Address to Farm Writers’ Association Webinar - Murray-Darling Basin reform

4 September 2020

Thank you very much to everyone who has logged on to hear these announcements today.

It is a great privilege to address you all today to outline a new chapter in the management of our most important river system.

At the outset I’d like to recognise the new chair of the Murray Darling Basin Authority who, along with Authority members, is joining us today.

Sir Angus Houston has already made a formidable contribution to Australian public life during his distinguished military career and I look forward to working with him in this new role. 

I’d also like to especially acknowledge Robbie Sefton who, along with her panel, undertook the Independent assessment of social and economic conditions in the Murray-Darling Basin that I am releasing today.

The assessment was a huge undertaking and its findings and recommendations have been critical in my consideration for the path forward. 

Robbie and the panel spoke to many hundreds of people across the Basin during their work, which was a massive undertaking and I want to congratulate Robbie for the thoroughness of her work.

I’m also releasing today the First Review of the Water for the Environment Special Account, which was undertaken by Sally Farrier, and her panel. 

Ms Farrier is a former National Water Commissioner, and while I am sorry she isn’t able to be with us today physically I am pleased that she is able to join us virtually. 

It would be remiss of me not to also acknowledge my parliamentary colleagues – all those MPs and Senators from right across the Murray-Darling Basin – who have been, and will continue to be, fierce advocates for their communities.

I’d like to single out Damian Drum, Anne Webster, and Tony Pasin in particular for their contributions.

They haven’t held back with the forthright advice and feedback they’ve provided me on all matters related to the Murray-Darling – which has contributed to some of the decisions and policy announcements I’ll be detailing shortly.

Thank you to everyone who has joined us online today and for your interest in this very important subject.

 

INTRODUCTION

At the heart of what our government is doing, and in response to these reports, is a commitment to put communities back at the centre of water reform in the Murray-Darling Basin.

It has been nearly a decade since the Murray Darling Basin Plan passed through Parliament with bipartisan support.

It has been a significant and challenging reform.

Nevertheless, significant progress has been made towards our goals.

Nearly 2000 gigalitres of water per year is now being used for a healthy working river system on behalf of the Australian community.

This means that, of the water recovery required to meet the sustainable limits in the Basin Plan, well over 95 per cent has already been recovered. The heavy lifting has been done.

The reality is that through a lot of hard work we are very close to the finish line on this important national reform.

I do appreciate that within this reform there are unavoidable and very real competing interests; farm to farm, region to region and state to state.

I think it is worth recalling the speech made on 25 January 2007 by former Prime Minister John Howard that was actually the catalyst for the Murray Darling Basin Plan.

Crucially, the former PM then talked about water and the economy and the need to have a national approach to water security for our most important river system.

I agree with those sentiments and my speech today is not just about the original Plan, but about water management in general.

When John Howard announced his National Plan for Water Security in 2007 times were very different, Australia’s prosperity, though hard fought, seemed assured and the Global Financial Crisis wasn’t yet a gathering cloud on the horizon. 

But that plan was also announced, like now, against the backdrop of the nation experiencing terrible drought.

Fast forward to 2020. We are living through the COVID crisis and the associated and unprecedented hit to our economies, locally, nationally and globally. This crisis in Australia and the world has impacts at a scale that were completely unforeseen. 

Couple this with years of drought and a savage summer of bushfires and you have an unprecedented triangulation of challenges to our robust nation.

Because of this, our focus must remain firmly on jobs and looking after our communities while also being good stewards of a healthy river system that benefits everyone.

To successfully recover from COVID—and drought, and bushfires—we must grow our economy in this incredible food bowl we call the Murray Darling Basin.

And growing that food and fibre in Dorothy McKellar’s land of ‘droughts and flooding rains’ rather than William Blake’s ‘green and pleasant land’ presents different challenges.

The approach I take to this job will be a little different to my predecessors. This is not to criticize any former ministers because water policy is a notoriously complex policy area.

However, I’m a practical kind of guy and I take that practicality into my role as a minister.

I’m born and bred outside the Basin – but I’ve been a farmer, I’ve bought and sold water and I’ve been an employee and an employer.

I’m an electrician by trade and an engineer by profession, which means I look for pragmatic, phased and sensible solutions to issues and problems.

I also take John Howard and Labor’s Tony Burke at their word when they said the Plan that we have been bequeathed is adaptive and able to be changed to suit the economic times and the variability of our weather.

Our rainfall is indeed highly variable and the deviation around average annual river flows in many parts of the Basin can be enormous, which is why we do need a Plan that is adaptive to the needs of a variable climate, and to economic changes.

To cite one example, in 2007 CSIRO estimated that by 2020 average annual inflows could decline by about 15 per cent.

What we’ve actually seen over the past twenty years is annual inflows that are in some places almost half of those we saw in the previous century. 

