Department of the Environment

Archived media releases and speeches

The Hon Tony Burke MP

Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities

Interview with Julie Doyle, ABC New 24

E&OE only
17 April 2012

COMPERE:The Federal Environment Minister, Tony Burke, says he's prepared to make the tough decisions when it comes to the future of the Murray-Darling Basin.

Public consultation on the draft Basin plan closed yesterday, and a final version will now be handed to the minister. The draft plan proposed the return of 2750 gigalitres of water to the environment, but that's angered people from both sides of the argument.

Tony Burke told political reporter, Julie Doyle, that he'll take all views into consideration.

[Excerpt from interview]

TONY BURKE: well, they have to be. I've noticed in some of the papers today it's states are putting recommended changes for the draft and, therefore, that's damaging the whole process. No, that's why you have a draft. You have a draft so that you can tease out the different ideas and work out what the best possible final plan would look like.

It's more complex than simply how high or low is the number that we're talking about. There's issues of ground water. There's issues of constraints in the system to work out what you can deliver. There's a lot that goes, it is how you actually then use the environmental water itself in the environmental watering plan.

All of this, combined with the how do you get there question - which has a big impact on communities.

JULIE DOYLE: So can we expect those major changes to the draft? Like will people be disappointed if there's not some big change? I mean what sort of scale are we talking about?

TONY BURKE: Well, let's face it; there'll be some people who are disappointed if there's any reform at all. There will be some people who are disappointed if there's any irrigation left at the end of the reform. There will be extremes of the argument. Some of that will be reflected in submissions, and you can safely bet that no final plan's going to go down either of those paths.

But where we have to get to is - and this is where, with Murray-Darling reform, often we look at it through the prism of the flood years or the drought years. It's actually the in between years that this reform's all about.

See, if you pull too much water out of the system, then unless it's a flood year all the environmental assets live as though you are already in drought, so that when the drought eventually hits there's no resilience left in the system.

So it's about making sure we have enough water reserved for environmental purposes, that you have a healthy system. And if you've got a healthy system, that doesn’t just underpin the environment. It underpins all the productive activity that communities rely on.

JULIE DOYLE: Well, that's a big concern that communities have, that - some of the farming communities do - that this plan will go too far - and too much water to the environment; not enough to keep their communities producing and keep the economies going; keeping these small towns alive. How do you balance that? How will you satisfy those concerns?

TONY BURKE: Look, the starting point is that you have to make sure the system is healthy again. That's a starting point. That's a reason why the reform even exists in the first place. You then want to work with communities to bridge that gap in the most sensible way you possibly can.

So there's a few things that you don't want to do. You don't want to recover more water than you can actually use. One of the things that's not often understood is the environmental water doesn’t just automatically flow downstream. It gets held in dams and storages.

Then what we do is we, effectively, act like irrigators. We irrigate the environmental sites. But you have to be able to get the water from the storages to the environmental sites. There's constraints in the system: places that you can't flood, bridges that you can't get the water level over, channels that have a particular size capacity.

Some of those constraints do put limits on how ambitious you can be with some of the environmental outcomes. It's like if you've got a five litre bucket of water. No matter how much you want to, you're not going to fill it with seven litres, and so we have to work within those constraints.

But also some people have said during the submission process let's see if there are creative ways where we might be able to lift some of those constraints or move beyond them.

JULIE DOYLE: Now, what about the states? You mentioned those a bit earlier. Now, Victoria and New South Wales, South Australia, all have concerns coming from different aspects.

TONY BURKE: Pretty different concerns, yes.

JULIE DOYLE: Yes, yes. How do you get them on board? You can't do it without them.

TONY BURKE: Yes, there are concepts that are contemplated within the Water Act where the Commonwealth actually does take over some of the powers of the states. But the preference is to get there in a co-operative way.

JULIE DOYLE: So if you can't get there in a co-operative way though would you go ahead and do that, take over those powers?

TONY BURKE: Those powers are in the Act. Those powers have been in the Act since the Howard Government was in office. They're there. I don't ignore that they're there. But my pathway at the moment is to try to get this done in a co-operative way because that's the most effective way of delivering the reform.

JULIE DOYLE: But if you can't, would you do that? Would you just go ahead?

TONY BURKE: I don't rule out any of my powers. Never have. They're there for a reason. If they were good enough for John Howard to put them in, then they're good enough to use if required.

JULIE DOYLE: Now, once you get the final plan, then it will be up to you to look at this and decide what you want to do and to get some legislation into Parliament. Will you have the courage to make the tough decisions, knowing that you're going to upset some people no matter what you do?

TONY BURKE: If I was worried about being in front of people who are upset I wouldn't have gone to the public meetings I've gone to over the last few months. Change is hard. Reform is difficult. Not reforming is unthinkable.

I was Agriculture Minister during the last drought. I saw exactly what happened to communities when there was no resilience left in the system. I saw what happened to irrigation and I saw what happened to the environment. I don't want to see us go into the next drought unprepared again.

Make no mistake, you know, some people have said oh well there's a whole lot of water in the system; hasn't it fixed itself? No, it hasn't. The fact that it looks wet doesn’t mean the ecology's recovered. It doesn’t mean the system's strong again.

Sure, it's better than it was three years ago, but we want to make sure we build that resilience again. So I'm determined that we get right what generations of Australians and Australian leadership has got wrong. We've always lacked the courage to view the Basin as a total system and we've just let it be a tug of war between the states. That has to end this year.

JULIE DOYLE: So when will we see that legislation then come before Parliament?

TONY BURKE: Look, it's a plan that I sign off. It then becomes a disallowable instrument. I'm expecting - and I don't want to give a deadline because sometimes, you know, you can add an extra few weeks because there is some extra information that allowed you to improve it.

So I don't want to give deadlines, but we'll be dealing with it in the Parliament this year, and there is an argument where some people have said - and there was a moment a few months ago where some of the environmentalists - some of the irrigators - were giving me an out to say just put it off for a couple of years while you try to get more scientific information.

That's been the problem: that we've always had an excuse to put it off. And, politically, it's always been an easy out. I don't intend to take that out. My determination this year is we get right what Australia has always got wrong, and we manage the Murray-Darling Basin as the total system that it is.

JULIE DOYLE: Tony Burke, thank you very much for your time.

TONY BURKE: Pleasure.

ENDS