Department of the Environment

Archived media releases and speeches

The Hon Tony Burke MP

Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities

Murray Darling Basin plan - water allocations

E&OE Transcript
Interview with Kieran Gilbert, PM Agenda, SKY
7 October 2010

KIERAN GILBERT: So the release of that long-awaited draft Murray-Darling plan tomorrow. I spoke to the Water Minister Tony Burke about that a little earlier in the day from Melbourne.

Tony Burke, thanks for your time. You say that there'll be consultation and it seems there'll need to be a lot of that. The national irrigators council says the cuts being mentioned at the moment would be devastating for communities inside the Murray-Darling Basin.

TONY BURKE: Well there's reports in today's papers, and certainly I'm not going to confirm or deny the contents of those. The Murray-Darling Basin Authority is an independent body. They've decided that they'll be releasing a guide to a draft plan tomorrow afternoon, and it's for them to put that out. When they do - no matter what it contains - there will be a period of major consultation that follows.

None of this is easy.

This is the result of a combination of factors - over-allocation for many years, not enough attention to our environmental assets, and added to that, the impacts that we've had on soil moisture - and rainfall - with a changing climate.

A whole lot of issues have come together. There's a difficult period of adjustment. The consultation does need to be very wide ranging to make sure that we can get this right.

KIERAN GILBERT: You say that it's a guide to the draft plan, but presumably it's going to be the ballpark of where the Darling-Basin plan will end up. And as I say - irrigators are warning this will cost thousands of jobs, put upward pressure on food prices, and threaten the viability of farms that have been in families for generations.

This sort of language early on is going to make your task very difficult.

TONY BURKE: I think that sort of language just makes clear that the irrigators will be in the front of the queue when it comes to the consultation on these issues. I mean I don't think there's any doubt my background for the previous three years as Agriculture Minister - I do understand the importance of food production. I do understand the impact that irrigators have - not only on their own businesses, but on the viability and strength of regional communities. All of these issues need to be taken into account. And the authority will do that.

The authority is an independent body - and it needs to be that way.

So I won't be providing ministerial direction from the sideline or anything like that. But the authority has a difficult job to do - and to pick up what was a failing when we tried to manage a single river system through a whole collection of different state governments with different agendas.

KIERAN GILBERT: The Government says it will buy back the water that's needed, and pay the farmers compensation. Does this report give you any sense of how much all of that's going to cost?

TONY BURKE: Well I don't think whatever comes out on Friday afternoon, no-one should view that as the final word. The issues of cost for wherever the numbers end up, that's not to the end of next year that we end up with actual numbers in a formal plan.

Wherever those numbers end up, you've got the variabilities of what happens with the price of water over time.

There's a number of issues there, it's not a purchase program alone. There's also programs that deal with improving efficiencies, and also ways of dealing with works and measures to try to see how we can better manage our environmental assets. A lot of the debate so far in the public discussion has been the only thing you can do for the environment is you just shove more water downstream.

Now getting more environmental flows is part of what needs to be done, no doubt about that. But it's also the case that there are efficiency gains in how we manage our environmental assets as well - and if you can do that, that helps soften the impact of water buy backs elsewhere.

So there's a number of things that could be done. But the principle of any buyback program that I think we must make sure we don't depart from is that the purchases are only made from willing sellers.

If you've got an irrigator there who does not want to sell any water - then no water will be taken from them. But if somebody wants to put their water on the market - and that matches the need for reform within the basin - then it's good policy for government to be part of that.

KIERAN GILBERT: Are you confident and does, do you get the sense from this analysis that's already been done, that there will be enough willing irrigators to provide the sorts of cuts that the Murray-Darling Basin Authority is envisaging?

TONY BURKE: Each time - and it was before I became Minister for Water - but each time Kieran that there has been a round where water purchases have been undertaken by the Commonwealth Government, we have purchased a fraction, a tiny fraction of the water that's available on the market.

So we do have a level of confidence that over time, and this has to be a staged process, but over time when the final levels are arrived at this is something where there will be enough willing sellers on the market for the government to be able to meet the needs of the basin to be able to make sure, for the long-term, we have a healthy river. And that's not just an environmental issue.

Irrigators need a healthy river too.

KIERAN GILBERT: Okay.

Well you say - you said that the final plan's going to be finalised by the end of 2011. As I understand it the implementation will begin from mid-2012. Now you haven't given us any numbers - and that's understandable today. But surely with the surplus being forecast for 2012-13, there's going to be some big dollars flying up the door to - in compensation for irrigators, isn't there, almost immediately after that surplus.

So it's going to be a fair bit of pressure almost immediately with these buy backs.

TONY BURKE: Well I disagree with you on that Kieran. The election commitment that we made was that water purchases would continue and they'd continue from willing sellers. We also committed that that wouldn't require extra money within the current forward estimates. We also committed that the pace of those purchases into the future years would be consistent with the rate of purchase which it happens, which had already happened.

So we're not seeing those sorts of alarmist dollars off into the horizon. Exactly what's involved is something that needs to go through this consultative process. But I do think it a misrepresentation of where we're actually at to be ringing alarm bells on something like that.

And again I'd remind everybody that we're not only talking about buy back is the only method.

We also have the different works and measures for environmental flows. We have the efficiency improvements both for on farm irrigation and also the money that we put up for efficiency improvements.

KIERAN GILBERT: Okay.

You've been at the mouth of the Murray today and you've seen the evidence of the recent flooding rains that we've seen in the basin along the river, obviously - much needed drink for many parts of that river system.

Can irrigators expect the allocation cuts to be less severe if those sorts of rainfalls continue? Is that just an obvious conclusion and assessment to make?

TONY BURKE: Oh, I think it would be great if we could all presume that the rains we've just had are a permanent change within the Murray-Darling Basin. But I don't think anyone believes that's the case.

It would be easy to say oh, let's just reach for the break on reform because we've had a bit of rain. Australia is a nation where each drought is followed by another drought further down the track. Structural reform is required in the Murray-Darling Basin. And the fact that we've had some good rains, which as Water Minister, you know, I'd love to be able to take credit for - I don't think the media's going to let me get away with that. But the process forward of reform has to continue notwithstanding the fact that right at the moment down in the Lower Lakes and in and around the Coorong it's looking fantastic.

KIERAN GILBERT: Well you've got an enormous job ahead of you. We appreciate your time today on the eve of the release of that guide tomorrow. Thanks Tony Burke. Appreciate it.

TONY BURKE: Good to talk to you Kieran.

ENDS