Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities
Interview with Matthew Abraham, ABC 891
11 April 2012
MATTHEW ABRAHAM: It's twelve past seven. Tony Burke joins us. Good morning, Minister for the River Murray.
TONY BURKE: Good day Matthew.
MATTHEW ABRAHAM: I hope you don’t mind that shorthand?
TONY BURKE: No, no, that way you've got the rest of your radio program.
MATTHEW ABRAHAM: Well that's right. Tony Burke, you're headed to the Lower Lakes today, what message do you take them?
TONY BURKE: I'm actually going further south, I'm going to the southern end of the Coorong. The reason I'm doing it, I've heard at different meetings concerns that for the Coorong to be restored to health there are a number of sources of water. The water coming down through the Murray is one of them, but there's also a series of drainage issues there.
Now I've had it explained in different ways, I always find these things much easier to get across when you go and see for yourself. So I'm going down to be able to have a good look at that myself because - and it doesn't get the volumes to the Murray off the hook in terms of the role that they play - but if there's a number of sources of water for that part of the Coorong then I really need to be able to understand that more effectively.
MATTHEW ABRAHAM: Okay. Well one of the things that they've been argy bargying about, and nobody can make a decision on, is whether you knock through - you pump through and effectively drain hyper-saline water out of the Coorong to see, through some form of canal or pipeline. It would seem a relatively easy and cheap thing to do, but it appears no one can agree on it. Are you going to be briefed on that?
TONY BURKE: Yeah there's a few different options that are sometimes discussed. There's the concept of getting water from Lake Albert that I've had put to me. There's also issues of the drainage, some of which currently goes out to sea - that in a natural situation a lot of that water would have actually gone into the Coorong. So there's no simple answer other than it's complicated, the Murray's part of it, but if you do the Murray on its own you probably don't fix the health of those parts of the Coorong. So…
MATTHEW ABRAHAM: If you want to have a case study though of kneejerk reactions to an environmental crisis, you couldn't go much further than Lake Albert and the Coorong. With, you know, buns put in, buns taken out, not taken out properly, the narrows now aren’t flowing effectively, they can’t make up their mind about how to clear it. They've largely ignored local advice; they were told that this would happen. Lake Albert, even though there's a stack of water in the system is still very saline. It's a bit shambolic to many people, looking at it.
TONY BURKE: Yeah and this sometimes leads to the argument upstream. It's an argument which I don’t accept, but an argument that's been put to me at many of the public meetings, which is to say well, you should just remove all of these interventions. I think at this end of the system it really, I mean South Australians understand this but I think it needs to be understood across the whole Basin that the interventions that have happened here are in response to interventions that have happened elsewhere.
MATTHEW ABRAHAM: Yeah.
TONY BURKE: So whereas elsewhere a lot of what's happened has been a direct change to the environment, the interventions here have been to try to preserve the environment in the context of over-allocation upstream. So it's a very different intervention that happens down here, and I mean what we're trying to do is, we all know that the entire Basin will never just be a purely natural system with no dams and no pumps again, but to try to - within the context of a managed system - to get it to the healthiest state possible. A lot of the answer to that is environmental water. Part of the answer to that is smarter engineering.
MATTHEW ABRAHAM: Okay, now the draft plan, this has been bandied around, tell me if I'm wrong here, because we're on - you know we've been down the track, we've had - revisited it. It's had to be revisited to take account of economic impacts on the communities along the Murray. That's a sore point with environmentalists and with the South Australian Government. Upstream they say that the proposal to put 2750 gigalitres of water back into the Murray is too much. Here we're saying it's inadequate. Is that a pretty - that's about where we're at?
TONY BURKE: A fair summary, there's one additional part of it all, which has pushed the numbers down, which was not an argument around when I first got the job and the guide, it wasn't something that was put to me in any serious way and the more we've looked at it it's become a significant issue. It's because when we take water for the environment it doesn't just automatically flow downstream, it gets stored in dams and at different points we use that water to effectively irrigate the environment.
We set up events that are required to restore wetlands to health, or to push water out through the mouth of the Murray. Now when you move that water from a dam downstream there are some constraints and some limits on how you use it. So the simplest one is there's some channels that you have to get water through, but a channel has a limit on how much water it will take at any point in time. If you go beyond that limit, instead of the water going downstream, it goes over the top and out.
Now some of those limits don't put a permanent capacity - because I don't want to rule out essentially being able to unlock some of those constraints, but they do put some limits on how much water we can effectively manage right now.
MATTHEW ABRAHAM: Okay now we're talking to Tony Burke, his job is Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water Population and Communities. Pamela [Gillett] has called, she lives at Woods Well on the Southern Lagoon of the Coorong. Pamela, good morning to you.
CALLER PAMELA: Oh good morning Matthew and good morning Minister.
MATTHEW ABRAHAM: You have the Minister's ear.
CALLER PAMELA: Good, look I'm really pleased and thank goodness I've just got out of bed actually to make this phone call. I'm really pleased to hear Minister that you're coming down to see the Southern Lagoon, because it is the most underestimated part of the whole Murray Darling Basin system.
Now a lot of people don't realise that pelicans, they don’t breed up in the North Lagoon, they breed down here, and in fact the Southern Lagoon is the nursery for different types of terns, mainly the Crested, the Caspian - I'm not sure about the Whiskered, they were here this year. But also the vulnerable Fairy Tern. And I think perhaps you might be the one that actually designated that as being vulnerable and for the first time in years it's actually bred this year.
