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Published: 17 August 2020   •   Speeches and transcripts

FK: Well there's been steady rainfall across much of South Eastern Australia in recent months putting an end to what was one of the worst droughts in Australia's recorded history. And that's pushed the problem of managing the country's scarce water resources into the background for a moment, but the fundamental problem of how to share water across the driest continent on Earth remains a problem. Angus Houston has just been appointed as chair of the Murray-Darling Basin Authority. Angus Houston welcome back to RN breakfast.

AH: Good morning Fran.

FK: You're one week into this job as chair of the MDBA, the Murray-Darling Basin Authority, which has the job of implementing and delivering on the Murray–Darling Basin Plan by 2024. I want to say congratulations but it's a massive and problematic task I think – why have you decided to take it on?

AH: Well I basically like a challenge, but beyond that, water is a critical resource for Australia. I think everybody realizes that. In recent times we've seen the effect of droughts and how detrimental they are to the security of a lot of our communities, particularly out there in the Murray-Darling Basin. I mean in the Darling system there were communities there that almost ran out of out of town water, water to drink, so I think it's a real national issue, it's a huge challenge, and I would like to assist with basically doing whatever we can in terms of improving the system so that we get an equitable and fair sharing of the available water and wherever we can we can use science, technology to improve the way that we recover water, we use water, and so on.

FK: I mean, we need to do two things: we need to get more water into the river system somehow and use it more effectively, and we need to make it fair, it's very divisive, balancing, you know, what appear to be diametrically opposed interests sometimes between large farming companies and smaller farming communities, and the environment of course is there too. You've got a reputation of being a quiet consensus-builder; how are you going to do that without someone losing?

AH: Well, first of all, I don't think it's about winning and losing, I think it's about – my approach to the job will be to basically build relationships. I think relationships are going to be absolutely key here; build constructive relationships which eventually build trust. And what that requires is a lot of learning about what the different issues that confront people, communities, individuals; listen to the concerns, listen to the different perspectives, and in order to do that I'm going to have to engage quite widely with people and communities. But my approach will be built on relationships and I will be open, transparent, and highly collaborative. And as, you know, you mentioned, how, you know, winners and losers, well I've got to be completely impartial in supporting the governments that are all part of this, and the art will be in balancing, you know, diverse and important interests from the lowest level to the highest level, and you're right, it's going to be a big challenge and well I relish the opportunity to have a go at that.

FK: I think trust is key, and I think there's been a trust deficit at the moment, there's plenty of people who have got, written lots of reports on this and they've got lots of free advice for you, just let me quote and I'll quote a number of points from this report, but the Mick Keelty's recent report, one of his findings was that we need a single point of truth here, we need transparency and we need leadership. Do you think you can help provide that?

AH: Well I think, it's, it's yeah, I think I can provide the leadership, but it's a massive challenge because there are so many stakeholders. I mean the Authority, one of the, I think there are two distinct functions that I have at the highest level and that's obviously to, you know, deliver the Plan. It's a Plan that was launched by the, all the governments, it's bipartisan and it's a good plan for, basically, reforming the water system in the Murray–Darling.

FK Well is it? I mean is it a good plan? It's due to be delivered by 2024; there's been some points recently where it's been close to collapse, some states arguing it must be radically changed or they will dump it. There's been calls for the Federal Government to consider reallocating some of the water set aside for the environment. I mean, there are some who say it's the only plan we've got, we've got to make it work. This is what you're dealing with, who has the authority here I suppose to – no-one seemed to be able to say "well this is it, this is what we're doing", without individual states saying "that's not good enough, we're going to pull out of it."

