Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities
Interview ABC Insiders - Murray-Darling Basin Plan, Tasmanian forests agreement
25 November 2012
BARRY CASSIDY: Now to our studio guest, the Environment Minister Tony Burke. And while he joins us, let's have a look at some of the mixed reaction to the Murray Darling Basin Plan.
BARRY CASSIDY: Minister, good morning. Welcome.
TONY BURKE: Good morning Barry.
BARRY CASSIDY: You've described the plan as arriving a century late but hopefully just in time - hopefully. Does that suggest something can still go wrong?
TONY BURKE: No, what it suggests is what we saw over the last 20 years, ever since that blue green algae outbreak in 1991, was some areas of the Basin will have undergone permanent change. There are some species that disappeared from the Coorong during the last drought that, even though we've had good rain, still haven't been seen to return.
So when you've run a river system as hard as the Murray Darling Basin's been run, it's not a situation where you can just wait for it to rain, it all looks the same and the ecology is straight back there. You do get permanent changes.
When I say hopefully just in time it's that this time we've had good rain now. If we get moving it means we'll start to be prepared for the next drought in a much more effective way than we have been for decades.
BARRY CASSIDY: So can you give guarantees? Will the situation - you're saying it won't get any worse or it will actually - it can actually get better?
TONY BURKE: It can get better and significantly better. What happens with the reform - people say well, you don't get all the water until 2024 - and that's true. But on the number in the plan we're halfway there now on what's contracted. There's a thousand gigalitres of water that we hold right now for environmental purposes and 1500 when you take what we've contracted as well.
Every year there's more water specifically reserved for the environment as we track through this time. So it means wetlands that previously were living as though they were in drought, years before the drought actually arrived will now get a level of resilience back into them.
BARRY CASSIDY: So what are the responsibilities of the states now? What must they do?
TONY BURKE: The states have an opportunity to put forward projects, which - they say they will so I presume they will - which will occur in place of buyback…
BARRY CASSIDY: These are infrastructure projects?
TONY BURKE: That's right. That's right. A good example is the Menindee Lakes Project where by reengineering the way Menindee Lakes work out there near Broken Hill that you get more water that is automatically back there in the river. So it doesn't need to be held by the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder but environmentally the water's back in the river.
Those sorts of projects are ways that we deliver the environmental outcome in methods other than held water. So the states have that. The other thing is over the next few years they have to develop their water plans and submit those. We work on the basis that even if states - no one's going to look at the plan and say that's exactly the way they would have written it. I do believe they've all got a plan that they can effectively work with.
BARRY CASSIDY: So they put forward these infrastructure projects and you pay for them?
TONY BURKE: That's right. To the extent that the infrastructure projects bridge the gap, the money that would have been spent on buyback is available to fund those projects. If the projects cost more than that then the states have to fork out the extra. But from the way projects have been worked up so far, we're working on the basis that the buyback money will actually substantially pay for the projects they put forward.
BARRY CASSIDY: But it doesn't sound as if that's the way NSW sees it for example. They're still talking about the risk of communities being devastated by buybacks and they want limits on the buybacks.
TONY BURKE: The limits they talk about - if New South Wales puts forward the projects that they claim they're going to put forward, then those limits on buyback automatically occur. The only risk to the buyback numbers that they're talking about - the only risk of it being above that - is if they choose to not put forward the projects. So unless they've got some plan they haven't told us about, about avoiding these projects being put forward, I'm not sure what the argument's actually about.
BARRY CASSIDY: But when he says - Barry O'Farrell as he did just then - that he wants a cap of three per cent and if you don't agree New South Wales will go it alone and legislate that way. Can they do that and what would be the significance of that?
TONY BURKE: Well, there's some principles under water trading agreed since the National Water Initiative - some of them come into play in a more formalised way on 1 July 2014 where New South Wales would have to look long and hard as to whether or not they're breaching those. I just can't understand why they'd even want to run that argument, given that if they put forward the projects they've said they're putting forward, the problem doesn't arise.
BARRY CASSIDY: Nevertheless, when you have three states - Victoria, South Australia and New South Wales - none of them are confident about it working or they seem to have reservations about it. It doesn't augur well, does it, for the intergovernmental agreement?
TONY BURKE: If we worked on the basis that the only way to get an agreement was for every state to be completely happy then we'd wait another century before we managed the Murray-Darling as a national system. This is one where it's always been easy for people to say it's not exactly what I want, I'll blow it all up, I'll walk away and every year it's just got worse.
What changed and what changed ever since the Keating Government was in place and you had that blue green algae outbreak, was it stopped just being a negotiation between states and the rivers started to negotiate back. The rivers negotiated harder than any of the states because they effectively said if you run the system into the ground then none of you can use the water. That's what those outbreaks meant.
BARRY CASSIDY: What about the Tasmanian Forestry Agreement? Now, just a few weeks ago it seemed that a resolution - well, it would take an eternity to achieve. What happened in the meantime?
TONY BURKE: Well, we don't have all the elements of an agreement yet. There's some votes still happening within organisations this weekend in Tasmania and then there's decisions to still go through the Tasmanian Parliament. But effectively what's happened there, the timber industry around the nation is going through a structural change - a very significant one that's quite different to the boom and bust cycle that the industry's always been through.
Tasmania has been particularly reliant on the timber industry and so the adjustment for them has been massive. When Gunns exited native forestry there is an opportunity for industry to be able to get help in adjusting to the new market conditions and for there to be conservation outcomes that previously had never been thought possible. So all the groups had self-interest to getting to an agreement. A couple of weeks ago it looked like they weren't going to get there.
