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From the sand hills to the suburbs: steps towards a sustainable Australia: speech to the Queensland Media Club, Brisbane [and] Questions and answers.

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Monday 28 July 2008


From the sand hills to the suburbs … steps towards a sustainable Australia.

I would like to begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of this land on which we meet, the Toorbal and Jagara people.

I’m always impressed by Queenslanders’ conviction that they live in the best part of Australia.

You have a significant share of Australia’s great natural assets - and you know how to use and celebrate them for the international wonders that they are.

From the teeming waters of the Great Barrier Reef to the lush rainforests of the Wet Tropics, from the mighty sandhills of Fraser Island to the bush surrounding the suburbs of Brisbane, Queensland has harnessed these wonders to make a strong contribution to the state’s identity and to its economy.

The World Heritage list records the places of natural and cultural heritage that are of outstanding value to humanity on a global scale. Queensland is blessed with five of Australia’s 17 World Heritage places.

Two of these, the Great Barrier Reef and the Wet Tropics, help to attract $1.2 billion a year to the city of Cairns. In total, tourism from the Reef injects a massive $4.9 billion into the Queensland economy, and overall tourism is the second largest export earner for Queensland.

Now more than ever, the health of the environment should be recognized as essential to the health of the Queensland economy.

But Queensland’s natural assets are also under threat. Rapid urban expansion, overfishing, land-clearing and declining water quality all pose major challenges.


And, of course, the big one - climate change.

Climate change impacts

Every day it seems another report, another undeniable truth, emerges about how dangerous changing global temperatures will be. Australians are increasingly coming to understand how global warming will impact on our environment.

Ongoing research from our own Australian Antarctic Division and CSIRO scientists on the profound changes underway in Antarctica provides even more food for thought on this issue.

It is extraordinary, when the climate change challenge is so evident, that Brendan Nelson, Greg Hunt and the other dinosaurs in the Liberal and National parties are squabbling over how long to put off taking action.

Earlier this month, on 16 July, Mr Hunt stated unequivocally “2012 is the time by which we would like to see an emissions trading scheme in place.”

Similarly, on 9 July, Mr Turnbull was asked, “The Coalition, if you were in Government today, you would have an emissions trading scheme starting in 2012?” His answer, very plainly, was “Yes, we would.”

Yet just yesterday Mr Hunt could no longer answer the question, saying “I'm not going to pre-empt the discussion of the colleagues.”

And Mr Turnbull went out of his way to avoid the same question, saying, “You know, people debate the start date - the real issue is what is the scheme, what is the design of the scheme.”

The Shadow Treasurer then assured us that he and his colleagues had “All been singing off the same song sheet.”

Well I can assure you, as someone who’s sung off a few song-sheets in my time, there’s no harmony coming from the Opposition on addressing the challenge of climate change.

But there is a very familiar tune, and it’s the theme song of 12 years of climate change inaction, 12 years of climate change denial and delay.

So the Coalition that signed Kyoto and then refused to ratify has become the Opposition that committed to emissions trading in 2012 and then walked away.

What an irresponsible approach to this country’s long-term future, to the future of our environment, more vulnerable than most to climate change, and to the future of our economy, with the business community looking for certainty in the transition to a low-carbon economy.


And we are already seeing the effects of climate change, with more frequent and intense coral bleaching, and scientists are predicting worse to come. A three degree temperature rise by 2030 could see up to 97 per cent of the magnificent Great Barrier Reef bleached every year.

A one degree temperature rise could slash the upland tropical rainforests of the Wet Tropics by half, and within 50 to100 years we could lose more than half the vertebrates unique to this region.

We’re likely to see more frequent and severe droughts, with greater fire risk. More extreme storm events, and more flash flooding.

It is possible that global sea level could rise a metre or more by 2100 - which would have a devastating impact on the infrastructure, wetlands and estuaries in the South East Queensland corridor in particular.

Given the range of threats to this State posed by climate change, there is no doubt that the potential risks - and the costs - are huge.


The time for action is now and that’s why the Rudd Labor Government is pressing ahead with a bold agenda for tackling the challenge, not arguing about when to start.

Part of that agenda is rebuilding Australia’s resilience to the threats that harm the environment.

