Press conference on Burdekin River System Forum with Minister for the Environment and Water Tanya Plibersek

SUBJECTS: Burdekin River System Forum; Water planning across the Burdekin; Queensland Government reshuffle.

SCOTT STEWART, STATE MEMBER FOR TOWNSVILLE: Well good morning, everyone. It's great to have the Federal Minister for the Environment and Water Tanya Plibersek in town, and of course we've got the State Member for Gladstone and also the Minister for Water Glenn Butcher in town for what is a great announcement.

Now what we will be doing today is giving you some details around the Burdekin River. As an old Burdekin boy myself I know the importance of what this river means to us here in North Queensland, and particularly for us here in Townsville.

It's been the Palaszczuk Government who's invested in water infrastructure to make sure that this city has the adequate water supply not only now but certainly into the future.

The announcements we'll be making today certainly complement what we are doing, and I'll ask Minister Butcher to add some more comments.

GLENN BUTCHER, QUEENSLAND MINISTER FOR WATER: Thanks Scotty. It's great to be here this morning as well. We are today holding a forum with Minister Plibersek in town to identify the Burdekin River system. We know how important it is here in North Queensland, the Burdekin system, and for a long time now there's been so many proponents coming forward wanting to do large scale projects on the Burdekin River.

We want to make sure that we have an opportunity going forward to identify everything that's involved with the Burdekin River system. We want to identify opportunities for agricultural, we want to identify opportunities for water security for hydrogen industries into the future, we want to make sure it's environmentally secure for future generations to come.

We want to make sure that at the end of it where the water flows out into the ocean that the reef is protected. We want to make sure during this period that we identify all of these things that are attributed to the Burdekin system.

Today we're holding a forum with members around the Burdekin that are either agriculture, as I said, environmental groups, governments, all levels of government are going to be there today, just to have an exchange of words, an exchange of theories of what's going to be moving forward.

Tanya will be announcing what we're going to be doing very shortly, but today's forum's an opportunity for all those groups to come together to listen to how we're going to run this plan into the future.

So, as I said, a great system. We've made some announcements through the State. We made an announcement as recently as last year that we're going to raise Burdekin Falls Dam by two metres and that is a decision that has been made by the State Government on the back of the Dam Improvement Project that needs to be done.

So, there's a lot going on in this space, but we want to take time to identify, as I said, those opportunities moving forward, priorities for this catchment and a way forward into the future.

I'll hand over to Tanya now to tell you exactly what we're all doing here.

TANYA PLIBERSEK, MINISTER FOR THE ENVIRONMENT AND WATER: Thanks so much, Glenn, and it's such a pleasure to be back here in Townsville again. This is my third visit since becoming Minister and that's because this is a really important community for water management.

Australians live on the driest inhabited continent on earth, and we know that in an area like this across the Burdekin catchment we've already got a lot of demand for water. We've got all of the uses that Minister Butcher was talking about. There's agriculture, there's industry, of course there's drinking water for our towns and there's environmental uses and cultural uses. We need to make sure that the water quality is good for all of those.

We need to make sure that the water quality is good before it flows out onto the Great Barrier Reef because water quality has been identified as one of the most important things that we can do to protect the reef into the future.

So we live in the driest inhabited continent on Earth. We're in a region right now where water security is absolutely vital for human livelihoods, for human health and for the economy.

What we know is that demand for secure and clean water is only going to increase in coming years. Climate change will affect water availability. The development of industries, existing industries and new industries like hydrogen will also increase the demand for water.

What we can't afford to do is what the previous Federal Government did. It just had a scatter gun approach where you announce projects with no environmental impact statements, no business case, and then try and retrofit those things afterwards.

We actually need to take an approach that looks at a whole region, a whole river system and then says what is the best way to ensure water security and water quality and water availability for future years.

