Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities
Murray Darling Basin plan - water allocations - consultations
Interview with Jason Morrison, 2GB
15 October 2010
JASON MORRISON: A taste of the anger on the streets of Griffith today.
JASON MORRISON: People who say they’re like this because they’re fighting for survival. The Australian Government has conveniently sat on this report across an election knowing that if it was out before an election there would have been hell to pay and that hell would have been prior to the election. Tony Burke is the Minister for Sustainability, the Environment and Water in the Commonwealth Government. He wasn’t there today, he’s in the Hunter; he’s with me on the phone. Good afternoon.
TONY BURKE: G’day Jason.
JASON MORRISON: You’re a real deal politician. The real deal out of these towns is that this cannot happen it will destroy these towns. Please tell me you understand that.
TONY BURKE: I’ve said the whole way through, from the time I got this job- and after I say this if I could say one thing about the intro if that’s okay – but since I got this job, I’ve said there are three things that we need to get right and if we don’t get all three right then we don’t get the balance right. And that’s; a healthy river system, strong communities and the importance of food production. Now…
JASON MORRISON: …Well help me understand which is your priority. Which is most important to you?
TONY BURKE: …Well you don’t get anywhere without all three…
JASON MORRISON: …Food source? Survival of country towns or protection of the environment?
TONY BURKE: No, no, no, but to have the healthy river system, that’s not just an environmental issue. I mean without a healthy river you don’t have your irrigation running either. Without food production you don’t have what you need in the country and without the communities you don’t have what you need. I don’t see those three in a hierarchy. I don’t see how you survive without all three working. It’s not a hierarchy…
JASON MORRISON: …But these fellas are telling you that one level of it won’t work, the survival of these country towns and hence the, if we can use the buzz-phrase, the security of our food source or in other words whether its applied locally or it’s applied from elsewhere.
TONY BURKE: I’m not disagreeing. I mean this is where I just wanted to take issue with the bit in the introduction if that’s okay…
JASON MORRISON: …Well, its, but, I..
TONY BURKE: …This report [inaudible]…
JASON MORRISON: …and I’m happy to give you time to do that, but I just want people to understand that you’re telling me that all those are equal. That protection of the environment is equal to supplying guarantee of Australia’s food source, as is the survival of the country town. They’re all equal.
TONY BURKE: No, no, no, the first thing I said wasn’t – you’ve just phrased it as the protection of the environment but what I said was ‘to have a healthy river system’. If you don’t have a healthy river system you don’t have…
JASON MORRISON: … Well, what does that mean in reality?
TONY BURKE: …Well, if you don’t have a healthy river system then you don’t have the quality water that the irrigators need either.
JASON MORRISON: Oh they know that better than anybody.
TONY BURKE: Yeah.
JASON MORRISON: But this program and plan is about making sure the river flows to the sea. That’s a fundamental point of this plan. So, that, I think, is an environmental argument.
TONY BURKE: Well, the plan you’re talking about is not my plan. It’s an independent authority that’s brought it out…
JASON MORRISON: …Yeah, that’s convenient, that’s convenient. That’s too convenient to say it’s an independent authority. You can have a view on it, as a representative, Minister for Water in the Australian government. You can have a view on whether this is the way we should be going.
TONY BURKE: Yeah and at no point have I endorsed it, at no point have I said that I think that anybody at the moment knows precisely what the figures need to be. Because the balance, if you get it wrong, you’ve either wrecked your food production or you wreck the health of the river, or you wreck local communities…
JASON MORRISON: …Then why as Minister for Water are you up in the Hunter today and not down in the Riverina talking to the people who actually are out there passionately wanting to engage with someone like yourself? You should be there. You should be hearing it.
TONY BURKE: Oh yes, I think Jason you know my style well enough to know that I spend a lot of time in irrigation communities. That happened before this job, that continues now that I’ve got this job. That doesn’t change. But what I…
JASON MORRISON: …And since this report has been out how many times have you been down there?
TONY BURKE: …I beg your pardon?
JASON MORRISON: How many times have you been down there since the report’s been out?
TONY BURKE: Oh, well…
JASON MORRISON: Well, see that’s the point, you wouldn’t go within cooee because you know it’d be political dynamite to go there. It’d be just too dangerous.
TONY BURKE: No, no, you’re wrong on that. I mean you’re talking about a report that came out a few days ago. Have I been in an irrigation community in those handful of days? No, no, I haven’t. Well I’ve been spending…
JASON MORRISON: How long have you had the report for?
TONY BURKE: I got a copy of the report either a day or two before it was released…[inaudible]
JASON MORRISON: …And nobody in the Australian government, now hang on you’re being technical with me because your responsibilities weren’t in this territory beforehand. No one in the Australian government had access to this report prior to the election?
TONY BURKE: No. It hadn’t been completed. That’s the issue I wanted to get to from the intro, because…
JASON MORRISON: …No drafts.
TONY BURKE: …The report had not been completed…
JASON MORRISON: …No drafts, no taste of it. So that’s an urban myth is it?
