Department of the Environment

Archived media releases and speeches

The Hon Tony Burke MP

Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities

Interview: Alan Jones - water purchasing

15 November 2011
E&OE only

I've been broadcasting from Mildura for the last two days. It is, as hopefully most people know, the northern most point of the state of Victoria in the heart of huge wine and fruit growing region.

Importantly, Mildura began as an irrigation settlement in 1887 when two visionary Americans, George and WB Chaffey signed a deed from the colonial fathers and somehow gained access to a heap of free land in return for spending 300,000 pounds to redevelop the area, an awful lot of money then. Mark Twain visited this region in the late 1800's and compared it favourably with the Mississippi River. But it was the determination of early settlers to establish, their words, happy homes amongst civilised conditions and they established musical societies, sporting bodies and church groups to nurture their souls. Unquote.

Their words. Sadly, I'm broadcasting here that those happy homes and civilised conditions are at risk from the ignorance and indifference of government. The issue of course is water, unlimited amounts of water in the Australia of today, available to the mining industry and indeed the timber industry while threats exist to take water from farmers in what was, in 1887, an irrigation settlement. Mildura was the name of the sheep station where the Chaffey brothers settled way back in the 19th century. The Chaffey brothers had come from California. There was a major drought in Victoria from 1887 to 1894 which prompted Alfred Deakin, later to become Prime Minister of Australia, but then a Minister in the Victorian Government and Chairman of a Royal Commission on Water Supply to visit the irrigation areas of California. They were arguing even then about water. When Chaffey came to Australia in 1886 he selected the derelict sheep station known as Mildura as the site for his first irrigation settlement modelled on California. Now the Gillard Government, to appease the Greens, threatens to dismantle what was first put in place all those years ago. There is plenty of history to Mildura, post world war 1 the town experienced an influx of migrants from Mediterranean countries including Italy and Greece, their descendents are here today, they are the new victims. Mildura was officially proclaimed a city in 1894, it is only about 50 metres above sea level despite being several hundred kilometres from the coast. Irrigation - well it is classified as being a semi-arid climate, rainfall is only on average 280 millimetres a year albeit spread evenly over the months and seasons. It's hot, average maximum temperature 32 degrees in Summer.

But it is the centre of Victoria's food bowl and that food bowl is also a tourism mecca. A $210 million tourism industry. Sitting on the Murray River, down which I travelled yesterday, Mildura is a hub for water sports, paddle steamers, boat cruises but water is the centre of this city. Not far from where I'm broadcasting is the Australian Inland Botanic Gardens, a massive tourist attraction which can't survive without water.

This was, as I said, an irrigation settlement when it began in 1887 and now we've reached the point in the development of our country where the mining industry can make application to have any amount of water released from the Murray Darling Basin to accommodate the quick quid but the threat of taking water from farmers in this district is very real which brings me back to the issue I've been talking about for some time - food security. How many blocks of 40 or 50 hectares do you take water from before the whole community becomes unviable in an agricultural sense and that's where these communities now stand. The metaphor of Mildura is a metaphor for life across large tracts of Australia. A massive fight on for their very survival. Whether it's the Darling Downs, the Liverpool Plains or right here in Mildura. This is a battle that Australians, not just the people here, but Australians must win.

ALAN JONES: Fifteen minutes after seven and the Water Minister - I call him the Water Minister - anyway Tony Burke is on the line. Minister, good morning.

TONY BURKE:   Good morning Alan.

ALAN JONES:    Look, I'm always grateful when you speak on occasions such as this because it is very, very important.  I know you've rescheduled plane flights this morning so that you can speak to us, for which I'm grateful.  I'm just wondering, do you know that Mildura began as an irrigation settlement in 1887? This part of the world is classified as semi-arid. Rainfall 280 millimetres a year. Without water, you may as well close the joint down. Can I ask you up front, can you guarantee that no farmer will have his water entitlement taken from him?


ALAN JONES: Okay. No farmer will have his water entitlement taken from him.

TONY BURKE: Yes. Absolute guarantee on that, yeah.

