Transcript of Joint Press Conference
FRI 26 OCTOBER 2012
Prime Minister, Minister for Water, Premier of South Australia
Subject(s): Murray-Darling Basin Plan; Maxine McKew; Craig Thomson; Defence force protection measures; Asylum seekers
PM: Well, I am delighted to be here in South Australia, to be here in Goolwa, to be at the River Murray with the Premier of South Australia Jay Weatherill, and with our Minister for Water, amongst other things, Tony Burke.
We are here today for an important announcement about the future of the river.
I'm delighted to be in South Australia in part because I grew up in this great state, and growing up in this great state, you know what the River Murray means to South Australia.
You don't need anybody to tell you about its importance, you know it's the lifeblood of the state, you know what the health of the Murray means to the people of South Australia, and since the days that I grew up in South Australia, we have seen this river under enormous pressure.
We all remember what it looked like during the most severe days of the drought, when there were literally jetties going to nowhere, when people were worried about the acid that was there in the soils and what that would mean.
We all know what the Murray looked like with a closed mouth, and we were all worried about what that meant for its long-term health.
I think as a result of those shocking images the nation has increasingly woken up to the need to ensure that the Murray-Darling Basin is in good health.
This is a major national issue, and unfortunately it's been put in the too-hard basket for far too long, being left without a national plan, being left without resolution.
I'm pleased that we have been working to get that national resolution, and that we are in a position today to announce a landmark step for the health of the Murray-Darling, for the health of the River Murray.
Put simply, it means more water, and more water means better environmental outcomes. It means that the river, the basin, will be more resilient for the future.
So when in the future we are again challenged by drought, as we inevitably will be, then the Murray-Darling Basin can be more resilient.
This plan is one that we've worked with the Premier of South Australia on.
It will see 450 gigalitres of water being preserved for South Australia, and a trust fund, a special fund being set up of $1.7 billion to ensure that that 450 gigalitres can be made available.
We have been working on the Murray-Darling Basin plan, and that has in it a figure of 2750 gigalitres of water. It contains a mechanism to increase the amount of water, and we intend to use that mechanism for the additional 450 gigalitres.
That means that we can look to achieve the environmental outcomes that the modelling has told us will be achieved with 3200 gigalitres of water. It means a healthier river.
The $1.7 billion will be put in a legislated fund, in a locked box, and that legislation will be introduced into the federal parliament next week.
That money will go so that we can fund on-farm changes and other works which means that we are using water more efficiently and more water can be made available for the river.
This is a great outcome for South Australia. The people of South Australia have been very concerned about the state of the Murray.
So many of them have campaigned long and hard, but they've campaigned not only for what's happening in South Australia, but for what's happening for the nation.
They've wanted to see a healthy Murray-Darling Basin. They've wanted to see the nation address this issue.
So I'm very pleased to be here in South Australia and able to make this announcement today.
I will hand over to the Premier and then we'll go to the minister.
PREMIER WEATHERILL: Well, thank you, Prime Minister, and today represents a great win for South Australia, and a great win for the nation.
It also shows South Australians what we can achieve if we stand up and fight. We've been having this fight for a long time now.
We've seen the effects of too much water being taken out of this river, the effects on our Lower Lakes, the acidification, the salinity levels rising, the riverbanks slumping, the bird life, the plant life, the marine life all being degraded.
But today we have made an historic decision. We've decided to restore this great river to health and by restoring the river to health, by protecting our natural environment, we also protect all of those river communities that rely upon it.
There is no productive river without a healthy river, and today this incredibly important result for the South Australian community, the South Australian community, has been achieved because we stood up and we fought for it.
I want to pay tribute to the people that decided to accept that responsibility. Here in South Australia, we decided to take a unified approach.
Irrigators and environmentalists, city and country, young people and old people, all came together to raise their voices in favour of this river. We have with us today a group of schoolchildren.
They produced some wonderfully moving material about the effects of the degradation of our natural environment on the turtle population down here and I think those moving images played an incredibly important role in capturing the imagination of the whole of the nation.
Today is a very important step in the process, but there is another very important step in the process, and that's the attitude of the national parliament.
So we call upon all of the federal members of parliament to get behind the federal government in ensuring that we make this plan a reality.
Now, there will be people who will speak out against this plan. People in South Australia need to realise that this is a fight that has to be continued to be waged and won.
We’ve achieved an enormous step today, but we cannot allow this incredibly important step in the process to not reach its ultimate outcome, and that's why we need everybody to maintain their support, to continue the campaign for a healthy river.
I would like to congratulate the Prime Minister and the Minister for the step they've taken today.
I would probably more importantly, though, like to congratulate the South Australian community for standing up and fighting, for fighting for what they believed in, for fighting for this great national river.
MINISTER BURKE: Thanks Premier and PM. Today is the day that we decided to restore the river systems to health.
The Murray-Darling Basin Authority have given us a plan of 2750 which has a mechanism in it that says, "Here is a pathway to minimise impact on communities but maximise the improvement for the environment if you want to take it."
