Interview with Katie Woolf, Mix FM, Darwin

31 March 2021


KATIE WOOLF: And you may have read in the paper today that the joint management of Federal Government-controlled National Parks is going to be reviewed and three Territorians are going to have key roles in the process. Now, joining me on the line to tell us a little bit more about the situation is the Federal Environment Minister Sussan Ley. Good morning to you.

SUSSAN LEY: Good morning, Katie and good morning to your listeners.

KATIE WOOLF: Now, Minister, can you talk us through what is going to happen with this review and the involvement of the three Territorians?

SUSSAN LEY: I've established a senior advisory group to look at how we jointly manage Commonwealth national parks. As you know, I travelled and spent quite a bit of time in Kakadu towards the end of    last year. Following that, we made a number of structural changes within Parks Australia. We've got two park managers, including at least one traditional owner, and we've got a key senior executive position relocated from Canberra to Darwin. And this is the next important step. I mean we know these sites are incredibly important for cultural significance, for environmental              biodiversity, and we're reviewing the management of national parks, make sure that traditional owners have the right say at the right time.

KATIE WOOLF: Minister, I guess from the outside looking in, for plenty of us Territorians, there'll be people asking why does it seem so hard to get it right here when it comes to Kakadu?

SUSSAN LEY: I understand that and I always listen to Territorians when it comes to Kakadu because I'm conscious and I saw that, with some of the issues we faced with parks, that feeling of everything is being done from a long way away, i.e. Canberra. So part of this group, which as you say will have three Territorians, Joe Martin-Jard from the Central Land Council, Shane Stone, well-known to everyone as a former chief minister, and Nolan Hunter who was involved in the fight for native title with the Kimberley Land Council. We've also got Denise Bowden from Yothu Yindi Foundation, and the task- the group will be co-chaired by Amanda Vanstone. These individuals will really bring together, not just their own expertise and history, but that listening and that understanding.

KATIE WOOLF: What type of timeline are we talking here in terms of the review happening and being able to get some of these changes implemented?

SUSSAN LEY:  Towards the end of this year, six months. They'll be busy. They'll travel to the parks that are in the Territory. They'll also to go Booderee on the New South Wales South Coast. And they will come back to me with their thoughts, but those thoughts will be informed by the conversations they have with Territorians, not just those who live and work in the park - they're obviously really important - but by everyone. When I was in the Territory, the conversations I had with the tourism industry were very important and getting that right between continuity and certainty for visitors is often - and hope we'll see it again, come from international ports to see our parks, give them the best possible experience, but to also recognise that we have to do it in the right way with traditional owners.
 So, there's a very practical edge to this. As you say, people have been frustrated because it hasn't been right. I'm determined that we get it right. This is part of that. But I mentioned those other changes that we've made about management, about reporting, about traditional owner involvement. And look, it's one of the areas of my portfolio that I keep a really close eye on, Kakadu and what's happening there.

KATIE WOOLF: What do you think needs to sort of happen or what do you want, you know, the advisory group to really be looking at as a matter of urgency and happening as quickly as possible?

SUSSAN LEY: I don't want to forecast what they might find. I always say to people doing a review on our behalf or my behalf, you know, feel free to bring back the recommendations that you want to. And that will happen in this case. I- management- the current management model has been in place for 40 years and maybe there are- well, in fact, I know, there are ways that we can improve it. Perhaps the way the board meets, talks, and makes decisions. They themselves have told me they'd like to see that changed or refreshed in certain areas. Better consultation was a theme that I got very strongly from the different groups in Kakadu. Everybody that has- represents country there, that is a traditional owner, needs to be heard. But ultimately, decisions need to be made for the benefit of everyone. How you do that is a challenge at times, and it's certainly a challenge with the management model that's 40-years-old. But we can do better, and we will.

KATIE WOOLF: Yeah, absolutely. I do note this morning on the ABC online, it is being reported that a powerful land council's been urged to call a special meeting to discuss the closure of one of Kakadu's most well-known tourist sites amid a court battle over a sacred site. It says in the report that Parks Australia's facing charges for carrying out work on a sacred site near the Gunlom Falls infinity pool, but court proceedings were, on Monday, delayed again in court. Mick Markham, a Bolmo Elder who chairs the Gunlom Land Trust, has now written to the Northern Land Council asking them to call a meeting to propose the closure of the entire Gunlom region. Firstly, I mean, what's your reaction to this situation? And how did we get this so wrong?

SUSSAN LEY: There are some technical matters that are preventing the court case proceeding at this stage. However, I expect that they will be resolved. The most important thing is that we now have the right certificate to do the work at Gunlom relating to the walking track. I met Mick when I was there and other Traditional Owners on site, and I saw for myself what their very real concerns were, and I understood those concerns. And my total focus is how we improve the engagement, and that's part of what this advisory group is about. But in terms of the actual walking track and the site itself, we have the certificate that effectively approves that work, and that can take place, and the right consultation has happened. And I'm certainly not going to say things were done as well as they should have been in the past. But the focus is how we get this engagement with Traditional Owners right as we look to the future.

KATIE WOOLF: Minister, are we at risk here of having a situation though where the Gunlom region is closed?

SUSSAN LEY: I'm not going to speak for the Traditional Owners and I'm simply going to say I want to hear from them every step of the way with the concerns that they have, whether directly or through the current acting Director of National Parks. And I really mean that, because having spent the time that I did at Kakadu, I gained that really powerful appreciation of what matters to them. And I think there had been some disconnect between their very real concerns and the administration. That's not to point the finger of blame at anyone. Sometimes the systems just don't work as well as they should. That's what I saw. That's why I took steps to fix. And of course, I regret many of the issues in the past, but we need to get this right now, and we will.

KATIE WOOLF: Yeah, I think- you know, you've hit the nail on the head. We've got to get it right. I know that it's not only Territorians who want to be able to enjoy Kakadu. Interstate visitors, and once we're eventually in a situation where our international tourists are allowed back. You know, I guess, there'll be some people listening this morning though who will be thinking to themselves: how are we in a situation with this consultation where we've somehow ended up with the path on a sacred site?

SUSSAN LEY: Look, I don't have answers to all of those questions. But what I can say is the Government's commitment to Kakadu, which we made clear with our funding last year of an over $200 million package, $70 million for Kakadu, to improve the roads, the visitor sites. And of course, we want international tourists to be able to access them. And notwithstanding all the problems, it is an incredible place. It will be a shining light when international visitors come back to Australia. Yes, there's been challenging times. I'm certainly not going to shy away from that. But with the sort of people we have at the table and the commitment from all sides, I know we can get there.

KATIE WOOLF: Well, Environment Minister, Sussan Ley, we really appreciate your time this morning, and on very short notice. Thanks for chatting with us.

SUSSAN LEY: That's okay. Thanks, Katie. Bye now.