So today I'm delighted to announce that the Commonwealth Government will contribute $5.5 million to a water planning exercise across the Burdekin. That's part of an $11.5 million commitment to our planning more broadly across Queensland.

We've been working very cooperatively with the Palaszczuk Government, and I really want to compliment Minister Butcher for the work that he's done on water investment and water planning for the future.

We need to take an approach that is strategic, that is long term and that makes sure that all of the interests that we need to meet with water planning are actually considered for the future.

So that's what we're announcing today. We're just about to go off to meet with local mayors, with irrigators, industry representatives, First Nations peoples, with scientists and environmentalists to begin this next stage of more comprehensive, more thoughtful and more strategic planning for water uses in the Burdekin.

I'm going to ask Senator Nita Green now to say a few words. As the Reef Special Envoy she has a really important role of ensuring that the Great Barrier Reef is protected, preserved and prepared for the future, and she knows better than anyone how important the issue of water quality is for protecting the reef.

SENATOR NITA GREEN, SPECIAL ENVOY FOR THE GREAT BARRIER REEF: Thank you, Tanya. It's great to be here with Scott and with Butch and Tanya to talk about water and to talk about the relationship between the Burdekin catchment and the Great Barrier Reef.

I'm really excited about the event that we'll be attending today, but I'm also incredibly proud of the announcement we've made today to deliver $5.5 million to this project to get the best possible outcome for the Burdekin catchment.

We know that water quality is a huge issue with the Great Barrier Reef. It's one of the main threats that we face in keeping the reef strong and resilient for generations to come. So, getting the right planning and the right assessment, and the way to do this in connection with communities is incredibly vital for the Great Barrier Reef.

I've said this many times before, but it is just as important what happens with the water on the shore inland as it is what happens in the water in the Great Barrier Reef. Those two things are incredibly connected and that's why this is an important announcement today, not only for people living in Townsville, not only for people living in the Burdekin but for the 64,000 jobs that rely on the Great Barrier Reef. It's one of our key economic assets in regional Queensland and as regional Queenslanders we are committed to protecting it.

I also just think this is a sign of things to come when you have two governments who are willing to work together. We've seen in the past really divisive politics when it comes to water, when it comes to the environment, when it comes to things that are happening in regional Queensland.  But it's really good to see two governments working together hand in hand and discussing the best outcomes for our communities. That's what can be delivered when you have two governments willing to work together.

We need to move away from the past where we had planning by press release by the former Liberal National Government. We're working together. The adults are back in charge. The Liberal National Party delivered press releases, we are delivering a plan for the Burdekin and I'm excited to be here today. Thanks.


JOURNALIST: Minister, just for you on the water project. Townsville [inaudible] has called for a new dam to be built in North Queensland. Considering hydrogen projects and water security into the future, is that something that the Albanese Government would back?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Well we've got over $2 billion of money on the table for water infrastructure projects, and in fact we announced close to an extra $200 million in the budget just a week and a half ago. So we are absolutely open to water infrastructure projects that stack up economically and environmentally and we're investing, as I say, $2 billion to make sure that we deliver those.

What we're not going to do is make announcements, as Senator Green said, make announcements, issue press releases and then try and work out whether the project's feasible afterwards. That's why we invest in the first instance in regional planning like this. So that we consider the water resources across the whole region, the water needs as they are now, and the water needs as they'll be in the future.

JOURNALIST: Again for you Minister, sorry, we've got the Burdekin basin water plan, this is the Burdekin regional water assessment. What's the difference?  Is this another plan no action? 

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: No, absolutely not. This is a great example of where we're working absolutely hand in hand with the Queensland Government. These assessments work very sensibly together.

I think maybe Minister Butcher wants to add a little bit to this because what we're not going to do is continue down the path where we take a haphazard project by project approach to this, and whether the project gets funded depends on who the proponent is.

If we need to consider the needs of the whole community across the Burdekin region, the needs that they'll have tomorrow and the needs that they'll have in 10, 20 and 30 years’ time.

