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
Press Conference
9 October 2010

BURKE: Thank you very much, all of you, for coming out here today. There have been a number of reports that have started to emerge over the last 24 hours about the possible impacts on the Murray Darling Basin Final Plan and what it could mean for food prices, what it could mean for employment, and what it could mean for people moving from country areas to the city. I wanted to have the chance to talk to you just to get all of these concerns into context.

All that was released yesterday was a guide to a draft of a plan. That was put out by an independent Authority. There is more than a year of consultation to go before we get to the point where there is a plan for my sign off that then has to meet the approval of the Parliament. So there is quite a distance to go in all of this and during that time there is going to be a very high level of consultation that is conducted in the first instance by the independent Authority.

The work of the independent Authority will continue, they start over the next week with a period of consultation that takes them out catchment by catchment, town by town going through the different basin communities. In the course of that there will be a whole lot of issues that will be raised with directly with the Authority, issues concerning the impact on irrigators, issues concerning the impact on communities, and of course issues around how we can better manage the environment.

So the key message that I wanted to put forward today is for us all to take a bit of a breath on this and to acknowledge we're at the beginning of a period of consultation. There are a whole lot of issues that need to be taken into account, there are a whole lot of improvements that can be made in efficiencies and it won't be until toward the end of next year that we're in the situation of looking at a plan for the Murray Darling Basin.

REPORTER: You said there has been consultation over twelve months and there's more ahead but the irrigators are saying that the Authority has failed to consult with them so far and that they don't expect that that will improve, so what guarantees can you give them?

BURKE: The 12 months that I referred to is the 12 months going forward. There is 12 months of consultation ahead.

At the moment the document that has been released is in addition to what the Authority had to do under its legal obligations. The first thing, legally, that they had to do was provide a draft plan. They've come out in advance of that for an extra round of consultation with a guide to a draft of a plan. But that's so that they can, very early on, have that extra level of consultation and input before they get to a draft plan.

Following the draft plan there is another 16 weeks of formal consultation provided for under the act. Then following that we end up with a proposal that goes through a Ministerial Council involving the state ministers and finally a document for me to deal with that goes before the Parliament.

There's a very long process to go forward with and I think the fact that the guide has been released at all is an indication that the Authority intends to consult.

REPORTER: What would you say to irrigators who say that if anything like this guide goes ahead then food prices might double or even triple?

BURKE: The first message to the irrigators, because some irrigators have been saying that they might not want to sell their water. The first message to irrigators is to say, if you don't want to sell your water the Government doesn't want to buy it. The Government only purchases water from people who are already wanting to put their water on to the market. In the total water market we represent a very small fraction of the total amount of water which is bought and sold across the basin. So that is the first message to irrigators.

Secondly, I'd say that there are three things that I've been stressing the whole way through this debate from the moment I became Minister. That is that we need to have a healthy river system, we need to acknowledge the importance of food production, and we need strong regional communities.

If we get the balance across those three right I think some of the more dire predictions that have been floating around at the moment will be issues that we never actually need to confront.

REPORTER: The irrigators and the regional communities have accused the Government of walking away from regional Australia despite promising in the election campaign that they would be a priority, isn't that the case?

BURKE: The proposal that is being discussed at the moment has not come from the Government, it has come from the independent Authority. It's right that the Authority has its independence.

The Murray Darling Basin got into the state that it has reached because we had individual state governments and it was never looked after as a total system. What the independent Authority has the role of doing is looking at it as a total system, taking into the social impacts, taking into account the economic impacts, and of course taking into account what we need to do to be able to have a healthy river system.

The Government's view, the whole way through this, has been to make sure the Authority maintains its independence and performs its role.

REPORTER: So what guarantees though can you offer these communities at this stage about the process and what they'll be left with?

BURKE: I've been quite impressed with the way the Authority have described the consultations that they intend to undergo. This is not some general call for submissions and we'll visit a couple of places. This is the authority going from community to community, catchment to catchment, town to town and to give people a chance to have their say and put directly to the authority concerns that they believe might not have been properly taken into account.

REPORTER: Could we do that again? So what guarantees can you offer these communities about the process and what they'll be left with at the end?

BURKE: The consultation at the moment is being run by the Authority and I have a good level of faith with the way the Authority has told me they'll be conducting the consultation. They're going from catchment to catchment, from community to community, town to town and in doing so they're giving people the chance to tell them directly what issues in the guide to the draft of the plan need to be taken into account which they believe haven't been adequately taken into account.

REPORTER: What about the claims of thousands of job losses, is that something worth considering now? I mean you say we've got 12 months to go but for those who might lose their livelihoods its probably quite concerning.

BURKE: Well the claims that you refer to in that question presume that the SDLs, the sustainable diversion limits, have been set because its from those figures that people then multiply out what they believe the impact will be on jobs. None of those numbers actually get set until the end of next year. There's a period of consultation at the moment and that consultation is real.

Also, don't underestimate what we might be able to do with efficiencies. Whenever you improve efficiencies you are addressing this problem beyond the purchase of water. The Government has already got large amounts of money set aside both for improvements in on-farm irrigation and for improvements in the efficiency of centralized irrigation systems. As well as that some of the states are starting to come forward with plans now saying how they believe, through different works and measures we might be able to more efficiently manage our environmental assets.

Everything you can do wit efficiency improves the health of the river system and takes away some of the pressure for water buyback.

REPORTER: So can we take it that what's been released so far is probably a bit of an ambit claim on behalf of the Authority?

BURKE: The Authority has provided what, by its very title, is the opening draft of a period of consultation. That's what it is, that's what they've put forward. There will be people with very strong views and many of those have appeared in the media saying that there are things that need to be taken into account that haven't been taken into account. That's why you have a consultation process, that's what the Authority is charged with over the coming weeks and months as we go through a very long period of consultation before we end up with a basin plan at the end of next year.

REPORTER: Do you expect the final plan to look similar or completely different to what has been flagged now?

BURKE: One thing that I won't do is undermine the independence of the Authority while they're going about their work. Ultimately, this does end up on my desk and ultimately there are decisions that I have to make in presenting a document to the Parliament and making sure that that document has the confidence of the Parliament. But I will not be interfering with the work of the Authority, I will not be undermining the independence of the authority. The last thing that the process needs is the Minister offering free advice to a body that is meant to be independent.

REPORTER: Isn't reducing the amount of water available for irrigation present a big problem given the predicted growth in population?

BURKE: Our irrigators have shown and, while they've received a good deal of criticism in recent years, if you look at the improvements in efficiency for our rice growers, who are probably the most efficient rice growers in the world in their use of water. What they've done is an example of what can be done with improved efficiency. Now, as I say, some great work is being done on-farm. We've been more limited with what has been done for centralized irrigation structures and there's some very exciting work that is being done at the moment with works and measures on environmental assets that may well be able to improve efficiencies there. The question that has been posed includes the presumption that we can't go any further with efficiencies than we have so far. I don't accept that.

REPORTER: Will this affect food prices?

BURKE: Once again the question presumes that we have a final decision on what will happen with the availability of water in the Murray Darling Basin. Everything that can be done wit improved efficiency takes the pressure off what needs to be done without in anyway undermining the environment gains which need to be made. Now those answers will be different depending on what people are growing, and those answers will be different depending on one catchment to the next. That's why we need the level of consultation that we have going forward to be able to work out what those differences are catchment by catchment.