Media conference: Minister Littleproud, Tony Pasin MP and Interim Inspector-General Mick Keelty

1 September 2019

TONY PASIN MP: Well welcome, everyone, to the Pike River Floodplain. It's a great privilege to welcome my colleague, Minister Littleproud, here in his capacity as Minister for Water Resources in Australia; and of course Mick Keelty, the newly-appointed Interim Inspector-General Murray-Darling Basin Water Resources.

The Basin, of course - a million square kilometres. We're here in the southern-connected Basin - a million square kilometres. It amounts for 40 per cent of Australia's agricultural input, 15 per cent of which comes from agriculture. It's such an important economic driver for our nation. But what we're looking at here is assets that are being built-in as part of the 605 SDL that are aimed at ensuring we improve the quality of the environment and environmental watering in and around the Basin.

So Minister, thanks for coming, and over to you.

MINISTER DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Yeah. Well, thanks Tony. And to Mick—can I firstly say, it was important that we bring Mick down here as the Interim Inspector-General. He's done a fantastic job as the Northern Basin Commissioner, but we need to make sure that we build the trust right across the Basin and giving the integrity that those 2.6 million Australians deserve - that live up and down the Basin - that this Basin plan is being delivered the way they expected, with the confidence that they should expect and the integrity it should expect.

So, it's important that Mick gets out on the ground and listens to the community and understands the concerns that they feel and builds trust between the states and between farmers, between irrigators. We all know we're in this together. We are 80 per cent of the way through the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. The last 20 per cent is going to be delivered through projects like this, not through buybacks. If we play nice, we all do what we said we would as states and as the Commonwealth, we will deliver this plan without any more economic and social impact on our communities because we will back ourselves with the smarts of the twenty-first century, the infrastructure that will deliver water back to the environment rather than the blunt instrument of buybacks. That's the main aim that I want to avert as Water Minister and will continue to do in terms of the delivery of this plan between now and 2024. There are challenges but if we have the collaboration which we have for the first time between Basin states and the Commonwealth, we can deliver the balance of this plan without further impacts on communities across the Basin.
And I have an independent panel looking at those impacts as we speak to make sure we can quantify them and we can look the communities in the eye and tell them the truth and help them reconstruct. But in the interim, we need to get on with the job - the last 20 per cent of this plan - because if we don't, if we want to stop the plan and blow it up let me tell you: we are putting at risk the delivery of something that will provide certainty, and provide us with probably a worse plan than we've ever seen before.

So, Mick's role is about making sure that we maintain the confidence we have but build on that confidence and built further trust amongst Basin communities; amongst the states; and make sure there's a tough but fair cop on the beat. So Mick, welcome to the Southern Basin, and I hope you look forward to the Southern as much as you have to the Northern Basin.

INTERIM INSPECTOR-GENERAL MICK KEELTY: Thank you, Minister.

Obviously, the Southern Basin is by its very nature quite different to the Northern Basin. I'm about to deliver a major report to the Minister on the Northern Basin in my first 12 months there as the Northern Basin Commissioner. But this part of the world is quite different. It's much more regulated. I think that the whole idea of trying to reinforce a level of confidence, reinforce the level of assurance that things are being done well is part of the role of the Inspector-General; to make sure projects like this are delivered; to make sure that the amounts of money that we're talking about- as the Minister said, 80 per cent of the $13 billion originally allocated has been spent. We've got to make sure that the last portion of this money is properly spent and we reduce the opportunity for corruption, we reduce the opportunity for fraud, and we actually see what are very positive stories. And we're standing in one right now where the infrastructure is being built. And this is for a long term project. So, there's $155 million being put in to this, where we are now, and I think all the people who are responsible, both the state and local governments as well as the Commonwealth governments, are doing an excellent job. And it's just great to see it.

Thank you.

QUESTION: Mick, what are some of the biggest concerns as you take the role of Inspector-General that you’re [indistinct]?

INTERIM INSPECTOR-GENERAL: Well, there are a number of concerns, I guess. One is that we still have some outstanding reports that we're waiting on. Principal amongst those is the New South Wales ICAC report that was commenced after the Four Corners story, which is now two years ago. But there's also the announcements by the minister of the ACCC examination of our water trading systems; the Auditor-General's examination of some of the buybacks. I totally agree and support the Minister. Buybacks had a role, but until we actually see the results of some of those reports, I think this work of putting investment into infrastructure is really important.

