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Transcript of interview with Neil Mitchell: 3AW: 15 October 2010: Murray-Darling Basin Parliamentary Inquiry

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Transcript of interview with Neil Mitchell on 3AW

15 October 2010 SCT009/2010

Transcript of interview with Neil Mitchell on 3AW

Main topics: Murray-Darling Basin Parliamentary Inquiry

NEIL MITCHELL: In the studio with me is the Minister for Regional Australia, Simon Crean, good morning.

SIMON CREAN: Hi Neil, how are you?

NEIL MITCHELL: Okay, would you agree you've created massive uncertainty here though, I mean how do I know what my farm's worth? It could be a desert, or it could be productive.

SIMON CREAN: Look, this report that has come out from the Murray-Darling Basin Authority, Neil is a report that was commissioned by the last Coalition Government, back in 2007. It was asked to look at the question, and voted on by the whole of the parliament, bar one, Tony Windsor, the whole of the parliament, that said that we had to look at what was needed to restore health to the basin.

The terms of reference required the socio-economic factors to be taken into account, but there is no question that the emphasis that Malcolm Turnbull gave it, was environmental flows. Therefore what we have released, or what - not the government releasing, but the Authority itself released last Friday, was a guide, a guide that said based on the science that it's got, and it hasn't released the detail of all of that science yet, so that further complicates things, but based on the information it's got, these are the sorts of returns to the system that are needed.

The inquiry that I announced yesterday is to get the balance back into that guide, to look at what the impact is going to be on communities, the human impact

NEIL MITCHELL: Well you know, the suggestion is Townsville close, is that an overstatement?

SIMON CREAN: Well, I've heard these sorts of allegations in so many different circumstances in the past, I can understand how people assert it, when they are confronted with information, or a report, and they get very angry with it. Our task is to find the solution that doesn't close the towns, but nevertheless, gets those towns

understanding that they have to operate in a more water-constrained environment, if we're to get the health of the rivers back.

NEIL MITCHELL: Well does that mean that the report, as issued, will not be accepted, or is there a possibility you'll accept what the recommendations are?

SIMON CREAN: The report that's been issued is a guide, it's only part of the equation, the decision ultimately will be taken by the government over the course of the next 12 months

NEIL MITCHELL: Twelve months?


NEIL MITCHELL: How could you sell - you're sitting on a farm, as I say, to get back to the starting point, it could be worth a lot of money, because it's very productive, because you've got water, or it could be worth nothing, because you can't get water, and it's a desert?

SIMON CREAN: Well, but that's no different Neil, than these poor farmers who have had to go through the worst drought ever recorded in history

NEIL MITCHELL: Oh, but it's a lot different, because bureaucratically has caused the problem.

SIMON CREAN: No it's not, it's not, I think the drought shone the light on the fact that climate change was having an impact, and that this was impacting in a way in which we needed to find the way through to adjustment. It takes a long time to collate the information, it takes even more time to balance that information, and to try and find practical solutions forward.

NEIL MITCHELL: Do you accept it's also enormously important to the city, on some of the predictions here, the price of fruit, and availability of fruit and vegetables, and dairy products, goes through the roof?

SIMON CREAN: Well, I think that is an over-exaggeration, I've also heard the argument that this will turn us into a net food importer, it - I mean we export 60 per cent plus

NEIL MITCHELL: It would have to put prices up.

SIMON CREAN: Prices are determined on world markets, Neil, for most of our commodities

NEIL MITCHELL: We're importing more, therefore we're putting our prices up

SIMON CREAN: Well, prices go up if there's a drought, prices go up if there's a hailstorm, prices go up if there's a flood. Prices go up because of climatic circumstances. What we're trying to do is to build security based on the long term sustainability of these communities.

NEIL MITCHELL: So are you saying that these changes to the water allocation are designed to help the communities, not to hurt them?

SIMON CREAN: I am saying that, I'm saying that the changes to the water allocations, unless they're made, Neil, will see the river system dry up, that's what I'm saying, and that's the challenge that we've got to face. If nothing is done to restore flows to the river system, then these communities certainly will die.

Now I think most of the communities accept the fact that they have to manage water more effectively. State governments in the past have given massive over-allocations, we are paying a price for that, but the truth is, people have made investments, made decisions, built their livelihoods, on that circumstance. What we now have to find is the way forward, and this is not going to happen, whatever the outcome, it's not going to happen overnight, and it will involve consultations with the regions themselves.

