SUBJECTS: Can The Plan Protest; Murray Darling Basin Plan.
PATRICIA KARVELAS, HOST: I’m joined now by the Shadow Minister for Agriculture and Resources, Joel Fitzgibbon – Joel, welcome.
JOEL FITZGIBBON, MEMBER FOR HUNTER: Great to be with you, PK.
KARVELAS: So the Minister for Water, David Littleproud, has agreed to support a review of water sharing agreements in response to these protests outside Parliament House; how significant is this?
FITZGIBBON: Not very, PK. This Government loves a committee; it loves a review. The Minister appointed Mick Keelty – I think it was in August of this year – we have been waiting for him to legislate to provide Mick with the powers he needs to do that job. We are still waiting. The Minister recently or a little while ago at least announced an ACCC enquiry into the water trading arrangements. That enquiry will report in, I think it’s November, next year. This Government just loves kicking a problem down the road but that method, or that methodology, is now catching up with them. Today as you said, we’ve had – today and yesterday – the irrigators’ convoy out the front of Parliament House. We’ve had john Barilaro, the Deputy Premier of NSW, threatening, again, to walk away from the plan. So, this review is a result of all this political pressure, but I don’t think too many farmers or irrigators will take much heart from an announcement that there will be yet another review.
KARVELAS: The states have to agree to the legislation and the powers for Mick Keelty, that’s key here – that’s why it hasn’t happened. Do you acknowledge that this is actually quite a complicated system? This is not just about the Federal Government legislating, they need the agreement of the states.
FITZGIBBON: Well, I acknowledge, yes, it is far more ideal if the Minister has the agreement of the states on anything to do with the Murray Darling Basin Plan, but I don’t know if that is technically correct that he needs their agreement to legislate.
KARVELAS: Well, if you went ahead without their agreement…
FITZGIBBON: It would be a mistake. I agree.
KARVELAS: Yeah, that’s right. So, that’s what he is doing, isn’t it?
FITZGIBBON: Well, you know, when’s he going to get the agreement of the states? It’s been many months now that Mick was appointed on an interim basis and we are still waiting. When I was the Agriculture Minister, I appointed an interim Inspector General for Animal Welfare and Live Animal Exports under the same arrangements – didn’t get to legislate the position because we lost the 2013 election and the new Government refused to go through with that process. So, who knows with this Government; can we be sure that the Government is fully dedicated to the final legislative arrangements necessary to put Mick Keelty in that job permanently and to give him the powers he needs? We just don’t know with this mob, they are all over the place.
KARVELAS: The water sharing agreements haven’t changed since the 1980s, given how climate and rainfall patterns have changed, is it appropriate that they be reviewed?
FITZGIBBON: Well, we are open to reviews, Patricia. Since we lost government in 2013, we’ve accommodated every time it was interested in making changes to the Murray Darling Basin Plan. We think that is the right approach because it took around 100 years to get a settlement between the Commonwealth and the states. So, bipartisanship is important. But when you think about it, PK, this all began to unravel when Barnaby Joyce became the Water Minister and rode into a pub in Victoria somewhere and said to irrigators hey you’ll all be ok now because I’m in charge and the balance is going to tip away from the environment, and the interest of other states, and towards you. Now, this is a very fragile settlement we have on this plan and Joyce upset that and we’ve had problems with this issue ever since. Of course, we saw that ABC program – I don’t know how long ago that was now, PK – and the Government said immediately it would react to rebuild confidence in the plan. But nothing it’s done since then has built that confidence.
KARVELAS: The states will have to agree to give the interim Inspector General of Murray Darling Basin Water Resources, Mick Keelty, the powers to conduct this investigation, as I was just talking about. Do you urge the states to cooperate?
FITZGIBBON: I urge the states to cooperate all the time. We are very concerned by the threats by the NSW Government to walk away from this plan. There have been many mistakes made by this Federal Government with respect to the implementation of this plan. But that does not mean the plan is fundamentally flawed. Again, it took us 100 years to get this agreement, we need to stick with the basics of the plan, but we need to get the regulation correct. The Murray Darling Basin Authority has conceded mistakes have been made. We’ve seen, I think, robust allegations of theft; we’ve seen mistakes in the water sharing arrangements. So, I think what farmers and environmentalists alike want is for the plan to remain but for the Federal Government to demonstrate at a capacity to fully and properly implement the plan.
KARVELAS: He says it’s become clear to him that underlying state policies are impacting on water availability and it’s not just the Basin Plan causing the problem. Do you agree with that assessment?