Not just climate change, but all the traditional pressures of population, pests and development.

Our legacy should be an environment with the resilience that it once had - for the good of our landscapes and ultimately our communities.

So what exactly is resilience and why is it important?

A resilient ecosystem is one that has the capacity to withstand shocks and dramatic changes and to rebuild itself without the need for significant human intervention. It must be diverse enough and sufficiently large to be able to bounce back after a disturbance.

It’s a bit like the human immune system. The research shows that people recover from infections more quickly if the rest of their life is in order - if they’re eating well, sleeping enough, and are generally in good health. Take away any of these factors and recovery slows down, and the risk of sustaining permanent harm goes up.

As custodians of the environment, our challenge is to ensure that all the work we do - all the money we direct, all the volunteer hours we put in and the


plans we implement - will protect or rebuild that resilience so that natural ecosystems have a better chance of recovering from the stresses that they face - and can continue to provide essential ecosystem services such as fresh water.


Now Queensland as you would know is home to the southern cassowary, that large flightless bird of the wet tropics, and it is an excellent example of how a native species contributes to the overall resilience of an ecosystem.

After the devastation of Cyclone Larry in 2006, the Queensland Environment Protection Authority and wildlife groups joined forces to provide food for the southern cassowaries around Mission Beach.

They weren’t just motivated by animal welfare - though of course that was part of it.

The real driver was the crucial role these birds play in sustaining the rainforest. In the Cape York Peninsula and the Wet Tropics, the southern cassowary eats rainforest fruits like native laurels, lilipillies and palms, and disperses the seeds in their droppings.

So the cassowary’s survival was central to the regeneration of the area, and the long-term viability of rainforest communities.

One of my recent responsibilities as Federal Environment Minister under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Act was to consider an application for a residential development near this same cassowary habitat at Mission Beach.

The development would have subdivided about 24 hectares into 40 residential lots and involved vegetation clearing, earthworks, construction of a new access road and associated infrastructure.

I was considering a number of factors as I reviewed this proposal.

One was that this site contains what is known as ‘essential habitat’. It contains remnant rainforest habitat and provides an important cassowary movement corridor between the habitat of the Wet Tropics of Queensland World Heritage Area and the coast. Even strict conditions wouldn’t be enough to protect this vital corridor. Another was that land clearing and development have already had a dramatic impact on the cassowary - less than 25 per cent of this lowland habitat is intact.

This development would have had an unacceptable impact on the chances of this species’ survival - but the clincher was the impact that it would have on the survival of the rainforest itself. The flow-on effects for tourism and the economy of far-north Queensland are obvious.


Having carefully considered the likely impact of this proposed development, and the fact that even strict conditions would not be sufficient to protect the essential cassowary habitat on which the developer was proposing to build, I came to the view that I had no choice but to use my powers under the Act to rule out this proposal completely.

This is only the second time a proposal has been deemed ‘clearly unacceptable’ under the EPBC Act and rejected outright, so it is a significant decision. The other was an application to shoot an unspecified number of threatened grey-headed flying foxes at Singleton in NSW. This action was found to be unacceptable as it would contribute to the decline of a species at local and potentially regional scales.

In the vast majority of cases considered under the Act, the potential impacts on matters of national environmental significance can be offset or minimised in some way.


I now want to briefly address the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act or EPBC Act. It is the central piece of environmental legislation that I administer.

I know that there is great interest in how it relates to other controversial proposals including the Traveston Dam on the Mary River.

Naturally I am not going to preempt any future decisions today, but what I can say is that when the Act is applied properly and in conformity with its guiding principles, it is a powerful tool that can make a major contribution to Queensland’s sustainable future.

It is comprehensive and broad ranging legislation. Its objects cover the protection of matters of national environmental significance and heritage; the promotion of ecologically sustainable development and biodiversity and a cooperative approach to protecting the environment; and, last but not least, the central role and expertise of indigenous custodians of our land.

As Minister I intend to look at the whole picture to assess developments in terms of how they might impact on matters of national environmental significance as well as the social and economic impacts of proposals.

