Speech to the Business Western Sydney Forum

05 June 2023

Thank you for the warm welcome to Dharug country.

I acknowledge the traditional owners of the land and pay my respects to their elders past and present.

And I reaffirm our government’s commitment to a successful yes campaign later this year for constitutional recognition and an Indigenous Voice to Parliament.

Business leaders, community advocates, champions of Western Sydney.

It’s great to finally be here.

David Borger and I have been talking about this for a while now.

He’s popular guy around town, so I was happy to get the invite.

And I was even happier with the date we settled on.

Because if you didn’t know, today is world environment day.

Which is a bit like a birthday party, but for trees. All three trillion of them.

So we couldn’t have picked a better day to go over these issues.

To map out our government’s plans for environmental reform.

To explain how these changes can work for your businesses.

To show why these policies matter to the people of Western Sydney.

And finally, to reflect on what it means to live in a big city like this and to care for the environment and nature.

Of course, this wasn’t always the centre point of a global city.

For longer than we can comprehend, this was the home of the Dharug people.

And I want to begin my remarks today with a bit of that history.

Because the Dharug people of this area were expert managers of their country. 

And like all First Nations, they were highly skilled environmentalists.

In fact, you could make a very good argument that it was their land management skills that saved colonial Sydney from falling apart.

Because the first time British people came to Parramatta, they came out of desperation.

It was April 1788, three months after the First Fleet landed in Australia, and Sydney Cove was already running out of food.

It was the fear of hunger that motivated Arthur Phillip to explore the river system.

And it was the fear of hunger that led him to Parramatta, where he found exactly what he was looking for. 

Rolling hills, open fields, thick grass, dark soil.

It was like a picture from the motherland.

It must have felt like an act of God.

But it wasn’t an act of God.

It was an act of Aboriginal land management.

For thousands of years, the Dharug people had been using fire to clear and regenerate the land around here.

It was deliberate, it was regular, and it was very successful.

And that’s why Governor Phillip found those open fields and fertile soil.

And that’s why Parramatta became the second settlement.

Walking around the streets today, it’s hard to picture those open fields.

We’ve got a lot more cranes in the sky than we did in the colonial days.

We definitely have more shops selling Korean chicken and bubble tea. 

And that’s a good thing, it’s something to celebrate. 

You’ve built a genuine city centre here in Parramatta.

With enough energy to pull in talent from around the world.

And with enough economic scale to shift the city’s gravity westwards. 

Parramatta used to be a satellite city – now it’s a planet of its own.

And that’s in no small part because of businesses like yours.

You’ve played a massive role in that transformation.

And it's a necessary role.

Because we need more homes for our kids to live in.

We need more office space to house the services we’re selling to the world.

And we need more factories and warehouses, to seize the opportunities of modern manufacturing and renewable energy.

We welcome good development.

More than that, we need good development.  

But that doesn’t mean our progress should be at war with nature.

Or that one should come at the expense of the other.

Because people living in a city need nature too.

I think that’s what a lot of us learned during in the pandemic.

That being able to walk through the natural world, even for a short time, is good for the soul.

And that being robbed of that experience is painful in a way that perhaps people didn’t anticipate. 

I know that communities in Western Sydney felt that, at times very brutally.

These communities have endured a lot of stereotypes over the years.

A lot of stupid, small minded stereotypes.

And one of them is that people in the outer suburbs don’t care about nature as much as people in the inner city.

As if you need a harbour view to appreciate the environment.

But it’s not true. It’s a kind of snobbery.

And it doesn’t reflect the lives of people in these communities.

You don’t hear about this stuff enough, but there are groups of people in Western Sydney who volunteer their time to monitor platypus populations in local rivers.

They use this test called environmental DNA.

You dip it in the water, and it tells you if an animal has been there recently.

And they actually found evidence of these ancient creatures, living in creeks between Blacktown and the Hawkesbury.

We’ve got other groups who give up their weekend to manage critical nature corridors out near Mulgoa.

They’re doing that so wombats can safely migrate from the Blue Mountains down to the Cumberland Plans in winter.

It’s kind of amazing to think about, how these native animals are living in and around a city of five million people.

Wombats, koalas, kangaroos, maybe the platypus.

Animals that are part of our national identity. 

And that’s how I see my mission – as a patriotic one.

To protect these things that Australians really care about.

Not just for us today, but for our kids and grandkids too.

And that’s why I’m committed to making some big structural changes, to put Australia on a more sustainable path going forward.

Because I’ve seen the trends – and if we don’t act now, if we don’t do things differently, it will be hard to look our descendants in the eye.

In the business community, you might be aware of the biggest structural change – which is our plan to reform Australia’s environmental approval laws.

