Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities
Murray Darling Basin plan - water allocations - sustainable population
Interview on Australian Agenda, SKY
10 October 2010
PETER VAN ONSELEN: Well, on that very note, let's introduce Tony Burke.
Minister for Sustainability, Water, Population and Communities, thanks very much for joining us here in the studio.
TONY BURKE: G'day, good to be here.
PETER VAN ONSELEN: Right off the top, how are you going to make everyone happy? The report suggests that, I think, over 7000 litres of water - billion litres of water - need to be taken out of the system and returned to the flow. Even at the rates that they're talking about, they're talking about only doing anywhere between 3000 billion and 4000 billion, yet already irrigators are talking about things like civil unrest in response to this. How are you going to navigate your way through this?
TONY BURKE: Well, let's look at what was released. It was a guide to a draft of a plan. People are referring to it as 'the basin plan'. It's not. It's a guide to a draft document. It won't be until...
PETER VAN ONSELEN: Is it going to change that much, though?
TONY BURKE: It won't be until the end of next year that we actually have a basin plan that has to be signed off by me and then needs to maintain the confidence of each house of Parliament, because either house of Parliament can vote it down once it's put in place.
PETER VAN ONSELEN: But that sounds like you're saying that we're a long way off finality to this, and I accept that. But the realities of the problem of water flow aren't going to change, as identified in the draft report, and the realities of concern on the irrigators' side aren't going to change. Yes, the Parliament is a difficult area to navigate it, but all of that only adds up to difficulty - but perhaps delayed difficulty - with a process yet to come. How are you going to work your way through it?
TONY BURKE: Well, the first principle is the figures that have come out that are in that guide. Those figures presume that you would only get there through water buybacks. Now, that's not the case. So, first of all, I don't accept that the figures that are put out there. They're not Government policy, they're part of a long period of consultation.
But even if they were, water buybacks are not the only way that you get there. There's $5.8 billion set aside in infrastructure funding. Everything that you can do to improve the efficiency of irrigation makes it easier to meet the environmental demands.
PAUL KELLY: Just on that point, Minister, is what you're saying that the overall water reduction figures, which the report mentions are between 27 and 37 per cent - are you saying that you don't think that we'll need to do that much?
TONY BURKE: No, the question is whether or not those figures are only met through reduction for irrigators, or whether some of those issues are actually met through improvements in efficiency. If you do it through improvements in efficiency, then you don't have any counter productivity.
PAUL KELLY: Okay. Do you think the figures are essentially correct? I mean, do you think the figures were about right?
TONY BURKE: Paul, the last thing I'm going to do is start giving instructions to an independent authority from the sidelines. This authority was given its independence by the Howard Government and given it for good reasons. The Murray-Darling Basin has been plagued by being managed as though it were different river systems that all followed state boundaries. That's part of how we got to the problems that we're in now.
PAUL KELLY: Okay. If we just take your first point about improvements in infrastructure rather than buybacks, the Productivity Commission's argued very strongly that relying on infrastructure improvements is not a very efficient way of operating. Do you accept that, or do you think that's wrong?
TONY BURKE: It will always have to be a mix. And water buybacks are part of the equation. There's three [indistinct]...
PAUL KELLY: They're the bulk of it, aren't they? I mean, you'd accept that water buybacks are the bulk of it?
TONY BURKE: There's three different ways that infrastructure improvements can be made. There's the on-farm improvements, which I've been seeing some first rate work on that for more than three years now. There's also the improvements in centralised irrigation infrastructure; we have proposals from the states that we're going through due diligence on that at the moment. There's also increasingly a view that through works and measures we can improve the efficiency of water use in the environmental assets themselves. Now, there's a lot of work coming through there at the moment.
All of these issues take some of the pressure off what would otherwise be reductions in water for food production.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: So, Minister you are saying that you would be prepared to pay more in the end through irrigation per gigalitre - sorry, through improvements in infrastructure - rather than water buybacks? You're prepared for that trade-off, as a Commonwealth Government, to pay more?
TONY BURKE: Well, the Commonwealth Government's always been involved with that trade-off. That's why of the money for Water for the Future, $5.8 billion is set aside for infrastructure.