TONY BURKE: Well, when I got the portfolio I asked whether a copy of the report was ready. I was told it had not been completed. I ended up being briefed on it in an incomplete state in the week that it was released and was given a copy of it, I can’t remember if it was one or two days before but it was in that order that I got a copy of the final report.
JASON MORRISON: Alright, as I said, I’m happy to be corrected if that is indeed the situation but the information that we have from within government is that this was well known prior to the election what was in this report and there were political decisions made as to why it was delayed. You and I can differ on whether that’s true or not.
TONY BURKE: Certainly I wanted to get hold of a copy of the report and I was told it was not finished. So, I reckon had it…
JASON MORRISON: …Technicality, it doesn’t actually matter because these people have a reasonable argument. And do you think that their point is real? That the survival of these towns is dependent on close to the status-quo continuing and hence then, and the security and survival of Australia’s food supply, particularly in eastern Australia. Is that important, that this should be something that the environmental aspects of this report are in fact put further down the ledger than indeed the protection of the food?
TONY BURKE: It depends on where you say status quo. A lot of the allocations that these towns – and I think this is part of the frustration – a lot of the allocations that these towns have dealt with over the last decade have actually been lower than what’s in the report. The frustration, I think, in part – and it’s different from town to town, there’s some irrigation communities where there is very little change for them in this report. But for all of them, they’ve all had some shocking allocations year after year after year. And now at the same point, when they’re finally getting a good level of water running down the river, they’re saying, hang on, this is meant to be a good year and now you’re bringing this out on us. Now one of the things that I’m wanting to find out and it’s one of the good things that’s happening in the consultation at the moment, is we’re starting to get people come up with ideas as to how you can improve efficiencies in a way that allows more water to keep the health of the river system going, but actually reduces the need to cut your irrigation areas. Because people have done terrific work on this in many parts of the Basin on farm and there’s also been some work, although in some areas this can still be improved a lot, with the centralized irrigation structure to improve the efficiency of that. But the issue that’s being raised a lot with me at the moment is, with environmental assets, we haven’t nearly been as effective in saying, okay, if we want to look after it, how can we do it more efficiently than we have and therefore free up extra water.
JASON MORRISON: But, see what you’re talking about there, doing it more efficiently is one thing, what is being proposed is not doing it more efficiently it’s drastically cutting it and there’s a difference. You can sit down and we’ve heard from many people this afternoon from the Riverina who all agree that they want it to be more efficient because they know there’s benefits for that when the water is scarce. But this approach is sledgehammer and that’s their point and I think you know that’s their point, which is indeed why you know as a politician it’s best to stay away from the anger. Let it simmer, let it go on. I mean, today out comes a press release telling us that there will be an enquiry. That enquiry will come back some time in April. These people are already getting hints from their banks.
TONY BURKE: Oh yes and if I can use your program, if it’s okay, to send a message that I’ve been trying to send today in a very strong way to the banks, which is it is outrageous for any bank to take action or be harsh on a farmer based on a report that has come from an independent authority, that’s not government policy, that is simply a guide to a draft of an eventual plan and it is outrageous… for any bank….
JASON MORRISON: …Yeah, but come on, you know how the world works. If suddenly someone is saying forty three percent of your water is going to disappear, or something in the order of that, you as someone who has invested by lending money into these places, you’re going to say well, gee, that looks like a rubbery business.
TONY BURKE: Yeah, I reckon you’d be less likely to say it if you’ve got the Minister responsible for the area saying those numbers are not government policy. And I’m saying it in an unequivocal way.
JASON MORRISON: So, where is closer to government policy? There’s the forty-three percent number on the table, what’s closer to your policy?
TONY BURKE: Government policy is the three principles; they’re the three principles that have been supported by both sides of the parliament on legislation that went through when John Howard was there that we supported, that we still support and as far as I know still has bipartisan support. Those three principles are what matters. What we can do with efficiencies means you can deliver a healthy river system with less need to be involved in any sort of buy-back. But some of the numbers that are in the report, close to seventy-five percent of those figures have actually already been met. So, there are some areas where there is very little shift being proposed, even in what’s only a guide to a draft to a report.
JASON MORRISON: Alright. Well look, no number in that, but I wasn’t expecting it, but I think you’ve kind of confirmed that it sounds like still everything is pretty much even on the table right now.
TONY BURKE: That’s right and Jason I don’t want to seem like I’m dodging it, there is no number that we have set down and so it’s not a matter of me avoiding telling you. I don’t know what the answer is on how you balance those three correctly. By the end of next year I’ve got the job where I have to put my name to a plan and that plan has to survive the parliament. Between now and then I’ll be spending a hell of a lot of time in Basin communities trying to make sure we can get that right.
JASON MORRISON: Alright. Appreciate you coming on tonight. Thank you.
TONY BURKE: Good to talk to you.
JASON MORRISON: Tony Burke, who is the Minister for Water, who as I said is in the Hunter today, the action is in the Riverina and you know why he’s in the Hunter and not the Riverina after what you heard earlier. This is 2GB.