Department of the Environment

Archived media releases and speeches

The Hon Tony Burke MP

Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities

Interview, Emma Alberici, Lateline: Alpha Coal dispute, supertrawler, Murray Darling Basin and Marine Parks

27 August 2012
E&OE only

TOPICS: Alpha Coal dispute, supertrawler, Murray Darling Basin, Marine Parks

EMMA ALBERICI: And now to tonight's guest, the Federal Environment Minister. For about three months now, Tony Burke has been locked in a feud with the Queensland Government over the approval processes for the six and a half billion dollar Alpha coal mine and rail project. It's escalated into a war of words over who cares more about protecting the Great Barrier Reef.

Meanwhile, the Federal Coalition has bought into the conservation stoush over the Government's decision to declare more marine parks, effectively locking out commercial and recreational fishing.

And on the horizon is looming the super trawler, Margiris, headed for Tasmania. It's the second biggest trawler in the world and the Fisheries Minister, Joe Ludwig, has approved its operation in the country's south-eastern waters. Now the Environment Minister may have to overrule that because he isn't so sure it should be given the green light to proceed after all.

To discuss all of this, I was joined a short time ago from our Parliament House studio by the Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities, Tony Burke.

Tony Burke, welcome to Lateline.

TONY BURKE: Good evening, Emma.

EMMA ALBERICI: If we could start with the Alpha mine and rail project in Queensland, you called the state's assessment procedure shambolic. In what way was it shambolic?

TONY BURKE: They'd told the Commonwealth that they were going to complete the assessment process, so you had a streamlined assessment and then we'd put in our conditions, they'd put in theirs. Well, they got to the end of providing the information they needed to make their decision and just stopped, didn't complete the Commonwealth part of it and then just went straight to the political game of saying, and now we're waiting for the Commonwealth.

Well, up until that moment, we hadn't even known that we had to conduct an assessment and they were effectively daring me to either dump the process and not complete the work that needed to be done or to follow due process, make the checks that needed to be made and effectively play into their game of delays in a project.

EMMA ALBERICI: Well that certainly contradicts with the way they explain it, because of course they produced a 386 page report with 128 recommendations. How was that not completing the process?

TONY BURKE: Well, you don't measure environmental conditions by the kilo, and the quality of an environmental assessment's based on what you check. So if you go through the words of that report, for example, they were upfront that there were some species where they hadn't conducted surveys.

For the marine environment and the issue of run-off onto the Great Barrier Reef world heritage area, there's a number of species that we have to look out for, a number of concerns about the marine park area and they just left it, left it completely. Then when I complained about it, they said, well, this is all about land, without acknowledging what you do on land has an impact on what happens in the ocean.

Some of the biggest threats to the Great Barrier Reef are issues of run-off and they were effectively wanting me to not meet the standards I'm required to under Commonwealth Law.

EMMA ALBERICI: But as I understand it, impacts for the port and the marine life fell outside the scope of the initial assessment conducted by the Queensland Government and that actually those are being considered by a separate report jointly undertaken by the state and federal governments.

TONY BURKE: The separate report will deal with the impacts from the actions that happen in the marine environment, so proposals for dredging, for deep harbour access, things like that. Those sorts of things will be dealt with in a second report. But the impact of the large scale earthworks that are required when you build a railway line all the way in, the impact on the Caley Valley Wetlands, things like that, those impacts had to be dealt with at this stage.

If the only thing the Queensland Government was asking of me was to try to move and crunch timelines where we can, if that's all they were asking for, that's not a bad objective. It's not unreasonable to say, if you can get to the same decision, try to do it more quickly. But what they've actually been asking me to do in that process is to lower the standards of the decision by not making the - not doing the proper checks. Now, I'm happy to work...

EMMA ALBERICI: Have they actually said to you they don't want you to do the checks? Is that the terminology they've used?

TONY BURKE: Well yeah, they told me in the example of Alpha to make the decision based on the Coordinator-General's report and to make that decision within thirty days. Now, it, by its own admission...

EMMA ALBERICI: Isn't thirty days the actual statutory requirement under the Act, that the Federal Government needs to respond within thirty days?

TONY BURKE: At the completion of an assessment. Now, when they hadn't completed the assessment, it meant we had to stop the clock, do the assessment directly with the company and then make the decision. The thirty days from the completion of the assessment's a reasonable timeframe, but if you don't do the work, if you don't do the assessment, then either it ends up effectively taking longer because you have to stop the clock or you're being dared to make a decision without doing the checks.

EMMA ALBERICI: So are you questioning the Coordinator-General's assessment?

