22 November 2016




TONY BURKE, SHADOW MINISTER FOR THE ENVIRONMENT AND WATER:The Murray-Darling Basin Plan at the moment is in a state of crisis. What was established four years ago today, on this very day four years ago, is now being fractured and the divisions within the Government are now occurring at the expense of the Murray-Darling Basin. This was put in writing by Barnaby Joyce last week, where he put in writing that he had no intention of delivering the additional 450 gigalitres that are required to restore the river system to health.

Getting that agreement and getting a system where you would end up with the water that was required to restore the system to health was no easy task. And I am surrounded here by caucus members who, each of them, from the day they have entered the Parliament, have campaigned for the River Murray. Have campaigned to make sure that you could get a national agreement that had been fought for, particularly by South Australians, but had been fought for ever since the Federation debates in this country. Four years ago, that was achieved and right now, we are at a crossroads where Barnaby Joyce, as Water Minister, is trying to tear it apart.

Malcolm Turnbull, only a few minutes ago claimed – and these are his words – the big idea on the Murray-Darling was to have off-farm and on-farm infrastructure to provide additional water. What the Deputy Prime Minister doesn’t appear to have told him was the 450 gigalitres that has now been put at risk was entirely to be attained through improved on-farm and off-farm infrastructure. Exactly what Malcolm Turnbull a few minutes ago said should happen is what Barnaby Joyce last week said won’t happen.

To get the bipartisan consensus that we achieved four years ago was something that the Liberal and National Parties have gone to elections claiming they would protect. We now know what had been suspected previously, which is that the price of their divisions will be that they want to drive the River Murray and the entire Basin back to the appalling state of health that it was in prior to this agreement being reached.

SENATOR PENNY WONG, LEADER OF THE OPPOSITION IN THE SENATE: Thanks very much, Tony. Well, South Australians have campaigned long and hard for the health of the River Murray. We’ve campaigned long and hard for a better deal for South Australia. All of the South Australians here from the Labor Party standing with me, but more importantly the whole of the South Australian community. And we won. We got an agreement. We got an agreement that was to restore the health of the Murray-Darling Basin, to restore the health of the River Murray.

And South Australians were told by this Prime Minister, by the Liberal Party, by South Australian Liberals before the last election and the election before, that that deal was secure, that there was bipartisan agreement to ensure that we returned the water that’s needed to the River Murray. Then after the election, we finally find out the truth – that Barnaby Joyce is doing what we know he always wanted to do, which is to return less water to the river.

Let me tell you this – South Australians will never forget what Barnaby Joyce told us some years ago when we were talking about the need to give more water back to the river. What did he say? He said South Australians should move to where the water is. South Australians should move to where the water is. Well, we know what he thinks of us. He’s already said it. And it is time that Malcolm Turnbull stood up to him. Because if you want to ever see the symbol of a weak Prime Minister, a weak Prime Minister who is changing policy to appease the National Party because he’s worried about his own job, have a look at what Malcolm is allowing Barnaby to do with the Murray-Darling Basin Plan.

JOURNALIST: Do you have any concerns about the 70 gigalitres stripped out of the northern basin plan?

BURKE: We’re working through the detail on that right now. The Northern Basin functions very differently to the Southern Basin. There is a connection and obviously we want to make sure that there is no disadvantage to the Southern Basin in anything that is being put forward. The Northern Basin, there is a particular complexity with the way water flows because everything is so flat at the top end of the Basin. So we’re working through the detail on that. But the commitment has to be that if there is an argument in the Northern Basin, the southern basin must not suffer as a result of that. And so the detail of that, we are still working through.

The thing that we know, though, is either way, the 450 gigalitres, Barnaby Joyce has put in writing, that that won’t happen at all. That’s what he put in writing, that he committed to in writing.

Now, this is an agreement which – the question has come from the Adelaide Advertiser. The Adelaide Advertiser campaigned strong and hard, the “I love Murray” badge was a campaign run by the Advertiser. And that paper brought the entire community along with it. Similarly, the Premier of South Australia campaigned hard for this outcome and the Caucus members around me campaigned hard for this. You don’t deliver the environmental outcomes that we need for the health of the river without that additional 450 gigalitres.