JOURNALIST: Sorry, and again how does this differ, there's a water plan and a water assessment?  It's a lot of money for, you know, interchangeable words.

BUTCHER: I can help answer that. So every river system and every catchment in Queensland sits under a water plan. That tells us how much water is available for use for buying water rights. This tells us all about the environmental side of things. That has to be reviewed every 10 years and the Burdekin water plan is up for review and that is in process right now.

So that will ride right beside the regional water assessments. We're currently doing three other water, regional water assessments throughout the State.  One in the Southern Downs, one in the Burnett and one in the Tablelands.

This is now, this announcement today, is another regional water assessment which will actually partner with the regional water plant to give us an idea of what water is available into the future.

A lot of these large-scale projects that we've heard been announced in the past by the previous LNP Government never took into account how much water is actually available to build these large-scale dams in Queensland.

What this review will do as the water plan, it will give us an idea of how much water is actually available. Some of these plans that we have here in Queensland are up to 20 years' old. A lot of things have changed in the last decade or the last 20 years. Some of the things like the environment. Water evaporation is massive now which wasn't calculated in the plans 20 years ago. The reef, the water that runs out to the reef. Traditional Owner water allocations. All now to be taken into account as part of a refresh and a revamp of the water plans currently.

So these two things will work side by side. It can take up to two years to do a regional water plan   sorry, a plan for the Burdekin, but this other plan will also take around two years. So they can work together, exactly what will happen.

JOURNALIST: Which means 10 to 15 years of a lot of business as usual with the Burdekin. What's the significance of both State and Federal Governments coming together in this collaboration for the Burdekin? 

BUTCHER: I think Tanya made it quite clear before. We actually need to work together on these things. We can't have the Federal Government going off making these large announcements for things that may not even stack up environmentally or economically.

We want to now capture under this water plan and under the regional water assessment the best way forward for this plan.

I think the people of North Queensland want to hear from two levels of government that the water that's been taken or the water that's been proposed to be used is actually good for the river system. Our agriculture sector want to make sure that they have water security into the future, not only for their current programs that they have but what they can do into the future as well. These two plans running together will give them that certainty.

We've got to stop making these large-scale announcements on massive big dams in the same river system. This will give us an idea of what we can do now and what we can do into the future.

JOURNALIST: Minister, just a question on another topic, do you think there should be a cabinet reshuffle? 

BUTCHER: Well that's up to the Premier of course, but in saying that, our cabinet is a good cabinet. We've gone to elections before with the same cabinet and I have all faith in all of our cabinet ministers that sit around the table.

JOURNALIST: Maybe one for you and Scott, do you know if you're moving cabinets at all? 

BUTCHER: That's up to the Premier, as I'd said. I haven't received any phone calls [inaudible] in Brisbane.

JOURNALIST: And with Yvette D'Ath maybe moving out of the health portfolio obviously that affects your area of Gladstone. Do you think she's done a good job in the role? 

BUTCHER: Well it's been a challenging time and I don't know how many times I've had to say it's difficult enough, and you probably know up here in North Queensland, it's hard enough to find a barista for a coffee shop let alone obstetricians coming into our hospitals. And it's been very, very challenging.

But what I can say is my relationship with Yvette D'Ath has been very positive on how we fix this problem. We came up with a staged approach and we're going through that staged approach right now. So certainly I've been working very closely with her and her Department to get to a stage now where we're nearly about to announce that we can get back to original services we went before bypass.

JOURNALIST: Just a question for Scott as well. Scott, Youth Justice is also stated to be changed from what we've seen. What do you think needs to be put into that role? 

STEWART: Yeah, so look, we've certainly done as a Government a lot of reforms in that Youth Justice space and we've done some changes to the legislation, as everyone well knows. So we will continue to look at every opportunity where we can make some differences, where we can continue to drive the agenda changes that we've put into place and make sure that those work and work very closely with the police as well.

