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 - consultations

E&OE Transcript
Interview with Alan Jones, 2GB
18 October 2010

ALAN JONES: Joan wrote to me late on Thursday night and this sums up hundreds and hundreds of emails I’ve received, quote ‘I attended the meeting in Griffith where Mike Taylor and other members of the Murray Darling Basin Authority addressed and large audience from the Murrumbidgee Valley, farmers and horticulturists many of whose forebears pioneered the area, as well as business people and professionals.

The professed reasons for the meeting was to hear local concerns and answer questions about the plan just unveiled that threatens to destroy towns and communities across the region by fundamentally changing the way water is used in the Murray Darling Basin and setting environment concerns above human, economic and food security concerns’.

Joan went on, ‘despite the potentially devesting impact on the economic and social fabric, this sort of input has only been sought after the plan was unveiled. The many expressions of mindful, respectful, attentive and other kinds of interest in what these citizens has to say carried no promise of influencing the plan. To me, an outsider, it appeared an entirely cynical pretence of citizen participation. There was not even a video or audio record of the proceedings to take back to Canberra. I’ve been coming to the MIA every year for almost forty years,’ writes Joan, ‘I’ve seen hard working farmers whose land management time frame is decades, even generations who have not only husbanded the land and provided a large percentage of the nations food, but on whose productivity towns and the services they provide depend, being jerked around by politicians whose horizon barely extends to the next election. These farmers are faced with an ever changing framework within which to work as politicians respond to pulls from this and that constituency but rarely to farmers, whose expertise may well be the key to long range planning’.

Joan goes on; ‘There are civilised ways to make plans, the long term impact of which is to be a thumbs up or a thumbs down on entire towns and communities, its called finding common ground.

There would not have been one of over the five thousand people present this morning who wants to destroy ecosystems, ruin rivers, or despoil the land they hold dear, in fact before the current interest from urbanites in the environment, these were the people who were minding wetlands and forests, guarding against salinisation and husbanding the land while also producing the grains, meat, wine, fruit and vegetables that city dwellers that all export, expect to fill their supermarket shelves’. She said, ‘I was depressed as a walked away, after hours of this charade of today’s meeting. Five thousand people, hopeful of having a say in a plan that could absolutely cripple their communities and four outsiders who, with apologies to Clark Gable, don’t give a damn’.

The Water Minister is Tony Burke; he’s on the line as is Peter Flannigan the Griffith Branch President of the NSW Farmers Association. Tony Burke to you the Minister good morning, firstly to you.

TONY BURKE: G’day Alan

ALAN JONES: How do you respond to that kind of email?

TONY BURKE: In terms of the good environmental work that farmers do, the motivation of the people at Griffith, I don’t disagree with any of that, but the parts of the letter which doubt whether or not the consultation’s real, I’ve got to say, it is. I don’t get effectively to prove that until the final plan…

ALAN JONES: But what about the point that not even a video or audio record of the proceedings to take back to Canberra, no one even knows what these people have said.

TONY BURKE: Oh no, there’s certainly note takers there taking detailed notes that come back to me.

ALAN JONES: Yes I know that but I mean they’re note takers with a bias towards the government not a bias towards to farmers.


ALAN JONES: …See Julia Gillard, your leader, your noble leader Julia Gillard, said on August 10, August 10 and I quote ‘Today as Prime Minister I announce’ this is of course an election on August 21…


ALAN JONES: …This is to get the Greens on-side, ‘Today as Prime Minister I announce that I am determined we will do what is necessary to implement the Murray Darling Basin Authority plan. If I am re-elected we will implement the Authority plan, we will step up to do the necessary water purchases from willing sellers’. That’s what she said on August 10.

TONY BURKE: I do hope that in the wake of what’s happened over the last week that my comments yesterday have started to bring this to the next step. There’s a point where you get a choice in my sort of job as to whether or not you want to play a political game or whether you …

ALAN JONES: So you’re telling the leader to back off.

