Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities
Interview with David Lipsen, Sky News
28 May 2012
COMPERE: Right now I'm joined by the Government water spokesman, Tony Burke. Minister, thank you very much.
TONY BURKE: G'day.
COMPERE: You just heard from Barnaby Joyce there. He says he's willing to sit down with the Government to discuss a better plan.
TONY BURKE: Yes, and we'll be having those meetings this week. I'm just not sure what he's going to say. Because, you know, I look at the draft document we've got in front of us. I say okay, I reckon the environmental outcomes need to improve, from what's in front of us, and I want to find a way of doing that where you have the minimum possible impact on communities.
But the environmental outcomes - I think we can be more ambitious than what's in the document that's in front of us. The shifts in groundwater, I think, are good.
Barnaby just says he can't tell you what he really thinks. Now, I'm determined that we end up with something that can survive this parliament. I'm determined to make sure that after a century of failing to deliver Murray Darling reform - it's going to happen this year. All I know from Barnaby is he disagrees with the Greens.
Now, I'd taken that as a given at the beginning. If we're going to have a sensible negotiation I need to know what they believe we would be required to deliver to have a semblance of Coalition support. I'm still none the wiser.
COMPERE: So you say you're not willing to, or ready to sign off on this plan. It sounds like your biggest concerns, in terms of the triple bottom line, are with the environment. Does that mean that we could see the 2750 gigalitre cut increased before you're willing to sign?
TONY BURKE: The Authority have actually contemplated that in the material they've provided today, which is all released in public. What they've said is you can actually have more ambitious outcomes if you do two things: one, you increase the water to have a guarantee that you'd be getting it through infrastructure projects and, secondly, you unlock these things called capacity constraints. Technical water concept, but what it basically means is there's no point having the water unless you can get it from the dam to the environmental asset you're trying to look after.
At the moment there's channel sizes and things like that where, physically, you hit a maximum volume, and once you go beyond it the water just goes out rather than down. It's like trying to shift seven litres of water and you've only got a five litre bucket. To unlock the capacity constraints increases the size of the bucket, so you can actually deliver something meaningful.
COMPERE: But if you're going to pump more water into the environment there's two ways to do it. You could either put more water into the system or shift water from one region to another. So which would you be more - give more preference to?
TONY BURKE: Well, there's a few ways of putting more water into the system. If you do it through improvements in on-farm infrastructure, then, effectively, you've kept your productive capacity but you've freed up some water that was otherwise going to waste, and you can manage that for the environment.
There's also some systems like Menindee Lakes, for example, in western New South Wales, where, at the moment, the way those lakes are managed, is holding back a whole lot of water that could otherwise be available for downstream flow.
So there's a series of different mechanisms that are available, but the starting point is I actually think in terms of delivering a healthy working Basin, we can deliver better environmental outcomes that are in this document. I'm determined to see how we can unlock that.
I think we need to have a discussion, as the Authority have recommended to me today, that we try to find ways of doing that where you do minimise the outcome on communities. They don't want buyback to, effectively, be our only tool.
COMPERE: The report recommends a cut to groundwater of 1150 gigalitres. That will impact on the extraction of coal seam gas - the industry there with allowed community concerns that have been out there for a while on coal seam gas. Is this a case of the squeakiest wheel getting the grease?
TONY BURKE: Let's not forget the last iteration of this document there was a big increase in the amount of groundwater that might be able to be extracted. I was quite alarmed by that. I made no secret of it. I said it at the different public meetings I went to.
It was one of the only concerns that I voiced where there was some agreement between environmentalists and the irrigation community about how much groundwater was coming out.
Here's your problem: the best possible science available on groundwater still doesn't categorically tell you is that particular aquifer connected to surface water or not. If it's not connected the extraction's not a problem if it recharges regularly enough, it's not a problem.
But if it's connected, just imagine if we went through all the pain that people are going through in trying to make sure we make the adjustments to make the system healthy again, only to undo them by getting the water into the river and then ripping it out and having it sucked back through groundwater systems.
COMPERE: Irrigators say that this plan does not explain what the Government is trying to do. You're getting criticism from all sides. Are you just trying to position yourself and the Government in between the criticism? Or are you actually trying to deliver an outcome?
TONY BURKE: No, no. I think the worst way to handle this would be to just say oh, if everybody's angry, then we must be doing the right thing; because you've got to start with what's the objective we're trying to achieve.
The starting point for all of this is a belief which I hold very dear; that by having the system entirely managed state by state, too much water has been ripped out, to the point where you jeopardise the health of the whole system.
Whether you're an environmentalist, an irrigator, a tourism operation, you need the system to be healthy. We saw how stressed it became during the last drought when it went into that drought with so little resilience.
So we want to achieve the reason we're in this game in the first place. The reason we're on the field and trying to deliver something is to deliver a healthy working Basin so that when the next drought comes - and in Australia you don't know when, but you know it's always on the way - when the next drought comes we go into it with a level of resilience that we haven't had for generations.
COMPERE: Just finally, on matters to do with the Labor Party, should Joel Fitzgibbon give a more significant statement of support in the Prime Minister? He is the Government whip.
TONY BURKE: Well, he gave it in writing.
COMPERE: On Twitter though.
TONY BURKE: Yes. I don't think anyone thought that someone had hijacked his Twitter account.
COMPERE: He didn't deny the reports as such though.
TONY BURKE: Look, he said that he was in support. Now, I think there's a point at which you start to get right inside these different stories, back and forth. And all we end up doing is what we're doing right now, which is a couple of minutes that otherwise would have been dedicated to going deeper into a major reform that Australia's been waiting, basically, a century for.
We're talking about me having to once again, dismiss something which isn't going to happen, which I've said before is not going to happen; but the rumours fly around, so therefore...
TONY BURKE: You're obliged to ask the question. I respect that you're...
COMPERE: I agree. It's not a good situation, but...
TONY BURKE: ...obliged to ask the question, and that's fine. That's doing your job. But I don't think we can say should Joel Fitzgibbon have indulged in it and taken more time to answer than he did. He put out the statement of support. I think that's enough.
COMPERE: Tony Burke thanks for your time.
TONY BURKE: Good to talk to you.
COMPERE: On the program now we're going to head to our political panel...