The EPBC Act should not be seen as a barrier to development. Although it is sometimes necessary to reject proposals - such as the Mission Beach residential development - in the large majority of cases my Department works with proponents to ensure that the potential impacts of proposals on matters of national environmental significance are minimised. Following such negotiations, the large majority of proposals are able to proceed.

In my role as Minister I am determined to ensure that developments with potentially significant impacts on matters of national environmental significance


are carried out in an ecologically sustainable manner. In this way the Queensland economy will grow together with - rather than at the expense of - its environmental resilience.

I can give you my commitment that I will apply due process in all my considerations under the Act. I will ensure that all developments coming across my desk are considered carefully in light of the principles set down in the Act.

National Reserve System

I’d like to turn now to Australia’s National Reserve System, that network of national parks and reserves that provides a refuge for plants and animals against climate change. Increasingly, they’re recognised as drivers of national and international tourism, attracting millions of visitors every year and generating billions of dollars for the Australian economy.

Earlier this year I announced an investment of $180 million over five years in our network of national parks - more than five times the financial commitment of the previous Government.

National parks are not remote, locked-up pockets of biodiversity. They can be part of our urban sustainability experience as well.

At Noosa, for example - one of the most densely populated and fastest growing regions in the nation - 35 per cent of the region is in parks and reserves, including one of the only rivers in south-east Queensland with an A grade environmental rating - the Noosa River.

That’s a great achievement for a waterway surrounded by homes, businesses and rural industries. It’s testament to the joint efforts of three levels of government, the local community and the tourism industry that has built nature and conservation into the core of the Noosa brand.

Community Coastcare

But for every Noosa success story, there’s a coastal community struggling to look after their fragile estuaries and beaches. Many of these favourite places are in danger of being loved to death through over-use. In places we see declining water quality, sand dunes blowing out and coastlines eroding. And with the population in South East Queensland growing by 50,000 to 60,000 each year, that risk is destined to grow.

The Government has responded to this need with a round of competitive grants worth up to $20 million this financial year under Caring for our Country Community Coastcare.

This year, we have identified 12 priority coastal hotspots for Community Coastcare - including Moreton Bay, which is a marine reserve providing habitats for dugong and seagrass populations.


Moreton Bay is listed as a Ramsar wetland of international importance and is under pressure as a result of population growth and development, disturbance of acid sulfate soils and water quality decline.

Targeting investment to areas of high conservation value, such as the priority coastal hotspots, will mean that Community Coastcare funding can make a substantial and measurable change at these key sites.

Caring for our Country

Community Coastcare is one component of the Rudd Government’s new rescue package for our environment - Caring for our Country.

Caring for our Country started four weeks ago today on July 1, and we have committed $2.25 billion to it over five years.

I am incredibly proud of this package and the fact that it: - cuts red tape, - slashes bureaucracy, - plugs the leaks that have been a feature of previous national resource

management systems, and - focuses investment where it can make a real difference.

I am pleased to announce today that $25.7 million of this funding will be spent on regional investments in Queensland this financial year. The money will be for a range of environmental and sustainable land management projects in each of the state’s 14 natural resource management regions.

Now I earlier mentioned the action I took to protect the cassowary habitat at Mission Beach, using powers available to me under the EPBC Act. Several of these regional investments funded under Caring for our Country will complement these regulatory measures.

They will help to create habitat islands on private land in the Julatten area adjacent to the Wet Tropics World Heritage Area, and restore key habitats at Kuranda leading to improved long term conservation outcomes for this iconic species.

Of course it’s not just about a single species. Several of these projects will improve the condition and resilience of ecosystems and threatened species habitat.

For example the $1.4 million to the Condamine regional body will be for projects to help private landholders manage endangered ecosystems such as blue grass, vine scrub and Brigalow whilst other projects will improve the aquatic habitat of six parts of the Condamine River to increase native fish populations.

So it’s all about delivering real results for biodiversity and national icons. And this


program will offer clear and measurable targets, value for money, reduced red tape and increased accountability of public expenditure, as well as working closely with private landholders and other levels of government.

