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SENATOR THE HON ROBERT HILL
MINISTER FOR ENVIRONMENT AND HERITAGE

PRESS CONFERENCE
100 KING WILLIAM STREET, ADELAIDE


11 AM - THURSDAY, JANUARY 20, 2000

HILL:
Thanks for coming along - there are two announcements that I am making today that I thought would be of interest - one's of national interest and the other one's of interest to Sydney.

Firstly, the national one is the Inquiry that I foreshadowed some time ago that we would have in relation to the corporatisation of the Snowy. The Act of corporatisation triggered the Commonwealth EPIP Act, Environment Protection (Impact of Proposals) Act 1974, the decision to corporatise is made by the Commonwealth Industry Minister and as a result of that Act being triggered, I decided that there should be a full environmental impact statement on the implementation of the corporatisation. Obviously the government decided to corporatise a long time ago, but the issue of impact particularly as it relates to the River Murray system, is one of vital importance.

Just refreshing your memories, though it is probably unnecessary, part of the corporatisation process is intended to be a release of water from the system into the Snowy, the figure particularly mentioned was 15%, then other interests said to achieve environmental benefits for the Snowy, you would need to provide flows the equivalent of about 28% of what was the original flow of the higher levels of the Snowy and to compensate for this water there was intended to be efficiencies and savings, originally thought to be paid for by NSW and Victoria, but then the NSW Premier suggested the Commonwealth should help pay as well and therefore it shouldn't reduce the current flow in the Murray River system.

The issues however, that haven't previously been taken into account, arose out of the Murray Darling Basin Commission's Salinity Audit which we only got late last year which has raised the issue as to whether the current guaranteed minimum flow down the Murray is going to be adequate in the medium to long term to maintain its environmental health . Therefore the question must be asked, if there is a doubt about that, if savings are to be achieved within the Murray system, is it in the national interest that they be converted into a new flow down the Snowy or should they be better used to provide greater flows in the future in the Murray system. And this particular issue wasn't adequately addressed in the water inquiry that was conducted by the NSW and Victorian governments and I accept that because the new emphasis upon the effect of dryland salinity on the Murray really didn't come to the fore until after that inquiry. The Webster Inquiry had been completed. So this EIS will look at that issue in particular, the terms of reference I have released today, the EIS will be produced by the Commonwealth Industry Department. I am expecting to have to document it about the end of February, it will then be put out for a period of public consultation which will be for a minimum of four weeks, I haven't decided the full period yet, the public representations as a result of that period of public exposure are then considered by the proponent, the Industry Department, and they produce a final report which comes to me a little later and then I make recommendations on that report to the Industry Minister and of course, during the period of months of this process, my Department can also conduct its own examination, and in fact has been doing so for some time, which I can feed into the advices that I will ultimately give as well. So that I think the outcome, certainly the design is to ensure greater public confidence in this process, to ensure that the public can be confident that the decisions that we make nationally in relation to the use of water in the Murray Darling Basin region is in the national interest and the national interest is one that encompasses of course, economic, environmental, social and recreational and all the other legitimate needs for water in Australia.

I instructed that there be an inquiry into the proposed precision runway monitor for the northern approach to Sydney Airport.
This is a new system that will enable aircraft to land in adverse weather conditions at the level of minimum separation at which they can land in good weather conditions. What happens at the moment, is that we obviously have a cap on the number of landings and take offs at Sydney airport which is very important to the people of Sydney, but within that cap in adverse weather conditions, the number of landings has to be reduced. It has got to be a greater separation between aircraft. There is concern in the run up to the Olympic games that this might put further pressure on the full capability of Sydney airport, the Airports Authority is therefore, proposing to put in this new precision runway monitor; the effect of that in practice will be that aircraft will be marshalled further out from the airport and that they approach the airport runway on a different trajectory and parts of that approach they will be at a lower altitude so they will be at a lower altitude further out from the airport. That has some noise effect upon Sydney residents and therefore again to give public confidence in the process, we have decided to use a mechanism under the Commonwealth Environment Protection Impact of Proposals legislation, to have that examined and the mechanism that I have chosen in this instance, is one of public inquiry. That inquiry will be conducted by Dr Don McMichael who is a retired senior Commonwealth public servant, highly regarded who will be supported by a secretariat that we will provide. He will again inquire into the issue, call for public submissions and conduct consultations with the communities in Sydney that are vitally affected by these issues. He will report back to me by the 14 April and I will make recommendations then on the basis of his report as to the environmental consequences of this new proposed precision runway monitor for the southern approach to Sydney airport.

It is always a difficult area, any changes to the operation of Sydney airport and we try to ensure that with each change that is necessary, there is a full public participation in order that they can have confidence that all environmental consequences of such actions is properly taken into account.

