Minister Ley interview with Patricia Karvelas, ABC Afternoon Briefing

19 October 2021

SUSSAN LEY: Good afternoon, Patricia. Good to be on the program.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Has the Liberal Party set a deadline for when it will make its decision on net zero, with or without the support of the National Party?

SUSSAN LEY: There are no deadlines that I am aware of. The Prime Minister has made it very clear that the conversations are taking place. We're here in the building. There's a lot of catching up, a lot of exchange of views. I think it's overwhelmingly positive in terms of coming up with an outcome. And let's remember, Patricia, we're focused on outcomes here that will make a difference in the right way to every single constituency that's interested and passionate about this issue. So, where I represent in western New South Wales, there might be a different view from some of the city electorates. I'm a rural Liberal. There's about 30 rural Liberals. Even between ourselves, we might have different views, but it is really good to thrash out the ideas and work out what the future - I mean, the bright future - can look like.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Are you frustrated that after a third day of meetings and years of climate wars, there is still no deal on something as simple as net zero emissions by 2050, something that countless countries have already agreed to?

SUSSAN LEY: Not at all, because consider what we've done to date. We've put out a technology roadmap. We've invested $20 billion in that roadmap. You will have seen Angus Taylor's stretch targets, whether they be low emission steel aluminium, carbon capture and storage, soil carbon which relates to my portfolio of the environment, hydrogen, and all of the work that is already happening. So, this isn't a debate that's just turned up. This has been something that we've been working on as a government because we know that there is a low energy- low emissions transition underway and we want to be a part of it and we know we can be part of it.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: And that's actually- the point you just made takes me to the point that we are only two weeks away from this Glasgow meeting. You say you've been working on it, but yet, we're still at this impasse, two weeks away from this crucial…

SUSSAN LEY: Well…

PATRICIA KARVELAS: …international meeting where our allies are saying: guys, what are you doing?

SUSSAN LEY: What we've been doing is making Australians- or generating the technology, as I said, within the Technology Investment Roadmap that make sense for the future and starting to implement them. So, that work is already underway, and whether you see it in the soil carbon, whether you see it in voluntary carbon, credits that our landscape is able to take advantage of, that our land managers are already working out how to use, coming back again to my portfolio of the environment. So, yes, COP26 is important. There was a COP15 on global biodiversity just recently. There are other international collaborations that are all about nature, that are about oceans, that are about the marine parks that we are investing in around our coastline. We'll soon have the biggest network, perhaps, in the world. So there's so much that Australia has been doing and is doing that relates to the net zero ambition closely and actually demonstrates the role that Australia can play in helping the rest of the world get there because our technology is of great interest to other countries, hence the partnerships that are underway with Singapore, with Germany, with Japan.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Okay. As part of the negotiations, the Nationals have effectively vetoed any significant increase in the 2030 target before COP26. So, how can the Government go into those international negotiations with a position from 2015, not wanting to ratchet up our ambitions at all for this timeframe?

SUSSAN LEY: Well, the Prime Minister will take the position to Glasgow. He's identified that he's going, and I'll let the announcements be made in due course. What this debate has been about and where I think the real opportunity is, is in the net zero 2050 because that allows Australia to participate in game changing technology that makes an enormous international difference to emissions where we can really play our part. Now, to transition from a fossil fuel-based export resource industry to the energy technologies and the jobs of the future is something that has to be worked through carefully because it matters to every single Australian, and it's in our national interest to do that. So, of course, we're working through doing that. And the timeline, quite rightly, is- a 2050 timeline is a good one. What we want to be able to do is demonstrate to the Australian people how we're going to get there and what it means for them because it's easy to wave targets around. It's easy, for example, to be the Labor Party. I mean, they're running away from their last environment policy at the last election, waiting to see what happens, meanwhile having done none of the hard policy work that they should have done to this point in time. That's an easy thing to do.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Well, with respect, Minister, people would be watching, going, where is the Government's heavy lifting given it's only two weeks away and we don't know what our own Government thinks? With the Nationals effectively vetoing a pre-Glasgow shift on that 2030 target, do you think your government will commit to an increase to the 2030 target as an election commitment? Is it something you think you should take to the people?

