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Source: Australian Minister of Agriculture and Water Resources

DAMIAN DRUM MP: Okay. Thanks ladies and gentlemen. Well again, as the local member here in Echuca, it is great to once again welcome the Water Minister, David Littleproud; also New South Wales Senator Perin Davey, who is making her presence felt in the water debate because she has an amazing understanding of the industry. Also Mick Keelty is also here too, so David will mention as well.

The opportunity to take David out to the Barmah Choke and have a look at the natural constraints that are situated on the Murray River, and all the associated issues that that causes. And as there’s natural prevention of losing too much water out of the Goulburn Valley region further downstream. You know, every time we talk about water, we have to understand what an incredibly complex issue that it is. But mainly, we have to be mindful of so many of our brilliant farmers, our amazing farmers, who have farmed incredibly well and responsibly for generations right here in the Goulburn Valley, in the Murray Valley region. And right at the moment, they’re still feeling the full effects of the drought with the price of water beyond their business case. And the price of feed also cost-prohibitive for all of our dairy farmers.

So right at the moment, whilst it all looks nice and green and the crops are looking well at the moment and we had a good start to the season, we’ve still got many of the full effects – many of the full effects of the drought are still with us. So it’s a very interesting time right here in the Goulburn and the Murray Valley regions. But it’s great to be able to bring David down, to have the people from the water authorities take him around and show him the effects of the Choke and the impact that the Choke has on water distribution throughout the region. And I’d just like to throw to Perin before we go to the Minister, just to have her impacts on- or her views on looking at the Choke this morning.

SENATOR PERIN DAVEY: Thanks very much, Damian. Pleasure to be here in Echuca just across the border, but I live only a few kilometres up the road outside Conargo. We’ve had our water allocation statements out today, and yet again, New South Wales Murray general security farmers are on zero. So it really does bring home to roost the impact of the drought, because water allocations are entirely separate to the Basin Plan. What we got to see today going through the Barmah Choke on the Kingfisher Cruises is just the pivotal point and a point that brings so many people focused on what the Basin Plan is trying to achieve, and what it physically can achieve and what we need to understand more broadly as a community about the constraints and the restrictions of the system and the difference between models and what happens on the ground.
         
So it’s really good to have a look at that, but to understand the context and the complexity of the Basin Plan and how it works, in association with all of the other myriad of water policies and regulations across multi jurisdictions. That’s why it’s so good to be here with Damian, a Victorian, I’m from New South Wales. And it just highlights the inter-jurisdictional nature of water and how we all have to come together and work closely together to make sure that we get the right outcomes so that we can have strong, sustainable, viable farming industries as well as a resilient ecology.
         
The Minister has more to say on it, so I’ll hand it over.

MINISTER DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well thanks Perin, and to Drummy, and to Mick Keelty, the Inspector-General, the Interim Inspector-General of the Murray Darling. And it’s important that Mick was here today as well, having been the Northern Basin Commissioner, to get in and understand the Southern Basin and the natural constraint that is the Barmah Choke. And obviously, his role is so pivotal in maintaining the trust and confidence in the Plan, in making sure those particularly here in the Southern Basin where it is mature in terms of its compliance can get an understanding and faith that there is somebody that is overarching across the states to make sure that everyone’s doing the right thing. That’s all we ask and it’s another pivotal piece in maintaining the Plan’s confidence across communities. So Mick, thank you for coming as well.
         
But today, we’re announcing a further $6 million to go towards greater transparency within the Murray-Darling Basin. We are now going to be able to provide information in real time, in who owns the water, where the water is, where the allocations are, what’s available, who has them. And be able to use the technology of Waterflow—who we have Rod here today, who has created the web and the app to be able to do it at the fingertips so that everybody can see right in the instant about where the water is, who has it and where it can go. This is an investment in transparency, in complementing the $20 million in science that we announced yesterday, in new science, to get underneath the bonnet of it and make sure our water managers have the tools they need.

