PATRICIA KARVELAS, HOST: The Great Barrier Reef is one of our most precious ecosystems. Scientists have warned for years that global warming is threatening its survival. Now with the budget just four days away more than a billion dollars has been pledged to help protect the reef.


Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek joins us. Minister, welcome back to RN Breakfast.




KARVELAS: There’s $1.2 billion on the table here to 2030. What does that include?


PLIBERSEK: Well, it means that we can do important projects like stabilising riverbanks, replanting mangroves, reed beds and seagrass meadows to improve the water quality that’s coming from the land into the reef. It means that we can work with traditional owners who are controlling crown of thorns starfish outbreaks. It means we can work with commercial fishers to stop them getting bycatch in their nets, like dugongs and turtles. It means that we can work on better research.


We’re able now to replant coral, to control spawning so that we can replant coral in the areas where it’s been degraded. So, there’s a lot of exciting science going on on the reef as well. And together we hope to – these measures can start to turn around the health of the reef. It is still a beautiful, natural wonder of the world. We’ve got a little bit of breathing space. In the last couple of years, we’ve seen some of those corals come back because we’ve had cooler weather, and we need to build on that to protect and restore.


KARVELAS: You pledged a similar amount before the election. Is this new money?


PLIBERSEK: This is additional. This is additional because it’s in our first budget. So, it’s delivering on the promise we made.


KARVELAS: And earlier in the year the Coalition government committed $1 billion to the reef. Does that funding remain?


PLIBERSEK: Absolutely.


KARVELAS: Does it get redirected or replaced?


PLIBERSEK: No, no. No, no. So, this is $1.2 billion. We agreed with that billion dollars of spending, and we’re saying that’s not quite enough – we need to spend $1.2 billion over coming years. And it will mean things like a new research centre in Gladstone employing scientists that do really critical work on coastal ecosystems. It means more investment in, you know, large-scale restoration projects like reseeding seagrass meadows that animals use to breed and feed. It means making sure that we’re getting our vessels – I’m launching a new reef vessel today, and we’ve got two more in the works – those vessels get to the outer reaches of the reef and that we’ve got really good coverage.


Being able to get our scientists and our workers out there who are doing reef restoration projects, but also making sure that we’re staying up to date, making sure that the fisheries management is enforced, for example. So, it’s a very big, extensive project to protect and restore the Great Barrier Reef.


KARVELAS: The biggest risk to the reef, of course, is climate change. Last week the government signalled it will sign an international pledge to reduce methane emissions by 30 per cent by 2030. The Agriculture Minister Murray Watt told Breakfast that the pledge is just an aspirational goal. Can we be assured, Tanya Plibersek, that the government will take this goal seriously if it’s not binding?


PLIBERSEK: Yeah, look, I think we all know that climate change is one of the greatest threats to the reef along with water quality. We’re moving to zero net carbon emissions. We’ve legislated for that. I introduced legislation recently to increase protection of the ozone layer by reducing greenhouse gases.


This methane pledge is really important, and the important thing about it is that we’re working in partnership with the meat and livestock industry and other methane producers. They’ve got their own ambitions to deliver on this, and we’ve got such exciting opportunities to do it. You know that we’ve invested, for example, several millions of dollars to expand the production of asparagopsis, that really important food additive that promises to reduce methane by up to 90 per cent when you put it into livestock as a food additive. We’ve got some really exciting opportunities to work to reduce methane, and it reflects industry ambition as well.


KARVELAS: The Greens have indicated that they will push hard to stop your government from, for instance, opening up any new coal and gas production – no more gas fields, for instance. They say that there is an existential threat from any new fossil fuels. Clearly, that threat is intensely an issue for the Great Barrier Reef. Do you think that needs to be there? That climate trigger?


PLIBERSEK: Well, I think that’s why we need a strong and legislated target to get to zero net emissions and a credible pathway to get there. Zero net emissions doesn’t mean that there’ll be no sector of the economy ever that pollutes again – it means that we have to compensate. So, if the transport sector still has carbon emissions, we need to make sure that we’re reducing emissions in other areas that we’re investing in carbon sinks, like trees, like mangroves, like seagrass meadows, that also have in many cases an additional environmental benefit.


You know, I think you’ll always have extremes at either end of this argument. That we have to do as a nation is have a strong, credible pathway to zero net emissions and work to get there in a way that also benefits nature wherever we can.


KARVELAS: Tanya Plibersek, the Treasurer Jim Chalmers told us on RN Breakfast yesterday that the cost of climate change will be in the budget this year for the first time. How do you count that cost? Will the destruction of our natural habitats be part of that counting?


