Media conference - Hume Dam

3 September 2019

MINISTER DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Great to be at Hume Dam with the interim Inspector-General of the Murray-Darling, and also Andrew Reynolds, who is the executive of water management with the Murray-Darling Basin Authority.

It's important today and in this trip to make sure that we continue to build on the confidence and trust across the Basin—yesterday announcing the new app to be able to give real time data to our irrigators around the marketplace. Today we're saying to our irrigators, we're going to give you some transparency around your costs. We have been ad hoc about reviewing those and being transparent to you about the efficiency of those costs and how we relate them to you. So we are now announcing today that every three years, we will have a triennial review of operation cost of the Basin, and they'll be with- conjunction with the Basin states to make sure there is real transparency around what irrigators pay. This is a fee for service, and they should understand quite clearly what we are charging them for. And if they don't have that trust in the operation and the fees and charges they're paying for, they rightly will lose trust.

So Andrew, I will get you to go through some of the details, but this is all about rebuilding and maintaining this trust, whether it'd be down in South Australia, right up to Queensland, that everyone gets a fair go, gets a fair crack, and they know that there's trust and transparency in this plan.

MDBA EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR ANDREW REYNOLDS: Thanks, Minister. So the review of cost that we're going to do is going to look at all of the costs that go to running the River Murray system. The infrastructure on the Murray is about $4 billion worth of infrastructure, and we spend in the order of $70 million every year operating, maintaining, and renewing that infrastructure. So it's really important that people understand what that money delivers.
         
The states - state agencies - undertake a lot of the works at that infrastructure, and spend a lot of that money. The MDBA, through the Commonwealth Government, coordinates it.

So the review is really going to look at all of those activities—both the maintenance of the infrastructure, the planning and operation of the system. So when we're determining how much water is delivered where, there's a lot of effort goes into that. So the way we undertake those activities. There are other environmental activities that we undertake in terms of managing salinity along the river as well. All of those costs contribute to operating the system.

And so the review we're going to do will involve independent experts coming in, looking at each of those programs, making sure that what we're doing is the most efficient way of approaching it, and the extent to which we're undertaking those activities is appropriate. That work will be done between now and the end of the year, and then publicly reported, so that irrigators and those that are meeting those costs have full transparency into what the program comprises, how much money we're spending on doing it, and what their contributions towards that program is.

QUESTION:  Can you tell us a bit more about how this app works?

MR REYNOLDS: Yeah, so the app is really providing market information about water entitlements and markets. So it will include the level of allocations that are held across the various entitlement classes, who holds those entitlements, the prices that water is trading for, bringing all that information together in one place so people who need that information can go to one single point of truth and get all of that information in one situation. At the moment that information is available in a range of sources across a number of websites and other places. And it's hard for any individual to collate all that and get a really clear picture. So the app brings all of that information together in one place, making it really accessible.

QUESTION:  With the review of cost to farmers, do you anticipate costs going up for them, or down for them?

MR REYNOLDS: Look the review will check whether or not what we're spending is the right amount of money. It will make recommendations about whether the cost should change.

From my perspective, we go through a process every year of looking at what our programs need to be, costing those, and delivering them as effectively as we can. This is about bringing in an independent arbiter to have a look at what we're doing and check whether or not what we're doing is efficient as it can be. There'll definitely be recommendations about things that may change in that. I think that we're doing a reasonably effective job at the moment in terms of managing that program, but having an independent person come in and provide confidence and transparency to those that are paying is really important.

QUESTION: Minister, can I ask you, the Hume here is at 40 per cent capacity. Dartmouth about 60. The BOM says in the next few months, looking pretty grim as well for rain. So what are your concerns about the sort of climatic outlook combined with the storage situation in the biggest food bowl?

MINISTER: Yeah. Oh, well, look it's not just here. It's right across the Basin. And that's the message I've been trying to say. We have to brace ourselves unless it rains. That is the source of all water into this Basin, is from rain. And from rainfall whether it be up in the northern catchments in Queensland, right through. And until we get that, we don't have the certainty. But what we need to do is to provide our water managers with the tools to be able to manage the finite resource that we've got left, and make sure that we get the outcomes at social and economic levels. And the Environmental Water Holder will be held to the same account. The same rules as those irrigators are with what's left over.

