Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities
Address to National Press Club
National Press Club, Canberra
24 August 2011
COMPERE: Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the National Press Club for today's National Australia Bank address. While climate change and the carbon tax might well be the headline issues, of course the broader environment and issues of environmental protection remain of critical importance to this country.
Today, in response to the Hawke Review of National Environment Law – and I note that the author, Alan Hawke, is with us in the audience today – in response to that review, the Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities plans to announce reforms designed on the one hand to strengthen environmental protections and on the other also make it easier for the business sector to meet its obligations environmentally.
To discuss the future of environmental protection in Australia, please welcome the Minister, Tony Burke.
TONY BURKE: Thanks very much, Ken, to the Secretary of the Department, Paul Grimes and of course to Alan Hawke. Thank you all for being here today.
In 1979, the Hydroelectric Commission of Tasmania unveiled plans to dam the Franklin. It wasn't until July 1983 that national environmental law was upheld and the court said that the dam would not go ahead.
In 1988, some joint venture partners announced that they were wanting to mine Coronation Hill. It wasn't until 1991 that intervention from Bob Hawke prevented the mining from going ahead and we saw the expansion of Kakadu National Park.
Six years passed from when a road project and development was first announced in the Daintree until the World Heritage Listing eventually went forward to save the Daintree.
And those who might remember in Cape York the campaign to prevent mining of Shelburne Bay, while it took some years to manage to prevent the mining leases from going ahead, to this day, Shelburne Bay has no formal protection over it and simply remains unallocated, vacant Crown land.
Since 1999, there's been a different regime to those years. With the Environment Protection Biodiversity Conservation Act, our national environmental law, we've had increased principles that businesses have to follow to make sure that development proposals take account of endangered species, of endangered communities, of Heritage listings.
In that time, we've had a number of highly publicised areas that have been protected from particular developments. In Victoria, under Minister Campbell, a wind farm didn't go ahead and in Queensland the Traveston Dam was stopped for environmental reasons but principally over what was farm land.
When you look at what has been protected since the EPBC Act was brought in, since we had our current national environmental law, and you compare it with the iconic saves of the eighties and nineties – the Franklin, the Daintree, the expansion of Kakadu – it's pretty hard to see that what we have at the moment meets the expectations that the Australian people would have of national environmental protection.
That's not in any way a criticism of the decisions that have been made under the current act. Protecting against endangered species and against losing them and against their extinction is an important thing to do. But let's not pretend that that's the starting point of what the Australian people expect with environmental protection.
You ask anyone what do they want an Australian Government to be able to protect for the environment and people's minds will go straight to the most iconic places. They'll go straight to pristine wilderness, they'll go straight to the places where you are probably least likely to find that the species there are endangered. You're more likely to find endangered species in areas that have been heavily degraded.
You're more likely to find endangered communities in areas where there's already been significant development then you are in our most pristine areas. Effectively, endangered species and endangered communities is an important part, but only part of the public expectation for national environmental protection. Because by the time you're dealing with endangered species, you're in the situation of driving the ambulance to the bottom of the cliff. You're waiting until we're at the last line of defence before something's done.
I think it's time we started to turn some of that on its head and actually got right back to first principles. Why do we have national environmental protection? What is it that we want to protect and how can we act well in advance of getting to the last line of defence?
In doing that in a way in for the first time choosing a method that allows us to plan for environmental protection, to actually provide much more certainty for business, to provide much more direction for business, so that they're not waiting until the very last hurdle before they find out whether or not an investment can actually go ahead. Whether or not the jobs attached to it will actually become real jobs on the ground.
And we're talking about extraordinary numbers of jobs. We're talking about a very big line of investment.
In the short time – about a year – that I've held this portfolio, something in the order of about a hundred billion dollars of investment has been unlocked going past my desk. Tens and tens of thousands of jobs become available through these projects.
So we want to find a way of allowing business to not have delay, to not have unnecessary hurdles, while still being able to pursue a better environmental outcome than you get when you only drive the ambulance to the bottom of the cliff.
Planning for environmental protection then leads us to try to look at the whole nation and saying okay, take a step back, look continent wide. Where are the big opportunities for iconic protection? Where are the equivalents today of what the Franklin, the Daintree and Kakadu were in the years that Bob Hawke and Paul Keating were running the Government of Australia?
At the moment, because of work that has come to us at the moment combined with a few plans put in place by my predecessor, Peter Garrett, in the four corners of Australia there are unprecedented opportunities right now for environmental protection. If we go through them and we start in the south west, with the work we're doing in the oceans at the moment, we have significant environmental protections in the draft marine plans that are out there at the moment in the south west.
