Department of the Environment

Archived media releases and speeches

The Hon Tony Burke MP

Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities

Press Conference - Tasmania Midlands irrigation scheme

E&OE only
14 May 2012

TONY BURKE: Okay. I don't need to give a long opening statement. I've made some comments there already. Suffice to say, the Tasmanian Government is the only government in Australia coming forward with projects like this at the moment. And with the opportunities that are there for food production, what we see here is a great harnessing of that opportunity.

It's good to be here. I've got Dick Adams with me, as the local federal member. And Dick's been a strong advocate, even from back in the days when I was agriculture minister, of wanting to make sure that we took advantage of the unique position that Tasmania is in to be a real hub, not just nationally but internationally, for high quality agriculture.

QUESTION: Why is Tasmania's position so unique?

TONY BURKE: Well you've got a few things massively in your favour. One, just the purity and cleanliness of the air, the quality of the water and everything here means you can brand your products in a way that's very difficult for other parts of the world to be able to brand them.

But beyond that, Tasmania is a place where there hasn't been an over-allocation of water. In fact, if anything, there's a great resource there. I mean, water's very much the oxygen for a farm. It's what keeps farms alive. There's been an under-investment for generations in Tasmania on irrigation.

So here's an opportunity to meet all the environmental benchmarks and to make sure that we can significantly improve agricultural production. I've always said, as the water minister, I'm quite happy to look at irrigation projects, quite happy to look at dams, quite happy to look at how we can more effectively harness water.

The truth is there's only one government in the nation coming forward with these sorts of projects. It's the Tasmanian Government. I've got my own local MPs arguing very, very hard in favour of these projects. And we're pleased to be a part of it.

QUESTION: What sort of work goes into the consultation and ensuring it is environmentally friendly? And how does this one stack up against those benchmarks?

TONY BURKE: What happened this time is one of the best ways to deal with an environmental approval, which is to do a full strategic assessment. And they went through and they had an assessment of the two projects together, both the Lower South Esk, where we are now, and the Midlands project. They both came through with a clean bill of health. You have to go through all the different species that might be considered endangered or at risk. Once you've worked through all of that, then you come up either with a tick or a cross. Well this has come up with a tick.

But the bill over time, as the different costings have been done, turned out to be more. But we were very happy to put the full $55 million on the table that was required of the Federal Government to make sure that this went ahead.

QUESTION: Is that because of the under-investment that's been going on?

TONY BURKE: It's because the opportunity was that good. The project was well designed. It had the strong support of local irrigators. It had the strong support of the Tasmanian Government. The Tasmanian MPs within the caucus were arguing very strongly in favour of it. Every single box that you might have a look at and say, does it get a tick, on this case they all did.

QUESTION: Can this be used as an example to other states, this particular project?

TONY BURKE: You don't find many states with the quality of the rainfall and the regularity of the rainfall that Tasmania has had, which really makes a water project be possible. Every state has to look at things slightly differently. They've got different climate, different soils, different topography. The truth is though I haven't seen a project from any state stack up to the level of high quality that we've seen with the water projects coming out of Tasmania.

QUESTION: On a different topic, there's ongoing debate about the management of the Tarkine region. What's your perspective on possible heritage listing?

TONY BURKE: Look, every time a mining application comes in, a campaign gets run asking whether or not I will put in place an emergency heritage listing. This happened, first of all, on the change of route for the road project. There was a deadline, a big campaign. Will he or won't he? I made it clear I wasn't going to put in an emergency listing and I didn't.

The same thing happened with the Shree project. There was a big campaign. I said I wasn't interested in an emergency listing. I didn't do one. We're now going through the same cycle again.

So my view has always been there are some parts of the Tarkine where you can mount a heritage case. But I would rather deal with the advice when it comes in from the National Heritage Council. That means I don't have a level of interest - and I've said this before - in putting emergency listings in place.

I want to make sure that we can isolate those areas that are the most significant and work out a constructive way of dealing with heritage that way.

You know, how could you logically put a blanket heritage listing in a place that covered the Savage River mine? When you go bushwalking through the Tarkine, a lot of those walks are you look down and there at your feet are the railway tracks of previous mining operations.

There are deeply significant environmental values in that part of Tasmania. There's no doubt about that. And you do find, in different parts of that area, significant heritage values. But the concept of a total lock-up of a region that has a long history of mining and has some very active mining projects at the moment, I don't know how you could logically put a blanket listing across an area like that.

QUESTION: GetUp! Is suggesting that two new mining proposals or the assessment of those may be fast-tracked. Is that correct?

TONY BURKE: No. They view anything short of an emergency listing as being a fast-track. That's not my view. My view is, if you have to go through all the hurdles that every other environmental proposal in Australia has to go through, that's hardly a fast-track. So, while the people from GetUp!, I have a regard for them. I get along well with them. But we have different views on a range of issues. I've got to say, to claim that, if you don't put an emergency heritage listing in place, that somehow that's a fast-track, I just think that's nonsense.

QUESTION: Can we expect any announcements this week on progress for the mining totals in the Tarkine?

TONY BURKE: Look, I'm not sure when the next applications will come to me. My understanding is the next one mostly likely to come to me, which is closest to completion, I think, is the next stage of the Savage River operation. And as I say, you've only got to look at a photo of Savage River and it's pretty hard to argue that it should be viewed as natural heritage.

There are then some other projects where there are some significant legacy operations, where mining operations going back decades weren't cleaned up properly. Now, some of the proposals that are coming forward actually include the clean-up, which would run, in some of these sites, to $150 million. Unless you've got a big investment promising to clean up as part of it, these things will never be cleaned up and you end up with a river that's dead for kilometres as a result.

So one of the things that I really got a good understanding of, as you'd know, over the last few months, I've had a couple of trips to the Tarkine, one with industry, one with environmental groups. Both were deeply significant for me. Certainly there's no doubt there are significant environmental values there and we want to work out a way of how they can be appropriately protected.

It's also true that this is a widely diverse area. The front page newspaper photo of the ancient tree is a world away from the Savage River mine. Yet they're both the Tarkine. I think the differences between different parts of that area are one of the complexities that are not well understood outside of Tasmania.

QUESTION: On the code of conduct, Minister, what's your view; the chatter about that and how far it might go?

TONY BURKE: Oh look, I'm not going to comment on chatter; there's other people with responsibility for that. I'm the Environment Minister and, certainly, every moment where we actually get a window where we can have a sensible conversation about public policy at the moment, which is what we've been doing today, is an opportunity I don't intend to compromise and I will not depart from.

QUESTION: Do you think that the Parliament, currently, has adequate powers though to deal with some of the accusations against MPs, whether they're criminal or [unclear]?

TONY BURKE: These issues are always part of a large discussion. I've just got to say I've been doing my job as Environment and Water Minister. They're the issues I've been focusing on. So you'll really have to go to others if you want something more in depth on that.

QUESTION: What can be done to stop, if anything, the sort of smear campaigns that Bill Shorten's been talking about in the past couple of days?

TONY BURKE: Oh look, the first I knew of that at all was when I read it in the paper; so I actually know nothing beyond what's been reported there. Certainly, you know, I think everybody had a high degree of sympathy for both Bill and Chloe when they read that story.