Department of the Environment

Archived media releases and speeches

The Hon Tony Burke MP

Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities

Murray Darling Basin plan - water allocations

E&OE Transcript
Press Conference
8 October 2010

BURKE: The first thing that needs to be acknowledged is that what is released today by the MDBA is not the final word on what needs to be done to deliver a healthy river.

The MDBA have taken it upon themselves to issue a guide to the draft of the plan. The draft if the plan, when that comes out later, is a formal statutory process. They've taken it upon themselves, in advance of that, to provide extra information for people in the Basin and to do that in the form of the Guide that they release today.

It's their document, they've prepared it independently, I have been briefed on it but obviously moments before you walk into the lock up I'm not going to be going through the details with you.

The situation then is, what comes out today will mark the next stage of a consultative process that will be conducted independently by the Murray Darling Basin Authority.

The timing of today, once again, was an independent decision by them. They decided that they thought it was important to release the report when the markets were closed. That's why they ended up with the four o'clock time. They then took the decision to provide a lock up so that people who were trying to prepare stories, who would otherwise be disadvantaged by the four pm release were in a position to be able to prepare those stories. So that's the logistics explanation as to why I'm saying a few words now and obviously I'll continue to be available but not in front of cameras until I reach Sydney. There are limits to what can be done while transiting on the M5.

REPORTER: Isn't it just bad planning on your part to be in transit when such a major report is coming out?

BURKE: The report that is coming out today, and I think if you look at the transcripts over the last few days I really don't think that it's a reasonable call to say I've been anything other than available to the media.

REPORTER: But we don't know what's in the report, how can we ask you questions about something that we don't know about.

BURKE: The report that we are talking about is something that is an independent report from the Murray Darling Basin Authority. There is a process leading all the way through to next year before we have a Basin Plan. It is the end of next year when the Basin Plan is determined. That Basin Plan, when it comes in, needs to be able to survive each House of the Parliament, it is a disallowable instrument in either House of the Parliament. It's the end of next year when we actually get to the point of having a plan for the Basin. We have a guide to a draft of a plan being released by an independent authority this afternoon.

There are three things ultimately that we need for the Basin. We need to have a healthy river, we need to acknowledge the importance of food production and to have strong regional communities. Whatever people's views are on the first figures that are released later today it is critically important to acknowledge that it is the beginning of a long process of consultation being undertaken by an independent authority.

Matthew, I cut you off when you were asking a question.

REPORTER: I was going to leap to your defence, aren't you actually going there to be interviewed by the ABC tonight?

BURKE: The reason that I have to be in Sydney is that I've agreed to…I have to say in terms of access I do think it's a long bow to say that I haven't been available.

REPORTER: When you do get the plan at the end of next year is it still Government policy to implement it no matter what.

BURKE: The commitments that were made by Penny Wong and Julia Gillard during the election campaign all remain.

REPORTER: So whatever the figures are in the final plan, you will implement it?

BURKE: The commitments that were made by Penny Wong and Julia Gillard during the election campaign, and the precise wording of that, remains.

REPORTER: With the numbers that you've seen the report, are you comfortable with the figures that are there?

BURKE: I have no intention of giving the Authority Ministerial advice from the sidelines and thereby undermining the independence of that Authority. That Authority is independent from Government, a decision was made by Parliament that it should be independent from Government. I agree with that decision. I do believe that we are going to need to end up with something that will makes its way through the Parliament and survive.

It is also the case that the three issues that I referred to, we need to have a healthy river, we need to acknowledge the importance of food production, we need to have strong regional communities. All of those issues need to be taken into account.

REPORTER: Does this Report include any cost of how much the recommended cuts will be and do you have money available to you in the Budget as it is? Or will you need to cut public programs and what will those programs be?

BURKE: There is an important commitment that was made during the election campaign which goes someway to meeting the concerns that have already been raised in advance by irrigators. Some irrigators have been quoted making comments about what they think might happen if water were taken from them. It needs to be remembered that for irrigators we are talking only about willing sellers. Any irrigator that doesn't wish to sell water doesn't have water taken away. The Government only engages in water purchases from irrigators who choose to sell their water. That remains.

Any purchases that happen in the current forward estimates continue at that rate and that continues through to 2014. The question also says though, what do you do about bridging the gap where money is required. Any of that would be beyond the forward estimates, it would be at the same pace that the Government has been purchasing water up until 2014 and it would be subject to the normal rules of fiscal discipline.

REPORTER: Do you think though that those irrigators who aren't willing to sell water may feel pressured to do so?

BURKE: Absolutely not.

REPORTER: Why?

BURKE: If you do not want to sell your water then you do not sell your water. There is a water trading market out there that is much bigger than the purchases that the Government engages in. We purchase only a fraction of what is available in that market. But we only purchase from people who are wanting to sell.

REPORTER: The compensation that you flagged for rural communities, will the funding for that come from some of the money that has previously been earmarked for the independents under the package for science?

