Doorstop with Mick Keelty – Parliament House, Canberra

3 December 2019

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well thank you for being here and can I welcome the Inspector, Interim Inspector-General Mick Keelty for being here with me today. And firstly can I thank all of those farmers from the Southern Basin and right across the Basin that came to talk to us here in Parliament and all those farmers over the past 18 months that we’ve gone out and spoken to as we continue to work on the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. We’ll continue to go out and we’ll continue to listen to everybody, but what yesterday highlighted is the importance of this role, the Interim Inspector-General, and making it a permanent role with legislation. 

That is why I call on the states to accept the powers that we are asking for. A permanent position to take place so that legislation can be finalised. And that can't be finalised straight away because I need all the agreement of the states and we don't have that formally yet, but what we also need is cooperation. Because what we said to those farmers yesterday is that we are prepared to listen to specific concerns, and what Mick Keelty was able to gain from these farmers are specific, granular concerns that he can focus in on, he can zero in on and start to get underneath the bonnet of to make sure that we have an understanding of the legitimacy of those claims and make sure it is transparent and independent. So while the states can give us a formal approval of the powers, because of the constitutional requirements between state and Federal Government to give these powers to Mick Keelty, we ask for them in the interim to be able to come back by the 31 March, to live up to that commitment that we said we would, to those farmers yesterday. We asked them to co-operate completely. 

Mick has a solid record on that as the Northern Basin Commissioner and I thank Queensland and NSW in doing that in the past. But this is an opportunity for all Basin states to build the trust, to build the trust right across the Basin between states, between farmers. 

This is an opportunity for us to continue to build on that trust and to make sure that we protect communities as best we can in delivering one of the biggest programs in this nation's history. Mick, did you want to say something?

MICK KEELTY: I would simply say that clearly, having spoken to a number of groups within the Southern Basin, particularly in a recent meeting down in Paringa where we met with several farmers and irrigators, where they were able to define the problems, it became clear to me that the problems are not simply the Murray-Darling Basin plan, but it also is some of the underlying policies. And those policies and the impact of those policies on the availability of water for these farmers. As the minister and others have said before, governments can't make rain and can't make water, but they can make policies, and one of the things that I will be doing over the course of the next four months, until 31 March, is conducting an inquiry into the impact of those policies on water availability. It’s an ambitious deadline, but we hope through the Ministerial Council to have the powers available to us that we require, if not available to us in that period of time, because it is only a short time frame, to gain their cooperation to be able to report back to the ministerial Council and to the stakeholders, the farmers and the irrigators, whether or not the current policies are inhibiting their access to water.

QUESTION: Mr Keelty, in that inquiry, one of the things you will be tasked with looking at is the impact of the changing distribution of inflows into Southern Basin in state sharing. Is that an acknowledgement that the drought is impacting New South Wales to the extent that we should revisit how much water is sent to South Australia?

MICK KEELTY: It is a very good question, and I don't want to pre-empt the outcome, but clearly there is no water in the Northern Basin and those flows are not coming from the north that might have, at a time in history, might have been expected to flow. They are not flowing, and that is having an impact on availability of water in other places. So we will examine all the current policies and whether those policies are restricting access to water.

QUESTION: Minister, can I ask you, you can understand why these people are shirt-fronting your boss, they have had enough of inquiries [Indistinct]?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, with due respect, 31 March is not kicking it down any road, I am sorry to tell you. We are saying.

QUESTION: [INTERRUPTS]

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: With respect, I will answer the question. What we have said is that we are going to get someone independent to undertake a transparent process to ensure that there is confidence in the Basin Plan and how it is implemented, making sure that they have that confidence, by 31 March. Now, with all due respect, there are other reviews because the Basin Plan isn't one simplistic notion. There are many moving parts to it, and hence the social and economic review that I will have back early in the New Year. The ACCC report into the market. There are so many moving parts to it. This is a complex plan, but this is about maintaining confidence in the Basin Plan and through somebody, through a conduit that the growers right up and down the basin have confidence in. The Northern Basin has confidence in Mick Keelty from the work he did as Northern Basin Commissioner, and he’s gained that trust of those Southern Irrigators by doing what we’ve been doing. Going around, kicking the dust, sitting in sheds, listening to them and making sure that they are being listened to, and their concerns that they believe are legitimate are tested. And that is something I don't apologise for.