QUESTION:  You say the situation is due to drought, the problems the farmers are having is drought, but they say its poor mismanagement- mismanagement and that sort of thing. What's your response to that?

MINISTER: Look, I understand people's frustration with the Plan. This isn't a perfect plan. It never has- I never have said it is, but I think what we've got to understand is these people that want to pause the Plan, what are you pausing it for? Are you pausing it until the other mob get in? Just look at what they were promising at the last election. We have an opportunity to square this away now, to give certainty to the 2.6 million Australians up and down the Basin. We have an opportunity to complete the last 20 per cent of this plan, not with buybacks, not with a blunt instrument that destroys communities, but with the smarts of the 21st century. To- with infrastructure. That's all we have to do.

The last 20 percent is to work through that. This is something that was agreed in 2012. 20 per cent of the consumptive pool for farmers was to be put back in the environment because it was over allocated. The reality is, there was always going to be pain, and I'm making sure I work through that pain with an independent panel that will give a real lens and a real understanding for the first time of the social and economic pain that has been caused by this. But the water, it will always be—no matter what you get out of your entitlement every year—will be predicated by what falls out of the sky.

QUESTION:  There's another rally of irrigators at Tocumwal on Thursday. Are you attending?

MINISTER: No. I've made a commitment, and I'll be in Far North Queensland as the Emergency Management Minister, looking at the recovery up there. I had a predetermined meeting with those people. I intend to stick the course with that. I respect the fact that people want to protest. We live in a beautiful country where you can do that, and we should be fierce custodians of that right to do that.

But the reality is, I'm more than happy to sit down, as I did yesterday, with interest groups and to talk it out. And yelling and screaming doesn't help, but you've got to be honest. You got to tell people the truth. You've got to tell them what you can and can't do. Look them in the eye and tell them what the alternative is. And people then need to make their decisions. I get the frustrations. I heard it firsthand yesterday. I've heard it a number of times as I've come up and down the Basin. That's why I've enacted a ACCC review into the market. A social and economic study to make sure we look at these granular issues. There is no one silver bullet to this Basin Plan in terms of the here and now apart from rain.

QUESTION:  Minister, you got yourself a new shadow since the election, Terri Butler, has taken over the portfolio from Tony Burke. She's from the party's left, Burke was from the party's right. Are you expecting a more bitter engagement with the Opposition?

MINISTER: Well, I hope not. I've tried to bring leadership and maturity into this since becoming Water Minister. I stopped the yelling between the Opposition, and also the states. I've had constructive discussions with Terri Butler already. I think she's a very intelligent lady, and she obviously wants to get her teeth around the Murray-Darling Basin Plan and the understanding of that. But I would rather work in a constructive manner, because what the 2.6 million Australians want is certainty. They have had a gutful. They're fatigued. They just want government out of their lives. And for the first time since Federation, we have a real opportunity between now and 2024 to get the hell out of their lives, and that's what I'm committed towards doing, and making sure I do it with as minimal impact on farmers and communities.

QUESTION:  You made some big statements the other day about dams. We’re here at one now. If this didn't exist, in a drought like we're seeing—I know it might sound like a silly question—but can you possibly quantify the problems for this area?

MINISTER: Well, I think it's not just here, it's downstream. This is really the heart of the southern Basin in terms of delivery of water. You could see the Murray, as it has gone previously, dry. The reality is environmentalists who don't believe in dams are forgetting the environmental outcomes that are being delivered by infrastructure like this behind me. And when they have such an aversion to it, they need to have a good hard think about what is being delivered to the environment.

And this is the thing, if we continue to back ourselves, rather than perpetrate our own misery in this country, of saying why we can't do things rather than say how can we, and back ourselves to build the infrastructure and use the smarts, then you know what—lo and behold—we might only not only get environmental outcomes, but we'll also get social and economic outcomes for regional Australia. Wouldn't that be a good thing? Shouldn't we back ourselves to do that? We're a smart nation but we sometimes put ourselves down far too much.

QUESTION:  From South Australia to North Queensland, is there any amount of dams or number of dams that you'd like to see built?

