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Published: 17 August 2018   •   Speeches and transcripts

Thanks for the invitation to speak and to be here. Can I first of all acknowledge the Traditional Owners of the land on which we meet today, and pay my respects to their elders past and present, and offer similar respect to any Aboriginal people in the audience today.

Can I also recognise that in the audience today we have the Chair of the MDBA, Neil Andrew. He's going to answer all the hard questions. So direct them to him. But he'll be around after this event as well to answer those questions.

We were in St George on Monday and Tuesday having a regional meeting of our Authority. All the members of the Authority were there.

We also announced the opening of our fourth regional office in Goondiwindi, where we're hoping we can do better in getting out to talk to the community, getting out and engaging with locals, getting out and engaging with industry and environmental interests as well.

We also announced we'll continue on with our regional engagement officer program, where we're making that a permanent part of our world.

Can I also perhaps at this stage acknowledge the contribution of the cotton industry to Australia.

Cotton growers contribute about $1.5 billion a year to the economy. They underpin around about 150 rural communities. And you've obviously made significant improvements in water use efficiency, which is what the Basin Plan is all about.

I'm advised you have achieved a 40 per cent increase in water productivity over the past decade alone, and that our irrigated lint yields are the highest of any major producing country.

As Cotton Australia, always eloquent as Michael has demonstrated this morning, puts it -- more crop per drop – and that's what a lot of this is all about.

Finally, can I acknowledge the ongoing impacts of the drought, and the challenges it poses for everybody.

BASIN PLAN:

I've been asked to talk about the Murray Darling Basin Plan, where we're up to, how we're travelling and where it might go, what happens next.

I'm not sure that we always appreciate why we have the Murray Darling Basin Plan and what we're trying to do here. I don't have time to go through all the different values that Australians place on the Murray Darling Basin and its assets. But it is significant.

The pictorial slides that I have got here are our attempt to demonstrate what some of that value set is, and what we're trying to do here and the values that Australians place on it. Our job is to make sure those values are protected for everybody, because everybody has a share.

What I'm going to try to say today is, as we're trying to say with these slides, the Basin Plan is seeking to protect these values for all of us, now and into the future, in a fair way. We love the place to death.

Secondly, the Basin Plan always will be controversial and criticised. We've got the South Australian Royal Commission, we've had umpteen different inquiries. We will continue to have that. I will continue to be given lots of advice on how to do my job better.

The third thing is that the Basin Plan won't drought proof the Basin. But it has and it will over time make industries and the environment more resilient in times of drought and stress.

The fourth point is that we have made progress. We're six years into a 12-year implementation phase, but there is still a lot more to do. We've had some success and some failures, but we need to keep going.

My fifth point, is that there is no Plan B. We came really close to losing the bipartisan multi-jurisdictional support for the plan earlier in the year. For me at least, beginning to contemplate what that would mean to industries, to the community, to the environment of the Murray-Darling Basin, isn't worth thinking about. We shouldn't walk away from a bipartisan, multi-government supported $13 billion plan.

My overall message strangely enough is fairly similar to what Michael Murray from Cotton Australia was saying at the start. We've got to stay the course. Let's get on board. Let's work together. Let's get the most out of this for this industry and other industries as well.

So where are we up to?

One of the things I've been asked a lot about, particularly given the onset of yet another drought, is what's different now compared to six years ago?

The whole idea about the Basin Plan back in the millennium drought was that we are going to fix all of this. Now we are in drought again, particularly in the north. But one thing, one value that we get out of the Plan … is we are much more resilient.

First of all, water for critical human needs is now prioritised over other water users. The water that we need to sustain the environment is now managed in a separate pool outside of the pool of water available to irrigators. There are agreed triggers.

We've learnt a lot from the experience in the drought. We've got triggers and plans and rules across the Basin to share water under very dry scenarios.

As I've said before, irrigators have improved their irrigation water efficiency, in part through Basin Plan funding. It helps them manage better during dry times, even though it is extremely difficult. And the water market now exists, it is getting stronger, and it can be used by irrigators who want to manage their own business risks, to carry over allocations or to go and buy or sell water on the temporary market. This increased resilience has come about as a result of the Basin Plan.

So in terms of how the Basin Plan has been going, what are the successes so far?

We did a review last year of the first five years of the operation of the Plan. The findings were promising, they weren't perfect. The Basin Plan got a pass, not a high distinction. There's a few amber and red lights on the dashboard.

The review found we're delivering more water to the environment, and we're making better use of that water, we're making better use of water going into farming and communities. It is overall more efficient.

The Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder now has 1906 gigalitres (GL) of permanent water entitlement that she can use to quench the thirst of rivers, wetlands and floodplains across the Basin.

The Commonwealth Environmental Water holder has provided more than 8000 GL over the last 10 years back to the environment. It is making a difference, a demonstrable difference, to the health of the Basin. More water is making its way through the system, and it is being used over and over again as it goes through that system and goes towards the Murray Mouth.

