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

Gunns pulp mill; Ministerial responsibilities

Interview with Marius Benson, ABC News Radio
6 January 2009

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BENSON: Peter Garrett, there seems some degree of confusion about the announcement you made yesterday. Is it fair to say that you have told Gunns you can build this plant, this mill, but you may not be able to operate it until, unless you satisfy further requirements?

GARRETT: Marius, Gunns have always been able start preliminary work on construction given that some modules had already been approved previously and yesterday I approved further modules that do relate to the construction of the mill. But I didn't approve any of the critical modules that relate to the hydrodynamic modelling and other testing of the effluent in the marine environment nor the monitoring and remediation and response strategies.

So, it is the case, and it always has been, that when modules as approved under Malcolm Turnbull's conditions are approved, then Gunns are entitled to act on them. But in respect of the modules that relate to the ocean effluent and marine outfall and the testing that is necessary, those modules aren't approved and they can't get approval until that work has been done.

BENSON: In fact you've said your hands were effectively tied by Malcolm Turnbull apart from some changes you made, but isn't that the idea when you change Government, particularly on an issue which is very much of the campaign, that the policy changes?

GARRETT: Well the Government always said that it accepted the decision that the former Howard Government made and that we weren't going to expose companies to sovereign risk. We had a commitment to value adding of the forest resource but that we wanted to see the best environmental standards apply and that we would treat the conditions that Mr Turnbull had created I that light and that is exactly what we have done. And I think that is the expectation which anyone would have both of Government's and also of proponents of a project like this or any other.

BENSON: There has been an interesting mix of responses. Gunn's is pretty happy with your decision or announcement yesterday. The market wasn't too happy, they marked Gunns prices down. And I was just speaking to the Mayor of Launceston this morning and he says this is a non-decision, this is the last thing we wanted, we wanted some resolution and this doesn't provide it.

GARRETT: Yeah look I am really aware of that fact that people in Tasmania in particular are anxious about this matter be finally concluded. The fact is that Gunns would have had to do hydrodynamic modelling anyway. Under Malcolm Turnbull's conditions, what in effect was happening was that he would approve the mill if he was still Minister and then there would be a whole series of tests, complex in some instances, and then if there was a requirement for further or additional conditions or other issues or problems arose they would then have to be dealt with - the process would have been ongoing. What I have done is bring forward that necessary testing in a way which gives Gunns enough time to do it but which provides a very clear timeline for that work to be done. But it is within the approval condition and frankly, for the people of Launceston, I guess what I would be saying is that I need to make sure as Environment Minister that the environmental standards which we set are the absolute best and totally right for the condition for this project and in order to do that we need the time for that work to be done.

BENSON: The least ambiguous and strongest criticism of this decision has come from Green critics and there is always a particular edge of Green criticism with you because you were such a prominent figure in the Green movement. The criticism is that you have sold-out and been swallowed up by the ALP machine and that criticism comes up again with this issue.

GARRETT: A tired old cliché and frankly Senator Brown's efforts around this particular matter have been fairly ordinary, Marius. I mean we had Senator Brown claiming two days ago that I had taken direction from the Prime Minister and that I was going to approve the mill. Now not only was that completely inaccurate and incorrect frankly, it was a bit of mischievousness that is beneath even Senator Brown at his worst. My duty as Environment Minister is clear and I follow it clearly too - that is to make the decision myself, on the basis of the material that is in front of me, taking the necessary, relevant advice from the Department and making sure that matters of national environment significance are protected. I have made a number of decisions now as Environment Minister. Decisions that former Environment Minister's haven't made and some of those decisions have been particularly useful and purposeful in terms of protecting the environment. But I came into the Parliament to work as an effective politician and these are stale, tired and quite often contradictory claims.

One thing I should add to this and that is pretty interesting is where the Opposition is at because Greg Hunt, the Shadow Opposition, put out a really interesting release effectively criticising me for doing what Malcolm Turnbull, his Leader, had done, you know, just before the last election. So, they're all over the place the Opposition on this. At the end of the day the Environment Minister in this situation - any Environment Minister worth their salt - has got to be faithful to the Act that they have to administer, to the advice that they receive from experts and legal advice and their Department, to make sure that they are setting the bar at the appropriate level to make sure that there aren't impacts on matters of national environment significance and here we have done that. The most critical part of this project has always been what happens to the marine effluent when it gets into the marine environment - what happens to the effluent? Those studies now have to be properly done and the response strategies worked out and settled before any approval can be given.

BENSON: A broad final question about you in politics in light of Green criticism of you. Is it fair to say that the ALP has change you more than you have changed the ALP?

GARRETT: Look Marius, I think this is a pretty tired old debate. I think that what people probably need to in a sense to reflect on, is that when you become a Minister in a Government you are a part of that team. You're supporting, as rightfully you should the decisions that are made by that Government. You're arguing for things that you believe passionately in within the caucus, within the Cabinet. But when decisions are made you support them.

Now I think we have brought forward a decision on this matter which is totally faithful to not only what we said before the election but also to my own views before the election. Remember that when I was ACF President I supported value-adding. I said that if we have best practice in terms of environmental protection we should be actually producing paper and pulp in this country instead of exporting woodchips overseas. Now whether or not that is a matter which people find agreement with it is consistent with my earlier beliefs. I now work as an Environment Minister, I enjoy and relish the challenge.

BENSON: Peter Garrett, thank you very much.

GARRETT: Thanks, Marius.


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