Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities
Murray Darling Basin plan - water allocations - NZ apples - foreign investment in agriculture
Interview with Leon Byner on 5AA
21 September 2010
LEON BYNER: One of the federal ministers that's no stranger to this program and, given the re-election of the Gillard Government, albeit it by some independents who decided to give the anointment to Julia, we now have different ministers in different jobs. So there's a cross-over time now where some of the people we were dealing with before are still the same people we deal with now, but their responsibilities are different.
But Tony Burke is the new Water Minister. He's in Adelaide, and he did say on the phone to us a couple of weeks ago that one of his first duties as Minister would be to come and have a look at the Murray. Of course, you would be smiling, Tony, and good morning, that Mother Nature has done for us what no infrastructure project could ever have delivered.
TONY BURKE: Yes, I don't know that I'm going to be able to take credit for it, but I probably should give it a go. I think one of the things we've got to remember at times when there's lots of rain is, that's not an excuse for holding back on the reform that's needed.
After the river system's been over-allocated for so long, you can't take your foot off the accelerator when there's been a bit of rain.
LEON BYNER: All right. Got a question for you.
TONY BURKE: Yes.
LEON BYNER: I want you to buy into this. I want you to buy into this as the Minister for Water. Now Ray Najar from the Murray-Darling Basin Association, he was looking at all the flows into the Murray, and he was cock-a-hoop, as we all are, that so much water is coming into the river, and not only will the environment, but a lot of people who live along it, that are part of our 40 per cent food production, are going to be smiling.
But our farmers here are still not getting any more than 68 per cent of their entitlement. Ray said he believes there's no reason why two things can't happen: we lift water restrictions straight away, and two, that we give the allocations to farmers on this side of the border hundred per cent. What do you think?
TONY BURKE: On the issue of the allocations themselves, they get managed by the state authorities and that's how it should be. My job, as Water Minister, is to oversee the reform across the whole of the Basin.
The first stage of that reform will be when the draft plan comes out from the Murray-Darling Basin Authority. Now that will look at what sort of cuts there need to be to start to repair the damage that's happened through over-allocation. The draft report will be out on 8 October.
Now, when that comes out and people see the proposed cuts in different catchments, some people won't be happy with what's being proposed. We need to remember it's a draft report. There's a further period of consultation that follows, and I want people to be engaging with that directly.
LEON BYNER: How will they do that?
TONY BURKE: It'll be through the Murray-Darling Basin Authority. There will be...
LEON BYNER: [Interrupts] See, what I think would...
TONY BURKE: ...there will be no shortage of consultation.
LEON BYNER: I'll tell you what I think might be unfortunate to the farmers on this side of the river, who have done it tough, and they've also been very first and quick to do the reforms in other states are now being given federal money to do. So they're kind of saying well, what do we get, because we've already done it, bad luck.
But if they see farmers in other parts of Australia, past the border, getting better entitlements of water, and yet you've got people like Ray Najar, who is highly respected, very non-political, saying look, given all the flows, there's absolutely no reason why we have to restrict them. I understand that there's got to be better management. You can see why our growers might be pretty upset, can't you?
TONY BURKE: Can I say, Leon, some of the most efficient water systems that I've seen in my time, in three years as Agriculture Minister, were in the Riverland. There is no doubt that there has been a saving of water, that your producers in South Australia have engaged in, that many other parts of the Basin are only catching up with. No doubt about that.
LEON BYNER: Okay, but can't you see though that if the allocations other farmers in other parts of Australia can get from the same river system, they're going to not be very happy.
TONY BURKE: Oh, and I hear that. The reason I'm being a bit cautious is that I do respect that we've got an independent authority in the Murray-Darling Basin Authority.
LEON BYNER: But they haven't said anything yet.
TONY BURKE: On 8 October they'll put out their draft plan.
LEON BYNER: But you don't ...
TONY BURKE: What?
LEON BYNER: You don't have an opinion as a Water Minister?
TONY BURKE: What I don't want to do is I don't want to undermine their independence. But make no mistake, the...
LEON BYNER: Hang on a minute.
TONY BURKE: The reason that I'm in South Australia - and this is my first trip since being sworn in. I'll be out at Lake Alexandrina today and my style, as you know, is highly consultative.
