Interview with Andrew Geoghegan ABC Weekend Breakfast

Andrew Geoghegan: The Murray-Darling Basin Plan has been secured. Federal and State Water Ministers have agreed to return up to 450 gigalitres to the environment.

But they also have said they will ensure there will be a socioeconomic test to ensure that the river communities aren’t adversely affected.

To discuss this and more we are talking with Deputy Prime Minister and Nationals’ leader, Michael McCormack. Welcome.

Michael McCormack: Good morning, Andrew and welcome to Wagga Wagga!

Andrew Geoghegan: Thank you very much.

I first wanted to start, though, with that breaking news of the Government's decision to move the Australian Embassy in Israel to West Jerusalem, or at least to recognise West Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

Can you explain the thinking behind that? What are the reasons for doing this?

Michael McCormack: Well, I know the Prime Minister Scott Morrison is going to be addressing the Sydney Institute later today. I'll leave any announcements in regards to that up to him.

Andrew Geoghegan: Yet, this was taken to Cabinet. Can you tell us what the - we have got some very, very loud birds behind you. We will try and persist with this. But can you tell us …

Michael McCormack: … We’re right on the Wollundry Lagoon. It’s a beautiful wetland.

Andrew Geoghegan: We will come to that in just a moment, but as far as the decision that the Prime Minister will announce a bit later this morning. It was taken to Cabinet. Was there consensus there?

Michael McCormack: Well, indeed but I don't discuss what is discussed in Cabinet. Cabinet's solidarity has to remain. Scott Morrison will be making some comments about that today and I'll leave that up to him.

Andrew Geoghegan: Are you concerned at all, though, that this could have implications, as far as Australia's relationship, particularly with Indonesia is concerned and the free trade agreement?

Michael McCormack: I think any decision that has been reached is the right one.

Andrew Geoghegan: Clearly, you won't be drawn any further on that, so we will have to wait, as we say, for the Prime Minister to make that official announce a bit later this morning. Let’s move to the issue of the Murray …

Michael McCormack: … And that’s the right thing to do. Yes, yes.

Andrew Geoghegan: Okay. Let's move to the issue of the Murray-Darling. What was announced yesterday? What have you actually come up with?

Michael McCormack: Well certainly any 450 gigalitre return to the environment, to the Murray-Darling Basin, will be based on a triple-bottom line approach.

Environment has to be a consideration. Always has been with the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. But now social and economic implications are also going to be factored in to any return to the Murray-Darling Basin and that is the right way to go.

We do not want our river towns, those wonderful communities which rely so heavily on water to grow the very best food and fibre, to be stripped bare, to be laid bare by any plan that is going to have a disadvantageous effect on what they do and what they have always done for the past 100 years and so the right decision has been reached.

I am really pleased that the States have finally reached agreement and good on the South Australian Water Minister David Spears. At long last we’ve got a South Australian Water Minister who absolutely understands the full implications of the Murray Darling Basin Plan - and not just for his state, but other states as well and so obviously the ACT and New South Wales and Victoria have come on board for this 450 gigalitres.

I understand, having represented the Riverina for eight years, how important it is to have that triple bottom-line approach and it’s being delivered.

And good on David Littleproud for being able to get the States together as one.

And of course, Mark Twain once said that whisky is for drinking and water is for fighting over. Well, let's hope the fights are over.

There is always going to be concerns about getting the right balance but it seems as though we’ve reached consensus yesterday.

Andrew Geoghegan: Well you talk about getting the right balance, it’s about give and take so who’s likely to lose out at this point?

Michael McCormack: Well, no-one is going to lose out.

The environment will get the water it needs to be able to sustain those wet lands, just like the one I am here now at Wagga Wagga and of course, those river communities which rely so heavily on water allocations and which rely so heavily on that water to be able to grow the very best food and fibre in the world.

Our irrigators are the best environmentalists. They always have been and they will continue to be. They’ve now got a plan that is balanced, that is sensible. Let's work towards that in future.

Andrew Geoghegan: So as far as that balance is concerned, it is also about the health of the river, but at the same time there are food producers who are concerned. They maintain they have been on zero water allocation to this point. Is that changing?

Michael McCormack: Well, I understand that and of course that has state implications as well, but we need to be able to work through it and of course we have had a prolonged dry spell and that doesn't help thing.

And, of course, as we know, in Australia we have long dry spells and then we have flooding rains, but that is why I am also very pleased that the Federal Government, the Liberal and Nationals’ Government, has invested half a billion dollars in addition to the $580 million we already had on the table for National Water Infrastructure Development Fund.

So we’re going to be building more dams. We’re going to be putting down more pipelines to drought-proof our nation. That’s got to help irrigation communities, that’s got to help regional Australia and it will.

