TOPIC: MURRAY DARLING BASIN PLAN
E&OE - PROOF ONLY
JAY WEATHERILL, PREMIER OF SOUTH AUSTRALIA: We’ve brought together the broadest possible coalition of interests to protect the River Murray. Obviously, many of you would be aware of the allegations that first aired a short time ago – in the media – concerning water theft and collusion by New South Wales water authorities in that water theft. We now know that those allegations, those very serious allegations, which go to the heart of the implementation of the Murray-Darling Basin agreement, have been resisted or watered down by the people against whom the allegations have been made, and also by those that have been charged with the responsibility of enforcing and implementing the Murray-Darling Basin agreement.
It’s for that reason we called for a judicial inquiry in relation to the allegations that were aired in the media a short time ago. The reason we need a judicial review is to understand the truth or otherwise of those allegations because if they are true, they go to the heart of the integrity of the implementation of the Murray-Darling Basin agreement, which itself was one of the most important agreements that has been reached in this nation about the future of this critically important environmental asset; the River Murray. So this could not be of more significance for the nation, and of course it’s of vital interest to South Australia. So that’s why we’re standing here together – the Labor Party, the Conservatives, the Greens, Nick Xenophon Party – all seeking to advance the same interest. We’re also joined today by Robert McBride from Broken Hill, a New South Wales farmer who also wants to add his voice together with Katherine McBride, Kate McBride and Sam Dodd – a dairy farmer from South Australia. All of these people have a vital interest in the future of the river and Robert will also speak on their behalf. But if I could first invite Senator Wong to address you, then Senator Bernardi, Senator Hanson-Young and then Senator Xenophon.
SENATOR PENNY WONG, LEADER OF THE OPPOSITION IN THE SENATE: Thank you very much Premier. Can I first express my thanks to my crossbench colleagues. We come from a pretty wide set of political perspectives but we’re joined on this issue, which is standing up for South Australia and standing up for the River Murray. I just want to make some very brief comments. I was the water Minister when we first attained agreement at the COAG. I was the water Minister that purchased a substantial amount of water. My counterpart at the time was Barnaby Joyce, and I think we all know from his behaviour then, and his behaviour since, that this man cannot be trusted when it comes to the River Murray. So I have one message for Malcolm Turnbull – you can’t hide behind Barnaby, you can’t hide when it comes to the River Murray. What we want is a judicial review. We want you to show some leadership. So as I said, very happy to be here with my crossbench colleagues, very happy that we can stand as one and I hope the Prime Minister will actually listen.
SENATOR CORY BERNARDI: Thank you Premier, ladies and gentlemen. I think this is a rare occasion where you see the disparate voices representing South Australia standing together to represent the interests of South Australia. And as a group, we are rightly concerned about the river system and its health here in this state; it is very important to our productivity and prosperity. But as voices on the national stage, we know how important a healthy Murray-Darling Basin system is for our national prosperity as well. And if we’re going to have any confidence that South Australia is getting a fair deal and a fair go, then we need to make sure that the entire agreement is being upheld, that the processes are upheld with integrity and transparency.
The Four Corners report has scratched the surface of what could be a significant issue, and it is too big an issue for it to be investigated by those with their own interests at heart. We need an independent judicial review of the Murray-Darling Basin system, its efficacy and its integrity. We need that report to be handed down in a very short space of time so that then the next steps can be taken. But we have to act with knowledge and the only thing that can assure us of that knowledge is an independent judicial review. Thank you.
SENATOR SARAH HANSON-YOUNG: Thanks Premier for bringing us all here today. I think this is a really important show of unity from those of us here in South Australia who are sick and tired of the lower reaches of the Murray-Darling Basin being ripped off. We know after years and years of debate about how is the best way to share the water within the nation’s biggest river system, share it fairly across all different users, but of course to ensure that the river itself remains a living, breathing entity. Because without the living Murray, none of the industries that rely on it – the agricultural businesses, the communities – will be able to sustain themselves into the future.
I was down at the Coorong and the Lower Lakes only on Friday talking to locals down there and people are sick of it. They’re sick and tired of the constant surprise that people upstream are not playing by the fair set of rules agreed to. The allegations aired in the Four Corners report are shocking, but surprised few of those communities who live throughout the basin who have suspected for quite some time that the water agreement hadn’t been being adhered to. We do need a judicial inquiry and review into this; something that has the teeth to take this on properly. We can’t simply leave it to New South Wales or indeed the Murray-Darling Basin Authority to investigate themselves. But we also need to be up front about the fact that Barnaby Joyce as Water Minister is a disaster for the management of the Murray-Darling Basin and for South Australia. While Barnaby Joyce remains Water Minister, we can have no hope or confidence that the Federal Government will be acting in the best interests of the river, the best interests of the environment and the best interests of those living downstream. If the Prime Minister wants to show an act of goodwill to restoring confidence, restoring integrity, he would deal with Barnaby Joyce holding that portfolio and make sure there is somebody who is honestly and truly going to stand up for the interests of the river.
