National Press Club address, Minister for the Environment and Water Tanya Plibersek

19 July 2022

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Acknowledgments omitted.

SUBJECTS: 2021 State of the Environment Report

TANYA PLIBERSEK, MINISTER FOR THE ENVIRONMENT AND WATER: I want to begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land on which we meet today, the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people, and pay my respects to their Elders past and present. 

First Nations peoples have the oldest continuing cultures on earth, and are the world’s most successful environmental custodians.

They have managed land and sea country for 65,000 years. 

As Minister for the Environment and Water, I’m committed to learning from their remarkable example. 

Thank you to the National Press Club for having me today. 

It’s been six weeks since I started in this portfolio. 

On top of the usual departmental briefings, I’ve used these six weeks to travel to some of the most remarkable parts of Australia...

...reminding me again how grateful I am to live in the most beautiful country on earth. And how thankful I am to the generations of activists and good governments who protected our unique natural and cultural heritage.

But there is another story here too.

A difficult, confronting, sometimes depressing story. 

At the same time as seeing some of the most beautiful places on earth, I’ve been reading the data that tells me these places are under threat.

If we continue on the trajectory we are on, the precious places, landscapes, animals and plants that we think of when we think of home, may not be here for our kids and grandkids.

Today, as part of my statutory duty as Minister, I am publicly releasing the 2021 State of the Environment Report. 

It’s one of the most important documents in environmental science. 

Every five years, a group of independent experts, some of Australia’s most respected scientists (a number of whom are with us today), are given access to our best available tools.

They are told to show us the full national picture of the health of our environment.

Or as one of the authors put it, to help us ‘take a good hard look at ourselves’.

This report was delivered to government last year.

The previous Minister, Sussan Ley, received it before Christmas, but chose to keep it hidden – locked away until after the federal election. 

When you read it, you’ll know why.

But while it’s a confronting read, Australians deserve the truth. 

We deserve to know that Australia has lost more mammal species to extinction than any other continent.

We deserve to know that threatened communities have grown by 20 per cent in the past five years, with places literally burned into endangerment by catastrophic fires.

That the Murray Darling fell to its lowest water level on record in 2019.

And that for the first time, Australia now has more foreign plant species than native ones.

Individually, each of these revelations is dreadful. 

But it’s only when you think about their cumulative impact that you begin to get the full picture of environmental decline. 

It’s right there on page one of the report -  ‘Overall, the state and trend of the environment in Australia are poor and deteriorating’ – with ‘abrupt changes in ecological systems being recorded in the past five years’.

And it’s downhill from there.

Since the last report, marine heatwaves have caused mass coral bleaching in the Great Barrier Reef. 

Warming temperatures have reduced kelp beds along the southeast coast, as well as threatening reef habitats and the abalone and lobster industries they support. 

At the same time, Australia has experienced a plague of marine plastics. 

In Perth, scientists have found up to 60,000 pieces of plastic per square kilometre of water.

In Brisbane, they found between 40,000 and 80,000. 

And at the top end, in the Torres Strait and Timor Sea, abandoned fishing gear has been killing marine animals on an industrial scale. 

These underwater hurricanes of debris are known as ‘ghost nets’ – and they’re strangling up to 14,000 turtles a year. 

Turtles which are listed as threatened. 

Our waters are struggling – and so is the land. 

As a result of erosion, deforestation, intensive agriculture and climate change, Australia’s soil is now generally in poor condition – and getting worse.

We are losing topsoil – letting it blow away without vegetation to protect it….

Making our soil less productive, less fertile, and less efficient at holding water.

Which means our agricultural output is lower than it could be. 

Our land is more susceptible to drought. 

And our soil’s ability to regenerate and support life is diminished. 

Australia is one of the world’s deforestation hotspots. Between the year 2000 and 2017, Australia cleared over 7.7 million hectares of threatened species habitat across the country. 

That’s an area bigger than Tasmania. 

Much of this clearing occurred in small increments. More than 90 per cent of it was never assessed under our environmental laws. 

When we destroy these habitats - and when we don’t restore them elsewhere - endangered creatures lose their homes. 

And that has consequences. 

In February this year, Koalas were officially moved from threatened to endangered in Queensland, New South Wales, and the ACT. 

These drowsy creatures have grazed on Australian eucalyptus for over 25 million years. 

And it’s only this year, of all years, that they became endangered.

Of course, this disturbing list is being made worse by climate change. 

Global warming multiplies environmental pressure everywhere.  

It heats our oceans. 

It deepens drought.

It intensifies disease.

It destroys habitats. 

And it worsens extreme weather events, which tilt the balance of ecosystems beyond recognition. 

