By Tanya Plibersek

14 March 2024









Water is an important part of life. Water sustainability and water quality, access to clean drinking water is an absolutely essential part of life.

It's super to have - I really appreciate having the Honourable Tanya Plibersek, Minister for Environment, in Darwin today to celebrate and to announce a $53 million investment into remote infrastructure projects and water planning and sustainability for the next couple of years.

I might just leave it there and ask the Minister to say a few words about how we are delivering it to our regional communities.

TANYA PLIBERSEK, MINISTER FOR THE ENVIRONMENT AND WATER: Thank you so much. It's such a pleasure to be here with Kate Worden, the NT Minister for Water, and Andrew, and we'll be hearing more about the Yuendumu project shortly.

Today we're making a very important announcement about additional investment by the Commonwealth Government and the Northern Territory Government in providing water to remote communities across the Top End.

We know, as Minister Worden said, that water is an absolute essential for life. Of course we rely on clean drinking water, but we also need water facilities so that communities can expand their housing, so that they can invest in health services, particularly like renal dialysis chairs.

And we know that across Australia at least 25,000 people don't have access to clean drinking water in their communities, and another 600,000 people are facing water that doesn't meet the sort of standards that people should be able to rely on.

Now, you know, you live in a city, you turn a tap on, clean drinking water comes out. We take it for granted. It is a real shock, I think, to most Australians that there are thousands of their fellow countrymen that can't do that because they live in remote communities.

I want to say what an absolute pleasure it has been working with the NT Government to rollout good quality clean drinking water projects across the Northern Territory. Of course, I am delighted that today we're announcing another $53 million of co investment in new projects.

This comes on top of the money we’ve already invested, about $26 million, bringing our total co investment so far to around $80 million to make sure that more Territorians get access to something that most Australians take for granted.

So today's projects are very exciting.

On the Gove Peninsula we'll be investing almost $9 million together. It means that Yirrkala will get community facilities, education facilities, health care facilities, that it otherwise wouldn't be able to get.

In Maningrida together we're investing $21 million.

In Numbulwar together we are investing just over $3 million, and that investment will allow us to do further work down the track, that's allowing investigation so we can do further work down the track.

And in Yulara we're investing more than $18 million. Now, this is again a great example of what this investment allows. This investment at Yulara will allow the building of 60 additional homes. That allows not just good quality housing for people who are already living at Yulara, it will enable an expansion of the cultural tourism offered around Yulara.

So it's absolutely critical to the economic development of Yulara as well.

Minister Worden, can I thank you for the terrific cooperation we've had with the Northern Territory Government. When I first announced that the Commonwealth had $150 million to invest in upgrading remote community water infrastructure across Australia, the Northern Territory were fast out of the blocks on that one and absolutely determined to make sure that Territorians benefit from this co investment with the Commonwealth Government.

I'm so excited today to learn about the progress on the Yuendumu water investment, which of course we announced some time ago. And I look forward, Minister Worden, to continuing to work with you on further investments in the future.


ANDREW: We're thrilled to be working with the Northern Territory Government on these critical remote water infrastructure projects. They will make an excellent improvement to those communities' lives and our local team have a lot of experience in this area, and we're really looking forward to delivering them together over the coming months.


JOURNALIST: How long until we can actually see some work in those remote communities that do need the upgrades?

MINISTER WORDEN: So some of the work is already under way. We had two previous projects that have been under way already, but it will be in the coming months that this work will start, particularly in places like Maningrida where there's a known quantity. We totally understand the issues there. There is a lot of old pipe work in Maningrida that needs to be that work will need be tendered out, but it will start, the ball will be rolling already.

JOURNALIST: Minister Plibersek, the Environmental Defender's Office have announced an external review into their processes following on the Santos v Tiwi Islands case. How confident are you that this review will shore up some of the concerns or get rid of some of the concerns that have been levelled at the organisation by people like Peter Dutton?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Well, I'll wait for the outcome of the external review of the Environmental Defender's Office, and of course I'm also awaiting a response from my Department about whether the EDO have discharged the responsibilities they have under the contract that we have with them, our funding contract. I'm not going to pre empt the outcomes of those investigations --

JOURNALIST: Are you worried about some of the concerns that have been raised about the EDO's conduct though?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Look, I've sought to reassure myself that the EDO is behaving in a way that we would expect any organisation that is receiving Government funding to behave.

I should emphasise that only a very small part of their funding comes from governments, both Territory and Commonwealth Governments. Most of the funding that they use comes from donations and from their fundraising.

In general, I would say it's no surprise that Peter Dutton is criticising a community legal service because when the Liberals were last in government they were very happy to cut them - whether they were family and domestic violence legal services, community legal services of all types have suffered under the Liberal and National governments. So I mean there's no news really in that one.

JOURNALIST: The Northern Territory's Chief Minister's criticised their conduct as well, as has Justice Charlesworth. You must be concerned though if you've read that judgment about the conduct that the judge has not accused the EDO of but has found the EDO engaged in.

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Yeah, I have read the judgment and I think the comments of the judge were very concerning and that's why I've sought to reassure myself that the organisation has behaved in line with the contract that we have for the share of funding that comes from the Commonwealth Government, and that's why I'm pleased to see that there is an external review being held into the organisation.

