ABC AM interview with Minister for the Environment and Water Tanya Plibersek

06 September 2023

SUBJECTS: Rescuing the Murray-Darling Basin Plan.

SABRA LANE, HOST: Now, the federal government has run into a bit of trouble with its plan to offer more time and money to enable more water to flow into the Murray-Darling Basin. The basin produces $22 billion of food and fibre each year and the drinking water for communities including Adelaide. The government has struck a deal with all basin states except Victoria to extend the deadline for water saving targets to 2026, but it needs new laws passed through the parliament to support it. And the Coalition probably won’t back it; the Greens say they don’t support the plan right now. The Minister for the Environment and Water is Tanya Plibersek, who joined me earlier. Good morning Tanya Plibersek, so far your plan doesn’t have parliamentary support and an inquiry is likely, what happens if these new laws don’t pass parliament by the end of the year?

TANYA PLIBERSEK, MINISTER FOR THE ENVIRONMENT AND WATER: If we don’t see this legislation by the end of the year, for example, we can’t extend the time frames on some very significant water-efficiency and water-saving infrastructure projects that the states already have underway.

I think, Sabra, it’s really important to look at why we’re doing this. The Murray-Darling Basin Plan is way off track. Very little water has been recovered towards the plan over the last 10 years. And I think it’s fair to say that the previous government was deliberately sabotaging the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. We have to get it back on track. We have to rescue the Murray-Darling Basin Plan for the sake of the 3 million people who rely on the Murray-Darling for their drinking water, for the environment, for the communities and the industries that lay across this basin.

SABRA LANE: But saying they have to pass, it’s politics here. The Coalition doesn’t look like it will support it. The Greens say they do not support this plan as is. You’re going to have to do something to get everybody on board. You just can’t demand that these laws pass.

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Well, there’s something in this plan for everyone. We know that the Coalition have been keen to see an extension of time for the delivery of the big water-saving and efficiency projects because the more water that’s delivered through these projects, the less water we need to find through other measures, including voluntary water purchase.

Any environmentalist, including the Greens political party, should be enthusiastic about this plan because it is a way – the only way – of delivering the extra 450 gigalitres of water for the environment that’s part of the plan.

When we came to government, when I became the minister, two gigalitres out of that 450 gigalitres had been delivered – just two gigalitres out of 450. Our environment across the basin and, in particular, at the lower reaches of the Murray-Darling Basin as we go into South Australia is utterly dependent on achieving that 450 gigalitres of environmental water. We know we’re going into another hot, dry period. Unless we get this water for the environment we’ll see the sort of catastrophic consequences that we’ve seen in years past with mass fish kills and drying banks of the river with trees that are hundreds of years old not able to survive.

SABRA LANE: Okay. That is a controversial part, though, of this plan – the 450 gigalitres. But now I think only 26 gigalitres have been found so far. You were hoping to lift the ban on buybacks from farmers to get more water. Is that where all this extra water is going to come from to fill up that 250 gigalitres?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: No. This plan actually offers – our plan offers a range of ways that we achieve the whole of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. We’re offering more time, more options, more funding and more accountability. So more time to deliver the existing infrastructure projects and any other new ones that might come forward; more options, and that, of course, includes voluntary water purchase. I’ve been very clear from the time I took this portfolio on that all options were on the table, and that included voluntary water purchase. More funding, more funding both to achieve the objectives within the plan but also for any community that might be impacted by measures like voluntary water purchase. And also more accountability.

SABRA LANE: Would you ever contemplate buying Cubbie Station, a big property that produces cotton, and surrendering all of that water to the environment?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Well, I’m not going to start talking about individual projects, but I can tell you we’re in the market at the moment for voluntary water purchase. We’re buying around 44 gigalitres of water towards the Bridging the Gap target, and there have been a lot of willing sellers. There are people interested in selling all or part of their water entitlement, and we’re methodically walking – working through those offers at the moment.

And I do believe we can do this in a way that minimises impacts in regional communities. I want to do it in a way that’s sensitive. I know regional communities have, you know, really done a lot already towards the achievement of the plan. More than 80 per cent of water that has been recovered towards the plan was done when Labor was last in government; only about 16 per cent has been recovered in the last 10 years. So it shows you how much of a go-slow the previous government was on.

SABRA LANE: You were hinting earlier that if this doesn’t pass El Nino is here it sounds like this summer, you’re suggesting that if there are fish kills and big blue green algal blooms that that blame rests with politics, the people who block it?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: No, I think there is always a danger of environmental impacts during drought, and, you know, communities suffer terribly during drought. I’ve visited towns where their river, the river that flows through the town, was dry for more than 400 days during the last drought. That takes an emotional, a psychological, an economic toll on river communities as well. So both for the people and the environment that relies on this river system, we have to give it the best chance of surviving the hotter, drier years ahead. It’s never going to be easy to see a community go through drought, we know that. I’m not for a moment saying that if we just tick this box then suddenly the environment and communities will no longer see hardship in dry times, that’s nonsense. What we’re doing is trying to keep those communities and those environments surviving during the driest periods.

SABRA LANE: Minister, thanks for talking to AM.

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: It’s a pleasure.