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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; Western Victoria gas fired power station proposal; floodwaters in the Murray Darling Basin; Tony Abbott and the CPRS

Transcript
Doorstop interview, The Domain, Sydney
8 January 2010

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GARRETT: Thanks for coming out this morning. I want to make some brief remarks about two matters; an update on the whaling issue and also a decision I've made today in respect of a management plan for Uluru Kata Tjuta National Park.

The Australian Embassy yesterday made high-level representations to the Japanese Government reiterating what the Acting Prime Minister and myself have said about the need for safety at sea to be considered as a paramount issue in the Southern Ocean and also calling on the Japanese Government to investigate the collision between the Japanese whaling vessel and the Ady Gil.

This comes on top of the strong calls that the Government has repeatedly made for all parties to exercise due restraint at sea, recognising that this incident took place in international waters and that the masters of vessels in those waters have an absolute priority responsibility for ensuring the safehood of all those upon those vessels.

The Australian Government remains profoundly committed to pursue the course of action that we've identified as necessary to bring so-called scientific whaling to a close. This will be through a combination of strong diplomatic measures, the policies that we've brought forward and potential legal action. We do not believe that violent activities in the Southern Ocean are in anyone's interests in resolving this extremely important and critical issue.

Today I've also approved a management plan, brought to me by the Uluru Board of Management, setting a number of pre-conditions in place before the potential closure of the climb of Uluru. Those conditions include either climbing numbers falling below 20 per cent, they now sit at around 38 per cent, or the reasons for people coming to Uluru no longer being predominately to climb the rock, or the provision of new visitor experiences in and around Uluru and Kata Tjuta.

I've taken the board's recommendations recognising that there are strong views on this issue. Those views have been fully considered by the board. I think they've come up with a really sensible and balanced decision and a good process, you know, on the way forward, recognising that there are significant safety issues at stake.

Uluru's higher than the Eiffel Tower and steeper as well and over 300 days of the year the climb is closed for some period of time or other, either because of high winds, hot weather, occasionally when it rains it's very slippery.

There's been over regrettably 30 deaths that have taken place on the Uluru climb and many more injuries. So there are significant safety issues involved. As well as that the environment is important on the rock. We have had people urinating and defecating in water pools on the climb and at the top of the rock and then those waters ending up having an environmental impact at the bottom of the rock and of course the traditional owners themselves have expressed consistently over time their wish that visitors actually don't climb Uluru.

So I'm very pleased that we've been able to agree on a process which I think provides good balance and good rigour. The Director of National Parks has indicated to me that he'll develop a very strong series of protocols, an evaluation of those conditions. There's two tourism experts including Mr John Morse, formerly head of Tourism Australia who will be involved and provide advice to the Board of Management. And the key thing here is for us to deepen and broaden the visitor experience to Uluru.

This is one of our great international icons. It's a place where living and indigenous culture and the environment and the splendour of the desert landscapes goes hand in hand. There's plenty of advice and information from the tourism industry which says that tourists want a deeper and a broader experience, and we believe that that's the ongoing best path for tourism to take at the rock, and my expectation is that we'll work our way through seeing whether these pre-conditions can be met.

If they are met over time, and there is to be a closure, the tourism industry will get 18 months notice of any potential closure, and I don't expect that to happen in the short term, it's something which should happen, if the preconditions are met over a period of two or three years, maybe a bit longer.

JOURNALIST: Mr Garrett, has the Japanese Government made any corresponding representation to the Australian Government [indistinct].

GARRETT: I'm not aware of any formal representations that have been made by the Japanese Government to the Australian Government. The advice I have is that the Acting Ambassador yesterday, made representations to both the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and also the relevant fisheries officials, reiterating what the Acting Prime Minister had said, seeking the Japanese to investigate this incident, and again, emphasising our concern, our very high level of concern, that Australia has, about the collision and the very, very critical issues of safety at sea in the southern ocean.