Through the Diamantina Fracture Zone, we have some of the deepest water that is known. Estimated between four thousand metres deep, in some places estimated up to seven thousand metres deep. So deep there that we don't actually know a whole lot of the biodiversity that may or may not exist there for protection and marked for protection in the draft maps that are out at the moment.
The Perth Canyon, one of the very few places in Australia's oceans where the blue whale is known to go to feed. Now let's not forget when we talk about the blue whale, we're talking about the largest animal ever on the earth. The dinosaurs never reached the size of the blue whale. And one of the very few places known that the blue whale goes to feed up for a level of protection at the moment under the draft maps for south west marine.
Similarly, diagonally in the opposite corner, we will get later to the year to work through the bioregional planning when we reach the Coral Sea. The Coral Sea known for its majesty, its closeness to the reef, the extraordinary biodiversity that's there and also for the heritage role that it plays in our naval history and in being a beacon historically, a symbol of our friendship with the United States. Some extraordinary opportunities coming up in the Coral Sea.
But to work around the remaining corners of Australia, in the north west we have a heritage listing recommended to me by the Heritage Council for the Kimberley. The west Kimberley is one of the last areas of true wildness in Australia and one of the important things to remember with a heritage listing is a heritage listing is not a lock out. A heritage listing is not something that says no development.
But a heritage listing is something that says any development, if it is to occur, must be mindful of these heritage values. The heritage values that have been recommended to me for the west Kimberley are extraordinary. We're talking about heritage values such as the values there of the longest ever droving expedition, the values that are there in the Kimberley of the rock art, the story of Jandamarra.
We have the magnificent gorges as you go through the Gibb River, we have the role of the Fitzroy River and we have what I think is one of the most beautiful places in the world, the Buccaneer Archipelago, an area with some of the highest tides in the world where massive coral reefs effectively every tide hold back the water into temporary lakes while it cascades over the reefs, forming waterfalls that then flow in the other direction when the tide goes back the other way.
I've put off this heritage listing on many occasions while I've gone through more consultation and we've been better informed as a result of that consultation. But I will be making a decision on the west Kimberley at the end of this month. To then go to the north east where we have Cape York.
Cape York is of course the home to Shelburne Bay that I referred to earlier. An extraordinary landscape where it's hard to believe that you are in fact on Earth, when you're standing among those pure white sand dunes. Sand dunes that most people look at and say how magnificent, but occasionally, a couple of people from time to time, have looked at them and say oh, let's mine that sand.
It's never happened, but there's never been formal protection over that area. The work has begun in World Heritage Listing and that work has been paused for a time while we work through with the different traditional owners to make sure that there's consent to the values that are being looked at for a listing of Cape York. While that's been paused until now, I'm confident that in the near future we will be in a situation where we're moving ahead again towards being able to have during this term a nomination for World Heritage for Cape York.
In the final corner of our nation that I haven't referred to, south east Tasmania. Tasmania's forests have always been a core battle ground in environmental protection and we've for the first time had an opportunity that began about twelve months ago. Because of changes in the international market, because of changes in business decisions that companies had unilaterally made – we now have a different environment for native forestry to what we've previously had.
That creates a demand on Governments to help Tasmanian timber communities through a transition which is happening anyway. And then to make sure that we can achieve some extraordinary environmental protection on the way through. We have never seen an opportunity for cooperation of environmental protection and industry like we've seen over the last few months and in particular over the last few weeks in Tasmania.
There has always been and there will always be in situations like this moments when one side of the debate thinks that the balance is not quite right. There were moments when the Wilderness Society decided that they were upset with negotiations. There've been moments more recently when some parts of industry have wanted to put pressure on getting things back to what they would regard as a better track.
But we will end up with a much better opportunity for jobs in Tasmania as a result of the agreement between the Prime Minister and the Premier and we will without doubt end up with a level of preservation of the ancient forests of Tasmania that never would have been thought possible even four years ago.
So you take those four corners of Australia and look at the big opportunities that are there right now – south west marine, the Kimberley, the Cape and the Coral Sea, Tasmania's forests - and see that there is an opportunity for iconic protection like we haven't seen since those Hawke, Keating years.
Then we look at valuing connectivity. Connections between landscapes are really important. You only get your environmental resilience by having your connections. That's what the corridors are about and the work that we're doing in the corridors. Once corridors are established, they once again don't become a lock up of land.
What they become is a way that we prioritise our purchases in the national reserve system, the way we prioritise our market based mechanisms such as the way we work with environmental stewardship. They provide the opportunity to link the landscapes and when you do that for the first time in our history, you actually have a continent-wide template for environmental protection.
