Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities
Interview with Leon Compton, 936 ABC Hobart
12 December 2012
LEON COMPTON: At twenty four to nine. Well the vote on the forest agreement is getting closer - or is it? What about the prospect that the Legislative Council might ask for more time? After two-and-a-half years, certainly a forestry agreement is in front of the state's legislative assembly, and if it passes the process of changing the Tasmanian landscape, the Tasmanian forest industry to the agreement struck between industry and environment groups will begin.
The industry will shrink, more forest is protected from harvest, and the money will flow from federal and state coffers. Tony Burke's the Federal Environment Minister. He was in town yesterday. Indeed, he's in front of us this morning with more money to sweeten the deal. Minister, good morning.
TONY BURKE: G'day, Leon.
LEON COMPTON: And thanks for talking with us this morning. You offered an extra one hundred million dollars yesterday in support of the Tasmanian Forests Agreement. Was that enough to get the support of the Legislative Council?
TONY BURKE: I don't know. When I was speaking to Legislative Council members a week ago one of the points that they made was they said, well if there's no additional Commonwealth money on the table then this agreement can't hold together. There is no agreement without additional funding.
They asked me to give a commitment to be able to make announcements about what funding we would be able to provide before they started their vote. So we've kept true to that and made sure that we'd sorted out between ourselves and Tasmania what was required, and put that money out publically before the debate actually started.
But the key question wasn't, is this enough money to be able to get Legislative Councillors over the line, it was is this enough money to be able to hold the agreement and implement the agreement?
LEON COMPTON: It was the bait to get them on the hook, wasn't it? I mean, you've been - spent a lifetime in politics, you know how the numbers work. They said we need to see this amount of money to show our support. Have you got their support or not?
TONY BURKE: I don't know. I have to disagree with how you've framed that, Leon. There are elements of what has been put forward in the agreement that cannot occur without money. So it's one thing for environment groups and industry to say well this is what we agree with each other, but some of the things that they agree actually have to be funded.
And the Legislative Council needed to know whether or not the agreement they were working with was real, and it wasn't real unless we put the money on the table. That's why those amounts have been put there, and it's been put entirely within that frame. This is money to be able to implement what's proposed in the agreement.
LEON COMPTON: But you don't know at this stage if you have secured their confidence in this deal, based on the extra money that you offered yesterday?
TONY BURKE: That's right. They'll make that clear during the course of the debate. They're elected Members of Parliament. And I said to them when I came last week and I said it again to them yesterday, I'm not here as a lobbyist. As the Commonwealth Minister I'm here to make sure they have a clear line of sight as they work through these issues.
From my own perspective the Commonwealth can't see an upside if this doesn't go through. We just can't. In your intro you referred to if the agreement goes ahead industry will shrink. The truth is the shrinking of industry has already occurred.
The numbers that are contained within the agreement are actually higher for forestry than current demand, so it's not that what's on the table involves a further level of shrinkage. What it does involve is a path forward and some sustainability guarantees for industry into the future.
LEON COMPTON: But you don't know at this stage if you've secured their support? What if they ask for more time? What if they say the government and people putting this deal together have had two-and-a-half years. We need another month, or two, or three to understand fully what the implications of this deal will be for Tasmania? What if they ask for that?
TONY BURKE: The key risk there is whether or not the agreement that's in front of us is in fact valid in a few weeks or a few months' time. I've seen the public statements of Ta Ann in particular. I know of many of the companies within industry that are in need of assistance in the very short term.
Now, if there were to be a delay I don't think there's any chance that the landscape of Tasmanian forestry in a few months' time would like identical to how it looks now.
LEON COMPTON: So you believe Ta Ann would leave, as they have said they would if they don't get this deal done? Or if this deal doesn't get done?
TONY BURKE: I don't know whether they would or not. I've got no reason to disbelieve what they put out there publically. What I do know is that we're at the table in a very particular context. That context is accurate right now. If delays sort, it's hard to imagine the landscape when it change, and it may change drastically.
LEON COMPTON: On your local ABC, Tony Burke, the Federal Environment Minister is our guest this morning. Ta Ann say they should receive compensation for logging volumes that won't be delivered under this deal and that amount could be tens of millions of dollars. So have you agreed that you will compensate Ta Ann with this money?
