Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities
Doorstop - Murray–Darling Basin Water Ministers meet in Canberra
4 November 2011
QUESTION: So the first meeting between all the Water Ministers since this thing has come in, how was it?
TONY BURKE: Well, this will be the last meeting that we have before the Authority releases its Draft Basin Plan. I think one of the issues of critical importance that has come out of today, is every jurisdiction, while people will have their own views for their own state or territory as to what the reform should look like, everybody is wanting to make sure that we get through this process and finally provide certainty for communities.
This reform is something that people have been talking about for a very long time, it’s a once in a generation opportunity and every jurisdiction is wanting to play a constructive role in delivering that.
There are also a couple of issues that have come up today which we haven’t discussed at length previously and I think it’s important to note them.
The first is there’s been some controversy over the last week about what is technically referred to as the long term cap equivalent conversion rates of water. What’s happened is, over time, people review how much water different entitlements are worth, in technical terms it makes sense to do this. But what it’s done is provide a high level of uncertainty for communities and a whole lot of people have started to look at how much water they thought had been recovered in their catchment and have questioned, have the goal posts suddenly been shifted? I’ve put the argument previously, publicly, that even though technically you can justify these sorts of changes, the uncertainty that it creates for communities just isn’t worth it. Any reform is hard but it’s made much harder if you add uncertainty to the equation.
So I took the view, as did a number of other Ministers from different jurisdictions that we would put to the Authority that they really should just go back to the old rates that were there and keep those numbers so that communities know where they are up to. The Authority has made the undertaking to agree to that process and therefore we will soon be updating, on my department’s website, to reflect the conversion rates that had previously applied. You can always have a technical argument back and forth as to what s the best way of calculating these things. I don’t think that technical argument is worth the uncertainty that this issue has created.
The final thing that we went through in some detail is the issue of capacity constraints. At the moment, most of the public debate is about how do you recover the water, how do you return more water to the environment and in a way that works for communities and food production. There is then the question, which we haven’t really go to in that level of detail before at these meetings of how do you then use the water. Because there are some constraints in the system, you need to make sure, if you are trying to get water out to a particular environmental site, how deep is the channel, what is your capacity to get those volumes out there. When you are trying to flood an environmental site, how do you do that without having other impacts of that watering event on people’s homes, on farmers properties, on roads or bridges. So we’ve started to commission some significant work to work out what are these different capacity constraints within the system.
QUESTION: Just to clarify, are you saying the changes to the department’s website where it signaled or explained how much had been bought back. Are you saying you are going to instruct the department to convert back to the original figures?
TONY BURKE: That’s correct. That’s on the advice of the Murray Darling Basin Authority will now be using the original figures as its conversion rates.
QUESTION: And is that because it’s just too confusing before? Because there has been a lot of confusion since the changes.
TONY BURKE: The argument that was run, not only by me but other ministers as well, was entirely about providing certainty. I don’t dispute that there are technical arguments about any set of conversion rates, there are so many different classes of water entitlements, they differ between entitlements and value, they differ between states. The technical work that is being done is legitimate but it is just not worth the price of the uncertainty that this has created.
QUESTION: Minister, what is the date of the release of the Draft Plan?
TONY BURKE: There was some additional work that we’ve asked to be undertaken with respect to that issue and the Authority is still indicating that they will be during the month of November. Whether it is in mid-November or slightly later than that now there’s some work that they will come back with. But I’ll leave it for the Authority to come back on any announcements about timing, they are still working to a November date.
QUESTION: South Australia has said they want extra water to the environment, the Victorian Minister has said they are acting like spoilt children. How are you going to get to the end of this and make sure there is an agreement and both states agree?
TONY BURKE: Can I say and call to all jurisdictions on this one. We have a once in a generation opportunity to get this right. Reforms like this don’t happen often and we’ve got the moment that will come in front of all of us next year when a Draft Plan takes its final shape into a final and permanent plan for the Murray Darling Basin. Everyone will always be able to argue around the edges of what is the ideal option for each individual state. But the worst option for everyone is for the reform to fall over. I’ve got to say, I’ve had a level of concerns seeing some of the media speculation and banter that has been around as to whether or not individual jurisdictions would want to force their own arguments to the point that they wreck the reform.
I’ve got a good level of confidence from the meeting that I just attended that all jurisdictions recognize that the worst outcome for every state is for uncertainty to continue forever. That means no state gets their ideal, perfect outcome but what we do get is healthy rivers, strong communities and sustainable food production by providing certainty and doing what no set of ministers have been able to do as this issue has been discussed decade after decade and that is actually get a permanent, sustainable future for the basin.
QUESTION: Is that a prospect for the plan to fall over?
