Interview with Peter D, ONE FM Breakfast

24 March 2020

PETER D:    It's a very good morning now and my great pleasure to welcome to ONE FM the recently appointed Federal Government Water Minister, the Honourable Keith Pitt. 

Good morning, Keith.

KEITH PITT:    Good morning to you and good morning to your listeners.

PETER D:    Thank you. And what's it like in Canberra at the moment?

KEITH PITT:    Well we did have a very different sitting yesterday, so the Parliament sat for just one day to pass the stimulus package, which is of course critically important for all of those Australians who find themselves without a job yesterday and today. So we're doing everything we can to ensure that we can provide a safety net for them. We're doing everything we can to ensure that businesses do stay in business and that other employees stay employed. But it's a difficult time for the nation.

PETER D:    You're absolutely right there. And comes on top of a few other things as well. So we're really having a bit of a rough trot. But Aussies are a tough breed. I'm sure we'll get over it.

KEITH PITT:    Absolutely. Australia is a resilient nation, we have a resilient economy and we are full of resilient people.

PETER D:    That's exactly right. Now Keith, just give us a little bit of background on the Keith Pitt story, if you will.

KEITH PITT:    Well I'm not a career politician. I'm an electrician by trade. I'm an engineer by profession. I've had farms and small business and stack of other things. Had a consulting firm for quite some time. So I guess I've got a little bit of a different background. As a former irrigator, I had cane farms for a dozen years and my family's been involved in agriculture for as long as I can remember. So I think it's a little bit different, but certainly I get it. I actually didn't think I'd be watching the weather again as closely as I do now. But we've had some success there in recent weeks.

PETER D:    Yes, it's been a bit patchy, but certainly some quite large areas in Queensland and New South have done very well. And that's really great to see. Now you're the Member for Hinkler, which is on the, I suppose you would say, the central coast of Queensland, centred on Bundaberg, the home of a very large white bear and a great drink to go with it.

KEITH PITT:    I read in my local paper today they're about to convert a [indistinct] their facilities to making hand sanitiser. So, not only are the square bears still coming out, they're certainly making a contribution to our current challenges.

PETER D:    Yeah and that's really good to see. A lot of people are converting, I guess their manufacturing to things that we really need, and here in our area we have, I believe, the only face mask manufacturer in Australia.

KEITH PITT:    We've certainly got a critical facility which has ramped up production, and I think every Australian will be thankful for what's been done in Shep, in that local facility. Obviously we're looking for opportunities right around the country when it comes to localised manufacturing.

PETER D:    Yeah. Now, getting on to the water issue, which is of course one of your portfolios, you're also Minister for Resources and Minister - I believe - for the Northern Territory. So that's a pretty fair ask to also be involved in water. 

KEITH PITT:    [Indistinct] northern Australia. So our Northern Australia Policy and the NAIF - the North Australian Infrastructure Fund - yes, it certainly is, it's a challenge, but all ministerial portfolios are challenging.

PETER D:    Well that's a fair call as well. Now, you're Liberal National as they're known in Queensland, and of course a member of the Morrison Government. So you are in the box seat as far as some sort of reviewing, I guess, the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, and there's a lot in the plan. There's a large number - probably 40 odd reports - to digest as well. How are you going with all of that? 

KEITH PITT:    Well the Sefton report is in draft form and we are asking for comments on that right now. I expect to see the ACCC report which is mainly focused on water trading arrangements in coming weeks. And of course we've got the Keelty report due probably by the end of the month. So what my intention is to get those reports finalised, and then we can look at those as a whole and provide a government response. 

PETER D:    Yeah it's a lot to get your head around. And as I said, some of the previous ones, particularly in relation to pockets of socio economic downturn and problems, is there's a lot of reports about that. And to date, really none of these reports have had much in the way of response. Do you propose to alter that? 

KEITH PITT:    Well I certainly can't make any commitments until I see the final reports. But in my view, there are opportunities, particularly around infrastructure, where we will look very closely at the Sefton report. It's very clear that there have been impacts across the Basin. Obviously when you add that in with drought and changes to commodity prices and changing world markets, it's been a very tough time for some of the local communities. So I- my intention is to garner all those reports up. I'd prefer to be a doer than a talker, and certainly we'll get into it.

PETER D:    Yeah. And of course I think that's really what we need. Now we've certainly been over consulted in this area, at any rate, if I can put it that way. And yeah, I think it's time now that whilst we've been over consulted, I guess most people around here feel that they really haven't been listened to at this point.

KEITH PITT:    Well I've got to say, you've got a very good representative in Damian Drum. I've never heard from Damian so often as I've had in recent weeks. He's very passionate about the area and what's going on and what needs to happen. So you've got to have very strong faith in your local rep. He's a good guy and he's working hard. 

PETER D:    Well that's very good to hear. And from yourself, you're the man that we probably really need him to be talking to at the moment. What- from I gather, you've had a very, what shall we say, a very hardworking month or so going through all the reports, not only for water, but also for your resources and Northern Australia portfolios. What - in relation to water, in particular - are your sort of basic thoughts, I guess, on the whole thing - without going into detail and making commitments - but how do you sort of see all the various things coming together, I guess?

