Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities
Murray Darling Basin plan - water sustainability - food labelling - foreign investment in agriculture
Interview with Leon Byner on 5AA
14 September 2010
LEON BYNER: Yesterday Ray Najar, Manager of the Murray Darling Basin Association, declared that the restrictions on farmers' water quotas should be scrapped because of the very generous flows back into the Murray.
And he also said that there's a case to lift suburban restrictions now for gardeners. At this stage there's been no response from the State Government or its public servants.
We of course have the desalination plant but because the Federal Government offered $250 million to expand it, we have a larger capacity. Let's remember that extra money was pledged as long as less water was taken from the Murray - an aim not fulfilled according to SA Water, who say they may actually extract more.
So where do we stand with barrages and blockages along the Murray? Where do we stand with water restrictions, given the new circumstances that nature has delivered? And what of the 250 million dollars the feds have put up to expand the controversial desalination plant?
Well the bloke that can answer some of this, and probably tell us more, is a Minister that's been on the show before, and we've had a very good working relationship with him.
It's Water Minister, Tony Burke. Good morning Tony and thanks for joining us.
TONY BURKE: Good to be here, Leon. It's my final interview before I'm Water Minister, so we've got a few hours to go.
LEON BYNER: Okay. So tell me, when are you going to come to South Australia and for what reason?
TONY BURKE: It will be in the next week. I'm still trying to bring the date as early as possible. My first visit anywhere as Water Minister will be to South Australia. What I'm wanting to be able to have a look at in particular are some of the urban water issues.
A lot of the irrigation issues I've been dealing with over the last three years - because of my role in agriculture. But the issues that relate to urban water and urban water infrastructure is something where I want to be able to get completely up to speed on.
And I think the starting point of challenges on water anywhere in Australia always has to be Adelaide.
LEON BYNER: Now Tony, it will be good to see you and I hope you'll be able to come in if you can make some time to do this. But Ray Najar - you know Ray from the Murray Darling Basin Association - has said that look we're very lucky because nature's delivered us - I suppose the floods weren't lucky but the water was. He said yesterday a couple of things that were quite extraordinary.
One, that it looks as if the lower lakes will actually get back to normal, which is fantastic news - and there's now going to be a lot of water available. So I know the State Government make this decision, but as Water Minister do you think it's a reasonable request for Ray to suggest that given we've got the water flows that we're now seeing, there is no earthly reason why we should be telling the growers you can't have what you are fully entitled to?
TONY BURKE: On some of these issues, the ones that go the decisions of the Murray Darling Basin Authority itself - on those issues it's an independent authority. I want to find out in my first briefings over the next couple of days exactly what the limits are there on what a minister can properly say without starting to direct an independent authority.
So on that there's a level of caution but once I've been briefed I'll probably be able to say more. I'm also, as a general principle, wary of whenever times are good starting to say okay, well that means we don't have to do the planning that we thought we might have to do when times were bad.
So obviously I'm always hopeful that we're able to give everybody what they want in terms of environmental flows, urban needs and the needs of irrigators.
But the moment times are good, that doesn't mean that we're not going to be facing tough times again in the future and I'm just very cautious at jumping to early conclusions the moment the rains hit.
LEON BYNER: I understand that, and what you've said is perfectly sensible. But remember that in Victoria for example, John Brumby has lifted most of the restrictions that applied for Victoria. That's the first thing that's happened.
So I guess what Ray Najar is echoing is a little bit of logic. I don't think anybody believes for one moment - or the public would want to imagine - that everything is going to be fine now and we don't have challenges ahead.
My next point is this. When we are going to expect to see the Murray Darling Basin Association's - the actual authority's report? There was a media suggestion yesterday - and maybe you can tell me what your view is and you might know better. But there was a media suggestion that it's now going to wait until after the Victorian election.
TONY BURKE: The call on that is theirs, not mine. I've seen those media reports. I'm lined up to get briefings on the water part of the portfolio either tomorrow afternoon or the following morning.
When I'm able to provide further clarity, even if I'm not on your program, we'll pass the information through to your producers so that you've got that and you're able to let people know.
But at the moment, I've seen those reports in the media. I was asked a lot during the campaign what I thought about their decision to not release the Basin plan then.
My view was they're an independent authority, the moment you get Ministers starting to direct when they should and shouldn't release things you actually undermine a role that's been made independent for a good reason.
LEON BYNER: Would you expect to see that before the Victorian election?
TONY BURKE: Look, I don't know the answer, Leon, I've just got to tell you before I've been briefed, it's all within a legislative framework and I'm just not sure of the answer on that one yet.