JOURNALIST: Does the fact that Japanese whalers sink boats in Australian waters mean we're now [indistinct].

GARRETT: Well, this boat wasn't sunk in Australian waters, and I think the important thing here is for us to recognise that there exists significant protocols between Australia and New Zealand in relation to safety at sea issues in our respective waters, and that there are international requirements for the masters of vessels, to ensure that they conduct themselves safety at sea.

The Foreign Ministers of the Netherlands, New Zealand and Australia, specifically provided a cautionary note, well in advance of this season, to the masters of vessels, reiterating that it's their primary responsibility, given the remoteness of these areas of potential interaction, for the safety of the occupants of their vessels.

JOURNALIST: Would you like to see charges laid against the skippers of those vessels if the evidence comes down that way?

GARRETT: Well, the Australian Government, as well as the New Zealand Government, now have investigations underway, the investigation in Australia's interests will be conducted by AMSA, and let us wait and see what those investigations produce before we make additional comments.

JOURNALIST: [Indistinct]

GARRETT: Look, we have a number of significant and quite substantial protocols in place that relate to the safety at sea issues and the exercise of activities in and around both Australia's EEZ, the Antarctic zone and those Southern Ocean waters. The fact is that we sent the Oceanic Viking into these waters, two seasons ago, for the purposes of collecting material for a potential legal action, as we said we would

There was no significant abatement of activity by the Japanese whalers or by the protest vessels, when the Oceanic Viking was in those southern waters then and I noted that Julia Gillard said yesterday, as Acting Prime Minister, that it's unlikely that the presence of a vessel again would abate those activities.

And it's really important for those parties involved to recognise that they have a primary responsibility, given that they will be in and out of international waters; in and out of the waters that come under the jurisdictions of other nations; and given that they're 1300 nautical miles away from Hobart, to conduct themselves in a way which does not prejudice the safety of anybody onboard any vessels.

JOURNALIST: [Indistinct]

GARRETT: We've been very disappointed at the lack of a positive Japanese response to the very strong efforts that we've had underway both through the IWC and in one of the biggest diplomatic efforts that we've seen on any issue.

At the same time, our judgement is that if there's going to be legal action taking place, we need to know that we have in place all the appropriate and relevant advice. And, as well, that we've concluded what we, in good faith, set out to do, which was to bring a reform agenda into the IWC, to work with like-minded nations specifically on the question of the capacity of any country to exempt itself under Article 8 and conduct so-called scientific whaling.

And there are intense negotiations taking place now and discussions between Australia, Japan, the United States and other major countries, with a view to resolving those issues and coming up with a solution to that intractable problem.

Now I've said very clearly that we're not writing a blank cheque for negotiations. We do believe that they have to be conducted in good faith and we've done that. And if we don't see substantial and significant achievement in respect of those negotiations, and if we don't see it by the time that the IWC meets in June of next [CORRECTION: THIS] year, then the consideration of legal action will be one that would be fully in front of us.

JOURNALIST: But these two protesters say they're prepared to die.

GARRETT: Well, well, just to be absolutely clear, we want to see substantial progress made in these negotiations including commitments on the part of the whaling nations, in respect of so-called scientific whaling. And we want to see those commitments in place, and agreed, so that at the next IWC we can take substantial steps forward and advance this issue. If that doesn't happen - and I'm not going to speculate about the timing just before, or just after the IWC, or how the agenda might go - then the Prime Minister's made clear that legal action then is firmly in front of us.

And the reason I say that is that we're in the midst of these discussions and negotiations and I don't want to be providing a day-by-day broadcast of Australia's intentions in respect of timing.

The fact of the matter is that every single thing that we said as a government we would do, in relation to whaling, we've done. With the legal option remaining one we are willing to take. And we've done this on the back-drop of 12 years in the past - in fact 15 years - when all that happened was that people banged the table and the number of whales targeted by the Japanese whalers doubled, in fact, more than doubled.

