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Interview with Kelly Higgins-Devine, ABC Brisbane & Wide Bay
11 November 2009
HIGGINS-DEVINE: Well, this is the announcement that the people of the Mary River were waiting for earlier today.
[Excerpt from announcement]
GARRETT: I take my duty as the Environment Minister very seriously; to protect Australia's environment on the basis of the best available scientific evidence. And after considering the Traveston dam proposal, and the best available scientific evidence [break in transmission] that is in front of me, it's my intention to say no.
[Cheers and applause]
[End of excerpt]
HIGGINS-DEVINE: Cheers from the people in the Mary River area who were listening to that announcement today from the Federal Environment Minister. Let's find out his reasons for this decision.
Peter Garrett, good afternoon.
GARRETT: Hi Kelly.
HIGGINS-DEVINE: Minister, what were the major reasons for rejecting this project?
GARRETT: The major reasons for rejecting Traveston Dam is that it would have unacceptable impacts on nationally protected matters which the national environment legislation requires me to protect, and that the advice to me was that there wouldn't be sufficient confidence that measures that were proposed by the proponent to reduce those impacts, in fact, would have that effect, and that we would see serious impact on species like the Mary River turtle, the Mary River cod and the lungfish over time.
HIGGINS-DEVINE: Minister, you reviewed a report by Queensland Coordinator- General Colin Jensen, which found the dam was feasible. What was it about that report you found lacking?
GARRETT: Well, the advice that my department provided for me, and the independent expert advice that came through to me, identified a number of issues in relation to the proposed measures that the Coordinator-General had identified, including say, for example, once you had a dam in place, whether the measures that they identified for trying to get species to traverse the dam, either by a fishway or, in the case of the turtles, via a turtle passage, could be said to be appropriate for the likely threats that were faced by the species.
Given that there were no significant operating proposals in place, it would take some time once a dam was built to know whether or not those kinds of measures may or may not work. That was one matter which I thought was critical, and the advice to me concluded that.
The other was to do with the actual habitat for these endangered species, and the fact is that the advice again was clear that the Mary River in its current state does provide important habitat. It would be an altered state.
But on the basis of the expert reviews that my department commissioned, the advice through to me was that by flooding the river system, it would impact on habitat, that there'd be a disruption to the ecological processes for the species, their recruitment, breeding and the like.
And given that we're already dealing with three species which were identified and requiring a level of protection under the national environment legislation, my proposed decision today stands.
HIGGINS-DEVINE: Minister, what about the actual site itself, was any advice given to you as to whether or not it - other than the threatened species - whether or not it was an appropriate site for a dam environmentally, given that it's a flood plain, it's very shallow. Did any of those sort of considerations come into your decision?
GARRETT: No. Not in as much as the advice to me was on whether or not there would be impacts on nationally-listed species and whether or not measures that were identified to reduce that impact could be considered as sufficient.
HIGGINS-DEVINE: We were under 20 per cent in our dams not so long ago in the south-east. The State Government had this as part of a water strategy. Hasn't this decision left south-east Queenslanders in a vulnerable position?
GARRETT: Well, you certainly did go through a tough drought period and water levels were low. I think - I'm pretty sure in saying that south-east Queensland dams are currently at over 70 per cent full. So there's ample time for the Government to revisit alternative supply options, and that would mean not jeopardising water security or, frankly, threatening species or their habitat.
And, I guess, the other thing was that the material that was provided by the proponent showed that the requirement to draw on the Traveston water supply wouldn't have become a requirement in terms of time until around 2026.
So I think, based on those matters that I've referred to you now there's ample opportunity for those issues of long term water supply to be considered.
HIGGINS-DEVINE: With that immediate pressure eased, with the water we've had in the past 18 months or so, if that hadn't been the situation, however, would it have been a different decision if we'd still been in dire straits water wise?
GARRETT: Yeah. Look, Kelly, it's a hypothetical that you're raising with me.
GARRETT: And I'm not ducking it, but what I'm saying is that I make these decisions as a regulator. I think people are starting to hear me say that quite a bit, but it is the case, and I make it on the basis of the advice that comes through to me. And in respect of the matters that I think are absolutely critical for me to consider. And in that case, the advice to me was clear and unequivocal, as were the independent experts' advice.
And bear in mind, this is a proposed decision. We have to afford natural justice to the proponent and, also, to federal ministers, and I will take into account any comments that they make, although I do understand that the Queensland Government has said today that they won't challenge the decision. I welcome that announcement from them.
But at the end of the day, my job is to protect the environment. That's what I'm there to do. And I want to do it in a way which affords the long-term protection to these species which are already identified as being at risk, and I want to make sure that we can secure their future as much as possible.
HIGGINS-DEVINE: Minister, just on that, you've been heavily criticised in recent months for decisions regarding the uranium mine in South Australia, the gas development off the West Australian coast. Did it at all factor in your decision today politically that you needed to be seen to say no to a potentially environmentally damaging project?
GARRETT: No, it didn't. And in relation to your remarks about heavily criticised, I'm not sure that's exactly right. I think that what we've seen - I mean, certainly, you know, political parties will criticise the decisions that I make, but the feedback that I've had, particularly from decisions I've made here in Queensland and, also, the natural gas decision which was an existing decision already in place which I provided additional conditions for, is that those decisions have been made, not only consistent with the national environment legislation, but also to make sure that the environment standards are set as high as they can be. I'm setting new benchmarks in the decisions that I'm making for environmental protection.
Now, I don't expect that to become front page news or feature on your radio program, but I'm very, very confident that, over time, people will come to recognise and understand that, and certainly those who work in the field do.
HIGGINS-DEVINE: Was there any consideration given to the damage this could do to Anna Bligh and Labor in Queensland?
GARRETT: Political considerations are not material in my decision-making under the Act. It's very clear that I'm a stand-alone decisionmaker. I neither am pressured by nor do I encourage political consultation or, you know, considerations to be undertaken, because it's not part of the way in which I'm making those decisions.
HIGGINS-DEVINE: Peter Garrett, thank you very much.
GARRETT: Thanks Kelly.
HIGGINS-DEVINE: Appreciate talking with you. That's the minister, Peter Garrett, on 612 ABC Brisbane and ABC Wide Bay.