Let's let business know where the priorities are and it lets us as a nation get connections between landscapes instead of simply having a situation of random connections and offsets here and there which form the impact across a map of getting a toothbrush and just spattering paint across the map. Where you get lots of individual bioregions protected, but none of them have the resilience that you get with connectivity.
So to be able to deliver on this template, I want to be able to use the review conducted by Alan Hawke as a springboard to be able to make sure that these principles can get followed through. To make sure that we can plan for environmental protection like we never have before and make sure that business can have a level of certainty and speed, as well, in decision making where we can know what the environmental standards need to be and we can deliver on them in a way where if there is an environmental cost to business in making sure that things are done properly, then that won't change.
But I have no joy in there being a cost through delay. I have no joy in there being a delay, a cost through uncertainty and those issues we can unlock by looking at many of the recommendations that were done through the work led by Alan Hawke.
Of course you can't hide behind a review and so since I received the review I've been holding round tables. First, separately with different constituency groups and finally together. I look around the room today and see many people who participated in those round tables in different ways.
As we've worked through to make sure that we had a good understanding as recommendations formed their way into government policy and some government policies were formed independently of the recommendations.
The areas of reform of environmental law first go to enabling better planning. The government will start to use strategic assessments beyond where they have ever been used previously.
A strategic assessment essentially says we won't wait for the application. We'll look at the landscape first, work out the environmental principals and establish an environmental docking station. So that when business decides that they want to carry out a development in an area where a strategic assessment already has been done, they don't have to do a fresh environmental impact statement.
They effectively have a docking station of environmental law that they can just plug into and we go immediately to conditions. That takes away, in some cases months and some cases years of delay. But in terms of environmental protection delivers a better outcome through the planning and connectivity that comes with the work of the strategic assessment.
Strategic assessments, of course, are led very much by State Governments under agreed terms of reference with the Federal Government. There may be occasions where we can't get an agreement with the State Government on a strategic assessment. And in those instances, regional environmental plans will allow as a last resort an opportunity for us to simply conduct the assessment ourselves.
There is also a recommendation that we go beyond the waiting for the last line of defence. We go beyond endangered species and endangered communities and look at ecosystems of national significance. There has been a high level of contest among the different round tables as to whether or not the government should accept this recommendation.
As an example of what it means, it would be if you took a landscape such as the Cassowary corridor where you find an area that's used for nesting, an area that's used for foraging, they're a long way apart, neither of them at the moment are particularly endangered nor is the corridor between them.
But unless you acknowledge the entire ecology then you create an unthinkable situation for one of our most iconic species. To be able to allow an area like that to be eligible for a level of protection before we get to the line of last resort, I have to say is good public policy.
So we will, as part of the reforms, be going ahead with the recommendations to establish ecosystems of national significance. The reform of the Act also needs to deal with the red tape.
One of the things that has annoyed businesses the most is to believe that they were through all the environmental approvals and to believe that they'd established an agreement on what offsets they'd have to be engaged with and then to find that the Federal rules are a different standard and having gone through an entire process at a state level, then go through a process that seems, often remarkably similar though not identical, but with different rules at a Federal process.
We will allow national standards for accrediting state assessment and state approval processes. Not every State Government will be able to meet these national standards, I suspect. Once set, there may be some State Governments that don't meet them at all. There may be some that are able to meet standards for particular sorts of approvals and not others.
But where we can allow business to have a one stop shop, we want to. Where we can allow business to go through one set of approvals, we want to allow that to happen. But make no mistake, if the states are unwilling to adopt the robust nature of the Federal minimum conditions, then they will not be allowed to operate the one stop shop.
There'll also now be a single list of threatened species and ecological communities so that you don't have to simply keep redoing the research across every border and across every jurisdiction. The information will be collated, the information will be in one national place.
Many of the practices which I've adopted as routine since I came into the job on making sure that departmental recommendations to me on decisions go up on the web at the same time I make decisions. These sorts of processes will now be brought in in a more formal basis as a matter of course.
The truth is all that happens at the moment if I weren't to do it, some of the journos in the room will just whack in an FOI application, it will go back and forth between officials, you'll end up with it anyway.
My view is it may as well just be there upfront from day one. I've been doing it with a number of decisions already. We've done it, for example, with the heritage listing recommendations for the West Kimberley and that will now become a matter of course.
We have a problem which business has often complained about the delays in getting through the Federal system. In defence of the work of my officials, I have to say the workload during the history of this Act, has more than doubled in terms of number of applications and complexity of the applications that the officials within my department are dealing with.
The way to be able to unlock faster approval times beyond what you can do through regional assessments and regional environmental plans is to introduce a form of cost recovery. Cost recovery should be no more than recovery of costs and there needs to be some areas that are carved out.
