Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities
Press Conference - Revised draft Murray-Darling Basin Plan
28 May 2012
TONY BURKE: Today we've had released from the Murray Darling Basin Authority the next set of documents which means that we're now through the major part of the consultation process. But we still have to have further negotiations with the states and then ultimately later this year we have final decisions which have to be taken by me.
I want to make clear that I think what has been released today is better than the documents that have come out previously. We are not yet at a point where I believe we've got documents in front of us that I'd be happy to sign off on.
Where there has been a step in the right direction, the big shift, is groundwater. I've got to say I was deeply concerned, it came out at many of the public meetings as well, with the very high groundwater numbers that appeared in the last edition of the draft plan.
My concern with those really goes back to when coal seam gas projects have come in front of me for environmental approvals. There is not a precise science as to whether or not your underground water is fully connected to your surface water or not and I really did believe, and said at a number of the public meetings, that I felt we needed to take a more cautious approach to underground water than what was reflected in the last version of the draft plan.
There's been a significant shift in those numbers today, which I think is a step in the right direction.
The other thing that needs to be drawn to everyone's attention today is in one of the documents you'll find a thing called the letter of transmission and that effectively is a message from the Authority to myself and the state water ministers saying we're open to further changes depending on decisions of Government on these issues.
Now in there, they talk about the willingness of Government to do more with environmental works and measures, which is effectively a way of getting more water into the river and into the river system, without necessarily having buy back as your only tool.
They also talk about a willingness to look at numbers as high as 3200 if there were a much higher commitment from Government to things like on farm infrastructure as a way of improving the environmental outcomes without actually having a necessarily increased impact on communities.
The other issue they refer to is the need to unlock capacity constraints. Now effectively, I know it's a technical water term the capacity constraints, but what this means is it's not just to get water for environmental purposes, you need to be able to use it effectively. At the moment there's things like channel capacity where if you put too much water down a channel instead of it going down to the river it just goes sideways and you can't carry seven litres of water if you've only got a five litre bucket.
So unlocking capacity constraints is a way of trying to make sure we can actually deliver better environmental outcomes with the water that we have and so there's a few areas there where the Authority have said they're open to further changes but there's some decisions of Government that they've put back on us and obviously having officially received it today we're not in a position to be able to respond to those parts of it yet.
But, in short, it's a step in the right direction. We are closer to real water reform that we were before this version. It's not yet at a stage where I believe we've got something I could sign off on but make no mistake this issue has been going back and forth without finding agreement for a century and I intend to resolve it this year.
QUESTION: Minister Burke, does it deliver a triple bottom line outcome in its current form from what you've seen?
TONY BURKE: I think the classic example of the attention the Authority has given to not just environmental but to social and economic outcomes, is in that letter of transmission where they say they'd only be willing to contemplate numbers like 3200 if there was a much higher commitment to things like on farm infrastructure.
The reason they say that is because then you improve the environmental outcome without having a harsher impact on communities. So they wouldn't be saying things like that unless they were taking into account environmental, social and economic.
But, as we've seen with its iteration you get one side of the debate saying social and economic has been ignored, yet the other side of the debate saying environment is being ignored.
The Authority is weighing up all of those, that's why we're at where we are. But I don't want to pretend that this is yet in a form that I'd be willing to sign off on. It's not.
QUESTION: So if we go to a system where you have an adjustable SDL effectively that doesn't have to go back to the Parliament what does that mean if a - you know, future Coalition Government work to get - you know, well if a Coalition was to win Government, could they just decide to slash the SDL to two thousand gigs and that would be sufficient? What safe guards would be in place to make sure you do get a triple bottom line?
TONY BURKE: Yeah, the recommendations coming from the Authority talk about adjustment mechanisms, there's a lot of conversation going about both with the Authority and with the states at the moment and that means where you end up with a scientific judgment that delivers any movement rather than, an ongoing political judgment.
I don't think anyone wants to see something, a final document that is so flexible that there can be daily decisions electorate by electorate by ministers to change the expectations and the outcomes.
