Crunch time to forge a lasting legacy
Fine line ... Tony Burke has to balance the push for conservation and the economic aspirations of indigenous communities. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen
It is early morning on Cape York and the Environment Minister, Tony Burke, is bouncing across the vast Aurukun wetlands in the back of a speedboat.
The wetlands are one of Australia's unknown environmental wonders. Larger than their equivalent in Kakadu National Park, they support all manner of waterbirds, reptile and mammal life as well as being home to indigenous traditional owners.
It is the kind of place Burke talks earnestly about - iconic, unspoilt wilderness. The kind of place an environment minister can make a name for himself protecting.
Burke is visiting Cape York to talk to traditional owners as part of a decades long effort to have the region protected on the United Nations' world heritage list. The government hopes to have a nomination ready by February, but it will only do so with consent from traditional owners, which is far from assured amid the complicated relationship between the push for conservation and the economic aspirations of indigenous communities.
How he handles the competing interests on the Cape is just one of many issues coming to a head for Burke in what will be a defining period. It could leave him with a legacy to rival some more celebrated environment ministers who have come before him.
Chief on the list is shepherding through a long-awaited plan to save the Murray-Darling Basin, which the 43-year-old signed off on this week. The plan aims to quell 100-plus years of bickering between states over the management of Australia's most famous and productive river system.
Burke also faces a decision on the future of north-west Tasmania's Tarkine region - the largest rainforest-dominated slice of wilderness in Australia. Also in the Apple Isle, he is managing a fresh but still fragile agreement between greenies and loggers to protect 500,000 hectares of some of the country's most striking native forest.
And Burke still has to nail down what is promised to be the world's largest network of marine reserves around Australia's coastline. He has declared 2.3 million square kilometres of new reserves, but the management plan still needs to pass Parliament - far from certain given a hostile opposition.
''I have strategically timed things poorly enough that I have pretty much every major decision I have got to make coming up in a few weeks,'' Burke said earlier this month. ''Just to get an agreement on Murray-Darling would have been fairly extraordinary on its own. But we have had the chance to do more so I have pushed the ambitions and I have pushed the timelines and if we can bring it all together then it will be a very rare term in environmental protection this one.''
Don Henry, chief executive of the Australian Conservation Foundation, says Burke already has some achievements tucked under his belt - a national heritage nomination for the West Kimberley being one - but the big calls are still in front of him.
''The proof is going to be in the quality of the decisions that come out of government and the Parliament on the big, crucial, national issues that are on the minister's plate,'' Henry says.
Since coming to the portfolio after the 2010 election, Burke has made much of his teenage environmental interests. In the 1980s he joined the Wilderness Society spurred by the campaign to save the Daintree Rainforest.
Soon after, Burke was signed up to the Labor Party as a 16-year old by Morris Iemma, joining the NSW right of the party. Burke says he had been frustrated the Wilderness Society had him ''writing letters and turning up to different things and I thought I wanted to go somewhere where I could really make a difference. So I turned up to my branch meeting and the big issue was there were cracks in the concrete footpaths and grass was growing up between them and it was a danger to elderly people in wet weather. But Morris talked me into coming back.''
Burke is a man of ambition. It is often said one of his personal goals is to be prime minister.
''It is part of my cunning 70-year plan,'' Burke says with a laugh when asked. So is that a no?
''Oh, well, I am only 43. I have seen plenty of really good careers killed by impatience. I don't intend to be one of them,'' he says.
''There is no way in the world that I would be the best person on our side to lead the show at the moment. Whether that is the case in years to come, who knows.''
In an earlier life Burke was a champion debater, leader of Australia's anti-euthanasia movement, and co-founder of a successful training company. He worked as a staffer for Labor powerbroker Graham Richardson and was an organiser for the Shop Distributive and Allied Employees Association, the backbone of Labor's Catholic Right.
After a short stint in the NSW Parliament he was elected in the federal seat of Watson in 2004, and soon took on the small business and the immigration portfolios in opposition. When Labor took power in 2007, he became Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry.
During that time he oversaw reforms of drought payments and the wheat market, and drove a plan to ban the importation of illegally logged timber that finally passed Parliament this week.
