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

Bardi Jawi Working on Country program; Indigenous Rangers program; Kimberley LNG proposals; strategic assessment process; role as Minister; Queensland Wild Rivers; Christmas Island phosphate mine; Russell Crowe comments

Doorstop interview Bardi Jawi community, One Arm Point, The Kimberley, Western Australia
21 April 2009

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GARRETT: I have really had a tremendous morning and day here with the Bardi Jawi Working on Country Team, getting first-hand knowledge of the work that they are doing in terms of looking after country and getting a better understanding of the kinds of challenges and threats that they face in this incredibly beautiful part of Australia.

And also seeing, first hand, the tourism opportunities that are here. We have got a very successful resort at the top of Cape Leveque - owned by Aboriginal people. And the fact that we have Aboriginal people in communities working full-time in environmental land management, in tourism, in sharing their stories and their country, with our tourists, means that they have got sustainable employment opportunities in the long run. And I was very, very pleased to see the way in which this program is being undertaken.

JOURNALIST: We have seen a lot of announcements lately about more and more rangers coming on board - I think we had an announcement of 300 more at last budget time. The Government seems very keen to support Aboriginal people in this role because it obviously looks after country, but it also has implications for Aboriginal employment too. Is this something that we are going to see growing so that we can see more Aboriginal people moving into what government often calls real jobs.

GARRETT: I think there is the opportunity, down the track, to consider how this program is going and, if there are opportunities for growth then obviously we would like to look at them.

What I can say is that the Working on Country program has been very successful. And this government has provided direct support for people working in community to have employment which is not only meaningful but which is contributing a great deal to the community and also to the overall knowledge about environment, not only locally but in the region.

And when we look at the kinds of challenges that we see right around the country, a lot of the challenges that local communities will bear the brunt of. So to have rangers working on the ground or, in our case, on the ground and in the water as well, means that we are much better equipped to develop good environmental management programming and policies over time but it also means that the traditional knowledge and connection to country that people have had is absolutely powering up and informing their work practices. And I think that makes for a very, very powerful mix.

JOURNALIST: Obviously this sort of work is very important for Aboriginal people and we have heard some of the old people saying we have been doing this forever, but this is a great thing that government is serious about it too. Is it something that mainstream Australia should be more aware of - the work that Aboriginal people are doing in the frontline, I mean, effectively would you say that mainstream Australia owes a debt to rangers like the Bardi mob and others.

GARRETT: Look I think the point I'd make about what we have seen today is that this is a continuation of the kinds of country practices that Aboriginal people have undertaken for a long period of time. But what we are seeing is the mixture of a cultural tradition, deep knowledge about country which has been passed on from generation to generation, and the application of modern technologies and innovative land management practices to really drive a model for caring for country and Caring for Our Country which not only will be of huge use to the local communities but also to the nation as a whole.

JOURNALIST: You are obviously passionate about what you have seen today. You have seen Indigenous tourism, Indigenous management of their own natural resources, a beautiful environment. Is this all threatened by a gas processing precinct on this very Dampier Peninsula?

GARRETT: I think the thing about the strategic assessment for the proposed LNG site on the Dampier Peninsula is simple - and that is that we don't want to see a repeat of the development patterns of the past where we had areas of our coastline, including in the West, opened up to one-off developments and you ended up with a pastiche of development up and down the coast.

The idea here is that we will focus on one potential site that will have an assessment which is thorough and rigorous, where we make absolutely certain that the impact on matters of national environmental significance are fully understood before any decision is made. And at the same time we do a natural heritage assessment, in fact a natural and cultural heritage assessment of the whole of the Kimberley which will give us a much better and more comprehensive information base for the long-term planning issues and the interaction with planning, Indigenous communities and also environment that is very likely to emerge here in the coming years.

JOURNALIST: Wouldn't you rather just not see the gas processing precinct in this relatively untouched part of the world?

