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The Hon Peter Garrett AM MP
Minister for the Environment, Heritage and the Arts

Gunns pulp mill; Sea Shepherd

Interview with Mark Collier, 2GB drive
5 January 2009

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COLLIER: Well Gunns pulp mill in Tasmania will not go ahead for the moment at least. The Minister of the Environment, Heritage and the Arts joins me on the line.

Minister, good afternoon.

GARRETT: G'day, Mark.

COLLIER: Peter, thanks for joining us. Can you tell us the nature of the announcement that you have made today regarding the pulp mill, please.

GARRETT: Mark, today I have decided to approve nine of the modules of the original approval that Malcolm Turnbull made about the Gunns pulp mill before the last election. But I have not approved three of the modules. They are the modules that go to the operation of the mill and particularly concern issues around the effluent that will go into Bass Strait and the necessity for hydrodynamic modelling – that's modelling that tells us where the currents are going at different times of the year and where the effluent is likely to be dispersed and what will happen to all the material that is in the effluent and if there is material there that does pose a threat to the environment what actions we should take. What I have said is that that hydrodynamic modelling, that science and that research and deciding what actions should be taken if stuff is uncovered that needs attention, that has to happen first, before the mill can be approved.

COLLIER: Now I understand Gunns is saying that the Government should pay for these additional studies. Is that likely to happen?

GARRETT: Well, look that is a question for Government to consider in the event that Gunns makes a formal proposal. My response to that would be that this is a matter that Gunns would have always have had to done anyway. It was contemplated under the original decision of approval that Malcolm Turnbull made.

Now, strangely Mr Turnbull didn't require that the work be done before the approvals process was concluded. I think I have addressed that issue today in my decision. But my expectation is that it is something which Gunns ought to undertake. After all, they are the ones that are proposing to build the pulp mill.

COLLIER: The Greens and the environmentalists in response to your statement today have come out saying it a cop out, that you did have the option just to say no. But now the community will have to endure two years more of uncertainty. What do you say to that?

GARRETT: Mark, I've got the say they're wrong. I think they are wrong on both legal grounds but they are also wrong on the grounds of what my proper responsibility as an environment minister is in determining these matters.

The Greens ought to know and Senator Brown and other should know that under the environment legislation nationally, my responsibilities are to make sure that I adequately consider all the matters that come before me and if they are going to have an impact on matters of national environment significance, that I determine whether or not in this case, there ought to be special issues or conditions that are addressed.

Now, when Malcolm Turnbull approved the mill, this government inherited Mr Turnbull's conditions. My responsibilities as Environment Minister aren't to throw all those conditions away. That would be inappropriate. That would be something which no incoming Government would ever do. Rather, my responsibility is to make sure that the ongoing decision making process is relation to the mill is faithful to the intent of those conditions but also my responsibilities under the Act. That is, to make sure that we don't have impacts on the environment – the marine environment, the Commonwealth environment – that are significant and to make sure that the necessary work is done so that we have a really clear understanding and there is public confidence in the material that comes to us.

I should say that what I have done today is being forward with this modelling – this hydrodynamic modelling, what happens to the effluent when it is discharged into Bass Strait – into the approvals process. It would have had to have been undertaken in any event and it would have had to have been undertaken by Gunns. I am doing the right thing by making sure that is done now.

COLLIER: Well the people of Tasmania now have to sit on their hands for at least another two years. This was supposed to create 3500 new jobs in the construction phase and then another, I think, 1600 permanent jobs. What concerns do you have within the current economic climate with the increasing unemployment that we believe we're facing. Is there any room for consideration of this in the decision making process.

GARRETT: Mark, I don't consider significantly questions of whether or not this proposal can be advanced in the current economic climate. My decision making is confined to making sure that I follow the Act and that I take the advice that comes to me on matters of national environmental significance impact and the like. I can consider and I do consider more generally, additional matters.

