4CA Cairns interview with Minister for the Environment and Water Tanya Plibersek

SUBJECTS: Yellow crazy ants, The Great Barrier Reef, Climate change.

MURRAY JONES, HOST: Good morning. It’s 8.46, 4CA. I’m always privileged when she comes into town; she always drops in and says hello – Minister for the Environment and Water, good morning to Tanya Plibersek. How are you? Welcome to Cairns.

TANYA PLIBERSEK, MINISTER FOR THE ENVIRONMENT AND WATER: It’s so great to be with you again, Murray.

JONES: Wonderful. Well, look, a couple of things I’m keen to talk about, obviously the summer season, the bushfires, the Great Barrier Reef. But what’s looking like it’s been a pretty wonderful success here in Tropical North Queensland is the concerns we were having a few years ago about the very invasive yellow crazy ants. But it looks like we’ve just about won the battle. We’re not quite there but we’re getting pretty close.

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Well, Murray, this is a real opportunity to congratulate the teams that have been working to eradicate yellow crazy ants. The Wet Tropics Management Authority in particular, and we’ve been working – the Commonwealth Government has been working with them and the state government has been working with them, and today I’m really excited, I’m going to go and see two areas where yellow crazy ants have actually been eradicated. They’re not just being managed, they’ve been eradicated. And there’s a few areas now where the team has managed to eradicate the ants. That’s so exciting.

These animals, these ants, are so destructive. If you – I mean, if your listeners could just google yellow crazy ants and have a look online at what these animals are doing, if they see a native animal in their path, they swarm it, they pick the meat off its bones. Like, these are so aggressive and invasive. And the way they nest is really tricky as well. So you think you’ve got the nest. You bomb that with chemicals, but they’ve got another little satellite nest somewhere in the distance –

JONES: And they just take off again?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: And they just take off again.

JONES: Yeah, wow.

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: And the exciting thing that the team has been doing is, they use the poisons, they get rid of most of the ants, but then they go in with sniffer dogs. So if there’s even a few ants left, they can find those just a few ants they can chase them down, they can find and eradicate them and so you don’t have a new colony springing up if you miss a few.

JONES: And that’s incredible, the power of dogs. And, I guess, some of the technology. About 70 per cent of the area that was infested is basically now under control?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Yeah, it’s amazing. It’s just an incredible success story. The Commonwealth Government, our government, put in an extra $24 million, and I think that’s really, you know, helped the people who have been working on this for years go from just sort of containing to being able to actually eradicate in a number of areas. So that’s – it’s a really good news story and a really big congratulations to everybody who has been working. And, I have to say, this is a really important story of community contribution as well because a lot of the times we’re hearing about where the ants are turning up, the outbreaks of them, because householders have found them in the backyard or in the house.

JONES: Sure.

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: They contact the authorities and they get right in there and get rid of the ants.

JONES: Now, look, some of the names, Scott Buchanan from Wet Tropics, and certainly Lucy Karger, some of the people that have been behind this. And, of course, the potential economic impacts if they had have actually gone wider are quite great. You know, you’re talking about the $24 million that’s been spent, which is significant. But, of course, the economic impact if we hadn’t have dealt with this, you know, decisively and quickly would have been quite drastic on our region as well.

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Oh, look, if these got in a serious way into, you know, your beautiful rain forests that attract people from all over the world to visit, the impact on the native animals, like the cassowary, for example, it would have been catastrophic.

JONES: Sure. Tourism overall. Some concerns moving forward, certainly the bushfires that have started here in Australia already, and certainly with El Nino looking like it’s coming back with, you know, fair strength. Interesting some of the statistics you were just telling me off air about what’s happened in the northern hemisphere, because we’ve just seen with their summer some real impacts, particularly on coral – with coral bleaching. Unfortunately, not boding well for our summer season ahead.

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Look, we know in Australia that you get a few years of relief – and we’ve had a few years of relief. We’ve had too much rain in recent times in some parts of Australia, but we’re going into a hot, dry spell. And that’s hard on our river system. I’m working hard to look after the Murray Darling River system. It’s also going to be hard on the reef. When we look at what’s been happening in the northern hemisphere, this hot – past hot summer we’ve seen really high water temperatures and we’ve seen the reefs off Miami, for example, we’ve seen massive bleaching with very warm waters there. 

So, we know that there’s another hot, dry spell coming. We know that our reef is under pressure. We have to keep looking after it, and that means, you know, we can’t affect global temperature overnight. You know, we need to do what we can to fight global warming, but we also need to do what we can more immediately on water quality. It’s really important to look after our water quality.

JONES: Yep, sure.

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: And any other stressors on the reef, like the crown of thorns starfish. We have to stay right on top of the crown of thorns starfish. Because as the weather gets warmer and the water gets warmer, the risk of bleaching increases. We need to protect our beautiful Great Barrier Reef as best we can.

And the good news, of course, is we got that news from the World Heritage Committee that they’re not going to list the reef as in danger. My colleague, Senator Nita Green was overseas fighting for the reef for Australia. She’s, you know, delighted to be back, I think, with bringing the good news back with her that our reef hasn’t been listed as in danger.

But, you know, the truth is that climate change is a risk to every coral reef everywhere in the world, and the best thing we can do to keep the reef strong and resilient is deal with climate change long term and in the immediate term deal with those threats like water quality and crown of thorns starfish.

JONES: And coming back to the economical – economic impacts, if we did anything else, I mean, it would be crazy. It would be so short-sighted not to take this seriously. I mean, do you think – I’m starting to feel a bit more positive about this – is that the climate wars are finally over? It seems it’s just a very, very tiny minority that are still holding on to the misinformation, you know, with respect to climate change. It really does seem, you know, not just here in Australia but right across the world people are at last starting to accept the science and knowing that this is real. They’re seeing it firsthand.

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: I think people are really feeling the effects. You know, when you see the number of record-breaking heat years –

JONES: The last year has been incredible. Yeah.

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: And you see, you know, a couple of years ago we had the Black Summer bushfires, I think people understand that they’re seeing the impacts of climate change.

I am frustrated that we still have people not saying, “Okay, then, we’ve got to change the way our economy is working to use more renewable energy to get more renewables into our homes and businesses, to get pollution down however we can.” Because, of course, if you accept that climate change is real, then you probably should accept that we need to do something about it.

JONES: Yep, that’s certainly the case. It seems like things are turning, but, I guess, some things are still turning just a little bit slower. Early morning. Welcome to Cairns. And, look, this is a great announcement about the yellow crazy ants. Thank you so much for coming in and seeing me. It’s always wonderful to see you. Federal Minister for the Environment and Water Tanya Plibersek, have a wonderful day.

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Great to talk to you, Murray.