The bushfires of 2019 and 2020 are still being felt today.

Those bushfires were an ecological bomb, ripping through south-eastern Australia. 

They killed or displaced up to three billion animals.

They burnt over 80 per cent of the Greater Blue Mountains area, almost 60 per cent of our Gondwana rainforests, and more than 40 per cent of the Stirling Range National Park.

And they tipped clouds of sediment and ash into our waterways, leading to mass marine death. 
That summer was terrifying for everyone who lived through it. 

And if we don’t act, those awful red nights will become more common. 

This is just a taste of what the report lays out.

And for six months, it sat on the previous Minister’s desk. 

As Professor Emma Johnston told the Sydney Morning Herald in April:

‘We have put a huge amount of effort and hard yakka into this, and we really hope the report can be used for long term planning, immediate action, for changing our investments … but we can’t start that work until the report is released’.

I agree. 

It’s well past time we get to work.

As we see from the State of the Environment Report, the previous government was no friend of the environment.

Too many urgent warnings were either ignored or kept secret.

But there were other failures too.

The former government made nice promises, but rarely bothered to deliver them. 

For example, the previous government had a decade to fulfil the Murray Darling Basin Plan. 

It’s a good plan. Labor made it. Labor delivered it. 

And it saved the river system from dying in 2019. 

But it’s yet to be fully implemented. 

By the time the Morrison Government left office, they had only delivered two of the promised 450 gigalitres of environmental water. 

And they had no plan to find the extra 448 gigalitres by 2024, when it’s due. 

The former government promised $40 million for Indigenous water – of which they never delivered a drop.  

The Morrison Government made a series of pledges on recycling. 

Pledges the Labor Government broadly supports.

But I think most Australians would be shocked to know how far we are from meeting these targets – and that the former government had no real plan to reach them.

Again and again, the previous government behaved in a way that undermined public trust in environmental management. 

They gave a private charity almost half a billion dollars, without tender or process, to guide our response to the crisis in the Great Barrier Reef. 

It doesn’t matter how good an organisation is – no one should walk into the Prime Minister’s office and leave with hundreds of millions of dollars they never even asked for.

For nine years, the previous government oversaw a broken, barely regulated national water market. 

As the ACCC found, it was market with no rules against insider trading. 

With no requirements to keep proper records. 

This led to widespread distrust in the system.  

Worse than that, they inflicted wilful damage as well. 

From Tony Abbott to Scott Morrison, from Barnaby Joyce to Matt Canavan…

…the Liberals and Nationals came to power with a mission to put the environment last, to repeal climate legislation and slash emissions reduction targets. 

They cut funding to the Environment Department by 40 per cent. Which they thought was very clever, until they realised what it meant in practice.
  
Without proper funding, environmental decision times exploded. 

According to a National Audit Office review in 2020, the average federal decision for a new project was 116 days behind schedule. 

And of these decisions, around 80 per cent were either non-compliant or contained errors.  

The previous government’s funding cuts held back business, they damaged the economy, and they undermined practical efforts to protect our environment.
  
In 2018, the former government cut the highly protected areas of Commonwealth Marine Parks in half – removing the largest area from conservation in Australian history. 

The Liberals and Nationals spent less than $17 million of the $216 million they promised to upgrade Kakadu National Park’s infrastructure. 

And in their final term, the Morrison Government’s relationship with the Traditional Owners of Kakadu broke down completely – to the point where a government review, co-chaired by Amanda Vanstone, called it ‘deplorable’ and ‘untenable’.   

The previous government was told, loud and clear, that Australia’s environmental laws weren’t working.

But they did nothing to fix that. 

Almost two years ago, the Morrison Government received an official review into the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act.  

It was written by Graeme Samuel – and its message was as blunt as the State of the Environment Report. 

To quote Professor Samuel:

‘The EPBC Act is outdated and requires fundamental reform’. 

‘The EPBC Act is ineffective. It does not enable the Commonwealth to effectively protect environmental matters that are important for the nation. It is not fit to address current or future environmental challenges.

‘The resounding message that I heard through the Review is that Australians do not trust that the Act is delivering for the environment, for business or for the community’. 

Professor Samuel’s work was thorough. But it wasn’t a revelation. 

The federal government has been receiving the same messages for years now. 

And the central theme, over and over again, is trust and integrity.

People don’t trust that the Commonwealth is protecting the environment. 

They don’t trust the development application process to be smooth, on time, and without unnecessary duplication. 

And frankly, that scepticism is justified. 

Under the current laws, we don’t clearly define the environmental outcomes we’re trying to deliver. 

When we make environmental decisions, we don’t ensure they’re being enforced in practice. 

