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Published: 14 September 2020   •   Speeches and transcripts

Good morning delegates and thank you Dominique [Schwartz] for your kind introduction.

First of all, I'd like to acknowledge the Traditional Owners of the Murray–Darling, and pay my respects to their elders past, present and emerging, I'd also like to offer my respect to all Aboriginal people in the audience today.

I firmly believe your voices are critically important to the future health of the Basin and to the wellbeing of every one of us.

I'd like to acknowledge the Murray Darling Association National President David Thurley, and the many distinguished guests online today. It's great to be with you.

I'm not going to talk for long, but I'd like to share some of my insights, as a newcomer to water, including what I've heard and what I hope to bring to this role.

A little bit about me.

Just a month into the job, it's clear that I have arrived at a time of change. Change within the MDBA, which Phillip will speak to; a recommitment to invest in regional communities, announced this month by the Water Minister Keith Pitt; and hopefully a change in the weather, given recent forecasts.

I know from first–hand experience that the weather shapes communities profoundly and can make or break them. In my case I went broke as a sharefarmer during a drought in WA in 1969 when I was on a large wheat and sheep property.

I was forced off the farm with many debts and applied successfully to join the Air Force.

Ironically, perhaps, my most vivid memory of the Basin from that time was during the 1974 flood rescuing people off roof–tops and levee banks along the Barwon–Darling River in and around Walgett and Collarenebri and further downstream.

Now I feel I've almost come full circle. And I'm very pleased and grateful to be here.

You don't need me to tell you this is a tough gig, and you can probably guess I had quite a few raised eyebrows when I accepted the position. Why would I want to take on such a contested job and a space where no one ever seems to be happy?

I can tell you why—quite simply, having the Basin on track is critical for our nation. The Murray Darling Basin is an ecological and economic powerhouse.

It is about the nation's economy, it's about the wellbeing and the future of First Nations people, and the health of farming communities that clothe us, feed us, and care for the country.

I will do my best to be part of the solution to water policy across communities and governments. To give the rivers what they need and strong communities what they need.

We all know the Basin Plan and the MDBA itself is rarely out of the news. We need to understand the detail across a million square kilometres and we need to view it as one Basin.

So, what have I heard so far?

I've been very impressed with the depth of knowledge and commitment to the task from everyone I have met. That includes the staff within the MDBA who are dedicated to managing water for everyone's benefit. It also includes industry leaders and important community leaders such as yourselves.

I've heard that there's a deficit of trust, that competing interests are immovable, that the Basin Plan doesn't deliver equally for everyone.

I don't doubt any of this. But what I've also witnessed is a great willingness to cooperate, to find solutions, and to find ways to be more transparent. This gives me hope.

Because I strongly believe the way forward is to collaborate, to be open and to be willing to sit down together.

I met with the Murray River Group of Councils, and they told me they were concerned about the future of the dairy industry, and the effects of water reform on community fabric.

The Northern Basin Aboriginal Nations and the Murray Lower–Darling Rivers Indigenous Nations told me they're encouraged by steps to improve Aboriginal involvement in water management, but they want a greater focus on water ownership.

I heard from the National Farmers Federation that building relationships and finding common ground is key. A single source of truth of information on water was important to them.

I met with scientists from the CSIRO, the Academy of Science, the ONEBasin CRC, the Wentworth Group and the MDBA's independent science panel.  They welcome new funding for water research, want to increase research and development in the regions and regard climate change as the major challenge ahead.

I heard from the National Irrigators Council that the best thing for communities is to implement the Plan, to heed the Productivity Commission and make sure water for the environment is used effectively.

The Lifeblood Alliance, speaking for floodplain graziers, nature conservation councils, individual farmers and others focusing on river health, told me that the slow progress to improve protection of water in the northern Basin is a concern, as is the full recovery of water required under the Basin Plan.

The rice growers explained to me their commitment to educate their members, to keep them informed, and their biggest issue is the reliability of general security licences.

And I met with cotton growers, who told me a major disappointment is that the Basin Plan is not properly recognised as the world–leading reform it is.

That's just a snapshot. It reflects the diversity of views, perspectives and interests. It also reflects the challenge.

When the COVID pandemic allows, I plan to travel the Basin. And I have a five–day trip planned at the end of the month to parts of NSW. I want to hear and understand the full range of views about how the Basin should be managed.

So to conclude I can tell you, from what I've heard in the past month, I'm struck by three things.

First, people place a high value on protecting the Basin, on looking after our producers and communities, looking after our natural river systems and importantly looking after our communities. There's a shared passion for the future of the Basin.

Second, is the simple fact that we don't have all the answers. We have ideas, we're building the science, we have experience, we have best intentions. But as a community we simply don't know everything, so it's imperative that we pull in the same direction, pool our knowledge and move forward on the basis of evidence we collect. Listen, learn and adapt.

Third, people look to the MDBA as a means for collaboration, to broker solutions and to be the truth teller. This gives me heart. It shows that as an organisation we are receptive and open, and people keep coming back.

Like the rest of the community, we have more to do to improve transparency and engagement. My challenge is to build that trust, to do even better and to move the discussion forward.

I am thankful for the strong history of engagement with the MDA. There is a truly stunning level of knowledge and expertise across all areas.

Of course, the role played by local government and the MDA in particular is critical. Councils are always having to balance competing interests.

Finally, my commitment to you is to establish constructive relationships. Constructive relationships that build trust with Basin Communities. I will be open and transparent. I will be collaborative and inclusive. I will be impartial and show respect.

I thank the MDA family for opening your door to me today. I look forward to meeting you all in person in the weeks and months ahead. Thank you for having me today.


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