Media conference at the Sofitel Hotel, Brisbane

18 December 2019

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, thanks for being here and we are still all here. We are still in the Murray-Darling Basin Plan despite conjecture and a lot of noise from commentators that it was all about to fall over. The states are still here. We're still working through one of the biggest environmental programs in our nation's history. Now we have completed 80 per cent of this plan. The last 20 per cent can be done without going near farmers or communities. They can be done with backing ourselves of the infrastructure to recover that last bit of water and provide a stimulus for our communities. Now, there's still challenges and there's still things that we don't all agree on, but there is a commitment to continue to work down this pathway to ensure there is certainty to the 2.5 million Australians who are in the Murray-Darling Basin Plan who are fatigued, who've had a gutful and simply want this over. So we are working as quickly as we can to make sure that the science is proper, that the infrastructure we're going to put in place is sound. And while we have had some great movements today, and looking at even things like foreign investors and speculators to make sure that we act quicker than what the ACCC will provide us a report - we're going to ask them to come back to us earlier, in March, so that we could make some determination as a group because it's not just the Federal Government that gets the remit on that, it's the states that have to work with us to make sure we get agreement. So, some really important work that we've done there. 

But obviously, not all the states agree with our review that we gave those commitments to those farmers right up and down the basin and have concerns about the Basin Plan. We have made a commitment and we respect the sovereign right of those states not to cooperate. That's their right. But we will continue. We made a commitment as a federal government and we will continue. In fact, it will start as early as next week. And if the states are so inclined to come on the journey with us and to cooperate and providing further information. They were only too willing. But this is about making sure there is open transparency to this plan and to draw a line in the sand around some of the myths and some of the truths that need to be fixed. And we're not afraid to do that and I accept the premise from the states: that also that things are okay and everything they're doing is right. I accept that premise and it's a good opportunity to make sure that's truth tested to be able to give that confidence to everybody up and down the basin. 

With respect to the legislation, the Federal Government continues to work through that and we will be drafting that legislation. I indicated the states that legislation will be drafted in the coming weeks and we would ask them to support that, to be able to work together, because again, this is about giving trust between not only farmers but also between states. And if the state agencies are so confident that they are doing everything right, then there should be no worries about shining a light on it and having somebody of integrity to look over it and to make sure they are above board. This is a $13 billion investment in Australian taxpayers' money. I think they want some accountability and they want to make sure that things are being done right and people aren't cutting corners. So, we'll continue on with that legislation and we'll present that and negotiate with the states. But we need them to mirror that legislation if it's to have teeth, if it's to be able to have credibility in what we are trying to do and give powers to the Inspector-General to compel evidence of state agencies who may have done the wrong thing. And we have seen, since this Basin Plan has taken place, that there has been wrongdoing. So, we should let the sun shine in on this. We should not be afraid to look under every nook and cranny. The Federal Government has made it clear that we'll continue with that and we'll have those discussions with the states. 

But as I say, I think what we can all take out of this today is that there is a continued commitment to the Basin Plan, as imperfect as it is. The reality is we're still here and we're still moving towards that end date and trying to get out of people's lives as quickly as we possibly can. 

JOURNALIST: Which states have agreed to cooperate and which won't cooperate?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, I'll leave that to them to come out and publicly name themselves. The fact is we will be going to every state and we will be asking them to cooperate. They can then come forward with or without the information. It's up to them. 

JOURNALIST: Do you think states have an incentive to perhaps be a bit lax in enforcing these regulations if it benefits the local farmers in those regions?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well look, I mean, again, this is why it's so important to have an Inspector-General role to give clarity around questions that may have veracity and may not. And that's why I think people want is confidence; that everyone's doing the right thing, whether they be a farmer right through to a state or federal agency. And that's what we want to provide is confidence, transparency, to everybody that's involved in this Basin Plan and also to the Australian taxpayer. A $13 billion investment is a fair swag to put into this. 

JOURNALIST: South Australia and Victoria have confirmed they're not going to cooperate in this review of the water sharing. South Australia says that it's not an issue; that water sharing is not- the arrangements and another problem it's compliance. So what do you say about that?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, if there's no issue, then I'm will be confident that Mick Keelty will find that. If they're so confident, let the sun shine in, have a look at it and you'll get confirmation from an independent, eminent Australian and his agency. The reality is he will also be looking at the compliance, as the states should be. But this is a role to make sure there is trust between states. And I take them on the word. So, let's have a good hard look at it. If you've got nothing to hide, let's dance. 

JOURNALIST: Irrigators would probably see something like [indistinct] a possibly a way- a Trojan horse to come in and take away their water allocations. What would you say to the farmers in some of those states?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well that's a fallacy. The reality is, Mick Keelty will have a look at this. He'll get under the bonnet of it, make sure that everything that has been put in place is being done in an appropriate manner and how it's operating. There's nothing to fear here. The states themselves have clearly articulated they believe that everything is working as it should be, that they have their jurisdiction under control. So therefore, there should be nothing to fear from anybody. 

JOURNALIST: Can the outcome be as legitimate if the inquirer isn't getting all the information, not getting cooperation?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, that's a question that we ask the states. We felt that this was an opportunity to really draw a line on the sand, and to make sure that there was clarity and confidence of every aspect of what's happened. This is an enormous program. And we've got to make sure that everybody has comfort and confidence around what has happened and where we're moving with it. So, that's why it was so important to the Federal Government and to Mick Keelty to work together to make sure we can give that confidence to the Australian agriculture sector and those 2.5 million Australians up and down the basin.

