Interview with Greg Jennett, ABC Afternoon Briefing

25 July 2023

GREG JENNETT, HOST: Tanya Plibersek, welcome back to Afternoon Briefing. In view of the fact that the Productivity Commission reported on water progress in 2019, the Murray-Darling Basin Authority reports regularly, do you concede you have long known, pretty much since stepping into the portfolio in government, that you wouldn't meet the deadline of 2024 for implementation of the plan, and, if so, why did it take so long?

TANYA PLIBERSEK, MINISTER FOR THE ENVIRONMENT AND WATER: I have long feared that nine years of deliberate sabotage of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan by the previous government would make it difficult to meet the deadlines, and I have been frank about that. I have said from the very beginning that the deadlines would be difficult to meet. Of course, I hoped that coming into government we would have been able to pick up the ball that the previous government had dropped and get on with delivering the plan. But the advice that has been made public today by the Murray-Darling Basin Authority confirms my worst fears that it is impossible in their view to meet the full water recovery targets under the Murray-Darling Basin Plan in the time allocated under the plan. So the middle of next year we should be about 750 gigalitres further ahead than we are currently scheduled to be. To give an idea of the shortfall we’re talking about, 750 gigalitres is about 300,000 Olympic sized swimming pools short of the water recovery targets that we’ve set.

JENNETT: The competing demands here are immense, inestimable in ways particularly between the states. But you remain committee to the 450 gigalitres. You might have in mind some ballpark expectation of the date by which you could make good on that commitment. What is that?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: I am currently talking with the basin states and territory about how we fully deliver the plan, they are all committed to full delivery of the Murray-Darling Basin plan, that includes the 450 gigalitres of additional environmental water. Just to again give you an idea of the scale of this, when we came into government, two gigalitres out of the 450 had been delivered by the previous government. We are now at 26 gigalitres either delivered or contracted towards that 450 gigalitre target. I think the other thing that shows you just what a go slow we have been on in recent years from the Liberals and Nationals is the fact that 84 per cent of all of the water that has been recovered towards the plan has been recovered under Labor governments, so just 16 per cent over the last nine years. So the bulk of the time that the plan has been operational, the previous government was actively sabotaging it by changing program parameters, cancelling projects, really showing in all of their actions that they weren’t committed to delivery. And that's a disaster. We are going into another hot, dry period. We should be better prepared for that. We would be better prepared for that if the previous government had done the job.

JENNETT: But of the 450 for environmental flows that you remain committed to, have you formed a view on the last 12 months about what the breakdown is within that, buybacks versus infrastructure works and other forms of efficiency and saving?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: I’ve said from the beginning that all options on the table and that has to apply to delivering the Murray-Darling Basin Plan in full. We're currently buying water towards the bridging the gap target, so we have a tender that is being evaluated at the moment, we have had bids come in, we'll be making first offers around August this year. So we're buying water right now. And we are also working with the states and territories on the infrastructure projects that have fallen behind. We need to make sure that those projects that would contribute to water efficiency, to the effective use of water to better protect the environment that those projects can proceed.

When it comes to the 450 gigalitres, we are so far off meeting this target that we really need to be open to all of the possible ways of delivering it. I can't be any clearer - I said from the beginning that delivering on the Murray-Darling Basin Plan in full is going to require voluntary water purchase.

JENNETT: Do you commit there would be no softening or alteration to the guarantee that there would be no socio-economic disadvantage to affected communities, irrigation communities?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: The first thing I have to say is delivering on the Murray-Darling Basin Plan is vital for the environment. We know that we’ve got fish breeding, bird breeding, floodplains, beautiful big old 100-year-old trees that we need to protect right across the Murray-Darling Basin. But delivering of the basin is also really important for the people and communities that live in the basin. You're talking about 2.3 million people. You are talking about a really substantial contribution to our agriculture sector, more than $20 billion a year, about $11 billion a year in tourism as well. Having water flowing through our rivers is important for our economy and for the social impacts that that water has as well, the cultural impacts that it has for First Nations communities. So this is not a choice between people and nature, it is delivering on the plan that is good for nature and it’s vital for the communities that rely on the river system.

JENNETT: But do you guarantee no disadvantage, from agricultural reductions, in irrigation and the like, to those communities because that is a test that has been in place for a number of years. In order to get to this target that you say you are committed to, might you need to revisit that and soften that guarantee or that test

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: These are issues that we are currently talking to states and territories about, but I guess my point, Greg, is that not delivering the plan is the worst social and economic impact we can have across the Basin. We know that BASIN communities as well as nature, basin communities rely on us delivering the plan in full. We had towns that had dry riverbeds running through the middle of town for hundreds of days in the last drought. The economic and social impacts of not managing water right across the basin are catastrophic for people as well as for animals. We need to deliver the plan in full.

JENNETT: Look, you have got a pile of work ahead of you in negotiating that in the months and years ahead we’d love to stay in touch on it. Tanya Plibersek, one final one in your portfolio area, the almost intractable problem of recycled soft plastic waste in this country, and it has been reported today that samples of the stockpile had been sent to Germany and to Texas to experiment with chemical breakdown. Are you open to larger scale permits for plastic ways to reduce the backlog, even allowing for progress being made on shore here?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: As a decision-maker here I am not able to pre-empt any decisions about export permits but I will make a few general comments. The first thing is we are committed to increasing recycling capacity here in Australia, we’ve got 57 projects underway, 12 already delivered. We will be able to recycle those hard to recycle plastics here in Australia. We have just got a $60 million grant round open right now to invest in those hard to recycle plastic facilities. We need to be able to do this on shore. And whether it is enzyme, chemical recycling, mechanical recycling, we are open to how that is done. We have got money of the table and projects underway to massively increase our recycling capacity.

The second thing I want to say is we need to be creating this plastic waste in the first place. We need to have less stuff to deal with. And that’s why I got the agreement of the environment ministers from the states and territories to regulate packaging by 2025. We want to be using less virgin material in our packaging. We want to be creating less waste in the first place. So yes, let's invest in recycling, let’s make sure our collection systems are up to scratch, so we have been working with the supermarkets to re-establish something like the REDcycle soft plastic collection we had in place before the, you know, spectacular collapse of REDcycle. But more particularly we need to redesign our products, redesign our packaging, to be using less virgin material in the first place.

JENNETT: Alright we might put that on the list along with the Murray-Darling Basin Plan as something we will track further with you over time. Tanya Plibersek, really appreciate your time on a busy day in Sydney.

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Lovely to talk to you, thank you.