In 2018-19 some catchments, like the Macquarie in NSW, received only a third of what had, up until then, been their lowest inflows on record.

Across 125 years’ worth of records more than half of the driest years have happened in the past 20.

This is not about preparing ourselves for a future with less water – we’re already living it. And recent reports such as the Keelty Report have confirmed this lived reality.

Having said that, we have seen some encouraging rainfall across many parts of the Basin which has allowed some good winter crops to be planted.

It’s by no means drought-ending everywhere, but the figures and outlook do offer hope.

The current volume of water held in storage in the Murray-Darling Basin is up by more than 3,300 gigalitres, or 32 per cent, than the same time last year.

The last few months have each seen the best rainfall for a number of years in many cropping regions, and the outlook from the Bureau suggests that we are going to see a wetter than average spring.

Let’s hope that’s what we see.

It’s for all these reasons that today I’m launching an action plan to refresh our commitment to the future of communities in the Murray-Darling Basin.

My focus is squarely on increasing the efficiency of water use in the system including for the environment.

I want to rebalance the system, and not just through the blunt tool of water buybacks.

In the words of the National Farmers Federation “as we progress toward the last phase of the Plan we need to adopt a pathway of least impact rather than inflict more pain on those who have paid a heavy price for reform”. 

While some farmers have done well out of water buybacks, and river health gains have accrued to all Australians, for some irrigation communities it has been a net negative.

When you take water out of a town that was built on irrigation there are significant consequences for those communities.

This message is very clearly spelt out in the Sefton Report, and the Government has heard the community’s message loud and clear.

Therefore, the cornerstone of the measures outlined in the Action Plan I launch today is to put an end to water buybacks.

This means shifting the focus of the water efficiency program to off-farm projects, not farmer’s water licenses.

It means ensuring the projects that replace 605 gigalitres worth of buybacks succeed.

These projects must be flexible and have community support.

Secondly, I’m announcing funding for new projects that put money back into communities that have been adversely affected by water reforms.

And thirdly I am making changes that will inject trust, visibility and accountability back into the institutions that supervise the river system.

 

SEFTON REPORT

I’ve already acknowledged Robbie Sefton is with us today.

As Robbie has said, the process was much more about listening than talking. And that is the approach that informed the panel’s reports and recommendations.

I’ve used the recommendations to inform the Investment Package I will explain shortly.

Some of the recommendations are outside my portfolio, so I’ll be working with my ministerial colleagues to respond to those in in due course.

I want to highlight two very important outcomes of the panel’s work. Firstly, what they found: 

Water reform and the challenges around it have driven a growing community distrust of all levels of government

  • The need for long term commitments to grow regional economic activity
  • The need for better data when it comes to the Basin’s water resources, and  
  • The need for more flexibility when it comes to water recovery.

The second, and perhaps far more important lesson is HOW they went about their work. 

  • Communities were put at the centre. 
  • The panel listened – to more than 750 people who took time to attend face to face meetings, and to neighbours, acquaintances and people who stopped them in the street – after all panel members were drawn from the community.
  • They took into account the 600 survey responses and the more than 170 written submissions

A line from the report that stuck with me was that ‘communities have lost trust because they feel over-consulted and under listened to’.

I have visited a number of communities across the Basin now despite the challenges of COVID-19

  • I said I would listen, and I have,
  • I said I would work through these important reports, and I have,
  • I said I would take action. And I am taking action.

THE FIRST ACTION IS TO PUT COMMUNITIES BACK AT THE CENTRE OF THE MURRAY-DARLING BASIN

That’s why I’m so pleased to welcome the new Chairman of the Murray Darling Basin Authority here today.

Sir Angus steps into the role at a critical time – for the organisation and for the community.

The trust-deficit needs repair and no-one is better placed to mend that gap.

It’s a gap that all governments share – all of us have a role in water and we all need to step up and repair relationships with Basin communities.

The fact will always remain that it is a shared river system, and it is the easiest thing in the world to label people upstream as “water thieves” and people downstream as “water wasters”.

However, in this single connected system with its shared and limited water resources, we need to be better to ourselves than that.

Caring for one another, and recognition that we are the Australian nation and not just battling our neighbours is something that I know Sir Angus will bring to the table for all of us.

 

GOVERNMENT INVESTMENTS

Our Government is here to make sure that rural and regional Australia is front and centre of our national recovery plans.

And my announcements today are just part of the economic recovery plan for regional Australia. 