JOURNALIST: Townsville residents want a tougher approach. Do you think that that's something that needs to be brought into the role if that Minister does change? 

STEWART: Well we certainly have done those tougher approaches. In fact as we continue to say we've got the toughest legislation in Australia when it comes to Youth Justice laws. But what we need to do is to look at as many different ways as we possibly can to address this.

So we've changed the legislation, we've increased the number of police out on the beat, and we've got the commitment to that. But it's also looking at those diversionary programs to break that cycle of crime. These are all the things that we need to do, engaging kids back into school, looking after those families with those wrap around services. There is a plethora of strategies that we are putting in place to make sure we can address this right across our community.

JOURNALIST: Are you staying in your portfolio?

STEWART: I haven't had a phone call and I'm continuing to love my resources portfolio, because as a North Queensland boy, you know, the northwest minerals province and the critical minerals that that brings is certainly outstanding for us, and with the world mining congress coming up in Brisbane which puts us really as the centrepiece for Australia only in five weeks' time, I think this is our great opportunity to shine and we'll continue to shine and I'm so proud to be the Resources Minister.

JOURNALIST: Scott, we're well over a year away from the next State election, is it a sign of a government in crisis from your belief? 

STEWART: Well look, I think that's a question you ask the Premier. Again, I'm happy doing what I'm doing. I've got full confidence in all our cabinet, and we'll continue to serve the people of Queensland.

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: We might make this the last one if that's okay because we've got mayors to meet.

JOURNALIST: As we've seen dam proposals here in the north rarely accepted and approved based on a number of factors. Is this a sign that the Federal Government's going to be looking at, you know, reducing water use, water use efficiency rather than investing in big dams?  

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: No. As I said earlier we've got $2 billion on the table for water infrastructure across Australia, and a fair whack of that's already committed to Queensland. Minister Butcher is behind me saying 40 per cent, which is a pretty good deal I have to say.

We are absolutely   I mean we are funding large dam projects right now. We're prepared to fund dams when they stack up. What we won't do is make commitments by press release to the people of Queensland and then not follow through.

I mean you take Barnaby Joyce is just one example of a former Water Minister. On the one hand he's saying, "I want to build Hells Gate Dam" and on the other hand he's saying, you know, "We want these Bradfield style schemes that pump the water inland". In private correspondence or secret correspondence to the Queensland Government at the very same time he's saying that these schemes don't stack up.

So we're going to be straight. We're going to be upfront. We're going to do the science. We're going to do the investigation. We're going to talk to the community. We're going to talk to the stakeholders and we're going to come up with a plan that actually works, that actually delivers the water security, the water quality, the confidence the Burdekin needs.

JOURNALIST: Just on Toondah Harbour.

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Thanks everyone.

JOURNALIST: Can I get my one question? 

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: All right. This is really the end. Toondah Harbour, the proponents have got a little bit more time to finalise the final EIS. As the decision maker on the matter I simply can't give you a running commentary. Any suggestion that I've prejudged the issue is fatal to any decision I make. So I can just tell you that we are in the final stages of receiving the updated EIS from the proponent. There'll be a period of assessment then I'll make a decision.

One last question.

JOURNALIST: I appreciate that, Minister.

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: From the gentleman who has not yet asked one.

JOURNALIST: Thank you very much. Why was the North Queensland Water Infrastructure Authority cut and where are those jobs going? 

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Well because one of the projects that they were managing has been discontinued and the other two can be best dealt with by the same people who are doing water infrastructure right across Australia, and it makes sense to bring this together as one project delivery part of the National Water Grid.

My experience with talking to officials here in Queensland is that they've been perfectly happy with the discussions that they've had with the branch of the water grid that will end up taking responsibility for these projects. Obviously people who are currently working in that North Queensland part of the agency will be hopefully relocated into the department as a whole. It's an administrative decision.

JOURNALIST: Thank you.