ABC Radio National interview with Minister for the Environment and Water Tanya Plibersek
SUBJECTS: Threatened Species Action Plan, EPBC Act reform, climate trigger
PATRICIA KARVELAS, HOST: Our hearts stopped when we heard the koala had become the latest endangered species in parts of the country after the Black Summer bushfires. Now the government has updated a plan to save threatened species, including the koalas, and prevent the extinction of other creatures on the brink. The Environment Minister is Tanya Plibersek, and she joins us now. Tanya Plibersek, welcome.
TANYA PLIBERSEK, MINISTER FOR THE ENVIRONMENT AND WATER: Hi, Patricia. How are you?
KARVELAS: Good thank you. The Morrison government released a five-year plan for threatened species just last year. How is this one different?
MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Well, it’s more ambitious and it’s more focused. It includes an objective for zero new extinctions. And the actions that we’re taking include, for example, a stronger ambition to protect more land, to have an additional 50 million hectares under conservation, because if we don’t protect the habitat of threatened plants and animals then it’s impossible to protect the plants and animals.
So, we’re adding additional animals to the threatened species list. Sadly, as you say, a lot of that is still a result of the Black Summer bushfires. And we’re protecting more land. We’re dealing more effectively with feral cats and foxes and other predators. We’re focusing on invasive weeds like gamba grass that do such incredible environmental harm.
I think the other really important thing about this plan is that it involves more First Nations knowledge and leadership in environmental conservation.
KARVELAS: There are around 1,300 plant and animal species at risk of extinction. So why does the plan just focus on 110?
MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Yeah, it doesn’t mean that we won’t be looking at those other plants and animals, but this 110 that we’ve focused on, they’re really key species in particular environments. And if we focus on those species, we create a kind of halo effect for the whole ecosystem the plant or animal is part of. So, it’s a good way of focusing our efforts on where we can make the biggest difference.
KARVELAS: Habitat loss is the greatest threat to threatened species in Australia. But responsibility often lies with state governments. The previous minister, Sussan Ley, proposed giving the states more responsibility. What approach are you taking?
MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Well, we are currently looking at the reforms we’ll make to our Environmental Protection Biodiversity Conservation Act. Professor Graeme Samuel reviewed our environmental laws a couple of years ago and said that they’re not fit for purpose, they’re not giving business the speedy answers that businesses need, and they’re certainly not protecting our environment from further degradation.
So, Professor Samuel made a number of recommendations. We’re looking at those recommendations now and consulting widely. I’ll be responding to the Samuel report by the end of the year with the objective of introducing new environmental laws next year that will do what we want to do – allow environmentally sustainable development, faster decision-making and also much stronger environmental protections.
KARVELAS: Well, climate change is, of course, one of the biggest factors impacting native species. Environmental groups and scientists right around the world claim our targets to reduce carbon emissions are too low. Do you concede that climate change is really one of the big drivers for the rate of species decline?
MINISTER PLIBERSEK: It sure is. Climate change is significant. The natural disasters we’ve experienced – you mentioned the Black Summer bushfires, but the drought before that, the floods that we’ve had since – human activity – you mentioned land clearing, of course is one – all of these are putting enormous pressure on our natural environment. And that’s why – well, two things: the first and most important measures of our new government was to set higher ambition on carbon pollution reduction. Just recently I introduced new laws strengthening our ozone layer protections. And, of course, our Prime Minister signed up to the international leaders pledge to protect 30 per cent of our oceans and 30 per cent of our land by 2030. These are all very ambitious targets.
KARVELAS: You mentioned the EPBC Act and wanting to make changes to it. The Greens have introduced amendments to the Act before the parliament to create a climate trigger, as you know, which would assess large projects on their climate impacts and emissions. Is that something that you would support in the spirit of actually protecting threatened species?
MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Well, we’ll respond to the Samuel Review. We’ll consider all of those recommendations and any other changes we need to make to our environmental laws. But we’re dealing with climate change by legislating much higher targets for carbon pollution reduction and dealing with other greenhouse gases, as I said, through the legislation I introduced just last week in the parliament. So, we do take the risk of climate change very seriously. And Australia has gone from being an international pariah on this to being welcomed back into the fold of countries that have set a high ambition, that are working towards it.
