Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities
Interview with Fran Kelly, ABC Radio National
4 June 2012
FRAN KELLY: The Gillard Government is under pressure to slap an immediate moratorium on massive infrastructure projects planned for the Great Barrier Reef. A report from UNESCO released over the weekend has warned the creation of new ports and terminals is threatening the health of one of the great natural wonders of the world. Unless Australia changes its approach to coastal development by next February the reef could be listed, quote, as a world heritage site in danger.
Federal Environmental Minister Tony Burke readily acknowledges the Great Barrier Reef is at a crossroads. Minister welcome back to Breakfast.
TONY BURKE: Good morning Fran.
FRAN KELLY: Tony Burke has UNESCO got it right? It's expressed extreme concern for the unprecedented scale of development affecting, or potentially affecting the reef, poses serious concerns over its long term conservation. That's a direct quote. Do you agree with that?
TONY BURKE: Yes I do. Yes I do. There are a very large number of projects which are potentially in the pipeline. Now some of these have already been scaled back significant in recent weeks. But if everything that was potentially there were to go ahead there's no doubt there would be a massive footprint along the Queensland coastline.
FRAN KELLY: So what does that mean? Are you saying that some of the projects slated for development will not be able to go ahead?
TONY BURKE: Some of the projects which have been - if all the projects that have been suggested to go ahead and all the ones that were reported to the World Heritage Committee as possible, you would probably have a scale of coastal development that exceeded even the peak requirements of the Galilee Basin. So there have been a really large number of projects where some of them have been suggested and it looks more like every company just wanting to have their own piece of the coastline, rather than a situation as strategically what's required.
Now I've had some big arguments over the last few weeks with the Queensland Government on a lot of issues. But I think I should give them an acknowledgement that Abbot Point was one of the areas where the footprint was bigger than anywhere else. And in the last few weeks they scaled the coastal footprint back there and scaled it back very significantly.
FRAN KELLY: So let's take Abbot Point. When the UNESCO report says Australia should, quote, not permit any new port development or associated infrastructure outside of the existing and long established major port areas within or adjoining the property - does that suggest that a development at Abbot Point that is a new area should not go ahead?
TONY BURKE: It's not entirely new. There's been a port there for a very long time.
FRAN KELLY: Well they're building more ports next to it aren't they? They're extending it.
TONY BURKE: That's right. That's right. They're extending it. I think some of the areas that UNESCO are particularly concerned about when they say outside existing port areas; there's an area like Balaclava Island. There's some areas further north that are pretty much truly pristine at the moment. And the existing port areas such as Gladstone, Abbot Point, areas like that, they're still wanting us to exercise a very high degree of caution; but the call for absolute moratorium, I think really is referring to the areas where you don't have port operations going on at the moment.
FRAN KELLY: So can I just zero in on that - the complete moratorium. What are the major projects that that would put on hold for now?
TONY BURKE: There aren't.
FRAN KELLY: There aren't?
TONY BURKE: There aren't. No the ones in the most pristine areas are the ones which have not been as thoroughly developed yet and my expectation is we'll get through the strategic assessment before any of those would land on my desk.
FRAN KELLY: Okay so Abbot Point the expansion there, goes ahead. The massive twelve billion dollar coal terminal development at Dudgeon Point, that goes ahead?
TONY BURKE: Yeah the - well can I say in terms of goes ahead - I haven't made my decision on the individual developments. But certainly they will come to me for consideration in that timeframe I expect.
FRAN KELLY: So they're not caught up in this apparent moratorium that UNESCO wants?
TONY BURKE: That's right. That's right.
FRAN KELLY: There are thirty-five major development applications seeking approval over the next eighteen months. According to Greenpeace this would see a six-fold expansion of coal export infrastructure in the world heritage area. UNESCO says these projects would, quote, directly risk irreversible impacts on the reef.
What's your attitude to these thirty-five major development applications seeking approval?
TONY BURKE: Look I'm not sure whether some of those refer to the original Abbot Point one or not. And as I say there's - you get a whole lot of applications that technically they go up on the website, they've started a process but then the company doesn't actually get moving on an EAS for a very long time. And I'm just not expecting that order of development to come in front of me before we get the strategic assessment done. Can I explain what the strategic assessment is?
FRAN KELLY: Sure.
TONY BURKE: Because what that is, is it says you don't want for the environmental assessment project by project. What you do is you look at the whole coastline and say okay if there is going to be some sustainable development what are the places where if you put it you'd have the minimal environmental footprint. And what are the places where you really shouldn't allow much to go ahead at all.
Now by doing that before you get project by project you avoid this sort of death of a thousand cuts situation where every development is just a tiny bit more. You actually establish your template in one hit. And environmentally you get much better outcomes for that and that's why the World Heritage Committee a year ago asked for a strategic assessment to occur.
FRAN KELLY: So just listening to what you're saying - you're suggesting the strategic assessment from - I'm gathering what you're talking about - would mean that we'll develop processing hubs and exporting hubs, that we won't allow every project to just set up on their own site. You'll try and centralise it to some degree? Does that seem to be - is it...
TONY BURKE: That's a fair way of describing the way a strategic assessment is likely to play out.
FRAN KELLY: It also seems as though you're suggesting that all of these current major projects that we're talking about - we're talking about Abbot Point, we're talking about Dudgeon Point and a number of others - you're not inclined to think that those would be stopped under the UNESCO concerns?
TONY BURKE: No I'm not. But notwithstanding that that's not to say that any decision I make on them won't be very much informed by what the World Heritage Committee has put forward. The decisions of the World Heritage Committee in the findings go to a whole series of threats to the reef. They don't only go to shipping; but it does demand a very high level of caution in making sure that we look after an area.
There are some things in that report where they say we've turned a corner and they acknowledge significant progress. There are some things there where they point out some very good management practices. But the threat that they see is if the full scale of everything that's in the pipeline went ahead, you would just have a massive change to the full Queensland coastline.
FRAN KELLY: So how does that fit with the Premier of Queensland responding to this report? Campbell Newman said that he won't allow the economic future of his state to be shut down, quote, we are in the coal business if you want decent hospitals, schools and police on the beat we all need to understand that. What message is Queensland sending to you and to UNESCO?
TONY BURKE: Look in those particular statements, I've got to say I think it was a bit of a straw man argument. UNESCO were not suggesting that the economy of Queensland be shut down. So for the Premier to beat the drum and say we won't shut the economy down, well I don't think anyone was suggesting that. He decided that he'd beat the drum that way standing up to them, rather than acknowledge that even in the last fortnight they'd significantly scaled back Abbot Point.
They don't always give the most measured responses. I think the decisions that they'd taken notwithstanding that I'd had a pretty torrid week with them over one particular application but a number of the decisions they'd taken were a bit more tempered and measured than those media statements would have implied.
FRAN KELLY: And just finally Minister, what would it mean for the reef to be placed on the world heritage danger list? That would surely have an impact on the massive local tourism industry worth you know billions of dollars a year?
TONY BURKE: It would, but I wouldn't even want to rush to the tourism impact. You think the...
FRAN KELLY: You might want to but I think the tourism industry is listening closely.
TONY BURKE: No, no I respect that but the mere fact of itself that if our management of the reef were to merit that, would be a terrible situation environmentally, because the World Heritage Committee would be reflecting something that they believed was actually happening. I do believe we significantly turned a corner in the last few years on management of the reef. The report reflects that. There's some more work that we do have to conclude and conclude in good faith to make sure that we don't end up in that space.
FRAN KELLY: Tony Burke thank you very much for joining us.
TONY BURKE: Pleasure.