NEIL MITCHELL: But do you accept that it has created this massive uncertainty, and it is an uncertainty that's caused bureaucratically, because it's a bureaucratic decision, or a report, and now we're waiting for a decision for 12 months, and that is, if I own a milk bar, a newsagent, a farm, a taxi business in any of these areas, I've got no idea what it's worth, I couldn't sell, there's no way I could sell.

SIMON CREAN: I think what it's created Neil, is a lot of anger, that's pretty obvious, but I also believe that the communities themselves know that they have to find more effective ways to put water back into the system.

NEIL MITCHELL: So what if you do, you serve your report, your six month report, and another six months thinking about it, and say, well yeah, it is going to destroy these towns, it is going to do massive damage. What do you do? Do you then compensate these people?

SIMON CREAN: Well, we have made $12 billion available already to start addressing this problem, Neil, $3 billion of it for water buy-backs, and billions in terms of more water efficiency, infrastructure, those sorts of things. Whether that is sufficient to address the problem as we go through the consultations, that's another question, it's something that government is going to have to consider.

But ultimately, the decision that will be taken will be by the government, but it has to pass to parliament, and that's why it's important to have the parliamentary committee established, to get ownership by the parliament, of the problem, and to address it in a sensible way.

NEIL MITCHELL: As you'd know, as Minister for Regional Australia, we're broadcasting into regional Australia, and there's a lot of people calling, I wonder if you'd mind taking a couple of calls?


NEIL MITCHELL: From the river region, I imagine.

Hello Bruce. Go ahead, Bruce.

CALLER BRUCE: Hello. Minister Crean, thank you for taking my call, and I also commend you for your speedy response yesterday in terms of announcing the parliamentary inquiry. I chair the Murray Group of Concerned Communities and we represent 31,000 people in the central Murray.

NEIL MITCHELL: What's your surname, Bruce?

CALLER BRUCE: Simpson, Bruce Simpson.


CALLER BRUCE: And Minister Crean, what we're asking for is a immediate stop to the process of the plan itself. We request the plan to be taken off the table. Because as Neil's pointed out, the level of uncertainty is now acute. I was talking to a school teacher yesterday, a principal of a local school here, she said, we struggle to get teachers into this town of Deniliquin now. With this plan, this guideline that's now on the table, we will not get any teachers to a town like Deniliquin.

NEIL MITCHELL: So what are you saying, Bruce? Put it on the - take it off the table and just start all overall again?

CALLER BRUCE: I'm saying, stop the process, get the parliamentary review going, and the important issue at this point - because the parliamentary inquiry, the announcement of that inquiry yesterday, has not allayed the uncertainty.


CALLER BRUCE: The uncertainty is undermining these communities, Minister Crean.


CALLER BRUCE: We as a community, want to engage with you constructively. We want to engage with the authority constructively. We want to work to a win-win situation. There are many, many opportunities to move to a win-win. We - if I can say, we concur with you that water must go back to the river. The environment must be healthy. But we must do it in balance.

NEIL MITCHELL: Okay. Mr Crean.

SIMON CREAN: Well, I agree with you in relation to that, and we want to have that engagement that you talk about. Of course, the parliamentary process is one mechanism for doing it, but there is no doubt that - and I have already indicated a preparedness from the regional development perspective to meet with affected stakeholders to discuss these sorts of issues. In fact, I had a meeting yesterday in New South Wales with all of the chairs of Regional Development Australia and their

chief executives, many of whom, of course, are along the Murray-Darling Basin situation.

So, I'm convinced, talking with them, that what you're talking about is absolutely right, people do accept the constraints, they do accept the challenge, they want to work constructively forward on that. It's always been in our - our intention to do it, and I simply remind you that the - what's on the table is not a plan, it is a guide, and it's a guide that has to be informed by the other side of the equation. That was only about environmental flows. We've got to deal with the sorts of issues that you're talking about, and the sooner we get on with that task, the better.

NEIL MITCHELL: But the report did say it'd take - you accept this, it would take $1 billion out of production.

SIMON CREAN: The report - it did say that, but it's looking - it's saying that will be the case if the water alone is taken out without the other adjustment mechanisms.

NEIL MITCHELL: So that'd be pretty disastrous for the farmers and for the city wouldn't it if you take a billion dollars out of production?

SIMON CREAN: Well again, Neil, I think that - if you look at the way in which a number of these communities have addressed it within the basin itself, communities that faced up to the challenge earlier understood the problems confronting them, have accessed the combination of the water buy-back arrangements and the embrace of the new infrastructure, the greater efficiencies. They are moving down the path to the sustainability.

