Interview with Michael Rowland, ABC NEWS Breakfast

21 May 2021

MICHAEL ROWLAND:   Now let's come back home, and a 10-year environmental blueprint to protect Australia's biodiversity and threatened species has been unveiled by the Federal Government and it draws on the many lessons of the Black Summer bushfires. Conservationists have describe the mega fires as the one of the worst wildlife disasters in modern history, with billions of animals either killed or displaced. Federal Environment Minister Sussan Ley joins us now from Sydney. Minister, good morning.

SUSSAN LEY:  Good morning, Michael, good morning to your listeners from the Sea Life Aquarium in Sydney.

MICHAEL ROWLAND:  It's a great aquarium too. Now, having reported as I did in the frontlines Black Summer, it certainly touched me. Certainly, the loss of life was devastating, loss of properties was devastating, but news of at least one billion animals killed in those infernos really tore at me and tore the hearts of so many other Australians. How is this strategy going to prevent such a drastic loss of life amongst our wildlife, to prevent that happening in the future?

SUSSAN LEY: It's going to get us on the front foot. We've got 600,000 to 700,000 unique species of plants and animals in Australia, some of them found nowhere else in the world. And you're right, Michael, after the Black Summer bushfires, it was time to take stock, it was a call to action, to look at the damaging effect of those fires, of natural disasters, of climate change and the cumulative impact on some of our precious wildlife. This is the second strategy, it's got two 5-year action plans. It's got a kick-off start of $57 million, looking at pests and weeds and marine habitat, because we are leaders in ocean science. Behind me we have some conservation work for the endangered white seahorse found in Sydney Harbour. So I'm looking forward to the scientists having their say, communities having their say, and action plans that really make a difference for our threatened species.

MICHAEL ROWLAND:  Are there particular species the Government is most worried about and they are most keen to help protect?

SUSSAN LEY:   The first action plan will come up with a hundred species and 20 places. Because this strategy is focused nationally on places, some of them more special than others, and some of them, for example, that may have been burnt in the fires or affected by floods, or some of our coastal habitat that we really want to protect, and also come up with a hundred species to start with. But this is about communities and scientists having their say. After the bushfires, I appointed an expert panel to tell me what species I needed to recover urgently and how we should do it. So, a lot of that work is already underway. We've got $200 million worth of post-fire recovery out there on the ground making a difference, so we can of course build back better after those devastating events.

MICHAEL ROWLAND:  The strategy talks about culling feral pest animals. How important is that as part of the strategy, protecting threatened species?

SUSSAN LEY:  Look, it's vital. 50 per cent of Australia is managed by farmers. Often those farmers will tell you that the boundary between their property and a neighbouring national park is a hotspot for pests and weeds. So, how we work to eradicate them is absolutely vital. We've done a lot of that with our work on catching cats, poisoning feral animals wherever they are and removing them from our precious habitat. And if you think about the damage hard-hooved animals like pigs do on national parks, on run-off into the Great Barrier Reef, if you think about the number of marsupials that cats- feral cats kill every night, it's horrific, it's in the millions. And we know that that is where we can act, we can act and we can do things properly, and we've started that work already.

MICHAEL ROWLAND:  And the strategy talks about- I guess the Government and the people who work on the ground being more agile in adapting to the increasing threat posed by the changing climate, particularly climate change. Is that a key tenet here?

SUSSAN LEY:   Yes, it is. Climate change is something we need to adapt to. I was on a phone hook-up last night, the G7 environment and climate ministers, and I talked about three key things that Australia is doing. We've got a $210 million Australian climate services, which actually provides the intel and the understanding so people know the effect of climate change, and know what to do when a natural disaster strikes. We've got $100 million oceans leadership package which positions us internationally to be a leader in ocean science and we are doing so much work with marine parks. When you think about the seahorses behind me, they suffer from habitat loss, from seagrasses up and down the coastline, but The Seagrass Hotel which- sorry, The Seahorse Hotel which actually allows conservation and zoo organisations such as this aquarium to be part of putting those species back, re-introducing them, monitoring them, caring for them, and knowing that every Australian is right behind them, because conservation is everyone's business.

MICHAEL ROWLAND:  Yeah, and you talk about reacting to climate change. And I guess the big challenge for all governments is stopping climate change. On that front, as you would well know, thousands of school students are hitting the streets across the country this week to protest against what they see as your government's inaction on climate change. How do you, as Environment Minister, explain to these kids who'll be in the 20s, 30s and 40s approaching 2050 as to why your government is lagging pretty much the rest of the world in not signing up to net zero emissions by 2050?

SUSSAN LEY:   You're right, Michael, there will be protests across Australia and they'll probably be outside my electorate office in Albury and if I was there, I would come out on the pavement and talk to the students, because I respect the students have a right to protest. But I can tell you the last time I did that, in Parliament House, actually, they were surprised at the number of things that we are doing, that we are world leaders in the take-up of renewables, that the contribution we're making to technology when it comes to climate adaptation - hydrogen, blue carbon. Our oceans package is about measuring, monitoring and storing blue carbon, something Australia can genuinely lead the world in. So while Angus Taylor, Energy Minister, is responsible and working hard for us to reach net zero as soon as possible - there is no-one with more ambition to do that than me as Environment Minister - most of- so much is happening as well to complement that effort, and to assist the world, look at what we're doing here where we've managed climate change in our natural landscapes for a long time.

MICHAEL ROWLAND:  So Energy Minister Angus Taylor, why isn't you as Environment Minister responsible for achieving this target? It would strike me as strange that an Energy Minister does that.

SUSSAN LEY:   Yes. Well, Energy and Emissions Reduction is Minister Taylor's full title and we work well together. But if you look at the Paris Agreement and then you look at climate adaptation, we've signed up internationally for climate adaptation coalitions. And while there is a lot terminology with international agreements, can I tell you there's a lot of work happening as well to actually position us to demonstrate how Australia, which is a dry and changing climate, and I know that well as someone who represents the farmers of western New South Wales, the things we are doing and the lessons that we've learned and the opportunities we have to share our knowledge.

MICHAEL ROWLAND: Okay. Really appreciate your time, Minister. Thanks so much for joining us.

SUSSAN LEY:   Thank you.

MICHAEL ROWLAND:  Sussan Ley, the Environment Minister there from The Aquarium in Sydney.