Tanya Plibersek has admitted she was ‘surprised’ to be saddled with the environment ministry instead of her expected education post.
The former Labor deputy leader has been touted as a leadership rival to Prime Minister Anthony Albanese since he took over the party in 2019.
The environment and water portfolio was seen as a demotion after she was shadow education minister for six years until the May 21 election.
Former Labor deputy leader Tania Plibersek said her appointment as environment minister, widely seen as a demotion, was a surprise but continued to insist she is delighted with the job
That department went to Jason Clare, who was seen as being rewarded for a strong election campaign where Ms Plibersek did not feature prominently.
Ms Plibersek argued for the importance of her new job in one of her first interviews since being assigned the portfolio, The Australian reported.
‘We saw at the last election that the environment is a huge issue for a lot of Australian voters and (we need to) make sure that we tackle the big outstanding issues, the things that have gotten worse over the last decade, not better,’ she said.
Ms Plibersek admitted she did not expect to be moved to environment, which in opposition was covered by Terri Butler, who lost her Brisbane seat to the Greens.
Ms Plibersek, here seen shaking hands with Australian Governor-General David Hurley after being sworn in as environment minister, has outlined a series of priorities in a major interview
Environmental issues proved a strong vote winner in the election with six ‘teal’ independents claiming previously blue ribbon Liberal seats and the Greens doing well in both the lower and upper houses.
Those successful campaigns focused strongly on climate change.
There is a more senior ministry than the environment and water portfolio that takes primary responsibility for climate change, which is held by Climate Change and Energy Minister Chris Bowen.
Ms Plibersek said a priority for her department would be reviewing the environmental approval processes.
Ms Plibersek makes a rare campaign appearance standing behind Anthony Albanese (centre). The education portfolio she was a long-time spokesperson for in opposition was given to Jason Clare (right) who was regarded as a strong campaign presence
The Morrison Government in March pledged $128 million to speed up environmental approvals but Ms Plibersek did not commit to continuing that but looking at an independent review of the process.
Ms Plibersek accused the Morrison Government of failing to release a ‘damning’ report on the state of Australia’s environment in the leadup to the election and said she would do so in July.
Labor promised on the day before the federal election to institute a new watchdog, the Environment Protection Agency, to enforce federal environmental laws, which some critics said was not being done.
The agency is still in embryo phase, Ms Plibersek told the Australian Financial Review.
‘I’m not going to start making announcements without extensive consultation. I’ll talk to people about a model, we’ll design a model, we’ll consult on a model,’ she said.
Ms Plibersek said she would continue the previous government’s fight against the UN declaring the Great Barrier Reef as endangered, arguing Labor would do a better job protecting it
‘This is not something I’m going to come up with in a few weeks in my office. It’s a big important change.
‘We want better protection for the environment, and we want to do it in a way that makes approvals processes faster and cheaper and less complex.’
Despite wanting greater protection for the Great Barrier Reef, Ms Plibersek said she would continue the Morrison’s Government’s fight against seeing the natural wonder designated as endangered by the UN.
‘I absolutely would say to the UN [that] listing the reef as in danger is the wrong thing to do,’ she said.
She said it would be ‘unfair’ of the UN to ignore her government’s new efforts to protect the reef through stronger climate change action and more money being directed to protect, rehabilitate, and restore it.
Ms Plibersek said the previous government hid a damning report on Australia’s environment and vowed to increase efforts to protect endangered species, such as this Eastern quoll
Ms Plibersek said she also wanted greater protections to safeguard endangered native species and for natural environments under threat from imported animals, although she made no funding commitments.
‘We need to make sure we are explaining to Australia that we can have both – we can actually have a strong, growing economy and better protect our environment,’ she said.
She also promised to release a report in July on the buying back of water from Murray-Darling Basin from farmers for environmental reasons, a program stopped by the Morrison Government.
During the election campaign, Ms Plibersek rarely appeared with Mr Albanese and did not attend Labor’s campaign launch in Perth, leading pundits to speculate she had been ‘sidelined’.
Ms Plibersek brushed off those suggestions, insisting she was campaigning all over the country and regularly appearing on radio and TV.
The 52-year-old member for Sydney was deputy Labor leader for six years under Bill Shorten and is the longest serving women in the House of Representatives.
When it was announced that Ms Plibersek was to become environment and water minister she posted on Facebook that she was delighted to have been given the portfolio and ‘looked forward’ to the challenge.
Ms Plibersek is the longest-serving woman sitting in the House of Representatives and said that she should remain in parliament for the ‘long haul’
Deputy Prime Minister Richard Marles denied it was a demotion.
‘That’s the last thing I would see it as,’ he said.
‘I mean that might be how the former government viewed that area of policy, but for us, the environment is front and centre – and it always has been in Labor governments.
‘And for Tanya it’s been a source of enduring passion, and water as well.
Following Bill Shorten’s loss in the 2019 election, Ms Plibersek said she was considering running for leadership but eventually came to the conclusion that ‘it was not her time’.
While intending to stay in parliament for the ‘long haul’ Ms Plibersek said she wasn’t contemplating any leadership ambitions.