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Interview with Charles Wooley, Across Australia
24 October 2008
WOOLEY: Environment Minister, Peter Garrett, welcome to the program.
GARRETT: Good morning, Charles.
WOOLEY: Good to talk to you. I'm sorry that I have not been able to get in touch with you earlier. That was a good night last night. I am right aren't I that it is a shame that there is so little national media attention on this very important event.
GARRETT: Yes, look it was a terrific event, Charles, and I think that Landcare is one of the great Australia innovations and you would have heard my remarks last night when I spoke, I know when I was at ACF I thought that the actions that we took working with the national Farmers Federation bridged a gap which, at that stage, was probably too wide between the conservation community and land managers and farmers. It's gone from strength to strength. It is a program which sees real community effort happening in very constructive ways. It was a great night last night but I agree with you, it deserves more national media attention.
WOOLEY: Like you, I can remember when Landcare was just a few small eccentric groups of rural people poisoning willows and clearing waterways. How much it has grown now and very importantly it is not just grass roots any longer because of course it has all those corporate connections too. Some of our biggest and most important banks and industries are aboard.
GARRETT: Yeah, look it is really now the case, I think, that we realise that everybody in the community and particularly this is something which I think business is increasingly come to understand as well, has a stake in making sure that our natural landscapes are in good health, are productive and that making sure that we provide the opportunities for communities who know what they want to do in their own area - whether it is riparian rehabilitation, whether it is getting stuck into sorting our habitat, whether it is looking at different management techniques for better utilising country - all of those things are absolutely critical to the long term health of the continent and I think that, you're right, the fact that the big corporates are in there providing some assistance for these groups that do this very good work is a positive step.
WOOLEY: And we must say on the part of the big corporates, this is enlightened self interest isn't it? And we're all in the same boat.
GARRETT: Well look, yes, we are all in the same boat but I think that the other part of it is that if I could characterise one aspect that I think I hope will drive the way in which this Government, and certainly through my portfolio, we want to work with communities in terms of overall sustainability issues and protecting the environment. We're looking for people who work in partnership. We're not looking to a one specific group heading off and doing something where they will limit their opportunities to do that by not working in effective ways across partnerships and think that's what we see here. We're seeing business partnerships with land managers. We're seeing science and research working closely with local governments. We're seeing government departments working closely with farming groups. We're seeing conservation organisations working closely with farmers. I mean it's a much, much, better and much healthier approach and of course we've got massive challenges on us. I know you know very well, but that partnerships approach is central, you know?
WOOLEY: Peter, I applauded loudly when you recognised, and you didn't labour the point, you didn't need to to that audience, but you made the point that our attention is distracted by the fiasco on Wall Street at the moment, but that will be a small fiasco compared to - and Nick Stern has pointed it out and so has Garnaut - to what will happen to economies and to civilisation as we know it, if we don't attend to climate change.
GARRETT: Well, the Government agrees that climate change remains one of the most critical challenges that we face, Charles. And I think on the natural resource management side of things we're really clear that unless we urgently build resilience into our natural ecosystems, resilience into our productive landscapes and climate change impacts are going to be huge and we'll be looking not only at the issues around mitigation ie how we reduce our emissions, but also the other side of the coin, the adaptation part, is how do we actually prepare ourselves for some of those changes that are already in the system?
In Caring for our Country we've specifically identified a need to be very, very focused on critical aquatic habitats, on building community capacity, sustainable farming. Absolutely essential for us to look at the ways in which we can actually leverage the dollars that the Commonwealth spends so that we have actually got some real resilience and hardiness in our natural systems, particularly when we look at biodiversity which has really taken a bit of a beating over the last couple of decades, as we've seen habitat fragmentation...
WOOLEY: Well, to say the least I mean we have the highest species extinction rate in the world in this modern, first world democracy.
GARRETT: Yes, and it is something which I am really, really mindful of. I have got that awareness that it is something which we need to be so focused on and I am also aware that it's a function of rapid landscape change. The fact of the matter is that this old island continent developed all these endemic species and of course we're really in a situation now as we drive through landscape change, they are much, much more vulnerable.
So that is something which we're devoting significant resources and attention to. I'm really mindful that we don't enough money to do everything but we certainly do have a very clear focus and especially in this instance, we are saying to communities, that there are the opportunities to work with others and develop business plans. We've set really clear focused goals. That is what scientists and communities and NGO's and others have said over the years, that the Government can actually do something meaningful, they need to set clear targets, they need to be held accountable to them and then they need to give communities and other groups out there the opportunities to get stuck into it and do that work which we know they're capable of doing and that is what our aim and intention is.
WOOLEY: When you say there isn't money Peter Garrett, Christine Milne from the Greens, Senator Milne, made the point last night that when there is a financial emergency isn't amazing how suddenly $10 billion can be tipped into prop up the banks and there is another $10 million waiting in readiness too. We do have a biological, biotic emergency too that needs just as much attention I would have thought.
