Radio interview with Hamish Macdonald, ABC Radio National Breakfast

9 September 2019

HAMISH MACDONALD: Winter may barely be over but already large parts of the country have been plunged straight into bushfire season. More than 100 blazes burned across the weekend in northern New South Wales and southern Queensland, fanned by high winds and dry fuel loads. With more than 20 homes destroyed, it could be a harbinger of things to come with the entire east coast facing an above-average risk of bushfires when summer itself rolls around. 

ANDREW STURGESS: I've never seen this before in recorded history. Fire weather has never been as severe this early in spring.

MACDONALD: That's Inspector Andrew Sturgess from Queensland Fire and Emergency Services. 

David Littleproud is the Federal Minister for Natural Disaster and Emergency Management. He's spent time over the weekend in Stanthorpe and Applethorpe; two of the hardest hit towns on the Darling Downs in Queensland. Good morning to you, Minister.

MINISTER LITTLEPROUD: Good morning, Hamish. Good to be with you.

MACDONALD: As of last night, more than 50 fires still burning at least in Queensland. What's your latest advice on the status of those fires?

MINISTER: Look, conditions have eased thankfully but we still need to be vigilant. We still need to be listening to both Queensland and New South Wales authorities of all the warnings they put out. It's a watch situation at the moment, but as we saw, this can change on a dime and we need to be ready. We need to be vigilant.
And can I say to those people that are in the pathway, to listen to authorities. We have a fire emergency worker from New South Wales who's in a critical condition in Brisbane Hospital at the moment because he was prepared to put his life on the line for his fellow Australians. 
So if these emergency workers, who some of them are volunteers, ask you to move, please do it. Act as they ask you to act. It's as simple as that. They are there to keep you safe. 

MACDONALD: More than 20 homes lost. You've activated disaster assistance. What help is available?

MINISTER: So we're at our first stage. Obviously, there's more assessments to be made by our state counterparts and they're working through that and I'll do that as it becomes safe for them to get on the ground. But there's personal assistance as well as for those community groups that are providing assistance in local councils. It's at category A. There are four categories, A, B, C and D. We'll wait for further application from the states and from my discussions with them is that they're working through that as we speak and we'll obviously respect that and act swiftly to make sure we support these communities through this event. 

MACDONALD: These blazes took hold just days into September. New South Wales had already brought forward the start of its official bushfire season on the first of August; still in the depths of winter. You heard there in the introduction from the Inspector Andrew Sturgess saying he's never seen anything like this. Why, in your view, are we seeing such intense bushfires with summer still almost three months away?

MINISTER: Oh look, it's been exacerbated by the drought. There's a fuel load - a little bit of fuel load. We've had some rain that has created a fuel load there that has just exacerbated the problem, coupled with circumstances on Friday and Saturday that were beyond belief. And I live only probably about 80 kilometres from Stanthorpe and Applethorpe and I could feel it in my own home. The winds and some gusts up to 100 kilometres an hour were just something that these people had never seen before. And the community of Stanthorpe and Applethorpe bore the brunt of that, along with Tenterfield and then obviously, it moved further into the hinterland. 

MACDONALD: Can I read you a quote from Ken Thompson the former deputy commissioner of New South Wales Fire and Rescue? He says, “We can't say definitively that climate change is causing bushfires but we can say definitively it's making them a lot worse than it used to be. They're more severe, more intense, burning larger areas than before, posing greater threats to property and lives.” Do you agree with that?

MINISTER: Well we've been adapting to a changing climate since we first settled this country and we'll have to continue to do that, and do that with the best science we've got available at the time to make sure we keep our Australians safe. That's what we'll continue to do. That's what we've done. And the fact that we haven't lost a life shows that we have a world class emergency service system here in the country. We should be so proud of those men and women that are not only the professionals, but those that are volunteers, prepared to sacrifice themselves for their fellow Australians - says a lot about our country and we'll continue to give them the equipment and the tools that they need to be able to keep us all safe. 

MACDONALD: With respect, Minister, I'm sure our listeners will have heard that you didn't quite answer that question. I take your point about the long term change in climate, but this is a question about whether the climate change we're facing today, man-made or human-induced climate change, is making bushfires more intense?

MINISTER: Well with respect, I did answer it. We're adapting to it as the climate continues to change and we'll continue to equip our service workers with that. Whether it's man-made or not is irrelevant. The facts are that's a debate that has extremes from both sides come out, rather than that should be a discussion about do we want to breathe healthy air. Well I think everyone wants to breathe healthy air. The reality is my job is to make sure that those men and women that are prepared to put their lives on the line for you and me, have the equipment they need, they are given the tools and resources they need, they have the science to understand that these events could become more severe. And how do we equip them to actually deal with that to not only keep up safe but keep them safe?

MACDONALD: But you don't want a conversation about the causes of that?

