Press conference at Parliament House with Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and Minister for the Environment and Water Tanya Plibersek

01 August 2023

SUBJECTS: Great Barrier Reef; Julian Assange; National Conference; Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Protection Act; Women's World Cup; Petroleum Resources Rent Tax.

ANTHONY ALBANESE, PRIME MINISTER: Good morning. I welcome the draft decision overnight from the UN's Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation, or UNESCO, not to list the Great Barrier Reef in danger. This confirms my government is working hard to protect the reef, is acting on climate change, and that the rest of the world has taken notice. I know this is particularly welcome news for communities in Queensland, where the reef supports local jobs and local economies, which is why I'm very pleased to be joined today by our Envoy for the Great Barrier Reef, Senator Green as well as the Minister, Tanya Plibersek. We know that the reef contributes some $6 billion to the Australian economy and supports 64,000 jobs. My government will always support the Australians who rely on Australians who rely on the reef for our jobs. The draft decision cites, to quote 'significant progress' being made on climate change, water quality and sustainable fishing, all putting the reef on a stronger and more sustainable path. As the draft decision makes clear, Australia's environmental policies have fundamentally changed under the Labor Government and changed for the better. My government has invested a record $1.2 billion in the reef. The policies of the former Coalition Government failed to protect the reef. My government is getting on with the job and we're making up for lost time. Of course, this decision doesn't mean the reef is in the clear. It does confirm that Labor's policies are making a real difference. We need to act on climate change. We need to protect our land, our water and our species that call them home. That is precisely what we are doing. We're committed to better protecting our precious Great Barrier Reef and this decision is evidence of that. Our reef is one of the planet's most outstanding natural wonders. It belongs to all Australians and, indeed, to all citizens of the world. My message is: come and see our beautiful Great Barrier Reef for yourself. Wherever you are placed in the world. You won't regret it. Although this is a draft decision it recognises those partners, agencies and stakeholders who worked over the past 12 months with a government committed to the reef. I particularly want to acknowledge the work of Minister Plibersek and Senator Green for their work and advocacy. I'm pleased for UNESCO's decision but we know there is still more to do. The Great Barrier Reef is both our privilege and our responsibility. It's a responsibility that this government will continue to take seriously.

TANYA PLIBERSEK, MINISTER FOR THE ENVIRONMENT AND WATER: Thank you, Prime Minister. I am very pleased to see this decision from UNESCO come out overnight. This shows that the actions that we are taking as a government are being recognised by the international community as making a significant difference to the future of the reef. As sources close to UNESCO told Le Monde a little while ago, between the previous and this government it's a bit like night and day. What's changed is we have finally got a government taking climate change seriously. We are on a legislated pathway to net zero. That's been very important in UNESCO's thinking. We are on track to get to 82 per cent renewable energy. We're also investing specifically in the reef. As the Prime Minister said, a $1.2 billion investment. We're doing work on the ground right now to improve water quality, working with the Queensland government, to do gully bank stabilisation, to prevent sediment on the reef, to replant those areas along creeks and rivers that otherwise would be sending sediment into the reef. We're working with farmers, in particular sugar cane and banana farmers but also pastoralists to improve water quality going onto the reef. We've cancelled two big dam projects, again, improving water qualifier the reef. I've prevented a coalmine, the Central Queensland Coal Mine being built because we were worried about waste escaping on the Great Barrier Reef. We're working with traditional owners to deal with problems like Crown of Thorns starfish and marine debris. We're working with the fishing industry to make sure fishing on the reef is sustainable, with a $160 million package with the Queensland government to phase out dangerous gill net fishing that captures so many threatened species - dugongs, turtles and sharks, and so on. Taken together this is an acknowledgement of the significant investment and significant effort that the Albanese Labor government has made in protecting and preserving our reef for future generations. No-one needs to tell Australia to look after the reef today. No-one takes protecting the reef more seriously. I am pleased that's been acknowledged by the international community.