MINISTER: Well, I think obviously in North Queensland there is enormous opportunity up there to store excess water. But, let me say, you've got to dig the holes up there first. And North Queensland is—and the agricultural sector up there—is significantly underdeveloped. They deserve the right to develop that agricultural land. Then if there's anything left over, then we should back ourselves with the smart of how do we distribute that water into other catchments to continue to grow regional Australia?

We've got to take into account biosecurity. We don't want things like prickly acacia coming down here, I can tell you. So- but we can do that, we can get around those issues, but the first thing is to dig some holes. And until the states are willing to do that—and particularly in Queensland. Let me tell you, they have a real aversion to digging holes in Queensland, and for what reason; I don't know. But we can build them, and we can back ourselves to get the environmental, social, and economic outcomes.

QUESTION:  Minister, this is obviously a regional water tour, and you know, there's a group that said you didn't meet them in Swan Hill, and obviously we've just mentioned Tocumwal; they say they've got the solutions, so why wouldn't you perhaps change your schedule to meet with these people?

MINISTER: Well look, I met with a number of farming groups yesterday, and there are some interest groups that I've met before, but now have legal action against the Commonwealth. And I don't discourage them from doing that. That's the beauty of living in this country and I wish them all the best. But until that's finalised, as a Minister of the Crown, it is difficult for me to enter into discussions with them.

But once that's completed, I make the commitment to sit around the table with anybody and have. In fact, the group in question, I sat in the Deniliquin Shire Council Chambers, and said to them in November last year: if I can deliver you the neutrality test on the 450, will you be happy? Is that what you are looking for? They said: yes. I delivered to them on the 14th of December, delivered to them lock, stock, and barrel. So anyone that challenges my commitment to supporting regional communities, I'll have to challenge them, because I've got a record of delivering this and getting the hell out of people's lives as best as I can.

And I just say to people: if you want to pause the plan and you want to roll the dice and wait for the next mob to come in, just look at what Tony Burke was offering you at the last election. You roll the dice, good luck to you, but I'm not going to do that because there are too many people—people that I know in my own electorate—that are going to be devastated by a change to this plan. A detrimental change to this plan, you will destroy communities, you will just wipe out small towns that I know - and I know people by face and by name in that. I can't look them in the eye and do that. And I know I'm not popular, but that's part and parcel of leading. Sometimes that's the burden of it. You take it on the chin, you get up, and you keep swinging.

QUESTION:  Did you take any of that as a threat yesterday? Someone had made a noose, for example.

MINISTER: It's a great thing that people can actually protest in this country. And they are passionate people and they're doing it tough, and we should never forget that, I don't forget that. Because those people are a lot like the people I represent, you know, but when you have that right to protest, it comes with some responsibility. And we just say to people when you want to express your view, do it in a respectful way. I'm happy to sit down and listen. In fact, a lot of those people were in Deniliquin when I was there in November last year, and I went out and shook their hands and talked to them. I've no problems doing that. I've no problems people expressing their views against me. I'm not perfect, the only bloke that was perfect, they nailed to a cross, and I don't want that to happen to me, I can tell you. So I'm going to make mistakes, and I expect to be called out, but you can do that in a respectful and kind manner.

QUESTION:  You met a couple of that group last night, Minister. How were they?

MINISTER: They were passionate. But when you sat down, and I expressed the view to them of where I was coming from, but there is no malice in what I'm trying to do. I'm actually trying to protect them. And the complexity, the political complexities, the complexities of the Plan, means that this is the best option we've got. And their only other option is to pause a plan and wait for the other mob to get in and really wreck it. And at the end of it, we walked away and we shook hands. And that's what I'm prepared to do with anybody. If you talk in a respectful and kind manner, and a constructive manner, then you know what - we can solve most problems of the country. But I'm honest to them of the things I could do and what I couldn't do. And I'd rather look people in the eye and say—rather than fly in and tell people what they want to hear and never be seen again—I’d rather go back and tell them and look them in the eye: this is what I can do mate, and this is what I can't do.

QUESTION:  Their core complaint, it sounds like, was that you as Water Minister overseeing a system that is shifting water that could save their necks out to sea, ultimately. Can you honestly tell them that no water is being wasted in that way?

