Victorian Rural Press Club Webinar

21 May 2020

KEITH PITT:    Well, can I thank you firstly, thanks so much for the warm welcome. I don't have the COVID beard but I think I've got the COVID kilos. So thank you to the Victorian Rural Press Club. Can I thank you for the invitation to join you in this new virtual world that we do currently live in. And of course if I was there in person and we had everyone in front of me I'd probably be talking about the fact that in Victoria you take the cross bar out and stick it in the ground and call it a goal and any of those sorts of things. But given the format I'll stick to the set speech.

So it would have been great to be there in person there's no doubt about that and I'm sure on the other side of the pandemic I'll be very happy at the visit not only your organisation but of course further down through the Murray-Darling, particularly to Victoria. I'll give a shout out to my good friend and colleague Senator Bridget Kennedy who has been very much in my ear when it comes to the water portfolio with a lot of very good advice.

Can I say at the start how much I value rural and regional press in Victoria? Indeed right around the country and I do want to acknowledge that your sector is doing it particularly tough particularly right now in the midst of the Corona pandemic. Now as someone who's lived their entire life in the regions I know how important the local media is to communities right across the country with a focus on issues and events that are relevant to them. And it is those local stories that we can get across to our city counterparts that make such a difference. 

Now we know that even before the pandemic hit it had been tough going for many companies in the regional media landscape and those issues are very clearly being amplified by COVID-19. And the Government has announced an important measure to support rural and regional media at this time and they do include fast tracking the $5 million Regional Small Publishers Innovation Fund providing tax relief and suspending quota obligations on commercial broadcasters. And most significantly the $50 million public interest newsgathering programme to support regional media through this period and allow them to continue to deliver calling the news to the communities that they serve. Applications are open now and the funding can be used to pay staff wages or training and technology or website upgrades. So I certainly encourage you all to get involved. That is all about keeping regional newspapers radio and TV going and keeping as many people in jobs as we can until we get to the other side of this crisis which I'm hopeful occurs sooner rather than later. 

Now it's a politician we can often get caught up in the press gallery and what they might have to say in the Canberra bubble so to speak. But it’s the publications and programs that you produce which address some of the issues of real importance to many Australians and I'm here to talk about one of those issues today, water and specifically the management of the Murray-Darling Basin.

Now the context of increasing demand for water as the severe drought continues, the Commonwealth and the five of the state and territory governments are equal stakeholders. Now to say it is a very complex area public policy is an understatement. I always thought engineering math was complicated until I came across the Murray-Darling Basin. But the one thing that governments have no control over is of course the drought. Also we've had some promising rainfall over parts of the basin in recent months, it is not yet drought breaking rain but nevertheless it is encouraging. It is encouraging. So after a wet April and the first two weeks of May, storages in the southern basin increased by 4 per cent to 39 per cent capacity and by 1 per cent to 17 per cent in the northern basin. Now across the whole basin storages jumped by 4 per cent to 33 per cent capacity. And if you look at the Menindee Lakes which two months ago were at zero per cent, they are now at 23 per cent capacity and I'm advised somewhere around 450 gigalitres, in fact it’s more than that it’s 540. In just two weeks Lake [indistinct] has increased from a 36 to 43 per cent capacity. I'm also being advised by the Bureau of Meteorology we're expecting a wetter than average winter which does augur well for planting and winter crops.

Now I’m going to tell you as a former farmer I thought my days of staring at the sky and constantly checking the bureau site online and looking at radars was just about done but it's very clear that it's not. As a former farmer I bought water, I sold water, I bought and sold farms, I've been involved in agriculture, check irrigation pipes, I’ve fixed leaks, I’ve repaired bores, I’ve had things break down at very, very inconvenient times. I've had to remove the odd frog and snake from blocked up infrastructure as I'm sure many of your listeners have in terms of the webinar today.