SENATOR NICK XENOPHON: Thanks Premier. What we are seeing unfolding here is potentially one of the biggest public policy scandals we’ve seen in many years. $13 billion of taxpayers’ money at stake, serious allegations of fraud, of water meter tampering, of improper behaviour of not just implementing the plan but indeed attempts to actively sabotage the Murray-Darling Basin Plan that Senator Wong fought so hard to achieve; which was achieved with bipartisan support. The fact that we have diverse political opinions here shows that this is an issue that transcends politics, this is an issue that we must get to the bottom of through a judicial inquiry with the powers of a royal commission that can protect whistle-blowers, that can compel witnesses to give evidence because otherwise we’ll never get to the truth of this. And when it comes to what the Federal Government announced belatedly, half-heartedly, having the MDBA – the Murray-Darling Basin Authority – investigate these matters, well that’s like Caesar judging Caesar. I’m not here to criticise the MDBA but it’s unfair to require the MDBA to effectively have to investigate itself and its conduct along with all the other bodies involved in relation to this. So the sooner we have a judicial inquiry with the powers of royal commission, the sooner we’ll get to the truth of this emerging scandal.
ROBERT MCBRIDE: Ladies and gentleman this is your heartland speaking, we’re pretty humble people from the western division of New South Wales; we’re very proud of the Murray-Darling Basin. We watched your river die for eight-and-a-half months last year and that’s a catastrophe, and it is your catastrophe, it’s my catastrophe. The river system will collapse over time if it’s not managed effectively. In this week we’re fortunate enough to have the allegations from Four Corners, and isn’t it great for a free press. It’s the tip of the iceberg; we’ve dealt with it for many years so it’s not new to us. What is critically important is the bipartisan support we’re receiving, it’s your river and it’s not going to last for much longer unless it’s protected accordingly. So please ladies and gentleman, do take this very seriously. Unfortunately in the week it’s happened, we’ve had the Deputy Prime Minister laughing at us calling us all greenies, I’ve got no problems with sustainability if I’m a greenie, and by the end of the week – last night – your Prime Minister is trying to water it down. This is your heartland; it is dying, thank you.
JOURNALIST: Senator Xenophon, you said this morning on radio – and correct me if I’m wrong – that you had some [inaudible] you had many more allegations that have flooded into your office, what are they?
XENOPHON: We’ve had a number of allegations but we want to do due diligence to those…
JOURNALIST: What sort of allegations?
XENOPHON: Well, from New South Wales. There are people calling us from New South Wales saying that significant amounts of money were spent on supposed water-saving measures only to be undermined, only for the opposite to happen after tens of millions of dollars were spent. But to be fair, I want to go through that, but I think that others in this room have probably heard similar allegations.
JOURNALIST: So are they allegations of corruption with the bureaucratic system?
XENOPHON: They are allegations of either, at the very least, gross incompetence or people being hoodwinked with taxpayer funds and that’s why I will be supporting Senator Wong’s motion, and my colleagues will be supporting Senator Wong’s motion, calling for a judicial inquiry. I think Senator Hanson-Young and others will be putting up and inquiry, a Senate inquiry, and I’ll be working with my colleagues in relation to that. We need to be able to compel people to come forward and people to be protected under parliamentary privilege if we can’t get a judicial inquiry up and running immediately.
XENOPHON: A Senate inquiry is a good first start but I think Senator Wong wants to add to that.
WONG: Can I make the point, there is nothing wrong with a Senate inquiry but it’s not enough. As a Commonwealth Parliament we can’t compel the state to cooperate, we can’t compel state public servants to cooperate and provide information. And this goes to the heart of the allegations on Four Corners and that’s why if Malcolm Turnbull is serious about making sure this is being done properly, he should do what everyone standing here wants, which is to have a proper judicial review.
JOURNALIST: The argument that’s being put by the Water Minister is that much of this water never makes [inaudible] that what happens in New South Wales, what’s happening in the Barwon-Darling is none of South Australia’s concern…
MCBRIDE: Sorry, can I have a quick little question on that. Sorry, we live just south of the Menindee Lakes. Thirty five per cent of your water supply used to come down the Darling, it’s not a separate system, it is the Murray-Darling Basin system. I guess it’s the situation where you’ve had a large irrigators going to the top of the weakest link, which is the Darling, so every focus is on the Murray; it’s the Darling that’s dying. So it used to be 35 per cent of your water supply, it disappeared for eight-and-a-half months last year.
