SONYA FELDHOFF: Yesterday we focused very much on the release of the ALP’s policy on the River Murray. Today the Coalition made their announcement, Tony Abbott flanked by his other South Australian Parliamentarians, Liberal Parliamentarians, was on Hindmarsh Island to release their policy of providing $750 million towards the River Murray. Senator Simon Birmingham is the Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for the Murray Darling Basin and is my guest now. Thanks for your time, Senator.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Good afternoon, Sonya, listeners, pleasure to be with you.
SONYA FELDHOFF: Simon Birmingham, the $750 million towards the Murray from the Coalition, where does that money come from, first of all?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Sonya, that’s a figure that a few people have tallied up out of some of the announcements in the costings. What needs to be made quite clear here is that John Howard and Malcolm Turnbull committed $10 billion to Murray Darling reform back in 2007. Most of that remains unspent and we are committed to the full $10 billion amount. That is for a lot of the major ongoing reforms that are necessary to fix the Basin in terms of the permanent buybacks, in terms of fixing up the Basin infrastructure, all of those activities. Out of that funding, we’ve made a few specific allocations today, an extra $300 million specifically to improve farmers’ efficiency in the way they use water, an extra $200 million to a program that Nick Xenophon negotiated with the Government early last year which will support Basin communities. We have also added an extra $20 million in there to make some temporary purchase of water on the temporary market for this year to ensure that we get some extra water into the Lower Lakes and from there into the Coorong this year.
SONYA FELDHOFF: Let’s take a look at that idea. The 20 million to bring freshwater into the Lower Lakes immediately, why has that become a priority for you?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM:Look, we see it is a priority because it is a case of taking advantage of an opportunity that has emerged and that is that the northern floods at the beginning of the year, combined with some very decent recent rainfalls in the Adelaide Hills regions and so on, have brought the Lower Lakes back up to a level where it’s expected that they could get, and peak over the next couple of months, somewhere between 0.2 and 0.4 metres above sea level, that’s important because that’s within striking distance of the 0.5 metres above sea level where you can actually spill some water from Lake Alexandrina into the Coorong. Now South Australians all know how iconic and precious and a wonderful reserve the Coorong is, and it hasn’t had that estuarine environment of the Coorong has not had freshwater in it for four years, it’s had very little freshwater in it for basically a decade, we see an opportunity here to benefit the Lakes, but also to do something that immediately helps the Coorong by aiming to put about 100 billion litres of freshwater into the Coorong system.
SONYA FELDHOFF: Is that only a temporary benefit, though? How significant or how long term would that short term fix be?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well it’s a benefit both in the short and the long term, Sonya. In the short term, you’ve got a stressed ecological asset there that desperately needs some freshwater, so it’s no point saying this is only a once off and we’d be better off waiting five or ten years if that’s how long it takes to fix the overall Basin. This is a solution to provide some help to a stressed ecological asset in the next 12 months and it’s something the Labor Party is not promising to do. In the longer term, though, the water that goes to the Lower Lakes today, that raises that level, that brings about ecological help for that whole region today is water that helps for the longer term as well because the faster you recover those systems now, the faster you are helping them in the future, the less you might need in the future and special allocations for those systems you could use for other ecological assets in the Basin. We’re committed to the long term and the long term is implementing the long term national Basin Plan, implementing permanent buybacks, implementing water efficiency infrastructure throughout the Basin. All of those things we’re committed to, they take some time to do and so we’ve seen an opportunity to provide some short term relief to that precious Coorong region and we’re taking that opportunity as well.
SONYA FELDHOFF: Thanks for your time tonight, Senator.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Always a pleasure, Sonya.