So as someone’s that’s worked on the land I know how crucial water is and I certainly understand the frustration. Which brings me to the question at the centre of today's discussion which ism is the Murray-Darling Basin Plan working? Is it working? Well from the outset knowledge of the Basin Plan is not perfect. But we can't and we shouldn't go back to not having the plan at all. It would be a disservice to the residents of the basin to overlook the meaningful gains which have been made. For example, measures that maintain soil quality that have reduced acid sulphate content by minimising salt intrusion. And when we talk about environmental benefits it does mean that people get the fish, they get to swim and camp along a healthy working river. Now basin states which includes the Commonwealth made and must keep, they made and must keep their commitments to the plan. There will be a backwards step to simply abandon something that all Basin governments agreed to because it's just too hard. Now a sustainable foundation for a healthy working basin is essential. It provides certainty. It provides certainty for agriculture. It provides certainty for industries, certainty for communities. The plan does take a long term perspective and we've always maintained it was a starting point. We've maintained that adjustments would be needed in both the short and the long term. But the plan only works if we keep all states at the table so we all work together in the collective interests of the whole basin. Now remember this is a compact. This is a compact between six governments, all as equal shareholders in the management of Australia's most significant waterway, a significant national asset. It's also important to remember that all of those governments, including the Commonwealth agreed on the largest water policy intervention of its kind in the world. And this is a journey that goes back decades. In fact, it wasn't long after federation the removal of water from the River Murray became a sore point between states. Leaders realised that some type of agreement needed to be reached and I've got to tell you that my background- I'm an electrician, I'm an engineer and what it taught me is that for every action there's an equal and opposite reaction and that certainly happens in the Murray-Darling Basin of that there's no doubt. Now historically as you also all know too much water was being taken from our rivers. There were clear signs of distress such as salinity, such as poor water quality and dying wetland. Now I know it's been a very difficult time for irrigators and the irrigation communities throughout the Basin. They’ve faced drought more than once. They certainly faced the bushfires and now we have the COVID-19 pandemic.

There have been literally dozens of reviews that have taken place over a period of time and in my view the time for reviews is coming to an end. In my view communities are quite simply [indistinct] in my view they're exhausted by it and to be frank I get it. I understand. But I’m a solutions and outcome focused individual and I'm certainly a fresh set of eyes when it comes to looking at the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. Now since becoming Water Minister three months ago I've received the Keelty report, the draft Sefton report into socio economic impact and now of course the final Sefton report. I'm currently reviewing both of- currently reviewing the Sefton report and will soon be announcing the Government's response in due course. It is a complex and very thorough report and I do want to acknowledge the work that Robbie Sefton and the team have done. It requires a detailed and of course considered response. it deserves one. Now I'm in the process of preparing that response. 

Now the Government is also expecting to receive a draft ACCC report into water trading in the Basin next month and that will be provided to the Treasurer. And there is a report by the Basins interim Inspector General Mick Keelty into water sharing arrangements confirmed there is no silver bullet solution. If there was everyone would have fired one already. Apart of course from a few good weeks of decent rain for the time everyone wants it, every single year into the future and the [indistinct]. Now as a farmer I've often prayed for that to happen but wishing for things doesn't make it so. Now Mr Keelty put forward the report and the five key recommendations we have accepted. I've instructed the department and the MDBA to implement them. It's as simple as that and we're preparing the report he met with over a thousand residents of the Southern Basin. He undertook 80 additional interviews, he considered over 350 submissions. Now I know Mr Keelty’s findings didn't meet the expectation of some, certainly some of those he even spoke to but his focus on transparency, on accessibility and availability of information will provide benefits.

As I’ve said the time for reviews is coming to an end. The focus is shifting, it is shifting to achieving better outcomes for all Basin stakeholders. Now to do that I am committed to working with my state colleagues. These discussions can be had without jeopardizing their long term goal of a sustainable Murray-Darling Basin. And before the implementation of the plan everyone recognised water was being taken out of the river through ad hoc management in a way that simply wasn't fair and wasn't working. Reform was necessary and like all true reform this has not come without challenges. It is a difficult thing to achieve reform particularly at a national interest level. All of the basin states and the Commonwealth with bipartisan support agreed on this water management framework to balance the needs of irrigators in their districts, communities and households and of course our natural environment. The Basin Plan balances all of the different competing needs with a long term approach, accommodating adjustments over time to deliver the benefits for the next 50 or 100 years. This is a once in a generation reform. Now our producers are always getting better at what they do. That includes using water more efficiency. A healthy river system requires this type of sustainable agriculture. We need to be productive. We need to be able to produce at a level which is competitive, that has always been the case in ag and certainly as we continue to improve, we gain larger markets. Irrigators across Victoria have been supported with government funding to improve the irrigation infrastructure. Recovering water with upgraded infrastructure means more of a farmer's water going straight to crops. The Australian Government has invested around $155 million to modernise farms in Victoria, 622 on farm projects covering around 70,000 hectares have been completed. 

