27 September 2023
THE HON TANYA PLIBERSEK MP
MINISTER FOR THE ENVIRONMENT AND WATER
SPEECH TO THE MURRAY DARLING ASSOCIATION CONFERENCE
MURRAY BRIDGE, SOUTH AUSTRALIA
WEDNESDAY 27 SEPTEMBER 2023
It’s a pleasure to be here on the home of the Ngarrindjeri people.
I acknowledge the traditional owners of the land and pay my respects to Elders past and present.
And I extend that respect to all First Nations people here today.
Thank you for having me, here in beautiful Murray Bridge, for my second annual Murray Darling Association conference.
I gave my speech last year on a rainy day in Albury. And I remember that, because I forgot to pack my umbrella.
Luckily, I was a guest of the Basin Authority, who are a bit like the Scouts – they come prepared.
Which meant that I was able to drive out to the Hume Dam after my speech, to watch the flood gate operations.
This was in September last year, when our dams were nearly full.
For all the engineers I spoke to that day, for all of us working in government, we had one priority:
Reducing the flood risk and protecting communities along the river line.
So there was a part of me that felt a bit ridiculous standing up at the conference that morning, in the middle of a flood, and talking about drought.
And I understand if people had other things on their mind, more immediate pressures.
But I chose to speak about drought that day for a reason.
Because even in our wettest moments, even when it feels like the rain will never stop, we understand what it means to live in this country.
As Australians, we know the next drought is always just around the corner.
And hard experience tells us that the best time to prepare for that next drought is well before it hits.
Now, we are meeting under very different conditions this year.
From record September rainfall last year, to record September heatwaves this month.
From the depths of La Nina to the early days of El Nino.
When the Bureau of Meteorology made their announcement two weeks ago, it was more of a confirmation than a revelation.
We were anticipating the return of El Nino, we were steeling ourselves for the worst, but that doesn’t make it any easier.
And I want to acknowledge the stress and pressure this news has placed on farmers and regional communities.
We don’t know what this El Nino period will look like exactly.
We all hope it’s softer and more forgiving than the last one.
But we do know what we have to prepare for:
Less rainfall, warmer temperatures, more bushfire risk, more extreme heat.
And for all your councils, more strain on the river system and everyone who depends on it.
We had a short glimpse of this, just two weeks ago.
With catastrophic fire warnings on the south coast of New South Wales.
38 degrees in Port Augusta. 34 degree days Sydney, two days in a row.
The first time that’s ever happened in September.
On days like that, just three weeks past the end of winter, we start to wonder what the actual summer might bring.
These thoughts and these conversations are happening all around Australia, but they carry an extra force in your communities.
You experienced the last El Nino cycle, you saw the worst of it.
When the Darling River stopped flowing for more than 400 days.
When millions of native fish died, all at once.
And when farming communities were brought to their knees, desperate for water.
It was right here, in the town of Murray Bridge, that Channel Nine came to launch a national drought appeal four years ago.
Drought is the reason we have a Murray-Darling Basin Plan in this country.
Drought is why Labor made a commitment to deliver the Murray Darling Basin Plan, in full, as it was designed.
And drought is why we’ve worked so hard with the states and territories to find a way to fulfil that promise to the river system.
Our new Basin agreement is currently before the parliament.
And today I want to go through some of its details with you.
To outline its key points. To explain our new timelines.
And to respond to some of the arguments being made against it.
This new agreement took the best part of a year to piece together.
We were in the early stages of those conversations last year in Albury.
We’ve worked with states and territories, with local councils like your own, with farmers and irrigators, with scientists and experts.
We’ve discussed these matters in good faith and at considerable length.
I don’t need to tell you how difficult water policy can be in a federation like ours.
Everyone needs to give a little, to compromise in the national interest, to feel some empathy across state lines.
And that is what most of us were able to do.
No one got everything they asked for, but almost everyone could live with it in the end.
Which is usually the sign of a fair agreement.
The new arrangement gives the states more time to build their infrastructure projects.
And it gives us a pathway to finally securing the 450 gigalitres of water for the environment.
It provides more time, more flexibility, more options, more money and more accountability.
More time to deliver the Sustainable Diversion Limit Adjustment Mechanism supply and constraints projects.
More flexibility for Basin states to bring forward new supply projects.
More options to deliver the 450 gigalitres of water.
More money to secure water and support affected communities.
And more accountability measures for all levels of governments to deliver on their obligations.
We announced this agreement last month, and since then, we’ve introduced our legislation to parliament, and seen it debated extensively in the House of Representatives.
We needed new legislation because it was impossible to deliver the plan by the old deadlines.
That is what the Murray Darling Basin Authority advised me.
The Restoring Our Rivers Bill changes those deadlines:
Extending the delivery date for SDLAM supply projects to December 2026.
Allowing the states to nominate new projects up until June 2025.
And extending recovery for the 450 gigalitres to December 2027.
With these changes, we are giving everyone greater flexibility and more options to get the job done.
More flexibility, but also more accountability.
And that includes on the 450 gigalitres of water for the environment, which had been put to sleep by the previous government.
Just two gigalitres in nine years, with $1.3 billion sitting in a special account unspent.
My predecessors set out to undermine this target, not deliver it.
And that is what we are changing, by opening up the full suite of water recovery options.
With our amendments, we will be able invest in on-farm water infrastructure, in land and water purchases, and in other novel water recovery mechanisms.
