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Transcript of interview: Pine Island Reserve, Tuggeranong, ACT: 24 November 2008: Murray-Darling Basin Sustainable Yields Whole of Basin Report.

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PW 242/08 24 November


TRANSCRIPT OF INTERVIEW, Pine Island Reserve, Tuggeranong, A.C.T.

SUBJECT: Murray-Darling Basin Sustainable Yields Whole of Basin Report


JOURNALIST: Senator Wong why… [inaudible]… before this report has come out?

WONG: I think it is very clear from the reports that you have to date, that we do need to do more to return water to the river. But the answer I think is a pretty simple one. We committed to do this in the election, we made it very clear to the Australian people that we heeded the science on climate change, we heeded the warnings of scientists in relation to the Murray-Darling Basin. We were mindful of the environmental pressures in the Basin, so we are doing precisely what we said we would do prior to the election. I notice that there are some also, who were part of a government that failed to do anything on this front - failed to provide any water, return any water to the Murray-Darling over nearly 12 years in government - who were critical, at times, of purchases. Can I say two things: one is that we made a commitment before the election to purchase water. We recognise that we do need to ensure that these rivers are healthy - that is to the benefit of all of the communities that rely on them. And we are also delivering on $5.8 billion worth of infrastructure investment as we committed to prior to the election -$3.7 billion agreed through the COAG process and these are investments which are absolutely aimed at ensuring a viable, strong future for irrigation communities.

JOURNALIST: Does this point to regions where you need to concentrate your buybacks or where there needs to be… [inaudible]?

WONG: Well I think the [inaudible]… currently in the middle of our second tender process… [inaudible]… obviously we’ll continue to…[inaudible]… Our approach has been to buy water from willing sellers. We do think it enables communities and individuals to make the best choices and to reflect on what is the best for them in terms of their future. So we’ll continue with that process but obviously we’ll continue to monitor the …water purchase.

JOURNALIST: Do you think there is any case… [inaudible]… agreements in place to 2014, 2017 and such to re-think the expiry dates on those. Is the Government going to push for that?

WONG: I think what the Commonwealth needs to push for is first getting this agreement through the Senate. We have an agreement with the Basin States. I think three Parliaments have passed the new Water Bill which gives effect to the agreement which enables a Basin Plan to be undertaken which enables the Murray-Darling Basin Authority, which is represented here today, to take this plan forward so we can actually manage this Basin as a whole. Right now though, the political challenge is from those who failed to do anything for over a decade. This Bill has not yet progressed through the Senate and so I’d call on Malcolm Turnbull and the Opposition to do the right thing and progress this Bill, pass this legislation so we can get on with managing the Murray-Darling Basin as a whole which clearly is in the best interests of the communities and the rivers.

JOURNALIST: As Dr. Hatton pointed out, this report highlights the dramatic growth in the use of groundwater which hasn’t been regulated to the same extent as surface water. When do you think there could be a new regulation of groundwater and… [inaudible]

WONG: That is a good question and two points about that one is the National Water Initiative which did ask the States to progress the issue of ensuring management of groundwater. We would encourage States to over time achieve much more sound and detailed management of groundwater. Obviously this is an area of that still requires further reform. Second, one of the things we are very clear about is that the Basin plan will have to ensure we have integration of groundwater and surface water management in a way that hasn’t been the case in the past. I think this report really adds impetus to that policy requirement.

JOURNALIST: What about the big mining companies that have agreements with the Government that they can access the Great Artesian Basin for free? Does that need to be re-thought?

WONG: The Great Artesian Basin is under a separate legal framework and is generally held up as being a well-managed basin. Certainly in terms of the Murray-Darling Basin, what I would say is we recognise that over time what the Basin will need to do is integrate far better than has been done in the past the management of surface and groundwater.

JOURNALIST: What sort of impact do you think this is going to have on agricultural production in the future when you said we can’t continue with business as usual?

WONG: I think the report makes for sobering reading when it comes to water availability and communities are already feeling the affects of an extended drought, so the first point I think is it reminds us of the costs of inaction. It reminds us that there are enormous costs to a changing climate, and communities are already feeling that. What we have to do as a Government is progress two things. We have to invest in our irrigation communities and we have $5.8 billion to do that to enable them to adjust, to enable more efficient irrigation industries so that can continue to be viable in the face of a future where we are likely to see less water. And the second thing we must do is progress our water purchases because quite clearly what we need to do is ensure the health of these rivers.

JOURNALIST: The Ministerial Council mentioned in its communiqué that communities were actually concerned about some of the mining and resource development including the impacts on water within the Basin. Do mining and energy companies need to do more than they are at present [inaudible]…

WONG: Well Siobhain I think I have answered that in terms of the broad issue of groundwater. I think broadly we do need better frameworks for managing groundwater. That is why the States agreed prior to us coming to Government to the National Water Initiative which included reference to groundwater and a need to have a more structured system for managing groundwater entitlements. And in addition, as I have said, one of the important contributions of this work is that it will feed into the work of the Murray-Darling Basin Authority in terms of the Basin plan where one of the issues that needs to be considered is the management and integration of groundwater and surface water.