That’s because rural and regional Australia is a cornerstone of this country’s economic recovery, and a cornerstone of Australian life

So today I am pleased to announce as part of the Investment Package: four actions to keep our communities and rivers healthy:

  • Firstly: $34 million to extend the Murray-Darling Basin Economic Development Fund.
    • This important grant program provides support for those communities hit by water recovery to create a better and more diverse economic future. 
    • Last week, as I travelled through north and northwest New South Wales on my way to Canberra, I announced $15 million to support projects as diverse as building a micro-abattoir, restoring a paddle steamer and upgrading regional airport facilities.
    • Importantly, they are ideas generated and supported by communities that create jobs. And these jobs are local jobs.
  • I’m also announcing $20 million for community driven projects that improve the health of rivers and wetlands while supporting economic development and jobs.
    • I want to stress river health is not just about river flows. 
    • It’s about all the things that contribute to healthy rivers, like erosion control, it is about cold water pollution, it is about getting rid of weeds and carp and other pests, and it is about protecting wetlands for birds and fish – those complementary measures that move us away from arguing about numbers and towards a focus on outcomes.
    • Local people know best what their stretch of river needs so we’re going to continue to listen to and support their ideas and create on the ground jobs and partnerships within communities.
  • There’s $3 million to employ 20 new Indigenous River Rangers to care for river country across the Basin.
    • That’s 20 new jobs for Aboriginal people across the Basin.
    • Their knowledge and connection to country is invaluable in managing and restoring rivers while providing real jobs in rural and remote areas.
  • There’s another $7.5 million to make sure we’re gathering the right information to improve our monitoring of social, economic and environmental conditions.
    • It will build a key evidence base for government decisions and support industry adaptation.
    • This one is a win-win because it is about further building trust and evidence.

 

TRANSPARENCY AND ACCOUNTABILITY

All governments must do more when it comes to improving accountability and transparency – another key action to improve trust.

One way we’re addressing this is through establishing a ‘single point of truth’ when it comes to accurate and up-to-date water information.

Having a one-stop shop for information on water storages, in-stream flow rates, where environmental water is being used, water allocations, ownership and trade information seems like a no-brainer.

But to make this sort of information available to the community will take the cooperation of the states.

I haven’t touched on the centrality of their role yet – but I will.

Our government had already committed $25 million to improve metering in the northern part of the Basin, but at the moment there just isn’t the trained workforce to install and maintain the meters – undermining our investment and confidence in the compliance framework.

We’re changing that – creating more jobs, especially for Aboriginal people to install meters, while we also develop the telemetry market so that the readings are available to state regulators easily and cost effectively.

 

COMPLIANCE

Another critical component to restoring people’s faith in governments is ensuring that compliance approaches are transparent, independent and of the highest standards.

That’s why today I announce my intention to work with Basin water ministers to establish an Inspector General of Water Compliance.

To do this I will merge the MDBA’s compliance functions with the existing Interim Inspector General of Murray-Darling Basin Water Resources to consolidate the Commonwealth’s regulatory responsibilities when it comes to water in the Basin. 

In effect, this will split the MDBA by separating its compliance office into a separate institution.

As some of my Nationals colleagues have said on a number of occasions, this will put to bed any perceptions that the MDBA is structured in a way that it could mark its own homework.

It is important that we can put forward arrangements that communities will be able to have confidence in.

This move directly responds to recommendations raised by the Productivity Commission in its five year assessment of the Basin Plan completed in 2018. 

The recent ACCC interim report into water markets also raises the need for a better compliance regime.  

To ensure the new statutory office has the resources to hit the ground running and hold a mirror up to the states, we are committing $30 million to improve compliance and will bolster that investment with another $8 million to make the administrative and legislative changes that are needed to establish and support the new Inspector-General.

This is delivering on the process COAG started last year– and I intend to consult closely with Basin water Ministers on the final design of the office.

What I can say though, like the MDBA’s existing regionalised approach with offices in towns across the Basin, the officers of the new Inspector-General of Water Compliance will also be located out in the regional communities they will need to work with.

We’re also continuing to progress business cases for the development of a new hydrological model for the MDBA.

This will make sure the modelling necessary for the implementation and evaluation of the Basin Plan is state of the art.

  • The current models are at the catchment level rather than Basin level and they’re 20 years old.
  • In some cases these are models and systems developed at a time before the internet became a significant part of people’s lives
  • All Australians deserve to have confidence in the systems that underpin the assessments of the Basin Plan – the Basin Plan and water reform is, after all, a $13 billion investment in their name.


STATES’ ROLE

I want to use this opportunity to call for renewed co-operation from the states and the territory that are participants in the plan.

Since taking on this job I’ve been impressed by water ministers of different political stripes offering their considerable experience and knowledge to me as the new federal minister.

However, I stress that people on the ground are seeking leadership from us.

I want to state here and now I intend to make tangible progress on finalising the implementation of this reform in a way that protects the interests of our communities.

We are all equal partners in this water reform process

Again, returning to John Howard’s words from 2007: “criticism of the management of the Murray Darling Basin is often seen as the Commonwealth blaming the states or one state blaming another”.

Let me be clear - people on the ground don’t care which government is responsible. They only care that it is fixed, that it is sensible, and that it works.

