Department of the Environment

Archived media releases and speeches

The Hon Tony Burke MP

Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities

Crown-of-Thorns Starfish - QLD environmental assessments

E&OE only
5 June 2012

TONY BURKE: I'll then, having made that announcement, throw to Colin Mackenzie from the Queensland Tourism Industry to be able to say a few words. After that, if we leave that issue, there have been some major developments overnight in our dealings with the Queensland Government in terms of environmental approvals and I'll deal with that once we've dealt with the first half of the media conference if that's okay.
There are many threats to the Great Barrier Reef and the world's eyes have been watching very closely. There are some threats such as climate change where international action is the pathway of dealing for it. There are some threats in terms of the potential scale of different developments on the Queensland coastline that have formed a big part of public discussion over the last few months.
But there is a problem that has been around for some years now which comes in different outbreaks which we need to be really mindful of and that's the crown of thorns starfish. Crown of thorns starfish occurs naturally in the Reef but with high levels of runoff and high levels of nutrients we end up in a situation where you get it in numbers much, much higher than would occur naturally.
The reason is this. When they're juvenile they eat algae so after the Queensland floods of 2009, 2010 we ended up with a much higher level of runoff going into the Reef. That means more algae. It means the young crown of thorns end up in much larger numbers, but once they're no longer juveniles they stop eating the algae and they start eating the coral and all the projections that we have say that we are looking down the barrel of one of the most significant crown of thorns outbreaks that we've seen.
So to make sure that we get on top of that before it happens, the Government is today announcing $1.4 million for the Queensland Tourism Industry to allow them to send down divers to be able to provide the appropriate injection of chemical that goes into the crown of thorns starfish to kill them before the numbers get out of hand.

I'd ask Col on behalf of the Queensland Tourism Industry just to be able to respond to that. Col.

COLIN MACKENZIE: Thank you Minister. Look, starting this crown of thorns control program early is absolutely critical and our industry applauds the Government for getting in early with some action. Last time this occurred which was some seven years ago it - a lot of the Reef of Cairns was actually denuded of live coral as a result of the infestation before we started any action.
This time round we're starting it and we'll have a far greater impact on the tourism industry. We'll be able to protect those high value sites. We'll be able to do population control and keep the crown of thorns at a sustainable level and it gets a little technical, I know, but sustainable level is a diver should swim along and see one crown of thorns in maybe ten minutes and when we get them in plague proportions you're seeing hundreds of crown of thorns every minute.
At that rate the Reef just cannot survive. The live coral won't go and they just eat everything, so a very early response to this is needed. The industry is already working to handle it as much as it can and we applaud the Government for giving us a fulltime boat based program that will have a significant benefit to biodiversity within the Reef.
We're going to protect the tourism sites, but not only that. We'll also be protecting the coral itself. There is no doubt that crown of thorns is the biggest single predator and threat to the Great Barrier Reef - not climate change, not global warming, not mining and all those other pressures. Crown of thorns has done far more damage as a result of human action than any of those other pressures.
I will be back here with a live crown of thorns at about twelve o'clock today and we'll be able to pull it out of the water and show it to you if anybody wants to have a look at it - happy to take any technical questions at that point in time as well.