GARRETT: Look I didn't entirety agree with Senator Milne's comments, Charles and I will come back to those. I said there was never going to be enough for us to do what we'd like to do. I certainly think that we're providing substantial support and funding. I mean Caring for our Country is a $2.25 billion funding package. It will and can and should achieve a great deal in this space. We've also got what, over a billion dollar in terms of renewable energy commitments by the Government. I have got some significant commitments through my portfolio in terms of assisting communities. I mean, you know, Solar Schools itself is a half a billion dollar package. There's significant support from this Government to this end.
I disagree with Senator Milne's views though and I will tell you why. That is that right at this point in time the stability of our economic system is an absolute priority, not only for the Government but for communities and that is a crisis that we face at this point in time. We have responded and that funding package that your referred to does include significant portions which are aimed at helping that part of the community, particularly the pensioner and carer community, who have been doing it tough, be able to wether those sorts of storms. So I thought that was a well focused package. It doesn't take away from the overall point you're making which is that in the age of climate change coming to us and the state of health of our environment we cannot take our eye off that ball and I certainly don't intend to.
WOOLEY: I am talking to Environment Minister Peter Garrett. Peter, before you go I want to talk about you for a moment. When you came into the job you came almost laden with a huge amount of expectation from your fans, from your supporters, musical fans, people who like the way you stood up for the environment. I think they expected you to be a bit like, in the environment, the first days of the Whitlam Government when the whole was changed and politically recast. We thought overnight you would save the forests and save the river. Instead you have had to play the political game haven't you? And I don't mean game in a disparaging way either.
GARRETT: Yeah, look Charles I saw a couple of your early comments about this enigmatic figures in this role, but I guess my response to this is pretty straightforward and that is that I came into politics to make a difference. I came in as a team player. Of course I think that I recognise that the values that I held are as important to me as they have ever been but I am working in a Government where we have got to deliver policies across a range of issues and commitments and it may not be in the immediate instance that peoples expectation, particularly those who thought in some way that I would suddenly, you know, be heading out into the landscape sort of unilaterally introducing my own policies on these things. I thought that the policies that we took to the last election were absolutely right for the country and as Environment Minister, particularly where I have the role of being the determining Minister under the environment act, the big national legislation; I am going to approach that role absolutely scrupulously. My role is to make sure that there aren't impacts on matters of national environment significance. We've made a number of decisions, including decisions in Queensland and in other places where I have absolutely been faithful to that role and I have got more important decisions to make. We're I have inherited proposals from an earlier Government, say for example with the pulp mill and Minister Turnbull, as he then was [inaudible] my role is to ensure that those conditions are faithfully observed. I intend to do that and I think the thing is that...
WOOLEY: You tend to be a bit hamstrung by the law though don't you, Peter? I mean I think I know well enough your position to know that like me you would be rather worried that the pulp mill involves cutting twice the amount of trees in Tasmania that would be done at the moment. That the extraordinary wood chipping will continue to be exported as woodchip while a whole new cut would be done for the pulp mill. But that was not part of your terms of reference.
GARRETT: Well Charles, I won't have us put words into one another's mouth on air, but the fact is that under the proposal that was brought forward for the Howard Government to determine, the powers of the environment minister are contained in those conditions that Turnbull set. That is right. And my duty is to diligently and scrupulously observe the responsibilities I have under the Act, make sure that those conditions are properly and satisfactorily addressed.
Look, at the end of the day the decisions that I make as Environment Minister are challengeable in the courts. I have to provide a statement of reasons. I will absolutely ensure to the best of my regulatory role, that we protect matters of national environment significance. There are always going to be a range of ancillary issues, state issues and issues that people have views about, about whether or not they are being properly or satisfactorily addressed, that is part of the political debate that has happened in many of these decisions. But I have been really clear about it because I want people to have confidence that I will approach the job scrupulously and diligently as my responsibilities are enumerated under the Act. That is what I am doing in relation to the Gunns proposal, that is what I am doing in relation to the proposal for the Traveston Dam in Queensland, that is what I have done in relation to the other proposals that reached me and I think that if I continue to do that in a way which is faithful to the regulatory responsibilities I have and particularly make sure that when I make a decision, especially from this point on when we're now in Government, that I have all the relevant information in front of me. I want the best outcome for the environment. That is what my aim is in making these decisions and I will be held accountable to them too, ultimately.
WOOLEY: Now Peter Garrett, we've got along reasonably well considering it has been so long we spoke.
GARRETT: Yes, I think that is right Charles.
WOOLEY: I think we should do this again.
GARRETT: I look forward to an opportunity.
WOOLEY: I did like you in the Midnight Oils
GARRETT: Well, you can always put the CD on and do a bit of rocking when you finish doing the program.
WOOLEY: Thanks Peter, we'll talk again.
GARRETT: See you Charles.