Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
Disclaimer: The Parliamentary Library does not warrant or accept liability for the accuracy or usefulness of the transcripts. These are copied directly from the broadcaster's website.
Murray-Darling: Water theft 'not part of the plan', says Tony Burke -

View in ParlViewView other Segments

ELEANOR HALL: Tony Burke was the minister who signed off on the Murray-Darling Basin Plan when he was a minister in the Gillard Labor government.

He is now Federal Labor's spokesman on arts, water and the environment and he joined me a short time ago from Adelaide.

Tony Burke, thanks for joining The World Today.

TONY BURKE: Good to be back.

ELEANOR HALL: Now, you were the minister who signed off on the Murray-Darling Basin Plan in 2012. How much responsibility do you take for the serious flaws that have now been exposed?

TONY BURKE: I'm horrified by what I saw last night. Everything in the delivery of the plan relies on there being a functional water market. And the plan is how you then deal with that water market, how you get the environmental water and how you then use it.

But at the starting point for everything is to have a functioning water market. And last night what we saw was a water market that, since the river rules have been changed in New South Wales recently, appears to be in complete disarray.

I mean, the whole concept which no-one until last night I've ever heard make an allegation of - that you could take environmental water, paid for the taxpayer, held by the Commonwealth and that an irrigator would pump that environmental water back into their dams and irrigation channels - has for everyone I've spoken to until last night been an unthinkable option.

Last night's revelations from Four Corners were a complete game-changer on how we'd look at the basin and how we'd look at the water market. We were seeing rorts last night and behaviour from NSW Government officials last night that I have never heard alleged before.

ELEANOR HALL: As the federal minister responsible at the time, though, you knew the states were at each other's throats over water rights. You very deliberately put the issues you couldn't resolve into the 'too hard' basket and signed off on the plan anyway. Wasn't that irresponsible?

TONY BURKE: I don't accept the premise of that for one moment. What we did with the plan was: there were various concessions made to different states in the way the water would be acquired. But nobody got concessions to the detriment of the health of the rivers: nobody.

So there were concessions made in how the water would be acquired. There were concessions made in terms of making sure that the environmental water had to be used to maximum efficiency as well.

But the concept that a private irrigator might be allowed through a change in state government river rules to engage in effective theft of Commonwealth environmental water: that was not a concession made. That was not part of the plan. That goes to the underlying principles of the integrity of the water market itself.

And everyone has an interest in this. If you live in Broken Hill and simply want to be able to get your drinking water, you have an interest in making sure there is integrity in the water market.

If you're one of the countless irrigators behaving responsibly, then you have an interest in making sure that you don't have a neighbour who is behaving in an unconscionable way in the water market. And if you're an Australian from any part of this country, whether inside the basin or outside, who cares about the environment, then you have an interest in making sure that there is integrity in the water market.

And what we saw last night wasn't simply an irrigator here or there behaving in a dodgy way: what we saw were allegations going all the way to senior levels of the NSW Government of people engaging in an active undermining of the plan.

ELEANOR HALL: You say you are shocked and horrified by this. But at the very least, given the $13 billion of federal money being spent on it, shouldn't you at the time have had a thorough federal monitoring system to check that the money and the water was going where it should have been?

TONY BURKE: But that would not have resolved the issues that were aired last night, because the issues that were aired last night, as I saw them, were issues that have come about largely by the NSW Government more recently changing the river rules: changing when people are allowed to extract; changing the rules so that the biggest pumps can still be used when the river is low; changing the rules to allow people to pump when it's in fact environmental water that is flowing past. And...

ELEANOR HALL: But why didn't you have a more water-tight system - sorry to use that analogy - when you put the plan in place, to make sure that states couldn't make such changes?

TONY BURKE: Oh, I don't think anyone foresaw that NSW, on signing onto the plan, would engage in a wholesale rort and undermining of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. And what matters now, and what matters today, is whether or not the NSW Government tries to makes excuses for what we saw last night; and whether or not Barnaby Joyce chooses one of two paths.

He either today chooses a pathway of compliance and making sure that this new rule is ruled out; or he engages in making excuses and the Parliament and everybody else around him is going to have to do the job for him.

ELEANOR HALL: Now, you say that if you had put a federal monitoring system in place it wouldn't have made any difference, but in retrospect at least, do you concede that leaving it to the states was a reckless way to deal with $13 billion of taxpayers' money?

TONY BURKE: No. There is a large lever that we have over the states that is still there and that I have already flagged amendments in the Parliament to be able to deal with. And last night only increases my resolve to go down this path.

The states desperately - particularly the upstream states - desperately want to be able to access a provision that allows 650 gigalitres of water to be used through other means. Effectively it means more efficient - getting the same environmental outcome by more efficiently using the water. There's 650 gigalitres there at stake, but the states desperately want access to it.

And I have already flagged we should consider tying that water to the additional 450 gigalitres' 'up-water' that Barnaby Joyce has been trying to walk away from. What is clear as of last night is: it shouldn't just be the additional water that we tie it to; it should also be the river rules. The states should not be allowed to get away with rorting the rules that underpinned the entirety of the plan.

See, the plan itself still has its integrity. The plan itself is still the right path forward. What we saw last night is the rules and the enforcement that underpins the water market is where the rort is happening. And that's what we now need to hook into.

ELEANOR HALL: And you say that it will be interesting to see how the NSW Government responds. Well, the NSW Minister, Niall Blair, has said that he has asked his department secretary and the ombudsman to investigate the allegations raised last night on Four Corners. Is that enough? Or should these be referred to the NSW independent corruption watchdog?

TONY BURKE: What I saw last night looked to me like allegations of corruption and I'm not sure how the NSW Government can avoid making that reference themselves. And if they don't make it, I have no doubt others will make it for them.

We are talking about $13 billion of Commonwealth taxpayers' money that is part of this entire initiative. And what we saw last night was a deliberate and calculated devaluing of water held by the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder.

There is responsible action that needs to be taken at a state level and at a Commonwealth level. And as the next few days unfold there will not simply be one inquiry or one reference here. And if a state minister simply thinks they can get away with having the Public Service investigate the Public Service, I think they're going to find that much heavier levers are brought to bear.

ELEANOR HALL: You say there also needs to be action on a Commonwealth level. If you were in government, how would you respond?

TONY BURKE: I would go immediately to an independent investigation of it if I were the minister. Immediately I would have something completely independent investigating, with full powers, on this.

Now, I'm not in government, so we'll see what he does: what Barnaby Joyce announces today. But I don't imagine any situation will develop today without, at the very least, there being a significant parliamentary inquiry.

And there will be the other various prudential levers of the Government: the Australian National Audit Office through to the Commonwealth ombudsman, who all may have a significant interest in a state devaluing what is a Commonwealth asset.

ELEANOR HALL: South Australia's Water Minister is calling for an independent judicial review of the NSW Government. Would you support that? He wants an urgent COAG meeting to launch the judicial inquiry.

TONY BURKE: I am meeting with the State Minister: I am in Adelaide now and I am meeting with the State Minister here later today in Hunter. It's one of the issues we will talk about.

Certainly, I don't want to get to that point until I have seen the NSW and Commonwealth responses. But I can understand, given the history of this issue, exactly why the South Australian Government is already there.

ELEANOR HALL: Tony Burke, thanks very much for joining us.

TONY BURKE: Good to be back on the program, Eleanor.

ELEANOR HALL: And that's the Federal Labor Party's spokesman on arts, water and the environment, Tony Burke, who was the minister who signed off on the Murray-Darling Basin Plan.