Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities
Interview with Fran Kelly, ABC Sydney
12 April 2012
FRAN KELLY: Dr John Williams from the Wentworth Group ending that report from our environment editor, Gregg Borschmann. The Federal Water Minister, let's call him that for shorthand, Tony Burke, joins you from Adelaide this morning. Minister, good morning.
TONY BURKE: Good morning, Fran.
FRAN KELLY: At the moment the draft plan belongs to the Murray-Darling Basin Authority. When does it become your plan and when can you decide whether or not you can sell it to the Parliament?
TONY BURKE: There's a couple of months of process before I end up with a document that would be in a form that I would have to take personal ownership of. So public consultation ends in about six days. The Authority will come back to me with their final cut of what they think it should be and then there's a couple of months' process where I can either accept the form that they've given it to me, or I can make further modifications. But at that point on we will be dealing with a document that where I can't hide behind an authority or behind any other process, it's something that'll have to own personally.
FRAN KELLY: All right and Minister, I'm not sure if you've moved. I know you're at the airport but the line quality has just deteriorated a little. I'm not sure if you can head back to where you were but let's proceed. If we can focus for a moment on what we might lose if you are inclined to accept the draft plan as it is.
We've had four scientific reviews of a plan all concluding that the proposed cut of two thousand seven hundred and fifty gigalitres of water as laid out in the draft plan will not deliver a healthy river or meet the majority of the Authority's targets.
And as we just heard, the Goyder Institute for Water Research is one of them. It says two thirds of the Lower Murray wetlands would be sacrificed including, and significantly, the Ramsar listed Chowilla wetlands. Is that a price you'd be prepared to pay?
TONY BURKE: The significant challenge we've got, particularly with the Chowilla floodplain is not the environmental principle of how much water ideally would you want to get there. There is a capacity constraint on physically how much water can you get there. If I can just explain this quickly. This goes to the fact that when we buy water for the environment it then gets held in dams and a whole lot of storage places and you have to be able to physically deliver that water to the environmental assets.
Effectively what we start to do is we act as an irrigator but we irrigate the environment. Now, to get the water there you've got set channel sizes and a whole lot of operational limits and once you try to go beyond them, for example, on a channel, the water goes sideways instead of down.
These sorts of physical constraints mean that as the volumes get higher you get diminishing returns principle on how much you deliver for the environment. And this is why the numbers start to level off where - once you get around that three thousand mark, and arguably well before that, you start, for every extra gigalitre to get a smaller and smaller environmental improvement…
FRAN KELLY: But the Goyder Institute and the CSIRO have looked at this specifically and both agreed it is possible to put more water back in the system and mimic natural flooding by having a look at the rules and the operational constraints and changing them, basically.
TONY BURKE: This is where, what I'm trying to work my way through at the moment in looking at the draft, is to not use these capacity constraints as a permanent ceiling but to try to see if within the Act we can have a system where if you remove a constraint and therefore you can actually practically use more water to be able to get a better outcome but you've got some flexibility within the plan to be able to do that.
People have always talked about flexibility if, for example, you found a more efficient way of using environmental water that - for restructuring Menindee Lakes or something like that that the amount of held water could go down. People have talked about that for a long time. The constraints, in the same way, shouldn’t be a ceiling on preventing the plan if there is a practical way of being able to deliver more water, of allowing us to do so…
FRAN KELLY: So you'd agree with Professor Mike Young that - who we spoke to earlier this week that this - the plan, whatever it - when it's accepted, needs to have more flexibility built into it.
TONY BURKE: I've been saying that publicly, yeah, no disagreement on that.
FRAN KELLY: Minister, another report released last week by the Wentworth Group on groundwater was highly critically and we just heard there one scientist say you can't sell the dog twice which seems to be the implication that there's - the groundwater is used and - but still allocated there in the water supplies. I know you've got concerns about the groundwater allegations, too. What are your concerns?
TONY BURKE: I remember going through some of these issues when I had to deal with coal seam gas applications a bit over a year ago. People would put forward to you that individual aquifers, they'd say, look, it's not connected to the rest of the underground water system. But the truth is on a lot of this science a lot of the information we have is pretty limited at the moment. I'm still penetrating and interrogating the document that's there but I still find it hard to have the level of confidence that we know enough about groundwater to make a basin wide call of that gravity at the moment, to say that these massive volumes definitely are not connected to the surface water.
