TONY BURKE: The release of today’s report, which I’ve welcomed from the McKell Institute, is a real marker for the policy work that needs to be done to deal with plastic in the oceans. I don’t think there is any figure which stands out more than the fact that by 2050, on current rates, the plastic in the ocean is going to weigh more than the fish in the ocean. That’s got to be a wakeup call for everybody. On the face of that there are a whole lot of policy messages that are contained in this report that go to every level of Government. Some at a local government, some at state government and some that we are going to have to look very seriously at a Federal level.

I’ve been spending a lot of time in Queensland and around the country looking at our urban rivers. We want to make sure that our urban rivers are a great resource and a natural resource that don’t simply become a courier service for plastic rubbish that is dumped in the gutter to find its way out into our oceans. If you look at our oceans they are being attacked from so many levels. The Government has cut the highly protected areas of our marine parks in half. We’ve got more plastic in our oceans, we’ve got a higher level of acidity in our oceans and in various places around the world we have significant overfishing. What today’s report says is let’s just call a halt. Let’s find a way to start pulling back on plastics which are finding their way into the food chain and are competing with climate change in terms of environmental destruction over what forms the vast majority of the planet’s surface.

JOURNALIST: The report recommends a national ban on plastic bags and micro-beads. Is this something federal Labor would adopt?

BURKE: Certainly today what we are doing is receiving the report and working our way through the recommendations, we won’t be responding to any of the recommendations today. With micro-beads, industry itself has already said that there is a voluntary ban that they are willing to work with. That should mean that a formal ban is a relatively easy step. Let’s not forget, micro-beads have been entirely unnecessary. There are other methods that are capable here. Do we really want to be in a situation where for what may be from time to time some rogue producers wanting to use a product that industry generally has been willing to step away from. Do we really need to leave that as an exception or is that something we should look at having a permanent ban on? These are recommendations we take very seriously and we will work out way through them.

JOURNALIST: What are your thoughts on extending smoking bans to all beaches in the country?

BURKE: When I referred to these recommendations that go to each levels of Government, anything on our beaches is very much within the responsibility of local government and I think that all levels of government need to reflect seriously on the recommendations that are there in front of us today.

JOURNALIST: What about establishing stronger import regulations regarding packaging?

BURKE: I’ve been very concerned by reports on packaging, these are reports that you have seen where the same factory, if its sending packaging to Europe, it will be using recyclable packaging but if it is sending packaging to Australia, it will have a whole lot of foam that is single use and plastic that is single use. If there is a sustainable way of getting product to Australia, we should be a nation that is in front of the curve not behind it. The report today sends a really strong message. On previous ‘clean up Australia’ days, there are two items which have struck me when I have been involved cleaning up at my local rivers. That is single use plastics and foam packaging. Both of them stay in the ecology and in the ocean for years, for decades and sometimes even centuries. But both of them have the added problem, to seabirds and to fish they look like food. And the damage being caused here is something where we really can’t keep saying let's leave it to the next generation to act. Our first step needs to be, what are our environmental laws that can stop us from contributing to an existing problem and then the second thing needs to be how on earth do we clean up the mess that we have been making for the last 50 years?

JOURNALIST: On a separate issue what is Labor’s view about what the immigration rate should be?

BURKE: The Government is making a bit of a song and dance about what is a normal budgetary process. Every year the budgetary process the government consults, it works through what should be the appropriate immigration numbers for the following year. If Scott Morrison has decided that the numbers that he used to approve are not appropriate now then that would be something that goes through the normal budgetary process. Our concern is that we don’t want to see a situation where there’s an action that looks tough in terms of permanent migration numbers and we simply see it go out to the side on temporary migration numbers being used to fill that gap.

The process itself while it is being written up and promoted by the Government as though it is somehow earth shattering is in-fact the same process that the government goes through each year no matter who has been in office. To date those numbers have always been bipartisan and certainly at the moment the actual numbers of migration have been much less than the cap anyway so reducing the cap closer to actual numbers won’t make a difference in terms of peoples lived experience. What will make a difference in peoples lived experience is if we can finally act on infrastructure. Where you have years, particularly in my home state of New South Wales the trains aren’t suddenly crowded and the roads aren’t suddenly blocked because of what has happened recently with immigration. This has been a slow process of underinvestment in infrastructure and the Government can’t use the immigration discussion to get away from the fact that we haven’t invested properly in our public transport or our roads.

JOURNALIST: You were at the centre of the debate about big Australia and you changed you title from ‘population minister’ to ‘sustainable population minister’. Why does this keep coming up just before an election?

BURKE: Some people who would rather not invest in infrastructure would rather do a ‘look over here’ moment and blame our immigration policies. We need to remember back when I held the population portfolio the drivers of increased population in our cities didn’t only go to immigration they also went at that time to Australians returning home during the Global Financial Crisis and people moving from regional areas to our cities because they were going to where the jobs were. A whole lot of shifts can be involved here it's not as simple as only being about the permanent intake in one part of our immigration program.

JOURNALIST: Just lastly, your electorate is quite densely populated what do people tell you about the problems of a fast growing city?

BURKE: In my part of Sydney people can’t get over the fact that there we have a Liberal Government that keeps wanting to increase density without improving public transport, without expanding the roads and to do it at the cost of our open space. If people are going to live in smaller homes then the demand on parkland becomes greater, not less. Yet in my part of Sydney all the conversation we have had from State Government has been for us losing our open space, not gaining it. People say at the core of this debate we need to have the principle of what is it going to be like day to day just to live? People want to make sure with better public transport they can still get half an hour of sunshine at the end of the day when they get home rather than watch that half hour disappear while they are stuck in traffic.

JOURNALIST: **inaudible**

BURKE: There’s a really good recommendation in there at the end about the fact that the EPBC Act at the moment only allows you to regulate where there has been an application to change things. So something where it’s already business as usual the EPBC doesn’t provide a way of enforcing. To be able to make legislation that is proactive would really open the way to be able to have federal action on this.

JOURNALIST: What about a national environmental protection agency?

BURKE: That is something we are still working our way through. It’s subject to consultation we are having at the moment in the lead up to national conference. Exactly where we land on that we haven’t decided but there is no doubt it will be an issue on the floor of the national conference.

Tony Burke