This also builds on the ACCC review that I’ve called into the water market to make sure there is even greater transparency in the here and now about who owns the water and the allocations and where they’re going. So this is another step in rebuilding confidence right across the Basin. And as I- with my colleagues today, I understand the pain that this drought is causing. And the only thing that is going to fix this is rain, and a hell of a lot of it. And until it comes, we’ve got to equip our water managers with the best tools they possibly can and equip our farmers with the knowledge of where these allocations are and who owns them and where they’re going.
         
So this is another further step in making sure that we work as best we can and all water managers, whether they be the MDBA or the states, can do better. And we’re striving to do better, but I’ve got to give them the tools to do it and that’s what today is all about – is about giving our water managers even better tools and giving our farmers and users of water even more tools and better tools to be able to manage their resource.
         
Did you want to ask- Rod, did you just want to explain how the app will work?

ROD CARR: Certainly, Minister. And thank you very much for the opportunity to be here today, and for the opportunity to launch- to be involved in the launch of Waterflow.

We’ve been working on this for a couple of years and it’s been with the support of the Federal Government that we’ve been able to do it. Waterflow is an application that is going to be free to use by farmers and other water market participants. It’s going to dramatically simplify how they go about doing their searching of information on water markets and should save them a heap of time. It’s been out for testing with several hundred people over the years and been involved in a number of hundred people involved in direct testing of the applications. And look, the feedback has been fantastic and we’re really grateful for the support. Really pleased to be putting it on the market. So, we’re launching it today—Waterflow Australia.
         
Thanks very much.

MINISTER: Well done.

QUESTION: Minister, a lot of talk and fuss about water ownership in this part of the world. Should people who don’t use water to farm be allowed to own it?

MINISTER: Well, that’s a question that we pose to the ACCC. 93 per cent of the trades happen in the southern basin. 14 per cent of entitlements are owned by people who don’t own land. Now, is that the original intent when we separated land and water? That’s a question we pose to the ACCC to come back to us on. I don’t have all the powers. If they give me a direction, I have to work with the states. And I have to say that all the states at Ministerial Council were very complimentary of this move. But we have to work together in concert with the states in terms of water rules. They’re open to that, but we need to do that in a calm and methodical way, because there can be unintended consequences if governments overreach in the marketplaces. For the innocent, those that are trying to buy water and trade water. So we’ll do this in a calm and methodical way with the ACCC.
         
But these other tools that we announced today are to help in the here and now. And I know that’s only a small measure and there’s a long way to go, but I can only deal with what’s ahead of me, and that’s why we’re doing it as quickly and as methodically as we can.

QUESTION: So on this app, what’s it going to show? Am I going to see individuals who own it, am I going to see localities who own it? What am I going to see?

MR CARR: Okay, so you’re not going to see individuals on the app. The purpose of this is actually to help people with their research. It shows prices, it shows where trades are happening, it shows where individual trades are happening, it shows where allocation levels are, storage levels are. So, our research has found- so in speaking with farmers, that they want to know where the water is, how much is available, and what parts of the system, where they can trade from and to- and this is complex, because you’re talking connected systems that you’re dealing with here. So we’ve tried to make the complex simple. There are complex rules engines that sit in the back of the application that make it really easy for parties to get into it and actually do searches and optimise their decisions around water moving forward.

QUESTION:  So Minister, I suppose a point is you’re not going to be able to instil in people that Eddie McGuire doesn’t own X amount of megalitres?

MINISTER: No but there’s mechanisms in place around that. Particularly for foreign investors, we have a register at the moment around that. But obviously those are commercial decisions individuals get to make; that’s the beauty of living in Australia. We get up in the morning to make a quid, whether it’s Eddie McGuire or it’s Damian Drum. You get up in the morning to make a quid, you play within the rules, so long as the rules haven’t evolved to a point that has disadvantaged mum and dad farmers, to the point where they’re able [indistinct]- and someone has an advantage in the marketplace. Governments need to be very careful about interference that they play, but they’ve also got to respect the marketplace that drives our nation, that drives the growth and development of our nation; people making a quid and paying a tax that we then go and put onto those roads and into those schools and hospitals.

