Transcript - Address to the Murray Darling Association

MICHAEL McCORMACK

Thank you Councillor [David] Thurley for your kind introduction and for your service as National President of the MDA. Thanks also to Association CEO Emma Bradbury for your ongoing work and for the care and detail in arranging this conference.

I acknowledge my fellow speakers including the Hon Keith Pitt MP – Minister for Resources, Water and Northern Australia; and Terri Butler MP – Shadow Minister for the Environment and Water, who will address you later in the program.

Mayors, Councillors, ladies and gentlemen, I am pleased to be joining you as the opening speaker of this prestigious event.

Yes, the year 2020 is proving to be a deeply challenging year for regions and councils across Australia. We’ve been hit hard - flooding, bushfires, prolonged drought and now, COVID-19. But through incredible challenges we have seen resilience, adaptation and innovation. That’s what regional Australia is all about. We expect the challenges to come.  And we expect to meet those challenges, head-on.

I see this every day across my own electorate of Riverina; I see it across Australia’s regions and across our people. It’s a spirit embedded in their hearts as they seek to build a better region, a better Australia, and a brighter future.

The communities of the broader Murray-Darling Basin have contributed mightily to this nation. We have some of the best irrigators in the world in the Basin, also the best environmentalists – because their livelihoods and futures depend on the Murray-Darling and the water it provides.

We know that these basin communities need direct representation and our Government has long been committed to decentralising services, including the Murray Darling Basin Authority to Griffith. They should be doing these roles from the basin, not just doing it from Canberra, not just doing it from a capital city but, indeed, they’re with the community. They’re with the river communities who are so affected by water policy, so affected by the vagaries of weather, so affected by allocations. And so I think what Keith and before him David Littleproud have done in that regard is significant, is substantial, and I’m sure it’s going to have – or see an improvement in the way water policy is enacted throughout the nation.

Importantly, those people for whom the decisions made in Canberra and elsewhere, they’ll be able to then mix with those workers, those people in the authority on a personal basis. It won’t be just, you know, people in their ivory towers doing the sort of things that they’ve, you know, done from afar. Of course, they’ve always had a heart and mind toward our irrigation communities but to be able to be in the communities where the decisions taken have such an effect is going to, I think, improve the services and improve the quality of service in the years ahead.

Today I’ve announced or am announcing – in fact, I’m going to be announcing it very, very soon – the people who are going to be part of the National Water Grid Authority. And I don’t know about you on this telepresence, but I’m pretty excited about the National Water Grid Authority. I established it on October 1 last year. I established it because I wanted to take the politics out of building water infrastructure. It is very difficult because, of course, we as a federal government, we just can’t go and build dams where we have issues that the communities feel we need addressing. We just – we need to be able to, of course, address those issues on a valley-valley-basis, on a town-by-town basis, on a river-by river basis – indeed, on a state-by-state basis.

We need to build more water infrastructure. That’s why we’ve invested three and a half billion dollars in either grants or loans in recent years to do just that. But we can’t do it alone. The constitution doesn’t allow us. That’s how it was set up. We’ve got to do with it states. I’ve had a good relationship with water infrastructure ministers throughout the country, but now is the time to stop talking and actually get on and build them. You know, if you look at what we’ve been able to achieve through Mitiamo Pipeline, through the irrigation system in the Adelaide Hills through, indeed, making sure that the issues were addressed in Scottsdale north east Tasmania with the damn that’s just about to come on line there. They’re good projects, but we need to think bigger, build bigger.

And there’s plenty of water in north Queensland, plenty of water in the Northern Territory. The CSIRO has identified that. They’ve identified regions there which would make for great water infrastructure, but we’ve got to do it with states and territories and, of course, further plumbing Australia, further plumbing the great southern basin, the southern New South Wales, Victoria and, of course, through western New South Wales and, indeed, western Queensland is important too. We’ve got a lot of farms and river communities established there and we can’t ever lose sight of the fact that they are important in growing the world’s best food and fibre.