LEON BYNER: All right. Because I think the important thing is that growers who've done it tough, and as you know we've got 40 per cent of the food bowl, which is vested in the area of the Murray Darling Basin itself. So there's a lot of reason why our farmers are cowering just to find out what's going to happen.
Because they're hearing the news that there's plenty of water at the moment and that doesn't mean that we go back to the old ways, of course not. But what it does say is that there is now supply for them to get a much more generous quota.
Ultimately we've got this basin authority, we've got the state that decides what the quotas ought to be, and then we've got the Federal Minister who has another level of control. Is this the best system for us?
TONY BURKE: It's a system that's been in place for enough years now with bipartisan support and a whole lot of work has been leading to events and reports that will come out over the next year or so.
But to try to go for a different system I think would be a worse option than just dealing with what's probably an imperfect system, but something better than we've ever had in the past.
LEON BYNER: All right. When you were in the studio last time you said that you want to reinvigorate the manufacturing sector and you were talking about agriculture. Do you intend to come good on that - and I suspect the answer is yes - and how do you propose to do it?
TONY BURKE: I had a conversation yesterday with Joe Ludwig, who's the new Agriculture Minister, and was explaining to him the election promise that we'd made on the food plan.
We've always been reasonably good as a Government - in fact no matter which side of politics has been in office - with providing a priority for the car sector and looking at making sure that we continue to have manufacturing there.
On food manufacturing we just have never managed to get the same focus and I'm not sure if it's because so much of the processing is done in regional areas and it's often smaller plants. But it's actually our biggest manufacturing sector.
And when you look - as I know you and your listeners often look - at where we import food and where we export food, the big weak link for Australia and the link that's been getting weaker and weaker over the years has been food manufacturing.
So I am confident that the work that's being done under the food plan will actually provide the framework for us to start re-engaging that.
LEON BYNER: Now listen, I know you're not the Secretary to the Minister for Health anymore and Mark Butler isn't either, or he won't be in a few hours. How far are we along the track - because you know you have had a huge interest in primary industry and of course our food and our labelling has a lot to do with that.
How far down the track are we to getting a labelling regimen where, when you go to the shop, you clearly know what it is you're getting?
TONY BURKE: Well, as you know, the Grown in Australia label is now done, that was completed a few months ago. But the full principles of labelling were always going to come out through that Blewett Review.
Some people had run an argument, which I reject, and it's an argument that says well people only need to know on product labelling the health and safety requirements. And my view
LEON BYNER: What a load of
TONY BURKE: That's right, yes.
LEON BYNER: Tell that to every other trading country - they won't buy that rubbish.
TONY BURKE: That's exactly right. That's right. Because people want to know - not just the safety requirements for food - they want to know whether or not it's local. Because if you don't know whether it's local food when you buy it, you certainly work it out by the time you taste it.
So it's a reasonable thing for people to know and I do believe that the Blewett Review will get much closer to that.
LEON BYNER: Okay. How far are we away from getting something in place now that the election's over, we know who's going to be the Government, so I'm talking about just getting on with it.
TONY BURKE: I think from memory the last time I spoke to Mark Butler we were talking the first few months of next year, but don't hold me to that timeframe. I'm not sure on that.
LEON BYNER: All right. Well I look forward to seeing you when you come over. One final question, there was a debate during the election and before about the international purchase of arable farming land.
Are we going to do something to actually know who's buying what? Are we going to watch this? Are we seriously going to look at it?
TONY BURKE: That's happening but as I've said to you before, my biggest concern is when the international investment is coming from a company that's owned by a Government. I reckon they're the ones where we've got to be careful and that's why the threshold level of the value of the purchase before it gets monitored in that situation is zero dollars.
Any amount of money at all that's being invested into our farmland by a foreign company that's owned by a Government, it has to be looked at in the national interest test on every occasion and I think that's right.
LEON BYNER: Now the desalination plant, is that $250 million the Federal Government pledged South Australia - is that going to come to the state to pay for the enlargement of the plant no matter what?
Because as you know, we did have a discussion with your predecessor, Penny Wong, about the fact that SA Water had announced that it is highly unlikely that we're going to be drawing less water from the Murray, in fact it might be more. And she was hopeful that she could come to some agreement.
Now she's not there, what's your position?
TONY BURKE: The starting point on everything is we intend to implement the election promises we made. On the details of how you do that - that's part of the job of some endless briefings that I'll be in over the coming days. LEON BYNER: Alright. Tony Burke, thanks for joining us. That's the Federal Water Minister, soon to be sworn in with his new title, on 1395 Adelaide's 5AA.