THE HON TANYA PLIBERSEK MP
MINISTER FOR THE ENVIRONMENT AND WATER
SPEECH TO THE AUSTRALIAN LAND CONSERVATION ALLIANCE ‘UNITE FOR NATURE’ CONFERENCE
TUESDAY, 17 OCTOBER 2023
Thank you for having me this morning, on the home of the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people.
I acknowledge the traditional owners of the land and pay my respect to elders past and present.
And today, in light of the referendum, I want to acknowledge the pain and disappointment many Indigenous Australians are feeling right now.
Indigenous Australians were the heart of soul of our Yes campaign.
They led from the front, they put themselves on the line, which took a special kind of bravery.
Unfortunately, we didn’t get the result we wanted on Saturday night.
But I recognise the courage and conviction of these leaders.
And the best way to honour that courage is to renew our efforts to tackle Indigenous disadvantage.
To listen, to recognise, to close the gap.
To use every tool we have, including environmental policy.
This vote doesn’t mean the end of the Indigenous Rangers program.
In fact, we are doubling the number of Rangers this decade.
This vote won’t slow the growth of our Indigenous Protected Areas.
In fact, we’ve just announced funding for ten more, including the Wuthathi IPA, which I recently signed in Cape York.
And this vote doesn’t stop us guaranteeing all Australians the basics of a good life.
We are currently bringing clean water to remote First Nations towns, like Yuendumu in the Northern Territory.
All these things will continue, as will new initiatives, for the same reasons we supported the referendum.
Australians voted no to this constitutional change on Saturday, but they didn’t vote no to closing the gap.
Now we redouble our efforts to address inequality and give Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander kids a better future, which is something I believe we can all get behind.
Can I thank the Australian Land Conservation Alliance for having me this morning.
And to all the farmers, all the scientists, all the conservationists who have joined us in Canberra this week:
I’m glad you made the trip.
As Minister for the Environment, I’m always looking for new ideas, for new answers, for new insights.
And that is what this conference is about.
Bringing people together, with a range of skills and experiences, across the private sector and the public sphere, to generate solutions for nature.
Now this conference has a special focus – protecting nature on private land.
Which is a substantial brief, when you remember that sixty percent of Australia is privately owned.
Nature doesn’t begin and end at the border of our national parks.
Private land is where a large percentage of critical habitats are found, it’s where some of our most endangered animals live.
Which means it has to be a central focus of our conservation.
If we’re being honest with ourselves, this is an area where the broader movement has room to grow and improve.
Where we can reach out further, past the usual coalitions, to new allies and new friends.
Because there’s a deep well of country environmentalism out there, waiting to be tapped.
One of the early trips I took as Minister was to a farm in Griffith, owned by a man named Ben.
Ben is a country guy, an active farmer, but also a passionate environmentalist.
He invited me onto his property to see the restoration work he was doing, to revive a long corridor of native bushland.
A corridor that would support the soil on his farm, while also creating homes for native plants and animals.
He gave us the full tour, and in the middle of his explanation, as if to prove his point, he drove over to this enormous tree and asked us to look up.
At the top of the tree, up in the clouds, was a nest.
And in that nest was a family of wedged tailed eagles.
Glorious, majestic, slightly terrifying wedged tailed eagles.
This was amazing enough, but he then asked us to look down, where a carpet of tiny bones was sitting at our feet.
As Minster, I took two lessons from this experience:
One, that farmers and landholders have a special relationship with their land, which we can never doubt or discount.
And two, that any solution to the problems facing nature will require the active support of those Australians, who are willing and looking for a way to help.
These lessons have been at the front of my mind, as we’ve developed our environmental reforms.
Reforms to protect, restore and manage nature, across private and public land, across all forms of tenure and ownership.
Today, I want to give you an update on that agenda.
And crucially, I want to explain how all the policies will fit together, to build a nature positive Australia.
Sometimes people look at a certain policy and they say:
‘Well, this isn’t enough’, or ‘this won’t solve the crisis facing nature’.
And they’re usually right – no one policy solves everything.
But that policy is often part of a bigger picture, a bigger machine to defend the environment.
And today I want to sketch out the blueprint for the machine we are building.
We are making substantial, root and branch, structural reform to Australia’s system of environmental protection.
It’s the biggest, the most serious, the most significant change in well over a generation.
As a government, we understand the scale of our challenges.
It’s been clear to me since my first week in this job, when I was given the State of the Environment Report.
We had to pull it out of a safe, and shake off all the dust, because the previous government had kept it hidden for so long.
But when we had a chance to read it, when we took it all in, the situation was clear enough.
And that is why we are fundamentally rewriting Australia’s national environmental laws.
These are the laws that govern all large new developments in Australia.
Everyone knows they are broken. Everyone agrees they need to change.
Graeme Samuel made an undeniable case for reform in his review of the Act five years ago.
And yet, for all that overwhelming consensus, no government has been able to tackle the job.
