In the environment area we’ve got some real challenges ahead of us. The previous government didn’t release the State of the Environment Report. There’s a reason for them. I’ve been looking through it, and it tells a pretty damning story of a decade of neglect under the previous government, with all the markers for how our environment is going, going backwards. So, we’re going to release the State of the Environment report on the 19th of July at the National Press Club, and I’ll be talking in greater detail then about our priorities over coming months.
The report is a lot worse than you’d expected. What are the headline findings there?
You’ll have to come along on the 19th of July. I won’t go into too much detail on the report. I’m working my way through it, it’s a very substantial piece of work. But I think what I can say, unequivocally, what you can foreshadow, is that it tells a troubling story about issues like species extinction, and we’re going to have to do better on the environment.
Labor said before the last election that we will probably respond to the Samuel Review of the Environmental Protection Biodiversity Conservation Act. It’s pretty amazing that the [previous Coalition] government gets someone as distinguished as Graeme Samuel to review laws that are really not fit for purpose any longer. We know they’re not fit for purpose. He does a massive piece of work on making them fit for purpose and the [Morrison] government just sort of lets that sink without a trace.
So, we’ll be looking at what we need to do to make sure we’ve got faster, cheaper approvals, and stronger protections for the environment. And I think if we focus on the outcomes we’re trying to achieve, rather than the current EPBC Act [which] is very process-oriented, I think we’ve got a really good starting point there. But obviously, there’s a lot of work to do between now and any more concrete announcements about what we’ll do.
What we will be doing straight away is starting work on delivering our election commitments, so stronger protections for the Great Barrier Reef, looking at our urban rivers and catchments, delivering on the Murray Darling Basin Plan, looking after native species. The species extinction stuff is really troubling. We’ve got the fastest rate of mammal extinctions on the planet. Some species with proper management have come back a bit from the brink, but in general, we’re going completely the wrong way.
[Other issues include] marine plastics and pollution, waste and recycling. I’m looking forward to working with colleagues like Ed Husic, who’s got the industry portfolio, to look at opportunities for really good investment here in Australia that would upgrade our recycling infrastructure, collect more of the stuff that’s going to landfill and reuse it, including not just plastics, but the kind of precious minerals and selling metals that we find in IT equipment and TVs, and all that stuff.
The workload is extensive. What’s your thinking about the planned Environmental Protection Agency, which was really presented on the dying day of the election campaign. What’s the level of independence of the EPA in your mind? How does it work? Is it statutory? How is it funded?
I’m not going to start making announcements without extensive consultation. I’ll talk to people about a model, we’ll design a model, we’ll consult on the model. This is not something I’m going to come up with in a few weeks in my office. It’s a big and important change. We want better protection for the environment, and we want to do it in a way that makes approvals processes faster and cheaper and less complex.
Your policy, according to Labor’s website, calls for an independent EPA that has two divisions, including a compliance and assurance division. What sort of governance will this have?
Well, I think again, I’m not going to start designing things in my office without consultation. What I would say is that the results we’ve seen in our natural environment, the results of the state of the environment report details, like increasing rates of threatened species, worsening of our environmental outcomes – that’s something that we need to tackle.
And one of the things we’ll need to tackle is people doing the wrong thing. People who’ve made commitments to look after the environment in that particular way who aren’t doing it. But I’m honestly not going to start designing this stuff without extensive discussion with stakeholders.
Who have you got on your list of stakeholders you want to talk to?
I’m happy to talk to you more about that down the track. I’m not going to start getting into the details of this just yet.
Does it include the resources and farm sectors?
Of course, it [also] includes the business community, but we also need to look at state and territory government stakeholders across the board, including environmental groups, including farmers… you can probably work out who we’re talking about with stakeholders as a broader group.
So, for people who haven’t followed what’s gone on here, why is this change to an EPA required? Why is the existing system – which is really much more run through the Environment Department through the ministry and cabinet process – going wrong in your view?
What’s wrong with it? Approvals are slow and costly. We still have worse environmental outcomes. And we’re doing worse for proponents of projects by using the system that we’ve got at the moment. This is an area that absolutely needs to be updated. This is not a competition between environment and jobs. It’s not a competition between protecting the environment and approving development. This is a way of making sure that we can have faster, more cost-effective approvals at the same time as we better protect our natural environment and cultural heritage. At the moment, we’re not satisfying either side of this equation.