There will be an argument back and forth and a lot of technical detail we need to work through on the Northern Basin plan released today, there is no argument at all that if you do what Barnaby Joyce put in writing on the 450 gigalitres, you cannot restore the Basin to health. You cannot restore the River Murray to health and the reason this is happening is because Malcolm Turnbull doesn’t have the authority to bring his own Deputy Prime Minister into line on a policy that Malcolm Turnbull used to have some sort of personal connection with. But like everything that Malcolm once believed, it’s all up for grabs now in the race for him to be able to keep his job.

JOURNALIST: Mr Burke, you make the point yourself that 450 gigalitres was additional over and above the plan. It was going to be delivered only if it could be done without further negative socioeconomic impacts further up the basin. All Mr Joyce said is at this stage there is no proposal that meets that criteria. Aren’t you just overreaching?

BURKE:  No, not at all. Go to the legislation. The Basin Plan itself refers quite specifically to the additional 450 gigalitres and in Schedule Five goes to the environmental outcomes that will come from that. To say it is just additional is not accurate and I refer you to Schedule Five of the plan.

With respect to the additional gigalitres, it was to be attained through infrastructure improvements. And I accept the argument that when buybacks occur, there’s no disadvantage to the individual irrigator, who has made the voluntary sale, but there can be a hit to the community. I accept that that argument is there. I do not accept that that argument applies when the additional water is being acquired from an infrastructure improvement and every one of those 450 gigalitres was to be obtained through infrastructure improvements. That’s how the legislation was designed. And when you improve infrastructure – for Barnaby Joyce to argue improving infrastructure will have a negative outcome for communities is extraordinary, beyond belief, and illogical.

WONG: Let’s be clear about this – Barnaby Joyce wants less water for South Australia. He has always wanted less water for South Australia. That is his position. And we want to make very clear to him, everybody standing here, all the South Australians, will fight him for the right deal for South Australia as we have continued to fight ever since this campaign has been on foot.

I would say this to all of the South Australian MPs and Senators, to Nick Xenophon and his team who are happy to sit down and negotiate with the Government, to Simon Birmingham who once was a supporter of this – stand up for your state.

JOURNALIST: But even South Australia would have to come up with projects to contribute towards this 450-gigalitre target and it’s my understanding that they haven’t been able to do so themselves either. Even South Australia doesn’t appear to be?

BURKE: When we were each Ministers for Water we repeatedly ran on-farm irrigation programs, provided additional water for the environment and provided benefits for the irrigators and communities themselves. If Barnaby Joyce is incapable of doing that, then he should simply hand in his job.

JOURNALIST: There’s research out of Victoria indicating that if the full plan is implemented, including the 450-gigalitres, that up to 2,000 jobs will be lost in northern Victoria. Is that not a negative socioeconomic impact?

BURKE: You can’t end up with negative impacts on jobs by improving the quality of the infrastructure.

JOURNALIST: That’s what this research indicates.

BURKE: There’s specific issues with that particular piece of research and the consultants there and even people from the Murray-Darling Basin Authority have had some comments on that. I’m not going to get into every detail of that. I just get to the basic underlying principle. If you’re improving a farmer or irrigator’s infrastructure at taxpayers’ expense, I find it really hard to have an argument that they’re being hurt by that.

WONG: If I could just respond to your earlier question. I hope that you would also consider the risk to the river and all of the health of the river and all of the communities who rely on it, that we saw through the period of drought when the mouth was being dredged to keep it open, including the risk to water supply for many communities. I hope the impact of that is not forgotten by everybody at the moment, as Barnaby walks away from the Basin Plan.

JOURNALIST: In either case – either the 450 or if the 70 turns out to have a bad impact on South Australia, is there something you could do in terms of the legislation, any legal actions? Could either case be disallowed?

