Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities
Press conference: Draft Murray-Darling Basin plan
30 November 2011
JAY WEATHERILL: We're largely presenting ourselves for questions. We've had a meeting which has largely been an exchange of information about the details of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan in its draft form. And it's been a positive meeting. We've been able to elicit some information and further information will be provided.
From South Australia's perspective, we're seeking to understand the science that underpins the plan and also some of the decisions that have been taken to arrive at the figures, to try and satisfy ourselves about the way in which the plan can guarantee the health of the part of the river that exists in South Australia.
And we will be having a taskforce meeting. On Monday, I mentioned the establishment of a taskforce. That taskforce meeting will occur today. I'll be making a statement, a ministerial statement in parliament on Thursday. And there of course is the meeting on Monday, where a range of stakeholders will be brought together to fashion a South Australian response to the plan.
But I might invite Minister Burke to say a few brief words to you. And then we're happy to make ourselves available. Minister Caica is here as well.
TONY BURKE: Thanks very much, Premier.
The draft has only been out now for two days. And so in that time I've had the opportunity to meet with some irrigation communities in New South Wales and Victoria and now to meet with the Premier here in South Australia. We've got 20 weeks of consultation. And so, right at the moment, people are still working through technical questions in detail. And today's meeting has been productive, but very much an information sharing meeting.
Where I hope we end up in next year is that we end up in a situation which has eluded Australia for a century and that is that we actually end up with a national approach to a river system that has never respected the state boundaries, but has been managed as those state boundaries for the way it was meant to run. That has always worked to the detriment of the health of the river and in particular has always worked to the detriment of South Australia.
We've got an opportunity over the next ten months to be able to resolve that and make sure that we have a national approach. And understandably, every state, every area, has a strong view as to how that national approach should best be served. And the Premier certainly has continued to advance the interests of South Australia, as he should, and as will occur during the course of the consultation that's happening.
QUESTION: Premier, [inaudible] to ruling out a local challenge at all?
JAY WEATHERILL: No.
QUESTION: One for Minister Burke. The plan's been [inaudible] by everyone in South Australia, the government, the irrigators, environmentalists. Do you accept that everyone can't be wrong? South Australia has got [inaudible].
TONY BURKE: I don't think what you've just said is a description that applies only to South Australia. I think the description you've just given reflects the fact that, across the entire Murray-Darling Basin, everyone has a different interest. It doesn't matter where I go in the Murray-Darling Basin, people will tell me that their catchment is different. And they're all telling the truth. All the catchments are different. But if we simply allow ourselves, in twelve months' time or thereabouts, to remain in our corners, then we'll be back where we started.
And right at the moment, it's a consultation phase. It's the final phase for people really to be able to express their local perspectives as strongly as possible. And I think it's right and proper that people do that.
QUESTION: [Inaudible] in fairly strong terms about the plan [inaudible] the amount of water return that hasn't been delivered, that makes for a fairly [inaudible].
TONY BURKE: I think the differences of opinion and the concerns that the Premier has to make sure that South Australia gets a good deal have been clear and have been clear for a long time and no different in that meeting. The main purpose of the meeting we've just had is very much to look at technical detail in what's contained within that draft document.
QUESTION: Minister, on the radio this morning, you seemed to have a go at the Premier [inaudible] for the legal action. Can you maintain that now, that this is a once in a lifetime opportunity to [inaudible] that phrase that you hear all the time and that the Premier's absence is just wrecking this opportunity.
TONY BURKE: Yeah. Well, clearly you've got a different transcript to the one that I delivered in the language that you've just used.
QUESTION: Well it was in a nice way, but that was what you meant, wasn't it?
TONY BURKE: Well, I think we have to end up taking a national approach. Everybody will have different perspectives throughout the Basin and they are right to be advancing those. But what we will need to get to, at the end of the consultation period, we don't need to short-circuit it at the beginning, during the consultation period everyone should be putting their different perspective.
QUESTION: But Minister, just quickly on that, if you think that the Premier has done the wrong thing by [inaudible].
TONY BURKE: If you…
TONY BURKE: No, no. You can change the transcript as often as you want, but I'll complete my sentence and that will answer your question.
QUESTION: How about you just say in plain terms, rather than this nice happy language that perhaps the Premier's actions are wrecking the national plan. Isn't that what you mean?
TONY BURKE: No matter how many times you try to provide a transcript for me, I'm going to use my own words, if you ever let me finish the sentence. I'm hoping for a go now.
Ultimately, we need to end up in a situation where a national approach is taken. At that point, it will be a problem if everyone remains in their corners. It will. But right now, at the beginning of the consultation period, I think it's right and proper for people to be passionately advocating the views of their section of the Basin.
