Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities
Press Conference - Koongarra added to Kakadu National Park
6 February 2013
TONY BURKE: Just in terms of this media conference first of all, today represents an extraordinary moment, decades in the making, for the two men beside me. I respect today there will be a number of issues not related to Kakadu that people want to ask questions about. What I would ask is this: if we can deal with the issues relating to Kakadu first, Jeffrey has asked to be able to make a statement, but has also asked that he not answer questions.
And then once we've dealt with the Kakadu issues, I'm very happy to deal with the other issues that no doubt people are going to want to be able to ask questions about. So if we can do it in that order, out of respect to Jeffrey, because I just really don't think it's fair on a day as momentous as this for him, for us to deal with the full range of policy issues that I've no doubt you want to ask about.
Kakadu National Park is one of the most precious places on Earth and the reason we have the level of protection today that we have for Kakadu National Park is in no small measure because of the two men beside me. Bob Hawke, as Prime Minister, was responsible for Kakadu stages two and three.
Stage two was better known in the media at the time as the Coronation Hill decision where Bob put his leadership on the line completely and no doubt had repercussions that followed as a result of making that call. But we look at Kakadu today and no-one would question that Bob Hawke was on the right side of history in that decision.
But throughout its history, for Kakadu National Park, it's had a hole in its heart and if you go to Nourlangie, the rock lookout, there where the rock art is for Lightning Man dreaming, one of the most popular tourist sites in Kakadu National Park, what you are overlooking is Koongarra. What you are overlooking is an area which has had the shadow of potential uranium mining over it for the life of Kakadu National Park.
Today we introduce legislation to the Parliament to end that. The land is part of the traditional owners of the land have been the Djok people. The last traditional owner of the Djok people is Jeffrey Lee. Jeffrey Lee made a decision that he wanted the prospect of mining to be off the table forever.
One of the first things that happened when I became Minister for the Environment was I was in a video conference with my department and Peter Cochrane, the director of National Parks, held up an iPad. The iPad was a video message from Jeffrey Lee, taken on country, saying he wanted to address the World Heritage Committee. He was sent to Paris and the World Heritage Committee agreed that Koongarra should be included as part of Kakadu National Park.
There was still one piece of legislation overhanging the decision. That's the legislation that technically continues to allow the prospect of mining within the Koongarra area. This morning Jeffrey Lee and Bob Hawke sat on the floor of the House of Representatives while I introduced the repeal bill for that legislation.
Today we complete the journey of Kakadu National Park. Today we commence the final steps in making sure the area of Kakadu is indeed protected forever and this Government has completed the Labor legacy that was advanced so far during the years of the Hawke Government.
Jeffrey Lee was offered millions of dollars, millions of dollars to make a different decision. He's made a call himself that the wishes of his ancestors and the way they cared for country is what he wants to happen forever. This decision is of national significance and as a world heritage site, it is of international significance and I think we should all be very proud as Australians that part of our land is owned by Jeffrey Lee and he's taken the decisions he has today.I'll ask Bob Hawke to say a few words. Jeffrey Lee; Jeffrey will make a statement. Then if we can have some questions on Kakadu and then I'll ask Jeffrey to go and we'll deal with the broader issues that you'd like to talk about.
BOB HAWKE: Thank you Tony. I'll be very brief because Tony has put it very succinctly and very well. It's a matter of great pride for me to - I think I've gained the reputation as a Prime minister who was very much concerned with the environment. It started of course in the '83 election with saving the Franklin.
Kakadu is very important to me as well. One of the most bitter - and we didn't have many bitter Cabinet meetings, but one of the most bitter was the discussion about Coronation Hill. I just recall part of the discussion. I got particularly annoyed when a few of my ministers were expressing, well not ridicule, but sort of scepticism and doubt about the attitude of the Aboriginal people to the existence under the ground there and the serpent and this was important to their religious beliefs. And a number of my colleagues were expressing scepticism about this and I just blew up.
I said, bugger me. I said you have no difficulty embracing the concept of the holy trinity, the virgin birth; you take that in your stride. But someone else has a different belief and you're a sceptic. I said, the important thing is that we respect, all of us respect the deeply held beliefs of others and understand the importance of those beliefs. I didn't have the numbers, but I had the authority, so we got the right decision.
So we did our part, but in respect of what we're about today, it couldn't have happened without the commitment, the dedication, the integrity of this truly remarkable Australian, in my judgment, one of the great Australians. As Tony said and he understated it, they said, the French company who had the rights said now we can make you one of the richest men in the world and they started off by signing a thing as a - here's 5 million to start with.