As forestry minister - much to the chagrin of conservationists - he also vocally backed timber company Gunns' highly controversial, and ultimately doomed, proposal to build a pulp mill in the Tamar Valley outside Launceston.
Under Julia Gillard's prime ministership, he shifted from being the man responsible for overseeing primary industries to the custodian of the environment. Shortly after the move, he gave a speech outlining his vision for Australia's natural wilderness. The centrepiece was protection of sites in the four corners of the continent: Tasmania's forests, Cape York, the Kimberley, and the oceans of the south west and Coral Sea. In between, he would encourage the creation of ''wildlife corridors'' to give threatened species a path to move between public and private land.
Burke said his goal is to return to ''first principles'' - a favourite phrase.
He says where old environmental debates, such as the famous 1980s battle over the Franklin River, were in response to fights over development, he wants the focus to shift to the environmental jewels that deserve protection regardless of whether they are under pressure. He says there is ''an intrinsic value'' in having some places kept for nature alone - a point lost in recent years during the bitter debate over carbon pricing.
''We have tended to have forgotten that the fact something is simply an incredibly beautiful place can be reason in itself for protecting it,'' Burke says.
The Burke legacy is not short of doubters. Conservationists are livid at his plans to change national environmental laws to hand decisions on new major developments such as mines and pulp mills to the states.
Environmental law expert Professor Tim Bonyhady, from the Australian National University, says that under Labor the Commonwealth is proposing that it disengage from environment decision-making. He says the reforms could be very damaging, particularly when states such as Queensland appear so set on resource development.
''It seems to me that Burke is much more interested in the appearance of the Commonwealth protecting Australia's environment, than actually protecting it,'' Bonyhady says.
Burke defends the reforms saying the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act had expanded well beyond what had been anticipated when it was introduced in 1999. Ways of streamlining decisions with state laws had to be found, so long as there is the same environmental outcome, he says.
Burke has also stalled on a promise to give the Commonwealth more power to block new mining, logging, cattle grazing and land clearing in national parks. He says: ''I haven't progressed it, but nor have I withdrawn it.''
Under Burke's watch the government is also facing an investigation by the UN's World Heritage Council about development threats to the Great Barrier Reef.
Burke's first major decision as environment minister was to approve two massive gas projects in Gladstone - with a number of conditions - significantly adding to the UN's concern. His immediate predecessor, Peter Garrett, is understood to have considered blocking one or both of the projects. Burke says he does not know what Garrett planned to do and remains comfortable with his decisions. Since the UN investigation started he has ordered a strategic assessment of the reef and adjacent coast to determine what should be protected and where development should be allowed.
Another sore spot for conservationists is national heritage protection for the Tarkine. A leaked report by the National Heritage Council last year recommended extensive protection for the region. Burke responded by ordering another review. At the same time, a number of mining proposals are on the table for the wilderness - with the powerful Australian Workers' Union backing - and Burke has been accused of stalling on protection to get the projects through.
Burke says the fate of the Tarkine should be resolved soon. But he says having visited the area earlier this year his take on it has changed markedly.
''I went from a view that we are talking about a place that is quite pristine to a view that we are talking about a place that is very, very mixed,'' he says. ''Some of it was magnificently pristine, but the diversity of the Tarkine and the areas of very, very heavy industry that have been there for some time were not what I expected to see.''
While there is heat elsewhere, nowhere is Burke's legacy more on the line more than the Murray-Darling. After five years and $10 billion worth of inducements on the table, Burke has signed off on a plan to return 2750 billion litres of water to the river environment. The government has also committed another $1.8 billion to try to recover an extra 450 billion litres by 2024 by improving on-farm irrigation systems.
Again the basin plan has prominent critics. Burke says he is not about to put anything off. After clearing the big decisions he says he wants to focus more on landscape management, including addressing the devastating impact of feral species. He expresses regret he has been unable to progress the development of wildlife corridors more quickly.
As the boat moves further into the never ending wetlands of Aurukun, he says: ''If you take everything right back to original motivations as to why you want to be in politics in the first place, then you want to be in the decision-making role.
''You get involved in politics … to make changes real. It is the attempt to move beyond giving your political view over a cup of coffee and actually making them happen.''