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

01 August 2023

SUBJECTS: UNESCO draft decision on The Great Barrier Reef, Peter Dutton comments on Home Affairs contracts, Scott Morrison’s response to Robodebt Royal Commission findings.

LISA MILLAR, HOST: Let's go to another of the day's major stories - and UNESCO has stopped short of adding the Great Barrier Reef to the in danger list of world heritage sites. Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek joins us now from Parliament House. Minister, good morning. This is the end result, isn't it, of months and months of very intense lobbying?

TANYA PLIBERSEK, MINISTER FOR THE ENVIRONMENT AND WATER: Well of course I did speak to UNESCO directly about the recommendation they made before the election that they were considering listing the Reef as in danger. But this is about much more than lobbying. It's about actual changes in government policy. This is a recognition that, as sources close to UNESCO said to Le Monde, between the previous Government and this Government it's a bit like night and day.

The biggest change of course is we've now got a government that is acting on climate change. The fact that we've got a legislated pathway to net zero is very important here. Our 82 per cent renewable energy target, our actions on methane and ozone and electrifying homes and businesses. All of this I think is very significant, as is the extra investment that we're making to protect the Reef, to improve water quality, to reduce the impact of fisheries, to work with traditional owners to manage the Reef better. All of this has been taken into account by UNESCO, and I'm very pleased that they are now no longer proposing to list the Reef as in danger.

Of course it doesn't mean, you know, we're out of the woods. I think it's important to acknowledge that every Reef globally is in danger from climate change, and that Australia has to be part of the global effort to keep temperature rises as low as possible.

MILLAR: Yeah, because there's still question marks over the Government's emission reduction targets, WWF Australia Head of Oceans Richard Leck this morning commenting on wanting the Government to go further. You know, granted this report is saying that the Labor Government has done more work and that's why this decision has been put off, what more needs to be done right now? How urgently does it need to be done?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Well of course it's urgent and we're engaged in an urgent transition to an economy that has renewable energy at its heart. That's why we've got our 82 per cent renewable energy target. As Environment Minister I've doubled the rate of approvals of renewable energy projects. We're investing massively in green hydrogen. All of that's important, but the other critical work that we have started straight away with the Queensland Government is to make sure that our fisheries are more sustainable, we'll phase out gill net fishing by 2027 right across the Reef. The water quality issues - I prevented the Central Queensland coal mine going ahead because we knew that that potentially had an impact on water quality for the Reef.

We prevented two other big dam projects that would have had water quality impacts on the Reef. And we're working really closely with the Queensland Government on doing big engineering works like gully stabilisation so that we're preventing sediment flowing on to the Reef. We're working with banana farmers and sugar cane farmers to reduce the nutrient load going into the Reef. All of that is happening right now. We're seeing greater cooperation with traditional owners doing work management on the Reef like managing Crown of Thorn starfish outbreaks and marine plastics. We know that it's important to make those investments right now. We've doubled the science funding for reef science. All of this contributes.

MILLAR: Yeah, I know. Look, you know, granted there's a long list but I just want to through a couple of other things. I appreciate you wanting to detail that. There will be in 2024 another process looking at this, the final decisions. Are you sure that everything that is being done right now will ensure that it does not slip into the in-danger list in the near future?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Look, I know that we are doing everything we possibly can to protect the Reef because no one cares more about the Reef than Australians. We actually don't need UNESCO to tell us that climate change is a threat to every reef around the world. We don't need to be told that climate change is a threat to our other world heritage properties like Kakadu. We know this and we're taking action. That's why we're taking action.

The big difference that UNESCO has identified is there's now a government in Australia that takes climate change seriously, and is doing our share as part of the global effort to keep temperature rises as low as possible.

MILLAR: Minister, could I turn to another subject and this, the questions over the Home Affairs Department contracts and Peter Dutton last night on 7.30 telling Sarah Ferguson that he had no recollection of being briefed by the Australian Federal Police about allegations of bribery. He had no records of it when he was the Minister. Do you believe him?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Oh look, it's not for me to pass comment on that. I think there are very serious allegations here. They have to be appropriately investigated. The Minister, Clare O'Neil, has set in train a proper investigation that has to run its course. But of course these are very serious allegations, and they need to be answered.

MILLAR: Should the meeting with AFP that Peter Dutton would like to have go ahead? He said it hasn't been cleared yet by the Minister. Given that supposedly the AFP briefing to him was verbal and there doesn't seem to be records of it, is it not right then for him to be able to get that meeting with them now and say well, you know, "What went on here?" 

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Yeah, look, I'm just not going to comment on that. That's something that the Home Affairs Minister will look after and she's doing that. I know that she takes this very seriously.

MILLAR: Minister, Scott Morrison yesterday accused the Government of political lynching over its criticism in the post-Robodebt conversation. He again has rejected any wrongdoing. Has the Government been responsible for that kind of behaviour, political lynching as he puts it?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: I just cannot believe that, presented with the human misery that resulted from Robodebt, that Scott Morrison can't see his way to examining his own conduct here. The "It's not my job. It's not my responsibility." The fact that he is running from his role in this, I think is a continued insight into his worldview and his character.

We know from the testimony of parents, that people took their lives, you know, took their lives because of getting thousands of dollars of debt notices and seeing no way to contest those notices. They were guilty until proven innocent, those people presented with those debts. All of the evidence before the Royal Commission shows that this was a troubling and illegal effort from the previous Government. For a former minister to be so unwilling to take responsibility for his share in it I think is, I think it's troubling in the extreme.

MILLAR: Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek, thanks for joining us this morning.