FRAN KELLY (HOST): Tony Burke joins me in the Parliament House studios. Tony Burke, welcome back to breakfast.


KELLY: Thank you. There are a lot of people saying this morning that this deal will mean 605 billion litres less water for the Basin. Why have you supported the Government on this?

BURKE: Well the Murray-Darling Basin Plan would have collapsed if we'd gone ahead with the disallowance vote today. The challenge though was unless the Government put the 450gigalitres (GL), that additional environmental water back on the table unless we had real movement on compliance my view was the plan was already dead. Now the Government came to the table on those critical issues. The 605GL that we're talking about here where instead of it being buyback, it's through environmental projects. This was specifically part of the plan that was put in place in 2012. In fact, there was a capacity up to 650 that this could be done too. Now whether these individual projects stack up or not in the long term is something that gets reconciled with set dates and milestones during the Plan. If they don't stack up then the water will still be bought through buyback. The water still has to be acquired.

KELLY: So, that 605 billion litres are measurable because there's plenty of scientists and plenty of green groups saying these are just on paper savings. That these so-called 36 water efficiency projects, many of them will never do anything to return water to the river and certainly, in the past, the Wentworth Group of Scientists said efficiencies are certainly not the cheapest the most effective way to get water back the river. Some of them like the one in the Coorong will return water but it'll be agricultural runoff. That's going to be not just nothing. It actually could be detrimental to the river.

BURKE: If I start with the principle of what are these projects, just to explain it to the listeners. The simplest example is the Hattah Lakes project. Now Hattah Lakes, a key environmental site in Victoria is some distance from the rivers. Now you can either get extra water there through an overbank flow which uses very high volumes or you can pipe water directly there for not exactly identical environmental impacts but pretty similar. And use much less water to achieve an equivalent environmental outcome. They're the sorts of projects that this is designed to deal with and had we not had this sort of provision in the original plan, the plan would never have been able to be brokered.

KELLY: Well it may not have been able to be brokered but you still got to have a Plan that actually works and does restore the health of the river. I mean that's the bottom line. The Wentworth Group of concerned scientists to quote them again, they've looked closely at the 36 projects they've concluded there are significant flaws in the strategy and only one of the projects is consistent with the requirements of the Basin Plan. They say this deal will quote "reduce the real water available for the Basin". Have you spoken to these scientists, these water specialists?

BURKE: I've met with them regularly and they were quoted on...

KELLY: Did they say that to you?

BURKE: We've worked through all of these issues. They were quoted on AM only a few minutes ago in a much more positive light than some of those quotations. The challenge here that we have is if you can, and on some of these projects, if they stack up then you will get an equivalent environmental outcome and you'll be able to do it with less water having to be taken out of production. Now if you can get a similar outcome by using less water that is a good thing. The question that they're asking and that you've put to me is, will these project stack up? 

KELLY: Because some would say that’s a big ‘if’.

BURKE: What we're doing right now is the first pass. They then have to run the projects, build the projects. they are major construction works. Things will change at different ways as they go through. If at the end they don't reconcile, If at the end they haven't delivered what on paper they claimed they were going to deliver then the Plan demands that the water still has to be acquired. Labor would do that through buyback.

KELLY: So who's watching that? Because we've seen, let me just quote, Four Corners was the big one. But we've seen revelations of water theft, of meter tampering, of the Murray-Darling Basin regulators really not being on the job. Of all sorts of water theft going on under the very eyes of those were meant to be measuring these things. So how are you going to ensure that if these water efficiency projects don't do as promised that (a) that's measured and (b) the water will be returned?

BURKE: A Different mechanism in the north to the south. So these projects are in the Southern Basin and the Murray-Darling Basin Authority as a result of this agreement will now be reporting annually on the progress and there'll be full access annually for the scientists to be able to work through how this is progressing. In the Northern Basin, which were the water theft allegations out on Four Corners through the ABC, there will now a Northern Basin Commissioner and we have now seen in New South Wales new compliance rules and new enforcement rules being put in place.

KELLY: Wouldn't it be smart to do a full audit of the Plan before agreeing to any changes to the sustainable diversion limits?

BURKE: These changes had to happen at a particular point, a particular year. There's milestone dates in the Plan and this one you only get to do this first pass once. If it were disallowed at this point and we didn't even give them a chance to build the projects and to do the later reconciliation the Plan would have fallen apart and we know what the rivers look like without a Murray-Darling Basin Plan. We looked at that for 100 years. We know that you don't get another hundred years running it like that. That's why we need to have a plan and every year we are getting more water for the environment and now water is being used more efficiently for the environment.

