TRANSCRIPT: Interview - Lateline

Watch online here:,-shadow-environment-and/8743252


SUBJECTS: Matt Canavan resignation; response to 4Corners shocking report on the Murray Darling Basin

EMMA ALBERICI: Tony Burke is the Shadow Minister for Environment and Water. He joins me now from Adelaide. Many thanks for being with us. We're shortly going to discuss the allegations of theft and corruption around the Murray-Darling Water Basin, but first of all have you called your parents to check that you haven't got any secret citizenship?

TONY BURKE: It's enough generations back before you get to Ireland that I'm OK. I can't believe what we're going through in this Parliament. This brings the number of senators who were declared elected who have turned out to be in question to five. We've got a member of the House of Representatives who is still before the courts. When you think in both Houses because the numbers are so tight, you very frequently get laws that are passed by only a majority of one, there has never been a Parliament like this one.

ALBERICI: If indeed Matt Canavan is confirmed to be an Italian citizen, are you comfortable with him remaining a senator?

BURKE: Well, if the court determines that he's in breach of the Constitution, then he's in breach of the Constitution. If you don't like a provision of the Constitution you can't just ignore it. You have to have a referendum to be able to change it. I mean, I don't fully understand the explanation that he's given, I've got to say. I've tried to piece together how it is that something like this or why on earth something like this would be kept secret from him? But that's the version of events he's provided publicly. And you've got to presume that will be tested before the courts. What I certainly won't do is what Malcolm Turnbull did when the Greens were in this position and gloated about how stupid he thought they were. I think Malcolm Turnbull would be regretting those words now.

ALBERICI: I presume what you're saying is that it doesn't seem credible to you a mother would lodge a citizenship application on behalf of her son and not tell him for 11 years. It’s Italian citizenship and it's not something you'd want to keep secret.

BURKE: I respect that Emma Alberici. That will be tested in the courts. It doesn't matter the extent to which it sounded odd today. It's something that will be tested in the courts. And I certainly hope we never get another Parliament like this one, where we're getting legislation passed by a majority of one. It's a year since the election and we still don't know who is legally allowed to vote in the Parliament.

ALBERICI: Do you accept as the Attorney-General suggested that his case may indeed be unique because he was born in Australia, his mother was born in Australia, he's never been to Italy, he says, and in fact it's his mother's parents who were both born overseas and that he didn't even know that this citizenship was applied for on his behalf unbeknownst to him?

BURKE: It might be unique for those reasons, that might be the case. Certainly I know in the Labor Party people have to fill out as candidates where their parents were born, where their grandparents were born. Matt Keogh, one of our members from Western Australia, got a phone call from the National Office to confirm all the generations back, everyone was born in Australia and to confirm that could possibly be accurate. I know there's a high level of checking that goes on in the Labor Party. I would have presumed the National Party did something similar. The court will decide whether or not we’ve got unique circumstances here. I would have thought Larissa Waters' circumstances were unique but George Brandis wasn't quite as generous when it was referring to the Greens party. 

ALBERICI: As Manager of Opposition Business, can you say categorically that everyone on your side is free of foreign citizenship, accidental or otherwise?

BURKE: I believe that we took absolutely every check that you need to under current law. Absolutely every check. And we've been, I've been in conversations with the National Secretary of the Party about this. I'm very confident in terms of where we're at but I that doesn’t mean I will make the kind of arrogant comments Malcolm Turnbull made with respect to the Greens Party. This will be tested before the courts. It has surprised everybody. The bigger concern is how do you pass laws for 12 months where you've got a whole series of people who turn out to have been ineligible to even be in the Parliament?

ALBERICI: Do you think the rules might need to change? Do we need look at some sort of Constitutional reform?

