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Published: 30 August 2018   •   Media release

Good morning delegates, and thank you Ashley (Ashley Bland) for your kind introduction.

Thank you all, especially Emma Bradbury, for the invitation to be here in Leeton and to speak to you all about the Murray–Darling Basin Plan, and Where to Next.

But first of all, I'd like to acknowledge the Traditional Owners of the land on which we meet today, and pay my respects to their elders past and present, and offer similar respect to any Aboriginal people in the audience today. Can I also acknowledge the elders of the more than 40 nations that are the Traditional Owners of the Murray Darling Basin.

I'd also like to acknowledge some of the distinguished guests and speakers here at Leeton, Murray Darling Association National President David Thurley.

But I must pass on apologies from our Authority Chairman, Neil Andrew, who was looking forward to the conference but has unfortunately had to withdraw after injuring his leg.

Finally, can I acknowledge the ongoing impacts of the drought, and the challenges it poses for everybody. Like everyone in this room, my fingers are crossed for a wet Spring, and my heart goes out to all the farmers and communities who are struggling with the dry conditions.

I'll also draw your attention to the slides. Rather than bore you with a power-point presentation, I thought it better to show some images which reflect the different values of our Basin community. The images illustrate the values the MDBA and the Basin Plan are seeking to protect and balance.

Healthy rivers, lakes and wetlands are essential now and for future generations. The Murray-Darling Basin is the largest and most complex river system in Australia—it is worth saving.

Today, I'd like to speak to you about the Murray–Darling Basin Plan and how we're travelling after six years, the challenges ahead for the next six years, and where to next.

In doing so, I'll discuss the progress we've making with compliance, and with our deeper engagement with the regions and organisations like the Murray Darling Association.

And, if time permits, I can answer some of your questions.
But my overall message is simple. While there is room for improvement, we are making good progress in managing the Basin for everybody, and in the wider interests of Australia and Australians.

We are six years into a 12 year plan. We need to stay the course, to remain committed to a bipartisan, multi-government, fully-funded plan that is delivering encouraging results.

There is no Plan B. So my plea to you is to get behind the current plan and make it work in the best interests of the Basin and the nation.

Let's just take a moment to remind ourselves about what we are trying to achieve, and how we arrived at this point.

The Murray–Darling Basin is a globally-significant resource.

It is Australia's primary food bowl, producing 40 per cent of Australia's food and fibre from just 14 per cent of Australia's land mass. Its agriculture generates almost $25 billion for our economy each year.

Other industries have grown up as well. The tourism industry has now overtaken the irrigation industry in terms of gross value of production. It is now approaching $8 billion a year.

Around three million people rely on the Basin's resources for drinking water, and 2.6 million live, work and play there.

And it is home for more than 40 Aboriginal nations who have ongoing responsibilities to culture and community, land and water. It is home to us all in this room.

Back in 2007, as Australia was grappling with the devastating Millennium Drought, the Australian Government passed the Water Act—with bipartisan support—to address the ongoing degradation of the river systems. The Basin Pan followed five years later – again passed with bipartisan support.

Bipartisan support does not mean everyone agreed with everything in the Basin Plan. Far from it. And we find today, six years into its implementation, that many of the same issues are still being debated and discussed.

Those criticisms don't mean the Plan is flawed or at risk. What they demonstrate is that the decisions made since the Plan was legislated continue to be as contested and as hard to balance as when it was drafted.

But the one point of broad agreement is that Australia needs a Basin Plan.

And we shouldn't lose sight of what the Basin Plan aims to do—rescue an area the size of France and Germany combined from collapse.

With the renewed onset of drought in Eastern Australia, particularly Queensland and New South Wales, it is timely to consider how different things are now compared with the start of the Millennium drought.

While we are all hoping for rain, one major difference is this time around, we do have a Basin Plan in place.

And the Plan, in my view, has made farmers, irrigators and communities much more resilient.

Water for critical human needs is prioritised over other water uses.

Water is now managed to sustain the environment outside the pool of water available to irrigators.

There are agreed triggers to share water under very dry scenarios.

Irrigators have improved their irrigation water efficiency, in partthrough Basin Plan funding, to help them manage better during dry times.

And the water market is being used by irrigators wanting to manage their own business risks by carrying over some of their allocations or by selling or buying water on the temporary water market.

At the same time, the environmental watering programs are delivering solid improvements for fish, wildlife and vegetation at the local level.

It will take time to convert these good local outcomes into Basin-wide improvements, but we are making progress towards a healthy working Basin for everyone and everything in the Basin.

One area I know the MDA has a keen interest is the issue of compliance.

The Murray–Darling Basin Authority's role is not to be out there directly monitoring irrigator behaviour. That is the job of the states.

Our job is to be the independent umpire—to police the states.

It is clear the community wants reassurance that the rules are being followed, that bad behaviour will be dealt with and rooted out.

Greater public confidence in compliance will result in greater confidence for the water markets, and more confidence in the Basin Plan. It will also help ease the finger-pointing between different stakeholders in different parts of the Basin.

Last year's Four Corners was a wake-up call.

The Murray–Darling Basin Authority approached the increased scrutiny as an opportunity.

We undertook a review, assisted by an independent panel, which was endorsed by all governments late last year.