On the question you have put to me, I can only go on what I have seen in the public reporting on this matter. It wasn’t contingent on my decision making, I have got to stress that. But it is the case that up to this point in time, Gunns have not publicly said that they can find the finance to get this mill up. What has always been the situation though is that the Commonwealth Government has required the conclusion of proper environmental studies in relation to the marine effluent into Bass Strait. That was always going to be the case and that is still the case.

Frankly, the way in which Malcolm Turnbull had the conditions I don’t think was particularly useful for the company’s purposes and I will tell you why. If, hypothetically, it turns out that there are issues that come about because of the hydrodynamic modelling which do show that there needs to be additional measures taken, say for example tertiary treatment, it is far better that that is understood, clarified and agreed in terms of those measures between the Commonwealth and the company and that any potential construction of the mill take that into account rather than waiting much further down the track for that to happen.

So it seems to me whether Gunns are able to advance the mill by way of getting additional finance from overseas is a matter for them and it is a matter for the global financial crisis conditions which everybody faces which are difficult. But what my decision has done is provide an additional level of certainty to what Gunns may have to contemplate if they go ahead with the mill. And I did note today by the way that Gunns welcomed the decision.

COLLIER: If Gunns does come to the Government with a proposal, a formal proposal for assistance for the Government to actually pay for these additional environmental studies, you wouldn’t rule out supporting them in that area at the moment?

GARRETT: Well, look there is no formal proposal in front of us,. I can indicate in principle that I think it is the responsibility of the company to meet those studies and the requirements for them. They are the ones who are putting up the proposal. It is generally the case in proposals of this kind that it is the proponent that meets the costs. I believe in principle that that same principle should apply in the case of the Gunns mill.

COLLIER: And I am sure that the Australian taxpayer would be on your side with that?

GARRETT: Well I think that is a fair approach to take, Mark, to be honest.

COLLIER: Peter, can I just move on a little bit to whaling – a slightly different subject. The Japanese Government is calling on you, the Federal Government, to ban the Sea Shepherd boat, the Steve Irwin, from Australian ports, saying by allowing the Steve Irwin to tie up here where complicate in what the Japanese see as its crimes in the Antarctic. Is there any chance you would consider that seriously?

GARRETT: Well there is no formal request been received from the Japanese Government yet, Mark, I should say. I saw those reports this morning. If there was a formal request received then obviously it would be considered but the general rule is that so long as the activities of any vessel who is seeking to take advantage of a port facility in Australia is done in a way which is consistent with our national and international obligations then there is no prima facie reason why it would be refused.

We have constantly called for real attention to be given to safety at sea issues in relation to the Sea Shepherd and its activities with the local fleet, the Japanese fleet, I beg your pardon. But at the same time we have also said that we respect the right for people to peacefully and freely demonstrate their views. So, in the absence of the Japanese Government making a formal inquiry to us then the – I’m sorry I have got a mobile phone here which keep ringing, you can probably hear this in the background. Your poor old listeners are listening to my mobile phone going off.

COLLIER: Hey mate, you stopped talking like a politician then for ten seconds, I enjoyed that very much.

GARRETT: It is ringing,,,anyway, to cut a long story short, no formal application has been received. It would be considered according to the national and international obligations.

COLLIER: Can I just say when you just sort of went informal there, I was going to suggest to you that maybe you have been to the Julia Gillard school of political speaking because that passion and fire that we used to see that we used to see before you took on this portfolio, is it still there?

GARRETT: Of course it is Mark, and I think that Julia does a very good job. But you know what, in relation to my Environment Minister decisions I have got to say that they are particularly difficult and often quite complex decisions and I really want to make the best decisions that I can. I care a lot about the environment and I think people really do know that. If it tends to end up sounding a little bit legalistic and a little bit politician-like, I apologise for that but I have to say that none of my decisions have been overturned in a court of law yet, so touch wood.

COLLIER: It sounds also a bit like covering your bum as well?

GARRETT: Oh, I don't know about that.

COLLIER: Thanks so much for joining us this afternoon, elaborating on some of that in that semi-formal speak and we will carefully watch and we are very interested to see what happens with the three more, the review of those three areas that you have required of Gunns. Thanks for you time.

GARRETT: Thanks Mark.


Commonwealth of Australia