TRANSCRIPT: Interview with Sabra Lane ABC AM Radio - Murray-Darling Basin Plan

SUBJECTS:  Murray Darling Basin Plan.

SABRA LANE: Irrigators and farming groups have slammed the Wentworth Group of Scientists for its report, suggesting the Murray Darling Basin plan had done little to improve the river's health.

As we revealed yesterday, the scientists believe the plan is on the verge of failure. But their critics say they're being too pessimistic and it's too early to make that call.

Joining me now to discuss the basin plan is the man who was one of the original architects of the 2012 deal, the shadow environment and water minister, Tony Burke.

Thanks for joining AM this morning, Mr Burke.


LANE: The Wentworth Group of Scientists says the basin plan is failing and it's calling for a one-third increase in environmental flows to 3,200 gigalitres: Others say that's premature. What do you think?


BURKE: Well, certainly the plan needs to be implemented in full. And my key concern over the last eight or so months has been: Barnaby Joyce has put into jeopardy whether the final part of the plan - that's the additional 450 gigalitres of held water - will ever occur.

And certainly, you can't fix the health of the rivers without environmental water. And you need that additional 450 gigalitres.

I was surprised when Barnaby Joyce put it into jeopardy, because we had bipartisan support in 2012. And I'm not going to pretend that any plan is perfect, but when it's one that breaks a 100-year deadlock then I think you need a pretty good reason to be departing from it.

LANE: I'm interested to hear you say that: that the plan's not perfect. If you had your time again, what would you have done differently?

BURKE: I think, in part, we don't know the answer to that.

You've got to remember: what we're doing here is, for the first time, reserving an amount of water for the purposes of the environment; effectively consciously irrigating the environment, irrigating wetlands, making sure you've got the correct river flows.

And as farmers know as well as anyone, every time you have a flood event or a different major event in a wetland, the landscape operates slightly differently. And a whole lot of this will be learning as we go. A whole lot of the work of the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder will be involved in different environmental events that play slightly differently each time.

And that's why I say: we will work this through as it goes. That was the whole concept of the plan. But you can't do it without the water.

And we've made a series of concessions. We don't have the broad-scale, general tender buy-back any more. There's a series of concessions that were made to help irrigation communities through this. We can't just abandon it.

LANE: But the Wentworth Group says not enough money was set actually aside to help communities cope with the change. The Basin Authority agrees. What do you think?

BURKE: On the specific change for communities, I'm still wanting to get further into some of the economic analysis, community by community.

Some communities have claimed particular harm since 2012, since the plan was brought into place. And of course, that covers a period when buy-back had stopped; when general tender buy-back had stopped.

So, we need - and I don't think we've properly done this yet - to be able to get inside not simply: how have communities gone since 2012? but which aspects of those changes have been directly because of the plan? And which have been because of other economic factors?

LANE: We've been hearing that there's been change. Even the Basin Authority's done their own report on the northern basin, showing that communities like Collarenebri, where we were yesterday, have been drastically hit hard?

BURKE: That's right. But if you're talking since the plan was put in place, you're talking about a period without buy-back. So, you're talking about a period where what communities were principally complaining about has not been occurring in any large scale.

And that's why I say: simply because something follows an earlier date doesn't mean it's caused by it. And that aspect of it we need to be able to get through.

But there are two main concessions, if you want to call them, to communities in the way the plan operates.

The first is: you're allowed to go below the baseline if you've got ways of using environmental water in a smarter fashion. So instead of doing an overbank flow to get to a wetland, you pipe the water directly to the wetland.

You don't get an identical environmental outcome, but it's close enough that the plan says you can do that. And that means you don't need quite as much environmental water.

In the same way, for that 450 gigalitres that's become so controversial, none of that gets acquired through general buy-back. That gets acquired through on-farm irrigation projects, infrastructure projects, where the owner of the property agrees to be part of it.

Now, there was never a time in 2012 when people were saying: the government providing money to improve infrastructure on irrigation properties was a problem. But that's exactly where Barnaby Joyce has landed now.

LANE: OK, Mr Burke. Just quickly: Tandou station, a massive property, sold all its water rights last week: $78 million for 21,000 megalitres. Was that good value for money?

BURKE: I don't know the answer to that. What I do know is: irrigators buy and sell their water every week, every month, often to other irrigators. Occasionally it gets sold back and forth to the Commonwealth. But overwhelmingly now, the way the plan is being implemented, it's all happening off the back of infrastructure.

LANE: Tony Burke, thank you very much for joining AM this morning.


BURKE: Good to be back.


Tony Burke