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Transcript of press conference: Commonwealth Parliamentary Offices, Perth: 24 July 2007: National Plan for Water Security.



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PRIME MINISTER

24 July 2007

TRANSCRIPT OF THE PRIME MINISTER THE HON JOHN HOWARD MP PRESS CONFERENCE COMMONWEALTH PARLIAMENTARY OFFICES, PERTH

Subjects: National Plan for Water Security.

EO&E…………………………………………………………………………………

PRIME MINISTER:

Ladies and gentlemen, I want to inform you that when Federal Parliament resumes in August the Government will immediately introduce a bill based on its existing constitutional power to establish a new authority to deal with water matters in the Murray-Darling Basin. This has been rendered necessary by the announcement of the Victorian Government today that it would not agree to the draft water bill that’s been submitted to Victoria and the other jurisdictions in the Murray-Darling Basin, therefore by the action of Victoria the way of dealing with this issue I outlined in January of this year cannot proceed. I regret this, the Victorian Government has dragged its feet for five months. I reached agreement with Mr Iemma, Mr Beattie, Mr Rann and Mr Stanhope on the 23rd of February. At that particular meeting I had a separate meeting with Mr Bracks in which he indicated that subject to being given a bit more time he believed Victoria would sign up to the plan that had been agreed to by the other states. We’ve had intense negotiations, I have been incredibly patient. I have wanted a co-operative approach because the referral of powers that I sought went a little further than what we can do in our own constitutional right and it seemed to me that the most logical thing to do was to try and get that power referral so that we would not be left with a situation of either continuing with the present totally hopeless arrangement where the co-operative scheme does not work, people agree to caps and then merrily disobey them, or the Commonwealth to legislate according to its current constitutional power which although is quite extensive is not as extensive as to give us a close to ideal scheme. One deficiency of us legislating on our own is that you’ll have two bodies - the existing Murray-Darling commission which will have very few

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functions in the future and the new authority which will set the cap and administer the basin wide water arrangements.

The most recent offer I had from the Premier of Victoria was in a letter he wrote to me on the 11th of July and effectively he said in that letter that Victoria was only agreeable to the Commonwealth legislation which would give effect to the referral of powers applying in part to Victoria and where there was any inconsistency in the legislation the Victorian legislation would prevail. Put simply, Mr Bracks wants to keep the state borders on this issue, I want to get rid of them. You’ll only solve this problem if you effectively obliterate the state borders. This is something that transcends the parochial interests of states, it’s something that’s about the future of water security of the entire nation and quite frankly the Murray-Darling Basin river system flows across state borders, the Great Artesian Basin lies under the borders of different states and I just believe that this was an occasion where we could have transcended state parochialism. It seems inescapable to me that the Victorian Premier has wanted to play politics rather than reach an agreement within the national interest. I want to record my thanks to Mr Iemma and Mr Beattie and Mr Rann and Mr Stanhope for being willing to cooperate but I’ve been trying for five months to reach agreement on this and why is it that the other premiers can agree and Mr Bracks won’t? Why is it that there’s always somebody who’s holding out to frustrate a genuine national plan? We put $10 billion on the table, we are relieving the states of the financial responsibility for compensating irrigators for taking back their water entitlements. None of those difficulties were created by the Commonwealth, they were all created by the states. We will go ahead with our investment of $10 billion, as to whether the way in which it is invested is precisely the same as originally envisaged I’ll have to give thought to. We certainly won’t be discriminating against any particular part of the country, we are still interested in fixing the irrigation systems of the nation by piping and lining the irrigation channels, we want to buy back over allocations. We still want to realise the objectives of this plan and I’m intensely disappointed that it would that it would appear that election year politics has intervened to prevent realising something that is in the national interest. I mean, it’s an interesting pattern. The Labor Party has a double game. They agree at one level and then somebody manages to interfere at another level. It seems to be a pattern. On the merits of this it’s a great disappointment, but we will not be deterred from going ahead with a national plan. It will be a less adequate national plan courtesy of Victoria. We will legislate to the full limit of our constitutional power and that bill will be introduced when parliament resumes in August.

JOURNALIST:

Mr Howard, is it your intent, can I just understand, is it your intention in spending the $10 billion to still spend a portion of that money in Victoria?

PRIME MINISTER:

We’re not going to discriminate against the people of Victoria. They’re Australians, they’ve not Victorians and I don’t discriminate according to where people live in this country, there’s too much of that. I think the Australian people are fed up with state parochialism. This was an occasion where every premier had an opportunity to rise above state parochialism and to think of the entire nation. That river system doesn’t

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care about the borders between Victoria and New South Wales and I won’t care about the borders between Victoria and New South Wales either. I’m quite passionate about trying to get a better national water system and in spending the money we will not discriminate against irrigators. We will not discriminate in favour of one party…part of the country against another except that, I want to make the point, that the arrangements under which we spend the money, the conditions attached to it may have to be different because we have different legal arrangement.

