Department of the Environment

Archived media releases and speeches

The Hon Tony Burke MP

Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities

Interview with Peter Van Onselen, The Showdown - Draft Murray-Darling Basin plan

E&OE only
1 May 2012

PETER VAN ONSELEN: Welcome back. You're watching Showdown and we are joined now out of Darwin by the Environment Minister, Tony Burke. For the sake of our viewers, I should let you know that Darwin - it's the equivalent of the moon on the link we've got here. There is a bit of a delay. It is not Tony Burke suffering from a learning disability. He'll stick with us, but we'll have to bear with the delay that's there now.

Minister, can I just start by asking you the mandatory question about the polls? I had a long conversation with Kristina Keneally about this - the former New South Wales Premier. She told us on Showdown tonight that she thinks that the Government should dump the carbon tax. She was unequivocal about it. She said that's the kind of game-changing move that is now required.

I know you didn't hear what she had to say, but trust me when I say this, it was unequivocal. She thinks you should dump the carbon tax. What's your response?

TONY BURKE: I remember when the GST was introduced and as we got closer to the date of introduction, the campaign against it became stronger and stronger. The one thing that can refute a fear campaign is implementation and when we get to 1 July - and let's face it we are getting very close to that date now - when we get to 1 July at that point finally people will be able to make their assessment as to whether or not the fear campaign is accurate or not.

Now, I've got every confidence obviously that the fear campaign will bear no relationship to how people live on 1 July on. But it will be until that point that the fear campaign will continue to intensify and yeah, that's going to make a difference on people's views between now and then.

PETER VAN ONSELEN: Let's just move away from this discussion because we have dominated the show so far on it and talk about the issues in your policy space. Firstly, I'm interested in what you're doing in Darwin. I guess if you could just give us a snapshot on that? But secondly, to go with that, the big issue in your policy field is obviously the Murray-Darling .

There's massive divisions between the states and the Commonwealth, as well as the various special interests. I'm interested in where it's at and also, on top of where it's at, where it can go given the fact that it just feels like in Australian politics, we're in real stand-off territory when states and the Commonwealth don't get on. It doesn't seem like finding a way through with these tiers of government is not only not easy but it's almost not possible.

TONY BURKE: Okay. First of all, unsurprisingly my visit to Darwin is not about the Murray-Darling Basin. the reason I'm here at the moment is that I'm doing a series of visits around the country at the moment with the reform that we're doing on protection of the oceans. We've got draft plans out at the moment that will be concluded this year - that will effectively establish, just like we have a National Parks Estate on land, an equivalent to that in Commonwealth waters and the ocean.

So it's out in the Commonwealth waters, not the immediate inshore area, but there's a large amount of consultation with environmental groups, with recreational fishers, commercial fishers, oil and gas industry, all of that. I'm getting through that around the country right at the moment and I've started today in Darwin. I'll now move to the next part of your question, which is the Murray-Darling Basin.

If we work on the basis that the only way of solving the Murray-Darling Basin is to get all the states to agree, there never will be reform. We've treated that river system as though water in rivers will respect state boundaries. Well, it doesn't and you end up with the over extraction problems that we've had. You don't see them so much in the peak of flood years and in the depth of drought years when no one's got any water it plays a bit differently as well.

But what's effectively happened in those in-between years - not the peak of flood, not the depth of drought - but in those in-between years, the river system has been living as though there's a drought already on. That's because of over-extraction and that's the bit that we want to fix.

Now, you asked about the states and how do we handle it if they don't agree. In the first instance, what they've said at the moment, is they've all said they wouldn't accept the draft plan. Well, that's okay because there's elements of the draft plan that I've indicated that I'm not very happy with either. What matters is whether we get a final plan that meets the essential threshold of turning an unhealthy system into a healthy one again.

to do that, ideally and in the first instance, you try to do it with the cooperation of the states. But ever since the Howard Government introduced the Water Act, we actually have reserve powers as a Commonwealth now that if the states don't agree to the Murray-Darling plan, there are powers there where the Commonwealth can actually enforce water reform in a way that we never could in the past. So, I'm working towards a cooperative approach but the fundamental bottom line to all of this is having got it wrong for more than a century, 2012 is the year where this reform has to be landed.

PETER VAN ONSELEN: If you're a betting man though Minister; do you think that you're going to need to use those coercive powers at the end of the day? Because all the evidence seems to line up in that direction, we not only have situation where different states have different vested interests that they bring to the table. But we've also now got a situation where the partisan complexion of states have changed as some states have different partisan complexions within themselves and obviously, as well, in comparison to the Federal Government. So, it strikes me that if I was a betting man it looks like you're going to need use those coercive powers. What's your view?

TONY BURKE: I'll bet that we don't have to. The mere fact that they are there, helps focus the mind of the states to come to the negotiating table and find a way of working through this. Let's not forget even on the submissions that the states have made over the last few weeks in the formal consultation phase of the draft plan, they haven't said throw out the whole reform, don't do anything. They've taken issue with particular parts of the draft document. They're engaged, they know that a plan is coming and they, quite understandably, want to make it the best possible plan from the perspective of their states.

You know, Jay Weatherill, for example, from South Australia has taken a very tough line and we saw the impact of some of those views when Sky News held the forum down in Adelaide that was held with the different views on the Murray-Darling Basin. So, they're advocating their line, but I've got to say, when people know you've got the reserve powers, when they know that you could intervene if you need to, often that does help in making sure that you get a bit more good-will than you might otherwise have.

PETER VAN ONSELEN: Fair enough, one final question if we can before we run out of time. If we can just go back to this issue of the leadership, just briefly. I know that you'd love to talk about it. There is speculation about a Kevin Rudd return. I know that you've refuted that in other media that you've done. My question is very simple and it is hypothetical. You were very scathing about Kevin Rudd when his bid was on two months ago. Would you be prepared to serve in a Rudd Ministry or would you go to the backbench and, sort of, stand by, in a sense, what you said about him two months ago?

TONY BURKE: I'll start right from the beginning where you said it's hypothetical. I don't believe that what you've described is something that would happen. I also have a very strong view that we went through the very painful process during that leadership challenge of everybody being completely upfront and frank about the strength of different views that they had. I think the last thing the government needs is for us to be hauling back over those coals I said what I needed to say at that time and I won't be revisiting it.

PETER VAN ONSELEN: All right. Fair enough. Minister Tony Burke - Environment Minister - joining us out of Darwin on delay. Thanks for bearing with us and thanks for joining us on Showdown. Appreciate your company.

TONY BURKE: Good to be with you.

PETER VAN ONSELEN: And thanks for your company as well, now we're not going to be back next Tuesday at this time because funnily enough Wayne Swan will be taking you through his budget - proclaiming no doubt a surplus. So, Showdown will take a week's break. We'll be back the following week, but be sure and tune-in to Contrarians on Friday, where we're going to take a special look at the Budget.