By Tanya Plibersek

28 March 2024




SABRA LANE: Water management, how, when and where that liquid gold is used might sound dull but it's vital, for example by making sure Murray‑Darling communities have safe sustainable drinking supplies, including Adelaide. It's also about making sure there's enough water for valuable food and fibre crops and the environment. A key deal to manage water, the National Water Initiative, was signed by all governments 20 years ago, but the Federal Government's announced it's going to be updated and this time indigenous communities will have a permanent say. I spoke with the Environment Minister a short time ago. Tanya Plibersek, welcome to AM. Why does that matter

TANYA PLIBERSEK, MINISTER FOR THE ENVIRONMENT AND WATER: Well, the National Water Initiative is 20 years old now and a lot’s changed in that 20 years. We know a lot more, for example, about what climate change will do to water resources around Australia. And of course, our attitudes to First Nations communities having access to water and water rights have completely changed as well.

So, I think gives us a really good opportunity to work with the States and Territories to update our expectations about, you know, making sure that we've got enough water and good quality water for all of the uses that we have for water, the human uses, the agricultural and industrial uses, and of course our environmental needs.

It means that we can look at climate resilient water management, much more evidence-based decision‑making, and of course really transparent and strategic water investments rather than, you know, a scattergun approach to a dam here or a weir there. We need to be working together with the States and Territories to make the most of the water resources that we have.

LANE: A major review of this initiative four years ago by the Productivity Commission found governance arrangements first put in place 20 years ago had been significantly eroded, that Indigenous consultation was needed to be a major part of it, and we know that the populations increase across the Basin. Will all of those things be addressed?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Absolutely. The very reason that we're doing this upgraded approach is because so much has changed in the 20 years since the first National Water Initiative. You've pointed out, Sabra, that the Productivity Commission has looked at the way that we allocate water in Australia. That is one of the most important inputs to this new work, taking what the Productivity Commission has found about the way the Commonwealth Government and the States and Territories manage water resources, and using that work to make sure we make better decisions in the future.

LANE: The Productivity Commission is holding another review right now. There has been sharp criticism over the years that climate change hasn't been properly factored into this plan and you've just acknowledged that. What is your commitment to making sure that up-to-date science is included in the plan but also that the plan is just updated, that it's not left to another 20 years to look at it again?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Look, I think that is one of the critical reasons to do this work. We know that the science tells us that southeastern Australia in particular is going to become drier. Right across Australia, we're going to have less predictable rainfall. It's important to factor that into the water resources that we're building and maintaining for the future.

I think the other big challenge that we have, Sabra, is we've got a lot of remote communities across Australia that don't even have adequate drinking water today, and that's something that we've really taken on as a government.

We've set aside $150 million in particular to upgrade water in communities like Milingimbi and Yuendumu and Maningrida. In the Gove Peninsula, for example, we're doing a $9 million water project because 9 out of every 10 litres of water that's currently flowing through the pipes there is being wasted, it's leaking out of those pipes. And so, when we put the extra water in, we can build extra homes, but we can also put in two renal dialysis chairs. It just gives you an insight into how important it is that we not only have adequate water, but we set higher water standards for many parts of Australia just for that basic level of human health.

LANE: In 2018, specifically on the Murray‑Darling Basin, David Littleproud committed $40 million to help First Nations people participate in that. The Greens got you to push that figure up to $100 million as part of legislative changes last December yet as I understand it not a cent has been spent yet and no plan has been sort of published to roll it out. Why not and when will that happen?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: $40 million, not a cent was spent by the previous Government, and we are absolutely on track to invest in water purchase to fulfil that commitment now. We've finalised the management, how that water will be managed to make sure that we've got agreement with First Nations communities across the Murray‑Darling Basin about who will own the water, how will it be owned and how will it be allocated. That work's done.

LANE:  So, Minister, when are you expected to start purchasing water entitlements?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: We'll be buying water this year.

LANE:  Tanya Plibersek, thanks for talking to AM.


SABRA LANE:  And Tanya Plibersek is the Environment Minister.