You need to have special exemptions for small business, you need to make sure that you don't create a situation where a farmer who just wants to remove a few trees is suddenly lugged with a cost recovery debt. So we need to make sure that we don't end up in those spaces.
But the consultation will now begin on cost recovery options to make sure that what business is requesting in terms of providing faster processes can be done without simply transferring the strain from one part of my department to another.
There are a number of other immediate steps which can also be taken. Offsets policy has been one of the – probably best described as – dark arts of environmental law. Trying to work out exactly what offsets will be required for particular developments has been a genuine area of doubt for almost every application.
I also believe in terms of offsets, we can't pretend that management doesn't matter. We often, in Australia, have a view that the moment we lock something up in some way and protect it from people, it is therefore protected and don't worry about the ongoing threat of invasive species, whether they're feral animals or weeds.
Management and investment in better management of areas already protected should be counted towards offsets as well. Good management is as important for environmental protection as acreage is. With that in mind, a draft offsets policy will be released today. We will also release today a draft biodiversity policy which will echo my commitment to protecting biodiversity through market mechanisms.
Additionally, we'll be establishing a national centre for cooperation on environment and development. This centre for cooperation effectively aims to duplicate on a permanent basis what we've been doing with the round tables.
There are areas where you can get better environmental protection through planning and opportunities for agreement between industry and environmental groups and scientists become possible simply by having the formal structures to get people around the same table. That will also be established.
But I want to make clear, we're not accepting everything that was in Alan Hawke's review. There are a number of recommendations that go to increasing the power of the courts which a number of environmental groups, in particular, have been very keen on.
I have a firm view of, simply based on my view of public policy, decisions on what is magnificent, decisions on what is precious, decisions on what will be preserved are decisions that belong to the democracy and that belong to elected governments to make judgement calls on.
I have no interest in those proposals which some people have lobbied me on quite vigorously which in my mind would provide a greater benefit for lawyers than they would ultimately ever provide for the environment. And so for those reasons, those particular recommendations have not been pursued.
To be able to achieve anything that I've just described, there's a presumption. A presumption of no backward steps. A presumption that while we are improving levels of Federal environmental protection, areas that we already presume are under protection remain so.
This has been a fair presumption in Australia for generations. I give you the simple example that no one would now suggest that the Franklin be dammed. No one would now suggest that Kakadu be mined. No one would now suggest that we have massive land clearing in the Daintree Rainforest.
And yet, in one state of Australia, we do have the suggestion that the Alpine National Park be turned back into a farm. I do not think we can have a situation where we have a broad national agenda for environmental protection while at the same time we allow some State Governments, although that's unfair. In this case, one State Government to knowingly choose to take backward steps on environmental protection.
That's why separate to any of the legislative change that will be introduced to the parliament, I have, some weeks ago now, given notice to my state colleagues that I intend to add as a matter of national environmental significance areas that have been protected, the classic examples are national parks, where they are under some form of new threat, whether that new threat be grazing, mining, logging or large scale land clearing.
The twenty eight days for the states to respond to that is now up and I'll be making an announcement on that very shortly but, make no mistake, there will need to be a compelling argument in the information provided to me thus far for me to think that we should go to the world that the Victorian Government is suggesting where national parks become up for grabs.
In the last few months, we've made extraordinary strides in environmental protection in Australia, extraordinary, and they go to the iconic list that you would expect us to have. The World Heritage Listing of Ningaloo Reef, the World Heritage Listing of Koongarra within Kakadu National Park.
When you look at the map, it looks like it's just a small part of Kakadu National Park but don't forget, Koongarra is what you look out on, is what you overlook when you stand at Nourlangie Rock, overlooking one of the most spectacular vistas of Kakadu National Park. And for the many tourists who travel there, I'm yet to find one who has looked at that vista and said, what we need there is a uranium mine.
So we've had significant benefits so far. We add to that what's happened with what I've put out in Tasmanian forests, with what's being done so far in South West Marine and, of course, with Henbury.
If we end up with a north south concept for environmental corridors where NRM work, natural resource management work, done by farmers is prioritised on a north south corridor, then Henbury Station will provide the massive great big giant red canvas that people can look at when they're working out how they can use the market mechanism of carbon farming to be able to put native vegetation on small parts of their pastoral properties.
Henbury will be the only station where it takes over entirely and for most stations it will be a very modest stream of income. But it will be a market mechanism built in with the corridors that we have there with Henbury, only established in the last few weeks, as the largest carbon farm in the world.
We're making extraordinary strides in environmental protection at the moment. But I want to make sure that we do three things. I want to make sure we take no backward steps. I want to make sure in environmental protection that we actually take a step back, look at the whole continent and say, what are the magnificent bits that the Australian people want to say, it's been protected forever so far, we don't want to be the generation that lets it go.
