Press conference in Sydney with Minister for the Environment and Water Tanya Plibersek

25 July 2023

SUBJECTS: Murray-Darling Basin Plan.

TANYA PLIBERSEK, MINISTER FOR THE ENVIRONMENT AND WATER: I have received from the Murray-Darling Basin Authority, a copy of the report that they released this morning, which confirmed what I have feared for some time – it’s not possible to deliver the Murray Darling Basin Plan in the legislated time frames. That’s extremely disappointing and extremely concerning.

To give you some idea of the scale of the challenge we face, the best estimate we’ve got is that we’ll be about 750 gigalitres short of delivering on the Plan by the middle of next year. That’s equivalent to 300,000 Olympic-size swimming pools short. The scale of that is enormous.

This is a result of close to a decade of deliberate sabotage of the Murray Darling Basin Plan by the previous Liberal and National Government. In fact, when you look at achievements against the Murray Darling Basin Plan, of all of the water recovered towards the plan, about 84 per cent has been under Labor governments; just 16 per cent happened in the last nine years of the Liberal and National governments.

The consequences of this are alarming and extreme. We’ve had a couple of wet years now – we’ve had too much water in parts of the Murray-Darling Basin in recent years. But we know as sure as night follows day in Australia, that dry years, hot years will follow the rain. And our best estimates also tell us that we’re going into a new dry spell.

What does that mean? Well, the consequences for nature are serious. It means fewer fish breeding events, it means fewer bird breeding events, it means the trees and the floodplains that rely on regular river flows will be compromised. We already see in the Murray-Darling Basin system about 90 per cent less native fish than 150 years ago. So, the consequences for nature are serious. Consequences for the people that rely on the Murray-Darling Basin system are really serious as well.

I've visited towns where for hundreds of days at a time, the river that usually flowed through the town had a dry sandy bottom exposed. Literally, no water flowing through towns for hundreds of days at a time. You'd see photos of the local cricket team playing cricket on the bottom of a sandy river where there should have been metres of water flowing. And the psychological, the social, the economic impacts of that for Murray-Darling Basin communities are extreme.

So, for nature, for communities, for the jobs that rely on the river system this failure, this decade of deliberate sabotage, will have disastrous consequences. We know we're going into another dry period. We have to take this opportunity to fully deliver on the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. We have been left a mess, we have been left a failure after these years of deliberate go slow and undermining of the plan. But nevertheless, I am absolutely determined that we will deliver on the Murray-Darling Basin Plan in full. That means working with the states and territories to make sure that all of the elements of the plan are delivered. Any questions?

JOURNALIST: Does that mean on the flip side, you say that we're heading to a dry period, that there's going to be more water available for irrigators because there's going to be less in government hands?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: No, it doesn't mean that at all. It actually means that nature and communities that depend on the Murray-Darling Basin system face a period of uncertainty and difficulty. And no one wins from this deliberate decade of sabotage of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. No one wins from this.
It means we'll see worse outcomes for nature, and we'll see greater uncertainty for farming communities. Part of the reason that we're not hitting the targets is because a number of infrastructure projects that the states were responsible for are delayed. Those water-saving projects, efficiency projects and others are actually designed to reduce the need for water to be taken out of the river system by using the water more efficiently.

JOURNALIST: So, what does this mean? Does this mean that you’re going to – say you want to fully deliver on the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, so soon we’ll set a new target date in the future?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: So, I’m working with states and territories as we speak to make sure that while we deliver on the targets set out in the plan, we have more realistic delivery dates for some of those targets. I’m talking to the states and territories – or the Basin states and territories – right now about that. That means, yes, we will renegotiate the delivery of some of the infrastructure projects. It means that we really need to also lift our game on recovering water towards the 450 gigalitre target for additional environmental water.

When we came to government the previous government had achieved 2 gigalitres out of 450 – 2 out of 450 – in nine years. Since coming to government, we’re now at 26 gigalitres of water either achieved or contracted under that 450 gigalitre target of that element of the plan. So, we’ve lifted our game, but we’ve still got a long, long way to go.

JOURNALIST: Minister, you say you’re worried about the next drought – they tend to come around every 10 years in the Murray-Darling Basin these days. Why not do buybacks? You’ve got the power to do that. And how long are you going to give the states? Because, you know, we could have another drought in five years.

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Well, we’re actually purchasing water right now. We’ve actually –

JOURNALIST: That’s for Bridging the Gap, but –

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: And I intend right now for, as you say, the Bridging the Gap water target. And I’ve said all along that I don’t see how we can achieve the Murray-Darling Basin Plan without buying water. I think it’s very important to acknowledge that many communities have already contributed very substantially to achieving the water recovery that’s happened. We want to work cooperatively with those communities to make sure that we minimise any social and economic impacts for buying water. But there’s no way of achieving the plan without buying water.

