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Transcript of press conference: Murray River mouth, Adelaide: 1 February 2007: Water.



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PRIME MINISTER

1 February 2007

TRANSCRIPT OF THE PRIME MINISTER THE HON JOHN HOWARD MP PRESS CONFERENCE MURRAY MOUTH, ADELAIDE

Subjects: Water

PRIME MINISTER:

Ladies and gentlemen, I’ve got two things I want to say today. Firstly I want to announce a Commonwealth contribution of $7.7 million to a project which will help restore the health of about 70,000 hectares of water courses and wetlands and in this part of South Australia and will be of enormous benefit to the Coorong. As many of you will know, and as Henry was pointing out to me, a hundred years ago, we thought there was so much fresh water around that we could, through channels, divert it in the ocean. But of course as circumstances have changed the wetlands have become degraded and are really in a chronic state and what we’ve agreed to do is to put $7.7 million into a project, along with a local anti-salinity cooperative to which the South Australian Government is making a contribution, and over a period of time, get rid of those man-made channels, and that will restore, over time, the health of the wetlands and will be of particular benefit to the Coorong where we are now. And the benefit of that will over a period of time, become more apparent.

The second and broader and bigger issue that I wanted to simply address is to take this opportunity near the mouth of the Murray River, having just spoken to the couple Mr and Mrs Grundy who physically and geographically are the last property owners and farmers on the Murray; is to make a very passionate appeal the Premiers of South Australia and New South Wales and Victoria and Queensland and to the Chief Minister of the ACT to agree to the Government’s huge investment of $10 billion in restoring the health of the Murray-Darling Basin and tackling head on, the

fundamental problems that have beset us for so many years. This is an historic, once in a generation opportunity to do something long-term to tackle this huge problem.

The multi-jurisdictional control of the Murray-Darling Basin has not worked and the only way forward has to be for the Commonwealth to administer the Murray-Darling

Basin, obviously in close consultation with the states and with local communities and with experts as we always do. But the proposal is a very simple one. We will make the biggest single investment in water infrastructure this country has seen for decades.

We will tackle over-allocation; we will tackle the loss through wastage and evaporation, through piping and lining the irrigation channels of Australia; we will tackle some of the very big engineering works that are needed in places such as the

Barmah Choke and the Menindee Lakes; we will also augment contributions by farmers to installing works on their properties to address wastage on their own properties and, of course, we’ll very importantly tackle the issue of over-allocation. We are setting aside $3 billion and over-allocation has to be addressed, it can’t be addressed unless money is put on the table because otherwise it would leave irrigators in a very difficult financial position.

Now over-allocation has not occurred on our watch, water licences and allocations are made by state governments. What we are offering to do is to fix and pay for a problem that we had nothing to do with the creation of and that is an earnest indication part of our determination to something about this issue. Now this is a huge problem for our country, it is a huge issue for South Australia, and it’s been estimated that this plan will save about 3,000 gigalitres of water, that is 17 times the annual water consumption of the city of Adelaide. The great bulk of that will be returned to the Murray-Darling Basin and under our 50-50 sharing plan, 50 per cent back to irrigators, 50 per cent to the environment, you can quickly calculate how much additional water will flow through the Murray and flow through into and benefit South Australia. Now South Australia does stand to benefit enormously, the current arrangements don’t work because the states are in competition with each other. We must think as Australians and not as South Australians or Queenslanders, or New South Welshmen or Victorians. Our plan is a way forward in the long-term, it will take time. We have very little time left to fix this problem if we are to do so and this is the first time that any government at any level has come up with a comprehensive plan that will work and addresses the fundamental problem.

So here, more appropriately than anywhere else in Australia, I am making a genuine appeal to the Premiers of the various states to support the Commonwealth plan. I have been quite encouraged by the response so far. I wrote to them in detail yesterday, I’m obviously willing to sit down and talk with them more, but it is an integrated plan, the funding is obviously conditional on the referral of powers, that is understandable. But this an opportunity for Australia to fix this problem and it is of enormous benefit to those people who depend on the Murray for their very existence and the great bulk of those, of course, are in South Australia.

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister, given the fact that at least two Premiers today, Premier Bracks and Iemma have indicated support in varying degrees to your plan, do you see Mike Rann’s vision is now a dead duck as far as this is concerned?

PRIME MINISTER:

Look, I don’t want to make disparaging remarks about colleagues, any of my Premier colleagues. I want everybody to address the substance of this issue. I think it is

interesting that Mr Rann has acknowledged by his response that the current arrangements don’t work and that is highly significant. Nobody is saying the current arrangements work, everybody is saying, even Mr Rann, that you need a single authority to administer it. Now that’s what we are saying. Now obviously, I am elected by the Australian people to take responsibility to tackle the nation’s problems. I don’t tackle the nation’s problems by handing over responsibility to an unelected body. I will never agree to do that because it is my responsibility and if people don’t like that every three years they have an opportunity to vote me out of office and that is democracy. This plan will only work if we have a referral of powers and I am very happy to sit down and talk to Mr Rann, but in the end he has acknowledged that the current arrangements are not working. He’s not said that the current arrangements can go on. Everybody knows the current arrangement won’t work, and we are determined to go ahead with this plan, because we see it as the only salvation for the Murray-Darling Basin.