JOURNALIST: How have you reassured yourself? How have you --

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Well I've asked my Department to investigate whether the EDO has acted in line with the funding arrangements we have with them, and there is an external review now and I'll await the results of the external review.

JOURNALIST: How much funding does the EDO receive from the Federal Government? And if your review finds that they didn't act in accordance with those funding arrangements, will that funding be removed?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Yeah, from memory it's $8 million over four years and I believe from memory that their funding is about $13 million a year. So it gives you an idea of the share of Commonwealth funding. And of course if they've behaved in a way that is contrary to their arrangement with the Commonwealth Government there'll be consequences for that.

JOURNALIST: It seems a water licence could lower the groundwater table in Central Australia by 50 metres. Do you hold any concerns that decisions like this could make water scarce or unavailable in remote communities?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: I'll let Minister Worden respond to the details of that because I won't make comments on individual cases. What I will say is that the Commonwealth and State and Territory Water Ministers will be meeting to begin work on a new national water agreement.

Commonwealth and State Water Ministers haven't met for a decade. The only reason that we haven't met earlier than this is because the Tasmanian Government's gone into caretaker mode.

We think it is very important to make sure that we take a science based approach to water allocation so that there is enough water for human needs, first and foremost drinking water, so that there's enough water for agricultural and industrial needs, and of course so that we make sure there's enough water left in the environment to protect our precious places, the plants and animals that rely on having enough water in the environment for their survival.

With a science-based approach we can make sure that we meet all of these objectives.

MINISTER WORDEN: I also want to talk specifically about the Singleton matter. I've made it very plain that I do have a conflict of interest on that matter, and that is actually now back before the court.

But in terms of water, I echo what the Federal Minister for Environment has just outlined. We have taken a very strong scientific approach to how we look at water in the Northern Territory. When we came to Government in 2016 we were seeing water licences still being handed to the CLP and their mates. We don't do that. The Labor Government has put in a very robust framework around water and under that we are following a number of water plans in regions across the Northern Territory.

We do need to keep a balance around economic growth and the environment. Those water plans deliver on that, including those in regional areas.

JOURNALIST: Minister Plibersek, can I just ask on the Middle Arm development, there's obviously been a number of environmental concerns raised with this project. How have your discussions been with that development?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: So far we've had extensive contact from the Northern Territory Government and the project. The objective of the strategic assessment is to make sure that we balance the need for economic development with better, stronger environmental protections.

The Northern Territory Government will be working over coming months on an environmental impact statement, and I'm not going to comment beyond that on individual projects because as a potential decision maker I can't. It's not my opinion on these things that matter, it's the way that we assess the science before us.

JOURNALIST: My understanding is the environmental impact statement is on your desk and it won't be approved before the election. Are you saying that it hasn't been completed?


JOURNALIST: When will it be completed?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: It's your understanding of what's on my desk. I always find that curious that you've been going through my in tray, have you?

JOURNALIST: Do you know when it will be completed?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: No, that's something for the Northern Territory Government.

JOURNALIST: The Chief Minister said she's --

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Can I emphasise though the very purpose of this strategic assessment approach is so that we're not investigating project by project individual environmental impact statements. It's so that we can take an approach across a region to make sure that we are properly balancing environmental impact against the desire for development in some areas.

There is no reduction, weakening of environmental protections. In fact this is a stronger, better way of assessing environmental impacts, including cumulative impacts, across a region.

JOURNALIST: The Chief Minister says the Territory Labor Government is unashamedly pro gas. Would you identify yourself in the same way, pro gas?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Well no, I'm the Environment Minister and it's my job to make sure that any project, whether it's a gas project or a housing development or a wind farm or a transmission line or a railway line, has the same strong environmental assessment. And that's the approach I'll take in any environmental assessment.

I've not been afraid to say no. I've said no to a coal mine because of its potential impact on the Great Barrier Reef. I said no to a port facility development in Victoria because of its potential impact on Ramsar listed wetlands.

I'm not afraid to say no to projects that are environmentally harmful.

JOURNALIST: Were you rolled in Cabinet when there were proposed changes to –

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: You’ve been going through my in-tray too!

JOURNALIST: There were proposed changes in legislation that would see you removed or stripped of your power to approve offshore gas --

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: No, that’s nonsense.

JOURNALIST: Were you rolled in Cabinet?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: It's a nonsense story. If you're talking about the arrangements with NOPSEMA looking more closely at consultation measures. This is a sensible proposal that people on both sides of the environment resources debate have raised.

The legislation as it exists at the moment does not make it clear when the legislation calls for relevant people to be consulted with, there's a lot of uncertainty and a lack of clarity around who those relevant people might be. We're clearing that up. That's a sensible step.

JOURNALIST: My understanding is that --

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Have you been being going through my in-tray?

JOURNALIST: -- the Government's announcing today a billion-dollar investment in rare earth mining in the Northern Territory. How are you going to make sure that the environmental concerns associated with that project are properly balanced and assessed?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Well they'll have to put in an environmental impact statement in the same way as any other project. I think this project in fact has been around for some time, I think probably since about 2018. So there's a fair amount of work that's already been done.

We are very hopeful as a Government that we can develop rare earth resources in Australia. We don't want any other country to have a corner of the market for what will be a critical input into the renewable energy revolution that we need in Australia.

But there's no project that gets to skip the proper environmental processes. No project gets to skip those. It doesn't matter how important it is.

Okay, thanks everyone.