What we want to do is grow that agricultural task. What we want to do is make sure that agriculture grows from a $60 billion enterprise to $100 billion by 2030. That’s the objective of the NFF. It’s a collective view with the commonwealth government. The agriculture minister is working towards that. The water minister is working towards that. And I’m sure our states and territories want that as well, but we can’t do it unless we have the right water infrastructure in the right place and we make sure that we work through to ensure that anything that we’ve put in place so far as balancing the environmental, balancing the farming needs of our communities aren’t affected by the decisions that we take and make.

I’m really pleased that New South Wales has come on board with Dungowan Dam, a $480 million investment on the Peel. Really excited that with Wyangala Dam we’re going to raise the dam wall from 85 to 95 metres, which will increase the capacity of that particular piece of infrastructure there on the Lachlan by 650 gigalitres. That’s substantial – that’s about 1.2 Sydney Harbours. And by doing that, of course, we mitigate against flood. By doing that we provide more water security for towns. By doing that we’ve got the capacity to grow agriculture.

But, as I said, the National Water Grid is going to feed in the process. They’re going to, of course, take heed of what is in the Murray Darling Basin Plan. They’re going to take heed of what is the community’s needs and wants, and perhaps they might even be decades old, but these plans that we’ve got in place, business cases which have been fully developed now need to take that next phase. They now need to be able to – we need to be able to put concrete in the ground, excavators, you know, digging holes, pushing up walls and making sure that we collect the water when it falls and use it when it’s dry.

So, with that, with the National Water Grid, I’ve got the names here in my notes. Chris Lynch is going to be heading up the National Water Grid Authority. We’ve had a number of discussions. I’m pleased to say that already in the short time that they have been put together as far as a team is concerned they’ve already had a number of meetings. That’s significant. The panel members are also Cathy Foley from New South Wales, Jim Grayson from Queensland, Dr Stuart Khan from New South Wales, Sue Middleton from WA, Peter Ryan from Victoria, Elizabeth Stott from New South Wales and Roseanne Healy from South Australia.

They will team up with Chris Lynch, a leading global senior executive. He brings a significant understanding of large-scale complex project construction. I think that’s important. And I think when you look at the biographies – which will be available online and elsewhere – of the panel members, what you see there are people who’ve got world’s best science at their fingertips. Some of them have been involved in the CSIRO environmental projects, but right through to people who actually grow – like Elizabeth Stott does – actually food and fibre for a living.

Each and every one of them has had an important and integral part to play in water discussions and policies over many years. They bring a range of diversity to the National Water Grid Authority. They’re obviously geographically placed, you know, so that we take in both east and western states, so they’ve got a good spread and mix in that regard. Pretty well gender balanced too I’m pleased to say. I couldn’t think of a better panel than those members who’ve been chosen to do the job for and on behalf of river communities, for and on behalf of the nation.

They’ve got a big job, and they’ve already hit the ground running. So really pleased that that is taking place. Large-scale water diversions are, of course, on the nation’s agenda. What we want to do is make sure that whether it’s Hughenden in the north, Big Rocks, Hells Gate, Rookwood, I’m really pleased to say that work is going to begin in the not-too-distant future on Emu Swamp Dam at Stanthorpe on the Darling Downs there in the Granite Belt region. These areas already grow a lot of our food and fibre. Just imagine if we can harness the water, if we can store it when we’ve got plentiful rain and then use it when it’s dry. It’s going to make a world of difference to our irrigators. It’s going to make a world of difference when we are talking about such things as the new Bradfield scheme. Whilst appreciating that when Bradfield, John Bradfield, originally wrote his piece back in 1938 updating it in 1942 he wanted to fill Lake Eyre. Well, that would probably be a little bit beyond the stretch in today’s day and age, but certainly there are aspects of the Bradfield scheme which are very doable in Queensland and it has the potential to certainly benefit our country as a whole.

We are a trading nation. We are an export nation, and we’re only going to build our agricultural capacity if we make sure that we have the right water infrastructure in place. So we’ll do that. I’m very excited with this panel. I’m sure they’re going to be very accessible and available so that members of the Murray Darling can meet with them, can talk with them and make sure – I’ve been told there’s been a technical hitch.

