By Tanya Plibersek

24 October 2023




ANDREW SCHMIDT: John Williamson has been in the studio a few times with his guitar. I learnt one thing many, many years ago, musos don't like doing Breakfast Radio, but he watched that ABC program called "Pumped" on Four Corners, so taken aback by water being, well, illegally taken out of the system that he wrote that song Pigs on the River. 19 minutes to 8. I don't know if that's a good introduction. But anyway, the federal Minister of Environment and Water, Tanya Plibersek's in the studio. Minister, good morning.




SCHMIDT: The water portfolio, whether it be state or federal, and we've been talking to Rose Jackson since Labor was elected in New South Wales back in March. Why would you want it?


MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Look, it's such an important portfolio. It's a really important thing to get right for the Australian economy. We know how important water is for our food and fibre production. It's really important for communities. So if you look at the Murray‑Darling Basin, 3 million Australians get their drinking water from the Murray-Darling system, and of course it's so critical to the environment. When you're talking about the Murray‑Darling Basin, you're talking about a million kilometres of inland Australia. If we don't get water into our rivers and wetlands our plants and animals can't survive the dry times, so I think it's a challenging portfolio, but it's absolutely critical to get it right.


SCHMIDT: Billions of dollars have been thrown at this over the last 10 years, and what have we really achieved?


MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Oh, we have achieved a lot, and I think it's really important to acknowledge that there have been steps forward, particularly for the communities that have been part of, you know, delivering water back to the river system in the past. They really rightly feel like they've done the hard yards, and we need to acknowledge the hard work that they've done.


But during the last dry period, the fact that we had some environmental water to release down the river system prevented catastrophe in some areas. Now it's still hard; during any drought it's going to be hard, but if you can just keep a little bit of river going through the system, a little bit of water going on to the wetlands occasionally, you can avoid catastrophe.


SCHMIDT: When South Australia signed up to this, they were expecting that 450 gigs which hasn't appeared over the last 10 years. Is that as a result of the environment, is it a result of what's occurred during that period, or do you think politics has been mainly at play. Now we've been through a lengthy period of a federal Coalition Government ‑‑




SCHMIDT: ‑‑ a lot of these seats are in these country areas where there are a lot of producers.


MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Yeah. I think the truth is that the Coalition Government said that they were committed to delivering the Murray‑Darling Basin Plan, but they simply weren't. And that 450 gigalitres of additional environmental water is 100 per cent part of the Murray‑Darling Basin Plan.


In 10 years the previous government managed to deliver two gigalitres out of 450. Now I know people who are listening to the radio across their breakfast aren't really focused on these numbers, but just 450 gigalitres was the target; in 10 years they managed two. That's just not good enough.


In fact, I've delivered more in the year and a half that I've been the Minister than they did in the whole 10 years of that additional environmental water, and we absolutely have to deliver on the whole of the Murray‑Darling Basin Plan.


We've had a couple of good years of rain now, in fact we had too much water in parts of the system, as you know, but we're going into a hot, dry period. We're going into another El Niño. The Bureau of Meteorology has told us that. It's not a surprise. We've already had some fish deaths in the Lower Darling in particular, and you know, it is predictable that it's getting hotter, it's getting drier, there's going to be more pressure on the environment, there's going to be more pressure on town water.


It's not doing anybody any favours if governments pretend that there's some way of managing these hotter, drier times without investment on on‑farm efficiencies, off‑farm efficiencies, you know, constraints easing, making sure we're getting the environmental water into the rivers, on to the wetlands, and so on, but voluntary water purchase is going to be part of the solution as well, and we've got people who pretend that it's not, it has to be part of the solution.


SCHMIDT: I think it was back in 2010 when the plan ‑ there was demonstrations in country towns ‑‑




SCHMIDT: ‑‑ that the Murray‑Darling Basin Plan was burnt, and there's been warnings from farming groups and the Cotton Lobby that there'll be hundreds, if not thousands of jobs will be lost if buybacks goes ahead. How do you balance all that out?


MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Look, the really interesting thing that has changed is I don't speak to any farmer now wherever they are across the system, that says to me they want to go back to a time before the Murray‑Darling Basin Plan. They want it implemented sensibly and sensitively, and that's what I want to do. I'm not out there with a big cheque book saying "I'm going to buy whatever's offered, and who cares about the consequences." That is not my approach at all.


Most people will now tell you, they may have opposed the plan in the past, but they know we have to do something to protect their livelihoods, because they're part of a system, to make sure that there's drinking water for the millions of people who get their drinking water from the river system, and they also care about the environment.


