PRUE BENTLEY, HOST: Now, the Federal Water Minister, Tanya Plibersek, has been in Mildura today, just a week on from announcing a new Murray-Darling Basin deal. The Minister hasn't made any indication she's phased by Victoria opting out of the deal, which would see the timeline on efficiency infrastructure projects extended in return for an extra 450 gigalitres of water buybacks. And the Minister is with me now.

Tanya Plibersek, good afternoon.


BENTLEY: Look, I'm very well. How was the meeting in Mildura today? And who did you meet with?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Well, I'm still in Mildura, and I'm having a lovely time here. I've been out, first of all, to see one of the Lower Murray water efficiency projects. So, we were looking at some of the canals that have been relined with plastic to reduce the water leakage from the canals. I've been out to a farm to talk to some irrigators who - a couple of people growing table grapes and other crops, meeting up with some farmers. And now I'm down at the riverfront in Mildura looking at some of the work that's been done here in the past, really, to connect the river back to the city in a way that means people can enjoy the river much more.

BENTLEY: So, with the new arrangements that you announced last week - and obviously we know that the Victorian government has opted out of that deal - what does that mean?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Well, I think Prue - I think the better way to say it is they have not yet signed onto the deal.

BENTLEY: So, are you hopeful that they will?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Yes. Well, I hope so, because it's all upside for Victoria. What I'm proposing is more time to complete the projects that are already underway, more money, more accountability, because, you know, this plan is already running desperately behind schedule. We've got real problems delivering it. In fact, it's impossible to deliver it in the ordinary time frames that were previously set. So, more time, more money, but more accountability so that we know that it will be eventually delivered and more flexibility, too. So, I've been talking to people right across the Murray-Darling Basin about how we make sure we deliver on the objectives of the plan in the best possible way.

You mentioned earlier the 450 gigalitres of additional environmental water. We're not saying that that's the amount we're going to buy or that we're going to buy all of that. What I'm saying is that voluntary water purchase will have to be part of the solution here. And it's unrealistic to think that of the extra 750 or so gigalitres we still need to find to complete the plan, that none of that will be water purchase. Water purchase will have to be some of it, and we're looking at the ways of doing that that have the best possible impacts for communities, reducing any sort of unnecessary negative social and economic impact.

BENTLEY: Minister, you say that you are hopeful that the Victorian government will sign on. Have you had any further negotiations or discussions with Harriet Shing, state water minister?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: We're continuing to talk government to government. But, I mean, I suppose the thing for Victoria is, really, it's all upside. I mean, the Victorian Government have said that they don't want to see any more water purchase. Well, the NSW Government aren't keen on water purchase either. But as the Commonwealth Water Minister, it's my responsibility to see the plan completed. And I don't need the permission of the NSW or the Victorian Government to make water purchase part of the completion of the plan. So, it doesn't really make sense to show their opposition to water purchase by refusing to sign up to a deal that gives more time and more money and more flexibility.

BENTLEY: So, of the people that you spoke to today, Tanya Plibersek, were any of those irrigators in particular, sounding positive about engaging in a water buyback scheme?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Well, I wasn't here to negotiate water purchases today [indistinct] -

BENTLEY: But of course, it's going to come up, isn't it? Because this is obviously the big sticking point.

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Yeah. And I'd say that it is true that there are plenty of people who rely on irrigation for their livelihoods who are made nervous by the idea that there'll be further water purchase. And I guess what I say to them is we're talking only ever about voluntary water purchases and we're doing them in the way that would have the least impact on communities. And we've also got structural adjustment funding available on the table where there are unavoidable impacts.

And I think the big difference between now and when the plan was first written a decade or so ago is that most people now say, “Yes, we need to complete the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. We understand that historically, we've taken too much water out of this enormous and vastly important and complex river system. We've taken too much water out. We know the next drought is just around the corner. We know that south-eastern Australia is getting hotter and drier because of climate change. We have to prepare for the future.” They see it as important that we complete the plan. We just need to do it in the most sensible and the most sensitive way possible.

BENTLEY: I'm speaking with the federal Water Minister, Tanya Plibersek, who is in Mildura today. Minister, can I clarify something about the efficiency projects? Because under the new arrangement that you announced last week, you have extended the timeframe for getting those done with Victoria not signing on. What does that actually mean for Victorian efficiency projects? Do they not have the ability to finish or to extend their timeframes?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Well, an extension of time frame applies universally. What we need to do to get that extension of time frames is actually take that through the federal parliament. It’s in the federal parliament that those rules around the deadlines are set as part of the Water Act and the Murray-Darling Basin Plan.

So, I've still got one big job, which is to get these changes through the federal parliament. And then beyond that, the negotiations with the states, I'm not going to conduct them through the media, but in general, what we're seeking to do with the states that do sign on is provide more support to get these projects completed. More time, as well as more support. And I think that's the attraction for the states that have signed on.

BENTLEY: So, you may withhold that support from Victoria if they don’t sign on.

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: I'm absolutely not going to have these negotiations done on the radio through the media. We are talking all the time about how we can work better together in a way that delivers the Murray-Darling Basin Plan.

BENTLEY: Tanya Plibersek, thank you for your time.

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: It's a pleasure to talk to you.