Press conference in Adelaide with Minister for the Environment and Water Tanya Plibersek

SUBJECTS: Murray-Darling Basin Plan; Voice to Parliament.

STEVE GEORGANAS: Can I start off by welcoming our Federal Minister Tanya Plibersek, it’s great to have you here in the seat of Adelaide. Susan Close the State Minister for Water, my federal parliamentary colleagues, Matt Burnell, Louise Miller-Frost and Tony Zappia. Today, we're here to welcome a fantastic announcement for South Australia, the 450 gigalitres of water for the Murray-Darling, it's important that this project is seen through. We've seen 10 years of inaction by the former federal government where they put every difficulty in the way to achieve it. So it's a great announcements to allow the survival of our river and our environment. Over to the Deputy Premier.

SUSAN CLOSE, DEPUTY PREMIER OF SOUTH AUSTRALIA: Thank you. I’ll turn to the Federal Minister Tanya Plibersek shortly, but I just want to say how welcome this news is to South Australia. And it should be welcome to anyone who cares about the sustainability of the Murray-Darling Basin. For more than 10 years we’ve had an agreement that has not been delivered. Not only through an inaction in Canberra but through an active sabotage. It has been clear for some time that not only would we not be able to get the water by mid next year but nor would we ever be able get it without changing the policy settings. So crucially this agreements brings us a pathway so that we’re able to have more ways of recovering water.

This isn’t a matter of political pride, this isn’t a matter of well, we said we do it, so we’ll do it. This is much more than that. This is about delivery of a sustainable Murray-Darling Basin. Because just as we’ve seen floods we will next see a drought. And if we’re not ready that drought all South Australians and all Australians will suffer from that. The only way to ward off the worst effects of drought is to have water allocated to the environment to keep it healthy during tough times.

It's disappointing that we have to extend the deadline. This is not something we embrace, this is not something we want. But we recognise the impossibility of delivering the entire plan in one year. So we’re happy to give licence, support, accommodation for the longer deadline for the 450 gigalitres in exchange for the Commonwealth going into parliament and changing legislation to allow those who want to sell water for the environment to be able to do that. So I’d like to Tanya Plibersek to give more detail on this proposal.

TANYA PLIBERSEK, MINISTER FOR THE ENVIRONMENT AND WATER: Thank you so much. It’s great to be here with my federal colleagues and with Deputy Premier Susan Close, who has been a fierce advocate for completing the Murray-Darling Basin Plan and doing what was promised in the original plan.

We know that the Murray-Darling Basin Plan came out of a very difficult time during the millennium drought we saw that South Australian water was compromised, there was worries about drinking water running out, in many parts of the Murray-Darling Basin the environmental impacts were extreme – mass fish deaths, the beautiful old gum trees along the river system dying after hundreds of years. We saw towns that had bone dry riverbeds for more than 400 days at a time.

So coming out of the millennium drought the basin states and all of the people that rely on the Murray-Darling Basin were determined to do better in the future. And as the Deputy Premier has said, despite the fact we’ve had a couple of wet years recently, we know that in Australia the next drought is just around the corner. So we must complete the objectives of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan.

Sadly, over the last decade we’ve had a Commonwealth Government that has paid lip service to the plan while actively undermining it at the same time. We know that more than 80 per cent of water that has been recovered towards the environmental targets in the Murray-Darling Basin Plan has been recovered under Labor governments. Just 16 per cent of all water recovery has happened over the last decade under the Liberals and the Nationals. They were on a deliberate go slow. They were deliberately sabotaging the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, and nobody knows that better than South Australians.

Recently I asked the Murray Darling Basin Authority for formal advice on whether the plan could be delivered on time and, sadly, that advice was that we can’t deliver on the original time frames of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. So what are we proposing? With this new agreement we are proposing more time. We know we need to give more time to some of the big water-saving projects to be delivered. So more time for the plan.