SENATOR NITA GREEN, SPECIAL ENVOY FOR THE GREAT BARRIER REEF: Today is a good day for the Great Barrier Reef and as Special Envoy I'm pleased by UNESCO's draft decision. It will be welcome news for regional communities across Queensland. This decision recognises that the Albanese Labor government is acting on climate change and protecting the Great Barrier Reef. It recognises that we have acted quickly and that our record investment is making significant progress on climate change, water quality and managing invasive species. We have put fins in the water and boots on the ground. Every reef around the world is under threat from climate change, but we are doing everything we can to ensure the Great Barrier Reef is resilient and well managed and this decision today recognises that world class management by our partners, agencies and stakeholders who I have had the pleasure of working with over the past 12 months. I want to thank them today. The reef is a global icon. It attracts international visitors from around the world to Australia's shores. The reputation of Australia as the manager of this icon is important to those visitors. That is why this decision is welcome news for the thousands of people who rely on the reef for their jobs. I live in Far North Queensland. The reef is our backyard and it sustains the regional economies that we call home. Whether you are a cafe worker in Cairns, a tour guide in Airlie Beach, a scientist in Gladstone or Indigenous ranger in Bundaberg, protecting the reef mean protecting Queenslanders because protecting the reef means protecting Queensland jobs. Unfortunately this has never been understood by the Liberal-Nationals. They put the reef at risk for a decade in real terms and reputationally. They continue to demonstrate disregard for its future. What this decision also tells us is that under Peter Dutton, the reef would be at even greater risk - a risk that cannot be mitigated or managed. When I was appointed by the Prime Minister as Special Envoy twelve months ago, I knew we had an enormous amount of work to do to repair the damage done by the previous government and to restore Australia's reputation as custodians of the best managed reef in the world. I'm really pleased to have played a role in some of the work that's led to UNESCO's decision today. There is, of course, more work to do, and I will continue to work closely with Minister Tanya Plibersek, our partners and UNESCO to protect the reef for generations to come.

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, were you disappointed by Secretary of State Antony Blinken's comments about Julian Assange? Is this a sign that he will have to face charges in the US and the administration isn't going to budge?

PRIME MINISTER: No it's a sign that what people said in private, they've been prepared to also say publicly. I put the same position as Leader of the Opposition as I have as Prime Minister to the American administration. This has gone on for too long. Enough is enough. What Secretary Blinken did was state, consistent with what the American position has been. We remain very firm in our view and our representations to the American government and we will continue to do so.

JOURNALIST: What is your position on David Pocock's proposal to put a duty of care to future generations into climate and environment legislation? And how confident are you, Minister, that next year there won't be another mass breaching on the Great Barrier Reef?

PRIME MINISTER: With respect to the Senator, I don't follow all of the Senators' private member's bills. I had a discussion with David Pocock over the weekend about housing. I welcome his support for the Housing Australia Future Fund.

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: On the issue of future bleaching events. We know that the reef has benefited from a couple of cooler, wetter years. We've seen really good hard coral cover more recently. But we're going, again, into a hotter, drier cycle. We're very aware of that. That's why we need to help the reef build resilience. That's why we're improving water quality. That's why we're dealing with fishing, to give the reef the best chance of coping with the hotter, dryer times. It's also why we are investing massively in reef science. In fact, we have doubled funding for reef science. That helps us identify the corals that are most resistant to warming temperatures and it helps us, in some cases, restore, propagate, replant corals. That science is terrific and I'm amazed that the previous government was prepared to cut scientific funding in a way that would have seen significant job losses in our premiere reef science organisations. 

JOURNALIST: UNESCO has listed sediment run-off into the Great Barrier Reef as a key threat along with climate change, obviously. Is the Federal Government doing enough to curb tree clearing in Queensland under its powers within the EPBC Act to address that key threat?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Sediment run-off is a really significant issue and that's why we invested an additional $150 million in dealing with sediment run-off. We're working with the Queensland government right now to identify those sediment run-off hotspots that need attention and we are working with them on really industrial scale engineering solutions - tree replanting, riverbank and gully stabilisation - to prevent sediment run-off. When it comes to tree clearing, as the UNESCO report notes itself, land clearing has declined very substantially under the Queensland Government, particularly in the last year and the Queensland government should be congratulated for that.