ALAN JONES: Okay, okay.  So you're not going to take water from farmers. Right.  Now let me ask you this. I'd love to - and I think you should get yourself down here and be driven around this joint as I was yesterday - and you will see the flip side of what you just said.

So you're not going to take water from any farmer, but I was driven around and I saw block after block - ten hectares, twenty hectares where farmers fed up have sold their water entitlement because if they don't have an entitlement to water, the banks won't lend them money. At what point when people are fed up, their water entitlement is sold, at what point do then these unproductive lumps of land lead to the conclusion that agriculture in this community is no longer viable?

TONY BURKE:   I believe there'll always be viable agriculture in that region.

ALAN JONES:    But it won't be if you come down here and say sell your water entitlement to us. The bloke's got the bank breathing down his throat so you're not going to force water from anybody, you're not going to take water from any farmer but you're a buyer.  Why I don't know. I don't know. We'll come to that later. You're a buyer. So the poor bloke's in trouble at the bank and he says I've had a gutful of this. I've got two kids.  Bugger it. Take my water. Once you take the water off that land it's unproductive. So you're going to - your actions by actually buying from willing sellers is turning this magnificent food bowl into an unviable agricultural entity.

TONY BURKE: As I say Alan, I've got a belief that there will always be a strong agricultural production area throughout Mildura.

ALAN JONES: But that's a fantasy. See, I can drive you around here.

TONY BURKE: I know Alan, I've been around myself and when the first time I had a good look around was when I first became Ag Minister, which was before water purchasing had even started. A lot of what you've described then was already happening just by farmers selling within the water market and selling to each other and letting entire crops go. I remember you'd see the different side by side with vines that have been let go completely and you'd see that beside some magnificent production. So that story has been a very difficult part of the story of Mildura.

ALAN JONES: Yeah but let me put this to you. Just supposing you're living in a street with ten houses and those ten houses constitute the council and the council needs money and it charges rates on those ten houses and that's the council.  We just reduce it to a minuscule model and bit by bit each one of those is vacated.  There's only three left in the street who have got to provide the money for the council that used to be provided by ten. Now, I've got a farmer with me here, Cos, whose mother lives in Mildura. She's got a house worth half as much as her mother in Melbourne - as her sister in Melbourne. The sister's got a house in Melbourne worth $600,000. The water rates are 1600 bucks. But the mother lives in Mildura, a house worth half as much, $300,000 but the water rates are $2500 a year. The fewer and fewer people who are living, the higher the rates are going to have to be. That is a way of running people out of town and buying up water is causing that problem.

TONY BURKE: If I can just provide one piece of information, which I...

ALAN JONES: No, but you understand what I'm saying?

TONY BURKE: No, no, I understand exactly what you're saying Alan.

ALAN JONES: But see I mean, if I could just - before you do, let me tell you this. The coal seam gas industry is reported to be going to be extracting from the same Murray Darling Basin 300 gigalitres a year.

A gigalitre is a billion litres, a billion litres. That's 500 swimming pools. We've got no limit on how much water the coal seam gas industry is going to take out of the Murray Darling Basin. 300 gigalitres is a 150,000 Olympic sized swimming pools and we're trying to take 3000 gigalitres or at least that fellow from South Australia - Weatherill the new Premier says it must be 3000 gigalitres away from farmers. What for? To give to miners. How do you answer that argument?

TONY BURKE: Well, if I can first say, I will talk about the coal seam gas issue but before I do, if I can just say on the numbers that Craig Knowles as Chair of the Murray Darling Basin Authority's talking about at the moment, those are numbers where nearly half of that work is already done.  Nearly half of that work is already done.

ALAN JONES: What work?

TONY BURKE: In terms of - in terms of getting water...

ALAN JONES: But what do you - what are you in the business of buying water for?

TONY BURKE: Oh what, to make sure that in the in between years - not - it won't make a difference in the massive flood years and it won't make a difference in the depth of drought.  Where it makes a difference is for those years in between where you can make sure you keep the system healthy enough that when you get through the drought - when you get to the toughest years of drought, you don't have as much salt in the system...