Look, there is - if I can coin the phrase - a lot of water to flow under this bridge. I just hope that there is - we're putting more under the bridges. If I can just say to the communities that are concerned, I understand your anger, but this is not something that is going to occur unchecked. This is something that we are prepared to engage actively in, and we have time to address it. So, let's get involved in those serious negotiations, those discussions, let's try and work our way through.

NEIL MITCHELL: One more call and we'll wrap up.

Stephen. Go ahead please, Stephen.

CALLER STEPHEN: Oh, good morning, Neil, good morning, Mr Crean. I mean, with respect, isn't your opinion only one opinion and we really need to consult what the Greens are going to say about this, because you're influenced by the Greens in the house of reps. You're going to be more than influenced by the Greens in the Senate. And part - in the last state - in the last federal election, we didn't understand what the Greens policies were. We don't understand what they are in the state government. Why can't we hear from the Greens, because they'll be all over this like a rash.

SIMON CREAN: Again, I think we need to find a balance in this debate and the balance

NEIL MITCHELL: Balance with the Greens?

SIMON CREAN: Well, the Greens aren't the only members of the parliament, Neil.

NEIL MITCHELL: No, but they're pretty powerful. And he's quite right in that they've got an agenda.

SIMON CREAN: They're powerful if the two major parties don't agree. All right?

NEIL MITCHELL: Oh you think you'd get agreement with the Opposition on this?

SIMON CREAN: Well, I'm arguing for the commonsense position. I'm arguing for the path that doesn't try and placate the extremes in this debate, but tries to bring

NEIL MITCHELL: And the Greens are one extreme aren't they?

SIMON CREAN: Well, they may be. But the Greens do, obviously, have a concern to get the water back into the system. I do too, but your earlier caller, in terms of the share of the Murray re he also accepts that.

NEIL MITCHELL: Yeah, true.

SIMON CREAN: So let's try and find the common ground rather than present the polarised view.

NEIL MITCHELL: Okay. Well, can we do it any faster to end the uncertainty. You're talking about a year.

SIMON CREAN: I think that what we need to do is to look at these situations region by region. I think that regions that have worked, they need to communicate with the ones that do feel more threatened. I think that if people who have actually embraced the change found the solution, are, in fact, engaging with those who feel threatened, in isolation of any other facts, that's where we can encourage sensible engagement. Now, this should

NEIL MITCHELL: So all these towns closing, and the rest of it, you don't believe it?

SIMON CREAN: Our aim will be to ensure that we can build sustainability, both in terms of the rivers and the communities.

NEIL MITCHELL: But we had that report to the banks yesterday saying there were eight, eight towns - even Robinvale and Mildura - in danger.

SIMON CREAN: And I think the banks have themselves said that they're not proposing any foreclosures. Look

NEIL MITCHELL: Oh yeah, banks.


NEIL MITCHELL: Banks - yeah, we're not going to forece...we trust them don't we? They won't put up interest rates either.

SIMON CREAN: Neil, what I'm saying is if people want to spook the argument, they can. If they want to go on with the task of fuelling the anger, let them. I mean, I've been involved in negotiations 40 years in my life, and I always know that they start with the anger. But if you want to get the outcome, you've got to engage in constructive dialogue. Don't just channel the anger, or repeat the anger, divert it to a constructive outcome. That's what the government's offering.

NEIL MITCHELL: The government's a bit edgy about it isn't it? I mean, we've got you on the front foot, one of the heaviest ministers there. The Water Minister is doing less than you are.

SIMON CREAN: No, that is just not true.


SIMON CREAN: This is a Cabinet that had - has a serious discussion about this. In fact, this parliamentary inquiry that I talked - that was announced yesterday, I was talking to Tony Windsor about it last Thursday, the day before the Murray-Darling Basin report came out. Why? Because we know that parliament has to be brought along, but the communities have to have the opportunity to argue the case for the balance, and the involvement in the decisions that are going to affect them.

NEIL MITCHELL: Thank you very much for your time. So Cabinet's discussed it?

SIMON CREAN: Absolutely.

NEIL MITCHELL: Cabinet's changed.

SIMON CREAN: Cabinet, yeah, works very good. It's terrific, we're having good Cabinet meetings these days. And this was not only a very active discussion in the Cabinet last week, but a very active discussion in the first meeting of the Cabinet committee that's been established to deal with regional issues.

NEIL MITCHELL: Thank you for your time.

SIMON CREAN: My pleasure.

NEIL MITCHELL: Simon Crean, Minister for Regional Australia


Last Updated: 15 October, 2010