The Government understands food production is important here. Now, we need to get the best possible value for the taxpayer, that's true. But we're also talking about the nation's food bowl, and there's a very difficult balance that needs to be struck here.
JENNIFER HEWITT: So, in that sense, you would ignore the arguments of the Productivity Commission about what is the most efficient way of getting the water back into the system?
TONY BURKE: Well, I don't know that doing a mix of competing concerns counts as ignoring, I don't accept the premise of that.
Certainly, water buybacks are an important principle and, within that, it's essential that we keep to the principle the Government's set down, which is that we only purchase water from willing sellers. There's been some commentary of people saying - of some irrigators saying, 'Oh, I don't want to give up my water'. If you don't want to sell your water, the Government doesn't want to buy it.
PETER VAN ONSELEN: But what do you do if you don't have enough willing sellers, and the rest of the mix can't achieve the difference?
TONY BURKE: Oh, Peter, if you have a look at the amount of water that is currently traded and the water buybacks we've been involved with so far, we are buying a fraction of what is actually available and traded on the market. Already it's something in the order of about one in 20 litres that have been purchased. By 2014 we believe we'll be at about at about one point - about one in seven.
PETER VAN ONSELEN: Okay.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: The report predicts 800 job losses. Are you confident with that number, or do you think that you should be commissioning more modelling - economic modelling - on the economic impacts on jobs?
TONY BURKE: There's been some arguments raised about those figures in the report, and I have no doubt that they need much further analysis. No doubt on that...
PATRICIA KARVELAS: Are you...
TONY BURKE: ... at all. The first part of that, though - some of the - anything on jobs will always be reliant on the presumptions that you put into the modelling. Some of these answers will differ catchment by catchment, and they'll differ depending on how individual irrigators respond to the final policies.
So it's too early to be able to give you completely accurate figures on those issues, it's going to be part of the consultation process and the catchment by catchment work is exactly what the authority's now engaging in.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: But the Authority even said - I mean, I was at their lock up on Friday - they even said, 'We need more numbers on this'. They were encouraging somebody to do it. Will you undertake to do that - to charge the Productivity Commission with that work or an independent body to do that work?
TONY BURKE: Some of that work I do believe will come out of the consultation over the coming weeks. So let's have a look at how that works out, but I've no doubt more analysis needs to be done on this.
PAUL KELLY: But what is your message to these farmers and these rural communities who are extremely agitated? I mean, you've just got to look at the comments. I mean, the degree of angst is enormous. What is your message to these people?
TONY BURKE: PAUL KELLY: Well, if we look at the Murray-Darling Basin, this provides about 45 per cent of Australia's food production. One of the consequences of all this is surely going to be that food costs will go up, that food prices to the consumer will go up. Do you accept that basic reality? If you do, what's your message to the Australian people?
TONY BURKE: I don't accept the principles that you've put forward there, simply because we do not yet have what the figures will be. I don't think there's any argument - no one has argued that the water purchases the Government's been involved in so far have had an impact in the way that you describe. Certainly there are a range of crops up and down the basin, including, for example, a whole lot of wine production where currently there's a glut on the market. There - and we can't underestimate what will be able to be done through further efficiencies. So I just think it's too early to be reaching those sorts of conclusion.
PETER VAN ONSELEN: Can we just take a step back and can I check something for a moment? At the election, your pledge - am I right in understanding the pledge of the Government was to go with whatever the final report was on this issue? So yes, this is a draft report that we have at the moment, but am I right in understanding that the election commitment was to accept and act on the final report as it is laid out?
TONY BURKE: I'm not going to paraphrase the specific words that were used by Julia Gillard and Penny Wong at the time. We certainly will not be doing anything that undermines the independence of the Murray-Darling Basin Authority. They have a process to go through now, their independence is paramount. I'm not going to be giving them a pinch from the sidelines.
At the end of all of this we'll have to go through a ministerial council process with the state ministers, either need to sign off on a document and that then needs to survive the Parliament.
PAUL KELLY: But...
PETER VAN ONSELEN: Could it be much different? Could it be much different to what they provide?
