ABC News 24

SUBJECTS: Murray-Darling Basin Royal Commission report

ANNA HENDERSON: Tony Burke thanks for joining ABC News. Can I first take you to some of the critical features of this review today? Firstly do you think the Murray Darling Basin Authority has acted independently of politics at all times?

TONY BURKE, SHADOW MINISTER FOR ENVIRONMENT AND WATER: Well I’m obviously alarmed by some of the concerns raised in the report. We welcome the report and the report has had to deal with the evidence that has been provided with it and certainly they would have been able to go a lot further had the Federal Government cooperated with the inquiry as we encouraged the Government to do right from the day the Royal Commission was announced. But there are findings there based on the evidence they received that has described behaviour of various public servants as either acting unlawfully or acting deplorably. Now if these findings are right then serious action needs to be taken by the Commonwealth and if those findings are based on the fact that not all the evidence was before the Commission then those people need to have their names cleared. That’s why today we are calling for the findings that have been made in the Royal Commission to be referred to the Australian Public Service Commissioner so there can be a proper investigation. You don’t get really a more serious allegation against any Government agency than to say it has acted unlawfully and deplorably. It’s either a wrong finding or a right finding based on the fact they didn’t have all the evidence in front of them. Either way there needs to be an investigation into it.

HENDERSON: So Tony Burke is that also an investigation into you and your management of this because you were the architect behind this. How much blame do you shoulder for this? Have you allowed an unlawful system to be put in place.

BURKE: I hear what you are saying there and, as is already public, I wrote to the Royal Commission concerning how things were run during my time. One of the reasons that I wanted the Government to cooperate with the Royal Commission was because I knew exactly how we determined the environmental level of take. I knew how those decisions were made. I knew at what point the decisions were made on an environmental only basis and at what point of the process a triple bottom line kicked in. Unfortunately, because the Federal Government didn’t cooperate, that evidence was not before the Royal Commission. The Royal Commission also, the quotes I were referring to, go to quotes that the Royal Commission found in respect to the more recent Northern Basin review. Now we supported the Northern Basin review on the basis that it had been presented as a finding by an independent Murray Darling Basin Authority. And the entire reform, like for years people have said with the Murray Darling Basin, we need to have an independent authority that can make these decisions. We don’t want to go back to the politicians being in charge of every day to day decision.

HENDERSON: But Tony Burke you yourself didn’t give the Royal Commission your own time until this letter dated the 22nd of January this year and the Royal Commissioner Brett Walker said it was too late for him to fully investigate your point of view. Why didn’t you provide your time to the Royal Commission so they could have the benefit of your views when they were going through this process? You are criticising the Government, haven’t you done the same thing.

BURKE: No, I’ve always been critical of Barnaby Joyce’s management of the portfolio when he held it. Long before the Royal Commission and every single criticism I made of the delays that happened when Barnaby was there, have now turned out to be findings of the Royal Commission, delays in the 450GL, delays in the water sharing plans, delays in the consultation, delays in monitoring, delays in transparency. All of that are criticisms I’ve made long before this time. I put that letter in writing because the Royal Commission had routinely been contacting a number of people, I presumed that at some point in their enquiries they were going to contact me. I was a reasonably obvious person for them to contact and when it became clear that they were nearing the end of their inquiry and they still hadn’t I thought at the very least I should put that in writing to them. Which I did.

HENDERSON: Tony Burke in terms of some of the specific measures that this Royal Commission is suggesting need to be looked at perhaps just a yes or no answer, or something quite brief in response. Are you...

BURKE: If we are dealing with a document of more than 700 pages, I’m trying to help you immediately today so let’s see how we go.

HENDERSON: I appreciate that  but in terms of things for example buy backs. Would a Labor government allow the buy back level to increase? And immediately allow people to start selling their licences back again? No surface water licences were sold last year.

BURKE: What we’ve said is that if, they are called the supply measures, the 605GL that are meant to be projects that may or may not stack up, and we’ve made clear from relatively early last year, it would have been, that if any of those projects don’t stack up and additional held water is required that we would seek that water through buy back.

HENDERSON: And would you also agree with the Commissioner’s suggestion or his recommendation that there should indeed be an increase in the amount of environmental water that is available. Would a Labor Government commit to look at that again?

BURKE: The significant pool that we have committed to is the additional 450GL. Which was bipartisan until Barnaby Joyce threw it all under a bus. Under David Littleproud that has started coming back on the table. Can I say in addition to the water though, one of the challenges here, which is mentioned in some parts of the report, is a critical feature of the entire reform. Once you get beyond about 2,800GL of water there is a diminishing return in terms of environmental improvement unless you can remove what are the constraints and river rules on the system. There has been almost no progress in removing those constraints and river rules. Even the additional 450GL that we talk about if that’s going to have a marked effect on river health we need to get moving on the constraints removal and the changes to river rules. For people who don’t often come to this area of policy it’s very easy to presume that volume is the only thing that restores the river to health. But there are a whole lot of constraints and rules that prevent large volumes from being effectively used. Rules for example that may prevent you from flooding particular properties or limit how quickly flows can go through different parts of the rivers. There is no point even talking about higher numbers and even the 450 when we modelled it we had to presume that those constraints had already been removed and that is one of the reasons why the additional 450GL was held to the end of the period. What we find now is because Barnaby Joyce pressed pause on so many of these processes we're now getting towards critical dates of the plan and the capacity to effectively use the water we have is still not there. 

HENDERSON: Well Tony Burke we will have to leave it there but we do thank you for your time. 


Tony Burke