Thirdly, I want to make sure that we do that in a way that provides greater certainty and timeliness of decisions for business than they'd ever had before. If we do that, then we don't find ourselves constantly driving the ambulance to the bottom of the cliff and looking out only for endangered species.
We actually do what the Australian people want us to do when they think about environmental protection and they say, we are an extraordinary continent. We have some precious unspoilt areas, let's not wreck them.
QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS
COMPERE: Thank you very much Minister, let me ask the first question. In terms of these strategic assessments that you see being done around the country to create what I think you referred to as docking stations which would potentially negate the need or, to some extent, negate the need for individual environmental impact statements, is there a timetable for that work to be done firstly? And secondly I assume those assessments wouldn't remain in stone for all time in the sense that climate change itself might well impact on the legitimacy of the original assessment?
TONY BURKE: The first strategic assessment that I expect, and there's been some very productive conversations with Anna Bligh on this. We're not at a landing point yet but obviously the most sensitive area where there's large numbers of development applications coming through at the moment is the Queensland coastline particularly the areas adjoining the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. There's a high level of sensitivity and what happens at the moment when we deal with it application by application, we always have seagrass for example that deals with dugong habitat.
But we've never been able to say okay, here are some large areas of seagrass that we want to make sure are preserved, we keep dealing with it one application at a time. So that's probably the best example of where the planning provides a much better environmental outcome but what it then also means is you don't get the situation – it happens rarely but can happen – where a company comes forward with something where my officials look at, it ends up coming to me and the answer is just we can't possibly approve that. So it provides that level of certainty.
And if things need to be updated as science improves over time and no doubt that will occur, people will always know that they're dealing with the strategic assessment that is in place at the time of their application. So the docking station could vary from time to time but that doesn't change the fact that you're giving a level of certainty for business.
COMPERE: Question now from Tom Arup.
TOM ARUP: Tom Arup from The Age, Mr Burke, a couple of quick questions. Why has it taken the Government two years or close to two years to respond to the Hawke Review? And secondly, some of the strongest language in the review was around the RFAs and the recommendations for the RFAs. The review called them unaccountable and implied – or said that basically loggers ignore them.
The Government has rejected those recommendations, why shouldn't the Australian public expect better outcomes from agreements on forests and what has the Government done in – to reform this process given the criticisms that have been made, given you've rejected these recommendations?
TONY BURKE: First of all in terms of the timeliness Tom, if I simply viewed my job as being you have a review, someone tells you what to do and you go off and implement it then we would have been able to implement the recommendations of the Hawke Review very early. I don't think that's my job.
I think it's my job that you have a review that provides a basis and a foundation for the discussion, but then if I'm going to introduce reforms into the Parliament I have to own them. I do believe the conversations that we had through an extensive process of round tables have led to me being able to clarify whether there were some reforms that were being proposed where I didn't like where I thought they would end up. But secondly there are some things that I've referred to in the agenda there that you won't find explicit within the recommendations of the Hawke Review and that's because I ran that process.
But as a minister, you've got to own everything that you introduce to the Parliament, you have to and you can outsource advice but you can't outsource your job.
On the issue of regional forestry agreements I think the strongest response I can give on that two responses. First of all one of the arguments within the Hawke Review was that for a very long time the RFAs were not being subject to the reviews which were actually contained within their clauses. That changed when I became Forestry Minister. That criticism was true for most of the life of the Act. It ceased to be true once we had a change of government in 2007.
Secondly, if you want to look at the areas where I've referred to iconic protection being possible now in Tasmania's forests that's all happened within the existing system and the areas that are up for consideration as having high conservation value may or may not have endangered species within them but they're magnificent and if we have an opportunity to protect them while still looking out for jobs it's the right option. All of that's being done within the existing framework.
COMPERE: On that basis does it concern you that there might be some criticism from some groups that you're unnecessarily locking up these areas, you know, on the off chance, even if it's a significant potential, that they're not in fact endangered species?
TONY BURKE: Look, if anyone believes that the only reason for environmental protection is to make sure that we don't have endangered species then they've got a different view of the environment to me, so I'll never make them happy. It's as simple as that. I don't believe you have to go looking for an endangered species before you have your protection. If that was the principle then we never would have protected Uluru.
COMPERE: Deb Nesbitt.
DEB NESBITT: Minister, the independent review, the panel of experts, rejected quite roundly your position on the role of the courts. They said that it shouldn't be just left up to experts and the minister to make decisions about whether or not a major development is assessed or given environmental approval, that the courts did have a very clear role in that it would help make the decisions more transparent.