QUESTION: So what would you say in twenty weeks' time, if the consultation doesn't advance the cause or is seen to be a little more the way Jay Weatherill's approaching it?
TONY BURKE: Let's wait till we get to 20 weeks.
QUESTION: This process was sold as - admittedly before either of you were in your current jobs - but as something which was going to - it was a historic agreement and something which was going to take the politics out of the way the river was managed.
We've now got a state potentially threatening to take the Commonwealth to Court, states at odds, how has anything really changed?
TONY BURKE: I'll tell you exactly how it's changed. What's in front of us right now, from a South Australian perspective, you've had the mouth of the Murray it was closed since 2002. We're now looking at a plan where there will be enough water reserved for environmental purposes the mouth of the Murray will be open nine years out of 10.The ecology of the wetlands up and down the Basin having environmental water in volumes that have never previously been held for that purpose available to ensure the resilience and the health of the system.
Let's not pretend that what was announced a couple of days ago is a small change. The total extraction, across the whole Murray-Darling system, is in the order of about 13,000 gigalitres. What we're talking about is reserving just under 3000 gigalitres for the purpose of keeping the system healthy.
This is the first time anything of that order has been made available and the money on the table to make it happen, so there will be good arguments about whether that's enough and where the landing place should be. And some people will quite properly argue that for their part of the river they believe a fair deal is for different numbers to what have been - what were put forward on Monday.
I don't know whether where we land will be reflected by what was announced two days ago. But anyone who wants to argue that what was announced on Monday isn't a substantial and historic change in how we manage the Murray-Darling Basin hasn't looked closely enough at the science and the figures that have been presented.
QUESTION: But here in South Australia within two days of the document's release, does that suggest - do you recognise that you have a fairly major PR problem in South Australia?
TONY BURKE: Oh well I - yesterday I was in the ACT, Victoria, New South Wales and South Australia. So I don't know if you want to argue that makes it a PR problem in all of them.M
The argument that you put though about South Australia, there is no doubt that when you manage the system purely along the lines of state boundaries South Australia is the worst off. No doubt about that.
And there is no doubt that the worst outcome for South Australia would be for this to fall over, and there is not state that would end up with worse results from the plan falling over than South Australia.
But right now we're not at that point. We're at the point now of saying what should those numbers be and there is a live and decent argument for people to be putting their perspective for different parts of the Basin.
QUESTION: Is the Weatherill perspective, just given you're acknowledging South Australia's predicament that perhaps the South Australian irrigators having to cut their crop already in need to be held to the same standards and accountabilities perhaps as others upstream?
TONY BURKE: Look that issue and I've made other comments, I might - the Premier might want to say more than me on this, but the issue of the money that's been reserved for South Australia for infrastructure purposes has been slow getting out the door.
There have been difficulties, in part because of the issues you raise about the early adoption from some of the irrigators, in particular in the Riverland. We have not yet resolved that issue. But I've, I've acknowledged the Premier today that we do need to make sure that the money reserved for South Australia for infrastructure is able to be used in South Australia.
QUESTION: Would you concede that argument that South Australian irrigators have already made their cuts effectively years ago and, as such, shouldn't face as stringent cuts as some of the other states under this plan. And do you think the plan - and do you agree with that and do you think this plan reflects that?
TONY BURKE: There are many parts of the Basin where people have been early adopters on very good technology, many parts of the Basin. The Riverland is one of them.
If we were to quarantine any individual state entirely from Basin reform then I believe the whole thing would fall over and I believe that would be the worst outcome for South Australia.
QUESTION: Premier, do you think...
QUESTION: Just one more question, if that's okay? Will you give a personal undertaking to personally front public meetings in regional areas over this - in South Australia over the next 20 weeks?
TONY BURKE: Yeah look, I was at one in Victoria yesterday. I'd accepted one in New South Wales for yesterday afternoon, but they changed the date. But I'll be attending as many public meetings as I can get to.M
QUESTION: Premier, the [inaudible]...
JAY WEATHERILL: Mm.
QUESTION: …for you ever since you became Premier, has been 4000 gigalitres. Do you still maintain that Minister Burke is wrong in his belief on that point?
JAY WEATHERILL: Well what I've consistently said - and it's been reported in different ways in different media - is the Goyder Institute that we're relying upon, recommends between 3500 to 4000 gigalitres to return the river to health.
We'll be seeking to understand how this lower number has been arrived at. That's part of the reason we've had the discussions today. We'll look carefully at that modelling that's suggesting a lower figure. But until I see some different figure we'll be remaining with the experts that advise us.