TONY BURKE: Thanks Col. So I'm happy when we get to questions to take any further questions on that and Col will be back around later for that. We have had a week of ridiculous behaviour from the Newman Government on environmental approvals. There are significant environmental considerations that need to be worked through properly in making sure that for the job opportunities which we see down the pipeline in Queensland, that we look after the environment and in particular that we look after the Great Barrier Reef world heritage area.
At the last COAG meeting there were commitments made and commitments that were encouraged by the Commonwealth. We put the issue on the agenda to say let's find ways where we don't lower the environmental standard but where we do provide a streamlining of timelines so that you can get to your environmental decisions more quickly, but do it to the same quality of environmental standard.
We're continuing to work productively on this with each State Government with the exception of Queensland. Last week at the beginning of the week I was working on the basis that for the Alpha Coal Project the Queensland Government was operating under precisely the sort of streamlined process that Campbell Newman had been claiming he wanted.
We have a bilateral agreement and under the bilateral agreement they have an obligation to produce a report that allows me to make an informed decision under national environmental law. I was working at the beginning of last week on the basis that they would do that. They then released a report knowing that it didn't meet that standard, knowing it fell short of the bilateral agreement and said oh, well now there needs to be a Commonwealth process.
When they did that I wrote to the Deputy Premier saying can you please re-open the process so that we can do this in a streamlined way? The Deputy Premier wrote back with a changed position saying they were willing to look at whether or not they could accommodate that. They then on Friday morning made a public statement, under the name of the Deputy Premier, that they weren't going to re-open the process and that I had to deal with the report in its current form within thirty business days.
They then on Friday night said that they changed their mind and they were willing to get the process moving again and have a streamlined approach. Then last night they changed their position again and said that they would not work with a streamlined process. I cannot have a situation in front of me where you have thousands of jobs on the line and the environmental asset at stake is known as the Great Barrier Reef be subject to this sort of political game.
I can't have a situation where the highest level of importance that the public would put on an environmental asset is right there, right there on the Queensland coast and have that subjected to an operation in Queensland that is shambolic. I can't have a sensible process with a Government that changes its mind more regularly than once a day as to what process they're willing to co-operate with.
At this moment the company has flown to Canberra and is meeting with officials from my department to do the work in good faith that Campbell Newman refused to do. We have no interest in a delayed process. We have no interest in slow timelines, but we are not willing to compromise environmental standards nor are we willing to take the bait that Campbell Newman is offering us and have a situation where I give an approval of some description based on dud information which simply results in the whole thing being overturned in the courts in about eighteen months time.
That would be a disastrous outcome for jobs and a disastrous outcome for the environment. If you go through the 17 pages of information that my department sent to the Coordinator General, it's true. Some of it's highly technical. Some of it's the sort of thing that only those who are full time practitioners of environmental law would be focusing on. But some of it is just environmental protection 101, for example, we all know, even from the crown of thorns discussion that we had in this room a moment ago, what you do on land along the coastline has an impact on marine life and yet in the Coordinator General's report it says that you don't need to take account that you can't find in the affected area dugongs, turtles, dolphins or whales.

They are in fact all there. There is in fact a turtle nesting site where turtles are seen at Abbott Point.

We have a situation where it's not simply the highly technical work that hasn't been done properly.  The basics, the absolute basics that you would require for a decent level of oversight of a project has been left abysmally short, just a hopeless level of work from the Queensland Government.
On the back of that instead of saying they understand that they've fallen short and they want there to be a separate Commonwealth process, they're saying we want you to respond to this within 30 days.  Well if I did that I'd be making a decision that was not an informed decision which would be environmentally retrograde and which would almost certainly provide the company with no certainty because of the likelihood of it being thrown out in court subsequently.
With this in mind I am today stopping the clock on the process which has been given to us by the Queensland Government.  So under Section 132 of environmental law I'm seeking further information, under Section 130 while I seek that further information we are stopping the clock on the Alpha Project.
I intend to make a decision as soon as an informed decision can be made.  But I'm not going to be part of the shambolic operation that Campbell Newman is daring me to join up to.  This also carries some very real questions as to whether or not the Queensland Government can be trusted in the way that we have a level of trust with every other government in this country.
With that in mind I will be notifying the Queensland Government today under Section 58 of the EPBC Act, Section 58 of our national environmental law, undergoing the formal consultation to seek their views as to why I should not take action under Section 59.  Section 59 involves a full suspension of the bilateral agreement with Queensland.
I want a streamlined approach.  I don't want a shambolic joke and that is what Queensland is wanting me to accept.  If there is a suspension as I am considering of the bilateral agreement from Queensland it will mean they will become the state where by their own actions we have ended up with no choice but to have a full duplicated process.  I prefer a single process.  I prefer streamlining but I'm not willing to have situations which I know are legally flawed decisions that would be made and that's what Queensland's asking.
If we do suspend the operation of the bilateral agreement then what I'm considering is for that suspension to remain in force until the conclusion of the strategic assessment which is being done up and down the Queensland coast.  At that point the rulebook will be fully written.  It will be clear precisely what needs to be done.  But I cannot continue with the situation that we currently have.
It is still open to the Queensland Government to honour Section six of the bilateral agreement with the Commonwealth.  That Section that says they'll do the work.  But until they're willing to honour that my department will deal directly with the company, directly with the company to make sure that we do the work that Campbell Newman could not be bothered doing.
I must say when Campbell Newman turned up to his first COAG meeting I did have a level of hope that we were going to see significant streamlining.  I had a level of hope that he meant at least some of the things he was telling Queenslanders.  I'm astonished that of all the premiers he is the one who is forcing a situation where we have no choice but to engage in duplication.

