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Interview with Chris Smith, 2GB Afternoon Show, Sydney
19 February 2009
SMITH: Federal Environment Minister Peter Garrett is not having a good day.
A couple of newspaper articles would have had him choking on his wheatgerm this morning - is it wheatgerm? One accuses him of waving the white flag over Japanese whaling and the front page of the Tele talking about how hard it is to get permission to burn off bushfire fuel, and I think that's putting him under some pressure too.
He needs to make a decision on that one, especially following this royal commission in Victoria. So, plenty to talk about. The Minister is one the line.
Peter Garrett, good afternoon.
GARRETT: G'day, Chris.
SMITH: Thank you for your time.
GARRETT: Not at all. And I've got to say, I'm not feeling like we're having a bad day at all. I actually think we're having a pretty good day, but anyway, I'll get a chance to talk about that.
SMITH: Okay, is it wheatgerm or organic cornflakes?
GARRETT: Yeah, that's right.
GARRETT: I have got a bit of a soft spot for muesli, it's true.
SMITH: Oh, right. That's fine, same here.
Let's get into the whaling issue, just quickly. You were speaking at the Lowy Institute last night and said that the best way to get an end to all whaling is through diplomatic negotiation; no more ghost ships following Japanese fleets; no more threats of legal action in the International Court; we'll go back to diplomatic channels. Is it a bit, sort of, limp?
GARRETT: Chris, I said that but I said more. Legal option for a legal challenge remains, and I made that clear in my speech last night.
But, what I did say was that the ritual position taking that's characterised the Whaling Commission over the last 10 years, all we got out of that was an increase, nearly doubling the number of whales that were targeted by the Japanese in the Southern Ocean. And what we've said is we won't compromise in any way our opposition to both commercial whaling and so-called scientific whaling.
But it's more than just, you know, people getting sound bites and grabs up. It's actually having an alternative, specific reform agenda for the IWC.
The first time anyone's brought it in - I introduced it in June last year. And I've got to say, we are having a workshop of countries that we've invited to join the non-lethal whale research, the Southern Ocean Partnership, in a couple of weeks here. America has said they'll come along, there's Latin American countries are coming along. We've got countries like Netherlands and others coming along.
We're getting a lot of support for our approach in the IWC, and that's the way that we're going to see both the moratorium remain in place and this charade of scientific - so-called scientific whaling - actually come properly under the auspices of the IWC with rigorous science, which is what it means.
SMITH: Yeah, it's a gross charade, you're quite right there. So, does diplomatic negotiation - define that for me. Shouldn't we get tough in terms of trade?
GARRETT: I certainly don't think we should be talking in those terms at all, Chris. We've got a strong...
SMITH: But that would hurt them.
GARRETT: ...trading relationship with Japan.
Yeah, look, I know that people say, well, what else can we do? The point I made yesterday when I spoke at the Lowy was this: Japan's one of our most important trading partners, the relationship between the countries continue to build and grow, but we do have a real difference of opinion on this policy matter.
We're going to prosecute that policy matter in the way which we think is best to see the end of the slaughter of whales, whilst at the same time recognising that the relationship is an important one.
And we've invited the Japanese to join with us, to join with these other countries, in the Southern Ocean Research Partnership.
We've said that we think intense diplomacy is necessary. We've got a whaling envoy, that's Sandy Hollway who some of your listeners will know about.
GARRETT: The Prime Minister, the Foreign Minister, myself, have all made very strong representations to the Japanese...
SMITH: But they don't give a damn about scientific research. You know that.
GARRETT: Well, the point is that it's through the International Whaling Commission that these matters are both discussed, negotiated and hopefully resolved.
And what I've said is, we're not going to go back into the IWC, you know, making all the sound and fury and the noise about our position and not come up with something which is constructive and concrete and a way forward.
We've actually provided a way forward. It's the first time any country's done it. I'm really proud of the work that we're doing there. We're absolutely resolved on this whaling issue and we will continue to deliver a result to people which enables other countries to work with us. Look, if at the end of the day, the Japanese Government want to talk about a so-called scientific whaling which sees them killing whales and we have a number of other partner countries working with us on nonlethal research into whales - better understanding their challenges and the sort of issues that we need to consider as we want to maintain and see those populations recover and grow - then that will be a decision that they will take.
In the meantime, what we've brought forward is the most constructive, positive set of reform proposals. We're not running up the white flag. This kind of, you know, one-liners that you hear from other people are ridiculous. We've actually got more engagement on this issue than any government ever had.
SMITH: Yeah, I hope so.
