Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities
Interview with Fran Kelly, ABC Radio National - Koala listing
30 April 2012
FRAN KELLY: After decades of concern about their dwindling numbers the Federal Government will today include koalas on the list of threatened species. But not all koalas will be classified. The listing will apply to the most at risk populations in Queensland, New South Wales and the ACT.
With more on this and a reaction to the shedding of Craig Thomson and Peter Slipper we're joined by the Federal Environment Minister, Tony Burke.
Minister, good morning.
TONY BURKE: Good morning, Fran.
FRAN KELLY: I'll come to koalas in a moment, Minister, but, firstly, why did Craig Thomson have to be suspended from the Labor Party now and not earlier?
TONY BURKE: Well, it wasn't the Craig Thomson issue in isolation as the PM said yesterday. It was the combination of both the allegations about Peter Slipper, the allegations about Craig Thomson. You get to a point where the only conversation happening in Australia and the only conversation we've been able to have with the Australian people for a little while has been about these issues, not about the actual reforms and the work that you're doing.
At that point the issues of the confidence in the Parliament come into play. And that's why the Prime Minister explained it the way she did yesterday.
FRAN KELLY: Well, given what you've just said, is this too little too late, as the Opposition says? If this is, as you say, been, you know, overcrowding, overshadowing everything for a little while now, should the Prime Minister have acted more quickly?
TONY BURKE: I think there will always be a - in a decision like this people will always argue the toss - should it have been earlier, should it have been later?
FRAN KELLY: What do you think?
TONY BURKE: Look, I don’t think the Prime Minister could have made the decision much earlier given that it was the combination of the two issues. The PM hasn't been back in the country very long before the call's been made.
So I actually don't think there is room to make a decision like that much earlier than it was made.
FRAN KELLY: Tony Abbott says it's not good enough to kick Craig Thomson out of the team but still accept his vote; that, you know, Labor mustn’t rely on his vote to stay in Government. How can Labor kick Craig Thomson out of the caucus on the one hand, yet rely on his vote to remain in power on the other?
TONY BURKE: He's an elected Member of Parliament. He's still an elected Member of Parliament. And the people of Dobell have him as their representative in the Parliament. So I mean the argument from Tony Abbott, he might claim precedent. There's no serious precedent that he'd be able to claim on a principle like that. It's a bizarre one that's an argument of the day because it suits him.
FRAN KELLY: But it does look, from the outside, like this is just an arrangement. I mean Craig Thomson was quite clear yesterday; he has every intention of resuming his place in the caucus. And in the meanwhile he'll vote to support the Government.
TONY BURKE: It's been a situation where you're taking a suspension from the Labor Party, where your colleagues are attending caucus meetings and you're not. Don't underestimate the significance of that and how that would be felt. I think anyone who knows anything about members of the Labor Party - that would be felt very deeply.
FRAN KELLY: The Government recruited Peter Slipper last year for one reason only: to shore up its wafer thin margin in the Lower House. Hasn't that strategy now backfired spectacularly and all this episode has done is reinforce in people's minds a perception the Government will say and do anything to cling to power?
TONY BURKE: Well, one thing that nobody seems to be talking about this week - but certainly, a couple of weeks ago, was a commonplace argument that was being put was the fact that he's actually been very good in the chair as Speaker. There's been no doubt his handling of the Parliament and the actual job he was elected to do is one that he's been doing exceptionally well.
That was being acknowledged by all sides; and the focus at the moment is different because of the other issues that are surrounding it, but on the actual job that he was put there to do, I think it's pretty hard to argue that he wasn't doing it effectively.
FRAN KELLY: Coming to koalas in just a second, but just on that issue that Alison Carabine was speaking about before; there's talk that the Government is preparing to soften on the carbon tax in some way. Can you confirm that?
TONY BURKE: No I can't provide anything on that.
FRAN KELLY: Can you say it's not happening?
TONY BURKE: I can't provide anything on that, Fran.
FRAN KELLY: Alright. Let's move to koalas. It's thirteen minutes to seven on Breakfast. Your decision to list some koala populations as vulnerable - why not a national listing for koalas - which some have been asking for?
TONY BURKE: Yes, some have. I can't go any harder than what the science says. The challenge that we've got here, in Victoria and South Australia, koalas have actually been in such high numbers they've been eating themselves out of habitat.
There's what they call population control measures going on there. Now, that doesn’t mean they're culling them. Population control measures have been things like sterilisation, because in some parts of Australia the numbers are going beyond their habitat. This is one of the problems that we've been facing for a few years now on this one, normally, if a species is bountiful in one place you often say well, that means you can't say that they're endangered.
But in places like New South Wales, in Queensland, their numbers have been taking a massive hit. People often say, what are the numbers since, you know, white Australians first arrived here. It's a very recent hit that the numbers have taken a sharp downturn. So, you know, if you go - only since 1990, so over the last twenty or so years.
In Queensland the numbers have taken more than a forty per cent hit. In New South Wales they've gone down by a third; in what's a pretty short space of time.
FRAN KELLY: So this move to only partially list the koala as vulnerable in the ACT, New South Wales and Queensland has there ever been a partial listing of species like this before?
TONY BURKE: It's been done a couple of times. It was done, for example, with the grey nurse shark, and it's sometimes done when the species - the different populations aren't directly connected, and so there has been occasions where it's been done. It's pretty rare and it's something you're very careful about.
But on a species as iconic as the koala I really don't think I could have credibly said to the Australian people, don't worry, you might not have any more left in Queensland, the way things are going, but you can go to South Australia if you want to see one there.
FRAN KELLY: Will your listing of vulnerable cover the entire state of Queensland, because with the exception of the Koala Coast in the south-east, koalas are still listed as common in Queensland. Will the Queensland Government need to amend its laws to reflect your listing, and will it be state-wide?
TONY BURKE: The scientific advice is that it should be state-wide, and that's what I've gone with, and, similarly, for New South Wales and the ACT. The argument is that while they're at their worst in terms of numbers in the south-east corner of Queensland. There is a problem across Queensland.
So I've pushed the scientific advice back and forth a couple of times. It's recommended the full state boundary. Now, we've already got in place a national koala strategy that takes us through to 2014, so they'll have to come up with recovery plans that will go beyond the strategy. So from 2014 on there will have to be recovery plans in place for New South Wales, Queensland and the ACT.
FRAN KELLY: So this listing of these koala populations in these three states and territories is vulnerable. What does it mean in terms of regulation for - because there's been concerned expressed by developers and also mining companies. How will this listing impact on those activities?
TONY BURKE: Look, I can't hide the fact that part of having protection of endangered species means that if someone wants to make a development, then there is a tougher hurdle as a result of the species being endangered. That's what environmental legislation's there to do.
FRAN KELLY: Is it designed to slow down urban development in this case, in the koala area?
TONY BURKE: In terms of the pace of approvals and things like that, a lot of that was dealt with at COAG a couple of weeks ago to increase the capacity of states to be able to do some of these approvals. But they have to do them to the federal standard.
And so while we're working on making sure that you don't have problems with timelines, in terms of the standards that need to be met, we cannot pretend that in Queensland or in New South Wales the koala is not under threat. It is and developers will have to take account of that.
FRAN KELLY: Tony Burke, thank you very much for joining us.
TONY BURKE: Good to talk to you.
FRAN KELLY: Federal Environment Minister, Tony Burke. It's eight minutes to seven on Breakfast.