That provided water efficiencies of 38 gigalitres that were previously lost and now can be utilised. It increased farm productivity by about $50 million per year in Victoria. And one example, under the Victorian farm modernisation project, the participant noted that applying for funding was a no brainer. This participant removed old inefficient channels, [indistinct] to create flat larger paddocks allowing water in half the time. Faster water in the paddock will add a lot less water to be lost in the soil profile below the crop roots. In addition, any water flowing out of the end of the paddock was captured, recycled for future use. Now, this is a third generation dairy farmer, they’re expecting an increase in production of between 60 to 70 per cent as a result of this [indistinct] project. And the Commonwealth has invested a billion dollars in Australia's largest irrigation modernisation project, a $2 billion connections program. This is a significant investment to create a sustainable future for productive agriculture in North Victoria, and involves converting the ageing Goulburn-Murray Irrigation District system to a modern delivery network by upgrading, rationalising outlets, meters and upgrading channels. They currently lose water through leakage, through seepage and evaporation. That project is 95 per cent complete. 35 gigalitres of water efficiency has been gained from the meter installation in stage 2 of the project along. And the benefits to agricultural production in the Goulburn-Murray Irrigation District are estimated at $62 million per year with reduced irrigation infrastructure operations and maintenance costs.

Conditions for the [indistinct] grasslands in the Barmah Forest, the woodlands that had a lake. Native fish in the Goulburn River and [indistinct] creek are improving. Environmental flows enabled by the Basin Plan improve water quality. They support recreational activities and related industries like fishing and eco-tourism.

But what I say to all of you in the conclusion of the formal address, is that walking away from the Basin Plan will not automatically make more water available to water users. It simply won't. There are no silver bullets, and the commitment that I’ve given in public and I'll continue to give is that if there’s a thimbleful of water to be found, that we can utilise, well, I’ll find it. I come to the portfolio with a fresh set of eyes. I don't have a direct link to the Murray-Darling Basin; my electorate is in central Queensland. I think that is a great advantage. And with that I'm very happy to take your questions. Good afternoon, god bless, and safe travel.

QUESTION:    Thank you very much for that address, Minister, lots of questions coming in and we'll go through as many as we can in the interests of time. I suppose just to start off, research indicates by the CSIRO and research with the basin authority that inflows are going to reduce significantly over time. Are you prepared as a minister to manage that earlier rather than later?

KEITH PITT:    Well, certainly the Keelty report identified that there was a reduction of around 50 per cent was the estimate in the last 10 years in terms of inflow. We live in a nation that has a very variable climate, we always have. But fundamentally we need to adjust as things change. So certainly we're keeping a very close watching brief on that. The Murray-Darling Basin Plan, as I said, is incredibly complex and we've got a lot of highly technical and specialised people that do the reviews and the allocations each year, and certainly I'm taking their advice, but we're keeping a very close watching brief on that if things have been proven to be- to change.

QUESTION:    And we could probably spend a lot of time talking about that. But let's get into specifics. First from journalists as per the press club rules. This one from Peter Hunt from The Weekly Times. He asks: are you going to build lock zero to save up to a million megalitres a year in evaporation of South Australia's Lower Lakes?

KEITH PITT:    Well, I know this has been an ongoing debate for many years. We know that the CSIRO issued a report last week- I believe last week or two weeks, which indicated what their views were of the science. I’m a very frank speaker. The reality is we can never return the river to what it was before we allowed development. Without development we have no agriculture, we have no cities, we have no one living near the river. So we had to manage the system that we have in the best way possible based on the best science that we can find, and that’s what I intend to do.

QUESTION:    This one coming in from Marian McDonald from Stock & Land: has the government decided whether to adopt or reject the Productivity Commission's recommendation for splitting of the MDBA? And I know even in the local newspapers looking at regional journalism in the country news, they’ve got Member for Nicholls, Damian Drum, called to break up the MDBA on the front page this week as well. Have you given consideration to that?

