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Published: 15 September 2020   •   Speeches and transcripts

Thank you to Emma and David from the Murray Darling Association for the invitation to speak to you all today.

I also acknowledge the Traditional Owners of the lands on which we are meeting, and pay my respects to the Elders past, present and emerging of the 45 nations that comprise the Basin. I offer similar respect to all Aboriginal people listening in today.

It's always a pleasure to be part of this annual gathering of minds and community experiences. 

Today, I'd like to provide a quick update on water management in 2020, acknowledge the release of the independent review chaired by Robbie Sefton, and reflect on some of the progress we've all made with the Basin Plan this year.

Seasonal outlook – how it's changed

This time last year, when I spoke to you in Toowoomba, the focus was on the challenge of persistent drought.

Since then, Basin communities have been battered by record-breaking hot and dry weather, ongoing water shortages, bushfires and in some cases by flood.

In February we saw the first promising signs that the oppressive drought was starting to break. Good rain in the northern Basin brought hope for the year ahead, and Murray inflows finally started to pick up.

On top of the considerable challenges we have the COVID-19 pandemic and the upheaval it has created for communities, particularly border communities.

While COVID has restricted the travel our Canberra-based team can do, our network of regional staff are well connected and keep us in the loop on a daily basis.

As you'll see from these photos from our regional staff—across the Basin it's a mixed bag.

This slide shows some failing crops in south-west Queensland where the rain has stopped; to south-west NSW and South Australia, where crops and pastures in many parts are thriving with good rain in recent weeks. In SA, wheat has come into head.

As this slide of Basin water storages as of 2 September shows, our storages are still trending up which is a positive sign. This time last year they started trending down. Across the whole Basin we're 500 gigalitres ahead of where we were at the same time last year.

But you'll notice the drought—particularly in the northern Basin—is far from over and storages are still recovering.

Like many of you, we are pinning our hopes on the Bureau's forecast of a wet spring. 

MDBA response to Sefton panel review

While many of us have been focused on the change in the weather, we've equally had our eye on the range of reviews in the Basin.

I wanted to focus on one of these—the socio-economic review. The work by Robbie Sefton and the panel has made a critical contribution to our collective understanding of the Basin today.

It also builds on analysis that we did a few years ago. This work really hadn't been done before. It is information that the ABS just doesn't collect—these communities are too small for them to worry about. They are too local.

But back in 2016 we sat down at the dining room tables of local business people in places like St George and Collarenebri and started to flesh out how the water reforms were really impacting communities and their economies—not just the irrigators but the industries that depend on agriculture and the other local businesses.

Robbie and the panel have put the meat on the bones of our early analysis, and it's a terrific piece of work.

The panel's extensive work confirmed four things:

  • Communities want genuine engagement.
  • The complexity of agencies and players means that trust in government is declining.
  • It's not just about water—many drivers of change are impacting the Basin, such as technology, markets, an ageing workforce, population movement and climate change.
  • And the pace of change is too much for some.

We know larger centres like Mildura, Griffith, Stanthorpe, Wagga and Shepparton have done well, some of them benefiting from new investment in high value crops like cotton and almonds.

But we also know that some of the small towns like Warren, Deniliquin and Balranald have been doing it tough, very tough.

It's a complex and mixed picture.

While not seen by everyone, the MDBA has been advocating for increased support for communities for some time. Like you, we want strong, engaged and healthy communities thinking about their future. We don't want communities left behind.

A healthy working basin requires healthy working communities. Improved water management cannot progress without community support.

Response to Government initiatives

Earlier this month the Federal Minister for Water, Keith Pitt, announced the government response to the raft of reviews, including the Sefton panel report.

It focused on communities and jobs and set out a package of 11 actions, supported by more than $230 million in funding to get on with implementing the Basin Plan.

We welcome the assistance and support that will be provided to communities by the Federal government. This is long overdue.

Some of the actions taken by the government address issues we have been hearing about from stakeholders for a long time.

I'm not going into them all now. I don't want to steal Minister Pitt's lines for later in this conference but two that really resonated with us are the need for clearer information and calls for a stand-alone regulator.

The call for clearer information is something Mick Keelty flagged in his review of the Murray–Darling Basin Agreement, and we've heard this time and time again.

This has prompted us to look again at what more we can do to improve transparency and two-way communication.

This is a priority for me. I know it's also a priority for Sir Angus.

That's why we're taking a series of initiatives to boost collaboration.

We will also work with the government on their plans to establish a statutory Inspector General of Water Compliance, to deliver the highest accountability for water use by strengthening compliance.

This will see our Office of Compliance—a team of around 20 people—merge with the Interim Inspector General. Successful water reform requires a strong, independent and successful regulator.

Regardless of who does what, we all want a healthy working river.

As we have always done, we will continue to tell the truth on the Basin Plan and report on progress—the good, the bad and the ugly.

Our report cards and reviews aren't always comfortable reading for governments and other agencies. But they are necessary, so that policies and programs can be adjusted to make sure we end up with a truly sustainable Murray–Darling Basin, where all its values are protected and can be enjoyed by our children and grandchildren and their children and grandchildren.

Basin Plan achievements

While there are inevitable pressures in rolling out the Plan, I think it's important to step back and reflect on the year's achievements.

We are moving forward, and we are seeing the pieces of the Basin Plan come together.

The most significant milestone is the fact that all the water resource plans are in. The last of them, from New South Wales, were received at the end of June.

Another achievement I'm particularly proud of is that we are growing our regional presence in the Basin, as the Deputy Prime Minister mentioned this morning.

While COVID has restricted our travel, it hasn't slowed our progress towards tripling our workforce who live and work beyond Canberra.

We will have more than 100 MDBA officials outside Canberra by the middle of next year. Already 70 staff members are working across the Basin in seven different regional locations.

Many of our new staff are from these local communities. They're known and they have great local connections. This helps us better understand local communities, it helps build trust and encourages meaningful dialogue on water management issues.

In closing, I'd like to emphasise my commitment, and that of all 280-odd staff members at the MDBA, to open and genuine relationships with the full range of stakeholders in the Basin.

Everyone's perspective is valuable.

My time spent talking and exchanging knowledge with local government continues to be one of the best avenues for the MDBA to understand what's happening, to get great ideas and advise governments on how best to adjust the Basin Plan and deliver what we all want – a healthy, working Murray Darling Basin.


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