Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities
Interview on Australian Agenda - Sky
15 July 2012
Interview with Peter van Onselen, Matthew Franklin and Simon Benson
PETER VAN ONSELEN: Welcome back. This is Australian Agenda and I'm joined now by the Environment Minister Tony Burke. Thanks for your company.
TONY BURKE: G'day Peter.
PETER VAN ONSELEN: Paul Howes was told by John Faulkner at a Labor conference to put a sock in it. We've all wanted to say that, let's be honest. But what's your reaction to that? Do you agree with this sort of feud over the Greens going public, the way that it has?
TONY BURKE: I actually think while - and I appreciate the comments that were made earlier about whenever you're talking about yourselves it's not great or whether you're talking about strategy rather than policy you've got challenges with it.
I also think it was healthy for us to just be drawing some very clear markers and get back to a clear position of we have our identity as a party and that's also led to some really clear policy conversation, including in my area of policy of the environment, where there's been a conversation publicly that really did need to happen, simply about what does Labor stand for? How is Labor different? People know how we're different to the Coalition.
It's also important for people to know how we're different to the Green Party.
PETER VAN ONSELEN: But at the end of the day, I mean one of the problems here is that that's all good and well. But it's hard to do optically when you've got an opposition leader able to continually bashing you over the head day in, day out, as being in alliance with the Greens federally because of that document that you signed after the last election.
TONY BURKE: Look, any government - even if you didn't have a hung parliament - whenever you're in government you've got to deal with whatever the major minor party is in the - it is a major minor party - the biggest minor party in the senate. That's the nature of every government.
PETER VAN ONSELEN: This is more than that.
TONY BURKE: Oh, it's more significant because you've had an unusual situation with the hung parliament, which was why Tony Abbott met with them as well during those 17 days. So I'm not pretending that's not there. It's an unusual situation. It doesn't change the fact that as a party, we have our own identity. As a party, we have our own beliefs and over the last week there's been an assertion of that, which I think has been good.
PETER VAN ONSELEN: Would you ever support walking away from the alliance? I mean, at the end of the day the Greens aren't going to bring down the government, to back Tony Abbott. Would you support as an extension of the out in the openness that we've seen from the last week, the Federal Government standing up and saying you know what, we're not - we're tearing up this agreement that we've got with you?
TONY BURKE: Well, the agreement in terms of the things that we'd undertaken to do, they've already been done. So, if your question effectively is saying would we tear up an agreement that says there is a guarantee of supply, no [laughs].
MATTHEW FRANKLIN: Minister though, isn't the issue here - okay, so you've done the things that you said you were going to do. But the Greens are not - it's been pointed out by a lot of people - the Greens are not giving you anything back. They're not supporting anything that you want to do. Was there a mistake in the way that that agreement was reached, drafted, that said you give them everything and they give you nothing?
TONY BURKE: Well, in terms of everything, that's not right. But there is a specific issue and I think your analysis of it a few minutes ago is right, as to what caused the comments from Paul Howes and Sam Dastyari to really take off during the week and it was a frustration over asylum seekers, no doubt about that at all. You know, you had a situation where - and members of the Labor Party, me included, a whole lot of us have been gradually working our way through some really tough and difficult questions and even Malcolm Turnbull has described - you know, there are no answers here that don't involve levels of real hardship. I think Malcolm used the word cruelty. But real hardship in trying to save lives.
Having gone through all that and still seeing the grandstanding that we saw in the Senate and then the Greens ultimately voting with the Coalition that did cause real levels of frustration.
MATTHEW FRANKLIN: Well if you feel so - if you and your colleagues feel so impassioned about it, why don't you tear up the agreement? Why not walk away?
TONY BURKE: Well, the - I don't know that that would change. I can't see how there'd be any benefit on that at all. I can't see what that would change. There is a series of issues including the budget - including a whole lot of pieces of legislation that might not make the news, that get through with the support of the cross-bench and things like that, which are important and which do make a difference for the country. We've - you know, I can rattle off the list - you won't want me to. But, you know, you've got issues like your paid parental leave. You've got issues coming up with national disability insurance. There is a series of issues where the - you know, making sure you've got a majority in the parliament is important. But in doing so, you don't want to compromise at any point the identity of your party and I think the last week's been very healthy for that.
