ABC News Breakfast interview with Minister for the Environment and Water Tanya Plibersek

26 July 2023

MICHAEL ROWLAND, HOST: The writing has been on the wall for some time. It has been confirmed that the $13 billion Murray-Darling Basin Plan will not be completed on time by the scheduled deadline in the middle of next year. The Environment and Water minister Tanya Plibersek says she will look to come up with a new timeline but with so much division is it achievable at all. I spoke to the minister a short time ago.
TANYA PLIBERSEK, MINISTER FOR THE ENVIRONMENT AND WATER: Well it’s happened because there has been nine years of deliberate sabotage by a Coalition government. We are likely to be about 750 gigalitres short of the target by the middle of next year, the equivalent of 300,000 Olympic size swimming pools. If you look at the life of the plan, we are talking about a plan that has been around for a bit over a decade, the Coalition government was there for nine years but of all of the water that has been recovered towards the plan, 84% of it has been done under Labor governments, just 16% was done during that nine years of Coalition government. It is a massive undertaking. We have made some progress towards those targets, but we will fall short. I have looked at every possible way of delivering this on time but, given how short we are, it is not possible.
ROWLAND: How much pressure should there be on the New South Wales and Victorian Governments to get their skates on in meeting water saving projects?
MINISTER PLIBERSEK: The water saving projects are really important and there were some delays because of COVID and some delays of course because of the massive damaging floods we have had. You can't build water infrastructure during flood times obviously. There is, I think, a responsibility now for the states and territories that have outstanding projects, water-saving projects, or projects that better use the water that we are getting for the environment, that gets that water to the flood plains, to the smaller rivers and so on, we need to get that infrastructure done. New South Wales needs to get its water resource plans in. I am delighted that the new New South Wales government is proceeding at pace with that, those plans were due in 2019 and the previous New South Wales Government really dragged their feet on those water resource plans and the previous Federal Government never made them do what they were supposed to do under the agreement.
We are also at the moment already beginning to buy back water. We have got an open tender at the moment. It is about infrastructure, it is about getting the settings right through those plans and it is about buying water. I am confident that we can work together with the states and territories to set new deadlines, but those new deadlines need to come with strong assurances from the states and territories that they will deliver on their share of the plan.
ROWLAND: How far are you willing to extend the deadline? One year, two years, beyond?
MINISTER PLIBERSEK: We are talking to the states about that now. I want to get this done as soon as practical because as sure as night follows day in Australia, we have had wet years and we are going into a dry spell. I don't want to wake up in a years time and know that we could have saved the river system, the plants and animals and communities that depend on the river system and we didn't do enough. I don't want to be dealing with that in the next big dry. We really do need to get on with it. This plan, we need to always go back to why did we do this in the first place. We did it after the millennium drought. We saw those devastating fish kills. We saw whole sections of the river system that saw no water for years at a time. Big old trees that had survived hundreds of years dying on the river banks. Communities that had their river running through their town, except it wasn't running, it was a dry river bed for hundreds of days at a time, bone-dry river beds where there should have been metres of water above peoples' heads. This is an absolutely vital plan for the future of inland Australia and it is probably the biggest environmental contribution we will make to inland Australia as a nation. Our natural environment and our communities depend on it.
ROWLAND: Speaking of hot and dry weather, you along with everybody else can see the devastating effect of the wildfires in Greece and Europe, record temperatures being hit day after day and an El Nino weather event more than likely coming our way this summer. As Environment Minister, are
you growing increasingly concerned about what the world weather is doing?
MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Long before I was Environment Minister, I was very concerned about the way our climate is changing and that is why I am proud to be part of a government that has legislated a pathway to net zero, that has embarked on a massive transformation of our economy. We are heading for 82% renewable energy in our energy grid from 30%. This is after years of inaction by the previous government, 22 different energy policies and not one of them landed. As Environment Minister, I have doubled approvals of renewable energy projects. At last count I have another 101 renewable energy projects that I am looking at. We are doing massive investment in transmission, that is completely necessary because if we are building solar farms and wind farms and hydro projects, we need to get the electricity from the projects into peoples' homes and businesses. Of course, we need to act as a nation and as a world to get to net zero.
ROWLAND: Going back to the issue of state and Federal cooperation, the Productivity Commission report out today has lashed governments of all levels for not working closely enough to address Closing the Gap targets. It is a savage indictment of all levels of government. What more can the Federal Government do on this front?
MINISTER PLIBERSEK: We know that policies work better when you consult the people who are most effected. In my electorate, we saw the first Aboriginal medical service and the first Aboriginal legal service set up in the 1970s. We know when you have got Aboriginal health services, people are more likely to use them, get their kids vaccinated, get the health checks they need, the same is true across all sorts of policy areas. If Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are engaged in the design and delivery of programs that are targeting their communities, those programs work better. That is what the Voice is all about.
ROWLAND: On that front, are there any circumstances under which the Federal Government would postpone The Voice?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: I think there is a very strong will to have that vote this year, but the question is not about when, the question is what we do between now and polling day and what we need to do is reassure Australians that this is about two very simple things. It is about recognising 65,000 years of history and culture in this country. I think it's fantastic to show the world that we are an old nation with an incredible history. Our First Nations history, our European institutions, our incredible multicultural success story. It is all part of the Australian story and at the moment, our constitution doesn't recognise that 65,000 years of history and culture and of course listening, we were just talking a moment ago about the way that we have continued to fail when it comes to improving the lives of the 3% of First Nations people, by demographic, the most disadvantaged group in Australia. We continue to fail. We have got to get better at it. The best way to improve results is to listen to the people who are affected when governments make decisions.
ROWLAND: Minister, appreciate your time.