Department of the Environment

Archived media releases and speeches

The Hon Tony Burke MP

Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities

Adddress to National Press Club

22 November 2012

E&OE only

TONY BURKE: Thank you to the National Press Club for allowing this announcement to be able to be made here today.

I am here to talk about the Murray Darling Basin. I am not here to announce a grand compromise that's a middle ground between all the stakeholders.

I am here to announce a Plan to fix a problem which is long overdue.

It's been overdue ever since it was failed to be properly addressed in the Federation debates in the late 19th century added to plan which I signed into law in the presence of the Prime Minister immediately before coming here today.

We now have our first Murray-Darling Basin plan but it has taken us a while to get here. It was the Premier of South Australia who was outspoken in his demands for more water in the late 19th century in a similar way to Jay Weatherill has been today and in recent months.

But it was South Australian Premier Kingston who argued in the late 19th century that there should be national powers over the Murray-Darling Basin. Since that time we had endless committees, commissions, meetings, attempts but in every case it fell short in the intransigence of different state interests was not able to be met.

Back then resolving the Murray-Darling Basin was not seen as an environmental issue. It was a navigation issue, where there was frustration in South Australia about over-allocation and over-extraction causing limits on their capacity to be able to use their river ports and the navigation capacity at the southern end of the system.

Similarly it was Henry Parkes who argued that the Chaffey brothers, the creators of two of our most significant irrigation districts, had in fact been water pirates in the way that other states were taking water that Henry Parkes regarded as his as the Premier of New South Wales.

The game changer came in 1991. It should have been 1981 when the mouth of the Murray closed for the first time but that once again only impacted on one state.

But it was in 1991 when the game changer arrived and a new player turned up to the negotiating table. In 1991 the new player arrived with a blue-green algae outbreak that went for one thousand kilometres and the environment turned up to the negotiating table and proved to be more ruthless and less compromising than any of the states.

The environment turned up to the negotiating table in 1991 and said, if you're going to manage the river this way then none of you can have the water. Effectively, the rivers decided collectively that if we were going to manage the water as though it stopped at state boundaries then the water was willing to stop.

The Keating Government then in 1994 brokered the COAG Agreement. That agreement established the framework for Murray-Darling Basin reform that survives today and is being modelled in other parts of the world including for example the work that China is doing in the Yellow River.

The three principles that were established in that '94 COAG decision remained intact: to price water, to trade water and to reserve volumes of water for the environment. That was then, the next stage was a decade later with the National Water Initiative under the Howard Government led for the Commonwealth by John Anderson with a representative at the meetings for New South Wales was Craig Knowles, now the head of the Murray-Darling Basin Authority.

The National Water Initiative put down the next pieces of the framework to make sure that we had an operating water market to lay those foundations for the announcements that we're at today. Then in 2007 again under Prime Minister Howard we had the announcement of the money referred to - the $10 billion referred to in the introduction and Malcolm Turnbull as Water Minister saw the Water Act through the parliament.

In 2007 under the Rudd Government we had the establishment of the Murray-Darling Basin Authority and Penny Wong as my predecessor started to acquire large volumes of water for environmental use.

Today under the Gillard Government, Australia, a century late but hopefully just in time, has its first Murray-Darling Basin Plan.

In dealing with that today we are dealing with the largest environmental asset on the continent and our most important production asset.

The Murray-Darling Basin stretches all the way from Queensland down through New South Wales as the water supply for where we are here in the ACT through Victoria and on through to South Australia. Many different constituencies have different arguments as to why the river is important and why their interests are important and unfortunately for the sake of delivering a reform, they are all correct.

The Indigenous story of a giant Murray cod making its way and carving its way through the landscape to carve out the river systems has led to strong beliefs that cultural flows need to be defended and respected and they are right.

Communities throughout the Basin look at the vibrancy of their own community and have said in public meetings in the most clear fashion you could imagine have said that if this reform is not implemented correctly and sensitively, then their future could have a devastating blow and they are right.

Scientists have argued that if we don't manage the system in a way that respects the strongest and toughest negotiator of them all, the rivers themselves, then we will end up with an environmental outcome where everybody loses and they are right.

The political out was provided to me on a voluntary basis roughly 12 months ago where in a period of just a few days I independently met with some people who were purporting to be there on behalf of the interests of conservation who said to me, Tony we just don't like how the whole thing's shaping up. Why don't you just put it all off and we'll back you in. And a few days later I had irrigation interests make the same comment to me, we don't really like how it's shaping up. Why don't you just put it off? We'll back you in.

In my view Australia has been putting off this moment for more than a century. That delay needs to end and it ends today. So we have now a plan which has been given to me by the Authority signed into law by me today. To understand the nature of the reform there are two different concepts that I need to be able to explain.

The first is what does the plan itself provide? The second is to work through how governments will be able to interact with that plan.

It's important to note it's not only the actions of politicians, ministers, prime ministers and governments that have brought us here today. I would like, before I explain the detail, just very briefly to acknowledge the role of my state counterpart ministers who in their own interests have worked through very difficult issues but in a constructive way acknowledging that we are elected to make decisions.

The state counterpart ministers have done that and in the case of South Australia I should also acknowledge the Premier Jay Weatherill who has personally been involved in the negotiations including an extraordinary number of phone calls from India over recent days as well. But I should acknowledge that role as well as that of my state counterparts.

Additionally, we would not be here today were it not for the role of the scientists. It's always difficult to pick out one but in this case I should. Without Peter Cullen we would not be here today. The work of Peter Cullen in recognising the moment that was before us when the problem of the blue-green algae outbreaks occurred made today's announcements possible. That needs to be acknowledged because without it the need for reform would not have come together the way it has. But for all those involved in the scientific process they are part of this.

For the activists, whether it's someone like Henry Jones who is known well to many, the different environmental organisations that have made sure that the issue is in the public mind, they share part of the ownership today as do the irrigation communities and their representatives for keeping at the table at times where it was often tempting not to. They have made sure that we have delivered the reform in ways that are sensitive to their needs.

So for all of those interests and also I would like to acknowledge a group rarely acknowledged. Not just all the community members and everybody who participated often very passionately, but also to acknowledge those public servants whether they're in the state jurisdiction, with the Authority under Craig Knowles, whether they are in catchment management authorities around the country or whether it's my own public servants in my department, there are many people who have delivered the best part of their working life to make sure that today was possible.

So back to the Plan. What has the authority given me that I've signed off on and how does the government intend to interact with it? There's no surprises in today's announcement, first of all. I've been making public, as we've been working through the different drafts, what my priorities were and where I believe this needed to be headed.

The authority have delivered a plan which has the figure 2750 as the number in the plan. That is the number for environmentally held water once they've done the calculations, under current constraints of what they believe should be the environmentally sustainable level of take.

Now, I've always said that I thought the environmental outcomes of 2750 fell short of what this reform should be able to achieve, and there's a mechanism that allows me to improve on that, but I'll get to that in a moment. In fairness to the Authority there is a reason why 2750 is the number they have recommended, and that is that once you go beyond 2750 with the constraints that are currently in the system, the extra gigalitres of water you don't get a significant environmental improvement.

Those constraints are things like river rules that prevent you from releasing dam water beyond certain levels, channels where if you try to put more water than the capacity of a channel allows, instead of the water going down the system it just goes out. These capacity constraints create a challenge in using higher volumes of water, and therefore the authority, having to look at the system as it currently stands, quite rightly said within those current constraints 2750 is the number that we arrive at, and that has a series of social, economic and environment consequences.

If we work on the basis that you take, for example, there are 18 different targets of river flow within the Murray - the flow targets. Current status quo, before we had any environmental water, none of the 18 were being met. At 2750, 11 of the 18 get met. But if we are able to release those capacity constraints that I described and put the extra volume in that I'll refer to in a moment, we go to 17 out of 18 of those flow level targets being reached.

So, the mechanism that's in the plan says this; at 2750 there are environmental, social and economic consequences. If governments can interact with the plan and improve any of those without sacrificing the other outcomes, then they're allowed to do that.

That means there will be state governments that look at the 2750 figure and the mechanism within it and say how can we achieve the environmental outcomes without requiring so much buy-back? Both New South Wales and Victoria in particular have indicated that they want to be able to use the mechanism to be able to do that.

They believe that the mechanism allows, and it's referred to in the plan, that there could be up to 650 gigalitres of water which would not be required to be obtained through buy-back without sacrificing the environmental outcomes described at 2750. So the plan allows that to happen.

I think this is one of the best ways that I can deliver on what came out of the community meetings. Those community meetings, there were moments that were not particularly influential on me and moments that were. I've got to concede, at Griffith when they decided to put a coffin behind my head and have a whole lot of people shout out put him in it, that wasn't particularly influential on me.

But at the Deniliquin meeting when the school principal from Finley High, Bernie Roebuck, stood up and said we are willing to work with you, but you've got to work respectfully with us, that had a massive impact. That is exactly what we are trying to realise in saying if you can still achieve the same environmental outcomes with less held water, that will be allowed to occur, and the states will choose to interact in that way.

But from the Commonwealth's perspective, and this is also a strong perspective from the Government of South Australia, and that's why the Prime Minister announced this part of it, with the Premier of South Australia side-by-side, and that is that we don't believe the 2750 outcomes are environmentally ambitious enough.

With that in mind what we want to do is to use the mechanism to maximise the environmental outcomes but do it in ways that don't have negative social or economic outcomes, because obviously the mechanism allows us to do it in that way too.

But to obtain additional water you need to be able to practically use it. Some people have said oh, why don't you just change the number in the plan? Why don't you just reject the Authority's advice and just delete one number, insert another? Before we get to some of the - and I won't go into the different legal problems that can happen with that - there's a practical problem. There is no point acquiring water if you can't practically use it. No point at all.

Therefore the first thing the Commonwealth's committed to do under the mechanism is to contribute the funds required to remove capacity constraints throughout the system. Within the first 12 months of the plan there will be a constraints removal strategy that is put in place, which will identify what all these constraints are. Some of them are issues that can be solved by governments. Some of them, such as bridge heights or canal heights, need physical changes. Some of them are easements over private property.