TONY BURKE: What I made clear yesterday was at the end of all of this the instrument that I sign off on, only matters if it can survive the parliament and that means that I genuinely want to make sure that we’ve got something that for the people who represent all these different parts of Australia, that we’ve got something that works for their communities, to take some sort of hardline and then just result in the parliament knocking it down, nothing gets achieved in that and as that letter that you read out said, farmers do what a healthy river. They know the river; they have a massive interest in making sure…

ALAN JONES: I’ll come to that in a moment, but I just want to make this point again, that you understand the people listening to you are just really fed up with this, not with you but with Julia Gillard who said on August 10 to win votes ‘Today as Prime Minister I announce that I am determined we will do what is necessary to implement the Murray Darling Basin Authority Plan’, that’s this thing here. Now Julia Gillard then on August 16 and this is not apropos this interview but I just make this point…


ALAN JONES: …to you as a senior member of the government on August 16 she said ‘there will be no carbon tax under the government I lead’. On August 18 she said ‘I rule out a carbon tax’. Wayne Swan said about a carbon tax quote, ‘We’ve made our position clear we have ruled it out’. I had an internet poll on Friday because Garno and others are advising your Government that we must have a carbon tax. On the internet poll I asked ‘Do you want your Federal MP to vote in favour of a carbon tax?’ Do you want your Federal MP to vote in favour of a carbon tax? There were twenty one thousand, three hundred and sixty five respondents to the internet poll which is massive. Two hundred and seventy four said yes. Twenty one thousand and ninety one said no. Now Gillard is now saying, your leader, we’re going to have a carbon tax, having told the electorate that we’re not going to have a carbon tax, having told the electorate on August 10 we’re going to put in place the Murray Darling Basin Authority plan. I mean, I wonder can I say to you Minister whether these people know what they are talking about because what do you mean for example when you talk about purchasing water? There is no water to purchase, we’re purchasing allocations.

TONY BURKE: Yes, but on the water market we buy a very small fraction of what’s traded.

ALAN JONES: You buy an allocation, you buy an allocation. I mean see, you’ve allowed to prosper the notion. Not you, you just…


ALAN JONES: …got caught, this things been thrown at you and you’ve caught it being Water Minister, but the government’s prospered the notion that farmers are the problem, that if you buy farmer’s water entitlements, its all fixed.

Irrigation system is the problem, it hasn’t created the problem. The problem is it doesn’t rain, or when it does we don’t have water to harvest, we don’t harvest the water. See Tony, who’s harvested all the water at the weekend that fell in Queensland last week, there’s now, there’s flood warnings down here in this area. There’s not a dam been built since the 1950s. Because Julia Gillard signed a deal with the Greens, there’ll be a few frogs that’ll get in the way of building a dam.

No but I mean, why wouldn’t we spend nine billion harvesting the water?

TONY BURKE: There’s a few ways that you can build your efficiencies. A lot of the ground water is directly connected to the river systems, so there’s some connections there anyway. You don’t necessarily, you still can have an impact on the river by the nature of how you harvest. So there’s some knock-ons there.

But can I add one thing that hardly ever gets a mention in this debate and I think it’s really important and in particular important for your listeners in country Australia to know that this is front of mind for us. That is if you look at who’s improved their efficiencies, irrigators are often at the front of the queue in terms of good work that’s been done to be more efficient with water. There’s a whole lot of work that we hardly ever talk about that's starting to be done now as to how we can improve the efficiency of how we manage the environmental assets.

If you can get the health of the river in those environmental assets, but do that with less water by being smarter with your engineering, all of that frees up extra litres, mega litres to be able to be used for the production of food.

ALAN JONES: But see this isn’t rocket science, I mean the Murray Darling will be healthy when it rains. Well it doesn’t rain, but if there is no water in the Murray Darling the farmer gets nothing, he can only access the water when river flows reach certain levels. So for years and years and years many of these irrigators have got no where near their allocation and even though he pays for the allocation, he doesn’t get his money back.