TONY BURKE: Yeah, there's been an exchange of letters between Ta Ann and myself, and I explained this to the Legislative Council yesterday. For people who deal with high quality saw log there's always been an understanding that there'd be a voluntary exit process if they wanted to retire some of their saw log volume, which for these businesses at the moment is volume that they're not utilising anyway.
Ta Ann have a similar situation but it's not high quality saw log, it's peeler billets. So we've made a commitment that there'll be equitable treatment for Ta Ann with respect to peeler billets, in the same way there is for high quality saw log.
LEON COMPTON: To what amount of money? What does that mean in a financial sense?
TONY BURKE: There's a very good probity reason why that was the one part of the financial envelope I wasn't able to announce yesterday. The reason is when we run a high quality saw log package we can put the dollar amount on the table and a whole range of individual businesses choose whether or not they want to tender into it.
When you're dealing with Ta Ann and with peeler billets, there's only one business that's going to tender into it. So for that reason we've made the commitment about the formula, the concept of the formula, the method that we'd use in arriving at equitable treatment, but to announce the actual dollar amount there's more work that needs to be done.
LEON COMPTON: Are they happy with the amount that you've come up with?
TONY BURKE: Yes.
LEON COMPTON: So they're happy with the proposal that's been put on the table?
TONY BURKE: That's right. I've no doubt every business when they look at different amounts of money will try to say, you know, can we also get this, that or the other. But in terms of the principles for retirement, partial retirement of the peeler billet volume, the answer is yes.
LEON COMPTON: What guarantees have you got that they're going to stay here? What about they become like Ford or Mitsubishi? They're very good at asking for government largess, but in fact what they do is take the money and ultimately either reduce their operations or run.
TONY BURKE: And that's one of the issues that we're going to have to work through when we deal with contracts on this.
LEON COMPTON: Are you making sure that the money's being delivered over ten or fifteen years so that they stay, they deliver the jobs?
TONY BURKE: There's a few different ways you can do it. I've raised this specifically with my department. I'm getting advice on how to build it in. It's a concern that I have. It's a concern the state's raised. It's a concern that was raised yesterday by Legislative Councillors as well.
So before the advice comes back as to exactly how contractually you'd deal with that issue, the most I'm able to answer this morning, Leon, is to say I agree with the problem that you've identified and we're working to find a way through it.
LEON COMPTON: Because what - it's like some sort of European Union story. They're becoming a company that gets paid not to produce stuff.
TONY BURKE: Well they have a contract for particular volumes that are not able to be delivered at the moment. So if you're talking about wanting to be able to vary something that otherwise they contractually demand, I think that's actually much more of a business approach than the way you've just described it there.
LEON COMPTON: What if the Legislative Council send it to committee? What are the consequences for the deal? I mean, the threat was always - I mean, there's this arbitrary threat, it has to be done by the end of the year, that the money will disappear if the Leg-Co ask for more time. Is that fair?
TONY BURKE: If the circumstances change, the money's off the table. It has to be. We've got no other way of dealing with that. The circumstances that we're looking at are whether or not the architecture of this agreement can actually be implemented. You know, when we talk about Ta Ann, for example, that doesn't just have an impact on where the peeler billets are being used.
If peeler billets aren't being used, if Ta Ann do what they say that they'll do, that has an impact on the prices that then are attracted to high quality saw logs for ever saw mill. In a similar way to how the wood chip market interacts with the high quality saw log market, peeler billets do the same. We would be looking at a fundamentally different landscape for industry if there is significant delay.
LEON COMPTON: You protect 500,000 hectares of forest that might currently be eligible for logging, and apparently there are significant, and we're talking potentially billions of dollars, of carbon credits that flow, apparently. So who gets that money?
TONY BURKE: Yeah, there's a big apparently in that one. I've seen some of the reports about this, claims of massive billions of dollars.
LEON COMPTON: And so let's lay them out.
TONY BURKE: Yep.
LEON COMPTON: You're paying 300 and something million dollars into this deal but you might net seven billion dollars in carbon credits. Well, let's assume that there are large numbers wherever you look at, who gets those carbon credits?
TONY BURKE: No one. The reason is that under the accounting rules that work for carbon trading, a country, if they want to put their landscape in, has to put their entire landscape in. Now, for a nation like Australia, we're a nation with bushfires, we're a nation with big droughts.
If you put your whole landscape into the carbon market it would mean every bushfire and every drought you had to pay a liability, a massive liability, at the exact same time that Australia was going through significant hardship. That's why Australia has never opted its landscape into the accounting process. It's why we never will.
