Interview with Hamish MacDonald, Radio National Canberra

Hamish MacDonald: With no end in sight to the big dry, new efforts are being launched to try and drought proof the country. A National Water Grid Authority will start working from next month to prioritise projects to address fast-shrinking regional and urban water supplies. It comes as new projection shows several major towns in New South Wales are just a few months away from running completely dry. Opposition leader Anthony Albanese says the country desperately needs an overarching drought strategy.


Anthony Albanese: We have a circumstance where by Dubbo is due to run out of water in November. And other towns in New South Wales and in Queensland are really struggling with the impact of the drought. So the Government needs to come up with a drought strategy. [End of excerpt]

Hamish MacDonald: That’s Labor leader Anthony Albanese speaking there. Michael McCormack is the National’s leader and the Deputy Prime Minister. Good morning, welcome back to Breakfast,

Michael McCormack: Yeah, good morning Hamish.

Hamish MacDonald: Yet another agency with responsibility for water, will more bureaucrats mean more water?

Michael McCormack: Well this is an agency to establish dams, this an agency - the National Water Grid Authority - to ensure that we can build the water infrastructure to further and better drought proof our nation into the future. Yes, it’s going to take a while to build dams, I acknowledge that. I want to make sure that Emu Swamp Dam in Queensland's Granite Belt area near Stanthorpe is started hopefully before the end of the year with everything stacking up. We've got the Queensland Government to sign up and that will provide water supplies for irrigators and indeed, could even provide some urban water.

Hamish MacDonald: How many more dams are we talking all up?

Michael McCormack: Well that depends on the states of course coming on board. They've all supplied their priority projects which is really important so New South Wales has a number of priority projects. Of course the immediate concern as these towns - as you mentioned - running out of water. Now I know Melinda Pavey who has responsibility for this - this is a state responsibility, but of course the Federal Government will stand by [indistinct].

Hamish MacDonald: [Talks over] Sorry to interrupt. You've said you want to be the National’s leader who builds dams. How many?

Michael McCormack: Well indeed we could potentially build many, many dams and in fact more than a dozen. The CSIRO identified last year at least six dam sites in the north and there are many projects that the states have brought forward to potentially- but of course it takes money. Rookwood Weir has been- we've put down the money in May last year - $176.1 million dollars. Well it's still tied up in bureaucracy. That's why the National Water Grid has been established so that we've got an authority, we've got people who can cut through this nonsense where the states - at times - put up roadblocks in building dams and so…

Hamish MacDonald: [Interrupts] Okay. So you want to build more than a dozen new dams across Australia. How are we going to fill them if we don't have enough water?

Michael McCormack: It’ll rain again, Hamish. And look we've seen we've seen in Australia's history - even in the recent past – how when the rain comes, it comes in torrents and it just doesn't- they don’t measure it in inches, they measure it in feet. And…

Hamish MacDonald: [Interrupts] Sorry to interrupt you Minister, but if we had all of these new dams now, would we be in a better position necessarily? I mean the Burrendong Dam, the giant Burrendong Dam is at 4.5 per cent capacity, how would having more dams lead to more water?

Michael McCormack: Well indeed, but it hasn't rained in some of those catchment areas for seven years where we're potentially going to build dams and we need to build dams in the catchments where it does fall and then utilise it via pipes or via however which way you like to ensure that we've got water when it is dry. It's a big task and it’s a big task made more complicated by the fact that we are dealing with local, state and federal authorities.

But you know, when irrigators back themselves as they have in the Granite Belt to the tune of $24.3 million, then I think governments should sit up and take notice. When we were re-elected on 18 May, having announced this National Water Grid as an election ommitment, and said to the nation that we are getting on with the job and want to get on with the job of building infrastructure and that’s water infrastructure et cetera, the nation responded by voting us back in. So now it's time to stop the talk, to stop the bureaucratic nonsense and get on and build dams and that's what we intend to do.

Hamish MacDonald: The Nationals Leader in New South Wales John Barilaro, says the state and federal governments must be prepared to abandon community consultations and forget about environmental impact studies in order to build dams faster. Do you support that approach?

Michael McCormack: Look I do support much of what John said and certainly his take on-

Hamish MacDonald: [Talks over] But specifically those bits about ending community consultation?

Michael McCormack: Well I think you need to take on board community consultation because obviously community consultation, as in the Granite Belt, they've provided $24.3 million. Well without that community consultation they might have not been so forthcoming to provide the backing and risking their own money to back themselves to build the dam that they need – Emu Swamp Dam near Stanthorpe.

Hamish MacDonald: [Talks over] Then what about the environmental impact studies?

Michael McCormack: Well indeed, environmental impact studies at times take up a lot of work and a lot of years and you know, you'll always get some environmentalists who'll find a frog or who will find something to roadblock a dam or roadblock a road, they'll always find something. So what we need to do is make sure that we do it in the national interest and that's what we intend to do.

Hamish MacDonald: And that would mean scrapping the environmental impact study?

Michael McCormack: No, just being more sensible, more practical. There are ways and means to get this-

Hamish MacDonald: [Talks over] So specifically what does that mean? Because you've said you support a lot of what John Barilaro says. Now he says abandon environmental impact studies. You’ve just said on national radio that you think there'll always be an environmentalist who will find a frog somewhere. So specifically, how are you going to get around this?

Michael McCormack: It’s a little bit like Adani. Look at how Adani was blocked and look at how Adani was held up. And every time, that every time that it ticked another box with the Queensland State Government somebody somewhere found something to again stymie that project. And you know what, when we won the election after Bob Brown’s Convoy of No Confidence, it certainly turned around very, very quickly in state government bureaucratic ranks when they realised there was a political downside to

Hamish MacDonald: I'm not sure that answers the question. If you're not scrapping the environmental impact study what
are you then doing?

