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

Incident in the Southern Ocean; Japanese whaling; Uluru-Kata Tjuta Management Plan; Elvis Presley

Interview with Nick McCallum, 3AW Mornings
8 January 2010

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MCCALLUM: And I'm pleased to say that Peter Garrett, the Federal Environment Minister, is on the line. Minister, thank you very much for joining us.

GARRETT: G'day, Nick.

MCCALLUM: Will the Australian Government send a vessel down to Antarctica to try and diffuse this situation between the Japanese and the Sea Shepherd?

GARRETT: At this point there are no plans to deploy any vessels from the Australian Government perspective, Nick, to the Antarctic. There are two inquiries now underway, one from the New Zealand Government - as you'd know, the Ady Gil’s a New Zealand registered vessel - and one from the Australian Maritime Safety Authority, inquiring also into that collision.

We retain a very, very strong call for parties to exercise restraint. You would have heard the Deputy Prime Minister yesterday and me the day before, saying that safety at sea is paramount. We'd already written to all parties emphasising how important it was that the masters of vessels exercise appropriate restraint at sea because the potential for loss of life in these southern waters is very high. And we'll continue to maintain a very, very strong call for safety at sea.

I can also advise you this morning that as of yesterday, the Australian Embassy in Tokyo made high-level representations to the Japanese Government reiterating the Acting Prime Minister's comments on the use of charter flights, urging Japan to conduct its own investigation into the collision with the Ady Gil; and the Acting Ambassador also reiterated the public statements that I, as Environment Minister, had made and the Foreign Minister previously, about how important safety at sea in the Southern Ocean is.

MCCALLUM: But, Mr Garrett, you're a former activist yourself, so you know these are words and you know they will have virtually no impact on the Sea Shepherd, in particular, and the Japanese Government; they're only words. So why don't you send a boat down there and really maintain an Australian presence?

GARRETT: Well, I think the Acting Prime Minister, Nick, summed it up pretty well yesterday when she said that there is no evidence that when we did dispatch the Oceanic Viking two seasons ago for the purposes of collecting material for a potential legal action, that it had any impeding influence upon those vessels at that time and…

MCCALLUM: …but hang on, Minister, it was a different situation at that time. There was not a Japanese security vessel down there at that time and certainly, the Sea Shepherd hadn't arced up its protests by including that fast Ady Gil, as well. I mean, it's a totally different level this time.

GARRETT: Well, look, I think the point is a simple one and it's this, Nick, and that is that there's an expectation, given that they may be in waters which are not directly associated even with the Australian Antarctic Territory, that any vessel down there, for whatever purpose, has a primary responsibility to ensure that it conducts itself properly and it makes sure that it takes care of the safety of the people who are on those vessels. I mean, that is the primary responsibility of a master of a vessel, whether they're protesting or fishing or a tourism vessel or anything else of the sort.

MCCALLUM: But that's an expectation, Minister. I mean, and that expectation has already been blown because of what has happened. I mean, it's all good and fine to say there is an expectation, but you know that expectation now is not being met.

GARRETT: Well, I think that the key point here is that we have now made an additional representation at the highest level through the Australian Embassy in Tokyo to the Japanese Government reiterating the Australian Government's views. At the same time we will continue work closely with our New Zealand counterparts, we have a protocol about safety at sea and we will continue to repeat, as we've done in the past, that safety at sea does take precedence over any other activity that parties are contemplating undergoing in the Southern Ocean. And I think that's a reasonable thing to be doing.

MCCALLUM: But can't you understand that the Japanese Government and the Sea Shepherd protesters would look at that response and say, well, that's wishy-washy? They're not going to do anything; they're going to talk a lot but they're not going to do anything. So it's not going to have any effect.

GARRETT: Yeah, look, Nick, I guess I go back to the point that I made previously to your earlier question. When we had the Oceanic Viking in the Southern Ocean two seasons ago for the purpose of collecting material for a potential legal action - something which we said we would do - it did not have an impeding effect upon the activities down there at that point in time.

The Government remains strongly of the view that it is absolutely essential for the responsibility for safety at sea to be exercised by both the Japanese and also by the protest vessels.

MCCALLUM: But, I mean, I - personally, I think that's a cop out, particularly, when - I mean, the protesters say there is a war going on down there and it's on our doorstep. So surely, we should get physically involved in - so, there are two questions. Do you believe there is a war out there? And then, if there is a war, doesn't that elevate Australia's interest in being involved and getting down there and trying to separate the parties?

GARRETT: Well, Nick, I think calling it a war is a pretty strong expression. It's very clear though that those protest activities have nearly resulted in injury and potential loss of life to somebody. So there's no doubt it's very serious what's happening in the Southern Ocean.