But the alternative would be a bad alternative for jobs in Queensland because it would put doubt over any approval and the alternative would be a disastrous outcome for our environment, in particular the Great Barrier Reef.  In short I don't have the level of trust in the Queensland Government which I wish I had.  But I cannot trust them with Queensland jobs.  I cannot trust them with the Great Barrier Reef and that's why I'll be taking the action that I described today.

QUESTION: Campbell Newman announced today that Queensland is going to take their own strategic assessment of the Reef.  Do you see this as a token gesture?

TONY BURKE: The strategic assessment is a very significant process.  We've been wanting them to engage with that and I'm glad that they've made those positive noises today.  Although I hope it's not like last week where every twelve hours or so the position changes.  But that is a good announcement amid a large array of decisions that can only be described as complete disappointments.

QUESTION: Does this mean that the bipartisan support for the one stop shop state level approvals process, that that's dead in the water?

TONY BURKE: The bipartisan support as I've always heard it has been for you to have a streamlined approach because the states were willing to apply our standard.  Every other state is wanting to do that.

QUESTION: But not Victoria because this is on top of the problem with the alpine grazing.  The continuance has been challenged by the [inaudible].

TONY BURKE: Well there's been no attempt from the Queensland Government to have the alpine - to say that you'll never have a disagreement with a state I don't think anyone implies that.  The alpine grazing decision was a decision taken by the Victorian Government which contravened heritage principles.  In terms of urban development within Victoria, there's been a strategic assessment done there for the urban expansion of Melbourne.

That's been completely cooperative and it's getting rid of a whole lot of duplicate processes.  We've done similar good work with the New South Wales Government.  The urban expansion of Sydney out into new growth areas is basically a state approval process only now.  We've largely got out of the road on that by setting down the rulebook and having that all locked in.

We're continuing to find ways of that specifically within Parramatta as well.  I had good conversations over the weekend with the New South Wales Planning Minister on that.  So there are good examples everywhere else of where the cooperative work is occurring but I'm not prepared in the name of cooperation to abandon environmental protection.  I'm just not prepared to do that.
If I were to play the game that Campbell Newman is asking me to play it would be nothing short of vandalism of the Queensland coast.  I'm just not willing to do that.

QUESTION: Minister can you - sorry - can you talk us through, if you were to take action under Section 59 can you just talk us through what would happen?  Would the Commonwealth have to do its own assessment?  How long would that take, what would it involve?

TONY BURKE: What it would mean is from the view of any applicant, they go through a state process and they go through a Commonwealth process.  Now there would be some occasions where the Commonwealth process is quicker than the state, some occasions where it's the reverse.  In terms of the company it's a significant inconvenience.  It is significant. 
A streamlined process where they only have to do, go through one level of government which deals with both sets of issues is a much better situation for the company.  I don't want to land in Section 59 territory but I'll tell you I am seriously contemplating it.  I'll be sending them a letter under Section 58 today which activates the option of Section 59.  I'll read the response when it comes in good faith but I don't want there to be any vagaries here.

I am considering suspending the bilateral agreement with Queensland until the strategic assessment has been concluded.

QUESTION: How much longer would that mean that it would take the development to be approved?

TONY BURKE: It depends on the matters of national environmental significance.  There would be some developments where - in all cases it's an inconvenience which would only apply to people with projects in Queensland.  It would be a level of inconvenience that people have there, that they don't experience in Western Australia for example.  So it's not a good outcome but it's a better outcome than having what they thought was a streamlined process and then discovering at the end that the Commonwealth part of the job hadn't been done anyway. 
Where we're at, at the moment, is they think they've got a streamlined process.  Queensland then doesn't finish the job and suddenly they discover they've got to deal with a separate process anyway.  Some of the work is being done in my department today between the company and my department as we iron through these issues.
This work, that if I’d known Queensland couldn’t be bothered doing the work, we would have started months ago.  So there may be occasions where it doesn’t involve a significant delay but in all occasions it is an extra layer of bureaucracy that companies would have to deal with, simply because the Queensland Government is giving me no choice.

