Interview with Fran Kelly, ABC Radio National Breakfast

26 July 2021

FRAN KELLY: Well, the Great Barrier Reef has avoided being registered as an endangered World Heritage site, but the reprieve may only be temporary. Late on Friday, UNESCO's World Heritage Committee gave Australia eight months to upgrade its protection of the Reef, including with action on climate change, or, possibly, face an endangered listing next year. Environmental groups say the decision was a victory for a cynical lobbying effort by the Morrison Government which is now on probation in the eyes of the rest of the world. The Federal Environment Minister, Sussan Ley, spearheaded a diplomatic blitz in efforts to save the Reef from this downgrade. Minister, welcome back to Breakfast.

SUSSAN LEY: Good to be on the program, Fran.

FRAN KELLY: The Reef has dodged a bullet this time, but UNESCO is adamant that the Reef unambiguously meets the criteria for the endangered list. Is a downgrade inevitable next year? Unless the government can show it's taking the threat posed by climate change, and water pollution, more seriously?

SUSSAN LEY: Well, we do take that threat seriously and I want to make that very important point. But, my appeal to the delegates on- the other night was that, there should be no immediate endanger listing before a site visit, before proper consultation with us as the state party, and before the latest science was used. So, I welcome the Reactive Monitoring Mission when it comes, and I welcome showcasing the great work that we're doing on the Reef.
And this isn't just something we're starting now, Fran, this is something we've been doing for years. And $3 billion worth of investment - supporting our Reef communities, 64,000 people rely on the Reef economy, and it's incredibly important up and down 2300 kilometres of Queensland coast. So it was important to fight for those communities, to describe the good work that they were doing, and I know that they'll do that when the advisory bodies to the World Heritage Centre come out and have a look for themselves.

FRAN KELLY: Well, you lobbied hard for this in the middle of a global pandemic. You flew over there, flew around to a number of countries lobbying. Even some in your own side of politics see this as a victory for your lobbying efforts, rather than for the Reef. The New South Wales Environment Minister, Matt Kean, says that: political lobbying does not change the science. Dr Fanny Douvere who's the Head of UNESCO's Marine Science Programme, says: the Committee supported the science but did not support the in danger listing. This seems to be an outcome driven more by politics than the environment. Is that- Do you see this as a win for your efforts?

SUSSAN LEY: Well, I might have to add Matt Kean to the list of people that need to come up to the Reef and actually have a look for themselves and see the great work that we're doing. The advisory bodies make technical reports to the Committee, the Committee makes the decision on the day - that's what they did in our case. It was about proper process. Now, you can describe that as lobbying, you can describe my efforts as diplomatic, I mean, I don't mind. The point was that I went to explain our argument and we won our case by massive consensus on the day by the strength of our arguments. Remember that in that meeting, 19 out of 21 countries agreed that there should not be an immediate in danger listing, so it's off the table. Now, that was consensus. That wasn't a hard-fought vote, that wasn't how it's been described by some, it was actually broad consensus, And I would encourage people...

FRAN KELLY: But was it a win, but was it a win for process? Cause you say, your concern was about the process. Or was it- and was it a loss for science? You were critical that UNESCO had sought the in danger listing without appropriate consultation, without a site visit as you said, but there has been a threat of downgrade hanging over the Reef for some years. Many reports spelling out the problems, such as the three recent mass bleaching events; the Government's own scientists put the outlook at poor to very poor. I mean, UNESCO would know enough by now about the challenges facing the Great Barrier Reef to have made a draft decision that it's endangered. We can all see that can't we?

SUSSAN LEY: Well, I want to make the point, Fran, a couple of points, that climate change is the biggest threat to our Reef, but it's also the biggest threat to 28 other reefs around the world, and climate change is a threat to 82 other properties. So, for our property to be the only one that was singled out to be a global call to action on climate change was a really- a deviation from process - and that was the point we wanted to make, and that was the point we made very strongly.
So, the science and the technical advice is something we've always taken seriously, and by the way, we share our science in a transparent way with the whole world as part of the International Coral Reef Initiative. We're leading the way in supporting how we build a healthy and resilient reef in the face of climate change. So, that's what the World Heritage Convention is about, it's about how you manage your site. It's not about climate change policy, that lives in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, a separate process. This is about what countries do...

FRAN KELLY: Well, does, does the Committee agree with you, though? Because the Committee ratified, apparent- as far, as far as I know, that said the management of the Reef would have to include, quote: accelerated action at all possible levels to address the threat from climate change.

SUSSAN LEY: Absolutely.

FRAN KELLY: Doesn't that suggest that, if Australia's to be spared this international embarrassment of an endanger listing, the Government's going to have to do more to tackle temperature rise?