The second point is: we have to actually look longer-term. We have an opportunity here to actually deliver something for generations to come. And I just see the integrity of that, the level of insurance that I can bring to this role, is something that's important for future generations as well.

QUESTION: We saw that during the Millennium Drought because the problem we have here: if it starts to rain we've got the potential that it is going to paper over all of the cracks and people just get on with it and forget about it. Are you worried that might happen?

INTERIM INSPECTOR-GENERAL: That's a really good point, and one of the things that we've done in other areas of my work in my past is build-up levels of resilience in the community, whether it be from floods; whether it be from bushfire; whether it be from terrorist events. There's something about having to build the future resilience that we've still got to get a hold of, and I think this isn't the last drought we're going to have. It could well be a hard and tough summer that we're about to go into. So we need to actually prepare ourselves. We can control the policy. We can be agile and flexible with policy, but we can't control nature. So our policy response has to be flexible and agile and respond in a way that builds the resilience for future generations, both in the environment but also Aboriginal communities as well as the—both the communities that actually produce what is the food bowl of Australia.

QUESTION: How important ultimately is it to the success of your job, Mick Keelty, that some of the, for lack of a better term, water crooks are actually prosecuted?

INTERIM INSPECTOR-GENERAL: I think it's very important and I—a good example is the work that has been done by the Natural Resources Access Regulator in New South Wales that has commenced something in the order of 250 infringement notices and prosecutions in the first 12 months of its operations.

So there are events that are happening that we need to actually improve, I guess, the integrity of the system. If everybody is being honest and everybody's integrity is the same then there'd be less of a role for a regulator. But unfortunately, that's not the case at the moment. But part of my role is to make sure that we actually are delivering on a more confident level of assurance that everything is being done appropriately.

QUESTION: So how hands-on do you plan to be in your role in terms of seeing that offenders are actually prosecuted?

INTERIM INSPECTOR-GENERAL: My role I think in the future will more be to collaborate with the existing bodies rather than to dictate how they should do things; but to also monitor and report and callout where things are not being done. I'm pleased to say that in the Northern Basin the Department of Natural Resources, Mining and Energy in New South Wales- in Queensland has in fact changed some of its approaches and has got on board with the work that I've been doing up there. That wasn't the case when I started 12 months ago. So I think just bringing people on board, getting people to understand what the benefits are of collaboration; but also simple things like getting some standardisation in science and technology, standardisation in some of the projects that are being done across the Basin.

The Basin is a national asset, and yet we've treated it jurisdictionally in a different way. Every state has a different license arrangement. Every state has a different compliance arrangement. That is not [inaudible] making to the Minister in my first interim report is just the complexity of the policies. They make it so difficult for the punter, for the person who runs a business out of this, for the average Joe Citizen to be able to say: how much water is there? How much am I entitled to get? And what is everybody else getting? And that's what we've got to get to—a single source of truth for everybody to have access to.

QUESTION: So Mick, how do you bring integrity to the regulation of the Basin [indistinct] a bit of damage caused? People feel as though they don't trust the way that it's been handled. How do you bring that integrity to [indistinct]?

INTERIM INSPECTOR-GENERAL: Well, there are a number of ways. One is to ensure that the agencies that are actually established, particularly at the state level, are in fact performing. And my experience in the Northern Basin has been that they are performing quite well. And we've got some performance issues in Queensland. We're now raising that performance.

Look, the other thing is to call out where legislative gaps occur, and what New South Wales has done in the Northern Basin last year, last December, introduced compulsory metering and telemetry. That was a great credit to them. Queensland has followed suit. It's not been an issue here in the Southern Basin, I'm told. That's refreshing to hear, that metering is not such an issue here. But I do think we have to try and get some standardisation right across the Basin. Everybody's doing compliance a little bit differently. And South Australia hosted the first compliance officers community meeting here in November last year and we've just had the second meeting of the community of compliance officers in Brisbane two weeks ago. So, I couldn't believe it when I came on board but now we've actually got compliance agencies across the Basin talking to each other and standardising their approach to how they bring matters to the attention of the authorities.

QUESTION: Minister, can I ask you just on that issue, if it does rain are you worried that you might not get the political purchase that you have at the moment?