We're speaking with Federal Environment Minister, Peter Garrett. I can't tell you how many callers have phoned shows right across 2GB since the Victorian bushfires about one environmental issue: hazard reduction, or prescribed burning, as some call it.
And I note the things you've said about the tragedy in Victoria, and noone would argue with your heart-felt sentiments. But I reckon you're under pressure to make a decision on prescribed burning - maybe after this royal commission.
An environmental group has asked you to declare hazard reduction a key threat to biodiversity. If you agree, that'd basically outlaw any burning off. And I've got to tell you, the experts that have dominated our programs here at 2GB have been unanimous - this is part of a threepronged reason as to why we have wildfires now in this country.
GARRETT: Yeah, look, Chris, I've heard that debate. And I think to add to what you've said about what's happened in Victoria, yes it's - I mean it's just gripped us because of the tragedy and the scale of it.
But remember, I granted the Victorian Government an emergency exemption under the national environmental law to do whatever was needed to protect life and property. And frankly, at the end of the day, that is the primary goal of policy makers, including myself, in all that's said and talked about in relation to this issue.
SMITH: Yeah, but before you leave that, that was virtually redundant, because Victoria had all the powers it needed.
GARRETT: They requested it from us on the basis that they didn't want to find that they were in a situation where an action, potentially or otherwise, would have triggered national environmental legislation. And I was more than willing - and it was the right thing to do. I gave them the exemption because of the seriousness of the issue that they face.
SMITH: Okay. So, what's your personal feeling about prescribed burning then?
GARRETT: Look, we will need to have prescribed burning. It will have to be done in a way which is controlled and properly thought through and you know, the necessary measures undertaken. And it's clear from what we've seen that there's some bureaucracy involved in the process, I think...
SMITH: Bureaucracy? It - mammoth bureaucracy. We've had...
GARRETT: Well, I...
SMITH: ...bushfire people on the air this morning who've said it takes us a year to get all the licenses.
GARRETT: Yeah, look, I saw Phil Koperberg's remarks. It shouldn't be an arduous process. And look, managing the bush - people go and live in the bush because they love it - but managing the bush in such a way that we don't see endangered lives and we get proper, properly regulated prescribed burning out and underway, obviously needs to be an essential, and I think it's something which everybody's going to take out of the terrible events that we've seen.
SMITH: Can I take you back 70 years - and Miranda Devine raised this in the Herald today - every bushfire inquiry since the Stretton 1939 Royal Commission, has recommended increased prescribed burning to mitigate the effects of wildfire.
Can I be a tad cynical, before we go any further? How much of this is connected to the fact that governments require Green preferences to get into power?
GARRETT: Well, Chris, my view is that...
SMITH: You don't want to upset The Greens.
GARRETT: Yeah, well, look my view about that, is that managing our bushlands and preserving our environment is a matter which not only the Greens take seriously, these communities do as well.
But, the question of how best to prepare communities for the potential of a bushfire like this and to make sure that you do have an adequate prescribed burning program, is something which is seriously going to be addressed. Like, we want...
SMITH: It's inadequate. Would you agree it's inadequate?
GARRETT: Well, from what I've seen in terms of the newspaper reports today, it seems like it hasn't been done to the level that people expected it to be done - and I noted that.
So, you know, to that extent, I'm not finding myself under any kind of pressure at all. I think that these are critical issues.
Yes, we are going to have another royal commission in Victoria. I think that the Premier's made it very clear that it's an open-ended royal commission. He'll take those recommendations and take them seriously. We also will look at them very seriously along the way because if there's better ways of doing what hasn't been done now, then we need to consider it.
And Chris, I'm sorry to say I've got to leave, but I'm actually out at NIDA now...
SMITH: Oh right, okay, you've got things to do.
GARRETT: I'm just going to celebrate their anniversary.
SMITH: Yeah look, my last question was, you were the head of the Australian Conservation Foundation when in 2003 we had bushfires burning across three states. The status quo we have now in terms of hazard reduction is partly your fault, isn't it?
GARRETT: Oh, no. Look, I don't think that's particularly fair, Chris. I mean, no-one's opposed to proper prescribed burning. I'm certainly not, I never have been and - not in any role that I've ever had. And I do want to think that we wouldn't do anything to interfere with whatever actions are necessary to prevent or fight fires. I mean, that's the position that I've taken...
GARRETT: ...as Environment Minister. I think it's a sensible one.
SMITH: Okay, we hope you can wave the flag for probably a side you haven't waved the flag for before.
But anyway, thank you so much for your time. Enjoy NIDA.
GARRETT: I will do. Thanks, Chris.
SMITH: Thank you.