Interview with ABC News, Afternoon Briefing with Patricia Karvelas

11 November 2019

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Joining me now is Trevor Evans, he's the Liberal MP and the Assistant Minister for Waste Reduction and Environmental Management. He joins us this afternoon. Thanks for joining us.

TREVOR EVANS: Good afternoon. Thanks for having me.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: There are 51 fires burning in your home state of Queensland, 72 in New South Wales and catastrophic conditions forecast in Sydney and the Hunter and the Illawarra tomorrow. It's not even summer. Is this situation unprecedented?

TREVOR EVANS: Well, can I start by saying that my thoughts and my heart go out to the people, the families and the communities that are impacted by these terrible, terrible fires. It really is catastrophic events out there, there's no doubt about that, and can I also say a very big thank you from the bottom of my heart for all of the emergency service workers and volunteers that we have out there in the field right now working in very tough conditions, very arduous conditions on behalf of their fellow Australians in their hour of need.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: But on that question of whether this has been unprecedented or you've seen anything like this, what are your reflections?

TREVOR EVANS: Well I've got family members, as I'm sure many people do, right around Australia, who've been involved in fighting some terrible bushfires in the past. I've got family members living and now sadly deceased who fought, for instance, in the Black Friday bushfires in Victoria in I think it was 1939. My memory of that is that I think almost 5 million acres of Victoria burned in those terrible, terrible fires and I think something like 70 years – 70 lives, sorry, were lost. So, certainly as has been said, Australia really is often prone to these terrible bushfires and I think the best thing that we can possibly do right now is focus on serving the people, the families, the communities that have been impacted right now or are right now facing their time of need. That's certainly what I'm focused on and I believe that's also what our Government's focused on.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Air quality in Brisbane today is worse than Beijing because of smoke from the fires. How significant is the risk to people there?

TREVOR EVANS: Well certainly I've been around our community today and I have noticed at a number of different community events, at some of the schools that I visited at, at some of the community events that I've been at, including of course a Remembrance Day celebration that was held at 11am, that people are just being that little bit extra cautious how they conduct themselves in the community. People, especially those with, say, asthmatic or other breathing difficulties are making sure that they stay indoors as much as they possibly can to minimise their exposure to the haze that's in the air.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: The Government was warned as far back as 2006 that the bushfire season was going to become longer and more intense as a result of climate change. Do you accept that that's the case, that what's happening here is a longer more intense fire period because of climate change?

TREVOR EVANS: I think that there's certainly a legitimate policy discussion to have here about how the very serious and difficult issue of climate change impacts on all sorts of things, including natural disasters and bushfires. Can I just say, though, in terms of those family members that we all have who have, you know, fought and in some cases laid down their lives fighting bushfires in the past, the very best thing that I think I can do to honour their memory and the very best thing that I can do to serve those who are right now in their hour of need and facing risks to their home, their property and their lives, is probably to focus on serving them and their needs and not to, I guess, buy in to any sort of invitation to discuss how issues like climate change have impacted the fires that are happening right now in Australia.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: It's not so much an invitation, I know you're not a scientist, but you accept that it's not just inner-city Green MPs linking these fires to climate change? You don't have to be woke to see this link, you just have to read the science don't you?

TREVOR EVANS: Well again, I think it's a case of not buying into some of the political commentary that's occurring right now. How about …

PATRICIA KARVELAS: [Talks over] Is that also from your own side? Because is it – this is the question: is it really helpful for the Deputy Prime Minister to be dismissing these people as raving lefties?

TREVOR EVANS: Well, I'll let the Deputy Prime Minister speak for himself. I note that he has spent much of the last few days in and around some of the communities and people that have been impacted, devastated by these terrible fires. He may in fact say that he felt like he was responding to some of the people who were attempting to politicise it, but again, I'll leave that in his hands. How about I say this: there are obviously all manner of consequences and impacts arising from the very serious topic of climate change and that's why this Government is taking it very, very seriously and has a range of initiatives including very serious, record funding on the table to help to deliver the reforms we need to do to reduce our emissions.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Yeah, I suppose it's key to you – before I move on to the recycling and the issues that you're working on this week – because you actually are one of these people representing an inner-city seat. You're there, you're representing Brisbane. In fact, the Greens have come close. This is an area that you represent and yet there is this, perhaps, I reckon, false distinction being created between city people and rural people. Do you find that unhelpful as an MP from Brisbane who no doubt represents people who are concerned about these issues?

TREVOR EVANS: Well how about I say this? I think that I am serving both my constituents and the residents right across Australia the very best when I say that our government should be focused on providing the emergency relief and support that's needed right now on the ground by the people in the communities impacted by these terrible, terrible fires. That's my focus, that's certainly the Prime Minister's focus and I believe it's our Government's focus.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: But in fact your constituents, Trevor Evans, are raising issues. I know they have in elections where they say climate change needs to be a bigger priority, don't they? And they do want an acknowledgement from the government that this is actually something that we're seeing which is clearly a consequence to some extent of this longer and more ferocious fire period, that's what they're demanding of you as an MP aren't they?