Can I just say this; that we think that South Australia's interest coincides with the national interest. We don't think that we are promoting a parochial South Australian position which is at odds with what should be the national interest. Because essentially the health of the river, the warning signs about the health of the river find their expressions here in South Australia. So a healthy river in South Australia is vital to a healthy river.
And can I say this very clearly, I won't sign up to an inadequate plan. This isn't a conversation about a small issue. This is about our principal environmental, economical and social asset. And we'll be judged for decades on the sorts of decisions we take today.
I don't believe that any reform is good reform. We will only commit ourselves to reform that meets the compact that we entered into when we were involved in these arrangements. That is a river based - run on the basis of science; not on the basis of politics; restoring this river to health and equitable sharing of the waters of the river. And they're the things that will guide me, and we won't be deflected from them.
TONY BURKE: That's one of the things we had discussions about today, is the so-called constraints; the natural and physical constraints that appear upstream. We're seeking to understand those; whether they're capable of being remedied through infrastructure works and the effect that they have on the amount of water that is capable of being returned to the river and, therefore, supporting the environmental protection that we're seeking.
QUESTION: [Inaudible]. You're saying it's all or nothing.
TONY BURKE: No. I'm saying we won't sign up to an inadequate deal. I can't do that. I can't pledge that for South Australia.
QUESTION: Even if the alternative is that you have the status quo; that you get nothing?
TONY BURKE: That's right. I'm interested in an adequate deal for South Australia, and I'm not prepared to compromise the position; because I don't think anybody in South Australia thinks that it's going to get any better from here. Whatever we sign up with...
QUESTION: [Inaudible] because you're, on the one hand, saying that the amount of water returned is inadequate; but you're also wanting to shield South Australia from [inaudible].
TONY BURKE: That's right.
QUESTIONM: Or is that a contradictory...
TONY BURKE: No, no. That reflects our history; the fact that we've always respected this river; that we have consistently treated this river with respect; that we've moderated our take from the river; we've capped what we took. As I said before, in 1969 - two further reductions in '79 and '95 - because we've understood what the natural constrains of this river are. And we're just simply asking the upstream states to pay the same level of respect to the river that we already have.
QUESTION: Isn't the net result here that there is politics in this process; that you and the other Premiers have to sign up to this; that Minister Burke is going to get this through the Federal Parliament; and if you aren't willing to compromise on some of those things you're not going to get what you want.
TONY BURKE: What we want is what we signed up for. That's a river run on a basis of science, not on the basis of politics. And when we decided to enter into this arrangement we did it knowing that this was a once in a lifetime opportunity to restore the river to health.
And I think we've seen a glimpse of the two alternative futures. We've got the drought on the one hand - the near environmental collapse of the River Murray in our part of the river. And now we've had the floods which have restored, in some measure, the river to some degree of health. But there's much more that needs to happen to sustain that in the long term basis.
So these are dramatic choices. And I think we've got to seize this opportunity. And I think a poor compromise would be even worse for South Australia.
QUESTION: Everyone agrees that a national approach is needed. But you're standing here saying that it's going to be all or nothing - and nothing may be a factor in that. How can you say that that's going to be better for the nation and better for South Australia, when we could end up - after all of this work - with nothing coming out of it?
TONY BURKE: Well, that sounds like a question from an eastern states perspective. We've always stood up for this river. We've always respected it. We're just simply asking the upstream states to pay the same level of respect that we've always taken for this river. And we're not going to sell it out. We're not going to enter into a poorly crafted compromise just to get some deal through.
QUESTION: Is the current document a poorly crafted compromise [inaudible]?
TONY BURKE: Well, we haven't seen the fruits of the work. We've got a twenty week consultation period. We're seeking to understand some of the numbers in the plan. We'll be representing our position and we'll see where we land.
QUESTION: Has any consideration given to building another desalination plant [inaudible] South Australia is reliance on the river is reduced to an almost negligible position?
TONY BURKE: I'd argue it is almost negligible. We take one per cent of the waters of the River Murray. Of one hundred per cent of the waters that are taken from the river we take one per cent. And - yes, that's right; that's what we take. Our critical human needs are one per cent. We take seven per cent of the total take of the river.
QUESTION: Do you find yourself giving short shrift when you're arguing for the future of the lower lakes - which is an emotive issue in South Australia, but probably one that people upstream can't see the big deal about when we're talking about getting rid of industries such as [inaudible] upstream.
TONY BURKE: I mean obviously we've seen the images where people upstream don't seem to be able to appreciate the health of the river is being compromised, when they see plenty of water in the river, from their perspective. So it is, I think, an important awareness raising exercise for us to show people what a river looks like when it begins to die from the mouth up.
