TRANSCRIPT: ‘Today’ program 30 January 2019

E&OE

TODAY:

Hundreds of thousands of native fish that have been killed in a matter of weeks on the Darling River have sparked international fears of an environmental disaster. It’s got furious locals and the rest of the country asking how the situation was allowed to get to this crisis point and why so little seems to be done to fix it.

For more we’re joined by our Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack. Mr McCormack, good morning to you. You’re on record saying that that’s Australia, eventually it’ll rain and this will be solved, It’s hardly moving heaven and earth here to help the people and the ecosystems in that region?

MICHAEL MCCORMACK:

Sadly it is Australia; sadly it is the weather patterns and the climate patterns that we actually have in Australia, but the fact is it is a disaster, there’s absolutely no doubt about that. But this is one of hundreds of fish kills, albeit the worst, that have been experienced over the past 40 years, even longer. These unfortunate fish kills do happen. The fact is, we are experiencing an incredibly prolonged dry period. When it doesn’t rain in the catchment, the water doesn’t flow down the Darling. Unfortunately these sorts of things happen.

But the Commonwealth is working very hard with the Basin States. We are working hard to make sure that we address this issue. David Littleproud, the Federal Agriculture Minister, has announced a $5 million Native Fish Management Recovery Strategy as well as appointing Professor Rob Vertessy, from Melbourne, to head up a review, an inquiry into what’s happened. He will call for other panellists and they will report back to Murray Darling Basin Ministers by 31 March.

TODAY:

We’ve had major droughts before: 1937-47; 1965-68; as recently as 2001-02. You can’t just blame droughts. These have all happened before and we haven’t had these fish kills, whereas in this instance, in 2017 your Government authorised the draining of Lake Menindee, the natural redundancy there. Can you understand that a lot of people think your Government is to blame?

MICHAEL MCCORMACK:

When the Menindee Lakes fall below 480 gigalitres capacity, then the Murray Darling Basin Plan through the Murray Darling Basin Authority doesn’t take any more water out. It becomes a responsibility of the State. Let’s not play the blame game here, though. Let’s look to the solutions. We’ve got Rob Vertessy heading up a panel…

TODAY:

…blame game here. You need to talk to the locals at Menindee who really are…

MICHAEL MCCORMACK:

Sure.

TODAY:

…really struggling for drinking water. It’s not just the fish kill here. There are people there that don’t have drinking water throughout a lot of that region and they do want answers because you can’t say to people there’s no blame game. Someone has to take responsibility here when people are left without drinking water in their local community.

MICHAEL MCCORMACK:

Certainly we’re addressing those issues and certainly the fact that there isn’t water in Walgett and other parts was not due to the Murray Darling Basin Plan or the Authority or any Governments in particular. It was a power breakdown. So we need to acknowledge that, but we also need to acknowledge the Murray Darling Basin Plan has bipartisan support. It has support across the aisle of Parliament. It was written into law; States agreed; both sides of politics agreed that the Murray Darling Basin Plan was the best way forward. Sadly in the catchment areas of that particular area, it hasn’t rained in some cases for seven years. So when the water is not flowing, it’s a bit difficult to start blaming the States, to start blaming – Governments don’t make it rain; unfortunately Governments can’t make it rain. The fact is it’s very very dry there. The fact is they’re experiencing a prolonged dry spell. Droughts come and go and it will rain again, and when it does it will probably rain in such torrents that people will be cursing the amount of water flowing through the system. That will happen.

TODAY:

That could be some way off yet. It’s not a lot of consolation to the people of Menindee…

MICHAEL MCCORMACK:

It could indeed, but who is to know that.

TODAY:

They say that they’re concerned you haven’t come there to show support, to actually hear some answers from them.

MICHAEL MCCORMACK:

I’m happy to come there and I’m…

TODAY:

…You’ve dressed up on the weekend as Elvis and then gone to festivals like that instead of actually going out there and talking to people about an ecological disaster.

MICHAEL MCCORMACK:

Parkes is in my electorate. Parkes is one of my local towns, and that pumped $13 million of tourism money into a local economy also suffering from drought, also suffering through the prolonged dry effects, and Parkes is one of those councils which received $1 million of Government assistance to help the local council retain jobs, to put money back into the town, and that’s happening right across the nation. That’s a festival in early January which brings a lot of tourism to that particular town. I’m happy to come to Menindee and making arrangements to do just that. Niall Blair, the NSW Water Minister, responsible for NSW, has been there a couple of times. When it drops below 480 gigalitres, NSW has responsibility for the Menindee Lakes.

TODAY:

Well I’m sure they’ll be very pleased to hear in Menindee that you’re on your way there, and all the very best with your duties announcing some jobs and infrastructure projects in Queensland today. We appreciate your time, Deputy Prime Minister.

MICHAEL MCCORMACK:

Any time at all.

Hannah Maguire