QUESTION:   Can you just clarify again.  You said you’d suspend them - the bilateral - until the--

TONY BURKE: Strategic assessment.

QUESTION: --strategic assessment is complete.  So it’s not a total suspension from here on in, it’s until Queensland finish the - or is it the next strategic assessment?

TONY BURKE: The strategic assessment process is a joint process between us in Queensland and between us and the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority.

QUESTION: And is that ongoing?  I mean is that actually happening and what’s the end date?

TONY BURKE: We’re at the very beginnings of that process.  It is more than a year that it takes.  Some strategic assessments take a couple of years.  But until you’ve got it done you don’t have a fully codified rule book and normally I don’t need a fully codified rule book.  Normally I have state governments that see the advantage to business in a streamlined process and bother to do the work.  Queensland has decided to be something completely different.

QUESTION: Meanwhile we’ve got the World Heritage Council citing the end of that assessment really and I think they’ve said February is it, next year, they’re hoping that that will be complete and that that’s sort of the basis of which they will make decisions. How you would...

TONY BURKE: No, they haven’t taken a view as to whether that process would be complete.  But it would certainly be well underway and from the terms of reference and the way it’s going they feel they’d be in a better position to be able to make decisions.

QUESTION: Minister, doesn’t this situation highlight the dangers of the Commonwealth so called getting out of the road by devolving assessments and approvals to the states and if there’d been approval bilaterally in place you wouldn’t have the power now to do what you’re proposing to do.

TONY BURKE: We have a very unusual situation I’ve got to say.  Because what we have in place is an agreement which is not being honoured.  Section 6 of the current agreement is very specific where it says that they have to provide enough information - or they agree to provide enough information - that allows me to make an informed decision in accordance with national environmental law.

They haven’t done that.  They haven’t come close to doing that.  And so we have a situation where what you would normally expect in terms of the basics of agreements being honoured, Queensland has shown no interest in.  It does show and is a reminder of the level of caution and the extra layers of protection that would need to be taken for me to be able to be assured that any bilateral agreement provides the level of protection that I, by law, have to be satisfied will occur.

QUESTION: But if there was an approval bilaterally you wouldn’t be able to do that.  I mean Queensland wouldn’t have the decision.

TONY BURKE: You’re presuming we wouldn’t have notice of the decision before it was made.  You’re presuming a whole lot of processes within the approval’s bilateral and as I say I’m becoming very conscious with this particular government of the fact that you need to be checking whether or not they’ll do what they say they do.

QUESTION: So you’re saying you’re going to put extra safeguards and approvals bilaterals.

TONY BURKE: Well at the moment I’m talking about the opposite.  At the moment I’m talking about them being the only State where they don’t even have an assessment bilateral because we’re considering suspending it.

QUESTION: But what does this mean for the COAG negotiations now?

TONY BURKE: The COAG negotiations continue and it was always contemplated that we could end up with different situations in different states based on their capacity.  But the - let’s not forget with those COAG negotiations they commenced because we put it on the agenda.  This process commenced when I announced it at the National Press Club a year ago.
We do believe that it’s good policy to streamline this.  We do believe that if you can meet the standard and you can do it through a system that’s easier for business to deal with that provides more certainty.  It provides a quicker pathway to jobs and all you need to make sure of is that you cover off on the environmental protections that national environmental law says will occur.
I don’t see any environmental benefit through decision making being slow.  So in terms of the COAG process that continues and it continues not only because it was negotiated through COAG but also because we’d already said, long before this, that we believe that was the correct pathway.

Those negotiations continue.  Queensland are making a clear public statement about their lack of capacity.

QUESTION: Minister the UNESCO report says no additional port infrastructure should be built outside the existing areas.  Do you accept this means that the Wongai coalmine on Cape York should not go ahead and if it does do we risk the reef being put on the danger list?

TONY BURKE: This is prior to the conclusion of the strategic assessment and I’m not expecting that the Wongai project would come to me before the strategic assessment was concluded anyway.  So my reading of that is it’s referring to a problem that I’m not expecting to arise.

QUESTION: Okay.  The Queensland Government has also scrapped the lease for the [inaudible] refinery at Arakoon.  This means more minerals will be processed offshore and also more shipping through the reef.  Is that something that concerns you?