Since the release of our compliance review we've:

  • signed an MoU with the NSW Natural Resource Access Regulator;
  • appointed an independent assurance committee;
  • established an Office of Compliance;
  • published our new compliance framework;
  • set in train public reporting on key issues like Water Resource Plan accreditation and allegations of non-compliance;
  • trialled remote telemetry to track environmental flows through the north of the Basin;
  • we audited the northern Basin watering event to make sure that the water travelled unimpeded;
  • And, we've made a significant increase in resourcing for compliance issues.

Again, the states are also lifting their game.

The Ministerial council has endorsed a Basin Compliance Compact in which all states and the MDBA have committed to individual and collection actions to improve compliance across the board.

One of the great successes of the past year was the northern Basin watering event– the successful flow of environmental water through a 2,000-kilometre network of rivers in the northern Basin down to the Menindee Lakes near Broken Hill.

The protection of environmental water is particularly difficult in an unregulated system.

But water managed by the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder and the NSW Government was released into the Border and Gwydir rivers and to the Barwon–Darling, making it to the Menindee Lakes in July.

The MDBA kept a watchful eye on the water's progress, using satellite technology to track the water to spot any changes to farm storage levels—an important element of compliance.

If you had asked me a year ago, I would have said you were too optimistic to think environmental water could make it from Copeton and Glenlyon dams in the north all the way through to Menindee Lakes

But the event reconnected northern rivers to the benefit of the environment and to the great benefit of parched local communities.

I want to recognise that the New South Wales Government put in place an embargo on pumping flows so that the recent northern environmental watering event could happen. And I also want to recognise the universal community support for that event, including from irrigators.

The Queensland Government is also making a number of changes to its compliance program state-wide, in response to an audit they completed recently.

And just last week, Agriculture and Water Resources Minister David Littleproud announced former Australian Federal Police Commissioner Mick Keelty has been appointed a Northern Basin Commissioner, to make sure the Basin Plan rules are being followed.

So again, while there is significant room for improvement in compliance, our work to date shows we are firmly on the right path.

When I travel around the Basin and around Australia I hear a full range of views about how the Basin should be managed.

As head of the MDBA, I receive plenty of advice about how I can do a better job.
But I'm struck by three things:

First, people do place a high value on protecting the Basin—on looking after our food and fibre producers, on looking after our communities and industries, and on looking after our environment.

Secondly, they want all of these values protected, all at the same time.

And finally, many people base their views of the Basin's management on snippets they have read or heard from others.

So the message I receive is that the Basin's intrinsic worth is valued but many people do not have the full picture.

That shows we can and must do better to help people understand the Basin Plan and how the Authority manages water for the good of everyone in the Basin, and in the national interest.

One area where we have good engagement is with the MDA. The authority welcomes the input from the MDA, and we value the role the MDA plays in helping to communicate issues back to its members and the public throughout the Basin.

Our relationship was formalised in 2013 with an MOU that recognised the importance of local government in the Basin, and the importance of sharing information.

And the MOU also ensures the leadership of the MDA and the Authority meet every quarter to discuss the latest issues and share information.

After 5 years, we'll be taking a look at how we can continue to build on that relationship into the future.

Another way we are working to improve our communications is through deeper engagement with regional Australia.

The Authority has just held our most recent meeting in St George in Queensland, and our Chair Neil Andrew then took time to visit Goondiwindi, where we have just announced a new office to operate as a hub for our engagement in the Northern Basin.

The MDBA now has offices in Canberra, and regional offices in Goondiwindi, Albury, Toowomba and Adelaide.

In recent weeks, we've also announced 12 new members of our Basin Community Committee, including your Chair David Thurley, who will provide the views of local governments.

The committee members represent diverse areas and interests across the entire Basin.

The Basin Community Committee members will report on local issues and concerns in relation to water use, the environment and Indigenous water issues.

And two weeks ago, the MDBA announced that its Regional Engagement Officers program, introduced in 2016, would become permanent.

The eight new Regional Engagement Officers have been employed to cover the Lower Balonne (Queensland), the Macintyre (Queensland and NSW), the Namoi (NSW), the Barwon–Darling (NSW), the Lower Darling (NSW), the Mid-Murray (NSW), Goulburn–Murray (Victoria) and the Lower Murray (SA).

Those Regional Engagement Officers will soon be in touch with the local councils in their area to introduce themselves and help with any direct engagement issues you may have.

CONCLUSION

So my message to you is all is to remain engaged, individually and through the MDA,and remain actively involved to help make our Basin Plan as successful as it can be.

The Basin Plan has to deliver a healthy working Basin for all Australians.

And the Basin Plan is delivering positive results that should not be overlooked.

There is always room to improve implementation, as no doubt Jane Doolan from the Productivity Commission will tell us this afternoon.

I look forward to the Productivity Commission report and we will consider any recommendations on how we can improve on delivering the Plan.

These improvements should be our focus over the next six years.

Following the latest successful amendments to the Basin Plan, we now face a clear path out to 2024.

My fear is that we continue to spend too much time looking backwards. We spend a lot of time diving down into the issues of the past.

It is now time to look to the future. To get the most we can out of the Plan.

It is up to us to deliver. There is no plan B.

Let's stay the course. Let's stick to the bi-partisan, multi-government, fully-funded plan.

And together, let's make the most of the next six years.

ENDS

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