May I acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we meet and indeed across Australia where this broadcast is being heard.
For thousands of years they have been the custodians of our landscape, managing deserts, rivers, mountains and forests from a place of spiritual connection and deep obligation. Caring for country.
Thank you everyone for having me at the National Press Club Today.
So often in Canberra, the story and the political theatre seem to be on one side, those covering it are on another … and the life of Australians almost seems to carry on regardless.
When we see drought, fires and floods consuming large swathes of country on an unprecedented scale as we did just over a year ago, as we see a global pandemic send us into lockdown and threaten our very lives and livelihoods, and as we see the women of Australia shake our national conscience to the core – then, we are all in the middle of the same story at the same time. We are all affected.
During COVID I learned that in times of uncertainty, the natural world is more important than ever. On coming into the portfolio I said yes I am an environmentalist and yes I would be a minister for the environment. Indeed, I have particularly appreciated understanding more about our unique plants and animals and the role they play in our amazing Australian web of life. And I am genuinely humbled by the passion and commitment so evident in the representations from ecologists, advocates, conservationists and mums, dads and children.
The more we care, the more our views can polarise, and the more our focus can shift to outrage rather than outcomes.
There are different angles to that statement – and I’ll get to them as we go on, but I’d like to start by sharing some personal perspectives.
My dad, who sadly passed away a few weeks ago was a British spy, which made for an unusual upbringing and some very blunt lessons in communicating.
Growing up in the Middle East, I had an early insight into what it was like to stand on the edge of two different crowds, who were having very different conversations.
Packed off to an English boarding school at the age of 10, straight away I was an outsider – wrong clothes, wrong background, wrong words.
The next irony came with my arrival in Australia.
Thirteen years old and a new life on a farm in Murphy’s Creek near Toowoomba, I found myself on the outer AGAIN – this time, they said, because I was too English and spoke like ‘The Queen’. By this stage I was very much learning the value of self-reliance.
Later on, helped by purple hair, multiple piercings and a fascination for Canberra’s new wave music scene, I was, proudly, the only punk rocker in Australia who actually would have voted for Margaret Thatcher.
My burning ambition was to fly planes.
In chasing that ambition my life would take me through air traffic control rooms where I was told in no uncertain terms women were NOT wanted (I hid in a cupboard and cried), to male dominated shearing sheds, where the men in blue singlets taught me the decency and dignity of a hard day’s manual labour and down long dirt roads without very much at the end of them.
I fell in love with the red brown channel country of outback Australia. I went from city to country and never looked back.
My career in aviation was an important lesson in perspectives … and the prevailing perspective at that time, was that women, most certainly, were not pilots.
To get a start as a female pilot in those days, you had to travel a long way – Aviation was anything but an equal opportunity employer.
In my case that meant heading from the air traffic control tower in Sydney, to a place called Thargomindah, in Western Queensland.
I had advertised my services in the paper as a newly qualified stock mustering pilot. A couple of farmers replied how nice it would be to have a female companion and assured me that ‘a flash plane would be thrown in’ – which didn’t quite suit – but the next said: I don’t care who you are …. my pilot has just walked out … get up here straight away.
I packed up my life in under 48 hours and headed into the unknown.
My new employer was a shearing contractor whose wife looked at me askance and reportedly said: “who on earth is this slip of a girl?”.
I was pointed to a small Cessna with grass growing in the floor.
I had trouble starting it, but knew I needed to get it going or face a very long trip home. I don’t profess to having been the world’s best pilot at the start but – having always favoured persistence over talent – I got there.
Coming down to earth, finally, as a farmer’s ‘wife’ (which is what female farmers like me were pigeon-holed as 25 years ago), I can’t say that I had much time for green groups.
They had all sorts of ideas about how to manage the land but in my mind, that wasn’t going to feed the family.
I was the one who cared about the land more than anyone, I was the one working for the local Landcare organisation … and I was the one in the mud, getting down on my hands and knees putting in the hard yards.
I was the one juggling three full time jobs – children, farm and university – realising that further study through what eventually became three finance degrees – would be my best chance of paying the bills.
As life takes its course, you take a wider perspective on people’s views and you think about the best ways to have sensible conversations.
Those memories were important for me coming into the environment portfolio.
If the purpose of environmental activism is to encourage change … having people who have never set foot on a farm demonize agriculture, mining and forestry … or sending a newly qualified environmental science graduate to talk down to a fourth generation ‘cocky’ is likely to generate more outrage than outcomes.
Sending convoys to regional areas to demand closing mines that are among the main sources of income for the people that live there isn’t going to achieve much either.
The all or nothing approach that breezily talks about new products and new jobs appearing overnight – is an obstacle to meaningful discussion, not the solution to helping communities adapt to change.
Today, I am one of the more trolled politicians in the country …. no violins needed … it doesn’t worry me in the slightest, but it does help to highlight some of the outrage element that I mentioned earlier.
In between getting hit by both sides of the environmental debate … either as a koala killer on one hand, or a ‘traitor to the cause’ who handed the Bathurst Motor Race to so called ‘fake’ aboriginals on the other, I spend a lot of time with farmers, land managers, indigenous groups, and community volunteers.
I also spend a considerable amount of my time working with the very same environmental organisations whose professional PR campaigns often take aim against the government. They are an important part of the conversation.
My observation from those discussions and from life on the farm is that the issues facing our environment are much more than stereotyped debates.
We need practical local action and strategic global conversation, like we have seen from the Prime Minister at the G7 in Cornwall this week announcing Australia’s commitment to the High Ambition Coalition to protect our biodiversity on land and in our sea …
Like we are also seeing from the Minister for Energy and Emissions Reduction Angus Taylor in announcing strategic partnerships with Germany, Japan and Singapore to develop clean hydrogen in furthering our technology blueprint to reduce emissions.
The recovery of the humpback whale from as few as 1500 individuals in 1962, to a population of at least 50,000 today is testimony to what can be achieved when nations work together.
I found my way from bush pilot to life on the land, and at one point I would go from mustering sheep from the air to shooting them on the ground.
Farming is incredibly rewarding … but it’s tough.