LEON COMPTON: So what you're saying is that this new five hundred thousand hectare protection, if it comes to pass, is going to accrue no carbon benefits for Australia?
TONY BURKE: In terms of carbon accounting…
LEON COMPTON: In terms of cash.
TONY BURKE: In terms of cash in carbon accounting, that's right. There's the carbon farming initiative, which is a much more modest program, where there's been interaction between the Commonwealth and the state to work out if there can be some modest lines of credit that come through on that, but on the big money which would only be possible if we offered our whole landscape in. The flip side of that, would be billions of dollars of liabilities every time there is a drought.
LEON COMPTON: If you've got a question for Tony Burke, Federal Environment Minister, this morning, text it in - 0438922936 is the number. Ah, 500,000 hectares of protection from logging - what about protection from mining, Minister?
TONY BURKE: This deals with logging only. So the forestry groups at the table - the industry groups at the table, made clear to the environment groups right at the beginning of this, that they were not going to be negotiating on tenure that affected other industries, and the environment groups have known that. So there is nothing in any of this that necessarily has an impact on the mining industry.
LEON COMPTON: What about national park status, world heritage listing and so on? That surely would have implications for the capacity for mineral resources to be extracted from these landscapes.
TONY BURKE: Those decisions are decisions for government. Certainly a world heritage area - that's a valid example, but I don't think any of the proposed world heritage areas that have been spoken about are within significant mining tenements.
LEON COMPTON: So everybody in this deal needs to understand there could well be mining in the areas that are protected from logging.
TONY BURKE: That's correct.
LEON COMPTON: What about the Tarkine at the moment? Where's that up to? The Tarkine national coalition say that they have concerns that the Venture Minerals proposed mine lease will be excluded from any national heritage listing. Can you confirm that?
TONY BURKE: Well even if it was put in the map, it would be excluded from consideration because the processes already connect. The way a heritage listing works is the heritage listing has to be in place before you start the environmental assessment.
Now, the environmental process for those venture projects is already underway. So even if it was included in the boundary, it would be irrelevant. My instinct is, given all of that, that we end up with boundaries that take into account, the significant history and the significant jobs future for mining.
Jonathan West's report actually recommends that we do that in the context of the forestry deal. I still haven't reached my final conclusions on all of that, but I've made clear publically on many occasions and in the little video that's up on YouTube that still gets the occasional hit every couple of weeks - that makes clear that I was surprised at what a mixed use area the Tarkine was.
There are areas environmentally that are truly magnificent, and there are areas that have been mined very heavily. In some cases the places bounce back and some cases there's massive mines going on there right now, and any heritage listing has to acknowledge that you can't just have a blanket approach and say there you go, that's the Tarkine ticked. It's a very, very mixed area and any listing would need to reflect that.
LEON COMPTON: And where - how far away is the listing if the forest deal is all about allowing Tasmania to move on and talk about other things, and surely you could put the Tarkine and its listing issue to bed, that's been dragging on too.
TONY BURKE: I'm moving as quickly as I can on it. I think we're now at the stage where we're looking at weeks, not months, before I'm able to make a decision.
LEON COMPTON: Weeks meaning January?
TONY BURKE: Oh, it may well kick into February. I'm not sure. As soon as I'm ready, I'll be making the decision with certainly no delay. There's specific information, when you deal with boundaries, you're right down to the GPS coordinates, and there's some details that I'm not convinced I've got right yet.
LEON COMPTON: Tony Burke is our guest this morning - Federal Environment Minister. Minister, you said more money to Tasmania's forest deal, and there's been $100 million more - means less money for other environmental projects around Australia. Where's the $100 million extra coming from? Out of the national or indeed the state bucket?
TONY BURKE: In terms of national, a large amount of that money will come out of my two major programs - Caring for our Country, and the Biodiversity Fund. I put a prospectus out for both of those programmes only a few days ago.
Now, we hadn't announced how much money we would be attaching to it, in part because we're working through whether or not there is an agreement to fund Tasmania, but it will have a direct impact on that. That won't be all of the money, but it will be the large part of it.
For any additional funds we've got the normal process when, through the budget process, where the government from time to time makes announcements of where various savings have occurred, and that gets followed.
LEON COMPTON: It feels like you've spent half your year in Tasmania. Let's run through some of the other issues that have been taking up your time. With the state is the focus that you're considering allowing Seafish Tasmania to bring a smaller trawler to get into their quota for jack mackerel red bait into Tasmania?
