KIERAN GILBERT:  Joining me is the Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek. Tanya Plibersek, thanks for your time. You’ve had this ministerial discussion this week, and I know that a couple of the states – New South Wales, Victoria – are struggling to meet the deadline of June 2024 to finalise the plan. Are you looking at providing a bit of breathing space there, maybe delaying that end date for completion of the Murray‑Darling Basin Plan?


TANYA PLIBERSEK, MINISTER FOR THE ENVIRONMENT AND WATER: Well, it’s way too early to say something like that. I’m absolutely determined, as are all of the state and territory ministers that I met with yesterday to deliver on the Murray‑Darling Basin Plan in full. But we’ve got quite a long way still to go on delivery of that plan. I’ll give you an example. There’s one target of 450 gigalitres of additional water for the environment that was the condition for South Australia to sign on to the Murray‑Darling Basin Plan. Of that 450 gigalitre target, just two gigalitres were achieved under the previous government. So, we had a government for nine years that basically spent its time in office sabotaging the delivery of the Murray‑Darling Basin Plan.


The states and territories are very reassuring about the fact that they are committed to delivering the plan. I want to work with them constructively to do that. I’ll be meeting with Murray‑Darling Basin Ministers again early next year to look at how we achieve the remaining elements of the plan. But, as I’ve said consistently, nothing’s off the table. We need to achieve the plan.


Look, it seems absurd in a way to be talking about it now when there’s so much water, including flooding, in so many parts of the country, but we know that Australia is facing longer, hotter, drier periods in the future and we need to prepare for that now while we can.


GILBERT: Indeed, and South Australia says it’s not going to settle for anything less than those 450 gigalitres promised. So, you still sound optimistic that that can be landed, that deal. If not, obviously, buybacks are the option, aren’t they, for the Federal Government?


MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Well, as I’ve said, buybacks, voluntary buybacks, are certainly not off the table. There’s a range of ways that we can achieve these water targets. We can do efficiency projects on farms. We can do efficiency projects off farms, so the big infrastructure projects. We can do water buy-backs. We are being approached by people who are interested in selling their water. I mean, it is a bit of a bizarre situation, isn’t it, that you can sell your water to a foreign company or a foreign government, but you can’t sell it to the Australian Government for use to repair the environment? And all of these things have to be considered over coming months.


We need a plan to achieve the full extent of the Murray‑Darling Basin Plan. I’ve had great conversations with Murray‑Darling Basin Ministers. I mean, I’ll give you one example. Okay, in New South Wales, their water resource plans were three years late. They had 20 plans; not one of them submitted to the previous Government. We are well underway. I’ve completely signed off one. I’ve got another dozen or so before me at various stages of completion. The New South Wales Water Minister assures me that all of those plans will be in by the end of the year, and that’s important, because without those plans the Inspector‑General of Water Compliance can’t tell us whether New South Wales is doing the right thing or not.


I mean, I know that’s getting very technical, but the point I’m making is state governments that have really not had any sort of push from the federal level for some time – in fact, the Federal Government for years now has been making it more difficult to deliver on the plan by introducing all sorts of brown tape to prevent delivery. Well, we’re at the table now. We’re working cooperatively together.


GILBERT: A big story on the environment front today off the back of this pledge by the Federal Government going to sign up to Joe Biden’s methane pledge. It’s an aspiration, we’re told, not a target. I just want to play you a little of what the former Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce told me this afternoon and get your reaction.


BARNABY JOYCE: A pledge? Like it’s like a sobriety pledge? How are you gonna have a pledge and say I’m still going to stay on the grog? I mean they’re signing us to a pledge but it’s not the pledge that we want, and they’re going overseas to wine and dine and do the fancy things. They’re going to endear themselves to President Biden and to Jacinda Ardern – and what an economic powerhouse she’s turning New Zealand into – and pledging away our sovereignty.


GILBERT: I did put it to Barnaby Joyce that Meat & Livestock Australia has committed to carbon neutrality by 2030, but he said that people didn’t vote in MLA, they voted in the Government. Will this drive up grocery prices as he argues?


MINISTER PLIBERSEK: There’s not a single thing you can do to deliver on our climate change ambitions that Barnaby Joyce won’t criticise. They were the Government for nine years that had 22 different energy policies and didn’t land one. Meat & Livestock Australia, as you have said, have got their own plans to decarbonise their operations. The National Farmers Federation are supportive of our efforts broadly on climate change to reduce carbon pollution. Of course, we’re working with them on these additional pledges around methane and so on. We’ve got great opportunities. You know, if Australia can decarbonise its beef production, European markets throw open the doors to Australian beef, and that’s true of many markets around the world. We’ve got great Australian inventions like the asparagopsis food additive that is – I think it reduces methane by 90 per cent when you put the asparagopsis into the cow feed. So, let’s not catastrophise this as Barnaby Joyce wants to do any time anyone tries to do anything good for the environment.


GILBERT: You’ve recently announced that threatened species strategy. Obviously, dozens of species at risk in this country. The iconic one that we’re all focused on more than any – and it’s understandable – is the koala. How worried are you about the future of the koala? It is endangered. What’s its future like? Can we restore their population?


MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Well, we can, but we have to change what we’ve been doing. If we want to get different results, we need to change what we’re doing. We’ve got 1,900 plants and animals on the threatened species list. We’ve seen more than 100 extinctions since the colonisation of Australia, so we’re not headed in the right direction, we’re going in the wrong direction, and it does mean that we need to update our laws and we’re in the process of updating the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act at the moment. We have to update our economy. We need to make sure that our economic drivers support the protection and restoration of nature rather than its destruction, and that’s why we’re establishing a biodiversity or nature market in Australia so that the private sector can also support land restoration efforts. We need to work with farming communities. We know that by protecting and preserving parts of farmland we can provide greater habitat for threatened species like the koala, the greater glider. I mean, there’s a whole range of them.


And we’ve had really great responses from people right across Australia who want to work together to protect and preserve the environment we’ve got and restore some of what’s been destroyed, and we need to do that, because unless we provide the habitat for these endangered plants and animals, we’re never going to restore the numbers that we want to have the sort of populations that would protect them from extinction.


GILBERT: It is going to be the focus on a – well, there’s the climate talks, COP27, but COP15 on biodiversity. Are you attending that? It’s in Montreal, I believe, over the next month or so – maybe December, I think, from memory. But it’s basically to give biodiversity and protection the same focus as climate. Is that going to be a priority of yours? Will you be there?


MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Yeah, I’m hoping to go. Australia recently, of course, under the prime ministership of Anthony Albanese has signed up to the 30 by 30 pledge, which is protecting 30 per cent of our land and 30 per cent of our seas by 2030. And that is an ambitious pledge, but unless we protect more habitat, we’re going to keep seeing extinctions, and we’ve made a pledge of zero extinctions as well, so we need to work across the nation to make sure we’ve got adequate land so that we’ve got a decent amount of habitat for our species to survive.


I am hoping to go to Montreal; I’m not 100 per cent confirmed yet. But this global effort is really important. Australia can make a big contribution, but Australia on its own can’t fix these big global problems, so we need to be part of the community internationally that is pushing to protect enough of nature that these endangered species have a future.


GILBERT: Minister for Environment and Water, Tanya Plibersek, thanks.


MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Thanks. It’s great to talk to you.