Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities
Press Conference – Super trawler, Browse Basin, Murray Darling Basin Plan, crocodile hunting, anti-euthanasia law, Bureau of Meteorology staffing
16 November 2012
TONY BURKE: A few months ago now the Parliament passed special legislation to increase my powers to deal with new fishing activities.
This was very much in the context of the public debate that was happening at the time over the proposed engagement in Australian waters in the Southern Pelagic Fishery of what was known as the super-trawler, a vessel originally known as the Margiris, and then changed its name to the Abel Tasman.
I activated that new legislation as soon as it was proclaimed and put in place a 60 day period where for 60 days there is an interim declaration preventing vessels of that type from fishing, while I determined whether or not to put a declaration which the law would allow me to put in place to prevent the vessel from fishing for up to two years while additional scientific work was carried out.
That 60 day period expires at midnight tonight, and today I received the advice from my department following on from the consultation that's taken place during these 60 days. In the last hour I've signed off on there being a two year ban - I've used the full time period available - for super-trawlers to be operating in our waters in that Southern Pelagic Fishery.
During that time I'll work with the Fisheries Minister in establishing a committee which will be an expert panel to work through the science and the levels of uncertainty so that we've got the information that was not available to me when this issue was first arose.
The challenge here has always been a vessel of this nature had never been used in Australian waters. It did carry additional environmental challenges where on a number of occasions the information that I sought was not available. There was significant uncertainty about what the environmental consequences would be.
So my view - and I've always said we need to take a very cautious view on protection of the oceans - my view is we should use the full period of time available to us under law, the full two year period where the vessel will not be able to fish. Let's get the information, get the science right so that we can make an informed decision.
QUESTION: By going ahead with this two year ban have you left the Australian Government open to legal action by the owners of Margiris, and in this negotiation was there any indication to you that they would proceed with that shortly?
TONY BURKE: The company have made clear publically and personally that if they felt they needed to they would pursue all legal options available to them.
QUESTION: What do you think might be the penalty involved in terms of monetary, are we talking hundreds of thousands, millions?
TONY BURKE: We believe we're in completely strong legal ground. Under environmental law it is not uncommon for a project to be held up while checks are being performed, not uncommon at all. It's not uncommon if the checks come out saying this is dangerous for the environment that some projects don't go ahead. That's the whole nature of environment law.
QUESTION: Do you think this could have been handled better? It wasn't a surprise that the Abel Tasman/Margiris was on its way to Australia, it didn’t just turn up.
TONY BURKE: That's true. It was known earlier this year when Seafish Tasmania acquired the vessel that the vessel was on its way. I've gone through this previously. I'll go through it again now. But I was of the view that there were a number of checks which I believed at the time that the Fisheries Management Authority would carry out.
They then made clear that some of those checks they believed they wouldn't carry out, and so I sought to get advice as to what powers I had under national environmental law. As it turned out I had fewer powers with respect to the oceans compared with what I would have for operations on land. Therefore we sought to change the law, and today we've utilised those new laws.
QUESTION: So you don't believe the Federal Government would be subject to any valid compensation claim?
TONY BURKE: We believe we're on strong legal ground.
QUESTION: For any compensation claim for the company?
TONY BURKE: Correct. We believe we're on strong legal ground on this.
QUESTION: Has this issue compromised the integrity of Australia's fisheries management?
TONY BURKE: I don't accept the reference to the word integrity, but at the same time that this was initiated and we announced the legislative process that we would go through, Joseph Ludwig announced that there would be a review of the operation of fisheries management in Australia.
So what this has dealt with, and I've always said when you compare our fisheries management with the rest of the world we stack up very well comparatively. That doesn't mean that we had a system that was able to deal with everything.
Where I believe it fell short was when you had a very new fishing activity, the sorts of conditions to be cautious, that I'd be able to put in place on something that was happening on land I wasn't able to do when we were talking about the oceans. This amendment has given us a way of dealing with that.
QUESTION: Seafish Tasmania did offer in their submission of compromise, did you consider that closely or were you always of a mind that you wouldn't be going ahead with allowing any fishing in this interim period?
TONY BURKE: My department's gone through each of the arguments that were put during the formal consultation period. When I've met with Seafish Tasmania during this time and they've floated whether or not we could have a direct negotiation, I've said that I thought it was very important that we follow the legal process.