TONY BURKE: On the specifics of the implications for shipping movements through the reef on that I haven’t been briefed on the outcomes as you’ve just described them so I’m not in a position to deal with that part of it.  On shipping generally, if I can make clear that there - that I’m mindful of my obligations throughout the whole of the World Heritage area.
That doesn’t mean no ship can pass by, it doesn’t mean anything like that.  But it does mean that shipping is a relevant consideration and I don’t want to be in a situation where we fail to take into account the potential cumulative impacts and so I’m doing that as I go. The best way to deal with all of those issues is through a strategic assessment and that’s why we kicked that off.

QUESTION: Minister, Campbell Newman seems to be relying on the premise that we can have as great a boom as the resources we have permit.  Is he wrong to suggest that as long as we are smart enough about how we build the port capacity and how we do that strategic assessment then we can actually ship as much coal as we like out of Queensland?  Or do you think that the actual - that some kind of sacrifice might have to be made as to protect the reef as [inaudible] coal actually goes out?

TONY BURKE: Well the bottom line with any environmental approval is you can do as much as you can do safely.  So I don’t want to give an indication as to precisely where the limits on what can be done safely are.  It depends and I can’t, as you know, pre-judge decisions that will come to me.
It depends - a number of vessel movements, what can be done safely depends on the rules that you have around it as well.  But what I am sure of is that it’s a relevant check that you have to take and I won’t be placed in a situation where Queensland’s telling me I don’t even need to look at the marine environment.  I do.

QUESTION: Minister, on something unrelated, I’m just interested to know as a senior member of the New South Wales right, does Mark Arbib’s appointment by James Packer sort of add to the public cynicism about what politicians do once they leave this place?

TONY BURKE: I don’t believe so.  I don’t believe so at all.  I think the cynicism was there when everybody, particularly if they left relatively young, was going off on a lifetime taxpayer funded superannuation scheme.  For a whole lot of us, myself included, Mark Arbib included, that no longer applies. I think that was what was driving a significant level of public cynicism.  I think it’s a bit much to say that someone can’t get a job.

QUESTION: Can you give us any insight into the, I guess, representatives of Hancock Coal or the operators [inaudible] mine, what they’re thinking?  What they’re doing?  Have they also been talking to the Queensland Government?  Are they frustrated?

TONY BURKE: It’s 80 per cent. 80 per cent of the project is GVK.  Hancock Coal are 20 per cent - around 20 per cent of this particular project.  So my primary engagement with this has been when GVK have come in at different points wanting to meet with me, mainly to discuss timelines and issues like that.

I have to say it’s been a completely constructive relationship.  They did write to me, on Friday I think it was, saying that they would prefer that the assessment was done under the approvals bilateral and that was my preference too.  Even though I gave Queensland till 5pm to make up their mind and they made their decision later.  Once they made it I thought good.  But then they went back on that again last night.

In that letter to me though the company made clear that they also acknowledged there was extra assessment work that needed to be done.  They were in no doubt about that.  They knew that extra work needed to be done.  Their preference was that it’d be done under the bilateral. 

That was precisely my view on both questions and intermittently it has been the view of the Queensland Government.  But I don’t know how we’re meant to make decisions if they keep changing their mind every few hours.  And if some of the things that they’re putting on the table are asking me to make decisions based on a total paucity of information.

QUESTION: What can the Queensland Government do now to deal themselves back into this bilateral agreement, or is too late and you can’t trust them?

TONY BURKE: Look, in terms of this particular project, we’re now working with the company just to get the job done. I’ve given up on Queensland being sensible with respect to the Alpha Project. You can’t do more than write to them, ask them, get them to agree, have them publicly tell the people of Queensland they’ve agreed and then find out once the weekend’s over that they’ve changed their mind again. I mean, this is a shambles from the Newman Government, it really is.

QUESTION: You say there’s a risk of it being overturned by a court, could you go into why that is?

TONY BURKE: One of the things that happens with national environmental law, is there are many opportunities after decisions are made for them to be tested in the courts. They can be tested sometimes by environmental groups, sometimes they’re tested by rival companies as well, but it’s an area which is highly litigated. The easiest way to knock out something as an administrative decision, is to say that you’ve failed to consider issues which were relevant.

