Press conference on Sydney Harbour Federation Trust funding with Minister for the Environment and Water Tanya Plibersek

06 May 2023

JOSEPH CARROZZI, CHAIR OF SYDNEY HARBOUR FEDERATION TRUST: Morning all and it's great to welcome you here and welcome our minister, Tanya Plibersek, here to Cockatoo Island, a really special place. It's the largest island on Sydney Harbour, 18 hectares. And we've done quite a bit of work in the last period of time looking at what needs to be done on this island to support, and rectify, and keep safe all of the fantastic history that's beneath our feet.

And it's great to be here today for a really special announcement of funding to help the island continue to be open and accessible to the thousands of visitors - hundreds of thousands of visitors each year, but also to our whole community in Australia who regards this as a showpiece for education and history throughout the ages of our nation.

I'd like to acknowledge the terrific support that the Minister has provided. The Minister attended our sites on one of her very first visits upon taking on the Minister for Environment and she's been here a few times since as well. And in assessing our needs, we've got a Minister here who has listened, assessed the priorities and then advocated for support from the government in a very difficult budgetary situation. So we, Minister, on behalf of the Australian community, generally, not just those in Sydney, are delighted to welcome you here and look forward to your announcement. Over to the minister.

TANYA PLIBERSEK, MINISTER FOR THE ENVIRONMENT AND WATER: Thanks very much, Joseph. It's such a pleasure to be here again on Cockatoo Island or Wareamah, and to be bringing good news. Today, I'm announcing that Tuesday's Budget will include $45.2 million to protect and preserve and upgrade the historic sites around Sydney Harbour.

This island, the heritage on Sydney Harbour, belongs to all Australians. We've got 65,000 years of continuous history and culture in Australia and Cockatoo Island, Wareamah, is a really important place for First Nations Australians. It's got important convict history. In fact, the convict history on Cockatoo Island has been recognised as world heritage quality convict history. It's got marvellous industrial history as well. From the early 1900s through peak building periods during World War I and World War II, to the more modern times. We see the people who - thousands of people who worked on Cockatoo Island, who got their apprenticeships here, who got their trade here, some of who stayed here for many decades and worked their way up in the industries that were based here, who lived around the foreshore of Sydney Harbour, they have a connection to this place too.

So, right around Sydney Harbour, our Sydney Harbour Federation Trust properties have in recent years suffered underfunding and neglect. This is a real problem because this history belongs to all Australians. And what we've seen is that history, that heritage, literally slipping into the harbour, in some cases. Whole areas of this island close to the public because they're simply not safe to visit. This is just one example of the sort of neglect we've seen from the Liberals and Nationals of Australia's history and heritage.

So we're very pleased that in Tuesday's Budget we'll see an extra $45.2 million for the Sydney Harbour Federation Trust to upgrade and keep open properties like this. It's also why we've doubled funding to our national parks. We know that we had national parks like Kakadu National Park, with roads closed, campgrounds closed, water unfit for drinking, missing crocodile signs. Not a great thing if you're an overseas tourist wandering around Kakadu National Park, not to know where the crocs are. It's why we've had to increase funding to the Australian Institute of Marine Science. We've almost doubled funding for AIMS as well. Again, an institution, a national institution, internationally renowned, neglected by the previous government. Any questions

JOURNALIST: Is the 44.2 or 45.2, was it -

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Yes, you know what we might do? What I might do is actually, first of all, hand to the Director, Janet, who can tell you a little bit about the sort of projects that they'll specifically be doing, and then I'll come back and answer any questions about this and any questions about general issues.

JANET CARDING, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR OF SYDNEY HARBOUR FEDERATION TRUST: Thank you, Minister Plibersek. I'm Janet Carding, I'm the executive director here at the Harbour Trust. And I'm delighted about today's announcement, because the $45.2 million that will be allocated in Tuesday's Budget will enable us to make this island safe and enable us to eliminate the critical backlog of maintenance work that has built up over several years so that we can open more areas of the island. So, in particular, the historic Fitzroy dock that was dug out by convicts as part of their hard labour over many years and is one of the primary reasons why this island was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is in urgent need of maintenance and we'll be able to carry out those works over the next few months now. We also have wharfs, such as the patrol boat wharf over near Candle Wharf, which we've simply had to put a fence around because it's not safe for people to walk on.

