Transcript - Press Conference with The Nationals' Candidate for Mallee Anne Webster

With: Dr Anne Webster, Nationals’ candidate for Mallee.

E&OE

Subjects: Murray Darling Basin Plan; water supplies; Nationals’ candidate Anne Webster; Risk of Labor.

ANNE WEBSTER:

I’m really delighted to welcome the Deputy Prime Minister, Michael McCormack, to Mildura. We’ve been walking the streets and visiting with locals, meeting small businesses and talking about the infrastructure spend in Mildura and how small businesses are able to thrive here. It’s been a really exciting morning, saying hello to people. People are very excited to have him here. So, welcome.

MICHAEL MCCORMACK:            

It’s great to be here, Anne, thank you very much. It’s been good. We had a Politics in the Pub last night, really good, with people from all sides of politics asking us questions, talking about the issues of the day. Their concerns are the National Party’s concerns. We are here to make sure people know we care about this region – that we’ve always cared about this region. We’ve represented this region for decades and Anne wants to continue that fine, outstanding representation that the National Party has given to this area.

We deliver. Just last year – June in fact: $3.025 million for an irrigation project that will provide more irrigated agriculture for Mildura. Last night we had irrigators there talking to us about their concerns. The story of agriculture in Australia is: Just Add Water. Whether it’s here in Mildura, here in the wonderful Sunraysia; whether it’s in NSW; whether it’s in Queensland: You add water, you  provide more agriculture, more opportunities, more jobs for regional Australians. 

That’s what Anne and the National Party are all about – jobs for regional Australia, a future for towns in the Sunraysia and cities such as Mildura. We want to make sure that these places don’t just survive, they indeed thrive. That’s what we’re all about.

QUESTION:

You talk about water but the SA royal commission has called for more water to be allocated from irrigators to the environment. Do you agree with that?

MICHAEL MCCORMACK:

The South Australian royal commission was initiated under the previous South Australian Labor Government. It’s a 746 page report. It’s going to take some time to disseminate everything that’s said; but the fact is it is a state-based, a state-biased report. Of course South Australia is going to call for more water. The fact is, too, is that the Murray Darling Basin Plan is indeed a bipartisan document, a bipartisan plan, a bipartisan agreement. So it’s an agreement reached between all sides of federal politics and indeed all States.

When the royal commission was called, Ian Hunter, that foul-mouthed Labor Minister was in charge of water in South Australia, and we all know what he said about Victorian Labor’s Water Minister Lisa Neville during that infamous stoush at the restaurant. The fact is, of course South Australia wants more water. We all want to make sure that the water is maximised for its potential

QUESTION:

Do you think the water is being maximised to its potential at the moment?

MICHAEL MCCORMACK:

It’s very dry at the moment. We’ve had a drought situation in parts of the catchment which has been going for seven years. No-one wants to see situations like the Menindee Lakes occur. That’s why David Littleproud, the Federal Agriculture Minister, has put $5 million on the table for a Native Fish Water Management and Recovery Strategy. That’s why he’s called on Rob Vertessy to look at the situation as part of an independent inquiry which will report back to the Federal Government in March, and we’ll take that from there. We’ll also take on board the royal commission from South Australia. We’ll also take on board the recommendations, but as Steve Whan, the former NSW Labor Member has said, this is very much pitched towards South Australia. It is very much pitched towards the environmentals. The fact is it’s been very dry. It’s been dry in some areas for seven years.

QUESTION:

It’s said at the start the MDB Plan was pitched towards farmers. Do you agree with that?

MICHAEL MCCORMACK:

The Murray Darling Basin Plan was an environmental document. It took me crossing the floor actually to make sure that water buyback was capped. We’ve seen just how important our farmers, our irrigation communities are. Farmers need water in order to grow the very best food and fibre. Our farmers - whether they are here in the Sunraysia, whether they are in the Riverina which I represent, whether they are in the Darling Downs – are the very best environmentalists. They are required to maximise every drop and be accountable for every drop of water. The environment is not required to do that.

There has to be a balance, a social, economic and environmental balance. Largely the Murray Darling Basin Plan is an environmental document. I’m pleased there was additional water, 450 gigalitres promised by Labor at Goolwa in December 2012. I’m pleased to see there’s a triple bottom line approach to it. That should be over the entire document.