ALAN JONES: But hang on.  Who is keeping - who is keeping the farming, the agricultural system healthy?  They're feeding us.  I'm sorry.  I can't drink out of the Murray Darling and I can't eat coal for breakfast.  Who is keeping the farmer healthy?  Why are we giving unlimited water to coal seam gas and timber and taking three thousand gigalitres away from Murray Darling farmers who are the food bowl not just of Australia but of the world?  Why do we do this?  You're a young bloke.  You're new to the Parliament.  You've got a future.  You do listen.  I wish you'd cut yourself off from all those drones in Canberra who on the one hand are swallowing the global warming hoax and on the next argument swallowing the hoax that the Murray Darling's going to die.  I tell you what Tony, it's taken a bloody long time to die.  It was there before we came here and it's still alive.  It's still regenerated itself after the drought.  The notion about the Murray Darling dying is a bigger hoax as global warming.

TONY BURKE: You're in a part of the Basin where there is an understandable grievance about investment in the irrigators there. We've had money set aside for some time that still hasn't been spent there.  It's been spent in other parts of the Murray and we made a large announcement in another part of Victoria only a few weeks ago with the National Party Minister there.  But the Sunraysia project for irrigation efficiency is something that we do have to find a way to make work. It is a significant investment in the efficiency and productivity of the irrigators in that area and...

ALAN JONES: Who's telling you all this?  Tony, this is...

TONY BURKE: No, no, what I've just described was told to me directly the last time I was in Mildura by irrigators who...

ALAN JONES: They are the most efficient irrigators in the world. Look, I've got a - this is not a - I'm not blindsiding you here and you're a big boy anyway.  You can cop it.  While you've been talking here, Cos, one of the farmers, just listen to this because it's the only chance he'll have to make sure you hear him.  Cos.

TONY BURKE: Yes, that's important.

ALAN JONES: Cos, go on.

CALLER COS: Yeah, is that you Mr Burke, Tony?

TONY BURKE: Yeah, g'day Cos.

CALLER COS: Yeah.  Well I don't know, when you do come here you don't - you do not go to the grass roots growers.  That means the people that actually work in the land, not get paid by any person, council, DC, which are a bunch of you know what.  I'll just give you a little bit of an understanding of critical mass, which makes us competitive on the world scenes.  Merbein, they haven't got an upgraded system.  They used to pump in the 2000 thereabouts, thirty- six- thousand megs.  Last year they - with all the rain, they only done six thousand megs.  You know why?  Because there's no farmers left there.  But that's not an upgraded system.  I've now moved over to Mourquong, which is on the New South Wales side and the Western Murray, they've got - they've had the world's best system, high pressured system for many years.  They're now facing the cost of how they're going to spread the rest of the farmers, the ones that have left to the ones that have left - that are left behind, the cost.

Now that's a world's - the world's best system that we've got in place and they are still not viable, because they haven't got any bloody water left - that's the reason - because we over allocated.  You want me to believe you in this Murray Darling Basin. We had the Murray Darling Basin plan in place before you and I were born basically, because the sleeper licences were put in place.  They were not activated. For the wisdom of the pollies they come in and they said we have to activate the sleeper licences, which was - I think equates to twenty- seven per cent of the Murray Darling Basin, another disaster.

We've got all these policies in place. We spend money. We spend money on trying to buy back people's livelihoods. Why don't we - it's been put - it's been put forward to you guys in Federal and in States - why don't we put the Murray gates in place? It's between - it's between the Dartmouth and the Hume. We've recited this many times because we've had to bring it to people's attention and no one's listening. So I don't know what you want to do about this Murray Darling Basin plan, but whatever you are going to do, we can't believe you anyway because you'll change the bloody goalposts halfway through the - through the process.

