Minister Ley speech at inaugural MDBA River Reflections conference

11 June 2021

E&OE

Thank you very much and may I also acknowledge First Nations People, our Traditional Owners the Waridjuri People and their unique contribution to the health of our rivers, to its history and the connection between the past and the present.

It’s lovely to be here with all of you and the many of you that are live streaming, so we’ve got to keep to time so there’s going to be a little wave at me if I talk too long.

John that was perfect, terrific to hear you reflect the passion that I encountered when I first became your local member having represented this region for two elections, and the rest of the electorate of Farrer for quite a bit it longer. But when I talk to my colleagues in Canberra and mention Griffith I always start by saying “You do know this is where they burnt the Basin Plan?” But if you go there, you will get a warm welcome, you will feel what John has just described, that pioneering spirit, you will understand why those that broke their backs digging irrigation channels, who saw what so few do and did when they went out to regional Australia in those early days, saw the prospect of a bright future relying in irrigated agriculture and the synergies between this region and the Snowy Mountain Scheme. There was, above all things I think, incredible foresight.

I won’t go through acknowledging all the special guests, Sir Angus it is terrific to have you here as chair of the MDBA and to spend a few days in the region. And I know that you’re speaking at tonight’s function and I would love to be there, but I am always on the move! I’ve just come back from a couple of days in the far west where I’ve had a close look at the lower Darling, talked to people at Pooncarie and of course the irrigation systems all across my electorate. I know I’ve said it many times before but Farrer is truly the home of irrigated agriculture in this country. 

The Murrumbidgee irrigation area in particular is known for its citrus, its grapes and the most water efficient rice in the world. This is one of the areas most effected by the introduction of the Murray Darling Basin Plan all those years ago, it seems. And while I didn’t represent you at that time, I do remember your advocacy from this region, and nobody in Canberra could ever have forgotten it.

But one of the things I love most about this part of the world is the ability that you have to adapt and make the best of situations that are not ideal. Even though you always remind me John Delbroy “Just think what we could do if we had more water!” We all acknowledge the plan is far from perfect, but in spite of this the achievements in the region are strong. 

Yesterday I took Minister Pitt, and it’s great Keith that you are able to spend so much time here, I know you came from the Pilbara and you’ve got to go to Bundaberg and maybe going to that State of Origin game in Townsville tonight, but anyway you’ll be cheering the Maroons!

But to take the Minister out with Murrumbidgee Irrigation, down to Leeton and SunRice, we stood on a rice farm in the rain yesterday morning and this morning we met with Coleambally Irrigation and I know that he will depart this region impressed with the passion, knowledge and foresight of so many. Now our job as a government is to enable you to be the most successful you can be. This means continuing with an adaptive plan, an adaptive Murray Darling Basin Plan that puts communities at its heart. And policy in this area, in fact probably most areas, should never be set and forget, it should always keep adapting, keep reflecting, keep looking at the past and considering the future. And I do consider this as the strength of this government, the Morrison Government’s approach to plan. Plus of course the valuable colleagues that we have in the basin, Senator Perin Davey is here and it is great that she as a fellow water warrior sits around the Cabinet table, she’s not a member of Cabinet yet Perin, but often Prime Minister Morrison invites key people in to have the discussions that matter and I’ve sat with Perin and Keith and Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack who used to represent Griffith, so has a really good understanding of what’s needed here and indeed in the whole irrigated agriculture region, and we have had conversations that have made a difference. And we have made changes and we will continue to make changes.

And I freely acknowledge that for many people here, the changes that we are driving appear too incremental, too slow. But the unfortunate reality is that everything has to go through the Parliament and that includes the Senate and that is never straight forward. In spite of this we have achieved many things, the legislated 1500 gigalitre cap on buybacks, that was a commitment I secured from then leader Tony Abbott during our opposition days but we legislated when we came into government. Adoption of socio-economic criteria for all projects that could contribute to 50 gigalitres water of additional recovery, and really really strong socioeconomic criteria. Billions of dollars on farm infrastructure to improve efficiency and Keith was talking yesterday about how we have moved some of that off farm and in system. Multiple rounds of the Murray Darling Basin economic diversification program. Establishing the Emergency Water Infrastructure rebate scheme, closing the water efficiency program focused on on farm projects and reallocating $1.3 billion to off farm projects and therefore demonstrating immediately the benefit to communities, and I would like to thank Minister Pitt because he drove that through a group of people who weren’t necessarily keen to see it. 

