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

E&OE Transcript
Interview with Alan Jones, 2GB
23 November 2010

ALAN JONES: Tony Burke, the Minister, is on the line.

Tony Burke, good morning.

TONY BURKE: G'day, Alan.

ALAN JONES: I know you've been here. Do you get the message?

TONY BURKE: Oh yeah, the message was given loud and clear to me. We had a meeting at John Benetti's shed and had quite a few of the locals - the Mayor was there - quite a few of the local irrigators came along.

I've listened, over the last few minutes, the description you've been giving of the mood in Griffith, and the frustrations that you've described are pretty much identical to the frustrations that were put to me when I was last there.

ALAN JONES: But in spite of those frustrations, you announced on Friday another $300 million towards urging farmers to sell vast quantities of water to the Government. How can communities have any confidence, to use Julia Gillard's words, going forward, when there is no, still, no suspension in the purchase of water?

TONY BURKE: Well, I've been announcing a lot more money on infrastructure than I've been...

ALAN JONES: Hang on, forget the - I'll come to infrastructure in a moment. Are you going, are you prepared to announce a moratorium on the purchase of water? Are you going to stop demoralising this community?

TONY BURKE: I'm not prepared to announce a moratorium on it, Alan. I'm not prepared to do that...

ALAN JONES: So you're going to tie yourself to a policy and put your political future on the line, because I'll tell you what, if you pick the wrong policy on water, your political future is gone.

TONY BURKE: Can I explain how I want to handle the buy-backs, Alan? My intention with this is to move in and out of the water market, not with any big grants...

ALAN JONES: Hang on, hang on. Hang on, hang on a minute. Tony, this is jargon. You see, there should be no water market. This is what you've got to grapple with.

Are you going - if you put water on the market, the Chinese will buy it, the Japanese will buy it. There's $9 billion worth of agricultural land has been sold off in the last two years. They'll now buy the water and they'll do to our land what you won't allow Australian farmers to do.

TONY BURKE: Alan, there's a water market. Alan, there's a water market whether the governments are purchasing or not. Irrigators up and down, up and down...

ALAN JONES: But that's the issue you've got to come to grips with. That's the issue you've got to come to grips with. We're reaching now five to midnight. Should there be a water market? Can Bill Gates and Nelson Rockefeller - you're the minister - can Bill Gates and Nelson Rockefeller come and buy up our water?

Now, I'm not blaming you for this, by the way, because this is a Turnbull initiative. Turnbull's the bloke who drafted the Water Act. I think the Water Act is rubbish, but you're the bloke saddled with the job. Now, are you going to allow Bill Gates to come into this country and buy our water?

TONY BURKE: Could I give you a quick example of why I think having the water market actually matters? If you go further along the Murray, you'll find dairy farmers who, when water prices have been high, have sold their water and used the money to buy in feed. When water prices have come down low, bought water back again, moving in and out of the market making their own decisions about their own water.

ALAN JONES: No, no, no, Tony, no. You are preying as a government on desperate people. And when desperate people exist and they are desperate for a variety of circumstances, the wife will sell the fur coat, she'll sell the engagement ring, the farmer will sell the water. They're not doing it because it's the right thing to do, they're doing it because they're desperate. And you are preying upon that desperation to claim water back which will never be returned to that farming community.

TONY BURKE: The examples that I'm giving, Alan, are examples similar to the irrigator who improves themselves, their own efficiencies, sells 10%, 20% of their water on the market, uses that money to pay for the improvements in their infrastructure.

ALAN JONES: You've got to stop talking, you've got to stop talking like this. People - I mean, this is on record. You start go on talking about water, you're putting your whole - you're a young bloke putting your political future on the line and nailing your colours to a mast that's going to blow over.

This is not a Griffith problem. I'm only broadcasting here because it's a metaphor of an Australia-wide problem. This is a problem that is confronting Australian farmers and Australian people everywhere. They are buying water wherever they can get hold of it. Every megalitre of water that is kept in the farming community injects up to seven times its trading value into the region. The farmer comes first. If the farmer here loses his asset and water is his asset, then the dry cleaner's in trouble, the newsagent's in trouble, the school gets smaller, the bloke selling second-hand cars has to close down, they can't sell tractors. The farmer comes first.

You should be growing the supply of water. What are you going to do to grow the supply of water?

