Interview with Andy Park, ABC Radio National

25 July 2023

ANDY PARK: Well, the $13 billion Murray Darling Basin Plan will not be delivered on time, after 10 years in the making, according to an independent assessment which showed there's no way it can be delivered by June next year. The Federal Government will be forced back to the negotiating table with State Environment Ministers as it looks to extend the deadlines for the long awaited water saving scheme. Federal Environment and Water Minister, Tanya Plibersek, welcome to you. 


PARK: In 2019, the Productivity Commission reported that conflicts, cost blow outs, time delays, all plagued the Murray Darling Basin Plan. I remember I interviewed you on July 5, 2022, shortly after you took over this portfolio. Surely it was clear then that there was no way that this could be delivered on time.

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Well, I think I said at the time that it was difficult to deliver it in the timeframes. Since then I've been really trying to get the plan back on track. It's very difficult. We had a government for nine years that was determined to sabotage the Plan, and you can tell that from the amount of water that was recovered during their nine years in office.

In fact, 84 per cent of all of the water that's been recovered towards the Murray Darling Basin Plan has been done when Labor is in government. Only 16 per cent was done in the nine years of the Coalition government. So, yeah, they were on a go slow, they were deliberately dragging their feet, I think, "sabotage" is not too strong a word for what the Coalition did to the Murray Darling Basin Plan.

I hoped coming into office that we'd be able to get the plan back on track, and we were working very cooperatively. For example, with the New South Wales Government that was years late in delivering their water resource plans, I was able to get them to start delivering those water resource plans. And we were buying water, we're actually out in the marketplace at the moment with an open tender for water purchase, we've been doing   I've been bending over backwards to get the plan back on track, but the advice from the Murray Darling Basin Authority is that we can't get it done in the time remaining, which is the middle of next year. We're about 750 gigalitres short, that is the equivalent of around 300,000 Olympic size swimming pools.

PARK: New South Wales, Victoria and Queensland were all reportedly calling for an extension of two years at the start of this year. So why did you continue to insist on this deadline? It seems like the writing's been on the wall for a long time. Even you illustrated that with, I suppose, the delays that you accused the Coalition of.

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Yeah. Well, I think it's really important to push for this to be done as quickly as we can, and I don't want to give the States and Territory an opportunity just to delay this forever. I mean it's very important as we go into the next dry spell, and we know we've had a lot of water in the last couple of years, but we're going into another hot, dry spell. It's important that we get this done. It's really important to the environment. We know that the consequences of the way that we've been managing the Murray Darling river system in recent years has meant that we've seen some catastrophic environmental impacts.

We've seen the terrible fish kills, in particular at Menindee, but you know, more particularly over the longer period, we've got 90 per cent fewer fish in our river system than 150 years ago. The flood plains, the trees, you know, all sorts of animals that rely on the river system are under threat. We haven't had the mass fish breeding and bird breeding events, you know, we had them recently in the floods, but for many years before that, we were seeing declining fish and bird stocks across Murray Darling basin. We need to get the environment back on track.

And the other thing, Andy, is that this isn't just important for nature, of course it's important for nature, it's the biggest investment in nature that we'll make in Inland Australia, but it's also really important for communities. We're talking about 2.3 million people who live in the Murray Darling Basin, and I can tell you, the psychological, the emotional impact on people, when I'm visiting towns and they talk about the river running through their town being bone dry, sandy bottom, bone dry, for hundreds of days at a time during droughts, that takes its toll. It takes its toll economically, psychologically, socially, culturally in our inland communities as well, so we need a plan to manage the water, manage it for the environment, and manage it for those communities and the industries that rely on it.

PARK: You could say that New South Wales has been the real laggard here. According to the Murray Darling Basin Authority, only five of 20 water resource plans in New South Wales have been accredited. These plans are more than four years behind schedule, and New South Wales still has seven plans to submit for the assessment by the MDBA. How has such a key stakeholder been let off the hook for so long?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Well, the previous government didn't   I don't know if they didn't ask for the plans, they certainly didn't insist on them, and I think this is the biggest change in recent times. We've come in as a Commonwealth Government and said to New South Wales, "Get your skates on." And now that we've got a new New South Wales Government, a new New South Wales Water Minister, we're really seeing action on submitting these plans.

They were due in 2019. Of course the previous government should have been asking for them, just as I was asking for them. I did get the early plans from the previous New South Wales Government, a number of those have been withdrawn because the new government didn't think they were sufficient or suitable. They're back out for more work at the moment. But I am confident with the new New South Wales Government that will see those water resource plans delivered.

And of course, the other area that the Murray Darling Basin Authority has identified as a real problem in delivering on the plan as a whole are the water infrastructure projects, let's call them that, the projects that add to the efficient use of water, to make sure that the water we're recovering for the environment gets to where it should go, to the flood plains and the rivers, and so on, that need it. Those projects in many, many cases are overdue, and there's some question about whether some of them will be delivered at all. That's another area where we really need to refocus.

