Interview with Adam Shirley – ABC Canberra Mornings

Interview with Adam Shirley – ABC Canberra Mornings

5 December 2019
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E & OE

ADAM SHIRLEY: We've been talking about the water in our lakes, like Tuggeranong, Ginninderra, and Lake Burley Griffin. But as you will know, water is the top of so many people's minds at the moment broadly. I mean, you might be in the Braidwood region with the North Black Range fire continuing to burn at advice level, I might say. You might be making sure you've got enough to drink, or enough to battle the fire front if today's winds push it your way, and part of your plan is to stay. You might be hauling water out of your washing machine or bath or shower to try and keep the plants alive through an already dry hot spring-summer phase, or you could be a farmer, a landowner wondering if you can get access to the water that you need to try and keep the farm going through the grip of this drought. The management of the water in the Murray-Darling Basin, which takes in this region as well as three other states, is increasingly becoming an ill-tempered affair, and it hasn't exactly been a calm supportive arrangement since the current plan was put in place.

Earlier this year, former AFP Commissioner Mick Keelty was appointed by the Government as the interim Inspector General of the Murray-Darling Basin. Needless to say, he's had a busy few months.

Mick Keelty, it's nice of you to come by again today to talk about what you've really learnt, what you've been investigating, and now an important phase in the coming months, which David Littleproud was speaking with you about just yesterday. Good morning to you.

MICK KEELTY: Good morning, Adam, and thank you for taking the time to talk about what is a very complex and, I think, emotive issue. And people here in Canberra would have seen a large demonstration earlier this week from farmers who took the time to come to Canberra and demonstrate, I think, to the rest of the country on the urgent nature of their needs and their requirements. And as you say, the Federal Minister David Littleproud took the initiative to meet with those people and sit down and strike an agreement on what is the best way forward, particularly in an environment where there is no water available. As you know, Adam, and some of your listeners may recall when you interviewed me earlier in the year, I was looking at the Northern Basin. I can tell you that there has been no real water come into that Northern Basin, and a lot of the plans, a lot of the policies that have been put together predicated on the fact that there would be inflows from the north contributing to the Murray-Darling, but there's been no inflows, so that's left farmers without the prospect of water, and some farmers have had no allocation of water for the last two seasons. And we're looking at a long hot dry summer ahead.

ADAM SHIRLEY: So you'll be investigating the underlying way that states share the water, the Murray-Darling Basin. With the background you've just given us, does the mere fact that you're looking into this viability of the plan as it stands suggest it does need to be modified, based on things like a lack of inflows, based on the dryness of this landscape that you've been exploring?

MICK KEELTY: Well I don't want to pre-empt the outcome of the inquiry, but rather than another consultation process or another review on top of reviews- and I'll just point out there's an ACCC review currently on water trading. There's an Auditor General's review on some of the buybacks that the Government had previously undertaken. But rather than do another review, this is going to be more of a directed inquiry, looking at what is the real problem here. If you and I had had this conversation a month ago, we would have been talking about the mantra of stop the plan, or halt the plan, or pause the plan, or change the plan, or drop the plan completely, or walk away from the plan even in some quarters. Thankfully through COAG, led by the Prime Minister and the Premiers, the commitment over the basin states has been reaffirmed as recent as August this year.

So what we have to do is before we start developing solutions, define properly what the problem is. Is the problem the plan or is the problem underlying agreements that are in place that have actually had water distribution or the division of water between states, particularly in the southern basin, the states of New South Wales, Victoria, and South Australia. And each of those states I should point out has different policies as to how they allocate the water and who they allocate the water to, despite the fact it's the same body of water. And then of course, we have to manage on top of that the environmental needs and the Indigenous community needs for water, because it's at the centre of their lives as well.

ADAM SHIRLEY: In your mind, how big is the problem of not fully understanding exactly what the problem is. We know it's not raining, and that is a clear issue. But in terms of the sharing arrangements and who gets what.

