Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities
Interview with Barrie Cassidy - ABC Insiders
10 June 2012
BARRIE CASSIDY: Now to our program guest, the Minster for the Environment, Tony Burke. A multi-billion dollar coal project in Queensland was on hold while the Federal and State Governments argued over environmental standards and how they should be enforced. But then the two levels of government met on Thursday and real progress seemed to be made. While Tony Burke joins us here in the studio, the Queensland Premier, Campbell Newman, on Tuesday and then we'll see what his deputy, Jeff Seeney, had to say after Thursday's talks.
CAMPBELL NEWMAN: What we're seeing from Minister Burke, I'm afraid, is political game-playing designed to win votes in urban areas in Sydney and Melbourne from the Greens. Minister Burke is looking for every reason to stop the project under the guise of environmental protection. I mean, how about a bit of can-do?
JEFF SEENEY: I think the political rhetoric dominated the debate for a couple of days, but I think everybody knew that – that – those – that that project in particular and that process is so important for Queensland's future and for Australia's future that we had to sit down and sort it out responsibly. That's what Tony Burke and I did on – on yesterday. What we've agreed to do is to re-examine the process, to have – have some amendments to the process, to make sure that that sort of situation doesn't happen again.
BARRIE CASSIDY: Minister, good morning; welcome.
TONY BURKE: Good morning, Barrie.
BARRIE CASSIDY: Well, that was the Premier and the Deputy Premier in the same week. It must have been quite a meeting on Thursday.
TONY BURKE: That wasn't the only contradiction that we've had over the last fortnight, and it's been a very strange fortnight dealing with the Queensland Government. I think we've ended up where we will have a situation where you get a single process for business, but you do not in any way lower environmental standards. And effectively for a fortnight Campbell Newman kept daring me to give a second rate environmental approval and, at the same time, provide great uncertainty for the businesses involved by making a decision that would be prone to being overturned in the courts. Now, it was bait that I don't know why he tried to get me to do it, but there was no way we were going down that path.
BARRIE CASSIDY: But is the politicking over? The two levels of government now, do you think they can gener – genuinely work together on this?
TONY BURKE: Well, we have to, we have to. Often in environmental debates you get a tug of war between the environmental protection and providing certainty for business. It's very rare that you have someone encouraging you to give a bad outcome for both. That's what they were wanting me to do, and we've ended up with an acknowledgement that we're not going to get a streamlined process for this particular company. They're now dealing with the Commonwealth, and we'll finish the work that Queensland wasn't willing to do.
BARRIE CASSIDY: But I – I guess Campbell Newman can say he got some concessions from you on Thursday. Jeff Seeney came away from those meetings saying that you – you'd agreed on some amendments to the process. What are those amendments?
TONY BURKE: Well, we haven't finalised the exact wording yet, but the principle's really simple. If they say they're going to do the Commonwealth level of the assessment, then they finish the job. And if they're not going to finish the job, they give me plenty of notice that they're not going to finish it, so that we can start the work. I mean, I don't want to get into all the technical detail of the legals with it, but effectively what we had was a situation where we'd been told by Queensland that they would do the Commonwealth and the Queensland assessment.
They then finished the Queensland part of it, didn't finish our part, and just released the report, said, it's all done now, and by the way, we're waiting for the Commonwealth to do their assessment.
Until that moment, we didn't even know that we were meant to do one, because they'd said they were doing it. Campbell Newman then came out and said, well, just put conditions on it. Now, I can't put environmental conditions on something, and you know, this is no ordinary environmental asset. We're talking about impact on the Great Barrier Reef. I can't put conditions on unless the work's been done to assess what those conditions should be. You know, it's a significant approval over one of the most pristine and important environmental assets on the planet. It's not a game of pin the tail on the donkey where you blindfold yourself to say, oh, I'll put the conditions there, take the blindfold off in a few years' time and see whether or not it worked.
BARRIE CASSIDY: But you say this is impacting on the Barrier Reef. These approvals are only for the mine and the rail link; it's got nothing to do with the ports, and they made this point that you talk about dugongs and whales and so on, but you don't see whales that far inland. Why do you say this impacts on the Barrier Reef?
TONY BURKE: Because the biggest impact that we have on the reef – and this came out even in the UNESCO report of last weekend – is runoff. It's runoff from land is the principal challenge that we're facing in the Great Barrier Reef. Now, these rail works go all the way to the coast, and when you put a railway line in, you need to do significant earthworks because obviously you're completely levelling things. Now, the runoff impact may be something that I can put conditions around that's properly managed.