We'll be able to do the repair work so that we can open that up and that will enable more water traffic to come and use the island. One of the most special places on the island is the powerhouse that during the time of maximum industrial activity on this island, when it was maintaining and building ships for the Australian Navy, the powerhouse has been closed for many years. We've only been able to open it on very special occasions, supervised because of the rusting of some of the gantries, the lack of safety around the floors, some of the work that would need to do so that people could see this very special place that once powered the whole island. I'm really delighted to be able to say that we'll be able to get that building part of the experience that people see when they come here.

JOURNALIST: How long has this site been in disrepair? For how many years have you needed this work?

JANET CARDING: So, the island as a whole, we've known that there was quite a bit of work that needed to be done, but what we've been able to do over the last few months is take a systematic look at that and really understand, and for our other sites, also understand what the needs are. And what that's exposed is that there's work that needs doing simply because this island hasn't been in use industrially for 30 years. So, we have many things that are end of life, but what's happened is that some of those things have gone beyond end of life and they've become overdue and now they've become critical for safety concerns. And so what we've been able to do is actually get the overall picture and then we've been able to work with the minister to put the money towards the most urgent things.

JOURNALIST: But have these sites been deteriorating for three decades?

JANET CARDING: Since they closed in the early 1990s.

JOURNALIST: And is this enough money?

JANET CARDING: It's enough to make a good start. It's enough to eliminate all of the immediate safety issues and allow us to then develop our long term plans for the future.

JOURNALIST: How much more do you think you need

JANET CARDING: I'll know the answer to that question. In about a year's time, when we completed our master plan.

JOURNALIST: What is that long term vision? There's a lot of buildings on site, some looking more tied than others. I understand some have more historical significance. Will you be transforming any spaces to more greenery areas, anything big you've planned long term?

JANET CARDING: So, you'll need to come back in a few months time when we're able to share our master plan with you. But we're hard at work on it at the moment. And what I can tell you is that what we're recognising is this island has layers of history. So, as we've heard , it was in use for tens of thousands of years by the First Nations communities that lived around the harbour. When the British arrived, it became an important part of the transportation system. It was a place of secondary incarceration, so people who committed crimes when they'd arrived in the colony were brought to Cockatoo Island. It was the site of a number of great escape attempts as people tried to leave the island. What happened after the convicts left is that it continued to be a place of prison. It was a reform school for boys, it was a reform school for girls.

Each of these layers of history, we'd like to be able to tell and tell that story with integrity, culminating in that industrial story of how this was the shipyard that powered the Australian Navy through two world wars. So, it's going to take us a little time to put all of those layers together. But we think that already this place is enjoyed by hundreds of thousands. We think that many more people will come once we're able to tell more of the stories of that layer history.

JOURNALIST: How many people use the island each year and what is the island used for now?

JANET CARDING: At the moment, we have around 200,000 visitors, although I have to say that's been affected by COVID, and there was a period where we had to close completely when we were in lockdown in the city. But what we've seen since then is a really great bounce back of the number of people who are coming out and about and using the island. And so we're back up to those, a couple of hundred thousand figures. And what we already do is use some of our wonderful buildings for events, for concerts. We had Opera Australia here for Carmen a few months ago.

But here's the problem. They don't have the infrastructure that they need so that they can afford to come here and use the island and activate it. And so, again, part of what we need to do is, first of all, make it safe. And then second, start, putting place those long term plans so that we can use it for all of these other purposes. We think there's a real need to have a very special destination that when you come on the boat, that's part of the experience, that island is a very special place. So, we think there's a great future ahead of this island as well.

JOURNALIST: Do you know when work will begin, when you'll actually have the money in the bank?

JANET CARDING: I'm hoping that we'll have it on 1 July. If we get it any sooner, we'll start sooner. If we get it on 1 July, we'll start work then.

JOURNALIST: And will public access still be available while works are being undertaken?