MINISTER: No, I don't think so. I think for the first time since Federation we've actually got collaboration between the Commonwealth and the states. The yelling and screaming stopped, we're acting like adults, we're leading. We've taken the politics out of this and we're getting on with the job and while I'm in the chair I intend to continue to keep that trajectory because it's important. People are fatigued; they've had a gutful of this. Really, they just want government out of their lives, they want us to complete this. And now we can complete it without buybacks; we can complete it with the smarts of the twenty-first century. If we all play nice, we lead rather than politicise, we can get this done. And this is the biggest environmental program in our nation's history and we will have delivered it. We'll have delivered it for generations to come.

QUESTION: Minister on the opposite side of that, is there a risk—do you believe—that the drought will put so much pressure on the plan that it might ultimately break the plan?

MINISTER: Let me make this clear: you cannot confuse the drought with the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. They are two separate things.

JOURNALIST: But many do.

MINISTER: Yeah. But I've got to be honest and I've got to look people in the eye and tell them the truth. I live in Queensland, I live about 5 kilometres from the Condamine River which is the headwaters of the Murray-Darling. I went over it last weekend and I could walk across it and basically I wouldn't get my boots muddy. Unless it rains, unless it falls from the sky, hits the ground and runs into those rivers, you do not get water running down these rivers. Year 8 geography will tell you that. And until it rains, that is the honest truth about what is happening with this drought.

The Murray-Darling Basin Plan does not look at the environmental water holder above farmers. They are looked at in the same light, they have the same rules, they will get up in the morning and they have the same rules and they have to manage the water—the Commonwealth Water Holder—the same way as farmers do and they get to store that water in dams. And lo and behold, if we were to go and dig some more holes and store some of this water, maybe we not only start to drought-proof ourselves but also get some greater environmental income—outcomes. Because we've got to realise that the Murray may have gone dry if we hadn't have built all of these dams in the past. Environmentalists that are against dams so profusely should understand that these dams actually do provide environmental outcomes as well as drought-proof the nation and build regional Australia.

QUESTION: Your answer kind of bells the cat doesn't it? You do have a fear, don't you, that particularly downstream, there is a lot of anger that probably should be [indistinct] home to the drought not water usage upstream?

MINISTER: Totally. And this is why we've got to be honest with people and there are minority elements within the Basin community that are politicising this for their own personal gain. I've got to be honest with them, I've looked people in the eye and told them I am not pausing this plan. We will get a worse plan if we do that. But the reality is unless it rains, unless the water flows, the drought will continue and the Basin Plan will not put one extra megalitre of water back into anyone's dam if you want to blow it up. That's the honest truth. Anyone wants to take me on I'm prepared to dance with them.

QUESTION: Minister just picking up on what Mick said about treating a national asset through jurisdiction there, what role has the Federal Government got in changing the way we do some of that?

MINISTER: Well, this is one of the challenges as the Water Minister is basically to bring all the states with me. Let me tell you it's been a challenge. But I think, I have to say that the maturity and leadership that's been shown over the last 18 months of the Basin states and the Commonwealth to finally get some collaboration, we have done the heavy lifting. The Northern Basin Review is complete. The Sustainable Diversion Limits, which means we're going to recover water through infrastructure not buybacks. And the 450 up-water which is tied to that SDL means that the neutrality test on economic and social parameters means that there is protection for the communities.

We've got that because we've collaborated and we cooperated. We've taken the yelling and screaming out of this and that's the one thing I wanted to do. Because people just want outcomes, they don't care who delivers it, they just want an outcome. And that's my opportunity and that's what the Basin states are continuing on and on the eighth of August we continued on that journey, with—in terms of the Basin states agreeing with the Productivity Commission and response to the Productivity Commission and getting on with the delivery of that.

QUESTION: So you said that now is not the time to abandon the Basin Plan. Are you happy with the participation of the states, the level of premium that they have to delivering [indistinct] projects and their behaviour through the MinCo process. Are you satisfied with the way that they're buying in?

MINISTER: Well look, yes I am. Obviously they feel and hear the pain of rural communities just like I do. And those Basin states are there to represent their communities but they understand the importance of this plan. We've delivered six of the 36 projects through the sustainable diversion [indistinct] infrastructure projects. There's another six that are working as we speak and another four to be commenced before the end of the year. So there's a commitment by the states. But unless we back ourselves with the smarts of the twenty-first century, the infrastructure, that'll recover the water rather than the buybacks. The blunt instrument of buybacks that destroy not just the farms but also the communities, we really are on a plane to nowhere. So there needs to be maturity and leadership. We'll continue with that. The states obviously have issues that we need to work through, but you don't get that—you don't resolve that by yelling and screaming at one another.

