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Interview with Peter Van Onselen
5 June 2010
VAN ONSELEN: Well first up on the program we're joined by the Federal Environment Minister, Peter Garrett, here in the studio. Mr Garrett, thanks very much for being with us.
GARRETT: Thanks Peter.
VAN ONSELEN: It's World Environment Day today, hence one of the reasons we've got you on the program. Can you take us through some of the Government's initiative attached to the day that we can expect to read about and hear about over the weekend?
GARRETT: Yeah, sure Peter. I mean one of the things about World Environment Day is it really makes us focus on the fact that the environment is really important to us. We see what's happening in the Gulf of Mexico. You know that for people, when they're focusing on something as terrible as that, it's a reminder of how important the environment is.
We'll be making specific announcements about where we want to take our biodiversity protection over the coming days. We'll be making some pretty clear directions about where we're going on the whaling issue.
And this comes on the back of us really putting additional effort into protecting the Great Barrier Reef, one of our great natural treasures. It's a part of Australia that people know well but it's a great driver of regional economies as well.
And additional to that, we'll be looking at two of the reforms that we've put in place in terms of delivering what we call natural resource management. That's doing good stuff right around Australia that helps us build the resilience into the environment by protecting our native plants and animals, which means that when they get a bit of pressure, whether it's from climate change or other pressures, they can withstand it.
As well as that, we put about four times as much into what we call the national reserve system. That's building up a whole system of reserves and parks and things like that.
Yesterday I was outside of Adelaide, the largest ever acquisition for our national reserve system, a property called Witchelina, 4,000 square k's of country, really important country for Australia's biodiversity and now we'll work with local conservation organisations in South Australia as they look after that country into the future.
VAN ONSELEN: Doing some reading for this interview as well as talking to yourself and your office in recent weeks and months, I know that the Government has done a fair bit on the environment, a lot of what you'd probably call low key initiatives. You'd agree though, wouldn't you, that the big ticket items like the emissions trading scheme and the decision to delay it, these sort of big ticket issues are taking away, aren't they, from some of these achievements that have been made that perhaps don't hit the headlines as much?
GARRETT: Well I reckon it is true that we've done a lot. We've completely changed the way in which we look at our natural landscapes. And I've said we need a philosophic change. We need to do two things. One, we don't want to be the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff rescuing species, you know, when they're really under threat. We want to build sort of good safeguards, fences at the top of the cliff, in terms of our planning for conservation.
The other thing I've said is that we need to better marry environment and conservation. Now that's not sexy front page stuff. But ultimately that's going to help us as a country better manage the environment.
Now of course issues like the CPRS and others are headline issues but we're doing a lot of stuff in that space as well. And one of the things that I think is absolutely critical is making sure that our oceans, our waters, our rivers, our natural landscapes, our plains, our bushland, have got what we describe as resilience. That's kind of like the capacity, the strength to resist the kind of pressures that they're going to face in the future. And that's one of the things I've been very focussed on.
VAN ONSELEN: I want to stay on the ETS though for a moment. There's an article in the Sydney Morning Herald today by Lenore Taylor, that goes through the process of the decision taken by the Government to delay the emissions trading scheme. And she really tells the story of Karl Bitar as a campaign strategist in particular trying to talk to the Prime Minister and then that inner kitchen cabinet of four about the need to delay. The suggestion is in the article that Lindsay Tanner was perhaps opposed to it. Certainly that the Climate Change Minister, Penny Wong, had concerns about it.
But one thing that the article doesn't make clear is how soon other ministers knew about this decision before it was broken by Lenore Taylor publicly in late April.
When did you first know that the Government was intending to delay the emissions trading scheme?
GARRETT: Well that was a — an announcement that, and a decision that was leaked and I found about — found out about it when it was leaked.
VAN ONSELEN: So you didn't know about it before Lenore Taylor wrote about it in the Sydney Morning Herald?
GARRETT: That's correct.
VAN ONSELEN: Was that a disappointment to you?
GARRETT: Well I think it's always disappointing when you get information that makes its way through into a newspaper and you suddenly find that there's a column sitting there and the processes of discussion, you know, that otherwise would happen aren't able to happen.
