Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities
Interview: Barrie Cassidy - Insiders, ABC Television: Murray-Darling Basin Plan
13 November 2011
BARRIE CASSIDY: And now next on the Government's to do list – come up with a water plan for the Murray-Darling basin that at least well in part anyway satisfies both the irrigators and the environmentalists.
The draft plan is due out in two weeks – stand by for the protests.
Our guest this morning is the minister responsible for the environment and water, Tony Burke, who joins us in our Sydney studios. Good morning. Welcome.
TONY BURKE, ENVIRONMENT MINISTER: Good morning Barrie.
BARRIE CASSIDY: Okay so the plan comes out in a couple of weeks. Now surely whatever it says, as I say, the protests will start because basically nobody ever seems to get this right.
TONY BURKE: Well I don't think it goes to the nature of the consultation. It's the nature of the reform Barrie. This is not an issue where there ever has been or ever will be a consensus position.
So no matter what number the authority comes forward with there will be arguments from the environmental side that the number should be higher, there'll be arguments from the irrigation side the number should be lower.
What we need to do is make a call to provide certainty so that we keep going with the task of making sure that we get that basin into better health than it's been.
The last drought, you can't avoid the depth of a drought year. But what you can make sure of is that the system is in better health as you approach the drought and that's what the reform is about.
BARRIE CASSIDY: Okay how do you plan to deal with this when it comes out? Will there be public meetings as there were before?
TONY BURKE: There'll be public meetings again. There's certainly one of the most noted ones last time was the meeting in Griffith. I've already been invited to a meeting the day after the plan comes out in Griffith. I'll be attending that. So that'll be on the 29th that that's currently scheduled for.
And you know it's important for people to be able to have their say. That's what a consultation period is about. And I've no doubt from both the environmental side and the irrigation side people will be vigorous in having their say and so they should be.
BARRIE CASSIDY: Isn't that where they last, they burnt the last plan?
TONY BURKE: That would be the place Barrie. Yeah that's right.
BARRIE CASSIDY: Good luck with that. Now already people in Deniliquin who have been quoted during the week in The Australian, they're deeply worried about it. They say that if you reduce water allocations by 20 per cent the town will go to the wall.
TONY BURKE: One of the things here, I've seen some irrigators in those stories say, you know, there's no way I'm having water taken from me.
The truth of this reform is we don't go in and just take water from irrigators. We only – there's a water market. We only buy from people who've chosen to put some of their water on the market. And most of the purchases we make, the majority of them, are from people who've actually only put part of their water on the market.
You know in an area like Deniliquin you've got the rice growers who in terms of growing rice are probably the most efficient in the world, what we've got in Australia. Now they've found over the last years significant water savings.
So increasingly you'll find irrigators who say well, I no longer need all of my entitlement. They'll put part of it on the market. And we're one of the groups that's interested in buying that.
But when it's done through efficiencies you can't then follow on and claim that there's a total negative impact because they're using water more efficiently. That allows them to sell some more for environmental purposes. We get the basin into better health.
BARRIE CASSIDY: Can you really hit your targets though without compulsory taking water away from people?
TONY BURKE: Yeah look on the numbers that have been floated already from the authority, that 2800 figure that they've been floating, if that's where they end up then we're in the order of what's already contracted of being something like 40, 45 per cent of the way there.
We've already got more, much more than 1000 gig. It's something like 1300 currently contracted. So whatever number the authority comes out with we'll already be well on the way to achieving that simply by being in the market, buying from people who want to sell and through investing in infrastructure where you get infrastructure deals that allow an improvement in the efficiency for the irrigator and an improvement for the environment.
BARRIE CASSIDY: But the way a lot of the irrigators see it is they say that you're trading away food production for the environment. Is there some truth in that?
TONY BURKE: Yeah look I think we've got to be a bit careful Barrie with this whole food security argument with the Murray-Darling Basin. I've seen Barnaby Joyce at rallies in northern NSW and in Queensland talking about food security and half the audience is cotton growers. And you know you get some oil out of cotton but realistically cotton is not a big part of the food supply.