ALAN JONES: See, if I could just say Tony, the anger here is palpable. Now the report last year was rubbish and that was recalled by you and you put another bloke in charge. That was to take 3000 or 4000 gigalitres out of the system here.  Now the report that's going to come out on the twenty eighth is 2800.  There's absolutely no difference whatever and so the Murray Darling Basin Authority is running around upsetting farmers, alienating them and basically encouraging banks to foreclose.  Because the bank first says to the farmer have you got a guarantee of water supply, no, well I'm sorry we're not rolling over the loan.  Now you're going to protect the Murray Darling Basin, whatever the problems might be, by robbing farmers, by ruining farmers, by destroying Australian agricultural.   You're not going to do it.  You can cut water entitlement to the farmers but that's cutting off jobs to the town. That's cutting off the life blood of the town.  I mean, are the Greens so firmly in control of the narrative that these people here have to suffer?

TONY BURKE: Oh Alan, as you know this legislation was put in place when Malcolm Turnbull was the Water Minister.  It was...

ALAN JONES: I have no faith in Malcolm Turnbull as a Water Minister at all, none.

TONY BURKE:   No, no, I'm just saying in terms of trying to team this on the current Parliament, this issue and the legislation around, it's been there for a long time.  Can I quickly - because I don't want to avoid the comments you made about coal seam gas if that's okay?

ALAN JONES: Yes, go on.

TONY BURKE: My view on mining projects is they need to be viewed in water differently if there is connection to the rest of the system to which there is not.  My powers go to whether or not you've got what they call matters of national environmental significance, which effectively just means there's some issues I can take into account, some legally I can't get to but the principle I think is important.  The principle that needs to happen with mining I believe is if there is no connectivity with the rest of your underground water or with your surface water, then there is not a problem...

ALAN JONES: Well there is a connectivity. I mean these...

TONY BURKE: ...I agree with what you've had to say on it...

ALAN JONES: These people are emptying the aquifers for God's sake.

We don't know anything about - we don't know anything about what they're doing to food security.  We don't know anything about water contamination.  We don't know anything about de-watering the aquifers and yet we allow these people to go ahead.  See, the point I'm trying to make here, which someone in Canberra doesn't understand, these people sitting here - I've got a room full of farmers here.  They do not get access to water from the Murray Darling when the river flows - until river flows reach certain levels.  If there's no water in the Murray Darling we get nothing.  Even though they pay for their allocation, he doesn't get his money back.  Even when the river flows strongly farmers don't take the water ahead of the environmental flow. They don't take the water ahead of the needs for the towns.  I mean, why aren't we spending money - you're Water Minister - not one cent has been spent by this Government building dams.  We've had inches and inches and inches of rain this year, Tony. You tell me how many cups of that have been harvested by a new infrastructure project?

TONY BURKE: Oh Alan, I've opened the Headquarters dam.  We're expanding the Chaffey dam.  Up in the far north we've put in a massive expansion of the Ord irrigation area.  In terms of building of dams - and I've followed this up since you first raised it with me.


TONY BURKE: I am not an Environment Minister or Water Minister who is hostile to the building of dams and when they've been proposed in the right location, I approve them and as Water Minister where the funding's available on occasions we fund them.

ALAN JONES: But four billion litres of water a day are not used in the Ord scheme.  Four billion litres and we're taking three thousand gigalitres from farmers who are the most productive in the world. Four billion litres of water a day not used in the Ord scheme. I've mentioned this to you before.  The Fitzroy river is fifty times greater than the Ord river scheme. Or if you take the north, the Gulf of Carpentaria, I mean there's water everywhere. 150,000 gigalitres a year is wasted in the north west of Australia, in the north of Australia, in the north east of Australia and we're asking farmers down here to take 3000 gigalitres away from their livelihood when they're making no contribution whatever to the health or ill health of the Murray Darling system.

TONY BURKE: There are some dams in the north where damming works. The Ord's one of them. There are some rivers which if you dammed, because they're a very wide flood plain you'd actually just take - you'd take agricultural land out of production rather than increase it.  So depending on the land that surrounds rivers, there's some where dams work and some where they don't.

ALAN JONES: Macquarie National news - oh goodness me - sorry it's half past seven.  Can I just ask you, have you read this 2008 South African report called Environment Flow Assessments for Rivers Manual for Building Block Methodology, which is the most outstanding management plan in water management in the world?  There - see I reckon...

TONY BURKE: I'd like to get a copy of that Alan.

