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

Biodiversity policy; responsibilities as the Federal Environment Minister

ABC 7:30 Report: Interview with Kerry O'Brien
E&OE Transcript
18 August 2009

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O'BRIEN: Today's Sydney Morning Herald carried the rather startling front page headline: “Garrett concedes: extinction inevitable.”

Referring to a speech in Brisbane by Environment Minister Peter Garrett, the newspaper asserted he had warned that efforts to save some endangered species in Australia may have to be abandoned due to limited funds.

The minister certainly appeared to be signalling a shift in government focus, from trying to save individual species to protecting ecosystems, as a more effective long-term solution to Australia's shrinking biodiversity.

Mr Garrett is also dealing with strong claims from scientists that a draft 10-year strategy to conserve biodiversity — due to be finalised later this year — actually weakens efforts to protect endangered flora and fauna at a time of greatest threat.

I spoke with Peter Garrett earlier tonight. He was in our Canberra studio.

O'BRIEN: Peter Garrett, your speech has been interpreted as saying that funds to save endangered wildlife is limited and some species may have to be abandoned to concentrate on saving ecosystems. Is that what you are saying?

GARRETT: Not exactly Kerry, but I am saying our approach to how we look after native plants and animals needs to change because our track record in Australia is so poor. We are leading in extinction rates, we've got a lot of species which are threatened or endangered or vulnerable. Unless we have properly targeted investment, whole-of- landscape and ecosystem kind of investment taking place, then I'm concerned that all we'll be do is having frantic activity when we realise that a species is threatened and may become extinct. We will spend money on doing it, but when we look back on activities over a period of time, it'll be much that same as me looking back on the period of the last 12 years of the Howard Government. No surprise for me to say it, but the fact is, under the Natural Heritage Trust, they didn't succeed in actually stopping the decline in the health of our native species. We need to do that.

O'BRIEN: You use the analogy of ambulance attendants parked at the foot of a precipitous hill and say why not fence the top of the hill rather than wait to treat of carnage at the bottom. You say, “we need to take a more holistic and strategic approach building the fence at the top rather than staffing the ambulance”. So, that sounds very much like ‘either/or’ in the way you've said that. Either protecting the ecosystems, or saving the endangered species.

GARRETT: Look Kerry, it's not either/or, and every species is important. But it is a question of how do we best make sure that we protect as many of them as we possibly can, recognising the vital role they play in delivering productive landscapes and ecosystem services.

One of the first things I did when we came into Government — it wasn't really noticed — was to quadruple the funding for the National Reserve System. Now that's the safety net for Australia's species, particularly for our plant species. We did that because scientists actually tell us that having a national reserve system that is really capable of having significant amounts of our country which hold these species intact is critical.

But we have a couple of really difficult issues here: one is climate change, and the other is the impact that our past practices have had on our natural landscapes. Something I see every day is the impact of feral species, invasive species, on the environment. It's impacting on the Great Barrier Reef, on Kakadu, it impacts on agricultural lands as well. What we have done in the past is too piecemeal. It hasn't been coordinated, we haven't set targets for what it is we want to achieve and we haven't had a national approach that recognises we need to invest on landscape-scale systems. That's what I'm proposing.

O'BRIEN: OK, well, you've have a draft biodiversity conservation strategy for the next 10 years sitting on the table. It's been there is since March. You are meeting State and Territory Ministers in November to consider the draft. That's already received a lot of criticism. What do you say to the argument that the last strategy adopted in '96 was poorly implemented but that this next draft would go backwards further and would actually weaken Australia's commitment to protecting biodiversity?

GARRETT: I don't agree with all the criticisms of this draft. It's important to recognise it is a draft and we are looking for the feedback and the criticism, and I have heard it. And I agree that in the past we haven't successfully approached particularly biodiversity, with the level of coordination and focus that I think it desperately needs. And I'm …

O'BRIEN: Do you think the draft needs to be strengthened?

GARRETT: Yes, I do. There are some aspects of what the scientists who criticised the draft have said, which I think they have got wrong. For example, I do think we've got a strong commitment to comprehensive, adequate and representative ecosystems and that's actually right at the heart of what I'm doing.

But yes, I think they've got some other criticisms on the money. I've listened to them, and I reckon it's time to show some leadership here. I want this draft to be something which is really strong, really clear, and enables the Commonwealth to work well with the States, and I'm happy to be informed by scientists on what its weaknesses and its strengths are.

O'BRIEN: You are happy to criticise the Howard Government's record but what about the State Labor Governments and what about the proposition that legislation is constructed and implemented in such a way that by the time an issue comes to the Commonwealth where a species is endangered, it's almost too late? That, in fact, action should be taken much sooner. You ordered a year ago a review on the koala status, as to whether it's a threatened or endangered species or not. That review takes two years. There are koala experts out there who say, “That's going to be too late”.

