Interview on ABC Country Hour

Compere: First of all, a little bit about why you're in northern Tasmania at the moment?

Michael McCormack: Well, we're having a look at the dam wall for the Scottsdale project. Of course, that work began in October 2018. It's going to be completed, all things being equal, February next year. But already the dam wall is up and it's already half full of water, so that's fantastic. So that's going to increase irrigated agriculture by about 13,000 hectares. It's going to add potentially about $13.9 million of direct economic benefits to the local area. So that creates jobs, that creates opportunity, that creates export. So it's good news story all round.

Compere: So how much has the Federal Government contributed to this?

Michael McCormack: $25 million. So $25 million of our money. Importantly too, local irrigators have contributed a significant amount of money, and so has the Hodgman Liberal state government. So there's a- you know, there's a lot of money gone into this project. It's a good project and local farmers' [indistinct].

Compere: Will Tasmania be in any way part of the new National Water Grid Authority and its plans to develop more dams across the country?

Michael McCormack: Absolutely, and you know I really want to see Tasmanian input. I want to see input from all states and both territories. This is the national authority, so obviously Tasmania is very much part of the Australian water storage infrastructure story, and I want to have Tasmanian input. In fact, if there is a success story as far as water infrastructure rollout is concerned, it is Tasmania. We've built a number of pipelines. We've certainly put in a number of smaller dams in Tasmania in recent years. But on the mainland, the story is quite opposite. We haven't built a major water storage dam for many, many years. And I want that changed.

Compere: How quickly can you make that change when a number of communities in New South Wales are trucking water in and could literally run out of water in weeks?

Michael McCormack: Well actually I think weeks is probably a bit of a stretch. The fact is I've spoken to a number of those communities, and John Barilaro assures me that most of the affected communities, it's more like months, it's more like May next year. They have put down bores in recent weeks and months which have supplied them for urban water. The fact is, urban water and town water supplies is the remit of- other remit of state governments. The New South Wales government is very much on top of the situation.

Yes, there are some communities which are, you know, very worried for the future if it doesn't rain. But I met the Dubbo general manager Michael McMahon the other day at the airport and he assures me that Dubbo has enough water supplies until May next year. And other communities in the north and northwest of the state also have several months of water, but of course no government is going to allow their communities to run out of water and the Commonwealth won't, certainly the state won't either.

Compere: Whose advice will the government adopt when it comes to guidance around ongoing water infrastructure needs with this authority, is it Infrastructure Australia or will it be independent advice?

Michael McCormack: Well, we'll have the world's best available science available and I'm actually on the lookout at the moment for just that, for people who have- are very experienced in building water infrastructure, people who are very experienced in ensuring that we put water storage infrastructure in the right catchments. No point in putting it in areas where either there is no inflow or is no rain. We want to make sure that we've got the right water storage infrastructure in the right area, so that we can then either pipe it or do whatever to get it to those dry areas. And in some of those areas, you know, they're just crying out for infrastructure because it will rain again and when it doesn't rain, of course, everybody gets dispirited.

It's not just the farming communities, it's everybody in the community, everybody's affected now. I know Scott Morrison has been talking even when he's been overseas in America about drought. So it's top of his mind; it's top of my mind. We need to build water storage infrastructure; we need to build it in the right areas. But I'll take that advice from the experts and we'll use that expert advice. The states, apart from Victoria, are pretty much on board with this, so that's good. And we just need to get that world's best available science, making sure that we've of course got local stakeholder engagement. I mean you've got irrigators around here contributing more than $12 million to the Scottsdale project; irrigators in the Stanthorpe Granite Belt area of Queensland contributing $24 million to their Emu Swamp dam. So when you get local irrigators prepared to back themselves and take that plunge, governments should too.

Compere: Well more dams won't fix the problem if changing climate brings about more drought. What's the Government doing to employ more climate mitigation strategies?

Michael McCormack: Well I disagree with you there because I think that's exactly why we're building more dams because-

Compere: Well the rain has to fall in those dams.

Michael McCormack: Yeah indeed and it will and we'll have the inflows. That's why we use the best expert advice available to make sure that we build the right water storage infrastructure in the right location. As I said, there's no point building in the wrong location. So we will build it in the right locations. We will use best available science. We'll make sure that we tick off on all the necessary impact statements. We'll make sure that we get all the environmental concerns adjusted and you know ticked off on, and we will do it in the right and proper way.

But we will do it. We've got $1.3 billion as part of the National Water Infrastructure Development Fund. I want to see that money used. I want to see it used to help these drought stricken communities. It's not going to solve the drought in the next year or so, but we need to get on with the job. It's- the National Water Grid Authority is starting on 1 October and looking forward to making announcements as to who is actually on that authority. But certainly, welcome any input from Tasmania.

Compere: Can you give us any hints?

Michael McCormack: No, I can't. But welcome any input from Tasmania. I want every state and both territories to participate in this important announcement.

Compere: Is there any possible financial assistance from the Federal Government for the planned Twamley Dam at Buckland on the East Coast?

Michael McCormack: Looking forward to looking at all those proposals and all those projects. And I know we've already, under the regional jobs and investment package, invested something towards that, some money towards that particular project.

Compere: So you're considering it?

Michael McCormack: Well look, we'll consider anything and that's why the National Water Grid Authority will be there, to get all these proposals. I've just got off the phone from Cairns actually, where you know there's local input there as to what we can do as far as north Queensland and getting more water infrastructure up there. I know Warren Entsch the local member for Leichhardt is really pushing that, as are every regional and rural Member of Parliament. I know Bridget Archer is very excited about this project. At Scottsdale today, you know, she stood on a platform of making sure that we're going to increase agriculture. Bridget McKenzie, the Minister wants to increase agriculture by 60- from $60 billion to $100 billion enterprise by 2030. We're not going to do that unless we have water.