Sky News interview with Minister for the Environment and Water Tanya Plibersek

LAURA JAYES: Embattled accounting and consultancy firm PricewaterhouseCoopers claims it will comply with demands to provide information about it leaking tax information. The Tax Practitioners Board launched a second review and is searching through thousands of internal PwC emails to create a list of names mentioned in the document. The Greens are demanding the scandal be referred to the National Anticorruption Commission. Joining me live now is the Environment and Water Minister Tanya Plibersek. Thank you so much for your time, Minister. It's been revealed that your department has a small number of PwC contracts. Is that right?

TANYA PLIBERSEK, MINISTER FOR THE ENVIRONMENT AND WATER: Yes, that's right. Obviously, one of the first things I did when this scandal began to break was ask my own department whether we had any contracts with PwC and what steps were being taken to manage those contracts and make sure that none of the people who'd been accused of wrongdoing had anything to do with those contracts. So, my departmental secretary met with PwC to make sure that any contracts we have conducted are to the highest ethical standards and that none of the people accused of wrongdoing were participating in the discharge of that work. I think it is really important that we do have a full investigation of the allegations that have been made here. They're obviously extremely concerning and Treasury have referred them to the Australian Federal Police. I think that is appropriate. We don't want to make too much commentary along the way because, of course, we potentially endanger the investigation if we do, but there is obviously, really significant cause for concern here.

JAYES: Yeah, certainly. So, your department, just to be clear, has sought assurances from PwC. Those contracts haven't been terminated?


JAYES: Okay. And I assume that there won't be any new contracts with PwC, but you don't want to stop the work that's already part the way through?
MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Well, it just it doesn't make sense for value for money, for taxpayers to stop things halfway through. But we are watching these contracts very closely and I've asked that my departmental secretary take particular care to make sure that the contracts are discharged in the most ethical way.

JAYES: Okay. You just had a weekend trip to Paris. It wasn't pleasure, it was business. And this was to get a deal done on plastics. Why is it so important? Because it's something that we grapple with on a very basic local level here and it's as simple as going right down to local councils.

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Yeah, it is complicated. Australians really want to recycle. We've got different rules in every state and territory. We've got different collection systems at every council level. So, we really do need to do a better job nationally. We've set high standards in Australia, high targets, I should say. The previous government set a target of 70 per cent recycling for plastics, but we're nowhere near that. That target sat at 16 per cent for four years in a row. What we're doing at the moment is substantially investing and upgrading our recycling facilities. So, the Commonwealth Government's put in an extra $250 million with the state and territory investment, the private sector investment means a billion dollars extra going into recycling facilities. 48 new facilities. Twelve of them already open. We will almost double our recycling capacity by 2025.

But it's not just about recycling, it's about designing out harmful plastics in the first place. So, I've got my Circular Economy Advisory Group working out how we deal with the whole life cycle of plastics, reducing the use of harmful plastics in the first place, recycling more, reusing more, composting where that's an option. Using the whole lifecycle of plastics to reduce their use and make sure that they're not getting into the environment. If we don't change what we're doing now, by 2050, plastics in the ocean will outweigh fish in the ocean. And this is a global problem. The Pacific nations use about 1.3 per cent of the world's plastics, but there's a floating island of plastic garbage in the Pacific that's three times the size of France. So, we need to tackle it as a global problem.

JAYES: Do we still sell our waste and ship it off overseas to places in the Asia Pacific and China?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: No. We've been progressively banning the export of Australian waste. Most recently, I had to allow a shipment of PET to leave the country because we didn't have the recycling capacity to recycle that particular shipment. So, that was shipped offshore, to be recycled offshore so that it could be reused and didn't just end up in Australian landfill. But, it is important that we increase our domestic capacity so that we can handle Australia's waste here in Australia, rather than relying on other countries to deal with our waste.

JAYES: Right. So, that was certainly a problem in the past. So, local councils, when it comes down to it, you're trying to make headway here, but is the honest truth is that a lot of our plastics are still just going into landfill.

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Yeah, it's just not good enough at the moment. We really need to do better. I've already agreed with Environment Ministers from the states and territories that we need to have a new approach to packaging by 2025. So, we're working through the sort of regulations we need to do that by 2025. But, look, we've got a really confusing system for most Australians and it's very hard for businesses as well, because different states and territories have different approaches and even neighbouring councils have different approaches. We saw at the end of last year the collapse of REDcycle that was dealing with soft plastics. So, we're investing an extra $60 million in those soft plastics and other hard-to-recycle plastics. But we need to have a fit-for-purpose collection system. So, in the second half of this year, we're looking at starting up that soft plastics collection again. But the most important thing we can do is reduce the use of plastics, particularly these harmful plastics that end up in the environment. If we reduce the use in the first place, that's a much better thing to rely on than continuing to try to just increase our recycling capacity. About 70 per cent of an object's waste is decided at the design phase. We actually have to change the design of the things that we're buying so that we have less plastic, particularly less virgin plastic, used in the first place.

JAYES: One final question that's outside of your portfolio but relates to you as more as a local member. Housing. It's in the headlines every single day. We know the government is trying to do more to boost supply, but I note in New South Wales, new Premier Chris Minns is talking a lot more about density, building more apartments, perhaps in electorates like yours. Are you comfortable with that? Is that what needs to happen here?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Well, my electorate is already one of the densest in Australia, and we've got places like Green Square that will see tens of thousands of new apartments built already. We're seeing skyscrapers on what used to be light industrial land, and there'll be more skyscrapers before it's done. So, certainly we're seeing that density in my electorate. What I want to see alongside density is really good public services, making sure that we're building the schools we need, making sure that the hospitals can cope, making sure that the public transport is there. I asked the previous government to build a new metro stop around Green Square. There's a new metro line going right underneath where all the new apartments are going in, and they refused to do that. So, I'm hopeful that we'll continue to see investment in public transport as well, to meet those needs.

But at a federal level, we are also acting. We've got a $10 billion Housing Affordability Fund that the Liberals and the Greens refuse to vote for. We've increased the funding to the NHFIC, the facility that supports community housing, to build more housing. We've changed the rules to get more build to rent. So, we anticipate an extra 250,000 apartments because of the changes to the tax arrangements for build to rent. We've got a $1.3 billion extension of the Commonwealth State Housing Agreement because we know that's an important source of new funding. $67 million for homelessness. We want to build thousands of homes for women and children, escaping domestic violence, for veterans who are disproportionately represented in our homelessness statistics. It'd be really good if the Liberals and the Nationals and the Greens would vote for the Housing Affordability Fund so we could get on and build those houses.

JAYES: Yeah, it's been quite a standoff, and I think it's going to continue. Minister, thank you for your time.