QUESTION: Minister, do you think that this could, that this review could significantly perhaps even profoundly change the Basin Plan, or do you expect the Plan will move beyond 31 March, largely as it is?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, the Basin Plan will continue past 31st March. Nothing will stop, the legislation is passed, it will continue on. This is about making sure that we understand the water sharing agreements between the states, understand how those mechanisms interact, making sure that that confidence is provided to those farmers. That is something that can be done quite quickly, because there has been a significant body of work that has continued to be done since this Basin Plan was put in place and all we’re saying is we’re going to continue to lead.

We're going to take the politics out of this. We're going to continue to lead, we're going to be transparent and rebuild the trust that has been lost in some parts. 

QUESTION: Do you think that the water allocations are fair as they currently stand?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, obviously it's important and this is a very important point. And the MDBA only recently came out and said that the SDL caps are to be respected. So therefore the question is on the state governments who allocate up to those sustainable diversions limits every year to do it. They've been given a cap; they can allocate right up to it. Now there's a report out that suggests that there is a significant under allocation. Now those are questions that the MDBA are prepared to work with the states to say why? Why is that the case and is that the water rules within each state? This is the important part of this. I don't act unilaterally on all this. I have to work with the state. The power in all this, the resource is owned by the states. We are bringing them together to make sure that the Murray-Darling Basin is an integrated system that is healthy but is also productive. And let me just say that we'll continue to work with the states. To ensure that they look at any underutilisation because every drop counts.

QUESTION: Have you promised any farmers extra water?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: No.

QUESTION: Is there any validity, Minister, to the claim that is being made by the protesters that this is a man-made drought as opposed to something natural?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Look, there's varying views, but look, I'm not an educated man. I only went to Year 12 in Western Queensland, and they taught me there that unless it falls from the sky, hits the ground as it runs into the river, you're out of luck.

QUESTION: Is it not true in the last fortnight that a couple of members of the Nationals Party room took a draft bit of legislation, received support to eke back some of the water from the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder, that received support from all your colleagues except yourself and Michael McCormack?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well firstly, I don't speculate on National Party room matters and it would be disappointing for any National Party member to leak outside the party room.

QUESTION: Minister, today the New South Wales Government issued four demands that if you do not meet them, they include that they don't have to hand in their water sharing- water resource reports until after the drought, and that they're not going to give 450 gigalitres of water back to the Commonwealth, that they will pull out of the plan. Doesn't that entirely undermine anything you're trying to do?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Can I just give a little bit education to the New South Wales Government? The Federal Government does not approve or decline demands in the Murray-Darling Basin. That is done by all Basin states. We work together in cooperation. So with all due respect that is not a question for the Federal Government, that is something- anyone who has request will be taken to Ministerial Council where we have a record of acting in cooperation and talking through the issues in a mature way. And we'd expect that to happen but the Federal Government doesn't have those powers. I'm sorry if they think we do then I probably need to let them know.

QUESTION: So, what's John Barilaro doing in his statement this morning demanding concessions from the Federal Government?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, he's obviously concerned about his communities in New South Wales and he's asking other Basin states to take that into consideration when we come together in Brisbane. But it's not a decision the Federal Government can take unilaterally and I think this is an important point, that while everyone points their guns at us they can understand my job in many respects is to herd the cats. And the real power comes in us having cooperation, sitting at Ministerial Council and agreeing on a way forward. 

QUESTION: Minister, you attended the seafood barbecue, why didn't you go out the front and talk to the protesters?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Because I had private meetings with those leaders of that rally. And I don't apologise for that. I felt that an environment created in calm and constructive manner with the interim Inspector General was a way to get an outcome.

QUESTION: Was it a mistake for Michael McCormack to go?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: No.

QUESTION: So why didn't you go?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Because the environment that I created last night with Mick Keelty and his team was one about outcomes in making sure that those leaders that are very passionate could go back out to those men and women and children that had come all the way to Canberra, that they got a result. And I felt it important that those leaders who have put so much into it, they were able to go and articulate- 

QUESTION: [Talks over] so, is not an extra drop of water a result?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Sorry, with respect, no one can make it rain. The reality is, this is about making sure there is clarity and understanding, and certainty, about the rules in which the Basin Plan is administered. And that is what these men and women have asked of us, and that's what we will deliver by the 31st.