JANET CARDING: That's our aim. And so part of what we'll be doing is looking at how we can phase the work so that we can make sure that the island is open. But of course, there will be some areas that we'll need to close whilst we actually do the work. So, we'll look at how we do that so that there's still a great experience where you come here. We can still have our school and educational groups come, we can still have people come and camp and stay and we'll try and work that into the life and tell people about the work we're doing, as we're doing it. And I might hand back to the Minister now. Great. Thank you very much, everybody.

JOURNALIST: Minister, the island's been in disrepair since the 1990s, we've heard. Why was this allowed to happen?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Well, this island belongs to all Australians and we need to make sure that the history and heritage here is protected for future generations. And we need to make sure that the island and the harbour properties are open and available for all Australians to visit. That's why we're making this investment today. We know that these islands have been - and the properties along the foreshore - have been firstly used by defence. They've had different owners, some were previously in the hands of the state government and more recently, they've come together under the management of the Sydney Harbour Federation Trust. And what we've seen in recent years is a deterioration, rapid deterioration in the buildings, some of the infrastructure that you see around you. And why it's been allowed to happen in the last ten years, you'll have to ask the previous government, because they had the opportunity to fix it and they didn't. We're fixing it.

JOURNALIST: Did Kevin Rudd have the opportunity? Or Julia Gillard?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Well, you might know that - if you know a bit about the history of the Sydney Harbour Federation Trust, not all of the properties have always been part of the Trust or part of the responsibility of the Commonwealth Government. So, we've been in government for a year. This is our first proper Budget and we're investing in these special places to make sure that the history here, the heritage here, is protected forever, for future generations, and that people can come here. But we want the First Nations history, we want the industrial history, we want the convict history, we want the military history of this place to be available for any Australian or any overseas visitor to come to, to learn about, to benefit from, to enjoy. And while parts of the island have been closed down in more recent times because they're not safe, that's just not happening.

JOURNALIST: The repairs are clearly in urgent need, but Australians are also in urgent need of social housing, we're in a cost of living crisis. Is this spending something that the government can afford?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Yes, this spending is absolutely vital. I mean, some of these structures are literally falling into the water. And if we want to protect our convict history, our world renowned convict history, for example, we have to protect it now. It won't be there in ten years’ time to protect, so we need to protect it now. That doesn't preclude us from investing in other things that are important in the Budget.

What you'll see in the Budget on Tuesday is a responsible budget that helps the most vulnerable Australians, that deals with cost of living pressures, that is responsible, doesn't add to inflation and sets Australia up for the long term.

In fact, we've seen some very good previews of the Budget numbers today when it comes to employment. As a government, in the first six months of this government, we created more jobs than any previous Australian government. And what we see in today's numbers is the great news that we will also see wages growing, real wages growth. The previous government said low wages were a deliberate design feature of their economic architecture. Well, we're a Labor Government. We believe in strong wages and secure work. And the numbers today show that we're delivering more jobs with better pay, just as we promised.

JOURNALIST: Unemployment over the next couple of years is also expected to be lower than originally forecast. Can you explain why?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: I think this is really great news. Again, it seems that Tuesday's Budget will confirm that unemployment will peak much later, so it will be lower for longer. That is terrific news, because it means that Australians have got jobs, they've got money in their pockets. It means the whole economy is stronger when people have secure work and money in their pockets. They buy a cup of coffee on the way to work. They take the kids out for pizza on a Friday night. They create jobs for other Australians. There's more confidence in the economy as well. So, I'm delighted that our economic programme is working to deliver more jobs with better pay.

JOURNALIST: Figures released today ahead of the Budget confirm Australians will have to wait at least another year for a real wage rise. Can you appreciate that will be tough for many Australians if the cost of living keeps rising?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Yeah, we know that Australians are doing it tough and what you've seen from this Government are already important measures, like dramatically improving the cost of childcare for 1.3 million Australian families. Some will be thousands of dollars better off. Just recently, we announced that you'd be able to get two months supply of your medicine for the price of one. Two month's supply for the price of one for many popular medicines. We're looking at thousands of fee free TAFE places. In every instance, we are trying to reduce the cost-of-living pressures on Australians. Of course, there'll be energy relief in this Budget, energy bill relief. You might remember that the Liberals and Nationals actually voted against bringing down power prices. So, we are about strong wages, growth and reduced pressure of the cost of living for ordinary Australians.