SIMON BENSON: But one of the issues here and I think Sam Dastyari has pointed it out, that politics, apart from, you know, delivery of policy, is also about symbolism and this really is an issue of symbolism, a message that you're trying to send to the electorate. I mean, in hindsight, wouldn't it be fair to say that perhaps it was a mistake to make such a big deal of an alliance with the Greens two years ago? I mean, if you had your time again, would you have done it the same way, knowing now that it probably wasn't necessary in terms of, you know, your ability to form government?
TONY BURKE: Look, the big issue - if we go back to - if you accept my point that it's the asylum seeker issue that has caused this to blow up in the way that it has. To go back and say could you have foreseen that at the time that the - that we had those 17 days? The answer's no.
PETER VAN ONSELEN: Well you couldn't foresee - because you were pro offshore processing - onshore processing back then and now you're pro offshore processing. So…
TONY BURKE: No, no.
PETER VAN ONSELEN:…the Government have changed, not the Greens.
TONY BURKE: No. The reason you couldn't have foreseen it is because there is a high court decision in the middle, which said that the legislation that was underpinning offshore processing in fact wasn't being upheld and that was what changed everything. Up until then - let's not forget when Chris Bowen first came out with the arrangements with Malaysia. There was no belief that new legislation was required and, you know, there was a plane within a couple of hours ready to take off, when the injunction first went through the high court.
Now, anyone who now with the benefit of hindsight is saying we should have foreseen something like that two years ago, I think it's a stretch.
PETER VAN ONSELEN: But - getting back to Simon's question though, in hindsight - well, you know, let's be frank about this. John Robinson, the state leader in New South Wales, was very frank about this. He thinks that in hindsight the Labor Party shouldn't have signed that agreement with the Greens if for no other reason than the optics of it. What's your view?
TONY BURKE: I think we did the right thing. I think we did the right thing. I don't resile from it for a minute.
SIMON BENSON: But notwithstanding the fact that the asylum seekers has been the trigger for this occurrence of outbreak of angst about the Greens, when - there's been plenty of signs in the past about this. I mean, you should really have been having a fight with the Greens when they decided to ditch the ETS. I mean - and as you pointed out to me before - I mean, the Labor - the Labor governments have historically been deliverers of great environmental outcomes, going back to, you know, the days of Graham Richardson.
Your alliance with the Greens has radicalised Labor to that extent, where Labor governments have always produced and delivered sensible and mainstream environmental outcomes, which are acceptable to most people. Your alliance with the Greens has appeared to radicalise Labor and you've had a chance to have a fight with them over the ETS. You got a sign then of what they were going to be like to deal win government and you're saying now well, we didn't really know this was going to happen. I mean, the asylum seeker issue has sort of been a trigger. But there've been plenty of signs along the way that these sorts of fights were going to come.
TONY BURKE: In terms of some of the more extreme policies that that political party would advance, they haven't been advanced by the Government and that's not a problem. Whenever you're negotiating with other parties, they'll be things that they believe in that you don't.
SIMON BENSON: What like? Polygamy, things like that? I mean what sort of loony policies are you talking about? [Laughs]
TONY BURKE: Well, I'm not going to rattle them off. There's been plenty of column inches devoted to them. But whenever they're put forward, they're not put forward as Government policy and they're not.
PETER VAN ONSELEN: Well can I ask you a question then, in relation to your portfolio? You're the Environment Minster. How often do you deal with the Greens about environmental issues? Because one of the criticisms of the Greens that I've seen levelled during the last week has been that this idea of them as an environment party is not what they're really about. They're watermelons. They're green on the outside but they're red on the inside. It's all social justice. You are the Environment Minister. How lobbied do you get by Green parliamentarians?
TONY BURKE: It would depend on the issue. Certainly Bob Brown and Christine Milne have taken a big interest in the Tasmanian Forestry issues and they're wanting to be briefed and be up to date on that. In the term of this parliament, I think Adam Bandt would have asked me one question on the environment.