MICK KEELTY: I think the big problem that I've encountered in many people who have supported this who I've spoken to, and the many hundreds of people I've spoken to in the course of the last 12 months, whether they be in the Northern Basin or in the Southern Basin, is that there is no single source of information that they can rely upon. And I recently gave evidence to a Senate inquiry saying, for example, if you asked the simple question how much water am I entitled to today, and you looked up the number of Commonwealth agency websites and sub-websites, and policies and sub-policies, there is in excess of nearly 2000 ways you could answer that question, or find the answer to that question. And what we've got is an opportunity here because of the complex policy nature. We've got forum shopping that can happen. We've got lobby groups who are very active in this area, and some of those lobbyists have political aspirations.

ADAM SHIRLEY: What kind of lobbyists are we talking here?

MICK KEELTY: Well, you only have to drive down Brisbane Avenue in Barton, and there are all manner of lobby groups. And one of the things that I find that has snuck into Parliament House since I was last walking the corridors of Parliament House is that lobbyists appear to have free entry into some of the ministerial offices that I never saw when I was here 10 years ago. And I think for the farmers themselves, they need a source of truth, people who represent their interests and the national interest. This is a national asset that's been divided along jurisdictional lines. A licence in New South Wales, a licence in Queensland, a licence in Victoria, and South Australia- water licence, doesn't look the same, it doesn't operate the same way. I think the farmers just want to get on with their life, get on with their job, and get people to understand how complex this is.

ADAM SHIRLEY: I wonder, are the number of lobbyists, who as you say are in the halls and speaking with ministerial offices- is that a problem? And if so, is the Government fully awake to that problem?

MICK KEELTY: Well, it's one of the things I've raised in a report that will be tabled hopefully sometime today, and that's the report of the first 12 months that I conducted the inquiry into the Northern Basin. And I think it is an issue of lack of transparency, where, for example, we've just held a federal election back in May this year. The transparency of who donated what money and to whom is not made available until eight months later. Other countries in the world like the United Kingdom, the United States, for example, have live websites that if someone makes a political donation, you know who's made the donation and where it's been done. And you can connect, as a community, as a journalist, as a stakeholder, you can connect whether there's been any link between a donation and a decision or a policy decision made by government. And this isn't a one-way street. This protects ministers and parliamentarians from being able to say: I made that decision based on the best available science or the best available facts. And that's one of the reasons why this- call it what you like, but this inquiry is a royal commission without the royal, I guess, to try and get to the heart of the matter and properly describe the problem before people jump at any further solutions while we're encountering probably the worst drought of our existence, certainly our generation, and generations of these last hundred years.

ADAM SHIRLEY: His eyes are firmly focused on the Murray-Darling Basin and all the precious resource within it. That's Mick Keelty, interim Inspector-General of the Murray-Darling Basin. He is searching through all the corners, the channels and the areas that the Murray-Darling Basin has water, who's getting it and whether they are getting allocated too much or too little. There are implications, obviously, for this region and states and territories beyond this.

You spoke about the current plan and the reaffirmation in August of states and territories to stick with it. Member for Monaro and New South Wales Deputy Premier John Barilaro in recent days has been openly threatening to pull out of the existing Murray-Darling Plan. How does that affect your investigations and broadly, the way states are trying to share the water and come to an agreement?

MICK KEELTY: I think what this inquiry has to do is to steer clear of the politics. It's a highly charged political environment. And there's a lot of sophistry. There's a lot of hyperbole. I can only point out that the COAG, as recent as August this year, recommitted to the Plan. Let's just have a look at that for a moment. The plan was created in 2012. It expires in 2024. There's been something in the order of $14 billion of taxpayers' money allocated to the implementation of this plan and other water resource management initiatives. So I think anybody with any reasonable background in legislation would know that from time to time, the environment changes or the situation changes and so, you will have amendments to plans and policies.

