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New Environment Minister discusses sport funding, management of world heritage areas and relations between ALP factions in NSW -

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JIM WALEY: One of the winners in last month's cabinet reshuffle was New South Wales Senator, John Faulkner, the new Minister for Environment and Sport, and already he has presented conservationists with a reason to celebrate. Cabinet decided this week that the Navy's new arms depot will be built at Point Wilson in Victoria in preference to the environmentally sensitive Jervis Bay. But occupying the hot seat vacated by Ros Kelly may not always be quite so comfortable. Here to talk with him, Sunday's political editor, Laurie Oakes.

LAURIE OAKES: Senator Faulkner, welcome to the program. Ros Kelly was brought down by the so-called 'sports rorts' affair. Sports grants are now your baby. Will we see another program of Federal grants to small sporting organisations?

JOHN FAULKNER: The Prime Minister has indicated, Laurie, that in short order there won't be a new facilities program. So what I am doing as the new Sports Minister is looking at some different priorities. So in the near future I think the Government ought to look again at the more human aspects of sport; look at elite athletes and what we're doing for them; look at our sports participation programs like, for example, Aussiesport for kids, Aussieable for disabled athletes. And I want to very, very closely look at some programs that are actually going to look at those who are participating in sport. So take the programs away from bricks and mortar for a while and look at the participation.

LAURIE OAKES: So does that mean the 'sports rorts' affair has caused small sporting clubs to suffer? Will they be paying for it?

JOHN FAULKNER: No. I think that an enormous number of Australians have benefited from the facilities that have been built under the facilities program. Lots of people this morning, Laurie, are out there running, jumping, swimming, kicking, hitting, in facilities that have been built ...

LAURIE OAKES: Sounds like a Labor faction ...

JOHN FAULKNER: Not really, not really. We can get into it a bit heavier than that. But in doing so, in facilities that have been built under that program. So that'll be a lasting achievement in that area but we'll focus again, I think, now on participation of the athletes themselves - the more human aspects of sport.

LAURIE OAKES: Since you became Environment Minister, three State governments - Tasmania, Western Australia and Queensland - have all taken you on, and over the same issue, basically, over the management of world heritage areas. Do you think that's a sort of coordinated strategy or is each of them trying to find out whether you are tough or not?

JOHN FAULKNER: I don't know whether it's a coordinated strategy or not but I am very keen, as the new environment Minister, to get in there and take a very hands-on role with the management of world heritage areas. There's been a suggestion in Tasmania that we face a situation where 65 Tasmanians are going to loose their jobs as a result of a Budget beat-up that appeared in Tasmanian newspapers.

LAURIE OAKES: The State Government claims that the money for Tasmania's world heritage areas - 20 per cent of the State - is going to be halved in the Budget. Is that true?

JOHN FAULKNER: I can't say to you now Laurie, as you know, what is going to be in the Federal Budget when it's brought down on May 10th. What I can say to is, that as the new Federal Environment Minister, I'll take full responsibility for the level of Federal funding for the management of world heritage areas. And I'm not going to respond to some Budget beat-up in Tasmanian newspapers which has resulted in more press releases in Tasmania than you can jump over, and also a long debate in the Tasmanian Parliament. I do want to get in seriously and address the issues of world heritage management and I will. I want to talk very seriously with the Tasmanians, the Environment Minister, and I will. I gave him a private commitment that I wanted to see the Ministerial Council meeting occur. That Ministerial Council meeting hasn't happened for some two years.

LAURIE OAKES: Whose fault is that?

JOHN FAULKNER: Look, there are more suspects to be rounded up on this particular issue than you can poke a stick at. It doesn't matter whose fault it is now. I just want to see it happen.

LAURIE OAKES: This is the council that administers world heritage areas in Tasmania or nationally?

JOHN FAULKNER: That's right, in Tasmania - a Ministerial Council. And I've written to the Premier of Tasmania and indicated to him as soon as the Budget is brought down I will facilitate a very early meeting of the Ministerial Council. I gave that commitment privately to the Tasmanian Minister and I am happy to repeat it publicly. We've got to get some of these issues solved. I've got some ideas and I want to take a very hands-on approach to the issues of world heritage management.

LAURIE OAKES: The Western Australian Government's attack on this world heritage management issue is to say that they're going to set up their own organisation to run the Shark Bay heritage listed area and go directly to the United Nations to achieve that. Can they get away with that or is it bluff?

JOHN FAULKNER: Well they won't be able to and the United Nations won't accept such a process. What needs to occur in Western Australia is to see a management agreement that was entered into in 1990 between the Commonwealth and the State progressed. We're waiting for State legislation in Western Australia to go through their Parliament; we're waiting to see moneys that the Commonwealth has appropriated for world heritage management expended in Western Australia but, again, what I want to do is establish a cooperative relationship with the State environment Ministers and where there have been problems, fix them.

