Department of the Environment

Archived media releases and speeches

The Hon Tony Burke MP

Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities

Address to Peter Cullen Trust

E&OE Speech transcript
4 November 2011

Thanks very much John and I should acknowledge the traditional owners of the land we are meeting on and their elders past and present. To my parliamentary colleagues from the ACT parliament, the former Member and former agriculture minister - the portfolio that I shared, although he had a number of portfolios including Treasurer - to John Kerin, it's always a pleasure to be here with you.

But to everybody who has been involved in the fellowships and to some of Peter Cullen's closest friends, you are welcome here today as well.

John mentioned that the significance of Peter Cullen is one of the key reasons why I'm here and that's true but it's not just true of me - it's true for each and every one of us here.

Part of the job that's often described for something like what I do, is to take the best scientific information and try to work out what's the best application to public policy problems. But that presumes that the whole role of translation of science to practicality somehow rests with policymakers, and we know that's not true, because the best scientific reading or the best research work - the researcher, the analyst helps with that communication process too.

One of the great things you can do now, one of the great advantages in technology is I think one of the best reminders of the importance of the work of science and actually the work particularly around water that I'm involved with. Now many of us can hop on a computer and have a look at how the world looks from above and whenever you look, whether through Google Earth or any of those programs that are about - when you look at photographs of what our planet looks like, those blue and brown veins and arteries, are exactly what they look like.

As those waterways stretch across our landscape, those arteries and the veins and exact shapes that they are in the blue and brown colours that you see in those photographs, are an accurate reflection of the lifeblood of living on land, on this planet. They determine where we live, how we live, what we eat and most of our biodiversity as well.

The pathway of the rivers is something that has been long understood by the first residents of this continent and the concept of cultural flows through river communities, lies at the heart of so much traditions on this land.

So the worth and significance of what we're involved with at its conceptual level, is not new. And getting it right is something which worked pretty well on this continent, for quite a handful of centuries, and the task now is to get it right again. That's the challenge that's in front of us, and as policymakers we only get it right if the work - not just if you're doing the research, but if it's then presented to us in a way that we latch on to it correctly.

And then there's the beauty of the purity of the political processes in making it real.

A lot of focus is on the Murray-Darling Basin in my area at the moment. I'll say a couple of things about that but water is such an issue across the whole of the continent and indeed internationally, I don't want to pretend the Murray-Darling Basin is the only game in town.

One of the things that has started to become the norm is to talk about the Murray Darling Basin as though there is a single answer that then just gets averaged across the whole show and all of a sudden we've got an answer. If it were that simple, my job would be much, much easier, as would yours.

The complexity of the Murray-Darling Basin, not merely in terms of how it works these days, from the sections in dry years that turn from a river system to interconnected lakes; from capacity constraints that human intervention has caused would then create some limits on how we actually deliver environmental water back to where we want it to be. Through to the fundamental difference in hydrology, not only at the north of the basin compared to the south of the basin, but the difference between hydrology from the different tributaries as they find their way in.

The fact that we're trying to make judgement calls across additional hundreds, thousands of sites, where we don't have a history of measurement that needs to be able to apply the best quality scientific rigour we can to get the judgement calls right.

None of that expertise is ever going to arise in a single institution. Be it the Murray Darling Basin Authority, be it the federal government or the state governments or be it in anyindividual scientific research body. That's why the continued work at every level throughout the Basin is going to be the only way that we end up with a process that as of next year, allows us to get it as right as we think we can and then has enough of an adaptive management framework around it that we can keep getting it right as we learn more.

Something like this, we do know a lot and I'm not going to pretend that we don't. But the depth of knowledge to be understood in hydrology of that river network, it's extraordinary what's in front of us. At least soon we'll have sufficient volumes of environment water to start to be able to do some really significant work to see what sort of recovery we can do there.

But I don't want to limit it to Murray-Darling and if I can refer to two other simple examples of the importance of the science of water, into the major issues that face Australia. One, you probably will not have heard of, but you may have heard one report on ABC radio. The other, you all would have heard of.