QUESTION: But in this case...

TONY BURKE: And in this particular case, that is exactly the position that Queensland was wanting to put me in: where there are issues where we had told them, this is relevant we need the information in, and they wrote back saying, no, this is your report, you’ve got thirty days to make the decision. Now, if I’d done that - even if I’d made a decision that Queensland had celebrated and that was highly favourable to the company - all that would have happened was a few months down the track, possibly after they’d even started work, and made significant investment decisions, it would have been thrown out in court.

And maybe that’s what Queensland wants to happen; I don’t know how willing they are to play games with Queensland jobs, but it’s a game that I won’t be part of.

QUESTION: Minister, looking beyond the back flips and the accusations of back flips and the exchange of correspondence back and forth, isn’t there a danger that to a potential foreign investor this just looks like a $6.5 billion project being held up by 18 months, possibly, because of a squabble between different jurisdictions in Australia. Isn’t that an embarrassing--

TONY BURKE: Oh look, sorry, I wouldn’t flag that there’s an 18-month delay on this. What we’re doing is we’re looking with the company at what are the deficiencies in the work that’s already been done. So whatever has been done that we can build on, we’re taking and we’re dealing with what additional needs to be found to be able to make a robust decision and an informed decision under law. So, I wouldn’t, when I was referring to eighteen months, I was referring to a timeline of, if it was litigated, when it could be thrown out.
The company is working to a final investment decision later this year and we are working to try to make sure that we can deal with our part of the process inside that timeframe. Had Queensland just told us at the beginning of the year, or when they came to office, that they weren’t going to finish the job, we would have started immediately. So, because of all of this, we are behind from where I’d like to be, but we still work on the basis that when a company tells us a final investment decision date, we try to work to it and that’s a discussion that’s happening now.

QUESTION: But is there a danger that this could dent investor confidence in Queensland’s mining industry?

TONY BURKE: Oh, there is - there is no doubt that Queensland are putting themselves at a disadvantage compared to other states; there is no doubt about that at all. They’re putting themselves at a disadvantage compared to other states and I have tried to rescue them from this decision for a week now. But in terms of general investor confidence, people should know what the Commonwealth’s done and that’s where we were being told by the Queensland Government to put forward a second-rate decision which would have been highly vulnerable in the courts. We’ve said no and we’re sitting down straight away with the company saying, how do we fix this, how do we deal with it, what needs to be done, so a decision that will stand up at law can be made.
So, I think some people would be shaking in their heads at the way the Queensland Government have been changing their minds back and forth on this and at their unwillingness to deliver a streamlined system. But it would be hard to be anything but impressed by how quickly the Commonwealth has acted and how responsibly we’re dealing with the company and with the Great Barrier Reef.

QUESTION: Would you say that Campbell Newman’s behaviour on this issue is a reflection on his inexperience in state politics?

TONY BURKE: Oh no, it doesn’t matter how experienced you are, there is no excuse for treating the Greater Barrier Reef and Queensland jobs this way and I’m not going to offer him an excuse. This is just commonsense; you want a streamlined process, if part of the job hasn’t been done, you finish it. If he’s not prepared to finish the work, we will.

QUESTION: Does this say that the Coordinator General - I think that person has changed - but that office has become politicised, or too politicised?

TONY BURKE: I’m not going to try to psychoanalyse what’s going on in the Queensland Government; it makes no sense to me at all.

QUESTION: You’re making the connection repeatedly between the Alpha Project and the assessment - and the Great Barrier Reef, is it actually - is shipping over the reef and port development actually part of the assessment?

TONY BURKE: The principal issue that we’re dealing with right now on what’s currently - hopefully will come before me before long, but what the Coordinator General’s finished - is the on-land work. So we’re not dealing with the shipping work yet; we’re not dealing with the port development yet. But when you do your work on land, on the coastline, you have significant runoff issues when you do those major earthworks. Those runoff issues have a direct impact on the species that I went through and these aren’t, you know, strange, never-heard-of-before species; we’re talking turtles, dugongs, dolphins, whales. And those runoff impacts have to be considered. I can’t pretend that in that part of Queensland it’s never going to rain and there’ll never be an impact of what you do on land into the marine environment. And yet, the Coordinator General’s report says, well for the area affected none of this is present; it’s just wrong.

Thank you very much.