MATTHEW ABRAHAM: Are you meeting Tony Burke down there?
CALLER PAMELA: I didn't even know he was coming down.
MATTHEW ABRAHAM: Well, because we've got a question here Minister, where exactly and who is water man seeing? That's from Lynn - I think she's referring to you. I mean are you going down and seeing some - you know, is this one of those little pre-arranged things where you see people who will tell you what you want to hear?
TONY BURKE: Look, it came up out of a public meeting, there were some people who asked me to come specifically down. Look I can get before the end of your program more information on that. But it came as a specific request at a meeting, I had another one last night for me to get to a different place which I won't get to tomorrow. But when someone stands up at those meetings and asks me to go and look at something and the argument they raise is something that I know I'm not well enough across, I try to say yes.
MATTHEW ABRAHAM: And would you rather be dealing with Mike Rann than Jay Weatherill?
TONY BURKE: I think whoever's in that job, but certainly Jay has been very passionate in putting forward the views of South Australia, and it's a good thing…
MATTHEW ABRAHAM: Well he's trying to scuttle the draft Basin plan, it's pretty clear. Mike Rann was a huge supporter. You've gone from having an ally to a hostile premier.
TONY BURKE: Yeah look, bear in mind I don't own the draft plan.
MATTHEW ABRAHAM: No, no.
TONY BURKE: I didn’t own the guide, I don't own the draft plan. In a few months' time…
MATTHEW ABRAHAM: It sounds like nobody wants to own the draft plan.
TONY BURKE: Well in a few months' time there will be a document that I will have to own, and so the clock's ticking for me on having to say this is what I think is the best cut of how we can actually have a national plan for the Basin.
MATTHEW ABRAHAM: So would you rather be dealing with Mike Rann that Jay Weatherill?
TONY BURKE: I haven't thought about it in those terms. I'm not dodging I'm genuinely thinking about it Matthew.
MATTHEW ABRAHAM: Yeah.
TONY BURKE: Look, I don't think there's any doubt that the push for changes has been tougher for me since Jay Weatherill arrived. The push for changes and the pressure that's been put on has escalated a lot since Jay Weatherill was here. So in terms of pressure, no doubt that's stronger, but if that leads to a better document in the end, then I think that's a good thing.
MATTHEW ABRAHAM: Well it may lead to no document though.
TONY BURKE: Oh well I…
MATTHEW ABRAHAM: What if the whole thing…
TONY BURKE: If it gets to that point, then it's for anybody who actually pushes to the point of trying to blow the whole thing up, and misses the opportunity. Now I don't think Jay Weatherill will take it to that, I genuinely don't. But I'll put out as a general principle, if anyone gets to the point of saying they'd rather have nothing than a national plan for the Basin, at that point I think there's no doubt, the river loses.
MATTHEW ABRAHAM: Okay now it's just under nine degrees, twenty-two is the forecast top, lovely sunny weather. We're talking to Tony Burke who will be in almost perfect conditions in the Southern Lagoon of the Coorong today. Sam from Lake Albert - Tony Burke is the Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water Population and Communities, here on 891 Breakfast twenty-two past seven - Sam good morning from Lake Albert.
CALLER SAM: Good morning, yeah, I'm just responding, I heard one of your earlier calls make the comment that who invited him down. Well I'm involved with the group that has invited him - Minister Burke - to the area today. And we're basically a community representative group that's put together a five point plan in relation to the restoration of Lake Albert and the Coorong. So it's no particular group, we've been made up of farmers, local business owners, we've had representations from fishermen, the…
MATTHEW ABRAHAM: Okay.
CALLER SAM: …local community, so it's very broad ranging. But we just basically acknowledge that what it will take to fix this area is not just simply an add more waters scenario solution, which tends to be the road that the Premier seems to be going down. We've had nearly 20,000 gigalitres passed through this area in the last two years with flood waters and it hasn't rectified the problem.
So we acknowledge that as a consequence of manmade change we need minor engineering works in Lake Albert and the Coorong, to fix some of the problems. We’re not calling for major changes, but nonetheless we're acknowledging that even with this new basin plan, we're not going to get natural flows to the area. And just some minor changes need to be made to open up the area to create better inflows and outflows through Lake Albert and also into the Coorong.
MATTHEW ABRAHAM: Yeah.
CALLER SAM: Possibly to turn around sort of these terminal - what are currently terminal water bodies, to open them up to create through flows.
MATTHEW ABRAHAM: Yeah, Sam from Lake Albert thank you and no doubt, Tony Burke, you'll be meeting Sam. But, Tony Burke, if others want to meet you today, or at least hear you, are they able to do that? Where will you be?
TONY BURKE: Look that group will be taking me to a series of different places today.
MATTHEW ABRAHAM: Okay.
TONY BURKE: So while I was asking questions last night about when will I next be in…
MATTHEW ABRAHAM: You won’t be in like a Hummer with darkened windows or anything like that?
TONY BURKE: I don’t think so.
MATTHEW ABRAHAM: No, just checking.
TONY BURKE: I wouldn't feel altogether comfortable with that.
MATTHEW ABRAHAM: Tony Burke thank you.
TONY BURKE: Okay good to talk to you.
MATTHEW ABRAHAM: Safe travels. Thanks for your calls. He's the Minister for the River Murray in short. Twenty-four past seven.