But it's a decision that was taken and I guess my response to that is that the Special Budget Committee is the one that makes these decisions. I don't sit on the Special Budget Committee and at the end of the day, once the Government had determined that this is the way it wanted to approach the CPRS, and it had a very good reason for doing it incidentally Peter. And I think that's important to recognise that the politics of the Senate, particularly the minor parties who weren't prepared to negotiate any forward ground, and of course once Mr Abbott became leader, we didn't have someone who was willing to cooperate at all...
VAN ONSELEN: That might all be true but you'd like to think, or I'd like to think, that it's not purely a bean counting decision to delay it, that if the kitchen cabinet are going to make a call like that and they're going to talk to the minister directly responsible, the Climate Change Minister, I'd like to think that they'd bring the Environment Minister in as well, particularly someone who's as passionate about the environment as you obviously are.
GARRETT: Well look, I think the thing about it is that the decision was made and this is what you respond to when decisions are made. You understand the reason for the decision and you get on with doing your job. And obviously if you get an opportunity to participate strongly and fully in discussions, and those opportunities obviously arise in a range of areas, you take them. But at the end of the day, the responsibility for taking the decision lay with our group. They took that decision and once it was leaked, the decision was out there and that was the way the thing happened.
VAN ONSELEN: But for a hundred years those sort of decisions have always laid with the Cabinet and the whole reason, I'm assuming, that you were prepared to go from being an activist, with the profile you had in the music industry with your causes, to go into government was to be heard in Cabinet. And if you didn't know about it, the Cabinet didn't know about it either. It was a decision being made by a closed group of four. That must disappoint you when you're the Environment Minister?
GARRETT: Look, I'm not going to comment on the details of what a journalist has written in a paper about the background behind an issue, in terms of who was involved in it and who wasn't. I mean I think some of this matter's on the public record and we do have exhaustive discussions in Cabinet. And I get every opportunity to participate as is appropriate.
I think what's key here though is that once we had a change of leadership in the Opposition, once we had no opportunity on the basis of the Greens saying we're not prepared to get something in place, we'll think about negotiating with you, because we know that a CPRS is a start point to start dealing with climate change, those frustrations and those intractable locks that were there in the system, in the Senate, means that for the Government who has a commitment to a price for carbon, who wants to see us take decisive action on climate change made that decision and I think it's understandable one.
VAN ONSELEN: Last question on the ETS, then I want to move onto whaling. Kevin Rudd did call climate change the greatest moral challenge of our time and, more pointedly in terms of timing with the ETS, he lampooned the Opposition late last year, saying that they had to get on board for the timetable that he had for passing an ETS, because to not do so would be a failure of leadership and political cowardice. It must disappoint you that the Government have now, in a sense, delayed it in a similar way that the Prime Minister's rhetoric was targeted at, as being cowardice and a failure of leadership?
GARRETT: Well again Peter, the fact that we didn't have any bipartisan consensus on moving forward on this issue, means that to take the legislative actions that underlie the CPRS, you're at that sort of end game point and it's as a consequence of the failure of one opposition leader to take the issue seriously at all and one minor party leader to be able to be prepared to compromise. And we've got a range of other measures in place and they're important measures, the renewable energy.
VAN ONSELEN: [Indistinct].
GARRETT: .and you know them, the renewable energy target and the like and that's what you need to do to get on with the job.
VAN ONSELEN: I accept that the Opposition killed it by opposing it in the Senate but I would — you can't tell me Mr Garrett that you wouldn't have loved to have fought a double dissolution election on the ETS and on the environment and on climate change, and that option was open to the Prime Minister and he squibbed it and he decided to dump the scheme and delay it instead?
GARRETT: Well I think that the conviction that the party, included Kevin, has about climate change is an enduring conviction. And I think it's a conviction that wants to see the most effective way of getting those policies that are necessary in place over the time that's necessary.
And the judgement that was made was made on the basis of the blockages that sit in the Senate, part of our federal system to be sure, but the blockages that exist there. And you cannot have a situation where a government went through an exhaustive process of consultation, green papers, white papers, significant negotiations with Malcolm Turnbull when he was leader, and then effectively have that we-will-go-no-further block put up by Tony Abbott and that's what happened.
