Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities
Interview: Leon Byner, 5AA: Draft Murray-Darling Basin plan
30 November 2011
LEON BYNER: It's been an interesting morning. Now, the Murray-Darling Basin draft plan was released on Monday and it's been greeted with scepticism and criticism from irrigators and environmentalists. The Federal Water Minister Tony Burke has defended the plan as a necessary compromise to secure reform of the way that water is allocated up and down the river Murray-Darling Basin.
Now here in South Australia, the Premier Jay Weatherill is refusing to rule out legal action over the amount of water which will be returned to the environment. Under the plan 2750 gigalitres will be returned to the rivers to help improve environmental areas. But most scientists reckon that's not enough and that a minimum 3000 to 4000 gigalitres is required. Weatherill says he wants a minimum of 3500 gigs.
Now at the same time, South Australian irrigators are being asked to give up more water, despite the fact that our farmers are the most water efficient in the country and have spent a lot of their own money over a number of decades to save every last drop we can.
Now currently, these earlier adopters in South Australia are at a competitive disadvantage compared to irrigators interstate.
The Federal Government has made available a $5.8 billion fund to help irrigators make their farms more water efficient. But this is effectively free money from taxpayers to eastern states farmers, who are inefficient and need to do the kind of works SA farmers did years ago, largely paid for out of their own pockets.
Now, South Australian irrigators on the other hand, have only been able to access a fraction of this money because our farms are deemed already too efficient to require further works. So this seems to be a classic case of Federal Government rewarding bad behaviour and I'll be asking Tony Burke in a moment why our farmers aren't being compensated for efficiency that they have already done to ensure a level playing field right across the Murray-Darling Basin.
Now there is a lot of money at stake here. All up through the Basin plan, through Howard, Rudd and Gillard, has cost like ten billion dollars. But if we get it wrong we can be in all sorts of trouble. Now, Tony Burke, thank you for coming in this morning.
TONY BURKE: A pleasure to be here Leon.
LEON BYNER: Again, if you've got a question 8223 0000. So Tony, will you have a look at seriously compensating our farmers for doing what now you are going to provide taxpayers' money for other farmers to do to catch up?
TONY BURKE: Leon, there has been a problem in getting the money that's reserved for South Australian irrigators out the door.
LEON BYNER: Why?
TONY BURKE: For the exact reasons you say. That the money is available to improve efficiencies and therefore if people are starting at a lower base, then it's easier for them to qualify. We've managed to get more out the door now for South Australian irrigators than had been the case a while ago. But it still is falling a long way behind. I've made sure that money remains reserved for this state. But it's one of the issues that I've had Federal Members of Parliament and I've had the Premier raise with me and we do have to find a way through that.
LEON BYNER: Are you going to change the criteria? Because if the criteria that you've currently got, Tony, stays, our farmers aren't going to be able to get the money because they're too efficient.
TONY BURKE: That may well be the way we look at it. Certainly I don't want money to be spent simply as a prize for what was done years ago. I'd rather that there were further improvements as a result. Finding a way to be able to do that, in a way that really works with communities is one of the things we need to unlock here. I couldn't agree more.
LEON BYNER: So you acknowledge that SA farmers are at a competitive disadvantage because they can't access these funds and grants because they're too efficient? In other words they're being punished for good behaviour.
TONY BURKE: They're not the only irrigators in this situation. But there's no doubt that you look at the figures and the ones who have been early adopters, who have done a whole lot of the work in advance, do have more trouble qualifying for work that's about bringing people up to that level.
LEON BYNER: Okay. Before we get onto the next point, how much money potentially is available if you can free up the access for our growers?
TONY BURKE: Oh look, there are a number of different programs. So it depends on exactly how you cut it. But we're talking about - there is three and a half billion across the Murray-Darling on these sorts of infrastructure projects and we've got other - there's on-farm programs. There is a whole range of different programs. Ultimately the most important thing for this state, I believe, isn't the money. It's the water. But there's still an issue of equity with the money itself and I want to make sure that we find a way of unlocking that.
LEON BYNER: Leading water experts like Professor Mike Young from the Wentworth Group of Scientists, says the 2750 gigalitires back to the environment is not enough. Can you guarantee that there will be enough water to keep the Murray mouth and the lower lakes in a sustainable environmental state?
TONY BURKE: Yeah and I work on the basis that a sustainable state for the Murray mouth, for example, is to have that mouth open nine years out of ten. Now some people say they want it open 97% of the time, 99% of the time. To do something like that you'd effectively be ending irrigation in every state, including South Australia. We do have a situation where there is food production throughout the basin. That will continue.
LEON BYNER: Alright.
TONY BURKE: But the health of the system shouldn't be at stake on the way through.
LEON BYNER: Ron Graham of [inaudible], you're talking with the Water Minister, what would you like to say?
RON: Tony, just to - I think a simple way to stop all the debate whether South Australia has been hit too hard, is doing an audit of all the irrigation areas in New South Wales and Victoria and South Australia and - like Nick Xenophon said - and let's have a look at how efficient we are and we can actually physically prove that we are way ahead of the other states and we should be compensated for it.