BARRIE CASSIDY: But the runoff impact at the end of a rail line is a significant impact?
TONY BURKE: A railway line – oh, it's the earthworks that go to it, Barrie. When you do earthworks, you have a significant shift in what the runoff will be into a marine area. Now, it may well be that the conditions I have to put in place aren't all that difficult for the company to be able to do. But if I did what they were asking and just said, we'll ignore that part of it, then you are guaranteed that in 12 months' time the entire environmental approval would have been overturned in the courts.
BARRIE CASSIDY: If you're having these problems with a rail link, then when you get around to the ports, you're going to have real problems, aren't you?
TONY BURKE: Well, I don't think we will now because I think now we'll have a situation where Queensland will either finish the work or they'll give us plenty of notice beforehand if they're not willing to finish it, and we'll get on and do whatever parts of the work they're not willing to do.
BARRIE CASSIDY: But you will want them to finish the work, won't you, so that then there's consistency around the country?
TONY BURKE: Oh, that's my preference, that's my preference, and that is what I thought we had on this occasion. The worst thing that we had on this occasion was that they said they'd do a job and then they weren't willing to do it, and then the moment they decided to flick-pass it to us, they put out media statements saying "and we're waiting for the Commonwealth to make these decisions". You can't do business that way. You're dealing with a deeply significant environmental asset. I'm not going to guess the conditions. And you're dealing with a massive pipeline of investment, and I'm not going to create a situation where decisions are made that just get overturned in the courts 12 months down the track. That would be the worst outcome for investment, and a ridiculous outcome for the environment.
BARRIE CASSIDY: Well, all things being equal, then, how soon can this project get under way? How soon can the approval be given?
TONY BURKE: We work with all companies on the basis – they tell us their final investment decision date and we try to work to that. Now, if I'd known a few months ago that this work wasn't going to be finished, we may well have finished it already. The final investment decision is later this year. I'm pretty confident, and the company's quite confident, that what we need to be able to make a Commonwealth decision will be done by then. but I've given the Queensland Government until the 20th of this month, so that's Wednesday week, before I make a decision as to whether or not we actually can work with them on a streamlined system. A streamlined system only works if they're willing to do the work that they commit to do.
BARRIE CASSIDY: Well, you seemed to get a good response from Jeff Seeney, but Campbell Newman nevertheless was critical. Do you trust the Queensland Government to properly take care of the Barrier Reef?
TONY BURKE: Not under the current conditions of that agreement. I want there to be a much stronger agreement with Queensland that gives me some level of oversight as to whether or not they've conducted a proper assessment.
BARRIE CASSIDY: But wouldn't they have a greater appreciation of the value of the Great Barrier Reef to their economy than the Federal Government would?
TONY BURKE: Well, I would have thought that until the last fortnight that they had a very high level of appreciation of the importance of the Great Barrier Reef to Queensland. There wasn't a hell of a lot of evidence of that in the last fortnight.
BARRIE CASSIDY: What happens when – there's something like 38 projects coming on stream in that basin area, in the Bowen Basin; what sort of stresses will that put on the sea lanes and on – on the Barrier Reef generally?
TONY BURKE: Depends on the conditions that you put around it. Anthony Albanese's been putting some new systems in place for shipping which means we should have some higher level of safeguards that are starting to come into play as well. But some of these issues I absolutely need to have a level of direct oversight on, and I want business to be able to just deal with one level and have it as streamlined as possible before it comes back to me for a final decision. But I'm not prepared to say the way to streamline it is to make the Commonwealth standard go away. It won't go away. We won't lower conditions, and Queensland need to recognise that a streamlined process is about them taking on some responsibility, not about lowering environmental standards.
BARRIE CASSIDY: I suppose you saw that advertisement that's been running in some of the –– some of the Asian newspapers, put there by some environmental groups and Getup. What did – what did you make of that advertisement?
TONY BURKE: It's – well, obviously I'm opposed to the advertisement. The advertisement is opposed to any involvement in the coal industry at all, and you look at the websites of the groups that have put it out, they're not specifically opposed to this conference – this project; they're opposed to any project involving coal. My view is you want industry to be able to continue in a way that is sustainable. That means putting the right conditions around it; that means making sure that it's sensitive to the environment. If you were having a blanket ban and that was the only pathway, we wouldn't be meeting with the company now to try to resolve what checks and balances need to be put in place.
