Media conference: New Inspector-General position to oversee integrity in Murray Darling Basin

2 August 2019

MINISTER: Well, thanks guys for coming. Today we are announcing that I've asked the basin states to agree for the implementation of the Inspector General of the Murray-Darling Basin. This is about maintaining the integrity and trust in the Basin Plan to make sure there's continued transparency. This will be a statutory position, one that will report to me and the Basin State Ministers. It will be holding to account the Murray-Darling Basin Authority, the Commonwealth Government, and state gains in the delivery of the plan. He will or she will have the power to compel evidence from anybody to be able to then pass it on to Integrity Commissions, both federally and on a state basis, to make sure that those people are out there, up and down the basin, have confidence in the plan, the delivery of the plan, that we have a tough cop on the beat that's going to make sure that accountability measures are put in place and then we are all doing the right thing.
We are at a critical juncture of the delivery of this plan. We've done the heavy lifting. For the first time, we've got The Northern Basin Review through, the Sustainable Diversion Limit, and an agreement on the 450 upwater neutrality test. It is now time for delivery, it and this is an important step in that delivery. 
Mick Keelty, who is currently the Northern Basin Commissioner, will be the acting Inspector-General. Obviously this is a cabinet decision for the posting and obviously, Mick Keelty is an eminently qualified Australian. But I will not pre-empt what cabinet may decide. But Mick Keelty will no longer continue on as the Northern Basin Commissioner because that role will no longer exist after the installation of this new Inspector General. So it's important we get this right and I have to say that Mick Keelty is an eminently qualified Australian, and I hope that he considers his future in putting his hand up for this position because he has brought a lot of confidence back to the Northern Basin.
So this is an important step. I've had in-principle support from the states and I will finish these discussions on Sunday. This is about making sure we reset the confidence and trust and transparency in this Basin Plan. This is a pivotal moment. We've done a lot of work but now is the time to get on with the job.
QUESTION: Minister, is this a sign that you've rejected the advice from the Productivity Commission to split the MDBA out into a compliance agency? Why flag this ahead of MinCo if you would be open to taking the PC's recommendations to that? 
MINISTER: Yeah look, I've been honest with the states about this; at this point in time splitting it would have far too great an impact on operational management of the Basin Authority, which is trying to work through the resource plans that the states have put in and as well as decentralisation. This is an evolution point towards that. So we are not rejecting the PC recommendation around separation. And the conversations I've had with the Basin State Ministers - who have raised concerns around that - is that we aren't rejecting that in fact this is an evolution piece. But we need to make sure that every basin community knows that we have someone on their side now, someone that they can trust. And we don't want to wait any longer to do that. But we can say that we'll continue to work towards the splitting of it, as the PC report suggested in its recommendations.
QUESTION:  Minister, before the election, did you see the final report from the Department of Ag about claims in the media that the footage drawn from the Awassi Express was fake or doctored?
MINISTER: No. I didn't. 
QUESTION:  Do you think that report should be released? 
MINISTER: Well I think it's beholden on governments, unless there's something critical in terms of privacy or safety of somebody, there's no reason why they couldn't.
QUESTION:  Do you think that whistle-blower was treated unfairly? It's now quite clear that that whistle-blower didn't fake that footage. 
MINISTER: I'm not privy to the report so I can't give you an assessment based on not having the evidence.
QUESTION:  And just the last one on this. On Wednesday, WA prosecutors charged Emanuel Express [sic] with animal cruelty offences. Are there any federal charges coming? We have seen some really [indistinct]?
MINISTER: Oh look, that would be a question for the Agriculture Minister and the Attorney-General. I'm not aware where any charges are up to. Obviously, if they are, they'd be sitting with those agencies.
QUESTION:  Is it taking too long?
MINISTER: Look, if you're going to lay charges you need to make sure you have a body of evidence that stacks up, and I can't comment on whether they have that or not, and that's why they would be best asked that question.
QUESTION:  Minister, New South Wales has recently implemented a comprehensive compliance regime and funded NRAR and set up a whole new agency. Isn't this duplication? If it's not to be window dressing is the bringing Mick Keelty down into the Southern Basin, what extra powers could he possibly have over New South Wales in that NRAR body?
