Department of the Environment

Archived media releases and speeches

The Hon Tony Burke MP

Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities

Press Conference - Tarkine National Heritage Listing

8 February 2013

TONY BURKE: As you would all be aware, right back in the time of the Howard Government, Malcolm Turnbull gave a reference to the Australian Heritage Council to make a decision as to whether or not areas of the Tarkine should be put on the National Heritage Register.

The National Heritage Council has dealt with that in-depth and the report eventually came back to my desk. Now, whereas the Heritage Council’s job is to identify within a region all the heritage values, my job is to then weight that up against social and economic views and take those considerations into account.

That responsibility lies squarely with me and doesn’t form part of the National Heritage Council’s decision making process. In that time, as a number of you would be aware, you’re probably all aware, I’ve spent a fair bit of time in Tasmania and a couple of very important trips into the Tarkine.

One I did with industry, one I did with environmental groups. There has never, in my career, been an occasion where a site visit has so much changed my view. I, when I went to the Tarkine, was expecting to see nothing but the rainforest pictures that I had seen in campaign posters.

When I landed at Savage River, when I went to the Legacy mining sites, when I saw in bush walking trails that I was actually walking along an old aqueduct or that there would be old rail lines at my feet, I realised that the Tarkine has a very different history to much of what would be viewed by most people on the mainland.

So I’ve had to weigh up some different considerations in working that through to what the Heritage Council dealt with in their recommendations to me. I’ve also been very mindful of the fact that Tasmania, of all the states, has the highest unemployment in the country.

This part of Tasmania has the highest unemployment in Tasmania. At a time when I’ve been right in the heart of dealing with how the Commonwealth helps this state with the downturn that has occurred in forestry, I’m very mindful of anything that can have an impact on jobs.

So that gives you a sketch of the different issues that I’ve had to weigh up.

What I then started to do was to work out for the values which have been identify by the National Heritage Council, was it possible to draw a smaller boundary and still properly represent those values? I went through ways of trying to find that connection of rainforest, of cool temperate rainforest, and find a way of connecting those areas across the Tarkine with a boundary, in a way that was not going to have a massive negative impact on jobs in Tasmania.

I simply wasn’t able to find that boundary. Anything that I drew and took to my department, had discussions with them about, ultimately the answer came back that I wouldn’t be being true to the heritage values, if I drew boundaries that had that level of compromise and pretended that I was somehow representing the natural values.

Effectively, that means in terms of competing challenges, there probably hasn’t been a tougher call that I’ve had to make personally than this one. What it has meant is if I was simply in the business of brokering a compromise, I probably would have been able to put more area on the National Heritage List than what I’ve done.

But a compromise isn’t good enough. You’ve got to be true that you’re either representing heritage values properly or you’re not. Against all of that, I have not been able to put the natural values of the Tarkine on the National Heritage List without coming up against, what I would view, as social and economic consequences, which I believe are unacceptable.

Indigenous values were different. The indigenous values which have been identified by the Heritage Council run largely down a two kilometre coastal strip, along the west coast. Everybody that I’ve spoken to, whether they’ve been from industry, government or indigenous groups themselves, have acknowledged the extraordinary importance of those indigenous sites.

The indigenous sites tell a different story to most of the other indigenous sites around Australia, where you have a much more sedentary population, where people stayed in the one place for a diet very much reliant, historically, on sealing where you’ve got extraordinary middens and you have a very different indigenous story to what’s found in many other parts of the country.

So the decision that I’ve made is to put the indigenous values on the National Heritage List, but to not put the natural values on the National Heritage List. That means, rather than the very large area that had been contemplated since the years of the Howard Government, of the Tarkine going on the National Heritage List, we have a narrow boundary that roughly runs about two kilometres down the coast.

There’ll be many people who have been campaigning for a long time who wanted a very different outcome to this. My job as Australia’s Environment Minister means that I have to also take into account what is the impact on the economy. Now, I want people to understand a National Heritage Listing does not mean a complete lockup.

All existing uses, and I know there’s a lot of recreation uses down that coastal strip, all existing uses remain legal, remain fine, don’t require fresh approvals or anything like that. But it does go to whether or not for new projects, there would be an extra layer of approval that would have to go through the Commonwealth.

With the economic situation that Tasmania is facing at the moment, I’m not in a position to be able to do that for the whole of the area. For those particular indigenous sites, I do believe it’s important for something that is so iconic to be able to give them the protection that I’ve done today.

So I made the decision late last night and finally signed off on it. It is one which means in terms of economic activity, for this part of Tasmania, there will not be a negative hit. It’s one where the information, while I’ve gone through the Heritage Council’s report, while I’ve gone through the detailed economic submission that was given to me by the Tasmanian Government, the most important issues for me have been the conversations and the meetings that I’ve had on site.

This is a beautiful part of Tasmania. Environmental approvals will still be required for matters of national environmental significance, including species as iconic as the Tassie devil, but to put the extra layer of heritage listing across the area is something that in good conscience I simply couldn’t do, because of the impact that we would be talking about with jobs.

