ABC Sydney Drive interview with Minister for the Environment and Water Tanya Plibersek

08 May 2023

RICHARD GLOVER: Our wonderful harbour might look a little choppy and cold today, but close your eyes and picture it on a beautiful sunny day - the sparkling jewel. In the words of the first British governor back in 1788, "the finest harbour in the world." Trouble is, the edges of that magnificent harbour, and some of the islands too, aren't always what you'd hope for in terms of their condition, with a backlog of harbour edges and islands repair and clean up. And that's what the federal Budget is set to announce.

The Federal Minister for Environment and Water, Tanya Plibersek, joins us now to give us a hint as to what might be announced tomorrow. And Tanya, Minister, good afternoon.


GLOVER: Good. This has been a long time coming in a way, hasn't it? We've got these quite well identified areas which really need remediation, but that hasn't happened.

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: That's exactly right. So, tomorrow night, what you'll see in the budget is $45.2 million over two years to do some really long overdue structural repair work to these really special places. I mean, we're talking about Cockatoo Island - Wareamah - North Head Sanctuary in Manly, and a number of other properties around the harbour that have really been, well, in some cases, literally falling into the harbour. We're talking about cracked sea walls and wharves and docks that are so unsafe that people can't walk on them anymore. And we want to fix that up. We've got a really good, comprehensive list of work that needs to be done and we want to get on and do that maintenance work. And it's really important to protect and preserve our history, but it's also really important so that people can continue to have access to these places.

GLOVER: Now, about half of it will go to to Cockatoo Island. This is a complex place to - both to rehabilitate, but also to open to the public in a way because you've got overlaying aspects of of history, indigenous, naval, industrial, et cetera.

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Yeah, which is the wonderful thing about it. It was a really - Cockatoo Island, it was a really important gathering place for First Nations Australians from different parts around the harbour coming onto Cockatoo Island - Wareamah - and it's got the convict history, as you say. I mean, one of the things that we'll be fixing is the historic Fitzroy Dock, which was built by convicts like it was chopped out of the rock. It's one of the reasons that Cockatoo Island is World Heritage listed for its convict history. As you say World War I, World War II, there was naval shipbuilding there, so there's military history there, there's industrial history, thousands of people went through there working in the workshops, getting their apprenticeships, their trades qualifications on Cockatoo Island.

So, it's got a really special place for a lot of people more recently, still, who worked there and got their qualifications there. It is also, just incidentally, really, really beautiful and we want people to be able to enjoy it. We've had some fantastic concerts on it in recent years. But if it's not safe, then you can't have it for those big public uses.

GLOVER: Yeah. Some people might wonder why this is federal money, not state money. These are really Commonwealth properties, aren't they, that you've got a responsibility to maintain?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Yeah. So, the Sydney Harbour Federation Trust has taken over a number of these properties in recent years. A couple of them, obviously, were former military or naval properties. And, I mean, look, they're significant for every Australian. I think when you're talking about this sort of history and this sort of beauty, it is important that we take a national approach to them. And just incidentally, we have also announced that we're doubling funding for our Commonwealth national parks. That's not just investment in Sydney, we're investing in Kakadu, we're investing in Jervis Bay, we're investing in Uluṟu, we're investing in our marine parks around Australia. So, we're doing that too.

GLOVER: Well the horrific - the Kakadu announcement happened last week, I think, and as part of the coverage, people had photographs of crocodile warning signs which you could no longer read.

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Yeah, I know. That's a bit of a problem, isn't it? I mean, this is a real tale of neglect over the last decade. The previous government wasn't into environmental funding, that's for sure. It's the crocodile signs that aren't working that's a real problem for overseas visitors. But more fundamental to that are things like weeds, feral animals getting out of control, the accommodation for the rangers, the drinking water for the picnic and camping grounds that's not drinkable. Whole areas of our parks have had to be closed off to the public because they're not safe for visitors. And we want tourism in these parks. We want the world to see how beautiful Australia is. We want to preserve these places for future generations. We have to do the basics, like manage the feral animals and manage the weeds, and that's what we're doing and we're doubling funding to do that.

GLOVER: Tanya Plibersek is with us, the Federal Minister for the Environment and Water. We've talked about Cockatoo Island, but you mentioned North Head, and I know there'll be lots of listeners who want to know a bit more about what's the plan there.

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: We're looking at upgrading a number of the areas around North Head as well, but a lot of this first tranche of work is really getting to critical maintenance. We're talking about cracked and unusable facilities in a number of these heritage places. So, we're doing the basics and down the track, we'd certainly like to make more of the military history in particular on North Head. You know, people visit London - they visit the War Cabinet Rooms, I don't know if you've ever been there, Richard, but it's just an incredible insight into what it was like defending Great Britain during the Second World War. We've got that sort of military history at North Head that is - barely anybody knows it's there.

GLOVER: Yeah, that's right. And a lot of history to tell in terms of the submarine attacks in the Second World War and all of that. Just a final question, is your treasurer going to manage a surplus tomorrow night?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: If I told you, I'd have to kill you. No, look, what you'll see in tomorrow night's budget is a responsible Labor budget that helps the most vulnerable people, that sees wage increases, that sees us investing in things that have been neglected for many years. It'll be responsible so it doesn't add to inflation. And I hope your listeners tune in, because it'll be a true Labor budget.

GLOVER: Can't you hum Back in Black just to give me a hint? Something like that?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: No, I think it's important - I think it's important to watch.

GLOVER: Or close - close but not quite, or something. Minister, thank you very much for talking to us on Drive.

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: It's always a pleasure. Thank you for having me.

GLOVER: There's Tanya Plibersek, the Federal Minister for Environment and Water. With one little bit of tomorrow's budget which should see a bit of work for Cockatoo Island. If you've been - I've only been there once. We did Thank God It's Friday from there once, as part of the Sydney Comedy Festival. It is amazing, the built environment is extraordinary. Of course, the natural environment as well. So, nice idea if you can make it safe for visitors and reflect all those layers of history that the Minister talked about. It's 29 minutes past five here on ABC Radio Sydney.