Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities
Doorstop interview: Draft Murray-Darling Basin plan
29 November 2011
TONY BURKE: Okay. Look, you've all been at the meeting. You've attended that today. It simply marks the beginning of twenty weeks of consultation.
The Authority yesterday have effectively brought out their draft Basin Plan and we now go through a period of twenty weeks to work out what the final plan will look like.
While the draft is a document from an independent authority, ultimately I need to have a document that I sign off on personally that then has to be able to survive the Parliament. So while the authority will do its own consultation, it's important for me to be out there as well.
Across today, I've taken about ten pages of notes from different comments that were made by different people. As you would have seen, that meeting is no different to anything across the Basin. There are a wide variety of views.
There will not be, there never has been, never will be a consensus position on Murray-Darling reform. But one thing that is constant is people want certainty. You would have heard that at the meeting then. People want certainty. People want to know where it's headed.
We have an opportunity, within the course the next twelve months, to be able to deliver that certainty and get on with the reform, with its healthy rivers, strong communities and sustainable food production.
QUESTION: There were mixed views then and also certainly a lot of anger from the irrigators. Would you expect to see more as we move on with more of these meetings?
TONY BURKE: Oh, there's no doubt that there's anger out there and you can understand that. There's been, over the last twelve months, a lot of misinformation. A lot of irrigators have stood up at different meetings at different times and said I don't want to give you one drop of my water, not understanding and not always appreciating that the government does have a policy that if people don't want to sell their water then we're not interested in buying it.
There's a whole lot of principles that have been important to get out there and that's why meetings like this, as well as an opportunity for me to listen, an opportunity for me to hear the strength of opinion that's in different communities. It's also an opportunity for me to be able to explain some of the principles the government's working by which haven't always been able to be made clear.
QUESTION: How are you ever going to get the Greens to agree with you?
TONY BURKE: Well, I said that there's no consensus. I'm not sure that I understand the premise of the question. What needs to happen here is we need to have a majority within the Parliament. I make no presumption as to how that majority ends up being achieved. My job is to make sure that we get the reform right, to make sure that we get something that is lasting, that works for communities, but importantly restores the system to health. My view is the best way to get a majority is to get the policy right. And that's my starting point.
QUESTION: Are you prepared to say it's not enough to get the system healthy, and also farmers are saying it's too much [inaudible]. The fact that you're being criticised from almost every angle, does that mean that the plans about the river are right?
TONY BURKE: Look, you don't set out to have criticism from every angle. You set out to try to get that reform that delivers the health of the system in a way that works the best for communities, whatever it had been before. I think that would be a fair argument from each side. Some of the things that some irrigation communities would prefer, some would prefer no reform at all. I can't deliver that. There will be reform. There needs to be reform.
Some of the environmental requests involve volumes of water that could not be legally managed. That if we had, would simply involve the flooding of private property. So we're within those sorts of constraints.
There needs to be a reform. We need to restore the system to health. I think the best thing that the Government can do on this is listen and then ultimately make a judgment call as to what is the right way forward and then lock into it.
QUESTION: So you're prepared to change the baseline in this deal to secure passage through parliament?
TONY BURKE: There's a process which involves state governments which, if you go through the Water Act, there's a whole series of requirements there. Ultimately the water, whatever is in the Basin Plan, needs to be consistent with the Water Act. I need to ultimately be satisfied by that. The Authority has work that it has to do. I have work that I have to do.
QUESTION: A lot of the discussion in there was about the buy-back scheme and the fact that many people would sell water, and be doing it out of desperation and it's going to leave gaping holes in the community. Why can't we have a strategic buy-back?
TONY BURKE: We need to first of all appreciate we only buy water from people who have made a decision that they want to sell.
The majority of what we buy is people selling a portion of their water. So in many of those situations, it's water that, because they've found different efficiencies and irrigators are always finding further efficiencies, that they then have water that is surplus to their requirements.
When people say strategic buy-back, there are many different definitions of what would constitute strategic buy-back. I heard Barnaby Joyce yesterday saying it all needs to be more strategic. And then the two examples he was critical of were examples that were not through tenders but were in fact strategic buy-back.
So you know, some arguments will simply be arguments against any form of buy-back. Some will be against any form of reform. To the extent that you can deliver the outcomes through infrastructure improvements, you want to be able to do that. To the extent to which you can focus on areas that work within irrigation communities where they are in favour of, for example, a whole lot of people want to get out and it allows a particular channel to be closed down, which then means the conveyance water is able to be made available as well as the water savings for the extraction itself, they're the sorts of strategic outcomes that when you can work that through with communities, it's the most effective outcome.