MINISTER: Well this is about making sure all the basin states are compelled and individuals right across the basin have a person, statutory person separate from government that can make you come forward. Now, I commend what New South Wales has done, but this is about making sure there is trust between states right across the Basin and this position will complement it. This is a national position that we are creating that is accountable to myself, the Australian Parliament, and the Basin state ministers. This is about making sure that we have someone right across the Basin, not just in one state, that every state can get confidence in, because that's what we haven't had. We haven't had the confidence in one another and we need to rebuild that trust between states and make sure that there is a strong compliance measure, there's an integrity measure in there to ensure that the Basin Plan is delivered as it was legislated.
QUESTION:  But will it involve boots on the ground, compliance agencies in Vic and SA?
MINISTER: There will be people within this compliance unit under the new Inspector General out on the river. That is the intent of this and once we get this up and going, that's what will happen. As we have done with the decentralisation - in putting those who manage the river on the river to listen to those people who live and understand the river and get their concerns. 
So, this is nothing new and it's an important step in making sure that that confidence and there's a conduit there, because part of this role also is to make sure that consultation with the community is maintained and upheld and there is clear transparency about the progress of the plan.
QUESTION:  So it's an acknowledgement that the current system's failing?
MINISTER: No, it's not. This is about making sure as the plan evolves and develops- this is the biggest environmental program in our nation's history and we are now getting to a very mature stage of it. We've got all the heavy lifting done with the legislation. It's now about delivery and it's making sure we understand that we're about to spend some very serious money in making sure we finish off the implementation of this plan and making sure that it's done properly and with the right governance around it. 
This is just smart governance and it's something that just makes sense.
QUESTION:  And how much money will you budget for the office of the Inspector General? What resources will it have?
MINISTER: Yeah. So, it's around $8 million over the next four years, this will cost and there'll be an agency of about 10 staff, including the Inspector General themselves.
QUESTION:  A number of your colleagues, and also a number of the crossbenchers, are pushing for the Government to fund what they call the Bradfield Scheme. You're the Minister - can you be honest, I mean, is Bradfield Scheme really a realistic prospect or not?
MINISTER: Well, I'm the Minister for Water Resources. Infrastructure- the Minister for Infrastructure owns it. But let me say that those that want to solely support the Bradfield Scheme actually do no benefit to the cause of water infrastructure. We should be smart; we should use the smarts of the 21st century, not 1938 technology. So it's important we aren’t afraid to look at new infrastructure and science and technology to build that, but we shouldn't be holding onto something that is some years old that was discredited many years later. We should be looking for iterations of it. 
But what we should do as a nation is say ‘how can we’, rather than ‘it can’t be done’. And that's what we've got ourselves into as a nation - we perpetrate our own misery sometimes by doing that. I think the time is right for us - and the National Water Grid will be part of that - and now is a time to build dams. 
But let me make this one point: it has never, ever been the responsibility of a Federal Government to build a dam in this country. At federation we gave the powers and the ownership of resources to the states. They've done bugger all, let's be honest, and we've put $3.2 billion on the table and we're having trouble them even coming and taking. 
So, you know, everyone comes to us and asks what are we doing to build it? Unfortunately, we've got state governments who own the responsibility and they're not doing anything with it. It poses the question we need to have a mature conversation about the role states play in our federation.
QUESTION:  Do you think that the federal government should take back those powers?
MINISTER: Well, I think that the practical reality of that is it's never going to happen, because we're going to have to have this thing called a referendum and that would be very costly. But we shouldn't have to. If state governments were mature enough, understood the necessity for this, they'd get on with the job. We're here to help and they won't take our help.
This is the frustrating thing: I've got two communities in my own electorate that'll be out of water by December. One of those towns is 12,000 people. This is the frightening thing, that we have got money on the table but the states won't take it. There's this ideological view that because South East Queensland and major cities think that dams are a bad thing, they don't want to do it. 
Let me tell you what dams have done: it has meant that we've been able to provide environmental flows during a drought because we've stored water for the environment as well as for agriculture. So, building dams actually does also benefit the environment as well.