He gave the immortal reply, ‘I've got a job’. And he put his priorities where they should be and all of us, in this nation and indeed the world, are indebted to him.
TONY BURKE: Jeffrey?
JEFFREY LEE: Thank you Mr Hawke Thank you, so today I feel very, very proud and very happy today and yeah, at the Parliament. And with former Prime Minister, Mr Hawke. I feel really great today. Yes, Koongarra was a big, long struggle for me and as a traditional owner and a long road. Finally, I'm here and yes, like I said, this is my day.
I've got a letter here that I'd like to read out. There's a few - there's a lot of people that I'd really like to thank, really thank them a lot and for helping me along as I was having difficulty for Koongarra. And very important to me that, like, today for Koongarra now that I can relax and continue with my life and forget about Koongarra. It's good to see that Koongarra is included into the Park.
My really big thank to Minister Burke here today. I'd like to start off with my lingo by opening my story. [Non-English]. We commit the future for Koongarra today. I will speak in English now. I want to say in English again to the Minister, Mr Burke. I want to thank the Minister, Tony Burke, for - making this happen today.This is a great day for me, my country and my culture. My mind is at peace now that I know that there will be no mining at Koongarra and the Djok land will be protected forever in Kakadu National Park. I have said no to uranium mining at Koongarra, because I believe that the land and my cultural beliefs are more important than mining and money. Money comes and goes, but the land is always here. It always stays if we look after it and it will look after us.
QUESTION: Minister Burke, there's a couple of other uranium mines in Kakadu at the moment. One of them's just finished and there's another deposit at Jabiluka which potentially still could be developed. Why not legislate to get rid of them as well?
TONY BURKE: Our decisions have been driven specifically by the wishes of the traditional owners. Let's not forget there are a number of mining projects around the country where engagement for jobs for traditional owners has been extremely strong and it's had their support. But my view on these issues, particularly for World Heritage listings, is that these decisions should be very much viewed through the prism of what do the people who are the traditional owners of the land want?
I think that's the right thing to do. Some people have complained that I didn't put something in for Cape York. The simple answer was I think we will end up with a World Heritage listing for Cape York. But it will be the boundaries that traditional owners choose and when they tell me they're not ready, that means we don't put anything in. And so that's what drives those decisions for me.
QUESTION: But there still could be two very big uranium mines in Kakadu National Park for the next thirty - forty years.
TONY BURKE: Within a World Heritage area, so if you're within the boundaries of a World Heritage area, there is no mining. And the World Heritage decision itself confirms that.
QUESTION: Mr Hawke, do you say that the same sort of battle could be played out or looked back on in future over James Point - Price Point?
BOB HAWKE: Well, I'm not across the details of that. But I just want to say that I have total confidence in this Government in general and in this Minister in particular in ensuring that the right decisions are taken.
QUESTION: Mr Hawke, the Kakadu issue was very contentious when you were Prime Minister.
BOB HAWKE: I'm sorry?
QUESTION: The Kakadu was a big, contentious issue when you were Prime Minister. I seem to remember one of your former ministers referring to Coronation Hill as clapped-out buffalo country. Do you think that kind of internal dissent, debate, disagreement, in political parties is viewed differently now on both sides of the fence?
BOB HAWKE: There was certainly very vigorous debate on the issue, as you say, and some silly things were said by some of my ministers, some of which I've referred to earlier. But don't forget, in addition to the internal debate, we had the profound opposition we had from our political opponents and the mining industry. And the important thing is that, whatever debates we had, we finally took the right decision and the right decision prevailed over the sort of uncivilised and thoughtless position of our political and business opponents.
QUESTION: Mr Hawke, do you think this discussion over uranium in Kakadu was the beginning of the end for your prime ministership?
BOB HAWKE: I certainly lost some support over it, because, as you might have gathered, I was very direct with them and essentially questioned their consistency and integrity. And, yes, I lost votes over that.
QUESTION: Mr Hawke, you said that the right decision was made, even though you didn't have the numbers.
BOB HAWKE: Yeah, well, my cabinet, from the very beginning, adopted a position and nothing that I sought to impose. But if there was a division within the cabinet that the view of the Prime Minister would prevail, that was the cabinet's attitude. And although I was massively outnumbered on the Coronation Hill thing in the cabinet, that position still prevailed.
QUESTION: But on Prime Ministerial authority, do you think that Julia Gillard has the same authority?
BOB HAWKE: Well, she's demonstrated a very definite capacity to make tough decisions.
QUESTION: In what way? What examples can you give us there?
BOB HAWKE: Well, a couple recently, haven't there? I mean, she made a decision in regard to calling an election - setting an election date. She made a decision in regard to a nomination for the senate seat in the Northern Territory. They were pretty tough decisions.
