Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities
Murray Darling Basin plan - water allocations - consultations
Interview with Barrie Cassidy, Insiders
17 October 2010
BARRIE CASSIDY: Tony Burke good morning. Welcome.
TONY BURKE: G'day Barrie.
BARRIE CASSIDY: Labor might be in government, but the Greens are in power. We might hear a bit more of that in coming weeks.
TONY BURKE: Yeah and the spin of that from Tony Abbott is in the context of an independent authority, bringing out a report based on legislation that went through when the Liberals were in power. So I think there's a little bit of game playing in those comments.
BARRIE CASSIDY: Why haven't you joined the Murray Darling Basin Authority at these public meetings?
TONY BURKE: I'll be spending plenty of time in Basin communities. I have for the last three years when I had the agriculture job. But these particular meetings, an independent authority, conducting consultation about their own report. They've brought out an independent report. By law it has to be theirs independently. They're consulting on it. When they conduct their consultation, I think it's a bit much to have the Minister undermining their independence by standing at the back of the room and looking over them.
BARRIE CASSIDY: Yeah but you wouldn't have to stand at the back of the room. At some stage, you could just step forward and reassure these people because, from what we saw earlier on, they need a lot of reassurance.
TONY BURKE: I’ve got a particular issue about being at meetings that are for an independent authority but you're right on the issue of reassurance. And there's a lot of work to be done there. There's significant misinformation out at the moment. I can understand why there's anger, given that people think that this report is government policy. It's not. They think the numbers in it are locked in. They're not. People think that the Government would compulsorily acquire their water. We wouldn't. We only purchase from willing sellers. They think the good work that's already being done won't be taken account of. Well, it will.
BARRIE CASSIDY: Well, you know why they think it's government policy, because Julia Gillard said during the election campaign that it is.
TONY BURKE: Well, what we're talking about here is a guide to a draft of a plan. The final plan is something that gets signed off by me at the end of next year and the situation we're in now of course is that document, when I sign off on it at the end of next year, has to be able to survive both houses of Parliament.
Now we're in a situation now where the authority needs to do its work independently. It needs to be able to work through that. But at the end of all of that, we need a Basin plan that allows reform of the Basin that can hold up and withstand the Parliament.
BARRIE CASSIDY: Sure but you call it a guide. When did the plan become a guide because Julia Gillard said on August 10, we will implement the authority's plan.
TONY BURKE: Well the authority comes forward with a draft plan next year…
BARRIE CASSIDY: Which she said she would implement.
TONY BURKE: Yeah, and we're in a situation now where the final version of this document, which gets signed off by me, needs to be able to survive the Parliament. It can be disallowed in either house of the Parliament. And the one thing that I'm determined we don't end up with is a situation, where we decide it's all too hard and we end up with no reform, or something gets signed off by me and then just gets knocked over in the Parliament.
The worst thing that could happen for everyone in the Basin, whether it's someone who cares about the environmental assets or whether it's an irrigator, concerned about wanting to be able to continue to run a sustainable living, everybody needs a healthy river and a healthy river is not delivered unless we can get water reform.
BARRIE CASSIDY: Have you been surprised with the level of hostility at these meetings?
TONY BURKE: No I haven't. I haven't at all, not given the misinformation that's out there and it'll take some time to work through that. There's a few reasons I guess why that misinformation's come out the way it has. But effectively a whole lot of people, you only have to look at some of the articles that have been in the papers, interviewing individual irrigators, where people have said well I'm not going to let the Government come in and take my water.
We only buy water when somebody wants to sell it. If someone doesn't want to sell their water, the Government's not there as a purchaser and we gave that commitment during the campaign.
BARRIE CASSIDY: Well that's fine from the irrigator's point of view but some will buy and then people will disappear and then there'll be a knock on effect that a lot of people will go out of business, the small people - the small businesspeople for example who provide services for these people. It's not voluntary for them.
TONY BURKE: I've been, from the day I got the job, I've been saying there's three things we need to get, to get the balance right on this. We need to have a healthy river. We need to acknowledge the importance of food production and we need to have strong regional communities. Now some of those issues, you're looking at difficult compromises on the way through, particularly for small and medium sized businesses in those towns.
But whatever you can gain through efficiency lets you get all three objectives at once and a lot is made of irrigators being more efficient and we help to fund that. A lot's made of centralised irrigation structures being more efficient and we help to fund that as well. The extra bit that I think we probably can do more on, and there's a lot of work being done on this at the moment, are what they call works and measures. Essentially it's saying how can we be more efficient in the way we manage our environmental assets too. And whatever water you can free up along those lines allows you to still be able to have water available for irrigation but looking after your environmental assets. None of it's easy. It's a tough reform.
BARRIE CASSIDY: There is something stirring in the bush though and it seems to go much deeper than just misinformation on this issue. Do you detect that? What is really concerning the bush right now?
TONY BURKE: I think in a lot of the irrigation communities there's always the issues as to what's happening at the moment with the dollar and different pressures and costs of inputs. There's also a particular concern at the moment that I think people feel, where they've just gone through years and years of very low allocations for a lot of them on their water. At the end of that we get good rains and then they hear, oh hang on, cuts are coming anyway.