Now we remain absolutely and totally opposed to the killing of whales in the name of science. It is repugnant and all Australians oppose this activity, the great majority do at the very least. And we're absolutely committed to our course of action and we're going to continue it.

JOURNALIST: I've got one of your press releases here from 8 May 2004, that says the Prime Minister's answer of further measures - when they're talking about - asking John Howard about whaling and you're saying that; why hasn't he launched a case in the International Court of Justice against Japan? I mean we're five years later and nothing's happened.

GARRETT: Well I think it - I...

JOURNALIST: [Indistinct] Australians want to see the strongest possible immediate action taken on this.

GARRETT: Yeah, look, I think it's really important to recognise that the requirements for bringing a legal case are substantial and that's why we deployed a vessel, the Oceanic Viking, into the Southern Ocean, for the purposes of collecting that material. It's also the case that we have committed ourselves to a very full and concentrated diplomatic effort.

I mean Australians are fair minded people and we operate in a fair minded way internationally as well. And in doing that, we've made absolutely clear our opposition to killing whales. How do you think I feel about it, as Environment Minister? I am very, very strongly opposed to it. But I also want to make sure that every single stone is actually properly not left unturned; that every single step that we can take is taken properly and robustly; that we have the capacity to go out into the international community, as we're now doing, leading the debate on conservation of whales.

I mean, remember that at the same time we have launched the largest research partnership on cetaceans and whales in the world. The Southern Ocean Research Partnership, some $30 million or more, where we will work cooperatively, and in partnership with other nations, showing that we can actually enjoy these creatures, understand them and we don't have to kill them to do that.

We've done an enormous amount in the period of time since we've been in government. Our record stacks up very favourably, if people take the time to go back and look at all of the measures that I've brought into play, and the work that we've been doing at the IWC. And, as the final judgement comes in terms of what progress we're making, if we need to take the step of legal action, as the Prime Minister says, we will take that step.

JOURNALIST: [INAUDIBLE]

GARRETT: My understanding of the gas fired project in Victoria is that it's a matter which will be open for public comment. It's been lodged with my department. It hasn't come to me yet. It will be subject to the same high levels of scrutiny, high environmental standards, once an assessment process is undertaken.

JOURNALIST: [Indistinct]

GARRETT: Well, as all of you will know, I'm a regulator under the national environment legislation and I don't take a view on the merits, or otherwise, of an issue, until I formally receive advice and have an opportunity to consider both that advice and any additional material I need, very thoroughly.

JOURNALIST: [Indistinct] activists are calling on the Government to replace the Ady Gil only a few hours ago. Is that something that you guys are considering?

GARRETT: No.

JOURNALIST: What sort of bar are you actually setting in these negotiations come June? Will it be that if there's no halt to whaling, you launch your legal action [indistinct]?

GARRETT: Well, we've always said that we want to see substantive action taken in respect of Article 8 of the convention. And that is, for Australia, the most important thing of all.

The history of the convention - and I won't go on at great length here - but it's worthwhile remembering that the history of the convention is that it was a convention to regulate the killing of whales. Australia's vision is that it becomes a convention to regulate the conservation of whales.

Now we are at a historical junction point in terms of that convention's change. We have led the pro-conservation debate and I brought forward more substantial measures on conservation, into this commission, than any other Environment Minister has and I'm proud of that.

So we will continue to have negotiations with that framework in mind. That material is on the record. It's in front of the commission itself and it's also the subject of discussion by both the working party and the support groups that have been set up by the International Whaling Commissioner, Mr Maquieira.

JOURNALIST: If they're prepared to die, why not send a military vessel, or take somewhat of a hard line approach now, why wait till the next meeting?

GARRETT: Australia has always respected the right of peaceful protest on issues, including on this issue, including in the southern ocean, probably the most dangerous place on earth for people to be engaged in this protest.