It seems unimaginable today, but I remember the heartbreak of having to shoot our own sheep, because of a combination of drought and the collapse of world wool prices.
You couldn’t afford to feed them and you couldn’t afford to sell them. Some farmers watched their sheep slowly die in paddocks. The local council offered to come along and dig a huge hole in the ground for those who accepted the inevitable.
Our sheep were herded up a makeshift race…. and shot, so they fell into the pit.
There was no other humane way at that time … but it was one of the worst days of my life.
Over the last couple of years, we’ve seen today’s farming families battle record drought, fires, and flood … and, now, a mice plague that is just soul destroying. Inspiringly they find a way to just ‘get on with it’.
The wonderful rural women – in my NSW electorate of Farrer – are my heroes, as they confront the tough times – managing work, family and community.
And for those on the land a big part of their focus is protecting their environment. The agricultural industry manages more than 50 per cent of Australia’s land… the role of agriculture in the environment is, therefore, vital and understanding the ongoing relationship between our farms and our cities is perhaps now more important than ever.
This year’s Federal Budget took total new Morrison Government spending on the environment since the last election to more than $2 billion.
It has seen us invest:
• $209 million to establish the Australian Climate Service to help us help us better anticipate, manage and adapt to the impacts of natural disasters and climate change.
• $200 million wildlife and habitat bushfire response
• $150 million in further investment for the National Environmental Science program
Our scientists are helping the Great Barrier Reef adapt and be more resilient in the face of climate change.
From environmental DNA that can track species like the platypus through fresh-water creeks and slow-moving rivers to reintroducing native species to areas where they had previously been wiped out by feral predators …. and the use of artificial intelligence and underwater drones to map and destroy crown of thorns star fish… I am lucky enough to witness some truly inspiring work that is taking place…much of it in partnership with Traditional Owners whose environmental knowledge is now very much a part of mainstream science.
In respecting that knowledge we have to also respect Indigenous Heritage – a matter that has been the focus of national attention following Rio’s abject failures at Juukan Gorge.
In the wake of the destruction of Indigenous sites at Juukan, we have commenced work with state governments and territories, and Traditional Owners to highlight the need for the modernisation of Indigenous heritage protection laws.
I am working with the First Nations Heritage Protection Alliance to discuss a pathway forward to better protect our Indigenous cultural heritage, and I am determined that this is a collaborative process and a genuine partnership with indigenous communities that will deliver lasting results.
In just over a fortnight’s time the next phase of our waste exports ban will come into force preventing the export of mixed plastics – the often ‘contaminated’ bundles of different plastic types such as bottles and packaging – all thrown together in one bale.
It is a step that underlines the incredibly strong leadership shown by the Prime Minister in calling this issue out … and in driving practical environmental action to create jobs and micro economic reform.
Our waste … our responsibility … and our economic opportunity was a very clear Prime Ministerial message – and we have laid out the map to get there through a transformation of our recycling industry, and I’d like to acknowledge and thank the Australian Council of Recyclers who are here today and who are a part of a reform that will help create an additional 10,000 jobs.
This is the Commonwealth stepping into a new space – the plastic and other pollution in our oceans, and choking our landfills is a national environmental issue and the Commonwealth is investing in practical action.
In the 10 years to 2019 the Australian Government spent $30 million on waste … since 2019 we have committed more than $500 million.
Australia’s ban will remove the equivalent of 40,000 shipping containers from waste exports each year.
Lined up end-to-end, they would stretch from Canberra to Sydney.
That challenge goes well beyond plastic, tyres, paper and glass.
In Albury, where I live, we take for granted the ability to recycle our kitchen food waste.
I am pursuing an agenda to get all states and territories on board along with local councils to drive that same outcome in cities, and I welcome NSW adding their commitment to that cause last weekend.
Included in this year’s budget was a $67 million investment in something called FOGO.
It stands for Food Organics and Garden Organics – it is about turning your kitchen and food scraps into a resource that can directly improve the health of the soils that provide your next meal.
The amount of food Australia wastes each year is simply staggering, on average we throw one in 5 shopping bags of food in the bin, that’s about $3800 per household a year.
And if you think it just breaks down in regular landfill, then think again. Earlier this year, I visited an industrial compost site at Browns Creek near Orange, where this waste can be processed and delivered to farmers on an industrial scale.
It is good for the environment, good for the economy, good for soils and good for jobs.
One last thing on waste, and it starts well before throwing things away. We need business and manufacturers to think about ‘recyclability’ in the design manufacture and packaging of their goods.
We have had some significant wins with industry over the last year in getting global battery companies on board to a stewardship scheme and there are others that are going to have to step up in the very near future.
I am announcing today that I am putting the solar panel industry on notice with clear timelines for action.
The uptake of millions of solar panels across the country from roof tops to solar farms has been vital from an emissions perspective but the explosion of retailers and importers in the area, and the lack of an industry wide approach to collection and recycling, means that it also looms as a landfill nightmare.
We can’t fix one environmental issue by creating another.
Another major platform from this year’s budget and the Government’s wider environmental agenda is the health of our oceans.
This budget included $100 million in spending on Oceans Leadership.
The health of our oceans will reflect the health of our overall environment … our economy …and our hopes of reducing global emissions.
Blue carbon … the sea grasses and mangroves that remove two to four times the amount of greenhouse gasses from our atmosphere than terrestrial forests .. is a key focus of this year’s budget.
We are committed to the health of our oceans and working with a range of non-government organisations, and I acknowledge the presence of the both the Pew Foundation and the Australian Marine Conservation Society today.
In the wake of COVID’s initial impacts in 2020, we announced a $20 million project with The Nature Conservancy – who are also here today – to reconstruct what will now be 13 native shellfish reefs at sites around the country.
At Port Stephens several weeks ago, I watched the last of 4200 tonnes of rock being dropped in the water and laid across a three-hectare site, to create a new shellfish reef.
Construction of these reefs often involves the seeding of rocks with tiny oyster ‘spats’ and can also use crushed shells recycled from local oyster farms.
