Topics: Murray-Darling Basin reforms, investment in irrigation infrastructure, One-Stop Shop reforms, EPBC Act, National Party Conference, Prime Minister, climate change
Good morning. A decade ago, the Murray-Darling Basin and the Murray River were on a path to unsustainability.
Australia's greatest river system and one of the world's great river systems was oversubscribed and overtaxed.
Too much water was being taken out and there was uncertainty for the magnificent Murray-Darling Basin ecology – the river red gums, the Murray River cod, the ecological communities.
There was uncertainty in terms of critical human needs – drinking water – and there was uncertainty in particular for the future of our farmers.
A decade ago, we started the process which led to the 2007 Howard Government plan for the Murray-Darling Basin.
That plan has now taken a huge step forward. We will achieve – after today and the result in the Senate – the Murray-Darling Basin Plan in full and on time.
This is a signature moment in water reform in Australian parliamentary history. It's a signature environmental reform which will help the Murray-Darling Basin.
What has happened today? The Senate, on a bipartisan basis, with the support not just of the Labor Party – whom I thank – but also with the support of the crossbench who have been extremely cooperative – whom I also thank – and with the support of the States, has passed the Murray-Darling Basin reform legislation.
What does this mean? It means that we have a cap on buybacks, that we will focus – as we have always said – on improving farm efficiency.
We will ensure that the water that is saved is shared between the farmers and the rivers. And we are on track – on the latest analysis – to achieve our goal of 2,750 gigalitres being returned to the Murray-Darling Basin, with the very clear prospect that the additional water required can also be achieved.
I want to particularly acknowledge my magnificent Parliamentary Secretary Bob Baldwin. Many people thought it was impossible that we would achieve the goal of bringing the States and the Commonwealth together – upstream and downstream, Liberal and Labor – to support this Murray-Darling Basin reform.
It fits in the broad context of what we started in 2005 – what took the form of the Howard Government Murray-Darling Basin Plan approach in 2007 – and is one of the signature environmental achievements for Australia of the last two decades.
And it comes on top of what we've recently achieved with the repeal of the carbon tax and return of electricity savings to consumers – and replacement with a world leading Emissions Reduction Fund which is achieving its goals and targets, and with national targets.
And now we see the Green Army is successful, we see that the Threatened Species Commissioner is successful.
We've made enormous progress – a trillion dollars worth of progress – in clearing up the backlog of approvals through the One-Stop Shop.
We have the Reef being taken off the watch list, taken away from the endangered list and being declared by the World Heritage Committee Chair to be a global role model.
And we have, capping it all off, the Murray-Darling Basin reform. And so I want to thank everybody involved and say that, above all else, this is about certainty for the river, certainty for farmers, certainty for agricultural communities.
It's had the strong support of agricultural communities and this is an important part of putting the Murray-Darling Basin on a sustainable footing for the next 100 years. Bob?
Thank you, Minister. Today's decision by the Senate to support the capping of 1500 gigalitres sends a very strong message across all of our communities.
It provides an air of certainty and of substance. Backed up by the independent report on the SDL adjustment mechanisms – which is what gave the underlying confidence to the basin State Ministers – it means this plan will be delivered in full, on time, on budget.
Today our farming communities in particular can plan for the future, knowing that there will be no further buybacks beyond the 1500 gigalitres.
Please understand, this 1500 gigalitres is a ceiling – a cap – not a target. And we are hoping to achieve much more through investments in infrastructure on-farm and off-farm to deliver the water we require to protect our environment than buybacks.
This is the journey we want to take all Australians on and all of the community sectors – whether it's the environmental, the agricultural, the community sectors, the tourism sector, the fishing sector – everyone will benefit from this Plan and it will be delivered with a triple bottom-line effect for each and every one of those sectors.
Mr Hunt, just on the EPBC Act, that's now before the Senate. Industry groups are waiting to launch an appeal on your decision regarding the Shenhua mine and have been trying to get hold of attachment 10 on your statement of reasons and they have been unable to. Can you tell me why that is?