Even if we wanted to, we often don’t have the data or resources to do it properly.  

And because no one trusts the system, these processes are often duplicated by state and federal governments. 

Which delays projects, drives up business costs, and jeopardises investment.  

At the same time our environment is not getting the protection it needs. 

This is what Graeme Samuel told us. 

There’s an almost universal consensus that change is needed. 

Indeed, business and environmental groups very maturely put aside differences to back Professor Samuel’s recommendations.

But again, the Morrison Government chose to ignore that.  

They tried to ram through a select few changes – and instead delivered nothing.

This is the situation I’m inheriting as Minister for the Environment and Water. 

Years of warnings that were ignored or kept secret. 

Promises made, but not delivered. 

Dodgy behaviour, undermining public confidence. 

Brutal funding cuts.

Wilful neglect.

Laws that don’t work to protect the environment, or smooth the way for sensible development. 

All against the backdrop of accelerating environmental destruction. 

It’s time to change that.

Australia’s environment is bad and getting worse, as this report shows. 

And much of the destruction outlined in the State of the Environment report will take years to turn around. 

Nevertheless, I’m optimistic about the steps we can take over the next three years. 

Legislating strong action on climate change is a great start.

Australian scientists are world class. 

We know how to restore landscapes, repair coral reefs, and recover threatened species. 

We’ve got thousands of volunteers out there, every weekend, planting trees, collecting rubbish, and cleaning up their local creek – many of them through community Landcare groups.

Australians really care about the landscapes they live in, and about the precious places they will never visit, but want protected anyway.

They just need a government that cares as much as they do. 

Which is why, in this term of government, I will be guided by three essential goals. 

To protect, to restore, and to manage Australia’s environment.  

We need to protect our environment and heritage for the future. 

We need to restore environments that have already been damaged. 

And we need to actively manage our landscapes, oceans and waterways, and the critical places we’ve vowed to protect – so they don’t become run down through neglect. 

That’s our agenda. 

To offer proper protection, we need to set clear national environmental standards – with explicit targets around what we value as a country, and what the law needs to protect. 

This will require a fundamental reforming of our national environment laws – and empowering a new Environmental Protection Agency to enforce them.  

We need trust and transparency. 

Decisions need to be built on good data – to show the public how we’re tracking in real time; data that can be shared so we don’t keep collecting the same information again and again, but instead we build over time a useful, usable, rich picture of our environment. 

We also need certainty and efficiency. 

This will allow us to speed up most processes – so we can build new housing, construct renewable energy projects, and lay the roads that connect our communities. 

Better environmental outcomes and faster, clearer decisions.

For too long, people have seen these goals as mutually exclusive. They’re not. 

Good environmental law reform is also good economic reform. 

That’s why by agreement with the Treasurer, the historic wellbeing budget will also include environmental indicators. 

As the Treasurer recently said: 

‘It is really important that we measure what matters in our economy, in addition to all of the traditional measures. Not instead of, but in addition to.’ 

Because this is not a conflict between jobs and the environment. 

We’ve got to go beyond that thinking when we reform our environmental laws. 

To help guide that change, I’m announcing that by the end of the year the Australian Government will formally respond to the Samuel Review.

We will then aim to develop new environmental legislation for 2023.

We will consult thoroughly on environmental standards. 

But in the meantime, I’d like to see an immediate start on improving our environmental data and regional planning – establishing a shared view around what needs to be protected or restored, and areas where development can occur with minimal consequence. 

I’m not naïve: I know improving our environmental laws is going to be challenging. 

People will have different ideas of what national standards should look like. 

And as Minister, I will make calls that some people disagree with. 

But I’m determined to improve the system. 

The truth is that everyone will have to give a bit to achieve real, lasting, national progress. 

It is encouraging to know that groups with very different interests worked to find common ground during the Samuel Review. 

Business, industry, environmentalists, scientists, traditional owners, farmers, unions, and your standard keen bushwalker like me, came to the table to see what progress they could make. 

I want to work across the board to build on that good will. 

Because ambition is important. But it’s not much good without achievement.

I understand that campaigns to stop individual projects will motivate and energise some people.  

Others will want to focus on individual species, or a particularly beautiful place.

I know these campaigns can capture the public imagination. 

But in my judgement - what our environment really needs is a changed system. 

That’s the message from the Samuel review. 

That’s the message from the State of the Environment Report. 

Without structural reform, we’ll be resigning ourselves to another decade of failure; without the tools we need to arrest our decline. 

We all want to pass on a healthy environment to our children and grandchildren. 

That’s why I’m also very happy to announce that we will expand Australia’s national estate. 

