ABC News Breakfast interview with Minister for the Environment and Water Tanya Plibersek

MADELEINE MORRIS, HOST: Nearly half of all Australia's oceans will be protected after the Federal Government tripled the size of the Macquarie Island Marine Park. The region, about halfway between Tasmania and Antarctica, is a critical breeding ground for seabirds, seals and penguins. The decision lies with the Environment and Water Minister Tanya Plibersek, and she joins us now. Great to have you on the program on this World Environment Day, Minister.


MORRIS: Tell us about what's happening with this expansion of Macquarie National Park - Island National Park.

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Well, this is a really exciting opportunity to protect critical habitat for seals and sea lions, albatross, whales, and this is a really unique, pristine environment and we're adding an area the size of Germany to the highly protected waters around Macquarie Island. This is a great opportunity to add to the area of protected oceans around Australia. We've got a target of 30 per cent of our land and 30 per cent of our waters protected by 2030, so we're really getting a wriggle on with that. I announced in February that it was my intention to protect this beautiful place and since then, we've had several months of public consultation. We've had 14,700 submissions from the public about this and well over 99 per cent of them supported the expansion of the marine park because people understand that this is a unique and beautiful place.

MORRIS: Some of the people who objected were commercial fishers, but you've created some carve outs for them.

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Yeah. So, there's two fisheries that operate in the area. There's a Patagonian toothfish fishery. Two companies are operating in a very sustainable way in the area. I've slightly amended the maps at the request of the Patagonian toothfish fisheries to give them a slightly larger area to fish in. They did ask to be able to trawl in the future. I've said no to that because we really do need to protect this environment. It's a breeding ground for birds and animals that don't breed anywhere else in the world and we do need to protect their habitat if we want to protect these species.

MORRIS: So, we'll see discernible differences, do you anticipate to the numbers of those species as a result of that?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Well, we hope that we'll continue to see an improvement in these species, but what we know is that they're under pressure. They're under pressure from climate change, they're under pressure from birds, for example, getting tangled up in some of the plastic we've got floating in our oceans. There's all sorts of pressure on these species and giving them a really large area like this as a habitat is really important to protecting them for the future.

MORRIS: We had Andy Ridley on the program just a little bit earlier. He's the founder of Earth Hour, well known conservationist, and he, on this World Environment Day is saying, it's great that we're protecting more areas, but also we need to stop climate change. Now, you've been one of the most activist, in fact, Environment Minister in your portfolio actually vetoing certain coal mines. There are calls to do more. How many coal mines are you looking at the moment on your desk?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Yeah, look, I think the most important thing is that we have a legislated pathway to net zero in Australia. So, the previous government had 22 energy policies. They didn't land one. They weren't prepared to commit to taking us on this journey to net zero. So, we're behind the eight ball. We're starting slow, but I've doubled the rate of approval for renewable energy projects. I've got a lot more renewable energy projects on my desk, as you say. I have refused one coal mine, I've cancelled two others. We do need to get a wriggle on with this transition to get more renewable energy into our grid. We've got a target of 82 per cent renewable energy in our East Coast grid and we're building massive offshore wind farms, as I said, picking up the pace on renewable energy approvals. We need to make that transition. It's a shame that we saw so little activity over the last decade to get us there, but we are moving as quickly as we can now to make sure that we are on that pathway to net zero. We had massive investment in green hydrogen in the last budget. We've set money aside to help businesses and homes transition to more renewable energy. We need to make that change. It's the best contribution we can make to doing Australia's bit to reduce the risk of climate change.

MORRIS: Yeah, just on that. The warning always is from the energy companies and certainly from the Opposition, that that transition is going to continue to be bumpy and it will see prices go up as a result of that. For people who are already struggling with the cost of living, can you hand on heart, say to them that as we transition, that's not going to directly impact their electricity bills?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Well, renewable energy is cheaper. It's cheaper as well as being cleaner. There's a reason that millions of Australians have put solar panels on their roofs. It's to get their electricity bills down. Now, we need to be aware that a huge transition in our economy like this is a complex thing to manage. Of course, we need to address that complexity. I mean, we've got problems like our transmission grids aren't fit for purpose. They're not up to taking all of the new renewable energy that we're generating. So, we've got to invest $20 billion in upgrading our transmission networks as well. It is a complex change to make. It's a shame that this work hasn't been happening over the last decade. It's only with the election of a Labor Government that we're beginning to see the real work of transition underway. But we know that as well as being cleaner, renewable energy is cheaper. We've got to make that change, not just for the environment, but for households and businesses to get their electricity bills down.

MORRIS: And just briefly, those are all systemic changes, but for people watching at home thinking on World Environment Day, oh, so much of this is out of my hands. What can I do? What is one thing that I can do on World Environment Day to make a difference? What would you say?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Oh, look, I think everybody wants to do their bit. I see enormous enthusiasm from Australians to do their bit for the environment. I think one of the best things you can do is use less and recycle more of what you do use. I'm thinking particularly of plastics. If we use less plastic, if we recycle more of what we do use, that makes a big difference if all of us do that.

MORRIS: Okay, thanks very much for joining us this morning Tanya Plibersek.

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: It's a pleasure. Thanks.