KEITH PITT:    Well firstly, Damian Drum’s a very good local member. He certainly called me to tell me he's sorry [indistinct] the front page of the paper. And I’m always thankful that I have to work with colleagues, because they’re just so closely involved with the industry. My view is fairly straightforward. I am looking at the recommendations from the Productivity review. We are looking at the Inspector General, which is currently an interior inspector general's role. I'm trying to ensure that we take a very considered and detailed approach. I have a wheelbarrow full of reports that are coming into my office, and we'll certainly look at those with a clear eyed view. And I don't want to rule anything in or out, to be frank.

QUESTION:    To be fair though, we've probably gotten Murray-Darling Basin Authority staff listening to this wondering if they're going to have jobs, and a lot of people have read those same reports. Can you give some sort of idea if you’re inclined to split up the MDBA or if keeping it under its current model as it's been operating?

KEITH PITT:    What I’m inclined to do is take advice from people who are experts in the field. I learned a long time ago that I don't know everything. That's why I try and hire people who are much smarter than me in every single aspect, including the Murray-Darling Basin. But to answer your question, quite simply we are considering all of those reports. I have more to come in and I do want to consider them in detail because I think the government response that we provide has to be as detailed as the as the report that we've received. I think it would be unfair to do otherwise.

QUESTION:    Are those people you're going to listen to that are smarter than you the Productivity Commission or Damian Drum?

KEITH PITT:    [Laughs] Well, I certainly don't want to disparage a colleague. He’s certainly a lot better than me in many fields including that game you play in Victoria, apparently. They tell me he used to play fairly well and had a kick around as a coach. But look, the reality in this is very straightforward. We are considering all of those reports, including the Productivity Commission. There is a process through which all ministers go through in terms of change or putting forward proposals, and we're certainly considering every aspect and every recommendation that's been provided. It's been 12 weeks roughly since I've been in the role, but I but I am looking at this with a very clear eyed view.

QUESTION:    These questions come from Jane McAllister and it asks: will the Minister reintroduce buybacks from willing sellers? It goes on further from there, saying: especially A class licences in the northern basin – note, there remains 47.5 gigalitres under the [indistinct] in 2015, and has been no action since then. What’s your feeling on more buybacks in the Murray-Darling, particularly in the northern basin?

KEITH PITT:    Well, I think across the entire basin we do have to be far more determined when we look at the socioeconomic cost, and that is part of the reason that the report from Robbie Sefton is so important. So, for me, I am- once again, I'm a practical guy. I’m concerned about our people who are on the ground. If there are recommendations we need to consider, we'll consider them. In terms of the specific detailed question about that particular 47 gigalitres, I'm happy to take advice on the specifics. But we are looking at all options, is the advice that I'd provide. What is the best way to deal with this given the current circumstances, given the Keelty report identifies a reduction in flood. Given that Sefton will provide its advice around the socioeconomic cost and others. Once again, I'm not trying to dodge your question, but simply we do need to consider everything that comes in, and there’s more to come.

QUESTION:    Just on the idea of buybacks though, previous water ministers have been very against the idea of more specific buybacks. What's your attitude towards buybacks in general?

KEITH PITT:    I do what works. [Inaudible]...

QUESTION:    This question’s- I’m happy with the first sentence.

Bridget Golding is a dairy farmer who has asked this question, saying: having just listened to Mick Keelty, which you've referenced a few times, when will Minister Pitt be acting on Mr Keelty’s recommendations, particularly one and two with transparency and floodplain harvesting and metering in the northern basin? You've mentioned you're taking all the information as you can. You've had Mick Keelty’s report for some time. Will you act to most of those recommendations?

KEITH PITT:    Well, the Government has accepted all five of the recommendations and we are acting on them. As all of the people who are listening to the broadcast will know, it does take time to process the actual mechanism to deliver those things through government, but that is what we're doing. We've made a commitment to meet all of the recommendations from Mr Keelty’s report, and that's the undertaking I give.

QUESTION:    This question from Kath Sullivan from ABC Rural who says: Mick Keelty says there are 375 megalitres in the basin that isn't used. What are you going to do to ensure it is used? Noting that there's a few irrigators in the southern basin who say they can put it to use rather quickly.