But Governments can’t make it rain. More’s the pity. If we could, we would. The fact is, it’s very dry.

QUESTION:

Minister, we’ve had droughts before but never before have we seen fish kills…

MICHAEL MCCORMACK:

We have, actually. There’s been 600 fish kills in the system since 1980. What we didn’t have back in 1980 was mobile phones so people could take terrible photos, admittedly – there’s nothing worse than seeing a Murray Cod that’s decades old gasping for air and dying in a farmer’s hands. No-one wants to see that; but the fact is this unfortunately is a natural occurring event. Sure, it’s at the extreme end of that. We don’t want to see this. We want to make sure that we maximise that triple bottom line approach for the Murray Darling Basin Plan. That’s why Rob Vertessy is looking at it, in an independent way, in a responsible and measured way, perhaps unlike some of the rhetoric we’ve heard from South Australia over recent years.

I’m pleased that Steven Marshall and David Speirs have been far more measured in their response to what happened over the past 24 hours with the royal commission. We will look at it, as the Federal Government, in a responsible and measured way. It is a royal commission. But the fact is, it was started by the South Australian Labor Government. It was started by that foul-mouthed Ian Hunter. Of course it was always going to be something that was going to be South Australian-based.

QUESTION:

The Independent candidate for Mallee has called for a federally-based royal commission. Do you support that?

MICHAEL MCCORMACK:

We’ve got an independent inquiry at the moment into the fish kill and what we can do further as far as the Murray Darling Basin Plan is concerned. That has been instigated by David Littleproud, the Federal Agriculture Minister. He has Rob Vertessy chairing that, he’s calling other panellists, and they will report back to the Federal Government in March. We’ll take on board their recommendations.

QUESTION:

Given that some of the Murray Darling irrigators only have a few months of water left, what are you doing in the short term? That’s great but they are complaining they are going to run out of water. I think White Cliffs has 60 days of water left. What are you going to do to help those people?

MICHAEL MCCORMACK:

We are looking at all those situations at the moment. We’re looking at what we can do and we will certainly address those issues. We are addressing those issues. We’ve got money on the table and the NSW Government is responding. When the water in the Menindee Lakes falls below 480 gigalitres, which it did three years ago, it does become the responsibility of the NSW Government. I know Niall Blair has been out there a couple of times. I know the Deputy Premier, John Barilaro, was out there this week. That’s the right course of action to take. We will take on board what they ask us to do, what they recommend we do as the Federal Government. We will work co-operatively with willing States and with people who are very coherent and cognisant of what is required in the system.

QUESTION:

But will you be carting water to some of these towns including White Cliffs and Menindee?

MICHAEL MCCORMACK:

…and Walgett and others: That possibly is an option…

QUESTION:

You say possibly…

MICHAEL MCCORMACK:

…If they call for it… Again I say the NSW Government is responsible for the system at the moment. They’ve been responsible for it for the last three years after the water dropped below 480 gigalitres. So we will take on board any recommendation that they make. We always stand ready to help people in need, and we will do just that.

QUESTION:

The language used by Bret Walker in his report is very scathing, using maladministration, negligence, unlawful action and so on.

MICHAEL MCCORMACK:

It’s very emotive. You don’t usually see royal commissions being so emotive. But I say again, it was a state-based and state-biased recommendations brought down, but we’ll look at it: 745 or so pages. The Federal Government is looking at it at the moment. Steve Whan, CEO of the National Irrigators’ Council, has been scathing as well. Our farmers are getting a bad rap at the moment. Our farmers grow the very best food and fibre. What you have to understand, too, is that the cotton growers in the north and indeed the ricegrowers in the south, in Deniliquin and other parts, have not had a water allocation. They’ve had zero allocation. So it’s a bit unfair to blame the farmers who have had no water to grow their crops or to grow their produce or to grow their fibre.

They are getting bad rap from people, many of whom quite frankly have never been over the Great Dividing Range. They are muddle-headed wombats at best. They get on Twitter and Facebook and make ridiculous comments about a topic they know nothing about. They see photographs that have been doctored, that have had tints put over them; I’ve seen in the last 24 hours the water in the system look green, look brown, look pink, look blue. And some of those photos quite frankly have been doctored.