QUESTION: [Inaudible]… what decision can he make about allocations?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Mick, Mick Keelty? Well, he won't be able to make decisions about the allocations. He'll be able to give- have findings. That is the matter for the states. But can I just reaffirm, the MDBA has made it specifically clear that those sustainable diversion limit caps can be respected, and we expect the states to administer and to allocate up to those caps every year. So we expect them to do it, and we're going to help them to understand why they aren't being utilised.

Now, some of that may be because farmers are using carry-over; some of it may be because of the interpretation of their own laws within their own state, but we intend to help them because that's an important aspect about making sure that all that water is productive as we possibly can make it.

QUESTION: So you're going to do what you can about allocations?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: We're going to go and look at, with the aid of the states, at making sure the states understand how those allocations go up to those sustainable diversion caps ever year. That's the rules. That's the rulebook that was put in place in 2012. That's what we allow the states to do. That's what we expect them to do every year. The MDBA simply manages that flow. So we ask the states, and we're going to work cooperatively to understand why those caps aren't being used every year, and work with irrigators and communities to get it right.

QUESTION: Can you be specific about this review - is it going to go to the water sharing arrangements not water sharing plan, but the water sharing arrangement set down between the states enshrined in the 1912 Water Act carried over in the 2007. Is that in or out, and how could you possibly review that in three months?

MICK KEELTY: Well, the answer to your question is, I won't exclude anything from consideration. The point's been made to me, not by just one person but by a large number of people, that there have been zero allocations on general licences in some parts of the Murray-Darling Basin. I won't exclude anything. I'll include everything, and it may well be that we make recommendations at the end of the review period for legislative amendment or for ministerial council to give consideration to a different sorts of policies. Again, I can't pre-empt the outcome of the review, but clearly there are a number of people who are not happy with the current policies, and I've been asked to have a look at those policies - look at the impact of those policies on water availability and report back. And that's what we'll do.

QUESTION: Minister, on the water that you've brought for fodder of South Australia, thousands of farmers are potentially about to have access to that. How is the Federal Government going to guarantee that they are watering fodder crops and not anything else? How can you possibly police that much?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well firstly, because we own it and then we're going to allocate.

QUESTION: So you're going to send someone to a farm and check?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: There will be an audit process to ensure, and it won't be to every farm, but there will be an audit process to make sure that due process has taken place. With any program any government puts out, there is an essence of goodwill, whether it be this or any other drought program. And sadly, even in my home state, we had a person defraud the Commonwealth and the state $60,000. Governments can put the best framework we possibly can around these programs to ensure certainty, and we will continue to do that, but obviously there is an expectation that there is an essence of goodwill in this. But we will be ensuring that there is an audit process overarching this as best we possibly can.

QUESTION: Minister, do you believe the Water Act should be changed?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: No.

QUESTION: One of the least transparent markets in Australia, and you're relying on goodwill that people will just do the right thing?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: With respect, I think you'll find some of that Southern Basin is very transparent in the respect of the maturity of those irrigation systems compared to the north. I'm a northern person and I can tell you, the infrastructure that's been put in place means that there are mechanisms in which there is greater certainty than in the Northern Basin.

QUESTION: Minister, after your meeting with the fire chiefs. Greg Mullins' still insisting that Australia needs more firebombing aircraft in its arsenal. In Question Time you said it's not needed yet. He also said that he thinks that an increase is on the table. Did you give him a false promise?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: No, what I said to Mr Mullins and the other former fire chiefs that were there, that they can take great comfort and great pride in the new breed of fire commissioners. They have planned meticulously, meticulously, for this fire season. And I can tell- I've only been Emergency Service Minister since June, and the first advice I got was that we would expect to see the fire season start in August. It'll be protracted and it'll be severe. And it has come through because of the professional men and women that lead our fire agencies around the country. So, what-

QUESTION: [Interrupts] So why doesn't Australian need more aircraft if these ex-fire chiefs …