Our Government will set a national goal of protecting thirty percent of our land and thirty percent of our oceans by 2030. 

We will explore the creation of new national parks and marine protected areas – including by progressing the East Antarctic Marine Protected Area. 

This will be the latest chapter in a very proud Labor story. 

Labor protected Kakadu, the Daintree, the Great Barrier Reef, Antarctica, and the Tasmanian World Heritage Area.

As Minister, I intend to add to that legacy. 

The State of the Environment Report also makes it clear that we must do a better job at repairing environmental damage.

Too much clearing of habitat has already occurred. 

Too many ecosystems and species are under threat. 

We can’t just stop future destruction – although this is essential and the most cost effective way to address the environmental crisis – we also need to actively repair past damage. 

The Australian Land Conservation Alliance estimates that we need to spend over $1 billion a year to restore and prevent further landscape degradation. 

The scale of this challenge means that governments can’t do the job alone.

We need to work with industry and philanthropic partners – many of whom are already doing great work.

I want to look at ways to make these investments easier – to support land-based carbon projects that deliver biodiversity, improve drought resilience, and drive agricultural productivity.

And to ensure that we prioritise the most important areas for ecological restoration.

Better data, laws that focus on outcomes, and good regional planning will help protect and restore the places with the greatest carbon and biodiversity value. 

We will also support investment in blue carbon projects – restoration of mangroves, tidal marshes, and sea grasses that provide habitat for marine life, support our fisheries, and protect our coast lines from rising tides and storms.

An Australian scientist has described these places as the ‘blue diamond’ of carbon storage.

And he’s right: these environments are precious – absorbing carbon at up to five times the rate of tropical rainforests and storing it for thousands of years. 

The State of the Environment Report shows the urgent need to better manage our waste, and to actively manage the places we’ve vowed to protect. 

These are areas of clear community interest.

Most people want to reduce their plastics footprint, they want to recycle the things they use, and they want government to help them do it as easily as possible.

I’m genuinely excited by our prospects here.

We can reduce pollution, increase recycling, and support local manufacturing at the same time. 

For example - I recently visited the Samsara lab at the Australian National University, where researchers are using enzymes to break down plastics and infinitely remake new plastic. 

I’ve seen the research UTS is doing in making plastics from algae.

It’s fascinating work – just a couple of the many innovations being trialed around the country.  

I want to support these efforts to replace petrochemical products – while working with the states and territories to encourage a circular economy…

That means promoting recycling, reusing, and repairing as much as possible.  

We know how important this issue is to our friends in the Pacific. 

At the UN Oceans Conference last month, our Pacific family told me about the impact plastics are having on their health, their environment, and their livelihoods. 

This is an area where Australia can form strong regional partnerships. 

As I said to Pacific leaders, I want to see a plastics free Pacific in our lifetime.

Every Pacific leader I have spoken with is eager to work with Australia on this project – to share what we know with each other.

There is also the question of managing the land we’ve promised to protect.
Here I see the environment and water portfolio going hand in hand with Labor’s reconciliation agenda. 

First Nations Australians have managed this country for 65,000 years. 

And they did it through changing seasons, shifting climates, and across radically different environments. 

These systems of environmental knowledge have been passed down for thousands of generations. 
Any modern conservation program should incorporate them.

That’s why the Labor Government will double the number of Indigenous Rangers by the end of the decade to 3,800. 

We will significantly boost funding for Indigenous Protected Areas.

We will deliver the $40 million of Indigenous water promised by the Morrison government in 2018, but never produced.  

And we will make it easier for First Nations to protect their cultural heritage. 

We’ve committed to introduce standalone cultural heritage legislation – which we will co-design with the First Nations Heritage Protection Alliance. 

A healthy environment sits at the heart of our national legacy.

And it feeds our national soul.

Our sense of ourselves, and our health as a society is bound up with the health of our land and water. 

Australians know how lucky we are to live in this country. 

It’s the feeling we get whenever we come back from overseas.

You see it all with fresh eyes and fresh appreciation. 

It’s the crystal blue sky – clearer than anywhere in the world. 

It’s the glimmer and sparkle of Sydney Harbour. 

It’s the long green stretches of national park, bordering our cities. 

It’s the perfect ring of beaches that meet the sea. 

Or the corrugated red ridges of central Australia.

And every time, the same feeling – the feeling of home stirring inside us. 

That’s our natural heritage – and that’s what we’re committed to protecting. 

In 2022, Australians voted for the environment. 

They voted for action on climate change. 

They voted for their children and their grandchildren and every generation of Australians who will follow us. 

When you change the government – you change the country. 

After a lost decade; after a decade of going backwards; we can’t waste another minute.

Thank you.