It seems that it might be the lack of a strong cop, an EPA in the US-style, that has been the problem. Is that something you would agree with?
I’m not going to start it’s-the-vibe kind of answers on this. This is a large technical piece of work that I will do in a thorough and methodical way, with proper consultation.
What would you say, then, to people who are worried that it will be a process that gets handed over to a group of technocrats at arms length from any political process – and that would be farmers and mining companies that would worry that that is an unsetting proposition?
That’s why it’s so very important to speak to all stakeholders and do a proper job of consultation so that we can reassure people that this is not a competition between jobs and the environment. It’s a process that will give us better environmental outcomes and faster, cheaper approvals.
Any thoughts on how this is funded?
Again, we’ll be doing extensive consultation about that.
One of the things that struck me when you were introducing your priorities and the focus you’ll take, there wasn’t any mention of climate change impacts? Is that in your realm or is that really something that Climate Change and Energy Minister Chris Bowen takes care of?
The reason that we’ve put the environment department and energy and climate change and water together in the one department is because there are really important complementary elements of our policies here. So, for example, when we are restoring natural habitat, we are also providing carbon offset opportunities. So, replanting timber that allows animals to have a home, in that way we’re not just doing monoculture plantings that don’t have the same environmental outcome. There is a huge amount of complementarity here. If we’re restoring seagrass and mangroves, you’ve got a great carbon offset opportunity, and you’ve got a really great ocean biodiversity outcome there. There is so much work that we can do together and, in particular, to benefit regional and rural communities. I think this is one of the most exciting parts of the portfolio.
The same goes for waste and recycling. We’ve got great opportunities to reduce the production of new plastic by recycling the plastic that we’re using. We’ve got the plastics ban export now, so we’ve got an opportunity to invest in upgrading recycling here in Australia by upgrading our recycling infrastructure. These things have really naturally complementary elements.
One of the interesting things from the election is that Labor and the former Coalition government lost seats to the Greens. How are you thinking about that political pressure, when one day maybe during this term, you get the final call on things like Scarborough and Beetaloo gas projects?
I don’t see it so much as pressure as a great opportunity. Australian voters have told us really clearly that the environment matters to them. We’ve come to government with a great agenda to better protect the environment and, as for individual decisions, I’ll make them according to the evidence before me and the law. I’m not going to start speculating about particular decisions I might have to make some time in the future.
On the barrier reef, the previous government lobbied against the reef being listed by the UN as endangered and that it was somewhat Labor supported. Does that continue this term?
Absolutely. I absolutely would say to the UN, listing the reef as in danger is the wrong thing to do. If you read through the reasons why the reef is under pressure, they include climate change, it’s under pressure because of poor water quality, it’s under pressure because of crown of thorns starfish outbreaks.
Australia has a $1.2 billion commitment between now and 2030 to address many of these pressures, including water quality and crown of thorns starfish, but also using the science to regenerate parts of the reef, making sure that we’re using fantastic work being done by the Australian Institute of Marine Science and others to help the reef adapt to climate change.
And now that we are on track to bring legislation into our parliament that locks in our 43 per cent emissions reduction target by 2030, and we’re on the way to zero net emissions… we are once again rejoining the international community as a serious actor in the fight to reduce the risks of climate change.
I think it would be unfair of UNESCO to ignore those efforts, both the climate change efforts and the money that we’ve set aside for reef protection, rehabilitation, restoration. And we do take this seriously. We are absolutely deadly serious about better protecting the reef. And I hope the report will acknowledge that.
One last question about the Murray Darling. No one’s really all that worried because it’s been raining. But inevitably things dry out. Are you still looking at the buying back of water titles from farmers?
We were absolutely committed to delivering on the Murray Darling Basin Plan. And we need to ensure that those commitments that were made to environmental flows for cultural water are kept. There’s a lot of state government effort at the moment. We’ll be making sure that they’ll be doing what they’ve committed to do as their share of the stewardship of water. And we’ll make sure that we work very closely with communities that rely on the Murray Darling, whether it’s for their livelihoods through farming, whether it’s for the water they drink and the water they use in their towns, that they actually have their needs met, as well as the environmental needs of the river system. It’s a big job. But we are absolutely committed to getting it right.