By Tanya Plibersek

08 November 2023




CATHY SCHNITZERLING: Queensland koalas have probably slept through this news, but they’re set to get a funding boost from the Federal Government. With the state already in the grip of a bushfire crisis and a long, hot summer ahead of us, the government is investing in upgrading and building health facilities to better protect koalas from key threats. Tanya Plibersek is the Minister for the Environment and Water and joins me now. Hello, Minister.


CATHY SCHNITZERLING: I’m very well, thank you. But I want to know if my little granddaughter is going to be able to see koalas in the wild. Can you tell me?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Well, Cathy, this is the reason that we’ve got to put $77 million into our Saving Koalas Program, because in Queensland, in New South Wales and in the ACT koalas are endangered. They were really hard hit by the Black Summer bushfires, but there’s also other threats like chlamydia, you would know, is very common in some koala populations, land clearing, being hit by cars. You know, we know koalas are crossing the road and being hit by cars. Cats, dogs, all of them are real threats for koalas.

And so today in Queensland I’m announcing three and a half million dollars for the Australia Zoo Wildlife Hospital to support a new infectious disease ward for koalas there, $5 million towards an RSPCA Queensland absolutely state-of-the-art new wildlife hospital that they want to build as well. Extra money for Currumbin Wildlife Sanctuary to establish a new koala intensive care unit and a rehab area for their koalas. And a couple of other grants as well for University of Sunshine Coast and Queensland University of Technology to invest in the chlamydia vaccines that we need for koalas as well.

CATHY SCHNITZERLING: My understanding is that chlamydia is caused by stress and koalas are particularly stressed by habitat destruction, which is the number one threat to koalas. What can we do to actually – or what can the Federal Government to prevent habitat destruction?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Well, we’ve right now engaged in rewriting our old, broken environmental laws to make sure that we are better protecting habitat not just for koalas but all of our threatened species. And also restoring habitat that’s been damaged in the past. So we need to better protect what we’ve still got. And we need to do that at the same time, of course, as we – we understand that there’s pressure to build more housing, to build a new road or a new railway. We need to work out how we can sustainably develop as we need to protect more of what’s precious, we also need to rehabilitate, revegetate some areas. And, in fact, a number of these grants that we are announcing today also have an element where we are restoring or replanting koala food trees.

Part of the $77 million of koala grants that we’re doing nationally, a lot of that money is actually going to local landcare groups and local environmental groups, including groups here in Queensland, to rehabilitate areas where we know koalas are present, get rid of the lantana, get rid of the dogs and cats if we can and also plant new feed trees for those koalas. Because they’re very, very sensitive to the type of food trees they have available. Koalas will usually only eat one or usually – occasionally two, but mostly only one type of tree. They get very used to that one type of tree, and they can – if you move a koala into a new environment and put them amongst trees that other koalas can eat, if that koala is not used to eating that tree, they can starve to death. They’re very, very sensitive to their habitat.

CATHY SCHNITZERLING: This is all great and admirable. A lot of dealing with symptoms and perhaps not the cause. What can the Federal Government – and I appreciate that you’re talking about looking at wildlife laws – but habitat destruction which happens, as you say, when we need to build infrastructure and much-needed housing or roads, how can we protect – it seems to me that, you know, it’s roads, it’s housing, it’s three levels of government that need to be working together. Is there a national plan where three levels of government can work together to actually make sure that we don’t lose koalas, which could happen, let’s face it, in my lifetime.

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Yeah, Cathy, exactly – this is exactly what we’re trying to do with rewriting our broken environmental laws. The laws that we have at a Federal Government were introduced during the Howard government years. And what we’ve seen under the legal regime we’ve got at the moment is a steady decline in nature. Our last State of the Environment report showed us that we are at a critical stage now of environmental destruction in Australia. We have to do better.

CATHY SCHNITZERLING: When was that report? I’m sorry, when was that report?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: The last State of the Environment report I released very soon after we came into government. It was presented to the previous government but it was kept secret by the previous Environment Minister Sussan Ley. So the last State of the Environment report showed us that we are on a very dangerous track for nature in Australia and we need to do better.

So we’ve got the environmental protection and biodiversity conservation laws that we are amending at the moment. And I suppose one of – there’s two key responses to your question: the first is what are we trying to do with these laws. We’re trying to leave nature better off even with the development that we know has to happen. So we have to build more houses. We have to, you know, put up solar farms and wind farms to make our transition to renewable energy. What can we do to protect the most important parts of the environment, to avoid development in those areas that are critical habitat and in develop areas that are of lower environmental value. And what can we do to repair some of the damage that we’ve already done. So that’s what our environmental laws will do.

You’ve asked do we coordinate with the Queensland government and local government. Yes, we need to get much better at doing that. And, in fact, I’ve already signed an agreement with the Queensland government to do regional-scale development plans including for, you know, large new areas of housing to make sure that if we’re going to build housing we’re still protecting the most important areas. And we’re also doing things like planting new wildlife corridors to connect up bits of remnant bushland so that even with new housing we’re leaving the environment better off in the long run.

CATHY SCHNITZERLING: It breaks my heart when I drive past a newly developing suburb where I see every single eucalypt levelled and not – no corridors, nothing left. I understand that’s not a federal responsibility, but it’s something that I am sure I am not the only one who sees that. It’s heart breaking.

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: And, Cathy, do you know the crazy thing about that is if you’re trying to buy a new house, actually you’re looking for a place that’s got mature trees. You’re looking for a place where there’s a connection to nature. So I think it’s – yes, we need to have better laws, but we also need to send a strong message to developers to say nobody wants to live in hot, baking, dry new developments. You do better with developing places where people want to live and where they can see mature trees left in place, where they can see areas of natural bushland remaining. You know, not just for the koalas but for all of our creatures.

CATHY SCHNITZERLING: And it actually cools your suburb as well.


CATHY SCHNITZERLING: So with all the money that you are, you know, putting forward today for this very, very worthy cause, is money saving wildlife a moot point if the climate keeps changing and the bushfires just keep coming?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Well, we know that [inaudible] more extreme weather events in the future. We’ve seen a couple of very wet years. We’ve had flooding across a lot of the eastern seaboard. We’re going into a hotter drier period. Queensland has already seen these bushfires returning because of that. So we need to better prepare for that come what may. And [indistinct] the Minister for Agriculture and I today announcing a $13 million program that will help with this bushfire preparation. So during the Black Summer bushfires a couple of years ago more than 8 million hectares of [inaudible] –

CATHY SCHNITZERLING: I think we’ve just – you just dropped out there just for a moment.

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Oh, I’m so sorry. I was just saying that during the Black Summer bushfires we lost about 8 million hectares of bushland and we lost an estimated 3 billion animals. And so we need to better prepare for the next bushfire season. We’re investing with local groups to [inaudible] know there’s a bushfire in a particular area where do we have to go to protect the threatened plants and animals. We’re working with these natural resource management organisations to do pre-emptive preparation as well. So, you know, there are some weeds, for example, that are highly flammable. If we take highly flammable weeds out of bushland we’re better preparing for bushfires should they eventuate.

But, yeah, I mean, of course we are worried about the impact of climate change. And that’s why this government is doing more than any Australian government in history to get us to net zero. We’re working on getting to 82 per cent renewable energy. We’ve got our safeguard mechanism which was supported in the parliament by the Greens political party and the Teals that will take us on a trajectory to net zero carbon emissions. Of course [inaudible] –

CATHY SCHNITZERLING: Minister, I think we’ll leave it there because your line is dropping out. But thank you very much for joining ABC Radio Brisbane this morning.

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Great to talk to you, Cathy. Thank you.