We need to work out what those constraints are, and also for each constraint, because we only have a model to the first one, sometimes there are other constraints that cascade behind them. So the first thing we do is identify what they are, then we put down the money to go about removing them. After that we then want to make sure that we deliver an additional 450 gigalitres of water for the environment under the mechanism.

The mechanism demands that the way we do that is in a way that has no social or economic downside. That means that we're talking largely, or possibly entirely, about investments in infrastructure such as on farm infrastructure, where no one can argue that the community loses in any way, no one can argue that an irrigator getting brand new equipment is worse off, but the water that is freed up as a result of that becomes available to the Commonwealth environmental water holder for making sure that we get to that additional 450 gigalitres that I spoke about.

There has been some concern since the announcement was made of the additional 450 gig, as to whether or not the legislation that's been presented to the parliament accurately reflects the government's commitment.

At the time of drafting the legislation we had some challenges with the Commonwealth's drafts people where even though the Commonwealth's commitment is to provide the money for the additional 450 gigalitres, the drafts people were quite committed that they hadn't found a way of delivering on that commitment without inserting the words up to 450 gig into the bill. Up to is not the Commonwealth's commitment.

Our position is to provide the money for the 450 gigalitres and there is work being done on amendments to that bill to make sure that the bill itself accurately reflects the government's commitment, and that will be made clear.

We then have your constraints removal, the different ways the mechanism can be used. What that then allows you to do and allows me to do in explaining the plan is effectively divide it up into three blocks.

We have the 2100 gigalitres of water, the next 650 gigalitres of water and the final 450 gigalitres of water. For the first 2100 gigalitres all the mechanisms that are currently in play, whether it be infrastructure investment, in centralised infrastructure, strategic buy-back in various places or whether it be the general tender buy-back rounds, is able to occur to get to the 2100 gigalitres. But because it's only 2100 that we're providing in that way at the moment, it means buy-back will be at a much slower pace to what has ever been seen in the past, and in some jurisdictions and catchments, they have probably already fulfilled the targets required for buy-back.

So the big tender buy-back rounds that we've seen in the past are now a thing of the past. The 650 gigalitres is where the obligation is on the states to come forward with the projects, to be able to come forward with the projects that allow us to be able to deliver the same environmental outcomes at 2750 but with less held water.

A couple of quick examples so that you understand what these sorts of projects can be. Menindee Lakes, for example, there's been talk for a long time about having work done on Menindee Lakes so that you have more water that is automatically going into the river rather then being held back in the lakes.

Because that water is already in the river, it doesn't necessarily need to be held by the commonwealth environmental water holder. So that may well be a project that's used within the 650.

Similarly, I've referred previously to the magnificent Hattah Lakes, a wonderful part of Australia and I've very much enjoyed kayaking through there as well.

The Hattah Lakes are a place where already there's been incidences where conservation groups have done fundraising, worked with Government, and have pumped water directly from the river into Hattah Lakes. So you look after the environmental asset there, but you require less water than if you had to do a full over bank flow to be able to get the water to the environmental asset. That once again means that you're delivering an outcome with less water. That sort of project would be what we would see within the 650 gigalitres.

If the states don't put forward projects for the 650, and that is in their hands, not mine, that gap would have to be filled by buy-back. The 650 must be filled. If they put forward projects and they're accredited, they can use buy-back money to help bridge the gap in that way. But the 650 either way will be filled.

When one state, New South Wales have been asking, if I can give a guarantee of particular percentages of buy-back. The reason I can't is because it's in their hands, not mine, whether they put forward these projects.

The final 450 gigalitres of water is all held water by the Commonwealth environmental water holder. All held water that will be gained through those measures that I referred to, which have no down side in terms of the social and economic outcomes, but have a massive, massive upside for the environmental outcomes.

Throughout all of this, when people say, where have you compromised, where have you not? What's the point having consultation if you don't just broker a compromise? We need to remember what the purpose of the reform is.

The purpose of the reform is to restore the system to health. That can't be compromised.

If you compromise on restoring the system to health, you have abandoned the reform. When John Howard announced this, he used the words radical change, and that is, in terms of the management of the system, what we are talking about. We must not compromise on that part.

But when it comes to how you get there, how you deliver those outcomes, it's right and proper that we listen to communities. Wherever we have an option to do things in a more sensitive way for communities, wherever we have a way of delivering the environmental outcome without reducing the productive use and the economic value to communities, we should take those options and we have taken those options.

No state will look at this plan and say, everything I want is there. No stakeholder will look at this plan and say everything that they wanted is there. But ultimately with all of this we can't ignore the most powerful negotiator at the table. No one has more negotiating clout in this than the rivers and wetlands themselves. Because if they fall over, we all lose.

Everyone and everything that depends on the Murray-Darling Basin loses if the system is allowed to collapse. This plan guarantees it doesn't.