GARRETT: Let me take the first part of your question Kerry, because I agree it's not appropriate for the Commonwealth to sit at the end of the decision chain. And, in fact, one of the things that I've done is bring forward strategic assessments under the Environmental Protection Biodiversity Conservation Act, which sees us work in consultation and collaboration with State Governments to make sure that the assessments happen by both parties under bilateral agreements. I expect more of that to take place. Not only are we are doing them in Western Australia, with the Western Australian Government in the proposed liquid natural gas onshore facility from the Browse Basin, but we are doing it on big suburban developments with the ACT Government.

On the question of koalas, the Threatened Species Committee has already looked at the question of koalas and found a couple of years ago that it didn't deserve to go, at that point, onto a threatened list. I have agreed that the situation probably has changed; it looks like the figures for koalas aren't as good as I would like. I've asked the Threatened Species Committee to go back and do that work again. Yes, it will take time but I don't think it will take quite the time you identified.

I have also instituted a look at the conservation strategy in relation to koalas. That's working with State ministers, when we meet in November this with the Natural Resource ministers. We'll look at that conservation strategy and decide what decisions we can both take to make sure koalas have a better chance.

O'BRIEN: You must by tired of the cliché that every time one of these issues comes along, the cry goes out that Peter Garrett has sold out. Every time you get caught up in a policy dilemma, whether it's uranium policy or this kind of debate. I wonder how you would identify the compromise too far, in acknowledging that compromise is at the heart of a Democratic process, but the compromise too far, the principle too important.

GARRETT: Well, look, Kerry, it's a genuine question. I can only answer it by saying that I believe that I am performing my role as a minister in the Government and as Environment Minister, not only to the best of my ability, not only consistent with the platform that we took to the election, but also to do the very best for the environment that I can, and that's how I expect to be judged.

I have been really clear that I now work as a politician. I'm a Cabinet Minister, and I think it does take time for, if you like, everybody to get a sense of what I have decided to do and how I'm doing it. I expect to be judged for it, but I think that some of the debate and questions about how I feel, and am I emotionally tied to this or that, ignore one really important fact. And that is this: I'm an elected politician, a member of parliament, and a Cabinet Minister, and my duties and responsibilities are particularly clear.

It's fanciful for people to speculate on what emotional travails I may or may not be going for, because I'm proud of what I have done already. I think the decision making that I'm delivering is robust. We haven't had decisions knocked ever in the courts like the Opposition Leader did when he was in my role.

O'BRIEN: There are some that say that's evidence of your softness.

GARRETT: Well, I would argue that it's evidence of me doing the job properly.

In relation to the reports that we have about climate change, there's a need to really work proactively in a collaborative fashion — to work with farmers, conservation organisations, the scientific community and State Governments — to build a fantastic fence, of interconnected areas, whether they be National Parks or farms, where there are conservation agreements, working with indigenous communities, to really giving our native plants and animals a fighting chance with climate change and the impacts we've been seeing for the last 100 years — so that we've got 100 years' worth of good-looking for the populations not only living in these places, but those to come.

O'BRIEN: What has been your most painful minute, moment, issue, in politics so far?

GARRETT: Look, I can't think of any that are most painful off the top of my head Kerry, to answer that question. And one doesn't come to mind in this interview.

I think one of the things that is very clear to me is that if we don't really start to be very clear about how we want to protect our natural ecosystems, there's not only, if you like, a spiritual aura or cultural cost we pay, but there's also an economic cost. If you look at the value of the Great Barrier Reef, it's World Heritage Listed, it's one of the most fantastic collections of coral and diversity of marine life. It also generates billions of dollars every year to our economy, I want to know, as a minister, that I'm doing the very best I can to take care of that fantastic resource, so for me the decisions aren't of the kind that you are talking about in your question; they are the things I'm doing that I feel good about.

O'BRIEN: You are part of a Government that has embraced policies and an Emissions Trading Scheme, and targets that some experts say will not protect the reef.

GARRETT: Well Kerry, I think that the position of the Government in terms of bringing forward both a Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme and a range of other additional measures to deal with not only mitigating CO2, but adapting to CO2 are absolutely significant. I mean, it is the most important reform that we are engaged in; it's not an easy reform, and there'll always be opportunities for people to look at it saying, “more should be done here”, or “more should be done there”, but you have to start. That's the frustration with Mr Turnbull's position, is that we are not able to start the important work.

O'BRIEN: Peter Garrett, we are out of time, thanks for talking with us.

GARRETT: Thanks Kerry.

[ENDS]

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