When irrigation is used for grapes at the moment, we've got a massive wine glut. And while I'm the first to say great product, important product, it's hardly part of the solution to global hunger.
So farmers can grow what they want and I think they should be able to grow what they want. And they have water entitlements. If they want to sell part of that entitlement that is completely up to them.
But to claim that somehow there's an automatic connection to global hunger or national food security ignores the fact that a whole lot of what's grown in the basin is important, profitable, but let's not pretend it's a staple food.
BARRIE CASSIDY: But at some point though if it gets to that stage you need to start making judgements about what farmers are allowed to grow, that you give priority to food products for example and not to grapes and cotton.
TONY BURKE: Oh well if you want to run the basin for food security that would be what you'd do. You'd tell people what to grow. I don't think we should do that. Our view very much is you let farmers choose what they want to grow. You have a market there for water.
And the water reform that needs to be done is something that we drive through either investment in infrastructure or through buying water on that market and only buying from those who wish to sell.
BARRIE CASSIDY: Is it in the end though a fair bet that you'll be certainly asking farmers to do more with less but you won't be asking the same of the environment?
TONY BURKE: Oh no. In fact there's some really significant things, a technical term for them is environmental works and measures, but finding ways of being able to meet the environmental outcomes as efficiently as possible.
So for example if you look at some work that's been done at Hattah Lakes down in the south of the system. There they've managed to do some flooding events for the lakes there to restore the health of the river red gums.
But instead of doing it through a full overbank flow they've pumped the water there. Now that way you get the environmental outcome without actually having to use as much water.
There are some environmental outcomes you can only achieve through an overbank flow. But where you can use environmental water more efficiently then you should do that.
BARRIE CASSIDY: I suppose there's never a good time to raise a divisive issue like this but would it have be easier in time of drought to raise this issue? Certainly politically I'd imagine it would be an easier issue to deal with while there's a drought in progress.
TONY BURKE: In terms of the transition for communities the best time to have a reform like this is when there's a lot of water in the system like there is now.
When you've got plenty of water in the system the pathway for communities is a much more gentle transition. And that's the best time in policy terms to deliver the reform.
In political terms you're absolutely right Barrie. One of the challenges is the political impetus is the easiest to find when you're in the depth of drought. But if it's a choice between the easiest political time or the time that's best for transitioning communities then I think let's work on the basis that the good policy ends up being the right way of doing it and that's when you've got a lot of water in the system.
BARRIE CASSIDY: I want to ask you about coal seam gas. And given your portfolio responsibilities the number one concern for you I'd imagine would be the possible contamination of the water table. Is enough known about the risks involved?
TONY BURKE: It's not just the contamination of the water table Barrie. One of the principal concerns here is to get the gas out of the coal you have to extract the water. And when you extract the water to get the gas out you don't just have an issue of contamination. You've also got an issue of does that mean that the other groundwater then backfills back into the coal seam?
And there are some coal seams which are not connected to the rest of the water supply. There are some that are. And the critical thing you need to be able to do is test each one and treat them differently.
Now this means that if you've got a coal seam, the aquifer there where it's effectively water tight, then you're not going to have an impact on the rest of the underground water and you don't have a problem.
But if it's porous, if it is connected as in many cases it's believed to be, you need to be able to reinject the water. You need to be able to repressurise.
And you need to have those decisions not just being dealt with by the trust in an individual company. You need to have an independent scientific committee answerable to government that's actually giving the reporting on this.
Now what I've just described to the extent that we have power over our environmental conditions is what we've put in place at a federal level. The state approvals which apply to all coal seam gas projects haven't always gone to that same benchmark. And I think one of the things we really need to look at here, because of the importance of water underground, is to make sure that the states come up to the same standards for underground water that we've put in place at a federal level.
BARRIE CASSIDY: What about the other question of farmers being forced to let people onto their properties to explore? Tony Windsor wants to restrict exploration. Is he getting any support within Government for that?