QUESTION: What about Warwick, Stanthorpe, Walgett, Warren, they're months if not weeks away from running out of water, full stop. That's a pressing issue, what's the Federal Government going to do about it? And can you allow it?

MINISTER: Well let me make this clear, it has never ever been the responsibility of a Federal Government to build a dam or a pipeline anywhere in this country. Our forefathers when they put in place Federation, they gave ownership and responsibility of the resources to the states. Now if the states haven't planned and done their job, we need to have a real hard look at them. They need to be sheeted home the responsibility to them. But the Federal Government—but the Federal Government won't walk away.

QUESTION: With respect Minister, this is your backyard you live there.

MINISTER: Totally.

QUESTION: So are you going to happily walk the streets of Stanthorpe or Warwick and…

MINISTER: And I do and I proudly do, and let me finish the answer. Is that I'm going to hold state governments to account for the lack of planning that they've undertaken. But a Federal Government will never walk away from its people. But the states need to live up to their responsibility. They've abrogated their responsibility on so many occasions. They use us as their ATM when they hit a problem, but they don't deserve—sometimes—to have the responsibilities they have.

I'll give you a perfect example. You talk about urban water supply. By 2030 per person of urban water supply will go from about 3.7 megalitres per person down to under 2.5 megalitres because the states are doing three-fifths of bugger all in terms of building infrastructure to supply urban water as well as agricultural water. So we have to hold them to account. But the Federal Government has already put $3.2 billion out there. $3.2 billion out there for the states to take and to build water infrastructure. There has been 20 dams built since 2003. 16 of those have been in Tasmania. So you tell me what the eastern states have been doing with water infrastructure. They need to get on with the job, and it needs to happen now, and we will continue to work to make sure no community goes without water. We will work with states, but they have to live up to their responsibility and I expect them to do that.

QUESTION: So will the people of Stanthorpe run out of water?

MINISTER: I've been in close contact with the local council there who's assured me that they have a plan in place for not only Stanthorpe and Warwick. Local government has been working proactively with the state governments. I know in New South Wales, the New South Wales Government has also been proactive around supplying water through whatever means it can. But the reality is again, I have to be honest, the only way we're going to fix that is a hell of a lot of rain.

QUESTION: Minister, the Sydney Morning Herald calculates that you spent $65,000 of taxpayers' money on travel during the election campaign, I think second only to Nigel Scullion. Tell us about that figure, is that perfectly reasonable? Is it sky high? What is it?

MINISTER: Democracy is something we should always protect. It's a beautiful thing and it's something our nation should fiercely protect. But it, sometimes it doesn't come cheap. This is a big country and as Agriculture Minister I didn't just get [indistinct] in the capital cities. As you got to experience today you had to sit in small little planes with your knees around your ears flying the length and breadth. And just because you live in Renmark, doesn't mean you shouldn't see a Cabinet Minister. That's the beauty of this country—that a Cabinet Minister can go to any part. Nigel Scullion goes to some of the most remote parts of this country to see our first Australians. And so he damn well should.

You know what? Metropolitan Australians don't have a mortgage on democracy. We should be out here kicking the dirt and listening to these people, not listening to just metropolitan Australians and the Canberra bubble. Yes, it does cost, but we also get castigated if we sit at home tucked away in bed doing nothing.

I'd rather be out there listening and getting outcomes, delivering outcomes for the people of Australia. Yes, it costs, I get that. We try and do it as economically as we can, but I think we live in a beautiful country where you get to see politicians and if anyone wants to tear that away they'll tear away at our society.

QUESTION: Minister, the southern [indistinct] state of change at the moment around where we are, particularly water demand shifting downstream. How sustainable do you think it is, the permanent planting expansion around a place like Renmark?

MINISTER: Well those are issues that the state governments are working through and in fact Victoria—and I have to call out and congratulate Lisa Neville. She's taken proactive steps around planning measures within her own state. But that then comes back to New South Wales and South Australia themselves to make their own decisions. So long as it fits within the Basin Plan we'll have no jurisdictional responsibility over it and we should allow the states to work through that. But I congratulate Lisa Neville for the proactive stance she's taken in Victoria in leading the way.