TONY BURKE: The best example of exactly that, is the announcement that I made two weeks ago, which got a lot of publicity in Victoria, but not elsewhere, where we spent just short of a billion dollars in Northern Victoria, completely redoing a whole lot of their irrigation systems. The systems there - and I'll explain it quickly - but the systems there, essentially up until now, when you wanted your water, you had to book it in the order of about a week in advance. There's been a whole lot of seasons where it wasn't possible.

The infrastructure improvements, yes it returns significant water to the river as well, although the river takes half the water. Irrigators get half of what's achieved through extra allocations. They will now be able, once this project's complete, to actually be able to get the water live, to be able to demand when they want it.

ALAN JONES: But that hasn't - look, Tony, it hasn't grown - do you know that over the last two months the rainfall in the Murray-Darling Basin has been estimated, the fall, at 140,000 gigalitres. That's more over the past two months, than the total amount of water taken from the Murray-Darling for irrigation over the last 15 years.

Let me put it another way - and this message is going across Australia - over the last three years, the total water taken for irrigation from the Murray-Darling was 12,000 gigalitres in three years. That's less than 10 per cent of the rainfall that fell in the Basin over the last two months.

Now anyone who doesn't harvest that water is a water vandal. What are you going to do about harvesting the water that's currently being wasted?

TONY BURKE: Well the example I just gave was exactly that. The example I just gave of irrigators getting 100 gigalitres extra in that part of Victoria. Extra for irrigation. One hundred gigalitres extra will go to the river. One hundred gigalitres extra will go in allocations to those irrigators. But that's not the only area of efficiency...

ALAN JONES: No, I'm sorry, I'm sorry. We're not talking efficiency. The farmers are the most efficient people on the planet. They're practising water efficiency as well and they've maximised their water efficiency.

I'm talking about the fact that in the last two weeks there were 140,000 gigalitres. The environmental flow required for the Murray-Darling is 1500. This is 140,000 gigalitres. What are you doing, what dams are you building, what channels are you digging which, by gravity feed, can accommodate the 140,000 gigalitres. After all Tony, your mob were filling up the Murray-Darling two weeks before the rain fell. As a result, the rain rose over the banks and flooded communities and villages and destroyed farms. What's that called, water management?

TONY BURKE: Well it depends on where you are. I had some farmers come into meeting with me yesterday, further north from where you are, where they're actually involved in flood plain farming. There are some areas, particularly in parts of the Darling, where you actually do need your flood plain to have its inundations from time to time. But it depends where you are.

ALAN JONES: But I'm talking about growing - I can't - I mean I know you've been briefed on all of this, and I - my advice to you would be throw the bureaucrats - throw the bureaucrats out. They've led the New South Wales Government to ruin. They've led Peter Garrett to ruin. They've led Penny Wong to ruin, and if you're being dragged by the nose, by some fellow in charge of the Murray-Darling Basin Authority, which was formerly a bureaucrat who was the head of the Department of Transport, this fellow Taylor, who would know absolutely nothing about rivers and nothing about water.

But can I just make the point to you, in talking volume of water, if you just take the Ord River system - and I'm going north...


ALAN JONES: ...the Ord River system, the Gulf of Carpentaria and the Burdekin River system, that's just Northern Australia. Every year 153,000 gigalitres of water in that system is wasted - flows into the ocean.

Adelaide's consumption is 325 gigalitres; not 325,000, 325. In Northern Australia we've got 153,000 gigalitres wasted. The Murray-Darling needs 1500. What are you doing - what do you plan to do - and I'm prepared to concede that every government that preceded you has failed, and that includes Malcolm Turnbull who was put in charge of water. But I'm simply saying you're the bloke there. You're young, you've got energy, you've got ideas. Are you going to ditch the bureaucrats and say; we are going to harvest this water to grow the supply of water, so that we won't be penalising farmers and driving them to suicide and ruin?

TONY BURKE: I'm determined Alan to make sure that we find every way we can to be able to deliver a healthy river system, without creating the sorts of challenges that you've just referred to in irrigation and communities. Now...

ALAN JONES: Right, well let me tell you - okay, righto, let me tell you, I could put you in charge, in the next 24 hours with a businessman, and a variety of them - a collection of them - who tell me they could deliver 3750 gigalitres of water, 3750 - the Murray-Darling only wants 1500 - to crops, environment flows and city dams, in Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia, for $8.8 billion. That's less than the $9 billion you are projected to spend on water buy-backs.

TONY BURKE: Oh Alan, Iit's a third of that that's on buy-backs. The remainder's on infrastructure.