I mean basically shouldn’t we be saying instead of worrying about the Murray-Darling, how do we harvest the water that falls? Who’s harvested the water from the weekend, who’s harvested the water in South East Queensland and Noosa last week, who harvested the water that was feet deep, miles wide in Northern New South Wales at the beginning of this year? Then we’d have enough money, water to shove down the Murray-Darling whenever we wanted to.

TONY BURKE: Yes there's some places where water is hard to harvest. I remember being up in Cloncurry with Bob Katter when the floods were on up there and in that area it’s so flat, there's some places where you can put weirs, but there's very few, the nature of the land makes it very hard to dam…

ALAN JONES: ….But there are others when it can be dammed


ALAN JONES: …What I’m wanting you to understand before we finish today though, do you understand how disillusioned the farmer is when the environmental argument seems to have prevailed? That the farmer is the thief, the farmer has been irresponsible, the farmer takes water therefore the river dries up, and once we start pumping the water for the farmer the rivers will be automatically fixed, when in fact the truth is, he can’t access the Murray-Darling until river flows reach a certain level. The farmer though, has been demonised in all of this.

TONY BURKE: Yeah there was a letter to the editor that I saw in the paper last week that made me furious, where someone was describing farmers as being environmental vandals. Nothing, nothing could be further from the truth. These people do some of the best environmental work in the country. As Environment Minister as well as Water Minister, you will not find me bagging their environmental credentials, I’ve seen to much good work over the last three years when I was Ag Minister.

ALAN JONES: Right, can I just make this point to you again, that on that water point, and I made this last week, there are a hundred and fifty three thousand gigalitres of fresh water which go every year into the Gulf of Carpentaria, the team will see, on the North East Queensland coast line. A hundred and fifty three thousand gigalitres. Now if you just take for example the circumstances in Perth. Perth uses three fifty gigalitres a year, Adelaide two fifty; two fifty, not two fifty thousand, two fifty. There's a hundred and fifty three thousand gigalitres from the Gulf of Carpentaria the team will see in North East Queensland just goes into the ocean. Why couldn’t we spend nine billion dollars harvesting that rather then poison the nation’s collective mind against farmers.

TONY BURKE: Certainly we need to do more in the North than we’ve done in the past. I don’t disagree with that for one minute. I do think though that we need to acknowledge that there's a level of reform that has to happen across the Murray Darling Basin. We need to work with farmers in doing it, and I think a lot of the fear and frustration of the last week when we get to the final plan that gets signed off to me, farmers will see that the government has been absolutely listening and the consultation has been real.

ALAN JONES: But shouldn’t the consultations now that you’ve got enquiries be called off? I mean why do we put farmers through all this anxiety? Shouldn’t in the light of the fact there's now going to be a study, belated though it might be, it should’ve been done before this blasted report was written, but albeit belated shouldn’t we call off the consultations rather than submit farmers to this awful anguish that they’ve had to endure?

TONY BURKE: One of the worst things for farmers I think in all of this has been they never know where they stand. It makes it hard for them to plan. There’s always another rule coming down the track. What I want I want to make sure of is this issue which has been hanging around for ages now actually reaches a sensible conclusion so farmers can say, yep, that’s the reform, we know what we’re dealing with, our businesses can work with that.

ALAN JONES: But, see, I don’t understand what the reform could be, because I repeat, currently, as things stand, a farmer has an entitlement to water. He can’t exercise that entitlement until the Murray-Darling reaches certain levels and if the Murray-Darling doesn’t reach that level the farmer gets nothing. Even though I might add he’s paying for the allocation, he doesn’t get his money back. We’re not just talking about, you know, Deniliquin, I mean we’re talking about Charleville or Roma, Cunnamulla, Toowoomba, Moree, Narrabri, Ivanhoe, Broken Hill, Mildura. I mean are you going to be able to walk into those towns, Murray-Bridge, Deniliquin, Albury, Horsham, Griffith, Forbes, Dubbo, Namoi, Tamworth, Balranald, Hay, Narrandera.

