ABC Adelaide Drive interview with Minister for the Environment and Water Tanya Plibersek

JULES SCHILLER: Obviously you know, as South Australians, we only signed up for this plan under the promise that an extra 450 gigalitres of water was set aside for the environment, and obviously that is a long way off. So what does the future look like? Well, let's ask the Federal Water and Environment Minister, Tanya Plibersek joins me. Welcome, Minister.

TANYA PLIBERSEK, MINISTER FOR THE ENVIRONMENT AND WATER: It's a pleasure to talk to you, Jules, and I'm so glad you've got Jess Hill on - later on this evening. She's a really first class writer, and it's a really important issue that you'll be discussing later. But Murray Darling Basin that’s also very important.

SCHILLER: Tanya, I mean the Prime Minister came to Adelaide during the campaign and said that Labor would deliver on the final 450 gigalitres of water. Can that now be classed as a broken campaign promise?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: No, absolutely not. We are determined to deliver the whole of the Murray Darling Basin Plan, including the 450 gigalitres of additional environment water. And just to speak about that for a moment, in the nine years that the Coalition were in government they delivered 2 gigalitres out of the 450   2 out of 450. Since coming to government I've delivered or contracted 26 gigalitres. We're now at 26 gigalitres towards that 450 gigalitre target, so you can see that we are obviously more serious about the 450, and the Murray Darling Basin as a whole. In fact Labor Governments have delivered 84 per cent of all of the water that has been delivered towards the Murray Darling Basin Plan. Only 16 per cent of water that's been recovered was done in the last nine years. There was a deliberate go slow, there was a deliberate sabotage of the Murray Darling Basin Plan by the previous Coalition government. We've got to turn that round.

SCHILLER: When you were in Opposition did you know the extent of this, Tanya Plibersek, I mean do you think you held the government to account on the issue enough?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Well, I wasn't the Water Shadow Minister at the time. So I think our Shadow Minister, Terri Butler, certainly did. But I think, Jules, the other thing to consider is, coming into government I had every hope that we could turn the go slow around. So some of the problems included the fact that the New South Wales Government had not submitted its Water Resource Plans. So those plans were supposed to be in in 2019, those plans are how we did how much water comes out of each catchment, and it's those plans that States can be held to account against.

The fact that the New South Wales Government had been allowed by the previous government to be years late in submitting their plans shows that the previous Coalition Federal Government wasn't serious.

Since then we've got those plans coming in from New South Wales, we've got a number accredited already, there's a number that we're examining right now to accredit them. That's a big step forward. We're also talking with the States and Territories about the water infrastructure projects that mean that we can use water more efficiently, and also that we can use the water that we're recovering for the environment, so that it gets to the rivers, so it gets to the flood plains. But a lot of those projects were late.

SCHILLER: Billions of dollars have already been funded to Victoria, New South Wales and South Australian Governments for infrastructure and efficiency related projects, Tanya Plibersek, but only a few have been completed on time.


SCHILLER: Do you think taxpayer has been rorted by some of these schemes that have over over promised and under delivered?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: No. I think taxpayers could fairly say that they’re disappointed that the Murray Darling Basin as a whole hasn't been delivered. I think some of it is due to understandable things like COVID slowing down building right across Australia. The floods, actually, I mean, for a change we've had not just enough water, but way too much water across much of the Murray Darling Basin in the last couple of years, and that has also delayed water projects, because you can't build under water.

So there's some understandable delays, and then there's the deliberate making it more difficult to deliver on the objectives of the plan. And so the previous Federal Coalition government changed a bunch of rules, they haven't spent money where it's been available in many cases. We've set money aside when we were last in government, a fraction of it's been spent in some cases. So some of this is understandable, a big part of it is a deliberate effort by the National Party in particular to tie the Murray Darling Basin Plan up in brown tape to prevent its delivery.

SCHILLER: Which might be a reason that the National Party aren't really a factor in South Australian local politics.


SCHILLER: How much water will be delivered then by June 30, 2024, Tanya?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Well, we'll be about 750, around about 750 gigalitres short. The reason I say there's some uncertainty about this is because the Murray Darling Basin Authority is still examining some of the water delivery projects that have been agreed. We're not exactly sure yet how much water in the end those projects will deliver, so that the shortfall is still something that we need to look at more closely. Of course we're in the market right now buying water, so of course we'll be keen to buy additional water --

SCHILLER: The Greens have put out a press release today saying that efficiency measures won't do it, and water buybacks are the only way to get us that 450 gigalitres. Why are they wrong?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Well, I mean we're buying water right now, and I've said from the very beginning that voluntary water purchase is going to be part of delivering the Murray Darling Basin Plan, it has to be. And to give you an idea of the scale here, 750 gigalitres short, that's 300,000 Olympic size swimming pools short, that's how short we are on the current trajectory. It is a massive undertaking, and yes, of course voluntary purchases will be part of it, we're doing that at the moment. We need to do that in the most sensitive way to take account of what's happening in Basin communities as well.

SCHILLER: Do you think the Victorian and New South Wales State Governments have their heart in the scheme though? I mean that's always been the suspicion in South Australia.

