Radio interview with Neil Mitchell 3AW Morning

17 September 2019

NEIL MITCHELL: First today: dams. Now, this is a debate that sort of comes and goes, but we've been avoiding it for some years now. Certainly avoiding decisions. We were doing this about 10 years ago, talking about, then it went away and we did nothing. The pressure today is back, and I want your views on this. Do we need to build dams? Would you support the government building dams or not? 96900 693 131332.

There are quite frightening figures being floated - excuse the pun - are being floated today. The figures say we've been asleep. They say water storage per person is dropping as population is growing. And we know population is growing, have a look at the roads. But more than that, since 2003, 20 dams have been completed in Australia, 16 of them in Tasmania, two in New South Wales, one in Queensland, one in the ACT. You might notice Victoria doesn't bother the scorer there. Victoria, I think we got about 50 major dams, there's argument we need more. 

On the line, the man who has released the figures and he's starting the campaign, Minister for Water Resources and Drought, David Littleproud. Good morning.

MINISTER DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Good morning, Neil. Good to be with you. 

MITCHELL: Well why are you running this up? Why are you bringing it back? This has sort of been debated every few years and we've done nothing. Why is it necessary now?

MINISTER: Well exactly that, we've done nothing. Since Federation, our forefathers gave responsibility and ownership of water resources to the states. And candidly, they've done three-fifths of bugger all since 2003. It's time to get moving. These are frightening figures. If we continue to have the population increase that we've got, we could see more than a 30 per cent fall by 2030 in storage per person. That is not planning. That's what the states responsibilities are, is to plan. We've put out over 1.3 billion dollars in hard cash, 2 billion dollars in loans since 2015, and the only ones that really want to come and get it are the Tasmanians.

MITCHELL: So what's the priority? Where should we be looking?

MINISTER: Well this is why Deputy Prime Minister McCormack has set up the National Water Grid. We couldn't get- we put 300 million dollars out to get people to come to us and tell us where these dams should go. Basically we didn't get a lot of a lot of help there. So what we've said is, let's go and get the scientists. We'll do it ourselves - the Federal Government - even though it's not our responsibility. We'll go and get the scientists, we'll create a National Water Grid, and we will say where the priorities are and where we'll cut cheques for.

MITCHELL: What about the- you've released some figures on the water storage state by state, go through it. Victoria.

MINISTER: So in Victoria at the moment, it's 2.77 megalitres per person, but it'll drop to 1.58 megalitres per person. In New South Wales from 3.33 to 2.25, and in Queensland - my home state - 2.78 to 1.75. That shows that there's been no planning, no thinking, and if we continue to get a population increase - which we will, we're naturally getting that through migration - is that we- that we have to have the state governments have water, which is a source of life for all of us.

MITCHELL: Alright, what if we don't do it? What happens?

MINISTER: Well effectively, we are capping ourselves and we are restricting ourselves to the use of water on our homes and our properties. We've got- I'm actually just landed in the town of Stanthorpe in my electorate, where we've just had these bushfires, and in fact they're going to run out of water by Christmas. And state government - and I'll give credit where credit's due here in Queensland - they're now having to pay $800,000 a month to ship water in here on the back of a truck until it rains, because they haven't done any planning. So we took the pre-emptive step in Queensland- despite Queensland Government- to put $42 million with growers who put $24 million dollars to build Emu Swamp Dam. We're going to build them a dam. But it took forever to get the state who owns the resource to come with us, and that is the challenge that we've got. I can't go and dig a hole anywhere in this country unless the state governments allow me to do it because that is what our forefathers put in the Constitution. And the states need to wake up to themselves and this is really, it's five to midnight. 

MITCHELL: Really?

MINISTER: Oh, definitely. If we keep going on the trajectory that we're on here, you know, I mean a 30 per cent reduction in storage per person is frightening. That is a significant reduction in the use of water and our habits will have to change significantly, and if we continue to do that- you've got to understand the gestation time of planning and going through building the dams takes a considerable time as well. 

MITCHELL: But do they work? I mean, that's always been the argument, they don't work. And- well apart from that, come back a step. We're told that they wipe out fish and they wipe out wetlands and birds. Do- can a dam be built without significantly damaging the environment?

MINISTER: Well, you only have to look at the Murray-Darling Basin at the moment Neil. If we did not have the water storages we have up and down the Basin, the Murray would be dry. The fact that we've been able to store water when it- when we get it in large quantities has meant that there has been environmental outcomes that has kept native species alive for longer than if we didn't have those water storages.
MITCHELL: You know the green argument though, don't you? The birds will be wiped out, fish would be wiped out, the ecology will be changed.

MINISTER: Oh look, and we've heard that and we fell for that for too long. It's time as a nation we stop perpetrating our own misery by saying why we can't do things rather than say how can we. And that's the mentality that needs to change at the state level. We need to stand up to the minorities and back ourselves with the science of the here and now to get this right, to get outcomes for the environment and for the social and economic benefits of the nation.

MITCHELL: Where are you? 

MINISTER: I'm in Stanthorpe where these bushfires … 

MITCHELL: Oh, okay.

MINISTER:    … have been, in my own electorate and we're very frightened today that there's another severe warning for us up here. But I've just come to visit some of those people that tragically have lost their homes, and just to give them some moral support and to be here. We're obviously very concerned about them.

MITCHELL: Just on the figures I'm looking at, Victoria is dropping- is one of the worst, going from 2.77 megalitres to 1.58. Do we- what do we need to do here specifically?

MINISTER: Well, this is where the states have responsibility since Federation to do that planning. To go- and that's what we tried to encourage since 2015, is to say tell us what it looks like. We are prepared to work with you even though it's not our responsibility. We need to see as a nation the planning, the strategic planning about, not only urban, but also the opportunity to grow our regional communities. This isn't just cities, this is also urban supplies and country towns. I mean in New South Wales we've seen a number of towns, and even here in Stanthorpe in Queensland, you’ll see towns running out of water very soon. 

MITCHELL: So desalination isn't the answer? We’ve got a de-sal plant, you know.

MINISTER: Definitely, and you shouldn't- you shouldn't discount that. But if you're living away from the city in a regional community de-sal is a little hard.

MITCHELL: Okay. Do they grow stone fruit where you are?

MINISTER: They do, Neil. They do.

MITCHELL: What's the fires doing to the fruit?

MINISTER: Yeah, there's been some, been some damage, but thanks to the brave men and women out here in- and this is my electorate. I can tell you we've saved a lot of property and a lot of crop but you know we're still not out of the woods yet. Today is going to be another frightening day for us. 

But can I say, those men and women that put their lives on the line - many of them are volunteers - are true national heroes and we should never take for granted- and can I say to everybody that's listening today: if one of those volunteers or a fireman or an emergency service person asks you to do something, please do it. They are putting their lives on the line for you.

MITCHELL: Okay. Just a couple of other quick things. This Chinese-government backed bid to buy Bellamy's Australia, the infant formula company, big bid, $1.5 billion. Comfortable with it? It's a Chinese government company.

MINISTER: Well obviously that will go through the Foreign Investment Review Board, and I suspect the Treasurer will look at that very closely. 

MITCHELL: Okay. And you're going to support this party room push for banning terms like milk, meat and seafood referring to the plant-based products?

MINISTER: Well- I think we need to make sure that consumers can make informed decisions. And if we can do that in a sensible way and quickly, well, why not. But let's make sure the consumer gets to make their decisions predicated on the right information.

MITCHELL: Thank you very much for your time. The Federal Water Resource Minister David Littleproud. Build dams.