Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities
Interview with 612 ABC Brisbane - Mornings with Steve Austin
6 June 2012
STEVE AUSTIN: Well, as you heard, an aggressive attack on the state government approval of the Alpha Coal Project by Tony Burke, Federal Environment Minister, took place yesterday. Adjectives like shambolic were used. I'll be speaking with Queensland's Environment Minister in just a moment but the Federal Environment Minister, Tony Burke, directly targeted the Premier himself and his deputy. Tony Burke, good morning to you.
TONY BURKE: Good morning, Steve.
STEVE AUSTIN: What's the problem? Why is the process for the approval of this massive coalmine shambolic?
TONY BURKE: Because Queensland Government couldn't make up their mind whether they were going to do the whole process themselves, which is what we favoured, and then it would just come to me for conditions or whether they weren't willing to conduct some of the checks that I need to have legally done to conduct a federal approval. And every day we had a - media statements each day where they would change their mind.
On Friday night I thought all of this was solved and they'd agreed to complete the process. Monday afternoon they put out another release saying that they'd now changed their mind and it was the opposite was true. You can't deal with multibillion dollar projects and environmental asset - the Great Barrier Reef - in this sort of way where the rules keep changing every single day.
All I wanted was for Queensland to keep to an agreement that was there in writing and that the Premier had claimed to agree with, which was that for environmental approvals you should just have a single process. One authority that deals with it and the Federal Government can say here are the bits we need you to check. These are the issues that we need you to cover in your report. Then when the report comes back each level of government can just make a decision.
STEVE AUSTIN: Is the problem the way they're communicating, in other words the way they put out media releases and the way they make public statements or the problem with the actual process, the approval process and the checks and balances itself? In other words, is it their words or their actions.
TONY BURKE: Yeah, no, it's both. It's both. Certainly what I've described there are the words changing every day and the expectations changing every day. But the actions of the coordinator general, he was told by my officials that the space that the report was in was not sufficient for me to be able to make a decision at law. There were extra checks that needed to be done. And had we known they weren't willing to do them I would have started the process months ago and we'd probably have a decision by now.
STEVE AUSTIN: So these are your twenty-eight points of concern as they - as it is.
TONY BURKE: That's right...
STEVE AUSTIN: And - look - and what are they? What are the key ones, Tony Burke, if you could highlight them for me?
TONY BURKE: Yeah, look, some of them are highly technical; some of them are really basic. For example, you've got earthworks that happen when the railway line reaches the coast, significant earthworks, and I need to cover off is there runoff that comes from those that can have an impact on the marine life in the Great Barrier Reef. Now, it's a simple check that needs to be done.
I can't - I don't know what conditions to put on the runoff unless the checks have been done as to what extent the runoff would actually occur into the reef area. Now, once that check's done I know what conditions to put in place but instead, what the Coordinator-General did was say no, no dugongs, no turtles, no whales here, as though nothing you do on land has an impact on the marine life.
Well, if I'd made a decision based on information that's just fundamentally untrue all that happens - and this is what Campbell Newman's saying, I just approve it and put the conditions in - all that would then happen is in eighteen months' time or twelve months' time my decision would be thrown out in court. Now, that hardly provides certainty for jobs and it would mean I'd be putting forward hopeless conditions to protect the reef, anyway.
STEVE AUSTIN: So I need to understand you correctly. So the Coordinator-General who's the chief bureaucrat who has the carriage of this, that has to go through all the red tape, the green tape, whatever you want to call it, to sign off on it from a Queensland point of view, the Government's looked at it, said yes, okay. They handed it to you. In the Coordinator-General's report there's no reference about any of the effects on dugongs, whales or turtles, no reference at all in the entire process.
TONY BURKE: No, they're referred to. They're referred to as not being present.
STEVE AUSTIN: What they're saying there are no turtles, no dugongs and no whales in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park?
TONY BURKE: No, no, because they're saying in the vicinity and they're saying the only vicinity that they'll look at is on land even though, you know, that presumes it'll never rain. One of the major problems with the health of the reef is runoff. When you do major earthworks like this the runoff impacts have to be taken into account. It doesn't mean that they'd stop the project but you need to check what the impacts would be so that I can put the conditions in place to put in the right protections.