Each of these reefs is estimated to generate 370 kg of new fish per hectare each year, re-generating marine ecosystems and improving water quality, attracting divers, recreational fishers, tourism and supporting sustainable commercial aquaculture.
We are driving world leading scientific research on the Great Barrier Reef, discovering new ways to promote coral growth, while at the same time investing in ‘on water’ management and importantly working with farmers – where so many things can start – to improve water quality by reducing sediment and pesticide run off.
This is part of our $1.9 billion investment in the Great Barrier Reef.
Australia is surrounded by ocean and we are working to increase the protection of those oceans by establishing Marine Protected Areas, of up to 740,000 square kilometres – an area bigger than France – around Christmas Island and the Cocos (Keeling Islands).
It will lift the percentage of protected Australian waters from 37 per cent to 45 per cent … well ahead of the emerging global target of 30 per cent.
I am looking for the ways to ensure such an approach can work internationally.
I announce today that Australia will be stepping up its engagement with Antarctic nations, as we join the EU and the US in seeking to declare further marine protected areas in East Antarctica.
Make no mistake, the Antarctic – the world’s last untouched wilderness – is a major priority.
As we near the 60th anniversary of the Antarctic Treaty, I can assure you that Australia’s commitment to Antarctic Science and exploration, and the importance of that in understanding our global environment is stronger than ever.
We are driving ever closer to the drilling of a million-year ice core that will help unlock key information about our climate, by discovering what changed the world one million years ago.
Expeditioners will bore 3000 metres into the Antarctic ice cap to extract the world’s oldest continuous core, while developing our capability to travel deep inland with tractor-trains and a mobile research station.
At the same time our state of the art ice-breaker vessel, the Niyuna is in the final stages of being commissioned and will arrive in Hobart later this year.
An indigenous word for Southern Lights, Niyuna represents a $1.9 billion investment that will offer our scientists unprecedented and extended access to the Southern Ocean and Antarctica.
This mobile research station represents one of the most advanced polar research vessels in the world.
There are just a couple of more topics I would like to touch on before concluding and both are critical to our environment.
The first, which may not surprise you, is the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, encompassing the laws that are central to the way we manage our environment into future.
Mistrust and professional lobbying from all sides has led to once well-intentioned provisions struggling under the modern-day weight of an over burdensome, and increasingly litigious process – without delivering any better environmental outcomes.
Previous opportunities to change and modernise the EPBC Act have failed to pass the parliament and, once again today, we stand at a familiar cross-road of competing interests, demanding an all or nothing approach.
Labor, who avoided any significant legislative change after the Hawke Review, continue to stand in the way with one foot planted either side of a barbed wire fence, whistling to mining electorates from the Hunter to the Pilbara in one voice and city electorates in another.
Soon they will be off to the Pilbara to reassure miners and industry they are in it for them… if they really were in it for them, and for the environment they would be supporting legislative change now.
I am determined to push ahead with change.
I have, this morning begun circulating a timeline detailing our staged approach.
Make no mistake …. if we do not get the process moving, it will end up hurting both the environment and the economy.
The state Premiers and Chief Ministers at National cabinet have set three clear steps.
• A commitment to implement ‘single touch’ environmental approvals
• The development of national environmental standards reflecting the current requirements of the EPBC Act.
• Subsequent phases of reform to build on these streamlining efforts.
This is a much more consultative process than most people realise, and again, for all the fierce debate, there are significant ongoing discussions taking place with a broad range of stakeholders, and I would like to acknowledge the Business Council of Australia, the National Farmers Federation, the WWF, the Humane Society International, Places You Love and the Minerals Council, many of whom are here today.
At the heart of much of the discussion, are concerns about the roles of the states in future approvals.
Putting aside the irony of some state ministers calling on me to overturn the very approvals made by their own independent assessment bodies, these arguments actually underline the need for change.
The current EPBC system involves multiple levels of government and government departments, each assessing, overlapping and reassessing on the basis of different areas of responsibility and decision making …. in ways that invite procedural flaw and a lack of accountability.
We are going to need to implement reform in steps.
The demand for everything at once or nothing, is why so little has happened in the past.
I’ve left one of the most important issues till last – our threatened species are the face of our environment.
As Marine Biologist Sylvia Earle said: biodiversity matters …. because the rest of the living world can get along without us, but we can’t get along without them.”
The triggers for decline are often headlined as land development and climate change – and those things are real – but the fact also is that we have been sadly and steadily working our way towards this point since European settlement.
The introduction of species from rabbits to foxes, cats, deer and other hard hooved animals has been devastating … and it is collectively responsible for the deaths of millions of native species every year. The invasive species council members here today would be all too aware of that challenge.
At the same time, we also face the insidious and highly organised problem of native wildlife smuggling.
Today I’m announcing that I will be nominating more than one hundred native species to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).
These animals have been identified as being at high risk from illegal wildlife trade and are increasingly being found in the international pet market.
Listing on CITES will place strict requirements on the movement of these species outside of Australia and continue to strengthen Australia’s position as a leader in this important international convention.
As with many things in the environment, we need to combine international partnerships with practical on ground action at home.
Our $200 million bushfire response has helped support a number of positive steps including insurance populations and captive breeding programs for the most ‘at risk’ species after the fires, the largest rapid assessment of native plants and what must be the most coordinated feral animal and weed control program in Australian history.
Building on lessons and research in the wake of the Bushfires and consulting with scientific experts and communities, we have developed a new 10 year threatened species strategy to coordinate the steps we can take to change the trajectory of our species.
One of the most high-profile of those species, is of course, the koala.
Following the bushfires I requested the Threatened Species Scientific Committee to focus efforts on the koalas.
We have already announced $24 million in direct Koala funding, including a much-needed koala census and a genome research program.
We will be supporting the development of a national koala disease risk assessment and a program to increase the level of specialist knowledge among veterinary networks for the treatment of koalas.
Having reviewed a number of proposals, I am pleased to announce that I will be further pursuing a $2.4 million partnership with the WWF, who are here today.
It will see a range of habitat restoration projects in the NSW Northern Rivers and SE Queensland including drone seeding, weed removal, fire management, and on-ground work with Traditional Owners.