And it's also absolutely the case that we have been crystal clear in our condemnation of any violent activities that are undertaken or are being undertaken on the ocean. It doesn't matter who is responsible, or who you believe is responsible, the bottom line is that. It's also the case that in this instance we have three vessels, a Japanese vessel, we have a Dutch registered vessel and we have a New Zealand registered vessel and in fact this incident took place whilst close to some of the Australian territory, in other countries respective waters.

So, yes we do have a strong, strong voice to say that people ought to be conducting themselves, making sure that safety…

MCCALLUM: And it's being ignored. And that strong voice is being ignored.

GARRETT: Well, all I'll say to that is that we'll continue to say it as strongly as it needs to be and it should not be ignored by anybody who's exercising activities in those waters because it's very remote…

MCCALLUM: Well, Mr Garrett, whether it should be…

GARRETT: …it's very inhospitable and I think, you know, we were very, very fortunate to see that there was no loss of life out of yesterday's - or the day befores - collision.

MCCALLUM: Mr Garrett, it just appears as though this is totally unrealistic, because you're right, the Australian Government should not be ignored, but whether you like it or not, they are being ignored and they will continue to be ignored and you know that.

GARRETT: Well, look, I think the key thing here, Nick, is that we have got a range of measures that we put in place to contest the Japanese activities in the Southern Ocean and…

MCCALLUM: All of which haven't worked.

GARRETT: Well, what I will say here is that it's very, very disappointing given that since we came to government we have done every single thing, bar taking legal action which remains an option, that we said we'd do, and frankly, we've done every single thing that our political opponents, then the government, didn't do.

We have got significant diplomatic effort undergoing - and I don't mean just the business of the representations that I've spoken to you about today that happened yesterday. The fact is that we're part of the IWC. This is an organisation that has been dysfunctional in the past, which we've gone in with a new, pro-conservation agenda, working with other like-minded nations, seeking to win the arguments on the floor of the commission.

We've got a Whaling Envoy. It's a high-level, diplomatic appointment and a Whaling Commissioner spending a great deal of time going to the meetings, the meetings between meetings, to talk these things through, and I've said, we're not writing a blank cheque on these negotiations. I've always said that. We want to see progress.

MCCALLUM: But Mr Garrett, it's been two years. You were elected over two years ago and with the threat that you would take the Japanese to the International Court and we've spoken today to Professor Donald Rothwell from the ANU college. Now, he is an international law expert. He says you have legal opinion saying you've got a great case.

So, why not go ahead and do it? Rather than just talk about it all the time, as you have for the last two years, and will continue to do until the IWC meets again, why not go ahead and do it?

GARRETT: Well, Nick, you know if it was as easy to have a successful legal action as some put about, then it would have happened long before now, given that the Opposition when they were in government never took that step.

And look, I've got respect for Professor Rothwell. I've met with him. I've discussed these issues, but the fact is that we have to act in a way that gives what we think is the best chance of bringing a permanent end to scientific whaling.

That's what the ambition is. That's what we've called into account in the Commission and I've said that we will not go to the next IWC without making substantive progress to that end.

It's important just to do some quick history here. When we first went into the Commission, we actually brought in a completely new agenda. An agenda that's about research, co-operation, non-lethal whale research, whale watching and the like, and we specifically said that the Article 8 in the commission which allows the Japanese at this point in time, and other nations, to exit themselves from the process and declare that they're actually doing scientific whaling, so-called, needs to be properly resolved.

That is an absolute from Australia's point of view, but I also said that we would work in good faith, over time with all the countries necessary to argue that through. Now, if we don't make significant and substantial progress before the next IWC meeting then we will be at that junction point of making additional decisions about what we want to take.

MCCALLUM: So, that's June, right?

GARRETT: That's correct.

MCCALLUM: Yeah. So, what you're saying is you've set a deadline of June. Now, can you say that you will go ahead with the International Court, the legal action, if you don't get an appropriate answer through the IWC in June? Can you actually, categorically say that?

GARRETT: Well, what the Prime Minister has said, and this is the position of the Government, is if we don't see satisfactory progress thought the existing fora in this matter, then we will take the legal option. We haven't specified specifically a time line on it, and the reason that I don't want to do that is because I don't want to jeopardise the existing discussions and the negotiations that are taking place.

But to add to that for clarity's purposes, I've also said that we expect to see substantial and significant achievement and forward movement on this issue prior to the next IWC.

Now I'm not going to get into a debate with you about specific timing before, during, or after that specific June IWC, but I'm very clear about the fact that we want to see substantial forward movement. That's why we're in these intense negotiations, and that we also say that if we don't get that substantial achievement and forward movement on scientific whaling, then legal action will be taken.