JOURNALIST: The Labor platform doesn't include the same value of coal that a draft platform had in 2021. What is your message to coal communities who may see that? Is there any change for your party regarding that resource?

PRIME MINISTER: My message is that it's only one newspaper that's obsessed by draft platforms and changes every few years. I've said that before. I do find it of interest. This government's position has been very clear. We've implemented that position in government. With regard to a platform change, I know that people read a lot of things into it. What happened in the lead-up to the last conference was a significant review to make the platform shorter. The platform contains the principles. It doesn't deal with all of the detail. My caucus deals with all of that. The platform was shorter because it had got bigger and bigger. And what happens sometimes at Labor Party conferences is that people just add things on and they add on more and you find yourselves with this enormous platform which, compared with the platform of the British Labour Party, was something like eight times longer than the platform that they had. So what we do is we shorten the platform at each conference and people come together. It's broadcast live on national TV, so you can watch it all happen. The Liberal Party don't have any sort of serious policy debates, but they get their advice and platform late at night on TV. So I guess they can just follow that of what people outside the Parliament have to say. We're very proud of our processes. The Greens Political Party have leadership ballots that they don't tell people about for many months afterwards and they don't allow media into their party conferences. I'm very proud of what we do. I look forward to Brisbane in a couple of weeks. We support jobs but we also support sustainability. We're getting that balance right. We're making a difference on climate change, but we're also making a difference on jobs and the economy. I'm quite proud that in our first, just over a year now, almost half a million jobs have been created on our watch. Overwhelmingly, they've been full-time. Overwhelmingly, the majority of those that have been filled by women. 

JOURNALIST: To Ms Tanya Plibersek about national Aboriginal cultural heritage reform. Yesterday you told Parliament that what the government is seeking to do is update existing federal protections. Does that mean the government is no longer committed to developing new, stand alone laws that replace the existing Commonwealth Act as outlined in Labor's Nature Positive Plan?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage Protection Act is stand alone legislation. So we are determined to update existing Commonwealth laws. When Juukan Gorge was destroyed, the world and every Australian, I think, was shocked, shocked at the destruction of a 46,000-year-old sacred site. Perhaps the most shocking element of this was that it happened legally. Our laws are not fit for purpose when a 46,000-year-old sacred site can be legally destroyed. That position was a bipartisan position. The then Environment Minister, Sussan Ley, was very clear that our laws were not fit for purpose. Warren Entsch, who led two parliamentary inquiries into the Juukan Gorge destruction, was clear that our current laws are not fit for purpose. The process with the First Nations Heritage Protection Alliance was begun under the former Environment Minister and funded under the former Environment Minister. We're working very closely with that heritage protection alliance to make sure that our laws are fit for purpose, that we never see something like the destruction of Juukan Gorge again.

JOURNALIST: Minister, in November you said you would lobby the UN not to list the Great Barrier Reef is in danger. How much did you lobby them? And how much do you put today's decision down to that effort? And for the Prime Minister, on a different topic if I can, the Matilda's did very well last night, are we any more likely to see that public holiday, if the Matilda's make the World Cup Final?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Well, yes, of course. I made Australia's position very clear to UNESCO. I spoke with the Director-General personally on several occasions. I spoke to UNESCO Ambassadors of other nations. I've done that at international conferences, I've done that by correspondence. I make no apology for that. Of course I will put Australia's position, because nobody cares more about the reef than Australians. Nobody cares more about that great natural wonder than Australians. Nobody cares more about the 64,000 jobs that rely on the reef than Australians. But lobbying is about telling the truth about what we're doing. What I did is tell UNESCO about the different policies that the Albanese Labor government has compared to the previous government: a trajectory to net zero legislated, 82 per cent renewable energy, action on methane, action on ozone, EVs, businesses and homes being electrified. The investments in reef science, in reef water quality, in reef management, in over-fishing - all of that is the basis of that lobbying and I'm proud of those policies.