We’re extending the deadline for the delivery of those water-saving, water efficiency projects to 2026. We’re also providing more time for the delivery of the 450 gigalitres of additional environmental water that is so important for the plan, particularly for South Australia. We’re putting more money on the table. So as well as more time we’re offering more money for the completion of those projects, for communities that are affected by voluntary water buybacks there’ll be more money.

We’re offering more options. We don’t want to close off options for delivering the plan. We want to make sure that every practical option is considered, and that includes, for example, removing the cap on voluntary water buybacks. We want more options on the table.

And, of course, with all of this comes more accountability because we know that for the last decade the plan has been drifting. We can’t allow that drift to continue for years to come. We need more accountability from the Commonwealth Government – I’m prepared to be held accountable – and from the states and territories that are being given extra time to deliver their share of the plan.

So this new agreement is, in fact, making sure that we deliver on the original objectives of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan by offering more time, more money, more options and more accountability. We are absolutely determined as a Commonwealth Government to fully deliver the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, including that 450 gigalitres of additional environmental water.

Any questions?

JOURNALIST: So how much are you prepared to spend on getting those 450GL?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Well, I’m not going to mention figures at the moment because although we have set money aside, including for voluntary water purchase, there’s a couple of things that we need to determine first. The first is there’ll be a reconciliation to determine how much the water efficiency projects deliver in the end towards the objectives of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. We need to know that first of all when we do that reconciliation.

But, secondly, when the government enters the market as a potential water purchaser, there is a danger that that sort of information distorts the water market. The reason that we’ve allowed more time to deliver the 450 gigalitres is because we’d like to spread out that water purchase. We need to make sure it has the minimal impact – social and economic impact – on all the communities by spreading out the purchase time we can reduce those impacts.

JOURNALIST: Have you spoken to Victoria since yesterday?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Well, we’ve been in constant contact with Victoria and I wrote to the Victorian Government many weeks ago with this proposal. I know the Prime Minister has spoken to the Premier. I flew to Victoria to speak to the Victorian Water Minister some weeks ago as well. And the most recent comment was from our office to their office yesterday, I think. So, yes, we’re in constant contact.

JOURNALIST: What’s the biggest objection?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Are you asking what the biggest objection of the Victorian Government is?


MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Well, that’s really a matter for you to ask them. What’s in this for Victoria? I can tell you what we’re offering. We’re offering more time for them to complete the projects. We’re offering them more money to complete projects and any structural adjustment. And we’re offering more options to deliver on the targets in the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. So I don’t know, you’d have to ask them why they don’t find that appealing.

JOURNALIST: What have the Greens asked for in return for their support?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Well, there’s something in this for both sides of politics. The Liberals and the Nationals have been asking for more time to deliver on the objectives of the plan, and we’re offering more time. The Greens, some of the crossbench, have been asking for guarantees around the delivery of the 450 gigalitres. I’ll tell you, no-one is more determined to do that than the South Australian Government and my South Australian Labor colleagues. They don’t need to be, separately lobbying on that, because I’ve got plenty of people in my ear day to day doing that. But we do offer more assurance that we will meet these objectives, in particular, of the delivery of the 450 gigalitres. That’s on the table as well.

But the real question here is will the Liberals in South Australia support water for South Australia when this legislation comes to the Federal Parliament? And will the Greens support water for South Australia for the whole of the Murray-Darling Basin, all of the communities and environment that depend on recovering that water, will they support that when the legislation comes to the Federal Parliament? We don’t have long to do this – it has to be done before the end of the year. So, you know, we’ll be introducing legislation soon. As I have said, it’s got a lot of benefits for basin states and territory, we want to see it delivered.

JOURNALIST: Is it achievable without Victoria’s participation?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Well, it is because I don’t need the support of the New South Wales and the Victorian governments to do voluntary water buybacks. What I need is legislation passed through the Federal Parliament. And so the question for South Australian Liberals, the question for the Greens is: will they support that legislation in the parliament that will allow the full delivery of the 450 gigalitres of water that they are focused on.