QUESTION: Minister, the New South Wales Government’s warned of a fish Armageddon this summer. How bad do you think things are going to get?

MINISTER: Well, it depends on how much rain comes out of the sky. Year 8 geography will tell you unless it rains, unless it hits the ground or runs into the rivers, there’s no water. And fish don’t do so well without water. So I’ve got to be honest with people; we need to brace ourselves that there will be more fish deaths. The reality is that there were 600 in the last 30 years alone in New South Wales. These aren’t anything new. These aren’t some new phenomena. This is something that’s been happening for a long time. Whether it be from the dry, or your black water events when there’s too much water, perversely. That is, that is what happens with nature. We’ve- we put $10 million into new fish hatcheries to make sure we protect our native species as best we can. But I can’t make it rain. And with all due respect, as much as I like you, if I could, I wouldn’t be sitting here talking to you. I’d be a very wealthy man.

QUESTION: Minister, the behaviour of brokers up and down the system is a concern locally for irrigators. Can this app provide transparency to instil confidence in the market? Will it be able to show inter-valley trades and…

[indistinct talking]
         
QUESTION:  … maybe provide transparency about brokers trading to themselves in different valleys and that sort of thing?

UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER: Oh, very difficult to see that precisely from the information. But it’s going to show a great deal more information on inter-valley trades. It has the ability to show where water is being traded from and to. It also shows you whether there’s connectivity. So, a key part of this market is whether there’s connectivity in play at the moment. And that connectivity changes from day to day depending on what’s happening hydrologically in the system. So what the app will do is it has that connectivity built into it. You can actually see where water’s moving from one part to another as part of transfers and transactions, as part of the things that we built into it. So yes, it enables a degree of transparency over that. Also, we’ve got a few- we’ve already got a number of brokers that are going to be bringing their buy and sell spreads onto the app. So that’s a time saver for parties as well. But an ability to look across the market and go: well what are they recently been trading? What’s the last 10 trades? Equally, what’s the buy/sell spread out there at the moment? Should I be interacting with the market as a buyer or a seller? What should I be doing? So, it’s got a lot of functionality that will really help.

MINISTER: Can I just say, on that, one of the pieces I did ask the ACCC to look at was the role of brokers and the regulation around them. So, I’ll expect the ACCC to come back with some recommendations around it. Because that has been a real concern and one of the reasons that I instigated the ACCC review is because I sat with Damian Drum in people’s sheds listening to their concerns about this. That’s why Damian put the pressure on me to make sure we got this up and going. And we did. And we’re going to make sure we do this properly and we can understand that. And if we can do it better we will.

QUESTION: Minister, further on the question of fish kills, the emails leaked overnight that featured in a newspaper article suggest a key report out of New South Wales on the Menindee fish kills has been further delayed. How much confidence do you have in the investigation process of those fish kills and the process to correct them?

MINISTER: Well, I have a lot of confidence in Melinda Pavey. How refreshing it is that she called out an agency so bluntly and openly. Good on her. That’s what we should do. These people work for the Australian people and New South Wales people. They might be bureaucrats but they’re not above and beyond reproach. And if they don’t do things right they should be called out by a Minister, and good on Melinda Pavey for having the guts to do it.

QUESTION: So she’s right?

MINISTER: As they have admitted, they have not got this done in time. And she’s called them out as she should; as I would call out the MDBA or my own Department, as I did with live trade. These people aren’t beyond reproach just because they work for the government. They’re not beholders of all wisdom and knowledge. They need to be held to account. So we will and Melinda’s done that. She’s now working with them as quickly as we can because part of that is a resource plan that they need to provide to us by the end of the year. And I know Minister Pavey has put the foot on the throat to get it done. They’re committed to getting the job done and if the bureaucrats are in the road, well, you need to give them a kick.