PAUSE

Not sure whether I was able to run through the names of those people on the National Water Grid Authority. Were those names on the actual audio link, video link? I read through the notes, okay. So that’s good.

What I then went on to say that Cathy Foley is the Chief Scientist for the CSIRO. So we’ve got everybody from, you know, the world’s best science available right through to people who’ve got skin in the game. Elizabeth Stott from a fibre growing, food growing bowl of the Murrumbidgee irrigation, of course. She lives at Gogeldrie, which is near Whitton, with her husband, Dallas, and her two children. They’ve got skin in the game as far as they’re farmers who rely on good water policy to be able to eke out a living. And they don’t want to just survive; they want to, indeed, thrive. And that’s what it is all about – it’s making sure that there’s the right balance, making sure that for those people who live in the Murray Darling they’ve got the best outcomes as far as water policy is concerned and they’ve got the right infrastructure in the right place.

Sixteen of the last 20 dams in Australia have been built in Tasmania. Look forward to the Scottsdale Dam in northeast Tasmania coming online very, very soon. But we need to do more, and we need to do better, and I think with the National Water Grid – actually, I don’t think, I know that we’re going to be able to do just that.

I know that we’re going to be able to achieve great things. And they’ll be freely available, they’ll be freely accessible to organisations such as the Murray Darling Association, to local government. Because they’ll want to get around as best we can in this Zoom world in which we live. They’ll want to make sure that they take on board the views, the opinions, the long-held beliefs of river communities, of people who’ve got a stake in best water policy.

And I know that, you know, with what we’re discussing at the moment at the highest level in the federal government as far as where we go with our water infrastructure spending that, you know, there’s going to be some good things in the future. What we want to do is that for such projects as the Emu Swamp Dam, it’s been talked about for decades. We’re getting on and we’re building it. There’s going to be shovels in the ground. Whether it’s Hells Gates, Big Rocks, the Hughenden irrigation scheme, Macalister, whatever the case might be through Queensland, through Victoria, every state in Australia, we want to make sure – and the territories, of course – CSIRO having identified three very good catchment areas with the potential for six sizable dams.

So there’s great prospects there. A lot of work to be done. I’ve tasked Chris Lynch and the team, given them an agenda to make sure that they have that community consultation, but primarily to get on with the job to help us negotiate with the states, to take the politics out of water and to get the right dams built in the right place right now.

So, look, I might leave it at that. Exciting times ahead. I know you’ve got Keith Pitt going to address you as well. I’m pretty excited about Sir Angus coming on board. I know he’s a man whose reputation is as good as there is in the country, and I know he’s going to be doing the right thing by our communities right throughout the Murray Darling.

So thank you for the opportunity to address you. Sorry about a few technical issues. Always happy to take your emails and thoughts and wish you all the very best with your deliberations over the next couple of days.

Well, we don’t want to see buybacks. And I certainly made sure that I made my view clear on that when I crossed the floor about that very thing so that we formed the coalition policy that there wasn’t be buybacks which were going to hurt our irrigation communities. Because what happens with buybacks is that, yes, there’s always willing sellers because there’s always stressed irrigators, stressed farmers, who need to pay down debt. But what happens is that leaves stranded assets. What happens is that often they leave town, often the water allocation leaves the valley. It’s not acceptable. I’m glad that Keith has made sure that the policy going forward is going to be that we’re not going to need buybacks. But, of course, we’re always going to need more environmental water, absolutely. And that’s why think water infrastructure is so vital. That’s why I think we can have both. We can have a better balance. And that’s what I know Keith Pitt and I are working towards achieving.

Very soon. I’ve only just – look, I’ve only just announced the names, of course, of the panel for the National Water Grid Authority. And I know Keith’s having a bit to do with, of course, the certain reviews that were landed on his table not that many weeks ago from the work that David Littleproud did. So we’ll be making those sorts of things available soon. Of course, you know, we’ve only just hit the ground with Sir Angus in the role that he’s in. So those discussions will take place. We’ll be doing it at the right time. But, rest assured, it’s all about balance. It’s all about making sure that, yes, whatever we do, there’s transparency and accountability around that. We’ve always said that. We’ve always done that. We don’t want the – you know, we don’t want an imbalance in the plan such that there’s too much environmental water, not enough irrigation water or the other way around. It’s important that we strike that right balance.

