Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities
Murray Darling Basin plan - resignation of Mike Taylor
Interview with ABC PM
7 December 2010
MARK COLVIN: First the man charged with implementing one of Julia Gillard's key election commitments has issued his resignation.
Michael Taylor has left his job at the helm of the Murray-Darling Basin Authority and he argues that the Government needs to reconsider its approach to restoring flows to the system.
Mr Taylor faced angry crowds in communities along the Murray after the authority released its draft guide to returning three to four thousand gigalitres of water back to the river system.
After the outcry the Government ordered the authority to take into account the social and economic impacts of cutting water allocations, but Mr Taylor says that under the Water Act the Authority can't compromise the minimum level of water needed to restore the river system.
Mr Taylor told the Water Minister Tony Burke of his decision last night. Mr Burke spoke to our reporter in Canberra Samantha Hawley.
TONY BURKE: The first conversation we'd had about it was when he rang me last night, and he was good about it and said that he'd made his own decision, he's put the reasons for that in the letter.
REPORTER: Clearly he would have been disappointed. He, from his letter, seems to think that he was compromised.
TONY BURKE: He had a different view of the interpretation of the Water Act to the view of the Government. Our view is the same as the view that the previous Government had, the Howard Government when Malcolm Turnbull first introduced the laws.
REPORTER: But it's incredibly bad timing isn't it, midway through a hugely important process for your Government, you're trying to implement one of your main election commitments?
TONY BURKE: I've got to say I think it was good of Mike Taylor that when these differences of opinion first emerged in such a stark fashion he continued with the community consultation, continued to front a whole lot of pretty difficult meetings, I think people would have to acknowledge.
REPORTER: Yeah, and that was your decision that he front those and you not front them. I mean do you stand by that decision, that you put a bureaucrat in a position where he was fronting hostile, and sometimes violent, community meetings?
TONY BURKE: Well look I've been fronting the community meetings that I organise, he fronted the community meetings that the Authority organised.
REPORTER: But he...
TONY BURKE: You've described it as me putting him there. They organised the meetings, it was their decision to have those meetings and they conduct their consultation when I've been conducting my consultation in communities like Griffith, in Renmark...
REPORTER: But do you think that that was a good idea that bureaucrats should front very angry and hostile communities?
TONY BURKE: Well it was their decision that they would conduct their own consultation...
REPORTER: Well do you think it was a mistake regardless of whose decision it was?
TONY BURKE: As an independent authority, I'm not as Minister going to be telling them how to communicate and consult with the community.
REPORTER: But it does make the process look like a bit of a shambles, that's all. So I just wondered if you think it was a mistake, that it went that way?
TONY BURKE: Oh look can I say, water reform will always be something that ignites a strong degree of passion in communities, it always will.
REPORTER: Okay well the protest action obviously wasn't the reason for Mike Taylor's resignation anyway. You have changed the boundaries, haven't you, since the election? You are now demanding that the authority take into account social and economic impacts. Michael Taylor argues it cannot be done within the current Water Act. Will you change the Water Act?
TONY BURKE: I can't for the life of me, see how anyone can argue that it can't be done. The concept of optimising the environmental, economic and social outcomes is contained as an objective of the Water Act.
REPORTER: Not the view of Mike Taylor who is the head of the Murray-Darling Basin Authority. So you just completely disagree with him? You think he doesn't know what he's talking about here?
TONY BURKE: Well, as I say, I don't understand how you can argue that something that is contained as an objective of an Act is not part of it. I logically don't see how that argument holds up.
REPORTER: Alright, well in his letter to you he also says he cannot compromise the minimum level of water needed to restore the river system's environment. Are you willing to compromise that level?
TONY BURKE: Oh no, in optimising all three you don't wreck any of the three. We do need to have healthy river systems, we do need to have strong communities and we need to have food production. I don't view this as an old-style, environment versus production debate. I believe there's a whole lot we can do in improvements in infrastructure, a whole lot we can do in being smarter in our management of our environmental assets. And let's not forget, irrigators need a healthy river system too.
REPORTER: So you can return 3,000 to 4,000 gigalitres of water back to the system and still ensure that social - that communities don't go under, that the social fabric is maintained?
TONY BURKE: This early in the consultation I'm certainly not attaching myself to any of the figures on how many gigalitres are required.
REPORTER: But that's the point, isn't it? Because Michael Taylor says he cannot compromise the minimum level. His minimum level is 3,000, that's obviously not your minimum level?
TONY BURKE: Well that presumes there's nothing you can do on improving the efficiencies of your management of environmental assets. Now I've got some people doing some work on this at the moment to find out what can be done to achieve the same quality environmental outcomes, and if there are ways of doing that without solely relying on over-bank flows.
Now the information on this, if it does come through that there are ways of managing those assets more efficiently, then it will lower the volumes required. But I'm not pre-judging those outcomes yet.
REPORTER: Well just lastly, should Australians expect that this Government will honour its pledge, its election promise from Julia Gillard, to restore the Murray-Darling system and to fully implement the Murray-Darling Basin Authority's recommendations?
TONY BURKE: To fully implement the Murray-Darling Basin Authority Plan, that's the final document which is tabled in the Parliament, the one that I sign off on.
MARK COLVIN: The Federal Water Minister, Tony Burke, speaking to Samantha Hawley in Canberra.