QUESTION: So, you see the need to give them a kick now. Back to my original question: how much confidence have you got in them to actually do the job that needs to be done?

MINISTER: Well, I have a lot of confidence now. Melinda Pavey is the Minister keeping a very close eye on them and making sure that they do the job that they’re tasked to. That’s what a Minister in the Westminster system should do. The buck stops with us. We get a lot of good advice sometimes, but we need to put a lens of reality over that and kick the dust and make sure and listen to people. And if it’s not being done you go after them.

QUESTION:  And just further, if I can ask on the question of the claim that we could face some sort of fish Armageddon, what is your assessment of how bad it could become if this drought does not break this summer?

MINISTER: Oh, it could be very serious, and that’s why we’ve taken a number of pre-emptive steps with the New South Wales Government in terms of aerators. A lot of stuff around pre-emptive sites, and that’s the $20 million will go into making sure our native species are protected; but giving our water managers the tools to manage the water flows better, to protect the fish as best we can. But there’s a finite resource, and that’s water. And unless it rains that’s going to get a lot less. And I can’t make it rain. No one can. I’m sorry to break it to you but we can’t do that.

QUESTION:  Armageddon is not an exaggeration?

MINISTER: Look, I hope we don’t get to that point, but if it doesn’t rain between now and July and we have to wait for another wet season we could see a lot of trouble. We’ve got to be honest with people. This is a serious situation if it doesn’t rain, and the only thing that fixes this is rain. It is solely rain. And until it rains we’ve got to do the best we can. We’ve got to equip our water managers with the best tools to manage that resource as best we can. The extent of it will depend on how dry and hot it is between now and the end of summer and the extent of what rainfall we actually get. So, you know, we’re hoping like hell that we’re going to get a hell of a lot of water.

QUESTION:  [indistinct] outlook, though, what exactly should we be bracing for at this stage?

MINISTER: Well look, I’m not a scientist but let me say, I’m always- I’m from the Bush myself. I’m from Western Queensland. We roll the dice every year and I’m an optimist about everything, I always like to think. I’ve got a lucerne crop sitting there that needs a drink at the moment and I’m optimistic that I might get a couple of cuts out of it. Every farmer has that belief. The reality is, we are going into storm season. We can jag some storms and tides sometimes over until a big flush comes through. But a big flush is needed right the way through – from Queensland all the way through. And until that happens we’ve got to do the best we can to manage what we’ve got, and that’s what we’re trying to do.

QUESTION:  On the Barmah Choke, you know, it’s running at capacity to the point where there’s trees that have fallen into the river. Do you understand the frustrations of farmers in the immediate vicinity who can’t access any of that water and—to Perin’s point—just over the road, just over the border, they’re on zero allocation and this water is steaming down the Murray.

MINISTER: So, obviously it’s one of the natural constraints we have – and there are a number of other constraints – and what we have to understand with this plan is we’ve completed 80 per cent of it. The last 20 per cent is around the Sustainable Diversion Limits, which is building the infrastructure to return the water to the environment without using buybacks. The constraints is a real issue here and the management of that water, not only for the MDBA but between the states, is so important that we get that balance right – get the environmental outcomes …

QUESTION:  Do you think you’ve hit a balance? Is the balance right?

MINISTER: I think we can always do better. Definitely. And that’s about making sure I give MDBA and the states the tools they need to make the right decisions at the right time. This is a complex system that has a number of moving parts at different times of the year with different environmental impacts on it. So what you- climatic conditions impact on it.

QUESTION:  Sorry to interrupt but my question is: if you’re on the bones of your backside and you’ve got a dairy farm and you’re looking at a river just steaming down and trees falling into it, how do you think you’re feeling?

