Department of the Environment

Archived media releases and speeches

The Hon Tony Burke MP

Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities

Water - Gillard Government investment in the Coorong - food strategy - foreign investment in water

E&OE Transcript
Interview with Leon Byner, 5AA
18 May 2011

LEON BYNER: The State of South Australia not long ago was at the brunt of a very severe drought and we endured a lot of hardship. But the growers and horticulturists copped it bad. Nature, through La Niña, reversed the drought and now the Murray has been restored to a healthy waterway. Environmentalists were talking about decades of renewal but nature did the job in some months.

The battle between economic survival and the environment was sorely made obvious when the head of the new Murray Darling Basin Authority resigned because he had failed to consider the economic impact of a plan to reinvigorate the Murray River in a drought.

The plan was scuttled and started again. Now that happened because the Water Minister, my next guest, realised that legally they had an option to do something that they didn't do.

Now, the Australian Water Initiative requires an economic impact report to a level equal with any environmental impact. The Murray Darling Basin association had erred in this. But locally, our NRM Board have prepared water allocation plans for the western and eastern Mount Lofty Ranges but have not done the required economic impact study set out in the National Water Initiative.

They are in effect breaking the same law or rule for which the federal authority had to go back to the beginning.

Now, let me tell you this, at a briefing given to MPs at Parliament House in Adelaide recently, in answer to the question whether an economic impact statement had been prepared the answer was no.

Who do these zealots think they are? They're paid by you, they have powers in excess of SAPOL to enter property, remove anything they wish, and they're seeking to force you to give up your right to remain silent.

Now the water belongs to the community, not the NRM Board or the Department of the Environment. They are merely custodians. A management plan to force private dam owners to pay for metering and a department that can force you to graze farm animals it specifies in number, and an ability to legally place a caveat over your land is nothing but a crude piece of Soviet thuggery.

The simple fact is no environmental plan will survive if the economics are not right. The planet will be safe because it's worth people's while to save it.

Treating people like angry prisoners in their own properties will simply mean that those people lash out at environmental initiatives because this government agency has made them its enemy.

Now this agency is behaving like the Soviets behaved in Eastern Europe, and are using the environment as a means of achieving political and social change poorly disguised. The Government supports this at their peril.

Now, I know my next guest is a man of reason. He is the Water and Population Sustainability Minister Tony Burke.

Hi Tony.

TONY BURKE: G'day Leon.

LEON BYNER: Tony, first things first. The growers who currently are only getting 67 per cent of their allocation when we're well out of a drought, what's going to happen for them?

TONY BURKE: For them, we're getting towards the end of the water year, which means that the problem that they faced this water year shouldn't be repeated. But certainly we had a very unusual one-off, the only ways that appeared to be open to the South Australian Government to fix it would have involved renegotiating the deal with the states.

They took a judgement call, which I can understand, South Australia wouldn't necessarily get a better deal if they went back to the other states to renegotiate.

But at least what we dealt with there was a one-off and in the new water year those same principles won't apply.

LEON BYNER: So what does that mean? Will they get a hundred per cent?

TONY BURKE: Oh well, I can't dictate what the state authorities end up giving them. But the precise allocation that they get was lower this time because of the carry-over from the previous year.

LEON BYNER: Yep.

TONY BURKE: That was a one-off. Those circumstances won't apply. So you can only presume that in terms of total water they'll be much better off once we hit the new water year.

LEON BYNER: Tony, we've had three changes now at a significant level with the Murray Darling Basin Authority and personnel. What's wrong? What's - is this Murray Darling Basin plan going awry? What's happening?

TONY BURKE: Look, the very recent change in chief executive related to specific family circumstances. So I wouldn't read anything into that.

The other changes with the board member and the chair, there's no doubt - and it's been public - that the previous chair and I had a very different view of what was required to be done under the Act. He made the decisions that he made, but certainly with the new chair, Craig Knowles, he agrees with the view that I have, the view that Malcolm Turnbull had when the Act was brought in, and the Australian Government Solicitor has. Which is one of the objectives of that piece of legislation is to optimise your environmental, your economic and your social outcomes.

LEON BYNER: Okay. Can you please explain this to our Department of the Environment and the NRM Board in South Australia, because they seem not to know this?

TONY BURKE: Well I think in terms of communities showing levels of frustration with environmental processes, it will be hard to beat the protests which were against the Authority and I guess in turn against me at the end of last year around communities. While I hadn't written the report, you can understand people looked at a document and said this is ignoring us a community. This is what we think of it. And the views were strong.

LEON BYNER: Mmm.

TONY BURKE: You know, people are willing to be part of some really substantial environmental outcomes. People value the environment. People also know that economic outcomes need a healthy river system to be able to work.

But it is important to be able to bring communities with you on that. Certainly, I've made sure since I came into the job that the level of consultation that's going on is a lot stronger at a federal level...

LEON BYNER: Right.

TONY BURKE: ...than what it was beforehand.

LEON BYNER: Okay. The Member for Hammond, Adrian Pederick, has called in.

Adrian, Tony Burke, Tony meet Adrian, and Adrian what's your question?

TONY BURKE: G'day Adrian.

ADRIAN PEDERICK: G'day Tony. Look Tony, I certainly appreciate the funding going into the health of the Coorong with the revegetation. But look, my question is we've had these hold-ups with the removal of the Narrung Bund and the Clayton Bund and the Currency Creek Bund. And I know there's commentary about the place that we have to go through all the criteria and other information, relaying information between levels of government.