The idea that farmers don't care about the environment, that's not true. You know, many of them have been on their land for generations. They know it better better than anyone. And they want to see those 400‑year‑old trees, and the bird breeding and all the rest of it; they want to see that protected.


So I think working together we can find a sensible and sensitive way through here. But we need to do it. And I think the problem that we've got is, if you've got people for their own sort of political reasons say, "Oh, it's okay, it will all be right, you know, we'll just keep going on the path we're going, we'll get there eventually" ‑ I actually did a little calculation: if we kept going at the rate we were going, we would achieve the Murray‑Darling Basin Plan around about the year 4000. I mean, yeah -


SCHMIDT: So it's been pushed out a few years now, but I just want to get back probably a bit more local, in terms of Menindee, and it's become a bit of a political football over the last 10 years where the cotton lobby and the farmers would say, "Well, you've got all this water sitting in Menindee Lakes, which is a shallow lake system, high evaporation, if you want to start finding water, take it out of there." What are your thoughts?


MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Well, I think we need to be sensible about the way that we approach this, and we're working really closely with the New South Wales Government, the Victorian Government, because really, Menindee is kind of where we make the transition from the northern part of the Basin to the southern part of the Basin, and we've seen some pretty bad fish deaths in Menindee, so we don't want to, you know, risk those sorts of bad environmental outcomes in the future.


The Murray‑Darling Basin Authority, the very reason we've got the agreement of all the states and the Commonwealth to have the Murray‑Darling Basin Authority sort of making these decisions on our collective behalf is because there's so much, you know, everybody thinks that the people upstream are wasting water and downstream are ripping it off and all the rest of it. You need an independent body to be making these decisions.


And so I don't, as the Minister, make the decisions. We get the scientists and the hydrologists and the, you know, the people who are experienced at running the river system to make the decisions.


SCHMIDT: Is Menindee Lakes safe under your tutelage?


MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Well, I'll be out there tomorrow making sure that I'm talking to people who are living on the lakes, people who have got an interest there, and I hope the whole river system's safe. I really do think this is one of the most important economic, environmental and social assets we have as a nation, and we need to look after it properly.


SCHMIDT: Federally, Labor Government, states are Labor Government, we won't worry about Tassie for the sake of this discussion. You said about Victoria being on board, Victorians, but they're not, are they?


MINISTER PLIBERSEK: No, they're actually ‑ what's happening at the moment is we've got a piece of legislation called the Restoring Our Rivers Bill, and it's gone through the House of Representatives, and this is our effort to save the Murray‑Darling Basin Plan, and what we're offering is more time to complete the water saving and water efficiency projects, more money for projects.


We know that if there are additional projects that come forward that can reduce our need to buyback water, that's great, more time, more money, more options. So we actually want to be more flexible about how we deliver the plan, but more accountability, to make sure we're actually doing what we're supposed to.


The Victorian Government say they're opposed to voluntary water purchase, so they're not going to sign up to that. The problem with their position is by not signing up they miss out on more time, more money, and they don't ‑ I mean I will still buy water in Victoria, so their position is completely illogical, but that’s a matter for them.


SCHMIDT: So you really don't need them, do you?




SCHMIDT: All right.


MINISTER PLIBERSEK: I don't need them to do voluntary water purchase, but I want them as part of this. And I think for Victorian farmers, the question for the Victorian Government is, you know, we're missing out on more opportunities for water saving projects, we're missing out on more money for those sorts of projects.


We're also, as a federal government, prepared to put money on the table if there are socio‑economic impacts on communities; we've got transition assistance for those communities. The Victorian Government won't be part of determining where that money goes or how it's spent. It doesn't ‑ it really doesn't make a lot of sense. If you're a Victorian irrigator, I think the question for the Victorian Government, is "How do you think you're helping?"


SCHMIDT: Mark Coulton is the federal member, seat of Parkes, this is a National Party seat, which I'm sure aware well aware of. He put out a statement yesterday saying he finds it appalling that your government has seen fit to strip the protective mechanisms out of the Murray‑Darling Basin Plan.


MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Well, I actually like and respect Mark Coulton a lot, but I disagree with him on this, and I think there are strong protections still in the plan, but more to the point, what is Mark Coulton's solution here? The people who are saying we can't move forward on implementing the plan are the same people who have prevented action over the last decade.