MINISTER: I understand the frustration, as I understand the frustration ten kilometres away from me – the Condamine River, the headwaters of the Murray-Darling, I can walk across it and not get my boots muddy. The reality is there are real rules in place—that the MDBA put in place—whether they be for farmers or the environment. They are both on the same page. Effectively, they are an entitlement holder – the Commonwealth Water Holder – and they are under the same rules as a farmer. They get to manage their water, as do farmers’ entitlements, and then obviously, obviously the water is distributed within the rules within each state to get to wherever the entitlement is and wherever the Commonwealth Water Holder’s responsibilities are in terms of delivery to the environment.

The 20 per cent that’s being taken out of the Agricultural Consumptive Pool, which is what the Murray-Darling Basin Plan is, is about how the Commonwealth Water Holder delivers that for environment benefits, and when they have surplus they have actually returned water back to the consumptive pool. They’ve sold water back and they did that in Victoria in the last 12 months. But can they do better? Yes. Can the MDBA do better? Yes. Can the states do better? Yes. But I’ve got to equip them with the tools to do that and some of that is around the announcements we’ve made over the last two days.

QUESTION: So has there been a failure of communication, though? Because there is so much frustration in the community. Has the communication got to get better about how this system works?

MINISTER: Totally. But the difficult part of it is science, and to do it on a four-second grab for you good people, to put on TV to run is very difficult to explain. A four-second grab does not do the science and the complexity of this plan justice. There are so many moving parts of this. We’ve got to be honest. But yes, we can. And how do we do that and how do we engage community with that process is a challenge, and that’s one of the steps we’re making today is the transparency around the water market – where the entitlements are, who has them, where the storages are – to make sure that information is real; that we have a real truth test of the information that’s out there. And we should do a lot better in controlling that. One point of information would be a lot better for us as a Government – and as states – because it’s not just me. I’m the leader of the states that have got to bring this together. We’re working together collaboratively with the states and we have got to do that together.

QUESTION: Question for the Senator. Perin, could you give us your take on how you think- how well local irrigators up and down the Murray and the Murrumbidgee in New South Wales understand the interaction between the water market and the Basin Plan and public asset holders and private asset holders? How well is that whole complex matrix understood by irrigators?

SENATOR: Irrigators know their businesses remarkably well. So, they know how the water market impacts on their individual businesses very well. They know their allocations and how their allocations are made very well.

The complexity of the market and the interjurisdictional nature means, though, that it is difficult to compare one entitlement or one water product with another. Across the whole Murray-Darling Basin, there’s 124 different types of water products. And so for individual irrigators, they don’t necessarily understand that Victoria’s allocation process is far more conservative, and the high reliability allocations in Victoria are higher. But our high security entitlements and allocations in New South Wales are currently at 97 per cent. So irrigators know their businesses. They know the water market, how it impacts on them. They know currently the prices for temporary water on the water market are too high for most broadacre farmers. But this new product that is being launched today will give them more information about the extended market and the extended products out there, and it will mean that they will get better at their businesses.

QUESTION: Mick, can I just ask you if you’ve got a second. Given your concern about the fish kills at Menindee and the health of the system, how much confidence have you got in the investigation process in New South Wales to get to the bottom of it, if reports can’t be delivered on time?

INTERIM INSPECTOR-GENERAL MICK KEELTY: Well I guess we have to be clear about my role, which is not in the science and it’s not in the research. But in terms of getting the communication out, that is important because as the Senator has just outlined and the Minister’s just outlined, this is a complex area of policy, and a complex area of nature. And the complex areas of nature and policy when they mix, are counterintuitive to good compliance. And when you have such an investment, both at the Commonwealth and State level of money into various aspects, whether it be in research or whether it be in the new technologies, like it’s being launched today, it’s important in my role that I see that those outcomes, those intended outcomes, are actually achieved. And one of the one of the things I focused on in the report that I’m about to deliver to the Minister on the northern Basin is to get the Departments to reduce the time between decisions made by ministers and when actually projects are undertaken and completed. That has been a big problem that I have seen in the northern Basin where the delay in the investment and the decision to invest into decisions made by Ministers and the actual outcome and delivery for all of the stakeholders in the Basin, particularly in the northern Basin, has been so long. And some of it to me, there’s a lot of bureaucracy. Some of it is not value-adding. And what I’m encouraging the Department of Agriculture to do is to actually go out and enable the state and departments to actually get quicker and get better at jumping through some of those red tape hoops.

