Speech to the Nature Conservation Council Business Breakfast

08 May 2023

Thank you all for having me here this morning, on the home of the Gadigal people. 

I acknowledge the traditional owners of the land and pay my respects to their elders past and present.

To the hosts of today’s event, the Nature Conservation Council of New South Wales:

Thank you for all your advocacy, over more than sixty years, in defence of this beautiful state.

As a lifelong Sydneysider, I’m happy to say that I’ve personally benefited from those campaigns.

I was very lucky to grow up in Oyster Bay, on the edge of the Royal National Park.

Everyone has their own image of paradise, but for me that’s it.

It’s a Sunday in late spring, walking part of the Otford to Bundeena track, past those perfect beaches at Burning Palms and Garie.

You’re literally walking through history – through the second oldest national park in the world.

That’s how long we’ve been leading the fight for nature here in New South Wales.

We were leading the world back when royal still referred to Queen Victoria.

We should all be proud of that history.

And we should feel reassured that the Nature Conservation Council is continuing that legacy, today as passionately as ever.

Can I also acknowledge my fellow guests on stage today.

To Penny Sharpe, my old friend.

The NSW Minister for Climate Change, Energy, the Environment and Heritage.

That sounds nice, doesn’t it?

I’ve known Penny for a long time.

But this is the first time we’ve shared a stage together, as Ministers, and I couldn’t be more delighted about it – because I know she’s the kind of person who will deliver real and lasting change for this state.

We’ve already started working closely together – on rolling out renewable energy; on saving koalas and their habitats; on establishing regional planning and building a more circular economy.

Can I also thank Dr Ken Henry, for hosting today’s breakfast.

Ken has been a great source of advice for me in this job.

That is, when I’ve been able to drag him away from his true vocation – which is saving wombats.

Ken, that kind of behaviour should really come with a superhero cape.

Not as Batman, but as the Australian equivalent: Wombatman.

We should all be grateful that Dr Henry has turned his impressive brain to the questions of sustainability and biodiversity.

As Minister, I’ve been studying his speeches and articles closely.

About how we can use the tools of economics to protect the natural world.

About how we can preserve nature, while promoting economic growth and creating good secure jobs.

And that’s what today’s breakfast is all about.

It’s about bringing conservationists and business people together, to discuss a shared vision for the environment.

I want to give you all an outline of our government’s plan this morning.

I want to explain how it can work for your businesses.

And I want to ultimately show you why these changes are something you should look forward to.

Back in December last year, our government released our Nature Positive Plan for Australia.

This plan is our vision for environmental protection in this country.

A vision that’s better for the nature, but also better for business.

This plan was developed in response to an independent review of Commonwealth environmental laws, conducted by Professor Graeme Samuel.

Graeme is a successful businessman himself – and he found that Australia’s current system is not working for anyone.

It’s not protecting the environment.

It’s frustrating for businesses to navigate.

And it’s leading to widespread distrust in the system.

We spent our first six months in office talking to people – to conservationists, to businesses, to First Nations communities, to academics, to people on the ground.

And we used those conservations to develop our plan.

A plan to protect Australia’s environment, while delivering faster, clearer decisions.

This plan is built around five pillars:

New National Environmental Standards – to ensure our laws deliver positive environmental outcomes.

Regional planning – so we can speed up sensible projects in robust places, confident in the knowledge that we’re protecting places that are important and fragile.

Reforming the broken offsets system – to make sure that environmental offsets actually benefit nature.

Establishing a new Environment Protection Agency – to restore integrity to the system, and to make sure our laws are being followed.

And creating the Nature Repair Market – to bring more private and philanthropic money into conservation and restoration.

These pieces will all work together, hand in hand, to deliver what we call nature positive outcomes.

Now this is much more than a slogan.

It expresses our very real ambition for Australia.

Nature positive means that we’re stopping the decline in nature, but we’re going a step further.

We’re also beginning the process of restoring environments that are damaged or degraded.

Which means we’ll give ourselves a chance to leave our kids and grandkids a healthier environment than we find it today.

That’s the goal.

And I can think of a number of reasons why a nature positive Australia would be good for your businesses.

I would even go further – I can think of reasons why it’s necessary.

Firstly, it reduces the risk that environmental decline poses to your companies.

Every one of you relies on a stable climate, a predictable environment, and reliable stream of resources to do business.

And almost half of our GDP – 49% of it – directly depends on nature to a significant degree.

Secondly, it’s clear that many of your staff and leaders care deeply about the health of our environment.

To be blunt about it – the places where successful business people tend to live have all experienced a political revolution in recent years.

Gina Rinehart, Anthony Pratt, Frank Lowy, Mike Cannon-Brookes – every one of them now live in seats represented by teal politicians.