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, I was going to get to that point. It is an important aspect that many people are commentating on. But let me tell you where I take my advice from: AFAC. They are the peak council of fire commissioners around this country who come together and did that planning. And they put in place a mechanism to lease a lot of those aircraft - and this has to be done many, many months in advance - because you just don't turn up on a Sunday and walk in and sign a lease on a Monday for an aircraft. There are over 100 aircraft around Australia at the moment, and their advice to me, only in the last two weeks, has been that we have sufficient assets as we stand at the moment. If the season becomes extended - more than what they predicted or more severe - then we will have to review that. And the Federal Government, the Prime Minister through to myself, have said that we will continue to be agile with the states, whose- this is their primary responsibility in making sure we provide that, but I will listen to experts - experts that currently have all the data of state agencies. And I welcome, I welcome Mr Mullins and his team in providing me with other information. I'm not the beholder of all wisdom and knowledge and I intend to continue to listen to them, but I'll take my chief council from AFAC as the peak body in this nation.

QUESTION: But you will consider extending those leases if the fire season starts to run into overseas fire seasons?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well let me make this clear, it's not just the Federal Government's responsibility. In fact, it has always been the responsibility of the states to look after emergency management. But we support them, and the Federal Government has proven that. We topped up last year with an extra 11 million. In fact, Queensland have a request for an extra 4 million from last year for us to top up. We've proven that we'll step in when we have to, to pay our fair share in terms of the coordination. But I think Australians need to take comfort in the fact that our professional men and women - those fire commissioners out there - have meticulously planned, they are equipped to be able to  do the job, and they are doing a damn fine job at it at the moment.

QUESTION: Minister, one of the most common refrains from the farmers who visited Canberra is that we're pushing fresh water out to sea through South Australia while they can't touch it. Now, without understanding the full implications as to the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, one, is that happening? And two, is any system that does that defensible?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, let me make this clear, my understanding the last time I saw the numbers, it was about 7 per cent that went out through the system out into the ocean to keep the mouth of the Murray open. What a lot of that water is that's going past some of those farmers, is entitlements they've sold to other farmers downstream. And in this country, when you own an asset you have the right to use that asset, and if someone has sold you that asset then you can call on it. And that's what's happening, is a lot of these farmers have sold entitlements to other farmers downstream. Some of those are in industries, they're like permanent plantings, but I take my hat off to the Victorian State Government who have looked at development there and put limitations and moratoriums on them. And the other states could take Lisa Neville’s lead. But the reality is, there's a market system in place. It is something that has been the foundation stone of our nation, and most of that water going past those farmers is owned by other farmers downstream.

QUESTION: Minister, what is your message to South Australia, which agreed to ramp up the desalination plant to help New South Wales farmers, and yet it's being repeatedly attacked by the New South Wales Government?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, I say thank you. Let me just say, what we need is calm and leadership. And David Speirs has personified that since he became Water and Environment Minister in South Australia. Before, there was screaming and yelling from everybody - from South Australia and every other state. What he brought was maturity and leadership, and I thank him for that. He obviously is working as best he can within the ministerial council, and it's important that we take, in a couple of weeks, this thing called respect; respect of one another and making sure that we understand that while this plan isn't perfect, it could get a whole lot worse if we don't show respect and we don't show leadership.

QUESTION: Minister, do you think it's an empty threat when New South Wales say that they'll pull out of the plan, and if not- if it isn't an empty threat, are you worried?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, that's the sovereign right of New South Wales. That's a question for New South Wales, not a question for the Federal Government. Our job, our job is to create cooperation between the states. It has for 115 years. But the resources are owned by the states, so I don't have unilateral power over the Murray-Darling Basin Plan and anyone who thinks I do - they don't understand the plan.

QUESTION: Just for Mr Keelty, you say that there's problems with government policy - which policies are we talking about? Is there one specifically that you're interested in?

MICK KEELTY: I don't know that I've pre-empted that there are problems, but if there are problems I will turn a light on those problems. And I don't care whether it's the Murray-Darling Basin Plan or even some of the previous water sharing agreements. If there are problems, then the purpose of the review is to identify those problems are report back to the Ministerial Council.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Thanks guys.