So for that reason, the indigenous values in that coastal strip, late last night were signed off to go on the National Heritage List, on the National Heritage Register, but for the rest of the Tarkine, environmental approvals and decisions will remain exactly as they’ve been for years to date.

QUESTION: Will you be releasing the advice from the Heritage Council? Is that exactly the report that...

TONY BURKE: Yeah. I’ll be putting everything up on the web today.

QUESTION: What was the advice, in terms of the amount of area and that sort of thing and I guess, what amount of area along that - I think it was a two kilometre coastline, you were saying?

TONY BURKE: What the Heritage Council had recommended was identified values within the entire area that had been put forward by Malcolm Turnbull under the Howard Government. So that was their recommendation. Had I put that into place, in my view the economic consequences for Tasmania would have been diabolical at a time when Tasmania absolutely doesn't need that. So, from purely environmental terms, it would have been something that would have been a wonderful thing to be able to do. But you have to take into account the impact on people. And taking that impact into account meant that I simply couldn’t go with the Heritage Council's recommendations.

But there'll be full transparency. It's not like I'm pretending their recommendations were softer than they were. They had very strong recommendations because they only had to look at the heritage values. I've got to look at more than that.

QUESTION: How many jobs would have been impacted? And how many potential mining proposals, and that sort of thing, would have been impacted had you taken the Heritage Council's - or had you not ignored their advice?

TONY BURKE: Well, for the mining prospectivity within Tasmania, the number of proposals that are seriously on the table throughout the region go to less than one per cent, as I understand it, of the area that we're talking about. It's not a massive footprint. But for each of those proposals, even if they were to get over the line, it would have meant a much longer period of assessment. It would have added significant costs to the projects.

Exactly how many jobs go away on the way through on that, you can't necessarily quantify. People could model and come up with some guessing, but I'm not confident someone would be able to give you a realistic figure. But there would be no doubt - at a time when it can't be afforded and in a part of Tasmania where, in my view, it just can't be afforded, there would have been a significant hit to jobs.

QUESTION: How much of an influence has the public outcry against the listing actually impacted on this decision? Has it been driven by public opinion?

TONY BURKE: No, if you go through the, what comes over my desk, you find public opinion with very strong views, and contradictory views. Now, I know there's been a very strong feeling locally here against the listing. You can, you know, offset that in terms of the strength of feelings in the other way from what would happen from people largely on the mainland but people who I suspect have never been to the Tarkine.

I've got to say, had I not done the site visits I would have had a different view. I would have had a very different view. But, notwithstanding that, I still saw some truly beautiful places which do have environmental significance. But for a heritage listing you need to be able to truly represent the value and to do that you would need to have a big enough boundary and at that point you start to hit the job consequences, which I just couldn’t go down.

QUESTION: In Tasmania there's been ongoing debate around land use for decades, including around the Forestry Agreement. It certainly seems as though a recommendation of this magnitude that's been ignored and not implemented will certainly remain an issue that mining, and forestry and environmental use will hinge on for years to come even though you haven't actually acted on it. What do you see the fallout being?

TONY BURKE: I can't stop people from having different views. Nor do I seek to stop people from having different views. But I'm the Environment Minister for Australia. I'm in charge of our heritage listings for Australia. I have spent more than two years looking at this, going through it, coming down here and visiting the site, meeting with the different interest groups. And against all of that, while there were more parts where I would have liked to have added a layer of environmental protection, heritage listing was not the correct way to be able to do it.

Some of these areas under the Forestry Agreement - if that gets through the parliament - some of the most beautiful areas will find themselves with an added layer of protection. But to do heritage listing you have to truly represent the values. And, you know, politically there may well have been an option of me putting, you know, a bigger area on the Heritage List and claiming, there you go, I've done it, but it would have been an abuse of the system.

You're either meant to represent heritage values or you don’t. The indigenous values can be properly represented and that's what I've done.

QUESTION: We have a slew of mining leases on the table in the north-west of Tasmania, many of which are in the region that we're talking about, and all of them are subject to environmental approval. Do you think the fact that this region's been recommended in large part for heritage listing will impact adversely future applications for mining leases in the area?

TONY BURKE: Well, no, that recommendation that was made under the Howard Government is now off the table. And why the Howard Government chose the particular boundaries they chose is something that only members of the Liberal Party would be able to answer. A question that's not often put to them, but I suggest they should be called on that.

QUESTION: Conservationists have promised a massive campaign, something to rival Franklin and all of that sort of thing. Does that, I guess, worry you, that a campaign of that magnitude, what that could mean for the mining proposals in that part of the world?

TONY BURKE: No, look, a week ago they were saying that the World Heritage Listing that I did proceed with was an extraordinary, wonderful thing that was the highlight of a whole lot of campaigning; and they were saying what a great decision it was. Today they say the opposite about this one. I'll make judgement calls based on what I think is right.

QUESTION: There are organisations in Tasmania as well that have been campaigning for a long time and purported to represent large parts of the community. But I suppose that there are issues around transparency of board and representation. Have you been in close negotiation with smaller groups like the Tarkine Coalition around this issue?

