Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities
Press Conference: UNESCO State of Conservation report
2 June 2012
TONY BURKE: Thanks very much for coming around.
Over the course of the last few hours, UNESCO have released the “State of Conservation” report which will go to the next meeting of the World Heritage Committee. Exactly what of these recommendations get adopted by the World Heritage Committee, or whether they choose different recommendations, is obviously a decision for them. But there are some reflections that are important to make on the report that has been released overnight.
The report effectively views the Great Barrier Reef as being at a cross-roads; where there have been challenges to the Great Barrier Reef which have been mounting for some time and some very significant decisions which will be coming to both myself as the Federal Environment Minister and to the Queensland Government - significant decisions about various expansions along the region there.
There are a number of points that’s been made in the report released overnight which are very important to note. First of all, they do acknowledge the good practice management that is out there and has actually said it is a good international example in many ways.
Notwithstanding that, they’ve referred to a number of different issues that have posed real threats over time. On some of them, we’ve turned a corner. For example, there’s references there to a fourteen percent reduction in nitrogen levels of run-off. That goes to decisions we took when we came to office in 2007 about not just looking within the boundaries of the marine park, not just looking within the boundaries of the World Heritage Area, but acknowledging that what you do on land has an impact on the Great Barrier Reef as well. The changed farm practices that we funded through Reef Rescue have begun to deliver a dividend already. But those changed practices still have a way to go and there’s a call from UNESCO, in this report, for us to continue that work. But that’s been the beginning on the turning of a corner on practices on land.
In terms of the work that’s done in the off-shore areas, there’s not a lot of criticism there at all and the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, for the work they do, have come up with a, you know, really providing a good international example.
But what we do outside of the marine park in those boundary areas of the World Heritage Area, can still have a very real impact on the outstanding universal values of the world heritage property.
There’s a particular focus in the report on Gladstone Harbour. Now, there’s no doubt that Gladstone Harbour was already an industrialised harbour at the time that the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area was put on the World Heritage List. In that time though, there have been significant expansions and there is a focus and a request for independent work to be done on looking at what’s unfolding inside Gladstone Harbour itself. And that’s something I’m going to have conversations with the Queensland Government about.
They also draw a distinction between further development of areas where you have existing port developments and areas at the moment which are relatively pristine. We’ve taken up the recommendation that was made a year ago by the World Heritage Committee that we start a strategic assessment. This is about one core principle: don’t take any risks that the Barrier Reef somehow suffers a death by a thousand cuts; get in front of the curve and look at the property as a whole and say, “Okay, what are the areas where development can occur sustainably and what are the areas that should rightly be kept pristine?”
That work has commenced. They’ve endorsed that work happening. There’s been a request that major developments which would conflict with this be held off. I can’t take away the rights at law that applicants have when they’ve already started their approval process; those rights exist. But I’ve checked with my department this morning and, certainly for the areas that the World Heritage Committee would be most concerned about, we’re not expecting any of those decisions to come to me before the strategic assessment work is concluded anyway.
QUESTION: Why isn’t it right to keep all of it pristine?
TONY BURKE: Well, we don’t start with a pristine area. You need to remember the boundaries of the World Heritage Area are significantly bigger than the boundaries of the marine park. And the marine park itself isn’t entirely pristine; there’s a whole lot of tourism operations - I’ve stayed at them. They’re part of the enjoyment of the park and I reckon anyone who wanted to undo all the tourism operations in the Whitsundays in the name of keeping the area pristine would, quite rightly, have a lot of people saying, “Hang on. We want to make sure that something as magnificent as the Great Barrier Reef can be enjoyed and seen by the people of the world as well.”
So, we’re always going to be in a situation where we’re dealing with multiple uses. Now, there have been, before it went onto the World Heritage List, there were already a number of ports in play as industrial ports. We want to make sure that the economic opportunities that are there don’t get undone but you can have – you don’t need to have completely pristine to preserve the outstanding universal value of the Great Barrier Reef. There is a way of having sustainable development. This report is saying, “Look at the whole are strategically”, and we agreed that’s the correct approach.
QUESTION: Are you expecting a bit of ‘push-back’ from the Queensland Government?
TONY BURKE: It’s been a rocky last few days between me and the Queensland Government, I’ve got to say. There were statements put out late last night by the Deputy Premier, Jeff Seeney, that give me a lot of hope that we are back on a sensible path forward. One of the concerns put forward in this report today are that they want to make sure that there is a strategic Australian national approach between all the different layers of government being taken.
TONY BURKE: ...on where that’s up to and how that’s going forward. Within that eight month period we’re absolutely able to do it. But I don’t want to dismiss the fact that they do view us as being at a crossroads -I agree with that. Had we not started the strategic assessment, had we not when we came to government started Reef Rescue, had we not started to turn the corner on a range of these issues then there would be a very deep reason for concern.
What UNESCO is asking us to do is within those eight months to put down exactly what we see the pathway forward as being. They’ve acknowledged the areas where it’s been best practice. They’ve also acknowledged the large number, the very large number, of proposals that have been in the pipeline for port expansion.
