By Tanya Plibersek

19 October 2023




PATRICIA KARVELAS, HOST: Well, turning to some domestic political issues, a new timeline for the Murray-Darling Basin Plan and the reintroduction of water buybacks passed the House of Reps yesterday in an effort to bring the plan back on track. All basin states except Victoria have signed on and supported the new agreement, but it has sharp critics who say controversial buybacks will have devastating impacts on basin communities. Now, yesterday on the show right here, the Victoria Minister for Water, Harriet Shing, joined us. Here she is.

HARRIET SHING: Victoria has, in fact, returned around 18 gigalitres of water to the environment. South Australia, in comparison, has delivered around two. We do know that there are options available to South Australia to make their water use more efficient, to use the desalination plant. They've got a hydrogen plant as well that's taking water from the river system.

KARVELAS: Tanya Plibersek is the Minister for the Environment and she joins us now. Welcome.


KARVELAS: The legislation extends the timeline for the water to be returned to the environment by 2027. How much of that will be delivered through water buybacks?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Well, what we're trying to do is as little of that water to be returned through buybacks as possible. And that means more time to deliver on the water saving infrastructure projects. The more we can do by reducing the demand for water through on farm efficiency, off farm efficiency projects, the less water we'll have to buy. But, Patricia, I was listening to the comments of the Victorian Water Minister yesterday, and I have to say that's exactly the attitude that has led to the Murray-Darling Basin Plan being way off track, late, and impossible to deliver under the current settings.

​The Victorian Minister is using the same discredited arguments as Barnaby Joyce and David Littleproud. She's saying it's all South Australia's fault or NSW fault and nothing to do with Victoria. She's completely wrong about the fact that Victoria is on track. In fact, the water saving infrastructure projects are completely off track. The projects that are designed to get the water back onto the floodplains and so on, completely off track. There's only one area of the plan where Victoria is ahead of the other states, and she's talking about the 450 gigalitres of additional environmental water. And that's the part of the plan where, when I became the Water Minister, just two gigalitres of 450 gigalitres had been achieved. So, a decade into the plan, the previous Federal Government had achieved two gigalitres out of 450 gigalitres of water for the environment. We're now at 26 gigalitres out of 450. Like it's still not a stellar achievement. And the Victorian Minister is boasting that 18 of 26 gigalitres is there. So, in effect, she's saying, I don't have to do anything more because I've delivered 18 gigalitres out of 450 gigalitres of environmental water. We're just going to stay on this track and everything will be fine. Well, if we stay on this track, we will achieve the Murray-Darling Basin Plan around about the year 4000. It's just not good enough to keep doing what we're doing.

​And Patricia, can I just talk a little bit about buybacks? The Victorian Government says that they are absolutely opposed to voluntary water purchase. Well, it's such an illogical position. What they're saying is it's fine for one irrigator to sell their entitlement to another irrigator in another town, perhaps even in another state, but it's not okay for them to sell it to the Australian Government to put into the river system. It's fine to sell these entitlements to a Chinese company or the Canadian public service pension fund, but it's not okay to sell this water to the Australian Government to put back into our river system. It's completely illogical.

​And the thing that is really troubling about this, every environment group in Victoria says that the Victorian Government is wrong in the position that they've taken. Unless we do something to save our river system as we go into this hot, dry period we know is coming, we're going to see mass fish deaths, we're going to see river red gums dying, we're going to see all of the environmental destruction that we've previously seen. And this isn't doing any favours for farmers either. By standing aside from this agreement, the Victorian Government will in fact increase the likelihood of buybacks in Victoria, because they won't be getting the money they need for infrastructure projects and they won't be part of the design of any transition program either.

​So what you're doing is not good for the environment and it's not good for farmers. It's completely illogical. And to have a Labor Government lining up with Barnaby Joyce and David Littleproud against the river system is extraordinary.

KARVELAS: You're saying that buybacks, well, you've previously said, are the last tool that you'll reach for. But why does the bill allow for 100 per cent buybacks for remaining water, then?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Well, what we're doing is removing a cap on the amount of water that can be purchased through voluntary water purchase, because the cap has effectively stopped any progress on the plan. If you look at the water that has been recovered towards the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, and I have to say, a lot of water has been recovered, but 84 per cent of that was done when Labor was last in government. Like, only 16 per cent of all water that's been recovered, has been recovered in the last decade. Effectively, this plan has stopped. And what the Victorian Minister is arguing with, along with the National Party here in Canberra, is that that's just fine, that we don't need to do anything else. We can stay on the same failing track that we're on now.

KARVELAS: The Victorian - if I can say the word of my own state - Government modelling says this could cost 1,500 jobs, and wipe out, I think it's $155 million from GDP.

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Well, it's just nonsense, Patricia. This modelling is completely discredited. They keep relying on it, despite the fact it's been completely discredited. If you look at the work of economists like Sarah Wheeler or Quentin Grafton or John Quiggin or Jeff Connor, and you can look at their fantastic submission to the Senate inquiry into this bill to see just how poor quality the modelling is that the Victorian Government's relying on. It is nonsense to rely on completely discredited modelling just so you can line up with Barnaby Joyce against the environment.

KARVELAS: Just on a totally different issue, if I can for a moment, Tanya Plibersek. I just spoke to - well just in the last half hour - Ed Husic, and he says Israel's actions in Gaza amount to collective punishment of the Palestinians. Are you also concerned about that?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Like every Australian, I'm horrified by the actions of Hamas against Israel. It was beyond belief how brutal that attack was and how indiscriminate it was against families in their homes, against young people at a music festival. It was shocking. What we don't want to see as Israel pursues Hamas, is innocent civilian lives taken in Gaza. And like every other country, Australia is urging Israel to continue to follow proper rules of engagement that avoid civilian casualties. Half of the population of Gaza is under the age of 19. And, of course, the Israeli Defence Force has to do absolutely everything it can to avoid civilian casualties.

KARVELAS: So, you're worried about collective punishment too?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: I'm worried about civilian casualties on both sides of this conflict. What Israeli civilians just, you know, living their lives, going about their daily, you know, normal activities suffered at the hands of Hamas was horrific. And I know that the Israeli Defence Force are determined to destroy Hamas. In doing that, they have to avoid civilian casualties.

KARVELAS: Thank you so much for joining us, Minister.

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Thank you, Patricia.

KARVELAS: Minister for the Environment, Tanya Plibersek there.