Understanding that providing our natural landscapes and the ecosystems that make them up with sufficient resilience to withstand the range of pressures and threats, and to enable to continue productive occupation of our continent, Caring for Our Country will focus on six national priorities, most of which I’ve touched on today:

- The National Reserve System - Biodiversity and natural icons - Coastal environments and critical aquatic habitats - Sustainable farm practices - Natural resource management in remote and northern Australia - Community skills knowledge and engagement

These national priorities, articulated for the first time in this way, delivered through a focused and strategic program, brings rigour and accountability to natural resource management in ways which simply didn’t happen under the previous government.


I started today by listing some of the natural assets of Queensland and pointing out that now, more than ever, the long term economic and social health of the state is tied to the health of its natural assets.

But I could have named so many more - the wetlands of the Channel Country, the wild rivers of the Gulf, the dunes of Shelburne Bay, or the vast expanse of the Simpson Desert.

But it’s not all ‘out there’, remote from where most of us live. These natural assets run from the sandhills to the suburbs. Much of this natural heritage is close to home. It’s the rainforest gully in the backyard, the creek where your kids play and the birds in your garden.

It’s front and centre in all our minds, and it’s at the centre of this Government’s decision-making, was we aim to make sure we are caring for our country.

Here in Queensland you have the opportunity to do it differently, to avoid some of the mistakes that have been made down south. Many of your ecosystems are intact, and you’re already learning that you can keep them that way, as you build a sustainable economy and safeguard your natural assets - our precious environment - that is so essential to our future.

Thank you.





28 JULY 2008

SUBJECTS: Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme; EPBC Act; Shoalwater Bay; Coal protest; Plastic bags; Clean coal

CONVENOR: Minister, could I ask you if you wouldn't mind to rejoin the stage, the - a few interested members of the media might like to ask some questions. Ladies and gentlemen, as part of the Queensland Media Club process we invite members of the working media to question our guest speakers. We

have a number here today. As usual could I ask you when you have a question to please identify yourself and the organisation for whom you work, before presenting your question. Have we got a first questioner? Over on the left.

QUESTION: Minister, Mark Ludlow from The Australian Financial Review. I know the Emission Trading Scheme is technically not your area but I noted that you began your speech talking about the Opposition and their inconsistent approach to climate change. Do you think that the Emission Trading Scheme is something that, you

know, sounds good in theory but will fall apart in practice? Especially considering the Australian economy, in particular Queensland is so dependent on coal exports.

GARRETT: Look, thank you for that question, Mark. No, I don't. One of the things that I think was clear to us when we were Opposition, was that a business was seeking to see a price come into the market on carbon and that not only here, but in other jurisdictions the establishment of an Emissions Trading Scheme, which we have called the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme, was a necessary component to addressing climate change. And that

industry, with that certainty, would not only be able to work well within an ETS but also take in some instances economic advantage from it.

QUESTION: [Indistinct] from The Australian newspaper. It was interesting you were talking about the decision you've just made for a development at Mission Beach, and you've got the Traveston Dam decision coming up as well. Are you putting developers on notice that there will be a lot greater scrutiny

of projects under this government using federal environmental laws? And also given the population pressures in many sensitive areas, can private property owners expect much more government regulation to protect the environment? You were mentioning, you know, the creek that runs by your backyard, birds that come into your garden. I mean, can people expect a lot more, you know, regulation in this area?

GARRETT: Well I'll take the second part of the question first. I don't expect that there will be much more regulation at all, nor need there be. And in fact, one of the strong commitments that the Rudd Labor Government coming to power, not only was to cooperative federalism, but also seeking to make sure that we do streamline processes which impact upon the economic decisions that the community and business make. And we've done that, in particular with the initiation of a strategic assessment under the EPBC Act in relation to the off-shore LNG resources and proposed onshore common user hub in north-west and Western Australia.

And I was saying to my table earlier that one of the things that we believe is

absolutely critical is to provide front end certainty, not only to the proponents but also to the decision makers, so the decision making can be both transparent, provide necessary certainty and also happen within an effective timeframe.

In relation to the early question, the question about Mission Beach and the way in which it relates to endangered species and the like and does this - am I putting developers on notice, again the answer is that the responsibilities that the minister has, or any minister has under the EPBC Act are very clear. And they are to look at proposals in the light of the impact that they have on matters of national environment significance and to that extent what I'm saying is that we will do that diligently, taking into account all the material - relevant material that is in front of us and we will make a decision to that end. I don't see this as anything other than providing greater levels of confidence and certainty in the decision making process.