Andrew Geoghegan: Have you already lost some of that argument, though? I am sure you would know the chairman of the Southern Riverina Irrigators Chris Brooks. I’ll just read a quote to you. He says, "The rusted-on support of the Federal Coalition Government is gone and parliamentarians should fear the next election."

Michael McCormack: Well, what is the alternative? A Labor-Greens alliance that’s going to strip all of those irrigators' rights away from them? That is going to have all of the water just for the environment?

We care about those river communities. We care about the businesses. We care about the irrigators.

We have reached a balanced plan with the consensus of the states and let's work towards that.

The alternative? Well, I’ve got to say it is pretty bleak.

Andrew Geoghegan: Mr Brooks has actually gone on to say he would like to see a pause in this plan just to get a proper assessment of exactly what is going on. You think the time has moved on from that point?

Michael McCormack: Well, what we have got now is certainty. And we’ve got consensus and we’ve got certainty. They are really important things to have.

And I understand that irrigators would like more water. We’ve also had a long drought and I also understand that the environmentalists would like more water, too so it’s an even balance.

We’ve reached that.

Andrew Geoghegan: Deputy Prime Minister, speaking of water, of course, we have had a lot of rain events across the east part of the country in the past couple of weeks.

Again, today we are seeing major events, as far as the weather are concerned. We also should also be mindful that drought is still a factor for many communities.

Can you just tell us, has that rain made any effect in some of those communities?

Michael McCormack: Well, it has helped to put some pasture on the ground and that obviously is able to feed quite a few stock. But the fact is it could rain for the next 40 days and 40 nights and that’s not going to take away the effects that the drought has had ones that communities.

It will take many more weeks, months, indeed years, to overcome this drought and that is why I am really pleased I am part of the Liberal and Nationals’ Government which has put a $390 million Future Drought Fund in place.

We have got a plan and we’ve also put money on the table for those cash-strapped farmers. We are helping small businesses with the lowest tax rate that they have had for 78 years.

So that is helping regional communities and 81 councils. 81 local government areas throughout New South Wales, Queensland and lately South Australia have also have got $1 million to help generate some money in their towns to stop the employment leaving town.

So that is really important, too. So we have been out there on the front foot. Of course, this drought is going to go on, despite the fact that we have had good showers in recent days.

Andrew Geoghegan: Just before you go, I did want to raise the issue of the inland rail. You turned the first sod of the project earlier this week. Although the point has been made...

Michael McCormack: They entrusted me with the special shovel!

Andrew Geoghegan: Wasn't the first sod actually turned in 2001? Many people have made this comment when the Howard Government actually announced this project so it has been a long time coming?

Michael McCormack: Well, it has been a long time coming. They’ve drawn up the first plans for inland rail in 1890, but it started under the Liberal and Nationals’ Government. Under the Morrison-McCormack Government. We’ve started this inland rail.

First sod turn, the first load of steel, 600 tonnes of steel was dropped off at Peak Hill on January 15. We are getting on and we are building it.

It’s going to be an important venture for the nation, not just for regional Australia, but the first, but the inland rail is going to make such a difference the regional Australia and I was very, very pleased to be there on Thursday to turn that first sod and get on with the job.

Andrew Geoghegan: And are you confident all farming communities ...

Michael McCormack: I should say 6,000 tonnes. In fact, the inland rail is going to be about five Sydney Harbour Bridges worth of steel. That is Australian steel from Whyalla so how good is that? Jobs for Australians and certainly a future for regional Australia.
OK, but it appears not everyone is still happy about this because there is some concern that not all farming communities are in agreement, at least as far as the route is concerned?

Michael McCormack: Well, of course there is going to be impacts and that is why we have got community consulting committees throughout the north-west of New South Wales. We’re obviously talking to people across the Condamine plains in Queensland as well.
We are dealing with those communities and of course we want to minimise the impacts and when they get that corridor of six kilometres down to 60 metres in north-west New South Wales, a lot of those farmers who currently have concerns won't have those concerns because they won't be directly impacted.

But when you build a 1700km corridor of commerce you are going to have impacts on some farms. I understand that. I appreciate that being the son of a dryland generational farming family. I understand how important their lives and their livelihoods and their farms are to them.

But going forward, this is nation-building, this is transformational and it is very necessary and we have started the build and we are getting on with the job.

Andrew Geoghegan: Alright, Michael McCormack, it appears, I think they were cockatoos. I think they have had their say and they’ve moved on.

Michael McCormack: Cockatoos, lots of birds, lots of wildlife here at Wagga Wagga.

Andrew Geoghegan: Deputy Prime Minister, thanks very much for joining us this morning.

Michael McCormack: Thanks Andrew. Anytime.