MINISTER: No, I can't. And that's the reality of refining the management of this system. But what we've also got to understand is these are complex arrangements between the states, that they've made between South Australia and New South Wales and Victoria, that have been in place for generations. Then we've got the management of environmental water.

Now, whether you classify that as being wasteful or not is environmental outcomes that we have to measure and we have to articulate back. And that's what the MDBA's job, that's what our basin states job is—to make sure that we can look people in the eye and we can give them the science. That's why I invested $20 million in the science to update our science, and build on the science to make sure we can look people in the eye with what water is being used. But understand this; the Commonwealth Water Holder - the Commonwealth Water Holder operates under the same rules as an irrigator. They are an entitlement holder. They don't get special treatment. If they want to create a flow on their own volition, they pay the conveyancing costs. It comes off their account, not the farmers account. So we deal- we need to continue to build the confidence to this Plan. And there has been failings, and to say there hasn't is not right. We can only get it right, and I can't change the past. I can only influence the future, and I damn well intend to change the future.

QUESTION:  Given the complexity of the plan and your warnings over the consequences were a state to pull out or anybody to blow up the Plan, so to say, it must be frustrating that the New South Wales Deputy Premier is proposing to do just that at the very time where his Premier is recommitting to the plan. How frustrating is it to operate in that political environment?

MINISTER: Look, let me say, the New South Wales leader and the Water Minister are passionate about their communities and as the National Party, we are. We're local champions and we pride ourselves on being a little bit different. And I respect what John Barilaro and Melinda Pavey have done. They're standing up for their communities and they want to get the best deal for their communities. So, we've got to work within that constraint and work with the other states to make sure that we keep this on path. Because if we don't—as I've clearly articulated then—I’m not threatening buybacks. What is law under this plan is that if we walk away from the Sustainable Diversion Limits of backing ourselves with infrastructure and we say we're going to walk away from the last 20 per cent, then when the review comes, the only instrument the Commonwealth has to finalise the Plan is these things called buybacks. And I'm coming to a state near you, or whoever is the Water Minister, that's not a threat. That is my legal obligation as the Water Minister, and if it's not me, it'll be someone else. I think it's around 252 gigalitres that will be coming out of Victoria, 264 out of New South Wales, if they walk away from the SDLs. We don't want to do buybacks. I have seen them destroy my own community. So I'm not threatening anybody. I'm just telling them of the practical application, the practical legalities of this plan.
         
And that's why I say you pause it. You kick it down the road. If you think you can kick in the grass, well, you know who's going to pick it up? The Australian Labor Party and the Australian Greens. And I can tell you, I cannot look people in the eye and say you're going to get a great outcome out of that.

QUESTION:  Would you welcome John Barilaro into the federal party room?

MINISTER: Definitely, and particularly if he picked up a Labor seat. Wouldn't that be great? Another Nat. Another Nat, take us to 22. We're a strong family down there. It would be great to see John Barilaro or any other National Party…

QUESTION: Do you think he understands the Plan?

MINISTER: Of course he does and that's why he's passionate about what he's seen on the ground and the connection he has to community and understanding the impacts, and that is the frustrating thing for us all. It's a complex plan. The legalities of it are complex, but they're far-reaching. They are far-reaching around if we do not deliver this about what the implications are around reverting back to buybacks. The cap is removed. The 1500 gigalitre cap is removed, and it's on for all money. And that is the last thing we want to get to. So that's why we're asking for calm, maturity and leadership as we have had over the last 18 months and we can continue to deliver that. And John Barilaro, and so will Melinda Pavey, fight passionately for their state but they understand what this plan means and the actual legal practicalities of the Plan.

QUESTION:  Obviously, people who live along the Basin, those communities, understand the seriousness of the water situation and the weather outlook. Why should people in capital cities be also caring about the outlook for the next few months?

MINISTER: Well, obviously, this is their food bowl and obviously, they scream when prices go up. Well, you're going to see prices go up if there's a lack of water. But the reality is—and this is one of the things I've said about the states—is since federation, our forefathers when they put the Constitution in place, gave the responsibility and ownership of resources to the states. And let me tell you, if you live in urban Australia, don't just think about your own food supply, you should think about your water supply.