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Well, we've got a new New South Wales government, and I have to say it's incredibly refreshing dealing with a new Water Minister who is absolutely a hundred per cent --   

SCHILLER: They're not on a go slow, because it seems that 450 gigalitres has always been contentious in Victoria and New South Wales.

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Well, it is contentious in Victoria, and I have to say from my perspective and the law, the 450 gigalitres is part of the Murray Darling Basin Plan. And there's no conversation about that. We are delivering the whole of the plan, and that includes the 450. The previous government, the previous Federal Government delivered 2 gigalitres out of 450. So we've got a long way to go.

SCHILLER: You're listening to Tanya Plibersek. She is the Federal Water and Environment Minister. I'm Jules Schiller, it's 15 minutes past 5, and we're talking about the announcement today   look, it's not a big surprise that the Murray Darling Basin Plan will not be completed on time. Tanya Plibersek, we're talking about this, you know, after a year of flooding in The Murray, so you know, when we talk about gigalitres, it's still a lot of numbers and promises and efficiency measures. But if we hit a drought, and when you look at the climate that's happening over in Southern Europe at the moment, it's quite alarming. So if we hit another period of drought, the failures of this plan are going to become really painful for a lot of people. Wouldn't you agree?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: That's a hundred per cent right. Yes, couldn't agree more. I mean the whole reason for the plan is we were taking too much water out of the river system, it was destroying our landscapes, destroying the rivers, destroying the plants and animals that relied on them, making it harder for the people - we're talking about 2.3 million people who live in the Murray Darling Basin, and across 2.3 million square kilometres. I mean this is, if we don't get this done, it's a disaster for nature, it's terrible for the communities that rely on the river system, it's awful for water quality, you know, you South Australians feel that perhaps more than anyone. We have to get it done. No question.

SCHILLER: Texts are coming through. Some people are quite annoyed, Tanya Plibersek, you know, people are saying   Mary's saying, "Look, you know, no point blaming others, you're always blaming others."  Other people are saying just that they're plain angry, they're disappointed. I mean can you understand some of the sentiments here from South Australian listeners and texters?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Yes, a hundred per cent. I absolutely can, and I'm not surprised that South Australians are angry. I have to say your Water Minister, Susan Close, has been fierce in standing up for what South Australians expect from the Murray Darling Basin Plan, and she's made it very clear to me, and to the other Water Ministers from the other States and Territories that she expects the plan to be delivered in full, and she's very disappointed that it's not being delivered on time. But I ask your readers just to think about this for a second: 450 gigalitres of additional environmental water. I inherited 2   2 gigalitres out of 450. We're now at 26. I can only do what I can do. I'm a hundred per cent determined to get there. We're moving as quickly as we can. But nine years of delay, that's not blaming people, 84 per cent of water that's been recovered under the Murray Darling Basin Plan has been recovered under me or under the previous Labor Government. In the nine years that the Coalition were in government they delivered 16 per cent of the water that's been recovered. Doesn't that tell you something?

SCHILLER: We don't have time for many callers, but Steve from Magill has come up on my screen. Steve, you've been listening to Tanya Plibersek, the Federal Water Environment Minister. What's your question or comment?

STEVE: Yes, thank you Minister Plibersek for being on Jules's show. Yes, two points: one, when the floods first happened with the Opposition, they granted 90 to 100 per cent for the Northern River area of their allocations, and the other thing, is there any chance to return water rights sovereignty back to us, because Canadian Education Super Trust is one of the largest holders of water here, and if we got that back, would that certainly put a dent in the allocation needed?

SCHILLER: We're getting lots of questions about this, Tanya Plibersek, about international consortiums being allowed to own our water. What's your view on that?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: A couple of things. I think if you were re designing the way that water licences were traded now, you would probably take a different approach. Again a number of these decisions were made during the period of the last government. But there's a few things that we're doing to make sure that there’s transparency and fairness. We're making sure that the laws and the accounting around water trading are regulated and transparent, and we're also, you know, right now in the market doing voluntary purchase to get some of this water back into Australian hands.

SCHILLER: But it is a bit worrying when hedge funds, you know, international hedge funds see a way of making money out of our water.

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: I understand why people are concerned about it. I mean, look around the planet. Water is one of the most precious commodities we have, and it's one of the commodities where there's most conflict. There's no question.

SCHILLER: Tanya Plibersek, thanks for coming on the program. I'm sure there will be much more discussion. It's a, you know, it was a big plan, the Murray Darling Basin Plan, as I say, we're very disappointed in South Australia that the promises aren't going to be delivered. But look, we wish you well. We want to see a healthy Murray, and especially if we hit a drought, we don't want to experience what happened last time when the mouth virtually closed up.

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Can I say, I hundred per cent agree with you. One final thing I'd say is, it's not all grim news. We have got almost all of the water recovered from the Bridging the Gap target, which is the biggest part of the plan. A lot of communities have contributed to that over the years, and we're going to complete that in coming months by buying water back. That is at least a very good first step in doing what we're committed to doing, which is fully delivering the plan.

SCHILLER: Tanya Plibersek, thanks for your time, appreciate it.