2GB Afternoons interview with the Minister for the Environment and Water Tanya Plibersek

SUBJECTS: Government declares war on feral cats; Qatar airways; Voice Referendum.

DEBORAH KNIGHT, HOST: Now, I spoke earlier this week to the Invasive Species Council about the massive cost all around the world from pests – pests like varroa mite and fire ants, which are on the march into New South Wales from Queensland. But top of the list here in Australia when it comes to pests that do the most damage is feral cats. And I got a lot of reaction from you on this, some listeners agreeing that, yes, more needs to be done to control feral cats in this country, and other listeners who thought it was all a bit overblown.  Well, the federal government has today upped the ante, declaring war on feral cats in Australia. Part of the Environment Minister declaring that there’ll be no more animal extinctions in this country under her watch, which I think frankly is pie in the sky. But the Minister, Tanya Plibersek, is on the line for us now. Minister, welcome to Afternoons.
KNIGHT: Now, we know what happened to Bob Hawke declaring no child would live in poverty, and even Kevin Rudd’s closing the gap on Indigenous disadvantage. I don’t know how long you intend to be in office, but do you really think with all the animals on the endangered list and all the animals that are under threat in this country that none will become extinct with you in charge?
MINISTER PLIBERSEK: We’ve got to try, Deb. I mean, we’ve seen so many animals become extinct. We’re the mammal extinction capital of the world in Australia. We’ve really got to turn this around. You know, even species like koalas, if we keep going the way we’re going, koalas in New South Wales are estimated to become extinct by 2050. So we’ve got to take this seriously.
KNIGHT: Well, absolutely no argument. But declaring that there be no more extinctions, it’s a pretty lofty goal. It’s pretty pie in the sky, isn’t it?
MINISTER PLIBERSEK: That’s my aim. That’s my aim. And we’ve got to aim high. We’ve got to be ambitious.
KNIGHT: All right. Well, the proof will be in the pudding on it. But feral cats, I wonder, is this the big issue that the government should be facing at the moment? Because we’ve got so many issues that the country is up against – cost of living front and centre, of course, the dramas with Qantas, the Voice referendum that’s looking like being defeated. Is this a diversion to take the heat off the government?
MINISTER PLIBERSEK: No, not at all. I’m the Environment Minister; you would expect me to be identifying threats to the environment and addressing them. Today is Threatened Species Day and so we’ve released for consultation a really important paper to deal with the threat that is proposed – that we’re proposing to deal with.
Feral cats are a really serious issue, particularly when it comes to mammals. We know that feral cats have played a role in about two-thirds of mammal extinctions over the last 200 years. The last two animals that have gone extinct in Australia, cats played a big role in their extinction. There’s about 200 listed threatened species around Australia right now that have cats as one of their major threats. Animals like the greater bilby, numbats, the Gilbert’s potoroo, there’s some really incredible statistics about the number of animals that are being killed by cats every night. So we’re estimating about 6 million animals are killed by cats every night in Australia.
So most cat owners are very responsible; they keep their cats indoors. But we’ve got a huge problem with feral cats and, of course, people who are letting their cats wander at night, well, they get the little gifts on the doorstep quite often – that’s a real threat to our native animals.
KNIGHT: But feral cats are the main focus here?
MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Well, our main focus is feral cats, but the consultation paper also looks at, you know, whether we need to give councils more powers to urge residents to keep their cats inside. So when it comes to feral cats, we’re looking at really interesting new technologies to control feral cats. There’s a machine called the Felixer Cat Grooming Trap – a cat walks past it, it gets sprayed with a poison. It goes away, it licks that poison off as its grooming itself, and that’s how the cat dies. We really want to look at getting rid of cats from some fenced areas so that we can let native species recover in those areas. So we’re re-introducing some of those little mammals into those fenced areas, keeping the cats out of, and we’re letting those creatures breed in the wild again.
Islands are particularly important. We’re trying to get rid of cats, for example, from Christmas Island at the moment. The last two species that went extinct were from Christmas Island – and it was the cats that were partly responsible for that, so if we can get the cats off Christmas Island it means you can see the native wildlife recover there. And then when it comes to your domestic cat, we really would like people to keep their cats inside, particularly at night. So we’re consulting on whether councils should be given more powers to do that.
