25 June 2024




SUBJECTS: UNESCO recognising Australian Government’s ongoing work to protect the Great Barrier Reef; Peter Dutton’s risky nuclear pan; Peter Dutton’s son; Renewable energy approvals; Aboriginal Water Entitlements Program.

TANYA PLIBERSEK, MINISTER FOR THE ENVIRONMENT AND WATER: Well, it’s a great pleasure to be here this morning with Senator Nita Green, who’s the Special Envoy for the Reef, to provide some great news that we’ve received overnight from UNESCO. UNESCO for some time have been considering whether to list the Great Barrier Reef, our most magnificent world heritage property, as in danger, in danger from the impacts of climate change. Under the previous government, under the Morrison Government, UNESCO had moved towards listing the reef as in danger as a reflection of the previous government’s lack of action on climate change and the very real risks that was posing to the Great Barrier Reef. Since coming to government, our government has acted on climate change and has invested more than $1.2 billion in measures to protect and enhance the Great Barrier Reef because no‑one is more determined, no‑one is more dedicated to improving and protecting our reef than the Australian Labor Party and the Albanese Government, working in partnership with Steven Miles and the Queensland Government.

What we’ve seen, because of the action we’ve taken to bring down carbon emissions in Australia and to invest directly in measures like improving water quality for the reef and dealing with outbreaks of crown‑of‑thorns starfish, empowering Indigenous Sea Rangers to do work on reef restoration, because of these measures and because of our action on climate change, UNESCO has recommended a draft listing for the reef that does not have it as in danger. It’s rejected the idea of listing the reef as in danger.

Now, this doesn’t mean that climate change is not a risk to the Great Barrier Reef or any reef around the world. In fact, we’ve seen coral bleaching this summer on the Great Barrier Reef and we’ve seen coral bleaching on most reefs around the world. Both the Northern Hemisphere and Southern Hemisphere this year have seen some very severe instances of coral bleaching. It shows that it is absolutely vital that Australia continues to work to reduce the impacts of climate change and that nations around the world work together to meet our carbon pollution reduction targets to get to net zero by 2050. This is a recognition that Australia has moved to doing its share both on climate action and on direct measures to protect the reef.

Now I’m going to ask Senator Green to say a few words. She has been out in the water and on the land in catchments that lead onto the reef, seeing firsthand the benefits of the work that we’re doing. Thanks.

NITA GREEN, SPECIAL ENVOY TO THE GREAT BARRIER REEF: Thanks very much, Minister. This is really welcome news for reef communities that call the Great Barrier Reef home. We’re really pleased by UNESCO’s draft recommendation today.

As all of you know, the Great Barrier Reef is a global tourism icon. It’s also home to precious marine life and it supports thousands of jobs, particularly in regional Queensland. And that’s why we’re really supportive of UNESCO’s draft recommendation today to not list the reef as in danger. This draft decision acknowledges the hard work and progress of the Australian and Queensland governments in making significant commitments to protect the reef, and it also acknowledges that we’re actually implementing those commitments and we’re doing that at a fast pace.

The draft decision, of course, acknowledges the $1.2 billion of record funding that we are investing in the Great Barrier Reef, but it acknowledges that we are putting that funding into the places where it matters most, into the water and into the catchments. I was pleased that the draft decision acknowledged the stream bank remediation work that we’ve already seen started and underway in reef catchments across Queensland. It acknowledges the coastal restoration program, which we were talking about just last week in Townsville, and it acknowledges the importance of programs like the COTS control program and the joint field management program in protecting the reef and building its resilience against climate futures.

The reason I’m really proud of this decision, though, is because it acknowledges the incredibly hard work of a huge team of people, particularly those in Queensland who work each and every day to protect the Great Barrier Reef. I know that the Great Barrier Reef is the best-managed reef in the entire world, but that is a really hard job. It is a big property and it takes a significant amount of daily energy from an amazing team of people to keep the reef safe. It also takes partnership. That’s why you’ve seen tourism operators, traditional owners, farmers and scientists working hand in hand, closely together, all pulling in the same direction because they understand that the reef is an environmental and economic asset as well. Some of these people I get to meet and work with every single day. People like Jason Bradford, a farmer in Mackay who’s restoring his own wetland; people like Brett Murphy a science teacher in Belgian Gardens in Townsville who’s inspiring the next generation of reef guardians; someone like Natalie Smith, a master reef guide who’s working on our tourism reef protection initiative program; or someone like Professor Emma Jackson who heads up the CMERC team in Gladstone who’s working each and every day to protect seagrass meadows; not to mention the hundreds of people who work for our partners and agencies, particularly up in North Queensland. I’m so proud of them today and I want to say thank you to them.