KEITH PITT:    Well, first I'm going to assume, that’s gigalitres not megalitres. Not trying to call you out, but 375 gigalitres is the number that's now bouncing around. There's been some previous reports put together by the [indistinct] industry that said it was a thousand, but once again, there's no silver bullets here. That water, where it's identified - and the Murray-Darling Basin Authority has been doing a lot of work on that to give me a detailed response - is in people's account. It's not water that is sitting around waiting to be utilised. It is water that is in people's account through either carryover or a change in terms of the estimates that are needed for conveyancing, and other multiple reasons. So I think we need to be very cautious putting out there a number like that that gives people an expectation that we have this magic solution which there is not.

QUESTION:    Peter Hunt from The Weekly Times has another question, and this is on an area of the basin which you have actually toured, saying: what are you going to do about the dwindling capacity of the Barmah Choke to get water down to the Murray's larger horticultural plantings, where there's been a lot of expansion there, as well as where environmental water has to flow. Do you- what are you going to do about the Barmah Choke?

KEITH PITT:    Well, it asks a very sensitive issue on both sides of the Choke, upstream and downstream and for the local community, and of course those who are very supportive of the environment. So my view is very straightforward on this. We need to look closely at what options we have in terms of making the Barmah Choke operate in a way that the river operators can manage. And if that involves engineering solutions, well they should be considered, because fundamentally, once again, we don't want to be in the position where you do have unexpected water loss because you’ve lost the banks, they've been undercut. There's a hole that runs out in the Barmah Forest. These are all fairly fundamental things. So, we are looking at propositions around the Barmah Choke. But I do recognise that it's incredibly sensitive.

QUESTION:    Is one of those options to build a channel around the Choke?

KEITH PITT:    One of those options may well be to find myself a magic bullet that we can fix it with. But once again, this is about the realities of life and what can and can't be delivered. So I don't want to commit to any particular solution. The undertaking I give is that we are investigating options and there are a number of options in terms of the management of the Barmah Choke. But we do need to continue to strike that balance between the needs of irrigators, community and the environment.

QUESTION:    A lot of questions about the reports that you've got. There's a period we’re in of the Basin Plan at the moment which is a cycle of report's, recommendations and then waiting for the next reports before we have any real action. You have the Sefton report, you've had it since the end of last month. When will we see it?

KEITH PITT:    Well, the answer to that is in due course. As I said earlier, it is a detailed piece of work and there are a number of appendix- appendices to the report which have even further detail and I think it deserves a detailed government response. I don't want to throw that report out into the ether and not be in a position to say what it is that the government will do. So I think it's important we take the time to deliver an appropriate response to the very large body of work that Robbie Sefton and the team have done. And I don't think that's unusual.

QUESTION:    Is three weeks not enough time for government to read a detailed report, though?

KEITH PITT:    It’s not a matter of just reading it. You do have to be in a position to respond. It may well need work from other portfolios. And I'm not sure, but there's a little bit of- there’s a few other things going on. Not that it's an excuse, however we have been very focused on the health response to corona, and now of course the economic response as we start to come out of the pandemic. I'm not looking to walk away from my responsibilities, but to be frank and fair. We want to provide a government response that is detailed and is deserved.

QUESTION:    Many questions coming in, you can add yours to the Q&A section of this call if you'd like and we will try and put them through to the Minister in the next 17 minutes or so. This question's come from Will Mooney, saying your predecessor made some exciting commitments to advance First Nation’s water rights, including a commitment of $40 million for acquisition of water rights. Can you outline your views and position on how the Basin Plan and water reform more broadly can address First Nation’s water rights?

KEITH PITT:    Well, those commitments have been maintained. There was $40 million provided inside of that commitment, is my recollection. I certainly had a discussion with Ken Wyatt just this week about what more we can do combined between our two portfolios to deliver for indigenous communities throughout the Murray-Darling Basin. And I think that will be an important piece of work. Ken is obviously the lead when it comes to that part of portfolios across the government, so it is important that we both work together to get the right outcome.

QUESTION:    A question here from Amanda Copp(*) of the community radio network, asks: a study by ANU and UNSW this month found that under the Government's irrigation efficiency program designed to make farmers use water more efficiently while returning safe water to the environment, actually led to irrigators who received subsidies, extracting more water than those who did not. Is that program working as it should?

