Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities
Doorstop interview: Tasmanian Forests, World Heritage Nomination
17 January 2013
TONY BURKE: Thanks very much for gathering today. First of all, it's my first time here since the fires and, like all Australians, the thoughts of all Australians have very much been with Tasmanians during the difficult period that's happened in recent weeks. My time here today has been very much focused on some of the next stages of working through the issues on Tasmanian forestry.
As you might notice from how I'm dressed, I'm on leave still. I've interrupted it today because we are approaching a deadline for World Heritage nomination and I wanted to get an update from different groups as to where they stood. Last year I made clear that if the Upper House had approved the legislation, then I knew there would be a nomination for World Heritage that would go in. If they had rejected it, I knew that there would be no nomination for World Heritage that would go in.
Instead, we've ended up with a situation, which I confess I had never foreseen, which was that they would not make a decision last year and would put it off to committee. A committee which, I understand from conversations I've had, is actually running today. I'm not here because of the committee meeting. That timing is actually coincidental. I've organised today based on when I was able to get down.
The challenge that we have is that Australia has never been a nation which has put forward nominations for World Heritage and then withdrawn them. Australia puts forward nominations if we believe they should be added to the World Heritage list and if we don't believe they should be put forward, we don't put them forward.
The challenge that we have now is the circumstances around a potential World Heritage nomination as part of the conservation outcomes of the forestry agreement, is something where we don't know if the whole thing hangs together or if it doesn't. As you'd all know, I've been quite committed that I didn't want to have a situation where we were cherry-picking different parts of the agreement.
That means a decision needs to be made before the end of this month and I do not know what that decision will be. But a decision needs to be made before the end of this month whether or not the World Heritage extension goes forward on behalf of the Australian Government to the World Heritage committee.
The proposal for World Heritage that's been put to us by signatories is more than a hundred and thirty thousand hectares within a much larger area of a total conservation outcome. So for the first tranche that people have talked about for a conservation outcome, it's a sub-set of that, a small portion of that, but nonetheless a very significant area of Tasmania.
One of the challenges that has been there with the agreement is to make sure that there was significant industry gains and gains for jobs that would happen at each stage of the process in that they would move in tandem. The change of timing that we've had with the committee really throws that entire process on its head. An end of January deadline, which made sense if the legislation had been passed last year, is now extraordinarily difficult to navigate, given where we're at in the legislative process.
So today I've taken the opportunity to meet with some from industry, to meet with the Tasmanian Government, and to meet with the President of the Tasmanian Legislative Council simply to at this point articulate the problem that we're working through. Some people say that if a nomination doesn't go forward that that effectively would blow the entire agreement apart. Others say that if a nomination were to go forward that it would run the risk of wrecking the balance between industry outcomes keeping pace with environmental outcomes.
At this stage, I cannot tell you whether or not a nomination will go forward for World Heritage. What I can guarantee, though, is if a nomination were to go forward it will not be withdrawn. The position of the Commonwealth will be we will only put things forward to the World Heritage committee if we believe they should be adopted. There's some difficult challenges now on working that through, both for the signatories group and for the Tasmanian Government.
I thought it was important, out of respect for the processes that the Tasmanian Upper House is going through, even though I certainly didn't welcome the decision to go down that path. I think it's certainly important still to show the respect to that House of Parliament, to let them know the challenge that I'm now working through.
The boundary outcomes for World Heritage have been long cherished by many people. If they were to go forward, it would be a very significant environmental outcome and, if it were to go forward, industry will understandably be wanting to see some sort of further commitment on the way through. But exactly where that process lands, I don't know. All I wanted to make sure was that I was able to bring you up to date on the process as it goes forward. So effectively today we're at this point.
I can't tell you whether or not I'll be putting forward a nomination for a boundary extension for World Heritage. I do know that if that sort of environmental outcome is to be achieved, significant outcomes for jobs and for industry should keep in lock-step with it. And I can also say that if a nomination were to go forward, it won't be withdrawn.
Where we go to from here is something that will become clear over the next week and coming days and certainly I think it's a reasonable expectation that I'll see you here again before we reach the end of the month.
QUESTION: Might there be something being cooked up that could help the industry side of things, run in parallel with this?
TONY BURKE: There may well be ways of doing it. There may well be. But effectively the strength of this the whole way through, and in political terms it's been a challenge, because in political terms we haven't approached it from a trading land for votes way of handling things. That's traditionally how conservation outcomes in Tasmania have happened. We've done it the right way.
We've done it making sure industry is walking every step with us and we've made sure that significant social - if it does come together, there's significant social licence for industry as a result. But exactly how we keep an environmental outcome in lock-step with outcomes for jobs is something where I can tell you I'm committed to.
I've asked various parts of industry to think very deeply and quickly about it, but ultimately at the end of this month whether or not they're able to come back with something will determine whether or not the Australian Government puts forward a World Heritage nomination.
QUESTION: From your point of view, is all the paperwork that the Commonwealth needs to do done? Would it all be ready?
TONY BURKE: Oh, it's either done or very near done. I've had officials working on this for some months, always on the basis that it will only go forward if we have the basis of an agreement. Now, at that time I expected that the work would either be submitted if the legislation here was passed, or it would be shredded if the legislation failed. We've ended up in a third world, which, as I've said before, I hadn't contemplated.
So exactly what pathway we take over those coming days is something that I still want to work through with stakeholders. I still want to work through with the various representatives here in Tasmania.
QUESTION: Are you putting pressure on the Upper House MPs?
TONY BURKE: Absolutely none. They're elected Members of Parliament. The decisions they make are their own. There is pressure coming on them from all sides and I don't think anyone's precious about it. That's part of being a politician. If you want to be elected to a parliament, then pressure will be put on you.