KNIGHT: But a lot of councils have already tossed this idea around but not many have rolled it out – not many in New South Wales at least. How can you ever enforce cat curfews?
MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Well, it is difficult, but we certainly have options for doing that. I mean, you know that if a council sees a dog wandering around without an owner and a leash they’re very quick to pick the dog up. So I think keeping an eye on cats that are wandering around is the natural, sensible extension of that.
But the first thing to do, I think, is really talking to cat owners about how important it is to keep their cats inside, particularly at night. I know people love their cats. Most people, you know, think –
KNIGHT: Have you got a cat?
MINISTER PLIBERSEK: No, no. I’ve got two dogs, and I keep them inside at night.
KNIGHT: So are you more of a dog person than a cat person?
MINISTER PLIBERSEK: I like cats. I like Burmese cats in particular. But, yeah, you know, I’ve got two dogs and it’s not particularly compatible with having a cat. I know some people have got cats and dogs together but –
KNIGHT: Well, careful about getting the cat lovers offside here because, you know, a lot of listeners, are sort of questioning whether or not you’ve got the cat owners in their sights, and also questioning the plan to get rid of and to shoot and euthanase the feral cats too. Because we’ve had the debate about the culling of the wild horses in the high country. Is it really the best way to go about getting rid of feral cats by trialling feral cat shooting programs?
KNIGHT: Because that’s part of the recommendation?
MINISTER PLIBERSEK: We’re absolutely open to shooting cats. I think these machines like the Felixer trapper is a more – you know, a more successful and humane way to go because we can set these machines up in isolated areas where we know the cats are and, you know, the machines can be operating remotely for weeks at a time.
We’ve got – people talk about whether this is humane or not. There’s nothing humane about the six animals that are being killed by the average cat every night in Australia. Like, you think about how efficient those cats are at hunting, anybody who’s owned a cat has received a little present on the end of their bed – you know, a bird, or a bat, or a mouse, or a frog. You know that they are really successful, efficient hunters, and feral cats, as I say, have played a role in two-thirds of mammal extinctions in Australia. If we want to protect our native species we have to deal with the invasives – that goes for cats, it goes for pigs and goats and camels, and feral horses too.
KNIGHT: All right. I’m getting lots of reaction from our listeners. Linda’s texted in to say, “You can’t control pigs, dogs, foxes and deer. Good luck with the cats.” Another texter saying, “This is an absolute distraction. The cost of living, the power prices and the rental crisis should be priority number one.” And David has just called in. Hello, David.
MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Well, can I just –
KNIGHT: David’s got a question for you.
MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Can I just respond to that cost of living one. Of course that’s the first priority for our government, and we are doing things like halving the cost of medicines, dropping the cost of child care, increasing commonwealth rent assistance.
MINISTER PLIBERSEK: And most importantly, helping people see wage increases, for example, particularly in the aged care sector where we’ve invested billions of dollars to get aged care workers –
KNIGHT: Yes, but you’ve declared war on feral cats today.
MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Yes, and I’m the Environment Minister, and so as the Environment Minister it’s my job to look after the environment. And one of the biggest threats to the environment, Deb, are these feral animals.
KNIGHT: Let’s go to David here because he has a feral cat problem in his neck of the woods. Hello, David.
DAVID: Hi, Deborah.
KNIGHT: What are you trying to achieve?
DAVID: We’ve got a feral cat that I’ve reported to national parks numerous times, and I’ve shown them photos. But they say that their hands are tied, they can’t do anything about it. It’s a companion animal. But it’s annihilating the water dragon population around our houses.
KNIGHT: What do you say to David there, Minister?
MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Yeah, it’s exactly the sort of problem that we’re trying to deal with. And I wonder if David’s actually got on to his local council, because I’d love the council to play a role there. And the very reason that we’re releasing this consultation paper today is to see whether councils also need more powers to deal with animals like that. They do cause environmental destruction – lizards and frogs are some of the worst affected species.
KNIGHT: Yeah, and this is part of the problem – you’ve got different levels of government, you’ve got different state and territory governments, but you need everyone to be on the same page to achieve this goal of reining in feral cats.
MINISTER PLIBERSEK: We absolutely do. And, again –
KNIGHT: And again, pie in the sky, though. That’s never going to happen.
MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Well, Deb, you’ve got to aim big. Like, just saying more of the same or just let it keep happening because it’s all been too hard, that’s not good enough. There’s no point in being in government if we don’t set some ambitious goals to protect nature. I want our kids and our grandkids to be able to see the same animals in the wild that I grew up seeing. Can you imagine an Australia where you can’t see a koala in the wild? That’s where we’re headed if we don’t start deal with these big environmental threats.
KNIGHT: All right. Dennis has also got an issue with feral cats. Hello, Dennis.
DENNIS: Yes, good morning – good afternoon, ladies. I’m in the Wollondilly Shire and I’ve got a small property and I have a feral cat problem that is ongoing. People dump them all the time. But if I wanted to catch one and want to dispose of it, I have to get up to five statutory declarations from my neighbours to say that it’s not their cat. I only have six neighbours, and I know all their cats.
KNIGHT: What do you advise there?
MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Well, again, I think the first port of call is council, and that’s the very reason we’re doing this consultation, Deb – it is too hard to jump through some of these hoops to deal with what we know is a problem. We know feral cats are a problem. We know that they are contributing to species extinction. You’re hearing from your listeners how difficult it is to deal with them. That’s the very reason we’re doing this consultation.
KNIGHT: All right. I want to cover a couple of other issues quickly before you go. The government and the Transport Minister are in a world of pain over Qantas and the banning of the extra flights for Qatar Airways. Should the horrific strip searching of Aussie women on Qatar Airways flights back in 2020, should that rule Qatar Airways, in your view, out of operating more flights in this country?
MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Well, I think it was a shocking incident. I think it was a really shocking incident. And I’m not going to go back over that incident. Instead, I’ll just make a couple of comments about Qatar flights. Qatar could actually be flying more passengers in and out of Australia tomorrow if it wanted to. It can already send extra flights to airports like Canberra or Adelaide or Cairns or the Gold Coast. It could increase the size of the jets that it’s flying into capital cities like Sydney and Melbourne. They could choose to do that tomorrow. So I think it’s worth reminding people of that. And I think it’s also worth reminding people that the previous government made a very similar decision when Michael McCormack was the Transport Minister. He had similar concerns to our –
KNIGHT: Yes, but we’re in a situation in the here and the now where air fares, international air fares, are absolutely sky high. And it is basic economics that if you allow more flights in to Australia through airlines like Qatar it will bring more competition and it will bring flights and prices back down. So why when the government is trying to rein in cost of living pressures would you not allow that?
MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Qatar could offer more seats between Sydney and any other destination tomorrow if they choose to fly larger jets into Sydney airport. They could fly to beautiful places like Cairns and the Gold Coast and Adelaide and Canberra, where I am today. They could do those direct flights tomorrow if they wanted.
KNIGHT: And has the incident with the strip searching of Aussie women, would that be enough to rule Qatar out?
MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Look, I can’t comment on what – how much influence that had on the Transport Minister’s –
KNIGHT: Well, the Transport Minister can’t seem to work it out either. There are contradicting reports left, right, and centre.
MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Yeah, but that’s a question for her.
KNIGHT: Okay. And on the Voice referendum, what’s your view about the involvement of sporting codes? Because with the AFL and the NRL, they’ve both backed the Yes campaign publicly early this year. The AFL, though, has ruled out promoting the Voice on grand final day. The NRL is yet to decide. Do you think the Yes campaign should be part of the footy finals?
MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Look, that’s a matter for the codes. But I’ll tell you why I’m campaigning for it –
KNIGHT: But if you’re turning up as a footy fan at the grand final, are you okay with the campaign from either the Yes, or the No case, being rammed down footy fans’ throats?
MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Well, I don’t think it’s about ramming things down anybody’s throat. I think if you’ve got a lot of players who’ve got a view, they’re entitled to have a view too. But I’ll tell you I’m supporting –
KNIGHT: But people are there to watch the footy, aren’t they?
MINISTER PLIBERSEK: But, look, that’s a matter for them. The football codes will make up their own minds. I’ll tell you why I’m supporting it: I’m supporting it because this is about our constitution recognising Indigenous Australians and it’s about listening to them. It’s a committee to give advice to the parliament so we make better decisions with Aboriginal people instead of for them.
KNIGHT: All right. Tanya, always good to have you on the show. Thanks so much for joining us.
MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Lovely to talk to you, Deb. Thank you.
KNIGHT: The Environment Minister there, Tanya Plibersek.