ALAN JONES: No, hang on, hang on, hang on. I'm saying leave the buy-backs - you've told me you won't - you won't deliver a moratorium on buy-backs; you've told me that. Okay, well, you've got to live with that. I'm simply saying I don't believe there should be such a thing as buy-back. I don't believe we should be trading in water. I don't think we should be selling water to the Chinese and the Japanese.

But I'm simply saying we could grow the supply of water and these business people say for $8.8 billion.

Now for 100 years the United States of Bureau of Reclamation has been building concrete lined, trapezoidal canals to recover the kind of water that we've seen in this country over the last eight months. And yet here we are buying water out of the Murray-Darling for anything up to $6 billion a year, when that could be used for infrastructure to harvest and, by gravity, shift the water. Are you going to call some of those useless bureaucrats to present to you, by the end of the week, a proposal as to how we can harvest and transport water?

TONY BURKE: I've got to say I think the best source that I'm getting at the moment in improvements in infrastructure, is actually through local communities and through local irrigation authorities, rather than getting the infrastructure projects from bureaucrats.

That's the meetings that I have been having with the MIA, where you are - a great meeting with the people at Trangie further north, near Dubbo. There's some really smart projects.

Because I think the point you make is one that's forgotten by many people, particularly people living in the cities. It's not just evaporation, it's often seepage that's the reason that there can be water loss and the lining of channels can be a really powerful way of making sure that you get a much better outcome both for irrigators and the river system.

ALAN JONES: Well, we could build a channel from the Burdekin River to Victoria if we wanted, and by gravity feed we could move it through that channel, we've got water for everybody.

You see, what - there's a dishonesty about this. I'm not saying you're dishonest. But there are people advising you - I mean, let's face it, Julia Gillard announced yesterday she hadn't read the NBN Business Plan. I mean, I don't know what anyone reads around this joint. But there was a Marsden Jacobs report published with this guide to the Murray- Darling Basin, that plan that was released by this fellow Taylor and his mob. And the Marsden Jacob - because you just told me there were going to be more buy-backs. Now, Marsden Jacobs said in the report published with the guide - no publicity about this - and I quote: It's likely that the broad-acre farming community has a limited capacity to cope with a significant reduction in water availability.

Elsewhere, Marsden Jacob say to this loony crowd called the Murray-Darling Basin Authority - I wish I was the Water Minister, I'd give them their marching orders yesterday. But the Marsden Jacob said: The reduced water availability over the past five years has impacted significantly on the industries that service the broad-acre farms.

Now, my point is these industries exist because of the farms, and the industries will go under if the farms go under. But Marsden Jacobs have warned against what this guide is recommending. Have you been briefed on that?

TONY BURKE: Oh yeah, I've gone through the guide. But can I just say in the most simple, stark terms, that guide is not government policy. The final plan - it doesn't just get signed off by me, but where I as minister am in charge of the numbers that go in it. And that's why, while some people have wanted me to go along and be part of the Murray-Darling Basin Authority meetings and consultations, I have the final say, not them. And that guide is not government policy.

ALAN JONES: Okay, right. So I'm not sure - I'm prepared to give you the benefit of the doubt. I'm not sure though where you stand because it's not policy. And yet that policy is about buy-back, and it would appear as though you're implementing the policy by stealth by announcing further buy-backs. And once you talk buy-backs here, farmers are then saying, does that mean me, does that mean this community, how many; it's the thin edge of the wedge, where do we go?

You won't give me a commitment to building dams, to increasing infrastructure, to growing the supply. You still seem to have your whole approach predicated on buying back - and this community is angry about that, and the national community will be angry about that because once Australians start realising that we're creating a market in water so that Bill Gates and Nelson Rockefeller can own our water along with our agriculture, I'll tell you something, Tony, you haven't seen what this country is going to do when it wakes up to that happening. It will make the Emissions Trading Scheme look like a Sunday school, because when Australians understand that we are allowing these assets to be sold off to the detriment of this country, then I'll tell you what, everybody's in strife.

Can I just say to you at a very, very serious level. Do you understand what this has done to the morale and confidence of this community?

TONY BURKE: Absolutely and that's been made completely clear to me the last time I was down in Griffith.

ALAN JONES: And yet on Friday you're still prepared to talk about buy-backs? That's what's, that's what's demoralised them.

TONY BURKE: I'm spending double the amount of money on, nearly double the amount of money on infrastructure that we're spending on buy-backs...

ALAN JONES: Well, when you announce a dam to be built anywhere in this country, a dam to be built, you can have a ticket around the world and back.