FITZGIBBON: I don’t want to agree or disagree, but my instinct is that it’s probably true. These are complex arrangements, and getting the Commonwealth and the states with all the complexities at both ends to work both cooperatively and successfully together is not an easy thing. We don’t say it is and we’ve never said that it isn’t. This Government has had six years now implementing this plan and I don’t think there’s anyone out there, whether they be a conservationist or a farmer, that would say it’s done a good job of this, and today’s announcement of another a review, I don’t think, will bring much hope for many.
KARVELAS: Can the Plan protestors have been demonstrating outside Parliament for a couple of days now, have you gone out and spoken to them?
FITZGIBBON: I didn’t go out and speak with them, I didn’t have that opportunity, but I have met with some of them and they are angry, very angry, understandably so. I’m sure you saw some of them mixing some colourful words with the Deputy Prime Minister only today. So, we are always open to speaking with them, but what we do try to do to, Patricia, very deliberately and very generally is not make this a bigger political fight than it is. I mean, the Government’s already fighting with the irrigators, it’s fighting with State Governments, and we don’t want it having to fight with the Opposition. Our hand of bipartisanship is still extended. We want to work with the Federal Government and we will continue to do our best to do so.
KARVELAS: What do you make of their central argument that the science behind the agreement is flawed and that too much money is being diverted to the environment?
FITZGIBBON: I always worry when people start challenging the science because to progress difficult policy like the Murray Darling Basin Plan, you need to build community trust and you don’t build that trust by attacking or undermining the science. So, we need to be listening to our scientists; they know best. I think once of the problems we face now is that right back in 2012, when the plan was settled, we probably underestimated – we definitely underestimated how severe the weather would become and, therefore, how much – how few inflows, for example, we will have into the system. So, if the science got it wrong last time around, it only got it wrong by underestimating the protracted nature of the dry spell we have faced over the last six years at least.
KARLVELAS: Labor opposed Green’s calls for a Royal Commission into the Murray Darling Basin Plan; do you maintain that an investigation is not needed?
FITZGIBBON: We don’t maintain an investigation is not needed, we are calling upon the person best placed to undertake the investigation, Mick Keelty, to be given the powers he needs to do so and we stand ready to vote on that tomorrow if David Littleproud is prepared to bring on a bill. Again, I accept the ideal outcome is to have an arrangement with the states first but he’s had a long time. So, let’s get Mick Keelty in power to do his job, he is a highly respected former boss to the AFP. He’s the right person to do the job; he has that experience in the northern basin. So, to David Littleproud, as Terri Butler has been saying, let’s get on with it.
KARVELAS: NSW is still threatening to pull out of the Murray Darling Basin Plan all together, what would the practical impact of that be?
FITZGIBBON: Well, I just happened to see John Barilaro’s rather bizarre press conference today. There are some things in which I agree with John, including getting some gas out of the ground in NSW, but that was bizarre. He was saying he will pull out – he is threatening to pull out but when asked 10 times whether that’s the position of the NSW Government or just his position, he kept avoiding that question. So, like here in Canberra, in NSW there is a big war playing out between the Libs and the Nats and it’s very clear to me that in both Canberra and in Sydney, the Nats have lost the respect of their senior Coalition members. In the good ole days Black Jack McEwen, Tim Fischer, Ian Sinclair – you name it – they used to stand up to their Liberal Coalition partners. But it is clear to me, particularly in Canberra, that Scott Morrison is bullying the National Party, they carry no weight in the joint party room or in the Cabinet and farmers are everyday seeing the result of their weakness.
KARVELAS: NSW Deputy Premier, John Barilaro, who you just mentioned said the state can’t continue to provide as much water for the environment as it has in the past. Is the reality that the plan is going – is it just a reality that it’s going to have to change to survive given the drought. I mean, do you accept the argument he is making that the condition NSW is facing makes this proposition, this plan, untenable?
FITZGIBBON: Well, let’s go back to the science again, PK. The scientific assessment on inflows, just to take one aspect of the plan, were dramatically, I would argue, overstated and no one could have predicted that in some parts of the Basin we are going into our ninth year of drought, a very hot drought involving significant levels of evaporation. So, we are up for reviews but we need to all go together because that agreement, that consensus that was struck back in 2012, is the best thing we got going for us and we can rebuild confidence in the plan if we can demonstrate a capacity to properly implement and manage the plan and that’s where it’s all gone wrong.
KARLVELAS: Thanks for joining us this afternoon.
FITZGIBBON: It’s a great pleasure.