JOURNALIST: So, will there be buybacks, to be absolutely clear? Beyond –

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: I just said we’ve actually got an open tender process at the moment. We’re evaluating the bids that come in. And we’ll expect to be making offers in August, beginning from August. And I’m not going to conduct negotiations on the other elements of the plan. I’m talking with states and territories right now, but it is very clear that to achieve the plan in full we will have to deliver on those infrastructure projects that the states have indicated, we’ll have to, for example, in New South Wales, get the water resource plans that New South Wales – the previous government completely failed to deliver. You know, they were due in 2019; we’re now in 2023 and we’re only just accrediting those plans now. And we’ll need to be purchasing water.

JOURNALIST: How much is the government planning to spend on buybacks over the next few years?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Well, these are all things that we are discussing with the states and territories right now. I’m not going to pre-empt those conversations. I’ve only just received the formal advice from the Murray-Darling Basin Authority. It is disappointing to have my worst fears confirmed, but really no surprise given that we had a government in power for nine years that was – I mean, not only were they not committed to the Murray Darling Basin Plan; they were actively undermining it. They were changing government policy to make it harder to deliver on the objectives of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan.

JOURNALIST: How much blame lies at the feet of the New South Wales government with the fact that I think there's five plans, water resource plans, that have been accredited and operational and there’s eight underway and another seven were withdrawn by the new Labor government both, as you said, the Liberal government was behind, the Labor government withdrew these plans. Do both sides in that state need to explain [inaudible]?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Well, no. I mean, the difference between the previous New South Wales government and the current New South Wales government are like chalk and cheese. It’s a breath of fresh air to have a New South Wales government that is committed to delivering the water resource plans. As you say that work began under the last Coalition New South Wales water minister, but it was already close to four years late when those first water resource plans were submitted by the previous government. The reason that a number of New South Wales water resource plans have been withdrawn is because the New South Wales government, the new Labor New South Wales government, was not happy with the quality of those plans. So, we want high-quality water resource plan that include adequate consultation with affected communities and adequate consultation most particularly with First Nations communities, one of the identified weaknesses of the first lot of New South Wales plans.

JOURNALIST: Minister, you say there are terrible potential environmental impacts from not achieving the plan. What is a reasonable time frame to expend the current targets to? Five years, 10 years?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: No, we’re certainly not talking about five or 10 years. I don’t want to get into negotiating through the media with states and territories. This is something that has to be done cooperatively with the states and territories if at all possible. What I won’t do is give an open-ended opportunity to the states and territories to delay and delay. There are significant measures that have been identified in the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. We know what we need to do in a number of cases. We know the projects that would make a contribution, we know we need to get the water resource plans done. We know what we need to do. We need to get our states and do it. So, we’re not talking about open-ended extensions; we’re talking about some extensions with an increased expectation of delivery.

So, what I also want to see from the states and territories is if they get extra time then we’ll also have extra assurance that we will deliver the plan. It’s not an option not to deliver this plan. This plan is – it’s world-leading. It’s incredibly important for our natural environment. This is the biggest investment we will make in nature in inland Australia. Without this plan, we’ll continue to see threatened plants and animals facing extinction. We’ll continue to see communities with dry riverbeds for hundreds of days at a time. We’ll continue to see impacts on agriculture and tourism of the next drought.

And we know that, as I say, we know as sure as night follows day that we’re going into a drier spell. And I should say that we also know that climate change means that southeast Australia is in general becoming hotter and drier. Unless we implement the plan in full the environmental consequences will be catastrophic and the economic and social consequences will be catastrophic.

JOURNALIST: And those negotiations with the states, they don’t have to happen before those bids go in [inaudible], do they?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: No, no. The water that we’re currently purchasing through the tender process that we’ve got underway at the moment– it’s towards the 49 gigalitre shortfall in the Bridging the Gap part of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. There has been substantial progress, and this is the part of the plan that is closest to complete. But I reiterate, that 84 per cent of all water that’s been recovered towards the targets in the Murray-Darling Basin Plan has been done when Labor governments have been in power. I mean, what a shocking indictment that in the last nine years, only 16 per cent of all the water that’s been recovered has recovered under the Liberals and Nationals. And I think it’s just a sign of what we can do, of that 450 gigalitre target, only 2 gigalitres when I became the minister; we’re now at 26 gigalitres of water recovered.

JOURNALIST: So how much money are you setting aside for those bids? You must know if you’re going to the market to bid. You must know how much money you’ve got to play with.