MINISTER: That's- as I've said, the facts are everyone wants a healthier environment in which to live. I don't think anyone's talking about that. In fact, we've - I think even last week - we're going to meet our renewable energy target of 33,000 gigawatts and done that by next year. And that's an accomplishment that we've done as a Government with subsidies, and now we're saying that the marketplace can decide and as even the Clean Energy Commission said last week that they're the cheapest form of energy. Well the market will decide that. And that's what we've done; we've put an environment around that for that to take place. 

MACDONALD: The official forecast is that the entire east coast is facing an above average risk of bushfires this summer. A killer combination of high and dry temperatures, dry fuel loads and a lack of rain. As the Minister for Emergency Management, what planning are you doing to prepare for the worst case scenario?

MINISTER: The planning has already started, Hamish. And in fact Emergency Management Australia along with our state colleagues have been working on this for months. We've been predicting this for some time. And so that's why the Queensland State and New South Wales State Emergency Services acted so swiftly and professionally to make sure this happened, and we'll continue to do that. We'll continue to put work into research. There's a CRC that's set up around fires and we'll make sure that that continues to understand. And we'll learn even from this event and that's important that we do learn from these events and be prepared for the next ones. So there's a lot of learnings from this one but we'll continue to be prepared for the ones that may come into the future, whether that be in the coming weeks, months or years.

MACDONALD: You're also the Water Minister. You will have read today front page of one of the nation's newspapers about a dozen horticultural industries writing to you - I assume you'd already seen the letter - about the problem of water hoarding throughout the Murray-Darling Basin. Speculators who don't necessarily own land playing the market is the assertion, which forces up the price of water to as much as $800 a megalitre. I know the ACCC is looking at the water trading rights issue, but will you listen to their calls and ban non-land owning investors from purchasing and trading water entitlements?

MINISTER: Well it was actually me that instigated that ACCC review, Hamish, because I'd sat in machinery sheds of irrigators, particularly in the south where 93 per cent of the trades take place. There are 14 per cent of entitlement holders that don't own land. So what I heard was that they were speculating and playing the market, as too was the roles- the roles that brokers play in the market. They wanted to get an understanding of that. So I listened and instigated that review. It's important that we get this right and it's important that governments don't reach into marketplaces unless there is a need, that there is an imbalance. That's why I've asked the ACCC, they're the professionals not me. I want a proper solution to this and that's why I've asked them to investigate this and to give me some findings back. When water was separated from land, I've got to ask the question was that the original intent of those actions? That we have people that are sitting in high rises in Melbourne and Sydney trading water. My intent would be to see that water is used by family farms out there to keep their communities going at an economical way. 
MACDONALD: So you acknowledge that it's a problem, that this is happening and that it's causing problems?

MINISTER: Well the markets evolved and that's what I've asked the ACCC - I'm no expert, that's why I've asked the ACCC who are the experts to tell me whether I'm right, wrong or indifferent and if they give me the advice then I'll act on it. And that's why I took the pre-emptive steps to do it. I sat down and listened to farmers and that's what they were screaming at me six months ago and that's why I got this ACCC inquiry going and to make sure that we get underneath the bonnet of this as quickly as we can without unintended consequences. [Indistinct] don't understand if government overreaches there are farmers out there that own entitlements that that is their asset. That is their value that they go to their bank and lend against. So I've got to be careful not to overreach because there can be unintended consequences where farming families could find themselves in trouble, I've eroded their asset. So this is where we've got to be calm, sensible, methodical and make sure we get it right with the experts giving me the advice.

MACDONALD: The final report by the Natural Resources Commission into the Barwon Darling water sharing plan in the Menindee Lakes situation was made public late Friday. The author Fran Sheldon says her advice hasn't changed and that the recommendations are solid. In your view has it been watered down from the draft report to the final report?

MINISTER: Well I can't comment on that. I haven't had the time to look at that, in fact, I've been out on the Murray-Darling all week and then was up in Karumba where the north west floods were at the start of this year. But I see Minister Pavey has already said that she'll consider this report and consider it in due course. And I have no doubt that she will do that with the diligence that's expected. 

MACDONALD: But we did speak to you about it and you had shared some of the concerns that Minister Pavey had raised. I mean are you satisfied that the people that have done this work, produced these recommendations, are qualified and that their work is good?

MINISTER: Well I'll work through the report as will Minister Pavey and we'll make comment accordingly. But I haven't had the time to do that, I've got to be honest, I've been out on the road. But I'm prepared to look at it, as is Minister Pavey who has been quite open and transparent about it. 

MACDONALD: Alright. David Littleproud, we appreciate your time this morning thank you.

MINISTER: Good to be with you, mate.

MACDONALD: David Littleproud is the Minister for Water Resources, Drought, Rural Finance, Natural Disaster and Emergency Management.

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