ABC 7.30 interview with Minister for the Environment and Water Tanya Plibersek


SARAH FERGUSON: Tanya Plibersek is the Environment Minister. Tanya Plibersek, welcome to 7.30.


FERGUSON: This year's State of the Environment Report gave a grim account of accelerating degradation and species loss - really an existential crisis for Australia. How does the creation of a new agency address that?

PLIBERSEK: Well, today we're talking not just about the creation of a new Environment Protection Agency, but a quite fundamental rewriting of our environment laws. Professor Graeme Samuel's review of our environment laws, done a couple of years ago, showed that what we've got now is not fit for purpose. We're not protecting the environment. We're seeing continued decline and degradation. We're the extinction capital of the world. We've got some very obvious environmental challenges. And on the other hand, business continue to complain about decision-making that is slow and bureaucratic, that adds costs to projects and prevents job creation. Today, we're announcing a win-win. A win for the environment and a win for business, which means a win for jobs. We want to see stronger environmental protections, but also faster, clearer decision-making. And that's the path we've embarked on.

FERGUSON: Let's break that down a little bit. First of all, how much has your government committed to funding this new agency? Because without money, it's not going to work.

PLIBERSEK: Absolutely. And we'll make clear all of the funding announcements in the next budget. But we will establish an independent Environment Protection Agency. Some of it will be funded by a government contribution, and some of it will also recover costs from business. If business are expecting to have proposals properly assessed in a way that's efficient and speedy, then they should make a contribution to that as well.

FERGUSON: Let's just talk about one of the big questions that's swirled around this topic for some time. In your report today, you are demanding transparency from developers on the carbon impacts of their projects, and mitigation. Is this effectively a climate trigger?

PLIBERSEK: Well, it's not a climate trigger. What we're saying is that large projects should disclose their domestic emissions here in Australia, their Scope 1 and Scope 2 emissions. And they should make clear how they're going to reduce those emissions or how they're going to compensate for those emissions over time. This isn't replacing the safeguards mechanism that my colleague Chris Bowen is currently consulting on, talking to business about the application of the safeguards mechanism. This is about disclosure. It's about transparency. It's about making large projects consider how they'll reduce their emissions. And I think that is a good complement to our legislated target of zero net emissions by 2050, the trajectory to zero net emissions, to our other measures including around ozone-depleting gases, methane, to our investment in new transmission lines to get more renewable energy into the grid, to measures to make electric vehicles cheaper and easier to buy. You need to look at these measures as a package that the government is proposing.

FERGUSON: But to understand how it'll work inside a new agency like this - if they receive a project that lays out the emissions and the mitigation, and those numbers don't add up, will the project be rejected?

PLIBERSEK: Well, you're asking for the details of how an agency that hasn't been established yet will operate. So, let's just take this one step at a time. The first thing we'll do - we've released the government's response to the Samuel Review now. We'll now go into a process of developing the changes to our environmental laws. Next year, we'll release an exposure draft for that legislation. We'll release drafts of our new national environmental standards. All of this work will be done in the same methodical, cooperative way that we've been operating the six months we've been in government.

FERGUSON: A couple of quick questions - will there be Cabinet override of EPA decisions?

PLIBERSEK: Well, the minister will be able to override an EPA decision, but there's some important safeguards here as well. The EPA original advice will have to be published. The minister's decision to override in the national interest will have to be transparent and published as well.

FERGUSON: Again, going back to Graeme Samuel's report - as well as failing to profit from Indigenous knowledge, he was also scathing about the failure in Australia to protect Indigenous cultural heritage. Would the new environmental standards prevent another Juukan Gorge, for example?

PLIBERSEK: There are two important things that our government's doing to better protect Indigenous cultural heritage. The first is that there would be a national environmental standard around consultations with First Nations people. What often happens now is a project goes for three years or five years, and then the proponents talk to First Nations people or traditional owners, and they find out that the area is precious and should be protected. We need to bring that consultation up front. There will also be stand-alone cultural heritage protection laws that we are currently developing as a government with the First Nations Heritage Protection Alliance. This group of people came together after the destruction of Juukan Gorge and said this is unacceptable and it must never happen again in Australia. Our government agrees with that. We've responded to the two parliamentary inquiries into the Juukan Gorge destruction and committed to that stand-alone cultural heritage protection legislation.

FERGUSON: I want to talk about the offset system where projects must offset the environmental damage caused. Critics of the existing system call it a "pay-to-destroy mechanism". How is what you are proposing different, when it leaves open the option of a conservation payment?

PLIBERSEK: The current system is absolutely not fit for purpose. And the current system of environmental offsets has basically presided over the slow decline of our environment, even if it's operating properly. Even if it's properly enforced, the current offset system doesn't work because, in many instances, developers are allowed to say, "If I'm allowed to destroy this bit of land, then I'll preserve this bit of land." But this bit of land was never in danger in the first place.

FERGUSON: So what are you going to do differently?

PLIBERSEK: We'll have a different approach on offsets - a national environmental standard on offsets that, first of all, prioritises avoiding destruction, that secondly - your second option is around mitigating any environmental impacts. Thirdly, we're looking for like-for-like replacements, additional. And fourthly, you mentioned a conservation payment. Conservation payments are actually a really important part of this. But the key is that any replacement or conservation payment needs to leave our environment better off overall.

FERGUSON: On the tricky issue of forestry in Australia - you say that you will "work towards" Regional Forest Agreements being subject to environmental laws. Is this the best you can do, given the electoral sensitivity to Labor of Regional Forest Agreements?

PLIBERSEK: What this is about is Australia having a sustainable forestry industry. We need forest products. And we want forest jobs. What we also want to do is better protect our environment to acknowledge that our forests have values beyond forestry, including things like carbon sequestration and biodiversity values.

FERGUSON: What does "working towards" mean?

PLIBERSEK: It means we'll work with environmental groups and the timber industry to make sure we've got a sustainable future for forestry in Australia.

FERGUSON: So it's not just about letting those Regional Forest Agreements expire?

PLIBERSEK: This is the first time that our national environmental laws will apply to these forestry agreements. Our new national environmental standards will apply. And we'll work with the industry and environmental groups and other stakeholders to make sure that they do. It's a very significant change.

FERGUSON: Climate activist Deanna 'Violet' Coco has just been sentenced to 15 months in prison for a climate action that shut down, briefly, Sydney traffic. Is that punishment commensurate with the crime?

PLIBERSEK: I think when people exercise their democratic right to protest, they should give regard to the law. I think it is important to stay within the law when protesting. I understand why people feel strongly about protecting our environment and about action on climate change. And I'm really proud to be part of a government that has done more in six months to protect our environment and act on climate change than the previous government did in a decade. I'm proud of that fact. But I understand why people have a sense of urgency around this. What I say is, when they protest, they should abide by the law.

FERGUSON: Does 15 months sound too long?

PLIBERSEK: I'm not going to comment on that.

FERGUSON: Does it also mean there should be prison terms for people who cause irreversible damage to the Australian environment?

PLIBERSEK: Well, I think the laws should apply. And they should apply strongly. And I am alarmed when I hear stories about environmental destruction not being properly investigated or prosecuted when people have broken the law.

FERGUSON: Tanya Plibersek, thank you very much indeed for joining us.

PLIBERSEK: Thank you, Sarah.