One of the frightening things for me is that I have not heard anybody from anywhere, from politics or from departments or from the community, talk about 2050, where are we going to be for the next generation, how are going to get this right into the future. And if climate change is going to impact us the way it's impacting us at the moment, if this is the new norm, then what are we doing and what do we need to do to actually change for the future. And that's where- as I say, all credit to Minister David Littleproud. I'm apolitical, as most of your listeners would know from my previous roles. But he had the courage and the leadership, as did Chris Brooks and the people he represented to sit down and work through what is the real problem here. And we still don't know whether it's the policies or it's the application of the policies. So what is the real problem here? Let's get to the bottom of it.

ADAM SHIRLEY: So given that big national responsibility you and your team have and what you're hoping to get to for a solution to all of this, would you rather it that people and representatives, such as the Deputy Premier and others in other states, hold off on some of the threats or some of the open positions they're trying to take?

MICK KEELTY: Look, I can't control politics or politicians. People have agendas in this. It's clear that people have agendas. Even some of the lobbyists have aspirations to go into politics. So, I think if I see it and it's clear to me what's going on, I'll call it out. Don't worry about that. But at the same time, I think we've got to see some of that politics for what it is. And again, to be able to sit down and negotiate an outcome for what could have been a very upsetting or, I think, violent demonstration - I don't want to disparage anybody here.

But I can tell you in all honesty, Adam, two weeks ago, I sat through a meeting that was sponsored by the National Farmers Federation in the Riverina, and somebody pointed out that there's been a murder of a New South Wales Environment and Water person a couple of years ago. Some of your listeners might recall that. There'd been-there's been several suicides. We don't want that. And nor do we want people turning up to meetings with nooses or effigies running down river streams. I mean, we need good people in politics. In the lead up to the New South Wales election, the then Minister for Water was under police protection. The Federal Minister is under police protection at venues. That's not our democracy. That's not how democracy works. And I was really pleased to see this week all of those people who might have otherwise been described as protagonists actually come to the table, sit around the table, and constructively create an outcome.

ADAM SHIRLEY: Your report into exactly how this is- where it's falling over and the reasons for it, is due at the end of March. Until that time, how important is it that all states and territories involved in the current Murray-Darling Basin Plan adhere to it and don't pull out?

MICK KEELTY: I think that the Commonwealth can't control what the states do. There's a Ministerial Council about to occur on 17 December up in Brisbane. The Minister- the Federal Minister David Littleproud wrote to his counterparts on Monday night after the agreement was struck with the demonstrators, and all of those states committed to assisting and supporting this inquiry. So, it's got off to a positive start. The Minister will present the terms of reference and the required powers to the next meeting of the Ministerial Council on 17 December up in Brisbane.

But look, one of the things that is an outcome of the past 12 months of working in this area is I've watched ministers of different political persuasions get together and actually work very positively together. So whilst there might be some public statements by individuals, I've actually witnessed these people and been with these people and met with these people, and interestingly enough, even our own minister here in the ACT, Mick Gentleman, is not only the Minister for Water but the Minister for Police. In Victoria, Minister Lisa Neville is the Minister for Water and Police. So, look, they are good people to work with, to be honest, and I admire the way they represent their constituency. But we've still got to get to the bottom of this and we still got to create an opportunity for the future generations beyond 2024, into the future.

ADAM SHIRLEY: You clearly have the bit between the teeth, Mick Keelty, and there's a series of months ahead now. We look forward to seeing what you manage to discover and conclude come the end of March. Thank you very much for giving us your time in what is a very busy week here on ABC Radio Canberra.

MICK KEELTY: My pleasure. And let's not forget it's the Christmas season. So, to you and your family Adam and to your listeners, I wish them all the best and a safe and happy Christmas.

ADAM SHIRLEY: And all the very best to you and yours, Mick Keelty. Thank you for your time.

*** ENDS ***

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