I know everything that we’ve done – Mick Keelty and his work, the reviews that have been put out and have now been returned with the evidence that has been gathered and collected from good people such as those on the call. I know that’s all been taken into account, and I’m sure Keith Pitt will have more to say when he addresses your meeting later today.

Well, that’s why we’re going to be building more water infrastructure. That’s why we’re going to have a better-balanced plan. That’s why we want to make sure that when water falls that we capture it, we use it when it’s dry. That’s what the whole modus operandi of the National Water Grid Authority is about – building the right infrastructure in the right places.

I know when I was up at Hughenden there late last year with the Mayor, Jane McNamara, Mayor of Flinders Shire, they’ve had a lot of interest from table grape growers at Mildura to set up operations in that part of the world. Now, it’s pretty dry up there but they have a lot of seasonal rain and what they want to do is capture it when it falls and make sure that they have the right water infrastructure in place so that they can grow things such as table grapes for export and domestic supply, of course, as well. But we’ve got enough water; we just need to make sure we capture it when it falls and be able to store it in the right infrastructure. So that’s what we’re doing.

Well, of course I am concerned that, you know, the climate is playing a factor here. And if you look at the maps and listen to the forecasts and listen to those experts, they will tell you it is getting drier. We know that for a fact. But we also see droughts that we’ve just had followed by flooding rains. I mean, I live in Wagga Wagga. Now we’ve been in drought for three years and it’s been pretty tough. Not as tough here as it has been in other parts where the landscape just looked like Mars. But they’re worried now about floods. So it just makes sense that if you build the right infrastructure in the right place then you can temper that balance and make sure that you have, you know, an even balance and make sure that you store the water when you do have flooding to prevent that sort of event from happening and also help, of course, in times of drought.

Well, community consultation is something that our government has prided itself on, and we’ve never made knee-jerk reactions, certainly when it comes to building infrastructure or, indeed, agriculture. We’ve always listened to our communities because we’re part of our communities. I live in the Murray Darling Basin. I know exactly what the thoughts and feelings are because I’ve represented those areas for 10 years now. So I’m well aware of the issues. I’m well aware of what people want and need and expect and, most of all, deserve.

So, yes, people will be able to have a say and they will be able to have input into all those discussions. That’s why the Murray Darling Basin Authority, that’s why we took great steps and made sure that there was decentralisation so that the people of Murray Bridge and the people of Mildura, the people of Griffith and elsewhere had direct contact with those people making the decisions who, in the past, made those decisions from Canberra.

So now they’re part of the communities, they’re part of the local communities in which they live, in which they work. Their kids go to school with the kids whose parents’ livelihoods are affected by the decisions that are being made. So, you know, it’s all part of that community-based input. We rely very heavily on community consultation and we’ll be doing that going forward.

Well, pleasingly we are. And I know that we’re going to announce very soon another round of that very popular program that you just mentioned. I know Mark Coulton knows responsible for regional telecommunications works very hard with Paul Fletcher whose wife, in fact, comes from Griffith. So Paul expose all too well about Murray Darling Basin questions and issues and concerns. And, of course, you know, we know that connectivity is crucial to secure markets. I’ve just come from a launch where we’ve spent $644,000 backing a Wagga Wagga company, Zetifi, to provide connectivity to tractors in remote areas of Australia. The connectivity that Australians have in rural areas is pretty good. I know there are a lot of black spots. I drive around; I know every one of them in my own electorate. But we’re improving them. We’re spending money on addressing these issues so that we get more Australians connected sooner because they need it, because that’s how they do business. They can’t these days have to rely on just going back to their house and then, you know, setting up their grain deals or their stock selling. They need to be able to do it when they’re sitting on their tractor. So that’s why Mark Coulton is working very hard to make sure that those black spot issues are addressed.

Pleasure, all the very best. Pleasure, thanks, Dominque. Thanks, bye-bye.

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