We want a level of certainty with the reform, and that means that if there's a mechanism which would allow for any level of movement, it really needs to be hardwired in what the conditions of that movement would be. And certainly we want to make sure that at no point could there be a contemplation that you would reduce the level of environmental ambition because you know, this reform only exists because we're trying to fix the health of the rivers.
That's the starting point, that's why we're here and you don't want that to be able to take a backward step. But if you can take further forward steps without undermining social and economic outcomes, then you should be able to go for it, you should be able to deliver that.
QUESTION: Would that decision be in the hands of the Authority?
TONY BURKE: What the Authority is saying - sorry, the adjustment mechanism?
QUESTION: The adjustment, yes.
TONY BURKE: Yes, it would be. It would be but they wouldn't be willing to go down that path unless there's a few decisions of Government that they put to us in that transmission letter which we - we won't be responding to today.
QUESTION: Minister, you mentioned the transmission letter in the sense that Craig Knowles is very much handing responsibility over to yourself and the states. Is there - and you mentioned the to and fro that's been going on for some time now as well. Is there a danger that there is more to and fro still to be had here? I mean, are the ministers actually in a position to grasp some of those outstanding issues such as where the - which catchment the downstream flows are going to come from and so forth and can you give us a guarantee that there won't be more to and fro between the ministers and the Authority?
TONY BURKE: Over the next few months there will be for sure. I'm not going to guarantee that there won't be over the next few months. Over the next few months there will probably be little else but, you know, that to and fro has been going on for roughly a century and I think everyone's sick of it.
I think people do recognise that there is a limit to how hard you can negotiate with a river system and when it negotiates back, it negotiates back very hard. We need to resolve it this year.
Now I have powers to be able to go over the top of the states. My preference is not use them and I'm still negotiating in good faith with them. There's some extra cards that the Authority have put on the table in that letter of transmission that we now need to work through.
They might help unlock some of it, they may help bring the parties closer together. But I don't think anyone believes we're going to end up at the end of this year with something where everybody is jumping up and down saying yeah, we're happy with exactly where it's landed.
We won't get there, but I'm determined that we don't have the tug-of-war of the last century continuing after this year. I want us to treat the Murray-Darling Basin as a national system for the first time and I want that locked in through the parliament this year.
QUESTION: The Vics have already come out and said that it's a death warrant for Victorian agriculture and Jay Weatherill was saying yesterday that a figure in the vicinity of 2750 is untenable. Do you actually think that there is any prospect of those parties coming closer together on this?
TONY BURKE: Coming closer certainly. You know, hanging out together and you know wanting to celebrate the outcome probably not, but coming closer together no doubt. No doubt. There is a prospect of that.
Victoria certainly, they were strong in their language, not quite as strong as your previous media conference. I saw one of the media releases used the word Armageddon which I thought was, you know there's different moments when you use language that extreme. Whether today is one of them is a call for others. But there's no doubt that people have a lot at stake and they will push the envelope to try to get the best possible outcome for the people that represent.
That's true but I'm in the business of getting this resolved and to the extent that you drive money through infrastructure, environmental works and measures, to that extent to start to appease some of the concerns that have come out of the upstream states.
To the extent that you can improve the environment outcomes significantly, to that extent you get better outcomes in terms of what the South Australian Premier is talking about and, you know, the contemplation by the Authority of numbers with a three in front of them is something that is exactly what the South Australians have been calling for.
The concept of getting there without it all being through buy back matches some of the Victorian concerns. Now whether we can land all that or not I don't know but I'm open for the conversation, I want us to be working through it and make no mistake I am only interested in this being resolved this year.
QUESTION: It appears to be [inaudible] you'd have to have the support of either the Coalition of the Greens. Are you having those negotiations at the moment and at the end of the day do you think you're going to be more likely to get Green support on this or Coalition support?
TONY BURKE: I had been working on the basis that the Coalition were open to reform if it came through the independent authority. I'd been working on that basis. A number of Coalition members had given strong indications of that.
