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Ministers face tough decisions on the Murray-Darling Basin.



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This transcript has been prepared by a source external to the Parliamentary Library.

 

It may not have been checked against the broadcast or in an y other way. Freedom from error, omissions or misunderstandings cannot be guaranteed.

 

For the purposes of quoting verbatim from a transcript, it is advisable to verify the transcript against the broadcast.

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PM

 

Mon day 6 November 2006

Ministers face tough decisions on the Murray-Darling Basin

 

MARK COLVIN: It'll be water, not champagne on Melbourne Cup morning for the Prime Minister and the State Pr emiers he's summoned for tomorrow's summit on the Murray Darling Basin. 

 

All at the summit will be aware that if it does not rain the dams in the basin will run dry by May. 

 

But will government take the really tough decisions? 

 

The Federal Agriculture Minister today ruled out the possibility of buying out irrigation leases.  

 

Chief political correspondent Chris Uhlmann reports. 

 

CHRIS UHLMANN: If there were any easy answers to providing abundant water and clean energy then the major parties would sign up for them in a heartbeat.  

 

The nation's politicians know people are deeply worried about the drought and their anxiety is linked to fears it is driven by climate change. 

 

But there are no instant, easy solutions and water is a good example. Water rights are like property rights: removing them from irrigators would be a difficult step.  

 

Peter McGauran is the Agriculture Minister and he was asked today how low water levels would have to get before the Government reacquired licences. 

 

PETER MCGAURAN: Not for a good while yet and that would be a matter of complete and utter last resort. It's a very difficult time to be sure but we need cool heads and we can't be panicked into making snap decisions on water allocations. 

 

The Prime Minister's going to work through these issues carefully with the heads of the various states with the direct involvement and responsibility and we know that even an average autumn rainfall next years won't give the irrigators what they require in 2007 and possibly 2008. 

 

This is a severe crisis to be sure but we're not going to be rushed into making hasty decisions we could later regret.  

 

CHRIS UHLMANN: The Chair Of The Joint Standing Committee On Environment is West Australian Liberal Dr Mal Washer has spent years looking water shortages around the country and he says there are no easy answers. 

 

MAL WASHER: At the moment we have a one per cent run off in this country so damming more rivers is not so easy and it's certainly not the thing I'd advocate. Our underground water sources are fairly limited.  

 

People talk about recycling but at the same time we have community reluctance about that unless we put into certain decisions like maybe biological flows or for purposes or irrigation, whatever. But certainly not going to look at potable waters as currently with recycling. We can use it in industry.  

 

People look at desalination, as you know in the west we put in a big de-sal plant that is now operating and looking at the kind of resources that we've ignored in water. But we have a problem. And it is in a lot of people's minds tied up with the way we produce our energy. 

 

CHRIS UHLMANN: Dr Washer points to slow movement on the two year old national water initiative, signed by the eastern states and the Federal Government, to drive water reform in Australia and among other things set up a national water trading system.  

 

The body that overseas the initiative has is the national water commission. Its chairman is Ken Matthews.  

 

So how does he view the pace of reform? 

 

KEN MATTHEWS: The National Water Commission has been pretty assertive in trying to make the case for faster progress. We are not happy with the rate of progress on water trading.  

 

But there are many other things that are on the national water initiative as well that need to be driven faster and harder. 

 

CHRIS UHLMANN: So at this stage although we have a plan on water that plan's not going as fast as you'd like to see it go? 

 

KEN MATTHEWS: There is a lot happening. I wouldn't want to leave the impression that nothing was happening.  

 

There is a lot happening; I wouldn't otherwise be happening if we hadn't signed this national agreement but there are key areas such as water trading which aren't moving fast enough and the National Water Commission is very keen to get faster progress on them. 

 

There are some other very practical areas as well that need to be advanced more quickly.  

 

One of them for example is the apparently dull subject of water accounting. But if you don't know where the water is, if you don't know what it's being used for and the state of health of the water systems then it's impossible to manage it. 

 

So one of the things we're pressing very hard is a better system of national water accounting and faster introduction of metering and measuring and monitoring and sharing of water data so that Australian water managers can do their water management job better. 

 

MARK COLVIN: Ken Matthews the chairman of the National Water Commission with Chris Uhlmann.