Implementation of critical parts of the plan and achievement of the commitments of governments remain well behind schedule – in particular, projects to avoid another 605 GL of water recovery from communities are at serious risk of failure.

I do look to the states to think adaptively, meet their commitments, and act to deliver the projects that will provide the certainty communities deserve.

In total, the government has $4 billion available for projects in the Murray-Darling Basin.

My priority is to get this money out on the ground, creating jobs, supporting communities, and avoiding any need for additional water purchases in the future.

We cannot fail in this because I will not take more water from our communities than is already required.

 

WESA REPORT

I’ve also acknowledged Sally Farrier. She’s online from Melbourne – given the COVID restrictions – and I am sure I speak for everyone when I wish her, and all Victorians well at this difficult time.

The Water for the Environment Special Account Review, she led as Chair, says that we will not recover the 450 gigalitres by 30 June 2024.

I thank her and her panel for that frank advice.

But that advice is a warning to all Basin governments. We need to adjust our approaches and redouble our efforts because failure just prolongs the uncertainty that Basin communities face.

Our communities deserve our best efforts to meet our goals, and I am not about to call an early end to the game just because we’re behind on the score board.

My expectation is that my department, and the states, step up and minimise the gap between our goals and our landing point. 

There is plenty of time between now and 2024 to consider our progress and refresh our thinking – now is not the time to give up.

 

KEEPING EXISTING PROGRAMS ON TRACK

Our government is extending a helping hand to get communities and the states over the line.

We remain committed to the 450 gigalitres and acknowledge that we need to approach it differently - but this report makes clear that we are very much behind schedule. 

We don’t want to see river health and downstream communities go backwards because of delays in the recovery of the 450. 

So, today I announce the Murray-Darling Sustainable Riverland Program that will make $38 million available for downstream river health projects.

These projects will help mitigate the delays in progress towards the target of an additional 450 GL of water for downstream river health.

I know there are those upstream that may see this example as evidence that the Plan is about sending good water out to sea.

It isn’t. The Murray mouth is only one indicator of many – there is much we need to do upstream as well.

As I have said already, the Murray Darling Basin is a connected system that supports us all, and we need to be better to ourselves than continuing the pursuit of upstream and downstream battles.

This is a national asset and we will find collective solutions.

We are committed to working with the states to squeeze more water efficiencies out of existing projects.

Here we’re enlisting the help of the National Water Grid Authority to identify ways we can make the 36 projects, nominated by the states to save 605 gigalitres of water recovery, work harder.

The National Water Grid Authority will also provide greater oversight and regular reporting about risks, blockages and possible interventions to keep projects on track. 

  • This includes projects that will enable us to better manage water in and around environmental assets to protect their integrity.
  • The National Water Grid will also help identify the off-farm water infrastructure projects that will reinvigorate progress against the 450 gigalitre target without taking further water from irrigators.
  • I am advised by my department that with a pivot to off-farm projects 150 gigalitres of water savings are possible – and that there are over 50 proposals already on the table that could address water losses and recover 70 gigalitres of water quickly and that is without touching an irrigator’s license.

Our government isn’t making this additional investment simply on trust.

  • I intend for a new National Partnership Arrangement to incentivise the states to accelerate their delivery timeframes for the projects.
  • The Commonwealth will help where we can to speed up inundation mapping and trials of different flow rates to give communities confidence to move ahead. 
  • And we will help to prepare accelerated implementation plans for projects most at risk of not being delivered by 2024.

 

CONCLUSION

Our Government is offering a comprehensive response through this Investment Package on behalf of all Australians.

I have set out the Government’s commitment by announcing a range of new practical initiatives to put communities back at the center of water reform in the Murray-Darling Basin.

It’s also a reset – a chance to start with a clean slate and make sure we listen to communities.

It is a change from deciding things while sitting behind a desk in Canberra.

For me, the Basin Plan is not about irrigation versus the environment. It’s about investing in the communities that value and sustain both. It is about getting the right outcomes, not a simplistic focus on numbers.

As I mentioned, I was an electrician by trade, an engineer by profession and a farmer at heart – I know the stresses of running a business and I know that water is critical to just about everything we do in regional Australia.

My nature is to find solutions to problems – not avoid them.

I know that what I’ve announced today will generate plenty of discussion among Basin communities but I believe it is an important step in addressing the issues and concerns you have raised with me.

I’d particularly like to mention the contributions of my colleague Senator Perin Davey – she is a strong and knowledgeable advocate for her communities. 

Finally, I’d like to restate the importance of the regions contained within the Murray Darling Basin to our nation.

These river communities are important.

The Murray Darling Basin, our most iconic river system is important, and a national asset.

This why we are, as a Government, investing in the future and bringing communities back to the heart of the Basin Plan.

Thank you.