4BC Radio Interview with Minister Tanya Plibersek 23/04/24

23 April 2024





BILL MCDONALD: Joining us now to unpack a lot of that is the Environment and Water Minister, Tanya Plibersek. Morning, Minister.


MCDONALD: I'm well, thanks. You have been busy. Let's, can we start with the Queensland Conservation Council. They've welcomed the news that the Wooroora Station would remain intact, that area. Can you tell us a bit more about that decision and the findings that led to where you got to with that?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Yeah, sure. Look, a couple of weeks ago, I said to the proponent of that project, Ark Energy, that I was proposing to refuse it. And the reason for my proposed refusal was, basically, this place is right on the edge of the World Heritage listed wet tropics rainforest in Far North Queensland. You're quite right. It's described as wet sclerophyll forest, as you said. And that's really the transition between the rainforest and the drier, more open plains of Far North Queensland. It's a very rare type of environment and that means that the plants and animals that depend on it would have really been threatened if we'd allowed this project to go ahead. It's really important habitat for lots of types of birds, plants, animals like the spectacled flying fox and the northern greater glider. And in the end, I just decided that the impact of that project was too great, and it couldn't be accommodated. That's not to say that we don't support wind farms or wind power. In fact, so far I've ticked off on 46 renewable energy projects, enough to power close to 3 million homes across Australia. And it's important that we invest in renewable energy, but it has to be the right kind of development in the right place, done in the right way.

MCDONALD: So, in a separate announcement, you approved the proposed, I think, the Mount Hopeful Wind Farm, 45 ks south of Rockhampton. That project's going to generate enough energy to power 240 odd thousand homes. So, that was obviously a tick to box. It was less environmentally sensitive, was it?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Yeah, exactly. It's about the location. It's a better location for this. So, as you say, this is a big wind farm, enough to power almost a quarter of a million homes, as you said. And basically, it has the same impact as taking around 225,000 cars off the road for a year. Like, that's how much pollution we're saving, by letting this wind farm go ahead. So, as well as producing the electricity that we need for our homes and businesses, we've got that added benefit of reducing pollution. So, it's a good development in the right place. That's what we're looking for.

MCDONALD: How tricky is it to get the mix right when it comes to making these decisions for the environment and also, but not deterring development or the installation of some of these, some of these farms, you need to get to the renewable energy targets that the government has set?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Yeah, I mean, it is a balance. And that’s why, as you mentioned in your introduction that we're setting up an Environment Protection Agency and Environment Information Australia. The third thing we're doing is putting another $100 million into making sure we make faster decisions for proponents. It won't always be a yes if someone comes to us with the wrong proposal in the wrong place. They're better off getting a fast no than a long, drawn out process. But by providing better information upfront to people who are building new wind farms, new solar, new housing, new transport, by giving them better information upfront about areas that are sensitive, where there might be threatened species or a type of environment that's particularly sensitive to development, they can avoid those areas. They can build in the places where they're going to get a faster yes.

MCDONALD: What about Toondah Harbour? Just on a local level here? We've talked about it a lot and had lots of input from listeners. It's been a point of controversy for many years, I think nearly a decade. Is the project now completely dead in the water, with walkers withdrawing the proposal?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Yeah, it is. And it sort of followed the same process as the wind farm you were talking about. I told the developer that I was proposing to give them a no, and then the developer withdrew the application. This is a proposal, as your listeners no doubt know, after a decade of discussion, that would have seen the destruction of almost 60 hectares of internationally significant wetlands. It's about 24 times the size of the Gabba. And that's an area that has lots of migratory birds, like birds that fly 12,000 kilometres every year from Russia to Australia. To fatten up here and continue their life cycle. It would have had impacts on dugongs and dolphins and a whole range of other species, loggerhead turtles, for example, which are threatened.

But here's a really good example of an area that it should have been clear from the beginning was not an area suitable to develop. So, when Campbell Newman was the Premier, the then State Government identified this area as a priority development area, but it was already an internationally recognised wetland. It should not have ever been on the list of areas to develop in this way.

And the problem is, when at the federal level, the Environment Minister at the time, Josh Frydenberg, was told by his department a few years into this process, there's no way that this can be done in a way that protects this internationally significant wetland. He said, doesn't matter, keep going full steam ahead.

So, the developer who has done nothing wrong here, they've responded to a call from the State Government and then a call, you know, an overriding of environmental advice by the Federal Environment Minister at the time. They've continued on with their project only to be, you know, ultimately found that it is not possible to develop this wetland without having, a potentially, species becoming extinct. They've finally got a no and withdrawn the proposal. But honestly, I don't know that this ever should have been an area that was put up for development because it was always obvious that it was going to have this sort of unacceptable impact.

MCDONALD: It's a lot of years of wasted time and I think the numbers are saying tens of millions of dollars for the developers, too, isn't it?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Yeah, yeah, I agree that it's not fair on them, but at the end of the day, as Environment Minister, I can't agree to a project that would have these sorts of unacceptable impacts. Yeah.

MCDONALD: How do you again, the question of the balance in terms of the goalposts changed, in terms of people doing business and building and developing in certain areas, in terms of criticism that green tape, it's going to stifle development. So, for this one at Toondah Harbour, I understand your reasons, but there were 3000 odd homes that would have been built when there's a housing shortage as well. How do you get that?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Of course. Of course. That's something that I have to take into consideration and I'm a former Housing Minister, so I'm as aware as anyone of the shortage that we have in Australia of housing. I have to say the shortage is particularly at the affordable end, and these units would have been not really meeting the need for affordable housing and they would have been beautiful, would have been a very nice development, but it would have been a very upmarket development, so it wouldn't have really particularly helped with housing affordability in that part of Queensland.

But, of course, I take that into consideration, and we need energy development, we need roads, we need rail, we need housing, we need jobs. I want to see Australians employed and working, but we need to get that balance right. And that's why what we are really trying to do is give a lot more information upfront to developers to do a lot of mapping upfront to say, look, here's a region. This area is really suitable for development and if you meet these basic requirements, you'll get a fast tick. Or, these areas are really sensitive because they've got threatened species. Try and avoid these areas. If we can give people that kind of information upfront, we can really speed up development.

And in fact, I have to say, since coming to government, we've taken the average on time approvals for developments from 46 per cent under the previous government to 84 per cent under our government. We are getting faster, we are getting better at it because we're trying to give as much information to the people who are building these things upfront so they can do the right thing up front. That's in everybody's interest. If we can give lots of information and say we want these successful projects to get the green light, this is what you need to do to be successful. That's in everyone's interest, and that's the extra $100 million we've put on the table to speed up the development processes.

MCDONALD: Just briefly, you touched on the fact that you're a former Housing Minister and given immigration at the moment and the housing shortage, we've got, a quick one. Did we need to reduce or stop immigration until we get this right?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Well, our government has already actually reduced the number of people coming into the country, particularly by tightening up on international student visas. And I think that's a good thing, both to take a little bit of pressure off the housing rental market that is so hot at the moment, so difficult for people to find an affordable place to rent. It's also, I think, a good thing for the quality of education that international students get and that Australian students get. We think international education is a great export earner for Australia, but it has to all be within reason. And we know that those people on temporary visas were really driving a lot of those high numbers. In fact, on the figures we've got now, immigration numbers will be lower in coming years than they would have been under what was predicted by the former Liberal Government.

MCDONALD: All right, we're out of time. I really appreciate you having a chat with us today. Thank you.

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: It's a pleasure to talk to you. Thank you.

MCDONALD: There we go, the Environment and Water Minister Tanya Plibersek.