We're improving water quality. We're seeing solid improvements for fish and wildlife. In the past year alone we've had the largest Murray cod spawning event in 20 years, the first recorded pelican breeding event at Nimmie-Caira, and we've improved the protection of threatened species such as the Murray hardyhead fish and the southern bell frog. We've also seen aquatic vegetation recover to levels not seen since before the millennium drought to support fish and birds.

We're five years in. You don't turn around environmental degradation of the last 45 – 50 years overnight. But you can see those signs.

On the social and economic side, we are now in a position that we weren't in 2012 to estimate the impact of changes to water management at a community level, at the regional level, at a township level. The situation differs enormously town by town, community by community. We know and we can quantify that there have been adverse outcomes in many water dependent communities. That was anticipated when the Basin Plan was developed. We've published our estimates of the adverse employment impacts of the Basin Plan. We've don't that for over 60 communities across the Basin, 21 in the north and a little over 40 in the south.

At the macro level, the Basin-wide level, the Basin's economy has continued to grow. The Basin's agricultural economy has continued to grow, but it has grown at a lesser rate than the agricultural economy has grown in the rest of Australia outside of the Basin. It is clear the recovery of water is going to have an impact and we knew that when the Basin Plan was being developed.

Other industries have grown up as well. The tourism industry has now overtaken the irrigation industry for its value. It is worth about $8 billion a year. That has got nothing necessarily to do with the Basin Plan, but there are some signs here which we have to look at.

Now some regions and communities have been able to adjust quickly to the removal of water. They are less dependent on water. They have got other industries as well. But there are other regions which we've identified in a lot of our reports where there is much more significant impact. St George and Dirranbandi come to mind, Collarenebri and Warren are others in this part of the world. They just have fewer opportunities to diversify.

In terms of irrigation efficiencies, the bottom line is that the Commonwealth Government has spent a lot of money in trying to improve and enhance irrigation infrastructure to improve efficiency. And that has not been without its challenges for the irrigation industry. It‘s really hard to change behaviour. It's really hard to change in the time scale we have been talking about. But it has been happening.

I think the Australian community at large is unaware of the significant impacts of that change. They see that money has gone to the irrigation community, but they don't see the impacts, the social and economic consequences of making those changes. And I think it is about time people started to recognise that. Again, that has been an experience in line with our expectations in 2012.

The areas we're not doing so well.

Water Resource Planning. There are 33 individual plans we have to complete to embed the Basin Plan settings into on-the-ground action. The states have the responsibility for bringing those plans forward. We have responsibility for accrediting them to make sure they reflect what is in the Basin Plan. We're a little bit behind. We've got one plan of those 33 accredited. The other 32 have to be accredited by 30th of June next year. That means a lot of work over the next 12 months by the States and the MDBA, to try to hit that deadline. I'm really encouraged by the work done so far, but we are a certainly behind time and the light on the dashboard is flickering.

The protection of environmental water – pretty hard in an unregulated system in this part of the world. But that remains another challenge where we've indicated in our evaluation we're not doing as well as we thought we might.

The connected event that the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder and the New South Wales Government ran a couple of months ago had water go from Copeton and Glenlyon dams all the way down to the Menindee lake system –2,000 kilometres. Unheard of. This would not have been possibly dreamt of a year ago. But through the cooperation of the New South Wales Government, the industries, the irrigators, we were able to do that. It is a real glimmer of hope that we will actually be able to deliver environmental water to where it needs to be to better benefit the environment.

Compliance is another area where we've clearly not done well. I don't think I need to remind anyone that Four Corners painted us all in a bad light. Cotton growers have I think perhaps the most to gain if together we can strengthen confidence in our water regulatory regime. We undertook a review that has led to a Basin wide compliance compact, where the states and the MDBA have committed, and ministers endorsed this in June of this year, to do better on that. We all have to do better if we are going to get a result, if we are going to have the community have confidence that we are protecting the values of the Murray–Darling Basin.

In terms of what's next. We're getting on with it. Water Resource Plans by June of next year.

Governments, state governments, the Commonwealth Government, have to build the infrastructure that improves the efficiency of water on farm and off farm and also the efficiency of how we deliver environmental water. The 605 gigalitres that Michael talked about, that has to be built, constructed designed, operated to provide those environmental values. That has got to be done by 2024.

We'll keep going, maintaining the emphasis on compliance. We're going to root out any problems that we have, any bad behaviour because it is in our interest. And we'll continue to report on progress.

CONCLUSION:

My fear is that we spend a lot of time looking backwards. We spend a lot of time diving down into the issues of the past. As Michael said earlier today, the time has come now to look to the future. We're past the Parliamentary hurdles that were white-anting the Basin plan. We came close to losing that bipartisan support in the early part of this year.

Through Minister Littleproud and the Opposition spokesperson Tony Burke, it is back on track.

It is up to us to deliver.

So I'll come back to my overall conclusions.

There is no plan B.

Let's stay the course.

Let's stick to the bi-partisan, multi-government fully-funded plan.

Let's get on board. Six years in, six to go.

Let's make the most of those next six years.

And I welcome Cotton Australia's commitment to do that.

Thanks for listening.

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