ALAN JONES: Well, I mean this is why - you're advised by bureaucrats and they won't even tell you this exists. If I could get hold of that thing on November twenty-eight I'd rip it up and put it in the bin because it's a waste of money.

What they say in South Africa - and this is regarded now as the most outstanding - and I spoke to a professor yesterday about this. The water authorities take their scientific data, which is always limited, to give them scientific data - out to local communities - like Cos' people here for extensive scrutiny. And there's only about seventy per cent of that scientific data coming from the bureaucrats. The rest comes from local stakeholders, communities, towns, irrigators, water managers; people who've lived and worked there for generations.

And in South Africa it's only when the stakeholders have signed off on all the agreed scientific data that the process of drafting a plan begins. We're doing the opposite here. And in South Africa the regions are categorised; so there might be level one which doesn't really need its fantastic - it's pristine water. You leave it alone. There's level five, which is severely degraded. We're going to have to tip some water into that.

But we're treating everyone in the Murray- Darling system as if they're the same. And so these farmers now become the next victims in a district which began as an irrigation district.

TONY BURKE: If I can get a copy of that I'd appreciate it.

ALAN JONES: Well, it's on the website.

TONY BURKE: Okay. Well, I'll have it in my hand later today.

ALAN JONES: It's on the website.

TONY BURKE: The other thing can, I can flag because Cos raised something very important because he knows that I have been to Mildura and been visiting and meeting with people; but raised the point that he thinks I've been meeting with the wrong people.

If it's possible to get Cos' details - and next time I'm down there to actually organise something that works with him, so that I'm not just dealing with peak bodies; I'm dealing with the people on the ground. I think that would be a...

ALAN JONES: Cos is here. Cos...

COS: Tony, Tony, listen. I was on the peak bodies. I was on the Sunraysia Table Grape as a president. I was on the Australian Table Grape Association. I was on the VFF. I was on the Growers' Action Group, which was a radical movement. But none of you guys were listening.

I just - I made statements but I actually want you - there's two things that I want you to come back on me and give me an answer, is what happens to these guys that are left in Merbein, now pumping water which - at one stage we were pumping thirty-six, like I said, thousand megs.

And now they're only pumping six or eight thousand megs. What happens to them guys with their head work charges and their water charges and now the cost of how it's going to be spread over less people? How are they going to survive now that you've put the ants into their nest, and a white ant in it - from the inside?

ALAN JONES: Well, how do they survive? I don't know. Cos is just saying how do you survive? You can't survive here, Tony, without water.

See? Coming back to consulting, you were going to talk to Cos and others. What your bureaucracy does - you stick a whole lot of documents on the Murray-Darling Basin Authority website. That's not consultation.

Now, with this second plan, more data is plonked on a website, but comments can only be submitted by email. There have been closed door discussions but only with invited stakeholders. And the Basin communities are told well, there will be public meetings after the second draft plan is released; but only if they're requested.

I mean that is not public consultation. And what Cos is saying is we talk and talk and talk. They say oh, we've heard you now, but they go back and do what they intended to do in the first place.

TONY BURKE:   That's why I do my own consultation as well. And that's why last time - even though we invited the TV cameras - but I think they only came on one occasion. I had a series of meetings in sheds, on properties, in different parts of the Basin, where growers invited a whole host of different people along. I let them be in charge of the invitation list, not selected by me, and there were some where we were sitting on stacks of hay around a shed with - but we just had long conversations and went for as long as it needed to be. I don't believe I can let the department run the consultation.

ALAN JONES: Well, I hope not. But look, I just want to leave you with one point here, which is just - which - firstly, you did say you won't be forcing farmers to sell - fine. But you're still on a buyback scheme for about three billion bucks. You are still buying back water.

Do you understand that if you buy back enough water here and you accept people cashing in their water entitlements, it's eventually not going to be viable for anyone to be in agriculture? I mean this is what Cos is saying: it's not going to be viable.

There comes a point where, as I said, at the end of the street, that house - there's a bloke living in that house; there's a bloke living in the other house, and in between they've all vacated the joint - it's no longer viable for those two blokes to be able to afford to live in the street. That's where we're coming to in Mildura. Go on.