By 2030, per person, storage will go from 3.7 megalitres down to 2.4 megalitres per person. That means that there's going to continue to be a shortage of water even in urban because of the urban increase in population. We're going to see strains. And that's why we are saying to the states: we have $3.2 billion out there ready to go for water infrastructure. We want to actually build our nation, and you can only do it with water. And that's why we'll continue to commit that and work with the states. And I know I've had private conversation with New South Wales already. They are very eager to take our hand as quickly as we can. Queensland still wants to turn their back on it, but we'll keep moving through it.

But it's never been our responsibility. We're taking a leadership role on this, and the states continue to abrogate their responsibility. At some point, we're going to have a conversation about the role they play in Federation. If they want to continue to abrogate their responsibility and use as an ATM—and we get uppercuts for things that are outside our remit—well maybe one day we should take it over those- those responsibilities.

QUESTION:  There are communities further along, say Corowa, who obviously say they can't spare the water as it is but say when the environmental flows go through their communities, the rivers aren't wide enough to take that amount of water. What do you say to them?

MINISTER: Well, obviously and I've seen firsthand only in the last six months where some of those perverse environmental outcomes have happened. And that's where our water managers need to improve. And I'm not afraid to call out MDBA or anyone else or the states. I called out my own department and put a former National Crime Commission CEO onto them to make sure that they were doing the right thing. Bureaucrats are not beyond reproach, and that's why I bring people like Mick Keelty in as well to make sure everyone's playing right in terms of the market. But we can learn and we can continue to learn, but in all fairness to the MDBA and the state water managers, we've got to give them the tools. We got to equip them with the tools to be able to do it properly, and I don't think we've done that at times. And we got to put our hand up and say we can do better – and you know what? These are good people. They're not anyone's enemy. They're doing their job as best they can with what they've got, and we know they are but I've just got to continue to work with them and learn from what we get.
         
No one event is the same. This is the challenge for them as well because each year, there's different climatic conditions, different flows. It is a very challenging task as a water manager. It's a bit like predicting the weather.

QUESTION:  Mick, what do you say about that?

INTERIM INSPECTOR-GENERAL MICK KEELTY: I think the- well, obviously, the Minister is quite right. Look, I think what we're trying to do here is to re-establish some confidence in the Plan. Assure people that the plan is operating with integrity. There have been some serious allegations that are still under investigation, particularly by the New South Wales ICAC. We need to put those allegations to rest and ensure that- what the Minister and what Andrew spoke about, the MDBA, is a large investment of taxpayers' money. We're talking billions of dollars. So one of the roles that I have is to ensure the integrity of the expenditure of those dollars, ensure the outcomes that are being promised are actually being delivered. And we have behind us the vision of our forefathers to build a dam and spend a lot of money. No doubt there were protests and no doubt there were people affected by the creation of that dam. I mean, the emotion in this is quite extraordinary.
         
But I think the Minister made another really good point and that is: nobody here is passionate about this for the wrong reason. They're passionate about it because they see it from their perspective.

I guess what I bring to the role is looking at the Murray-Darling Basin as a national asset, not as a jurisdictional asset. Trying to get some consistency around licensing and allocations. Trying to get some consistency around where people can understand what they can draw upon, what's available to draw upon and how they can do it; and that's the virtue of what Andrew pointed out with this new app that the Commonwealth Government has invested in. The Commonwealth Government is also investing in research. Everybody is trying to do the right thing.
         
So, whilst I can understand people getting emotional, I can understand people protesting, personalising the protest is not a good way forward. That's not our democracy. We've just been through a New South Wales election in March this year where the Water Minister was under police protection during the election campaign. We can't ignore that. That's not Australia. That's not our democracy. You can get emotional about these things but I think what I'm trying to do is to bring to people a level of, as the Minister said, a level of calmness. An environment where we can actually be constructive, have constructive criticism. And people shouldn't forget – this is a long-term plan. This is a plan that expanded beyond the decade, and of course there's going to be anomalies and of course there's going to be some amendments and adjustments to be made along the way. It's a long journey. But don't walk away. I mean, walking away solves nothing. Walking away is not leadership. Leadership is in debating and getting amendments made and creating a better plan than what we've already got. But I haven't seen anyone come up with something like that yet and I suspect it's going to be very difficult to do that in the time that we've got now- between now and the end of the plan in 2024.

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