Tony Abbott when he turned up to the Griffith meeting and people were saying this is a bad plan, the numbers are too high, said that not to worry he would not support a bad plan. He then turned up on the step out the front of Parliament House in an event organised by the Adelaide Advertiser where a whole lot of environmentalists were saying this is a bad plan, the numbers are too low and he said to them, don't worry I won't support a bad plan.
Now if the position of the Leader of the Opposition is just to set things up, so that he can tell everybody he voted it down for reasons that will make them happy then the only way to get this through is to be having talks with the Greens and the cross bench.
During the course of this week I'll be meeting with both groups separately. I'll be meeting with the cross bench and I'll be meeting with the opposition and I'm determined that we end up with something that will get through the parliament but if Tony Abbott wants to keep playing a wrecking game then they'll only be one of those negotiations that will end up mattering.
QUESTION: That sounded - that sounded as if you were more likely to deal with the Coalition? Is that the correct interpretation?
TONY BURKE: No, I'm meeting with both.
QUESTION: Minister, what certainties can you give to the northern Basin Aboriginal Nations submissions? They are asking for a cull of water licences and a no to underground extraction in relation to coal seam gas? You mentioned economic and environmental issues. This is a religious issue for them; their spirits are under the water in the Basin area - that's their religion. What kind of certainties can you give to them?
TONY BURKE: There's a section of the document today - I can't draw your attention to exactly which part of it, but it's in there, in the recommendations from the Authority where they refer to encouraging some of the environmental water which is held to be made available for cultural flows.
So there is some recognition in here at the moment of that, but if the guarantee that's being sought is a total ban on extraction of groundwater and things like that then that's not something this process is going to be able to deliver to that extent.
The Act wouldn't allow me to deal with it that way and you'd have to be seeking other reforms to be able to get that.
I don't want to give a level of false hope as to how far this process can go. If it's for a complete ban on extraction of groundwater then that's not going to be able to be delivered through this.
QUESTION: Politics aside, you've got [inaudible] communities reading the report today, saying - looking at the SDLs and they don't - haven't changed since the twenty weeks of consultations. Do they have a right to be angry?
TONY BURKE: You've got people reading it from each perspective who were wanting to pull the numbers in different directions, who will be equally frustrated that the SDLs didn't shift. That's how the reactions will be. That's the nature of this issue.
But you'd be hard pressed to find any of those meetings in regional communities that did not draw attention to their alarm at the groundwater numbers. And those groundwater numbers have shifted and have shifted by more than a thousand gigalitres. That is a substantial shift in the document today.
QUESTION: But those groundwater figures were the same in the guide to the basin plan, a year ago, this council said today they're just basically, it seems to have been just a slight of hand, essentially, with the changes that we've seen today.
TONY BURKE: Oh no, no. Make no mistake. There were significant interests that wanted those numbers higher. Make no mistake about that. And I [inaudible] make sure that I went to meeting after meeting and stand up and specifically distance myself from those groundwater numbers without me being deeply concerned about where that was heading.
Look at the submissions which came in from the State Governments on groundwater. You will see that there was significant support. One of the states actually asked for the numbers to be raised higher on groundwater.
So, you know, it's an easy negotiating tactic with the media for anything that's positive, for your constituents just to pocket it and claim it was always going to happen anyway. But that would be an error of judgement; a misinterpretation of what's happened over the last six months.
QUESTION: Back on your original comment that this document is still not a document that you would be comfortable taking to Parliament, what's it going to take to get that document in a form where you would be comfortable taking it to Parliament?
TONY BURKE: There are two things. One, in terms of certainty, people are asking whether or not we can deliver a higher level of certainty about how much will be done through infrastructure and through environmental works and measures so that they're not just relying on a Government policy; it's locked into a legal document. I really want to explore whether than can be done.
The second thing is the starting point of the reform is to ask the question are we through this delivering a health working basin? There are some areas where the health of the basin is massively improved by the document in front of us.
