Keynote speech to the Peter Cullen Oration

It is an honour to join you this evening on this special anniversary – to celebrate 15 years of the Peter Cullen Environment and Water Trust. It’s great to join you on Ngunnawal Country.

I acknowledge the Traditional Owners of the land and pay my respects to their Elders past and present.

And I extend that respect to all First Nations people here tonight.

I also want to acknowledge:

  • the Reverend Vicky Cullen – Peter’s widow and Patron of the Trust, and their daughter Michelle Linmore
  • Trust Chair, Professor Emerita Cynthia Mitchell AO, and
  • two former Chairs of the Trust – the Hon Professor John Thwaites and the Hon Karlene Maywald.

It’s hard to overstate the impact Peter has had on environment and water management in Australia.

So many of us here this evening are aware of his lasting legacy.

Of his leadership.

He put science front and centre in the public debate.

He took complex scientific issues and explained them in simple terms.

He affected change.

It is great to see that the Trust, and its alumni, is continuing that focus.

Developing leaders who can make the link between good science and effective policy making.

And then taking that policy, changing the law, and finding the budget to deliver real change.

The only way we ever see real change is if passionate, diligent and persistent people – leaders in their own right – willing to do the hard work – work together to deliver it.

Tonight I wanted to take you behind the scenes a little on the Restoring our Rivers Bill, and how we worked to make progress. I figure if there is any roomful of people in the whole country who would be interested in this story – this is it.

I want to give you some insight into the political process – particularly how it applies to a complex piece of policy.

Some would argue the most complex. Because no matter how good your science, and how well you communicate it, politics can still get in the way of delivery.

The political process is designed to be transparent – but for many people outside the so-called Canberra bubble – it can be baffling.

People who saw footage last year – on 30 November in the parliamentary courtyard, of an unusual press conference on the Murray Darling Basin plan – would have wondered about the strange collection of allies assembled.

What was I doing announcing an agreement with the Greens political party one day, the former Liberal Senator from Victoria David Van the next, and then deals with Senators Lidia Thorpe and David Pocock the day after?

How did that happen?

That’s the story I want to tell you tonight.

Landing the Basin Plan involved negotiation, compromise, a clear objective and flexibility on the non-essentials.

But it also involved an unswerving commitment to overcome the impasse that had long dogged agreement on a national plan for the Murray Darling Basin.

And it involved the teamwork of many different people, from across government, bureaucracy, community groups, environmentalists, scientists, economists, farmers and industry.

The problem with the Murray-Darling Basin Plan

Let me take you back.

When I became Water Minister in early June 2022 the Basin Plan was on life support.

Full implementation was a pipedream.

The first briefing from departmental officials on water matters chronicled the lack of progress.

It was depressing.

Many of the state water infrastructure projects – important for reducing the amount of water we would need to recover through water efficiency projects or buybacks – hadn’t started, had stalled, or were progressing too slowly.

Some were just fantasies.

Only 2 gigalitres of the 450 gigalitre target for additional environmental water had been banked.

Just 13 of the 33 Water Resource Plans – that should have been in place in 2019 – were accredited. Another 20 hadn’t been completed.

There were no accredited water resource plans from New South Wales. None. Three years after they were due.

Remember, we had just two years left to fully implement the 2012 Plan.

  • To complete unmet Bridging the Gap targets in seven catchments in New South Wales, Queensland and the ACT.
  • To ensure states delivered projects that could offset 605 gigalitres of water recovery.
  • To bank 448 gigalitres of additional environmental water.
  • To get the rules in place so that all governments would be held to the same high standards when it came to water management.
  • We looked to be about 750 gigalitres short of our 3,200 gigalitre target for water recovery.

And time was running out.

There had been numerous warnings and reviews leading up to that time.

The Murray–Darling Basin Authority had repeatedly called out the lack of progress on those state water infrastructure projects.

There had been two reviews of the Water for the Environment Special Account that funds the recovery of the 450 gigalitres of water. Both had pointed out that the target was way off being met.

The Productivity Commission highlighted back in 2018 the significant risks to implementing the Basin Plan.

The Australian National Audit Office in 2020 highlighted problems with the limited tender approach to water purchase, problems which we are only now properly addressing.

Everyone could see the mess the Plan was in.

The scars from the worst three-year drought on record in the Basin were still fresh.

A drought that showed how much more is required to secure the health of our rivers, wetlands and lakes, like those at Menindee.

Resetting the Basin Plan

The Basin Plan needed a reset.

To bring states back to the table.

To be straight with Basin communities.

To get support from colleagues across the parliament.

Afterall – the Basin Plan is a plan to return 3200 gigalitres of water to the environment, to support our rural communities, our plants and animals – and the long-term future of our agricultural industries.

To secure the water supply of three million people.

Looking to reset relations, I knew I needed to hear from Basin communities, academics, the agriculture sector and environmental advocates too.

I made multiple visits to the southern basin. And the northern basin.

I spoke with hundreds of irrigators, environmentalists, Traditional Owners, business people, local government leaders, scientists, academics, and community members, from Queensland to the mouth of the Murray.