But I don't want to pretend that it is possible to bridge the gap without having some tenders. Now, we've decided that this side of 2013, we don't believe we'll have to have full southern connected tenders across the system. That provides a bit of breathing space for communities while we get moving on some infrastructure projects. But I have never seen a situation or any model or combination of infrastructure projects and environmental projects that can bridge the gap without also having some tenders for buy-back.
QUESTION: Mr Burke, irrigators are being asked to give up water when there's no detailed environmental plans. Together you're asking a fair bit of trust from them, to say we need this amount of water but we don't know exactly where it's going.
TONY BURKE: Well the premise of your question is wrong. Irrigators are not being asked to give up water. If irrigators want to sell a portion of their entitlement, if they legally own it, it's an asset that they have.
It wasn't always an asset. But it's an asset that now irrigators have. But many of them [inaudible]. If they want to sell it, then that's up to them. But if they don't want to part with any of their entitlement, then they're not being asked to. As simple as that.
QUESTION: But there's no environmental water plan details out there.
TONY BURKE: Oh, no, please understand the environmental water plan is part of the Draft Plan. There's a chapter there that is the environmental watering plan. It involves fairly high level principles which under the Water Act is what the Authority is meant to do. Under the Water Act, the state governments then submit water resource plans. Part of that is their plan for environmental watering. And the states should be the ones that provide that level of detail, they have been responsible for river management since Federation.
You want to make sure that the data, the technical detail that the states have is factored into the final environmental watering plans. If states refuse to do it, then there are step-in powers that the Authority has. But I am absolutely opposed to any suggestion that the Authority should completely go at first base to the step-in powers. They should start with the high level principles of what needs to be done. The states should then submit the detailed plans. That's exactly the process that was started off yesterday.
QUESTION: How would farmers feel, you know, being unfairly targeted in terms of having the buybacks, infrastructure improvements and efficiencies whereas the environmental side of things hasn't been [inaudible]? Is that a fair assessment? Should we now be expecting a higher level of efficiency to come from the environmental uses of the water?
TONY BURKE: First of all, the improvements in efficiencies for irrigators are less of an expectation and more of an opportunity. Whenever irrigators have been involved in any of the on-farm programs, they've kept half of the efficiency. So half of it has been returned to the environment and half of it they've had they've often been used to sell-back during tender rounds as it services their needs.
So the on-farm rounds have been a significant opportunity for irrigators and we consistently get more applying for it than we actually have available. And then we do further rounds. Those rounds will continue.
But I don't want to move away from the fact that we can manage water more effectively for environmental purposes as well. The biggest ticket item has been Menindee, which unfortunately at the moment the New South Wales Government has terminated the agreement on Menindee.
But we are in constructive talks with them and I'm very hopeful that we'll be able to reach a new agreement with the New South Wales Government about better management of Menindee Lakes that provides an environmental dividend through better management of an environmental asset.
In Victoria though, let's not forget, when the water inundation was done for Hatter Lakes it was not done through an overbank flow. It was done through pumping water there using a smart method of maximising the efficiency of environmental water there in Hatter Lakes, to provide the environmental dividend in a way that did not require the massive volumes that would have been required for an overbank flow.
QUESTION: So is your strategy for dealing with the Greens at the moment to just forge ahead with the policy as you would otherwise make no concessions?
TONY BURKE: My approach is to be constantly talking to everybody. I made sure that before the Murray-Darling Basin Plan was released [inaudible] it wasn't just journalists that were embargoed copies of it. [Inaudible] position, briefings were given and the copies were given to the Greens. We made sure that that wherever that information was sought across the parliament, that people have been given full access to information as they have it and then obviously when they've got that information they feed back to me their various views.
As usual, in these community meetings such as the one you've just been at, my approach to this is that the right thing to do is to try and deliver the best quality performance. If we deliver the best performance then I think we have the best chance of it surviving in parliament.
QUESTION: Will you give ground to the Greens on water so to speak?
TONY BURKE: Well I don't know why you specify one of the parties. There are a range of parties within the Parliament and we simply need to make sure that we end up with a majority. That can be through agreements with Greens, with cross benchers or agreements with the Coalition. There are a number of ways that this can land but I want to make sure that we are delivering the best possible Plan. The approach that I am adopting by being at these meetings myself, by making sure I'm maximising the consultation is to make sure that I have developed the best possible sense of what a good lasting reform of the Murray-Darling Basin looks like.
This has been a reform that's been required for generations. Next year every Member of Parliament - and you're wanting to focus on one particular political party - but every Member of Parliament, whether they're a member of a political party or whether they're not, has to either vote in favour of reform or against it. If I can deliver the best quality reform then I have the confidence that that will pass.