There's somewhere where it still falls quite short. And a lot of that's because of the capacity constraints I referred to: the Chowilla Floodplain, for example where we're still very short of the targets that are there. But there are other areas, like Hattah Lakes, where the outcomes are significantly improved. In the Coorong the outcomes are significantly improved through what's in front of us.
So there are some areas where we're still falling short. If we can improve those outcomes while at the same time providing a higher level of certainty to communities - while it might not be a brokering point that suddenly causes all the State Governments to agree, I actually reckon we've got the makings of a national reform.
QUESTION: What do you propose can be done about the capacity constraints?
TONY BURKE: It depends which one you're talking about. So, for example, if your capacity constraint is the size of a channel, then you're talking about an engineering way of trying to deal with that.
If your capacity constraint is how quickly are you, under river rules, allowed to release water from a dam, then it's the rules that are constrained. If the nature of the constraint is whether or not you have easements over particular properties, then easements can be purchased.
QUESTION: How about Barmah Choke?
TONY BURKE: Well, the Barmah Choke, you've chosen the most complex of all constraints.
TONY BURKE: I'm yet to see some really straightforward simple ways of being able to significantly unlock the Barmah Choke in terms of constraints. Some of it, a lot of it depends on the timing of when you run your environmental watering events. If there's enough water already flowing through the system, then you get significant additionality going through.
But the timing of events works a lot there. And that's where, with river rules, it's why I think it's so important to try to keep the negotiation with the states on the right footing, is they control a whole lot of the actual events that take place. You want to make sure that you can piggy back on when they're using water to be able to get the environmental outcome, otherwise you can only get there with much higher volumes.
I don't want to provide an immediate engineering outcome on Barmah Choke but, certainly, that is a good example of where the relationship with the states allows you to deliver a much more significant environmental outcome without significant - without massive additional volumes.
QUESTION: Are you satisfied that the Commonwealth Environmental Water holder actually knows what to do with all of the water that it has acquired to date and will acquire over the course of this reform?
TONY BURKE: I've always had a view that the Commonwealth Environmental Water holder cannot do it alone; always had that view. That's why the one part of the previous document that I came in very hard behind was the Environmental Watering Plan.
Now, it's probably the most criticised. The irrigators and the environment groups each said it's not specific enough. But you need to be able to have an environmental watering plan that is flexible enough to deal with different environmental needs.
Everybody who lives in a flood prone area knows that every flood plays slightly differently. Now, this reform what we, effectively, do is we irrigate floods into wetlands. That's what you do.
The Commonwealth Environmental Water holder acts as an irrigator for the purposes of maintaining the health of the system. You need to be able to do that in a very co-operative way because a lot of the data and the intelligence that's required is held either at a state level or within catchment management authorities.
So it's never been my view that the Commonwealth Environmental Water holder had the expertise to be able to go it alone. That's why that watering plan was left, I think, in a very deliberate and intelligent way, with a whole lot of grey areas so that the detail can be drawn down to the much more local level.
QUESTION: Given the polarised positions of Victoria and South Australia, isn't it inevitable that you will have to exercise your powers under the Water Act and go ahead without at least one of the states?
TONY BURKE: I'm working on the basis that I'm still trying to get an agreement. But I'm also working on the basis that I'm not ruling out any of my powers.
QUESTION: If it comes to that are you worried that the states might make it difficult (a) with environmental watering plans incorporating with that, or trying to boycott buybacks or take [inaudible] with the water market? Are you worried that the states might actually undermine [inaudible] reform if they don't all get on board?
TONY BURKE: I think it is certainly more streamlined if we have the agreement with states. There's no doubt about that. I don't believe there's any state that's willing to undo the National Water Initiative. Effectively, that's what you have to do for them to be undermining the water, the access to the water marker.
QUESTION: Sorry. Just quickly, on leadership, do you...
TONY BURKE: Okay.
TONY BURKE: I know. You were told you had to.
TONY BURKE: Yes, I do. Yes, I do.