TONY BURKE: At the moment we don't know whether their final proposal that they put forward will be - how different that will be to what came out in the guide. Let's not forget the production of the guide that happened yesterday - sorry, two days ago now. When that came out, that is in addition to their statutory responsibilities. The law says they have to come out with a proposal. In advance of that they've come out with a guide to the draft, and that's to increase significantly the level of consultation that they're otherwise obliged to go down. But I think if we get ahead of ourselves, then all I do is undermine the independence of their role.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: Do you think you're too locked in, though?
PAUL KELLY: [Indistinct] not prepared to do that.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: Are you too locked in by what was said during the election campaign?
TONY BURKE: Well, I've got a lot of faith in the consultation that they'll be engaging in. I want people to be involved in that. I've got to say I've got no doubt over the last 48 hours that people will be engaging in that consultative process in a very strong way.
PETER VAN ONSELEN: But...
TONY BURKE: And that's right: this is a major issue. It's a major economic issue in regional Australia, it's a major issue for food production for our whole nation and it's a major environmental issue.
PAUL KELLY: Minister, at the end of the day, are you committed to working with the states on this on a cooperative basis, or have you got on the table the option of seeking full Commonwealth power, which was floated by Tony Abbott earlier this year?
TONY BURKE: We have the planning powers, and everything that's being discussed at the moment is about what might end up being in a Basin plan. So I'm confident that we can work cooperatively with the states; I intend to work cooperatively with the states.
PAUL KELLY: So there's no fall back position, in terms of seeking Commonwealth powers over water? You've got all the powers you need - that's what you're saying?
TONY BURKE: I'm intending to work cooperatively with the states.
PAUL KELLY: And you don't need extra powers?
TONY BURKE: I don't believe I do, and I'm intending to work cooperatively.
JENNIFER HEWITT: So with the plan itself, are you saying that the Government's response could radically alter whatever the final plan comes up with, are you saying that the Government's response to that could be significantly different?
TONY BURKE: Oh no, I don't believe that we'll end up in that sort of situation at all.
PETER VAN ONSELEN: The Prime Minister has changed her position because of the new paradigm on things like the consideration of a carbon tax. What about the effects of the new paradigm with rural independents being so important in the Lower House to your ability to act on the final Murray-Darling Basin report when it comes through?
TONY BURKE: Well, let's not forget irrigators need a healthy river too. And the health of the system throughout the basin is in the interests of irrigators. Now the question that you pose once again asks me to get in front of the independent role that the Murray-Darling Basin Authority's playing. I want them to play their role, I want it to be done independently, I have faith in the quality of consultation they will engage in and, as I said, I have a lot of faith in the vigour with which people will be engaging in that consultative process.
PAUL KELLY: The question we can ask you is how much faith do you have in the Parliament, in the nature of this Parliament, at the end of the day, to be able to legislate the sort of scheme that you'll come up with?
TONY BURKE: If the consultation's done right, if the different issues are taken into account properly, if we find every possible way of being able to drive efficiencies across the basin, then I do believe the Parliament will have the maturity to deal with this.
While it's always been a very hot issue and divisive issue within the community, let's not forget the Water Act itself has been there as Howard Government legislation that remained there during the last term, and there actually has been, once you get to the Parliamentary process, a much higher level of bipartisanship in this than you might think over the last 48 hours.
PAUL KELLY: So what you're actually saying is you think consensus is possible in this area?
TONY BURKE: I do believe that the Parliament's got the maturity to be able to deal with this.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: What's the politics in relation to this? I mean, if you look up and down the river, they're Coalition-held seats. It seems to me that the only place that you've got to win votes is perhaps in the environment - in the inner city seats, where people are desperate for water to be returned back to the river. How will you manage those - you know, doing what's right for the Government, but actually your political interests are not in necessarily delivering? There are no seats really to be won for Labor, are there?
TONY BURKE: I don't think it matters where you live in Australia, a lot of the food that you eat comes form the Murray-Darling Basin. And I think anybody who tried to look at these issues through a political prism would get whacked left, right and centre from every part of the nation.
JENNIFER HEWITT: Minister, on another issue, one area that you can't put off is the coal seam gas area and the decisions you've got to make within a couple of weeks on some major projects in Queensland. How do you measure up the competing pressures in that, in terms of environmental and economic?
