TREVOR SCOTT: … and as you would be aware, the Murray-Darling [proposed] Basin Plan has been released and, I tell you what, it’s a little bit murky. Well, so says Senator Simon Birmingham – a murky plan for murky waters. I welcome Senator Birmingham to the program. Good morning, Senator.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Good morning, Trevor. Good morning, listeners.
TREVOR SCOTT: Mate, good to have you on board. You are coming to town tomorrow, but I just wanted to get some early sort of thoughts on what has been, as you’ve already said, a murky plan. I’ve tried to read through it. Very confusing!
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Yeah, well, Trevor, I was up in Canberra yesterday for the release of the Plan and quickly downloaded all of the documents including what’s described as the Plain English summary of the Plan and it’s nothing like plain English when you start trying to plough through it. It’s, of course, all very technical but most concerningly for people is that it really lacks the detail. For South Australian Murray irrigators, we know there’s a minimum cut in entitlements headed SA’s way and that’s the 101 gigalitres, but we don’t know what the maximum is and that’s just a ridiculous situation to put communities and towns in, that the Plain English version to this Plan describes the minimum cut… or describes the cut to the South Australian Murray irrigators as 101 gigalitres plus X19 and it doesn’t tell us what X19 actually is.
TREVOR SCOTT: No, well I hunted for that and I couldn’t find X19 so you can’t find X19 either?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, X19 is a share of 971 gigalitres. It just doesn’t tell us how much of a share it is and in fact you won’t actually know how much of a share it is until 2019, after it’s all recovered, so we have this ridiculous, very circular sort of argument that until the water’s recovered they won’t be able to say how much they’re going to recover out of the SA Murray and you won’t know that until 2019, so it’s seven years of total uncertainty for people as to just how much is going to come out of the community and this, of course, could mean that it’s not just 100 gigalitres that people lose, but 200 or 300 or who knows how much.
TREVOR SCOTT: I’ve also looked through and couldn’t find too many… I guess mentions of the words food bowl, food production and agriculture.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: No. Well, look, it certainly seems…
TREVOR SCOTT: It seems to have been forgotten.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: … a real lack of expectation or understanding of the importance of food production here and we’re very critical on the Opposition side of the fact that Labor’s had four years to get this Plan right, four years to get the spending of dollars right. Remember John Howard put $10 billion on the table, very much to go and particularly re-plumb many of the inefficient areas of the Murray-Darling Basin and save water out of those areas first and then you can work out, if there’s still a gap to be recovered, whether you need to do buybacks. Unfortunately, it’s all been done the other way around – the buybacks have come first; the infrastructure projects are still languishing and that, of course, is threatening food production for the Basin but also amazingly lacking in this Plan is actually any detail of what the environmental water recovered will be used for and so we don’t clearly know where it’s going to come from or who it’s going to come from and equally we don’t clearly know where it’s going to go or what it’s going to be used for.
TREVOR SCOTT: So there’s been no focus on working from the Mouth upstream, it’s all been from the other end? Is that right?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Look, that’s not entirely the case. We do know that they say in relation to the Mouth that, with these additional flows, the Mouth should be open 89 years in 100 and, look, that’s welcome. Obviously I think all South Australians understand the sight of seeing the Mouth constantly being dredged and constantly under stress, so that’s a positive step but, beyond that, they haven’t been able to say with any clarity how much water will actually pass through the Mouth, how much water reaches the Lower Lakes, how much water passes Lock One, how much water will pass into South Australia, so it’s amazing to say they’re going to take, somehow, across the Basin, without saying where they’re going to get it from, some 2,750 gigalitres out of production and put that towards environmental flows but they can’t say where that water’s actually going to be used or what they’re going to do with it. If you don’t know what you’re going to do with it, how can you possibly know that it’s the right amount?
TREVOR SCOTT: It must be irking South Australian growers and irrigators because they’ve put in the hard yards over the last 40 years to reduce the use of water to the best that they can possibly do without a lot of Government support. It must be irking them?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Oh, look, very much so. I’ve heard the concerns plenty of times already from SA irrigators concerned both at the loss of water for them and, of course, the idea that billions of dollars is going to be handed out to growers and competitors interstate to do things that they’ve already done largely out of their own pocket, so I understand those concerns very much and obviously I expect to hear them again when I get to the Riverland late tonight and tomorrow morning, and particularly at the Barmera town hall where we’ll catch up with some people at 10 o’clock tomorrow morning and hear the concerns of people and they are valid concerns and that’s why I think the focus really needs to be on, at least where we need to get extra environmental water, recovering it first and foremost from efficiency gains and, yes, that means spending some money to bring others up to the same standard as the Riverland but at least it’s not a case of taking water out of productive capacity by just buying it back from people.
TREVOR SCOTT: At the moment, the environment’s looking pretty good, isn’t it, and if you head down towards Goolwa way and to the Mouth, plenty of birds, the fish seem to be doing okay, wildlife is abundant… the same right throughout the South Australian section of the Murray… Mannum’s never looked so good, and some of those floodplains around our region and, of course, the Lake Bonney itself, all looking very good. Has that sort of taken some of the focus away from the environment impact on this statement?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, it may have a little bit and certainly we need to understand that the national anthem doesn’t describe us as a land of droughts and flooding rains for…
TREVOR SCOTT: For nothing.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: … no good reason [it doesn’t; cf. Dorothea Mackellar’s My Country], you know, and no amount of Plan can, no matter how good the Plan is, can, of course, manage to change those cycles of droughts and flooding rains, but there is a valid argument that the huge growth in extractions, particularly in New South Wales over the last few decades and especially during the ’70s… ’60s, ’70s and ’80s… really did place the system under particular stress and that we need to take a step down in the amount of water that’s extracted from it to ensure that when we come to the next drought, you don’t have a system that’s stressed going into the drought. You expect it to be stressed by the time you come out of the drought, but going into it you want the system to at least have a degree of robustness surrounding it, so, you know, I think the idea of a Plan, and the idea of actually managing the Murray-Darling as a national system rather than a whole series of little state systems, is a sensible one. It’s one that, of course, my side of politics, the Howard Government, started in 2007. I just think that four years later, the spending priorities and the way the Plan is being developed is a long, long way from what was envisaged back then.
TREVOR SCOTT: So we’ll hear more of your thoughts and be able to have our say tomorrow with a public meeting, which is all about the Basin Plan, at Bonney Theatre from 10 o’clock tomorrow morning?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: I look forward to seeing people there and look forward to hearing the views of as many people across the Riverland as I can get as I quickly scoot my way around a whole raft of different Basin towns.
TREVOR SCOTT: Yep, and hopefully we can get the chance to catch up with you as well. Senator Simon Birmingham, thanks for your time this morning.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Always a pleasure, Trevor.
TREVOR SCOTT: Thank you. Simon Birmingham there. Of course, he is the Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for the Environment… also for the Murray-Darling Basin and a Liberal Senator for South Australia. That meeting is tomorrow morning, 10 o’clock at the Bonney Theatre in – of course, you know where that is – Barwell Avenue in Barmera. Also helping to host the meeting will be Tim Whetstone, the [state] Member for Chaffey, and Member for Barker Patrick Secker…