family, who are now the only ones in the Darwin facility: Yaghoob and his wife Malakeh and their children, who are in their thirties, Abbas and Hajar. I spoke about Hajar yesterday in the Senate when she was taken to Royal Darwin Hospital by ambulance. Her family were not allowed to go with her. Hajar has now returned from hospital to the detention centre near the airport. We still have no more news on what awaits them. They all remain deeply distressed, unable to leave, with no choice and no control over their lives.

As I said to the Senate last week, this week and consistently, this family would be very welcomed, here in the Northern Territory. Chief Minister Michael Gunner has written to the Morrison government expressing this view, and I absolutely and wholeheartedly support these calls. I call on the Australian Senate, the Australian Parliament, to do everything it can. I'm urging the Morrison government to release this family into the community here in Darwin, on Larrakia country.