SKY NEWS: 12/12/18

December 17, 2018


TOM CONNELL: We are here at the ALP National Conference and despite some of the other headlines today there is plenty of policy going on, being announced, being debated as well. Joining me now is the Shadow Environment Minister, Mark Butler. He’s been good enough to join me, thanks for your time.


CONNELL:  A few announcements in your area yesterday, including the Environmental Protection Agency. When we are talking about the power this will have, will this overrule the states and some of their decisions?

BUTLER: This is Tony Burke’s portfolio area; he made this announcement with Bill Shorten yesterday. This would be an Agency that effectively takes over the current range or scope of Commonwealth Environmental Protection powers. Powers that essentially come out of the 1970s, where Gough Whitlam stopped Joh Bjelke-Peterson from drilling on the Great Barrier Reef and a range of other international conventions that over time have put together a list of matters of national environmental significance. Still the vast bulk of environmental impact statements are done by state governments that won’t change under this announcement but it is a different approach to the way in which, Commonwealth environmental powers will be exercised. Much more independence, much more rigour, and reflecting the challenges of the 21st century, which is that our natural environment is in real trouble.  

CONNELL: Can you point to an example in recent history where you say well here is where the EPA would have acted differently, or set another hurdle for example?

BUTLER: The essence of this decision that we announced yesterday is really to bring a level of independence, rather than ministerial decision making, into the Environmental Protection Act. So overtime obviously Tony Burke, if we are lucky enough to be elected next year, will be consulting with a range of stakeholders about the way in which this Agency operates. But the essence is really being independent and a focus on the 21st century challenges facing our natural environment. We’ve seen the extinction rates and a range of other measures that go to the quality of our natural environment indicate that it is in real trouble and we need to take a fresh approach rather then relying on the tools that were developed last century.

CONNELL: Because one of the reasons given for the way the Environmental Act is not working as it should at the moment was the water trigger hadn’t been pulled for coal mines. Is there an example you can point to where water wasn’t enough at the forefront, for example the Great Artesian Basin?

BUTLER: That’s right, there is some speculation about the way in which the environment department, under this Government, has dealt with the water triggers with some of the coal mine proposals in Queensland. Obviously people are very concerned about that. This goes to community confidence and I think that’s why the question of independence in this EPA is so important. We need to make sure the community has real confidence that Commonwealth powers have been used to protect and enhance our natural environment.

CONNELL: We had an example of Adani where the Department of Agriculture and Water Resources wrote to the Environment Department suggesting the water trigger be activated, and that would mean there is a full environmental assessment on any impacts on water. The (Environment) Department ruled against that. Was that wrong? Was that an example where the EPA would make that decision instead?

BUTLER: We would want the EPA to make independent decisions based on the statutes in place at the time. There are, I think, real questions about the way in which the water trigger had been applied in the case that you talk about. It goes to that community confidence that I think is really at the heart of the decision of what we announced yesterday.

CONNELL: So in that example, the decision would no longer be just the Environment Department saying no, it would go to the EPA would it?

BUTLER: These details about quite when you shift from a bureaucratic process to a decision making process, through an independent agency, have to be worked out with stakeholders and that will be the subject of a process, if we win the next election, overseen by Tony Burke.

CONNELL: So for existing projects, such as Adani, would that look to be applied at all?

BUTLER: Obviously we are going to have to think about the way in which new arrangements are applied to existing processes. Generally, the approach would be the processes that are already underway would be allowed to continue. Again, these are the details that Tony Burke would work on if we win the next election.

CONNELL: We’ve seen a few Stop Adani protestors at this Conference. What are you saying when a Labor supporter comes up to you and says I want to vote Labor but I don’t want Adani to go ahead?

BUTLER: I understand the community concern about the development of a brand new thermal coal basin. For a couple of years I’ve indicated my view that I think the business case that was promoted ten years ago, the development of a new coal basin, has largely resolved. It really reflects the nature of the thermal coal market internationally because country after country are starting to move away from coal-fired power into renewable energy. I understand those concerns. I’ve expressed my view about whether I think the development of the Galilee Basin generally is in the national interest, I don’t. It’s not particularly about the Adani coal mine, it is more broadly about the Galilee Basin. I understand the level of community concern around this. I also think there are a range of other parts of climate change policy people should be focused on. Our ambition for renewable energy here in Australia, our commitment to making sure we clean up our transport sector, our industrial sector, and such like. But I understand the level of concern around opening up a brand new thermal coal basin.

CONNELL: So when you say developing the Galilee Basin is against the national interest, does that include exporting that coal and how would that frame your approach in Government?

BUTLER: I’ve spoken about this quite a bit over the last two years. I think the expectations about where the thermal coal market would be ten years ago, in the 2020s, just haven’t come to past. The coal industry, in does modelling itself that shows that the development of a brand new thermal coal basin is simply going to cannibalise existing thermal coal basins: in the Bowen in Queensland and in the Hunter Valley in New South Wales. At the end of the day this market at best is flat over the next 20 years, absolute best, but is much more likely going to decline. So putting in place infrastructure, and I think false hope for jobs, is going to be a serious problem.  

