Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities
Murray-Darling Basin plan - water allocations
Interview with Leon Byner on 5AA
11 October 2010
LEON BYNER: Tony Burke is on the line. Tony, thank you for joining us this morning on 5AA.
TONY BURKE: G'day Leon.
LEON BYNER: Tony, you've called for calm but you must have predicted that when you laid eyes on this report any grower who grows food in this state, who has already been cowering under a dreadful drought - and thank god mother nature has changed that - would be saying, well how am I going to grow what I can sell locally and export overseas with less water?
TONY BURKE: Any grower who viewed this document as the final plan would be asking those questions. The important thing, though, is that its not. The issues I heard you talking about in the intro, and Nick Xenophon has raised these directly with me on a number of occasions, about wanting to give some acknowledgement of people who have been very quick on the uptake over the last decade about water efficiency. These are issues that need to be part of the consultation, they're not in the Guide to the Draft Plan.
LEON BYNER: Why?
TONY BURKE: The Guide to the Draft Plan is an opening of the consultation, that's what the Authority has done. I quite deliberately have not interfered with them to do that, I wanted them to do it under their own independent statutory role. Then to open up the consultation. One of the things that has happened to date is the consultation has been limited because people said, we've got no idea of where anyone is wanting to head things, we've got no limits or ranges. That's there and now the Authority will go from catchment to catchment, from town to town and look at how these issues work differently in different parts of the Murray Darling Basin.
LEON BYNER: Well Tony, I'll tell you my problem with that. Because in the report there is no real consideration of the differing work and toil put into being water efficient from one place to another, it's hard then for us to expect that independently, and without fear or favour the same Authority is going to see a difference in one state apropos another.
TONY BURKE: That's why, the consultation isn't some open call for submissions and see what sorts of bits of paper come in. The Authority itself will be making the visits and holding the community meetings. No doubt some of those meetings are going to be more than robust. No doubt about that. But that will be an opportunity for them to see directly and hear directly how different some of these issues are in different parts of the Basin.
LEON BYNER: Alright, I've got, in the studio Nick Xenophon and Simon Birmingham, your opposite. We'll start with Nick, Nick do you feel somehow confident about what you're hearing this morning from Tony Burke.
NICK XENOPHON:Tony Burke is quite right in saying that we need to be right about this and to be fair to Tony Burke, he made quite a good point. If he as Minister, or Penny Wong as Minister, had in any way tried to interfere with the Authority in the setting of this Guide all hell would have broken loose politically, it would have been an absolute political scandal.
My complaint is with the Authority, they are constrained by the Water Act, an Act that I actually opposed two years ago. They're constrained by the Water Act but I don't think the Authority quite gets it in terms of the relative water efficiencies and the food production capacity about various parts of the Basin. That's something that I raised with the chair of the Authority directly, that's something I'll be meeting with them about very soon because we need to get this right. So Tony burke is right, he's had to be hands off because if he wasn't he would have been eviscerated politically.
LEON BYNER: Simon Birmingham?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well Leon, I don't have quite so many problems with the Authority themselves because, as Nick says, they are working to the Act. They're working to an Act that says they have to set what they see to be sustainable flows through the Basin, that's reasonable. But commensurate to that the Government should be outlining exactly how they expect those flows to be delivered. How they're delivered is a Government policy response, that's quite different. That's where the Government should be focusing, on food, on the future of those communities, on making sure they're efficient, on those irrigation projects that can ensure we minimise the impacts in states like SA where there are high levels of efficiency and maximise our food production in the future while getting the water flows for the river.
LEON BYNER: Tony Burke, can I put this to you. During some of the discussion out in the open media once the report became public late last week. Some of those who are wedded to what the Authority said made the point, well if you're a grower and you don't have enough water to grow your crop, that's no problem, sell off and go off and get a houseboat and be part of the tourism industry. Tony, I've got to tell you, for something like that to be even thought of let alone said at a time where there is a world food task which means there is a shortage, I find incredulous, unbelievable, don't you?
TONY BURKE: Leon, they're not words that you will ever hear from me and I think your listeners know me well enough on that.
In response to what Simon Birmingham said and I don't know how your listeners will take it if we're all in agreement but I do agree with what he said about the importance of infrastructure improvements. There are three sorts of infrastructure improvements to improve efficiency, there's what we do on farm, there's what's done on centralised irrigation structures and there's also what can be done with works and measures to more efficiently look after the environmental assets.
LEON BYNER: Tony, the Australian Food and Grocery Council are going to come on at 9.30 and they're going to warn, I suspect, and they've already done so that were the kinds of suggestions taken up as practice in the Murray Darling Basin Authority's report then ultimately food prices would spiral. Now I don't think you, or any of our guests today or people listening would want this. So my question is, is the Authority compelled to take into account food production and what it will do to our ability to grow our own food and export it. Are they compelled to take that into consideration or are they only compelled to hear what people say and then deliberate, albeit differently.
