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

PATRICIA KARVELAS, HOST: From Lismore to Echuca recent floods have devastated communities across the country. 2022 saw dozens of rainfall records set leading the Climate Council to call it the year of the great deluge. Now the federal government is stepping in, investing $236 million to establish a National Flood Warning Network, which it says will enable communities, emergency services and businesses to prepare and respond to future flooding events.

Tanya Plibersek is the federal Environment and Water Minister and she joined me a short time ago. Minister, welcome.


KARVELAS: What prompted the government’s decision to decide a National Flood Warning Network was necessary?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Well, this has been recommended by multiple reviews over many years. Across the last decade are floods are becoming more frequent and much worse, a number of inquiries have looked at the flood gauge system, and it’s really not fit for purpose. About a third of flood gauges are currently owned by the Bureau of Meteorology, and they’re maintained by the Bureau. And the rest of them, the other two-thirds, are owned by either state or territory governments or local councils and in some cases private individuals. A lot of those older gauges are really near the end of their life. They can’t be read remotely, which is a real problem. We need to be able to read them remotely, particularly at dangerous times. You don’t want to be sending people out into dangerous weather to be manually reading flood gauges.

And the simple fact is the better the flood gauges the more warning we can give to communities and to emergency services personnel about approaching flood waters, the more opportunity people have to prepare for the worst. And, at the moment, those flood gauges simply don’t allow us to do that appropriately. And I think the important thing to note here, Patricia, is that this has been recommended by multiple inquiries, and the previous government basically just sat on their hands and continued situation normal and we know that floods are going to become more severe and more frequent.

KARVELAS: One of the criticisms from the 2022 Lismore floods was the inadequacy of the warnings people were given. Would this new system have given people more time and a better sense of what they were facing?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Well, that’s the aim of upgrading the gauges around Australia, is to make sure that particularly starting in places like Queensland where the flood risks are greatest that we’ll be able to give people more warning. And that means that they can get out, they can prepare their homes better, they can take whatever course of action they need to I suppose better prepare for what’s coming.

It's also really important for emergency services personnel because they need to be able to move their resources to where they’re going to be needed. And multiple reports have said that a better flood gauge warning system would allow that sort of preparation.

KARVELAS: Your prioritising work in Queensland, citing the Bureau of Meteorology’s advice. Did the Bureau specifically say to prioritise Queensland above all other states?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Well, they said to – yes, that Queensland is at greatest risk. Queensland and New South Wales. In fact, sadly, three-quarters of the deaths that have happened in flooding in recent years have been in Queensland and New South Wales and about three-quarters of the economic cost of flooding has been in Queensland and New South Wales. The Queensland government were particularly keen to partner with us, and we’re looking at rolling out to New South Wales we hope next and other high-risk flood areas over coming years.

I mean, Queensland in particular, there are at the moment 1,400 flood gauges that are owned by 41 separate councils. Now, they’re different types of flood gauges, they’re different ages. Some of them have remote sensing, some of them don’t and have to be manually read. You can’t have a functioning system with so many organisations taking different approaches to the purchase and maintenance and reading of flood gauges.

KARVELAS: Lismore is Australia’s most flood-prone city. The New South Wales SES Commissioner says the flood warning system remains inadequate. Surely Lismore needs to be the one prioritised, right?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Yeah, northern New South Wales in particular – we’re working with the New South Wales government on the next steps there. We’re very keen to see northern NSW in particular prioritised.

KARVELAS: I want to move to a couple of other topics, if we can, Minister. Gas producers are arguing this morning that the federal government is at risk of delaying commercialisation of clean hydrogen, the industry of clean hydrogen, by excluding fossil fuels from the $2 billion fund that was in the budget to kickstart this industry. They say this isn’t the case in the United States. Will we lag development in the US?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Well, I mean it would be better to talk to Chris Bowen, the Climate and Energy Minister, about the terrific announcements we’ve made about renewable energy in the most recent budget. But we are going to invest $2 billion for green hydrogen. That was announced in May. And, of course, that comes on top of a number of other projects, like the $20 billion Rewiring the Nation upgrade of our energy grid that will allow more renewables into the grid; the $3 billion in the National Reconstruction Fund for renewables and low-emissions technologies. And this is a massive transformation of our economy designed to get Australia to net zero and designed to see Australia continue to be an exporter of energy but to become an exporter of green energy.

KARVELAS: The latest IPCC report says our emissions from existing fossil fuel projects is enough to push us beyond 1.5 degrees of global warming. Now, last week you approved the government’s first coal mine under your watch – the Isaac River project. What was your rationale for that decision?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Well, I need to make decisions in accordance with the facts and the national environmental law. That’s what I do with every project. That’s what’s happened here. And since being elected I’ve doubled renewable energy approvals. We’ve got renewable energy approvals to a record high. We’ve got massive offshore wind projects coming online very quickly. But we’ll have to consider every project on a case-by-case basis.