But we've also said, and I just reiterate, that safety at sea, and peoples' livelihood and wellbeing, is an absolute priority, and that remains the case. I don't believe that this issue can ever be resolved by violence, it can only be resolved when the Japanese Government and the Japanese whalers are persuaded that their course of action is one which doesn't have our support, and they're prepared to reconsider it, and when we bring forward the range of measures and policies which we are doing at this point in time, to say that there's a better path for us, in terms of how we treat these great creatures of the sea. It's called conservation, it's not called killing.

JOURNALIST: Let me clarify though, you're [indistinct].

GARRETT: What I've said again is that we are expecting to see substantial progress made in terms of the ongoing discussions and negotiations through the support groups of the IWC. If we don't see that substantial progress having taken place, and the IWC meeting in June will be the point when we know whether or not we are seeing some significant achievements, then the question of legal action will be firmly in front of us, and the Government will be in a position to make a decision.

Now the specific timing of that remains a matter for the Government to determine, and it will determine it, according to how the issue is progressing.

JOURNALIST: With regard to the Uluru Management Plan, haven't you avoided making the tough decisions to avoid the [indistinct] tourism industry?

GARRETT: Look, the tourism industry have been very supportive of this announcement that I've made this morning, and I want to welcome their support, and I also want to welcome the cooperation that we've had from the tourism industry, in working this through.

The most important thing for our tourism industry, is to see increasing numbers of tourists come and visit Uluru-Kata Tjuta, and have great experiences when they come, and maybe even come again.

JOURNALIST: [Indistinct]

GARRETT: Well, I think the important thing here to remember is that this is the plan that's been brought by the board, and the Board of Uluru-Kata Tjuta is made up of traditional owners, and other appointees. I think they've done a great job, they've come up with a balanced response to what has been a difficult issue, and I think the long term future for them, as traditional owners and custodians, and also for tourism generally, is much advanced by this decision today.

JOURNALIST: Mr Garrett, on to the Murray-Darling Basin, has the Government had to renegotiate how the states share the Basin, in light of the heavy rain and floods in New South Wales?

GARRETT: Well look, I've seen those comments, and the correspondence exchange that's taken place now, the Government will respond in due course, in a considered way, to what's been put forward. I don't propose to add any additional

JOURNALIST: Professor Mike Young, who's saying that the [indistinct].

GARRETT: Well look, there's a set of cooperative relationships in place, clearly it's going to be necessary for the States and the Commonwealth to continue to work through any issues that arise, when you get, you know, a very, very heavy rain event in the Basin, at the southern end of the Basin we still have significant issues around issues to do with the Lower Lakes in the Coorong, so there are many issues that are out there that are difficult and tough and hard, we're working our way through them, and we'll continue to do that.

JOURNALIST: Doesn't that show that the agreement's not completely - not going to work though, considering there's been such heavy rain, and there's bickering going on between states and no water flowing?

GARRETT: Well remember that for the first time, this Government actually brought forward legislation to specifically bring the States and the Commonwealth together, to work through water-sharing arrangements and the like. Now we're doing that, and we've done that in a considered way, and we'll continue to work closely and cooperatively with the States, and we'd ask for the States' cooperation in that process.

Thanks, guys.

JOURNALIST: [Indistinct]

GARRETT: The fact that Mr Abbott is now fudging his original claim that the impact of the CPRS would be $1100, on the basis of Google searching, reports on the cost of the CPRS, simply indicates again how completely ill-founded Mr Abbott's approach on climate change is.

The fact is that the Government conducted the most comprehensive Treasury-modelling exercise on potential cost impacts of the CPRS, and made very clear that there would be assistance provided for low income households, and others, affected by impacts of the CPRS.

Now I've called on Mr Abbott to produce his modelling, to justify his claim that a CPRS would cost average households $1100. Until he does that, he's fast losing credibility in this exchange.

Thanks, everybody.

[ENDS]

Commonwealth of Australia