Now for a lot of these Basin communities even if the Government were to adopt what's in the guide to the draft of the plan, for many of the catchments, most of that work's been done already. Some of the catchments are up to 80 per cent. About two thirds of the work gets done just with policies that are already in place by 2014. So when people think that's not the case and they just hear, oh, this is another hit on top, that causes a fair bit of anger and I can understand that.
BARRIE CASSIDY: Beyond that too, people in a sense I suppose would panic when they hear talk already of banks foreclosing. Because this climate is now developing then there's a prospect I suppose that they'll start limiting new loans to some of these areas.
TONY BURKE: Well that came out of an independent report. The Australian Bankers Association denied that there was a change in lending practices and certainly I've said publicly that banks should not be taking into account a beginning of a period of consultation, as though that somehow tells you where things end up. It would be a grave mistake on the part of any bank to take a guide to a draft of a plan and change their lending practices accordingly.
BARRIE CASSIDY: But that's something you'll need to watch surely because as you get closer to decision times it could be the banks will take a very harsh view of some of these regions.
TONY BURKE: This is why it's important that the information that gets out is accurate. The importance of being understood where we don't acquire water compulsorily, the importance of working out what can be done through efficiency improvements, not just on the irrigation side, but on the environmental side as well.
BARRIE CASSIDY: One thing that came through loud and clear from these meetings is that they just think this estimate of 800 job losses is a nonsense. They think it could be ten times if any.
TONY BURKE: Well certainly even the guide itself, when you read it through, it acknowledges that the 800 figure is on the low side and that a lot more work needs to be done, particularly on the impact of small and medium sized businesses. So I think there's some common ground about the concerns around that 800 figure.
BARRIE CASSIDY: Then what is the Parliamentary inquiry all about? That's looking at the human costs of the whole thing?
TONY BURKE: Well it focuses on that and it's also part of the process we need to be able to go through because we need to be able to bring the Parliament with us on this. I know Tony Abbott's made the comments that he's made today but effectively if we get into an old style battle of partisanship on this one, where effectively it's been bipartisan until now. Liberal Party legislation supported by us, Labor amendments last term supported by them. That's gone all the way through.
If we get into an old style game, there'll be one outcome and the one outcome will be we'll end up with me signing off on a Basin plan but being disallowed by the Parliament. And I think the Australian public will be deeply unforgiving of a parliament that looks at the Murray Darling Basin and says better not to reform at all.
No reform is bad for irrigators; it's bad for the community itself. This is a river system that has been over-allocated and we cannot shirk reform.
BARRIE CASSIDY: You say it's a test for the Parliament. If you take the Coalition out of the equation, if that's how it develops, you still have to come up with something that will be embraced by the independents from the country and the Greens.
TONY BURKE: That's right and I think we've got the maturity to do this, because people understand the environmental cost and the economic cost of doing nothing. There is a wide recognition that at the moment when you've had some good rains that doesn't mean let's reach for the brake on reform. It's a time where you say, okay, let's make sure the next decade and the decade after for the Murray Darling Basin doesn't look like the pain that people have gone through in the last decade. It's not easy policy but it's our job to be able to deal with that.
BARRIE CASSIDY: But because we have had some good rains does that make your job so much harder now?
TONY BURKE: Well it does create an argument from some people saying, oh there you go what's the problem? But I do think whether it's the algae blooms that people saw up and down different parts of the Basin, whether it was the acid sulphate soils, the different challenges that were happening, it was a lot more than just lack of water that you get when you have a system that's being driven too hard.
I do think people understand that this reform needs to occur and we just cannot lose sight the cost of doing nothing is much, much greater.
BARRIE CASSIDY: Okay it needs to be done but if you look at the Government's history on things like the mining tax and the ETS I guess the question is have you really got the ticker for it?
TONY BURKE: We're determined. We're determined on this one and as I say I think the Australian public would be deeply unforgiving if we drop the ball on it.
BARRIE CASSIDY: Well we've got an election coming up in New South Wales and the Government there is saying they don't think they'll be able to meet the targets that you've set for them.
TONY BURKE: Yeah well, the independent authority and a guide to a draft for consultation has set for them. I just think we've got to make sure we don't get ahead of us on this. Wherever there's challenges on some of those figures and many of the community reactions are saying, even with efficiencies, some of these numbers are really hard to get to. That's why the consultation's happening. That's why that's being worked through. The authority's conducting its consultation. I'm out in these communities as well and I do believe by the end of next year we're actually going to get a reform that the Basin needs and it's going to be good in the long term for regional Australia.
BARRIE CASSIDY: And in retrospect, on August 10 you think it would have been better if Julia Gillard had talked about the guide to a draft of a plan, rather than saying she's going to implement the plan?
TONY BURKE: Well the plan in the end does get implemented, the plan gets signed off by me at the end of next year and that then has to survive the Parliament.
BARRIE CASSIDY: Thanks for your time this morning.