Interview with Kath Sullivan, ABC NSW Country Hour

17 April 2020

MICHAEL CONDON:    That's 0467-922-684 is the number to comment on the Keelty report because the amount of water feeding into the River Murray has halved - that's the most telling finding of a four-month inquiry into the way that water is shared between South Australia, Victoria and New South Wales. The review by the Basin's top cop, Mick Keelty, was given today following that large protest at Parliament House last December and it has been released by the Government this morning.

It found a lack of water leadership, transparency and water literacy was evident across the Basin, and the Federal Government has agreed to accept all five of the report's recommendations.

A short time ago, Water Minister Keith Pitt was asked for his impressions of the eagerly anticipated report.

[Excerpt]

KEITH PITT:    I think they've done exactly the job they were asked to do. Their integrity is without question and it really is a statement of fact.

KATH SULLIVAN:    So it's a statement of fact that we've got half the water flowing into the system than what was there when the agreement was originally established?

KEITH PITT:    Well, that's certainly what the report says. I've got the MDBA and I've asked them to continue their analysis of that issue. And certainly, in terms of the report itself and its recommendations, all of the recommendations have been accepted.

KATH SULLIVAN:    Were you surprised about the finding in regards to water literacy and the recommendation that farmers need better access to education about how the water market actually works?

KEITH PITT:    It's always difficult to get across the mountains of information that might be out there. So I think it is an important recommendation that we look to find a better way to communicate the information from Government and particularly to have that single source if possible.

KATH SULLIVAN:    It's yet another report pointing to a lack of transparency around decision making and leadership. It sounds like you've got a real challenge on your hands to try and get that resolved.

KEITH PITT:    Well, I think that it's always been a challenge. The Commonwealth is one of six shareholders in the Murray-Darling Basin Plan along with my state and territory counterparts. Quite simply, no one wants to give anything up, everybody wants more.

KATH SULLIVAN:    You talk about the states there, Minister. They actually didn't really lend their support to Mick Keelty undertaking this inquiry. He didn't have any powers to compel witnesses or resourcing from the states. Does that sort of mean that it's not really going to go anywhere?

KEITH PITT:    Well, not at all. We've agreed with the recommendations at the Commonwealth level.

KATH SULLIVAN:    But none of them are aimed at the states, and don't you need them to really have buy-in?

KEITH PITT:    Well, obviously, we have to work with Basin officials, that's one of the recommendations from Mr Keelty's report. And we need the states to have buy-in the Murray-Darling Basin Plan all of the time. We continue to work closely with state ministers. In fact, just this week, we've had New South Wales deliver some of their water sharing plans. Now, that hasn't happened previously. We've got 11 water sharing plans delivered to the Murray-Darling Basin Authority which are currently being assessed.

KATH SULLIVAN:    Just this week?

KEITH PITT:    Just this week.

KATH SULLIVAN:    And as recently as Monday, the Deputy Premier of New South Wales was actually talking about an uprising in the streets of Deniliquin in Griffith with pitchforks. One that he said he would join if farmers couldn't get access to more water. What are you doing to take the anger out of this debate?

KEITH PITT:    Well, as community leaders we're all responsible for our own comments. I worry about the actions that I take.

KATH SULLIVAN:    Do you think that your New South Wales National Party room friend, John Barilaro, is acting in the best interests of the Murray-Darling Basin?

KEITH PITT:    The Deputy Premier is a passionate guy. It's no surprise to me that he stands up for the people he represents in his area. My job, as the Minister for the Commonwealth in terms of water and resources in Northern Australia, is to continue to take appropriate action, to work with all of the state shareholders and ensure we get good outcomes for all users of the Basin - whether that is community, whether it's business, whether it's irrigators.

KATH SULLIVAN:    Just this morning, the Government's analysts have released a report saying where a food-secure nation, and it did actually address the concern or the idea that's been put there to perhaps rice growers or grain growers should be given access to more water to grow food in this time of COVID-19. The report seems to suggest that if you were to do that, it would be at the detriment of another horticultural agriculture commodity. Is there any way in which you could see that actually happening?

KEITH PITT:    Well, I think one of the challenges are that all the water is currently allocated within the rules. I mean, the states themselves are the ones that determine the allocation for high priority and general security of water. They each have a different approach, and that's been identified in the Keelty report as well, in terms of just what level of risk each state is willing to take in terms of that water allocation. 

I know that New South Wales has an emergency allocation they can potentially access if they chose to. But clearly, we have been and continue to be in a drought that has had an incredibly detrimental effect on the rice industry, in particular. When weather conditions change, I know that will change. But as ABARES have said, there is no issue with food security in Australia whatsoever.

KATH SULLIVAN:    So what's the emergency allocation? Are you saying that New South Wales has water it could actually already provide to irrigators?

KEITH PITT:    Well as I've said, all the water is allocated. New South Wales, their own documents indicate what their allocations are and what availability there is. But they determine their own future in these things, as do we all. The Commonwealth in that area, in terms of the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder, has just one gigalitre. For me to find any way to access that the irrigators would require legislation to pass both the House of Representatives, and the Senate, and get agreement from all of the different states and territories that are involved for an outcome, which in my view, is not that strong. One gigalitre, yes, is a reasonable amount of water but it's not substantial. 

What we need to do is continue to work and push forward on the plan. We need to continue to implement the things that matter in terms of efficiency programs and projects, in particular. But as I've said previously, I have a wheelbarrow full of reports coming: The Sefton review, the ACCC review [indistinct].

KATH SULLIVAN:    [Talks over] Well, in fact, Mick Keelty makes the point that there's already been 40 odd reports in the last couple of years into the Basin. What's to say this isn't just another one to add to the pile, and people across these communities shouldn't expect anything different?

KEITH PITT:    Well, I've said publicly previously and I'll continue to say IT - that the time for reporting is at an end.

[End of excerpt]

MICHAEL CONDON:    That's Water Minister, Keith Pitt, speaking with Kath Sullivan. You can read more about the report and there's a link to it on our ABC website and search up: Mick Keelty Murray-Darling Basin water sharing review. And it's just been released, well, a couple of hours ago so quite a bit of detail there to go through.