QUESTION:
Because of the ongoing squabbling between the States, & Premier Olsen now claiming the right of veto over water flows down the Murray, isn't it time that the Commonwealth/ Federal government stepped in and took over leadership for this issue as is now being pushed by the ACF and the Opposition?

HILL:
By leadership I am not sure what you mean; are you suggesting a change to the Constitution to give the Commonwealth responsibility for natural resource management in Australia? The primary responsibility for natural resource management in our constitutional structure is that it is the responsibility of the states, leadership is provided by the Commonwealth in terms of guidance, research, funding support, helping coordinate and build cooperation between the parties that have the responsibility on the ground and generally that has been regarded as the best way to manage natural resources in Australia.

QUESTION:
How will you get the States to actually agree to implement the findings of this EIS if there is so much difference between their views already?

HILL:
We find that a significant contributor to a better outcome is that all of the objective sound information is on the table so the community is fully informed. Out of that, there is an element of community pressure towards best decisions; you have a role in that and it's worked reasonably well. There are alternatives; I noticed Senator Schact was advocating a Commonwealth takeover of the Murray Darling Basin processes yesterday. That is an alternative, but we have believed that a cooperative model is a better model, largely because it is one thing to make laws or regulations in Canberra but it is another thing to effectively administer them on the ground and in relation to the whole range of complex practical administrative issues in relation to a resource such as the Murray Darling Basin, the States implementing it on the ground with their staff and their mechanisms, has in our view, been a better way to do it and that brings the community into play as well. Our whole approach to these complex issues of natural resource management, is to try and build a cooperative approach between governments, industry, community, in order to ensure that everybody knows the best outcomes require a contribution from all parties to deliver the best outcomes on the ground.

QUESTION:
Why wait to the eleventh hour to swing this one? You say the Salinity Audit requires new information?

HILL:
Yes.

QUESTION:
That information was provided to the Prime Ministers Science & Engineering Council in December 7, 1998, there was nothing terribly new in the Salinity Audit.

HILL:
No, you have got the wrong year. It was last year.

QUESTION:
December 7, 1998 they got the initial report.

HILL:
I was at the PMSEC meeting at which the Report was given, and it was last year and not 1998. The Report was finished before the Murray Darling Salinity Audit. But I don't quite understand what you are saying because there was an inquiry

QUESTION:
There was an Inquiry now and the expert (indistinct) on Snowy flows and then the Webster Report which was a pretty massive exercise and now we are having another one just when the States say they are close to reaching an agreement, why do this at the eleventh hour, why not do this last October or September?

HILL:
I wouldn't say this was the eleventh hour but the point is that the Webster Inquiry was an important inquiry and looked in great detail at the environmental benefits that might flow to the Snowy from various flow levels and the like. It seems to me that there was less emphasis within the Webster Report on the consequences to the Murray system. Its emphasis seems to be on the consequences to the other side of the range, so why was there less emphasis? I think it was because it was thought well, if the change doesn't reduce the flow down the Murray, then there can't be a loser, but what I am saying is in the last six months of last year evidence was building to suggest to government, be wary of taking short term decisions when we made need as a country greater flexibility in relation to flows down the Murray in the longer term and make sure you take that issue into account before you make decisions that are going to lock us into water flow issues for decades and that became apparent and was reinforced by the Salinity Audit, in the later months of last year and as soon as possible thereafter, I took this action.

QUESTION:
I notice that the starting point for this EIS (indistinct) is recommendation for the Webster Report

HILL:
They have to take into account all reports, but in particular the Webster Report. We don't want to redo what has been done. If the examination of this is that everything has been adequately done, then nothing has been lost, perhaps some cost but it can give greater public confidence.

QUESTION:
(Indistinct) The recommendation of the Webster Report is not the only figure that is out there, there is the 28% (indistinct) you are not putting that before this EIS?

HILL:
That is correct. That's right.
It is not so much the issue, the emphasis that I'm putting on this Inquiry is on this side of the range, whether we are taking decisions that are going to leave us as a nation with less flexibility in relation to future water flows down the Murray. The point of distinction is that it might be that we decided as a country in twenty years time, that we actually need more water flowing down the Murray to keep that system healthy and certainly you would be excused for believing that that is going to be the case after reading the Murray Darling Basin Commission Salinity Audit.

QUESTION:
Minister, do you agree with Premier Olsen's claim earlier in the week that he has won a right of veto over adjustments to Snowy River & Murray River flows?