We met by the river, on the farm, in community meeting rooms, at conference venues, on traditional lands and even in aeroplanes.

There is such a wide diversity of opinions about the Basin Plan, depending on where you’re located and how you’re connected to water.

But one thing was clear.

Buybacks had become a ‘trigger’ word in Basin communities.

People remembered the large volumes of water licences bought after the Millennium drought.

Some smaller irrigation-dependent communities saw reduced economic activity and people leave the land.

Water buybacks soon became the lightning rod for all economic decline in Basin communities despite the causes of financial stress being multi-faceted – like the consolidation of farms and pressure on prices from supermarkets.

When they were in government, the Liberal and National parties effectively took buybacks off the table.

This was the recipe for inaction on the Basin Plan.

Buybacks had to be an option on the table.

Any realistic assessment would conclude the plan could not be delivered without voluntary water purchases.

Agreement with the states and ACT

We also needed all the basin state governments and the ACT government in the room.

The Murray-Darling Basin Plan doesn’t work unless state governments are onboard.  

But when we came to government, Murray-Darling Basin Ministers had not met in two years.

And when they did get together, it was with widely different positions.

South Australia – at the pointy end of the river system – wanted full delivery yesterday – they were tired of delay.

New South Wales and Victoria wanted more time to deliver their responsibilities and were opposed to water buybacks.

I convened two meetings of Water Ministers.

I made it clear that water buybacks were on the table.

And together we decided to work on a proposal to get the Basin Plan back on track.

In August 2023 – after the Commonwealth published the “what we heard” report of our extensive community consultations; after months of negotiations between state officials and between Ministers and our offices - we reached agreement on how to fully implement the Basin Plan.

A formal agreement where, as Federal Minister, I made several commitments on what kind of package I would introduce to the Parliament.

I got New South Wales, Queensland, the ACT and South Australia on the same page – but not Victoria.

While supporting many parts of the agreement, the Victorian government would not shift their 2018 position against water purchase.

The 450 gigalitres of additional environmental water was seen by Victoria as an optional extra, not a core part of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan.

Only to be met if there were enough water efficiency projects that had no socio-economic impact, using a formula designed with National Party Water Ministers to block additional water recovery.

Proceeding without Victoria

Our election commitment was to deliver the Basin Plan in full – the Plan needed to restore the river systems - and the 450 was key to that.

Only 2 gigalitres had been delivered with another 26 gigalitres of the 450 target on the horizon.

And we had less than two years left.

It was clear that the Commonwealth position and the Victorian position were too far apart – and no amount of talk was going to resolve a shared way forward.

So, while the Murray–Darling Basin Plan had always been progressed through consensus – I had to make the call.

Delay and hope for a miracle breakthrough – or press ahead – and make a difference?

Time was ticking.

If the Bill did not pass by the end of 2023, automatic triggers built into the Basin Plan would wipe out key deliverables – making it impossible to deliver.

Project delivery assessments would commence.

Infrastructure projects would wind up and their staff would down tools. Projects would languish part finished.

And within six months, the significant estimated shortfall in water recovery would be realised.  

Ultimately, water allocations across the basin would need to be cut.

It would lead to less water recovered overall and the water that was recovered would be done so abruptly with little regard for its impact.

These consequences were automatic and already embedded in the legislation.

The only way through was to press forward without Victoria.

I advanced legislation to both extend timeframes for state delivery of projects and allow water buybacks from willing sellers.

Introduction of the Bill

On September 6 last year I introduced the Restoring Our Rivers Bill to the Australian Parliament.

Its passage would give effect to the agreement struck with Queensland, NSW, South Australia and the ACT.

It was a compromise.

Some wanted more, others less, codified in the new legislation.

On water recovery volumes.

On time extensions.

On the geographical extent of water recovery.

On the available methods of water recovery.

On the socio-economic protections.

I wanted more tools to be able to recover the water and support communities.

The upstream states wanted more time to deliver on infrastructure projects, and South Australia wanted greater accountability.

No-one got everything they wanted, but those that signed on got enough to see that we had a path forward that was a clear improvement on the rut we had been stuck in.

The Bill gave us that way forward.

In October 2023, the Bill passed the House of Representatives, incorporating amendments from the crossbench that improved transparency.

We didn’t need to accept the amendments strictly – on numbers.

But they strengthened the Bill – and so we did – to get a better outcome.

Negotiating in the Senate

The Bill’s passage through the Senate was far from assured.

Passage through the Senate requires the votes of 39 Senators - that is, half the Senate plus one.

The Labor party has 26 Senators.

Negotiating with the crossbench was essential.

We would have been very happy to negotiate with the Liberals and Nationals.

A thoughtful Opposition – one that is focused on achieving outcomes and has the interests of the entire country at heart – might have sought to work with us.

To see if some agreement could be reached on aspects of the Bill, given the Liberals at least are on the record saying they support delivery of the Basin Plan.

Sadly, politics prevails.

Our red-line issues were well known; we needed to complete the water recovery task, in a reasonable timeframe and restore trust in the governments who had promised to deliver this.

But where there was scope to improve the Bill, I was open to it.

