Interview with Libby Price, 3WN Country Today

27 March 2020

LIBBY PRICE:    With all this coronavirus coverage we haven’t mentioned the M word lately, that’s the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. And the Federal Government’s now looking for feedback on its Water for Fodder program announced in November last year. You might remember 100 gigalitres of water was made available for farmers in the southern Murray-Darling Basin to grow fodder and pasture.

Joining us for the first time on Country Today is Federal Water Minister Keith Pitt. Welcome to Country Today.

KEITH PITT:    Thanks so much, it’s great to be with you, great to be with your listeners.

LIBBY PRICE:    Now, we’ve had the first round of this Water for Fodder program and only 800 of 4000 farmers got water and not all of them have it yet?

KEITH PITT:    Forty gigalitres was made available in round one. As you’ve said there were over 4000 applications and a random ballot selected 800 applicants. Now, there’s over 90 per cent have had their water provided and in fact those numbers are changing rapidly, we expect to have the remainder out in the very near future.

LIBBY PRICE:    By the end of March? No, you’ve only got a couple of days.

KEITH PITT:    Well, that’s certainly the intention. But right now there is also an opportunity for individuals to complete a survey on round one of Water for Fodder, and I’d certainly be encouraging your listeners to make a contribution.

LIBBY PRICE:    And what’s the purpose of the survey? If you get a lot of negative feedback are you going to not proceed with the next round?

KEITH PITT:    We are intending to deliver the additional 60 gigalitres. The purpose of the survey is exactly what you’ve said, to get feedback to identify if there were issues, and in particular to look at whether we continue for fodder or whether there are other opportunities for food production such as horticulture. 

LIBBY PRICE:    So you’re thinking of modifying it?

KEITH PITT:    Well, what I’m thinking of is listening to what people have to say. We’ll make a decision based on that feedback and of course in consultation with South Australia. This is about maximising the available water and maximising the benefit for all Australians.

LIBBY PRICE:    What’s the holdup with getting the water out to farmers?

KEITH PITT:    Well, the absolute majority has been delivered, as I’ve said, over 90 per cent. There’s been a couple of challenges locally, is my understanding. This is run by my department, so I’m hands-off in terms of the decision-making around those individuals, which is appropriate. But once again, this has been a very successful project, it’s been a substantial commitment by the Federal Government and the people of South Australia in terms of the operation of their desal plant. And we want to ensure that the additional 60 gigalitres is delivered.

LIBBY PRICE:    Now, tell us about round two. When does that start? And it’s more water than round one?

KEITH PITT:    Well certainly round two is 60 gigalitres of the 100. So, 40 gigalitres has already been delivered, as I’ve said. Round two, well, firstly we need to ensure that we get the survey information back on Water for Fodder. That closes on the ninth of April, so once again I’d encourage your listeners to get on to Haveyoursay.agriculture.gov.au. And that closes on the ninth of April and then we’ll make some decisions about the second round.

LIBBY PRICE:    Okay. So the decision could be, as you say, change from fodder crops. Could it be that you don’t bother with round two?

KEITH PITT:    No, we are absolutely committed to delivering round two. But, as I’ve said, we need to ensure that this is the maximum possible benefit, not only for growers but for the Australian people. And in the current environment, let’s be frank, our world has changed substantially, so we’re looking to do the best possible things that we can with an additional 60 gigalitres, that is a substantial amount of water. We’re looking for feedback from your listeners, from the people listening to your program.

LIBBY PRICE:    I would suspect the 800 that got the water are going to say they need round two to finish their crops off, but the others that missed out are going to say: we need our turn. So how do you decide who gets what?

KEITH PITT:    Well, once again it is a ballot and it’s a random ballot. If that’s feedback that people wish to place into the Have Your Say survey, well certainly we’ll listen to that feedback. But right now this is about delivering that 60 gigalitres, getting the maximum benefit, identifying exactly what products we need. Clearly there has been some rain, the drought is not broken by any means, but there’s been localised very good fall.

LIBBY PRICE:    I’ll just close the door while our dog’s barking. The hazards of working from home, I’m sorry about that. [Laughs]

KEITH PITT:    Not at all, not at all. I’ve got one at home myself.

LIBBY PRICE:    Now, as I’ve said, it’s your first time on Country Today. Water has become a very tough portfolio. How are you finding it?

KEITH PITT:    Water’s always been a tough portfolio for more than 100 years. Look, I’ve always enjoyed a challenge. I come from an agricultural background, my wife and I had our own properties for 12 years, so we were sugarcane farmers and a little bit of horticulture here and there. But the fundamentals of water are the fundamentals of water. It’s a scarce resource, it’s a valuable resource, you need to maximise the benefit on both sides of the ledger, whether that is for industry, whether that’s for commercial use, whether that’s for agriculture, whether that’s for the environment, and I’m about getting that balance right. 

LIBBY PRICE:    Keith Pitt, thank you so much for speaking to Country Today. We shall talk again.

KEITH PITT:    It’s great to be with you.