Interview – ABC Radio National

US visit, Commonwealth cladding audits

Hamish MacDonald: But at six minutes past eight, the space race is back on. And Australia is joining with NASA’s plans to put a human on Mars sometime in the next 20 years. Science Minister Karen Andrews has been attending a major space conference in Washington DC to talk about how Canberra can help in this. Her trip will also look at ideas for Australia’s struggling recycling industry.

Minister, we seem to have booked this interview with you at a time when you’re travelling on a train on a mobile phone, so not exactly a masterstroke of planning, but hopefully the line will hold up. Are we on our way to Mars?

Karen Andrews: I’d like to be on my way to Mars, but at the moment I’m on a train about an hour outside Washington having spent a few days talking to other space agencies and of course speaking to NASA about opportunities for Australia to become even more involved in the space race.

Hamish MacDonald: But I mean the timeline for this Mars mission seems a little bit hazy. What exactly are we interested in doing and how might we participate in this?

Karen Andrews: Okay, so the couple of steps to the process. My initial discussions with NASA have been about identifying opportunities where Australia has strengths that will support NASA’s moon and then onto Mars mission. So the things that we have been speaking about are remote health, because clearly from Australia we manage health operations in Antarctica, so we’re - we do have skills in remote health. And of course we operate mine sites remotely, so from Perth we operate mine sites in the Pilbara about 1600 kilometres away, so NASA’s particularly interested in those particular parts of our skill base and technology to see how they can use that for their moon and onto Mars missions.

Hamish MacDonald: The head of NASA, Jim Bridenstine, had said in April to Congress that he thought it could be around 2033 but the timeline does seem still a little hazy. He told a conference, I think, that it could be 2035. Has there been any clarity given to you on this?

Karen Andrews: Well the first step will be the return to the moon, and my understanding is that that the target is ‘24 for that to happen. So we’ll be working to that timeframe. I understand …

Hamish MacDonald: … Sorry, the line dropped out just as you said that, but I think you were saying 2034?

Karen Andrews: 2024 for the trip back to the moon, so we will be working on that timeframe, which I understand is a short timeframe and there’s concern about the capacity to reach that 2024 timeframe, but that’s clearly where we’re aiming. Once we’ve reached that milestone we’ll be able to look at the timeframe to go further onto Mars. But the first step is to return to the moon by 2024.

Hamish MacDonald: Obviously the Mars mission is very much Donald Trump’s vision. It’s something that he enjoys talking about quite a bit. The US interest in and the funding of long-term missions has sort of waxed and waned over the various political cycles in the United States. How certain can we be of America’s commitment to this?

Karen Andrews: Well look, President Trump has made it very clear that that’s what the mission is, to go through to Mars and that’s what we’ll be working towards. We’ve had our Prime Minister in the States speaking directly with President Trump, and we’ve committed an additional $150 million that will support Australian businesses so that they can be part of that mission. So they’re the guidelines and the timeframes that we’re working to, so at this stage it really is all systems go to the moon by 2024.

Hamish MacDonald: The conference that you’ve been at had the Europeans there, the Russians there, Japan, not China which has obviously got ambitious plans of its own when it comes to space. Do you view this as a new space race?

Karen Andrews: Well it certainly is a race to get back there, but the race has a timeframe now to 2024. We’re going to be working very closely with NASA, with the United States. That’s where our priorities are. Of course there were other agencies that are at the congress. They will obviously be doing what they need to do to be involved in developing their own space capability. But we have certainly put our hand up quickly to work with NASA. That’s been recognised by NASA and it’s seen as a great positive.

Hamish MacDonald: I want to talk to you about recycling. I know you’re off to see a recycling plant in upstate New York today. The Prime Minister wants, as we understand it, a recycling industry here in Australia. Is the plant that you’re visiting today a sample of what this Government has in mind for Australia and why?

Karen Andrews: Potentially. So the site that I’m going to be going to actually deals with recycling of waste that is generally considered to be quite difficult to recycle. So things such as coffee capsules and toothpaste tubes et cetera, so actually looking at how they support that and develop opportunities to recycle. I’ll be approaching this from the industry perspective because waste recycling is a significant industry of the future for us. So I’ll be looking at how they’ve developed their capacity in the United States and what are the lessons that we can take back, because I want to build the waste recycling business in Australia.

