ABC Radio National Breakfast Interview with Minister Plibersek and Patricia Karvelas

17 April 2024





PATRICIA KARVELAS: Tanya Plibersek once described Australia as the extinction capital of the world when she announced a plan to fix – and I quote – broken laws that would aim to stop more extinctions from occurring and to protect Australia’s unique landscape. Those laws are the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act. The government promised to make wide-ranging changes to the act and introduce an independent Environment Protection Agency to oversee them. Legislation for an EPA will be introduced when Parliament resumes, but it’s unclear when the broader changes to the act will go ahead.


Tanya Plibersek is the Federal Environment Minister. I spoke to her a short time ago. Welcome to the program.




KARVELAS: An independent environmental protection agency was one of the recommendations made by the Graeme Samuel review. When will you legislate the rest of his recommendations?


MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Well, actually Professor Samuel didn’t particularly recommend an Environment Protection Agency; this is an additional commitment that we made before the last election because we think there needs to be a tough cop on the beat. Professor Samuel did say that in a lot of cases businesses were treating fines that were issued as just the cost of doing business – they weren’t high enough and they weren’t consistently applied. And what we found when I did an audit of offsets over the last few months is around one in seven businesses hadn’t done even what they promised to do as part of the conditions of their development.


So we agree that a tough cop on the beat with much higher penalties with the capacity to do investigation is a really important next step in our environmental law reform. We’re also in this second stage of our environmental law reform establishing a body called Environment Information Australia, which will give much better data to the public and to the government about how we’re tracking on the environment. And then the third element of these reforms is an investment to make sure that businesses get their projects assessed more quickly. We’ve taken on-time assessment from around 46 per cent under the previous government to around 84 per cent on my watch. But I believe we can do even better.


KARVELAS: You’ve been reported as delaying indefinitely an overhaul of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act –


MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Well, that’s wrong.


KARVELAS: Okay, you’re saying it’s wrong. But let me ask you this: is it because you got warnings from Western Australia, from the Labor Government there that there would be a big backlash to that? Is that why you’ve delayed it?


MINISTER PLIBERSEK: No, absolutely not. Absolutely not. Of course we’re working with all of the state and territory governments, but West Australia doesn’t mark my homework. We are progressing as expeditiously as we can within the constraints we’ve got. Professor Samuel was very clear yesterday that he always thought it was the right thing to do to do this reform in stages because it is an enormous reform. The current act runs to well over a thousand pages. What we replace it with will be similar in size and complexity. It is a big and complex drafting task.


KARVELAS: Is it right, though, that the WA Labor Premier Roger Cook lobbied the Prime Minister and yourself against imposing another layer of what, you know, they see as green tape on their economy and that made you pause?




KARVELAS: But they did lobby, didn’t they?


MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Well, State and Territory Governments constantly talk to the Federal Government about all sorts of things. And I’ve met with Roger Cook on multiple occasions, including up in, you know, beautiful parts of Western Australia that we’re seeking to achieve World Heritage listing for. We’ve got a great working relationship, as I do with the other states and territories. And I have to say, Patricia, the delays here, if there are any delays, are because we’re doing a really thorough job of consultation on what will end up being well over a thousand pages of legislation. It is the most consultative development of legislation that I’ve been part of as the minister –


KARVELAS: So instead of – so you’re saying it’s not being delayed indefinitely? You want it – do you want it legislated by the end of the year?


MINISTER PLIBERSEK: We’re absolutely full steam ahead. We’re – there’s no taking our foot off the accelerator here. But it’s a big and complex job and the reason I didn’t want to wait to establish the Environment Protection Agency is because I asked for an audit of projects last year that included offsets. That means if a development is doing some damage to nature it is supposed to compensate for that damage with an offset. I was worried that offsets weren’t working. I got that audit and it showed that around one in seven developments that we audited had not complied with the promises they made to protect the environment. I think it’s time for a tough cop on the beat.


So as well as setting up the Environment Protection Agency, we’re substantially increasing fines. We’re bringing them into line with serious financial crimes. So the highest amount that a body could be fined is $780 million, very much higher than what we’ve got at the moment, and penalties for individuals can go up to seven years’ jail.


The other thing that Environment Protection Australia will be able to do is order stop work orders. So they’ll be able to issue Environment Protection Orders. If we think someone is breaking the law today, they can issue a stop work order called an Environment Protection Order immediately. We’ve also given that Environment Protection Agency the ability to do this work. There will be a permanent body set up within the department in the first instance transferring to EPA when it’s established that will be monitoring compliance and enforcement –




MINISTER PLIBERSEK: And I’ve asked them in particular to look at offsets and to look at illegal land clearing, because we know that this is a problem right now.


KARVELAS: Huge one. You’re calling the EPA independent, but as minister you’ll still be able to override its decisions. Doesn’t that undermine its independence?


MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Well, it’s much more independent than having public servants that answer to me and the department doing the work. And certainly when comes to compliance and auditing, I won’t be able to interfere in the work that they’re doing then.


KARVELAS: But you will be able to override their decisions?


MINISTER PLIBERSEK: No. No, not when they’re – not when we’re doing this sort of compliance work. In the stage where the EPA take over doing the assessments and approvals of applications to, you know, build a new solar farm or whatever it is, there will be the ability for the minister in the – to what’s – call in a proposition, a proposal, because there will be instances – some very unusual instances – where there is something that’s in the national interest and it’s important for the government of the day to have a say over that.


KARVELAS: I want to move just to talk about the Great Barrier Reef, if we can, one of Australia’s most precious natural heritage sites. It’s under extreme stress right now, as you know. Coral reefs globally are under extreme stress. Do you accept that is the new reality?


MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Yes, I do. And I think the recent reports we’ve seen of coral reefs around the world being under stress are extremely concerning. We know that it’s been happening to the Great Barrier Reef, we monitor very closely. But seeing what we’ve been saying – that this is not unique to the Great Barrier Reef – proven so graphically is – it’s quite heartbreaking. And it’s the reason that we’re investing $1.2 billion to protect our reef. It’s the reason we’re sharing our reef restoration and adaptation science with countries particularly in our region.


We know a lot of our neighbours depend on their own reefs for their food, for their tourism industries. We want to help their reefs cope as well. And it’s the reason that one of the first things we did when we came into government is sign up for our trajectory to net zero. We know that we have to be a good global citizen when it comes to getting Australian emissions down.


KARVELAS: Tanya Plibersek, on another issue – but you are a Sydney MP – the stabbing at the church in Western Sydney on Monday night has, of course, been declared a terrorist attack. Do you think parts of Australia are losing social cohesion?


MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Well, Patricia, just before I say anything about social cohesion, I have to say that it’s been a shocking week. We are all thinking about the victims of these crimes, their families, anybody who has witnessed them.


The second thing I would say about this is this is an opportunity for our community leaders to do what they do best – which is reach out the hand of friendship and love to make sure that we are working together between cultural groups and across cultural groups to bring calm to the situation. That’s what we need to do now.


We also need to support the police in their work. And the fact that police turn up to an incident and fear for their own safety is not acceptable.


KARVELAS: Thank you so much for your time.




KARVELAS: Tanya Plibersek is the Environment Minister.