KELLY: It needs to be a plan that works for and it in South Australia they sure know what the river looks like if there's not enough water in it particularly around the Coorong which is already struggling down the bottom of the river system. There is this promise by the Government to reinstate the extra 450GL, this is a different amount of water. It was in the original plan knocked out during negotiations with the states. You say that is back on the table. What does that mean? Is that a hard guarantee?

BURKE: Yes, what part of this is is that the states don't get the money for these other projects unless they're participating in the 450GL. Now I would have preferred a volume for volume agreement. What the Government have come back with is a dollar agreement where the states, if they want the money for these other projects that we were talking about on disallowance but they don't get it unless they are participating in the 450.

KELLY: And who’s measuring that? The 450 coming in?

BURKE: Well, the 450 that's all public Commonwealth environmental water,

KELLY: Okay. You’re listening to RN Breakfast it's 16 to 8. Our guest is Labor frontbencher Tony Burke. It's obviously Budget Day today day. Tax cuts we now know of around $10 a week probably, for low and middle-income earners. 20,000 new home care packages for older Australians, that's trumpeted on the front page of the newspapers today. An extra $24 billion for infrastructure. Doesn't sound like there are too many nasties. How do you criticise any of that? How do you beat that?

BURKE: Well, we'll start with the tax cut. If you're somebody who took a $77 a week pay cut because of this Government's action on penalty rates then the tax cut that you get is hardly going to make up and your lived experience, your household budget has taken a big hit because this Government has been in power. But the other story here is the debt and deficit disaster. It just seems to have evaporated in their mind. It's like the moment we started to hear that Australia's debt was hitting half a trillion dollars it went from not being an increased crisis to being not a problem at all!

KELLY: Yes but there is some budget repair in this and I'm sure that the Treasurer will be pointing that out in the floodlights tonight but also this Government is projected to return the budget to surplus next year. That's earlier than thought.

BURKE: But a surplus doesn't end the debt.

KELLY: No but with a surplus, you can start working on the debt.

BURKE: That's right, a surplus is the first day.

KELLY: I understand. But what I mean is they are going to get there. You never did that.

BURKE: We had a global financial crisis. This Government hasn't had that. I think Peter Costello gave the game away last night where he made clear that the way this Government is tracking that Australia's debt will never be paid off. For all the principles that they had claimed were essential to what a Liberal Government is all about, they're willing to see Australia's debt go on and on and on.

KELLY: What about the principle that you once claimed too and are now not committing to, which is Scott Morrison's commitment to restrict the overall tax take to 23.9 percent? We're quoting Peter Costello who thinks that's a good idea, 23.90 percent of GDP. Labor won't commit to that. Why not?

BURKE: Chris Bowen made clear we'll be announcing our fiscal rules and our priorities closer to the election. He said that on Insiders on the weekend. What we have to make sure of is that we deal with the priorities of fairness for people and we also deal with the national debt that this Government has gone from saying it's the biggest issue to turning around saying 'crisis? What Crisis?’

KELLY: Okay. On another matter the High Court hands down its decision on Senator Katy Gallagher her citizenship tomorrow. If it rules she was a dual citizen at the time will Labor send three MPs relying on the same reasonable steps defence to a by-election? Justine Keay, Josh Wilson, Susan Lamb.

BURKE: Well the question isn't whether they rule that Katy was a dual citizen...

KELLY: No, it’s whether she took reasonable steps and whether they accept that test.

BURKE: So if there is a change from what has been the reasonable steps test for more than 20 years then we'll obviously have to deal with that across the board.  But we'll wait till we see the decision. We are talking about if the High Court changes the interpretation of the law that we've had for more than 20 years. Now, I'm not going to anticipate that they'll do that. If they do, we'll deal with it.

KELLY: And just before you go, Bob Hawke is in hospital, the former PM. He is now 88. Any news on how he's going?

BURKE: From everything that I've heard, he is fine. He had to be taken in overnight but he's okay from all the reports that I've heard. Bob is loved. Bob is absolutely loved around the place and everyone's just wishing him the best.

KELLY: Tony Burke, thanks very much for joining us.

BURKE: Great to be back.

Tony Burke