MCCALLUM: Mr Garrett, do you find politics frustrating? Because I'm sure the old activist and the old Midnight Oil lead singer would love to go in and kick some heads and get some work done, but this has obviously taken - this issue alone has taken two years of talking and talking. I mean, you must find it frustrating when the old Peter Garrett, the old activist would have just gone in, kicked a few heads and fixed it up and said okay, you know, the old Peter Garrett would have said, yeah, well bugger 'em. We'll just take them to the International Court…


MCCALLUM: …don't go through this process.

GARRETT: Nick, the old Peter Garrett is the new Peter Garrett. I know the purpose of your point but I guess what I would say is this - and I'm not trying to score a political point on Mr Hunt, Mr Turnbull or others - but for 12 years the former government took a very strong position against whaling into the IWC and the Japanese doubled their target rate. They increased it by 100 per cent. That's a fact. It's not contestable, and so…

MCCALLUM: But Mr Garrett, you haven't achieved anything in two years.

GARRETT: Just to finish - and here's what we have achieved in two years. The first thing we've done is that we've brought a conservation agenda into the whaling commission which it never had. The second thing that we've done is we've dispatched a vessel to the Southern Ocean for monitoring and compliance, collection of material for a potential legal action. That was never done. The third thing that we've done is we've actually brought forward the biggest non-lethal whale research program in the world, the Southern Ocean Research Partnership.

I'll be going to New Zealand later this month to launch the first of those programs. That's over $30 million working with other countries on nonlethal whale research. And the reason that's important is because it provides a counter-weight to this idea - a repugnant idea, by the way - that you can kill whales in the name of science.

Now, they are significant achievements. Yes, I'm frustrated and disappointed that we haven't seen any great actions taken on the part of the Japanese whalers up to this point in time. But we are absolutely resolute and determined to see this through.

MCCALLUM: I mean, I would still argue that the Australian public is entitled to say, well, you know, you've spent two years and you've achieved nothing, in terms of actually what the ultimate aim is and that is stopping the Japanese killing.

I do know we have to move on and I did want to ask you about Uluru. You have announced a new management plan. Have you gone any further? I know you want to prevent people from climbing the rock, have you got any further in that ambition?

GARRETT: Well, actually I don't want to prevent people climbing the rock specifically, Nick, but I have approved a management plan from the actual board, the Uluru National Park Board itself that was prepared for me, which talks about a number of preconditions that can be developed and then to move to rock closure which is the ambition of the board and it's an ambition that I support. But I think it needs to be done in a sensible and in a balanced way.

I think there are a number of issues in relation to the closure in terms of meeting preconditions which we need to work through and today's announcement is about that.

MCCALLUM: Okay, so specifically - so, one of the conditions for the closure is the number of people climbing must drop from the current 38 per cent of tourists to less than 20 per cent of tourists.

GARRETT: That's right.

MCCALLUM: So, that's a fair way off.

GARRETT: Yeah, look, it may be and I think what we want to do here is really take the opportunity to deepen the tourism experience out at the rock. The fact is that a number of tourism operators have said to us previously, and said to previous governments as well, that they think there needs to be a deeper and richer tourism experiences actually out there. I don't think it's just simply about people going and climbing the rock and coming back down again.

There are safety issues there. The rock climbing's closed quite a lot and quite often when people come they'll find the rock is closed and if there's nothing much else for them to do, then they get out of town again and they're not spending their money there which we want them to do. Particularly with local communities and the like.

And we also want to just be really clear about what an extraordinary and important, iconic location Uluru and Kata Tjuta are. So this is way of really working to a deeper and a wider set of tourism experiences for people that come out and hopefully will come again and again.

MCCALLUM: So, ultimately then, when in - realistically, do you think Uluru will close to climbers?

GARRETT: Well, if the preconditions that we put there are met, and I think it will take some time because we want to make sure that that's very properly analysed and transparently evaluated and the like and I've got two very red-hot tourism experts to advise the board on that, I would say a couple of years at least. Maybe, sort of, around two, three, four years.

MCCALLUM: Okay then.

Peter Garrett, Federal Environment Minister, I do sincerely thank you for joining us and good luck in your campaign to stop the Japanese. I think it needs more action rather than words, but I do appreciate you taking time to talk to us.

GARRETT: Look, thanks, Nick, and before I go, I think it - you've been talking about Elvis' 75th, and I'm happy to let you know that even though I was thinking of Suspicious Minds, I reckon it's Hound Dog.

MCCALLUM: Okay Thank you very much.

GARRETT: See you, Nick.

MCCALLUM: Peter Garrett, Federal Environment Minister.

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