JOURNALIST:

Mr Bracks would be laughing out the back of his head don’t you think?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well if it’s funny to frustrate something in the national interest he has a strange sense of humour. I mean, don’t you understand what’s involved here? What is involved here is fixing something that plainly needs fixing. What is involved here is obliterating state borders. Mr Bracks wants to keep the state borders I don’t. The irrigators in Victoria are the same as irrigators in New South Wales and they should be treated fairly and equally and the great danger of what Mr Bracks wanted, the great danger of what Mr Bracks wanted, is that you could have had a situation where Victoria had a special deal. Victoria wanted a special deal, and I have spoken to the other three premiers in the last 20 minutes to inform them of what has happened and they have indicated their understanding of my position but, I mean, you can talk to them separately. But I have tried for five months and I have ended this in total good faith, I made the announcement on the 26th, I am sorry, the 25th January in the National Press Club and we put $10 billion on the table and I have tried for five months in good faith and Mr Bracks was not willing to refer the powers because he doesn’t want to surrender Victoria’s power. I mean we are nation, we are not a collection of states and the Australian people are tired, sick and tired of state parochialism on issues like this and I am tired of it too because I happen to believe that national solutions are required for these great environmental things. And unless we are prepared to sink our differences, unless we are prepared to think as Australians and not as Queenslanders or Western Australians, we are never going to solve these problems. We have been trying for years to solve this issue in a cooperative way. If Mr Bracks wants play politics and laugh behind his hand, they are your words not mine, but I haven’t tried to play politics on this issue, I have tried to get a decent national outcome. We’ve put money on the table, we’ve not asked the states for a dollar. We are putting, this is all over and above what they spend and by us taking over their responsibilities we are giving them additional capacity, additional capacity to do certain things and that’s still not good enough for the Victorians.

JOURNALIST:

Mr Howard by overriding the states (inaudible) the legislation, does that basically mean Bracks will lose control of…

PRIME MINISTER:

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Well what it will mean is that you will have far greater Commonwealth involvement than what he was willing to agree to but not to the same level of Commonwealth power that would have been achieved by a referral of power.

JOURNALIST:

Does that mean you will have those two bureaucracies…

PRIME MINISTER:

Well there is that and there are certain things that the Murray-Darling Basin Commission won’t be able to do under the less preferred model, but the less preferred model, that’s unilateral Commonwealth legislation, was much better and much more effective than what Mr Bracks was proposing.

JOURNALIST:

Mr Howard in practical terms are you able to give us any examples of the impact of Mr Bracks decision?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well what Mr Bracks was in practical terms wanting was a situation, not withstanding the basin-wide cap that we would establish, Victoria reserved the right to decide how that would be implemented in Victoria and by it deciding to do that, that could have negative ramifications for say South Australia. You see the whole idea of our scheme

was to treat the Murray-Darling Basin as one entity and not an aggregate of state entities and to set a basin-wide cap and to make sure through our authority that that cap was reflected and implemented everywhere in the basin. Now what Mr Bracks has really wanted was a situation where Victoria could determine, at the end of the day, Victoria could determine the extent to which the cap was implemented in his own state.

JOURNALIST:

Which special powers are you using to…

PRIME MINISTER:

There’s some interstate trade and commerce powers and there are some foreign affairs powers.

JOURNALIST:

Is that the (inaudible) the environmental powers?

PRIME MINISTER:

Yes we are prepared to use that. Cabinet has already discussed this and we are going to introduce the legislation as soon as we go back. I would have preferred the

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alternative course, but I am left with no alternative. I am not going to walk away from this and I know that, you know, state sensitivities matter but we’ve tried the other approach, the cooperative approach does not work here and it just…I mean it’s a horse and buggy approach that the Victorian Government has taken and I am extremely disappointed and I am more than a little sceptical given the political environment in which we are living.

JOURNALIST:

And when would it be effective, the Commonwealth takeover, when do you envisage it being effective?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well as soon as we can, I can’t give you a date at the moment I will have to give some thought to that, but we will introduce the legislation as soon as we go back. I have spoken to Mr Turnbull, I have told him to get the legislation ready and I have spoken to Mr Iemma and Mr Rann and Mr Beattie and my Chief of Staff has spoken to Mr Stanhope’s Chief of Staff so they have all been informed of what I have announced and I wrote to Mr Bracks a couple of days ago asking him to let me know whether he would agree to our draft bill. Our draft bill reflects a lot of the changes requested by various people, but it hasn’t departed in any way from the principles agreed in February. Now that’s, what, five months ago, five months almost to the day and that is long enough and that’s an earnest of my good faith and I’ve tried very hard to handle this thing cooperatively. There were a number of changes and concessions sought by the states, reasonable ones, but in the end if you’re going to have a basin-wide approach and you’re going to obliterate state borders and treat the basin as part of one nation, which you have to, you’ve got to have power in one set of hands and that is what we wanted. That’s all that we wanted and Mr Bracks is not willing to do that and I am not willing to have a three legged horse, which is what we would have been left with if we’d have tried to bump along with the other three states and the Australian Capital Territory. But I want to make it clear that we’ve not given up on the plan. We’ll implement it in a different way. It will be a less elegant way and a less satisfactory way, but I have no alternative and that is a result of the parochialism of the Victorian Government, not the Victorian people, but the parochialism of the Victorian Government. But I want to assure the irrigators of Victoria that their existing water entitlements will not be affected in any way. I’d already guaranteed those in the previous discussions and I want to say the same thing to irrigators in other parts of the country and my dismay with the attitude of the Victorian Government, of course, is confined to them at a political level. In no way is it directed towards the farmers or the irrigators of Victoria who will be treated in a fair and equitable manner with the rest of the irrigators of the country.