And when the modelling came out a few weeks ago that showed what a difference you could make to the health of the river system when you modelled 3200, we decided that it was time for us to put together the architecture of making sure that we could add an additional 450 gigalitres.
Now, the extra 450 gigalitres is acquired through the sorts of on-farm infrastructure projects that we've run to date.
It is more expensive than just straight buyback, but environmentally it achieves the same benefit and for those communities, it is a way of making sure that we work with them.
For too long we've had a situation where the waters that are immediately behind us were managed as though they would stop and pay attention to the boundaries of different states.
The environment never works that way, and the river did more than negotiate back.
We've got a situation now when we don't know when the next drought will be, but we do know whenever it comes, the river system will approach that drought with a level of resilience that it hasn't had in more than a generation. That is what today's announcement means.
There are final details that I'm still working through with my colleague water ministers from different jurisdictions on the plan, but I have no doubt we will be in a situation where there is a basin-wide plan, signed off this year for the health of the Murray-Darling Basin.
JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, how confident are you that you will secure the agreement of the eastern states but more importantly the crossbench MPs in federal parliament?
PM: Well, you've just heard the Minister talk about how he is continuing to work with water ministers, but on what happens in the federal parliament, first and foremost we need the Opposition to be clear about its attitude to the announcement that we are making today, to this step that we are taking today.
Already today we've seen the Opposition be negative and be divided. I think the people of South Australia and the people of Australia are entitled to a better approach than that from the Opposition.
They're entitled to know whether or not the Opposition is going to support the Government's approach, the 450 gigalitres, the legislation to create the special fund to enable us to get that 450 gigalitres, and whether they're going to work with us on the delivery of the plan, the Murray-Darling Basin plan, as Minister Burke has outlined.
JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, can you explain a little bit about that special fund, when money starts flowing into that fund, how safe that fund will be - it's supposed to last 10 years - and where the money is coming from?
PM: The money will start in that fund in the financial year 2014/15. It is a 10-year fund.
The money is already provisioned for in the Government's accounts through us using sources that were already in the Federal Government's budget, and additional was provisioned for in the recent mid-year economic and fiscal outlook.
So it is already in the Government's budget bottom line.
In legislating for the fund, we want to give a level of security about the future, that it will be there, that it will be able to be relied on to achieve the outcomes that we want to see for the river through the mechanisms that Minister Burke has described.
And the important way that Minister Burke has thought about all of this is how can we make sure that we are restoring the river to its best health while also ensuring that we've got viable communities up and down the length of the river, and that's why the focus of this $1.7 billion is on things like on-farm changes that can make a difference for the amount of water in the river.
JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, can you see that the public might be sceptical thinking, 2024 for when the full benefit of this is supposed to arrive, it's just too far away?
PM: Well, we've already made a start, of course, on what we've done with the water in the river through water-purchasing arrangements.
But let's be very clear, you can't change the health of a river overnight. For a plan like this, you do take time to realise its full potential.
Even talking about the river today with so much water in it now, the ecology is only just being restored from the days of the worst of the drought.
It takes time to restore the river to health, but this is a plan that would be locked away, money that would be locked away, to get the changes that the river needs.
JOURNALIST: Are you saying that because of your roots in South Australia and the work that South Australia has done, whether it be the media or the Premier's campaign, taxpayers' money being spent, is that what clinched the deal?
PM: I think it's been important for me to understand as Prime Minister what it's like to live in this state and to worry about the river in drought. I know what that feels like.
When my parents first migrated here, they came here in days of drought. I know what it's like to worry about the River Murray.
I know what it's like to go for family events next to the Murray and to see it at its best, and to see it at its worst, and so I have brought that with me to this decision-making.
I've been guided by the very high quality work undertaken by the Minister and his persistence in dealing with his state and territory colleagues. That has been very important.
But let me assure you, I've had lots of phone calls back to South Australia with my family where when we've talked about the family topics and we finish talking about those, and if they want to talk about something other than direct family business, the topic that's top of their list is what's happening with the Murray.
My family is like that. I think the people of South Australia are like that, and so I've always understood that.
JOURNALIST: Can I just ask about the $1.7 billion. With decades of bickering over the river system, how can we be any more certain that this plan won't get bogged down and even if it gets through parliament the upstream states might launch legal challenges without any benefits for the river?
PM: I will let the upstream states respond and you can analyse their responses, but we've been through a major process, Minister Burke, the Murray-Darling Basin Authority.
As Minister Burke says, there is still some work to do, but we are optimistic about continuing that work with other states and territories, and it's in everyone's interest in the nation to get this resolved.
In terms of meeting the particular needs for the 450 extra gigalitres, in making sure that we could get to the environmental outcomes, we know from the modelling that 3200 gigalitres gets you to, and then we have designed this plan, made available the $1.7 billion because we're serious about getting this done.
JOURNALIST: Can I ask about that $1.7 billion figure. You say it's already allocated in the Budget at the moment. To what is it allocated at the moment and how much is already factored?
PM: It’s completed factored into the bottom line through MYEFO.
JOURNALIST: $1.7 billion?
JOURNALIST: And what is that based on? Where are those costings? Where does it come from?
