SUBJECTS: Murray Darling Basin Plan; Ongoing ecological disaster - fish kills from algal blooms.

JOURNALIST: The Government's announced $5 million for a native fish management fund. First of all is that enough money?

TONY BURKE, SHADOW MINISTER FOR THE ENVIRONMENT: I don't think anyone knows what needs to be done until the scientists have been asked to work out exactly what has happened. One of the things that irritates me when you get this sort of ecological disaster is  people go straight into their corners immediately saying they've got all the answers. What needs to happen and what Bill Shorten wrote to the Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, and asked to be done was to have an independent task force, run by scientists, to have a look at exactly what has happened and turn around some recommendations quickly on what we need to do to prevent this from occurring again. It's not about, ‘oh lets come up with a media release, what is there for the native fish strategy’. Or get in our corners and just blame the drought. We have always had droughts but we haven't had an ecological disaster like this before.

JOURNALIST: Speaking of getting in corners and pointing fingers, isn't Labor doing exactly that?

BURKE: I don't think you could have a more constructive attempt at dealing with this than for the Leader of the Opposition, the alternative Prime Minister, to write to Scott Morrison and say let's put the scientists in charge and have them report directly to the Parliament, and whatever they recommend you have already got bipartisan support to deliver it. And when you are dealing with 100 year old fish, who have survived drought after drought after drought but couldn't survive the last week? We know we are dealing with something of a different proportion from previous droughts and it's not good enough to simply say maybe it will rain.

JOURNALIST: What do you say to Minister Littleproud's emergency meeting that he has called?

BURKE: To have a meeting is a good thing to do. But it needs to be informed by the scientists. We need to have the scientists out here doing the work, working out how all the different issues came together. What could have been done through different management of water with pulsating flows that break up the algal bloom? What could have been done in terms of treatment of the water or in terms of treatment of runoff, in terms of agriculture chemicals that might have mitigated against some of what we've seen. There are a whole lot of different impacts that that meeting should have in front of it. And yet because the Government has just thrown out the offer from Labor, that scientific work doesn't get done.

JOURNALIST: But didn't Labor in May last year support the Turnbull Government passing plans to recover 605GL from engineering and water infrastructure projects rather than irrigation entitlements. Do you support that?

BURKE: We supported there being an independent Authority. For 100 years we didn't have an independent authority.We had no pathway for the science to be put in charge. And that Murray Darling Basin Plan, that I signed off on, is only about now halfway through it's implementation phase of gradually getting more and more water for the environment. It was undermined in different ways with water sharing plans in NSW that never should have been signed off, with water theft that people should never have been able to get away with. Not withstanding all of that though we shouldn't say therefore we don't want a plan because the problem is not yet completely fixed.  You need to have a pathway where science can be put in charge and we got to this situation with constant interventions where we over allocated the rivers to death. Now we need interventions on the side of the environment.

JOURNALIST: Tony, you are the original architect for the Murray Darling Basin Plan. Do you take any responsibility for what has happened over the last week or month?

BURKE: Everything that was put in place for the Plan has made the situation better than it otherwise would have been. Everything, there is not a single part of the Murray Darling Basin Plan that is a step backwards for the environment from where it was when I was Water Minister.

JOURNALIST: What about not taking away irrigation allocations though, does that need to be revised? If Labor gets elected will you reduce water allocations?

BURKE: I've always said that if the projects that have been approved by the Basin Authority don't stack up and the Menindee one is one of the one that there is an absolute spotlight on with a lot of people believing  it won't stack up. If those projects don't stack up we still need the same volume of water and the Labor alternative to get it is through buyback. The National Party won't say what will happen and we can't shortcut it. We can't pretend that a project stacks up if it doesn't. They will need to be independently assessed and if they don't stack up the environmental outcomes need to be achieved through buyback.

JOURNALIST: So is that your official policy coming into the election? Labor will buyback water entitlements?

BURKE: If the projects don't stack up Labor will buy up the gap through buyback, through general tenders.

JOURNALIST: Removing politics from the equation, what is the simple solution to fix the river system?

BURKE: You put the scientists in charge.

JOURNALIST: Scientists have said this is due to a lack of oxygen in the water, it's due to drought. They haven't called it an environmental crisis yet. What is your take on it?

BURKE: You will get a range of different views from different scientists at the moment and this is where we don't want to get into the world of people going out and picking the scientists whose current conclusions happen to match their arguments. We need an independent task force that is run by science that reports directly to the Parliament and that's what we are calling for.

JOURNALIST: Tony indigenous groups have been asking for cultural flows for quite some time, as distinct from environmental flows. Will Labor consider putting that into the Murray Darling Basin Plan?

BURKE: That is one of the things we negotiated with the Government, to get money set aside for cultural water. It was the first time that that had been negotiated as part of the Murray Darling Basin and world leading in it's own way for entitlement to be held to the flow of water, not only to the land. One of the issues that Uncle Badger has raised with me today. That money which had been spread between the principal northern basin group and the principal southern basin group. This has meant that the people here at Menindee, the traditional owners, have been caught in the middle. That is one of the issues that I need to go further in to. Cultural water is something we are completely committed to.

JOURNALIST: Do you think you weren't firm enough in negotiations with the Government when they planned to cut 70 GL from irrigator allocations but then eventually didn't. Do you regret not being firmer? 

BURKE: We would have given away everything if we had given away the independent Authority and there is no reform and there is no agreement without an independent Authority. When those numbers came out, I made it clear they were not numbers I expected. It was not a scientific process that I thought landed where I had expected it to land. And a decision had to be made - were we going to tear the whole system down or were we simply going to respect that there was an independent process. We've decided that the long term reform was essential. That you had to make sure there was an independent process with an independent Authority. Once you go back to each politician choosing their own set of numbers the whole thing will fall apart. That doesn't mean there won't be further reviews, there will be. There are further reviews demanded during the Plan, during the course of it's lifetime. They will happen. I was surprised when those numbers came out. I would be surprised if they came out the same way in the future, particularly given the events of the last week.

JOURNALIST: Do you still stand behind the Murray Darling Basin Plan?


JOURNALIST: Just finally, back to this $5 million. Do you worry that this money could be spent elsewhere, like buy backs?

BURKE: The $5 million, you need some work that is done specifically on ecological strategies. You can get a lot of the way with volume of water but volume of water in a managed system doesn't actually deal with all the problems that arise. So the native fish strategy is something that is needed. Whether $5 million is the correct figure or not I don't know, certainly it does seem like a small amount when you look at the carnage around us. 

Tony Burke