We were dealing with a new section of national environmental law, and I wanted to follow that through to the letter and keep the full formality of that. That's the way I've done it. I didn't think it was appropriate at all to be engaging in some direct negotiation back and forth across the table.
The question for me was were we or were we not dealing with environmental uncertainty. The advice that came back from the department in some areas where I thought there might be uncertainty, after the 60 days they came back saying well there's actually not much uncertainty through example, with respect to sea birds.
They were quite comfortable with the information there being quite certain. For the Australian sea lion they didn't believe there was a high degree of uncertainty for that species. But there was definitely uncertainty with respect to seals, definitely uncertainty with respect to localised depletion and the impact that that has on the target species, and on predatory species.
Similarly with respect to dolphins there were degrees of uncertainty. So the information came back against the benchmark that the parliament had determined would be the benchmark, and that was one we were dealing with a new fishing activity, two, did it create environmental uncertainty? The answer was yes, so I'm making sure we take a cautious approach.
QUESTION: The argument about the super trawler was about its unprecedented size. Where do you draw the line if another vessel came to Australia, slightly smaller than the Abel Tasman? What steps would you take there?
TONY BURKE: For me, the issue that I always raised wasn’t necessarily the size of the vessel but the capacity to remain fishing in the same region, because of a freezer capacity in large part. So, I’ve always explained it in those terms, rather than simply being the size of the vessel - even though the two, I accept, are connected.
With the question of, “Well, what if you cut it a metre shorter or another metre shorter? At what point do you draw the line?” Just get back to the legislation. The question is first, are we dealing with a new fishing activity and, secondly, does it create environmental uncertainty. And when you put those two together, if it reaches that particular threshold, then I’m going to take a cautious view on the oceans.
QUESTION: You’ve locked in a two year ban. Haven’t you left the door open for that ban to be overturned if the advice comes back that this vessel can operate in Australian waters?
TONY BURKE: My view has always been that any decision needs to be based upon the fact and what I wasn’t happy with was the view that, “well, if we don’t have the information, just go out and let it fish and we’ll see what turns up”. That’s, I don’t believe, the most cautious way of dealing with something as precious as Australia’s oceans. So, I’ve never ruled out and never prejudge what the information will be that came back after two years of studies.
So, I don’t know what that information will come back with and any final decision will be based on the information we have. What I wasn’t happy doing was making a decision based on an absence of information.
QUESTION: Has this created a sovereign risk for people looking to invest in fishing licenses and fishing operations in Australia?
TONY BURKE: To run that argument I think you’d have to have an argument that says that there’s a sovereign risk in having environmental protections at all. The nature of environmental legislation is you have tough thresholds that companies need to be able to meet. And, you know, there are occasions when companies fall short.
There are other occasions where there’s genuine uncertainty, where you don’t know what the full environmental consequences of something are going to be and, if that’s the case, my view is you do the research, you press the pause button, do the research and find out what the outcomes will be. That’s exactly what we’ve done here.
There are some countries in the world that don’t have serious environmental legislation at all, that don’t put these sorts of precautions in place. They’re also usually the same countries where there is a genuine sovereign risk.
QUESTION: Just on the Browse Basin, when will be announcing that the Federal Government will approve the gas hub?
TONY BURKE: There is still information that has to come to me from the WA government before I’m able to make a decision at all. So while the WA government have put out a media release saying it is still waiting for Federal approval or a Federal decision, there can be no Federal decision until the work on the strategic assessment and the package of documents that the WA government has to complete is brought to me.
The timeline on that I don’t know. We were not aware that that announcement was being made today until WA put out the media release. That’s fine, that’s their call. But it means I can’t give you a timeline on when they expect to have the information to me which would allow me to then make a decision.
QUESTION: What’s the specific document you’re waiting on?
TONY BURKE: It’s a strategic assessment. That was agreed in the last term of government as to the process that would be gone through to work out if the gas hub – what would be the best location of a gas hub. There’s a whole lot of environment surveys and work that goes into that. I don’t know from today’s announcement whether the WA government have that document ready yet or not.
QUESTION: Can I ask you about the Basin plan? Are you still determined to introduce it into parliament next week? And, when you do that, do you believe it covers all of the state governments?
TONY BURKE: The timeline is, in the first instance, the Authority can’t give me a plan back on the Murray Darling Basin until the legislation has gone through the Senate, which is listed for the next couple of days, to be able to put a mechanism. I won’t go through how the mechanism works but the concept of the mechanism is a bill to go through the Senate, the plan that I’ve asked them to consider a number of changes to is based on that bill going through.