SUSSAN LEY: You're asking me about decisions that would be made in the context of an election and I'm not prepared to enter into those conversations now because-

PATRICIA KARVELAS: But is that the right forum, do you think, the right place to take a more ambitious target of 2032 to voters?

SUSSAN LEY: I think the right thing to take to an election is our record: what we've done, what we've achieved, how we have emissions coming down at a faster rate than most OECD- in fact, all OECD countries, how we've got jobs that are going up, our record on COVID-19, and so on. We've got a really strong story to tell at the election. So, I wouldn't get caught up in targets and deadlines and vetoes. I would certainly say I can stand in front of any crowd anywhere in Australia and describe the really strong work that Australia has done to appreciate the transition to low emissions technologies, to understand the clean industries of the future, and to recognise the really exciting opportunities that every Australian has in getting there, but to do that, not to our communities, but with them.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Yeah, but isn't it getting a little embarrassing internationally? Everyone seems to have settled this and we're still having a debate that everyone else seems to have moved on from.

SUSSAN LEY: Not at all. I was overseas recently when I was prosecuting the case for the Great Barrier Reef, and one of the things that other countries were quite surprised about was when I told them that our emissions from 2005 levels have reduced by 20 per cent. We've probably got one of the highest renewable energy uptakes in the world, including rooftop solar. When I talk about those stretched targets, whether they be carbon capture and storage, soil carbon, hydrogen, and so on, there wasn't that awareness of the things that we're doing. And we sit at a lot of international tables with conventions that are associated with COP26 that relate to climate change, that relate to adaptations. You don't get a seat at the table unless you bring something. We've been able to bring our records on oceans, a $100 million ocean leadership package. We've joined the High Ambition Coalition for Nature and People, which relates to biodiversity, 30 per cent of land and 30 per cent of sea. You know, there's so much that we're doing that paints the really good picture and the solid story that Australia can tell in this space.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Minister, Scott Morrison doesn't need the Nationals to agree. There is no legislation. No one's going to cross the floor. So, why all this?

SUSSAN LEY: We've always worked well with the Nationals when we work together, when we respect each other's views, and that's what we're doing right now. I think it's important. I mean, I have been in parliament many years and surrounded in some instances in rural Australia by rural Liberals but also Nationals, and what your people, your communities expect of you is that you fight for them, that you understand what their lives are like and that you make the policy that's in their interests. But they also have an eye to the national interest because whether you live in outback New South Wales where I come from or inner-city Sydney, you know people all over this country and you want the country as a whole to prosper and succeed.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: And what do we know about- you mentioned the 30 rural Liberals, the Nationals have kind of said that they're trying to represent their constituents, are you saying that rural Australia wants to commit to net zero and that the Nationals are out of step?

SUSSAN LEY: I'm overwhelmingly hearing that message from my part of rural Australia. I'm not going to describe anyone being in or out of step. I respect all my colleagues and the views that they bring here and they should bring the views from their constituencies and their own informed debate, wherever they have that. But I actually really believe that there are opportunities for rural Australia in net zero, that the world is transitioning to anyway and that we need to be on the front foot to take advantage of those. So I'm pretty excited within my own environment portfolio. I mentioned briefly carbon offsets and credits. There's landscape restoration that can be done. There's farmers who can participate whether it be enhancing the soil production on their productive land, changing their own farming systems or actually helping with biodiversity on country that is no longer in their farming programme and our ag portfolio is helping with biodiversity credits and trials that do exactly that. I mentioned an oceans announcement so blue carbon, coastal restoration, working with the Pacific region to support plastics in their waterways and so on. So, we've got a lot that we can do and we've got great opportunities ahead of us.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Minister, I want to talk about the Juukan Gorge Report if we can. Following what was 16 months of hearings, the Joint Standing Committee on Northern Australia has made its final recommendations for sweeping reforms, including making the Minister for Indigenous Australians, not Environment Minister, which you are currently, responsible for all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander heritage matters. Do you think that's a sensible proposal?