QUESTION:  Minister, can I ask you about the Tamil family that had been in Biloela. Why isn’t this an appropriate time to make use of ministerial discretion?

MINISTER: Let’s be honest, these people came to this country paying people-smugglers; that’s against the law. No one is above the law in this country. I get the compassion this community has for these people, but when you break the law, there are consequences in this country, and no one is above it. You have to face those consequences. And what we do is if we make exceptions, particularly when it comes to border security, is that we open up the business model again, particularly for those in Sri Lanka where we’ve seen a number of boats already come this year. We open up that business model and we see, we see the real, live possibility of more deaths at sea. 1200 lost their lives, children lost their lives, when we had porous borders. What we have done is save lives. Being in government means you’ve sometimes got to take some pretty tough decisions. And they’re not always popular but you’ve got to have the ticker to make them in the national interest.

[indistinct talking]

MINISTER: Hold on, there are 60 million refugees around the world sitting in camps that are patiently waiting in line to have a crack at getting into Australia. So is it really the Australian way to jump the queue? No, it’s not. I’m sorry, these people have jumped the queue. They’ve done the wrong thing. They knew quite well when they came into this country, they broke the law. There is a consequence for that. We have to stay firm on this. This keeps our nation safe…

QUESTION: But what about Gill McLachlan’s au pairs? And there was a ministerial intervention there. They’ve jumped the queue.

MINISTER: Look, again, I’m not privy to the details of that case…

QUESTION:  You’re making it difficult to mount this argument.

MINISTER: Again, Minister Dutton has, at times, used his discretion – has used his discretion in cases where there is a need. But this case has gone to the High Court; three levels of court. These guys had an independent umpire have a look at their case and they said no. The independent umpire, not the Government, the independent umpire said no. So all we are doing is following through in making sure we set a clear precedent, particularly to those from Sri Lanka, that if you want to get on a leaky boat and get across here and risk your life – we do not want you to risk your life. This is above and beyond that; 1200 people- and some of those were children. And as Minister Dutton put in one of his articles today, some of those children who lost their lives, they recovered that they’d been half eaten by sharks. We shouldn’t be putting our Border Force people through that. That’s not something we should we should aspire to do as a nation. And sometimes you got to make these tough decisions and Minister Dutton has made it, and made it soundly.

QUESTION:  So is Barnaby Joyce undermining the migration system then in his advocacy for this family to stay in Australia?

MINISTER: Barnaby Joyce is a backbencher that is feeling the mood of his community…

QUESTION: That’s not his community. He’s from New England.

MINISTER: No, no, no- I was about to finish. I feel it in my own community. There is there is a level of compassion for these people, and I have compassion for them as well. But when you’re part of the executive, when you’ve got to make the tough decisions, you’re privy to the information that bounds us to make the decisions to keep Australians safe. This is the right thing to do. What Minister Dutton is doing is the right thing to do.

QUESTION:  Do you see why people might be cynical about this issue coming up, and then two newspaper front pages showing the arrival of boats. I mean the timing there, does it feel a bit off to you?

MINISTER: No, I think what we’re trying to clearly articulate is that there is a clear and present danger that we are going to open up this business model, particularly in Sri Lanka, for these unscrupulous people who are people smugglers. They are, they are dealing in the misery of people who want to get out of their country- and can afford to pay. When you have 60 million who can’t afford to pay in refugee camps around the world, who are waiting patiently in line, and these people who can cut a cheque, can get on a boat and get over here illegally, I don’t think that’s fair. That’s not the Australian way. You wait in line, you wait your turn, you get here with the rules that this nation puts in place.

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