GARRETT: I think that what we want to see is sustainable economic development and absolutely rigorous protection of the environment and a maintenance and an enhancement of cultural values and a recognition that these things have got to be able to work together. That we need to have a process and assessment which enables them to work together. And we are in the midst of that process now.

So what I may or may not think about one or other particular sites is not the issue here. The issue here is to get the best possible result that we can by ensuring that we thoroughly and rigorously assess the environment issues, in terms of this proposal, and that we do it in a way which enables significant public feedback, where we draw on the best available scientific evidence, and based on all of that information, we are able to make well informed decisions.

JOURNALIST: A couple of weeks ago your band-mate, Rob Hirst, told me that you would do your utmost to stop any gas processing plant on this coastline. Why do you think... it obviously caused some difficulties for you, and you have talked about how you will follow the process. But why do you think he did that? He is very familiar with politics and the media. Why do you think he did it?

GARRETT: I have said to everybody in relation to this issue - band-mates, audiences, lobbyists, the media, my colleagues - that the Kimberley is a special place and all the planning decisions that go to the specialness of the Kimberley have got to be taken with a great amount of care and consideration.

But we are committed to a strategic assessment - it is the first time that one has been contemplated under the EPBC Act. It is an assessment that will be thorough. It requires that we take full notice of the advice that we receive, not only from the departments that are doing the work, but also from the scientific and consultancy work that gives us a greater understanding of potential impacts.

And on that basis, and up until that time, I don't propose to say anything else about it other than, as I have with all my other decisions under this Act, I bring a strong concern and desire to set absolutely thorough and best standard levels for the protection of the environment, as well as following absolutely appropriately and rigorously, the regulations and agreements and legislation that guides my decision-making.

JOURNALIST: Would you be concerned if not on a ministerial level then on a moral level - we have seen the Kimberley Land Council and the traditional owners come to an agreement. They have signed off, in principle, on a deal with the government and developers. And Wayne Bergmann said that ten minutes before the traditional owners took that decision, they rang the Premier and said that we just want to know if this doesn't happen, would you compulsorily acquire our land. And they were told no. Colin Barnett, that afternoon went on the news, and said yes of course I would have compulsorily acquired the land. On a moral basis, would that have concern you? We have people like Missy Higgins saying that of course Aboriginal people have agreed to that deal, they were backed into a corner and were, I guess, making a decision under duress. Would that concern you?

GARRETT: I think that this agreement that has been struck between the KLC, the West Australian Government and Woodside is an agreement that has been freely entered into and it needs to be seen for that. It is an important step in the process and it represents an opportunity for traditional owners and for others to be able to have an interest in any potential development that might take place.

And I think it is always been the desire of the Commonwealth that the parties would reach that agreement and it has happened. And we have acknowledged that as an important step.

JOURNALIST: What role will you play in the process? If the bureaucratic process comes to a finale and says yes this should go ahead, are you just a rubber stamp at the end of that process that just signs off on whatever you are advised or do you bring a personal view?

GARRETT: The approach that I take on these issues, as environment minister, is to make sure that we get the best decisions in place that satisfy the responsibilities I have under the national environment legislation, and in this case under the strategic assessment agreements that we have struck with the state of Western Australia. I will be rigorous, I will be diligent. I will make sure that I am in full possession of all of the relevant material in terms of the need to make a decision. And once I have received it, I will make the decision.

JOURNALIST: Before you were elected you were a high profile environmentalist. You were pre-selected by the Labor Party under that public profile. You were elected to parliament. Don't you have a duty to continue on with your work? On the one hand you have said that you won't bring your own personal feelings to bear, but weren't you elected for those well known personal feelings to the environment?

GARRETT: When I was elected I brought a strong and continuing passion for the environment both into the parliament and into my ministerial role and I will absolutely maintain that. And I'll do it in a way which is consistent with the responsibilities that I have as an environment minister. I want to be the best environment minister I can for this country. And I think when people look closely at the decisions (a) that have been made and ultimately the ones that we will make in the future, they'll make a judgement about that.

