ABC Alice Springs interview with Minister for the Environment and Water Tanya Plibersek

27 July 2023

Subjects: Great Desert Skink, Yuendumu And Milingimbi water infrastructure, Mutitjulu, buffel Grass.

STEWART BRASH: Now, Federal Minister for Environment and Water Tanya Plibersek has also been here. She’s been down at the rock this week. Now, amongst her announcements, millions of dollars to address Yuendumu’s drinking water crisis. She’s speaking here to producer Charmayne Allison.

TANYA PLIBERSEK, MINISTER FOR THE ENVIRONMENT AND WATER: Well, I had some great things to announce in Uluru this week. The first thing that we were talking about yesterday was the new recovery plans for the Tjakura. This is the first-ever Indigenous led recovery plan for the great desert skink. It’s a real step forward with the Indigenous Desert Alliance doing a lot of the work with traditional owners using traditional knowledge to develop the recovery plan for the skink. And along with that, of course, we’ve announced a new program of grants of between $20,000 and $500,000 to councils, environment groups, First Nations organisations and others to do on-the-ground work to protect threatened species like the Tjakura.

I also announced very important grants yesterday, water grants, for Yuendumu and Milingimbi. These are the first two areas that will benefit from a new $150 million program from the Commonwealth Government. We’re working in partnerships with states and territories to deliver better water, more clean, reliable water, to remote communities. So, these two projects – in Yuendumu we’re investing with the Northern Territory Government $15.3 million for three critical water construction projects and in Milingimbi, we’re investing $11.4 million for three traditional water supply projects that will improve access and reliability of water there.

CHARMAYNE ALLISON: You mentioned three critical water infrastructure projects in Yuendumu. Can you tell us more about these and what they’ll involve?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Yeah. Absolutely. So the project includes a water service line replacement, equipping of two existing bores and a rising main replacement. And that will prevent leakage. It will provide increased water transfer capacity. And the really good thing about this, of course, is we know in Yuendumu people have been keen to build new housing and that hasn’t been able to happen because the water supply has been uncertain. Of course, when we get water right, we can do so much more.

ALLISON: And looking at Yuendumu in particular, when will this new infrastructure be delivered and will this solve the community’s drinking water crisis?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Well, of course, the aim is to solve the drinking water crisis and we’re working with the community and the Northern Territory Government to get work commenced as soon as possible. We want to obviously start as soon as we can. People have been waiting too long for this water.

ALLISON: We’ve heard that also today you will be delivering $90 million, which was announced in the federal budget for the community of Mutitjulu. Can you tell us more about this funding and how it will be used?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Yeah. We’re obviously very, very pleased about investing in the Mutitjulu upgrades. This work has been delayed too long as well. So, we’re talking about upgrading water, upgrading sewerage, upgrading the electricity supply. It means that we’ll be able to provide people with energy security, reliable electricity, and this is a $92.8 million project. At the moment, people in Mutitjulu experience regular power outages. They’ve got inadequate drinking water supplies. The sewerage system has really constrained the capacity to build new housing and there’s even regular – there’s blockages and overflows. The sewerage regularly discharges raw sewerage near the aged care home and the clinic. We need to get these basics right before we can build additional housing and before we can build the new health facility that the government is keen to build. We also want to make sure that as well as upgrading this work now, we’re going to continue to provide funding over time to make sure that we don’t just fix the problem now and then go back to having inadequate or poor quality water. We’ve got to fix the problem now and then invest each year to make sure that the clean drinking water, the working sewerage system and the running electricity are there into the future.

ALLISON: When can we expect these works in Mutitjulu to be completed?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Well, we’re already working with the local community now to make sure that this essential infrastructure is in place. We’re very keen to get underway. We’re already looking at contracts and I’m very hopeful that we’ll see this work completed quickly because again people have been waiting far too long.

ALLISON: So, your Government has announced a 10-year threatened species action plan for the MacDonnell Ranges National Park. This was last year. But we haven’t heard much since then. Where are we at with this?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Well, the work on the MacDonnell Ranges is going ahead nicely. We’re focusing on averting the extinction of the central rock rat, which is threatened by feral cats and inappropriate fire regimes. So, that’s if fires are burning too often and too hot, that’s a real problem. One of the issues that I’ve been hearing a lot about is the impact of buffel grass. Buffel grass obviously burns very hot and, you know, that is a real problem. So, we’re working to deal with the buffel grass problem. The reason that we’re focusing on the central rock rat is because it’s very close to extinction. We need to protect that species. But also, when we take action to protect that species, all of the species that share that environment benefit. So, we’re looking at the central rock rat. What do we need to do to protect that? We need to get rid of feral cats and we need to deal with these hotter more frequent fires. So, of course, we’re working with rangers on the land to do that.

We also, of course, had just yesterday announced a new grant round for priority species and that means that there will be grants of between $20,000 and $500,000 to local organisations that can do work on the ground to protect plants and animals. So, right across the NT where we’ve got threatened species, we can see that, you know, locally led investment in projects that deal with things like feral cat eradication, deal with things like buffel grass eradication.

ALLISON: You’ve mentioned, of course, buffel grass and the extremely hot and damaging fires it’s causing in the region. Should buffel be classified as a weed?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Well, the Commonwealth Government recognises the threat of buffel grass and other plants like buffel grass that have been introduced as a key threat to the environment. I know the Northern Territory Government’s established a technical working group to look at the impacts of buffel grass and look at how it can be better managed across Central Australia. And I had many, many conversations yesterday, particularly with the Anangu, with conservation managers, with environmental groups, with conservation scientists. All of them are supportive of stronger action on buffel grass, including weed status for buffel grass. I think the South Australian government has already declared it a weed. I think there’s no question that it is having a really serious damaging impact.

BRASH: Tanya Plibersek, Federal Environment Minister. So, yep, there’s money there. There’s obviously concern also on the issue of buffel. Tanya Plibersek, Environment and Water Minister, speaking there to Charmayne Allison.