WONG: We’ll explore every option but the first option is this – the South Australian community telling Malcolm Turnbull to keep his promises, to stand up to Barnaby Joyce.

BURKE: None of these problems arrive if the Government keeps its election promises, none of them.

JOURNALIST: Would you be this supportive of the legislation if it were jobs in your electorate?

BURKE: I’ve talked about a situation where taxpayers are paying for improvements on private property. I think we need to keep it very much focused within that. I am yet to find any community or any irrigator who can function with a dying river.

JOURNALIST: We still haven’t recovered all of the water laid out in the base level of the plan, the 2750 gigalitres. What about arguments from people further upstream and even some in South Australia that we should focus on the baseline first and then move on to the difficult task of the additional 450?

BURKE: The plan that was agreed on a bipartisan basis through this Parliament has specific time frames and specific dates for each part of it and that’s what should be followed.

JOURNALIST:  Anne Rushton told 891 radio this morning that any changes to the Murray-Darling Basin plan had to be agreed to by all of the states and territories in the basin but Barnaby Joyce’s office says perhaps that’s not quite the case. Can you clarify what exactly is the situation about changes?

WONG: You want us to clarify the split in the Government for you?

JOURNALIST: What’s your understanding of how changes to the Murray-Darling Basin plan work?

BURKE: There is a section of the Water Act that is headed “amendments to the Murray-Darling Basin Plan” and that gives the guidance for how it works for when it goes to the ministerial council between the states and when instruments are tabled before the Parliament.

JOURNALIST: You pin-pointed Barnaby Joyce’s comments in particular, but Victoria and NSW haven’t been particularly supportive of the extra 450 either. What do you say to those governments? And, you know, isn’t it perhaps accurate that he’s taking their views into consideration as well?

BURKE: All governments signed on to the plan. All governments signed on to the plan. And you don’t get a once-in-100-years agreement and then simply walk away from it.

JOURNALIST:  The mechanism for the 450 also allows the target to be reduced if it’s shown to deliver the same or better environmental outcome. Why don’t we hear Labor talking about that?

BURKE:  You heard me talking about it in the Parliament when we supported legislation to enable that part of it when Parliament last sat. So if you go to the Hansard you’ll find my comments there, where we support that mechanism. We put that mechanism in place. It was largely negotiated by myself and Peter Walsh, then the National Party Minister for Water from the state of Victoria. And I don’t know how to answer a comment why don’t I talk about something when I made a speech about it in the Parliament when it last sat.

JOURNALIST:  It was 2012 when all of that stuff was happening so in the context of the 450…

BURKE: No, on that mechanism, we are waiting for the states to bring forward their projects. The mechanism can’t be activated until the states bring forward their projects. Legislation was introduced to the Parliament when we last sat to be able to give some extra flexibility for the final days by when those projects had to be put in. You can’t do more than that under the legal documents we’re dealing with and I made a speech to that effect in the Parliament.

JOURNALIST: On another topic,Malcolm Turnbull has defended Peter Dutton’s comments just before. What do you make of that?

BURKE: You have to go back a very long way in Australia’s history to find a minister for immigration arguing that immigration decisions should be based on race or religion. A very long way.

And let’s make clear – that is the argument that Peter Dutton is making because he’s not arguing that Malcolm Fraser made a mistake because of who he let in. He’s arguing that the people he let in then had grandchildren and there should have been foresight about the grandchildren.

We are on new territory with what Peter Dutton has said in the Parliament. I noticed Malcolm Turnbull in his media conference refused to back those comments in but I’ve got to say the Malcolm Turnbull of two years ago would have been strong enough to stand up and reject them.

JOURNALIST: Federal Labor hasn’t had anything to say about Ian Hunter’s outburst and his tirade in Adelaide. Any reaction to the language that he used? That behaviour? It was also directed to one of your Victorian colleagues.

WONG: I haven’t been asked the question but I’m happy to respond to it. No-one supports that kind of language being used, particularly in that kind of professional circumstances and the Premier has dealt with that appropriately. Thanks very much.