Interview with Lisa Millar, ABC News Breakfast

17 December 2019

LISA MILLAR: Tensions over water sharing between the states and the future of the country's most important river system will come to a head when water ministers meet in Brisbane today. A $13 billion plan to recover water for the environment in the Murray-Darling is under intense pressure. State and federal ministers will also debate whether to give the Basin's top cop the powers needed to conduct a review of how states share water. Let's get more from the man who will be attempting to broker a compromise between the competing demands on the strained river system from the states, Federal Water Minister David Littleproud, joins us now from Brisbane. Minister, good morning. Welcome to Breakfast.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Thanks for having me, Lisa.

LISA MILLAR: Minister, you've got quite a day ahead of you, haven't you? You are basically in the middle of one of the severest droughts, you've got virtually no one agreeing on what should be ahead, and it is going to be pretty tense.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Look Lisa, we had a constructive dinner meeting last night, where the states and myself came together and there is a lot of common ground. In fact, I don't want to pre-empt what will come out of the morning, but I think that we've got a lot of common ground to work from and in fact, I think you will see positive outcomes out of this meeting, because there is a degree of cooperation. And yes, there are some tensions with respect to the drought, it is biting in a lot of these communities. But we have completed 80 per cent of this plan. The last 20 per cent can be done with going nowhere near a farmer, by backing ourselves, by building the infrastructure that is a stimulus in these communities to recover the last 20 per cent of that water. And that's what we're trying to do, is simply work through in a calm methodical way with the states to make sure there is less impact, as we possibly can on these communities that have hurt, not only from the drought, but the Basin Plan itself.

LISA MILLAR: Geez, it must have been a pretty good dinner because 24 hours ago, New South Wales was threatening to pull out of the Plan and go it alone.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, look, I won't pre-empt what a sovereign state will do, that's obviously a decision for the New South Wales Government. But we all came together-

LISA MILLAR: [Talks over] Well they've been pretty public about it.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, obviously those are matters for the New South Wales Government and I respect the position that they're in with respect to the drought. But we come together in a cooperative manner, in a collaborative manner, and we saw that last night. And there's still a lot of work to be done this morning. But in essence, sort of walking away from dinner last night, there was a lot of common ground and there was a determination to make sure that we get this right, and to ease the impacts as best we can on those communities right up and down the basin.

LISA MILLAR: Some people suggest that the Murray-Darling Basin Plan is broken. It actually needs a complete overhaul. What's your response to that?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, look, we've obviously listened to farmers and since I've been Water Minister for over 18 months, continued to listen to farmers, and Mick Keelty, his appointment as the Inspector-General is a pivotal one, to make sure that we get trust and transparency across the Basin. And the Commonwealth Government has charged him with the responsibility of sitting out there and listening over the next two months to farmers' concerns about what they see is broken within the Plan, to have a mature conversation with farmers and industry groups. But this isn't a perfect plan, no one's said that. But walking away and blowing it up will have even more perverse outcomes than where we are now. As I said, we're 80 per cent the way through. We need to get the hell out of people's lives and we can do that with leadership, not politics.

LISA MILLAR: Is Mick Keelty going to have the power to do what he needs to do?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well there's two parts to that Lisa. The first part is I'm looking for states' cooperation in terms of this review that will be completed by March. And obviously we'll work through the finer points of that today. And in essence, broadly the states agree with some minor issues they have and we'll need to work through that. But the Commonwealth has made that commitment to those farmers and that review will happen. The second part is around legislation for his powers, to be able to give him the authority to compel evidence from state agencies. The Australian taxpayer has made a $13 billion investment and we need to make sure there's accountability, not only of federal agencies, but also state agencies. And what we're asking Mr Keelty and his team to do is to be that conduit, to build the trust between states and agencies to make sure that those two million people living up and down the basin have someone to go to if they feel something isn't right. This is what people have been calling for, that transparency. And as the states said last night, they're confident that everything's working in the right direction. If it is, there's nothing to hide, let the sun shine in and let Mr Keelty get on with his job and the powers in which to compel evidence of anyone, I think, is a transparent and forward looking step in making sure that we can give that confidence to communities and governments.