TONY BURKE: Yeah, look. There are some catchments throughout other states where you do find some very, very highly efficient works. So I don't want to get into a situation where we're pretending that South Australia is the only place that's done the right thing. That's not the case.
But the most important thing for South Australia, I believe, is to restore the system to health and that's why we have to approach the basin at a national level. We've always in the past approached it as though every state could fight from its own corner. If we continue along that path and just continue the battle that's now a century old, we will end up next year without basin reform and I really want to make sure we deliver on that.
LEON BYNER: Brian, you're talking with Tony Burke.
BRIAN: Yeah good morning Leon. G'day Tony.
TONY BURKE: G'day Brian.
BRIAN: I've got a question about the rice and cotton stations. Instead of buying up cattle stations in New South Wales and Queensland that have only got a significant amount of water there that they use for their cattle and don't use any chemicals, or very little chemicals, why don't they - why don't you use that money to buy up the rice and cotton stations that have got all - holding all this water and divert that back into the system?
LEON BYNER: Tony?
TONY BURKE: Brain, it's a good point and the way buy water is on the principle that we buy it from people who want to sell it. Now, often because of the high volumes involved, it often is rice growers and cotton growers who want to sell the water. But I don't want to get in the business of telling farmers what to grow and I don't want to get in the business of forcing anyone to have their water taken from them. There are enough people wanting to sell that we can deliver the reform.
LEON BYNER: Senator Nick Xenophon has called in. Senator, you know Tony, don't you?
NICK XENOPHON: Absolutely and we have a good working relationship. Look, I'm encouraged by what Tony has said in terms of acknowledging that early adopters need to be given credit and need to be rewarded for their good behaviour earlier on. So we need to work through a solution. A number of proposals have been put. We need to thrash this out in the next few weeks.
I guess another issue out of leftfield is the issue of managed investment schemes. A lot of resentment from farmers that big corporate interest using tax write-offs have distorted the water market and that's something that I think we need to tackle in the course of this consultation of the Basin plan, while is not part of it, it will make a difference in the water market.
LEON BYNER: What do you say Tony?
TONY BURKE: Oh, very significant issue and it goes right to the point of interception where managed investment schemes have resulted in a number of places going through, whether it be plantation forestry or different things that have involved a high level of interception of water.
LEON BYNER: Nick. I want you and Tony to have a talk about the commoditisation of water. We did it to electricity and look what's happened. We're paying absurd prices for power and now they've stuffed that up and you've got Rod Sims from the ACCC saying we've been gouged. I don't want the same thing to happen with water Tony.
I've got a question for you that's really important and we've talked about this before - and Nick, thanks for calling in. My concern is that you have got a lot of investors who are not using the water for any purpose other than treating it as if it's something on the stock market. Now, I don't think that's good for Australia. Do you?
TONY BURKE: No I don't and you know that I've said before that I don't - I'm not afraid of investment in terms of it can create jobs in Australia. I don't like a situation where investment in water is happening purely for the interests of speculation. But I have to say when the audit was done of foreign ownership in terms of both water and of agricultural land. The figures that came out weren't as alarming as what the anecdotes had been providing leading up to that.
LEON BYNER: The South Australian Government is considering legal action to fight for the plan that you've released. Have you had direct talks with Jay Wetherill on this and do you understand where he's coming from?
TONY BURKE: I'm meeting with the Premier after this program today and I want to see a situation where we don't have every state back in its corner fighting it out. I want to see a situation where we actually finally land with a national approach to the Basin and there's a level of cooperation that needs to happen to achieve that.
I respect the South Australian view and the South Australian frustrations. But we have a window of opportunity in front of us right now that will come to a vote in the Federal Parliament next year and we'll either finally get a national approach to the Murray-Darling Basin or we won't.
LEON BYNER: You know your weakness here is that if another state decides it doesn't like what you're doing, it just reneges and walks away and your Authority doesn't have the teeth to make anything other than that allowable.
TONY BURKE: Oh no, no. If we get this vote through the Federal Parliament next year then we have the teeth to make sure that the reform is enforced. The states get first option on putting forward their water resource plans.
LEON BYNER: Alright.
TONY BURKE: But if they don't meet the standards you've got Federal intervention powers that become available.
LEON BYNER: Now, this is really important. Who is going to be in charge of the implementation? Because the Commonwealth or the states is one or the other and given the fact that the states have done such an appalling job when it comes to this, which is why we've got to this point, who is going to make sure the implementation is done?
TONY BURKE: We set the rules. The states get a chance to implement it and if they don't implement it up to standards, then the Murray-Darling Basin Authority has the power to take over that role from the states.
LEON BYNER: Alright. Tony, I know time is of the essence here, to go and see Jay. I hope we can get something more out of this, because currently the only person that seems happy about this is you.
TONY BURKE: There are a couple of others. Butů
LEON BYNER: Not many, are there?
TONY BURKE: I tell you, there will be no-one happy if this falls over next year and we miss the opportunity that's in front of us.
LEON BYNER: Alright. Tony Burke, Water Minister.