KEITH PITT:    Anything that provides efficiency for water use in my view is valuable. Quite simply, Australian farmers are already some of the most productive in the world. If we can find a way to make them more productive and more efficient, a way that we can get Australia's product out around the world particularly for trade - I mean, if we look at the debate that's happening now in terms of the public debate on trade to particular countries, we are a trading nation. We are absolutely reliant on our export trade, particularly in agriculture. Rough and ready numbers. We produce around $60 billion worth of ag product. We export about 48. As a country of just 25 million people, we can't- we clearly can't consume everything that we produce. So the more efficient we are the better.

QUESTION:    Question from Julian. Do you support Deb Frecklington’s commitment to build a hybrid Bradfield Scheme? What are your thoughts on the Bradfield Scheme, Minister?

KEITH PITT:    Well, the leader of the Opposition in Queensland for the Liberal National Party is Deb Frecklington. They have an election coming in October for those on the call who aren’t aware. My view is straightforward. If we can find engineering solutions that provide us with an efficient mechanism for water, then I'm supportive of it. My understanding is that the State Opposition has put forward a commitment for feasibility studies to examine what they call Bradfield 2. There's certainly a lot of water that falls in the north. I've spent plenty of time in northern Australia and North Queensland in particular, and they regularly have a wet season, I've got to tell you. Unfortunately in the southern parts, that's not always the case, but we're hopeful for this year.

QUESTION:    The idea of the Bradfield Schemes being debunked by scientists in the past, though, before. Is it worth the time to put in this much money into looking to see if it would work?

KEITH PITT:    Well, I'm not the leader of the Opposition in Queensland in state politics. I'm the Federal Water Minister. My portfolio is not involved with the water infrastructure component. It is the Murray-Darling Basin, and the plan, it’s the National Water Initiative, its national water policy. So, the actual water infrastructure component does depend on the Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack. We've committed literally billions of dollars to increasing dam capacity, building new dams and more water infrastructure, and I'm sure the Deputy Prime Minister will have more to say on that in the very near future.

QUESTION:    This question from Helen Reynolds asks: when will we see a national ASX style platform for water trading?

KEITH PITT:    Well, that's a really interesting question. As I’ve said in the speech, the ACCC is doing a review on water trading now. I expect to see an interim report somewhere very soon. But it is on behalf of Josh Frydenberg, the Treasurer, that’s part of his portfolio. But I’ll give you a public commitment right now. If there are things that we need to act on nationally to ensure that the water trading schemes are fair and balanced, that they are not being utilized for the wrong purpose – as in, people just simply jacking up the price to make a return - then we will act on it as we can at the federal level. I think that’s a really important question, but I can't commit to the way that that mechanism might operate if it's needed until we see the report and the recommendation.

QUESTION:    And you’ve said yourself in the past, the time for reports is over. So is that the last major report that you're going to get? And are we going to suddenly see some action in this space after the ACCC report and the Sefton report are made public?

KEITH PITT:    Well look, I hope so. I certainly- I didn't initiate the range of reports I have coming in. I'll be the recipient; I'll be required to act. And as I said, this is the reason that I am taking a very detailed and considered view of what's coming across my desk. I don't think that, given the Murray-Darling Basin history, the importance of it to the people who live within the basin, that it can be justified simply by having a knee jerk reaction. So I'll continue to work with ministers across the basin, my state counterparts, territory counterparts and all of the basin communities. We need to act in their interest.

QUESTION:    And action is what a lot of people have been calling for with all these reports suddenly working their way through the system and having- there having been a lot of town hall style meetings and submissions made. Do you- from what you've seen so far in your three months as minister, do you see areas which you- which need to change in the Basin Plan process? Or are you committed to staying the course as it was outlined all those years ago?

KEITH PITT:    Well, the Commonwealth has committed to the plan. But in terms of regional towns and regional centres, what I see is what I see across regional Australia.  We have significant challenges in some regions where we have population loss, where there is significant effect on the local economy, and a lot of that is due to a combination of factors, not just management of water, but also markets, what products are available, attracting people to the local area, what amenities can be provided. But this is a national issue. It's one of the reasons I'm a member of the National Party, the party for regional Australia that's focused particularly on working people and what their needs are.

