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

SUBJECTS: Perdaman Fertiliser Plant; Burrup Peninsula; Clive Palmer coalmine approval 

PATRICIA KARVELAS: The Federal Government will not intervene to block a controversial $4.5 billion fertiliser plant near ancient rock art on Western Australia’s Burrup Peninsula. The project is supported by one traditional owner group, the Murujuga Aboriginal Corporation, but opposed by another, known as Save Our Songlines. Opponents fear the rock art will be destroyed to make way for the plant and have compared the case to Rio Tinto’s destruction of the Juukan Gorge caves in 2020. Before making her decision, the Environment Minister, Tanya Plibersek spent part of last week at the Burrup Peninsula where she met with both groups. I spoke to her a short time ago. 
Minister, welcome to the program. 


KARVELAS: Take me through the decision you’ve made and what it means for the construction of the fertiliser plant; is it now going ahead? 

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Well, I’ve made a decision not to grant what’s called a section 9 under the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage Protection Act. That section 9 would have meant a one month stay on the building of the proposed fertiliser plant and it does mean that work can soon commence on this. I’m still considering an application called a section 10, but I won’t go into that today. Essentially, the proposal here is that a fertiliser plant would be built in the industrial part of the Burrup Peninsula, which is in north-western Western Australia, it is about just under half national park and just under half is an industrial area where you’ve got the Karratha gas plant, you’ve got the Pluto LNG plant, you’ve got Yara Pilbara Fertiliser and Yara Pilbara Nitrate, and the proposal is for a new fertiliser plant essentially next door to an existing fertiliser plant. 
Now, the site for the proposed plant has a number of Aboriginal carvings and grinding stones on it, so this whole Burrup Peninsula is really rich in petroglyphs, rock carvings and other important sites. There’s an estimated 1 to 2 million rock carvings on the whole of the Burrup Peninsula. The site in question, the fertiliser plant is proposed to be built on, has five sites that include a couple of rock carvings and a couple of grinding stones and an arrangement of stones. 
The Murujuga Aboriginal Corporation, which is the legally constituted and democratically elected Aboriginal organisation, which represents the five traditional owners of the land, have agreed that a number of these rock carvings can be moved safely, and another site, with a rock carving and some stonework, can be protected on the site even if the fertiliser plant goes ahead. 

KARVELAS: So, did you accept that the sacred sites at Murujuga met the criteria of section 9 under the environment and heritage act of being clearly significant Aboriginal sites, facing clear and immediate destruction? 

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: I agree that they are important sites, and you know the one to two million petroglyphs across the area, I believe are important sites and need to be protected. But the Murujuga Aboriginal Corporation and its circle of elders, which is the legal and cultural authority for the area, believes that with appropriate care and appropriate ceremony they can be safely moved to a location just adjacent to the site, but where there are other petroglyphs. 

KARVELAS: But, Minister, the traditional owners you met with support this project, as you say, going ahead. You also met with Raelene and Josie Alec – Alec’s daughter Adriana. They’re not in favour and they’re traditional owners too. They made some pretty strong arguments to you, and we’ve heard those arguments too on this program. Why did you ultimately reject their arguments? 

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Well, I ultimately went with the views of the Aboriginal organisation that represents the five traditional owner groups in the area that has been legally constituted and democratically elected and has existed for some time, has been in consultation with Perdaman, which is the company in question, since 2018, and the circle of elders for that group has representation of both men and women. I met separately with the women on the circle of elders because some of this did relate to a suggestion that there was women’s business on the area. You know, it’s no surprise that in any group you’ll sometimes have divergent views. In this case I’ve gone with the views of the group that has been set up for some years now to be the legal and cultural authority for the area representing the five traditional owner groups. 

KARVELAS: And you’ve said the Murujuga cooperation was recognised as the most representative organisation on cultural knowledge for the five traditional owner groups in the region. You mentioned divergent views and the fact that different groups can think different things, and of course that’s logical. Does that mean Governments, though, can cherry-pick the views that they like in these sorts of scenarios? Is that the risk here? 

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: I think it’s actually the exact opposite, Patricia, because I think if there is a recognised legally constituted group of traditional owners you can’t cherry-pick another group ahead of them. I think, you know, in this case you’ve got an organisation that has been around for a long time, that has 1,200 members that represents the five traditional owner groups in the area, that has both men and women representatives that has a separate circle of elders that has cultural authority for the area. I think it would be troubling if Government ignored that group. 

KARVELAS: Are you confident the process the company is putting in place to move the rock art without destroying it is adequate and are you worried that something could go wrong, Minister? This is the thing; there are risks involved whenever you’re involved in these kinds of movement of what is ancient rock art.

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Well, I’m confident that the company is taking very seriously the agreement that it has with the Murujuga Aboriginal Corporation and I’m confident that the Murujuga Aboriginal Corporation is overseeing all of the work here very carefully. I had a look at the sites themselves. I had a look at the area that the petroglyphs and grinding stones are proposed to be moved to. I’m as confident as I can be that everybody is taking the incredible history of the region seriously and taking the safety of these artifacts seriously. 

KARVELAS: Minister, the cultural assessment of this site is still being conducted. Will those findings have any impact on the fertiliser plant? 

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: There is, as you say, still a section 10 application before me and I can’t talk about that until I’ve decided. A part of the curious position I’m in is it’s important for me not to have made my mind up before the final evidence comes before me. 

KARVELAS: Just on another issue before I let you go; Clive Palmer says your preliminary decision to block his proposed coalmine was irrational and shows you’re captured by the Greens. The 10 day consultation ended last Thursday. Is that mine definitely not going ahead? 

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Well, right at the end of the 10 day consultation period, Clive Palmer’s company came to me with some additional information about water on the proposed coalmine site, which is less than 10 kilometres from the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. I legally have to consider that additional information, but at this stage I would have to say I’m clearly very concerned about the proposal for an open cut coalmine 9.7 kilometres from the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. 

KARVELAS: What sort of difference does it make in terms of the time frame, this extra information you’ve been given, that you must consider? 

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: It’s not a lot of additional information. I’m confident that I can make a final decision shortly. 

KARVELAS: Minister, thank you for your time. 

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Thank you, Patricia. 

KARVELAS: And that’s the federal Environment Minister, Tanya Plibersek.