HILL:
I read the Advertiser article. When I turned over the page, it said that the agreement is being negotiated and as I understand it, the design is to be a supplementation to the existing Murray Waters Agreement to deal with further savings that can be made and when I made enquiries that day, I was led to believe from the Industry Minister's office that they believed such an agreement can be achieved so that's the situation as I understand it. I understand that South Australia, consistent with what I've been saying about needing to protect our interest for the long term and the existing mechanisms, may be inadequate to do that. I can see why South Australia would have a real interest in ensuring that further savings of water that might be achieved can then be part of a negotiated process to ensure long term sustainability and it seems the effort to reach an agreement that will enable that South Australian input into future savings is the subject of that article. So I thought between the headline and the content there was a touch of confusion, but where that came in I don't know.

QUESTION:
That aside, are you concerned about the short term politicking and the squabbles between the States that's going on. You're talking about looking at this in the long term but we have seen some short term politicking. How concerned are you about that?

HILL:
Well I'm not particularly concerned about it because each State will press its own interests. What my major concern is that in the end decisions are made in the national interest, but in this instance, if I get condemned by Bracks and Carr because they say you're putting the South Australian perspective, but in this instance, in some ways the South Australian perspective is the national perspective because if quality and quantity is not maintained and in South Australia where that test reaches its final judgment, then as a nation we're failing.

QUESTION:
Do you not think the EIS will also look at the possibility of the issue of compensation?

HILL:
Under the proposal water shouldn't be reduced so I don't immediately see why that should become relevant because what we're rather wanting to ensure is that before we proclaim the corporatisation legislation, we have a handle on the long term consequences in relation to water flows and whether we're not locking ourselves out of an opportunity that will have a greater value in terms of the national interest over time. And I don't discount the importance of a restoration of an environmental flow to the Snowy. We've done research ourselves which show that a greater flow can assist some of the endangered species in the Snowy so that one of course can immediately come back and ask the question that wasn't really asked by the Webster Inquiry and that is if salinity continues to increase in the Murray, what effect is that going to have on endangered species on this side of the range?

QUESTION:
In the terms of reference, I haven't noticed any specific reference to Adelaide's drinking water supplies. Will that naturally be addressed under one of the topics or should that be a specific term of reference in the Inquiry.

HILL:
That is really a consequence of these decisions that we're making. What the Murray Darling Basin Commission Salinity Audit said is that on the current program we have in place, the quality is going to continue to worsen so that for some days a week, in I think, 20 years time, the salinity content of water being consumed in Adelaide will be above the recommended safe limits for health. Governments have obviously got to respond to that because that would be intolerable. What I'm saying to you is that may mean, and we haven't got to the next step, the Murray Darling Basin Commission hasn't yet made its recommendations on what should be done to provide a better outcome than is foreshadowed by its Audit and we need the flexibility later this year to be able to take up those recommendations. Obviously one of the objectives of those recommendations will be to ensure that there is long-term quality of Adelaide drinking water.

QUESTION:
How hard are you prepared to go on the Eastern States to make sure that Adelaide's water quality is maintained despite their interests and having 12 million people over there compared to 1.4 here?

HILL:
Well if you say that decisions have got to be taken in the national interest, providing water that's safe for drinking to Adelaide is critical in the national interest. That has to be achieved - no question about that. That is not a question of playing off States or playing off interests. One of the 'must achieve' outcomes for this country is safe drinking water for Adelaide and on the basis of the Audit we received, requires further changes and further program developments for the Murray River Darling system. As I said in the previous press conference we've done, the Commission has done pretty well in relation to what it thought was its primary challenge, what we as a country thought was the primary challenge, and that was salinity associated with irrigation practices. There's still more that needs to be done in that regard. There's still more that is being done. What it hasn't adequately yet taken into account because we haven't known this, is the consequences of dryland salinity from 200 years of land clearing. We now know those consequences are serious. We have in place programs already. We're investing more money than ever before in revegetation, protecting remnant vegetation and the like. It appears that what we're doing as a nation is still inadequate so we will need to do more.

QUESTION:
Do you think some water will end up being put back down the Snowy?

HILL:
I don't know the answer to that question. I have said from the outset that the goals of restoring an environmental flow to the Snowy are laudable. I accept them and I am releasing at the moment a research paper which shows specific gains in terms of benefits to endangered species so that is a worthwhile objective. I've always said that. But in a country where we have a limited water resource and we're continually juggling that water resource, we've got to make sure that all consequences are properly taken into account before ultimate decisions are being made, particularly decisions that are going to have long term consequences.

QUESTION:
The option of a zero return of flow to the Snowy is on the table?

HILL:
That is not my decision. That is not part of this Inquiry. This Inquiry is to provide environmental evidence upon which recommendations will be made. So, I suppose its true that at the end of this process, it would be technically possible for me to come out with a recommendation that says that if further savings can be achieved in the Murray, it wouldn't be in the national interest if those savings were diverted elsewhere. In effect diverted, its not actually the same water, but you know what I mean.

QUESTION:
Is it difficult to run this argument, run this issue as a South Australian senator?

