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

Southern Ocean Research Partnership; Australia's position on whaling; US Administration comments re whaling; Tarkine loop road proposal; forest protests; Gunns pulp mill; Abolition of Tasmanian Department of Environment, Parks, Heritage & the Arts

Doorstop interview, Australian Antarctic Division, Kingston, Tasmania
21 May 2009

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GARRETT: It's a terrific morning here at the Antarctic Division in Hobart as I gather with my colleagues - the member for Franklin, Julie Collins, and Senator Carol Brown - to see some of the incredibly exciting work that is being done through the Southern Ocean Research Partnership, with Dr Nick Gales. And to really be clear that we are providing a significant contribution to the work that is being undertaken here in Hobart through the Southern Ocean Research Partnership and the Antarctic Division.

In the federal budget you would have seen an additional $36 million investment to the AAD. And with the Southern Ocean Research Partnership where we have a previous commitment which is significant, this is the largest non-lethal research partnership on whales that is being undertaken in the world.

We are seeing tremendous support from other nations to participate in this research effort. And we are seeing, this morning, some of the first fruits of Australia's very, very positive and strong scientific engagement on this issue.

What does this mean for people in Tasmania and in Hobart? It means a continuation of the solid presence that the Antarctic Division has here. It is a significant generator of income for the local community, employment, provisioning and the like.

What does it mean for us in terms of our overall engagement in the International Whaling Commission process? It means that we are better possessed of good quality science to continue our very, very strong position and argument about reforming the IWC so that it is a conservation-focussed organisation. This lends great strength to arguments and the views that Australia has been putting forward. And I am absolutely delighted to see that this Southern Ocean Research Partnership is starting to throw up some of this very exciting science and giving us a better understanding of the transiting journeys that these humpback whales are taking and increasing the scientific effort. We want the IWC to be focussed on a conservation agenda and on rigorous science. And this morning it is beaut to see some of efforts that Australian scientists are putting in.

JOURNALIST: Minister, Japan was invited to join this non-lethal research. Has Japan come on board?

GARRETT: No, we don't have the participation yet of Japan but that invitation remains open. What I can say is that we have significant buy-in from a number of countries - from Latin American countries, from the United States, from New Zealand, from South Africa, from countries in the European Union. And this is something where Australia is taking a very, very distinctive leadership role but doing it in a collaborative fashion. We want to work with other nations - collaboratively - to continue and to expand non-lethal whale research.

JOURNALIST: And will the results of this research be taken to next month's IWC meeting?

GARRETT: We will certainly be presenting through all the relevant fora, including at the IWC, the scientific work and results that we are getting. But we will also have an opportunity, following Madeira and the IWC, to amplify and increase the research effort. And my expectation is that those countries that have indicated a strong willingness to participate in the Southern Ocean Research program will be bringing forward additional measures and actions that they want to take to join with us in research.

JOURNALIST: [inaudible] research program was looking at Japan's so-called scientific whaling. Are there any results as far as that is concerned as yet?

GARRETT: What we have identified in the Southern Ocean Research Partnership is two distinct themes. One is looking at the post-exploitation status of whales and the other is to look closely at the kind of climate change and other environment-related impacts on cetaceans that are taking place as a result of changing environment in the Southern Oceans and in the Antarctic.

So the clear thing here is that Australia has absolutely stepped out and said come and join us in a research partnership which isn't about killing whales but is about better understanding them. We think that the sort of science that we are collecting now increases our understanding both of the threats and also of the actual activities that the whale populations engage in. We want to increase that effort and we invite other countries to continue participating.

JOURNALIST: [inaudible] criticism of the government is not going far enough, especially from the opposition, in terms of getting Japan to stop killing whales. What do you say to that?

GARRETT: Carping criticism from an opposition who saw, over the entire period that they were in office, a doubling of the number of whales that were targeted in the Southern Ocean and no substantial commitment to conservation and to whale research need to be seen entirely in that light.

The fact is that we have brought forward the most comprehensive effort ever to address what is a dysfunctional situation that takes place at the IWC which permits countries to unilaterally decide whether or not they wish to take whales so-called in the name of science.

Can I just acknowledge the remarks today by senior American officials in the Obama Administration saying very clearly that the conservation agenda that Australia has brought forward is an agenda which the United States considers to be important. They have made very clear that they think the moratorium is critical. They have also made clear in their comments that they think issue of so-called scientific whaling needs to be addressed and addressed in a comprehensive and robust fashion. So I very much welcome the comments by senior American officials which provide a strong reinforcement of the position that Australia has been taking. I look forward to working with the Americans, particularly in the run-up to the IWC, and beyond.

JOURNALIST: Why won't Australia go to the IWC and broker a compromise with Japan letting them take minke whales in their own waters rather than Antarctica?

GARRETT: We have said all along that we are opposed to commercial whaling and we do not accept a situation which replaces whaling in one part of the world for whaling in another. We have also said that it is absolutely critical for the IWC to reform itself so that consideration of any issues that come to the IWC are done in a way which is credible and according to the principles of good science. That is the starting point for this discussion. That is what we are encouraging other countries to consider as they come into the IWC and we encourage Japan as well.

JOURNALIST: The working group that is trying to broker the compromise says that that is the sticking point, that is why there will be no new agreement at this year's IWC. What do you hope to get out of this year's meeting then?