TONY BURKE: They're compelled to take into account the environmental impacts, the social impacts, and the economic impacts. I don't know how you can talk about social and economic impacts without counting food. So I can't see any reason at all why that wouldn't be part of the consultation and be part of the discussion that now happens.
NICK XENOPHON: Tony, it's Nick here again. One of the big problems that I have and I know you and Simon Birmingham have said that there's infrastructure money set aside and that's all well and good. The Productivity Commission made it very clear, when they did a close analysis of this, that in terms of relative efficiencies it costs a lot more to bring water back to the environment with an infrastructure grant, its about $5200 per megalitre compared to buybacks. The problem in South Australia is that early adopters have been punished in a sense because they can't access that water infrastructure money because it is so difficult to access if you are already water efficient.
LEON BYNER: So Tony, can we say to those in South Australia whose life is arable land, through generations of toil, that they'll be treated fairly if they put in their own expense? Yes or no?
TONY BURKE: On the issue that Nick just referred to, at the moment the settings that are in place don't take into account early adopters, they don't at the moment. It's one of the issues that Nick has raised with me. But the current policy settings, the way Nick's described it is accurate.
LEON BYNER: Are you going to give the people of this state a guarantee that food security, because 40% of our food task is in the murray Darling. it's all well and good to say that we've taken too much from the river, we now have to put it back, you guys have to make some sacrifices. In theory, that's fair but the practice can't be that our food production suffers as a result?
TONY BURKE: My commitment on food security is one that I don't think anyone would doubt. The issues that we work through in all of this but there is one thing that I would temper that with, with all the concerns that have come up over the last few days since the release of the Guide we mustn't lost sight of the fact that the Murray Darling basin does need reform.
LEON BYNER: I don't think anyone is arguing that but what we don't want is a battle between the environment and food production because I would argue that if you go back through history people live near rivers, why? Not just for the environment but they want to drink water and grow things, and people want to do that.
NICK XENOPHON: Leon, Tony is right and the crux of this dilemma is contained on page 113 of the guide where it basically says, that in terms of the mouth of the Murray and the lower lakes, export of salt and nutrients from the whole Basin, in other words the toxins, without salt export, land and water quality will deteriorate across the whole Basin. if we don't look after the river it's not going to be much good to anyone up the river including New South Wales and Victoria. That's what our eastern state colleagues need to understand and that's what we've got to get right.
LEON BYNER: Simon Birmingham?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Leon, the environmental flows are critical and that's why we started this process. I'm pleased to hear Tony Burke put importance on infrastructure and the type of efficiency gains that can be had. But he's needs to realise that this requires a 180 degree turn around from the Labor Government on what they've done. The Howard Government put $10 billion on the table, $3.1 for water buybacks, and $5.8 billion for infrastructure efficiency. Over the three years of Labor since then we've seen more spent on buybacks than was budgeted every single year and a pittance of the budget money spent on infrastructure. Now buybacks have their place but infrastructure is how you return water to the environment, keep the food production there…
NICK XENOPHON: Well that's not quite right. The Productivity Commission made it clear that in terms of efficiency, it's much more efficient…
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: And look at the terms of reference for the Productivity Commission enquiry, it was purely about how to most effectively return water to the environment and not about how to keep food production or communities ticking over and they're the other two things that should be considered.
NICK XENOPHON: We'll agree to disagree.
LEON BYNER: Tony Burke, one question, you said to me not too long ago that you want to reinvigorate manufacturing in country towns. That's going to hang off the ability of growers to grow food. So what's your step to make this happen?
TONY BURKE: This is what I have been talking about with the importance of catchment by catchment, and I think there has been some criticism about the preliminary jobs figures contained in the Guide. I think the authority has acknowledged that those figures need a good deal more work. There's a point where you can lose critical mass for a food manufacturing or food processing operation, that will differ in different parts of the country. But that information is critical to being able to understand what the impact on food production will be?
LEON BYNER: Do you think that the average consumer will pay more for their food here because of increased environmental flows?
TONY BURKE: No, I don't Leon.
LEON BYNER: You don't?
TONY BURKE: No. There are two things. One, whatever you can do with efficiencies means you are keeping your food production levels up. Secondly, over the last three years we've bought back around 1 in 20 litres of water and no one has connected any shifts in food prices.
LEON BYNER: Can you guarantee that the growers in this State will be treated fairy?
TONY BURKE: We're dealing with a compromise across every state, I don't think there's any answer that's going to make everybody happy. But I'm confident that the Authority is going to come up with something that we can all move forward with for a healthier river while still acknowledging the importance of food production and regional communities.
NICK XENOPHON: To Leon and to Tony, when I spoke to the Authority at the briefing on Friday afternoon they acknowledged that there was more work to be done on this. They acknowledged that there was an inadequate differential and I think, while Simon and I disagree on some things, there's a stand up agreement on that. I think that there needs to be a forensic approach so that we actually have the facts before us before decisions are made.
LEON BYNER: Tony Burke, thank you for joining us today and we'll, hopefully, have you keeping us in the loop on this.