JOURNALIST:

Will they come off second best as a consequence of what their…

PRIME MINISTER:

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Well I think everybody will come off second best in a way as a result of this. We will not have the same efficiencies we would have had with a fuller referral of powers. We can’t expect, you can’t have it both ways. I mean if there was nothing to be gained by the referral of powers I wouldn’t have sought it in the first place. And it’s clearly less than satisfactory to have two bodies, the one that is going to administer it, the new body, which will have the ultimate power to determine the basin-wide cap, and you will have this Murray-Darling commission. I am not quite sure what will be its functions but it will still be there because it’s a creature of the old cooperative arrangement, the existing cooperative arrangement. And my intention and the intention of the plan was that when the new arrangement came into operation it would go out of existence.

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister, do you, you said you’ll move to a plan if you like, you’ve got Mr Beattie going you on AFP, you’ve got Mr Bracks going you on the Murray-Darling Basin, you’ve got Premier Carpenter going you on the indigenous plan….

PRIME MINISTER:

Yes.

JOURNALIST:

And I am sure that the Premier of New South Wales will come up with something. Do you think that there is a sort of coordinated plan…

PRIME MINISTER:

Well let me put it this way. Look at the facts. There is a pattern and the pattern is that the Leader of the Labor Party at a national level, Mr Rudd, says oh I’m putting the national interest first and I am going to support the Prime Minister’s plan. He says I

support it. Within a few days some of his senior shadow ministers are trying to undermine it. They’re saying it wasn’t properly costed; it has been properly costed. They’re saying it was rushed; it wasn’t rushed. They’re saying there was no consultation between senior ministers; there was, but they were trying to undermine it, and now five months of negotiations and still Victoria’s not come on side. And then you have the Northern Territory intervention, which has overwhelming support in the Australian community, as does the Murray-Darling Basin plan, and you have the Western Australian Premier saying it’s another Tampa, which is just an outrageous slur. You have the Premier of South Australia saying that it’s like the invasion of Iraq. He’s talking about shock and awe and mission accomplished. And now you have Dr Haneef, where you have Mr Beattie attacking the Australian Federal Police, although Mr Beattie was faster out of the blocks than anybody when this story broke in having something to say about it. I mean, I repeat what I said earlier today. I think it’s outrageous that anybody should at that level should be attacking the Australian Federal Police. The Australian Federal Police have done wonderful work in the name of this country. They are legendary in South East Asia in the work they did tracking down the murderers of our citizens in Bali and they deserve our support. Like any other organisation they will make mistakes. They deserve our support. They are part

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of the frontline in the fight against terrorism in this country. They should not be the subject of attacks. It’s unfair, it’s premature, it’s provocative and it’s highly political.

JOURNALIST:

In what ways will you be able to override Victoria by using your constitutional powers?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well what we will be able to do is to impose a basin-wide cap and that will replace the existing arrangements, and depending on the way the legislation is drafted, and we will draft it in a fashion that allows us to legislate as fully as we possibly can, that will ensure a degree of consistency throughout the basin. It’s less than satisfactory but it’s better than the existing arrangement. It could have been close to ideal if Victoria had come on board.

JOURNALIST:

Can Victoria ignore your cap though?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well Victoria could endeavour to frustrate our cap and if it does then South Australia, for example, being at the end of the line, could suffer because to the extent that Victoria takes water out of the system that it shouldn’t, there’s less water available and that will affect South Australia. I mean this is the practical consequence. That is why you need, if you’re going to have a basin-wide cap, you need something where everybody plays the game. But Victoria didn’t want to play by the rules set by the new national authority, they wanted, at the end of the day, to reserve a certain discretion to themselves and we weren’t prepared to agree to that.

JOURNALIST:

Mr Howard, the WA Attorney General (inaudible) is also asking for a guarantee that you won’t fund an appeal to reopen the Swan Valley (inaudible)?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well we are not funding any further appeals, not that I am aware of, I mean I will seek advice on that. But my understanding was that the original thing was approved of the funding by the panel, but the appeal has not. And if it were then I would seek to stop that because I don’t think that’s justified.

JOURNALIST:

Do you regret that it was funded…?

PRIME MINISTER:

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No well how can I regret something I didn’t decide. These allocations are made by an independent panel.

[ends]

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