There is an enormous amount to do in the area of threatened species, but it is worth remembering that Australia retains one of the highest rates of biodiversity in the world and with that we have much to protect.
It really IS a privilege to be Australia’s Minister for the Environment – and I am never happier than when I am IN the environment – wading into a rice paddy looking for bitterns, watching a turtle dig her nest in the sand, in the rain at 1am, listening to the wisdom of indigenous women in the dirt at Kakadu – and a recent favourite – inspecting plastic and paper being sorted at high speed and high volume in a materials recovery facility.
And I do understand there’s often a subconscious view that as a LIBERAL Environment Minister, well of course you must be at a disadvantage. But that is just not the case!
The Liberal principles that drew me to the party many years ago make just as much sense in the current context.
Our opponents see things on a large scale, top down, administratively burdensome, with an increasing focus on identity politics and a need to define people as being on either the right side or the dark side.
But local initiatives matter just as much as global schemes. Community partnerships can be more successful than political activism.
I would argue that this approach is better suited to solving many of the environmental problems we face today.
And practical action that makes people come out on weekends taking plastics out of our waterways, pulling weeds or making a shellfish reef, builds recovery and sustains the natural world – as well as the human condition.
Personal responsibility, local decision making and empowering each person to treat their environment as their own backyard, knowing that Governments stand ready to do things with them, not to them, are central themes of our side of politics.
And if I may go back to the farm one last time…The lessons I learned – from the bills piling up on the kitchen windowsill, the long nights of worry – and yes, the satisfaction of planting trees for my local Landcare – are that supporting family, community and the success of the next generation is inextricably linked to the environment that supports us all.
MARK KENNY: Minister, thank you very much for that speech, and it was terrific to make reference in introducing you to your eclectic background, but I think you’re definitely the first person who’s stood up and begun a speech with the words: my dad was a British spy.
We’re assuming that there’s no implied action against Australia there from your father, and let me just say in the context of that commiserations on his recent departure.
SUSSAN LEY: He was 103.
MARK KENNY: Nonetheless, nonetheless. Thank you very much for that. Can I- we’re going to have a series of questions from our assembled media here, but I might just begin by asking you about an aspect of the G7 meeting that’s just occurred. Much was made of a number of advances that occurred in that meeting. One of the less remarked upon aspects of it was an agreement of G7 members to design policies to prevent carbon leakage now. Carbon leakage is not- it doesn’t sort of jump to mind as to what it might be, but it’s obviously euphemism for goods that are imported into those economies but which don’t carry a carbon price on them, no carbon price having been paid, and therefore, the suggestion that there will be carbon tariffs on some imported products. Can you tell me, is Australia in danger? Given where we are relative to the rest of the world, is Australia in danger of effectively paying a carbon tax just not to our government but to other governments?
SUSSAN LEY: No, we’re not. I actually had a conversation with Trade Minister Dan Tehan this morning about the environment chapter in the UK-Australia Free Trade Agreement and sought reassurance that the environment chapter requires us to continue to commit to the global partnerships such as the High Ambition Climate- the High Ambition Coalition for Nature and People, the one that the Prime Minister and I announced on the sidelines of the G7. We’re also members of another high ambition group on oceans, and we participate in quite a lot of international forums, including a couple that I did in the lead-up to the G7 with Environment Ministers in that grouping. So, the environment chapter of the free trade agreement doesn’t require us to do more than we are doing now. That’s one point. And my other point is that while you may not read about it every day, there is a lot that Australia is doing, and the conversations I had with G7 environment ministers were very encouraging in terms of the information, the technology, and the science that we can share.
MARK KENNY: Thank you. First question from Olivia Caisley.
QUESTION: Olivia Caisley from The Australian. Thanks very much for your speech. Last month Federal Court Justice Mordecai Bromberg found you have a duty of care to protect children from future personal injury from climate change. The decision was labelled a world first judgment by class action proponents. What practical implications will this finding have for the environmental approvals process for mining projects and by extension the ability to do business in Australia?
SUSSAN LEY: I didn’t agree with the judgement. That’s the first point I want to make. The second important point is that no final orders have been made and that both I and my department are considering the judgement. The judge has asked for submissions – I think they’re due in about a week – and we are preparing submissions, obviously, as is the other side. In answer to your question, Olivia, I will continue to make decisions in accordance with the EPBC Act, and beyond that, the matter is still under legal contest.
MARK KENNY: Question from Andrew Tillett.
QUESTION: Andrew Tillett from The Financial Review and Director here at the National Press Club. Minister, you mentioned in your speech about the Juukan Gorge destruction there, the caves, and the need to modernise Indigenous protection laws. What are you sort of thinking there? Where do you- where is the sort of the weaknesses that need to be addressed that you will address? And what’s the sort of priority? Is it a matter of sort of elevating the priority given to Indigenous protection in environmental assessments and things like that? Maybe making it an overriding priority perhaps for things?
SUSSAN LEY: It’s important to note, Andrew, that quite a lot has happened already. I spoke to Rio a couple of weeks ago, and I actually asked them the question, well, what are you doing differently? And I have asked every other resource company that’s come through my door, because that- because Indigenous heritage is not just at Juukan Gorge, precious though that was; it’s everywhere. And they’ve all indicated to me that they’re moving with different protocols, different consultation.
The key theme of what we want to do – and I’m including Ken Wyatt, who’s working- we’re working together on this – is to do this in co-design with Indigenous people, not to come up with something, roll it out and say, there it is. Where the- I mean, weaknesses is your word, but I accept what you mean. The principle first port of call for Indigenous heritage protection is state governments, and we saw the failure with WA and the Section 18C advices and what flowed from that.
All of the states, when I brought them together around the table at the end of last year, indicated they were having reviews of their heritage protection legislation. What that said to me was this a moment in time where those state-based reviews and our interest at a Commonwealth level combined with- and I’ve got to say, the First Nations Heritage Protection Alliance, thank you for bringing together all of the voices that make this such an important issue for Indigenous Australians in one place – to start having those conversations is really important. So, we can’t fix it all from a Commonwealth level, but we want to do more. I want to do more. And now is the time, and I’m optimistic that the process of reform with the states is kicked off.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MARK KENNY: Mike Foley.