LEON BYNER: Okay. Can I put this to you?
TONY BURKE: Yes.
LEON BYNER: You, as a Minister, have the responsibility for water, and there are mechanisms in place, through the authority and states to deal with some of the issues. But having an opinion, which you expressed to the electorate, for which you have the responsibility, surely is not undermining anything.
I'm not asking you to pre-empt anybody. I'm just asking for your opinion. You don't want to give it.
TONY BURKE: Oh no. Well, I've also been in the job for about four days. And if you've got a consultative approach you're opening view on all of these issues is that the experts are the people who live it.
LEON BYNER: All right. Now, previously you were the Primary Industries Minister - and I know that's not your responsibility now but you've been across the issues that we've been hard on. I'm going to come back in a second.
By the way, if you'd like to talk to the Water Minister, 8223 0000, Tony Burke. You'll find him a very non-confronting Minister, so you can ring that number.
But Tony I'll ask you about what New Zealand is trying to do in the World Trade Organisation, and have us give different standards to anything they export into Australia, irrespective what it is, which I think is outrageous, and they're making noises they might even take us to the World Trade Court because they don't like our quarantines.
So I'm going to ask you about that. I'm also going to ask you about where we are with food labelling right now. Again, I know that that's not your portfolio, but you have been, previously as minister, you're pretty much up to speed with that stuff. So to get a broad picture would be helpful. So we'll come back and do that. It's half past nine.
LEON BYNER: I'm talking with the Federal Water Minister in the studio, Tony Burke. Tony, New Zealand have gone a little troppo and said that they expect anything that they export to us not to be under the same regulations in terms of quarantine that every other country must adhere to.
They've also suggested that they'll take it to the World Trade Organisation court. What do you say?
TONY BURKE: I've seen some reports. I haven't been fully briefed on the New Zealand situation. But, Australia's role, when we get objections like this from any country, and New Zealand's actually not a bad example, is if we don't think it's fair then we'll fight it all the way in the WTO.
Now, New Zealand have been railing against our rules and restrictions that we've put on the import of New Zealand apples because we're concerned about fireblight and New Zealand thinks the restrictions are unfair. They ended up winning the first round in the World Trade Organisation and we've then gone on to appeal that decision.
LEON BYNER: What are we going to do, though, about the antibiotic spray which is containing an antibiotic called Gentamicin, which if you have that in small doses in your body over time, you can become antibiotic resistant. That's surely got to be a powerful argument to null this trade nonsense.
TONY BURKE: Yeah. I hear the argument, absolutely. I don't want to hide behind the fact that Joe Ludwig's got responsibility for it now. It's just sort of the fact that...
LEON BYNER: Can you promise...
TONY BURKE: ...I haven't been fully briefed on it.
LEON BYNER: Okay, I understand. I'm only asking you because up until a few days ago, you were the Primary Industries Minister. You were in this thing - in the thick.
TONY BURKE: Yes.
LEON BYNER: Can you promise a vigour from your government, to absolutely run this to the rail to protect South Australia and other Australians.
TONY BURKE: When it comes to protecting food standards, when it comes to protecting the consumer on health, there's no softening on that in the name of trade. No softening on that and I think consumers would expect nothing less.
LEON BYNER: All right, let's talk to Dominic. Good morning, Dominic. You're talking to Tony Burke.
CALLER DOMINIC: Good morning, Leon. Good morning, Minister. Welcome to Adelaide. Listen, for - I think it's been about a year now - Leon asked the previous Water Minister for a water registrar on the licences given out. Can you promise that you actually can - on the facts at the 5AA so we know who's on that registrar?
LEON BYNER: We don't - you know what the problem is, Dominic. You know this, don't you, Tony? We don't have a water register.
CALLER DOMINIC: We don't have one?
LEON BYNER: No, well the - remember, I asked the former Minister about this. We haven't got around to it yet, Tony. Now what do you think of that, Tony?
TONY BURKE: I'll - once again, this is one where I've had the first set of briefings on...
LEON BYNER: Has anybody...
TONY BURKE: ...water in Canberra. The issue of a register hasn't been raised with me yet. And...