In fact the quality of decision making, if the Government accepted their recommendation to reinstate merits review which was removed by the Coalition Government, allow people and community groups to challenge your decisions, the nature of your decisions, not just the legal basis of it in the courts and that the Federal Court be allowed to decide what is in the public interest, whether a case is in the public interest or not and costs orders in relation to that not you - why have you rejected that really? Are you afraid of something here?
TONY BURKE: It's not how I believe the system should run. It's as simple as that. I do agree that there should be a high level of engagement with community groups. I do it and I think it's encumbered upon the Minister for the Environment to do that, to make sure that that engagement is made, that the views are heard and that it all feeds in quite directly to the decision making that you have.
So I can't see anything that is gained by the courts having an additional role. Let's not pretend they have no role at the moment but to have an additional role for the courts, I think you are more likely to end up with a great benefit for the legal profession than you are for the environment and a choice between the two – I mean some of my best friends are lawyers but – well actually that's probably a couple.
TONY BURKE: I don't think you get a better environmental outcome from it. The thing that you do get is you do get an opportunity for endless delay and I think that's potentially a disaster for business. And so if it's - when you get to weighing it up, if you've got an equivalent at best environmental outcome and a much worse outcome for business, I'm not interested in going there.
COMPERE: Siobhain Ryan.
SIOBHAIN RYAN: Siobhain Ryan from The Australian. Minister, you made mention at some stage may actually not come up to scratch when it comes to this new revised decentralised model of approvals. Which states do you have concerns about? That's firstly.
Secondly, there's pressure from other sources, the Greens and Tony Windsor among them that the EPBC Act be changed so that the effect of mining projects on water resources are taken into account. Now, does this new framework provide any kind of opportunity for that to be built in at some point in the future? Thank you.
TONY BURKE: Okay, thanks. To the first question, I don't know the answer to that. We haven't set the thresholds; we haven't set the principles so therefore, I don't know which states will make them or which states won't. But I want it to be clear that I'm not saying as an automatic measure states now will be in charge of federal approvals. I don't believe we will ever have a situation where that as a broad brush statement is true.
I do believe it'll be possible for some states for some sorts of developments to be able to offer conditions that they're willing to operate under that would allow me to say okay, one stop shop for you, but I don't know the answer to which states.
In terms of water resources, I want to make sure that we don't end up in a situation where for no significant environmental benefit we are suddenly putting the Federal Government in charge of absolutely every application to do almost anything. It's hard to find a mining application of any sort that doesn't have some sort of impact on water resources.
The best way I believe to handle this is what Martin Ferguson called for on the weekend which was to ask the states to come to national standards, particularly on coal seam gas, on the impact on water resources.
The conditions that I put in place in the Darling Downs actually deal with the main public concern, which is are you or are you not having an impact on the water table and the conditions that I put in place said that you should have to test individually every single aquifer as you go and you treat them based on the information you get as you test each aquifer. I think that's the right way to do it. If we can get national standards of that nature a lot of the public concern I believe to a large extent is alleviated.
COMPERE: Simon Grose.
SIMON GROSE: Simon Grose from Science Media. You talked in your speech about the consultations you undertook with environmental lobby groups and industry. Your government is effectively a coalition with the Greens and the Independents and as environment minister you would be point man or you should be point man when it comes to the relationship with the Greens. So I wondered to what extent you consulted with the Greens on the Government's response to this – this government's response and if not, can you be surprised if they're not happy with it?
TONY BURKE: Well first of all I don't accept one of the premises within your question with respect to the word coalition. Secondly, the consultation that I've conducted within the Parliament means that what I've announced here today in private conversations has been brought to the attention of the Greens, the Liberal Party and the National Party. I'm not looking for a political fight, I'm looking for a good reform. I think we have one.
COMPERE: Marcus Priest.
MARCUS PRIEST: Minister, Marcus Priest from the Financial Review. Two questions, just quickly--
COMPERE: We'll take them separately so--
QUESTION: Sure. Isn't the possibility of referring Commonwealth approval power to the states very much unwinding the principle behind environmental protection law over the last 20 years established under the environmental – Tasmanian dams case, that the Commonwealth really is the last line of protection for the environment and also owes significant international obligations?
MARCUS PRIEST: We'll come back to the second question.
TONY BURKE: No it's not. If we were not imposing conditions and thresholds that the states would have to meet to be able to do that then your question would probably be closer to the point I think. But when you say they only get to do it if they meet all of these standards then all you're doing is saying the standards that the Commonwealth would impose anyway have to be imposed up front. That's the logic of it.