Michael McCormack: Well you have to do some environmental impact studies, of course you do. But you know let's be reasonable about this. The nation needs water infrastructure. We live on one of the driest continents on earth. The nation needs water infrastructure. People need drinking water. Irrigators need to grow food and fibre production. We can do it but we have to be sensible, we have to be practical about it. And the National Water Grid Authority will do just that.

Hamish MacDonald: On the weekend, Water New South Wales released new data showing that towns like Dubbo, Cobar, Nyngan, Narromine could run out of water [audio skip].

Michael McCormack: Tenterfield.

Hamish MacDonald: By November. So you’re familiar with this stuff.

Michael McCormack: Absolutely.

Hamish MacDonald: What is the Commonwealth going to do in the short term to ensure that towns like these don't run dry?

Michael McCormack: Well again, we will take on board what the state requires and needs. Again, I emphasise that this is the remit of the states, but of course we’ll stand by the states, of course will stand by our communities, to make sure that they have available drinking water. This is an emergency for these …

Hamish MacDonald: But by doing what?

Michael McCormack: Well, let's see what Melinda Pavey comes to the table and asks of us. It's a little bit like when there's a fire, or there's a flood, or there's a national natural disaster. The states come to the government - the Federal Government, the Commonwealth - with a list of requests or demands and we act accordingly. So, and I know …

Hamish MacDonald: [Talks over] So you’re just waiting for them to come to you. There's no sort of contingency planning going on …

Michael McCormack: Oh of course, there is. And I spoke to Melinda at the weekend about it.

Hamish MacDonald: [Talks over] So what is it? So then what did you talk about?

Michael McCormack: Well she's putting down bores, they’ve- obviously, may need to truck water in. We just need it to rain, Hamish. And politicians cannot make it rain, but certainly, we need to make sure that there's drinking water for those communities, and we will do that.

Hamish MacDonald: You will have seen reports over the weekend relating to Gladys Liu. The ABC is reporting that her Liberal Party branch - the Eastern Multicultural branch - proposed a motion to the state conference in 2017 to relax the foreign investment rules for agricultural land and agribusinesses. Says it wanted to make it easier for foreign investments. I think the description was that this would address xenophobia that is current in the Australian community regarding foreign investment. Do you agree with that analysis?

Michael McCormack: I agree with what the government's position is on foreign investment now, and that is to put the national interest test [indistinct] the line over every single item that is - land or agribusiness - that is being put up for sale, and that's what we've done. We, in fact, when we came to government, strengthened the national interest test, and indeed, foreign investment rules. And we strengthened them because they needed to be strengthened, and now if you want to buy farm land in Australia, [indistinct] $15 million, and that's the trigger point where the Foreign Investment Review Board looks at it. And it’s $55 million for agribusiness. That is where it ought to be and that's why we’ve strengthened it.

Hamish MacDonald: But it's very interesting, isn't it? Because Gladys Liu's branch wanted to weaken it.

Michael McCormack: Oh sure, but branches come up with motions all the time for their state and federal conferences. I mean, that doesn't mean to say it's going to change what happens in Parliament, what happens indeed in the party room, what happens in the backbench committees who are looking at policy and running the ruler over it. I mean, [indistinct] all the time, I mean you can...

Hamish MacDonald: [Talks over] But there’s a very specific set of circumstances here, though, isn't there?

Michael McCormack: Indeed. But it hasn’t …

Hamish MacDonald: Because Gladys Liu has questions over her links with Chinese propaganda units, and yet there is evidence…

Michael McCormack: [Interrupts] But of course, she wasn't in Parliament either at that time, Hamish. So, you know, let's be reasonable. She wasn't in Parliament at the time. She's now in a Parliament that has strengthened, she's now in a Government, indeed, that has strengthened its foreign investment review laws accordingly to what we needed to do. I mean, Labor's foreign investment relaxation of the laws, they were going to go to a billion dollars before it triggered the Foreign Investment Review Board to look at any foreign investment, whether it was for farmland, whether it was agribusiness.

That would’ve destroyed Australian rural and regional areas.

Hamish MacDonald:
So should we assume then that if Gladys Liu was involved in advocating the interests of mainland Chinese businesses in the Australian agricultural sector prior to going into Parliament, that that would cease once she's in Parliament?

Michael McCormack: Well, I mean, she's a backbench Member of the Parliament. It was two years ago, it was her own branch. I mean, the fact is just because she may have been a member of the branch, just because the branch put a motion to state conference or whatever it might have been, that won’t mean it’s going to change the government's view on something. And let's face it, the National Party would never, would never, stand by and let farmland be sold willy nilly to foreign investors. Would never let- stand by and let agribusiness be sold off in an ad hoc way, such that it wasn't in the national interest. And that's why we did when we got back in Government, strengthen those rules.

Hamish MacDonald: [Talks over] But this is a question about whether she would cease advocating the interests of mainland Chinese businesses once entering Parliament. How are you so certain that she wouldn't?

Michael McCormack: Well, maybe you need to put that question to Gladys Liu. The fact is she's now in a Government, she…

Hamish MacDonald: [Talks over] Did you- have you asked her?

Michael McCormack: …one member of a Government, which has very, very strong- very strong foreign investment rules, as we should have.

Hamish MacDonald: Michael McCormack, thank you very much.

Michael McCormack: Always a pleasure. Thanks, Hamish.

Hamish MacDonald: Michael McCormack is the Nationals Leader and the Deputy Prime Minister.