TONY BURKE: When I came here with environmental groups, Scott Jordan from the Tarkine National Coalition's one of the people who was there for parts of that. I met them on various occasions, and they have a different view. They'll be disappointed. They'll no doubt be angry about the decision I've made today. And they would see their role as purely advocating for the environmental values. I've got to deal with more than that.

QUESTION: What sort of fallout can you imagine - or can you imagine this setting any sort of precedent in the future when the Heritage Council recommends as strongly as it sounds like they have, and you not taking that into account, does that set some sort of precedent?

TONY BURKE: Look, it was more common under the Liberal Government to reject recommendations or choose quite different boundaries and things like that, as I've been advised. I can't offer examples of that but I've been told that. When I dealt with the West Kimberley I accepted the National Heritage Council's recommendations in full. Premier Barnett lobbied heavily and ran a public campaign asking me to not do that.

But I looked at it, I met with the indigenous groups there, I'd met with industry. I took the view that the entirety of that National Heritage Listing should go ahead. On this occasion I followed the exact same process and came up with a different view.

QUESTION: It's an election year and certainly in the lead-up to the last federal election we had the Wild Rivers approved in Queensland, which was something that approve (sic) - appealed broadly to a big Green voting base and left-leaning Labor voting base in the rest of Australia. Are you worried about the potential fallout politically from this decision? It seems to be something that's only going to resonate with locals?

TONY BURKE: Sorry, can I say if anyone wants to look at whether we have a Government that’s protecting the environment, you would be hard pressed to find a term of Government like this one, in terms of environmental protection.

What we have done in the oceans is the biggest single addition to the conservation of state in the history of this nation. We've resolved the conflict over the Murray-Darling Basin, something which has been a century old conflict.

We currently have meetings occurring in Cape York with traditional owner groups, now actively themselves taking the lead and putting together a proposal for a World Heritage listing.

Here in Tasmania, we've had the boundary extensions for World Heritage go off to the World Heritage Committee. And we have here in Tasmania, the added potential environmental protection that comes out of the forestry peace deal.

You would be very hard pressed - I've referred before to the National Heritage Listing of the West Kimberley, the largest National Heritage Listing in the history of the country. I am very proud, very proud, and I'm happy to be front foot on our environmental record for this Government.

On this particular decision, if people think to improve environmental record, we had to take the axe to jobs; well, we don't do that. We're a Labor Government, we deliver on jobs and we deliver on serious environmental protection.

QUESTION: Just lastly, I'm interested in how you see this decision impacting the Forestry IGA talks?

TONY BURKE: I presume it will be irrelevant - I presume it will be irrelevant. This was a different issue which preceded those talks, and that there's been a number of members of Legislative Council who've asked about this at different times. But at no point has anyone suggested that any decisions I made here would make a difference on the forestry peace deal.

So while some of the issues fall to the same parcels of land, they've been independent processes and I haven't weighed that in, in the same way.

QUESTION: The decision that you made last week to list one-hundred-and-seventy thousand hectares, certainly was one that seemed to be made independently of state Government process. How do you see that playing out given that that legislation has not been passed in the Upper House of the Tasmanian Government yet?

TONY BURKE: Well, decisions for World Heritage Listing are decisions for the Commonwealth Government. And, which by law, fall to Australia's Environment Minister and that's me and that's my job. I made sure that I had full transparency.

As you'd know, I broke my leave during mid-January and came to Tasmania and made clear that we would only put forward a World Heritage Listing if everyone understood that if it went in, we were not going to withdraw it; that we would follow it through.

I also said we would only put it forward if there was agreement from the signatories that it should go forward, and if the Tasmanian Government did not oppose it. Tasmanian Government didn't oppose it.

The industry signatories - I remember talking to them on the day before I made the decision as to whether or not it would go in. I said to them: if all you're saying is you're indifferent to whether I do this or not, then I won't. I need to know if you are asking for the Government to go ahead with this. Industry did ask me to do it. I went ahead with it. I know that there's arguments from the Liberal Party down here which pretend that somehow you could blow up the peace deal and all the jobs would come back.

Let's not forget with forestry in Tasmania, for all the job losses that we've seen, not one hectare, not one tree, has yet been locked up. Not one, and yet we've had the impact on jobs it would seem. Anybody who says we can just throw our hands up in the air and everything will go back to markets being what they were years ago is taking a cruel risk with jobs in Tasmania.

I do say to those members of the Liberal Party who've been arguing against the peace deal, if you don't have an alternative, then be upfront that you're willing to see all those jobs at Tarkine go.

Be up front, the Liberal Party. Be front that if you're not in support of the peace deal, you're willing to see the impact if peeler billets don't have a market, of how that ricochets across the entire industry. They can't this year continue to stand on the sidelines and just say they wish the world was different.

Markets have changed. Governments either take the lead and are willing to back industry so that we get the outcome for jobs and conservation that that deal offers or otherwise families in Tasmania face a diabolical future of unemployment. The Liberals might be willing to risk that. I'm not.

REPORTER: Thanks very much.

TONY BURKE: Thank you.