SA Country Hour interview with Minister for the Environment and Water Tanya Plibersek

SUBJECTS: Murray-Darling Basin Plan.

SELINA GREEN, HOST: Well, yesterday Water Minister Tanya Plibersek revealed she’d brokered a new deal between the Federal Government and the states of New South Wales, South Australia, Queensland and the Australian Capital Territory. It will seek to return 450 gigalitres of water to the environment with irrigation licence buybacks and extending the deadline to December 2027, around three years later than the original plan.

In return, those states have agreed to put all options on the table for water recovery, which includes the federal government purchasing water from willing sellers. Victoria says it won’t join the new basin plan. So what’s in it for South Australia? For those listeners who were with me at the start of the program earlier, we heard for some of the Murray irrigators and those from the local wine industry for their thoughts.

Well, the Water Minister, Tanya Plibersek, is in Adelaide today and I spoke with her a short time ago. Minister, thank you so much for making time for the Country Hour. Good afternoon.


GREEN: Now, the deadline extensions for the plan, for the projects, have been described as a no-brainer. I think everyone pretty much saw that coming. The concept of buybacks, of course, is what’s raised some more conflicted reactions. So why have you decided it’s necessary to utilise water buybacks to make this plan work?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Well, I’ve consistently said that all options to deliver the plan are on the table, and I’ve said from the beginning it was likely that voluntary water purchase would be part of that. We’ve had a very good look at the likelihood of the water saving projects, the water-efficiency projects that we’ve still got in the pipeline, delivering all of the water required for the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. I don’t believe it’s possible to deliver the plan with infrastructure projects only. And I’m saying we need genuinely all of those options on the table. That means voluntary water purchase, it means we’re happy to look at new projects if there are any that can be completed by December 2026. We’re looking at water operation rules. There’s a range of approaches that we need to consider, but voluntary water purchase is very definitely going to be one of them.

GREEN: Where do you see the buybacks going to come from? Who would potential sellers be?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Well, we’re quite a way now from the first water purchase that we’ll do. We’ve still got to do the reconciliation on the infrastructure projects that are being built. We need to make sure we know exactly how much water they’re going to deliver. Once we’ve determined that we’ll make an assessment about how much water we might need to buy.

We’re going to spread that water purchase over a number of years as well. So we’re not going to hurry into the market for this next phase of the plan. We do have a pretty good idea of the fact that there are willing sellers out there because we have actually been buying water this year under another part of the plan, the bridging the gap target part of the plan. We’re looking for about 44 gigalitres of water under the bridging the gap target. And we’ve been able to test the market in that way. We’ve seen that there are willing sellers in a number of different parts of Australia. So we’re looking at that, we’re looking at that right now.

GREEN: With the timing, I guess you’re looking at industries that are not doing so great at the moment, particularly the wine and grape industry is struggling hard. The timing of this, is that coming in at a time where there are motivated but also possible sellers with no other option financially and taking advantage of that?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Well, no, not really. The timing is dictated by the fact that the plan was supposed to be completed and it’s not completed. And we’ve got to get it back on track. So the reason that we’re talking about finalising the water infrastructure projects, the reason that we’re talking about other ways of delivering on the objectives of the plan is because we’ve got to get it back on track.

And over the last decade virtually no progress has been made. The previous government essentially was sitting on its hands – I’d say even deliberately sabotaging the delivery of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. If you look at all of the water that’s been recovered for the environment, about 84 per cent of all water recovery has been done under Labor governments – just 16 per cent of water that’s been recovered towards these targets was recovered over the decade of Liberal and National government.

So we’ve seen flatlining progress. The timing for us is really dictated by the fact we’ve got to get this plan back on track. We know that we’ve had a few wet years. In some places we’ve had too much water. We’ve seen some even quite catastrophic floods. But one thing we know about Australia is the next drought is just around the corner. We’re seeing the first signs of that already emerging. We can’t afford to just continue to allow this Murray-Darling Basin Plan to drift off track, as it's done over the last decade.

GREEN: Interesting, some of the responses and reactions coming in overnight, and some mixed ones to that. Can you understand the concerns of those industries, those communities, that rely on that water when you are speaking of buybacks, what that could mean for them? Will there be consideration in that on any potential negative impacts on those communities that need access to that water?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Yeah, absolutely. I do understand it. And I’ve spoken to a lot of people who’ve told me about their fears and how they were impacted when water has been taken out of their community in the past. So there’s a few things I’d say: the first is this is about voluntary water purchase. We’re not talking about any sort of compulsory acquisition. We will, of course, look to minimise any social and economic impacts of water purchase. And, thirdly, that we have money available, substantial money available, to the states and territories that sign up to these revised targets in the plan. Money available for those states and territories to help with structural adjustment if there is any required. So we’re going to seek to minimise any impacts, but if there are impacts, there’ll be money to help.

