Interview with Matt Stephens, ABC Riverland
22 August 2023
Subjects: Murray-Darling Basin Plan announcement, water buybacks
MATT STEPHENS: Senator, good afternoon.
SENATOR ANNE RUSTON: Hi Matt. How are you?
STEPHENS: Good, thank you. What's your take on today's announcement?
SENATOR RUSTON: Well, obviously, there's a whole heap of detail that we've yet to see, which I would like to see before I make any detailed commentary around what the federal Minister is proposing. But I suppose I was horrified to hear that the South Australian Water Minister would say that she believed that the concerns that were expressed about water buybacks and the impact that they would have on river communities was exaggerated and, to a large extent, fabricated. That is just horrifying. You know, I come from a community that if you took out the kind of water they're talking about in terms of buybacks, you would decimate the Riverland, particularly at the time when, you know, things are reasonably tough out there because of the economic conditions with the wine industry, the citrus industry. You talk about willing sellers - they probably aren't willing sellers, they're probably sellers that are being forced to sell because their banks are seeking to get money. So, I think we need to be very, very careful with all these lovely headline announcements that we just heard from Minister Plibersek and Minister Close. The detail will always be where the problems are.
STEPHENS: Do you support buybacks?
SENATOR RUSTON: I don't support buybacks. I would rather see that the states and territories actually did what they promised they would do in the first place and look for the kind of projects that could deliver water for different means. I mean, things like industrial and urban water - We have seen no state or territory really put their shoulders to the wheel and start looking at industrial and urban water returns so that those states and territories that rely so heavily on the Murray for their water supplies, like Adelaide, could actually be doing other projects to be able to provide that water, which would negate the need for us to be taking so much water from the Murray to supply Adelaide's water supply. So, it's a bit disappointing that, you know, they've gone back to the lazy option instead of actually the Commonwealth putting more pressure on the states and territories to deliver in a way that isn't going to have potentially the devastating impact on river communities that I believe that buying back the quantity of water that they are talking about will have right the way down the Murray-Darling Basin. And, of course, I want to see a sustainable river system. I mean, it's in everybody's best interest, but you can't destroy all of our river communities in the process and, in doing so, the food bowl of Australia.
STEPHENS: Anne Ruston is a Senator for South Australia. Senator, you've been around the Basin Plan for a long time. I mean it's been ten years in the making to this point and now there's an extension on it from here. Why hasn't it been able to get to a point where it can be implemented, and is fully implemented, as was originally envisioned?
SENATOR RUSTON: Well, it's always really difficult when you're trying to get a whole group of stakeholders together, and many of them have got different objectives - As we've seen with Victoria, and the fact that Victoria hasn't signed on to this new agreement in itself demonstrates that it is particularly difficult. We had 14 Houses of Parliament that had to come together when this agreement was signed in the first place. So maintaining that support throughout the time was always going to be difficult. But I think we need to also have a look at the Plan and see if there are cleverer ways that we can do this now. We are nearly 12 years on from when the Plan was first signed. And, you know, we've learnt a lot of lessons. We understand a lot about how, you know, water movement and the like has been able to deliver environmental outcomes. We've seen floods, we've seen droughts. And so I think, you know, it was always going to be a very difficult plan to deliver. But pushing forward, without the support of Victoria, pushing forward with a plan that's likely to have a significant detrimental impact on river communities is concerning. But at the moment, there's not enough detail about what Minister Plibersek is proposing - and what the agreement with the states are - to be really definitive around it. Obviously, you know, if there is a pathway through here that does not inflict socioeconomic detriment to the river communities, well of course I'll be very, very happy to see that. But I am concerned with what I've seen on the surface, that there hasn't been a lot of thought about the impact this is going to have on communities like you and I live in.
STEPHENS: Given you've been involved for as long as you have, and I think even at one point was Minister in this area or if not was very close to the plan itself. What would your idea of going forward be, if not buybacks and what's been announced today?
SENATOR RUSTON: Well, I'd like to see the states and territories actually look at their capital cities and see how their capital cities could be innovative around taking themselves off reliance on the River for their water supplies. You know, other urban centres, not necessarily those in the capital cities, trying to work out ways in which urban industrial water can return water back into the system and can take capital cities' reliance off [river] water. Also, there could be other innovative ways that would allow irrigators to still maintain their licence over the water and only have sort of an easement-type arrangement where they would provide it to the Commonwealth environmental water holder in times of drought when it was needed, so that it isn't being taken out of productive use nine years out of ten, or however often where we aren't confronted with a drought situation. I don't think anybody's being very innovative around how they can address this problem that has the least amount of impact on food production and on our river communities, but at the same time still seeks to deliver the environmental outcomes I think we all want.
STEPHENS: Senator, I think you mentioned this before, but are you concerned that buybacks are on the table at a time when the wine industry is in such a difficult place, when there is such a glut of supply?
SENATOR RUSTON: Look, absolutely. I mean, the timing of these things is always concerning, because right now we know that the Riverland is an example of many other river communities that are quite reliant on the wine industry, and also the citrus industry - they will be feeling serious pressures around their economic circumstances and the ability to be able to sell won't necessarily be willing, but will be by neccessity. The other issue, of course, is that we know the potential this will have on the water market in terms of pushing up prices, and I wonder whether Minister Plibersek has spoken to her Treasurer about what the kind of costs would be associated if they go full on buybacks. So as I said, there's all of these details that need to be put out on the table and transparency around what today's decision actually means, before anybody is in a position to be really definitive about which part they support, if they support it all or if they support none of it. There just isn't enough information. But I think there are a number of concerns that need to be addressed, and I can't see any answers to them in what's been announced today.
STEPHENS: Senator Ruston, thanks for your time.
SENATOR RUSTON: My pleasure. Thank you.