But the frustration is for the communities down around the Lower Lakes, that these bunds went in, in a heck of a hurry when they had to go in to offset the acid sulphate soil. But all we're seeing at a state government level is excuses of why they can't get pulled out.

I mean, my position is if they went in, in such a hurry we should get them out as quick as we can so we can get all the environmental outcomes for the Lower Lakes.

LEON BYNER: What do you say, Tony?

TONY BURKE: Look, I've got to say I think the responsibility on the delay shouldn't just be levelled at the state government. I think our processes at a federal level haven't been quick enough either...

LEON BYNER: Can you fix that?

TONY BURKE: ...have been making calls this morning again pushing the accelerator on getting that done.

The due diligence work and making sure the financials are right, that's all stuff that people want their money spent properly. And you know, you do need to have those processes in place.

But the frustration about the delay is well-founded. I share it and I'm trying to get this fixed as quickly as possible. I just, I wouldn't want the blame to be levelled squarely at the state government on this. I think there's a few of us who could have had things moving more quickly then they have, and I'm willing to share some of that responsibility. But we are pushing the accelerator on it now.

LEON BYNER: So when can those bunds go?

TONY BURKE: I'm hoping very soon. I can't give you a date but I will get it - I'm getting it done as quickly as it possibly can be.

LEON BYNER: Mmm.

TONY BURKE: We're not going to, we're not going to circumvent due process on it. I'm not going to do that. But the community is right to be frustrated. This is something where the environmental argument for it to be fixed has been obvious for some time. And we need to get the processes locked in so that it just happens.

LEON BYNER: I'm talking to the Water and Population Sustainability Minister Tony Burke.

Tony, when you were in the studio with me not long ago - you'll remember this - you looked me in the eye and you said, Leon, I want to reinvigorate manufacturing, particularly in the regional parts of Australia.

TONY BURKE: Yes.

LEON BYNER: Now, since that conversation what's been done?

TONY BURKE: Joe Ludwig - because as you know, I no longer hold the portfolio carriage on this...

LEON BYNER: Yes.

TONY BURKE: ...but Joe Ludwig has been putting together our first set of a national food strategy.

What we've done up until now is the Agriculture Minister's been responsible for looking after the policies affecting farms, and the Industry Minister's been responsible for looking at how you do your processing. And then the Transport Minister's responsible for getting everything in and out.

There hasn't been this integrated approach of how do you bring it together on food. And that work is now being done. The timeline on precisely when that's to conclude I'm not sure of.

But can I say, Leon, that the need for this work - thank heavens we started it when we did, because of what's happened with the dollar, the temptation for some of the major retailers to just go for imports is higher than it has ever been. And working out everywhere where we can make our food more competitive than the competition from overseas has never had a stronger argument than it has right now.

LEON BYNER: Alright. I've got a question that puts you on the spot...

TONY BURKE: Okay.

LEON BYNER: ...but you expect that from me, and that is...

TONY BURKE: I did expect that.

LEON BYNER: ...are you comfortable with Cayman Island speculators buying huge amounts of water licences in Australia and sitting on them purely for them to gain value? Are you comfortable with that?

TONY BURKE: Not at all, not at all, and I'll tell you what we're doing about that. As you know there's different reports of this nature that you've put to me on this program before.

One of the problems has been we haven't had centralised information on who owns water. If there's foreign investment in water and it's creating jobs, or getting a business to grow more effectively, I'm relaxed. I don't necessarily worry so much about that.

But if it's being used for speculation and effectively not being used for productive purposes at all, the whole nation suffers for that, the whole nation, as well as a disproportionate impact on whatever community the water's being purchased in.

Bill Shorten's leading this as Assistant Treasurer. He's responsible for the Australian Bureau of Statistics. They're currently doing a survey of working out what is the percentage of foreign ownership of water and getting some information on this...

LEON BYNER: Did you know...

TONY BURKE: ...that we've never had before.

LEON BYNER: Did you know that that's only going to be a guesstimate because unless you spend $230 million in buying land, you don't even touch the sides of the radar.

And that's why I set up my Facebook Don't Sell Australia Short campaign earlier this year. I think we need to know who's buying it and whether...

TONY BURKE: Yes.

LEON BYNER: ...it's in the national interest. But you know, and that's fine and good on you for doing an ABS study, but because of the rules being what they are they'll be a lot of ownership that we don't have, simply because the law didn't require it.

TONY BURKE: Yeah, and the extra thing which I think I might have referred and explained to you the last time we spoke, was there's also the work that we've been doing for some years...

LEON BYNER: Sure.

TONY BURKE: ...in water trying to get the water market operating properly.

LEON BYNER: Yeah.

TONY BURKE: You've got different systems in every state. The states do own the registers there, but there's some basic levels of transparency which are required if it's going to be a properly functioning market.

LEON BYNER: Alright. Tony, will you keep us well informed on this, because as you know not just people across Adelaide but right through the state and elsewhere, are vitally interested in this?

TONY BURKE: Oh, absolutely. Look, these issues are very much being led by your program. They're now acknowledged everywhere as being national issues, and the progress, I agree a lot of this should have started years and years ago. But each time we talk we are getting that little bit further.

LEON BYNER: Tony, thank you for joining us.

That's the Water and Sustainability Minister Tony Burke.

ENDS