VAN ONSELEN: Okay, on the issue of whaling, last week or just over a week ago, the announcement was made that you were going to take Japan to the International Court on this issue. Can I ask, was that announcement brought forward for timing? There have been some suggestions that the timing of it was deliberately done to coincide with opinion polls that were being conducted over the weekend by Newspoll. Was that a decision that was well set to do it then or was it brought forward?
GARRETT: Well again, we're not going to discuss the details of Cabinet's discussions about these matters but what I can say is that we'd always said, in relation to whaling, that we wanted to have an exhaustive diplomatic engagement with the Japanese who are an important trading partner and we have a strong relationship with them.
Both Stephen Smith and myself were involved very closely in discussions with ministers, Stephen clearly with his Japanese counterpart, me with a range of ministers and others as well, to see whether we were going to get any forward movement on this issue, because of the effort that we put in - we've got a Whaling Envoy, I mean we're really putting in a big effort.
Once we determined that we weren't going to get any significant concession or forward movement on it, then we took the decision to initiate the legal action.
VAN ONSELEN: I know there's a little bit of verballing in me saying this, but that sounds to me like the decision was brought forward. I'm just wondering because it strikes me that such a strong announcement on whaling would naturally coincide with being a thing to announce on World Environment Day. I'm just wondering if there - I'll ask it again. It doesn't sound like you were going to announce it then but it was decided to bring it forward. Is that true?
GARRETT: No it's not and the point is...
VAN ONSELEN: So it was always going to be announced when it was, not a few days later?
GARRETT: Well it was always, it was always going to be announced when we'd exhausted the diplomatic effort and saw that we weren't getting any substantial negotiations or opportunities in terms of the issue that we've got at contest with Japan.
Importantly we'd also been participating fully in an International Whaling Commission process. There's a support group of countries that have been looking at how we move the IWC forward to become a conservation focus organisation. That's an agenda that I've championed in the IWC.
Again, we didn't see any strong consensus emerge in that process that showed us that our issues were being taken seriously. Having really put in a huge effort on that diplomatic engagement, we had always determined we would then take the step to legal action and it was in that timing that we took that step.
VAN ONSELEN: Mr Garrett, we're almost out of time but I just want to ask you more broadly, I mean, there was a lot of fanfare when you went into politics. I'm sure you'd agree that the compromises that you have to make, as a major party politician, are there and very real but then at least you get to be near the centre of power and able to also do good. And I know there's a lot that you've done in your environment portfolio that falls into that category. Has it been a tougher road I guess than you thought it would be when you first decided to put your hand up?
GARRETT: Gee Saturday morning and getting asked that question Peter. No look I always knew that politics was going to be a pretty engaging and occasionally bumpy exercise, but that's public life. And I brought a really a strong conviction that I could do good things and I could participate really fully in the Labor party and I think being a minister is a tremendous opportunity to do that.
And I reckon we're changing the face of the environment in Australia. That's what I set myself the task of doing and I think judged by our record, obviously I would say it's a good record, but I think if you even step back a few steps you'll see that we're really fair dinkum about it. So I'm still fair dinkum, and you get on with life.
VAN ONSELEN: Very quick final question if I could. This is the academic in me. I thought that Neil Blewett's cabinet diaries from when he was a minister in the Hawke regime were just fabulous reading and a great historical record. Do you see yourself when your time is up in politics, I'm not trying to bring that forward, but do you see yourself...
GARRETT: I'm glad to hear that.
VAN ONSELEN: ...Do you see yourself when your time is up writing a memoir or something to that effect, because I know I for one would be the first person to buy a copy and buy copies for Christmas for others?
GARRETT: Look, I'm not a great diarist I think is the short answer and you know.
VAN ONSELEN: That's not a no.
GARRETT: No, no. Well there's plenty of stuff happening but I've got no plans to do it at the moment.
VAN ONSELEN: Fair enough. Mr Garrett, we really appreciate your getting up on a Saturday morning and joining us on Saturday Agenda. Thanks for being here.
GARRETT: Thanks Peter.