Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities
Murray-Darling Basin plan - water allocations - consultations
Interview with David Speers, PM Agenda
25 October 2010
DAVID SPEERS: First to another issue the government's been battling with since the Murray-Darling guide draft plan was released some 18 days ago. We've seen an angry backlash in rural communities over suggestions that their water allocations could be cut.
Well this afternoon in Parliament the Minister for Water and the Environment, Tony Burke, tabled some legal advice which raises a question over whether the Murray-Darling Basin Authority actually followed the letter of the law, have a look.
TONY BURKE: It's clear from this advice that environmental, economic, and social considerations are central to the Water Act and that the basin plan can appropriately take these into account.
I do not offer the advice as a criticism of the MDBA, what is important now is how the MDBA now responds to this legal advice.
[End of excerpt]
DAVID SPEERS: Well joining me now is Tony Burke. Minister, thank for your time. So did the authority fail to follow the act?
TONY BURKE:Certainly the comments that had been made publically from the authority saying that they - the act didn't allow them to fully take account of socio and economic issues are not supported by this legal advice at all.
Now, I'm not critical of the authority for that. There was doubt from different people as to what interpretation was right. The issues should now be settled and what matters now is how does the Murray-Darling Basin Authority respond to the advice that I've now tabled.
DAVID SPEERS: So are you suggesting that the guide that has been released by the authority has failed to actually follow the act.
TONY BURKE: This is where there's some confusion. The guide has a chapter on socio-economic issues, but then you have comments that have come out during the public meetings saying that they're not fully able to take them into account. There's been a whole lot of signals that have gone in different directions on this from the authority. What we've been left with is confusion and there's been a view throughout the community and the parliament which says, well, we all agree that we want a healthy river, food production and strong communities. Do we need to change the act to get there? And what the legal advice settles is no, we don't, and that's there now clearly in black and white for the authority to see too.
DAVID SPEERS: But given there are confusing signals - and you're right, there are confusing signals, I mean Mike Taylor, the head of the authority said in launching the plan that it's very important that social and economic factors be addressed as a priority in the implementation of the plan. But he has also said that while it's a priority he has also said that his first priority was the environment.
Given there is that confusion and those mixed signals about where the environment and where the socio-economic factors have been placed, does this mean that the guide itself is now under question, that it is now worth the paper it's written on?
TONY BURKE: I think now we can take a bit of a breath and say well it's a good thing they did produce the guide. Simply because it's in addition to the statutory consultation they had to do. They produced it…
DAVID SPEERS: It may be based on the act.
TONY BURKE: That's the thing, they produced it as an extra document to see what reaction they get. Now, there's been a reaction but there's also been a chance to clarify exactly what the act says they need to do.
DAVID SPEERS: Yeah, but you're sitting here saying this guide may not be in line with the act, therefore, it may not be worth the paper it's written on.
TONY BURKE: Oh, and this is where it was only ever a consultative document, never government policy and never even policy from the Murray Darling Basin Authority.
DAVID SPEERS: So it could be rubbish?
TONY BURKE: Well it was never government policy. It was never there to be implemented, it was there to start consultation, well, it certainly did that.
DAVID SPEERS: Has it been unhelpful? Because now we don't know whether it is strictly following the act or not.
TONY BURKE: Well can I say to the extent that we've seen people who are - who have come through communities that have really done it tough over recent years, to the extent that this has added to their angst, it hasn't been helpful, there's no doubt about that. To the extent that we're not at a point where these issues are clarified, I think that's important.
DAVID SPEERS: But it does seem to me that we're starting from scratch. That this 18 month process in getting to this point, this guide, has been a waste of time and waste of money and created panic in these communities unnecessarily.
TONY BURKE: Anything that's been done so far in terms of working out what does a river need to be healthy has been worth doing. Everything that's been done so far on what are the social impacts, what are the impacts on the communities, what are the impacts on food production, all of that has been helpful and matters. But there's been a question of: you've got that information, how do you do the balance? And some of the comments that the authority have made would say they've been getting the balance right. Some of the comments that have come out would imply that they've weighted it very differently.
The legal advice now says environment, social, economic - you optimise all three.
DAVID SPEERS: So some of the comments from Mike Taylor have misinterpreted the act.