And look, I'm really excited - and this is a little bit off track - but I'm very excited about the technology roadmap put forward today by Angus Taylor. I think there are opportunities for regional Australia in that report, particularly around the delivery of gas – [indistinct] report around manufacturing hub, all of those things potentially mean jobs for our people. Jobs mean you drag population back to your centres. Jobs mean you build more houses. Jobs mean you need more schools and more hospitals, higher levels of education, and they're all the things that we want for the people we represent.

QUESTION:    I'll bring you back to water, Minister, because there's a lot of questions coming in there. Andrew Farren asks: what's the position among and between the states and Commonwealth with respect to the Murray-Darling Basin Authority? Are you satisfied with the level of cooperation you were getting from respective state governments?

KEITH PITT:    This is just a personal comment. I mean, in my previous life I preferred a meeting of two and the other guy was off sick. But that’s just not the case with the role I have here. So I am working very closely with my state counterpart. And I do want to recognise New South Wales. I mean, there's always been plenty of media commentary about New South Wales. Melinda Pavey gave me a commitment to deliver water resource plans under the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. She has given me the groundwater one already, we have a commitment for the surface plan, and I think once we get those in and accredited, that is a significant step towards finalising that part of the Basin Plan, and it should be recognised as such.

QUESTION:    Question here from Jeremy Morton speaking of New South Wales, asks: there is strong evidence that the reliability of higher security water entitlements have increased at the expense of the reliability of lower security water entitlements due to water reform. Is the government concerned about this, and should there be adjustments to correct this inequality?

KEITH PITT:    What I'm concerned about is delivering what is an incredibly scarce resource. I think there is an opportunity here, particularly with what the Deputy Prime Minister is doing around the water grid and our water infrastructure proposal. You can never create more. I have no capacity to provide more water for individuals, but we can potentially make it more reliable. Now, whether that's through efficiency programs or actually building more infrastructure such as dams or extensions - and I know the opposition in Victoria are very keen on the Buffalo Dam increasing capacity in terms of that storage, and I think they are things that we need to consider long term because fundamentally, first and foremost comes local communities and their water needs because we need to keep the population alive. But if we want a higher level of reliability in terms of supply, then we do need to act on storage, and that's something the DPM is looking at.

QUESTION:    We’ll scoot through another couple of questions. This one comes from Natalie [indistinct] at The Weekly Times: water for fodder problem, mixed results, some irrigators saying second round of the water for fodder program should be dumped. Is the Government still committed to delivering the second half of the program or has it been a waste of money?

KEITH PITT:    Hi Natalie, hope you’re well. In terms of the water for fodder program, this is obviously a deal that was done between the Prime Minister and of course the Premier of South Australia. [Indistinct] one of the programs did deliver 40 gigalitres, although I acknowledge there was some delay in getting that out the door. It’s the reason that I announced that carryover will be announced. Now, [indistinct] announce them and will be allowed. In terms of the program itself, we will be looking at exactly how much has been utilised out of that first round in coming weeks as we come to the end of the water year, and we do continue to consult with my South Australian colleague and of course the South Australian Government about what options there are. But we need to recognise there were some critical elements in terms of the second stage moving forward that included the ability for Adelaide to have access to sufficient water regardless, and we need to keep that in mind. Now, I'm hopeful that we get some good inflows and rain given the forecast, but we are working our way through the potential for round two of water for fodder. But I do recognise there has been significant rainfall in parts of the basin, which I think has changed the [indistinct].

QUESTION:    So you're committing to round two?

KEITH PITT:    Well, as I’ve said, I mean, this is an agreement between us and South Australia. This is not something that we can do as an individual government. So we continue to talk to South Australia where we are very cautious about what their needs and meeting the terms of that agreement. There is an option for another round of 60 gigalitres, and those discussions are ongoing.

QUESTION:    Is there an opportunity to make this a long term project to keep South Australia's desalination plant running?

KEITH PITT:    Well, I think everyone listening to the broadcast knows this is a very expensive way of delivering water, but it was necessary at the time. It was certainly needed and I think it was well received by those individuals who were fortunate enough to garner the 50 megalitres in the ballot. Now, we are evaluating the program. We did go out for consultation with the public, we received many hundreds of submissions, so I thank everyone for putting forward their views. We are gathering all that information up now and continue to work with South Australia, looking at what options we can have for round 2 for water for fodder.

