Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities
Interview - ABC 24
12 February 2013
QUESTION: So first of all, Minister, there are suggestions that this is a Clayton's approval because the offset policy and the criteria for that haven't been fully outlined. How can they be enforced if they haven't been set?
TONY BURKE: You're exactly right. You're exactly right. This is quite different to any previous decisions. As was made public on many occasions, I wasn't yet ready to make a concluded decision on this one.
So while it's been reported as though it's a final decision, it's effectively not. What I've done is make sure that, on all the issues which had been concluded, that I've gone public on those. On the issues which are yet to be resolved, I've made clear that they have to be resolved.
For example, with Gloucester, the hydrological modelling still needs to be done. The outcome of that will determine whether or not the project is able to go ahead.
With Boggabri and Maules Creek, there are issues of a bond. There's issues of a biodiversity corridor, a maximum footprint, and also a complete independent audit of the proposed offsets. Now if any one of those issues falls short, the project won't be able to go ahead. I think you'll find that's why the companies haven't come out celebrating on this.
People have reacted as though they thought this was a final approval. But effectively, once bits and pieces of what I might or might not decide started to leak out into actions of the New South Wales Government, I thought the only way to deal with it is to give complete clarity on what's resolved and what's not. And it would appear on the outcome of the unresolved issues as to whether or not these projects ever go ahead.
QUESTION: Right. So it is implicit in this that there is a requirement to have those offsets in place before construction can…
TONY BURKE: The offsets first of all have to be independently audited. Now this is a very unusual thing to ask. When I went out to the site and I met with some of the community groups that were concerned and opposed, including Phil Laird himself, they raised some very deep concerns and I've been working through their material, on the offsets package.
I thought the best way to be able to deal with the concerns they'd raised was to have it independently audited, and if it doesn't come up to scratch, then the project can't go ahead. But to have an independent audit I thought was the most transparent way of dealing with that.
I know Phil has been in the media today thinking that his concerns were ignored on the basis of media reporting that he's seen. When he goes through the conditions, he'll actually find precise issues that he raised have been built into the conditions. And if his concerns prove true, then the project simply can't go ahead.
QUESTION: Right. Because the Maules Creek Community Council claims that the information is misleading. You're confident that it isn't, obviously?
TONY BURKE: I don't know whether it is or not. That's why I've demanded that there be an independent audit.
QUESTION: And if it is misleading, what action is available to government at that point?
TONY BURKE: Well, at that point, the project can't go ahead. Now these issues all need to be satisfied. They all need to be determined to the satisfaction of the minister. This happens rarely in environmental decisions that they're done this way.
It happened, for example, when Malcolm Turnbull dealt with the pulp mill in Tasmania at Bell Bay, he dealt with a number of what he described as modules which, unless they were resolved to the satisfaction of the minister, the project couldn't go ahead. Those modules came back in the years when Peter Garrett was environment minister. They kept coming back in the time when I was. That's effectively what's happened here.
So a lot of the reporting today and a lot of the frustration that people are feeling. And I suspect some of the things that have just been said in the media conference you've come from are concerns that, when people read the conditions, are not actually well-founded.
QUESTION: And so threats by the community councils of Maules Creek and Gloucester that this could end up in the courts and legal action, again that's misplaced because of the unfinished process before you?
TONY BURKE: Any environmental decision, any decision of government can end up in the courts. So I don't want to categorically give answers on that. It depends on whether people choose to take action.
But certainly what the community is complaining about, if they read the conditions, they'll actually find that their precise concerns have given rise to an independent audit. And if their concerns prove true in the independent audit, then the project can't go ahead.
Now I might say, when we're saying independent audit, whoever conducts that has to be agreed to by my department. This is not something where the company can just pay somebody to be independent.
QUESTION: Given the unusual nature of this process, has there been a communications failure in that you could have cleared up some of these apparently misguided misconceptions in the local community?
TONY BURKE: Everything that I've said to you today is covered off and the principles are referred to in these terms in the media release that went out yesterday, in all of the interviews that I gave yesterday.
Unfortunately, one of the things is when people try to condense a decision into 140 characters, you end up with significant aspects of it not being part of what gets recorded. That's just the nature of how messages get out in the first instance.
QUESTION: Just finally, offsets for critically endangered community, how can they be adequately safeguarded when there's only two per cent of the Box Gum forest left at Narrabri.
TONY BURKE: Yeah, Box Gum forest is something where, in hectare terms, there's a lot of it around, but in terms of terms of what we had traditionally, there's a tiny percentage around. That's why it's listed as critically endangered, because most of the farmland that you'll find across New South Wales is previous Box Gum.
So it is possible, in terms of offsets, to secure various parcels of very high quality habitat that otherwise would be lost, rehabilitate it and find ways that we can get a decent biodiversity outcome.
But whether the offsets package that's proposed does that or not is something that I want to have independently audited. It's something that normally I don't do. But when I met with the community and I listened to their specific concerns and worked through the material that they gave me to read afterwards, I formed a very strong view that you needed an extra layer of probity over this particular part of the decision.
QUESTION: And timeline, how do you see it playing out from here?
TONY BURKE: Well, in terms of: if they can't meet the conditions and if it comes back in an unacceptable way, then there is no timeline. It simply doesn't happen. The key here isn't one of timeline. The key issue here is one of whether or not these projects are able to occur in a way that meets the requirements of national environmental law.
Now we don't get to deal with every environmental issue federally. You need to reflect on endangered species and endangered communities, something like that for it to trigger federal law. And there are many issues with New South Wales planning that are deficient where we don't have a direct head of power of.
But in short, it doesn't come up to scratch if it doesn't meet the standards that have been put forward, if the extra work comes back that it is deficient, then the projects can't go ahead. This is not a normal approval decision. When we say conditional: it is highly conditional.
QUESTION: Okay. Thanks.
TONY BURKE: Okay. Thanks very much.