GREEN: Across Australia, are metropolitan areas too reliant on the Murray? Places like Adelaide? Is that something that perhaps needs to be reviewed. Would that help reliance on buybacks as a solution to water recovery?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Look, this is an area of a million square kilometres with 2.3 million people living in it. Three million people rely on this river system for their drinking water. You’re talking about billions of dollars of agricultural value, but also billions of dollars of tourism and other industry. This is a huge and complex river system. But I think saying things like ‘is Adelaide too reliant on the system for their drinking water’ really kind of simplifies things way too much.

We need to meet all of the objectives across the river system. That means, of course, having enough drinking water for communities, for those 3 million people. It means other uses that people put water to in their homes, in their day-to-day lives, it means making sure that our high-value, high-quality agricultural sector is looked after. But it also means returning water for environmental uses. Because you remember what this plan came out of? The millennium drought was a time where we saw mass fish kills, we saw trees that were hundreds of years old just shrivelling up by the side of riverbanks. We’ve got wetlands, threatened species across the Murray-Darling Basin that rely on this water for their very survival. If we don’t act now, if we don’t look to prepare ourselves for the next drought, what we’re facing is greater pressure on people and industry and genuine threats to the survival of our environment.

GREEN: Well, speaking of the environment, of course, just down the road from us is the beautiful Coorong and Lower Lakes at the end of the river system. Of course vitally important and dependent on the flows that come down from the Murray. Under this new plan can South Australians feel confident it’s going to get the water it needs to survive in the face of a changing climate and signs of drought?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Well, if we don’t deliver on the Murray-Darling Basin Plan we are condemning the Coorong, the Lower Coorong, the Murray mouth to what we saw when we had an unregulated river system, and that was years when the Murray mouth was not open to the ocean, acid soils, increased salinity killing off species, dry riverbeds, driver wetlands. We can’t allow that to happen again.

Now, this is not to say that, in the middle of the worst droughts, we won’t see any impact on the environment. Of course we will. What this water for the environment means is that we can keep the river system healthy enough to survive until the rains fall again. That’s what we’re looking to do.

GREEN: Just finally before we let you go, Minister, of course, Victoria, a big point in this. How can this plan work without Victoria? If one state walks away and does its own plan, can it still work?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Well, yeah, because what’s on offer for Victoria is what’s on offer for the other states, which is more time to deliver their water saving and infrastructure projects, more money to do those projects and to provide any assistance to communities that are affected, and more options on the table for how we get to the objectives of the plan and more accountability. Victoria is saying they don’t support buybacks. Well, neither does New South Wales, but the simple fact is that I don’t need the agreement of the Victorian or the New South Wales governments to do voluntary water purchase. I do need the support of the federal parliament to do that; there’s legislation that will go into the parliament in the next few weeks, and those changes, it will be vital that anybody who supports the environment, anybody who supports the full delivery of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, votes for those changes.

But as for the states and territories, I can engage in voluntary water purchase without their support. And so the door remains open to Victoria. If they want more time to deliver their projects, more money, more options, I would very much welcome them signing onto the agreement.

GREEN: Speaking of accountability there is that something you’re looking to in-build into this, a greater level of accountability and transparency with those new targets, how they are or aren’t being met?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Yeah, absolutely. So the accountability works both ways. Like, if we give the states and territories longer to deliver on their part of the plan, that has to come with greater accountability. But I’m also prepared for the Commonwealth Government to be subject to greater accountability as well. We cannot allow this plan to drift off track again. We need to get it back on track and make sure it’s delivered.

Some of the examples of the greater accountability I’m talking about, first of all with water markets, we know that our water markets have become larger, more complex, more valuable in recent years. We need to introduce greater transparency and accountability in water markets and quite an extensive process has been underway to make sure we get those transparency and accountability measures right.

We also need to give greater powers, in some instances, to the Inspector-General of Water Compliance and make sure that where we make commitments either as a Commonwealth Government or as state and territory governments that we actually stick to those.

GREEN: Minister, we appreciate your time, making time for us this afternoon. Thanks for joining us on the Country Hour.

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: It’s a pleasure. Thanks so much for having me.

GREEN: That is the federal Water Minister, Tanya Plibersek, speaking with me a short time ago.