QUESTION: Mr Hawke, looking back at the Kakadu decision - Coronation Hill decision - what do you think that says, and your role in it says, about not getting caught up in the, you know, the daily noise of the argument, but looking to the long term when governing?
BOB HAWKE: Of course that's always what you should do and I had absolutely no doubt that I was right on this issue. And when a Prime Minister has that conviction, I think you have a responsibility to carry it through.
QUESTION: Mr Burke, some mining companies and organisations still say that this, you know, shows that there's an element of sovereign risk in this decision. What's your response to that?
TONY BURKE: The alternative to that argument would be to say that traditional owners shouldn't make the call on these decisions. Now, it's Jeffery's land and he says he wants it protected forever. I think he deserves to have a government that backs him in.
QUESTION: Mr Burke, in hindsight should you not have stayed at Eddie Obeid's ski lodge?
TONY BURKE: Look, certainly no one wants to be mentioned in the same breath as the deeply serious allegations that quite properly are being investigated in Sydney at the moment. They are incredibly serious allegations. What's been the subject of discussion with respect to me over the last 24 hours has nothing to do with those allegations, but obviously you'd rather not be part of it.
QUESTION: Minister Burke, when was the first time you met anyone from the Obeid family?
TONY BURKE: Well, wow. I can't remember meeting Mr Obeid much before I became a member of the state parliament.
QUESTION: What about Moses?
TONY BURKE: I'm not sure if I've ever met Moses.
QUESTION: Mr Burke, would you characterise Mr Obeid, Eddie Obeid, as a friend of yours?
TONY BURKE: Look, these days it would be - the last time I saw him was at a Lebanese function that I attended with Phillip Ruddock. So to give that as a current description I think would be a pretty big stretch. Back then I'd just left the NSW parliament where he'd been one of my colleagues in that time.
I don't want to get into a definition as to where you draw the line on that particular word and where you don't. We got along well enough when I was in state parliament; we weren't constantly in contact or anything.
But I have no doubt - and I know you've framed the question in that way because of the disclosure rules - I have absolutely no doubt that what I put on the register yesterday was not required to be put on the Register yesterday, was not required some years ago to be put on the register, that it was entirely in a personal capacity and it was long before I was a minister.
QUESTION: So other than being mentioned at ICAC, do you have any regrets in accepting an invitation to stay at his ski lodge?
TONY BURKE: Look, I stayed at someone's place.
QUESTION: So no regrets, you're happy with what you did? You don't think it needed to be disclosed before yesterday?
TONY BURKE: No. No, the moment it was asked I answered the question. I've never had a problem with it, but - and since I became a minister I know that The Daily Telegraph ran the comparison of disclosing Justin Bieber tickets, which is more of a humiliation than a disclosure. But yeah, since I've become a minister I've made sure that I disclose a lot more than what the rules actually demand.
QUESTION: Since you've been in Federal Parliament has Mr Obeid or any of his family ever made representations to you on any policy issue, on any issue that you've had responsibility for?
TONY BURKE: No.
QUESTION: Have they ever discussed their investments with you?
TONY BURKE: No.
QUESTION: On that decision to make the disclosure, Minister, if you're not required to do it, why do it? And if you felt compelled to do it, to show presumably that it was an innocent thing, why not do it several months ago when it became clear that Eddie Obeid was going into the ICAC and all these allegations were going to be raised, to get ahead of it? Why wait until you were named?
TONY BURKE: Oh look, we're talking about something that - you know, we're in the order of eight years ago or something like that, I'm not sure of the exact dates. But I was asked the question yesterday; my view was I either was going to be in a conversation with you today, Mark, about why did I disclose more than I legally had to or I'd be in a discussion about why is that you've held back. I decided this conversation was the better one to have.
QUESTION: Eddie Obeid's name has been mentioned, under suspicion for many, many years. When this was offered to you, did you have any suspicions at all or any doubts at all about accepting this generous offer?
TONY BURKE: No, he was a former member of parliament, had a place that his family wasn't using on particular dates and said if it was empty if I wanted to use it that was okay, so on two occasions I did.
QUESTION: Do you know of any members of the government who took up the offer of accommodation at Mr Obeid's lodge who haven't declared?
TONY BURKE: Oh, who haven't declared? No.
QUESTION: Minister Burke, is that the only hospitality you've enjoyed from the Obeids? They've got some beach houses in Terrigal and another one at Port Macquarie.
TONY BURKE: I've never been to any of them in my life.