This plan guarantees that year on year the system for the first time in the last century year on year will be getting healthier and not weaker. This plan guarantees that we have turned the corner on our most important agricultural production asset. That we have turned the corner on our largest environmental asset on the continent. And we have done it in a way that works for communities and is locked in as a matter of law.

My view the whole way through on this, people were rather surprised when I'd actually asked for this portfolio and people said to me that, how do you broker a compromise when people are that far apart? The answer on the fundamentals is, you don't. You don't compromise on the fundamentals, but you make sure you are sensitive in the delivery of the detail and the way you get there. And in every circumstance where we've been asked to do that, even though it is significantly more expensive, even though it does mean a slower path, we have done so.

Today is the day that Australia decided to restore the Murray-Darling to health.

Today is the day that Australia decided that Basin communities were every bit as important as they know they are. Australia has recognised that.

Australia has made sure that we will lead the world in making sure that our environmental assets are used sustainably, while still being used productively.

It's been a century in the waiting, but the ink is now on the page. The law is now in place. And the Murray-Darling Basin will be restored to health.

LYNDAL CURTIS: Thank you, Minister. Now it's time for questions from our media members and, me being one of them, I'll ask the first one. Difficult decisions in the past involving much - far fewer stakeholders have fallen apart. Does this one have the potential to, if everyone doesn't agree to what needs to be done? Or does the fact that it has already been signed into law mean that it cannot fall apart?

TONY BURKE: The only barrier now to - it is now law. That has now occurred. The only political question that then remains is, does it remain law? It is subject to disallowance. My view has always been that I should not sit down and conduct a political trade to guarantee numbers back and forth.

I've always found incredibly helpful, for example, the work of the Windsor committee and the work that Tony Windsor's done in getting unanimous reports and bringing both sides together. But at its core, my view is the best way to get the politics right is to get the policy right. I'm sure we've done that.

LYNDAL CURTIS: Our next question is from Sophie Morris.

SOPHIE MORRIS: Sophie Morris from the Australian Financial Review. Minister, my question goes to the finances of this Basin plan. There's a powerful lot of taxpayer money being spent on it, something like eleven billion dollars. In the first nine billion dollars there is, I think, 5.7, 5.8 million dollars put aside for infrastructure investments, which you've said would likely secure something like six hundred gigalitres of water.

Now you're saying that with an extra $1.8 billion dollars you can secure another 450GL. I'm not sure how that adds up on the math. Are you confident, though, that you've set aside enough money that this is going to cover all the water that is required for the environment, or do you expect that future governments might have to top it up?

TONY BURKE: The big difference now is people have the incentive to be engaged. Now, the 450 is calculated based on what have been our most productive of the infrastructure projects. So when the infrastructure projects commence, the advice - and I remember seeing it as Agriculture Minister, the general belief was we would get the best gains in terms of getting additional water out of an infrastructure project by dealing with the major infrastructure bodies and doing the centralised infrastructure. There was a bit of scepticism as to whether we should run on-farm projects at all.

When it came out in terms of the ratio of water for dollars, on-farm projects were the ones that delivered the greatest dividend by a long way. What we're talking about here is the money has been budgeted to work on the basis that in the future we get less water out of on-farm infrastructure than what we've got so far and all of that fat has been built in.

So I have a very, very high level of confidence that the money required is there. You've got to remember when we started and a lot of the very expensive infrastructure projects at the beginning, we didn't know which ones would deliver the good water dividends and which wouldn't. We now know that and we've based the financing on that.

LYNDAL CURTIS: Paul Bongiorno.

PAUL BONGIORNO: Paul Bongiorno. It's quite loud, isn't it? TEN News, Minister. I found that a very impressive presentation. Obviously a lot of work gone into it. A lot of work to come. But what I'm wondering is that what we're seeing and hearing at the ICAC in Sydney, with the Eddie Obeid and the hundreds of millions of dollars of whatever that is being alleged, whether this sort of evidence - whether this sort of smell is, as it were, putting the Labor brand up the creek without a paddle, and whether you can be confident that the New South Wales right - which was a powerhouse of successful Labor Governments, state and federal, can itself be restored to health.

TONY BURKE: I don't think there's anything in the issues you described that has the most remote connection to the federal Labor Party and any of the New South Wales members within the federal Labor Party.

The allegations are horrific. They are extraordinarily serious. You don't find anyone less affronted by those allegations than people in the faction you referred to. So the - I might add, the people appearing before ICAC at the moment are not limited to one faction.

So I think there's some connections being drawn that don't necessarily add up there, Paul, either. But it couldn't be further away from the federal party. And the commitment to delivery of policy is one where I think our record is second to none.

I'm a member of the faction that you referred to. If we just take the last seven days, we've had the marine park reform, we've had the super trawler. I've announced this today. And in the last hour there's been announcements about Tasmanian forestry. I reckon we're doing okay on the policy front.

LYNDAL CURTIS: Now to Simon Grose.

SIMON GROSE: Simon Grose from Science Media. I've got two fish questions. The MDBA recently stopped funding for the native fish strategy. I wondered if your new plan goes to that. Does it replace that strategy? Does it provide funding?