JOURNALIST: With the environmental flows, New South Wales maintains that 450 giga-litres is going nowhere. What's the process on this going forward? Because at some stage, they're going to have to leave the plan or there's going to be have to be an agreement for them to hold that, isn't there?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well they've already signed up to an agreement to be part of an initial 62 gigalitres that have to be recovered and they've all put projects in on that. And there was a discussion around making sure that, that was progressed and all the States seem reasonably keen to make sure that, that commitment that was made some 12 months ago was continued. With respect to the rest of the 450 that programme has been out, advertised for some time. We've got to honest there hasn't been a lot of uptake in fact there's been three parts of bugger all uptake. We can't force people to undertake infrastructure projects to recover that last 450 that has the only safeguard to the plan in terms of social economic safety net. So the reality is, is we'll continue to advertise and put it out there but obviously if people are not putting forward projects. We can't achieve it- the full 450 in time. But we've been honest and transparent about that. But the states have committed to initial 62.

JOURNALIST: So you're conceding that you won't get to that 2024 deadline of 450 giga-litres. 

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: I'm not a futurist I don't know what's going to happen in the future. We'll continue to go out there and consult with the community and the communities come forward with projects that pass the social and economic neutrality test. Then obviously we as a federal government work through each one of those with the states. And that's what we all agreed to. There's a rule book that's been made. It was made back in 2012 when it was finalised only last year with the Northern Basin Review, Sustainable Diversion Limit and the 450 neutrality test. So the rule books there. That's what everyone agreed to play by and you just can't simply duck and weave it and no one is. We're all living up to our responsibilities and we'll continue to ask those communities if there are projects out there that are water saving that go towards that 450. 

JOURNALIST: So you're happy for New South Wales to say we can't give you some water, we're done? How are they getting away with not making any contribution to that?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well no they legally must and they all committed to that 12 months ago. They all make pledges to get to the 62 gigalitres. After that, obviously it's the Commonwealth who has to go and try and create an environment where people and community groups and organisations and councils come forward with water saving projects that can go towards that 450. So the states have a contractual obligation to that 62 gigalitres, after that the Commonwealth and we've shown our intent to do our job on that but we can't force people to create projects that won't deliver water. And in fact will not be cost effective to the taxpayer. 

JOURNALIST: Despite some obvious points of friction. One of the States still came out saying it was quite positive in there. Does there have to be any ground given to allow them to feel like they got their slice of the pie as they walked away?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: No. I think a lot of the groundwork was done last night over dinner with the ministers. Where there is a real degree of cooperation and collaboration and understanding of the unique nature that some states like New South Wales, are facing with respect to drought. There's understanding of that. I don't think you have to be blind Freddy not to understand the gravity of it. So that's why there was a real push to make sure that we collaboratively continue to work together in light of the conditions we face at the moment. Because they know that certainty is important to all those people in the basin. We've made commitments and the best thing that can be done despite it not being a perfect plan is to complete it. 

JOURNALIST: So what else can be done to recover that 450?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well obviously we've gone out too off farm, urban community groups to say; do you have water saving projects that we put towards it. The Commonwealth stands ready to work with anybody that brings forward projects. But as I say it's not a compulsory program where we can force people into it. We live in a free country. And that was the rules that we put in place in 2012 and was signed off last year with the neutrality test. So we'll continue to work through that we'll be genuine in what we're doing as a Federal Government in putting the program out there and hoping that people come forward. But we can't force people to take it. 

JOURNALIST: There won't be any force buybacks?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: No. This is this is the piece that I think you'll find why everybody is still sitting at the table, despite all the talk, despite all the rhetoric they're still here. Because they know that we can complete the last 20 per cent with infrastructure, with a stimulus to regional rural Australia to recover the last 20 per cent with infrastructure projects not with buybacks. No one wants to go near buybacks and that's why it takes leadership not politics. And that's why they're all sitting around the table still are committed to this and committed to those sustainable diversion limit projects to get them done. Now there are issues around getting them done in time. We respect that. We're going to work constructively to make sure that, that commitment is there from the states and they're reiterated by those states that they still have that commitment.

JOURNALIST: Has the government agreed to about $30 million or maybe more buyback from a citrus grower in the lower Darling River? Especially because the rivers drying up, is that right, that number? What's the situation there?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: The purchase has been complete. In fact, I notified other landholders yesterday afternoon. It was tied in many respects the Menindee project going forward. Because of the uncertainty around where New South Wales was with respect to the Plan. In fact, some of the public demands they made around not continuing with the Menindee project. It was in conjecture whether we could continue on with the purchase. The purchase went through the normal process through negotiations with the Department, valuations undertaken. It was advised to me that we could still get an environmental benefit. Despite New South Wales' rhetoric that we could still continue on with that purchase. And I felt that it was important, that those people who have gone through a lot in terms of the negotiations of that of that purchase, that strategic purchase. That it was completed before Christmas they've had enough. And they needed to be taken out of the political spotlight. And I was able to get advice to give more certainty that it was still environmental benefits that could be accounted. So we took that we took the opportunity to make a strategic purchase.

JOURNALIST: Why did the government do that given there would be no further buybacks?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: No there's been no broad scale buyback. Strategic buybacks, there will continue to be strategic buybacks. Even in my home state of Queensland there is nine gigalitres still to be recovered and there will have to be small strategic buybacks in certain catchments. But some where we'll have to return where there's been an over purchase in the Macquarie. We've got to work through how do we get that water back to where it's been over recovered. So what we're trying to avert is the large scale buybacks if the states don't complete the last 20 per cent with infrastructure projects. That's what we don't want to see in New South Wales that's 287 gigalitres and I don't want to go anywhere near that

JOURNALIST: What the volume of that buyback [indistinct]?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: I can't tell you off the top of my head. I think the purchase that 33.7 million, I can get you the numbers. All good. Thanks guys. Thank you.