Are you going to be able to walk into those towns and tell these people that you understand the problem of the farmer and he will be preserved in the overall economic structure of this country? Because I mean they’re ready to throw sandbags at Julia Gillard.

TONY BURKE: The answer to the question about whether I’m willing to do that is yes. I’ve been doing it for the last three years, I don’t intend to stop.

ALAN JONES: But you know the farmer’s scene don’t you? You cut thirty percent of the water entitlement from the Wenthworth Hotel in Sydney, you gotta cut thirty percent of the beds.

TONY BURKE: I don’t think we should underestimate what can be done with…

ALAN JONES: … It’s half past seven by the way, I’m talking to Tony Burke. Yes, go on.

TONY BURKE: … I don’t think we should underestimate what can be done here with efficiencies. There’s a lot more money that’s set aside…

ALAN JONES: … But isn’t the greatest efficiency to harvest the water that we have? Isn’t that the greatest efficiency? I mean then, basically, the Murray-Darling could be left alone, it just becomes a sewer. The water runs down the Murray-Darling and there’s other acts, other means for the farmers to get their water if we build some dams.

TONY BURKE: Oh look there’s also other areas. I’m not discounting what you’ve said there but there’s also other areas of efficiency where farmers have done extraordinarily well.

ALAN JONES: Yes, yes.

TONY BURKE: Where channels have been lined…

ALAN JONES: … Well evaporation is classic isn’t it?

TONY BURKE: …That’s right. Where instead of sprinklers going at the top of a crop, or at the top of an area it’s being done underground. I’ve seen sprinkler systems, or effectively, irrigation systems that are hooked up to computers to kick in at the exact moment the soil moisture needs them. There are extraordinary things that can be done with efficiency here and all of that makes an improvement in productivity for the farmer whilst still delivering some of the environmental outcomes that we need to get a healthy river.

ALAN JONES: Are you dirty that you’ve been saddled with a report here which you’re now being told the economic models used by the Australian Bureau of Agriculture and Resource Economics to come up with these figures don’t give an accurate figure of the local effects? Are you annoyed that this Taylor from the Murray-Darling Basin Authority actually said on Friday that the figures now would be quite significantly higher than those he originally articulated and now we’ve got the environmental argument that farmers are the problem. This has created all this anguish of the last week. It needn’t have been.

TONY BURKE: They’re an independent authority. I got their report a couple of days before they released it. They are independent, they’re that by law, but the final plan has to be signed off by me and survive the parliament. So I’m letting them play their independent role, I’m not interfering with that.

There’ll be consultations independent of them that I’ll be involved with; at the end of it all, I want a healthy river, I want strong regional communities and I want people to acknowledge that producing food is important.

ALAN JONES: But you could send a signal to these people today to say in light of the fact that the information is imperfect and we’re now going to have to have another report of the overall social and economic impacts of this draft report that the Murray-Darling Basin consultative process is off until such time as we’ve got all the information put on the table. I mean why should farmers be alienated and intimidated in a process which doesn’t have all the information available to them? Shouldn’t we call the consultations off?

TONY BURKE: I want the consultations happening. There are two things that I want to make sure happen. One, I want to make sure that we consult; consult properly. And secondly, I want to make sure we make a decision. I don’t want to be a Minister who, every time and issue gets difficult, just puts it off and never actually gets around to making a decision. I do believe we can get outcomes here that work for farmers and work for the health of the river system. But I don’t think we’ll get any closer to that if I become the sort of person who, when something gets difficult, says let’s just call it all off.

ALAN JONES: Just let me go to Peter Flannigan, who’s been on the line and stay with us Minister, this is the Water Minister Tony Burke. Peter Flannigan is the Griffith Branch President of the NSW Farmers Association. You’ve heard all of that, where do you think that takes this issue now today Peter Flannigan?

PETER FLANNIGAN: Thank you Alan, and good morning Minister. You’ve asked many of the questions that we would have asked after the meeting last Thursday took place in Griffith.