TONY BURKE: I did. I've done that very publicly. Not in terms of Queensland law, but in terms of what was required for a Commonwealth assessment. I've done that very publicly and we've now ended up with agreements between us and Queensland to try to make sure that nothing like this happens again.

EMMA ALBERICI: If we can move onto another issue that's taking up a great deal of interest around the country, do you know yet whether you have jurisdiction on fishing to intervene in the matter of the super trawler that's heading towards Australian waters?

TONY BURKE: No, I'm still waiting for further advice from my department. The challenge here is there's a whole lot of scientific work that's been done and it's to try to get through the extent to which the work that's been done contemplates a vessel of the style of this one. Ultimately I'll either have legal powers to intervene or I won't, and I'm governed by the Federal environmental law on that. I'm waiting for that advice to come back. I don't think it'll be too much longer.

EMMA ALBERICI: Do you fear that perhaps the Fisheries Minister has made the wrong call here?

TONY BURKE: Well, he's checking for different things, and the Fisheries Minister's job is very much the management of the stock levels. I've got a particular job in terms of looking after the by-catch and looking after particular species in the marine environment.

EMMA ALBERICI: Because of course you'd know that seven independent scientists have already rejected claims that the Margiris, this particular vessel, is likely to cause localised depletion of stocks, for instance. And we know that they have agreed to have monitors on board and so on. So it would appear that they've done most of the work to satisfy any potential objections that your Government may have.

TONY BURKE: Well that may well be the case. The work that you refer to about depletion of the targeted stock isn't the principal thing that I'm looking at. The principal thing that I'm looking at is whether, at the same time that they're targeting the particular bait fish that they're going out for, what other marine species get taken as by-catch and get swept up in the nets at the same time.

I am challenged by some of the reports that I've seen. There were questions that I still had after I'd met with the person who owns the fish quota, and I'm waiting for that information before I can make a decision.

EMMA ALBERICI: Okay, just in the same realm, if we can look at the issue of marine parks which go to some of these same issues about depletion of stocks and so on. Your Government has decided that it will add new marine parks to those already earmarked by the previous Coalition Government. What was behind that thinking?

TONY BURKE: The concept of national parks in the ocean is something that Australia embarked on under the Keating Government. When the Howard Government put national environmental law in place in 1998, they provided the clauses for all of this to happen. And the scientific work has been done over more than a decade. It was time to make the decisions and work out what the plans would be across our oceans for a national parks estate in the ocean.

Now, it's different to fisheries management. It's not simply about working out whether individual stock levels are sustainable. At its core is a principle that there is some value in having some areas which are actually preserved for nature. And similar to how Australia was actually one of the world leaders in developing national parks on land, we're now the world leader in national parks in the ocean.

EMMA ALBERICI: But why go further than the previous government had already done?

TONY BURKE: Well the previous government had started working on the science for all of our oceans but the only area in Commonwealth waters that they'd actually established any marine national parks was in the southeast. So there's a few that go off around Victoria and off the coast of Tasmania. But the rest of our oceans, when you go west of Kangaroo Island, all the way around Western Australia, up through the Kimberly, across the top end of the Coral Sea, those areas - and down south to Lord Howe Island - those areas, nothing had been established.

The scientific work was nearly ready to go and the powers to actually put those marine parks in place hadn't been done. So the situation is when Tony Abbott was in the Howard Government, they supported the marine parks that they'd put in place in the southeast.

I don't see how you can support putting them in place in the southeast and then say it's suddenly completely wrong to put them in the rest of our oceans.

EMMA ALBERICI: Well, what they're saying in fact is that your assessments have not been subject to that same scientific analysis or community consultation that theirs had been subject to.

TONY BURKE: Anyone who wants to check that should just get onto a search engine and google marine bioregional planning, and then the bioregional plans, you'll get a link to them and you'll find in one of them, on page two I think it is, is a photograph of Malcolm Turnbull for some of the science that was based on work that was done when he was Environment Minister.

The scientific basis of this has been done under the Liberal Government and under the Labor Government. We're now at the stage where we make a judgement call. Having done all this work, do we think there's a value in having national parks in the ocean? Do we want to follow through?

EMMA ALBERICI: So can I just clarify then that you're saying that the same scientific rigour has been applied to those extra marine parks that you've allocated over and beyond those that were earmarked by the previous government?

TONY BURKE: Yeah, the previous government's work had started on the various ocean areas - I think it's the southwest was the one that Malcolm Turnbull had done the scientific work for and released it. The national parks hadn't been established. For that region, I've announced them now and...

EMMA ALBERICI: But I don't think Malcolm Turnbull has actually given the green light for the Coral Sea, for instance, which is the area that you are now deeming to be marine park.