Look, in relation to the statement of reasons, we've released everything which the Department has advised. I actually brought it forward so we were doing it ahead of any requests.
We couldn't have been more transparent and all documents which the Department advises can and should be released have been released. So, I have to follow the advice of the Department on that.
Stakeholder groups aren't being told that. They are being told they will be sent the statement of reasons.
This is the question from you, and so I am saying it clearly and publicly.
Minister, when will we see some physical – when will people be able to see the physical benefits of this water plan do you think?
Look, I think it's very important to say this is occurring right now. The river is being replumbed as we speak.
There's $6 billion which is being invested in irrigation infrastructure.
What does it mean? It means it's lining of channels, covering of channels, piping rather than old earth and leaky channels.
I saw in Mildura a fabulous case where a huge rammed-earth leaky channel was being replaced by a pipe of more than two metres diameter. And what that does is make savings in terms of water lost, but it also gives the farmers absolute security as to their ability to irrigate and therefore to plant. So they get better cropping outcomes and water saving.
At the moment, there's about $2.5 million a day being spent on replumbing rural Australia – and that's on-farm and off-farm.
And so the connections between farms – but also improving as we move away from flood irrigation to drip irrigation, as you move away from death ridge reels to flume gates – as well as better monitoring.
So those savings are occurring already and what we're doing is giving the certainty that the savings that are made will be kept by communities.
I'll say something about the on-farm investment. What this does – it delivers water both to the Commonwealth and to the farmer.
What this does is it delivers an upgrade in the farm. It means the farm's more valuable.
It means the farm uses less water so they pay less for water. It means greater productivity.
This is an absolute good news story where the environment wins because of the water that it's getting but the farmer wins as well.
It's a national productivity reform on a grand scale.
The focus is shifting towards infrastructure rather than buybacks. Which is more cost effective for the Government in terms of saving water – buybacks or infrastructure?
You need a mix of both. But our emphasis, since the plan was established back in 2007, was for a replumbing of rural Australia rather than a buyout of rural Australia.
The farm communities are willing and keen to participate. They want upgrades. They don't want to be bought out but they do want the option. And so what this cap does is just that – it emphasises national productivity, water productivity, water efficiency – and at the same time it allows those who do want to participate in a national trade the flexibility to do it.
But are buybacks more cost effective – haven’t studies shown that?
Look, when you bring everything together in terms of the total economic benefit to the country, our view is that this is the best possible approach.
Mr Hunt, what do you say to reports that the Prime Minister is losing support in Cabinet – people are blaming Malcolm Turnbull for destabilisation – do you blame him? And is the Government as divided as it appears in the media at the moment?
So my answer to those three questions are – wrong, no and no.
Do you think that the water ministry should be handed over to Agriculture as was argued at the weekend, the National Party conference?
Look, I have enormous respect for the views of different players. I think that this is evidence that we have a perfect balance.
I've got to say that Barnaby Joyce and I work incredibly well together. We have a really cooperative relationship. I like him, I respect him, I enjoy working with him and we have a very comfortable arrangement where we cooperate. But what we see is that we have a total environment portfolio built on four policies – clean air, clean land, clean water and heritage – and I think that's the right balance.
How close are you likely to get to the 1500 gig cap? The rhetoric has been we'll get nowhere near it anyway, but how close do you think?
We don't have to get to the 1500 cap. As I said, it's a cap not a target.
We're delivering, through the SDL adjustment mechanism, the water that we require. That's what gave the Basin State Ministers the comfort not through oppose this legislation – and also the Labor Opposition not to oppose this legislation.
The whole package will be delivered. This is a cap not a target.
The one thing I'll add to that is the recent stocktake – said that we were doing better than people had expected. So we're on track to meet our targets.
The expectation – the clear expectation – is we will do it under the cap. And I won't put a figure on it because obviously there's commercial sensitivity.
But the combination of environmental efficiency measures, on-farm and off-farm efficiency measures, and the remaining headspace under the cap means we'll achieve our targets. And we’ll do it in a way which gives rural communities immense long-term certainty.