The Great Barrier Reef is my home and it supports the thousands of jobs that support the communities that I represent, so today is a really proud today for those communities and I’m really pleased for the draft decision. We know that there is more work to do, but we will continue to work with UNESCO or other partners around the world who want to join with us and protect the Great Barrier Reef for generations to come. Thanks, Minister.


JOURNALIST: Minister, on climate targets, you welcome the news of this draft recommendation. I’m just wondering if you view that as a sign that there’s sufficient emissions reduction in Labor’s 2030 climate target. I’m just reflecting on calls from marine biologists at James Cook University or University of Queensland [inaudible] climate change is the biggest threat to the reef and then saying Australia’s climate targets are consistent with global action to reduce warming to 1.5 degrees, rather than sort of the two degrees figure that we see Labor is consistent with. Do you see it as a sign that you can keep your current climate target or do you want your government to go further with the climate target?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Well, I think it’s very instructive that in the very early days of the Albanese government, sources close to UNESCO said that between the previous government and this government on climate action it’s a bit like night and day. I think this draft decision very clearly acknowledges that we have a much more ambitious climate target than the previous government and importantly, we’re on track to get there. Of course, we now have a very clear contrast between Labor’s plan to get emissions down to net zero by 2050, a legislated pathway to get there, and the Leader of the Opposition and the Liberals and Nationals whose nuclear fantasy is a recipe for keeping coal in our energy grid much longer and seeing higher emissions for longer.

JOURNALIST: Minister, in the decision UNESCO still urges for a more ambitious climate target. How do you respond to that?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Look, I think around the world people who are observing the impacts not just on our Great Barrier Reef but reefs and ecosystems everywhere understand that climate change is a real threat. It’s a real threat to nature. It’s a real threat to our cities and suburbs, to our economy. We know that. And that’s why we have set ambitious targets as a government and that’s why we’re so determined to get there. What we’re struggling against is an Opposition that is backing climate denialism. I think the real tragedy here is that if Peter Dutton’s plan for nuclear gets up, what we’ll see are higher emissions for longer as coal has to stay in our energy grid for longer, waiting for nuclear reactors to be built.

JOURNALIST: You are the government.

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: We are the government and we’ve set a target of net zero by 2050 and we’ve got a legislated pathway to get there with a 43 per cent emissions reduction target in 2030 that we’re on track to meet, and it’s no easy feat, I can tell you. It’s a big change in our economy and it’s done fighting the Liberals and the Nationals every step of the way. We actually have an Opposition, an alternative government, that’s saying there’s too many renewables going into our energy grid. That is literally what they are saying right now. So, I think perhaps if we’re going to talk about more ambitious targets, we should be a little bit focused on what the real alternative is here and that is a Liberal and National government, and it’s hooked its wagon to a nuclear fantasy that will mean more coal in our energy grid for longer.

JOURNALIST: So, will you outline your 2035 target before the election to show your alternative?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Well, we’ve said very clearly that we will release 2035 targets. When, how, all those questions are a question for the Climate and Energy Minister. Today we’re here talking about the Great Barrier Reef and the impact that climate change is having on reefs all around the world. We would not be in denial about that in the way that the Liberals and Nationals are.

JOURNALIST: Minister, what’s your response to reports that Peter Dutton’s son has been caught with a white powder?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: I’ve got no response to that. Peter Dutton’s a public figure; his son is not.

JOURNALIST: I’m just wondering if you can give us an update on how the negotiations are going on the Environmental Protection Australia legislation. There’s obviously a lot of other members of Parliament looking to make amendments have you [inaudible]?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Well, this is a pretty simple proposition. If people want better protection for the Australian environment, they should vote for Australia’s first-ever Environmental Protection Agency. They should vote for more transparency and better data with the establishment of Environment Information Australia. They should vote for the tougher penalties that are included in this bill, taking the maximum penalty for environmental wrongdoing from around $15 million to up to as high as $780 million. I mean, much tougher penalties. And the capacity for environment protection orders, which, effectively, are stop-work orders if there is a project that’s damaging the environment. So, this as a package provides much stronger environmental protections. If people say they want to protect the Australian environment, they should vote, yes. Very clear.