QUESTION:

Are you satisfied with the basin plan to date?

MICHAEL MCCORMACK:

It’s a working document. It’s a document that – depending on weather, depending on the system – is able to be tweaked. So there could be more water for the environment. When it’s in dry spells the farmers are not able to take water out of it. It’s is very much an environmental, ecological document. It’s a document which is very much a bipartisan document.

It’s just dry. People have got to understand that when it doesn’t rain, the rivers don’t flow. In a managed system they do flow – they only trickle a bit. People also have to understand that in many parts the Darling, the Murray – those sorts of rivers – the Murrumbidgee – they were hardly flowing at all, if at all. These days the system is managed. It’s managed to the best of human ability to be able to do so. But we can’t make it rain.

QUESTION:

But human ability has been questioned in that it didn’t take into account climate change when it was first developed.

MICHAEL MCCORMACK:

When it starts to rain, let me tell you, it will rain in torrents, in buckets

QUESTION:

(interrupted)

MICHAEL MCCORMACK:

If you’d let me finish the answer.  I’ve given you a fair go.

When it rains, we’re a country of flooding rains and drought, and as sure as night follows day, floods will follow droughts. And when it does rain, that’s why I’m pleased we are investing in water storage infrastructure (interrupted...)

QUESTION:

Do you know when it’s going to rain?

MICHAEL MCCORMACK:

Well of course I don’t know when it’s going to rain. The good fellow upstairs knows when it’s going to rain. If I knew when it was going to rain I’d probably be doing something other than talk to you on the camera. No-one can tell you when it’s going to rain. But it will, and it will come down in torrents, and that’s why I’m so pleased that the Federal Government has put an additional $500 million on the table for the National Water Infrastructure Development Fund: Half a billion dollars to put more water storage infrastructure in place to ensure we are able to capture the water when we have volumes of it, to better drought-proof our nation for times such as this – which will follow again in the future.

So we’re the only side of politics which have the capacity, have the ability and have the political will to do that. Let me tell you: If Labor gets in, the first thing that they will do will be to take that money away from our dam infrastructure fund. They will also take money away from the Building Better Regions Fund. Labor does not care about the regions. People like Anne care about the regions. I care about the regions and the National Party cares about the regions.

QUESTION:

Just to think about climate change, do you think the (inaudible) from South Australia failed to take into account climate change? Do you agree with that?

MICHAEL MCCORMACK:

The fact is it is getting dry. There’s no question about that. But also, as I said before, we’re talking dry at the moment; it wasn’t that long ago the area we’re in or just behind us was in flood. And this will happen again. We will have floods, and probably you will be standing here saying: ‘What are you doing about the floods?’ We can’t dictate the weather; we can’t control it; more’s the pity. But what we’re doing is we’re putting the infrastructure in place and the policies to make sure that we maximise our ability to be able to store water when there is water there to be stored, and use it when there are times that are dry, as we have now.

QUESTION:

Will you have an opportunity to get up to the Menindee region while you’re in our part of the world?

MICHAEL MCCORMACK:

I’m arranging to go next week.

QUESTION:

…Sarah Hanson Young...

MICHAEL MCCORMACK:

Oh this’ll be good!

QUESTION:

(inaudible) to stand down. Do you agree with that?

MICHAEL MCCORMACK:

She said what?

QUESTION:

…Phillip Glyde to stand down. Do you agree with that?

MICHAEL MCCORMACK:

Why doesn’t Sarah Hanson-Young stand down? There’s a person who quite frankly (interrupted…) Well Sarah Hanson-Young likes to eat food too, as we all do. We all like to wear cotton clothes. Our farmers grow the food. They grow the fibre that we all need to be able to live, and to be able to grow these regional economies. You can’t grow regional economies if you don’t have water. You can’t grow regional economies if every drop of water goes out of the mouth of the Murray. I’m not going to take lectures from The Greens and I’m certainly not going to take lectures from Sarah Hanson-Young.

QUESTION:

But do you think Phillip Glyde should stay in his position?

MICHAEL MCCORMACK:

Yes.

QUESTION:

Minister, just to change the subject: We have a new candidate in Anne Webster.