Secondly, on the super trawler, that - Seafish Tasmania had a quote for 17,800 tonnes out of the small pelagic fishery. Do you expect - for this year - do you expect that 17,800 tonnes to be - that quota to languish? Or do you expect that amount of fish to be harvested?

TONY BURKE: Oh, I'll take the second question first. I - as Environment Minister, don't carry an expectation on what people will do with quotas that they legally hold. Certainly, it is available. My objection was not to the quota. It was to the fishing activity associated with the quota. If that quota ends up being addressed through fishing activities that are being used in Australian waters for a long time, I'm completely relaxed about that.

When it's a very new fishing activity, I wanted to make sure that the scientific work required before I could make an informed judgement was done - and that's the work that I commissioned that will take two years.

On the issue of the fish strategy and what's run there by the Murray-Darling Basin Authority, we had a unilateral decision without notice at the last New South Wales budget of a significant funding cut to the Murray-Darling Basin Authority.

When good work is cut - sorry. When money is cut good work stops. The Murray-Darling Basin Authority have to work within a budget. I'm very pleased that other jurisdictions have not followed New South Wales on that one. I certainly implore New South Wales to do what the other jurisdictions are doing. The project you refer to is a good project. You will not find me uttering a word of criticism about it. But the co-operation and the funds need to be there to run these projects.

LYNDAL CURTIS: The next question is from Lauren Wilson.

LAUREN WILSON: Lauren Wilson from The Australian, minister. If I could also take you away from the Murray for a second…

TONY BURKE: We've been waiting a hundred years and no-one will ask.

LAUREN WILSON: Your front bench colleague, Bill Shorten, has described the AWU Workplace Reform Association as inappropriate and out of bounds. Do you agree with him?

And, secondly, union figure, Steve Purvanis, has said that if allegations continue to fly this issue has the potential to damage the Labor movement. Do you share that concern?

TONY BURKE: The truth is, Lauren, on this - with the load I've been carrying in the last week - I have no idea what Bill Shorten said on the issue, other than what you've quoted. I haven't been following that issue very closely at all.

In my view the Prime Minister dealt with all the issues she needed to deal with at a very long media conference some time ago, and I'm not in the position to be able to add anything.

LYNDAL CURTIS: Now, Colin Bettles

COLIN BETTLES: Colin Bettles from Fairfax Agricultural Media. Minister, congratulations on your speech and the delivery without any notes or a prompter. It was very impressive.

My question is, obviously, the rural communities and farming communities that you've dealt with extensively as Ag Minister and, now, as the Environment Minister - in this plan you're not giving a guarantee that there won't be any socio or economic harm. A lot of the work's been thrown back to them to come up with solutions, which is fair enough.

But what if there is socio or economic damage caused out there? What will the Government do and how will you respond? Does this plan contain any contingencies for any of that negative impact that may occur?

Secondly, the other one is a lot of debate around the Murray-Darling Basin, but what do you think about the potential for the Ord River as also another opportunity for agricultural and water for the nation in the future?

TONY BURKE: Okay, thanks. On the - sorry, I'll deal with the Ord part first. On the Ord we have a situation where there are very large volumes of water there. The soils are different in the north to the south, and the biosecurity challenges are very different in the north to the south.

So I've always had a view that we can do a lot more in the north than we've done in the past. I have a level of optimism. But sometimes it's argued as though we could replace the Murray-Darling Basin in the north. I do not believe that is true.

I don't believe the biosecurity arguments add up. I will never forget - and you may have heard me before on this, Colin - when I was out at Kilton Station - and I mentioned to the farmer there - out on the Kimberley - that I'd been told that up here there are a thousand things - there are a hundred things you can grow, but a thousand things that will eat it. And he responded yes, but one of those things is people.

That's why I was very happy to give the support that I gave and to give the environmental approvals for Ord stage 2. It is significant. More can be done in the north than we currently do, and I want to support that. But to the extent that it's viewed as a replacement for the south, I think that argument's wrong.

I think we always have to be careful. There are different biosecurity issues up there, which is also why we have to be very careful of monoculture in the north, because the risk management becomes a very different deal if we move to monoculture in the north, which, traditionally, has been why a number of crops have failed in the Ord, where a higher level of diversification may have been in their interest.

COLIN BETTLES: Basically, whether or not there are guaranteed socio and economic harm with what we do and are they [unclear].

TONY BURKE: The idea of the 650 gigalitres worth of projects was an idea that came from the states. So I believe that they will do it. I have no reason to believe that they won't. And I think by saying if they don't, buyback becomes the only other option, probably guarantees that they will.

So the scenario that you've put in place - I think the interests that everybody will have around the Basin probably guarantee against that.

LYNDAL CURTIS: The next question is from Nick Perry.

NICK PERRY: Nick Perry, Australian Associated Press. Thank you, Minister, for the address today. Minister, at a senate committee, actually it's a bit of a follow on question here. At a Senate standing committee earlier this month your department said that the Basin plan sets in place some strong legal consequences which, in turn, provide some very, very strong incentives for the Government to recover the 2750 gigalitres.