WEATHERILL: And can I just add to that. If the allegations are true, they amount to the largest single jurisdiction in the Murray-Darling Basin conniving at or actively assisting people to evade their responsibilities under the Murray-Darling Basin plan. Now that’s the allegation, if it’s true, it is alarming and obviously has implications well beyond just the rivers that were affected because if they’re doing that for that section of the river, what on earth are they doing for the rest of the basin, and the implementation of the rest of the plan.
JOURNALIST: Premier, do you feel or do you suspect that the upstream states, particularly New South Wales, will see this gathering today and what you’re doing as a stunt, and with the greatest respect, Senator Xenophon’s renowned for that sort of thing and others perhaps as well, and it’ll just be squashed as just South Australia thumping its chest but it goes nowhere?
WONG: You’ve got Senator Wong and Cory Bernardi on the same platform, I mean that’s historic, seriously.
WEATHERILL: We’re deadly serious and what we’re seeking to do is to demonstrate the strength of our resolve. The truth is that it’s only South Australia that’s always stood up for the health of this river. Our interests – obviously at the end of the river – coincide with the national interest that is protecting the health of the river. The truth is that we pegged what we took from this river in 1969 and have not taken an extra drop since. We’ve put all of our irrigation under pipes and drip irrigation; we’re an exemplar in the way in which we’ve used the river as we’ve had to be so we can advance arguments of this sort. All of the over allocation of the river, all of the extra water that was taken that shouldn’t have been taken, was taken by the upstream states. And what we did with the Murray-Darling Basin agreement is we got them to give some of it back. And now it appears that they’re not even willing to give that which they agreed to put back into the river, into the river. So that’s why we’re here, we’re simply standing up for the law, we’re simply standing up for the river in the national interest, and of course in our own interest.
HANSON-YOUNG: Could I add something there Premier. Barnaby Joyce’s criticism that this is not a concern to South Australia defies the logic of how the river system and the basin works. And we’ve got to remember that this is the bloke who said at the height of the hardest period when the flows were the lowest here in South Australia some six-seven years ago, that if South Australians had a problem with it, they should just move to Queensland. That is the attitude of our federal Water Minister. He’s a joke, he needs to be replaced and while he remains in that position, no one can take seriously the federal government’s commitment to cleaning it up.
WEATHERILL: It might be worth inviting Bob to say…
BERNARDI: Can I just say one thing. I’m less interested in the politics of this than anything else. The only thing I’m interested in is getting a fair go for South Australia and making sure the river system is healthy. It is very convenient for the Water Minister, who’s a friend of mine, to minimise the impact and say it’s only so many megalitres or gigalitres that we’re missing out on. But in the end we don’t know how widespread this is, and I don’t have confidence that the investigation that’s been launched is going to get to the bottom of it and we deserve to get to the bottom of it, not only for South Australia’s interest, but for every person who’s relying on it, including those in New South Wales who have been disadvantaged by this. So this is a national issue. It’s brought disparate interests together in the national interest and I think that is a really positive thing.
JOURNALIST: [Inaudible] If you are so deadly serious about this, were the state Liberal Party invited to be here today?
WEATHERILL: Well the Liberal Party are the problem at the moment and we’d love them to join…
JOURNALIST: With due respect Premier, their water spokesman last week came out and said they’re on the same page as you on this.
WEATHERILL: Yes and what we want is the federal Senate to act, this is about a resolution in the federal Senate. It would be great if we had federal Liberal senators that were prepared to join in this motion. This is a resolution of the federal Senate and we’ve brought together a broad cross-section of senators. If there are Liberal senators that wish to join this push, I’m sure we would welcome their involvement in relation to this matter. I think Bob who’s from New South Wales might also want to address the question that Mike raised.
MCBRIDE: Thank you Mr Premier. Our family have proudly been farming for 162 years in our nation. We’re not fly-by-nighters, we’re pretty proud of our history and I think we are looking for the next generation and we’re looking at sustainability. Now if I cut your water supply for eight-and-a-half months, how would you cope? Not that well. So realistically it’s no stunt, we’re warning you that your Murray-Darling Basin system is about to collapse, it is a catastrophe, your Water Minister is laughing at us, that’s a mistake and hopefully…
XENOPHON: Federal Water Minister.
MCBRIDE: Federal Water Minister, sorry. The federal Water Minister is laughing at you, we lived on that river, I don’t think it’s a laughing matter. It’s about your kids and your grandkids being able to farm and live productively in our country.