We're now on the cusp of everybody giving a little bit more ground than they thought they would ever and getting conservation outcomes that have always seemed impossible, but at the same time, getting industry on a really solid footing with things like what they call FSC certification which is becoming increasingly demanded in world markets but without an agreement realistically was always going to be - they were going to fall short on.
BARRY CASSIDY: It just still seem fanciful that we'll no longer see these protests in the forest in Tasmania as we've seen now for decades - that the loggers can go in and do their work undisturbed. It's not a picture that readily spreads - springs to mind. Do you really think that you can get to that stage?
TONY BURKE: One of the things they talk about a durability provision. One of the things the conservation groups were holding out for a long time on whether they'd agree to but was part of what's emerged this week, which is that some of the big conservation outcomes are held back. Unless they keep to their word, those additional - it's about 100,000 hectares - those additional areas actually don't become part of the conservation estate unless the groups are good to their word.So I don't think you'll ever get a bigger incentive for conservation groups than to know if you wreck the industry then some of the areas don't get saved. Those sorts of compromises that people have made have shown a level of goodwill that is not exactly what we've come to expect in Tasmania. But if they're willing to step up to the mark, then as we work through this I think governments have a real incentive to try to make it work.
BARRY CASSIDY: On the question of compromises - and I want to ask you about the asylum seekers policy because there's now this prospect of asylum seekers going into communities but they're forbidden to work. Tony Abbott has come up with idea of working for welfare. Now, Doug Cameron talks about the risk of an underclass being developed. What's wrong with that idea of letting them engage with the community and work for their money?
TONY BURKE: The challenge has been, as I understand, that in some parts of the world the people smugglers have been very directly selling the fact that even if you don't get accepted you'll get to work for a few years in Australia. That of itself has been a reason that people smugglers have been able to increase the number of people putting their lives at risk on the high seas. Yet that story that's been spoken about earlier in the program, that's exactly why we're here in this policy area.People are drowning at sea. We need to make sure that we can do everything within our power to stop that. If one of the marketing tools that's being used is the fact that you can get a job in Australia, then yes it is tough. It's very harsh. But I don't want to see a situation where we do anything that adds to the risk of people losing their lives.
BARRY CASSIDY: All right. The final week of the parliament is coming up and the Opposition has already flagged what it plans to make the big issue and that is the AWU scandal. The Bruce Wilson contribution, what do you make of that?
TONY BURKE: Well, you'd appreciate over the last fortnight I've been preoccupied with some policy areas and haven't followed every minutiae of this. But from what I've looked at in today's papers, it's story over. It really is. From what I've seen in today's papers the big allegation of connection that the Opposition haven't been quite willing to make because they've never actually put forward a specific allegation, it appears the door has slammed pretty firmly shut on that. If you look at over this last year…
BARRY CASSIDY: But there are other people contributing to this debate, not just Bruce Wilson.
TONY BURKE: Yes - but over the last year they have thrown everything at the Prime Minister. The smears, the slander, the negativity - she's still there. We're doing the job. We're getting through the policy work. Tony Abbott's been saying he's going to start having, you know, less negativity, a bit more policy. Well, this week he can either keep beating up a story which appears that the door's just shut on it firmly today or have a go at some policy.
BARRY CASSIDY: Well, there's somebody who doesn't think the door's shut on it. Peter Hartcher wrote in The Sydney Morning Herald that this is the greatest crisis this Government has faced. It represents a grave and immediate danger to Labor's hold on power.
TONY BURKE: He's wrong. I preferred some other parts of that article. But on that part of it, it's wrong.
BARRY CASSIDY: But what is the feeling in Caucus? Is it that the Prime Minister should be - step up to the plate a little more and just take head-on some of these questions?
TONY BURKE: Take on what allegation? The Prime Minister has stood up in media conferences where the journalist who's been the prime person writing these stories has been there at the media conference and the PM said do you have any allegations to make. The answer is no. So when all of that's the case, I don't think it's a bad thing for a government to be getting on with policy work - to be getting on whether it's the economy, whether it's disability, whether it's education, whether it's the work I've been doing. From time to time, it'd be good if the Opposition could have a go at actually engaging with it.
BARRY CASSIDY: Well, there's one question. Bill Shorten, a colleague - a minister - remarked that the - the account that Julia Gillard helped set up was unauthorised and inappropriate. Was it unauthorised and inappropriate and, if it was, why did she help set it up?
TONY BURKE: Well, there's an issue there for how things were working within the union at the time. I'm not going to pretend to be across the minutiae of that. But every attempt there's been to connect indirectly - law firms are involved when they're asked to set up an account in setting up an account - you know - the way people have tried to spin it as though there's something particular there about the Prime Minister, every time they follow it through it comes up with nothing. I just wish we'd get on with issues that actually affect the rest of Australia.
BARRY CASSIDY: It is that query though over unauthorised and I guess you say are there questions for the Prime Minister? One question is what steps should she take to familiarise herself with this, given that the union apparently didn't know about it?
TONY BURKE: Barry, in fairness, I don't say are there questions, I say are there allegations - because if there are no allegations - there are plenty of questions in every other area of policy that affect the nation. That's what we're there to do. That's what the Government is doing. If the Opposition wants to engage down this other path, it's for media and others to make up a decision as to what's more important. Now, this network gave good coverage of some major policy decisions I was involved with this week for example.You're really pushing it in a number of other places to see those issues that have been plaguing the country for a century to actually get a bit of coverage. We, as a government - we are in control of whether we're doing the work, whether we're making the policy decisions, whether we're delivering the big reforms. It's not our decision whether or not other issues which have no allegations attached to them end up going higher and higher in the news cycle. But I've got to say, I think Australians are a bit sick of the news not being about them.
BARRY CASSIDY: Thanks for your time this morning.