My role is to make absolutely sure that the issues that I am required to consider as environment minister are properly and diligently considered. I would just point out to you that in the period of time that I have been environment minister I have inherited decisions, some decisions which were overturned by courts, that my predecessors have made.

I intend to make robust decisions, decisions that have the environment at their core, at that they are absolutely properly considered, in a way which is consistent entirely with the responsibilities that are described for me under the EPBC Act.

JOURNALIST: Do you think your fans and former colleagues when you were in the environment movement will assess you as the best environment minister?

GARRETT: I don't spend any time thinking about what fans or other people might assess for us in terms of the job that we do. I just try to do the job to the best of my ability and get on with it.

JOURNALIST: Do you have an opinion about the Wild Rivers legislation in Queensland? Last week we saw Noel Pearson effectively spitting the dummy and leaving welfare reform in the Cape to basically concentrate on fighting the government on the declaration of three rivers up there. And I think Warren Mundine has come out now and said that Aboriginal people should be compensated because environmental concerns are overtaking the concerns of the people that are actually living in those areas. Do you have any sympathy for that argument.

GARRETT: That is a matter for Mr Pearson, the Queensland Government and others to talk through. I know there has been good deal of debate that has followed on from Noel Pearson's comments but I think it is a matter for them to sit down and have some discussion over time.

JOURNALIST: Do you think Aboriginal people sometimes, because frequently, usually conservative politicians talk about the unholy alliance between the Aboriginal lobby, I guess, and the environmental lobby. We are seeing now quite a bit of a chasm emerging between the environmental lobby and the Aboriginal lobby here? Is it the end of that kind of unholy alliance?

GARRETT: I don't think there ever was something which we would call an unholy alliance. I think we have all got a common interest in making sure that we provide opportunities for people for meaningful livelihood, sustainable economic livelihood over the long term, and in order to do that, we have to make sure that we have the appropriate protections in place for the environment which sustains us all. Now that is the challenge that we are all faced with and that is the one that we will get on with dealing with.

JOURNALIST: You are basically, your sign-off for the LNG hub at James Price Point, will be the final step in it all. Should Woodside or any proponents have any feeling of certainty as to this site and how long do you think it might take before, basically, the site does get a final green light?

GARRETT: The final decision will probably take place some time in the middle of 2010. I won't be giving any indication about the likelihood, or otherwise, of my decision up until making that decision other than to say that it will be done thoroughly and rigorously.

JOURNALIST: Christmas Island phosphate mining - what do you foresee as the future of that?

GARRETT: Well we had the opportunity to visit Christmas Island to look at a range of issues that are important there including issues that were raised by the mining company who have sought an application to increase phosphate mining. That hasn't formally reached me at this point in time. Now that I have had an opportunity to visit the mine and to meet with the mining company, I will have a look closely at both their submission and also the remainder of the advice when it reaches me. And then I will make a decision.

JOURNALIST: No early indications as to whether that can go ahead -

GARRETT: I won't be indicating, at all, the decision that I will be making. What I will say is that I have had the opportunity to see - first hand - the mining activities on the Island and I have had the opportunity to hear first hand from both the community and also the mining company.

JOURNALIST: And no reaction to that?

GARRETT: As I said, I will wait now until the submission is formally considered by me and I get formal advice from the department.

JOURNALIST: And I also believe Russell Crowe has said that he has contacted you relating to Steve Irwin's land. Have you heard of this?

GARRETT: There hasn't been any formal contact from Russell Crowe in relation to the Steve Irwin property up in Queensland, but it is subject to rigorous environmental impact assessment with the Queensland government and relevant authorities and my understanding is that that will continue. Of course, if Russell wants to get in touch with us and make formal contact, I am always happy to talk to him.


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