CONNELL: What do you actually do because Adani is now going ahead with a smaller version, for now, of the project. So it can happen anyway. What does it actually mean in a practical sense for what the Labor Government would do?

BUTLER: Obviously when we come to Government about any project in any policy area we would treat a project on its merits, according to the facts on the ground at the time. With a very clear eye to the law that operates in the area, and a clear eye also to any issue of sovereign risk. That would be our approach whatever the issue is.

CONNELL: That doesn’t mean right now you have a veto for any new coal mine in Australia?

BUTLER: No and I think there will be the extension of existing coal arrangements across the world as we transition over the next couple of decades to renewable energy. It is a different question though whether there is a basis for a brand new thermal coal basin and I think that’s a reasonable area of debate here in Australia at the moment.

As to whether Adani does go ahead there are still very substantial hurdles for this project to clear. It hasn’t got a rail access agreement yet, it doesn’t have a royalties agreement with the Queensland government and only today we’ve seen that there are further questions about the impact, not particularly on Adani, but the development of the Galilee Basin more broadly on water resources in that area and the view the CSIRO has taken about that, which I think raises further questions about the ability of this project to go ahead.

CONNELL: Right, going back more broadly to this development, when you talk about whether it’s not in the national interest as is your opinion. As to what you would actually do you’ve spoken about tightening environmental regulation, water considerations, beyond that you don’t have a policy to stop it per se. It’s just you are going to increase some of the hurdles effectively?

BUTLER: Well the changes that we’re suggesting around the EPA are not particularly focussed on any single project or any single region of Australia.

CONNELL: I understand that but is that the impact it would actually have?

BUTLER: I think the important point to make is that we have a responsibility as the alternative government that we have a responsibility that when we come to government we will make decisions according to the law, with a clear eye to sovereign risk, and according to the facts on the ground, which will obviously change between now and the election, assuming we win.

CONNELL: Assuming you win, you’re confident I suppose?

BUTLER: No it’s not a question of confidence but what’s being put to us is what we would do if we win the next election in 2019.

CONNELL: Just to these climate talks in Poland, we have an agreement on the rule book now. When it comes to countries still increasing their emissions including China and the US, is this whole Paris plan in a state of failure at the moment?

BUTLER: No, this was obviously a very difficult conference and it took a while to get the conclusion that ultimately came out of the conference which was really about the drafting of rule books. I think the question of ambition is one that has been kicked into next year, that was always going to be the case, but I think it just reinforces how important it is to lift ambition here in Australia, and in other countries because only a couple of months ago we were reminded just how pressing the need to deal with climate change is.

CONNELL: I’ll just bring to the attention of our viewers that yelling in the background is “raise the rate” which is to do with the NewStart payment of course – an ongoing debate it seems like Labor won’t set an actual figure on that though. Just still on this area though in terms of your plans for the rest of the economy excluding energy. We keep getting told it’s a few weeks away – it’s fair to say that’s not until next year now?

BUTLER: We’re still working on it. I think it’s fair to say there were a number of things we needed to deal with particularly in the final fortnight of sitting – the laws around divestiture, the so-called ‘big stick’ policies that the government was putting forward that just required our attention for a couple of weeks. We’re working very hard on this policy we’re working with stakeholders and others to get the details right. We’re committed to making sure that industry, the broader community are very clear on what our plans are well before the election.

CONNELL: Is there a sense of futility when you see how much emissions are still increasing in other countries? I understand the argument about Australia doing its commensurate amount, but is there still a sense of futility when you see the direction of emissions at the moment?

BUTLER: I’m concerned but I’m also absolutely resolute that we can’t simply say this is all too hard and just kick the problem to our children or our grandchildren. I also reject the idea – not that I’m saying you’re saying this Tom – the idea that Australia is too small to matter. Yes, we don’t rank in the top 50 countries in terms of population, but we do rank in the top 15 when you look at greenhouse gas emissions. We’re the largest greenhouse gas emitter per head of population in the OECD.

CONNELL: A lot of industries we have do end up offshore though, right?

BUTLER: Well all the coal that we export for example doesn’t show up on our accounting books. Really it’s an example of how we have a very carbon intensive energy sector, we have the most polluting transport sector in the OECD now because this government hasn’t put in place carbon dioxide standards. There are a range of things we could do in our economy to bring our emissions down. Frankly if Australia won’t act then what other country should be expected to act given we’re a wealthy country with the highest per capita greenhouse gas production in the world.

CONNELL: Given what you’ve said there we imagine that vehicle emissions standards – the car industry here in Adelaide is gone, there’s no reason to protect them anymore – they appear to be low hanging fruit?

BUTLER: Well we’re the only developed nation without carbon emission standards in the world, and many developing countries like China and India are starting to put them in place for air quality, so we’ll have more to say about that. We took to the last election a policy of the recommendations from the Climate Change Authority that were released four and a half  years ago and that was simply that we adopt the US, the Canadian, North American car pollution standards. For four and a half years this government has done nothing.

CONNELL: Mark Butler you’ve been generous with your time, thank you.

BUTLER: Thanks Tom.