TONY BURKE: Some of the comments which have been reported - so I haven't been in front of him and heard the actual quotes. I've seen what's been reported since. Some of it does not match the legal advice I've tabled today. And you know, they didn't have the benefit of that advice until today. They've now got it. I want to see how they respond.
DAVID SPEERS: Well why didn't the authority, or why didn't the government seek this at the outset before this guide was public?
TONY BURKE: Well you went back a few months ago, we went back when Malcolm Turnbull first shepherded the legislation through the Parliament. Everybody thought it was about all three. This has been an argument that has started to occur in very recent weeks.
It was the Thursday before last, I think it was, when I first asked for this legal advice. And I didn't know what it was going to say. But I said, whatever it says - just to start clarifying this - I'll make it public.
I got the advice this morning. I tabled it this afternoon.
DAVID SPEERS: But if everyone was aware that it had to tick off the environmental, economic and social boxes, why then did Simon Crean, for example, your colleague, the Minister for Regional Australia, say that the guide was limited because of the terms of reference it got in the very first instance. I mean he was of the view that this was a limited scope of reference.
TONY BURKE: Yeah, look, that comment - and the question that brought that comment out during a radio interview, I think it was - was in the context of quotes that had come from the authority. And Simon gave that immediate response. We've now got these issues clarified. What matters to me…
DAVID SPEERS: You've just said that everyone was aware that it did have to do the triple bottom line. It had to cover the social and economic impact. But not everyone knew that. The Minister didn't know that.
TONY BURKE: Well I'm the Minister for the Water Act.
DAVID SPEERS: But was Simon Crean wrong? Should he have understood that that was the starting point?
TONY BURKE: No no, if you go through the full transcript of that I actually think - I saw how it was reported in one of the papers - if you go through the full transcript of the radio interview on that, I don't take it quite the way it's been reported in there, or that you've referred to it now.
DAVID SPEERS: All right, but you said that it was limited, that the guide was limited because of the terms of reference.
TONY BURKE: Yeah. Certainly the guide itself, the way there are some comments that have come from the authority that say they've balanced all three - there are some comments from the authority that say they've prioritised one over the others. What I want out of this is for us to get reform in a river system that needs reform. And I want us to be able to get there in a way that looks after the communities that live within the basin.
I believe that's possible. But there is a question as to whether or not we were going to have to open up the act to be able to get there. It's now resolved. I believe that you can leave the act, as it is, and you can get a good outcome for the river and for the communities that rely on it.
DAVID SPEERS: Okay. Couple of questions, just finally. Would you say to rural communities - don't bother reading that guide. What it says is not necessarily in line with the act.
TONY BURKE: I've got to say the strength of engagement the communities have had in turning up to the meetings - and making sure their voices are heard - I think that's left an impression on the Murray-Darling Basin Authority. I think it's left an impression on most Australians.
DAVID SPEERS: Should they read that guide?
TONY BURKE: Oh, there is some information in that guide that's extremely helpful. But anything that they see or hear which implies that you don't have to look after all three - that you can ignore communities, or you can ignore food production - anything they read on, that says that, or anything they hear that says that is wrong.
DAVID SPEERS: So the guide may not necessarily be in line with the act.
TONY BURKE: There are - and this is where the question that you're asking takes me to the fact that we've got contradictory comments that are being reported all over the place on this.
DAVID SPEERS: It just leaves people very confused, is it - who to believe. Do they think this guide and the recommendations of 3000 or 4000 gigalitres being cut from the Murray-Darling - do they believe that is what is in line with the act?
TONY BURKE: Yeah. And I have no doubt that the authority now can take this advice on board. And I've always respected their independence, but there was a question mark over what their legal job was.
That's now resolved. I'm giving them a chance to be able to publicly respond.
DAVID SPEERS: Okay. And do you have confidence in Mike Taylor?
TONY BURKE: I've got to say - and I've had this meeting with a whole lot of irrigators and community members in Griffith last Friday. And they were saying - they actually liked the fact that he was willing to stand up and hear the complaints, no matter how passionately they were put. And they felt he was listening.
So that was a recommendation that came from them.
DAVID SPEERS: But do you as Minister have confidence in him?
TONY BURKE: I want to see how he responds to the legal advice. Certainly, to date, my work with him has been good and effective. I'm not at the stage at the moment of showing any lack of confidence. But I do want to see how they respond to this advice.
DAVID SPEERS: All right, Tony Burke, thank you.
TONY BURKE: Thank you.