PM: Well we've made available some funds that were in other areas to do with water and then we've topped those funds up and that topping up was done in the mid-year economic and fiscal outlook, so it's already provisioned with the budget bottom line you saw in MYEFO.
JOURNALIST: But how do you know removing those capacity constraints will cost $1.7 billion?
PM: The way in which that costing has been done? I will go to Minister Burke on that.
MINISTER BURKE: First of all, the normal process of departments doing independent costings to make their best estimate of what the different parts of this will cost is how the process follows.
The order of events is this: Once the plan’s in place, one of the things the Authority has said needs to happen is that over the course of around 12 months there needs to be a constraints management strategy in place.
That will identify the constraints that need to be removed.
For the first couple of years, the funding is for the removal of those constraints. Once those constraints are removed, we then move to the significant infrastructure programs which allow the additional environmental water to be taken on.
JOURNALIST: And will it include any funding for land buybacks and/or compensation for farmers whose land might be flooded.
MINISTER BURKE: You don't need to buy a block of land to buy an easement over it.
And if anyone heard the comments from floodplain irrigators over the past couple of days, they would be very clear that there are no shortage of people who have properties on flood plains where they believe their property has taken a similar hit to the environment, where they from time to time need a good inundation of water and over-extraction hits those farmers the same way it hits the environment.
So many of these easements, people will be very willing to offer up for the environmental and agricultural benefits they get from the extra water.
JOURNALIST: Minister – the Premier – you heard him declare victory there for his public campaign, if the State Government has been successful in its public campaign, does that mean the Federal Government has bowed to political pressure in making this decision?
I think it means that we've done it together, but I think the Premier is right to point to the campaigning efforts of people around this state who care about the river.
They've come to Canberra, they've cooked fish for us, to explain to us, to all federal parliamentarians from all political parties what the river means and means to them.
The kids who have been here today have been champion little campaigners, making videos, waving their flags.
They've also been engaged in their own efforts to help with the health of the river, looking after the turtles and those sorts of efforts.
So what's happened here in South Australia of course has been significant. It's been people standing up and saying they care about this river.
But I think the people who have stood up in South Australia would be the first to say that there are others in other parts of the nation who have been as passionate about this issue as they are.
So, it's a win for South Australia. As the Premier said, it's a win for the nation to get this right.
JOURNALIST: Premier, can we just ask you, you've spoken a lot about High Court challenges. On the basis of this plan is that off the table now?
PREMIER WEATHERILL: Well, we've always said that we will do whatever it takes to get a healthy river, and if that meant prosecuting our case legally in the High Court, we never said we would rule that out.
But if we get the plan we need for a healthy river, then of course that won't be necessary, but it may be that others may challenge the plan, and so we may be there defending this plan for a healthy river. So we're just interested in the outcome, but the process is the detail for us.
JOURNALIST: Just on another issue, Maxine McKew has said today that you were a disloyal deputy. What's your response to that?
PM: These issues have been well traversed in the past and I'm just not focused on this.
JOURNALIST: Are you still happy to accept Craig Thomson's vote?
PM: Craig Thomson as the Member for Dobell is entitled to vote in the federal parliament, so nothing has changed on that.
JOURNALIST: So you're quite happy to accept everything he does?
PM: Well, that's an entirely separate question from the one you first asked me.
The issue about people voting in Federal Parliament has also long been the subject of discussion.
Mr Thomson is entitled to vote on behalf of his community in federal parliament. I've dealt with these issues a million times and there is no change.
JOURNALIST: Did you show internal polling to a senior member-
PM: Look, all of these issues have been dealt with.
JOURNALIST: Can you rule that out?
PM: I've actually dealt with all of these issues before. I'm on the public record and I just refer you to that. I haven't got anything further to add.
JOURNALIST: To answer the question-
PM: Have a look at everything that's on the record and you will get the answer.
JOURNALIST: The Chief of Army David Morrison is going to publicly rail against budget cuts to the army. What's your response to that course of action?
PM: The Chief of Army is entitled to raise any issue he wants to in the public domain. The Government has spent $1.7 billion on force protection measures for our troops.
I've been over to visit the troops in Afghanistan very recently and spoken to them about the force protection measures that we've made available.
And Afghanistan is a dangerous place, and there are still risks; risks that cost lives, and we know that with the loss very recently of Scott Smith who is from this State.
So there are risks, but in terms of force protection, what can be done to assist our troops?
When I spoke to them, they were satisfied with the force protection measures that have been made available, and we will always do what is necessary to give our troops the maximum safety as they go about difficult and dangerous work.
Now, let's be common sense about it. It doesn't eliminate risk when you're fighting an insurgency and there are IEDs and there are insider attacks.
It doesn't re-eliminate risk, but we provided the best force protection measures we can and we've certainly adopted every force protection measure that has been recommended to us by the hierarchy of Defence
JOURNALIST: The Nauruan Government, are they being opportunistic by charging thousands of dollars through visa fees?
PM: We'll keep working with the Nauruan Government on the offshore processing arrangements that were announced a while back.
Thank you very much.