KEITH PITT:    Well water is obviously a scarce commodity. It's critical for human life. It's critical for agriculture. It's critical for the environment. And I've always been about balance. So we simply need to get the balance right. I've been working closely with my state ministerial colleagues and I know that we'll have a- probably a video conference hook-up now in the future to discuss what's happening inside the Murray-Darling Basin and other commitments. But I think it is a new paradigm with what's going on at the moment. Agriculture will be critical to point us through in terms of the economy and what it can do for local food supply. The resources part of the portfolio contributes $280 billion to the Australian economy and we've got lots of growth in the north. So in terms of the portfolio overall, I think it's just- it's a land of opportunity as we get through our current challenges and we will. We will get through these current situations and drag forward. It's inside portfolios like mine and the hardworking Australians who are out there, that we'll get us get ourselves back on track.

PETER D:    Yeah and you mentioned balance and I think there's probably two lots of balance, from my view and I've been sort of looking at this from a distance I guess for about five or six years now working on this radio station. But there seems to be an imbalance in this at the state level. And while there was of course the outright falsification of scientific reports in South Australia a couple of years ago, but even more so, there are pockets where things are travelling pretty well and balanced against other industries such as rice. I believe SunRice is totally out of rice and little chance of being able to grow any much at this stage because there's been no allocation for two years in southern New South. There is definitely imbalance in the system. How or what will you sort of look at to try and rebalance the competing interests of the environment, agriculture and the various states and various horticultural areas in achieving that?

KEITH PITT:    Well I think firstly there's good news. There are inflows into the Menindee Lakes. There's an expectation that could be in the [indistinct] high 200 gigalitres or maybe a little bit more. So I think that's good news for water flows down into the Lower Darling. But in terms of the management of the system, as you know, it's incredibly complicated. Lots of different trading arrangements in different states. I think that's why the ACCC report will be very important in its recommendations about whether there are changes that can be made there to balance those issues up. Now obviously when you have high value crops that can afford to pay more for water and people have made commercial decisions over a number of years and those decisions are their own. So in this country, we are free to make our own choices particularly when you own your own land and you make your own decisions about water. 

So I think it's important that we garner up these last three reports and make some very clear decisions in consultation with the state entities because in a lot of cases it will be them that need to make changes.

PETER D:    Yeah. And the other problem, the major problem in this particular area of course is see the constriction at Barmah which actually prevents quite a- there is only a restricted flow that can actually get through that geological area, it's not anything manmade, it's a geological thing which would take billions of dollars to fix. That seems to have been ignored to date in terms of water transfer and that sort of thing.

KEITH PITT:    Well I think it's not just around water transfer. I think we need to make sure that we get the environmental impacts there right as well. If there's efficiencies to be found in terms of the environmental use of the Barmah [indistinct], well I think we need to look at that as well. So as an engineer, I'm always looking for practical solutions and I've certainly got my department looking at potential infrastructure projects, particularly where we can save water in some of the existing systems, regardless of which side of the ledger that's on. So I think that will be an important exercise. And that it's a matter of finding sufficient funding to do what's needed.

PETER D:    Yeah. And I guess funding, once the current pandemic settles down, is going to be a little bit scarce for a while because certainly quite correctly, you've had to throw a lot of money at it, which may have been earmarked for other things.

KEITH PITT:    Look, I think at the moment, it's important that we provide a safety net for all Australians. There are a lot of people out there today who certainly weren't expecting to lose their job but they have. And we need to ensure that they are they are all looked after and the Coalition Government will be doing everything that is necessary to make sure that happens.

PETER D:    And that's, as I say, absolutely important and the number one priority at the moment. But I guess we do have to keep in mind that it will affect other things further down the track.

KEITH PITT:    Well look, I think there are opportunities. I think state government, private industry, I think there's a lot of options for us to look at in terms of how we might fund future infrastructure and there's certainly money that has been allocated, remains allocated for the Murray Darling Basin Plan. And I think it will be critical that we get that out the door and those projects underway.

PETER D:    Yeah. If we hope to sort of balance up things a little bit, it's quite clear that, you know, things will need to change and there will be funding required to make that happen.

KEITH PITT:    Well that's a fight we're yet to have. So we'll focus on the immediate, we'll plan for the future. 

PETER D:    Okay. No worries. Well in a little while perhaps, it'd be great to have another chat with you when you've had a bit more of a chance to digest these reports coming forward and just see, yeah, exactly where you believe that things could end.

KEITH PITT:    Yeah. No problems at all. It's been great to be with you and great to be with your listeners.

PETER D:    Thank you. Thank you. The Honourable Keith Pitt, the Minister for Water in the Morrison Government. Thank you so much for joining us this morning and look forward to chatting with you in the not so distant future. Look forward to a bit of action in the water sphere.
 
KEITH PITT:    Great to be with you.

PETER D:    Thank you.