AH Well, you know, I think that the important thing is that, you know, I will be sitting at the top of the MDBA Authority. Now, it's called an Authority but really what we are is a facilitator, an agency that basically brings together all the stakeholders, and essentially addresses the delivery of the Plan. The Plan is a very good one. I mean, nobody else in the world has taken on this challenge in the way we have. Okay, there's some challenges within the Plan; I mean, the recovery of the environmental water via efficiency measures, that's got a long way to go, and I know there have been predictions that that won't be achieved, but there's also the need to use supply and constraint projects to deliver another 605 gigalitres of supply water. Now, what's required, I think, is to hold to the Plan, work with governments, work with officials, work with communities, work with all the stakeholder groups, all the interest groups, and work with the farmers, to basically deliver what needs to be delivered.

FK Yes, but who's delivering it? Is that the problem? Let me quote some more free advice – there is no shortage of it – as I mentioned, the Productivity Commission, the last five year review found a river system in crisis; Brett Walker SC as South Australia's Royal Commissioner of the river system found a complete overhaul of the scheme is needed. He found Commonwealth officials had committed negligence and unlawful actions. Talking about gross maladministration. Is the system rotten, is that, you know, does it need to be not just the Plan implemented but those in charge of implementing it cleaned out?

AH Well I think, you know, I think that's - we're looking back, quite, there's a bit of… when did that report come out, it was quite some time ago now…

FK I think the last couple of years?

AH Yeah, but I think that what I'm seeing is a very good team; Phillip Clyde the CEO at MDBA is doing a magnificent job, and he has got a really good team behind him. They are facing a very challenging set of circumstances. It's not an easy job but I think they're making a real fist of it, and if you have a look at our report card, there are good things that are happening. Okay, there are a couple of areas where we're challenged, but you know, we're working towards delivering the Plan and in terms of what I've seen thus far, I haven't seen anything but a very strong commitment to running the river as best as it can be run. That's the River Murray system obviously, not the Darling system, and we do that on behalf of the state governments, Victoria, New South Wales and South Australia. South Australia relies on, its water comes from the Murray-Darling and we service 3.6 million Australians and provide them with water for their basic needs. So, you know, all of these things are wrapped up in a very comprehensive Plan, and I think that we have to stick with the Plan because it's legislation, it's basically to change it in a major way would be, would set the reform back a number of years, in my view. And I think we need to stick with it and I think we can go forward on the basis of that Plan. That's my impression after one week in the job. Really a couple of days of briefings and here I am.

FK All right, here you are, it's sixteen minutes past eight, our guest is Sir Angus Houston, chair of the Murray–Darling Basin Authority for one week so far. Got the job ahead of him.

Can I go to a past role you held as Chief of the Defence Force: the Inspector General of the ADF is expected to release findings sometime very soon into allegations that Australia's special force soldiers murdered unarmed civilians in Afghanistan. The Defence Minister has warned us already these findings will be significant, and they will be dismaying. You were Chief of the Defence Force for some of the period that's been investigated by the Brereton investigation. What responsibility do you hold for this as CDF, you know, in terms of the culture of the SAS in particular.

AH: Well, I'd like to wait for the report before I start going down a particular direction, but let me just say this: whoever, whoever is in uniform or a suit when we are conducting these sorts of campaigns that we've been conducting in recent times, we are bound by the laws of armed conflict. Those laws of armed conflict guide the way we develop the rules of engagement and the policy documents around how to handle detainees and so on and so forth. I think, you know, I think those things in my time were done according to, they complied with the laws of armed conflict, and I think if there is a shortcoming in what we did in that area, I should be held accountable. But essentially, I'd like to, in terms of the, you know, what happened out there in Afghanistan, I think we need to wait for the Brereton report, read it, and take stock, and I am guided by what the Minister has said, I think it will be uncomfortable reading but I'm not going to speculate any further than that, except to say, the laws of armed conflict are very clear and we should always follow and be bound by them, and people should be held accountable to those laws.

FK: Angus Houston, thank you very much for joining us on Breakfast.

AH: Thank you very much Fran.

FK: And good luck with this task ahead. Angus Houston is Chair of the Murray-Darling Basin Authority.

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