TONY BURKE: [Laughs]

ALAN JONES: A dam to be built. Just one, just one. You heard my statistics on dams around the world. We've got the worst record in the developed world. Your leader is in liaison, alliance with the Greens and they hate dams. Are you going to knock them off to say it's in the national interest that we harvest water, we must build dams, we must gravity feed our farms with the water we've got, or are you going to toe the line with the Greens?

TONY BURKE: On any dam application that comes to me - I haven't been involved in knocking any back.

ALAN JONES: Application. No, I want you to take the initiative. You take the initiative.

TONY BURKE: The best example, the best example of where we've taken the initiative that you referred to is when you referred to earlier with the Ord, Ord Stage 2 being heavily funded by us.

ALAN JONES: Well, what are you doing about the 153,000 litres in North Queensland that are being wasted every year?

TONY BURKE: This is - you're saying up in the Gulf what...

ALAN JONES: I'm talking about the Gulf, I'm talking about the Ord, I'm talking about the Burdekin. We could gravity feed the Burdekin water to Victoria if we wanted to, if we had a will. I mean, that's what they are doing in Libya, they're building a 2500 gravity feed in Libya - kilometre gravity feed. We're miles behind the world, Tony. This is a chance for a young minister to grab the issue and be remembered as Forrest and CY O'Connor have been remembered. This is a chance to seal your place in national infrastructure history.

TONY BURKE: I hear your point on that, Alan. The only thing I'd flag is communities like the Burdekin have a role in where they want their water to go as well, so...

ALAN JONES: It's going into the ocean.

TONY BURKE: Every farming community...

ALAN JONES: It's going into the ocean.

TONY BURKE: Every farming community has an interest in...

ALAN JONES: But it's going into the ocean.

TONY BURKE: I know - Alan, I'm not going to unilaterally announce on this program about...

ALAN JONES: Right. I don't expect you to.

TONY BURKE: ...taking water from one farming community to another.

ALAN JONES: I don't expect you to, but I've got to make you understand that there's a lot at, a lot at risk here for the Griffith people and for the Australian people. There's a lot at risk, a lot at risk for you as well.

Can I just end with this? Some farmers took me to their home for lunch yesterday. A mother, when I arrived, handed me an envelope. She didn't know what was in the envelope but she knew it was from her six-year-old son. The parents hadn't read it. The boy was writing to me; he knew I was coming for lunch and he asked his mother if she'd give me the letter.

It's clear that the little boy, like many people in this community, had been listening to their mum and dad talk about government and about the devastation that's being done to their assets, the wealth and morale of the people in this district. And I opened the letter and it's signed by Ryan. You can have it if you like. I'll show it to you.

And it says: Dear Mr Alan Jones, I am Ryan. Can you please help us stop the government taking our water? I might be a farmer when I grow up like my dad, so I'd like you to help us keep the water, and thank you for listening.

Now, are you going to listen to me and the farmers and Ryan, or do you listen to the Greens and the bureaucrats?

TONY BURKE: Alan, over the last three years I've spent a lot more time with farmers than I have with anyone else. And I appreciate absolutely the level of anxiety that was out there when that guide was dropped. And as people see the way I operate, I do think some of that anxiety is going to pass. But don't make that judgment now. Wait, watch how I do the job. I do think that some of the fears that are out there are not going to be well founded, I really do.

ALAN JONES: What if the people can't wait? What if the people - the father, when I went to dinner last night, the father said grace, the Catholic father said grace. He told the gathering of people, 90 people at the dinner, how many families he'd married this year, how many he'd buried, and amongst the burials he talked about the people who had committed suicide over the uncertainty and the devastation caused to their community not by nature - farmers can deal with nature, they've handled it all their lives. My old man dealt with nature. But they can't deal with government, they can't deal with government who pretends it knows when it doesn't.

Now, you've said to me you will not offer a moratorium on buy-backs. That is a lethal blow to this community, a lethal blow. Until all the facts are on the table, there should be no buy-backs. And you should seriously think about whether there should even be water trading. That might be right for the merchant bankers like Malcolm Turnbull. That might be why the act was crafted. It might have had another - I don't know. But you can't preside, surely, over a nation which allows its agricultural land and its water to be sold off to the highest bidder be they international or anyone else.

And what's your position? What are you fighting for?

TONY BURKE: I want to see three things. I want to see strong communities, I want to see strong food production, and I want to see a healthy river. And I do believe we can get all three.

ALAN JONES: Okay, I'll keep talking to you and I thank you for your time.

TONY BURKE: Thanks, Alan.

ALAN JONES: Tony Burke.