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister if the state government agrees to build a weir at Wellington will the Federal Government take over responsibility should you take over the Murray system down the track?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I think the Wellington weir is something the State Government hasn’t made a decision yet. Obviously, the fact that the State Government is looking at the Wellington weir is yet another example of the dire crisis we have. I mean what

happens when you ignore these problems over a period of years is that they accumulate and then they create the pressure for emergency responses such as the Wellington weir which has obviously drawn criticism. I don’t think the South Australian Government has made the final decision on that so the question in that context is hypothetical.

JOURNALIST:

Under your plan, what will South Australia’s water entitlement be?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well South Australia will be, her water entitlements will not be adversely affected any more than any other states’ are, consistent with obviously a need, on an individual basis, to deal with over-allocation. Now, most of the over-allocation, not all of it, but most of it has occurred in other parts of the country particularly in New South Wales.

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister why do you think Premier Rann is resisting the plan and also what would be different with an apolitical board managing the Murray to say the Reserve Bank Board or the ACCC?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well the Reserve Bank is completely atypical. I mean, the Reserve Bank is the monetary body that operates in the market and to compare this with the Reserve Bank is quite inappropriate. I don’t know what Mr Rann’s reason is and I don’t want to prejudice a fortuitous resolution or a happy resolution of this issue by getting into commentary. I have found in the past when I have talked to Mr Rann about this issue that he has had intense frustration with the deal that South Australia has been getting and he has said to me on numerous occasions in private that the current arrangements don’t work. Now I have offered a way forward. Now you can’t imagine for a moment that even if you hypothetically set up this independent body, the idea that that would end the political debate, I mean what would happen if people in South Australia were unhappy with what the body was doing? They would come to Mr Rann and say we would want something done about this. They’d come to me and what we’d both turn around and say you know we are brave, elected leaders, but we’ve washed our hands of responsibility and handed it over to an independent body. You can’t govern a country that way, you are elected to tackle problems and to accept responsibility for your own actions. You don’t accept responsibility for your own actions by handing responsibility to an unelected, unaccountable body, no matter how worthy the people on it may be. I think it is called democracy.

JOURNALIST:

Are you concerned about taking on the Premiers, and in particular Mr Rann in an election year when there are marginal seats in South Australia?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I am not in the business of taking people on. I don’t see it as a contest, I see it as a long range plan to fix a great national problem. I am a passionate Australian nationalist. I think this issue needs an Australian national solution. Now I hope the Premiers agree, but I know the political timetable, I am aware of that, but I have been in politics a long time now and I am determined that this is the next of the great national issues that my Government has got to tackle and you won’t solve this problem by fumbling along with the existing arrangements. People should understand that. We have to tackle it head on, we’ve got to put more money in infrastructure and you’ve got to tackle the over-allocation issue; and my plan does both of those things.

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister, September 2004 you were at the Murray mouth and you said we will fix the Murray, what’s stopped you fixing the Murray?

PRIME MINISTER:

The existing governance arrangements are a very large part of it. I mean we put $500, just out of the blue, into the Murray-Darling Basin Commission in last year’s Budget. I am not criticising the Commission, I am not criticising Wendy Craik or Ian Sinclair or any of those worthy people, but it is a classic example of the lowest common denominator incrementalism that means it takes years to get anything done. Now it’s going to take a while even if we got a go ahead tomorrow, but at least we are going to

put the thing on a proper basis and I have learnt over the last couple years that there are two other things we’ve got to do and that is we have to put a big amount of money into fixing the infrastructure. I mean, the wastage in these open irrigation channels and the evaporation and seepage and all that is enormous. And the other thing we’ve got to is over-allocation. Now we are providing $3 billion to fix the over-allocation, we didn’t over-allocate, all the state governments did, less so South Australia than some of the others, but we are saying to those state governments, we will fix that problem and what’s more we will pay for the fixing of the problem. Now that is a very necessarily generous offer, and it is one of the reasons why I do earnestly ask the state governments to seriously consider a very genuine offer.

JOURNALIST:

If they remain intransigent what next for your plan?

PRIME MINISTER:

Oh look I am an optimist as well as a nationalist, I am an optimistic nationalist, and what I intend to do is work on the assumption that reasonable men and women, they happen to, coincidentally, be men, but reasonable men will respond to a fair and reasonable proposition in the national interest and I am not going to hypothesise about what I might do.

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister on another question. A Baptist church in George Street in Sydney today has put up a sign asking parishioners to, or says Jesus loves Osama, that’s number one, your reaction that. Number two, Mr Habib is running as I believe an Independent in Auburn, your reaction to that?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well he has got a right to do that. He has got a right, if he is an Australian citizen, he has got a right to seek public office, I have no other comment. I understand the Christian motivation of the Baptist church but I hope they will understand that a lot of Australians including many Australian Christians will think that the, perhaps, how shall I put it, the prayer priority of the church on this occasion could have been elsewhere.

JOURNALIST:

Prime (inaudible) channels, what exactly what work are you talking about?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well a lot of the fresh water now goes throughs channels into ocean outflows and what we want to do is reverse that, that’s what I am talking about. Thank you.

[ends]