QUESTION:  [Inaudible question]
MINISTER: Definitely. But, we shouldn't be afraid to do it. You think about the opportunity cost of not doing it. And cost is always going to be there, but you've got to take the bold step, the courageous step, to move forward. And if states aren't going to do it, they need to get out of the way.
QUESTION:  Dams can create a new irrigation district, but isn't it a bit of a hollow promise telling irrigators in existing districts that dams will create new water? Can you explain what benefit, in terms of irrigation output, a new dam in an existing irrigation district would deliver?
MINISTER: Well obviously, there are challenges in building dams in the Murray-Darling Basin; make no mistake. But that doesn't take up all the country. There are opportunities to build water infrastructure outside the basin that you would also then be able to use some of the technology to pipe it into other parts. We should- and in fact, even there's been a business case looked at of taking recycled water that's 90 gigalitres a year, I think it is, out of Brisbane put it in- that's currently going into Moreton Bay to bring it out into the Lockyer Valley and even look to be put up into the into the basin. We've got to continue to look blue sky, not be afraid to challenge ourselves, but stop saying why we shouldn't do things but rather than looking: how can we. 
QUESTION:  New South Wales says it might not be able to deliver the 450 gigalitres that South Australia is demanding to be returned to the environment. What would you advise the states to do on Sunday? 
MINISTER: So, let me make this clear - the extra 450 has a neutrality test on social and economic strategy; that was achieved in December. That was akin to getting peace in the Middle East. Let me tell you that was difficult. And it's something we should be proud of that we have got that cooperation. The reality is that water, along with the other measures, can all be delivered. And the framework of the Basin Plan shows that, but the states have to get on with the jobs around constraints. And let me tell you that what happens is, that if we haven't done the work on the SDL projects by 2023, everything will be reviewed. And what happens is that buyback cap of 1500 gigalitres, it falls away in 2023. And if the states haven't delivered their projects, particularly around constraints - which goes to the heart of the SDL - then what happens is that we start running around to a farm in a state near you buying back water. We will have to go back. I am bound by law to go out there and recover that water. So, this is now the time for us not to kick it in the grass. The states have to realise that if we don't get on with the job, what happens is we hit an arbitrary date in 2023 where Federal Government, no matter their persuasion, is bound by law to run out and start buying back the water; and I do not want to buyback water. That is a blunt instrument that destroys communities. 
QUESTION:  But do you share growing concerns that the socioeconomic test will be a barrier too high to recover the full 450, and therefore by 2023, buybacks will just kick back in anyway?
MINISTER: The 450 neutrality test reflected the intent of the legislation when it was put in place. It was there to protect that extra 450 that was to be recovered for the environment. There was a test to protect the communities. The other 2750 hasn't got that test and we've seen the impacts on those communities. And that's why I've got an expert panel that's going to give us advice about what impacts that has had on regional communities. And I'll have that back by Christmas, and we'll act on that. 
But this is this is the reality of where we sit. You've got to get on with the job. And if we don't, there's consequences. 
QUESTION:  Minister, the National Water Group- what's architecture of that? How does that work since practical stage of control [indistinct]…?
MINISTER: So obviously, the Deputy Prime Minister has remit over this and he'll be making some announcements very soon. But this is about us telling the states what infrastructure priorities are out there for water. We went out and we tried to say to them: come and tell us what your priorities are. We've got three parts of bugger all back. So it was time for us to say let's take some leadership, let's tell them what we see the priorities are, work with them. We've already committed $3.2 billion dollars. I've got $2 billion sitting in the Regional Investment Corporation ready to roll. But they don't want to take it. So this is about us showing some leadership again, and hopefully forcing them into a position of saying: get on with the job. 
QUESTION:  Okay, so a referendum's the way to go then?
MINISTER: Well, look, obviously there are challenges that we are getting from state governments and that just is a mature conversation we have to have about what role they are playing. They have to be part of the conversation in- about leadership on this. I mean if we're going to keep getting upper cuts for something we don't have control over, then why have we got them? I mean, let's be honest. And it's time for them to get on with the job. I don't think the Australian people are ready to get rid of states just yet, but I think it's time for the states to prove their worth.
Good. Thanks guys.

*** END ***