TONY BURKE: The issues of water, there's an extent to which we have power. The issues of land use and access to land constitutionally is entirely within the ambit of the states. So I'm not going to pretend that we're in a position to have a significant impact on that one.
BARRIE CASSIDY: So you're telling Tony Windsor he's wasting his time talking to you guys about that?
TONY BURKE: Well he's been talking to us a lot about the water issues and that's really important. In terms of decisions that states make, because they release the tenements on this, they release the acreage for, and they control the rules as to who's allowed to have land title in terms of above the ground and who has it under the ground. At a federal level I just can't pretend we're in charge of that part of the decision.
BARRIE CASSIDY: Well you're not. But what's your view on that? Do you think that Tony Windsor is going too far, he's asking too much of the states?
TONY BURKE: I think it's important for them to come up to the same standard as us on the water conditions. I think that's really important. And we've had some indications that they might be willing to but it hasn't happened yet.
On the issue of how they control title under the ground, you would be overturning more than 100 years of how those rules have worked to start changing that now. But it's an issue for the states.
BARRIE CASSIDY: Okay on the carbon tax, do you accept that this will continue to hurt the Government, not so much, or not only because of the nature of the policy, but because the Prime Minister promised it wouldn't happen?
TONY BURKE: Let's look at what happens from now because the first thing that happens there Barrie is we've now narrowed the gap between how profitable it is to invest in clean energy compared to high levels of pollution. And pollution is no longer free. That will affect the investment decisions that companies now make.
Tony Abbott's now in a position where he's planning to start telling the Australian people at the next election that he will cut the pension, cut family payments, increase taxes, but don't worry, these big polluting companies will pass on a savings to you.
Now I do not believe that is a credible argument forward. And I think Tony Abbott will be able to run an effective fear campaign probably up until the 30th of June next year.
But when people wake up on the 1st of July and realise that the entire fear campaign he's been running is wrong and his promises are all about giving the public less money, I think he's got some problems down the track.
BARRIE CASSIDY: But on the question of what the Prime Minister said before the election, there was not a lot of celebration among Government ranks. Was that because you felt that the people who had been deceived did not want to have their noses rubbed in it?
TONY BURKE: Well let's make clear, we were given a Parliament where no individual party held a majority in the House of Representatives.
Now at the election our preferred pathway was an emissions trading system. When we first put that to the Parliament some years ago we had a fixed price period there.
What we've ended up with to negotiate it through the Parliament is a longer fixed price period than would have been our ideal situation. But you deal with the Parliament that you have.
And this is no different – let's not forget what happened to John Howard with the GST. When he introduced the GST it wasn't the same GST that he'd taken to the election. He couldn't get that one through the Senate. So he modified it. And that's what happens. You have to deal with the Parliament that the public elects. In terms of our preferred position of an emissions trading scheme, under the legislation that's passed we get there.
BARRIE CASSIDY: But what we're seeing at the moment are new taxes – carbon tax and then next a tax on the miners.
TONY BURKE: And there is no better description for what people recognise the Australian economy needs than what is contained within that mining tax package.
People recognise that you've got a number of mining companies there that are doing so much better than the rest of the economy generally. And that's a good thing but it does mean they can afford to pay more tax and it does mean that you can then use that money to provide tax breaks across the rest of the economy by bringing the company tax rate down.
That's exactly when people talk about a two-speed or patchwork economy, it's exactly what that package involves. And to argue not only that the companies that are doing so well shouldn't be paying a little bit more tax, but to argue as Tony Abbott is against a package where the three biggest mining companies are actually on board and willing to pay it but he still wants to protect them from it?
I mean I don't think Tony Abbott's argument on this one could be further away from what people understand to be the needs of the Australian economy. And I know that he's got into a pattern of saying no to everything. But I really think the number's up on how long that is going to work.
BARRIE CASSIDY: Tony Burke, thanks for your time this morning.
TONY BURKE: Pleasure.