In terms of environmental issues, I joined the Labor Party off the back of the campaign to save the Daintree Rain Forest. For me, environmental issues are actually a big part of me being motivated to get involved in politics. There would be many members of the Greens, probably particularly in this state of New South Wales, where that actually hasn't been their principal political motivation and, as Simon said before, if you go through your big environmental legacies, whether it's the Franklin, the Daintree, Kakadu, Ningaloo Reef from Peter Garrett getting that world heritage status, what I've just done with the oceans. The big environmental reforms have been delivered by Labor Governments.
MATTHEW FRANKLIN: Well, let's just turn if we could Minister, to one that's on the horizon. You, like the previous Government, have been trying to get something worked out, to get the states working together on the Murray Darling Basin. You are now in a position where at some time soon you are going to probably have to make a decision about water volumes. The Greens are quite clear that they think that what's being proposed has - is not enough retention of water. Isn't this the sort of issue that you would expect that the Greens would be prepared to compromise on and do they - have they had any talks with you about this?
TONY BURKE: Look, they - I'm meeting with everybody on this one, including the Greens, including Tony Windsor, including Barnaby Joyce and you're right. There is a chance that you could end up with what happened with the carbon pollution reduction scheme. You could actually end up again with the Greens voting with the National Party, for opposite reasons. Not impossible.
My view has been the best way to get the politics right is to get the policy right and some of the big volumes that I hear seem to me to be less about trying to improve the health of the river and just trying to get stuck into irrigation communities, which I don’t have an interest in doing. I do want to make sure that we restore the system to health. I want to do that in the way that you minimise the impact on communities, but you still have to meet those minimum thresholds.
The latest I've seen from the Authority, their latest work, I think falls short of what you need to do to restore the system for health.
MATTHEW FRANKLIN: Do you fear that there is an absolutism about the approach of, not just the Greens, but some other group?
TONY BURKE: Look, in some of the public comments, certainly there has been. No doubt about that. When the Murray Darling Basin Authority brought out their draft, the - I think it was Sarah Hanson-Young said oh, we’d move disallowance of this and Barnaby Joyce said something similar.
Now, if we end up there in a few months time, then I will be added to a long list of ministers that's held somewhere in the parliamentary library, of people for the last hundred years who have failed at water reform.
MATTHEW FRANKLIN: And nothing will have happened.
TONY BURKE: That's right. But at the same time, I don't want to get into a negotiation where you simply aim for anything is good, so let's just go for the lowest common denominator. I don't mind aiming high enough that you say we've got a problem here that we want to fix. But the best way - I still believe the best way to end up with something that the states can agree to and that the parliament can agree to, is to get the policy right and that's why the discussions I'm having are very much explaining the challenges, explaining what I'm working through and hearing what the concerns are around the table. I don't want to get into a situation where you're just trading gigalitres back and forth. I think the moment you depart from trying to get the policy right, you're gone.
SIMON BENSON: Here's another issue that you're going to have with the Greens - we talk a lot about the Greens. It's ironic when we have a Labor minister sitting here with us. But…
TONY BURKE: I'm only answering what you're putting up.
SIMON BENSON: They've got…
TONY BURKE: Don't have me walk off and say oh yeah, I spent the whole time talking about the Greens.
SIMON BENSON: Never. Never. They've got legislation before the parliament for a national container deposit legislation scheme.
TONY BURKE: Yeah.
SIMON BENSON: And, as we've seen reported over the weekend. Coming on top of the carbon tax, you know, it's a cost of living issue, just to explain it for people don't understand it. I think South Australia have had it for a long time. You know, you get charged extra for your bottles of coke.
PETER VAN ONSELEN: [Interrupts] Can I jump in on this? I mean, this is an issue that Simon raised in the Green Room before the show and I thought he'd been sunbaking on the beach for too long during his leave.
SIMON BENSON: I wish.
PETER VAN ONSELEN: But is an interesting issue. I mean, we all see it on bottles, you know, go to South Australia and you get a certain amount of cents back, you know, for your can or bottle or whatever it might be. But nobody has - you know, outside of South Australia, has ever sort of seen the opportunity to do that.
SIMON BENSON: Yeah.
PETER VAN ONSELEN: You're talking about this legislation, rolling it out nationally.
SIMON BENSON: Look mate, we used to have it - I mean, I remember as a kid in Melbourne, we used to have it…
TONY BURKE: A cent a can, yeah ....