MARCUS PRIEST: Okay, my second question, not having had a great opportunity to look at this document which has only been handed to us in the last 15 minutes, can you just talk about strategic assessments and bilateral agreements? They're possible to negotiate under the Act at the moment. What changes, legislative changes, will you actually be making to the Act and in rejecting some of the wish list of environment groups as things such as standing – cost orders and endorsing very much the calls for business in relation to red tape and timeliness isn't it the case that you prefer to deal with the Coalition on this rather than the Greens?
TONY BURKE: My focus is on having a good reform. It's as simple as that and the issue of including ecosystems of national significance I don't think fits with the thesis, Marcus, that you just put there. Strategic assessments are available at the moment, that's true. What the Hawke Review recommended was that we prioritise them and that we do a whole lot more of them. Not everything within the review was recommending that you have specific legislative changes.
There is though a legislative change when you get to regional environmental plans. At the moment the bioregional planning provisions of the Act have effectively only been used for the oceans and I want us to be able to, as a last line of defence, if we can't get appropriate state agreement on strategic assessments - to be able to conduct similar processes on land. I hope that we do it through strategic assessments, it's a more cooperative mechanism but the priority is to be able to get the benefits for the environment that you get from planning and the benefits that industry gets by knowing where they stand.
COMPERE: David Speers.
DAVID SPEERS: David Speers from Sky News. Minister I do want to ask you about the Craig Thomson matter. Not anything to do with the police looking into the matter which I understand you probably won't want to comment about but as a senior figure of the New South Wales Labor Party, what's your understanding of why New South Wales Labor funded the legal bills that he was facing, were you comfortable with that and is there any precedent for this before?
TONY BURKE: On that issue, the issue of the administration of any of that, my knowledge on that is based on what I've read in the papers and what's been in there, as well, has stated that there are precedents.
COMPERE: Ken Randall.
KEN RANDALL: Minister, I wonder how you assessed the public understanding of the sort of principles you've outlined today for your approach to environmental protection and how much more you think needs to be done in that area?
TONY BURKE: Thanks, Ken. I, too, think the public understanding of the way I described environmental protection – sorry, I think the way I describe the environmental protection meets much more closely with public understanding than the way that we've often spoken over the last decade where you end up protecting something based on whether or not you can find a rare frog or moth.
When people talk about wanting to protect the environment, they may eventually get to the beauty of a rare frog or moth, but I don't think it's where they start. And one of the things that I think has happened in environmental discussion throughout Australia is we've allowed the technical argument to almost overtake the reasons for this being an area of public policy in the first place.
This is an area of public policy because we are in a spectacular continent. There are additional arguments which go to endangered species, there are additional arguments which go to ecosystem services, there are additional arguments which go to the health benefits that come from having a good environment, but none of those issues I refer to at the end there were the reasons for this portfolio being created in the first place.
And, you know, we can't talk about environmental protection or the Act being so powerful and so good based on what industry it stops. We have to talk about it being so powerful or so good based on what environment it protects, and I want us to get right back to those first principles, I want us to conduct the planning and I want the principles of environmental protection at law and as government policy to get right back to the reasons that Australians value their environment in the first place.
All the others are valid arguments, they're part of it, but they must not become the whole picture.
COMPERE: Tom Arup.
TOM ARUP: Minister, there has been, over a number of years, a lot of issues in the domestic carbon offset market around ensuring the long term benefits, environmental benefits, from the offsets. Given that you, you've flagged a new policy and given that some of the reforms you want to make also include increased or sped up approval process time, do you have confidence your department can ensure proper outcomes, they're well staffed, they're well resourced and that we won't have a situation with offsets where something's offset and nothing's checked for, in the following years?
TONY BURKE: That's part of the reason, Tom, that I flagged the issue of cost recovery. We do have an issue with people being stretched between the complexity of the environmental approvals and applications that are coming to us with making sure that we are also performing the compliance role, which is incumbent upon us to perform.
So, I'm, I'm not going to pretend that I think we are under no pressure on these issues, we are, and cost recovery to make sure that we do have an additional line of funding for what is a cost to the department, but, also, and business will hate me referring to it as a benefit for business, but shorter timeframes are, they are.
And a number of businesses these days will put applications in to us which they know are not covered by the Act, they know they don't need our permission, but they want to go back to the bank with a letter from us saying it's not a controlled action, because that effectively becomes something that is helpful for them in gaining the equity that's required.
And I can understand why business does that, but there's a – it's a financial benefit for them and it's a cost to the taxpayer and I do believe there's a way through cost recovery of getting a better deal for business in terms of timeframes, but also making sure that our work continues to be done as thoroughly as it needs to be.
COMPERE: Deb Nesbitt.