PRIME MINISTER: We are getting enormous credit wherever I've been having meetings, whether it was in New Zealand last week, at the NATO summit. It is noticed by advanced economies, by our friends in the United States, in Canada, in Europe, the change in government and change in position and I think that the UNESCO decision reflects that. We get credit. The entry fee for credibility in international forums in 2023 is action on climate change. If you are not taking action on climate change, you will not be taken seriously. There will be consequences, not just for the environment, but for trade relationships, for economic relationships as well, for diplomatic relationships as well. So, it makes an enormous difference. I will let you get away with the second question because it is about the Matildas. Can I just say, congratulations to the Matildas on what was a magnificent victory last night. 4-0 exceeded any expectations and predictions. They played extraordinarily well. Sam Kerr was able to remain on the bench and to keep her fitness going for another six days until the round of 16 game. But I make this point as well. It's a serious point: whilst the Matildas are bringing enormous joy in the moment, such as last night, it also is a serious difference that they're making to the country. The inspiration that they are giving, particularly to young girls and young women, but also to other young people, which will have a positive impact on health, both physical health when people play sport, but also mental health and on development of young Australians. When you play a team sport, you learn how to win, you learn how to lose, you learn about disappointment and coming together with it. You learn about looking after each other and solidarity. I just have seen enormous joy - and you look last night on the TV, as we all were, and you could just see all those, particularly young girls, but others as well, watching right around the country. So, I do say that at the National Cabinet meeting which will meet in August, if we're still going and if the Matildas can pull off a win in the World Cup, then that would be extraordinary and I reckon the states and territory leaders will be under enormous pressure to show that they understand how significant this achievement is.

JOURNALIST: In regards to the Great Barrier Reef decision. Environmental groups previously lobbied very hard for it to be listed as in danger. Are you concerned they might try to do that again when it comes up for the final decision in September or when it faces its next review in March? On a similar note, will you be working with the Queensland government seeking to either ban or further limit tree clearing in relevant areas around the Great Barrier Reef?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: I know there are some people that think we need an in-danger listing to make this government take the reef seriously. That's just simply not the case. I would say to those groups that are lobbying for an in-danger listing, think about the jobs' impact of that on Queenslanders - 64,000 jobs that rely on the reef, more than $6 billion of economic value created every year by reef tourism. We don't need that listing to make us take the Great Barrier Reef seriously. No-one takes protecting the reef more seriously than Australians do. The action that's been taken by this government and the global recognition of that action shows that that is the case.

JOURNALIST: Are you confident you have the Coalition support to get PRRT changes through the Senate? The Greens suggest they will withhold support. They want the tax doubled from 10 per cent to 20 per cent. The Minister looks like she is laughing. What do you think of that suggestion, saying it would raise $2.5 billion?

PRIME MINISTER: We have a sensible position that we've put forward. We intend to pursue that position. I say to the Greens Political Party - they don't always have to come up with a different position in order to create some product differentiation. And why stop there? Why not quadruple by eight times, ten times? We've got the balance right here. It is a sensible reform and I urge all of the Senators to vote for it. I say this, too: the crossbenchers are only coming to play because the Coalition consistently vote no to everything. Everything that they see they vote no to there are consequences of that. They are equally responsible for the fact that we're not building housing today because the Coalition says no to the Housing Australia Future Fund. Yesterday, we saw the extraordinary circumstances whereby you pick up the paper in the morning and you hear that they're going to block increases to rental assistance, increases to JobSeeker, increases to payments for single parents, that they are going to block all of that and it doesn't last until lunchtime before they then say, 'Oh well, maybe we won't, if our amendments don't get carried'. The 'Noalition' led by the Liberal and the National Parties is something that is just holding Australia back. They are not putting forward any constructive policies and when they do finally, after 11 weeks after the Budget Reply, they finally came up with some semblance of a costing, that didn't really take into account that their policy that was not thought through was going to add conservatively 50,000 people on to JobSeeker. The Coalition need to understand that responsible Oppositions put forward practical programs which we did with cheaper childcare, with the Housing Australia Future Fund, with the National Reconstruction Fund, with the net zero plan on climate change - because that is how you make a difference and at the moment, the Coalition are letting Australia down.