Now, bear in mind, some of those proposals, the biggest one, has been scaled back since this report would have been written. Only in the last week or so the Queensland Government announced that the Abbot Point development was going to be a much smaller footprint than what had previously been thought. So there’s an amount of progress which has already happened, but an eight month timeline on being able to provide more information is a timeline we’re absolutely able to work within, happy to work within.
Part of having one of the greatest treasures on earth in the Great Barrier Reef is the world’s interested in how you’re looking after it. I'm quite happy and quite proud as the Australian Environment Minister to be providing those updates and showing where, year on year, management is improving.
QUESTION: If you’re saying you’ve been so proactive in our approach so far, then why has it gotten to a point where we’ve gotten this report from UNESCO?
TONY BURKE: The World Heritage mission when it came out here actually remarked to me that it was unusual that it had been so long on a property as important as the Great Barrier Reef where they hadn’t conducted a mission. Part of what the World Heritage Committee does is they, for their different World Heritage Sites, they don’t just list them and forget about them. From time to time, they go and do a review and see how they’re tracking. Now, that’s something...
TONY BURKE: I respect that. That’s something that hadn’t been done for some time. There’s no doubt the Curtis Island development was what triggered them to say have a look at it. But I don’t think we should be too alarmed that the fact that there’s a report is of itself a challenge. Now, some of the problems that they’ve referred to are problems affecting the majority of reefs throughout the world. Issues like the impact of climate change hit very significantly in that report.
The effects of climate change don’t just go to temperature. There’s also issues of ocean acidification which go there. There’s a series of impacts that they refer to, some of which - for example the runoff impact and the increase in chemical output - are impacts which have been growing over the course of roughly 100 years.
But they do say that since 2010 the figures have started to show that we’re turning a corner on that with nitrogen levels. So to say where it’s at on our watch, the simple answer is it's improving.
But what they are alarmed by is a few things. I’d have to say this, if the full scale of every proposal that is potentially on the table at the moment along the whole length of the Queensland coast were to come to fruition in its most expanded form, I have no doubt that the World Heritage Committee if that were all to happen, would take very decisive action. But let’s make no mistake. Even since this mission occurred and the preparation of the report was underway, some of those projects had been scaled back and scaled back very significantly.
QUESTION: Minister, can I ask about Kakadu? The Northern Land Council has completed its consultations regarding Koongarra and voted that it be included. So what’s the process from here?
TONY BURKE: I got a call yesterday from Kim Hill from the Northern Land Council and I have to say it is one of the best phone calls I've received. To know that the traditional owner groups have now made the decision for Koongarra to be incorporated into Kakadu National Park means that regardless of the complaints that have been lodged from time to time by the French uranium company, we will now see Kakadu National Park completed.
Now it won’t be too long before I'm able to start kicking in the formal processes from the Commonwealth end for the proclamation of that. But this is an extraordinary battle. This is one man in Jeffrey Lee - the only traditional owner left of the Djok people - faced with an offer - a multi, multimillion dollar offer - could be one of the wealthiest people in Australia but has said no, I want my land and I want my land protected within Kakadu National Park. This means we will have - over the next few months we’ll be at the stage of being able to formally proclaim Kakadu National...
TONY BURKE: ... to the last meeting of the World Heritage Committee. He flew over there as part of the Australian delegation and we had two big wins at the World Heritage Committee last year. We had Ningaloo Reef put on the World Heritage List - where I had the chance to go snorkelling there myself only a couple of weekends ago - and we had Koongarra proclaimed so that finally Kakadu National Park will be completed. I'm looking forward to being able to deal with the next steps - which will fall to me - in the coming months.
QUESTION: Still in the Northern Territory, you’ve said that you will revisit the issue of crocodile safaris. What are you up to with that?
TONY BURKE: On that I've still got to walk out the full pathway of the consultation. Similar to my view on anything about World Heritage Listings for Cape York, I am very mindful of issues of traditional owner consent. There are split views in different communities of the Northern Territory and that’s one of the things that I'm wanting to get across.
QUESTION: What’s your view about the O’Farrell Government’s announcement to allow shooting in national parks in New South Wales?
TONY BURKE: On preliminary advice, in the first instance, it’s unlikely that my Federal powers will end up being made available on this particular decision. But I accept that as Environment Minister and I welcome as the Environment Minister, my role is not only whatever my legal powers are, I also have an important role in advocating for the environment.
Can I just say that I worry deeply about how long it will be before we see practical threats to native species and to people in our national parks. Let’s face it, the whole experience of a national park, where families go for their picnics and you have the wonderful sense of relaxing with nature isn’t quite the same if you’ve got gunfire going off in the background. It’s not quite the same. If you go to go on a bushwalk and hear the sounds of wildlife, you don’t quite expect to hear .32’s  going off in the background.
That is what - that is a new path that the O’Farrell Government is wanting to take us down. I am deeply worried about the safety of people. I've heard too many stories of deaths of individuals to not be alarmed by this. I've heard too many stories of native wildlife being put at risk.
Effectively what the O’Farrell Government is doing is they’re taking feral animal control away from the professionals. That’s their decision. Now, if you take it away from the professionals, I guess there’s an advantage to government - you don’t have to pay for it anymore. But there’s a risk to the environment, a risk to people and a fundamental change to the enjoyment of national parks.