One first. At Lord Howe Island, there is a wonderful scientist who is based in Tasmania, who turned up to a Community Cabinet only a few weeks ago. She has been doing studies into birdlife on Lord Howe Island and the amount of plastic that has been consumed that the birds were unable to digest and remained inside them until it kills them. She brought a jar of one hundred and thirty two plastics, pieces of plastic found inside a single bird. This is not originated on Lord Howe Island. Some of these were marine debris but the great bulk of them were junk that flows from urban rivers throughout our nation. It finds its way in the ocean, and then once in the ocean, one of the great challenges that we have with the wonder of recyclables, is they float.

Therefore we end up when things are disposed of the wrong way, we arguably have a greater challenge than we have with ones that sink. And whether it be sea turtles turning up with some thirty or forty plastic bags inside their stomach. Whether it be a tiny piece of plastic causing the death of seabirds, the management of our urban rivers is not simply a local amenity issue. It is a massive environment issue for land, air and marine species across the planet.

In my own area, there are magnificent wetlands that have been recreated where I live. On the basis that it took people like you to discover that the old adage of looking at an urban river system and saying "isn't this beautiful, all it needs is a bit more concrete" is probably not - it certainly wasn't the best - attempted urban beautification and it didn't provide the engineering that they thought it did. They thought it was part of cleaning up the system. Instead that network of turning urban rivers into drains has provided a passageway for pollution to make it straight out to sea. Recreating local systems, recreating wetlands, recreating through careful engineering that uses natural systems is part of it. Is a pathway that has the potential to start to solve some of these really, absolutely chronic environmental challenges that we face.

At the same time, make a real difference to communities and make a real difference to urban areas. These are the sorts of challenges we meet that have nothing to do with the Murray-Darling Basin, that are major environmental issues. But I think we need to start managing. The other water issue that I want to refer to that one or two of you may have heard of, coal seam gas.

Can I say, everyone will have their own view, about different standards and approvals. But the concept of making sure that we understand the connectivity of any aquifer to the ground water underlies the hydrology of the entire continent. I know some people will have a view that that you should adopt a precautionary principle or not do it at all. In my view, after being able to spend so much time when I first got this job, with some high quality hydrologists and geologists to work the issues, was to say we need to test every individual aquifer to work out whether or not there is connectivity, and make decisions based on each of those tests.

Companies which in the first instance claim to be 100 per cent sure there is no connectivity don't necessarily hold that view now. With principles of re-injection and principles of re-charge of aquifers and re pressurisation were only made part of federal approvals because of the high quality scientific knowledge that rests in people who have studied [inaudible] in Australia.

The risks that would have been taken, that could have been taken without that quality of scientific research and that arguably, might be taken through approvals that haven't had that same level of scientific input is a testament to the role you play. Your work, possibly more than any other area of environmental sciences or large scale engineering is reaching for, determines the standard of living of our continent. It's hard to find any area of endeavour that touches every aspect of life on the dry continent on which we live.

There will be moments in your own work where you look at a wetland and see the local impact and feel that real sense of local value and local contribution to what you've done, and you're right to feel that. There will be times with your peers when you contribute in the best sense of camaraderie amongst each other, for the real contribution to the group effort, and you're right to feel proud of that.

But what I want to leave you with is an understanding of the connections of river and creek systems through our marine environment and it's connections to others. The work that you do is a cornerstone for environmentally sustainable life on our planet. That is not putting it too boldly or too brashly. The work you do is that important. You make sure one of them is always in front of policy-makers like myself. You make sure that when major decisions are made that we are presented with the risks of various positions. That we're presented with a range of outcomes that may be associated with various decisions. And importantly, where there is an opportunity to get decisions absolutely nailed and right, you get to present us with the possibility and the hope that comes with getting those decisions right.

As a policymaker, as a representative of the Australian Government, can I just say for what you do and the impact that it makes on sustainability in this nation, you are truly walking in the footsteps of Peter Cullen, and it is hard to pay any Australian a higher compliment.