JOURNALIST: Will your Government re-think its policy of encouraging forestry plantations as carbon sinks when they have clear impacts on [inaudible] the Murray-Darling Basin?

WONG: We have been very willing to negotiate with cross-bench and Opposition Senators on this issue. I will probably have more to say about that this week, but we as a Government are very clear that the National Water Initiative approach to groundwater is one that we are keen to progress. Obviously it’s primarily an issue for the States but we are keen to progress it and we are certainly willing to look at the issue of forests in the context of the NWI commitments.

Can I just say something more broadly on the issue of this report. Malcolm Turnbull I think might have been the Minister who first started off these reports and what I would say to the Leader of the Opposition is you should read this. You should read this because this is a stark reminder of why Mr Turnbull should stand up to those on his front bench who are climate change sceptics and who want to get in the way when it comes to action on climate change. Because what this report reminds us is that we have to act on climate change. It’s in our long term interests, it’s in the interests of our economy and it’s certainly in the interest of the Murray-Darling Basin.

JOURNALIST: So is the release today a political one considering there is going to be a debate on this issue this week?

WONG: This has been released today after discussion with the CSIRO and others but can I say that this has been some 18 months in the making, and Tom and his team have done a great job in bringing this together at this time and we are very pleased to receive it.

JOURNALIST: Some communities are keen to see some modelling of the social and economic impacts of reductions of water availability on their irrigation communities. Is there any hope that the Government might commission such a study?

WONG: There is some work being done from memory under the COAG process and also by ABARE on those issues. We also commissioned - as you would be aware Sophie - after the first buyback, we commissioned the Hyder Review which looked at the role out of that, that particular tender process. We will continue to monitor those issues, but I think broadly what this report shows is that the issue of water availability is driven by climate - we know that. The reason that we have the economic situation that we have in much of the Basin is because we have reduced water availability, particularly in the Southern part of the Basin. And unfortunately, the climate change predictions or scenarios under this report suggest that could worsen if the worst-case scenarios are realised.

JOURNALIST: Would you say that food production in Australia needs to shift to more dry-land systems and [inaudible]…

WONG: Look, on that I’ve always taken the view that Government shouldn’t tell farmers what they should plant or how they should do it. What we should do is to give very clear policy frameworks so farmers can make the best decisions they can in terms of their personal circumstances and in terms of local and regional expertise. So we do need to make sure that we give clear policy signals about what we think the water availability is. This is obviously a contribution to that, but ultimately it is a decision for farmers in terms of what is the best crop for them and the best agricultural practices. Having said that, as Minister Burke said: we need to do more - and we are doing more as a Government in improving our understanding of how we do adapt to climate change in practical terms on the land.

JOURNALIST: When are we going to see more structural adjustment packages for communities that… [inaudible]

WONG: We put $5.8 million on the table for investment in efficiencies and improving infrastructure, improving irrigation industries and we’re keen to work with the States and local communities to roll that out. I’ve also indicated that we’re open to restructuring proposals which are community-led from irrigation areas and we’ll continue to work with any proponents from such proposals, should they come forward formally.

JOURNALIST: How can the Victorian Government justify taking water from the Basin when the Goulburn catchment area’s so stressed already?

WONG: You’re referring to the North-South pipeline?


WONG: Look, can we just be very clear about this pipeline and let’s get some of the facts on the table. And the first fact is despite the Opposition federally jumping up and down about it, the Liberals from Victoria have made it clear that they will take water from the pipeline. So I think that inconsistency should be noted. The second point is this is a Victorian project and the Federal Government’s involvement is through Mr Garrett’s determination under the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (EPBC Act). And the conditions he has placed on the approval of this pipeline make it very clear, make it very clear that environmental flows for the system must be retained. Now as the Victorian Government has indicated, the savings from this project are predicted to be significant and are to be shared: a third for the environment, a third for water users and a third for Melbourne’s drinking supply. So we in the Federal Government through Mr Garrett have put in place conditions which are about safeguarding environmental water so no additional environmental water can be reduced through this. In terms of diversifying, this is a broader issue. There are

various areas who criticise one or other State Governments about their approach to water. State Governments are grappling with ensuring there’s security of water supply for towns and cities and urban cities within their States and grappling with that in the context of a likelihood of reduced rainfall. Different State Governments have taken different approaches to this, but all are having to grapple with ensuring water security for Australians into the future particularly as climate change worsens.

JOURNALIST: Doesn’t this prove though that perhaps cities like Adelaide, Melbourne even Canberra should be weaning themselves off of the Murray-Darling Basin, for the sake of the health of the river?

WONG: I think we all have to become more efficient with the water we use, but the first priority does have to been the drinking water of the towns and cities - not just Adelaide, but a range of towns that rely on the Murray-Darling for critical human needs. We do need also to invest in our irrigation communities to ensure that they continue to be viable and active in a future where there is less water.

Thank you very much.