My question is do the same legal consequences apply for the recovery of the additional 450 gigalitres? And, if not, what consequences will occur if that water is not recovered?

TONY BURKE: The 450 gigalitres - and it goes to Sophie Morris's question as well - the costing of that, we believe, has been done in a very generous way. So we believe there is more than enough money to be able to easily meet that commitment.

There is an argument that says but what if the price of water goes up or spikes? Realistically, given that we're withdrawing from a big level of involvement in buyback rounds, as the biggest purchaser within the water market, unless the laws of supply and demand completely turn on their head, it is unlikely there's about to be a spike in water prices.

So I find it hard to believe that we wouldn't have sufficient funds. But to make sure that we have sufficient funds, and to make sure that the commitment is clear to provide the money that will be needed for the full fifty gig within the rules of the mechanism - that's what I referred to earlier about the amendments that we're looking to be able to clarify that.

We're at a fairly advanced stage of drafting, but not in the position for me to be able to present anything to you on that today. All the other documents that I've referred to will be live on the web page. I'm not sure if it's the Department's or the Authority or both - at two o'clock today.


DEB NESBIT: Deb Nesbit, Environmental Manager for Thomson Reuters. Minister, going to another part of your portfolio that involves some very tricky negotiations, can you please tell us when we will see tabled an EPBC amendment bill? Your office has told me several times that we could expect that before the end of the year.

Indeed in these sittings, we've got one week left. Where is it? That amendment bill would encapsulate the government's response to the ten year review of the national environment law. So it's of deep significance I guess to business and to the public generally.

So I guess we need to know if we're going to see it before the federal election, and secondly, you've released draft national standards for environment impact assessments for the states to take on if your powers for them to make those assessments is - are devolved, and that's a very important part of your - I guess non-legal - but your changes you want to make.

I couldn't see within those standards anything about how they would actually operate - particularly how the commonwealth would monitor or enforce the states and make sure that the states actually do what they agreed to do.

There was some suggestion early on of placing a Commonwealth - a brave Commonwealth officer in the Queensland Department of Environment. I can't imagine how that would work. Could you explain to us how you think it would actually work?

TONY BURKE: Yeah, okay I'll deal with it as quickly as I can. There's a lot in that question. In first, amendments to the EPBC Act, you won't see them this year.

You won't see them for awhile. When we announced the original timeline, it was before the COAG decision, and we need to work through the COAG issues before we then start amending a bill midway through those negotiations. So you won't see those amendments for some time.

The standards document that was released, by definition doesn't contain the negotiations that are around the standards document. I took a view that given that the standards document was forming the basis of all negotiations with the states, it was important for that to be made publically so that people were clear on what were the standards that the commonwealth was putting out.

For two reasons; one, for transparency, but secondly, if people had spotted holes in those, I'd rather we knew before we got to the end of the process. So I think a transparency actually worked all round on that one. On the specifics of those agreements, and what will be included in them, some of that will depend state by state.

Not every state is wanting to have an extensive starting point in terms of dealing with federal approvals. So there will be different answers in different jurisdictions.

Those negotiations are still working through. Ultimately, as a matter of law, regardless of where officials take things to - as a matter of law, I need to be personally satisfied that my obligations under the Act will be fulfilled, before signing off any of those agreements.

DEB NESBIT: [Inaudible] deadline of next month to have those bilateral agreements framed, and for them to be ready to be implemented in March next year. So are you going to meet those deadlines?

TONY BURKE: They are well advanced. The next COAG meeting has asked for there to be a report of progress. Some of the states, it's a different answer with each jurisdiction. Some of the jurisdictions have gone more slowly at their own request. So I'm not expecting that there'll be a significant arcing up at COAG at all.

I think the conversations are being constructive, but there are different answers in different jurisdictions. What I thought was important, was for the public to know exactly what the foundation rules for the negotiation were, and that's why the standards document went out.

LYNDAL CURTIS: And the next question I think is from Shalailah Medhora from SBS.

SHALAILAH MEDHORA: Minister, Shalailah Medhora from SBS. Negotiations are still underway over how cultural flows will be dealt with under the Murray-Darling basin plan. What guarantees can you give indigenous groups that this will happen, and what models are you looking at to ensure it does happen?

TONY BURKE: Okay, this goes down to how environmental water is managed. Most of what I referred to in the speech was about how we acquire the environmental water.

The guts of the reform though is when you start using it and that's what makes it real. We're already at a stage where we have contracted more than half the 2750 figure, and we actually hold, as held water right now regardless of contracts in the order of a thousand gigalitres. So some of these uses are available already.

The full board of the Murray-Darling Basin Authority and the chair are quite passionate about wanting to make sure that cultural flows are part of how environmental water is used and managed. I had a meeting during the week where there is some work on identification of requirements for cultural flows that some indigenous groups are asking to be done.

There's a financial decision that I expect to be able to announce relatively soon, and I'm working on the basis of finding a way to be able to help them with that project.