We’re doing this because we know the laws are broken.

That’s what Graeme Samuel told us, when we asked him to review the system a few years ago.

Graeme is a very successful businessman himself – and he could see how dysfunctional the system really is.

Because it doesn’t work to protect the environment.

And it’s endlessly frustrating for businesses to navigate.

So we’ve got the worst of both worlds.

Bad for business, even worse for nature. 

And that’s why I’ve spent the first year of our term developing a plan to improve the system. 

A plan that’s better for nature, but also better for business.

This is not a plan to stop development, or slow down progress.

It’s a plan to make sure we have the right development, done in the right way, in places that can handle it.

Which I think most people will agree is a common sense position.

For businesses like yours, the biggest change will be our move towards a system of regional planning.

Currently, when a company makes a development proposal, you have to find out, often from scratch, whether a site contains important heritage values, critical habitats, endangered plants or animals, or migratory species.

It can take years to establish that a proposal is fine.

And it can take even longer to establish that a project will have an unacceptable impact, when that should have been made clear from the start.

It all adds up to wasted time, wasted money and a massive opportunity cost for your companies.

With regional planning, we will make this process easier for you.

We will be able map out, quite literally, the places where development will have minimal consequence, and the places where development will be devastating.

There will be green zones, where development is largely fine.

There will be orange zones, where you need to be as sensitive and careful as positive.

And there will be red zones, where impacts need to be avoided.

This will give you clarity. It will give you certainty.

It will make the system far easier to navigate.

It will save you money.

And it will protect the environment – by treating it as the interconnected ecosystem that it really is.

Which why the Business Council was so supportive of the plan, when we released the proposal last December.

That’s one of our really high level changes. 

But we’re also doing a lot of work on the ground, in the cities and regions, to make Australia a more sustainable and more pleasant place to live.

One really practical commitment that we’re currently rolling out is our $200 million investment in restoring Australia’s urban rivers.

There isn’t a city in Australia that doesn’t have a river running through its heart.

We’re meeting next to one right now.

Our investment will make these rivers healthier, cleaner, and more beautiful to look at.

By revegetating their river banks, so they aren’t flanked by concrete anymore.

By filtering out stormwater and rubbish.

And by connecting them up effectively, so animals can swim through them safely.

Which is great for our campaign to protect threatened species, because half of our threatened animals and a quarter of our threatened plants live in urban areas.

And it’s even better for the people living around them.

Because they’ll now have lovely places to walk their dogs, or to picnic with their families.

Or maybe, one day, a place to swim in summer.

Another policy I’m really proud of is our recent decision in the budget to double federal funding to our national parks.

These parks are generally not in the middle of big cities.

But they’re places people in the city love to visit.

Thousands of families in Sydney save up so they can travel to Uluru and Kakadu every year. 

They want to see the most spectacular places this country has to offer.

And now, because of our investment, these parks will be maintained at the level we expect of them.

You wouldn’t believe it, but up until recently, there was missing crocodile signs in Kakadu.

Tourist infrastructure was falling apart, feral species were going unchecked.

And that’s why we’ve stepped in to support them properly.

So that when people have made sacrifices to see out natural wonders, they should be able see them at their brilliant best.

Another really tangible thing we’re doing is promoting recycling and the circular economy.

I was in Paris last weekend, at UNESCO, making the case for a strong plastics treaty to the world.

But it’s not something I need to travel overseas to discuss.

It’s something Australians tell me all the time. People want to recycle more.

They hate seeing plastics in our oceans, in our parks, on our beaches.

They want us to use less of it, to produce less of it, and to recycle what we do use more effectively.

And we want to help businesses do that.

By investing in new recycling facilities.

By working with businesses and scientists to encourage the circular economy.

So you can use less plastics when you design products.

By reforming the packaging of plastics.

And by arguing for change on the world stage – so every country is working under the same conditions. 

I’ll leave it at that. 

I won’t go into our work delivering the Murray Darling Basin Plan, or approving renewables twice as fast as before, or protecting the Great Barrier Reef, or saving Koalas and their habitats.

This is just a short taste of what we’re doing on the environment.

Of course, like you, our government’s number one concern is the immediate economic conditions people are facing. 

On getting inflation down. On driving productivity up.

On building enough homes for our kids.

But that doesn’t mean we can ignore the health of our natural world.

It doesn’t mean we can kick the can down the road for another decade, or for another generation to deal with.

Because Australians really care about the future of our environment.

I have no doubt that most of your staff members care deeply.

We want to get the economics right, while rejecting the old assumption that nature always comes second. 

We can build a dynamic economy, an economy that delivers for working Australians.

And we can do that while protecting the things that matter.

Thank you.