It’s an amazing fact, and it suggests that environmental responsibility is now a precondition for attracting and keeping talent.

And thirdly, it’s clear to everyone that the old system didn’t work for you, even in a narrow business sense.

The system is painfully slow.

It puts much of the administrative burden on your companies.

And it leaves many of you in a costly limbo.

We want to fix that system.

To make it quicker and smoother to interact with, while genuinely protecting Australia’s environment.

Before I say anything else, I want to make one thing clear from the start: none of this is an argument against development.

We need to build houses for our kids.

We need to generate new renewable energy and establish the transmission lines to get that energy into the grid.

We’re a growing country.

We need to build roads and train lines and new factories to keep up.

We need to feed our people.

And we need to export goods and services so we can support ourselves.

A dogmatic argument against development is an argument against young Australians owning their own homes.

And that’s not a future I’m willing to sign up to.

So this is not about stopping development.

It’s about making sure we have the right development, done in the right way, in places that can handle it.

Which is why we are moving towards a system of regional planning.

Currently, when a company makes a development proposal, you have to find out, often from scratch, whether a site contains important heritage values, critical habitats, endangered plants or animals, or migratory species.

It can take years to establish that a proposal is fine.

And it can take even longer to establish that a project will have an unacceptable impact, when that should have been made clear from the start.

It all adds up to wasted time, wasted money and a massive opportunity cost for your companies.

With regional planning, we will make this process easier for you.

We will be able map out, quite literally, the places where development will have minimal consequence, and the places where development will be devastating.

There will be green zones, where development is largely fine.

There will be orange zones, where you need to be as sensitive and careful as positive.

And there will be red zones, where impacts need to be avoided.

This will give you clarity. It will give you certainty.

And it will protect the environment – by treating it as the interconnected ecosystem that it really is.

The second part of our agenda that applies directly to you is our change to the offset system.

The current system is a mess.

It’s opaque.

It’s not clear that it results in any environmental benefit whatsoever.

And it puts a massive administrative burden on your companies.

It forces you to go around the country, in search of farmers or landholders that can compensate for development.

For business, it can feel like we’re handing you a divining rod and asking you to walk around a paddock looking for water.

We’re going to change this system, so it’s clearer and easier.

And most importantly – so it actually leaves our environment better off overall.

Offsets should be a last resort.

They should only kick in when all efforts to avoid and mitigate environmental impacts have been exhausted – by locating projects in more robust areas and applying smarter project design.

But if impacts are truly unavoidable, proponents will be able to propose environmental offsets.

These should involve nature repair or restoration – in the same region, with the same type of habitat.

‘Avoided loss’ offsets will only be allowed where habitat is genuinely at risk of imminent loss.

And if it’s not practical for proponents to develop these high quality offset projects, you will be able to make a conservation payment.

This payment will then be invested in projects, supported by experts, that compensate for development and leave nature better off overall.

The third reform I want to mention is our new Nature Repair Market.

This is a world first, so there will be an ongoing process of developing and refining it.

But the essential idea behind the market is making it much easier to connect people who want to invest in nature repair, with the farmers and other landholders who can do that work on the ground.

Not to replace government effort, but to reinforce it.

Philanthropists are already trying to do this, but in a patchwork fashion.

We want to make this investment transparent, verifiable, long term and easy.

Philanthropists understand that Australia is a megadiverse continent – with plants and animals found nowhere else on earth.

But many of the corporate leaders I talk to also tell me that they want to support this kind of work.

It’s what your employees are asking of them.

It’s what customers are looking for.

And it’s what shareholders and financiers are demanding.

Shareholders want to know that they’re investing in socially responsible enterprises.

Momentum is growing, internationally as well as in Australia.

The international Taskforce on Nature-Related Financial Disclosure is helping businesses report on the risks to their bottom line if nature can no longer provide necessary resources – or do things like renewing fish stocks or cleaning water.

And through our own Budget, we’re moving domestically to ‘Measure what Matters’.

Sustainability is one of the budget’s four key themes, because we know that nature is central to our wellbeing and productivity.

For companies operating in Australia, the nature repair market is a chance to prove your environmental credentials and reinforce your social license.

I encourage you all to think about how this market could work for you.

If you are already offering your customers the chance to pay a few dollars extra to offset their carbon emissions, could you offer them the chance to do the same to make their purchase “nature positive”?

I’ll end on that thought.

So thank you for coming to this breakfast today.

As Minister for the Environment, I’m here to protect more of what’s precious, repair more of what’s damaged, and manage nature better for our kids and grandkids.

And I want to do that in partnership with everybody in this room.

Thank you.