QUESTION: Mike Foley from The Age and Sydney Morning Herald. Thanks for your address, Minister. As you referenced, Australia is a hot spot for wildlife extinctions. Just the nation’s share of mammal extinctions alone is 38 per cent of the global losses. The trend hasn’t slowed for the past 200 years, and peer reviewed scientists as well as Professor Graham Samuel in his statutory review of the environment laws have called for urgent and comprehensive legislative reform and regulatory reform to address the decline in nature. Samuel said to shy away from those comprehensive reforms in his review is to accept the continued decline of our iconic places, animals, and ecosystems. But you’re- as you’re planning to hand some Federal environment approval powers to the state government- state governments, you’ve criticised the all or nothing approach to the reform agenda. So, Minister, my question is why so far has the Government’s legislate reform agenda all been about speeding up project approvals and there’s been an incremental approach and a wait-and-see approach to greater and enhanced environmental protections?
SUSSAN LEY: We’re doing exactly what Graham Samuel said. His words were: a sensible and staged pathway. We’re doing exactly what was agreed at National Cabinet twice last year by the premiers and chief ministers and the Prime Minister: to start the process with environmental reforms. There are many other aspects to Graham Samuel’s review. They’re important, they’re deep, they’re meaningful, and they’re relevant. The pathway document that will be on my website now actually indicates a staged pathway of reform, which is again what Graham Samuels said: this is the pathway.
Now, I’ve got to take you up on something, Mike. You’ve said: handing over approvals to the states. And I want to correct a misconception. It’s almost as if people think we’re just drawing a line, passing a date in the calendar and saying, okay, over to you, states. And that is just not the case. What we’re doing is accrediting states against our strong national standards in order, from my perspective, to improve environmental protection and of course improve the economic efficiency of our businesses, our industry, and by extension the wealth of our communities. But every step we take is a step forward in environmental protection. And the point I was making in my remarks was very much that holding this back is not in the interests of the environment at all, even though there’s more work to do.
MARK KENNY: Can I just ask you on that, do you retain in that process of accrediting states an override power? States may have a very sectional interest in pursuing particular development. You may decide that it’s not in the national interest that that go ahead, but a state might feel that it is in its commercial interest. Do you retain that power to override the state in that circumstance?
SUSSAN LEY: Two things, Mark: compliance will be a standard, and we will be accrediting the states’ compliance against our strong standard. So if a state doesn’t demonstrate competence against the standard for compliance, that bilateral will not be signed by me. The other thing is we’ve got a bill in the Parliament now that actually implements something that… I won’t say word for word, but pretty much lifts what Graham Samuel said about an environment assurance commissioner. So this is that independent cop on the beat. We see that in the inspector-general of water, security and a couple of other models in the Parliament.
But that environment assurance commissioner is pretty much the model that Samuel suggested. That bill is in the Senate. That gives the oversight. That gives the ability for that body to call in a project, to step into a space where a state is clearly falling over and take action, without being directed by the minister or, you know, having a careful brief – well, I only follow this – actually able to take that action unilaterally.
MARK KENNY: Well, we have seen that happen before, though, if we think back to the Gordon-below-Franklin or Franklin-below-Gordon – I always get those wrong – way back in the early 80s, where we have the Federal Government using the external affairs powers to intervene in a situation. So I’m just wondering, would- could- would there be a situation where the Federal Government would simply be able to essentially retake over those powers that it has ceded to the states, or is that just a one-way street?
SUSSAN LEY: It’s a bilateral agreement, which means it’s signed by me and it’s signed by the minister. And the environmental assurance- environment assurance commissioner can point something out to the minister, which, you know, these are tabled in the Senate as they become law and regulation, and therefore they’re subject to the processes of the Parliament. So I’m very comfortable that the right checks and balances are in place, and the reason is because I actually want the right checks and balances to be in place. Not all the states get it right all the time. We haven’t always got it right all the time. This is not about pointing the finger and saying someone does it better than someone else. It’s about lifting the standard across the board so that we can address the issues that Mike Foley raised about decline in our threatened species, about the work that we have to do.
One of the standards in Samuel’s report is a data and information standard. Now, data and information sounds very uninteresting, but I actually think it’s really important. It was something I learnt from my time in the health portfolio, that you’ve got to build a base line. You’ve got to be able to measure, you’ve got to be able to analyse, and you’ve got to be able to monitor. Now, if we can do all that, we won’t have doubt around protecting, for example, a koala in an area of Western Queensland where there’s a proposal for a resource project or a solar farm, because we will actually know what’s going on. And I mention the koala census because the first thing I said to the threatened species scientific commissioner- chair and the scientists was: people will talk about koalas and bushfires, and like everyone I was worried. Well, what are the numbers and where are they? Well, we don’t know. We don’t have that data. We don’t know. So the first thing in our koala package is build a national koala census, engage community so we know the quality, the strength, the distribution. So all of this work builds towards that final improved standard that I’d like to see.
MARK KENNY: Paul Karp.
QUESTION: Thanks very much for your speech. Could I please ask, when will the Government formally respond to the Samuels review [sic] and what is the way forward if your preferred legislation can’t get through the Senate because the crossbench does appear to disagree with your conclusion that this represents greater environmental protection and is pretty much what was called for in the review?
SUSSAN LEY: My pathway document this morning, Paul – and I have a copy here; I might slip over and give it to you, as I know you’ve taken an interest in this in the past – demonstrates the phases of reform, and Samuel recommended phases of reform. What I want that to do is to give confidence to those who might suggest that we’re just implementing the ACTA standards and then that’s enough. I’ve said that many times, it’s not, but I’m now demonstrating what that pathway looks like. There are clear points along the way where you can see that we’re on the sticky paper, we will do this at this time.
We will introduce legislation here. And I come back to my point, unless we introduce- unless we pass the bills that are in the Parliament now and start implementing bilaterals before the end of the year, we will fall behind, and we will fall behind on environmental protection. So, happy for you to have a look at the pathway and later interrogate me about it.