JOURNALIST: What guarantees –

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Sorry, just one other thing I’d add, there seems to be a bit of a misconception that I need the permission or support of the Victorian Government and the New South Wales Government to do voluntary water purchase. We don’t need that. And, in fact, the New South Wales Government has also made clear that they don’t support buybacks either. But the difference between the New South Wales Government and the Victorian Government is they both are opposed to buybacks. What the New South Wales Government will get is more time and more money to do water-saving projects and more options on how to deliver the targets in New South Wales. But in both cases – in Victoria and New South Wales – we will be seeking to buy some water. There is no way that we can meet the objectives of the plan through infrastructure or water-saving projects alone.

And it’s really interesting to here the National Party at a federal level pretending that this can all be done through water efficiency projects. You know, when I came into government – when we came into government and I became the Water Minister, of the 450 gigalitres of additional environmental water, the previous government had got to 2. They got 2 gigalitres out of 450, and they say it was on track for delivery. Rough back of the envelope calculation, I don’t know how many thousands of years it would take you to get 450 under the settings that the previous government had in place. I mean, it is an absurd thing for the National Party now to be pretending that somehow they were on track to deliver the 450 gigalitres.

If you look at the rate of water purchase, there’s a sharp incline under the previous Labor government and then it flat lines under the Liberals and Nationals in government. Over the last decade there’s been a deliberate go slow. If the settings continue the way they are at the moment, we would never achieve the objectives of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. And the National Party should stop pretending. David Littleproud should come clean. Their objective here has been not to recover that water for the environment. They should just be honest about that. And the Liberals here in South Australia, they need to make a decision: do they support us recovering the water as originally laid out in the Murray-Darling Basin Plan or do they not support that. And how they vote in the Federal Parliament will be the answer to whether they support that water recovery or not.

JOURNALIST: Realistically with the Sustainable Diversion Limit Adjustment Mechanism 605 gigalitre target, how much of that is likely to be recovered. Is it kind of a mythical figure that had no basis in reality?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Yes, on the 605 figure, the Sustainable Diversion Limit Adjustment Mechanism figure, at the moment we’re looking at a substantial shortfall in reaching that 605 figure. And it’s one of the reasons that I’m proposing the extension. We do need to see whether there are additional projects that are currently underway that can be completed. So there were more than 30 projects originally proposed. We’re looking at around 20 being completed. And probably 36 of them will struggle to be completed or struggle to deliver the water that was promised.

So we do need to provide more time. And, as I’ve said, as well as more time we are also offering more funding to complete some of those projects where they can be completed. Where they can’t, that will mean we need to look at other recovery methods, and the most obvious of those is voluntary water purchase. Right now we’re in the market for about 44 gigalitres of water as part of our commitment to complete the Bridging the Gap part of the Plan. And so we’ve been able to test the market. There are willing sellers in the market at the moment. We’ve been very happy to see the proposals that are coming in. That first tender that will complete or substantially complete the Bridging the Gap part of the Plan will tell us a lot about how the water market is operating at the moment.

One other thing I’ll say about the water market, one of the things that the legislation we’ll be introducing into the Federal Parliament will do is actually put our water markets on a firmer, more transparent footing. We know that there are increasingly large volumes and values of water being traded. We need to make sure that a market as large and complex as the water market is becoming has proper safeguards attached to it.

Most people who operate in the water market are operating in an above board way. But there are cowboys that have been operating in the water market. There is lack of transparency and a lack of ability in some of those water trades. So a number of the changes that we’re proposing in our Commonwealth legislation will go to establishing that more transparent and accountable water market that we need.

JOURNALIST: So what guarantees can you give to farmers (inaudible) impacted in regional communities?  