TONY BURKE: Well, you ultimately end up with the prospect of someone moving disallowance in the Federal Parliament. That is a procedural option that is available. I think anyone would have seen from the way that I have been conducting my consultation, by the way the Authority has been conducting its consultation, since Craig Knowles took the role on, that no one is interested in playing games with this issue at our end.
We are genuinely engaging in a constructive dialogue to try to make sure we can get the right balance here and deliver the sorts of outcomes that we have kept talking about for a healthy working basin – healthy rivers, strong communities, sustainable food production. You can get a balance that works in all of those areas. There are some minimum environmental standards that you need to be able to deliver that actually have healthy rivers as part of that equation. I am very confident that the Authority is doing the right job in leading that work.
QUESTION: Minister, when the Guide was released you had a lot of anger from irrigators, they were burning the Guide. This time environmentalists and irrigators are concerned about that 2800 gigalitre figure, are you concerned that there will be an even bigger backlash this time?
TONY BURKE: I’ve got no doubts, and I know from the groups, and I think this is quite reasonable, when the draft comes out it will be the final opportunity for all groups to have their influence on the final numbers and it’s an opportunity that no lobby group will miss, and no community will miss. I think that’s right and proper that they engage in the process in that way. We need to remember with this that there never will be a consensus position on the Murray Darling Basin where every community or interest on the basin says this is the perfect outcome and they all agree on something. That won’t happen. There needs to be the political courage to make a judgement call as to how you provide a sustainable future for the Basin. You’re right, the environmental groups will say when the numbers come out that they believe the numbers should be higher and the irrigation groups and many communities will say the numbers should be lower and they will try to influence the final outcome. When you have real consultation people try to influence the outcome, I’m not fazed by that happening, I think it’s right and proper and I think that contributes to a better outcome.
QUESTION: Is that a sign that both sides are equally invigorated?
TONY BURKE: I just think we have to acknowledge the reality that there is no consensus where everybody is going to be celebrating on this one but the worst thing you can do by every interest is put it off and not actually resolve the issue.
QUESTION: Does the Government or the Authority have a better media strategy to sell it this time so you don’t have a repeat of the bonfires?
TONY BURKE: Well I’m not going to pretend that you can be in control if half a dozen people want to have a protest like the specifics that you’ve just described. I think it’s also fair to say in terms of media strategy that I don’t want Basin policy to be run by that. I want Basin policy to be run by the interests of having a healthy river system, by looking after communities and acknowledging that we are talking about an important food bowl. I’m not going to pretend that I or any member of parliament is ever in control of how things are played through the media. That’s your job to work out how you think the best way to present these issues is.
What I want to make sure of is that no one will have a right to argue that there hasn’t been good quality consultation because there has been, I want to make sure that no one is in a position to say we have ignored different concerns, because we haven’t. But I also want to make sure that we resolve the issue and if you get the policy right then I think the communication of the policy, I think, starts to sort itself out.
QUESTION: This is probably the third under this new plan or strategy that has been approved, can you explain why we’ve got this new system in place now?
TONY BURKE: One of the challenges that has been around for federal environmental approvals for a long time is each individual applicant has to go off and do their own environmental impact statement and go through their own federal approvals process. But often the sorts of issues they are checking on are the same. So what I have wanted to do is start to establish what I describe as a environmental docking station, where you don’t wait for the application you actually get out in front of it and you say here is an area where a whole lot of applications are going to be coming our way, let’s do the work now. Work out what you would have to do to protect the environmental interests in this area then allow applicants to come forward and go ahead and they know what the ground rules are. That means you get a better outcome for the environment because you aren’t planning in a haphazard way one application at a time, you’ve done your planning up front. It also means, from industry’s perspective they are not waiting around for an extra 12 months or longer for a federal approval because we can just go straight to the conditions because the environmental assessments have already been set.
There are a number of areas where this can provide really good policy but it’s particularly important when you are talking about the availability of housing. Because those environmental charges, if you maximize them and you don’t come up with ways of streamlining the system just get passed on to people who are trying to buy their first home. That’s why I’ve been committed to wanting to have strategic assessments where we get out in front of the curve, we work together and I want to thank the Territory Government for the constructive work that has been done here. We get a good environmental outcome out of this, in the area of potentially 55,000 residents of the Territory get homes in a sustainable environment and a whole lot of areas, including where I kayak from time to time along the Molonglo, actually have some protected areas there where we get a much better environmental outcome than otherwise would have occurred.
QUESTION: There were plans for development right up to the river, so has that changed now? Are we protecting those river banks?
TONY BURKE: I’ll leave it to Simon to go through the geographic specifics, I always take the view as the Federal Minister that you don’t do the suburb by suburb stuff particularly when you have someone there with you to help. But if you want to look for the offsets, we’re looking at some of the areas that you’ve just described.