And that's what we're actually experiencing here in South Australia. And it's not just the lower lakes; not Lake Alexandrina, Lake Albert. It's also some of our irrigators who are finding difficulty in taking water from the river because of increasing salinity. So there is an interplay between the use of the water for productive purposes and the health of the river for environmental purposes.
QUESTION: [Inaudible] when you became Premier talking about debate and discussion, or negotiate about how being a better outcome, and mandated outcomes why are you taking a different stance in this particular case?
TONY BURKE: Well because there's a line in the sand. I mean - negotiation is superior but if you find yourself in a position where there is an inadequate compromise being proposed, then you have to stand up for your rights and that's simply what I'm saying I'll do for South Australia.
QUESTION: Minister Burke it has appeared to be the case [inaudible] difference between the two figures. Four thousand millilitres and [inaudible]…we're talking about a small percentage of the amount of time…Murray River - that's what they're saying. Now is that oversimplifying that in your perspective or do you think this is again is about politics where [inaudible] or you as being a bit petty and unwilling to compromise given that it's only a few percentage?
TONY BURKE: Look I think there's a lot of complexity behind your question. There's - I mean these are average figures so we need to understand what it actually means to be open nine times out of ten - I think ninety percent of the time. Does that mean that we could have ten years in a row in very dry periods where the mouth remains closed? We need to understand the modelling and the science around that.
We need to understand what these natural constraints are and whether they can be overcome or some of these manmade constraints whether they can be overcome by infrastructure works upstream such that we can get the water to our - the environmental assets that we want to protect. So all of those things were the subject of discussion today, they'll be the subject of our submissions over the course of these twenty weeks.
QUESTION: Minister Burke [inaudible] in South Australia you're talking to irrigators or…
TONY BURKE: Not on this particular visit. This particular visit quite specifically I wanted to be able to meet with the Premier and the Water Minister.
QUESTION: Minister Burke how [inaudible] upstream irrigating … seem upstream irrigating where they've got open channel irrigation where about ninety per cent of the water evaporates before it even gets to these farms. Yet in South Australia irrigators are using drip and tube, you know, very efficient methods of water use. So why can't you step in and tell the upstream states to get their act together?
TONY BURKE: Well the main thing that I want to make sure that we do is we have enough water reserved for the environment and then it becomes a matter for…
QUESTION: If they're wasting it by using open channels?
TONY BURKE: Well no, no, it's not enough water reserved for the environment and it's the water that you actually reserve for environmental purposes that you can then allow irrigation authorities to make their own decisions about the most productive use of the water that's for them. I'm not troubled by them making their own decisions on that so long as you have enough water reserved for environmental purposes to preserve the health of the system.
Now we are making significant investments across those areas in improving irrigation infrastructure. It's the point of questions earlier in terms of trying to get similar money out the door for South Australia. But I don't want to be in a situation where we're trying to fine tune and take over the responsibility of people to make decisions about what they're going to grow and how they're going to run their infrastructure.
The prime issue for the health of the river is do we or do we not have enough water reserved for environmental purposes to preserve the health of the system.
QUESTION: Do you agree with Mr Weatherill that industries such as cotton and rice should not be operating in Australia?
TONY BURKE: I don't believe that as a Federal Government we should be telling people to - and I'm not sure of the quote that's been said is accurate - but certainly from my perspective I don't believe that I should be telling people what to grow. I believe that irrigators have a legal entitlement to their water. We want to make sure that we buy enough entitlements from willing sellers to have enough water for environmental purposes for the health of the system.
What they then do with what they retain is a business decision for them and I'm quite relaxed about them making their own business decisions. I want the reform to be based on how much is needed to restore the health of the system. What is reserved for productive purposes, how they want to use it, I'm quite relaxed about it being a business decision for them.
QUESTION: The Federal Government spend a lot of money buying various stations in New South Wales to get the water. Why didn't you buy Cubbie Station that's on the market which holds more water than Sydney Harbour?
TONY BURKE: Yeah, if I can say a couple of things with Cubbie. Certainly any issues of any purchase when you're dealing with taxpayers' money are not simply would you like to own it, it's whether or not the price issue is a fair use of taxpayers' money because that's a live issue as well. We have continued to hold rounds of tenders for water buyback in that area and we're getting some but if they don't want to compete in the tender, they don't want to sell their water at this point then we're not in the business of forced acquisition.
Finally if I can just as a reminder with Queensland, until very recently they were the final state to allow water entitlements to be sold separate to land entitlements. So you now can - Cubbie's obviously going through particular business decisions at the moment so whether these opportunities open up in the next year or so is a live question. But let's not pretend that the Commonwealth should use taxpayers' money at any price. These issues have to be negotiated responsibly.
JAY WEATHERILL: Can I just say that the Federal Minister has another commitment and thank you very much.