GARRETT: I think that negotiations are always going to be very tough. The working group has brought forward some process suggestions. It recognises that there are still obstacles. What I would say is that Australia has brought forward a proposal which is both positive, proactive and supported - we support our proposals by inviting other nations to join us in a Southern Ocean Research Partnership. So not only are we providing what I think are really profoundly important reform suggestions for the IWC but we also providing some resources and some leadership in the research domain. And I want to go to the IWC to continue putting Australia's views strongly and clearly, but also inviting nations to work with us.

JOURNALIST: So is Australia going to use this scientific research to try to get whaling to stop, full stop, rather than taking Japan to court or using diplomacy?

GARRETT: Our focus is on going into the IWC. We have a very clear agenda that we have brought forward. I am delighted to see that we have got strong comments from the United States administration officials over the last 24 hours providing a reinforcement to the stance that Australia has taken. And we will continue the discussions.

JOURNALIST: What can you point to in the small working group negotiations so far that would give you real hope that Japan will compromise? Is there anything that they have given, any of the small concessions they have made, that give you hope that there will actually be a compromise?

GARRETT: I think we have still got some way to go in discussions. The small working group considered a number of matters. It has considered matters that we have brought forward, and other countries. But it is essentially still in a process phase. And until such time as we see a significant and firm commitment on the part of countries like Japan to address the range of issues that Australia and other countries consider to be critical in order to resolve some of these log-jams, then it is going to remain a tough and difficult negotiation.

JOURNALIST: So how long are you prepared to give it? You have given it almost two years now. How long are you prepared to give it before the legal action becomes the only option?

GARRETT: Well I don't think we can understate how much distance we have travelled on this issue since the Rudd Government came to power. We monitored with the Oceanic Viking in the Southern Ocean. We have brought forward a significant reform proposal agenda for the IWC. And we have committed significant sums for the Southern Ocean Research Partnership. We have built a scientific coalition around that partnership which is significant. And we have continued to argue very strongly both for the moratorium and also for what we believe the right processes for the IWC to resolve these issues are. The fact is that Rome wasn't built in a day. The IWC has had decades of internecine difficulty in resolving these issues. I am strongly committed to us going into the IWC meeting in June with a strong reform proposal and a willingness to talk and a willingness to discuss. On that basis, let us go to Madeira - it's what June, six-seven-eight-nine weeks away - and once we have concluded the process of that IWC meeting we will consider where to go next.

JOURNALIST: So you would think it was unhelpful to put a deadline on things, would you?

GARRETT: Deadlines and timelines don't necessarily assist us at this point because we know that we have a meeting in June and we will go to that meeting.

JOURNALIST: Minister, Australia is using science to fight science really. Japan says it is for so-called scientific research. Australia is going to say that science proves that you don't need to kill whales. Do you hope to then sway enough members then sway enough members of the IWC to say that Japan can no longer whale in the Southern Ocean?

GARRETT: We have continued to put our views very strongly. We will do that at the IWC. I am confident that the reform agenda that Australia has brought forward, the strong conservation focus that we have, and that our proposals in relation to the way in which these scientific issues can be settled, will be well listened to and well supported.

JOURNALIST: Just got a couple of questions about some local issues. As far as the Tarkine road is concerned, the loop road. Forestry Tas have applied to have it assessed under the EPBC Act. Have you received that yet?

GARRETT: I understand that the Tarkine road proposal has been now referred under the EPBC Act but it hasn't reached me yet for decision making. And it will be some time before it does.

JOURNALIST: Have you kept an eye on local tensions in the forest - more protests today, activists chaining themselves to machinery. Do you have a take on that currently?

GARRETT: I am often asked this question when I come to Tasmania. I know it is one of the features of the ongoing debate that is taking place about forest issues and I always reflect with the same words. And that is that I certainly understand that there are strong views about this issue, particularly in Tasmania, that is a fact of life here. I certainly accept that people have a right to peaceful protest and I expect that there will be that ongoing engagement and that is a matter between the authorities, between the protestors, between Forest Tasmania and others.

JOURNALIST: I also have a ... pulp mill question. In terms of the latest assessment that Gunns is undertaking. Have you heard any progress on that, has there been any update from Gunns.

GARRETT: I don't have any additional material in front of me which would add to any comments that I have made previously about Gunns.

JOURNALIST: Are you concerned at all about the effect the Tarkine road might have on Tasmanian devils?

GARRETT: In relation to the Tarkine road proposal, my task will be to consider it under the EPBC Act, to see whether there are potential impacts on matters of national environment significance. I will consider very carefully and very clearly all of the evidence and advice that comes to me. I will make sure that I am in full possession of all the relevant information that I need in order to make a decision.

I won't pre-make a decision by making comment to you here. I will wait until I get the brief.

JOURNALIST: Have you got any comment about the dismantling of the Environment, Parks, Heritage and Arts Department here in Tasmania?

GARRETT: I think there is no question that we are in a period of significant economic challenge and difficulty. And it will be a matter for various jurisdictions to determine how they want to organise their portfolios. I consider the environment policy-making and program delivery component in any state to be very important and significant. I think that Minister O'Byrne has been doing a very good job. And I would be really emphasising that the environment is as critical, not only to our maintenance of a way of life in a state like Tasmania, but also to our economic well-being as well.

JOURNALIST: So you would be concerned that there might be some conflict with environment now going back into ...

GARRETT: I don't propose to add anything other than what I have just said to you.

JOURNALIST: Minister, just to clarify what I was asking before. I think the question might not have been clear enough. Do you think the Australian science will be enough to convince the IWC that Japan should stop whaling?

GARRETT: It will be a matter for the IWC to make its decisions about matters that are in front of it. What I can say is that our significantly amplified scientific effort provides additional and strong reasons for the views that Australia has been putting both in that fora and also more generally.


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