QUESTION: How damaging is this for the Labor Party in New South Wales, Mr Burke? And secondly, should an elevated role be found for Kevin Rudd in the election campaign?
TONY BURKE: Well, in the first place, in terms of Kevin's engagement, while I personally very much miss out on doing the Friday morning Sunrise, I've loved it, I really have. I've never once for a minute questioned the legitimacy of the decision that Sunrise made and I watched him last Friday morning and I thought he was great. I thought he was great, I thought he did a really good job.
So he's out there making those sorts of comments, which are - you know, you go through what he said, completely helpful to the government from beginning to end, those comments. So you won't find me publicly or privately whingeing about any of that.
On the first part of your question, Sid, where you asked about the impact of the whole thing, in terms of the last 24 hours I actually don't think it's significant but in terms of the broader allegations, let's not lose sight of what we're talking about here.
These are allegations, which if found true - if found to be true, the allegations before ICAC are found to be true, it represents the exact opposite of every reason people like me get involved in politics, the exact opposite. And whether there was a media focus on it or not, we would still find it deeply, deeply offensive.
Now, I'll wait to find out, for the allegations to play through their legal course and all of that, but what is being spoken about, if true, is a complete abuse of public responsibility, and before you get to media impact or electoral impact, if that is happened it's just offensive that it's happened.
QUESTION: But Mr Burke, do you believe that the Labor Party in New South Wales has done enough to stop the kind of behaviour and culture that's been talked about and alleged in the ICAC hearings, to stop that from existing now or existing in the future, or could the Labor Party do more?
TONY BURKE: I think on all of these issues the answer is you've got to be forever vigilant, you've got to be forever vigilant. Thank heavens we have an ICAC in New South Wales that is investigating it. I'm glad of that. If there wasn't then by now there would have been another commission of enquiry I expect, so I expect the investigation would happen anyway. So whether it's ICAC or another body, thank heavens the investigation is happening.
QUESTION: Mr Burke, can I take you to James Price Point. They're still waiting for final approval from you for that project. Why the delay and can you guarantee that you'll make a decision before the 9 March election?
TONY BURKE: Oh, election deadlines, regardless of the hysteria from the WA Premier, his election deadlines are irrelevant to my decision making on that issue. What is relevant is there is some principles and minimum standards that the strategic assessment needs to meet. I'm waiting for advice from my department as to whether or not they've met it. If they've met it I'll then make a decision; if they haven't, then I'll tell them to finish the job.
QUESTION: So you're telling us that the paperwork that you have to consider is not before you as yet from the department?
TONY BURKE: Correct. It's with the government, it's with the government, and my department have given me very generalised directions as to where they think they're heading, but sometimes those conversations end up with something different when you get the final written advice.
QUESTION: Aside from that, you would be aware that Shell, which is one of the partners in the project, is looking like it prefers a floating platform as opposed to having a multibillion dollar project at James Price Point. Speaking generally, would you prefer this project to be built at sea with a floating platform, as opposed to having a footprint on land?
TONY BURKE: I have already approved a floating platform gas project. It was one of my earliest approvals, and in terms of environmental outcomes, a whole lot of the challenges that you deal with things on land don't apply when you're dealing with a floating platform in that way.
Now, the reason I'm not going to answer directly is a legal reason, which I'm sure you respect, which is I've got to make sure I don't pre-judge this particular application and it's different to a normal environmental decision.
Because of the way the strategic assessment was set up, the question that will come to me is not do I approve it, this particular one or not, in the first instance. The key question for me will be (1), have they met the terms of the strategic assessment and (2), if they have, is this an appropriate location within the Kimberley?
QUESTION: Have you asked your department to go on a go-slow with regards to the issuing of the paperwork?
TONY BURKE: Absolutely not.
QUESTION: In regards to coal seam gas in New South Wales, what's wrong with the processes that the New South Wales government is putting forward?
TONY BURKE: There are some issues that quite properly need to be looked at with coal seam gas, but fall under state law, not ours. So while my approvals on coal seam gas go to issues of endangered species, if you for example have coal seam gas projects proposed, for example in western Sydney, you are unlikely to have an impact on an endangered species.
But if you take away the water underneath the ground and people's land drops by a metre over time then I think you still have an issue that people quite rightly want investigated properly. Now we have decided that rather than have the old system where the company, the proponent pays for all the sites and then that's what comes to us, that we as a Government would pay for it to be done in advance and completely independently.
Now Queensland and Victoria, South Australia as well, have fully signed up to rules that guarantee that information will be part of their system. New South Wales is proposing a protocol which is different and which is deficient.
