JESSICA SWANN: I think the most important news of the morning is to say a very happy birthday to Reggie [phonetic], and Tony [phonetic] is also having a birthday. Gosh, all these messages coming in before the program. ‘Hi, it’s Leon here. Please, I’d like to say happy birthday in the morning to the love of my life, Reggie.’ Reggie, aren’t you a lucky lady? Isn’t that wonderful? I hope you have a lovely day. Also, Oscar from Waikerie is saying ‘I just wanted to say happy birthday to Tony’, so a very happy birthday to all of those people who are having their special days today.
It’s 24 to 9. Coming up on the program, I’ll be talking with Chris Byrne from the Riverland Winegrape Growers’ Association. He’s said we’ve gone right back to where we were 12 months ago regarding the Murray-Darling Basin, so we’ll be finding out from him how it’s impacting on, particularly on, grape growers, but first up, speaking with Liberal Senator Simon Birmingham. He’s here in the Riverland today. He’ll be meeting up with Member for Chaffey Tim Whetstone and also Member for Barker Patrick Secker and he joins me now. A very good morning to you, Senator Birmingham.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Good morning, Jessica, good morning to your listeners and a happy birthday also to Reggie and Tony.
JESSICA SWANN: Well, this is the way we roll around here, so, indeed, happy birthday to them.
Senator Birmingham, you’re here in the region today to talk about the draft Plan. What are you hoping to achieve by being here?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, Jessica, look, I really hope to get a good appreciation of the concerns of local people. I’m no stranger in visiting the Riverland, I’ve been here throughout the many years of debate we’ve had on reforming the Murray-Darling and I’ve heard the concerns before. Yesterday I started off, having been in Canberra on Monday for the release of the Plan, I came back and started off at Milang and then worked up through Murray Bridge, holding a community meeting there, and today and this morning I’m in Barmera where we’ll hold a community meeting here as well, and I just hope to hear people’s views and concerns and make sure that I’m as fully informed as possible as this debate progresses at a national level.
JESSICA SWANN: What are you hoping to do… I mean, what can you do to make a difference?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, I hope we can highlight to the Government the way that this Plan can be improved. I’m not one who wants to see the Plan destroyed. I think we need to have a decent national management plan for the Murray-Darling that’s something that’s been argued over for more than 120 years and we need to get an outcome from this that needs to be a fair outcome and I’m very worried, though, that what we have before us at present is a recipe for seven years of uncertainty for the people of the Riverland and, frankly, irrigation communities throughout Australia.
JESSICA SWANN: Senator, what do you think about this task force that’s been set up by Premier Jay Weatherill? Obviously, as many would know, it’s been set up to conduct a scientific and ecological analysis of the Plan. It could potentially lead to a High Court challenge. Ray Najar from the Murray-Darling Basin Association [Murray Darling Association] has warned that a High Court challenge could derail the process. What do you think about this? Do you agree with him?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Look, I am very sympathetic to Ray’s concerns there. I think Premier Weatherill needs to be careful that he doesn’t end up playing such a parochial role as to basically force the hands of Victoria and New South Wales to say effectively ‘to hell with it; we’re not going to be a part of this any more’. If South Australia wants a decent and fair outcome, we’ve got to be willing to accept there’s a degree of give and take in this. Now, it can’t be all give from SA and no take from the other states but we do need to make sure that… I think the threats of a High Court challenge are frankly ridiculous. We just end up locking in situation where the state will further line the pockets of lawyers. As we’ve already seen, Victoria and New South Wales have threatened to walk away from the process and we’ll be back to where we’ve been for the previous century-plus of different states doing different things, taking as much as they want out of the system and a whole lot of bickering with no better outcome. We’re on the cusp of getting something good. Unfortunately, this Plan isn’t yet good enough and we need a Plan that provides far more certainty and far more opportunity to places like the Riverland, in recognition of their hard work in the past, than the one we’ve got.
JESSICA SWANN: One of the other areas that no doubt you’re going to be talking extensively about is the impact on the environment. While irrigators aren’t happy, environmentalists… you could safely say that many are outraged and they’re arguing that the health of the River is in its eleventh hour and much more water is needed to bring it to a healthy state. How are you going to address these needs and these concerns?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, Jessica, obviously you can’t make everybody happy through this process and, as I say, there has to be some compromise from all sides. I was down around Milang meeting with a lot of the locals around the Lower Lakes yesterday and, frankly, those people were very… how shall I put it… they were very thoughtful in their contributions. They weren’t looking necessarily to say ‘we must have 4000 gigalitres of extra flows and anything less would be a betrayal’. They recognise that a good Plan will be a Plan that everyone can live with, will be a Plan that is balanced and fair and that that may mean that it may not give them all that they want but as long as it’s a good step forward it may be something that they’ll have to live with, so I think we need to be cautious about people setting benchmarks that are too high for anybody to jump over in saying it’s 4000 or nothing for the overall reduction probably is one of those situations of asking for something that just isn’t going to be delivered and risks tearing the whole process apart, so… but I’m concerned, really, that this Plan we have at present lacks detail to answer some of these questions. We don’t really know, with this headline figure of 2750 gigalitres, how much of that water will flow through the system on average, how much of it will flow across the South Australian border on average, let alone down into the Lower Lakes on average. Equally we don’t know what the maximum cut for irrigators in the South Australian Murray will be. We know that there’s a minimum reduction of 101 gigalitres, most of which has already been recovered, but we don’t know what that maximum will be. There’s another 971 gigalitres that South Australian Murray irrigators will be asked to share in the reduction of, but whether they have to take 5 per cent, 10 per cent, 20 per cent or 50 per cent of that 971 gigalitres is totally unclear in this Plan.
JESSICA SWANN: Liberal Senator Simon Birmingham and Opposition spokesperson on the Murray-Darling Basin, thanks for your time this morning and all the best in that meeting.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Always a pleasure, Jessica, thank you.
JESSICA SWANN: Thanks very much. Bye bye now.