TONY BURKE: Well, the southwest, the northwest, the north, the Coral Sea, the temperate east, all of those, the scientific work had begun under the Howard Government. All but one of them has concluded under us. And yes, the Coral Sea, I would view as the jewel in the crown of the whole project.

With the Coral Sea, we have on the areas that immediately go alongside the Great Barrier Reef, we've preserved some of the areas that are important for fishing and there's a trawl area, a very narrow one, that's retained there which is high value and important for jobs in Queensland. But across some of the top reef sites that we've got in the world, places like Osprey Reef, Veema Reef, Shark Reef, for those we put them into marine national parks, and we see a value in that.

EMMA ALBERICI: A lot of fishermen, commercial and recreational, you would know, are not happy with some of the marine parks you've earmarked. In fact they say it's going to put a lot of their livelihoods at risk. Can you understand when they say - when they scratch their heads about the fact that we import more than seventy per cent of our seafood and that you're making it even more difficult for these people to keep Australian jobs at home and be able to source fish at home?

TONY BURKE: Can I deal with the commercial and recreational issues separately, Emma? On the commercial issues, wherever I could get the same environmental impact but minimise the impact on commercial operations, I took that option. So what we have in the plans that are out there, the impact on our fishing industry is point-nine of one per cent of the value of their production.

So across the maps that are out there, the most important sites for commercial fishing have remained available for them. The impact on their businesses as a whole across - there'll be individual businesses that are impacted differently - but across the whole of our wild catch, 0.9 per cent.

Now, last week when the Opposition announced that they were wanting to unwind these, they also ran a recreational argument about the importance of people being able to go out on a boat with their children. That announcement was made from Brisbane.

From Brisbane, you would have to travel out in a tinny for more than four hundred kilometres before you could find an area where you couldn't drop a line. Now, you don't find many parents taking their kids out in an 800 kilometre round trip so that they can drop a line and catch a fish.

There's a lot of lies in the way that this has been portrayed, in particular by the announcement the leader of the Opposition made last week. When they are that far out, hundreds of kilometres out in the case of the Coral Sea, before you get to an area where recreational fishing is banned, you've really got to ask, what's the problem? What's the problem in establishing the sort of environmental outcome that we're wanting to achieve.

EMMA ALBERICI: And on the issue of why we're importing more than seventy per cent of the fish that we consume in Australia?

TONY BURKE: We also export a very large percentage of the value of fish that we consume. You know, a lot of our rock lobster, a lot of our abalone, there's a lot that we export as well. So it goes in both directions. But on that seventy per cent figure, if all that we're taking away is point-nine of one per cent of the total value of the catch, that's no more than what you get in seasonal fluctuation anyway.

EMMA ALBERICI: But Minister, I'm just - I'm curious to know, why is it that we import so much of the fish we consume?

TONY BURKE: Oh, because a whole lot of very low value fish is imported, always has been, and the reason that you've got low value fish being imported is that Australian fishing has focused on the high value catch.

EMMA ALBERICI: And just finally, Minister, if we can just turn to the Murray-Darling, there has been no consensus, as you well know, for a century or more. What makes you confident that you can achieve that by the end of this year?

TONY BURKE: Oh look, I know full well there is every chance that at the end of the year I could end up in a situation where my name is added to the long list of water ministers who've failed to resolve this issue. But I am determined that that is not the case, and at the moment I think it is fair to say that across the basin states we are closer than we have ever been to getting an agreement. I've continued to push those timelines.

In the statement that'll be released on the web tomorrow morning, I've made clear that I'm now completely open to continuing the conversations with the states for a few more weeks. I'm not rushing to activate the unilateral legal powers that I have. If I need to...

EMMA ALBERICI: Why aren't you rushing to do that? I mean, it's clearly an urgent...

TONY BURKE: If I need to, I will.

EMMA ALBERICI: It's clearly an urgent issue. I mean, twenty of the twenty-three river valleys are now officially deemed to be poor or in very poor condition. Hasn't this been urgent for quite some time?

TONY BURKE: Yeah, it has been and when we're this close to a consensus, I reckon the next few weeks, it's worth that much of a delay. It's not worth an eternal delay and there will be limits to how long I'll stretch it out. But on the implementation of this, it is implemented far more effectively if you have the states cooperating.

So if I can get that, it does help deliver a better outcome for the rivers. So if I can get that level of consensus, I'm going to keep trying for a few more weeks to be able to land that. Either way, I am determined that I sign off on a plan this year, which will be the first time that we've run the Basin as a Basin as a whole, instead of pretending that rivers will respect state boundaries.

EMMA ALBERICI: Minister, thanks very much for your time tonight.

TONY BURKE: Pleasure, Emma.