STEVE AUSTIN: That's quite a significant omission.
TONY BURKE: It's extraordinary and that's why when this first happened I thought Queensland would just reopen the process and I thought they'd just look at it, they'd say it was a stuff-up, they'd reopen the process and they'd deal with the additional items that I needed dealt with. Then the company would only have to deal with one level of government and the decision, if it hadn't been made already, would be being made very soon.
Instead, now, we were sitting - my department was sitting down yesterday, the company had to fly to Canberra, meet with the department, work through - that was a good meeting, they think they're going to be able to work through all of the issues - but this is a whole layer of bureaucracy that didn't need to be there. And that's why I'm so frustrated.
We - not only do we have an agreement in place that should have avoided all of this duplication, Campbell Newman keeps thumping the table, saying this is what he actually believes as a front of line issue for Queensland - well, for heaven's sake, do the work. Don't just make the statement. Do the work, finish the job and then we can get straight to the decision making stage.
STEVE AUSTIN: So your point of view is that Campbell Newman seems to think that what happens on land has absolutely no effect as to what happens in the literal area, the coastline and the barrier reef waters. There's - even though they touch they don’t think there's any effect on either.
TONY BURKE: That's right, in their view - and he said this on The 7.30 Report last night, the Premier did, where he said look, when we get to the port development that's when we'll look at everything with marine life. Well, no, no, no, when you do your earthworks on land it doesn't mean they'll be major conditions but legally they need to check. They can't just pretend it's irrelevant. What you do on land is relevant. I need the Coordinator-General to pass that off. That's just one of the seventeen issues.
STEVE AUSTIN: All right.
TONY BURKE: There are seventeen pages of issues. Some of them are pretty technical but some of them are just plain environment protection 101 and we're not talking about some strange species that no one's heard of or anything like that or some fringe latte set environment issue. We're talking about the Reef. If you can't get your environmental protections and systems in place on this one you may as well give up.
STEVE AUSTIN: My guest is the Federal Environment Minister, Tony Burke. My name's Steve Austin and this is 612 ABC Brisbane. It's twenty minutes to nine. In just a moment I'll speak with Queensland's Environment Minister, Andrew Powell. The question, then, Tony Burke, is how long do you expect this project will now be delayed? It's a multi-billion dollar project.
TONY BURKE: Yeah, well, as I say, if we'd known they weren't going to do the work we would have started working directly with the company months ago and we'd probably be finished now. As it is, any duplication does mean that the process takes longer. So on the thirty day time line, that if they'd finished the report I'd have been able to work to, I've had to stop the clock on that. Now, the company itself has a date later this year which they call their final investment decision date, which is the date by which if they don't have a decision from me then it starts costing serious dollars.
STEVE AUSTIN: What date is that?
TONY BURKE: Look, it's around October. It's around then but my department has dealt with them specifically on that yesterday and we work on the basis that we want to get everything done well in advance of that date.
STEVE AUSTIN: One final question, then, the initial response by the Queensland Premier was that this is the start of - what's the word, pressure or politicking in the lead-up to the next federal election. You've got Queensland, a conservative state, overwhelming majority. Things don't look good for your side of politics in this state. So this is the start of a fight that this is the context or the backdrop to your actions.
TONY BURKE: If Campbell Newman thinks this is a political game then he just doesn't understand what's at stake. If I make a decision which fails at law, which is what he's asking me to do, it's not just an environmental issue. It also means a company starts a project and then has to start from scratch and the whole thing falls into chaos. You know, it's a careful what you wish for moment for the Premier, here.
If he wants to think this is just some local council banter or argument and push people back and forth or something like that he can think that but he's just wrong. There are legal processes that have to be followed. I want to deal with them quickly, I want to deal with them sensibly and up until Monday I thought there was a chance of dealing with them cooperatively. But if he wants to see it as a political game he just doesn't understand what's at stake.
STEVE AUSTIN: Just stay with me, if you would, Tony Burke. Can you hold the line?
TONY BURKE: Yeah, sure.