DEB NESBITT: Minister, Deb Nesbitt from Thomson Reuters.
Minister, I'm just wondering if you could explain to me something that came out of the Montara Inquiry, the inquiry into the huge oil spill in those vast, in the Timor Sea, which you just released draft plans for protecting.
Minister Ferguson, I think, released the Government's response to the inquiry and one of the things to come out of it was to create a new body replacing, I think, AMSA that would have some responsibility for, I guess, monitoring environmental impacts from a similar spill because, as the inquiry found, I think officials from your department couldn't get in to, couldn't even start monitoring the environmental impact for about a month because of legal issues and, as a result will never know, as the inquiry said, will never know what the environmental impact was of that spill.
So, what I'm trying to understand is, has there been some responsibility transferred from your department or from you to the resources and energy department or to this new body to – you know, who today would be responsible for environmentally going in and checking the impact on the environment of an oil spill today in those waters? Does that make sense?
TONY BURKE: Yeah, yeah, it does.
DEB NESBITT: I just wanted to try and understand what's happened.
TONY BURKE: Some of what you talk to is dealt with by more than one person, but there's some technical detail that you've gone to that I simply don't have at my fingertips and I'm not going to, on something as important as that, chance my arm, so I'm just going to have to take it on notice. I apologise for that, but I just don't have – there's some specific elements that you've raised that I just don't have at my fingertips.
COMPERE: I'd like to take two more questions before we conclude today, the first from Siobhain Ryan.
SIOBHAIN RYAN: I was going to ask two questions. [Laughs] From The Australian.
Minister, just going back to that mining projects, water resources, there's no guarantee the states will agree on national standards, there's a lot of them. The EPBC Act is one of the few triggers, one of the few levers the Commonwealth has to actually intervene in the absence of an agreement. Is it there as a potential backstop? If not, what other levers can the Commonwealth look for?
And the other issue on cost recovery, I mean how can the Government just by cost recovery, if you're not actually going to allow the department to retain the money from fines and penalties they've imposed through this environmental reparation fund that the report rejects from - that's going to consolidate a revenue, why send it to consolidated revenue when you're going to then raise money through cost recovery?
TONY BURKE: Okay, on the cost recovery part of it, well, also, three issues. First of all, with water, the, if you had a massive explosion of how many items have to be referred, the challenges that I've referred to before in terms of resourcing and making sure that we deal with each application properly, those pressures become much, much worse if you suddenly have us responsible for everything that involves water, whether it activates matters of national environmental significance or not.
That puts an extraordinary pressure on and I'm not sure, as a result of that pressure, that you would actually end up with a better environmental outcome.
Secondly, on the issue of cost recovery, the principles of cost recovery deal with the fact that there is a benefit for business in making sure that things are done in a more timely way, there are general community benefits through the law existing at all, but approvals and recommendations and conditions and, in some cases, rejections will always happen, but business has an interest in the conclusion being reached more quickly. And that's a solid argument for cost recovery.
I would much rather have revenue coming in through cost recovery than to have money coming into the department through fines. I have no problem with money to pay for the work of public officials and public servants to come from the workload that is being undertaken, that's what cost recovery is, but I do not want to see a situation where funding for my department is contingent upon people doing the wrong thing. And that's what it means if you become reliant on fines.
You end up with a situation where funding for the environment is dependent upon breaches. I absolutely do not want to go down that path.
COMPERE: I'll take a third question to conclude then, from Simon Grose.
SIMON GROSE: Simon Grose. Fifteen months ago your predecessor announced a national plan for environmental information which would involve a wider role for the Bureau of Meteorology. Since then, nothing's happened. Has that run dead or is it – what's happening with that?
TONY BURKE: There's, there's work being led by Treasury on environmental accounts. That's still going and that's going to be very important. Additional to that, with the sustainable, Australia sustainable community strategy earlier this year, released in the week of the budget, there was money made available for sustainability indicators as well, and these issues combined are incredibly important.
While great research is done through our universities and different research bodies, each paper usually has a different set of assumptions, each paper usually has slightly different modelling and to be able to get consistency of information over time for the environment is extraordinarily difficult.
We don't – you know, something as complex as the environment, you'll never get it equivalent of the, of the precision of a CPI, but the data is just too patchy at the moment to be able to inform public policy the way we need it to. So, the work on the environmental accounts is continuing and you've got the additional money that was made available.
COMPERE: I'm not too sure where that music's coming from in the background, but I think that signals that we may well be at the end. Let's conclude on that note.
Tony Burke, look thank you very much for coming to the Club to announce this response today. I have no doubt we'll be seeing you again at some point in the future. Thank you.
TONY BURKE: Thank you.