So, they can’t give me something until that goes through the Senate. Exactly the timeline on that is in the hands of the Senate and not on mine, within my gift.
But once that bill goes through the Senate, then I believe I’ll be in a position fairly quickly to work through what the authority sends back, which will either be a document that’s ready to go or be a document I have to ask further changes to.
But if the Senate does that this week, then the timeline of making sure the disallowance period will be beginning next week when parliament is on, will be able to met.
QUESTION: The Greens have moved a couple of amendments though, haven’t they? The Greens have moved some amendments trying to and sure up 3,200 gigalitres as the base amount. Doesn’t that stall your plans a little bit?
TONY BURKE: Well, they’ve flagged the amendment but they flagged it to two different bills. Depending on which bill they pursue it with will determine where that’s at. I’ve made sure that I’m meeting and keeping the different parties all briefed on it. My view with all of this has always been the best way to get the politics right is to get the policy right.
I have been here long enough to know that using yourselves as a way of telling the Senate to move quickly tends to be an unsuccessful method of persuading the Senate. So I’ll leave it for them. I think we’ve got bills in front of the parliament to get the policy right and I’d encourage them to be able to deal with it in those terms.
QUESTION: Given the death of a young girl in Arnhem Land as a result of a crocodile attack, what is your view at this stage about whether trophy hunting should be allowed and how close are you to a decision?
TONY BURKE: I think we’re some way from a decision on that; quite some way from a decision on that. There’s a whole lot of information that would still have to come to me and there are very different views from different traditional owner groups from the Northern Territory.
You know, the whole issue was put forward, originally, from the Northern Territory Government as being something that traditional owners were wanting. And the extent to which that’s true, there’s pretty wide ranging views on that. But if I can put the issue in the context of which you raised it, there is already a cull that happens on crocodile numbers and what has been proposed by the Northern Territory government doesn’t put forward making any changes to the total number of crocodiles that are culled. So in terms of the impact on human safety, that wouldn’t make a change.
But you know, against all of that, we’re dealing with a terrible, terrible situation as to what happened for that girl. Something where no matter which way you look at it, people will quite rightly say, “We wish there had been a way to stop this”. But, I really think the issue of trophy hunting is quite different to anything that could have been seen to provide a protection for that girl.
QUESTION: Well, in that instance, do you think the cull numbers need to be increased then? The overall number of crocodile that are killed?
TONY BURKE: That needs to be based on the science and I’m always happy to take the advice of the science.
QUESTION: Just on the Northern Territory, what is your reaction to The Greens’ push to have Federal ban on anti-euthanasia laws overturned?
TONY BURKE: I’ve been on the record for a long time – I have the opposite view to The Greens on that.
QUESTION: Do you think you’ll face a battle in caucus though?
TONY BURKE: It’s a conscience vote issue. So, it would never be debated in caucus.
QUESTION: Can I clarify what you were saying about the Basin plan? You’ve been very determined in saying there will be a Basin plan tabled in Parliament before the end of the year. If there is a lot of Senate filibustering happening in the next few days, is your timetable potentially compromised?
TONY BURKE: There’s a few ‘ifs’ there and what you’ve described there Lauren I don’t believe is going to happen.
QUESTION: Minister, last year your department issued a report on staffing that was quite critical of the level of staffing at the Bureau of Meteorology. Are you comfortable with the level of staffing?
TONY BURKE: The review that has taken place, there was a review that we commissioned after the natural disasters of last year and we’ve been working through on the response to that. If I can put the question though the context of the extraordinary storms we had the past few days, because I’ve been mindful and have been following up today while Don Farrell, the Parliamentary Secretary, has day to day responsibility for the bureau, I’ve obviously been following up the public concern that’s been there where people have said they don’t believe the notifications were as good as they should have been.
Of all the information that has come to me so far, and I expect more will come in the next few days, but on everything that has come to me so far, the evidence seems to be that we were dealing with a very, very unusual set of storm conditions. Very unusual. That made them difficult to predict. As the Bureau had information, they made it public. If at any point I’m briefed on any information to the contrary to that, I’ll certainly be letting you know.
QUESTION: Are you comfortable with a 20 minute delay? The first storm warning was 20 minutes after the front had hit. Are you comfortable with that time delay?
TONY BURKE: I want to Bureau to be able to provide information as soon as they have it. And that’s the way it should happen. Okay, thank you.