JOURNALIST: What are you going to do, or what is the government doing to help the failing health care system? For want of a better word. What can you do to bring down the soaring cost of GPs?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Yeah, that is such a great question, because this is another area where we see the cost of ten years of neglect. One of the measures that was expected to expire in the middle of this year, according to the previous government, was the My Health Record. There just wasn't any funding beyond the middle of this year for the My Health Record. It's just an example of one of the $5 billion worth of programs that the previous government left unfunded or underfunded. Funding ending for My Health Record, the organisation that regulates nuclear waste in Australia. In my own portfolio, the Australian Institute of Marine Science, were looking at losing 100 jobs and closing their Perth and Darwin offices.

So, on the issue of health, we absolutely have a big job ahead of us. The Health Minister, Mark Butler, is under no illusions about that. He's already committed $2.2 billion extra to improving and strengthening Medicare. You've seen excellent announcements from him at the same time as we're banning single use vapes. He's also using some of the money that comes from the tobacco excise to very substantially improve access to lung cancer screening programs, to cancer programs for First Nations Australians, to advertising to stop people taking up vaping or smoking in the first place, to smoking cessation supports so people can get off the nicotine addictions that they've developed. There is a really strong package of health measures in this Budget, but I think one of the most exciting for ordinary Australians is halving the price of many common prescriptions, which comes on top of the cheaper medicines that started in January.

JOURNALIST: The Opposition has suggested a drover's dog could deliver a surplus with the commodities windfall your government is seeing. Will the Budget be in surplus on Tuesday night?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Well, I'm not going to comment on what's going to be in the Budget on Tuesday night in terms of the underlying numbers. That's Jim Chalmer's job, and he'll do an excellent job on Tuesday night when he delivers his Budget speech.

But I will say this, that the previous government liked to boast about their economic management. They left us a trillion dollars of debt and too little to show for it. A trillion dollars of debt, too little to show for it. They doubled the debt. They left us not only with a trillion dollars of debt, but $5 billion of unfunded programs that we need to fix in this Budget. They left us with historic low wages growth and perhaps that is the greatest insult to ordinary Australians. The previous government said that low wages were a deliberate design feature of their economic architecture. That's a quote. They deliberately kept wages low. That was terrible for ordinary Australians, but it was also really bad for demand and confidence in the Australian economy. If you don't know if you're going to have a job next week, if you're watching every dollar you don't spend on those discretionary goods and services that create jobs for other Australians. So, the previous government loves to boast. Let's look at their record. A trillion dollars of debt, historic low wages growth, climbing cost of living. I don't think it's a record to be proud of. In contrast, what you'll see on Tuesday night is a responsible Budget that delivers for the most vulnerable Australians, that invests to protect our culture, our heritage, our history, our environment. But does it in a responsible way that doesn't add to inflation.

JOURNALIST: What does your government intend to do with the additional commodities revenue?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Well, you might notice that in the unexpected revenue increases that we saw in the October Budget, we banked almost all of it to deal with the trillion dollars of debt that the previous government left us. In this Budget, you'll see responsible spending and you'll see a careful approach that doesn't add to inflationary pressures in the economy.

JOURNALIST: What do you make of the news that Stuart Robert will resign?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: I wish him well.

JOURNALIST: An audit of the use of consultants in the APS has found $21 billion was spent on external labour in 2021 to 22. How substantially will that figure fall in this Budget?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Here's another example of the trickery of the previous government. They say, "no, we're going to have a public service cap. We're not going to employ public servants". Instead, they put everybody on contract and pretend that they don't have that wages bill coming in. Our approach is we think that public servants actually do what the name says. They serve the public, they are skilled professionals, and instead of having people on revolving short term contracts, we should make those jobs permanent. Pay people decently, give them job security and save the taxpayer money instead of paying consultants.

JOURNALIST: Sydney Opera House was going to be lit up today for the King's Coronation under the former state government. The Minns Government has said it's a waste of money. It was going to cost $100,000. Do you have any thoughts on whether we should light up the Opera House?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Oh look, it's a matter for the state government. But I wish King Charles the best, I'm sure it will be a wonderful ceremony.