SUSSAN LEY: Well, the Committee agreed that it would take a climate change policy to the full General Assembly of the World Heritage Committee. So, what it means is that they would look at a way that we treat all properties the same when it comes to the threat of climate change, but we don't single out one.
And by the way, UNESCO actually said we have got a very well managed reef. On the one hand they were saying that, on the other hand they were saying, but we need to make this global call to action on climate change. So, the purpose of the climate change policy - which Australia led at the 2019 World Heritage Committee, and we actually were very forward leaning in telling the entire Committee, the entire Assembly, that we need to look at all of our properties around the world and treat them equally when it comes to climate change. And that, by the way, was the core proposition of our reef 2050 plan - eliminating as many pressures as possible in order to strengthen the capacity of the world heritage properties to be resilient in the face of climate change. So, Australia's never shied away from this.

FRAN KELLY: Exactly right. But...

SUSSAN LEY: But Fran I want to make one quick point about...

FRAN KELLY: But Australia is shying away, is not forward leaning in terms of, for instance, strengthening the climate commitment to adopting the net zero by 2050. Was that, was that target specifically discussed, in terms of Australia adopting that target, at the meeting?

SUSSAN LEY: No, it wasn't, because it belongs in another discussion - the United National Framework Convention on Climate Change. So, this is not a discussion at the World Heritage Committee about the policies of climate change which, by the way, we are fully committed to. And I could talk about that for another 10 minutes, Fran.
But in danger...

FRAN KELLY: No. I suppose what I'm trying to, I'm trying to work out here for people, whether in order for Australia- you've got to provide UNESCO with an upgrade on the Reef itself by February in order to meet the, the guidelines set down now. To keep it from the in danger listing will you have to provide proof that Australia has strengthened its climate commitments? Is that part of what you believe would need to be done to avoid this?

SUSSAN LEY: The State of Conservation report that we'll provide in February will draw very heavily on the updated Reef 2050 plan - all of that information wasn't actually before the Committee - and it will describe what we're doing. But that plan has climate change front and centre of its, of its approach because it's about recognising how you manage the pressures of climate change on your World Heritage site - again, not shying away from it.
Now, in danger listing is something usually only reserved for a country that has not cooperated over many years; hasn't done what it's been asked to do; hasn't done the right thing; and reluctantly, a Committee lists it in danger. For us to be immediately in danger listing- listed, in the way that was proposed, was completely outside the process. It was the process we've needed to get right, and it was that process that 19 out of 21 countries overwhelmingly endorsed.

FRAN KELLY: Clive Palmer wants to build an open cut coal mine about 130k's north west of Rockhampton, which is about 10k's from wetlands that feed into the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage area. The Queensland Environment Department's deemed the project unsuitable. You, as the Federal Minister, have final approval. Your decisions overdue, I think, at the moment. What are you planning to do? Approve or reject it? And really, how could you approve that and still hope to protect the reef from a UNESCO endanger listing?

SUSSAN LEY: Fran, my department's in the process of preparing a report for me. So, after the Queensland Environmental Impact Study is done under the current set of arrangements that comes to the Commonwealth, and then the Commonwealth prepares a report for me. So, I'm sure I will see that in the next few weeks.

FRAN KELLY: Do you think that if we did approve an open cut coalmine 10k's from wetlands that feed into the World Heritage Barrier Reef area, that that would work against Australia in terms of our efforts to remain off that in danger list?

SUSSAN LEY: Well, I'm not going to speculate on individual projects except to say our water quality regulations that we've done in concert with the Queensland Government are very strong. Our 2019 water quality report card show the greatest progress to date for dissolved inorganic nitrogen and pesticide reduction targets. Our farmers - sugar cane, banana, cattle - up and down the Queensland coast are working incredibly hard. And you know, you cannot have runoff into the Reef without it being carefully managed and analysed - that's part of the approach that we take very seriously to managing our Reef, part of the $3 billion we're investing, almost $1 billion of that in water quality. And when the advisory bodies to the committees come and have a look, they'll see that for themselves.

FRAN KELLY: And is it your view that, to some degree, this targeting of the Great Barrier Reef and climate policies, is an effort by UNESCO to more broadly focus attention on climate change?

SUSSAN LEY: Well, they have said that themselves and they have acknowledged that we are managing our Reef incredibly well. So, if you read the draft decision that went into the committee, they said that, they made that point. They then, almost in the same breath, said: but the world has to do more on climate change. So, the message, as I said, was not lost on those who sat around the table on the day and appreciated that you cannot pick out one country and say it's affected by climate change, and single it out in the way that we were, without having an approach that looks at how all natural heritage properties are managed through this convention for climate change.
It's actually not in the interests of either the properties themselves or the sites. I mentioned, Fran, 28 other…

FRAN KELLY: Sure.

SUSSAN LEY: … reefs around the world. And if the best managed reef is going to be singled out in this way, how does that support the management of all the others that need to science and the help that we offer regularly through our international collaborations.

FRAN KELLY: Sussan Ley, thank you very much for joining us.

SUSSAN LEY: A pleasure, Fran.

FRAN KELLY: Sussan Ley is the Federal Environment Minister.