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Yes, and I’m not going to discuss the details of the tender that’s underway. That’s just not sensible practice.

JOURNALIST: Minister, the Murray-Darling Basin Authority when it came up with the plan did not really factor in climate change and the impact for the drier south east. If we reach the targets that are in the plan now, is that going to be enough or are we going to have to revisit it in the light of what we’re seeing with climate change?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Yeah, well, the Murray-Darling Basin Plan can’t be set and forget. We need to achieve the targets in the Murray Darling Basin Plan. That’s absolutely vital. The consequences of not achieving those targets are disastrous. But we’ve also committed substantial additional funding for the Murray-Darling Basin Authority to do further work, including further updated science, on the future of the Murray-Darling Basin. We know that we’ve got a drying climate. We need to make sure that every drop of water is being used to best effect. We need to protect our environment into the future. We need to protect the communities that rely on the river system into the future. And so, in the most recent budget, we saw a substantial extra investment to allow the Murray-Darling Basin Authority to continue to do that work.

JOURNALIST: Minister, is Victoria the only state government that doesn’t agree with you about 450 gigalitres of water being recovered?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Well, as I say, I’m not going to conduct negotiations through the media. The Victorian position has generally been that that 450 gigalitres is not part of the Murray Darling Basin Plan. That’s not right.

JOURNALIST: Victoria has been very slow in doing the constraints project. What’s your message to them? I mean, why has it been so slow?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Well, look, there have obviously been impacts across construction projects right around Australia – COVID slowed things down and then the floods, you know, it’s pretty hard to do water infrastructure when you’ve got floods. What I would say – we’ve had regular reports telling us that some of these projects are moving too slowly, some of them have had to be rescoped. I think it is important to recognise the important role that these projects will play. They play an environmental role. I mean, there’s no point retrieving water to be used for the environment if you can’t get that water onto flood plains or into the river system where it’s needed. So, we do need to do that infrastructure work to get the water where it’s needed for environmental purposes.

A lot of the projects are also about using water more efficiently and more effectively. More efficiently and, you know, making sure that when water is used for town water supplies or agriculture or industry, that we’re using it efficiently. More effectively, making sure that when we’re returning water to the river system it’s actually having the environmental outcomes that we need from that water.

So, these projects are really important. We’ve got a regular report from the Murray-Darling Basin Authority that tells us that about half of the projects – about half of the projects we’re talking about will be ready by the middle of next year, which is when they’re due to be complete. So about 20 projects will be ready on time. Another 16 are not on track; they’re either running late or they’re unlikely to be delivered. And that’s serious. I have serious concerns about that.

JOURNALIST: New South Wales Menindee Lakes [inaudible]. It seems like it’s way off track; it hasn’t even started. Is that – are you expecting them to propose a new project, or will they have to cop buybacks to make up that water?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Well, to be fair to the New South Wales Government, the new government has only been there for a few months and the new water minister has only been in her job for a few months. We’re working very closely and very cooperatively with the New South Wales government. I know that Rose Jackson is absolutely committed to delivering the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. She’s brought fresh eyes and fresh energy to the delivery of the plan in New South Wales. And it’s a delight to be working with her to make sure that New South Wales is able to play the role it wants to play in this important national endeavour.

JOURNALIST: And you said it’s not five years, are we talking two years? I’m not --

JOURNALIST: It’s a fairly important question.

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Of course, it is. And all of this will be made clear. I am in current negotiations with states and territories and I’m not going to conduct them through press conferences.

Thanks everyone.

Quotes attributable to Minister for the Environment and Water, Tanya Plibersek: 

“Let me be clear – the Albanese Government is committed to delivering the Murray-Darling Basin Plan in full, which includes the extra 450GL of water for the environment. I’ve said that from day one and I won’t budge. 

“But the truth is, no government can catch up on nine year’s sabotage in just two years. As the independent advice tells us, we have to extend the timeframes. That’s the reality of what we inherited. 

“The next terrible drought is knocking on the door. El Nino is coming back. Delivering this plan has to be a priority. 

“When the temperature gets hotter again, when the rain stops falling and the river stops flowing, we will seriously regret it if we don’t act now. 

“We don’t want Australians to wake up one day with a dead river system and find out their governments could’ve stopped it. 

"If we don’t prepare for those dry years, all Australians will suffer – risking our access to affordable food and water, with mass environmental collapse, dying native animals, choking fish, and intense pressure on river communities. 

“The Murray-Darling Basin Plan is our best chance to manage these challenges and to ensure a healthy and sustainable Basin for the communities, industry and environment that rely on it.”