Now I have very deep concerns. One, about that principal itself but secondly, I've got concerns about what does that say about the New South Wales Government's attitude to this issue? We are not only talking about the sort of land that, for example, with the Darling Downs in Queensland with all the controversy that that involved, we're not just talking about land like that.
We have acreage that goes right into residential areas and I know the attention has been on the New England area but this goes all the way up the north coast of New South Wales, this goes to the Hunter and this goes in Western Sydney and I am deeply concerned as to why it could possibly be that New South Wales is wanting to do fewer checks that other States.
QUESTION: Mr Burke, just on Obeid again, Tony Windsor who was in the New South Wales house in the early '90s said that even then people spoke in hushed tones about Eddie Obeid, all sorts of things. I'm just wondering when you were in the New South Wales Parliament, when you were very close to Eddie Obeid and in his faction and in his party, did you ever have any concerns or did anybody ever raise any concerns with you about the way he and his family conducted their business and if so - and you're talking about vigilance and oversight - wouldn't it have been your responsibility to raise those in some formal way in the Party or with the police?
TONY BURKE: Well, you don't get to the second half of the question because the answer to the first half of the question is no and in terms of being a particularly powerful character, my first caucus meeting was when Bob Carr did a major reshuffle, promoted new people into the ministry and two people were dropped out, one of whom was Eddie Obeid.
So in terms of for the year that I was there, being seen as someone at the height of power, that was not how things were for the year that I was there at all.
QUESTION: Can we safely assume that if you were offered anything by the Obeids again you wouldn't accept it?
TONY BURKE: That's probably a fair call. That's right.
QUESTION: Mr Burke, why do you think the Obeids made this generous offer to you?
TONY BURKE: I don't think it's unusual for a work colleague if they have a place that - a holiday place that is empty to say to other people, if you want to be there you can. It's not the only occasion in the course of my life, long before Parliament you'll have people who you know who have a place and if it's empty they say you can go there.
I went there twice. I'm not sure of the dates. Certainly it was after I was a State member. Whether one was before I became a Federal member or not I'm not sure, which is why I put the declaration in the terms in which I did.
QUESTION: On CSG, given the New South Wales Government's intransigence do you see any options under existing Commonwealth law or do you see that it might require a legal change and are you getting any other - we've heard of course from Mr Windsor about his views about what needs to be done, do you have - are you getting requests from any Government MPs about changes to Commonwealth law to deal with this?
TONY BURKE: Certainly there are - whether it goes - before you get to changes to Commonwealth law certainly there are a number of members of Parliament who have been - from the Labor side have been raising with me for a long time concerns about these issues.
All the Western Sydney MPs have been raising it with me, a number of MPs from the Hunter. Both Justine Elliott and Janelle Saffin have been raising these issues with me for some time.
The challenge to date has been that national environmental law is very much built on treaties that we have and those treaties using the external affairs power tend to refer to the sorts of endangered species or Ramsar wetlands which give me a particular reach but only to an extent and certainly for some of these areas the objection is not an environmental one but it's still a substantive one.
So on the issue of further legislative change I currently don't have a determined view. I am seeking more information and more advice on it but I don't have a determined view as to whether that's a correct path to go or not.
Right at the moment my principal concern is I cannot, for the life of me, understand what's going on that has caused New South Wales to not want every project caught by the rules that would make sure they had access to independently funded science.
QUESTION: Can you assure Mr Windsor that this will be dealt with before the election given that it was a part of his agreement with a Labor formed government?
TONY BURKE: My intention is to deal with these issues as soon as I can. Had New South Wales gone along the way the rest of the states had, I suspect we wouldn't be in this situation now. But now we have with New South Wales an issue both of the substance of the protocol, but secondly also an issue of what's going on that they'd have a motivation to want different rules and that's of deep concern.
QUESTION: Just back on James Price Point, you mentioned when talking about Kakadu how the views of the traditional owners was very sort of important in your thinking, over with - in Broome - we've got a divided view among the indigenous community there though, but one concern if they don't have James Price when they have an offshore platform is that the benefits package, which is worth a couple of billion dollars to the local land council, wouldn't go through. How much is that weighing on your mind?
TONY BURKE: In any of my decisions socio-economic issues get taken into account but principally they are environmental decisions. Okay?
QUESTION: Just brining attention to New South Wales Labor. Do you still think it's a good idea for Mr Iemma to stand for re-selection?TONY BURKE: I don't think anyone could view Morris as being at all associated with the events that the questions have been about today and that that enquiry is about. Whether he wants to or not, look Morris is a friend of mine, I've known him for a very long time, I've never heard a serious probity allegation against Morris Iemma. The decision as to whether he runs or not is his own. Okay? Thank you very much.