JOURNALIST: Premier, your Water Minister was on radio this morning saying that [inaudible] should be the one to decide how public these hearings are going to be, he also said that his preference was for the hearings to be public. Will you now apply that same principle to Bruce Lander and the ICAC?
WEATHERILL: It’s a separate matter; it’s just a separate matter that has different considerations.
JOURNALIST: But how so, I mean we’re talking about a judicial inquiry, we talk about ICAC which has the powers of a judicial body. If it stands that public hearings [inaudible].
WEATHERILL: I could recount to you all of the arguments about that and I’m happy to take you all through them, but it’s a separate jurisdiction. As we’ve seen in the New South Wales ICAC arrangement, it damages reputations unfairly that are incapable of being retrieved once allegations have been made.
JOURNALIST: You don’t think this sort of inquiry would do that as well?
WEATHERILL: No. What we’re talking about here is dealing with a judicial inquiry; the judicial officer in question could choose to deal with it in precisely whatever way they saw fit. What we’re interested in is the outcome.
JOURNALIST: But why didn’t you organise that principle to be applied to Bruce Lander, he’s an eminent jurist?
WEATHERILL: Well, because our experience of the New South Wales ICAC system is that the mere allegations that’ve been made against someone and the bringing of evidence that can stain reputations in a way which is incapable of retrieved, and indeed his inquiry ultimately will make public his findings. And if there were to be a judicial inquiry established here, it’d be a matter for the judicial officer themselves to choose how they inform themselves of what may or may not be public, but what we would expect is for their findings be made public.
BERNARDI: May I just add one thing? We are here united about the Murray-Darling Basin. I don’t want to muddy the waters about domestic local politics or anything else. This is a unique occasion which has brought a disparate bunch of views representing South Australia together; let’s not bring it into other issues. That’s my message to you today.
SAM DODD: Premier may I jump in? When the Minister gave me permission I said I was going to be very silent and just be a bipartisan observer but I won’t be. The Premier introduced me as a dairy farmer, I’m actually the last irrigator on the River Murray. We went through three-and-half years without any water at all, granted that was basically as a consequence of drought, but the Basin Plan when fully implemented will mean that we’ll probably never be in that situation again.
So even though I’m an irrigator, I’m an irrigator very much second. A bit like Mr McBride behind us, I have a long family history on the Lower Lakes and Coorong, and our primary position in life as farmers is environmental outcomes, seeking environmental outcomes for our backyards because if we don’t have water in the lake not only don’t we have somewhere to live, we certainly won’t be irrigators. I’m involved with several irrigators committees including in South Australia’s Murray Irrigators Committee, but I’m not here in that capacity today, I’m here as a private individual, so I’m certainly not representing them. But it’s imperative through this process – we’ve seen allegations of misappropriation in the northern basin – and it’s not so much about the individual irrigators, although obviously theft is theft no matter what it is, whether you’re robbing a bank or otherwise. And people point the finger at us as irrigators, but all being thieves we’re certainly not. Just because you go to a bank doesn’t make you a bank robber. Just because someone upstream pinches a bit of water doesn’t make every irrigator irresponsible, far from it, most of us are extraordinarily responsible.
But the main issue is government and bureaucracy being complicit in undermining the Basin Plan, the suggestions of Four Corners it is. I’ve used the analogy already today, 30 years ago Chris Masters through Four Corners scratched the surface on the corruption in Queensland and I suspect Four Corners yet again have scratched the surface on corruption or misappropriation of water in the basin. So yes I certainly support the Minister and Premier and others, support for a judicial inquiry, but if it is it has to be across the entire basin because if there are allegations in one area there are probably wrongdoings in others.
Personally, I’ve been in receipt of information which would suggest backroom deals which undermine the basin plan. The plan’s not just about returning water to the system, it’s about implementing that water. The 2,750 gigs in the first aspect is approximately 2,100 gigalitres of water and 650 gigalitres of equivalent water in terms of works and measures. Some of those works and measures need probably better scrutiny because we’re not necessarily getting the best outcome. So my support is very much behind the group behind me. I’m an irrigator from a very small family farm but nonetheless we feel the ripple effect of policy from those way above us.
JOURNALIST: If the river ran in the other direction would you be tempted to help yourself, if you were at the top of the basin rather than at the bottom of it?
DODD: I’ve had that question put to me already by another media this week and I’m not at the top end of the system, but as I’ve said, stealing water from the river is stealing water from yourself. Because if you don’t have a river that works, you won’t have an environment, you won’t have somewhere to live and you certainly won’t be an irrigator. So is the temptation there? No because you’re undermining yourself.
WEATHERILL: Thank you very much.