SIMON BENSON: …you know, on milk bottles and that sort of stuff. You get - but - I mean the issue today is that people don't have a lot of time, I suppose, to do that sort of thing. So the issue is, if you did have a national scheme like that, that it - that unless families were prepared to recycle that point, it would be an extra cost on the - cost of living for them.
Now, you're talking about taking this issue to the next COAG meeting, I believe. You want the states to agree upon it. The Greens have got legislation in the parliament. Are you interested at all in seeing the federal parliament a deal on this?
TONY BURKE: No. I don't want to implement it as a forced thing nationally. It's something that some of the states want to do. The Victorian Liberals, for example, came to office saying that they would do it. We've made sure that we've done the background work to allow them to make that decision. But there's a - and it works well in South Australia, there's no doubt about that and litter, in particular, cans and plastics that float, they go down drains. They end up in our rivers. They go out into the ocean. They're a big environmental problem.
But here's the reason why I don't want to implement it as a straight mandatory national scheme. At the moment, we've got very good take up of kerbside recycling. The highest - and now, those kerbside recycling contracts that happen all around the country, often between local government and individual companies, they make money out of the materials that they recycle and…
PETER VAN ONSELEN: [Interrupts] that's what I was going to say. Why do we need this, when we've now got recycling bins at home and all around parks and…
TONY BURKE: If I can just finish. If one of the threats that can happen if you implement it the wrong way in any particular jurisdiction, is effectively all that high value stuff no longer goes in the recycling bin, because people hang onto it to get the refund and you can actually end up making your whole recycling system less functional, rather than more. So that's why I don't want to mandate the national scheme.
If you want to see why people are looking for ways of trying to do more about litter, you go along any river. You go along any urban river and you won't see bottles, because they sink. You won't see much cardboard because it sinks. But you'll see bits of foam and plastic bottles all the way along, particularly on rivers like my local one, the Cooks River, where they're tidal. The rubbish along the edges there is extraordinary. Now, that's why people are looking for these sorts of things.
If you didn't have the kerbside problem, there could possibly be a way of sensibly implementing it nationally. I don't think there is. I think it's not a bad idea. But if it's going to happen, it would have to happen to state level.
PETER VAN ONSELEN: What's been the South Australian reaction? I mean, did they have an issue with the kerbside recycling?
TONY BURKE: Well no, because they did it in the other order. So you've got to remember, that - it's not that many years really that we've all had the yellow wheelie bins, that South Australia already had the ten cent container deposit rules and then they brought the kerbside recycling in. So for them, there's never been a threat to kerbside recycling because people wouldn't put it in. They've done it in that order.
The question is how would it go if you do it in the reverse order? It's complex. It runs differently in each jurisdiction. So I'm not knocking the idea. But to try to implement it at a national level, I don't think it would work
PETER VAN ONSELEN: But aren't these the sort of environmental issues that we should be discussing? I mean, they're micro. But at the end of the day, you don't get much airtime on this because so much political capital is being burnt up with a small country like Australia trying to save the global environment through a carbon price.
TONY BURKE: They're all different forms of pollution and you've got to have the whole conversation. I think one of the things that fell off the agenda environmentally was the issue of saving the big iconic places. You know, we got so bogged down into this endangered species or this rare tree frog and we stopped having discussions about here is somewhere worth saving because it's magnificent and that's why I was really pleased with the oceans announcement, to be able to talk about Osprey Reef, when we did the biggest national heritage listing everywhere in the country and the West Kimberley.
You know, you've got incredible gorges, the Buccaneer Archipelago, places that a lot of Australians still don’t know about, that are valuable because they're magnificent and I do think sometimes in the environmental debate, we have a good scientific conversation and that's important. But it's not only about the science. You know, Uluru is important because of the power and majesty of the site itself and in the environmental debate I think very easily and particularly over the last decade or so, we've lost some of that from the public debate.
MATTHEW FRANKLIN: Minister, can I just take you to an issue slightly outside your portfolio. But you are a cabinet minister. It's the issue of media regulations. Kim Williams said in his speech on Friday that the - you know, a government that resorts to - or people who would want to resort to regulating the media, that's the resort of a lazy mind. That self‑regulation is better. That his company, News Limited, of which of course, I'm an employee, is interested in challenging any attempt by the Government to impose regulation on the media.