QUESTION: Does that mean no changes to satisfy the crossbench? What happens if they don’t like the pathway?
SUSSAN LEY: Look, your point about failures in the Senate, I’m, hopefully you can see, an optimistic person. I’m working hard with the crossbench. I’ve listened to their concerns. One of the things they raised was exactly what I’ve just talked about, well how can we see what you’re doing next and what it will look like? How can we reassure our communities that you’ve got a meaningful reform planned? And so that’s what I believe I’ve done. The standards, as they are in the Act in the Parliament now, are where we are going to start. So I’ve said that that part is not negotiable. That, if you like, is putting the car on the road and pointing it in the right direction. Now, the legislation indicates that there’ll be two years of interim standards followed by final standards. And again, people have said to me, well, what does that mean? Does it mean you’ll just you’ll stop at the interim standards? Well, no, I won’t.
The group that I talked about, and many of them are here, and I really appreciate the fact that they sat at the table – they don’t always have the same point of view. And we probably got 85 per cent of the way towards a new set of standards, but that wasn’t enough. But we’re going to pick up that piece of work, and I’ve committed to a round table within 28 days of the legislation passing with those same people at the table and say: right, we’ve got the interim standards underway, we’ve got the car on the road, now we have to work towards another set of final standards, which then become dynamic as we build more into the system over time.
MARK KENNY: Let’s hope the car on the road is an electric one, even if it does cost us our weekends. Cameron Gooley.
QUESTION: Cameron Gooley from the ABC, thank you for your speech, Minister. I just have two questions for you. The first one: as Environment Minister, are you concerned about the New South Wales application to use Bromadiolone on the mouse plague, given- I mean, do you have any concerns about its impact on native species or environment, given very few countries actually permit its use?
SUSSAN LEY: My short answer to that is no, I don’t. I have seen what mouse plagues do to the human psyche, and I have seen and heard from- and I’m going to say women, because it often is, because they’re not in the- you know, they’re in the house, they’re performing duties that many, inverted commas, farmers’ wives do. So I’m not making this a gender debate, but I’m just telling you I have heard from many women. And the stories are horrific. The images are dreadful. Mice chewing the baby’s cot. Mice all over the face of their children. Mice eating the insides out of their electrical equipment, and the smell of mice impossible to get rid of. And I challenge anyone to live in an environment like that and not say, for goodness’ sake, give me the tools to do something about it. Now, the APVMA, which regulates poisons, would have to approve this. So the New South Wales Agriculture Minister is not going above and beyond the set of rules that are there now.
QUESTION: And on another topic. In Kakadu National Park, international visitors have been declining year on year as sites in the environment degrade. And last year, traditional owners sensationally fell out with Parks Australia. What have you done as Minister to try and repair that relationship?
SUSSAN LEY: I don’t agree that science and the environment have degraded, but I do agree that Kakadu has been through a rough period. I think we’ve turned the corner. Towards the end of COVID, I spent a week there. I spent a lot of time talking to the rangers at the ranger stations. I spent a lot of time listening. I met with the board. I heard their appeals. I’ve instigated new things, a new set of arrangements which I can probably describe as local, not Canberra-control. The current Acting Director of National Parks, Jody Swirepik, is doing an extraordinarily good job. She also travelled to Kakadu as my representative to feel the pain, understand the angst, and report back to me, and she did that. So she’s the ideal person to be starting to carry this forward.
I’m appointing a special advisory group to get out there and consult on a new model of management and governance, which I want to see bring- you know, we’ve got joint management at the moment, and ultimately, can we have a better model of joint management? Do we need to move towards sole control from traditional owners on their country? And the one thing that they agreed on, which gives me- which I was really encouraged by, apart from the inspiration I gained from the conversations I had with them, was that they want to showcase their park to the world. They want visitors. It’s not about shutting it off and saying keep away. They want to do that. They want to tell their stories. And I want that to happen, too.
QUESTION: And if that group were to recommend sole management by traditional owners of the park, would you-
SUSSAN LEY: [Interrupts] I’ve asked them. Look, they haven’t immediately said- I had a conversation with them at the board meeting that I mentioned that I attended, and many of them said: well, we don’t necessarily want sole management tomorrow, but we want a different model of joint management. And that makes sense to have on the way towards sole management in the future. But the point is putting the decision making and the consultation firmly back in their hands.
MARK KENNY: David Crowe.
QUESTION: Thank you, Mark. Thank you, Minister, for your speech. David Crowe from The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age. I’ve got a question that touches on your early life, but also one of the issues that’s facing the environment at the moment. I think in a profile written about you in the past, it recounted a story of you travelling through the Victorian countryside, perhaps through the Snowy Mountains, with two pack horses from the mountains down to the sea. I thought that was an interesting, sort of, moment in your life. I’d be interested in why you did that, but it does connect to a policy question, because in the Snowy Mountains, there’s a serious problem with 14,000 wild horses degrading the national park, polluting the water that then runs down river to other communities. You’re the Federal Environment Minister; you’ve got the power to do something about it. Do you want to do something about those wild horses in the national park, and will you do that?
SUSSAN LEY: Yes, and I hope so, in answer to your last question. Before I realised that girls who wear glasses and are uncoordinated could actually fly planes and then change the course of my life, I was in the public service in Canberra for six months.
And at the end of that I thought something has- you know, I’m 18; there’s got to be more. So I didn’t take a gap year, because that’s not what we did. But I hitched up a horse and a pack horse and decided to ride from Yass to the Ninety Mile Beach. I remember the farrier coming to shoe my horses and said: where are you going? And I said: I’m going to the Ninety Mile Beach. And he said: haha, I hope you’re starting early, which was sort of the way everyone looked at the thing, but I got there.
MARK KENNY: Well, most people do do it by car [indistinct].