QUESTION:    This question comes from another Natalie, Natalie Acres of the Victorian Farmers Federation, saying they have fundamental problems with the Federal Water Act and Basin Plan Act. What appetite is there for legislative change in these areas?

KEITH PITT:    Well, I think it's really not a matter of just appetite. It's a matter of practical realities. Politics is the art of the achievable. As I said earlier, I'm taking a very clear eyed view. I'm certainly being very cautious around the reviews of all of the recommendations from the report, and the commitment I continue to give is as they come in, we will look at those in detail. If there needs to be change, well, that would be something that can be considered once I have all of those reports on my desk, because I think it's important that we consider this as a package. Whether it's water trading, whether it's elements inside the Basin Plan, I'm certainly taking a very cautious approach because I know you can't take water from one part of the basin without affecting another part. But once again, now I can remain committed. If there is a thimbleful of water to find, well, I’ll find it.

QUESTION:    This question comes from Katrina [indistinct], asking: when are you going to do something about jurisdiction over irrigation companies? I’d imagine and that's more of a New South Wales issue. She asks: and the corruption in them. Is that something on your radar?

KEITH PITT:    Well, we still work within the bounds of the Federation. Certainly, issues around enforcement for those individual elements inside each state are the responsibility of state jurisdiction. But that's just simply the way that it's set up. In terms of the Murray-Darling Basin Authority itself, they have some enforcement decisions about parts of the plan and the water resource plan. But when you talk about things like water theft or inappropriate use, it does sit with the states.

QUESTION:    A couple more quick just before we finish up, conscious of time. This one’s from Citrus Australia: CSIRO’s findings on the Lower Lakes originally being more freshwater than salt, how is the current changing climate forecasted rainfall inflows and limited dam capacity going to ensure enough money- enough water to continue to meet demand in the Murray-Darling Basin as permanent plantings continue to mature? And New South Wales South Australia have not support- not stopped issuing water licences. That question from Citrus Australia. We are in a drying climate with the CSIRO findings, how can you ensure the water will remain to be delivered to those permanent plantings?

KEITH PITT:    Well, I've had issues such as this raised with me on any number of occasions. And when we look at this quite simply, you have a farmer who has planted a product who has made a decision, a financial decision, and taken a particular risk. Now, in terms of their ability to attract water or not, I mean, they are decisions for them. My view on farmers is straightforward. They grow things that make money. What that is is entirely a matter for them. It’s [indistinct] land and they make their own decisions. Now, I recognise that there are increasing risks given the maturing of almond trees, for example, and other perennials, and we know that this will be an ongoing problem. But the purpose of the plan is to ensure that we manage a very scarce resource, the Commonwealth in conjunction with the states in agreement under the Basin Plan, allocate the overall amount of water that's provided to each state or territory, and they allocate that through the various state systems.

So in terms of the individual decisions- if a state or local government authority decides that they want to stop the particular planning of some product, regardless of whether it's rice or citrus trees or nut, well, that's entirely up to them under the Constitution. My job as the Federal Water Minister is to ensure that we manage the entire basin in an appropriate way, in a balanced way, and also ensure that the water that is allocated overall to the state is fair and equitable.

QUESTION:    Minister, probably the last question. This one from Jeff Kaye, asking: shouldn’t all Murray-Darling Basin environmental water be metered and not modelled for full transparency?

KEITH PITT:    Well, look, I’m not the Environmental Water Holder, that does sit with Minister Ley, I mean, it’s part of her portfolio, it’s separated for a reason. But certainly my view is fairly straightforward once again. If there are efficiencies to be found in terms of the use of environmental water, then we should find them. If there was a way that we can contribute that back into the system, well, then we should do that. And I do continue to work very closely with Sussan. I think the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder has an important job to do, but I think they also need to be aware of striking the correct balance particularly in times of drought.

QUESTION:    Minister, I’m an ABC reporter so finishing before three o'clock is always important. Thank you very much for your time and taking so many questions, and I suppose just to finish, should we expect a Sefton report by the end of this month or by the start of the new financial year?

KEITH PITT:    It’ll be provided in due course.

QUESTION:    Thank you.