LISA MILLAR: Minister, it's almost a year since we saw those fish kills at Menindee, nearly a million fish in videos that went viral around the world. Do people need to prepare themselves for seeing those kinds of pictures again this summer? There's no sign that there's going to be more water in the system.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well Lisa, yeah, I've got to be candid with you - they need to brace themselves. If it doesn't fall from the sky, hit the ground and run into those rivers, it's pure science - it doesn't flow and fish don't do so well out of water. The reality is I can't make it rain. We're trying to equip our water managers with the tools they need to manage that better. In fact, out of that event, there's been an $80 million investment in new science - $20 million worth of science - but also new technology to make sure that the river flows are protected and used in the right way, through satellite technology, remote river sensing. We're looking to the smarts of the 21st century to get the best outcomes; we're also putting in fish hatcheries. And in fact, what you also have to understand is that despite that horrific event, there was one of the largest spawning events of Murray Cod in our nation's history from that water that was released. The water manager's made a determination that it would rain and it didn't, and sadly we saw that event. We've got to make sure that we give those water managers the best tools to make the decisions they possibly can to protect the environment as best they can.

LISA MILLER: Minister, you've been the subject of some violent threats. I understand you've needed police protection when you've been out in the regions at times. Do you think people in the city realise how volatile this debate has become?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: There's definitely passion out there and I get it, I've seen it in my own communities. The Murray-Darling Basin in Queensland basically is all in my electorate, bar a few square kilometres. So I get the passion even in my own part of the world. So these are people's lively hoods - not just farmer, it's the communities that support them as well. And they've had a lot of hurt and a lot of pain. And what we've got to try and do is minimise that pain. I get the passion, but what I'm trying to be is calm, methodical, show the leadership, and get the hell out of their lives. We can do that if we come together, states and federal. We've come a long way in terms of the legislative requirements, we've completed all that. The last 20 per cent can be done by us building infrastructure, which would be a stimulus in a lot of these communities right now, to recover the last 20 per cent. And I think if we can achieve that and then get the hell out of people's lives and stay out of them, I think regional Australia will be a lot better for it.

LISA MILLAR: David Littleproud, you're also the Minister for Emergency Management and the former fire chiefs, other experts, led by Greg Mullins, have said they're going to hold a summit after this initial fire season that we're seeing. They are so damning of the Government. Is any of that hitting home with you guys?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, look, obviously I met with Mr Mullins and some of his colleagues and respect them and thank them for their years of service. But what I said to them is they should take great comfort and great pride in the current cohort of fire chiefs around the country who have planned meticulously for these fires. Obviously this is the responsibility of states but the Federal Government kicks the tin - we don't walk away from this. And we're helping them in a coordinated approach, with assets, in aerial fighting of fires. We'll continue to do that...

LISA MILLAR: [Interrupts] But it's your approach to climate change, Minister, if you don't mind me interrupting - I'm sorry - it's your approach to climate change that is really concerning them.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well as the Prime Minister has said - and most Cabinet ministers - we've made a commitment to the global community around emissions and we're working towards that. And we'll put the shoulder to the wheel and make sure we live up to it. We're Australians, we do what we say we're going to do and we'll do it. The reality is there's a lot of other aspects that feed into this and in fact, there's a Standing Committee, Parliamentary Standing Committee from the Environment and Energy that's now going to look at the management of fire reduction. That's only been started this week and that was one of the commitments I gave to the fire chiefs is that I would see if that committee would look into that so it gave them a platform in which to come and give their wisdom, along with our current fire chiefs. And I think we've got to make sure we don't inadvertently talk down the professionalism and the great work that our fire commissioners around the country are doing and what they have done in planning for this. This isn't something they just turned up in August and said we're a going to have fires. They knew months in advance and they planned meticulously. I'm proud of the way that they've done this, the way that they've managed it. And we're going to work together collaboratively, to make sure we do that, and that's why my door's open, not only to those former fire chiefs, but anyone else with the wisdom and knowledge I don't have.

LISA MILLAR: David Littleproud, thank you for your time this morning.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Thanks, Lisa. Great to be with you.