JOSEPH THOMSEN: … the Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for the Murray-Darling Basin, Simon Birmingham, who is in Albury for today only. Simon Birmingham, good morning.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Good morning, Joseph and listeners. It’s a pleasure to be with you.
JOSEPH THOMSEN: Now, you’re going to be focusing today on what exactly?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: I will be talking very much with businesses around the Albury region about the impact of the Government’s mishandling of Murray-Darling Basin reform, about the need to get that reform back on track and particularly to refocus on smart ways in which we can recover water for the environment that don’t actually hurt local businesses and hurt local communities rather than what has been a fixation with buybacks and approaches that really are causing lots of grief and concern in the light of this Murray-Darling Plan for people throughout all states of the Murray-Darling Basin.
JOSEPH THOMSEN: What are these smart ways that you just touched on a moment ago?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: We really need to be looking for ‘win win’ outcomes and they are the types of efficient infrastructure projects that can be introduced where we actually make our irrigation systems, our water storage systems, far more efficient than they have been in the past and in those things you can actually return water to the environment while keeping people on the land by ensuring that every drop is accounted for, every drop is used wisely, but not necessarily taking land or people out of production.
JOSEPH THOMSEN: Are you therefore committing to greater spending on infrastructure?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, we already have billions of dollars that’s been committed. The sad part is it’s just not being spent wisely or not being spent at all. Since this Labor Government was elected, and in every year they’ve been in office, they’ve spent more than they budgeted on water buybacks and less than they budgeted on water saving infrastructure. Now, we need to get that priority back around the other way, put infrastructure front and centre because that’s where we can get the ‘win win’ outcomes, where we can actually get water for the environment without driving farmers off the land and they’re the types of projects that a future Tony Abbott Government would certainly focus on.
JOSEPH THOMSEN: You’re going to go to Lake Hume. What do you hope to achieve by doing that?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Look, I’m looking to, of course, get a better understanding of the local geography and topography and all of those sorts of issues as well as talking to business people. Hume is obviously one of our major storage facilities in the Basin and it, like most of them, is now very full, but I’ll be going out there with some locals to get a better appreciation of how the system works in the Albury region. I’ve travelled extensively through large parts of the Murray-Darling Basin in this role and every time you come away learning something new about regional interests, the specific concerns of local people and usually, when I’m talking about water saving infrastructure initiatives, you come away with examples of projects that would be very worthwhile in funding and could actually save water and ensure that we are accounting for every drop and using it very wisely.
The other thing, though, that, in looking at storage facilities like Hume, that I will be doing now is also, in the light of Tony Abbott’s call for an open national discussion about dams and storages and water infrastructure, is to look very carefully and wisely at how it’s done, how it could be done better and how we may be able to capture more of some of the types of massive rains that we’ve seen over the last month or so for usage in the future.
JOSEPH THOMSEN: It sounds like you’re on the verge of advocating more dams.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Oh, look, I think Australia, as Tony has put it, needs to ‘end the dam phobia’. We haven’t built major new storages in this country for a long time. There’s been a real phobia around proposals for new storages. We need to be open to looking at them. They need to provide benefits to environmental management as well as to productive use. This can’t just be… and I say this quite openly as a South Australian Senator as well as an Opposition spokesman on the Murray-Darling… this can’t just be about bottling more water up and drying the system up further, but there are actually ways through efficient management of storages that you can, of course, provide for environmental flows in dry times and you can make the system work more efficiently overall and we need to look at those options, not just in the Murray-Darling, of course. We saw so much water flowing out to sea up around Gladstone and so on in Queensland that they’re some of the types of things that we think if we’re to build the future of this country we should be open-minded about and that’s why Andrew Robb, Greg Hunt, Barnaby Joyce and I are working on Tony Abbott’s behalf on a program to develop a new approach to water storages and water infrastructure for this country.
JOSEPH THOMSEN: Are you just being populist, though? … know there’s a lot of people out there who’d like to hear politicians talk this way. It’s another thing to actually bring it into action.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, Joseph, look, the proof will be in the pudding. We, throughout the course of this year, will work on a detailed paper to outline the types of policy approaches the Coalition would bring to dams and water storage and water infrastructure should we be elected. We’re serious about it but we’ll be releasing some detailed policies ahead of the next election and everyone can judge us on the credentials of those.
JOSEPH THOMSEN: The flood levy… we’ve got it now. You’re critical of it but the previous Coalition Government has about six of them. How can you criticise it?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Oh, look, Joseph, I think there is a difference between Governments that are tight, wise, fiscal managers and you go back and people often cite the gun levy of John Howard’s and I’m well aware of that. You have to remember at that stage he was cutting plenty of fat out of the budget to bring the Keating Government’s deficit under control. This, instead, is a Government that has created its new debt, its own deficit, has plenty of fat in there that can and should be cut… the Prime Minister’s admitted that there’s more there that should be cut, or that could be cut, and that’s where the focus should go first and foremost and that’s where we think this money should come from and especially at a time like this, and I again emphasise it, that Australians across the board are going to be facing higher food prices, reduced economic activity in many places as a result of these floods, the last thing people will need to face is an additional impost on their taxes as a result.
JOSEPH THOMSEN: Okay, we’ll leave it there. Enjoy your time in Albury. Simon Birmingham, thanks for your time.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: It’s a pleasure, Joseph. Thanks very much.