QUESTION: Do you believe there's any leadership challenge at the moment?
TONY BURKE: No, no.
QUESTION: Minister Burke, you're going to negotiate with the Coalition. Are you confident that they've actually thought about your internal disagreements in regards to the Murray-Darling Basin plan, because the Nats are not - some of them have quite a different view, so how can you negotiate successfully on a position?
TONY BURKE: Well, that will be their call, whether there can be constructive conversations. That's why I'm making sure there's two separate ways of making sure you get a majority. I'm exploring both. I think to do otherwise would be to simply, effectively, throw your hands in the air and say that I was happy to have my name added to the list - and it's a long list of people who've had a go at running - at fixing the problems of the Murray-Darling and failed.
Now, I'm determined that we end up with something that can survive the parliament. In good faith I'm meeting with the cross-bench and in good faith I'm meeting with the Coalition. Certainly, I've seen nothing in Tony Abbott's public comments that gives me a level of hope that he won't end up just saying no, no matter what the document says.
But if he decides that he wants to be constructive and there's no doubt there's some divisions in his party and some people who desperately want him to be constructive on this one then the conversations we're having are real. But I've got no interest in abandoning the reform.
Given that there is a risk through Tony Abbott's public statements that he's, ultimately, just going to play a political game with this one and say no, no matter what the document says, then it would be completely irresponsible if I wasn't also having conversations with the Greens and the cross-bench.
QUESTION: Under what scenario can you imagine coming to an agreement with the Greens on this?
TONY BURKE: I work on the basis that if you get the policy right you've got the best chance of getting it through the Parliament. So my focus at the moment in dealing with the states and in dealing with the different stakeholders is to deal with the key concerns that each group [inaudible] from an environmental perspective of how far are we going to be able to deliver reform and the health of the Murray-Darling Basin.
From a production perspective, to what extent are we using every last avenue available to us to be able to minimise the outcomes on communities without reducing that environmental outcome.
QUESTION: What about within your own party? Have you had effective engagement with the Agriculture Minister about some of the potentially negative impacts this will have on that sector and also Simon Crean in regards to the impacts on rural communities?
TONY BURKE: Yes. We engage very closely on all of this. Obviously, I've got carriage of it, but we engage very closely and, you know, you don't lose your memory when you shift portfolios. I had that agriculture job for three years, so I'm very alive to the different concerns. But I still want to make sure that we deal with the fundamental of making sure that we improve and fix the health of the Murray-Darling Basin.
QUESTION: Does memory retention go for journalists as well?
TONY BURKE: You get an interview whenever you want one, Colin. That hasn't changed ever since I first met you in WA.
QUESTION: Has Craig Knowles done a good job?
TONY BURKE: I think he has. You know, when I first rang Craig Knowles to talk about him taking on that job, I said to him this is the best and worst phone call you will ever get, because in terms of his commitment to water reform and his original role with the National Water Initiative, this is a realisation of some policy work that he took on as water minister. But let's not pretend it's not a thankless task. Of course it is and that's the nature of big reforms.
But if we get where I intend to this year, and I believe we will, then for all the challenge that that sort of adjustment takes, what it means is by the time the next drought comes - and let's face it, in Australia we don't know when it is, but we know the next drought's coming; it's always coming in Australia - the system will have a much higher level of resilience than it's ever known for many, many decades.
Now, that means yes, you'll still have drought. There'll be less water in the system. You can't change that. But there'll be some resilience and some health that we won't see the risks of collapse that happened in so many places over that last drought. That is a good outcome.
If, coupled with that, we can take every opportunity that's in front of us for environmental works and measures, unlocking capacity constraints, driving the infrastructure dollar as hard as we can, then we'll be able to deal with an over-allocation problem in a way that minimises the impact on communities.
There's no proposal that has zero impact on communities. I can't deliver that.
When you're dealing with over-allocation and you're trying to correct it there is an impact on communities. But you want to do everything you can to minimise those outcomes.