Interview with Michael Condon, ABC NSW Country Hour

10 June 2020

MICHAEL CONDON:    Let's get some response from the Federal Government, from the Minister- Water Minister, Keith Pitt. That scheme, of course, was up to $25,000 available to farmers, or 25 per cent of the total that they spent on water infrastructure, the idea to save water and to irrigate more efficiently.

Water Minister Keith Pitt joins me now. Good afternoon.

KEITH PITT:    Good afternoon to you, and good afternoon to your listeners.

MICHAEL CONDON:    So, did you actually pull the rug out from under farmers who were involved in what was a very successful scheme?

KEITH PITT:    Well, the scheme is very popular, and the facts are very straight-forward. The Commonwealth has delivered exactly what it said it would in terms of the quantum. That is, it's a $50 million scheme which we put on the table, and we have delivered $50 million. The scheme was administered by New South Wales, and certainly, how they administer the scheme and the decisions they make are a matter for them.

MICHAEL CONDON:    So, these 600 farmers now won't be getting a rebate, according to the minister you just heard. Is there any chance now that they may get a rebate, that you might kick in some extra money?

KEITH PITT:    Well, as I said, there was a budget set of 50 million. The states signed up to the agreement. The states delivered the program. The states administered the program. The states countered the grants, the states countered the applicants and came to the Commonwealth under the budget that was provided. Now, the fact that the minister can't manage their own programs? Well, they're questions to put to New South Wales. The Commonwealth has stumped up exactly what it said it would, at the time that it said it would for the demand that we had. Now, I completely recognise that this is very polar, that the drought continues to bite. We have any number of issues now around the corona pandemic. But no one is interested in stoushes between state and federal governments. This is about delivery, and we've done what we said we would.

MICHAEL CONDON:    So, you think that Adam Marshall didn't manage the budget and now he's come back and he's blaming you?

KEITH PITT:    Well, the fundamentals are very straight-forward. Fortnightly reports are provided. It's managed by the state, as per the agreement. Quite simply, farmers could claim up to 25 per cent of those expenses. South Australia and Queensland actually match the funding provided by the Commonwealth; New South Wales did not. But New South Wales had been the chief beneficiary of this program by an overwhelming amount. And we recognise that droughts throughout New South Wales has been very, very difficult. I'm very happy that there has been some winter rain, or early, early rain, and that the winter forecast is solid. And I'm very hopeful that people have better results. But the idea that we have taken anything away is simply wrong.

MICHAEL CONDON:    Now, they talk about the- Adam Marshall was talking there about extra $310 million that they've put in, and they're asking you only $9 million. I mean, A) is it possibly for you to rethink that, or do you think that the extra money should come out of that 310, if people are sweating on a rebate?

KEITH PITT:    Well, as I've said, New South Wales didn't co-contribute to this fund at all. Other states did. The Commonwealth has almost $9 billion worth of commitments made in terms of the drought - obviously, that is with the Drought Minister, not necessarily the Water Minister. But that is a significant contribution across the country. Now, we recognise that drought that is an ongoing issue. We're clearly not out of it right across the country yet, but there's been some promising rainfall in a number of areas. But in terms of this specific fund, there was 50 million on the table, 50 million delivered, and the facts that are being put forward by the New South Wales Water Minister are simply incorrect.

MICHAEL CONDON:    So, is it the case then, I guess, that you're saying that- I mean, sometimes ministers have schemes that are overextended and they expect that there will be some extra funds coming through. You're just saying, no, no, we don't have that money in the coffers anymore.

KEITH PITT:    Well, we've allocated every single dollar that was in the budget. As you know, federally our budget is now in October. Now, I'm very happy to look at opportunities if they're out there. But once again, the New South Wales Government did not commit to this fund at all. They administered what was delivered by the Commonwealth through their administrative programs. South Australia and Queensland matched the funding, provided them by the Commonwealth under the scheme. But-

MICHAEL CONDON:    [Interrupts] So, you're thinking maybe they should step up to the plate more now?

KEITH PITT:    Well, they're questions to put to the New South Wales Government. What I'm saying is the Commonwealth is doing its part, it is delivering exactly what it said it would. I recognise the scheme is very popular, because quite simply, it's a good scheme. But once again, we can't be asked simply to provide more money given that there was a very fixed amount available, and it was administered by state government.

MICHAEL CONDON:    Now, the other issue too, and you did- said it's a good program. It was designed to save water and allow people to irrigate more efficiency. Is there another issue  where you've put up the money and you haven't been happy with the results? Or you are happy with the results of the scheme, it has saved water and it has allowed irrigators to irrigate more efficiency- [indistinct] think?

KEITH PITT:    [Interrupts] No, the scheme has been very important and it's put money into regional towns at a time where it was desperately needed. It was strongly supported by people like Mark Coulton and Barnaby Joyce and others at a federal level, and the idea that the Commonwealth has made changes to this program is just wrong in fact.

MICHAEL CONDON:    Minister, thanks for your time on the program today, and we'll put some of those issues to Adam Marshall.

KEITH PITT:    It's great to be with you, great to be with your listeners.

MICHAEL CONDON:    Keith Pitt, who's the Water Minister, Federal Water Minister there, joining us on the line to discuss that scheme there.