QUESTION: And if the water saving targets can be achieved through infrastructure upgrades and voluntary buy-backs, will irrigators be forced to sell water?
TONY BURKE: We only, in any tender, buy a fraction of what is offered to us. So I have every level confidence that a voluntary process is all that will ever be required. At the last election we made a commitment, we actually took from the states, the obligation to bridge the gap and we said that we would put enough money on the table, beyond the original agreement with the states to continue the voluntary process so we're able to completely bridge the gap.
It was a significant financial commitment for the Commonwealth, but we made it. I think it was the right thing to do and I have every level of confidence that the processes that we have, of a combination of using environmental water more efficiently, of using infrastructure projects, of using strategic buy-back and using tenders where appropriate that we will be able to bring together those messages.
QUESTION: But can you reassure irrigators that they won't forced into buy-backs?
TONY BURKE: We have no interest in compulsory acquisition. We've never done it, it's not Government policy, we don't do it.
QUESTION: Mr Burke is it a bit risky going out to rural communities so soon after the recent draft when the Authority did that with the Guide and got a belting coming out so soon?
TONY BURKE: Look you don't go out to communities straight after a document like that's released with the expectation that you're going to be greeted with wild applause. You go out there because people have a right to be listened to. They have an absolute right to be listened to and that's why I've attended the meeting here today. That's why I'll be in Griffith this afternoon.
I’d add with Griffith originally there was a public meeting scheduled for today that I accepted. Within a few days of me having accepted it and publicly announcing that I was going to Griffith they actually ended up making a decision that they wanted to shift it to a different day.
So I don't have the public meeting but I was already planning to attend in Griffith. But having announced that I was going to go there, to then not turn up I think would have been a bit rich.
So there are a few smaller meetings that I'll be attending in Griffith today. No doubt there'll be a number of people there who have made a particular effort who want to put their opinions to me forcefully. That's good, it's a democracy, people are allowed to do that. That's why I go there.
QUESTION: Minister, can I ask you about the Growling Frog in Melbourne which is holding up, quite a large development. What state is the [inaudible] and could it be holding up something vital to [inaudible]?
TONY BURKE: In Victoria, the Victorian Government and the Commonwealth Government conducted a strategic assessment. The reason we did this was so that every future housing development didn't have to go through its own separate environmental approval. Effectively we have unlocked many thousands of homes as a result of having done this. It's in the order of about forty billion dollars worth of investment that is unlocked because we went through the strategic assessment process.
Now the species you refer to is listed at a Commonwealth level and listed at a state level. When you do a strategic assessment you actually deal with all the approvals at once. At a Commonwealth level it's got a low level listing of vulnerable. It's actually on the threatened list at a state level. Now as part of all of that process with strategic assessment, there are processes that they then follow through the Victorian Government's taking legal action at the moment.
If the Victorian Government's unhappy with the strategic assessment process, then they can abandon it at any point and go back to individual approvals. But if they do that the housing prices will go up, the cost of every individual development will be steeper and they would absolutely be doing the wrong thing by anybody who's looking to get a new home. But if that's a process they prefer that's their call.
QUESTION: So at the moment it's valid from what the [inaudible]?
TONY BURKE: Well as I say it's listed with a tougher listing technically in Victoria [inaudible] and there's a process where Victoria doesn't hold up the planning. It comes up with what the rules need to be and then development needs to go forward much more quickly, that's what's in front of us at the minute. If the Victorian Government prefer the old rules, which I certainly wouldn't, but we'd then have to apply for a central Victorian approval through Commonwealth approval process then they need to know that the other option would put pressure on housing prices.
And I think it'd be very harshly for the Victorian Government to do for anyone who is hoping to buy a new home in the areas that [inaudible].
QUESTION: How does the Federal Government plan to, I guess compensate on the [inaudible] that aren't [inaudible]?
TONY BURKE: Well where we are at the moment in northern Victoria we've got NVIRP where we've got $1.2 billion being invested on improving infrastructure. Let's remember those infrastructure improvements aren't only improvements for better water efficiency. It's also a massive investment in the local area.
It doesn't just deliver water for the environment. It also means if you're a local irrigator, instead of having to book the extra water that you want a long time in advance, it's actually available to you pretty much instantaneously.
This is a massive productivity improvement for the local area directly through substantial Commonwealth investment. Some people have wanted to have a go at the infrastructure project. They feel they don't deliver the same level of water efficiency as a straight buy-back, well there are extra objectives that we will see. I make no apology for infrastructure programs that also seek an improved outcome for the community and an improved outcome for local business; no apology for that at all.