TONY BURKE: At the moment, Seafish Tasmania have asked whether or not different modifications to the vessel that they have would be possible.
LEON COMPTON: Are they?
TONY BURKE: I've said that if there are different things that they want considered, I'm happy that the scientific committee that will work for two years is able to consider those issues as well, if they want to put them in, but I have quite specifically asked them that they should not be fishing.
LEON COMPTON: So what does that mean? They're saying if we have a reduced freezer storage on board the Margiris, could we fish then? And you've come up with an answer to that. Inside two years, or after two years?
TONY BURKE: If they want to change in a way that they think deals with the current regulation, then what I've said to them is that I reserve my right to put in additional regulations. The two questions for me are one - do we have a new fishing activity? And two, does that new fishing activity carry a level of environmental risk?
Now, that's a legal power I've got as Environment Minister for a twelve month period, and if I need to put down more than one regulation to be able to implement that, I'm willing to do so.
LEON COMPTON: I'm finding it a little hard to understand exactly what you're saying here - could it be that the Margiris goes fishing?
TONY BURKE: I have asked them not to. If they were to make modifications to the vessel that they thought got around the current regulation, then I have made clear I am willing to put more regulations in place.
LEON COMPTON: But it could be that the Margiris goes fishing if they can adjust to, adapt to the regulations that you put in place.
TONY BURKE: I've asked them not to, and I've indicated I'm willing to go further than the current regulation.
LEON COMPTON: Are you prepared to pay them not to? Is there compensation being discussed at the moment between the government and Seafish Tasmania?
TONY BURKE: There are no conversations of that nature happening.
LEON COMPTON: On ABC Radio, Federal Environment Minister Tony Burke is our guest this morning. A couple of other questions on different matters. Firstly let's talk about the whaling job at the moment. The Tasmanian fleet - rather the Japanese fleet, about [inaudible] or some way towards leaving port, and of course yesterday we spoke with the Sea Shepherd organisation.
More boats this year to array themselves against the Japanese whaling efforts. So the federal opposition calling for customs boats to check out what's going on during the Japanese whale hunt. Do you support that?
TONY BURKE: Yeah, I was astonished to hear this from the Opposition. I mean, do they seriously think that we should take customs vessels that are involved in intercepting drugs and things like that - take them away from their core business so that they can go down to the Southern Ocean to watch a protest? Because that's what they're suggesting that they do.
At the moment these vessels are involved in active operation, and the Liberal Party are saying take them away from active operation, send them down to the Southern Ocean - not so they can intervene, but so they can watch a demo.
Now, of all the things to do, I can't for the life of me see why having additional witnesses to a demonstration is more important than the significant work that our customs vessels do.
LEON COMPTON: Finally this morning, did Bob Carr call you to lobby you for his view on the Palestine vote? The prime minister is understood to have been rolled in cabinet. Did Bob Carr call you to lobby you? He said that he called senior ministers. You fit that description.
TONY BURKE: Bob Carr and I have known each other for a very long time. We talk a lot on this issue. Yeah, we had conversations a lot during this. I have been known for a long time to have a very strong level of support for the two state solution, and I was very pleased that our vote ended up reflecting that, but the Prime Minister did what I believe actually reflects leadership.
She made sure that there was a chance for a full open vigorous debate in the cabinet and in the caucus, and in making sure that all of that discussion happens, she then made a judgement call, and every single person backed her in on it.
LEON COMPTON: Michael Danby says what happened was that Bob Carr demonstrated an act of disloyalty in the lobbying that he was doing. Is he right?
TONY BURKE: Yeah, I've read Michael Danby's article this morning. He's wrong.
LEON COMPTON: Good to talk to you this morning. Thanks for coming in.
TONY BURKE: Great to be here.
LEON COMPTON: What happens for the rest of your day? You've been working obviously with the legislative council. Where are you off to now?
TONY BURKE: I've got a number of the signatory groups and different people coming to meet with me. I'm available if Legislative Councillors want to have conversations at any point, but I'm working on the basis that they've got most of the information they need. They'll make their deliberations in their own way, but obviously if they want to have a conversation, I'm around.
LEON COMPTON: Good to talk to you this morning.
TONY BURKE: Always a pleasure.
LEON COMPTON: Tony Burke, Federal Environment Minister.