Transcript: ABC News Breakfast with Michael Rowland

06 September 2023


 But first to another major story we're following this morning. The bill to extend the deadline for the $13 billion Murray‑Darling Basin plan will be put before Parliament today, so let's learn more about it and go straight to Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek at Parliament House. Minister, very good morning to you.


ROWLAND: How confident are you this bill will get through?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Well I'm very hopeful the bill will get through because we've got things here that both the Nationals and Liberals have been calling for and the Greens have been calling for.

What this plan offers is a rescue of the Murray‑Darling Basin plan with more time, more funding, more options and more accountability. We know we need more time to deliver the plan because so little has been achieved in the last ten years. In fact more than 80 per cent of all water that has been recovered towards the Murray‑Darling Basin plan was recovered under Labor Governments. Just 16 per cent was done in the last ten years.

So we need more time to deliver the big water saving projects, the water efficiency projects. We've said we're open to new projects. We've said we're open to new methods of delivering water. But we also want to see with more time and more funding, more accountability. We need to be certain that we won't see years more delay. For example, the previous New South Wales Government was years late in delivering their water resource plans. They were due in in 2019. I'm just starting to accredit those very late plans now. The new Labor Government is getting on with the job.

So we want to see more accountability and we know that this is absolutely vital to achieve this plan. We've got a million square kilometres of inland Australia that relies on the Murray‑Darling Basin system, 2.3 million people live in the Basin, 3 million people rely on this river system for their drinking water, industry, agriculture and very, very importantly the environment needs us to deliver the plan.

ROWLAND: The Greens spokeswoman, Sarah Hanson‑Young was on the show earlier and she is worried that her home State of South Australia will be dudded, her word, through this plan and she will not support, or she says the Greens won't support the plan until you as the Minister and the Government can guarantee the full 450 gigalitres of water will reach South Australia. She reckons that can't be guaranteed at the moment. Can you do that? And can you do that by quantifying exactly how many water buy backs will be involved?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Well this is the only way that that 450 gigalitres of additional environmental water can be delivered. When I became the Minister two gigalitres out of 450 had been delivered. Just two gigalitres out of 450. So we've got a long way to go. The way we achieve that 450 gigalitres is to remove the impediments that have been put in by the previous Government. I have consistently said that voluntary water purchase will have to be part of the solution here.

ROWLAND: But can you quantify how much, just to be upfront?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Well there's a few things that need to happen before we settle on an amount of water that we need to buy. The first is we need to give proper time and opportunity for the water saving, the water efficiency projects that are currently being built by the states to ‑ we need to finally realise how many gigalitres of water those projects are going to achieve. So we've got a little way to go before we could say a specific gigalitre amount of water will be bought.

But at the moment there's two things we need to do. We need to make sure that the funding in the Water for the Environment Special Account, there's about $1.3 billion there that has been virtually untouched by the previous Government because it's been tied up in so much brown tape, that water can be used, including for voluntary water purchase. And we need to lift the cap on voluntary water purchase as well. At the moment there's a cap that would restrict the amount of water we can buy. We need to get rid of that cap.

ROWLAND: Okay, we'll see where the legislation goes. Also on the environmental front, would you support an extension of the Eraring power plant in New South Wales if it meant lights in New South Wales stayed on for another year, two, three years, however long

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Well we've got to keep the lights on but we are in the biggest transformation of the Australian economy in the history of the Australian economy, by legislating a pathway to net‑zero with a 43 per cent interim emissions reduction target by introducing the safeguard mechanism, by setting a target of 82 per cent renewable energy by 2030, we're engaged in a massive transformation of our electricity market and our economy.

We've doubled approvals for renewable energy projects. We've got $2 billion to invest in green hydrogen. We're investing $20 billion in transmission lines. We have to make this change to get Australia to net‑zero. Our government is deadly serious about that.

Under the previous Government they had 22 different energy policies. They didn't land one. And 20 coal‑fired power stations announced they were closing under the previous Government and there was nothing put in place to replace that source of energy. So we're starting a long way behind where we should be. Other countries have been engaged in this transition for a lot longer than we have but we're getting on with the job of getting Australia to 82 per cent renewable energy.

ROWLAND: And finally, as a senior minister, Tanya Plibersek, can you clarify just what the national interest that's been protected by not allowing those extra flights in from Qatar Airways?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Well just let's be clear about a couple of things. Qatar could fly extra flights to Australia. They could fly to Canberra. I mean Canberra at the moment, it's pretty nice here. Gold Coast, Cairns, other airports. They could also increase the size of the jets that they're flying to the capital city airports where they've already got spots. International aviation isn't a free‑for‑all. There are ‑ you know, Australia would like to fly more flights to Europe but we're restricted in the number that we can fly. I think it's a bit disingenuous to say that Qatar doesn't have options to increase passengers to and from Australia.

ROWLAND: The reason I ask, your colleague Catherine King the Transport Minister used those words "the national interest", yet to be fully defined. What is the national interest in stopping those extra flights coming in?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Well, I think if you want to ask Catherine King about the specifics of what she said maybe get Catherine King on the program. But I think it's important to clarify that Qatar does have options here to increase their passenger movements to and from Australia. They're very welcome to fly more flights to those beautiful cities of Gold Coast, Cairns, Canberra, Adelaide, and they're very welcome to increase the size of the jets that they're flying into the capital cities where they've already got slots.

ROWLAND: Right, but it all comes down to extra flights through those capital cities. As you'd be aware the South Australian, Western Australian, Queensland Governments are unhappy. The Labor Party President Wayne Swan is unhappy. He wants the Government to review that decision. Will the Government review that decision?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Well I think if Qatar wants to fly more flights to the Gold Coast and Cairns the Queensland Government would be pretty happy with that.

ROWLAND: So that's a no?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Well, look, I'm not going to second‑guess the decisions that the Transport Minister's making. You know, this is ‑ it's very clear that Qatar has options to get more passengers in and out of Australia if they want to take them. It's also clear that international aviation, you know, not everybody gets everything they want. Australia doesn't get everything we want. We don't get all the slots we want into other markets where we'd like more flights, so it's just, you know, it's par for the course.

ROWLAND: Okay, Tanya Plibersek, appreciate your time this morning. Thanks very much.