There are industry groups who will say that there are significant jobs challenges that are happening as a result of the legislation not having been passed last year. And that's something that all of us as Members of Parliament have to be willing to take on that responsibility for decisions that we make.
QUESTION: Did Sue Smith give you an indication that it's something that Legislative Councillors care about, the World Heritage listing?
TONY BURKE: Oh, look, we talked about the principles. I wouldn't put it in those terms, but certainly the President acknowledged the significance of the issue.
QUESTION: So it could - I'm sorry.
QUESTION: What kind of outcomes for jobs in industry might be on the table? Might they include some commitment for the new, you know, types of industry - industries in industrial processing? What kinds of things might be worth thinking about?
TONY BURKE: The question really is, I didn't want any money to roll out until we had certainty as to what the outcomes would be. If a World Heritage nomination were to go forward, then there's potentially certainty about that part of it. Now, it's a fractional sub-set of the total area that's being spoken about, but notwithstanding that it's still significant.
And the question of whether or not a portion gets dealt with in line with the World Heritage list is a live question now. Whether that was through voluntary exits, whether it was through industry assistance, or whether it was through broader regional development is something that there's no fixed Government opinion on.
QUESTION: These deadlines aren't really matching up, though, because we're obviously not going to have another house committee result for some time. What are you anticipating could change between now and the end of the month that could see - that's going to make a decision one way or another?
TONY BURKE: Look, I don't think there's anything that the Legislative Council will do within that timeframe that will give us clarity as to whether or not we're going to see legislation passed. I might be wrong on that. But I don't have any impression that their process will be finished within that timeframe.
Therefore, it's important that I pay them the respect of bringing them up to date on what their timelines have now brought about. But then to also have intense conversations with the Government of Tasmania and with various industry groups in particular.
QUESTION: If it does go ahead…
QUESTION: So what will make this decision then? What is it going to be that gets this nomination either over the line [inaudible]?
TONY BURKE: Well, effectively both governments have worked on the basis that where there's agreement among the signatories, they're the issues that we want to progress. We want them to have ownership of these issues in a way that hasn't happened previously. So if we can get agreement among the signatories and it's something that both governments can work with, then we go ahead. But if those premises can't be reached, then the deadline at the end of this month will come and go without a nomination going forward. And I can't tell you which outcome will land.
QUESTION: If the Upper House does see it as significant, though, and you've progressed with it while they're still doing their committee, is there a chance they might through the toys out of the crib?
TONY BURKE: All legislative options are open to the Tasmanian Upper House at all points and I think, as last year proved, I'm not good at predicting which way they'll go.
QUESTION: So exactly what do you want to have in your hand from Tasmania in order to progress the nomination?
TONY BURKE: I want there to be agreement with the signatories as to what would go forward and what the conditions around it would be. I want it to be something that as a Commonwealth we can work with and something that the Tasmanian Government does not oppose.
QUESTION: So you need those industry bodies within the signatory group to say that they're happy regardless, for all of those nominations to progress, whether this deal is there or it isn't.
TONY BURKE: That's right. They may decide that they can't and a consequence of that could be that the whole thing blows apart. But I think there's an opportunity here and I'm hopeful that people take it, but I'm not going to breach the goodwill that's been shown for a couple of years now - and we're up to nearly a couple of years now - where we said we would do this a different way.
I don't want to trash that goodwill. I want us to work with it. But there are some timelines which I don't think anyone from the Upper House could say were timelines that I've chosen. But they're timelines that we've now been landed with and I want there to be full transparency of the challenges that they've brought on.
QUESTION: Could the balance be a show of support in the markets?
TONY BURKE: That may well be one of the things that industry want. But part of the strength of this has been, by having the environmental groups at the table, it's forced them to deliver levels of social licence that hasn't been available previously. And by having industry at the table, it's meant that any programs that are designed are designed for what they actually need. They're not designed to throw money around so politicians can cut ribbons.
QUESTION: To your knowledge now, are the ETOs and industry groups in conversation about this whole issue, about what conditions might be applied for the…
TONY BURKE: Yeah, they've been aware of this problem for a little while now. But I thought it was important for me to come down and have a number of conversations face to face.
QUESTION: Is it risky to proceed with just one part of the deal when we don't even know, you know, if the legislation will be approved in the end?
TONY BURKE: I wouldn't frame it the way you have. It's certainly more complex than if the legislation were already through. It does mean there is one part of the decision-making which is going to need to be taken by Government, regardless of where Parliament's - whether they've finished their processes or not, because of timelines that have been in place for many years.
This deadline isn't something new. It's something that's been around for many years. It's the reason that, when I got off the plane here at Hobart, when I came back from the Antarctic, that I said I wasn't sure how the agreement could now be implemented. It's exactly for this reason.
So I flagged it from the moment the Legislative Council made that decision. It's their constitutional right to have more process if that's what they want. There are consequences that flow from it. It means that now there are some challenges in bringing things together. Whether we're able to bring it together and get to a nomination or not, I don't know. If I'm able to be helpful in that process, I will be.
QUESTION: If we don't get it through by the end of the month, when's our next opportunity to put forward a nomination like this?
TONY BURKE: It's an annual deadline and I think the reality is that the signatories would not hold together if this deadline is missed. That's my impression. I might be wrong. But I would certainly be surprised if the deadline comes and goes and the agreement holds together.
QUESTION: It sounds to me - I might be wrong - but you're looking for a reason to progress it. You want to see it go through.
TONY BURKE: Oh, always have, always have. For the very simple reason there is no good other pathway for Tasmania and if the…
QUESTION: The World Heritage listing. Well, it seems like you've got an appetite to do it.
TONY BURKE: I've got an appetite to hold the agreement together. I don't believe you actually can hold it together without this part of the process happening. I really don't think you can. [inaudible – recording cuts out].