BURKE: Until we end up with a Basin Plan we won't know the final impact on regional communities. The reason that I've put the focus on communities the way I have is that all too often the focus only goes on irrigators. The one limit to what I said before about what happens when you only buy from willing sellers is that money doesn't necessarily remain within the community. Often it does, sometimes it doesn't. You often have situations where an irrigator will then leave the community, the money goes with them and the jobs go with them.

REPORTER: Minister, if you are really serious about the environmental issues within the Basin, isn't it a fact that there is x amount of water and x plus more marked. Why did you rule out compulsorily, or some other means, other than just buying from willing sellers?

BURKE: There's no need to meet the targets that have been spoken about in conversations so far and to go to compulsory acquisition. Already the Government purchases have been involved in taking 1 litre in every 20. By 2014 we expect, by then, there will be 1 litre for every 7. We don't yet know what the gap will be that will be required to be reached. But it is the case that from everything that we've seen on the water market that there is more than enough water on the market that we will be able to meet the requirements of having a healthy river by only purchasing from willing sellers.

REPORTER: How do you know that you can meet the various promises that you've just made, on the one hand that you'll do what the Plan says, on the other hand that regional communities will be protected and then on the third hand getting it through parliament? Those three things could well be incompatible.

BURKE: On the final issue about the parliamentary process which happens at the conclusion of all of this. That's why I have been encouraging people to engage fully with the consultative process. I do have some faith that the Authority is able to conduct a good, solid consultative process. They will be on the road throughout regional communities in the coming weeks. They'll be there listening to concerns and issues where people think some things may not have been properly taken into account.

There's also issues from the environmental side, most of the conversation today has been about irrigators. There's also been conversations from the environmental side where people have said with different works and measures we can significantly increase the efficiency of how we manage our environmental assets. In doing that you then free up more water and you may be able to get the same environmental outcome with smaller cuts. These issues will all come to the table during that consultative process, I think that's a critical part of it. But the fiscal rules that we follow in terms of being able to meet the requirements of bridging the gap are the same fiscal rules that we follow in all commitments and it certainly has no bearing on the forward estimates.

REPORTER: Minister Burke, we've heard farmers over the last 24 hours talking about their concerns wiping out thousands of jobs, rural families having to move and so forth. Do you, a, share their concerns and if you don't what would be your response to that?

BURKE: Some of the concerns that you refer to presume that compulsory acquisition is on the table and its not. Some of those concerns are drawn from that sort of fear and I do want to reaffirm that absolutely, that we only buy water from people who are wanting to sell water. There is a broader impact on regional communities that needs to be worked through, and I do think it's been important to broaden the debate. Certainly with irrigation industries there can be issues of infrastructure, issues of downstream purchasing, there are wider impacts on communities themselves. None of this happens over night but with proper planning we can be in a situation to continue to have very strong regional communities but we are getting a little bit ahead of ourselves given that there is more than a year of consultation before we are actually in the position of having sustainable diversion limits set.

REPORTER: Can you tell us how the forward estimates are left intact?

BURKE: Across the forward estimates there is an amount of money reserved for infrastructure, there is an amount of money reserved for water purchases. Those amounts of money across the forward estimates remain the same. When we get to the end of the forward estimates period, at that point we are able to look at whether any funds need to be re-profiled or dealt with in a different way?

REPORTER: Will those funds be reserved (indistinct).

BURKE: The funds that I'm talking about have been set aside in the Water for the Future money.

REPORTER: And is the Government prepared to put up a lot more money to meet the buybacks that are going to be needed?

BURKE: A fair bit of speculation about what the final SDLs might be, now that is something that nobody knows the answer to because we're at the beginning of a period of consultation that goes through a few phases and doesn't reach its conclusion until the end of next year.

REPORTER: So then how responsible is it to provide a blank cheque for a policy that you don't know how much will cost taxpayers?

BURKE: Well, let's not forget there are two alternatives that were in front of the Government on whether we would provide the commitment that we did. The first was to go to compulsory acquisition, we ruled that out and we were right to rule that out. The second option that faced the Government in place of going down the path of water buyback was to compromise whether or not we would have a healthy river system. We need to have a healthy river system, irrigators need a healthy Murray Darling river system as much as anyone who likes the environmental assets along it.

REPORTER: This morning Barnaby Joyce said that the Productivity Commission and ABARE could play a role in determining limits. Do you have a response?

BURKE: My understanding is that ABARE have already been involved in some o f the assessments that have been made and I suspect that ABARE will continue to be involved.

REPORTER: And the Productivity Commission?

BURKE: That's something, that's the first time its been put to me and I'm not going to launch an immediate opinion on that.

REPORTER: The latest figure that we had was that about $1.4 billion has been spent on the buybacks since 2008, is that still the latest figure? And is there an equivalent figure of how much of the $5.8 billion in infrastructure money has been spent already?

BURKE: On the buyback money I'll make sure that my office provides a precise figure this afternoon. On the issue of the $5.8 billion of infrastructure spending, it is true that the infrastructure spending is taking longer. That is subject to negotiation and due diligence work being done between the Commonwealth and the States. It is appropriate that the Commonwealth undertakes that due diligence.

ENDS