LEON BYNER: Can I ask you this?
TONY BURKE: ...the issue that's been raised there, I'm very happy to follow up on.
LEON BYNER: Do you think it's fair that we ought to know who's buying the water and who owns the licences and the titles? Do you think - what do you think?
TONY BURKE: As I say, I'm not going to - my style has always been, if I don't know the answer to a question, I don't know. I'll find out and I'll always get back.
LEON BYNER: But I'm not asking you for an answer. I'm asking you for an opinion. Do you think it is fair that Australian people ought to be able to - like you or anybody else or your constituents - and you do the bidding for the constituents, don't you? That's the way the system's supposed to work, correct me if I'm wrong.
Don't you think that people have a right to know who's buying up water rights, licences, water? Don't you think we should know?
TONY BURKE: There'd be - you'd need to have a good reason in order to withhold that sort of information. And any questions that I...
LEON BYNER: It's not that it's with - it's not so much that it's being withheld. We're just not doing it.
TONY BURKE: Yeah. And as I say, I don't know what the history is as to why we haven't.
LEON BYNER: Okay, let me ask you...
TONY BURKE: I'm not defending the status quo, Leon. It's just...
LEON BYNER: Okay.
TONY BURKE: ...the issue has been raised with me for the first time and I don't know.
LEON BYNER: Let me ask you another question. As you know, I've been very passionate about other businesses or countries buying into arable land.
TONY BURKE: Yes.
LEON BYNER: We've had a situation in New Zealand where China wanted to buy 17,000 cattle and I think the New Zealand Government set up a company called Landcorp. We've got something similar here, but it's a different function to prevent that from happening.
Now, do you think that it is fair for consortiums of investors to come in and buy up water licences and water in order to sit on it and speculate, which has the effect of freezing out farmers who grow food? Do you think that's good?
TONY BURKE: There's two sorts of foreign investment and I always think we need to look at them separately. If foreign investment is a genuine added value of investing in Australian agriculture, then that's no different to what Australians do in other countries, as well and ...
LEON BYNER: We can't buy water rights in China. I can give you a list of countries you would never be able to buy water rights in other countries.
TONY BURKE: But if what we're talking about is an investment that involves a market distortion or an investment which is an investment, not by someone wanted to operate a business, but someone actually acting and being - acting on behalf of and being owned by a foreign government, then that needs to be looked at very strictly through a national interest test.
LEON BYNER: Okay. Tony, what are you going to do about the money? There's about $240 million which the Federal Government are going to put into the extra expansion of our desalination plant but the deal was that in doing that, we had to show savings from the River Murray.
SA Water have gone public not long back and said well, that's unlikely. In fact, it could even be the other way. Where do you stand on this and what does that mean for that money? Will it be paid anyway?
TONY BURKE: I had the first conversation with this - on this issue with Paul Caica last night - Paul will be with me again today out at Lake Alexandrina. The commitment of the funds from the Commonwealth is there; that remains. But the details and the conditions around it are still being negotiated between the two governments.
LEON BYNER: Are we still asking as part of the deal to give that money for a saving of River Murray water?
TONY BURKE: There's no change in terms of the Commonwealth's commitment there between where Penny Wong - the guarantees that Penny Wong had put down and where I'm at. The money is there, it is available, it's parked and...
LEON BYNER: What leverage have you got to get the government to make sure that SA Water do what you want?
TONY BURKE: Well, the details on all of that are still being worked out. Hopefully, we end up with an agreement that works well in terms of that - our obligation on Commonwealth funds but also works very well for people in South Australia.
LEON BYNER: All right. Tony, thanks for visiting. So where do you go to from here?
TONY BURKE: Straight out now in the car driving out to Lake Alexandrina out at Milang. And just like I've spent the last three years sitting down and consulting with fishers and foresters and farmers, I'll be meeting with some of the people in the community out there to get a better perspective as to how the lakes have been looking.
Not just how they'll look today and how they'll look in the next couple of months but what people have been seeing over recent years.
LEON BYNER: Tony, thanks for joining us. That's the Federal Water Minister, Tony Burke, on 139.5, Adelaide's 5AA.