I just am not convinced that we can make a call that definitive at the moment and that's why I've just got a very high degree of caution on what we do in groundwater. I'd hate to see it make a whole lot of decisions about surface water and then undo them on the way through with groundwater.
FRAN KELLY: So you've got concerns about the groundwater. You've been in the lower lakes and you're concerned about the lower lakes. What about this information or opinion that's coming from four independent scientific groups now suggesting that this proposed cut of two thousand-seven-hundred and fifty gigalitres of water is not enough to address - to deliver a healthy river? Are you concerned about that level?
TONY BURKE: There are two separate questions - the first is do you meet every environmental target with a 2750 number. Every time I've looked at that the answer that I come back with is no you don't and the Chowilla floodplain is probably the classic example of where you don't.
But the second question is at the moment can we practically deliver those volumes. Because I've got no interest in acquiring water for the purposes of it just going sideways through channels and watering pasture on the way through, rather than actually helping any of the environmental assets. Now I've got a pretty strong view every time I've looked at this, the capacity constraints at the moment mean that as the volumes go higher at the moment you don't significantly make a difference to the environmental outcomes.
The easiest stat I can give you to illustrate this is the numbers that are in the draft at the moment over the course of 114 years the mouth of the Murray would be open about eighty-nine to ninety per cent of the time. If you went all the way to the four thousand gigalitre figure you only get that number up to about ninety-three per cent of the time. Even with more than a thousand extra gigalitres being taken out of production, the environmental shift there at the mouth of the Murray is almost practically indistinguishable.
This is where I want to make sure that we don't just end up with a headline number that makes people say environmental box ticked. I want to make sure that whatever we take out of production and put to environmental purposes, is able to be practically used. It's not simply about getting a political fix on a number where people can say, oh yeah that looks hard enough. I want to make sure that the Murray-Darling Basin actually looks different and is healthier as a result
FRAN KELLY: So it sounds like you are saying you are prepared to intervene and change this plan - significantly?
TONY BURKE: My priority is to be able to have this happen within the process. That's why I've been using the consultation period now to make my views public and to be intervening in the debate in different ways. My priority is that this process we're in at the moment means that what the authority hands back to me is something that I am happy with, but obviously there are legal powers that I have in this process and I'm not ruling out using them.
FRAN KELLY: It's twenty-three past eight on Breakfast. Our guest this morning is Federal Environment Minister Tony Burke. Tony Burke on another matter it does seem as though the government is indicating that at today's COAG business forum it will agree to begin a process of reducing environmental approvals process - the green tape - what business is calling green tape which should result in some projects being fast tracked. Are you concerned that the streamlining of regulations risk and adverse impact on the environment and why wouldn't it?
TONY BURKE: I don't support anything that would involve a lowering of standards. I don’t support anything that would involve reducing the levels of environmental protection. If you can get the same outcome through a more streamlined system and therefore you take some of the delays out of the system, I think that is a good outcome but...
FRAN KELLY: How could you get that if you cut out one level of the system? It means we've only got one gatekeeper in a sense.
TONY BURKE: Well the principle that I've been talking about since we launched our response to what was known as the Hawke Review of National Environmental Law which I launched at the National Press Club last year. We talked about establishing national standards and if the states are able to get up to those standards in the first instance a company would be able to simply do one environmental assessment and in that assessment process they would cover off, on all the different issues that would apply to state and federal approvals.
So in the first instance, you'd still have separate approval processes but the assessment that the companies have to pay for they'd be able to do in one hit. We then wanted to look at a staged approach where for different sorts of developments - sometimes Federal law is triggered by minor urban development. If you can get a state authority to be able to meet all those standards in the approval process and the only difference to the outcome is whether or not you'd added an extra 12 months to it, I've got no problem with actually going to the more streamlined outcome.
FRAN KELLY: All right Minister...
TONY BURKE: But I don't at any point support a reduction in standards though.
FRAN KELLY: We're losing you there on the phone line out at the airport. Thank you Tony Burke very much for joining us.
TONY BURKE: Thank you.
FRAN KELLY: Tony Burke is the Federal Minister for Water and the Environment.