MICHAEL MCCORMACK:

And how good is she!

QUESTION:

How do you rate her chances? It’s going to be a very tough election.

MICHAEL MCCORMACK:

I rate her chances very highly. Here’s a person who has spent more than four decades in this community; with her husband Phillip has raised three wonderful children; six grandchildren, one of who went to school for the first time today. They are people who are integral in the community. They get in right behind their community. She is someone who understands family, somebody who understands business, understands agriculture and is also someone who understands that not everybody gets their fair share. That’s why she started that not-for-profit organisation to help mums integrate back into work, to help educate mums when they’ve had their young ones – and that’s why she was recognised as the Mildura Rural City Council Citizen of the Year on Australia Day this year.

How good is it to have a candidate for the Nationals who ticks all of those boxes!  - the sort of person we want in Parliament – the sort of fighter that I need in my Nationals team, to go in and bat hard for rural and regional Australia; to go in and bat hard for the people of Mallee. They need a fighter. They need a local Champion. In Anne they’ve got it.

QUESTION:

The atmosphere in the electorate has changed a bit. The Nationals’ sitting Member Peter Crisp lost his seat. The Independents are…

MICHAEL MCCORMACK:

Independents will deliver nothing. Let me tell you, they do a lot of shouting; they will be outside the tent. They’ll be throwing stones at the tent. They will never be in and around the Cabinet table making the decisions on where funding is going. They talk a big game; they deliver nothing.

QUESTION:

How urgently will you get the States together to discuss a response to the royal commission?

MICHAEL MCCORMACK:

I know that David Littleproud is working on that at the moment. Rob Vertessy’s investigations – he’s calling on other panellists at the moment to join him in that inquiry and they will be reporting back to Parliament in March. That’s next month; so that will happen. 

QUESTION:

Should Governments fear more water buyback?

MICHAEL MCCORMACK:

I stood and called for buybacks to be stopped and the Federal Coalition made sure that happened. There has to be a balance. Farmers want to be able to have access to water and they pay a very very high price for it, to be able to grow the very best food and fibre. They do that. I’m proud to say that I’m a son of a farming family going back generations. I’m proud to say that I represent an irrigation community and I will always fight hard for farmers. But I will fight hard also to strike that right balance in the Murray Darling Basin. That’s what we do. Anne and I, we’re fighting hard for the people who live in this area. For people who want to grow things, build things, do things: The National Party will back them all the way.

QUESTION:

Do you think the MDBA has acted unlawfully?

MICHAEL MCCORMACK:

No.

QUESTION:

Why is that? Why?

MICHAEL MCCORMACK:

It’s a statutory body. The MDBA has followed the provisions of the law, as laid out for them. The Murray Darling Basin Plan is a bipartisan agreement and the Authority has followed through on that legislation.

QUESTION:

Has the Commissioner got it wrong in that?

MICHAEL MCCORMACK:

Well I say again: It was an inquiry, a royal commission started by the previous State Labor Government in South Australia. I note the comments made by Premier Steven Marshall and the Water Minister David Speirs. I note that they have been very cautious in their remarks, that they have been measured and responsible. It was an inquiry prompted and started by South Australia so you would expect it to have a South Australian bent. 

We’d all like to have more water. Mark Twain once said that whisky is for drinking and water is for fighting over. He was right when he said it in the 1890s and it’s probably still right today. We need to strike the right balance. The Murray Darling Basin Plan is an environmental document but it was signed away under a bipartisan agreement.

We just need it to rain. We are in the middle of a very long drought. It will rain again and when it does: Happy days.

QUESTION:

Has the Government looked at (inaudible) impact of climate change (inaudible)

MICHAEL MCCORMACK:

No.

QUESTION:

…even though that’s what the plan…

MICHAEL MCCORMACK:

It’s dry. We can’t make it rain. If Labor were in power, you know what – they couldn’t make it rain. I’ll tell you what Bill Shorten will do if he comes into power: he’ll steal retirees’ franking credits. He’ll push taxes up. He will ignore regional Australia because that’s what Labor does. We’ve seen it writ large in previous Labor Governments. They are about deficit and debt. Liberal and Nationals Governments are about building things, doing things and making sure we back rural and regional Australians.

[ENDS]

Hannah Maguire