Ultimately then it will be something that as soon as we have the new appointee in place as commonwealth environmental water holder, because the position's in transition at the moment - my first conversation with the commonwealth environmental water holder - in that first conversation there'll be a number of issues we work through, but one of them will be cultural flows.

The indigenous groups are not asking for very large volumes to be worked for, for these reasons, and all of them have an environmental benefit that they want the significance of it being done in the first instance for the purpose of the cultural flow and then the environmental benefit is measured secondly.

So there's a few mechanisms that I think can work on that. I haven't finalised exactly how we do it, but the first step - the most important step is to fund the work so that the identification of the principles of cultural flows can be locked down.

LYNDAL CURTIS: Katharine Murphy.

KATHARINE MURPHY: Hi Mr Burke. Katharine Murphy from The Age. Just a little bit confused with the package today. Now, do the states - you've said it could be disallowed, but the states still need to sign onto this package and what happens if they don't, and how concerned are you that New South Wales will go their own way on the water buy-backs issue? And another issue if I may - with the Tasmanian Forest deal now back on the table, is the Commonwealth's money back on the table?

TONY BURKE: Okay. On the state's first with the Murray-Darling - we have the legal planning powers. They're now in place. The role that the states play is when they put in their own state management plans.

Now, we have some years before they all have to be locked in, and if they refuse to put in a state management plans at that point, there is a Commonwealth reserve power to take over the planning powers. I work on the basis that that's a power that by virtue of existing, therefore it will never be used.

Now, I think that's the reality of it. The essential argument with New South Wales at the moment, to my view is actually a non-argument. They're saying why can't you guarantee that buy-back be kept at a particular level?

That's their argument. Why won't I give a locked down guarantee buy-back will not go above a particular level? And the answer is, if they put forward the projects within the six fifty that they tell me they're doing, then I can deliver that, and that's reflected in the water recovery strategy that's out today, but I'm not in control of what they put forward. So if they want to thump the table and say we demand that this will happen, then they should do it, because it's within their hands to do so.

With Tasmania, when I left Hobart - I think it was only three weeks ago, but it seems like a year - but when I left Tasmania on my last visit, I was bitterly and no doubt visibly disappointed that the talks at that point appeared to have fallen apart.

I had said to people, unless you can negotiate the underlying principle - how many hectares do you need for conservation? How many cubic metres do you need for soil vault volume? Unless you can meet those two principles, there's nothing I can do that will help. And at that point, they couldn't.

My understanding is they have now met that threshold. So that means on that basis, when I was pessimistic, I now have a new level of optimism. I am trying to organise at the moment to be able to meet with the signatories next week. We've got a parliamentary sitting week. So I won't be able to go there.

We're asking for them to come to Canberra to be able to talk us through where they're up to. I think we have the makings of something quite extraordinary and something that - well, we are heading towards something that is a unique win for jobs in Tasmania, that has conservation benefits that many people would not have thought possible. So we're heading to that. We're not quite there yet.

LYNDAL CURTIS: Minister, we've got a little bit of time so we'll ask some more questions. I'd like to follow up on Paul Bongiorno's question and your answer to that where you said that no federal ALP MP was involved and that you were delivering on policy. One of the few certainties in politics in recent years is that Labor at the state level in New South Wales has not been the most spectacularly popular political party there's ever been and you do need at the next election to not only potentially win seats, but hold seats in Sydney, particularly western Sydney. Is there not a smidgeon of concern about the potential damage the ICAC inquiry could do to brand Labor in New South Wales?

TONY BURKE: I've got to say, anyone who's followed New South Wales politics closely over the years has seen that more than any other state, New South Wales has a propensity to vote one way at a state level and another way at a federal level, a great propensity to do that. And if you go through change of government, Whitlam to Fraser, you then find the Wran Government coming in, Fraser to Hawke, you have the beginnings there of the Greiner - the Greiner push came in at the first election where he nearly won, then won the following one. Similarly, when we won Government, the next election the New South Wales Government faced, they didn't win.

So of all the states, New South Wales has probably shown the greatest propensity to vote differently at a federal to a state level, and so of any jurisdiction, am I at all concerned that people would view that as being associated with the federal party? No, I'm not. I'm just not concerned - look - about it being a federal issue. Obviously - I'm a taxpayer in New South Wales too, I'm horrified by what I'm seeing. It's got a legal process to go through but on the face of what you're seeing reported and what's being said in that room, it is the opposite of everything that we believe in, the opposite of everything that we believe in. And to see that happening, even just to see it being alleged, is horrific.

But I've got to say, I just can't for the life of me see a federal connection, and in terms of the New South Wales people, they have always shown a propensity to have very different views state and federal, so I'd be stunned if that stopped now.

LYNDAL CURTIS: Sophie Morris.

SOPHIE MORRIS: After decades of wrangling and now years of delays, you're keen to see this basin plan resolved. Would you therefore urge anyone who's inclined to disallow it to do so in the next and final parliamentary sitting week of this year? And also, are you offering state governments any extra financial support for the extra work they'll incur in implementing the basin plan?