HILL:
As I said, both Carr and Bracks say I'm taking a South Australian perspective, but most Australians I think, do recognise that the Basin is a national asset, it's critically important nationally and that has to be the ultimate test. I have enough confidence to believe that Victorians and New South Welshmen can appreciate that as well.

QUESTION:
Concerning other matters, senator, the GST - why has Joe Hockey been the Federal spokesman on that issue instead of you? I understand that you're the Acting Treasurer at the moment?

HILL:
Well, he's been speaking as the Financial Services Minister.

QUESTION:
But does the fact that he can't answer simple questions about the GST....such as the price of a can of Coke.....does it mean that the Government is behind track on the implementation of the new tax?

HILL:
It's on track. It'll be delivered on time.

QUESTION:
Why is the Government conducting a public inquiry into the proposed radar system?

HILL:
In order that the public can have confidence that all environmental consequences are properly taken into account in a decision, if its made to implement that new guidance system. In other words, the proposals being put because there is believed that there will be a need to bring more aircraft in, particularly in the Olympic period, on the face of it, it will have some environmental consequence although it might not be great. But because of the extreme sensitivity of Sydneysiders towards any changes to aircraft movements, we've decided that there needs to be a public process and I've chosen this particular mechanism.

QUESTION:
If the Inquiry goes beyond the Olympics, will the lack of a radar system hinder the airport's ability to deal with the increased tourist flow during that Olympic period?

HILL:
Well the brief that I received was principally dealing with the issue of the Olympics. But let's assume that tourist numbers - I hope that tourist numbers will continue to grow for Australia - so to operate fully within the cap would require, and this is over the longer tem, would require the new guidance system. Does that answer the question? So whilst the Olympics is a spur to get this decision made a little quicker, it would have to be made in due course in any event to operate within the cap. There's no suggestion of operating beyond the cap but the cap cannot be fully operated at the moment in adverse weather because of the period of separation between aircraft.

QUESTION:
If you don't accept the radar system, is Sydney Airport going to be able to cope during the Olympic period?

HILL:
Well I haven't got an absolute answer on that. The brief that I've got is that it would be desirable to have it in place to ensure that Sydney Airport is capable of dealing with the load during the period of the Olympics

QUESTION:
How will the Inquiry be conducted? You say it's a public Inquiry, what will be the basis?

HILL:
The terms of reference are being published. There will be a base paper prepared. The community will have an opportunity to respond to that paper and in this instance, as you are probably well aware, they are community groups that are well developed, they are focussed on this issue, they know all the facts and all the data, so they don't need a long time to get themselves organised. What they need is an opportunity to publicly provide their point of view and that's why we've chosen this mechanism of an Inquiry rather than one of the other mechanisms provided

QUESTION:
To report to you by when?

HILL:
14th of April I've set. That is because, if the decision is taken to implement the new system and if the Olympics become a critical time for its implementation, there needs to be a period of a few months of training and system development to have it operating.

QUESTION:
So much more noise over northern and southern Sydney suburbs during the Olympics.

HILL:
No, not much more noise. That's a colourful way of expressing it. What it means is that in adverse weather, the Sydney Airport will be able to be operated within the cap but using to the maximum within that cap. And to do that you need a new radar system and that brings aircraft in at a lower level further out so there will be some changes in the noise profile.

QUESTION:
More noise?

HILL:
Well, twenty aircraft create more noise than ten right? But the cap has been determined to a maximum noise overall in the course of the year.

QUESTION:
But the lower altitude is going to spread more noise over a greater area surely?

HILL:
It means that some people are likely to get some further noise because aircraft will be in a lower altitude when they pass near their places of residence. And that is the environmental issue that needs to be publicly foreshadowed before a decision is made.

QUESTION:
Can I ask you briefly about the Nathan Dam decision in Queensland? Is there likely to be any Federal response to the go-ahead given the environmental concerns and downstream effects?

HILL:
Well I think there are still Federal approvals to be given. We provided input to both the WAMP development and the Nathan Dam Inquiry itself. We were pleased that in the end they were brought back together. We thought it was a mistake to be dealing with the issue of the Dam without looking at its place within the broader catchment consequences and the process we're going through at the moment is, having provided input, we are now looking at the Queensland outcome which was only a few days ago, and I'll be getting a brief on that in the near future.

QUESTION:
But there hasn't been a decision on it?

HILL:
No our attitude has been that there is a good rural argument for the Nathan Dam. The issue is whether when you talk about design and size, to ensure that it is constructed and operated in a sustainable way and GBRMPA had a concern that its proposed mode of operation would result in changes of water flow out of the mouth of the river and also in some instances, increase pollution which could have a detrimental effect upon the reef and that was the issue we were concerned with...

HILL:
OK Thanks very much.

Commonwealth of Australia