STEVE AUSTIN: Tony Burke is the Federal Environment Minister. We didn't expect to be speaking with Premier Campbell Newman but he's phoned in. Premier, good morning to you.
CAMPBELL NEWMAN: G'day. How are you, Steve?
STEVE AUSTIN: Very well. Would you like to respond? If what Tony Burke says is correct that's quite surprising. Is it true that your government sees no connection between the mainland and development that occurs and the Great Barrier Reef?
CAMPBELL NEWMAN: Look, that's clearly not the case, Steve, and let's go back to [inaudible]. This project has been in the pipeline for four years now. That's how long it's been involved in the process of approvals and Minister Burke knows that. We have Martin Ferguson who has been up to the Galilee Basin, a colleague of Mr Burke's saying how critically important this project is. That was some time ago. We've had Anthony Albanese making similar comments.
Federal Government have a mining tax they want revenues from new mining projects. They're very clearly sort of people who've advocated for these projects to occur. The bottom line is that we have had an exhaustive environmental process that has gone on for some time prior to me being the Premier and we have now made a decision.
The Co-ordinator General has made a decision to approve the project to - subject to some very rigorous decisions.
STEVE: Tony Burke has just told me that Co-ordinator General's report makes no reference to the effect of dugongs, whales or turtles in the Great Barrier Reef marine park from the land part of the project, the mining part of the project.
CAMPBELL NEWMAN: Well I've actually looked at one of the project documents last night. It's there in black and white.
STEVE: What page? You'd better tell Tony burke. He's says it's not there.
CAMPBELL NEWMAN: Well I don't have it in front of me Steve but the bottom line is you could line up the binders of information, the thousands of pages and it's all there. The bottom line is look if the Minister wants to approve it, why does he refuse to tell - why does he refuse to tell us in detail what issues he wants addressed? I mean I don't care particularly how it's done. He can actually approve the project as far as I'm concerned but approve it he must subject to conditions.
STEVE: But he's governed by the Bio-diversity and Conservation Act as I understand it. His point is that unless these issues are addressed he will be challenged in Court and will lose because of the law.
CAMPBELL NEWMAN: You know Steve, it's like this. I'll say it like this. The Minister is entitled to have that view. We're not arguing with that. We're not disagreeing with that. What we've been saying for some time is tell us what the issues are that you want addressed.
Do it across the table from us and that's why I'm more than happy for Jeff Seeney the Deputy Premier to go to Canberra tomorrow to meet with Minister Burke. He's fair dinkum. He will commit right now today to see Jeff Seeney along with the officials that I'll send down there and we will sort this out. Because that's what should happen.
But you know what this is really all about, it's about politics, it's about Green preferences in Sydney and Melbourne and it's about in some way trying to say to the Greens who have been at both the Prime Minister and Minister Burke over the statements some months ago about minimising Green tape. The Greens don't want to see that happen.
This is a sort of a rear-guard action that's been fought behind closed doors to try and stop the States being allowed to undertake Federal assessments and this is why this whole fight has been picked with the State of Queensland.
STEVE: It's clearly about the fact that there's no - according to Tony Burke at least there's no mention in the Co-ordinator General's report as is required under the Act, the Biodiversity and Conservation Act, no mention of the effect of dugongs, on whales or turtles in the Barrier Reef of the approval of the Alpha coal project. That's very surprising Campbell.
CAMPBELL NEWMAN: Steve this is a Government that told the Australian people there wasn't going to be a carbon tax. There is a carbon tax. This is a Government that going back to when they were in Opposition said we'd still have a private health insurance rebate.
I could keep going on with all the broken promises and commitments. Lets' be very clear. What has the Government done in Queensland since I took over?
STEVE: But Premier it sounds like you're playing politics not Tony Burke.
CAMPBELL NEWMAN: No, I'm not playing politics. I don't do that. Here's what we have done in the last ten and a half weeks. Firstly we have committed to a strategic assessment project and a proper port strategy to stop uncontrolled development of resource - the resources sector on the Queensland Coast.
