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Transcript 15649

Interview with Sally Sara Landline, ABC TV

Photo of Howard, John

Howard, John

Period of Service: 11/03/1996 to 03/12/2007

More information about Howard, John on The National Archive website.

Release Date: 22/04/2007

Release Type: Interview

Transcript ID: 15649

Subject:
Murray-Darling Basin water shortages.

E&OE...

SARA:

Mr Howard welcome to Landline.

PRIME MINISTER:

Thank you.

SARA:

Prime Minister just to begin with, how serious is the situation facing primary producers now in the Murray-Darling Basin?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well if it doesn't rain heavily over the next six to eight weeks there can be no allocations for irrigation from about the first of July. Now this is the conclusion of the officials group appointed by the Commonwealth and the states. I am deeply sorry to have to say this but I don't think any of us in government positions have any alternative other than to call it as it is. So it's very serious, it's unprecedented in my lifetime and I really feel very deeply for the people affected. So we should all literally and without any irony pray for rain over the next six to eight weeks.

SARA:

Well let's have a look at the issue that really is of most importance to a lot of our viewers who are the Basin, and that is that they're concerned about issues of possible assistance or compensation, what sort of assistance can the Government provide in an unprecedented situation like this?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well that is something that I have asked officials in my Department and the Treasury and the Department of Agriculture to examine. At the moment I am told all of the farmers, or almost all of the farmers in the Basin area are in receipt of Exceptional Circumstances assistance and they will be familiar with what is involved in that. And what I want to do is to see whether there are other ways in which we can assist. And it is unusual and it's one of those cases where you are starting from scratch as to what some of the additional assistance might be. We obviously want people to preserve as much infrastructure as possible and we have to acknowledge that in some cases trees can be put to sleep. In other cases that may not be possible and in still further cases it will depend on how long the period will be without there being any water. Now we have started examining these things and obviously I will want to talk to farm organisations and I will be making it my business over the next few weeks to personally meet farm organisations. I'd like to meet irrigators to talk to them. I really do feel for them and it's an awful thing to have to say as Prime Minister that we may not be making any water allocations at all for irrigation. Now it's a very difficult situation and I wouldn't want any of them to think that they are going to be left alone but we have to make sensible decisions about what assistance we give. We would also like the states to help. We are not going to make any of our assistance conditional on what the states do, there's nothing to be gained by that. But it seems to me, for example, the allocation charges should surely be waived if, in fact, no allocations are going to be made.

SARA:

Prime Minister some of the primary producers though that I've been speaking to early today who are in the Murray-Darling Basin are looking at this really in two phases, and they want to know if the Government is looking at this as really massive disaster assistance, in the first stage, if that's what we're looking at and then they're obviously concerned about the longer term, particularly for permanent plantings? If trees die, there's five to seven years ahead before people get back to really where they started?

PRIME MINISTER:

I don't think it's terribly helpful in a situation like this to try and put a particular label on the kind of help that might be provided. It is better to engage with the irrigators and the farm organisations and try and work out in a practical way what is the best manner in which some additional assistance might be given and that's really what I intend to do. And, of course, you could have an in-between situation, you could have a situation where it rains a bit and that provides a bit of relief for some but it doesn't provide relief for others. And it's just impossible for me to outline now or even in the immediate future a one-size-fits-all approach to additional assistance. It's better that I engage with people, try and get an understanding and in reality I won't be in a position and the Government won't be in a position to make final decisions until we know what has happened, until we know whether it is going to rain a lot, rain a bit or not rain at all. And depending on which of those scenarios eventuates we can then make decisions further down the track as to what we might do to help.

SARA:

Mr Howard just quickly on the issue of possible assistance, where do you think the boundaries will be for communities in areas such as the Riverland in South Australia, almost over $1 billion of the produce from that area is from horticulture, the next biggest industry is about a tenth that size, in other words if horticulture goes down, the community will, will businesses and so on be part of your consultations and discussions?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, Sally, it is too early to say exactly who I am going to talk to. I mean we have just had this report for a couple of days and I have tried to indicate by my remarks that we are sympathetic but we have got to be realistic. We can't take the place of profitable production because nobody can deliver the weather but what we can try and do is give reasonable extra help given the magnitude of what could befall many of our irrigators and our farmers. So I am not trying to avoid the question but it is just not realistic to try and spell out in detail. First of all I need advice and I then need to talk to people and I need to know whether or not it is going to rain and if so how much. And also if it's not a drought-breaking downpour, and some people say by definition that can't happen because of the severity of the drought, no matter how heavy the rain is, I need to have an idea of what the impact of the rain is. But I want people to know that we will be keeping the Exceptional Circumstances going. We see it as our responsibility to look at sensible, practical ways in which we can provide further help. We can't underwrite people's incomes, we can't do that, but we can provide some extra help and we would also like to see the States kick in a bit as well. I mean we carry most of the financial burden of helping out in drought and over 90 per cent of EC is paid for by the Commonwealth. We are not complaining about that, and we are not making any of our extra help conditional, but we would like the States to kick in a bit as well.

SARA:

Mr Howard we're running short of time, one quick issue as well, producers are concerned that if local production decreases, that imports will need to be brought in, do you share the concerns of growers about maintaining quarantine and bio-security if imports are brought in as replacements?

PRIME MINISTER:

Oh yes, we are not going to put our quarantine system, we are not going to put the security of our agricultural sector at risk by arbitrarily waiving quarantine and bio-security requirements. And consistent with that obviously however we have to look at seeing if we can't replace local produce with imported produce but we won't be making any silly decisions on that front, certainly not.

SARA:

Can your water plan move forward without Victoria?

PRIME MINISTER:

It would be so cumbersome and so complicated as to be impractical. That's my view. I mean you can theoretically argue that it might go forward but in practical terms you need all of the partners in the Murray-Darling Basin. I said it would be a three-legged horse without Victoria and Victoria is a very substantial percentage and these half-baked cooperative arrangements never end up working. We have reached a point in our history where this has to be taken over by the Federal Government. We have tried the cooperative approach for a generation. There were caps set in the early 1990s which have been violated by states, other than Victoria I might say. Victoria has not been as bad in relation to those caps as other states, I acknowledge that, but that doesn't alter the fact that we need a national system and I have said all along that our $10 billion which is desperately needed was conditional on us being able to take it over, not because we want power for its own sake but we'll be spending $10 billion of Commonwealth dollars, no state dollars. We think it's time for the States to let the Commonwealth run this and we will work with the states, and from a practical point of view it would just be quite unrealistic and incredibly cumbersome to try and do it without Victoria, so in practical terms, no.

SARA:

Mr Howard, thank you very much for joining us on Landline.

PRIME MINISTER:

Thank you.

[ends]

Transcript 15649