What is your view on whether there is a need to regulate the media and if I - can I just put it to you, that isn't it the case that part of the impetus for this from some of your colleagues, is that the Government's obviously having a tough term and it's pretty easy to blame the media for that being the cause, rather than the fact that you're just having a tough term.
TONY BURKE: I think the real cause is this issue of convergence. The media regulation that we have at the moment has been very much driven by, there's print media, there's TV, there's radio, they're all different. If I go to the app for each of your newspapers now, if I do it through PressReader I get the exact paper, just in an electronic form. If I go through your actual apps, I'll find your print journos doing little movies, talking straight to camera, dealing with - and effectively how different is that from a television program and this is where the forms of media regulation that we've had in the past.
Technology has now moved and particularly since tablets and iPads started to become common, that's really been a very big shift and the question is, in ten years time or in five years time or even starting now, is a separation in media regulation between TV, radio and newspaper really how the world now works? Now, I don’t think it is.
Now, in terms of the answer to your question, what does that then mean you do? We've got the Finkelstein enquiry. We've got that in front of us. We're still working through it. I can't give you an answer on decisions that haven't been made or views that haven't been fully…
MATTHEW FRANKLIN: [Interrupts] but I've asked you where you stand.
TONY BURKE: That's what I'm saying. On views that haven't been fully concluded. They haven't been. I am convinced that the old separation doesn't work for the future. Where that means you go on these issues into the future, the end point you want is you want to make sure that you've got independent media and you can't be afraid of independent media.
PETER VAN ONSELEN: And how do you do that if you have statutory oversight of the media? I mean that's a big step, as opposed to self-regulation.
TONY BURKE: Yeah. But you're talking about a step we haven't taken. You know, we've…
PETER VAN ONSELEN: [Interrupts] but that's what the Finkelstein review is talking about.
TONY BURKE: Yeah, the fact that a review talks about something doesn't mean that having read the review that that's a decision Government takes.
PETER VAN ONSELEN: But you must have a personal view on this. I mean, the idea of - you've been in politics a long time now - the idea of the media having statutory oversight, what's your fundamental view about that?
TONY BURKE: The personal view that I hold and I hold strongly is the one that I've put, which is the old structure for media regulation isn't one that works into the future. Now, exactly where we go on that, you'll appreciate with the responsibilities that I've got, I haven't spent days thinking and working my way through this particular issue.
MATTHEW FRANKLIN: We’ve just put the view though, that you can't be afraid of a free media. What do you say to the broader principle that's been put by great minds, that you can't really have - a regulated media can, by definition, not be free?
TONY BURKE: Look, the - I hear the argument and I've put the principle that I've got. It's - when - it's just - it's not an issue that I've spent a whole lot of time on.
MATTHEW FRANKLIN: Okay.
TONY BURKE: I don't know that I can really take it further.
PETER VAN ONSELEN: I hear that there are quite a few people within the Government that are concerned about the idea of regulating the media. But they are equally concerned about coming out and expressing that view too strongly because their Communications Minister is hell bent on regulating the media.
TONY BURKE: That's not my view. I'm not one of the people that's put that to you.
PETER VAN ONSELEN: But this is…
TONY BURKE: And I haven't heard that around the table.
SIMON BENSON:We're talking about media regulation one thing. But what we're really talking about here is there is some sort of censorship and when our CEO, Mr Williams, is talking about yesterday, he did use the term pavlovian and then he wasn't talking about dessert.
TONY BURKE: [Laughs]
SIMON BENSON: This was about not regulation to deal with convergence. This was regulation to really start influencing the editorial decisions of media. Now, that's the point. Now - and that's the one we're trying to get to. Do you support such a notion that governments should, in any form, have a right to start interfering with the editorial direction of media outlets?
TONY BURKE: On individual stories and things like that.
SIMON BENSON: Well, you know, I mean that, you know, we know that occurs every day. I mean the number of phone calls that come through to our newsrooms.
SIMON BENSON: But I meant in terms of…
TONY BURKE: [Inaudible] they don't help, Simon.
SIMON BENSON: We haven't had one of those phone calls for a while, as far as I can recall.
