Minister Ley interview 2GB

26 July 2021


CHRIS SMITH: Well, in what is a major defeat for Beijing and a major win for Australia, a push to have the Great Barrier Reef's health status downgraded to in danger has failed overnight. The 21 member countries of the UNESCO World Heritage Committee agreed to repeal a draft listing that would have changed the reef's status, and it would have cost this country dearly. As you know, UNESCO is led by the Chinese. They hadn't carried out a scientific on-the-ground assessment, but they were trying to get this through. I've got the Federal Environment Minister Sussan Ley on the line right now. Minister, welcome.

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

CHRIS SMITH: Well, congratulations, firstly, because you've been bashing the wall down to try and get this reversed. We are sick of greenies, aided by the Chinese, rubbishing the Great Barrier Reef.

SUSSAN LEY: Well, Chris, the 21 countries including Australia that sat around the table last night actually listened to the argument, which was: why would you list the greatest natural ecosystem for climate change pressure, when the whole world is responsible for climate change?


SUSSAN LEY: Don't single out Australia. And the UNESCO World Heritage Committee didn't have an up-to-date, finalised, climate change policy, which would have included all the other 82 properties that are on their books at risk of climate change. So we were singled out, we did feel that. We weren't happy with the process. I'm happy with the outcome, and I have to say I had great engagement with all of the other countries and great understanding and warmth towards Australia. So this is a win for our reef communities, for the reef economy and for those that work so hard to look after this global treasure.

CHRIS SMITH: Because if it is downgraded to that status, it impacts the way in which people see Australia and the places that they go when they come to Australia.

SUSSAN LEY: Absolutely, it's our international reputation, and when I visited the reef in 2019 and met with all of the tourism operators, who, by the way, are really struggling because of COVID, they said that they take international tourists out and those tourists say: we expect to see dying, dead coral reef, and what we see is amazing and brilliant and extraordinary. And that's the message we have to get across. I'm not saying the reef isn't under pressure, it absolutely is, there are areas where it doesn't look great. But there is recovery, and that was the other thing I wanted to say to UNESCO: you haven't actually looked at the latest, most up-to-date science, which shows after the last coral bleaching event, corals are coming back. And of course climate change is a pressure on the reef, we know that, that's why we're working so hard investing $3 billion to build the most resilient, healthy reef we can.

CHRIS SMITH: I was up in North Queensland about five weeks ago and I spoke to the locals about the reef, and they were all saying: well, we had three cyclones in three years, and they say that will do untold damage to the reef, and it's only just coming back from those events.

SUSSAN LEY: Yes it does, it smashes the coral, and you know we do get more cyclones because of climate change. But you also get cyclones because we're in a cyclone zone. So the most important thing we can do, and people will always have different views on climate change, is make the reef as healthy as possible. So that includes water quality, it includes science, it includes our five vessels that are out in the marine park, as I call them: the eyes on the reef. They're spearing crown-of-thorns starfish that actually eat the coral, and they're keeping illegal fishers out of the marine park, and they're working with communities. Because, as I always say, as someone who represents rural communities dependent on water in my part of the world, you've got to work with people. We don't need a top-down approach, we need to bring people with us. There are some amazing communities up and down the reef and they're not always well understood internationally, but I feel that we made our case well.

CHRIS SMITH: So where were they getting the information about poor water quality, the impact it's suffered because of climate change? Were they just reading reports from green organisations that want us to introduce a carbon tax and stop coal production?

SUSSAN LEY: Look, I'm sure they were influenced by some of those organisations. Well, influenced might be too harsh a word, but they listened to them and they read a lot of reports. But what they didn't do was come out and have a look. So my message was: we've got nothing to hide. We actually want you to come and see the reef. So this is not about hiding from any reality that's there on the ground and on the water, and I think that message got through. Because the other countries thought: okay, so Australia hasn't got a monitoring mission by UNESCO since 2012. All they're asking is for someone to come out and actually have a look, and all they're asking is that we don't get singled out for climate change reasons when every property around the world is experiencing the same pressure.

CHRIS SMITH: It's an odd collection of Australian allies in this decision overnight. Bosnia and Herzegovina, Ethiopia, Hungary, Nigeria, Mali, Oman, the Russian Federation, Saudi Arabia, Spain, St Kitts, Uganda. [Laughs] It's extraordinary.

SUSSAN LEY: Well, you come on and off the committee, so at any one time, if you're a member of UNESCO, you might or might not be on the committee, and there are 21 countries, and we're on the committee at the moment. So those countries are the ones that happened to be sitting around the table. But you know when I spoke to the UNESCO representatives and the delegates, and many of them I met personally, two things struck me. That they really understand the importance of the decisions they make, that they have thought really carefully about it, that they're well-considered. And many of them have great warmth to Australia and said: well, we're not sure why Australia has been singled out in this way, and we want to know more. So it was a message well received. Look, I pay tribute to them, because they did their homework.

CHRIS SMITH: One of our listeners in Queensland has just sent me an email. Shane from Buderim, he says: What a novel idea, to actually come to the reef to investigate how it's going. Perhaps China could let investigators into the Wuhan laboratory so we could do the same.

SUSSAN LEY: Well, I might leave that one there, Chris.


SUSSAN LEY: But I will always say: come and look at the reef. And, you know, we've got Warren Entsch, our marvellous reef envoy in Cairns. He took some ambassadors from Canberra, they paid their own way by the way, out on the reef while I was talking to the international ones. And, you know, a couple of the pieces of feedback I got were: you have to see it to believe it. And that really sums it up.

CHRIS SMITH: Yeah, you have to see it to believe it, that's very, very true. A lot of listeners sending me questions, emails, text messages about: what happened to the money that the government gave the foundation? And are they underway with doing what they can to help the reef?

SUSSAN LEY: Yes they are. They've delivered what's called the Reef Restoration and Adaptation Program at $150 million. That's science, that's innovation, that's community work. They've just spent another $111 million on water quality work with communities, and they've been thoroughly audited by the Auditor-General, and everything they do they would be proud to describe to any of your listeners.

CHRIS SMITH: Okay. Great stuff, well done, a victory, and no doubt next year we'll seal the victory. Thank you so much for your time this morning.

SUSSAN LEY: Thank you Chris, thank you.

CHRIS SMITH: Okay. Federal Environment Minister Sussan Ley. There you have it. So it's, as I say, China 10, Australia 1, but the empire is fighting back.