KARVELAS: And yet there are some contradictions in your government’s policy approach. You haven’t ruled out opening new coal and gas projects. If they’re still on the table, isn’t the climate and species facing an existential threat? And what’s your own advocacy at the cabinet level to say we can’t do both these things at the same time. You can’t save species and deal with existential climate change while also opening new projects.
MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Well, we’re headed as a nation to zero net emissions. We’ve got a trajectory to get there. All of these projects are contemplated within our country’s trajectory towards zero net emissions. And, of course, you know that there is a safeguards mechanism for large projects. All of these have to fit within our pathway to getting our carbon pollution down to zero by 2050. And that doesn’t mean that there’s no pollution; it means that businesses that can’t eliminate their pollution need to offset it. And we need a strong and credible way of offsetting pollution as well.
KARVELAS: I want to turn to some other issues, if I can, before I let you go. Just to economic policy first. We’ve seen the Tory government in the UK back down from tax cuts for the very wealthy. As you know, the economy here is on a knife edge. Can we really afford to give the wealthiest Australians a tax break given the economic circumstances have changed so dramatically since they were first legislated?
MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Well, we did go to the last election committing to continue with those. And our real focus for reforming our tax system is to make sure that large companies and multinationals are paying their share of tax. So that’s the priority that our Treasurer has set out.
I think the other really important contribution we can make to budget repair is dealing with some of the rorts and waste that the previous government engaged in.
KARVELAS: Okay, but what are your reflections on the lessons from the UK?
MINISTER PLIBERSEK: What the UK does with their tax system is a matter for them. But it didn’t seem very sensible to me what the Conservatives there were proposing.
KARVELAS: So why would we go ahead with something that hasn’t even started which is also about tax breaks for the really wealthy?
MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Well, as you say, Patricia, it hasn’t – these tax cuts haven’t come in. They won’t until 2024. I think it’s, you know, important for us to have a look at the October budget statement that Jim Chalmers will release and have a good look at the state of the economy there and Labor’s plans to repair it.
I mean, you know, we’re in a pretty tough economic position. We’re looking at global head winds potentially and global recession. We’ve got have all of the information before us before we’re making any further decisions.
KARVELAS: Yeah, so given it's 2024 and the economy is deteriorating –
MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Patricia, you can ask me in six different ways –
KARVELAS: And you know I will, Tanya Plibersek. I have a way of asking in six different ways.
MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Yeah.
KARVELAS: So maybe those tax cuts aren’t fit for purpose. Is that the –
MINISTER PLIBERSEK: We made a commitment
KARVELAS: Well, you did.
MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Well, we made a commitment.
KARVELAS: Okay. So, let me ask this question: do you stick to a commitment without any review if dramatic changes have happened to the economy?
MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Patricia, I think this is a conversation for you and the Treasurer and the Prime Minister.
KARVELAS: Can’t wait to have them, but what’s your view?
MINISTER PLIBERSEK: My view is that we implement Labor Party policy and that we took a commitment to the last election.
KARVELAS: Do you think, though, that economic circumstances should be considered?
MINISTER PLIBERSEK: I think we always need to consider economic circumstances as we’re making decisions. That applies to the extra effort we’ll make to ensure that multinationals are paying their tax. It means that we’ll have a look at some of the foolish spending of the previous government – we’ll make some decisions about that. And you’ll see all of that made clear in Jim Chalmers’ budget statement in October.
KARVELAS: I’ll be there.
MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Later in October.
KARVELAS: I will be there reading every word. Just finally, can I ask you about the mission to bring more than 60 Australian women and children back from Syria. These are the widows and children of killed or jailed Islamic State fighters. You were the Shadow Minister for Women and Education under the previous opposition. Have we failed these women? Because yesterday I spoke with the shadow Home Affairs Minister Karen Andrews, and she said they’d willingly gone. You’re saying something different.
MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Well, I think we need to be careful, because this is obviously an ongoing discussion about the fate of these women. But look, anybody who went there willingly obviously was breaking Australian law and needs to be held to account for that. It does seem like a number of these women were tricked or coerced into going, some of them as young teenagers themselves. And at the end of the day, we’ve got 40 Australian kids in one of the most difficult and dangerous places in the world. Anybody who took a child into a zone like this is really committing child abuse. It is a very, very dangerous place to take a child. And we’ve got Australian children growing up in, you know, difficult, traumatic circumstances.
KARVELAS: Thank you so much for joining us this morning, Minister.
MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Thank you, Patricia.
KARVELAS: That’s the Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek.