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Australian Agenda



October 2010

Tony Burke

Sky News

Australian Agenda

Tony Burke


October, 2010

Interview with Tony Burke, Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population

and Communities

Australian Agenda program, 10th October, 2010

Peter Van Onselen:  Hello and welcome to Australian Agenda.  I’m Peter Van Onselen. 

Well there’s no doubting that the big issue of the week is the release of the draft report

on the Murray-Darling Basin plan.  We’ll be speaking shortly to Water and Environment

Minister, Tony Burke, about that very issue, no doubt.  But first let me introduce the

panel.  International affairs correspondent for The Australian, Jennifer Hewett; also from

The Australian, Patricia Karvelas; and the editor at large, Paul Kelly.  Thanks all for your

company.  Paul, the week started with Afghanistan.  The Prime Minister was there.  How

do you see that issue?

Paul Kelly:  We saw some low rent politics this week, Peter, on the Afghanistan issue,

played by both Tony Abbott and Julia Gillard when they took pot shots at each other.  I

don’t think either leader emerged with any credit from this exercise.  Julia Gillard is going

to be under a lot of pressure on Afghanistan in coming months.  We know there will be a

major parliamentary debate on this issue.  The Greens want Australian forces

withdrawn.  The opposition say they want Australian forces reinforced.  What we want to

see for the first time from this Labour government is a thorough strategic assessment of

the situation in Afghanistan, a run-down about how the war is going, the situation in the

province where Australian forces operate, and above all we want to see Julia Gillard not

hide behind the Chief of the Defence Force, Angus Houston.  He’s not the Prime

Minister, she’s the Prime Minister.  She’s got to accept full political responsibility and

provide the assessments for the Australian public.

Peter Van Onselen:  Paul, as I said in the introduction, all things water dominated the

second half of the week, and our political guest is Tony Burke.  How do you see that

issue with the Murray-Darling Basin?

Paul Kelly:  I think the politics of the environment just got a lot more difficult for the

Gillard government.  This new report on the Murray-Darling Basin raises a whole lot of

particularly difficult issues for the government.  The government is committed to getting

water flows back down through the river.  However, this report makes it clear there will

be a very significant economic cost, there will be damage done to rural communities, to

towns, to farmers, and of course above all the states have got to get on board.  This will

be a major challenge for the minister, Tony Burke.

Peter Van Onselen:  On that very note, let’s introduce Tony Burke, Minister for

Sustainability, Water, Population and Communities, thanks very much for joining us here

in the studio.

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Australian Agenda



October 2010

Tony Burke

Tony Burke:  G’day, good to be here.

Peter Van Onselen:  Right off the top, how are you going to make everyone happy?  The

report suggests that I think over 7,000 billion litres of water need to be taken out of the

system and returned to the flow.  Even at the rates that they’re talking about, they’re

talking about only doing anywhere between 3,000 billion and 4,000 billion, yet already

irrigators are talking about things like civil unrest in response to this.  How are you going

to navigate your way through this?

Tony Burke:  Let’s look at what was released.  It was a guide to a draft of a plan.  People

are referring to it as the Basin plan; it’s not.  It’s a guide to a draft document.  

Peter Van Onselen:  Is it going to change that much though?

Tony Burke:  It won’t be until the end of next year that we actually have a Basin plan that

has to be signed off by me, and then needs to maintain the confidence of each house of

parliament, because either house of parliament can vote it down once it’s put in place.

Peter Van Onselen:  But that sounds like you’re saying that we’re a long way off finality

to this, and I accept that.  But the realities of the problem of water flow aren’t going to

change, as identified in the draft report, and the realities of concern on the irrigators’ side

aren’t going to change.  Yes, the parliament is a difficult area to navigate it, but all of that

only adds up to difficulty, but perhaps delayed difficulty with the process yet to come. 

How are you going to work your way through it?

Tony Burke:  The first principle is the figures that have come out that are in that guide,

those figures presume that you would only get there through water buy-backs.  Now

that’s not the case, so first of all I don’t accept that the figures that are put out there,

they’re not government policy, they’re part of a long period of consultation.  But even if

they were, water buy-backs are not the only way that you get there.  There’s $5.8 billion

set aside in infrastructure funding.  Everything that you can do to improve the efficiency

of irrigation makes it easier to meet the environmental demands.

Paul Kelly:  Just on that point, Minister, is what you’re saying that the overall water

reduction figures which the report mentions are between 27% and 37%, are you saying

that you don’t think that we’ll need to do that much?

Tony Burke:  The question is whether or not those figures are only met through reduction

through irrigators, or whether some of those issues are actually met through

improvements and efficiency.  If you do it through improvements and efficiency, then you

don’t have any cut to productivity.

Paul Kelly:  Do you think the figures are essentially correct?  Do you think the figures are

about right?

Tony Burke:  Paul, the last thing I’m going to do is start giving instructions to an

independent authority from the sidelines.  This authority was given its independence by

the Howard government, and given it for good reasons.  The Murray-Darling Basin has

been plagued by being managed as though it were different river systems that all

followed state boundaries.  That’s part of how we got to the problems that we’re in now.

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October 2010

Tony Burke

Paul Kelly:  If we just take your first point about improvements in infrastructure rather

than buy-backs, the Productivity Commission has argued very strongly that relying on

infrastructure improvements is not a very efficient way of operating.  Do you accept that,

or do you think that’s wrong?

Tony Burke:  It will always have to be a mix.  Water buy-backs are part of the equation.

Paul Kelly:  They’re the bulk of it, aren’t they?  You’d accept that water buy-backs are

the bulk of it?

Tony Burke:  There’s three different ways that infrastructure improvements can be made. 

There’s the on farm improvements, which I’ve been seeing some first rate work on that

for more than three years now.  There’s also the improvements in centralised irrigation

infrastructure.  We have proposals from the states that we’re going through due

diligence on that at the moment.  There’s also increasingly a view that through works

and measures we can improve the efficiency of water use in the environmental assets

themselves.  There’s a lot of work coming through there at the moment.  All of these

issues take some of the pressure off what would otherwise be reductions in water for

food production.

Jennifer Hewett:  You were saying that you would be prepared to pay more in the end

through improvements in infrastructure rather than water buy-backs?  You’re prepared

for that trade-off as a Commonwealth Government to pay more?

Tony Burke:  The Commonwealth Government has always been involved with that trade-

off.  That’s why of the money for water for the future, $5.8 billion was set aside for

infrastructure.  The government understands food production is important here.  We

need to get the best possible value for the taxpayer, that’s true.  But we’re also talking

about the nation’s food bowl, and there’s a very difficult balance that needs to be struck


Jennifer Hewett:  So in that sense, you would ignore the arguments of the Productivity

Commission about what is the most efficient way of getting the water back into the


Tony Burke:  I don’t know that doing a mix of competing concerns counts as ignoring; I

don’t accept the premise of that.  Certainly water buy-backs are an important principle,

and within that it’s essential that we keep to the principle the government set down,

which is that we only purchase water from willing sellers.  There’s been some

commentary of some irrigators saying they don’t want to give up their water.  If you don’t

want to sell your water, the government doesn’t want to buy it.

Peter Van Onselen:  What do you do if you don’t have enough willing sellers and the rest

of the mix can’t achieve the difference?

Tony Burke:  Peter, if you have a look at the amount of water that is currently traded and

the water buy-backs that we’ve been involved with so far, we are buying a fraction of

what is actually available and traded on the market.  Already it’s something in the order

of about one in 20 litres that have been purchased.  By 2014 we believe we’ll be at about

one in seven. 

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October 2010

Tony Burke

Patricia Karvelas:  The report predicts 800 job losses.  Are you confident with that

number, or do you think that you should be commissioning more modelling, economic

modelling on the economic impacts on jobs?

Tony Burke:  There’s been some arguments raised about those figures in the report, and

I have no doubt that they need much further analysis, no doubt on that at all.  The first

part of that though, anything on jobs will always be reliant on the presumptions that you

put into the modelling.  Some of these answers will differ catchment by catchment and

they’ll differ depending on how individual irrigators respond to the final policies.  So it’s

too early to be able to get completely accurate figures on those issues.  It’s going to be

part of the consultation process, and the catchment by catchment work is exactly what

the authority is now engaging in.

Patricia Karvelas:  But the authority, I was at their lockup on Friday, they even said we

need more numbers on this.  They were encouraging somebody to do it.  Will you

undertake to do that, to charge the Productivity Commission with that work, or an

independent body to do that work?

Tony Burke:  Some of that work I do believe will come out of the consultation over the

coming weeks, so let’s have a look at how that works out.  But I’ve no doubt, more

analysis needs to be done on this.

Paul Kelly:  But what is your message to these farmers and these rural communities who

are extremely agitated?  You’ve just got to look at the comments.  The degree of angst is

enormous.  What is your message to these people?

Tony Burke:  We need to get a balance that involves three things.  We need a healthy

river system, we need to acknowledge the importance of food production, and we need

strong regional communities.  Those three principles are the three principles that need to

drive this reform.

Paul Kelly:  If we look at the Murray-Darling Basin, this provides about 45% of Australia’s

food production.  One of the consequences of all this is surely going to be that food

costs will go up, that food prices to the consumer will go up.  Do you accept that basic

reality?  And if you do, what’s your message to the Australian people?

Tony Burke:  I don’t accept the principles that you’ve put forward there, simply because

we do not yet have what the figures will be.  No-one has argued that the water

purchases the government’s been involved in so far have had an impact in the way you

described.  Certainly there are a range of crops up and down the Basin, including for

example a whole lot of wine production, where currently there’s a glut on the market. 

We can’t underestimate what might be able to be done through further efficiencies.  So I

just think it’s too early to be reaching those sorts of conclusions.

Peter Van Onselen:  Can we take a step back and can I check something?  At the

election, am I right in understanding the pledge of the government was to go with

whatever the final report was on this issue?  So yes, this is a draft report that we have at

the moment.  But am I right in understanding that the election commitment was to accept

and act on the final report as it is laid out?

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Australian Agenda



October 2010

Tony Burke

Tony Burke:  I’m not going to paraphrase the specific words that were used by Julia

Gillard and Penny Wong at the time. We certainly will not being doing anything that

undermines the independence of the Murray-Darling Basin Authority.  They have a

process to go through now.  Their independence is paramount.  I’m not going to be

giving them instructions from the sidelines.  At the end of all this, we have to go through

our ministerial council process with the state ministers.  I then need to sign off on a

document, and that then needs to survive the parliament.

Patricia Karvelas:  Could it be much different to what they provide?

Tony Burke:  At the moment we don’t know how different their final proposal that they

put forward will be to what came out in the guide.  Let’s not forget, the production of the

guide that happened two days ago, when that came out that is in addition to their

statutory responsibilities.  The law says they have to come out with a proposal.  In

advance of that, they’ve come out with a guide to the draft, and that’s to increase

significantly the level of consultation that they’re otherwise obliged to go down.  But I

think if we get ahead of ourselves, then all I do is undermine the independence of their

role.  I’m not prepared to do that.

Patricia Karvelas:  Are you too locked in by what was said during the election campaign?

Tony Burke:  I’ve got a lot of faith in the consultation that they’ll be engaging in.  I want

people to be involved in that.  I’ve got to say, I’ve got no doubt over the last 48 hours that

people will be engaging in that consultative process in a very strong way.  That’s right. 

This is a major issue.  It’s a major economic issue in regional Australia, it’s a major issue

for food production for our whole nation, and it’s a major environmental issue.

Paul Kelly:  Minister, at the end of the day, are you committed to working with the states

on this, on a cooperative basis?  Or have you got on the table the option of seeking full

Commonwealth powers, which was floated by Tony Abbott earlier this year?

Tony Burke:  We have the planning powers and everything that’s been discussed at the

moment is about what might end up being in a Basin plan.  So I’m confident that we can

work cooperatively with the states.  I intend to work cooperatively with the states.

Paul Kelly:  So there’s no fallback position in terms of seeking Commonwealth powers

over water?  You’ve got all the powers you need, that’s what you’re saying?

Tony Burke:  I’m intending to work cooperatively with the states.

Paul Kelly:  And you don’t need extra powers?

Tony Burke:  I don’t believe I do, and I’m intending to work cooperatively.

Jennifer Hewett:  With the plan itself, are you saying that the government’s response

could radically alter whatever the final plan comes up with?  Are you saying that the

government’s response to that could be significantly different?

Tony Burke:  I don’t believe that we’ll end up in that sort of situation at all.  

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Australian Agenda



October 2010

Tony Burke

Peter Van Onselen:  The Prime Minister has changed her position because of the new

paradigm on things like the consideration of a carbon tax.  What about the effects of the

new paradigm with rural independence being so important in the lower house to your

ability to act on the final Murray-Darling Basin report when it comes through?

Tony Burke:  Let’s not forget, irrigators need a healthy river too.  The health of the

system throughout the Basin is in the interests of irrigators.  The question that you pose

once again asks me to get in front of the independent role that the Murray-Darling Basin

Authority is playing.  I want them to play their role, I want it to be done independently, I

have faith in the quality of the consultation they will engage in and, as I said, I have a lot

of faith in the vigour with which people will be engaging in that consultative process.

Paul Kelly:  The question we can ask you is how much faith do you have in the

parliament, in the nature of this parliament at the end of the day to be able to legislate

the sort of scheme that you’ll come up with?

Tony Burke:  If the consultation is done right, if the different issues are taken into

account properly, if we find every possible way of being able to drive efficiencies across

the Basin, then I do believe the parliament will have the maturity to deal with this.  While

it’s always been a very hot issue and divisive issue within the community, let’s not forget

the Water Act itself has been there as Howard government legislation that remained

there during the last term, and there actually has been, once you get to the

parliamentary process, a much higher level of bipartisanship in this than you might think

after the last 48 hours.

Paul Kelly:  So what you’re actually saying is, you think consensus is possible in this


Tony Burke:  I do believe that the parliament’s got the maturity to be able to deal with


Patricia Karvelas:  What’s the politics in relation to this?  If you look up and down the

river, they’re coalition held seats.  It seems to me that the only place that you’ve got to

win votes is perhaps in the inner city seats where people are desperate for water to be

returned back to the river.  How will you manage doing what’s right for the government,

but actually your political interests are not in necessarily delivering.  There are no seats

really to be won for Labor, are there?

Tony Burke:  I don’t think it matters where you live in Australia.  A lot of the food that you

eat comes from the Murray-Darling Basin.  I think anybody who tried to look at these

issues through a political prism would get whacked left, right and centre from every part

of the nation.

Jennifer Hewett:  Minister, on another issue, one area that you can’t put off is the coal

seam gas area and the decisions you’ve got to make within a couple of weeks on some

major projects in Queensland.  How do you measure up the competing pressures in that

in terms of environmental and economic impacts?

Tony Burke:  One of the first things I did on becoming Environment Minister was to travel

up and have a look at the site.  So I went to Chinchilla and to Gladstone to have a look

at the actual sites for the proposals there, as well as meeting with some of the

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Tony Burke

community members who object to them and the companies themselves.  There are

major economic issues there, but there are major environmental issues.  We’re talking

about the head waters of the Darling River.  These are decisions that I have to make

based on the sites, based on the information that’s put before me.  I’ll be following the

rules of the statute on that.  But yes, as a balancing situation, these are very big issues

with strong environmental arguments and strong economic issues.

Jennifer Hewett:  So in the end you’re going to have to come down one side or the

other?  Now the companies for example have said that the water table, in worst case

scenarios, might actually fall quite substantially.  How do you balance that?  You’re

going to have to disappoint the companies, or disappoint the environmentalists in a very

big way.

Tony Burke:  There are three options, not two, when these issues come up before that

act.  There is approval, there is rejection or there is conditional approval.  The way you

put conditions on can be something that sometimes finds a way through.

Jennifer Hewett:  Sounds like conditional approval, doesn’t it?

Tony Burke:  Well, your pre-judging processes that we’re still going through.  But you put

forward two of the options, I’m just letting you know there’s a third.

Peter Van Onselen:  Minister, population is another one of the areas of your

responsibility.  The head of the Australian Workers Union, Paul Howse, in his column

today in The Sunday Telegraph has said that he is a fan of a big Australia, that there has

been a lack of political leadership on both sides on this issue of immigration and

population.  Do you agree with him about that?

Tony Burke:  I think there’s a problem with how the debate is conducted.

Peter Van Onselen:  On both sides?

Tony Burke:  Yes, there’s aspects of Paul’s article today that I agree with, aspects that I

don’t.  I think whenever we talk about Australia’s population purely in terms of national

numbers, we miss the point.  The distribution of population through Australia is what

makes it work or not work.  For people who say there’s an economic driver by having

more and more people, well not if they’re in the wrong parts of the nation from where the

economy needs them.   I think we need to be smarter than just saying, well if we get

more people, that’s more construction, more housing.  You want to be able to drive a

productivity agenda, and you also want to be mindful of the fact that if large numbers of

people settle in parts of Australia where it’s not economically productive, that’s not

necessarily real smart for the nation.

Patricia Karvelas:  Ultimately though, Paul’s argument is at the heart of the Labor Party. 

There are people still in the Labor Party who do believe in a big Australia.  Do you think

that that message during the election that you were now opposed to a big Australia is

consistent?  Or do you think there are sort of fault lines?  There are people within the

party who were not comfortable with that position?

Tony Burke:  There’s always a range of views within the party on perhaps every issue. 

But yes, certainly on that one.  I still hold that the most important issue here remains the

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Tony Burke

spread of population.  The most important issue remains ensuring that our infrastructure

keeps pace with the developments that we have.  But the idea of thinking that it’s

somehow good for the economy to continue to engage in endless urban sprawl, I don’t

think that’s smart.

Paul Kelly:  If we look at the election, one of the consequences was we saw very big

swings against the Labor Party in heavily migrant seats.  Many Labor people think that

the campaign against a big Australia was a factor here.  Do you think there was any

negative for the government in this position?

Tony Burke:  I think the policy that we took was the right one for Australia. 

Paul Kelly:  But do you think there was a downside in some of these seats?

Tony Burke:  People have different views.  There’s no doubt that you’ll find some people

who didn’t like our approach to that policy.  You’ll find other people where it was

particularly important for them.  The question that I think needs to be asked and that we

need to be dealing with is, what’s the right policy for Australia?  I’m confident we took

that forward.

Jennifer Hewett:  But Minister, there’s always this argument about the spread of

population and getting away from areas of western Sydney and urban sprawl, as you

talked about.  That’s been a goal for years, but no government’s actually ever been able

to do it.  The fact is, that’s where most of the immigrants end up.

Tony Burke:  But there’s a difference at the moment to where this has ever been in the

past.  In the past whenever people have talked about decentralisation, it’s been

government intervention that’s been the way of delivering it.  This time it’s actually being

driven by the market.  The mining boom with the movement of retirees and the

opportunities that’ll come with the national broadband network means that we now have

market drivers where previously we hadn’t.

Peter Van Onselen:  Minister, we’ll let you go.  We appreciate you joining us on this

Sunday.  Thank for your company.

Tony Burke:  Thanks.

Peter Van Onselen:  You’re watching Australian Agenda.  When we come back, we’ll

have the pedal on this very issue, and we’ll also have a response from the opposition,

Simon Birmingham.  This is Australian Agenda.

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