Minister Ley interview ABC Breakfast

24 July 2021


JOHANNA NICHOLSON: Well, the World Heritage Committee has decided not to list the Great Barrier Reef as in danger for now. Instead, it's given the Australian Government seven months to show it is making an effort to save the natural wonder from continued climate change degradation.

FAUZIAH IBRAHIM: Now the decision came overnight after Federal Environment Minister Sussan Ley flew to Europe to lobby support from several delegates on the UNESCO Committee. The Minister joins us now. Very good morning to you, Minister Ley. Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us. You had lobbied for this report to be postponed until 2023. The committee has given you until February of next year. That's seven months. Is seven months enough time to implement the needed policies and procedures in order to help the Great Barrier Reef recover?

SUSSAN LEY: Good to be on the program, Fauziah. Let me describe what was decided. The reef is no longer on the in danger list. In fact, the in danger language was removed completely from the decision that was taken last night and passed almost unanimously. We aren't being given the sort of deadlines you've described. What is going to happen is that a reactive monitoring mission will take place. A report will be prepared in that time-frame and the item will be reconsidered by the committee. And the critical thing from this is that reactive monitoring mission. Remember that the technical advising bodies to UNESCO have not visited and, if you like, inspected our reef and the brilliant management of $3 billion of investment, and all of the work that we're doing since 2012, nor have they looked at the latest science, some of which is very positive. So that mission is important, and I welcome them as soon as they can arrive, and I welcome the showcasing of the wonderful work that our reef managers are doing.

FAUZIAH IBRAHIM: Right. You say that the critical part of it is the fact that the language in danger has been removed, but Australia isn't off the hook yet. In fact, in the report, it did say the facts are the facts and the science is the science. The committee supported the science, but did not support the in danger listing. You have seven months, again, in order to ensure that Australia can do something, or try to improve their policies on the Great Barrier Reef and try to save it, as such. This is the second time that Australia and the Great Barrier Reef has been listed. Will it escape a third time?

SUSSAN LEY: Let me just go back to the reasons why we were placed on a decision that would have resulted in immediate in danger listing. The main…

FAUZIAH IBRAHIM: [Interrupts] No, we know the reasons. You've already said that there was no in-person visit, we know that. However, in 2019, UNESCO had looked at many of the scientific evidence and had made that decision. We had spoken to Richard Leck, who's from WWF Australia, a little earlier this morning, and he said the Australian Government needs to do more. Let's listen to what he had to say.

RICHARD LECK: The Queensland Government has been clear to the Australian Government that it sees the Australian Government needs to step up financially in some of those key land-based issues, water pollution, coastal management. There has been correspondence between the Premier and the Prime Minister detailing ways how that increased investment could help the reef. But as I mentioned previously, the number one priority is climate change here. Australia is increasingly out of step internationally by refusing to increase its ambition on climate.
[End of excerpt]

FAUZIAH IBRAHIM: There you go, Minister. You have the UNESCO Committee saying Australia is out of step, Australia needs to do something about their climate change policies. You've got the Queensland Government saying the Australia's government needs to step up on its climate change policies and help with the Great Barrier Reef as well. You've got your own Liberal colleague, Matt Kean, who wrote on Twitter: political lobbying does not change the science. The fact is the fact, that this Government's climate change policies is inefficient and will not save the Great Barrier Reef.

SUSSAN LEY: Except, Fauziah, that is not what the draft decision said. It was a callout on global climate change, not on Australia's contribution to climate change. There was recognition in the committee last night that Australia cannot control the emissions trajectory of the whole world. But we are playing our part on the reef, and the various interviews by the bodies leading up to this decision clearly called out the global challenge of climate change, and the need, if you like, to showcase our Great Barrier Reef to demonstrate that. Now, that's a point that they wanted to make. That point was not lost on those who sat at the table last night in the committee meeting. And if you read through what they said, they made it very clear: why single out Australia? There are 82 properties on the World Heritage List that are at high or very high risk of climate change. Only our properties were singled out for this meeting. There is a climate change policy that we have been very instrumental in designing and promoting within the World Heritage Convention. What we said is: climate change is affecting many properties. Let's have a protocol where we look at them all a certain way and we look at them all with the light of climate change behind us. And the point that I really want to make strongly here is, number one, I have never stepped away from climate change being the biggest threat to the reef. We are building the healthy, resilient reef that we know needs to survive the pressures of climate change with a massive investment that we're making and continuing to make. An in danger listing would damage Australia's reputation, and is usually only reserved after extensive consultation with a state party when they actually haven't done the things they were supposed to do. We were recognised, in the technical reports as well, as having done everything we were supposed to do and we will continue to work with UNESCO...

FAUZIAH IBRAHIM: [Interrupts] Yes, let's take a look at who said that you've done what you said you've done. Ethiopia said pressure was put on. Ethiopia, Russia also said that Australia has done well. However, let's take a look at the people who supported your amendment as well, the nations that have supported your amendment. And we're talking about Bahrain, Ethiopia, Hungary, Mali, Nigeria, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Uganda. These are countries not known for their own progressive climate change policies as well. What did you have to give in return for their support?

SUSSAN LEY: Well, I think that's rather an outrageous slur on the integrity of those countries' commitment to the World Heritage Convention. They are the current members of the convention. There are 21 members at any time. Countries come on and come off. What I gave was a very strong account of what Australia is doing and why Australia should not be singled out for climate change treatment, if you like, in this meeting, and a very positive demonstration of wanting to work with UNESCO, of respecting the technical advisory bodies. We worked with them before when they came on a reactive monitoring mission in 2012, quite a long time ago. We will work with them again. I encourage anyone who takes that rather unfortunate view to read through the comments that were made in the World Heritage Committee last night.

FAUZIAH IBRAHIM: Minister, do you see the irony of you flying to Europe and then flying across Europe to try to lobby these countries for support to try to amend a report that will put the Great Barrier Reef on a danger list? The irony of you contributing to carbon pollution, the same carbon pollution that is actually degrading the Great Barrier Reef? Do you see the irony of this?

SUSSAN LEY: I needed to meet these countries in person, and explain to them the importance of the issue for every Australian, for our international reputation, for our willingness to work with UNESCO, and I wanted to actually deliver that message in person, and it was a successful result, I believe, because of the efforts of many, and that was part of it. Now, if you want to talk about Australia's commitment to the Paris Agreement, we're absolutely committed to meeting and beating our targets, and I come back to the point that the committee recognised that a global climate challenge is not one that Australia can be held responsible for, as one state party within the World Heritage Convention. And to explain how we were playing our part, what we are delivering with $3 billion worth of investment and our willingness to continue that work, was a message well received. It was an important message to deliver and I did it for the reef communities, Fauziah. I did it for the 64,000 people whose lives and livelihoods depend on the reef economy, for tourism, for traditional owners, for those who work on the reef every day, and manage our marine park with pride. I will stand up in any international forum and say: We have the best managed reef in the world.

FAUZIAH IBRAHIM: Federal Environment Minister, thank you so much for being with us.

SUSSAN LEY: It's a pleasure.

FAUZIAH IBRAHIM: Sussan Ley there, Federal Environment Minister.