COS: Actually, in one of the policies that they did make is if the spur lines on some areas are - just like you just said. If he's at the end of the line - the poor old farmer - they have the right to terminate him because it is not viable for the authority to send water down there.

ALAN JONES: That's right. There's no water in between, so why send it to the bloke down there? See, this is the crisis. I mean I'm urging you - pleading with you - to say this is not an answer, this rubbish that's coming out on the twenty-eighth; because if you'd come down here and see what's happening in this community, they are nothing without water.

Water is their asset. And the whole community depends on that.

TONY BURKE: As I said, Alan, the amounts of water that are being talked about at the moment, almost half of that's already done; so I don't doubt for a minute what you've described about there are levels that you could go to which - if we were to go to those sorts of numbers - and some would argue that three thousand eight hundred in the guide would have had the sort of impacts that, you know, the scenarios that you're describing. Two thousand eight hundred...

ALAN JONES: They're going broke every day Tony. They're going broke every day. And as I said, you're talking about managing the Murray-Darling Basin. You're talking about managing the Great Artesian Basin. And I repeat: three hundred gigalitres of water a year are given, without any sanction, to the coal seam gas industry. And here we've got farmers on absolutely the bare bones of their backside, when they know that okay, Tony Burke's not going to buy water from them - fine. But everyone else is selling out to the point whereby the community becomes unviable.

TONY BURKE: Yes, well, as I was starting to say before with the coal seam gas example, Alan, is that under the conditions that I've put in place - which I think the states should do as well - where you get a significant connection to the rest of the water; they should have to put the water back in.

ALAN JONES: What? Contaminated water?

TONY BURKE: Some, they'll say it's not cost efffective and that jeopardises the project. I don't think it...

ALAN JONES: Toxic water?

TONY BURKE: I don't think you'd take that sort of risk with water. If there's a significant connection, then I think reinjection or re-pressurisation is the way to make sure that the water table's protected.

ALAN JONES: So, I'm just - a final point: this is repetitive, but we've got the notion of we're not going to buy back water. But water entitlements - I mean if a water entitlement is sold by Cos, for example, tomorrow, to you, that water entitlement will never return to Cos's farm because his is semi-arid, Cos' farm is totally unviable forever. Do you understand that?

TONY BURKE: Now Alan, most of the water that we buy is people selling part of their entitlement. So, for example, you described the rice growers before - who I think are a great example, because we do have the most efficient rice growers in the world. And when there's not enough water they don't grow a crop. When there is they grow a very profitable and high quality crop.

Now, because they're more efficient than they used to be a lot of rice growers have sold a portion of their entitlement. That's the majority of sales that we're involved with; where someone has improved their efficiency - sometimes with Government help. But let's face it, most of them started on their own.

ALAN JONES: But selling to you - selling to the Government - I just want to leave you with this point - and you can read the transcript, which I've made twenty times - I'll make it the twenty-first and final time: do you understand that the Government, in buying water entitlement from some beleaguered farmer who wants the cash, that Government, by doing that, is driving the farming industry to the wall?

You are the architect of bringing down the very farming industry that's feeding this country, by simply being available as a bank to buy water and fund some poor coot that's got his back to the wall. That land is unviable. And this is what's bringing this outfit - this community down; just as the coal seam gas industry is bringing down the Liverpool Plains, the Darling Downs. Where is - what is the future of agriculture in this country under this kind of thinking?

TONY BURKE: Alan, the reason we're investing so much more in infrastructure improvements than gets spent on buyback is because we are determined that there's a strong viable future there.

ALAN JONES: Okay. Alright, we can't go on any further. I'm very grateful for the fact that you've talked with us. I'd ask you to check the transcript and have a look at that South Australian thing. And I suppose it's a forlorn hope to ask you that when you get the report on twenty-eight November you put it where it belongs, Tony: in the biggest bin you can find.

TONY BURKE: Always a pleasure to talk to you, Alan.

ALAN JONES: Okay. Tony Burke, the Water Minister, Twenty to eight.