QUESTION: Dennis Atkins from The Courier-Mail, Minister. I noticed in the list of iconic Queensland environmental sites that you mentioned at the end of your speech you didn't mention Shoalwater Bay, which is something that I know you're familiar with from past campaigns that you've taken part in in previous occupations. The Queensland Government has recently announced that it wants to build a coal port at Shoalwater Bay. Do you think

that's a good idea? Do you think that Shoalwater Bay can sustain having a coal port in it?

GARRETT: Look, thank you for the question, Dennis and as with all other questions about existing decisions that are before the environment minister or decisions that may come to him, I don't propose to take a view one way or the other on that proposal. And the reason for that is that it is not appropriate for a minister in this instance to display any form of bias or apprehended bias and I don't intend to.

That particular proposal that you referred to hasn't come for me now for

consideration. If it does come for me for consideration I will consider it properly under the relevant legislation, ie the EPBC Act.

QUESTION: Minister, Andrew Trewin from Channel Nine. Greenpeace activists today have graffitied up to anything - up to 20 ships at the coal loading facility at Hay Point in Queensland. The core of this action is an allegation that the Federal Government is approving a massive expansion of coal loading facilities, thus contributing to greenhouse pollution. Your response please.

GARRETT: Sorry, just repeat again which particular demonstration and location that is.

QUESTION: That was at Hay Point in Queensland. It was a Greenpeace action.

GARRETT: Hay Point in Queensland.

QUESTION: Yes, that's right.

GARRETT: That is not a matter which is before me in terms of any development proposals or otherwise. In relation to the overall question about whether or not Australia ought to be continuing to both mine and export coal, the position of the Government was made clear when in Opposition and now in Government. We're committed to continuation of the coal industry and to speedy movement towards carbon coal - carbon capture and storage and clean coal. And it seems to me that that is the most responsible position that a government can take.

QUESTION: Minister, John Copley (*), freelance. We've spoken before about the plastic bag issue and we note that the Chinese Government top down has banned the use of plastic bags - plastic shopping bags from 1 June I think. Do you [INAUDIBLE] Australia?

GARRETT: Well, the situation in relation to plastic bags is that when we went to the - environment ministers meet with the Federal Minister at council meetings, called EPHC meetings. There were various proposals from various states as to what actions the states felt would be desirable to reduce the use of plastic bags.

South Australia proposed a ban. The other states proposed a range of

different strategies. What we have said is that we will look at a trial project that's been undertaken in Victoria where there's been a levy or a charge put on plastic bags, I think it's some 10 cents a bag in the trial program, and we will consider that particular - the progress of that particular pilot project at the same time as looking at the national waste strategy in total.

I do think that there is a strong community concern about the amount of

waste that we are producing which goes to landfill, and it's not only plastic bags but it goes to things like e-waste as well, so computers, televisions, mobile phones and the like.

And so what I want us to do is to have a national approach to waste

generally, particularly emerging e-waste issues. We will consider the question of plastic bags in the light of that pilot project when it comes to us when we meet in November of this year.

QUESTION: Just to follow up, do you know whether the act gives you the power to ban the use of the bags?

GARRETT: Well, I'm not specifically taking a view on whether the act provides that power or not. I don't intend to exercise that. What I am saying is that states ministers and the Federal Minister will meet in November to determine the progress that's been made in that pilot project and also where the issue of plastic bags falls in relation to an overall national approach to waste.

QUESTION: Mark Ludlow from The Australian Financial Review again. I just wanted to get your views on clean coal technology. In some ways, a

lot of people see clean coal technology as akin to investing in biotechnology in the sense that you spend a lot of time and money and you don't necessarily get a win in it - out of it, at the end of the day. Do you think that clean coal technology - because in Queensland in

particular, a lot of faith has been put in how clean coal technology will come - develop something commercially viable at the end of it. Do you think that will be the case?