JOURNALIST: In order to reach the climate targets, you need many more renewables put into the system, but as you have approved more than 50 renewable projects, but at the same time some of those renewable proponents are saying the approval process of the states as well as at the federal level is still too slow and it’s stopping them getting new projects built. Do you accept that there needs to be something else done to speed up that process so that those renewables are put into the system?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Well, we need faster clearer decisions for project proponents as well as stronger environmental protections, and that’s what our law reform is all about.

Let me go to the question of approvals for renewables specifically. We’ve approved 54 projects. That’s enough to power more than three million homes. We’ve approved enough new electricity generation – the equivalent would be around eight of Peter Dutton’s large nuclear reactors. So, we’ve approved a massive amount of new renewable energy. We’ve already seen a 25 per cent increase of renewable energy in our energy grid. So, this transition is real. It’s happening. We’ve already approved more projects, 54 more projects. We’ve got another 135 renewable energy projects in the pipeline.. We’ve seen a massive increase in on-time approvals. Under the previous government on-time approvals were running at 46 per cent. Under our government, they’re running at 84 per cent. We’ve almost doubled on-time approvals.

Onshore wind projects are being approved three times faster under our government than under the previous government. That doesn’t mean that we’re not scrutinising them. In fact, I’ve said no to one onshore wind project because it would have had unacceptable impacts on a world heritage area. So, I think we’re getting the balance right. We’ve also, in recent budgets, invested another $134 million in speeding up approvals by making sure we’ve got the right staff, the right data, the right systems, to see those approvals progressed efficiently and quickly through the system. We know that we need to get those energy projects built. We need to get them built in the right way in the right places so they have minimal environmental impacts while providing renewable energy, the cheaper, cleaner, renewable energy, that we want in our grids.

JOURNALIST: So, are the states too slow?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Look, I think it is important to have proper scrutiny of any project; where we can do it quickly and more efficiently, that’s a good thing. I don’t think you should underestimate the fact that in two years, we’ve approved enough additional renewable energy to power more than three million homes. Can you picture the difference in the time it would take to get approval to build eight large nuclear reactors? That’s Peter Dutton’s alternative. That’s the Opposition’s alternative right now. They are out there every day already saying there are too many renewables in the grid, we should slam the brakes on renewables approvals and developments but fast-track nuclear. Well, even fast-tracking nuclear means no new energy sources for probably 10, 15 years. If you look at the time blowouts and the cost blowouts for nuclear projects for around the world, who knows how long it will take? Who knows how much it will cost? Who knows how much power will be generated? Peter Dutton’s policy is an excuse to do nothing to reduce carbon emissions from our electricity grid for decades to come. That is a risk to the Great Barrier Reef.

JOURNALIST: Minister, just on the basin, when can First Nations expect their share of the commonwealth funding? When is that likely to hit the ground for First Nations?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: In fact, I met with the group that’s guiding that process and doing the purchasing just yesterday and I told them full steam ahead, so that work is progressing very well.

JOURNALIST: Minister, have you received advice about what the Opposition’s nuclear energy policy would mean for world heritage status?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: I haven’t received advice about what it would mean for world heritage status but I can tell you UNESCO’s original concern and the reason that they were saying to the Morrison Government that the reef was being considered for an in danger listing was because of the go-slow they saw in Australia on climate action. Make no mistake: this nuclear plan is just another version of the go-slow we’ve seen from the Coalition on climate policy from the beginning. This is another iteration of their climate scepticism and the only impact that this nuclear policy will have on emissions is to see emissions go up because coal in particular will have to stay in our energy market, in our energy grid, for longer because nuclear is decades away.

JOURNALIST: Minister, there’s some talk Fatima Payman [inaudible]?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: I’m not going to speculate at all about something that may or may not happen.

JOURNALIST: The Solomon Islands Prime Minister is in Canberra this week. How important is more ambitious climate targets for securing a relationship with the Pacific?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: I can tell you people who live in the Pacific, including Pacific leaders, remember Peter Dutton laughing about water lapping at the door of our Pacific neighbours. Of course, climate change is an existential threat for a number of Pacific nations. They are seeing already the impact of rising sea levels on their coastlines, on their ability to grow crops, on the water table, the increased salinity in the water table in places where previously they’ve been able to get drinking water and now can’t because of saline incursion, and they know that this is an existential threat and that’s why we are continuing to work so closely with our Pacific neighbours on our global targets to reduce carbon emissions.

Thank you. Thanks, everyone.