SUSSAN LEY: I think it was an important investigation that the committee did. I supported it, the Government supported it and I've kept in close touch with Warren Entsch as the chair throughout. And I'm pleased that overwhelmingly it identified the failure of the social contract between Rio and the PKK people and you know, it's not about what you are legally able to do on a mining site but what you morally should do and that comes back to that social licence. So, it's timely. It's of a high priority for me that we book at better ways of protecting Indigenous cultural heritage and that's not just the Commonwealth because the Juukan Gorge site wasn't heritage listed at Commonwealth level, and was subject to state processes which failed.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: But your office was contacted. Your office was contacted. Marcia Langton who has put in a submission said this morning on Radio National that she believes if the Minister for Indigenous Australians was responsible, we may have had an intervention. Do you agree?

SUSSAN LEY: What the report makes clear is that there was no opportunity for either minister or any minister in the Commonwealth Government to intervene. Once we were informed, the charges effectively were laid and the destruction was going ahead. So I'm very much focused on what we can do as Commonwealth-

PATRICIA KARVELAS: But your office dropped the ball, which you've said. There was no…

SUSSAN LEY: I don't agree with that, Patricia. And I would refer you-

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Well, that you didn't get back to them for a couple of days? That was what you said.

SUSSAN LEY: By the time officers were contacted, there was nothing that could have been done so rather than rake over old ground what I want to do is commit and already have started that process. Ken Wyatt and I chaired a roundtable of environment and heritage ministers from every state - that had never happened before - and began a process where we start to look at where the gaps are. So for example. many of those state ministers said to us, look, we're reforming our cultural and Indigenous heritage protection legislation right now. So we need to do it as a Commonwealth Government, side-by-side with the states, and we need to do it, of course, with co-design in partnership and front and centre with Indigenous Australians.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Do you think if the Minister for Indigenous Australians had that power, that would be a better way of doing this?

SUSSAN LEY: Rather than get caught up in which minister and which government, I mean people want to see outcomes and that's what we are about. So the outcome that we need to see here, of course, is better cultural heritage protection. Now that has to be done with state governments and I understand that Indigenous groups look to us for leadership and that is important too, but we also have to bring those pieces of state legislation with us because they actually apply on the ground as they did in Juukan, and as they do across the country now. So look, it was a wake-up call and the consequences of that have reverberated around the world and I think that's been a good thing. And we, of course, will work hard in all of our portfolios, every minister in the Government should be working hard for Indigenous Australians.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: And one of the big proposals again in this report was the idea that Traditional Owners would have the veto of the destruction of important sites, do you support that?

SUSSAN LEY: I'll look through all of the recommendations. I wouldn't like to think it came to that last-minute veto, I would like to think that the consultations between our mining groups and the Traditional Owners started long before those Traditional Owners felt they needed to exercise a veto and that there was a strong communication channel, there was good understanding, you know, and there was real buy in from our mining companies about what this means to Indigenous Australians and what sites genuinely should be protected. So there is much work that can be done on many fronts.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Just finally, Australia's new $529 million Antarctic ice breaker has docked at its Hobart home, but it requires repairs already just days after completing a marathon voyage, will that affect its future in sailing?

SUSSAN LEY: No it won't and it's unsurprising that a few teething problems occur between voyage from the Netherlands to the Hobart Macquarie wharf where it will be for a few weeks, where it will be commissioned, provisioned, the final touches put on it and so on, and it will head south I believe in December, and there will be lots of opportunities for Australians, and I know Tasmanians are absolutely passionate about this incredible Antarctic ice breaker. It's the most advanced of its kind in the world, part of the Morrison Government's 1.9- well it's a $1.9 billion commitment. Our Antarctic commitment at the moment is $2.9 billion. We have a 20-year strategy, I'm very excited about what this icebreaker can do to research, for science, for international collaboration in the Southern Ocean.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Minister, thank you for your time.
 
SUSSAN LEY: Thank you.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: That's the Environment Minister, Sussan Ley, joining us there.