Which means we’ve been living with the worst of both worlds.
Bad for businesses, even worse for the environment.
A system mistrusted by everyone who interacts with it.
When I began in this portfolio, I made a promise that I wouldn’t kick this can down the road any further.
And last week, I announced that we will soon begin formal consultation on the detail of these new laws.
Discussing the nuts and bolts of our plan with thirty expert groups, including the Australian Land Conservation Alliance, to make sure our new system works like we want it to.
We’re being methodical here, we’re being careful and deliberate.
These are complex laws, with widespread implications for conservation and the economy.
But we have been clear about the main bones of our plan:
With new National Environmental Standards, in line with the chief recommendation from the Samuel Review.
Setting legally enforceable requirement for decision making – that approval decisions deliver a positive net outcome for nature.
And with an overhaul of the dysfunctional offsets regime.
As you all know, the current system is a mess.
It’s opaque, it’s difficult to navigate.
And it often delivers no benefit to nature whatsoever.
We’re going to change this system, taking it from a net drain on the environment to a genuine benefit.
Offsets should always be a last resort. They should involve active restoration, in the same region, with the same type of habitat.
And under our new system, that’s what the system will deliver.
Now it’s one thing to have strong laws.
It’s another thing to know they’re being followed on the ground.
Which is why we are also establishing a new national environment protection agency – Environment Protection Australia.
We have a trust deficit to overcome here.
People don’t believe in the current system, because it’s not clear that approval conditions are being followed in practice.
The EPA will change that, giving us a much needed cop on the beat.
It will be independent and transparent, at arm’s length from government.
Making environmental assessments.
Deciding whether projects can proceed and under what conditions.
And then enforcing those decisions in the community.
Stronger laws and a powerful EPA to back them in – these are the two founding principles of our environment agenda.
But we are also looking for creative ways to build on this foundation.
To bring in more funding, from new sources, to support the necessary work of conservation and restoration.
That is the essential idea behind our Nature Repair Market.
As everyone at this conference knows, our fight for nature has to reach across the sixty percent of Australian land that is privately owned.
It can’t be confined to national parks and other places of sanctuary.
The purpose of our legislation is to promote and reward landholders for their good environmental work.
Making it easier for businesses, philanthropists and other Australians to invest in activities that repair and protect nature.
Connecting people who want to invest in this work, with the people who can do it on the ground.
Not to replace government effort, but to reinforce it.
This scheme will bring more money into nature repair.
And it will guarantee that money is doing what it’s intended to do, using high integrity methods that can be tracked and traced.
The fourth crucial element of our agenda is a commitment to protecting thirty percent of our land and sea by the end of this decade.
We’re currently at 22 per cent of our land and 48 per cent of our ocean.
That remaining eight percentage might sound like a small number, a single digit, but it’s a massive expanse of land.
Roughly nine times the size of Tasmania, or 60 million hectares.
Getting to thirty percent will be an enormous undertaking, requiring a range of different tools and methods.
Since coming to office, we’ve added 40 million hectares of land and sea to our national estate.
We’ve expanded the marine park around Macquarie Island.
One of the largest conservation decisions made anywhere on earth, at any point this year.
We’re growing the Indigenous Protected Area program.
And today, I’m announcing another addition to our thirty-by-thirty toolkit:
$25 million to protect more of our landmass.
With $25 million to encourage private and philanthropic investment in land conservation and management.
We’ve just announced the first of these projects, which is in the Victorian Riverina, protecting a key grassland habitat of the Plains Wanderer.
The Plains Wanderer is an adorable little bird, but now critically endangered, with possibly just 250 left in the wild.
Found only in grasslands, they rely on these habitats to survive.
And we will be working with the Victorian Government, with Trust for Nature Victoria, with the Nature Conservancy, and with private sponsors such as Country Road to actively restore these environments.
This has been a short overview of the main pillars of reform.
Stronger laws, stronger enforcement, more funding, and more protected land.
It’s big picture reform, addressing the root cause of our problems.
Reform that is being supported by work across the country, in local programs, dealing with specific environmental issues.
No government has invested more in nature than we have:
Delivering the Murray Darling Basin Plan – the country’s biggest financial investment in conservation, protecting over one million square kilometres of inland Australia.
Doubling federal funding to national parks.
Doubling the number of renewable energy projects being approved.
Doubling Australia’s recycling capacity.
Doubling the number of Indigenous Rangers.
Restoring our urban rivers, with a $200 million program.
Fighting for zero new extinctions on this continent.
Funding the Environmental Defenders Office – for the first time in nine years.
Doubling funding to the Australian Institute of Marine Science.
And investing $1.2 billion to protect and restore the Great Barrier Reef.
We’re getting the architecture right.
And we’re matching it with work on the ground, in local communities.
Work that needs the help of everyone here at this conference.
So thank you for everything you do, caring for your home, protecting nature on private land.
It’s critical work, it’s nation building work, and it has the full support of the Australian government.