PLIBERSEK: Yeah, I think the really important thing that Jim’s doing in the budget papers is starting to look at some of those additional indicators. So, you know, if you look at an indicator, a straight indicator like GDP, it doesn’t tell the whole story of what’s happening in the economy. After bushfires, when there’s a massive amount of reconstruction work going on, you measure economic activity increasing – you know, unemployment might go down because people are engaged in rebuilding. But nobody says a bushfire is good. The human misery, the natural destruction, obviously that’s terrible.


So, looking at more sophisticated measures of what’s happening nationally. So, you can look at things like air quality, for example, or what’s happening with threatened species. And that tells a more sophisticated story of what’s happening in our economy.


KARVELAS: Speaking of counting the cost, more than $220,000 was spent rebranding the Bureau of Meteorology. Was there any justification for that?


PLIBERSEK: I don’t understand why it was spent. I think people make their own minds up whether they are going to call it the BOM or the Bureau. And I have obviously asked for a full accounting of this contract that was entered into under the previous government and the circumstances around it.


But I am a little bit concerned, Patricia, now, that the BOM, as I like to call them, has a pretty important job to do – a very important job to do, particularly at a time like this with extreme weather events and flooding in many parts of the country. I don’t want them distracted by this, you know, continuing as an area of focus for them.


And I just heard from my colleague Murray Watt, he’s just back from Tasmania where some of the worst floodings occurred. The farmers down there were saying that they got a great warning from the BOM this time about potential floods. They were able to move their stock to higher ground. That’s what the BOM should be doing. That’s what they do so well. I think we could probably let them get on with it now.


KARVELAS: Fair enough. Sport and politics are never far away. And in the past week, there’s been a big debate about mining and energy companies sponsoring national sports teams such as the Australian Diamonds, the Freo Dockers and the national cricket team. Are the days of fossil fuel companies sponsoring sport over?


PLIBERSEK: I think that’s just a matter for the teams. I think the players obviously should have their say and the teams make up their own minds. It’s not something that the government needs to decide on.


KARVELAS: I just want to turn to the Greens senator Lidia Thorpe. She resigned as the party’s Deputy Leader in the Senate after revelations she had dated an ex-bikie boss while on a law enforcement committee. Now a bigger question is being asked – the opposition is saying she’s not fit for parliament. Do you think she’s fit for parliament?


PLIBERSEK: Look, I think if you’ve got a conflict, a potential conflict – you know, you can date whoever you like – but if there’s a conflict there you need to declare that. That’s clear. That’s unequivocal. It also seems that the Leader of the Greens was notified about this conflict, and it’s not clear what action was taken in response to that. I think that’s really the next set of questions that should be asked.


KARVELAS: She remains obviously a senator, but she also remains the spokesperson for Indigenous as. So, she hasn’t really been stripped of all of her roles. Do you think that’s appropriate?


PLIBERSEK: I’m just not going to get into kind of speculation here. I think that there’s certain very clear facts – if you’ve got a potential conflict because of someone you’re dating, you have to declare that conflict. You have to remove yourself from any decision-making around that. The conflict it seems was notified to the leader of the party and the next, you know, matter for investigation, I guess, is whether any steps were taken by the party leadership, the Greens party leadership, to reduce the risks around that conflict. It’s not clear what the answer is to that question. Beyond that, I’m not going to get into a game of speculation.


KARVELAS: Yeah, is this something that the Greens should just resolve internally or is there a role for privilege committee or other elements of the parliament?


PLIBERSEK: I think they need to be very clear about whether – you know, what steps were taken to deal with any potential conflict. I think it is in the public interest to know that. The mechanism for making that clear I don’t have a view about.


KARVELAS: Just finally, Liz Truss has resigned as Leader of the Conservatives. When Boris Johnson was Prime Minister, he was a strong advocate for a global effort to reduce carbon emissions. Would it be a good thing for the environment if he returned to lead the country?


PLIBERSEK: Well, I guess that’s really very clearly a matter for the UK Conservatives. But the thing to say about climate change ambition is that the UK Conservatives for a long time were well ahead of their Australian counterparts. It was disappointing when Liz Truss was elected that she signalled a bit of a change in that position. I hope that whoever the new leader might be would return to that high ambition on climate action. I think it’s very clear both in the UK and here in Australia that there’s very strong support for taking real action to protect our natural environment from the effects of climate change.


KARVELAS: As you watch the chaos in the UK, of course, Australia has gone through a bit of chaos in the past in relation to prime ministers – both our conservative party and our Labor Party – your party – have done that. Is there a sort of cautionary tale here?


PLIBERSEK: Well, I think as you point out, Patricia, we’ve done our fair share of – we’ve done our fair share of chaos like that in the past. I think it’s a reminder to us and, you know, our friends around the world that it’s important to have stability, to focus on what matters. And that means delivering improved quality of life, a stronger economy, a better environment for the people who elected you.


KARVELAS: Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek, thank you for joining us.


PLIBERSEK: Thank you.