We can't ‑ we're getting ‑ Australia is becoming hotter and drier. We're going to have more droughts; they're going to last longer. We have to face that. We have to face that reality. And the idea that we can just carry on not delivering even the existing Murray‑Darling Basin Plan, that's just people lying to themselves, they're pretending that it's all going to be okay, when it's not going to be okay.


The Bureau of Meteorology has already told us we're going into another El Niño cycle. We know that's coming. We know what that means. I've been to communities that had dry river beds for more than 400 days during the last drought. The kids were playing cricket on the dry river bed that should have had six metres of water above their heads.


For more than a year those communities faced those dry conditions. Are we really going to say to those communities, "Oh, it'll be right, it'll all be right, mate, you don't have to worry, nothing to see here"? It's just irresponsible to treat people in that way, to pretend that it will all be okay when it won't.


We need to take action now. And I'm not saying that when we fully implement the Murray‑Darling Basin Plan, that'll be right, people will never suffer drought again. This is to keep a lifeline going through communities during those hot, dry times. There will still be tough times. What we can do is keep those communities and keep those environments just going during the driest times.


SCHMIDT: You can take your water hat off for a moment, Tanya Plibersek, cause I'll get you to put the environment hat on.




SCHMIDT: Back in early September, Penny Sharpe, the New South Wales Minister for Heritage and Environment was in Broken Hill, and toured the Trades Hall, and announced that the New South Wales Government were going to support the Trades Hall in Broken Hill for international heritage listing. I just want to play you a snippet of what she said at the time.




PENNY SHARPE: This has just been something that, you know, the unions and particularly people legally here have been pushing for a long time. This is a very rare building, very few of them exist in the world, something that's been continuously used by workers for over 100 years.


It tells the story of workers' struggle; it tells the story of international solidarity. It's one of those things that really is worthy of world heritage listing, and I'm very pleased that New South Wales is supporting the next step of trying to get it on to the tentative list.


JOURNALIST: The next step then, federal support has sort of been mentioned in previous months and years. What is the next step?


SHARPE: Well, we've put in, so the tentative nominations gone in. My colleague, the federal Minister Tanya Plibersek will decide about advancing it further, and then it goes into the World Heritage List. It does take a little while, but this is a really important step, and there's a lot of support for it, and you can understand why when you've been through the building.


[End of Excerpt]


SCHMIDT: That was Penny Sharpe speaking in Broken Hill in early September. I suppose Tanya Plibersek, does the federal government support this?


MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Hell yeah, we do, and I'm actually really excited ‑ it's one of the main reasons I'm here today is, I'll being going to Trades Hall this morning, and it's 125 years this year since that first stone was laid, and I'm really delighted to say that we've done the work now, we've done all the historical background, collected all the information we need, and we will be making a submission to the World Heritage Committee both for Broken Hill Trades Hall and Victorian Trades Hall in Melbourne.


These are two of the finest examples of worker architecture anywhere in the world. Denmark is leading an international bid for a number of countries that have really outstanding examples of this type of worker architecture, so Finland, Belgium, Argentina, the UK and Denmark, and Australia, will put in a joint nomination to the World Heritage Committee for these buildings to be recognised, and they are really important architecturally.


I've been to Broken Hill Trades Hall a couple of times in the past, and I'm really excited to go back there this morning to make the announcement that we'll be supporting World Heritage nomination. But in the past, I remember just wandering around and looking at this extraordinary building, the collection of memorabilia that it has, and that history deserves to be acknowledged and protected for future generations.


I think as well as the sort of art and architecture of it, I think what it represents is really important. Australia was one of the first countries in the world to have breakthrough conditions for working people, like eight hours work, eight hours rest, and eight hours recreation. Around the world people saw that as an incredible step forward, an incredible breakthrough.


A lot of that was fought for in Broken Hill. Broken Hill has this incredible industrial history that ‑ also the intangible elements of that, the principles, what people were fighting for, that deserves to be recognised as well. And so the bid is really important for the building, but it's also really important for what it represents, about the fights that were fought and won here in Broken Hill all those years ago.


SCHMIDT: So the Trades Hall ‑ we've only got a minute before we go to the news ‑ the Trades Hall here now has state and federal government support to be internationally heritage listed?




SCHMIDT: Tanya Plibersek, thank you very much for joining us this morning.


MINISTER PLIBERSEK: It's a pleasure.

SCHMIDT: Federal Minister for Environment and Water. And we'll have more on these stories, and the Minister's travelling to Menindee tomorrow as well.