QUESTION: Can I just ask one more of Mick if I can? Mick, how much of the problem that you're overseeing with the river do you think might be traced back to hidden political donations going to interests who are only looking at the commercialisation of the river, but particularly political donations in places of influence?

INTERIM INSPECTOR-GENERAL: It's something that I'm addressing in my first report. One of the problems of course with political donations is that it's not transparent. We have an eight-month delay for example between a federal election and when the donations to political bodies are actually declared by the Electoral Commissioner.

So I've been in discussion with the Electoral Commissioner. I have had a look at donations over the past 12 months, but it isn't as transparent as perhaps we might think it is. Aligned with that is the growth of lobby groups. So to actually link a decision by a politician with an actual event and a donation and a lobby group's role in that—whether it be an active role or a passive role—is very difficult to do…

QUESTION: But we can't clear them either, right?

INTERIM INSPECTOR-GENERAL: Exactly. But I think it's to everybody's advantage, to politicians themselves, that we have a much more transparent system and I think it's something that's worth talking about and something—I don't want to go too far out of my remit—but of course I'm waiting on that ICAC report from New South Wales to see what it says. But I think that we do have to have a higher level of transparency around political donations and decisions just so it protects everybody to say this, for example, piece of infrastructure wasn't political it was actually for the environment and actually for the betterment of future generations.

QUESTION: Has he got a point, Minister?

MINISTER: Certainly. He sure has. I think none of us want to be pulled into the quagmire by association when we've done no wrong. I think transparency, letting the sun shine in, is not a bad thing and that's one of the responsibilities of democracy as well. It should be protected. And if we can do things better, make no mistake, I'll be putting my hand up with whatever recommendations Mick comes through to try and force change wherever it needs to be. I don't have any issues with that whatsoever.

QUESTION: Minister, just on the $20 million for research that you're going to…

MINISTER: I thought we were going to do that in town, no we're doing it here are we?

QUESTION: We're doing it here.

MINISTER: Okay. Sorry I misunderstood the brief. Sorry.

QUESTION: Just on that announcement…

MINISTER: Good to know I listen to my media advisors.

QUESTION: …it explicitly mentioned climate change there. That's in contrast to some of the approaches taken by your predecessors. What does that say? Is that a statement that you're trying to make?

MINISTER: No. We've always said, in fact farmers have been adapting to a change in climate since we first put a till in the soil. In fact, you poor metropolitan people are just catching up to us.

We invest over $1.1 billion a year into research and development, in understanding and giving our farmers the tools of the twenty-first century to be able to grow the best food and fibre in the world. This is about making sure that the research, the scientific research that we're going to undertake now, will be about equipping our water managers with the best tools in understanding a changing climate. I don't think there's anything new in that. I think we've lead the way, we'll continue to lead the way.

That's why you're seeing the smarts of the twenty-first century here in infrastructure and we're going to compliment that with $20 million worth of scientific research to make sure we equip our water managers with the best knowledge to water this, to manage this precious resource.

QUESTION: So just on that, the structure of it, it's an independent report, is it? And why wouldn't it be?

MINISTER: For the research?

QUESTION: Yeah for the research. Vertessy’s on an independent panel…

MINISTER: So he'll create it. 20 million. He'll lead it, yeah.

QUESTION: … is- why wouldn't the MDBA do that research? What's the value in it being independent? And is there a chance that report could just be filed and sat on a shelf? Is there any action that must be taken out of it?

MINISTER: Well, it's to garner a wide range of expertise and that's why Professor Vertessy is leading it and he'll be undertaking a number of other qualified eminent Australians to help him that have different skills. It's a complex piece of work, it's not just about hydrology. It's ecological, it's right across the boundary, climatic. So we need to garner the skills of a number of people.

Now let me tell you about any recommendations. As he gave me a recommendation on the fish death reports, we are implementing that as well. So I agree, if we get reports there's not the point of putting them on the top shelf - you've got to get on with the job. And we're delivering on the Vertessy Report and if he comes back with recommendations for us and how we can as water managers do a better job then we should do it. That's the beauty of spending $20 million, you want outcomes and I expect to get outcomes out of it.

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