BURKE: The question will be whether the Australian people would support it. There’s two competing principles. One is the concept that I do have some sympathy for, that we shouldn't have two classes of citizenship, that Australian citizenship, if we're going to allow dual citizenship, you shouldn't have two classes that some people are eligible and others aren't. There is a reasonable counterpoint which may well have a strong level of support among the Australian people which is if a member of the Australian Parliament is the job you want, then that's the one job where you do have to renounce any allegiance to any other country which is a reasonable view. So I think we're some way from the Australian people being willing to change that particular rule. But before we had joint citizenship, this issue didn't arise. My seat's named after John Christian Watson, whose name wasJohan Christian Tanck. He lied about his identity, he denied he had a German father which caused him to be allowed to vote and allowed to be deemed to be a citizen of the Empire and ultimately become Prime Minister of Australia. So there's been some odd precedents over the years on all of this.

ALBERICI: Stay with us, Tony Burke, we're going to turn to the other big political issue of the day. The New South Wales Labor Opposition has referred the state's former Water Minister, Kevin Humphries, and a top bureaucrat, to ICAC. It follows allegations of mismanagement of the Murray-Darling Basin plan, including water theft from last night's Four Corners. The program aired a secret recording of the most senior water official in New South Wales offering to share internal government information with irrigation lobbyists, using a special Dropbox account. The New South Wales Government has announced it will appoint an independent investigator but the Greens are calling for a Senate inquiry and the South Australian Government says a judicial review is what's needed.

IAN HUNTER MLC: We’re calling on the Prime Minister to show his commitments to the Murray-Darling Basin agreement and take on the role that's expected of the PM, call an independent judicial review into what the allegations showed and to reassure all of Australia, the 3.4 million Australians that rely on the Murray-Darling Basin, either directly or indirectly, for critical human water needs or for their livelihoods that the Federal Government will back them in implementing the Murray-Darling Basin plan.

ALBERICI: Back to you, Tony Burke, in Adelaide. In 2012 you were, in fact, the Minister who signed off on the Murray-Darling Basin plan. It is said to be costing taxpayers in the order of $13 billion. Doesn't that look like a massive waste of money given it doesn't seem to have done anything to safeguard the health of the river?

BURKE: The plan itself is still intact. What was alleged last night in an extraordinary Four Corners program was that the foundations on which the plan has been built, which is the whole water trading system, has allegedly been completely undermined by the New South Wales Government. That water trading system well and truly preceded the plan but the plan presumed it. If the allegations that were aired last night turn out to be true, then we've got a situation where the New South Wales Government will have actively sought to undermine a plan they'd officially agreed to, change the water trading rules in a way that allowed environmental water to be re-pumped into irrigation channels, and had a strategic go slow on any of the compliance activities. Now those are extraordinary allegations and there will be a series of reviews that happen as a result of that,I have no doubt. There will be a parliamentary inquiry at a federal level. ICAC in New South Wales will look into it with state officials. The powerful thing with what the South Australian Government has suggested is by using the COAG process it means you can access both the federal and the state officials as well as any other witnesses that you might want to subpoena. And I think that is the best process to be able to get to the bottom of the allegations that were aired last night.

ALBERICI: There was mass water theft alleged last night. One billion litres. That is something like 400 Olympic swimming pools worth. It's not something you could hide particularly easily. It does beg the question, what is the role of the Murray-Darling Basin Authority? What's their authority here?

BURKE: And this is where, for the water trading system, Barnaby Joyce gave an answer yesterday before the program was aired, but if you didn't know what was going to be in the program was probably reasonable, which was to say the enforcements issues and the issues of river rules are a matter for the States. But I don't see how you can maintain that view now that these allegations have come to light in the form they did in Four Corners last night. When I was giving interviews this morning, I wasn't rushing to back in the South Australian recommendation for a judicial inquiry. I was quite deliberately this morning, waiting, to see what Barnaby Joyce would say in case he came up with a different way of trying to get to the bottom of this. But what happened today was Barnaby Joyce's Water Minister went missing. Said nothing. You can't be responsible for the Murray-Darling Basin, see allegations of large-scale corruption and theft and decide nothing needs to be done, that the comments made the day before can still stand. Last night was a game-changer and, you're right, if we're going to be serious about enforcement if those allegations turn out to be verified through an independent inquiry, then we need do better than simply relying on the states to be setting all the enforcement mechanisms.

ALBERICI: Tony Burke, thank you.

BURKE: Good to be back. 

Tony Burke