Your name was on the Daily Telegraph hit list, are you confident you've got the support of the Prime Minister in your role?
I only focus on one thing – that's delivering good government in my portfolio for the people in that portfolio and in my electorate.
Did you seek reassurances that you still had their confidence?
I have never that discussion with the Prime Minister. I have no reason to believe it.
Did anyone contact you to reassure you?
I did. Let me say something here. I know from talking with the Prime Minister that Bob's at an absolute high water mark in his career.
He's just achieved something which many people thought was impossible. It was viewed that we could never bring the States together. Now I would like to claim responsibility for this achievement. The fact is Bob Baldwin brought all the States together. He did it with the imprimatur of the Prime Minister and myself.
The Prime Minister in Opposition championed exactly this reform. I've taken it forward. But frankly, he's the guy who's delivered it. He's done it with magnificent help from the Department, from the leaders there.
But he brought the States together, he brought the Opposition together, he brought the crossbench together. Honestly, not even a Chinese acrobat spinning plates can achieve that outcome. It was an immensely important and difficult outcome that had eluded all of us.
And I know just from talking to the PM over recent days he is so proud of the broad achievement and he's immensely proud of Bob Baldwin. And he is really kicking goals in a big way.
Mr Hunt, should the Prime Minister clear the air and call a spill tomorrow just to kill off this issue?
No, it's a ridiculous idea.
What did you think of the motion moved by Senator Leyonhjelm to try and deliver an extra one per cent of water back to farmers – in the Senate at the last stage of this passing?
That's a very good question. And part of the regular briefings I've had with all of the crossbench, his amendment was raised.
I said to him that given the Bill had already gone through the House of Representatives, I was happy to have ongoing dialogue with him – as indeed I am with any group – to listen to their concerns, but we were not able to support it at this point in time because I hadn't taken it to the Basin State Ministers, I hadn't taken to the stakeholders – and I want to work with him but I won't shoot from the lip.
Minister, can I ask about the One-Stop Shop for environmental approvals. On the One-Stop Shop, can I ask are you prepared to consider further amendments to win over crossbenchers in relation to the water trigger? And what would – how far could you shift on that?
Look I enjoy working with the crossbench. I'm always open to discussions.
You can understand that I won't pre-empt specific discussions. It's appropriate for you to ask, it's appropriate for me to respect the discussions with the crossbench.
I am hopeful that we will achieve a very good outcome and I'll just continue to work constructively.
I would say this – through working with the crossbench we've achieved precisely the 1500 gigalitre cap or the Murray-Darling Basin Plan reform – today.
We've achieved the repeal of the carbon tax and the passage of the Emissions Reduction Fund, both of which many people said were also going to be impossible.
We've worked with the ALP on the Green Army, we've with would the ALP and the crossbench on passage of the Renewable Energy Target legislation as well as the National Water Commission reforms.
And so right across the board we've been able to work with the Senate constructively. It takes patience because you have people with legitimate concerns. And these are people of good faith whom I have found have been very open to practical solutions and sensible argument.
Do you have a deadline?
Minister, you have been working hard to show the world that Australia takes climate change seriously. Were you worried – were you disappointed by Peter Dutton's comments about the effect of climate change in the Pacific? And do you think it's done reputational damage to our look as a climate change actor?
Look I understand they were comments made as an aside, he's apologised.
I was in PNG only a few weeks ago and we had really productive discussions about Australia working with PNG on rainforest protection.
I know that other countries are interested in working with Australia and supporting PNG in rainforest protection . So we've had real and substantive discussions.
And I would also out this, that Minister Peter Dutton was very, very supportive – deeply, genuinely, personally supportive – as we were developing targets for Australia with our international negotiations. So he was helpful and supportive and assisted me in getting the best and most ambitious outcome possible on our emissions reduction targets. That’s the reality
I've let it pass. It's an aside. And what really matters is the work we're doing with PNG and the fact that Peter helped us achieve the best possible targets and gave very strong personal support to me so I'm deeply thankful for that.
Thanks very much.