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Well, I understand that there are farmers across the Murray-Darling Basin who are watching this very closely. I can guarantee that any water purchased will be voluntary. We’re in the market for voluntary water purchases. We’re not going to be compulsorily acquiring water. We will minimise the social and economic impacts of any water buybacks. We’ll be looking for water purchases that have a minimal impact on communities.

We’ll also be offering structural adjustment funding if there are social and economic impacts. We’re working hand in hand with the states that are participating in this new agreement, like New South Wales and Queensland, South Australia, the ACT. Working hand in hand with them to say if there are any social and economic impacts that we will be on hand to provide funding to minimise those impacts.

Can I also say that the largest year for water purchased – 2011-2012 – the largest year for water purchased, a third of beverage prices actually went down that year. So we need to kind of keep in perspective what we’re talking about here as well. The crops most likely to be affected would be cotton and rice. We export about 90 per cent of our cotton and we export about 75 per cent of our rice. So that just gives you, I guess, a little bit of perspective about what we’re talking about.

JOURNALIST: Is a city like Adelaide too reliant on the Murray?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Well, South Australia is absolutely reliant on the Murray and, you know – for drinking water and other uses, but also the South Australian environment. You know, we’re talking about an incredible environment the Lower Coorong, Susan and I, the Deputy Premier and I have been there. We had a look at the Murray mouth when it actually was open to the ocean. It’s a beautiful sight to see those wetlands with water in them and the Murray mouth open.

But the absolute truth is this is an area of a million square kilometres. The bulk of New South Wales is part of the Murray-Darling Basin system. Queensland, all of the ACT, a fair amount of Victoria as well. All of the communities that are along that river system rely on it to a greater or lesser extent. The agricultural industry relies on it to a greater or lesser extent. And, of course, across that million square kilometres I think we’ve got 16 internationally significant wetlands. We’ve got more than 30 threatened species. The environment across this million square kilometres also absolutely relies on us achieving the objectives set out in the Murray-Darling Basin Plan.

And as the Deputy Premier said, we’ve had a few wet years, including here in South Australia at times you’ve had too much water. I know that. But you can’t say during the wet years this is not the time to act on water recovery and then say in the dry years this is not the time to act on water recovery. This is basically – the proposition that the Liberals and Nationals put is when it’s too wet we’re not going to act on water recovery, and when it’s too dry we can’t act on water recovery.

We need to complete the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. We need to prepare as best we can for the dry years that we know are ahead of us. In a country like Australia the next drought is always just around the corner. Our long-term projections are that south east Australia in particular will become hotter and drier. We know that in parts of New South Wales already we’re getting below average rainfall. We’re seeing the first indicators of that El Nino weather pattern returning. If not now, when are we going to prepare ourselves for the future. Now is the time to do that

JOURNALIST: In terms of the Voice, what are the risks if the referendum isn’t successful?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Well, I think Adelaide is looking forward to an exciting day next week. I know the Prime Minister will be visiting next Wednesday and talking about the referendum right here in Adelaide. This is an incredible opportunity for Australia to take a step forward in reconciliation. Of course our constitution should recognise the special place that First Nations Australians have here, 65,000 years of continuous culture. That’s something that we should be proud of and tell the world about.

But this is also a practical and pragmatic way for us to have a better future as a nation. We know that governments make better policies when they listen to the people who are affected. We know that we still have gaps in health, in education, in employment, in – even things as awful as suicide rates here in Australia. If we want to change those gaps between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians, then we’ve got to listen. That’s what the Voice is about. The Voice is about listening. It’s about advice to government, advice to parliament. It’s not about running programs. It’s not about a veto. It’s not about AUKUS or parking tickets or any of the nonsense that we’ve heard from opponents. It’s about a very practical step of setting up the committee that would give advice to parliament so that we make better decisions, so we spend taxpayer money more wisely, so we get better outcomes for First Nations Australians.

JOURNALIST: How do you get the vote across the line in South Australia (inaudible)?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Well, we’re campaigning every day. And I know both my state colleagues who are doing such a fantastic job here with their own moves towards reconciliation, and my federal colleagues who are out campaigning in their own seats will be working every day to get this across the line. This is a great opportunity of taking a step forward in reconciliation.