SUSSAN LEY: But that ride through Kosciuszko, no phones clearly, and I had the topographical map on the saddle in front of me, the Tin Mines Track – it was steep here – gave me a sense of absolute wonder about the park itself, something I’d never experienced. It was, you know, moved me. Wind the clock forward and seeing the damage that feral horses have done to the park now makes me extremely angry, and what also frustrates me is a lack of understanding. But I’m happy to say that people are moving into this direction. So I live in Albury, near Man from Snowy River Bush Festival and Country, and I can tell you, this is not a popular stand to have in my hometown. It’s not a popular stand to have with some of my colleagues.
You mentioned Snowy. I actually have had a conversation with Angus Taylor where I’m pretty sure he’s on the same page as me. He has a deep understanding of the park and he knows the damage. And when I was flying over to implement the environmental approval for Snowy, I looked down and, you know, the whole ground was moving with horses and the damage to the mountain peat bog, that fragile ecosystem between it and the earth and the incredible ecosystem that lives in there. And I know if I mention the broad-toothed rat, people will think, well, but, you know, it is a pretty incredible little creature. And then you imagine the stomping of hard hooves and you see the damage.
So anyway, where I’m getting to is, look, I’m looking through the EPBC Act. I’d love to find a provision in there that could actually allow the Commonwealth to say to the states, in a heritage-listed national park- Kosciuszko is heritage listed for its vegetation, for its unique ecosystem because it’s not found anywhere else in the world. You know, I don’t want to point fingers at another government and say you should do more, but I’m very happy to have a direct and constructive conversation because we must collectively do more and I appeal to everyone who feels strongly about this issue to make their voices heard.
MARK KENNY: Next question from Simon Grose.
QUESTION: Simon Grose, Canberra IQ. I think the big challenge is to find a nice way to kill lots of horses. But my question’s about a regulation of plastic waste exports. You talked about a ban on mixed bales of plastic. How many categories of plastic are there? If I’m a plastic waste exporter and I see- I can still make a dollar if I sought and bale separately, what’s stopping me doing that? And who are the plastic police at the border to stop me doing something I shouldn’t do?
SUSSAN LEY: Well, there is a requirement to make a declaration at the border. So, like everything that you export from Australia, we’ve made amendments to the Customs Act and the acts that would actually implement that regulatory effect if you do in fact try to export plastic that you shouldn’t. But this is not about…
QUESTION: So its Customs people, is it?
SUSSAN LEY: Yes. Yeah.
QUESTION: Okay. And they’d look at 10 per cent maybe of the containers, 1 per cent, or…?
SUSSAN LEY: Well the point I really want to make is that this is not an exercise in regulation. This is an exercise in cooperation. So the plastics industry is pleased- has stepped up. Where there are issues, we’ll work through them as the actual first ban for mixed plastic, which is not PET plastic. Mixed baled plastic. So think of that as the less valuable type. That comes in on the 1st of July. It’s another couple of years before the PET plastic. When you reprocess the plastic in Australia and we’ve got a $690 million Recycling Modernisation Fund to build the kit. We’re seeing it out there already. There’s something in the ACT. There’s a new plastic processing line to turn your PET plastic or what comes to your container deposit scheme into plastic chips. Now, that’s fine. That could actually be exported. I want to see more of that made into plastic in Australia, and it will be once we set up that kit. But the point- the overriding point is we are doing this with the waste industry, not to them.
MARK KENNY: Tim Shaw.
QUESTION: Thanks, Mark. Minister, Tim Shaw, Director of the National Press Club. From the Snowy Mountains to Tasmania, I’d like your comment please on the proposal for a fly-in, fly-out ecotourism development, Halls Island on Lake Malbena within the walls of Jerusalem National Park. Now, the Tassie Government have given it a thumb’s up. It’s before you. It’s been on your desk for a while. Can you just take us through- yes, you’ve refereed for an EPBC assessment, but when you’re determining projects like this, 700 hectares potentially at risk, fly-in, fly-out, demountable buildings. You said you’re an environmentalist. Just take us through the process, particularly for our Tasmanian viewers today, about what goes through your mind. And in an environment now where international tourism is not happening for Australians, do you support the idea of ecotourism in a place like Tasmania?
SUSSAN LEY: When that proposal was presented to me by my department, it was suggested that it not be a controlled action at all. In other words, that it need not come across my desk as you describe it. I said no. There is- the implications for the Tasmanian World Heritage area are important and require looking at, and one of the matters of matters of national environmental significance under the EPBC Act is exactly that. So, what went through my mind? Does the noise and the interruption – that’s just a way of describing it, might not be either of those things – of a helicopter moving through a World Heritage area and arriving somewhere where you can get there in 30 minutes but someone else has sort of had a wilderness experience that’s taken them three days, you know, is that something we need to assess?
What exactly would the standing camp look like? What infrastructure would be on the ground? And of course, what the effect would be on the species that are protected in the area. So they’re all reasonable questions. I haven’t answered those questions yet because the proponent is proceeding with the assessment at this time. But that’s a sense of what made me decide, this is actually not something that we can go: don’t need to see it at all. We actually need to go through a proper assessment and that’s what we’re doing.
Broadly, I have a disposition that if you- if public money is spent on an area, there should be a degree of public access and that we teach people so much when they interact with the natural world that we need them to have access to it. So sensibly managed, of course, ecotourism is a very good question.
MARK KENNY: Just quickly, is that a project that under your revised EPBC Act would not come to you, would actually be handled in state?
SUSSAN LEY: If Tasmania signs a bilateral agreement and we accredit their processes, then indeed. However, there’s one proviso there. If it’s a World Heritage area, it may well be that the discussion is that the Commonwealth maintains supervision of World Heritage areas, and I suspect that’s likely. World Heritage areas, Ramsar sites, are the subject of international treaties and therefore, it’s probably another layer of, I don’t want to say review, but of a high-quality accreditation if Tasmania does it, to make sure that it’s in compliance with that.
MARK KENNY: Yeah, that’s interesting. That probably goes to what I was trying to get to in some of those previous questions. Misha Schubert.