We will be able to count recovery above Bridging the Gap targets towards the 450 gigalitre target.
And yes, we will be able to purchase water from willing sellers, where it’s needed to deliver the plan.
I know that this is a sticking point for many people.
We’ve been having this conversation for a long time now, the battlelines are well established.
But even if we disagree, dialogue is still important.
And so is establishing all the facts.
There are some out there who are saying we are looking to buy all the water needed.
That our government’s policy is unlimited buybacks.
Some of these claims are coming from genuine fear, but some are coming from a cynical desire to scare people.
I want to make this clear from the start: it’s not true.
Across our recent consultation, we received 130 different suggestions for delivering the plan.
And the more of these ideas we can realise, the less water we will need to purchase.
Water purchase is never the only tool in the box, it’s not the first tool at hand.
But it has to be part of the mix, if we’re serious about meeting these targets.
You know your towns, you know the families who work the land, you want what’s best for your communities.
And it’s hard not to feel worried when you hear some of the claims being made in Canberra – claims that get more apocalyptic every day.
Now, I’m not going to walk into this conference and suggest that water purchase will never have an impact.
But Basin farmers have continued to thrive over a full decade of water recovery.
Since 2012, when the Basin Plan started, when water recovery began, the value of irrigated agriculture has remained steady.
Forty per cent of our food and fibre is grown here.
One hundred per cent of Australia’s rice and 90 per cent of our cotton.
You continue be a powerhouse of agricultural output.
And there is no sign of this diminishing or wavering.
Our farmers are adapting to the climate, adopting new technologies and remaining world leading.
They’re juggling the many pressures that come with modern agriculture.
Fluctuating commodity prices, a volatile trade environment.
Farm consolidation, an ageing regional population.
Technological improvements, increasing automation, even the value of the Australian dollar.
All of these change the commercial calculations you are making every day.
Water is an important part of the equation, but it’s one part.
As I said, I accept that voluntary purchase will have impacts.
Which is why we will provide significant transitional assistance to Basin communities where that’s needed.
It’s there to help communities that are heavily dependent on irrigation, to support new economic opportunities.
I understand later today some of you will be meeting with my department’s officials to start a process of consultation on the assistance program.
We want it to be as useful as possible, as efficient as possible.
And the only way to do that is through genuine engagement.
A second criticism of the plan is that water purchase will affect food prices.
But again – that’s not what history says.
People here understand the many variables that go into food prices.
Fuel costs, energy costs, labour and transportation costs, supply and demand.
Cyclone Yasi wiped out banana plantations, making the humble banana a luxury food.
The black summer bushfires cost agriculture between $4 billion and $5 billion.
Frosts are estimated to cause losses of $700 million each year.
Yet when water recovery was at its highest in 2011 and 2012, the price of food and drinks actually decreased by 3.2 per cent.
Remember, our farmers are business people.
In an average year, about 90 per cent of our cotton and 75 per cent of our rice is exported.
With so much destined for overseas markets, any link to Australian grocery bills is going to be modest.
I am not saying that water recovery has no impact.
I am saying that the impacts attributed to it can be overstated and should be dealt with methodically and sensibly.
Something else I am hearing is that this is just about South Australia.
It is true that South Australia fought to have the 450 gigalitres included in the Basin Plan.
That’s because they’re at the end of the system.
If I was in their position, I would fight for my water too. As we all would.
They know that the trickle of river keeping the Lower Lakes alive can vanish as water becomes scarce up stream.
A repeat of the Millenium drought would put the drinking water of communities in jeopardy once again.
Three million people rely on this river system to supply their most basic need.
So keeping the Lower Lakes healthy is clearly important for South Australia, but it’s also necessary for the entire river system.
During the Millenium drought, when water in the Murray evaporated, salinity skyrocketed and the soils became toxic.
The 450 will help export two million tonnes of salt through the Murray mouth every year.
It will help water another 35,000 hectares of floodplain in South Australia, New South Wales and Victoria.
And it will stop a repeat of the acidification of the lakes.
Like all of you, I want the best for Basin communities.
I want to work with you to make sure we have healthy rivers alongside healthy communities and a strong agricultural sector.
It’s not a binary choice. Working together, we can achieve both.
Not just on water policy, but across agricultural decisions.
Securing trade agreements for your produce, including into crucial Chinese markets.
Dealing with biosecurity risks, like Foot and Mouth Disease and Lumpy Skin Disease.
Working with your businesses to attract a skilled and sufficiently large workforce.
Investing $300 million to grow our plantation timber industry.
And in my portfolio, helping farmers earn extra income, with our world first nature repair market.
We are here to support Australian agriculture, to celebrate your success.
We want to help you keep feeding our people and underwriting our economy with export income.
That’s why we are delivering the Basin Plan in full.
Because if we don’t protect the river, we won’t be protecting your communities or your industries.
This is not a question of prioritising the environment over agriculture, or agriculture over the environment.
Because the truth is, we need both, and each depends on the other to survive.
We can’t have a healthy rural economy without a sustainable river system.
And we won’t have a prosperous Basin without secure farmers.
We don’t want to wake up one day to a dead river system and realise that we could have done something to stop it.
We have to finish what we started. We have to protect the river system.
For the families who farm it. For the communities who depend on it.
For all our kids and grandkids that will come after us.