LAURIE OAKES: What about the Queensland problem, which is over the sky rail project - a huge cableway over a wet tropics world heritage area? You've got doubts about whether that is in accordance with the convention, haven't you?

JOHN FAULKNER: Well the Ministerial Council that governs the Queensland wet tropics area previously gave approval and favoured that particular development. At my first Ministerial Council meeting in Queensland, I indicated to the State Ministers that I wanted to see the primary documents, such as the heads of agreement, the leases, the site specifications, so that I can ensure, myself, that the conditions that the Ministerial Council set about that sky rail development are being met.

LAURIE OAKES: But are you putting it into doubt? I mean, could you stop it or do you want to stop it?

JOHN FAULKNER: My interest is the protection of the world heritage values in the Queensland wet tropics and I need to be satisfied that any project that goes ahead doesn't impact on those world heritage values.

LAURIE OAKES: But the Queensland Government said it's a fait accompli; work has started; you can't do anything.

JOHN FAULKNER: As far as the Commonwealth is concerned, we're taking a very reasonable position, that we want to see the primary documents so that we can assure ourselves that the conditions that were set by the Ministerial Council are met, and that the project conforms to the one that was brought before the Ministerial Council, obviously a long time before I was the Minister.

LAURIE OAKES: A few quick issues. The proposal to drain Lake Pedder: is that pie in the sky, or do you support it?

JOHN FAULKNER: Hard for me to say whether it's pie in the sky or not, Laurie. I mean, I can understand why Lake Pedder is an icon to the environmental movement, not only in Tasmania but in Australia. I can recall, as a young Labor activist in 1972, how appalled I was with what occurred to the flooding of Lake Pedder.

LAURIE OAKES: Someone's told me that in fact you'd be prepared to pull the plug.

JOHN FAULKNER: Well, I don't know whether pulling the plug is feasible or not, Laurie, but I think it's incumbent on me to treat an issue like that seriously, and I will. So when I get a proposal from Bob Brown and those who are involved in this suggestion from Tasmania, I'll look at it seriously, as I'm obligated to do because of course Lake Pedder is also in a world heritage area, and we'll look at it seriously and respond then. But at this stage I just can't say whether that particular proposal is feasible or not.

LAURIE OAKES: And the question of an energy tax, a carbon tax, to cut down greenhouse emissions. Do you favour that?

JOHN FAULKNER: All I can say is that I've suggested already to some of my ministerial and Cabinet colleagues that I am interested in pursuing the issue of economic instruments. I've said that more broadly than just limiting it to perhaps an energy tax. So that's something, again, for the future - something that obviously government looks at in a Budget context but something, again, that I think the Government and I need to address seriously.

LAURIE OAKES: A final matter. You are being billed as the new Labor power-broker, the Left Wing equivalent of Graham Richardson. Is the Left in the ascendance in the Labor Party?

JOHN FAULKNER: I don't think you can have a Left Wing equivalent of Graham Richardson, Laurie, to be honest with you. I think the Left is getting its act together in the party and I'm enjoying being part of that process.

LAURIE OAKES: In New South Wales, you've had a victory recently over the Right Wing machine. Is a Left Wing takeover in New South Wales on the cards?

JOHN FAULKNER: A Left Wing takeover isn't on the cards in New South Wales. What the Left's been able to achieve in New South Wales, I think, is to operate in a very united way. I think we'll go to the State conference in June and we'll participate in debates. I think we'll probably win more than our fair share and the Left will perform well. But what I should say, Laurie, is that when you go to the ballot box at the ALP State conference in June, what the Left has done for about the last 20-odd years is get 35 per cent of the vote at the conference, plus or minus two per cent, and that's not going to change. Those sorts of balances don't change unless there is a change in the leadership of a major affiliated union, who of course comprise 60 per cent of the conference, and I don't think that's on the cards. So, yes, the Left I think will perform well. Yes, I think the Left has really got its act together in New South Wales, but you're not going to see a very significant change in terms of the voting strength on the conference floor.

LAURIE OAKES: What difference has Graham Richardson's retirement meant to factional negotiations and the factional balance, in New South Wales and nationally?

JOHN FAULKNER: The main difference, of course, doesn't lie with the Left, it lies within New South Wales Right. Graham's been the dominant machine figure in the New South Wales Right for the best part of 20 years. That means that as he's now Left, not only parliamentary politics but also machine politics, they are big shoes to fill and I don't know how the new leadership is going to evolve in New South Wales. But as one of the Left leaders in the State branch, well obviously we've got an open mind and are happy to talk with and deal with the issues in an appropriate way with whoever the New South Wales Right nominates as Graham's replacement.

LAURIE OAKES: Senator Faulkner, we thank you.

JOHN FAULKNER: Thank you very much, Laurie.

LAURIE OAKES: Back to you, Jim.

JIM WALEY: The new Environment Minister, Senator John Faulkner, there with Laurie Oakes.