It makes you wonder and we still have considerable doubt after looking what at the MDBA came out and told us on Thursday, there’s seems to be that they don’t seem to have a complete plan that will give us the result we think it should. And I put this question to the Minister, why did it take the display of emotion and anger at a gathering at Griffith and other areas to bring government to its senses, to introduced a Parliamentary enquiry into the social and economic effects of this ridiculous, insensitive plan by the MDBA? And you can probably tell that I’m pretty angry because where are we supposed to go from here when you talk about forty three percent of the allocation into the Murrambigee Valley can be taken away?

When I first started farming here we were given an allocation of water in 1983 that sufficed about two thirds of the water I required for this farm. Now there’s been reductions in that allocation since, we’ve spent over a million dollars doing land-works with new technology and now you’re talking about taking forty three percent of the water away from it. How are we going to recover that cost and where to we go forward with this sort of plan being thrown at us to have this taken away?

ALAN JONES: Well that’s a fair point you see, Tony Burke, come back to you because you see if that’s to be taken, the 43% allocation, that devalues his property by 43%. Banks won’t, in fact, roll over loans. There are massive ramifications here. And do you understand his point about the insensitivity of throwing this report at them last week with an imperfect informational base?

TONY BURKE: As I said earlier in the interview, I received a copy – and I’m not resentful of this, they’re an independent authority, but I received a copy of the report a couple of days before it was released. It took some days to get it together but we made sure that separate to their report there was going to be an independent parliamentary enquiry. Now to be able to know ages in advance precisely the words of what the report was going to include simply would have been a very different situation to what we have with an independent authority.

ALAN JONES: But do you understand Peter’s point? Peter was saying okay I bought the farm, when I buy the farm I have a certain water allocation and I repeat again, he can’t exercise that allocation until such time as the Murray-Darling reaches appropriate environmental flows, but he knows that, he’s got the allocation. Then he spends a million bucks, that improves the value of his farm, he’s got to borrow from the bank for it. Then along comes some nitwit Taylor and his Murray-Darling Basin Authority who’s a totally independent outfit which I don’t think any of these people will be independent of government but there you are, they are and suddenly says, oh 43% reduction of allocation which dilutes the value of his farm by forty three percent and the bank manager is saying hang on, where is the equity here? Peter’s saying, well where do I get my money back, I’ve made this investment. You can’t prosper that kind of argument Minister, can you?

TONY BURKE: Can I just come in though, because there’s a different impact on the towns themselves than on an individual irrigation property and I’m not implying that what I sign off at the end of next year would look anything like the guide that’s out at the moment. But, if for example there were a cut of the magnitude you just described, any irrigator who says I’m not selling my water keeps their water. Any irrigator who says, I don’t want to…

ALAN JONES: …He doesn’t sell water he sells allocations.

TONY BURKE: Yep, okay, anyone who says I want to keep my allocation, they keep their allocation. If you don’t want to sell any of it, then the government doesn’t want to buy any of it. Now there’s still a knock-on impact for the towns and I don’t want to be seen to be making light of that. Because while that choice is there for individual irrigators, if you’re running a small business in the town and a whole lot of people sell up and leave then you haven’t made a decision but you’ve lost a whole lot of customers so there’s important regional development issues that the government does need to address in this.

ALAN JONES: Okay, well look we can’t go on. Peter, the best thing that I can say to you is that we’ll keep monitoring this and the statements that the Minister has made is now a matter of public record and we’ve got to weigh up what happens in the future against what has been said. But I’ll keep in touch with you Peter Flannigan, thank you for your time.

PETER FLANNIGAN: Thank you Alan and thank you to you Minister.

ALAN JONES: Thank you and Tony Burke thank you for your time and for your understanding of the issues that are very, very critical to these people. This is the lifeblood of Australian agriculture.

TONY BURKE: That’s right and look I’ve really appreciated the chance to work through those issues this morning.

ALAN JONES: You’re most welcome. That’s Tony Burke. It’s 21 to 8.