TONY BURKE: There will be further announcements made by Simon Crean in some of the state issues. There is an agreement in terms of assisting states with the funding for implementation. As you would expect in a discussion with the states, there is an argument about quantum, and that ultimately I expect will be resolved at COAG.

SOPHIE MORRIS: Would you urge anyone who's inclined to disallow the plan to do so in the next sitting week?

TONY BURKE: Oh, sorry. I don't think Bob Katter needs my encouragement.

LYNDAL CURTIS: Paul Bongiorno.

PAUL BONGIORNO: Still up the creek, but the Murray-Darling this time. What sort of funding priority does this plan have? Is it hostage to the Government's determination to restore the budget to surplus?

TONY BURKE: I was concerned that that might be seen to be the case. Let's not forget, when John Howard made the $10 billion dollar announcement, that money was never locked in under legislation but it has only increased over time. It's been added to, no one has ever challenged the money that was guaranteed. And you know, when we go through the different processes, we go through it each budget and each money flow, you will see from occasions where projects are slow, slowing down and things like that, sometimes you get re-profiling, but the money has remained there for that purpose. So I think even if we didn't have legislation to lock it down, it would be intact.

That's been the nature of this particular reform. When it's taken a century to reach a particular moment in history, people realise that and they're happy to have some things locked in. But on this occasion, for the additional money for the extra four-fifty gig, we're going a step further and actually legislating it formally and locking it down. So I have no reason to believe and can't see how any of these dollars could ever be put in jeopardy.


SIMON GROSE: Simon Grose, Science Media, just following up your answer to the previous question on the native fish strategy. You had a bash at the New South Wales Government. They didn't actually remove money from that strategy, they just cut their funding to the MDBA, and the MDBA then decided to cut the strategy - funding for the strategy. As Environment Minister, were you happy with that decision? And you didn't answer the question earlier, does your new plan actually cover some kind of replacement for the native fish strategy either in terms of a plan or funding?

TONY BURKE: In terms of funding, the answer's no. The authority needs to be properly funded to be able to do all of its work, and when state governments make bad decisions, then the authority is not in a position where they are choosing between what are the good programs we run and what are the bad programs we run, it's a choice of competing goods. They're doing important work. They don't have a set of bad programs that they're funding that they can say, oh, we'll keep funding the fish strategy because these other ones, we should really get rid of.

They are doing good and important work and if funding is cut, then they have to make difficult decisions, and they only have good work to choose from. So I wish it were otherwise, but the only way to fix these issues is for the states to continue to meet the obligations - or for this particular state - to meet the obligations that every other jurisdiction meets. But in terms of what does the plan offer, for fish? Water. It offers water, and it offers water properly managed for environmental purposes.

What does that mean? It means you can avoid your blue-green algae events, it means when you've got a black water event coming down, you can have an interception of water coming from elsewhere so that you have a dilution event so that you don't get the fish kills that you'd otherwise get the whole way down the system. It means when you can do some pulse releases, which can make a very significant difference to fish breeding. You can time your environmental watering events to make sure that they interact with the correct times on fish breeding cycles.

The entire plan - you can't deliver for the environment in a river without providing a better situation for fish, and effectively the big shift for your fish is to make sure that we don't keep getting the switchover from when you've got a wetland for example or a river system based on macrophytes, your underwater plants, and that gets switched to an algal system. When that happens, once the algae dies, you get the CO2 spreading through the water and the fish die, the - not just the water itself but the management of the water makes sure that we are delivering for the entire ecology of the area.

LYNDAL CURTIS: Our final question of the day from Lauren Wilson.

LAUREN WILSON: Minister, if I could follow up on Sophie's question earlier. One of the key demands of the New South Wales Government was structural adjustment, or effectively regional compensation. Is the Government going to be making any further announcements on this front, and when do you anticipate the intergovernmental agreement to be signed?

TONY BURKE: I expect the intergovernmental agreement will be signed at COAG but I expect we'll make some announcements in this space before then. But let's not forget, the demands originally for high levels of structural adjustment were because people were working on the basis that the only way for us to deliver the reform was for communities to have a massive adjustment. When you go about retrieving the water the way we are, when you do it through infrastructure investments, when you maximise the capacity for environmental works and measures, when you minimise the outcomes for buyback, by definition you're minimising the adjustment for communities.

So I don't think the states can demand a situation where they say, even though you've stopped there being a major adjustment, can we still have heaps of money for structural adjustment? There will be some, but it's not going to be the really big dollars that some people would hope, simply because we've avoided the problem, and around community meetings I kept being told, sometimes politely, sometimes on the quiet, sometimes rather aggressively where people would say, don't think you can just come in here with a handful of cash and we'll cop fundamental changes to our community. Well, we've gone about it in a sensitive way, listening to their messages. That by definition means there's less requirement for structural adjustment.

LYNDAL CURTIS: And that's all we have time for today. On behalf of the Press Club I'd like to thank you for your interest and with this membership of the National Press Club so you can come back and join us again, and something maybe to help you to sign your next thing into law. I'd like to thank you for your speech. Please thank Tony Burke.