This work of trying to reach consensus on an issue where opinions are held so firmly is a very unglamorous part of political life.

True of the public service as much as the politicians and our staff.

It involves extensive discussions, building trust with people who had not worked together before.

Working our way through long lists of concerns, finding answers to thoughtful and difficult questions.

Debating every word and its definition.

Arguing over the placement of a comma or a full stop in legislation.

For me, it was not only about getting enough support to get the bill through the Senate.

It was about improving the Bill – and improving outcomes for communities and the environment – not just through the legislation but the way we implement it.

Like amending the object of the Water Act and purpose of the Basin Plan to consider matters relevant to First Nations peoples - something that had not been adequately addressed in the original legislation.

And focussing on what matters to communities – and being transparent about it.

We have a parliament with a large number of independents and cross-benchers.

Every decision we made in discussions with one person could affect the understanding that we had with another.

We had state governments anxiously following our negotiations and concerned about how this might affect formal agreements we had in place with them for the roll out.

Keeping all those groups together and arriving at an outcome which they could all accept sometimes seemed impossible.

But achieving the Plan was the only option.

And some great reforms came out of these discussions.

Reforms which mean we are doing more for Basin communities.

More for First Nations – including increasing our original $40 million commitment to the Aboriginal Water Entitlements Program to $100 million.

Increasing accountability on water delivery to the public and the Parliament.

And a $50 million rescue package for the Upper Murrumbidgee river.

In the end this was enough.

Only the Coalition, the two One Nation Senators and the one Palmer United Senator voted against the Bill.

This was a lesson in leadership.

Peter Cullen’s idea of leadership.

Leadership isn’t about crashing through or railroading others.

It’s about listening to the best ideas and adapting.

It’s about working with people who you may not agree with and finding common ground for the common good.

It’s also about knowing when to agree to disagree – when to walk away.

Where to from here?

In 18 months of government and three months in parliament – that approach got the Basin Plan on track.

It delivered a reset.

Our approach provides more time, more flexibility, more money and more accountability to fully implement the Basin Plan.

But it’s no magic bullet.

Legislation is a first step.

The hard work of delivering the Basin Plan – albeit with extended timeframes – continues.

We have now contracted another 22.5 gigalitres towards the Bridging the Gap target.

In January we launched the Resilient Rivers Water Infrastructure program, the first of three new programs made possible by the Act, enabling a broader range of water saving infrastructure projects to come forward.

These include extending opportunities for off-farm efficiency projects, but also include new on-farm, domestic and stock, and urban water efficiency projects.

We’re finalising the design of a Voluntary Water Purchase Program and currently working through stakeholder feedback around the scope of early purchases.

Our aim will be to deliver value for the environment, value for taxpayers and to minimise any negative consequences for communities.

And the flip side of the purchase program is the community adjustment program, which will be there to support Basin communities if they are impacted by voluntary water purchase.

Where voluntary water purchase has negative socio-economic impacts – there will be generous funding to help communities adjust and prepare for a future with less water.

I am now required, under the legislation we passed, to take all reasonable steps to deliver the 450 gigalitre target by the end of 2027.

These three programs – together with extended timeframes for states to deliver on their water infrastructure projects – and recent budget measures like the extra funding for the Murray Darling Basin Authority to deliver a constraints relaxation implementation roadmap, puts us in the best position to deliver a healthier Basin.

We need to recover water for the health of the river system.

In fact, Commonwealth Labor governments have contracted 84 percent of the water recovered towards the Basin Plan to date.

And Victoria has now agreed to the Plan and is participating in its roll out – including delivering the 450 gigalites of additional environmental water.

Over the last two years, New South Wales has finally had 14 of its 20 water resource plans accredited.

And in last week’s Budget, we announced additional funding for the Inspector General of Water Compliance, to ensure he is properly resourced to restore trust and accountability to Basin water management.

Of course there are still those who think this is unnecessary.

But that makes leadership even more important – to deliver this plan and to begin the critical work of what comes next. After we’ve delivered this iteration of the plan.

It means investing in and listening to the science and doing what is right.

It means thinking beyond election cycles.

It’s about fronting up and communicating decisions – even when it’s not what people want to hear.

Australia was sorely missing the leadership needed to deliver the plan.

But it’s not just about political leaders.

It’s about industry leaders who bring their expertise to the table in good faith.

It’s about the leaders in government departments who go above and beyond to support the public good.

It’s about community leaders who are able to bring local people together to seek locally-led solutions.

It’s environmental leaders who provide a compelling voice for nature protection and restoration.

It’s leaders in science and academia who clearly inform and guide policy makers based on the highest quality research.

This is the leadership Australia needs, just as much as any.

It’s the reason why the Peter Cullen Trust exists.

To foster great leaders in water and environment management.

And it’s the reason why you are here tonight.

You don’t put yourself through a gruelling leadership program, or offer your time to serve the Trust, if you don’t deeply believe in its mission.  

The fruits of the last 15 years of the Trust are already beginning to show.

And I commend all those who had the vision back then to invest in a new generation of water and environment leaders who are continuing Peter Cullen’s legacy.