That last one is particularly important because if we shift the focus to off-farm recovery, we can actually progress our river health targets, and unlike on farm programs, it doesn’t reduce water availability in the consumptive pool. 

We are also, as you know because you had a lot to say about this from this region and indeed the Murray, establishing an Inspector General of Water Compliance, taking the office of Compliance away from the MDBA and the communities I represent have advocated for this strongly. In fact, the legislation that established this office passed through the House of Reps last week and will be in the Senate I think when Parliament resumes next week. Keith and I are also working closely on implementing the ACCC’s inquiry into water markets and you will have had several sessions here on that. The inquiry was an important first step in ensuring that water markets can deliver better for water users, rural communities and the environment.

This approach recognises that reforming our water markets will require strong collaboration between governments, as well as with industries and communities to ensure the reforms support water users and support regional communities without adding additional burden and cost. 

Of course, I serve two roles in the Morrison Government. My primary one is always as your local member, but I am also the Minister for the Environment. All of us here acknowledge the important role the environment plays in the basin. I mentioned I was at the lower darling, meeting with land holders there they made it very clear that you can only deliver for that region with a healthy river and the Lower Darling has had ups and downs and tough times, so no one understands that better than the communities that love along it. The Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder, who is here today, Hilton Taylor who sits in my department is the CEWH and the CEWHO is the office, so that is the shorthand and I think you all know it. 

And like many in the room, I was actually quite sceptical of the CEWHO, but particularly through my role as the Minister for the Environment, I’ve spent a lot of time with the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder and I can say I have faith and confidence in him and his staff. And I believe the more time all of you can spend engaging with the CEWHO, sharing knowledge, asking questions, helping to achieve shared outcomes, that is the critical conversations that sometimes just happen one on one on the farm or sometimes on the sidelines of a conference like this, keep having those conversations, because we are in it together as agriculture and the environment. And as Lloyd Polkinghorn would always remind me, “Why can’t you have an environmental outcome on a rice farm?” and of course you can. And that I think is one of the exciting points of opportunity for us in delivering environmental water for the CEWHO to deliver environmental water that uses existing infrastructure including irrigation infrastructure that integrates the delivery of environmental water with the delivery of operational water, the environment will pay the freight on its own water but the upside can be for irrigation communities, and obviously making use of existing natural flows. 

The more we do that, the more we have that partnership, partnership not competition. Because I don’t see agriculture and the environment as competing. I see that when they partner together they enhance one another. And some of the environmental benefits we’ve achieved working together include Golden Perch spawning in the Lachlan River for the first time since 2015. The largest number of Southern Bell Frogs in the Murrumbidgee in 20 years, large scale water bird breeding events in the low Bidgee and the Bitterns in Rice project in partnership with Coleambally Murray and Murray Irrigation and local land services, funded by the federal government in part. And most importantly local growers who want to play an active role in making a healthy environment. There are also many great examples where irrigation infrastructure is being used to deliver water for the environment. This can have multiple benefits with irrigation corporations get a new paying customer to improve their bottom line, while environmental water holders are provided with an efficient means of getting water to important wetlands that would otherwise miss out. 

And these achievements are only possible through engagement and partnership with communities, including first nations peoples, irrigators, catchment managers, scientist and environmental groups. And this is well known to all of you and well known to my good friend and colleague Minister Pitt. We’ve worked together for many years now, and we’ve worked in the party room and worked in the party room and I am very confident in the leadership of the water portfolio with this Minister. Absolutely delighted that he is here today to talk to you all in a moment. And finally, thank you. Thank you to all the people who live not just in my part of the basin but all across it. For your patience, your understanding, your dedication to the things that matter and your insistence that governments need to listen to you and work with you. And that is what we commit to do. Thank you.