KARVELAS: And why was this one – why was the case for this one worth greenlighting?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Well, because it met the standards under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act as it is at the moment. This is a small project. It’s next to five other coal mines. It’s been a mining area for decades. It’s a project that produces metallurgical coal, which is the coal you need for steel making. There’s no renewable energy future that doesn’t have steel in it. It’s a small project; it’s less than 1 per cent the size of Adani, and it will go for five years versus, something like 60 years for Adani.

So it’s a small project that produces metallurgical coal and it meets both the legal and scientific requirements under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act. And, Patricia, I think the really important thing to remember is we are absolutely committed to net zero carbon emissions in Australia. Everything our government has done, the investment that we’ve made, the fact that I’ve already doubled renewable energy approvals to a record high, doing electric vehicles, doing fuel efficiency standards, that we’re decarbonising homes and businesses –

KARVELAS: Absolutely. I understand you’ve got a suite of policies. But do you –

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: – all of this contributes to net zero.

KARVELAS: But do you believe as Environment Minister that keeping warming below 1.5 degrees is still a viable option?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: I think we absolutely need to do our very best as a country and as a planet to do that. And that’s why I’m so pleased to be part of a government that has legislated net zero. This project and any other project will have to fit within the safeguard mechanism criteria, and we’re determined to get there. We’ve got a huge task ahead of us. We’re trying to get to 82 per cent renewable energy in just 82 months from 35 per cent currently. That is a huge transformation of our carbon emission profile in this country as we get rid of carbon emissions from our electricity grid. But we’re also doing it in homes, in businesses, in vehicle emissions. And we are determined also to be an exporter of green energy, like green hydrogen. We’re investing in that as well.


MINISTER PLIBERSEK: This is a big, big change in our economy.

KARVELAS: Minister, the Biodiversity Council has applauded your commitment to create an environment protection agency but says the budget funding fails to provide what’s needed to protect and also recover threatened species and ecosystems. Is this really enough to reach zero new extinctions by 2030?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: This is the most money that any government in Australian history has ever spent on the environment. So just, for example, we’re doubling funding for national parks, we’re doubling funding for the Australian Institute of Marine Science, we’ve put an extra $45 million into the Sydney Harbour Federation Trust properties, $121 million for our new environment protection agency. This is a massive investment in the environment. Would I like to see more? There’s no minister ever in the history of the universe that hasn’t said, “If you give me more money I can’t spend it.”

KARVELAS: Minister, just two quick questions before I let you go: the NT News reports this morning the Northern Territory is being urged to halt the development of the Beetaloo sub basin until your government amends the water trigger legislation, which currently does not apply to the development of shale gas. Should the territory government wait for that protection, and when will you look to amend it?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Well, the extension of the water trigger, the protections to water, will be part of the package of environmental laws that we’ll take to the parliament at the end of this year or beginning of next year. I’m proposing to release those exposure drafts in the second half of this year so people will be able to comment on the proposed changes that we’re making. But we are committed to extending protections from – at the moment it’s coal seam gas to other types of unconventional gas that weren’t really contemplated when those coal seam gas provisions were made.

And I don’t think there’s – I mean, there’s no proposal before me at the moment. There’s no specific project that’s coming up for environmental assessment. So I think it is important that we look at those issues, like potential impact on aquifers, and that’s what our proposed law changes will do.

KARVELAS: We spoke last week with Hannah McGlade about Aboriginal heritage laws. She just came back from the United Nations and she’s concerned that the government has lost its will for big reform here and that there will be another Juukan Gorge. Minister, are you still committed to doing that, and when?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Absolutely. And, in fact, I’ve had discussions in this past week and I’m meeting again with the Aboriginal advisory committee to the department in this coming week to talk about issues like better cultural heritage protection. It makes much more sense to at the beginning of a proposal, at the start of a project be identifying the sort of cultural heritage issues that may emerge. At the moment normally what happens, Patricia, is a big project goes for years through assessments, through environmental assessments, and at the last minute we sort of say, “Oh, are there any cultural heritage implications here?” That’s exactly the wrong approach – we should be identifying cultural heritage impacts, potential impacts, from the very beginning.

KARVELAS: And how quickly will we see legislation?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Well, we’re co-designing legislation with First Nations people, and I’m not going to rush that process. It’s important to get this right.

KARVELAS: Thank you so much for joining us this morning, Minister.

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: It’s a pleasure.

KARVELAS: Tanya Plibersek is the federal Environment and Water Minister.