Secondly we've introduced our policy which says that the Abbott Point port which Anna Bligh used to talk about exporting four hundred million tonnes of coal a year. We've got a policy that says that will not be the case. We've throttled that back and Minister Burke is on the public record only a few days ago as actually saying that's really good and refreshing.
Today you will see the Deputy Premier outline our plans to stop the madness that Anna Bligh was contemplating with multiple railway lines criss-crossing the coast, criss-crossing farmland from the Galilee Basin to the Coast.
STEVE: Anna Bligh's gone now Premier and you carry the project.
CAMPBELL NEWMAN: Yeah well Steve I'm just going through quite deliberately one by one, outlining the way that we have actually throttled back the environmental impacts from the Galilee Basin projects. So I've talked about the port. I've talked about the Coastal strategic assessment. I'm now talking about not having multiple railroad lines criss-crossing the farmlands between the Galilee Basin and Abbot Point and you'll hear about that in the Parliament today.
We've also taken steps - or we will be taking steps I should say to deal with the management of the Gladstone Port and edging issues there and I've made some comments in the media yesterday. So that's what we're doing in contrast to the former Labor Government.
Minister Burke had enough problems sort of two and a half weeks ago. Now that there's an LNP Government in Queensland he quite deliberately has picked this particular political fight for political purposes.
Look the bottom line is we need the jobs in Queensland. We need the investment. There is no argument about - I thought there was no argument about whether the project should go ahead or not. It's really about what conditions does Minister Burke want to put on the table.
STEVE: So you're suggesting he be down there tomorrow with a team of bureaucrats to sort it out.
CAMPBELL NEWMAN: I'll send Mr Seeney down there tomorrow but Mr Burke better sit down and meet with him in good faith and sort this out and stop the grandstanding. One final thing Steve...
STEVE: Briefly if you would please Campbell.
CAMPBELL NEWMAN: Fascinating. This just shows - this shows the lack of good faith. In the bilateral agreement it says very clearly what will happen if there's a dispute. It says the parties sit down across the table and resolve them.
What we saw last night is at about eight or nine o'clock I get a letter from the Prime Minister and of course I wake up this morning and it's in all the newspapers. Now that's - that's not fair dinkum. That's not the Australian way. That's politics when you write someone a letter and the media have it before you've got it because that's what happened.
STEVE: I appreciate your time Premier. Thank you.
CAMPBELL NEWMAN: Thanks Steve.
STEVE: Premier Campbell Newman. Tony Burke, Jeff Seeney can come down tomorrow. Will you sit down with him and sort out these issues you're concerned about.
TONY BURKE: I'm happy to meet with him anytime. As soon as he got elected I gave him my mobile number so he's - he can get me anytime he wants.The Premier just said to be specific about what we want, we've provided them seventeen pages of deficiencies that needed to be fixed on Friday.
On Friday night they put out a public statement saying that the Co-ordinator General was going to deal with it all and it would be okay. Then yesterday afternoon - on Monday afternoon sorry, they blew it all up again.
STEVE: One final - one final question then tony burke. It does seem unusual or very political move for Julia Gillard to send a blunt letter to the Premier but the newspapers get it before the Premier does.
TONY BURKE: Oh make no mistake from the moment that the Co-ordinator General put this out and we found out that there had to be a separate Federal - a Federal assessment in a media release, the way of operating with this Government changed.
I mean we found out - when we thought everything was going to be streamlined we found out in a media release from Jeff Seeney that there had to be a separate Commonwealth assessment. Even though there was an agreement that this would be streamlined.
The way this has come out and the arguments that happened through the media, no doubt but please, no one should think that the Commonwealth started this and right up until last Friday we thought we had an agreement that Queensland would finish the work. It's one thing for the Premier to say oh just approve it, just do it. Put whatever conditions on you want.
If the assessment work is not done how on earth am I meant to work out what those conditions are? How on earth am I meant to have a decision that will stand up in Court and the last thing I want is to have a decision that sells the Barrier Reef short and it ends up being blown up in the Courts a few months later and all the jobs disappear again.
STEVE: Appreciate your time. Thanks for coming on.
TONY BURKE: Good to talk to you.
STEVE: Federal Environment Minister Tony Burke