Hamish MacDonald: I mean, you personally want to do that? I don’t really understand what you mean by you’re looking at this from the industry perspective. Are you saying this is the kind of thing you want us to have here? I’m not quite clear on what you mean.

Karen Andrews: Okay, so waste recycling is being led by the Environment Minister Sussan Lee, so she’s looking at it from the environmental perspective clearly as well as what the businesses are so that we can use recycled goods. I see waste recycling as an industry, so it is going to create some future jobs for us. But we’ve got to build the capacity to recycle the waste, to reuse those materials, or other innovative products. And at this stage, there’s still a lot of work to be done. So the Prime Minister and I…

Hamish MacDonald: … So do you believe in this idea that through recycling, Australia could create some kind of circular economy as the waste industry suggests?

Karen Andrews: Absolutely. And I will be looking at the circular economy and looking at how we can ensure that that happens in Australia. So there’s significant opportunity for us to develop waste recycling as an industry.

Hamish MacDonald: And you say you’re looking at this from the industry perspective. The industry’s calling and has long called for tax incentives to help drive the circular economy. Are you considering that?

Karen Andrews: Not at this stage, I am looking purely at the industry that we can create and I will bring those ideas and opportunities back to Australia and I will have further discussions, obviously with the Prime Minister but also with those significant industry players to see what waste recycling looks like as an industry for Australia.

Hamish MacDonald: But they’ve been saying for a long time you need to incentivise this through tax.

Karen Andrews: And I’m happy to talk to stakeholders, I’m happy to talk to existing industry players, but I’ll do so when I get back to Australia after I’ve had further discussions here in the States and have some ideas about how we can look at fully implementing the circular economy in Australia. I think it’s too early to talk about tax incentives; we need to scope out the industry, look at what the potential is for it and where priority areas are going to be. Clearly, the Prime Minister has indicated that plastic recycling is the number one priority, but there may well be some other goods that we can look at recycling that could go into things like roads as Downer EDI are doing.

Hamish MacDonald: I do need to ask you while we have you and before we go – the Government has conducted an audit of cladding on Commonwealth owned buildings. I read that it’s identified 11 buildings as requiring some rectification. Although, a note in some of the responses from the Department, there’s not a great deal of clarity around where they are, what they are, what the results of that audit actually were. The people that are working and living in these buildings, know that the buildings are unsafe?

Karen Andrews: Well what’s important to know is that from the Commonwealth’s point of view, the auditing of cladding commenced in the middle of 2017. The majority of the buildings are compliant. So there have been …

Hamish MacDonald: Sure, but that’s not the question Minister, I just need a straight answer on these. Do the people that are living and working inside these buildings that require rectification, do they know that the buildings are unsafe?

Karen Andrews: Well my understanding is that the 11 buildings of the Commonwealth are office accommodation, that they’re not residential buildings at all. That’s being dealt with by the states and territories, so these are office buildings. The rectification work is already- and the processes for rectification work are already underway. So there would be a level of visibility. So there is - there would be an understanding by at least some of the building occupants that that remediation work is underway. Now clearly …

Hamish MacDonald: But that’s a pretty oblique way of informing people that their building that they’re working in is not safe, isn’t it? I mean, are you being up front with these people and saying – look, you work in a building that is not safe.

Karen Andrews: I’m being as up front as I can at this point in time. What we don’t want to do is alarm people unnecessarily and think they’re under immediate threat. We have identified 11 buildings that require some remediation. There have been confirmed, the public disclosure of specific buildings, is likely to lead to a risk of arson. So what we have to do is balance the information that’s publicly available. Now that’s being led by the states and territories and quite frankly, I support it. I’m confident that the remediation work is being undertaken in a timely manner, based on the information that I have been given. And I have been assured that the risk is being minimised in those buildings and I think that’s the important thing. These are not residential buildings, they are commercial buildings and they are considered to be low risk.

Hamish MacDonald: Karen Andrews, thank you very much. Safe journey on the train.

Karen Andrews: It’s a pleasure talking to you.

Hamish MacDonald: Karen Andrews is the Science Minister.