TONY BURKE: One of the first things I did on becoming Environment Minister was to travel up and have a look at the site. So I went to Chinchilla and to Gladstone to have a look at the actual sites for the proposals there, as well as meeting with some of the community members who object to them and the companies themselves. There are major economic issues there, but there are major environmental issues where we're talking about the head waters of the Darling River.
These are decisions that I have to make based on the science, based on the information that's put before me, and I'll be following the rules of the statute on that. But yeah, as a balancing situation, these are very big issues with strong environmental arguments and strong economic issues.
JENNIFER HEWITT: So in the end you're going to have to come down one side or the other. I mean, now the companies, for example, have said that the water table, in worst case scenarios, might actually fall quite substantially. How do you balance that? I mean, you've got to disappoint the companies and - or disappoint the environmentalists in a very big way.
TONY BURKE: Well, there are three options, not two, when these issues come up before that Act. There is approval, there is rejection or there is conditional approval. And the way you put conditions on can be something that sometimes finds a way through.
JENNIFER HEWITT: Sounds like conditional approval, doesn't it?
TONY BURKE: Well, your prejudging processes are still going through, but you put forward two of the options; I'm just letting you know there's a third.
PETER VAN ONSELEN: Minister, population is another one of the areas of your responsibility. The head of the Australian Worker's Union, Paul Howes, in his column today in the Sunday Telegraph has said that he is a fan of a big Australia, that there has been a lack of political leadership on both sides on this issue of immigration and population. Do you agree with him about that?
TONY BURKE: I think there's a problem with how the debate is conducted, and there's aspects of...
PETER VAN ONSELEN: On both sides?
TONY BURKE: Well, yeah, there's aspects of Paul's article today that I agree with, aspects that I don't. I think whenever we talk about Australia's population purely in terms of national numbers, we miss the point. The distribution of population through Australia is what makes it work or not work. And for people who say, 'Oh, there's an economic driver by having more and more people', well, not if they're in the wrong parts of the nation from where the economy needs them.
And I think we need to be smarter than just saying, 'Well, if we get more people, that's more construction, more housing'. You want to be able to drive a productivity agenda, and you also want to be mindful of the fact that if large numbers of people settle in parts of Australia where it's not economically productive, that's not necessarily real smart for the nation.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: Well, ultimately though, I mean, Paul's argument is at the heart of the Labor Party. I mean, there are people still in the Labor Party who do believe in a big Australia. Do you think that that message during the election that you were now opposed to a big Australia is consistent, or do you think there are sort of fault lines, there are people within the party who were not comfortable with that position?
TONY BURKE: There's always a range of views within the party on perhaps every issue. But, yeah, certainly on that one.
I still hold that the most important issue here remains the spread of population; the most important issue remains ensuring that our infrastructure keeps pace with the developments that we have. But the idea of thinking that it's somehow good for the economy to continue to engage in endless urban sprawl - I don't think that's smart.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: But you can never...
PAUL KELLY: But if you look at the election, one of the consequences was with very big swings against the Labor Party in heavily migrant seats. And many Labor people think that the campaign against a big Australia was a factor here. Do you think there was any negative for the Government in this position?
TONY BURKE: I think the policy that we took was the right one for Australia, and...
PAUL KELLY: But do you think there was a downside in some of these seats?
TONY BURKE: Oh, people had different views. People had different views and, you know, there's no doubt that you'll find some people who didn't like our approach to that policy. You'll find other people where it was particularly important for them. The question that I think needs to be asked and that we need to be dealing with is what's the right policy for Australia, and I'm confident we took that forward.
JENNIFER HEWITT: But, Minister, there's always this argument about the spread of population and getting it away from, you know, areas of Western Sydney and urban sprawl, as you talked about. I mean, that's been a goal for years, but nobody - no government's actually ever been able to do it, and the fact is that's where most of the immigrants end up.
TONY BURKE: But there's a big difference at the moment to where this has ever been in the past. In the past, whenever people have talked about decentralisation, it's been Government intervention that's been the way of delivering it. This time it's actually being driven by the market. The mining boom with the movement of retirees and the opportunities that will come with the National Broadband Network means that we now have market drive that previously we hadn't.
PETER VAN ONSELEN: Minister, we'll let you go. We appreciate you joining us on this Sunday. Thanks for your company.
TONY BURKE: Thanks.