PETER VAN ONSELEN: Right. Well, I tell you what. I mean, we accuse the Labor Party of talking about itself and the Greens but here we are doing it with regard to media regulation.
PETER VAN ONSELEN: Let me move on. We've got Troy Bramston sitting in the Green Room waiting to come on and talk with Dennis Glover about issues in relation to the Labor Party. But in a piece during the week, he described you within the factional right of the New South Wales Labor Party as having your power waning. What do you - how do you respond to that?
TONY BURKE: Look I've had bits of that article read to me over the phone. The bits that I heard were sufficiently poorly sourced and, you know, sufficiently far away from the truth. I never bothered reading the whole article. Troy is a good guy. He worked with me for a time. I like him. I don't think he's got massive insider knowledge within the party. But the truth is of me and I think the journos around the table would know, I've never pictured myself as some sort of power broker, king maker figure. That's not how I operate. That's not what I am. So if there is a view that I ever tried to be that and that's now waned, then it's an entire process of my life that I remain blissfully unaware of.
MATTHEW FRANKLIN: May I - say quickly, taking back to your portfolio again, on the issue of whaling, it was interesting this week, that the South Koreans have decided that they would have a - they would flirt with the notion of the Japanese style scientific whaling. What's your understanding of why they pulled back from that and secondly, our Australian Government's challenge to scientific whaling is still before the international courts. It seems to be a process that takes years.
TONY BURKE: Yeah it does.
MATTHEW FRANKLIN: And every Japanese diplomat and others that I speak to laugh at it. Have we bitten off more than we can chew, in taking that challenge?
TONY BURKE: Well - you've got a few different parts to that, so if I start with Korea and then we'll move our way north. I’d just left the International Whaling Commission. I was in the air and when I landed I found out what Korea had just announced. It took everyone by surprise. It took everyone by surprise. Now, there were some comments that Bob Carr has said publicly, where there was an impression that Seoul may not have been entirely aware of what their delegation was going to say. Now, whether that's right or not, I don't know.
But certainly, they - it took them about a week to fix it. So whether it was a situation where they were testing the water, the international reaction was so strong, they decided to not go ahead with it or whether it was simply the delegation went further than they were meant to, I don't know. Either way, scientific whaling - you know, there are lots of things you can do in the name of science. Harpooning a whale, chopping it up and eating it, is a stretch in scientific experimentation. So, you know, we've never accepted it and for whatever reason, the fact that they've shifted, we welcome.
On Japan, when you're dealing with another country, you apply diplomatic pressure as far as you can and that wasn't getting the outcomes that we needed. We're talking about something which is actually not even that popular in Japan. I've been through the Tokyo fish market. Unless someone takes you to the whale little stall, you'd never find it. It's not like this is something particularly popular or important to Japan. But the Japanese Government's been, you know, determined to do this for a long time and to cross from the northern to the southern hemisphere to go into the Southern Ocean.
Now, legal action always takes too long. That's in every jurisdiction, internationally, probably more so than ever. Had the legal action begun many years ago, we'd be further along. We're expecting oral hearings probably in the second half of next year. It's not the be all and end all. But certainly when you have a choice, if you hadn't taken the action, the question would be well, if you were serious, why won't you take them to the International Court of Justice? That's why, you know, even though - you know, it's a long way to travel for a day of meetings, to go to Panama. That’s why we always send a minister to the Whaling Commission. Each side of politics has done this. You do everything you can just to show how seriously Australians view this issue.
PETER VAN ONSELEN: Alright Tony Burke. We are out of time. Just one final question though. Paul Howes' put his house on the line, saying that Julia Gillard would get to the next election as Prime Minister. Last week Sam Dastyari demurred. He didn't want to do the same. What's your view? Prepared to put the house on the line that Julia Gillard will be the Prime Minister at the next election?
TONY BURKE: Yes.
PETER VAN ONSELEN: Okay. Well, simple and done. Thanks very much for joining us on Australian Agenda.
TONY BURKE: Thank you.
PETER VAN ONSELEN: And to Simon Benson and Matthew Franklin, thanks for your company as well. Don't go away. When we come back after the break, we'll be joined by two former speech writers to Labor Party leaders, Troy Bramston and Dennis Glover. Back in a moment.