BARRIE CASSIDY: Now, a big one just around the corner is the Cape York Peninsula and what to do with that. When are decisions going to be taken on that? When are you going to get moving on that particular issue?
TONY BURKE: I'm still hopeful that next year we're in a position to take a world heritage nomination to the World Heritage Committee. There are – and I've been up to places like Shelburne Bay; these are some of the most extraordinary places on the planet. There's no other place on it like earth. I've shown people photos that I've taken there, and people were convinced that you're in the snow, not in pristine white sands. But the view of any world heritage nomination has to be it only goes ahead if it's got the support of the traditional owners. Now that may well mean there's some areas that could qualify for world heritage that I don't put forward.
BARRIE CASSIDY: There won't be a common view coming from the traditional owners; it will depend on where they are.
TONY BURKE: Oh, but there are processes in determining for different places who the traditional owners are and whether they want the nomination to go forward. We did something similar for national heritage in the West Kimberley, and was able to work with a whole lot of different groups and come up with a listing of what people support.
BARRIE CASSIDY: But what I mean is that traditional owners, the group – the opinion could vary depending on where they are on the cape. Different groups will have different views.
TONY BURKE: Oh, that's right, but they'll be traditional owners of different parts of the cape.
BARRIE CASSIDY: So you take a different attitude based on their view?
TONY BURKE: That's right, that's right, for those individual sites. And it means you don't end up with some blanket listing across the whole of the cape, but it does mean that some of the most magnificent parts of the planet that are there on Cape York, with the support of traditional owners, are able to get that level of international recognition.
BARRIE CASSIDY: Do you think that people have the same view about the environment now as they – are they as passionate about the environment now as, say, they were five years ago?
TONY BURKE: Yes, I do, I really do, and I think one of the things that's happening at the moment is people's attention has started to go – they – 20 years ago it was all about what happened on land. With the climate change discussion, there's been a lot of focus on the atmosphere. I think what's happening next is people's focus is shifting to the ocean and the marine environment. And this is 70 per cent of the earth's surface, and I think increasingly people are saying, well, we've got a national parks estate on land; why don't we offer some of those same levels of protection to areas of the ocean?
BARRIE CASSIDY: But when you see the attitudes towards the carbon tax and how that's varied over the years, you do get a sense that people aren't as acutely conscious of it anymore; at least, not – they don't seem to be as concerned about it as they were.
TONY BURKE: Environmental protection. Going back through all the years, it has always been an issue where there's different views and where there's controversy. That's why it's always been something that's hit the news in different ways, right back to the fights over Fraser Island, you know, what we are – 30, 40 years ago or something like that. So I don't think the existence of controversy says therefore people don't care. It means it is going to be a constant – it's the key issue, the environment, in terms of when people ask a question, what are we leaving for the next generation, these sorts of issues always strike a chord, and as I say, I think we're moving now towards a renewed focus on how we treat that marine environment.
BARRIE CASSIDY: But if that's true, when the government is arguing or debating the carbon pricing, it seems to me the debate is about taxation and compensation; it doesn't often be about – it doesn't seem to be about the environment. It's not something the government talks about passionately.
TONY BURKE: Oh, well, I think if you can flick through a few media conferences of mine of late –
BARRIE CASSIDY: But you're the Environment Minister, but the rest of them, the Prime Minister, the Treasurer, everybody else who draws into – gets drawn into this debate, they talk about taxes and compensation.
TONY BURKE: Yes, look – I mean, the Treasurer, who's responsible for those specific economic issues, has also been out there talking about the importance of the Great Barrier Reef. You know, we're talking about some very, very iconic environmental assets, and maybe part of the reason that some of the debate you – you say may have taken a bit of a backseat is people have presumed these issues would never be under threat again. They were protected, they were banked, they were fine.
We've seen over the last fortnight how easily, with some of the new state governments, we can find ourselves in territory where what we thought was previously not under threat is suddenly back to a big national argument again. And when those national arguments are on, I think it's important that we draw a line; we say, we'll find every way we can to work with business, but we are not taking backward steps on levels of protection.
BARRIE CASSIDY: Thanks for your time this morning, appreciate it.
TONY BURKE: Good to talk to you.