JOURNALIST: How important is South Australia when it comes to winning the majority of voters in the majority of the states?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: South Australia is absolutely vital, and we know that this is a state that is doing wonderful things. We want to make sure that at a federal level we are taking those next steps towards reconciliation as well. Recognition in our constitution is a special place that First Nations Australians hold in this country and then, very practically, providing a Voice to Parliament, a committee that will give advice to make sure they we’re delivering on those targets. On health, education, employment and elsewhere.

JOURNALIST: Do you anticipate this announcement will be a turning point in the debate?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Well, I think the simple truth is that every election campaign – that’s the closest comparison here – a lot of people don’t make their minds up until, you know, weeks or even days out from polling day. I’m pretty sure that’s the same in a referendum like this. There’ll be many people who will be receiving the Yes and No pamphlets in their letter box soon. I hope they’re taking the time to read those pamphlets. I hope they’re taking the time – you can google Yes23. Google Uluru Statement from the Heart. You can look up the details of what’s being proposed here. But I think the reality is most people won’t do that until they’re perhaps even days out from polling day. So we absolutely have to work every day to make the case for yes.

JOURNALIST: Does it surprise you that there could be an issue with South Australia given our state government claims to have a mandate to introduce a local voice to parliament?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Well, I’m sure the Deputy Premier will want to speak a little bit about the great things that South Australia has done. But I go back to we’ll be campaigning every day for a Yes vote because this is a great opportunity for Australians to walk forward together on a path to reconciliation. I wonder, Susan, if you want to make any comments.

DEPUTY PREMIER: The South Australian government is very proud to have not only introduced and established a Voice to Parliament for First Nations, the first jurisdiction in Australia to do so, but we also are very, very supportive of the referendum being held by the Commonwealth Government. It is unsurprising that South Australia I believe more than Tasmania has been heavily targeted by the No campaigners, particularly on social media on the basis that they can – if they can knock out some of the smaller population states it's cheaper to do because we’re a lower population and they’re able to do damage to the majority of the states test for referendum.

That said, I have great confidence in my fellow South Australians. They will read things on the Facebook and so on that aren’t true. I think they’ll see through that. I recently put up a photograph of myself with Noel Pearson in my electorate doing some campaigning for the Voice. I was right along side and was very proud to do so. The kind of comments I read on that post made me question that social media is sometimes even worth engaging with. That’s the world that we are in now. There is misinformation and unpleasantness that’s shared behind an anonymity of no-one knowing who’s saying it and not having to stare someone in the face. But I think South Australians will see through that. As we get closer to the date being set, then the referendum itself we’ll start to hear much more clearly the very simple arguments in favour of the referendum hasn’t just been put by Minister Tanya Plibersek. This is simply about recognising that we are fortunate enough to be a nation that has First Nations people with a continuous culture. This is an opportunity to listen what they have to say, and it’s our chance to get some results, to make a difference in ways that to date we haven’t been able to.

JOURNALIST: But do you wonder whether South Australians actually want a state Voice to Parliament given that there is concern that there might not be the numbers for a Federal Voice? What is the difference?

DEPUTY PREMIER: We were very clear as part of our election campaign that we would introduce a Voice to Parliament, that we would, in fact follow the Uluru Statement from the Heart. I cannot tell you the number of times I stood next to Peter Malinauskas during the election campaign even earlier than the campaign started that he made it very clear that that was our commitment. So we utterly made that part of the reason for voting for Labor, and we won the election. We, therefore, have stuck to our commitments.

I’m not going to look at opinion polls that are a long way out from the actual vote to determine whether or not we support a South Australian Voice to Parliament. We’re not even asking that question. What I hope and respect is that South Australians will realise what a simple proposition this is, what an open hearted proposition this is and that they support.