GARRETT: Well, I very much hope so. I mean, I think that the view that was put by Sir Nicholas Stern and others is the right one. We can't afford not to be providing significant investment into a range of areas which will see us significantly reduce our emissions over the longer term, and clearly, CCS is a part of that.

And if you look at the projected start-ups of coal-fired power stations in

other parts of the world, it's very clear that there will be an absolute need for us to have effective clean coal technology in place as soon as that can happen.

Now, I've been briefed by the CRC and by other scientists on this. I've

spoken with the industry and business. Clearly, it requires investment; it's an investment that this government has already identified as important. And we just have to see to what extent and at what speed those technologies come through and whether they can work to scale. I very much hope they can.

QUESTION: [Inaudible question]

GARRETT: I can't - yes, start again.

QUESTION: Sorry. A follow-up question on the plastic bags, because it seemed you were trying to avoid the question as to whether the Commonwealth does have the power to either ban plastic bags or put a levy on plastic bags. I understand what you're saying about the states meeting, et cetera, but I'm

wondering if we get a typical situation of the states squabbling about it for two years and then everyone going off and doing their own thing. I mean, can the Federal Government just make a decision federally as to

what to do here, or…?

GARRETT: Look, it is within the power of the Commonwealth, clearly, if it sought to do so, to make a decision to restrict the importation of plastic bags. But that is not what the policy position is at this point in time, and I don't consider it something which we're going to address in the future. And the reason for that is that we want to strike an agreed position with the states about both the matter of plastic bags and plastic bag use and reducing that use over time and also other waste matters. We want to do that in a consultative way; we want to do that in ongoing

discussions with the industry and with community, and we want to do it in the context of the EPHC meetings, and we will address that issue when we meet in November.

QUESTION: If you can't agree within a year, will you then come in on top of them and impose something if they don't agree?

GARRETT: Well, I'd like to give us the opportunity, as state ministers and Federal Minister, to come forward with some propositions which we think will both address the policy needs that have already been identified and were identified by the previous government when the council met in relation to disposal of plastic bags and also waste matters more generally.

QUESTION: One last question from [indistinct]. GARRETT: Yes.

QUESTION: Minister, I was interested in your speech. You've mentioned population pressures as one of the environmental issues that the country needed to face. Why didn't the Federal Government include population as an issue in

its green paper that was released by Minister Wong on climate change? Surely population has a massive impact on climate change.

GARRETT: Well, the matters that were identified in the green paper discussion paper go to the heart of the architecture of the scheme. Matters to do with population have a far broader remit, and as you know, we haven't had a national population policy in this country up to this point in time.

You're certainly facing population pressures here in south-east Queensland, and population can, in certain instances, drive increased emissions. But it needn't. So there's a wider, if you like, framework that I think we need to look at issues like population, and that's to do with the provision of public transport services at state and local level, it's to do with the actual impact that individuals can have on their environment.

I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to meet with Governor

Schwarzenegger in Los Angeles recently, and really spend some time with the Governor and his senior officials identifying the measures that they apply to de-couple emissions growth from sustainable economic growth, because if you look at the Californian economy, they're in the process of, in a sense, moving the question of how many emissions and how much emissions you produce away from the question of how the economy is going and actually de-link them.

And that relied on a suite of measures. The Californians have relied on a

suite of measures, and whilst the situation is not entirely comparable here, the same thing will apply.

So in relation to the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme, there's a discussion under way, a proposal for an architecture and conditions that would apply. But there are a range of other measures in place too. We have a 20 per cent renewable energy target. We have a $300 million low-interest green home loan scheme, which we'll be introducing from the beginning of next year. This will be an opportunity for many Australians to be able to take low-interest green loans and re-equip and re-fit out their houses in things like energy efficiency devices and more energy efficiency lighting and water tanks and the like.

So again, there's absolutely no reason why, with growing populations, you cannot have reduced greenhouse gas emissions. It's just a case of being committed strongly to that range of measures, and as a government, a range of measures that will see greenhouse gas come down.

And in the instance of the home application policies that we're looking at,

also produce some cost benefits for the householder where their energy costs are lower. And it's that wide portfolio of measures that can actually make an impact on the climate change issues.

CONVENOR: Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for your questions.

* * END * *