ABC RN Breakfast interview with Minister for the Environment and Water Tanya Plibersek

Subjects: Murray-Darling Basin Plan.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: After a widely expected admission that the Murray‑Darling Basin plan wouldn't achieve its 2024 target, a new time frame has just been announced extending the plan out by two years. Controversially, the Federal Government will resume the practice of buying back water licences from irrigators in order to achieve its environmental targets. But Victoria has refused to sign on to the plan and there's still a lack of detail about how the additional water will be delivered. Tanya Plibersek is the Environment and Water Minister and she joined me a short time ago. Tanya Plibersek, welcome to RN Breakfast.


KARVELAS: You've said all options are on the table, but you keep coming back to water buybacks. What other options are you specifically looking at?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Well, what we're offering with these changes to the Murray‑Darling Basin Plan is more time, so more time to deliver the remaining infrastructure projects that would save water and use it more efficiently. More options, including voluntary buybacks, but also looking at things like changing the way that we operate the river system. More funding of course to complete those projects that are already under way. But also, we're open to funding additional water saving projects if they can be completed by 2026.

And with all of that comes more accountability. I mean this plan has been off track for some years. The previous government really, I mean, I think you could say deliberately sabotaged the Murray‑Darling Basin Plan. So there is an expectation that if we put more time and more money on the table that has to come with greater accountability.

KARVELAS: You won't say how many gigalitres you're preparing to buy back but you'd have budget constraints. Obviously, this is not ‑ this is a pretty expensive process. How much could this cost?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Well the reason I don't want to name a figure for buybacks at the moment, Patricia, is because it potentially distorts the market if we are buying any water. But also there's quite a bit of work to be done before we finalise a target because we need to assess first of all the big infrastructure projects that are still happening, how much water will they save? Once we know how much water we still need to buy we'll do that slowly over time so as to have the minimal social and economic impact across the Basin communities.

KARVELAS: How will the water buyback program actually work? So, you must have some idea about the way you want to introduce it. Will there be limitations? Will it be phased?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Yes, it will be stretched over time. We need to complete the plan, the additional 450 gigalitres of additional environmental water, we want to have that finished by 2027.

And when it comes to how we buy water, well we're actually in the market at the moment to buy water to complete one of the targets under the plan, that's the Bridging the Gap target. And so that provides us some pretty good information about where there are willing sellers. We're buying about 44 gigalitres at the moment and we have been very happy with the approaches that have been made to sell water. We're making sensible decisions at the moment about where to buy that water, where it can have the maximum environmental utility, and where we can of course get best value for money for taxpayers.

KARVELAS: Do you have water recovery targets for the Basin states?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Well, we've certainly got an overall target and that's the 3,200 gigalitres that was initially set at the beginning of the negotiations for the plan.

KARVELAS: But it's not ‑‑

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: That’s always going to be the target.

KARVELAS: Yeah, yeah, of course, that's the macro target but is there specifically a target for particular states?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Well we have in the past of course had a catchment-by-catchment approach to recovering water. It does matter where we get the water from. We're just not going to go out and, you know, buy whatever's out there on the market or, you know, pick up any water-saving infrastructure project no matter how expensive it is, no matter where it is. We do have to think about value for money and getting the maximum environmental impact from the water that we're recovering.

And, Patricia, I think one of the frustrations here is if we had been doing this methodically over the last decade, we wouldn't be here at the last minute looking at how we achieve the final stages of the plan. Of all of the water that has been recovered towards the Murray‑Darling Basin Plan, 84 per cent of it has been done when Labor was in government, just 16 per cent of it has been done over the last decade of a Coalition Government, just 16 per cent. When I became the Water Minister, of that 450 gigalitre target for additional environmental water just two gigalitres had been achieved by the previous government.

This is a plan that is in trouble, in deep trouble, and the next drought is just around the corner. If we don't get this right the environmental impacts are serious. There's three million people who rely on this river system for their drinking water. We've got more than 30 threatened animals that live across the Murray‑Darling Basin. We know the psychological, the social toll it took when we had towns that had bone-dry riverbeds for more than 400 days during the last drought. We need to get it right for the sake of the environment and the sake of our communities. We've left it way too late under the previous government, we've got to get our skates on.

KARVELAS: So obviously there does need to be a plan but you said yesterday the government has a plan to make sure that the water buybacks don't see regional communities disappear. You've heard the response from the Nationals. For instance, David Littleproud says that they worry that essentially regional communities will disappear. What's the plan to avoid that, Minister?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Well, two things. We need to be sensible about where we're buying the water and we need to do it over a period of time. That's why we're not going to go out and buy, you know, 750 gigalitres of water tomorrow. We're going to make sure that we're doing the maximum amount of water recovery through water efficiency projects. We're looking at other options. I've said all options are on the table. Where we do buybacks, we'll do it over a period of time, and we'll do it in a sensible way that minimises social and economic impacts. We also have funding available if there are social and economic impacts for the states to deliver support that would see economies take up other job opportunities.

KARVELAS: Will you be asking South Australia to find additional water savings because Adelaide is still using the Murray for its drinking water? Is that something that needs to change?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Well, all of the Basin states and the ACT, so Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia and the ACT, all of them will have to do their share.

Obviously, South Australia at the very end of the river system is the state that has often been most impacted by the dry times. That's true of its drinking water, it's also true of the environmental impacts as the Murray flows through the lower Coorong out into the ocean. We need to make sure that that flow continues.

KARVELAS: Minister, the new agreement isn't with Victoria. Why didn't they sign on?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Well, that's a question for them really, Patricia.

KARVELAS: But you must know, you've been in many talks with them?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: My door's open for them to sign on down the track if they want to. What's on the table for Victoria? More time to deliver the water-saving projects that they've already started, more money to do those projects and for other potential projects, and more options. They get more, you know, if they've got other projects they want to bring forward they can.

At the end of the day, I mean Victoria at the moment is saying they don't support water buybacks. Well, neither does New South Wales. This is not New South Wales is not saying okay we're fine with buybacks now, what they understand is that this is an issue for the Commonwealth Government.

The Commonwealth Government will be in the market to buy some water over coming years, and we don't need the Victorian Government or the New South Wales Government permission to do that. What the New South Wales Government is saying yes to is more time, more money, more options, more ways of delivering on the Murray‑Darling Basin Plan.

KARVELAS: So are you giving the Victorian Government an ultimatum on this?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: No, not at all. What I've consistently said, what I've consistently said, is that my door remains open. This is a very good deal for the environment and for the communities that depend on the river system.

KARVELAS: The Greens say the delays don't include any guarantees to ensure the plan is actually fulfilled. Is there any accountability for this plan?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Yes, absolutely. And not just on the states and territory but also on the Commonwealth. I think it's fair enough that if we are suggesting this delay that we show how we will be more accountable in the future. And that includes things like really upgrading the operation of our water markets. We know that our water trading is increasingly important, increasingly for big business. There's a lot of people who have water entitlements who want to be able to buy and sell water entitlements. But we've seen some poor behaviour in those markets so we're introducing a range of changes that will give greater integrity and transparency to water markets. We're increasing the powers of the Inspector‑General of Water Compliance. We're making a number of other changes that would make sure that we actually deliver on this plan.

KARVELAS: Minister, thanks for your time this morning.


KARVELAS: That's the Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek. You're listening to ABC RN Breakfast.