QUESTION: Minister, Misha Schubert as the Director of the National Press Club. Thanks so much for your speech and for sharing more about your terrific life story in the context of the policy conversations you’re navigating. You’ve worked in some work environments that are regarded as pretty- traditionally, pretty blokie. You know, all sorts of things. And I noted that three years ago, you were in an interview talking about gender targets and targets for women MPs, where you said you’d come on a bit of a journey, you originally didn’t think quotas were an answer, and you’d gotten to the point by late 2018 where you thought the Liberal Party should consider adopting targets for women. Three years further on, how much has your position changed? Do you still think it’s time to consider or is it time to crack on and adopt targets?
SUSSAN LEY: I think our state divisions, and this is, of course, the responsibility of state divisions – I’m one member of, my New South Wales division, should take seriously the issue of gender quotas. It doesn’t mean they should implement them tomorrow. It doesn’t mean that they should be at 50 or 60 per cent, it’s just that they should be considered by them, and that means that everyone who has a view should be heard. Everyone doesn’t have my view, and many people don’t have my view now. I mean, it might have been you, Misha. It someone in the Press Gallery who said to me: do you have any idea what your side of politics look like when we look down and see just I think three women in your Backbench and maybe one or two on your Frontbench?
And that stuck in my mind. And talking to young women then, they would often – and I really enjoy talking to the young rural women in my electorate and I would always encourage them to step up to some sort of representative politics – they would say it’s too blokie. I don’t see it as a female-friendly workforce. They might not have been their words but that’s what I heard. So that really concerned me because it’s not just about the people inside the Parliament that we should worry about, it’s the people who we want to see come to the Parliament. We want that diverse life experience. We want all sides of the debate. We want the rich texture of Australian life, including rural life, to be represented in our Parliament. And it was just- you know, I don’t mean the homogeneity was about male only but it was just about bringing people.
Now, since you asked me that question, we’ve got a very different set of issues facing us in the Federal Parliament. So I think if I asked the women the same question today, they might have a slightly sadder answer, which is, oh my goodness, what happens there? So that’s why I’ve been very determined to, along with many of my female colleagues and male colleagues, of course, to change the culture of Parliament. Notwithstanding it’s a workplace of 5000 people, so sometimes bad things are going to happen, but to change the culture so that we have women aspiring to come and work there. Seeing it as the honour and the privilege that it is, and not suffer the effects that unfortunately so many- some of them have.
MARK KENNY: I notice there’s one club in the media at the moment getting a lot of attention that has a quota of zero.
MARK KENNY: David Denham.
QUESTION: David Denham from Preview Magazine. Thank you for your speech, Minister, but I seek clarification from you about the horses. Because Graeme Samuel recommended that legally enforceable national environmental standards should be set up. Alright? Now if you set those up and you’re the Minister, then surely you would have the power to do something about those horses. So is this going to be in the legislation, legally enforceable national environmental standard?
SUSSAN LEY: The act currently protects nine matters of environment significance, and where the owner of the land is a state government, that somewhat complicates matters. So I think that’s an important point to note. If this was happening on someone’s property, there might be avenues of intervention. But Graeme Samuel’s standards are about transforming a clumsy act into a streamlined, more efficient and therefore better protection of the environment.
QUESTION: So these aren’t going to be in the act, these words?
SUSSAN LEY: Well, the bills that are before the House now, one has passed the House and there’s one to come and two then to proceed through the Senate, are about starting a process of reform.
QUESTION: Okay. Fair enough.
SUSSAN LEY: And later steps will follow, but the first processes of reform is about the national standards turning from clunky narrative in the act to a streamlined set of standards that we can then work with to improve.
QUESTION: Okay. That’s clarification. Now my question …
MARK KENNY: You’re pushing it, David.
QUESTION: Can I have a quick one or are you finished?
MARK KENNY: Well no, if you can be brief.
QUESTION: Very brief. It seems to me that there’s too much emphasis on science solving the climate problem and not enough on cultural and social reform which is needed to implement it. So what are your plans for that?
SUSSAN LEY: That’s a very big question. And I think that some of the things I said in my speech hopefully indicated that I do believe that where you have communities at the forefront of a conversation, that feels like there are things that can be done, not a problem that is so big that there’s nothing that can be done. And I think that’s the difference in the approach I would take. So one little anecdote, there’s a little seahorse in Sydney Harbour called white sea horse. Amazing little creature. You could throw up your hands and say, ocean acidification and climate change, and that’s why we’ve got no seahorses. In fact, we have no seahorses because sand is washing over the soft coral.
Councils are working out how you move the sand. Boats are scraping their heavy moorings across the soft coral and smashing the sea horse habitat. Communities would say, yeah, there’s things we can do. We can participate in the dredging, for want of a better word, and we can have no-go mooring sites so we can protect the seahorse.
MARK KENNY: Final question from Estrid Watts.
QUESTION: Hi Sussan. Condolences about your father for a start. You mentioned the link between working with state government and Federal governments, so my question is: the State Government of New South Wales recently announced the replanting and regrowth of the Pericoe pine forest which was destroyed in the Black Summer bushfires. I’d like to know, can you tell me, will the Government help- will the Federal Government help the State Government plan the planting a bit better so it might not cause as much risk as- for an inferno such as the Black Summer fires? And also, would you considering incorporating the UN Nation’s peak Indigenous people to conduct cool burns within those forests to also prevent fires in the future?
SUSSAN LEY: I’m not sure of the forest so I’m going to answer generally. Yes, we already provide some funding from our bushfire package to gain some wisdom about traditional methods of burning. Well done in the north with Savanna burning but quite different in the south. So we need to understand because Indigenous history tells us that 70 per cent of our plants was subject to cool burn. So very much yes.
In designing how we build back better, I think that’s alluding to what you were saying. You don’t just put back exactly what was there to be burnt again in exactly the same way, and climate change means that is more of a risk than it was before. What we did with our bushfire funding was get communities, land managers, Indigenous Australians around the table and say: how would you take the next steps, and then provide significant funding – some of it matched by the State Government – but working with the State Government of course to actually make that build back stronger of the ecology and the plant species in the area. So, it’s a point very well made. If it’s a specific question about somewhere close to home, I’m very happy to talk to you afterwards.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MARK KENNY: Let’s conclude on that note. Would you please thank Sussan Ley?