TREVOR EVANS: Well no, I think that what my constituency needs and what Australian residents right now need is a government that's very much focused on the immediate needs of the people that are facing these terrible, terrible bushfires on the ground. The other thing that my community is calling for with respect to the broader debate around climate change is: there is legitimate discussion to have. I don't think that it's helpful to conflate it with the issues that are happening on the ground. I think the best thing that we can possibly do is have that legitimate discussion in the weeks and months ahead, once we are through this difficult period, and to focus on the very serious funding, the policies and initiatives that this government has on the table, which are reducing our emissions.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Let's move to recycling, because this is a big focus for you this week. The Government wants a ban on all waste exports by 2022. You said this morning the ban was the most important thing. How will you stop that plastic ending up in landfill?

TREVOR EVANS: Yes, well it is National Recycling Week, and I know no issue is as important as the bushfires which are occurring on the ground right now across Australia. But you are right, reducing waste and increasing recycling outcomes is definitely another important priority of our government. As you say, the Prime Minister himself and our Government are very, very determined to do what we can to reduce waste and improve recycling rates. It's why I am the first Minister in a Federal Government ever who has had a portfolio title directly responsible for these sorts of issues.

Now, plastics and improving recycling – there is a role for everyone. There is a role for consumers, each of us as individuals; there is a role for industry; and indeed there is a role for Government. Let me start maybe with the role for each of us as consumers and what we are able to do. I think one of the new and exciting initiatives that we need to be very aware of and focused on in the weeks and months ahead is that there is a new logo, a new labelling system, called the Australasian Recycling Label, which is starting to occur – which labels are starting to appear right now on every product on the shelves of our supermarkets and our other retailers. Some of your viewers who have an eagle eye might very well have spotted these already on the supermarket shelves in recent weeks. Essentially, this is a very easy, intuitive, simple-to-understand set of labels which are going to help all of us as we make those split-second decisions at the bin face, when we decide how to recycle correctly and what should go into our recycling bin. There is going to be these labels on all of the packages and all of the products which say simply things like, well, the plastic container here can be recycled. The lid might need to go into the general rubbish. And maybe a plastic seal or something is able to be recycled if you return it, say, to the RedCycle bin that's in your supermarket. So that's –

PATRICIA KARVELAS: [Interrupts] Yeah, that's an initiative you're working on. I just wonder more broadly, though, if the waste Australia has been sending overseas just ends up in landfill here, what is the environmental benefit? Isn't that just going to do further damage to our environment? Isn't that kind of a sting from shifting this unless you do something a little more holistic?

TREVOR EVANS: Oh, I see. So, there are certainly some big challenges around recycling, around stockpiling and landfilling in this country right now. There is also the issue of a small faction, a small percentage, of some of our recyclable materials being sent offshore. Now, as you have identified, the Government has made the very strong decision to phase out the exports of things like plastics, tyres, glass and cardboard, which are destined for overseas markets. And one of the reasons why we have made that decision is: on an even-handed analysis of the situation, we have decided there are significant risks of sending some of those materials like plastics overseas, even if they are ostensibly to feed into international supply chains and recycling chains.

As the Prime Minister has said, it is our waste so it is our responsibility. So we'll be working to phase-out those exports over the coming few years.

Now then the question is: for each of those export streams that we're going to ban, what will happen to them here onshore instead? And it's a very different answer depending on the waste stream that we are talking about. So, for instance, glass, tyres, where there are significant stockpiling and landfilling issues already across Australia, the solution is that Government and industry are going to have to step up to the plate and start to procure things; buy things which are made of recycled content which can start to really impact on those stockpiles.

One of the big, fantastic results that came out of the meeting of environment ministers on Friday just gone, is that all of our governments have agreed to stronger procurement targets for recycled goods. We have all committed to going away and trying to identify just one or two really big, iconic or resource-intensive infrastructure projects we have on, like roads, that could take, for instance, lots of crushed glass out of those stockpiles and use it as a sand substitute in the road base. And on top of that, the Federal Government has committed to leading the way to create some new national standards for the use of recycled content in infrastructure projects like roads. And the great thing about those standards and our best practice guidelines is that they will be able to help not just us, the Federal Government; not just states and territories; but every local council, every construction company or project management company that will be building or maintaining roads and other infrastructure projects into the future.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Trevor Evans, very brief answer on this: on Friday states signed off, as you mentioned, on a target to halve landfill waste by 2030. Do you have a target for how much non-organic waste you want to be recycled?

TREVOR EVANS: Yes, yes. We certainly do. So we're hoping to see, as you said, 80 per cent of all waste recovered and recycled by 2030, and food waste is a significant part of that. It's certainly a significant portion; up to half of the residential rubbish and waste that is being collected right now. For all of the council areas out there that don't yet have food and organics bins, you will find that up to half, about 40 to 60 per cent of the general rubbish being landfilled in those council areas is food waste and organics. And so for us, our target is to halve food waste by 2030, and that is going to have a very significant impact on reducing the amount of food waste that's currently going into landfill.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Trevor Evans, thank you so much for joining us.

TREVOR EVANS: An absolute pleasure. Thank you.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: That's the Assistant Minister for Waste Reduction and Environmental Management Trevor Evans joining us, Gemma. And of course, we did start on the bushfires and this big debate we've been watching. Really, it's become a very political debate, I've got to say, about whether we should be having a bigger discussion around climate change and its impact on the severity of fires. And Trevor Evans does represent what you'd have to describe as perhaps a woke seat in Brisbane. So, you know, his actual constituents are some of the people who have danced with voting for the Greens. He's retained the seat, but really that's one of those seats which shows that the Coalition's – the people they represent – are pretty diverse, and some of his constituents have some different views on these things.