By Terri Butler MP

08 April 2022

SUBJECTS: 2024 Murray Darling Basin Plan targets, Labor’s plan to Future-Proof Australia’s Water Resources, State and Federal cooperation with the Murray Darling Basin Plan, Water Buybacks.

CASSANDRA HOUGH, HOST: Federal Labor won't commit to not buying back irrigation rights from farmers in the Murray Darling Basin. Instead, Shadow Water Minister Terri Butler says she wants to avoid buybacks if possible. This morning, Ms Butler and Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese were in Adelaide to announce Labor's plans for the Basin, chief amongst them is a commitment to restore 450 gigalitres of water to the environment, regardless of an earlier commitment by state and federal water ministers to only recover water if it could prove no socioeconomic harm to Basin communities. Reporter Kath Sullivan spoke with Ms Butler a short time ago and began by asking the would-be Water Minister if she believes major water savings targets legislated in the plan will be met in 2024.

TERRI BUTLER MP SHADOW MINISTER FOR THE ENVIRONMENT AND WATER: Well, they have to be met. That's the promises that everybody was making back a decade ago, and no government, including the national government, should be walking away from those targets. And I can see Kath, I really can, why there are so many people who are frustrated by the delays, by the fact that the foot's been taken off the accelerator by the federal government in relation to making sure that those commitments have been delivered. I can absolutely see that, but we actually need a redoubling of effort from everyone to get a push to get this done on the- within the time frames.

KATH SULLIVAN, REPORTER: Today and committed to restoring 450 gigalitres of water for the environment. Are you effectively saying that you're tearing up the socioeconomic criteria that the state and federal water ministers have agreed to?

BUTLER: Not at all, Kath. What we're saying is that the promises that were made a decade ago should be made good on. It's not a matter of restoring the 450 gigalitres. The 450 gigalitres has been a component of the plan since day one. What we're saying is we want to see the plan upheld. We are saying it's up to all governments with responsibilities in relation to the Murray Darling Basin to actually deliver on the plan to deliver on the commitments that were made. And part of that plan. Part of those commitments was a commitment to the 450 gigalitres, and everyone knows everyone who's a stakeholder in this is well aware that was the basis on which South Australia agreed to the plan in the first place. So, for people to now be crab walking away from that is a problem.

SULLIVAN: But David Speers the South Australian Liberal Minister also agreed to this socioeconomic criteria. Aren't you just dismissing what the what I mean? You know how difficult it is to get state and federal water ministers to agree on anything, by dismissing that? Don't you run the risk of offending each of the states involved in the Murray Darling Basin?

BUTLER: We're absolutely not dismissing it, and we're not seeking to change the existing terms on which the plan was entered into in 2012. That's absolutely not the case, but what we are saying is that jurisdictions need to make good on it. There's no there's not room, I think, today for jurisdictions to be avoiding their obligations under the plan and it would be a breach, I think of good faith for jurisdictions to be seeking ways to avoid the delivery rather than to deliver on it. And look, we actually just want to see people back at the table working through how this can be delivered so that we're not looking at more interventionist arrangements down the track. But-


BUTLER: -honestly, Kath if it if people are going to say that they don't want to deliver on the plan, well, they should actually just be upfront and say that because at the moment, I think people are rightly saying this thing's been in place for a decade. We want to see it delivered on and South Australians are rightly saying, well, this was a 450 gigalitre commitment and of that, 450 on the most recent published report from the government, only two, only two gigalitres of the 450 gigalitres has actually been delivered. I think we've all got an obligation right now to be saying to all of the jurisdictions involved, all the governments involved and all the stakeholders involved. Everyone needs to lift their game because the deadlines are fast approaching.

SULLIVAN: How are you going to recover the 450 gigalitres? Will you be buying back water from irrigators?

BUTLER: Well we want to avoid buybacks if we can, Kath. I've been trying to make that very clear to people. We don't have a policy of compulsory buybacks. But what it's going to take is, what we want is for stakeholders and governments to get to the table and work through this because I think that people could rightly be saying, well, hang on the plan's been in place for a decade. Why is it that at five minutes to midnight, only two gigs has been delivered, right? I think that people would rather be saying that right. So we've been seeing a decade of inaction and the consequences of that are now coming home to roost. What we all need to be doing is working hard with renewed energy, renewed effort to collaborate, and that's what people want to see. They don't want to see excuses.

SULLIVAN: Ok, can I just come back to the water buybacks? At the last federal election, your predecessor, Tony Burke, took a policy of abolishing a cap on water buybacks, therefore suggesting that Labor was ready to go into the market and buy up irrigation rights. Is that still Labor's policy?

BUTLER: Well, what we want to see, Kath, is we want to see alternatives to buybacks being the way in which that water is recovered. That's a very clear starting point of mine.

SULLIVAN: It's not quite a yes or no answer, is it?

BUTLER: Well, no, no, no, well let me say what my position is. So, I would like to say to people who are listening to this. We don't want to do buybacks. We don't. But if we have to, then that will be an option that will have to be pursued. So let's avoid that if we can, by getting together and putting the foot on the accelerator and actually delivering on the plan. Nothing in this plan is a surprise. Nothing in this plan is new. Nothing in this plan wasn't there when it was agreed to a decade ago. And jurisdictions and stakeholders need to expect that people are going to want the plan upheld and that's what we're asking for.

SULLIVAN: Talking about the jurisdictions, in regards to New South Wales major water savings projects at Yanco Creek and the Menindee Lake project, do you think that they should proceed as efficiency measures or would you look to tear those projects up?

BUTLER: Well, we want to work with jurisdictions in relation to all the projects for the 605, the equivalent outcomes to the 605 gigalitres of water. That's what we want to see. Obviously, from Opposition, we don't have the same access to the levels of detail and analysis and scrutiny that the current Minister has. That's Keith Pitt. But I would look forward to discussing with every jurisdiction their progress in relation to delivering on the commitments that they made. The 605 gigalitres of water and the environmental outcomes equivalent to that is a fundamental part of the plan. And the best way to avoid more interventionist measures down the track is to work through how those things can be delivered upon. That's really important because at the end of the day, this is a river system that is significant to everyone in the country, but of particular significance to people who live in the Basin area and Australians actually want to see collaboration, cooperation and delivery. That's what that's going to be my primary approach, but if we can't make collaboration and cooperation work, then we'll have to consider what levers the government has at its disposal at a federal level.

SULLIVAN: Okay. You say you want to work with the states? Why don't you consult with the Victorian Labor Water Minister Lisa Neville before announcing this policy today?

BUTLER: Well, my office has been speaking with all of the jurisdictions, Kath, and it's been very clear I think our position for some time, we've been letting people know the states are going to have different views. Of course, all of the Basin governments will have different views in relation to the delivery of the plan. We're not always going to see eye to eye. It's a fact we know that Labor governments in states are sovereign in their own sphere. But at the end of the day, this is about upholding the Murray Darling Basin Plan. It's not about changing it, it's not about adding obligations, it's just about upholding the agreement that everybody entered into.

HOUGH: Terri Butler is the Shadow Water Minister, she was speaking there with Kath Sullivan.