PARK: I spoke to Professor Jamie Pittock from the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists earlier. He's calling on the government to abandon what he calls "questionable water-saving projects" like Victoria's flood plain restoration, which is now on hold. Is that a project   is that what you're referring to; is that a decision, that you'll have to make a tough decision to axe these, or will you be leaving it up to the States?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Well, I'm in discussions with the States, and the ACT - the territory, that's in the Murray Darling Basin - right now about how we fully deliver the Murray Darling Basin Plan. We don't have an option not to deliver the plan. There's no way that I will accept non delivery. But looking at the timeframes and how we deliver the projects that we've talked about, the plans that we've talked about, what else we need to do to achieve the targets that we've set ourselves as a community, those discussions are ongoing.

PARK: Minister, both New South Wales and Victoria are resisting. I mean how are you going to get these States to comply?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Well, I have to say the discussions that I've had with the States and Territories have been very good discussions. Our first Water Ministers' meeting - our first Murray Darling Basin Water Ministers' meeting last year reaffirmed the commitment of all States and Territories to fully deliver the plan. I think it's obvious now that we can't do it in the original timeframes, but that doesn't give anybody a get out of jail free card.

This plan is vital to the environment, it's vital for inland communities, we've got to get it done.

PARK: Federal Environment and Water Minister, Tanya Plibersek is my guest here on RN Drive. So what are the steps now, Minister. Now, it's official that the target won't be met, as the Federal Minister in charge, you're entering into fresh negotiations with the States. I suppose the first thing we   

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Andy, I think we need to be careful about describing them as fresh negotiations --   

PARK: A continuation?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: -- because the targets, the targets haven't changed.

PARK: Well, the extension perhaps changed.

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: We know what we need to do, and --  

PARK: By when? By when, Minister, that's the question, because --   

PARK: That is exactly the right   that is exactly right. We need to know by when we can achieve these targets, and we need to know what assurances there will be, because if we allow an extension of time to deliver on some of the water infrastructure projects, for example, what guarantee are we giving communities that those projects then will actually be delivered, that we're not just talking about another delay and another delay?

So our conversations at the moment are to make sure we've got realistic timeframes for the delivery of the water resource plans, the delivery of the project, and of course any further water purchase that needs to happen to deliver on the plan, realistic timeframes for that, and realistic assurances that we'll actually get to those targets that we've set.

PARK: But doesn't the plan legally need to be reviewed by 2026, so basically you only have two extra years. Is that enough?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: I think we can get an awful lot done in two years, but I'm not going to pre empt those discussions with State and Territory Ministers. We need to have those, you know, realistic timeframes determined, sort of virtually project by project. We've got a lot of projects that were originally submitted that were designed to save water or use water more efficiently that look like they won't be delivered, or they won't deliver the original amount of water that States and Territories suggested they might, we need to be, you know, frank and clear eyed about how we deliver these projects, when we deliver them and what water we recover through the projects.

PARK: Just on the buybacks, irrigators are concerned that these water buybacks would devastate farming communities. No doubt you've had some confronting meetings on the ground with irrigators about this. Are these communities going to be worse off, and will this just be part and parcel of the hard decisions that you're going to have to make here?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Well, of course you take into account the impact of all of these policies on communities, of voluntary water purchases. As I said, we've got actually a program open right now where we're purchasing water. We take into account the impact on communities of the water efficiency and infrastructure projects and the water resource plans. That's why they're consulted on so extensively. Of course we take into account what's happening on the ground. But I tell you what would also be devastating for rural and regional communities is not finalising the plan.

We know that there are hot, dry times coming, and to deal with those hot, dry times, we need to better manage our water resources. As I said earlier, the number of people I've spoken to who lived in towns that saw no water for hundreds of days at a time, the toll that took, not just on agriculture in those communities, but on tourism and a range of other businesses, they're real tolls.

So we need to manage water across the whole of the Murray Darling Basin so that we use every drop wisely so that we protect the environment, and so that we do our very best for those communities.

PARK: Including South Australia, who only signed up for this plan because of this agreement to return the 450 gigalitres. Is South Australia within their rights just to walk away at this point?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: No. And I really   it's not about rights. South Australia has played a terrific role in implementing the Murray Darling Basin Plan; we've worked incredibly well with the South Australian Government. I don't doubt for a moment that these delays are frustrating for the South Australian Government and South Australians. We know how important water quality is as an issue in South Australia. But the best chance that we have of South Australia achieving what it wants to see in the plan, what we all want to see in the plan, which is full delivery of that 450 gigalitres is to stick with the plan.

Now, even in the time since we've come to government, when I became a Minister, there was two gigalitres of water that had been recovered to that 450 gigalitre target, that part of the Murray Darling Basin Plan. We've now got 26 gigalitres that have been recovered or contracted. So there's a difference between 2 and 26. Now, I'm not saying 26 is terrific, we can all pack up shop and go home and relax, not for a moment. But this is the difference between having a government that actually wants to see the plan delivered and a government that spent its time sabotaging the plan, bombing the plan, as the previous government did. Can you imagine achieving just 2 gigalitres out of a target of 450 in the whole time that the previous government had to implement this plan?

PARK: Well, Minister, I don't envy you, given the tough negotiations ahead. Federal Environment and Water Minister, Tanya Plibersek. I do appreciate your time. Thank you.

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Pleasure to talk to you, Andy.