LYNDAL CURTIS: The Opposition so far has been somewhat critical of the Plan and I’ve been joined by one of the Opposition spokesmen, Simon Birmingham. Welcome to News 24.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Good afternoon, Lyndal.
LYNDAL CURTIS: Does this Plan meet what’s called the ‘triple bottom line’ of the economic, social and environmental impacts?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, the jury really is still out on this Plan. It’s been described by some commentators as the ‘Clayton’s plan’ – the plan you have when you don’t really have a plan – and that’s because it doesn’t outline in any sense of detail either exactly how the environmental water recovered will be used nor exactly from which communities water will be recovered, so…
LYNDAL CURTIS: So you would prefer a Plan that specified from all the small bits… from each different community rather than having some bits spelled out and what’s called a shared reduction that will be spread across either the northern or southern Basins?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, this so called shared reduction is more than 1100 gigalitres of the as yet unrecovered water, so it’s a vast amount – a huge proportion of the water that’s still to be taken out of communities. Now, let’s understand the water Act was passed more than four years ago; the Labor Government was elected more than four years ago; the Guide to this Plan was released more than 12 months ago. Surely we should have reached the stage where we have some tangible environmental outcomes that are clearly spelled out for the use of the water and should have some clear cut targets for what irrigation communities are up for and how they’re going to be assisted through that process.
LYNDAL CURTIS: But isn’t some of that assistance clear when the Minister talks about helping… only buying back water from those who want to sell it, helping reduce the need for those buybacks by using infrastructure money – all those sorts of things – and isn’t their help also that communities have been given seven years to phase this in?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Oh, look, I think the longer phase in, given of course the system is in a decent state of health following the floods of last year and so on, is not a bad step forward, but in terms of the spending of funds, we’ve send a real dragging of the heels and a misprioritisation of those funds to date. Since 2007 when this Government was elected, they’ve spent more than budgeted every year on water buybacks despite having no Plan against which to do those buybacks and less than budgeted every year on delivering water saving infrastructure projects, so I welcome the fact that Tony Burke is now talking about giving prioritisation to infrastructure projects but the Government should have been doing that all along.
LYNDAL CURTIS: You’ve been critical that there’s not enough specifics in this Plan of where the water should come from, but doesn’t giving a shared limit or a more global limit for each region give the chance to be more strategic about where the water can come from if an area can do more to save water then it can come from there rather than being quite prescriptive?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, there may be an argument to have some level of flexibility in this. What we have at present is a minimum contribution from centres or from regions but there appears to basically be no maximum contribution so for those in the South Australian Murray in my home state, they know they’ve got to give up at least 101 gigalitres of water but that 100 gigalitres could turn into 200 or 300 or 400 – who knows? It seems to be under this Plan that there’s no cap in place. The same can be said for the Goulburn or the Murrumbidgee in Victoria or in New South Wales so the lack of certainty, the lack of knowledge that at least there is a maximum benchmark there is what will really concern people in irrigation communities throughout the country.
LYNDAL CURTIS: If we could talk about your home state of South Australia, does this Plan do enough to help South Australia which is at the end of the Murray-Darling Basin?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, I welcome the fact that the Plan apparently will see the Murray Mouth open in 89 out of 100 years – that’s a good step forward. What the Plan, again, fails to tell us is how much extra water and environmental flows goes across the South Australian border; how much of that water reaches the Lower Lakes; how much of that water will flow into the Coorong or out the Murray Mouth. The real lack of data and environmental analysis underpinning this Plan is just as criminal as the lack of clear cut targets for irrigation communities. You would think, as I say, that after more than four years we might be a lot further down the track in terms of certainties than this Plan has allowed for.
LYNDAL CURTIS: The South Australian Premier, Jay Weatherill, says the science suggest there needs to be 3½-to-4000 gigalitres returned to the River and says the burden of adjustment might fall onto South Australians in a way that it simply shouldn’t. Do you agree with that?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Look, I’m a realist in this process, Lyndal. Nobody’s going to get everything they want and there’s probably no way to make everybody happy and so that means that we need to, of course, accept there will be compromises along the way. I’m not going to argue that 2,750 should be 3,500 because I’m not a scientist, I can’t give that expertise and it needs to be about what’s between the environmental and scientific arguments and the economic and social arguments. What I do want to look at are what the outcomes are, what actually does it deliver, and telling us we get 89 in 100 years open from the Mouth – that’s good but that’s just one outcome out of what should be many, many far more detailed outcomes.
LYNDAL CURTIS: Premier Weatherill has flagged the possibility of a High Court challenge; Craig Knowles, the head [Chair] of the Murray-Darling Basin Authority, wants effectively the Commonwealth and the states to work this out – that’s a message that has come from Independent Tony Windsor as well. Is the process better if the Commonwealth and the states can work through this process without resorting to challenges or ultimatums?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: The process is much, much better if we can avoid court action and I think Jay Weatherill has been really quite reckless in his approach to date. He’s been threatening now almost from day one of his term as Premier to go off to the High Court and what’s it done? Well, his rampant parochialism has seen the New South Wales and Victorian Governments start musing about totally withdrawing from the process. We’ve had, as a country, 120 years of fighting about Murray-Darling reform and I think it’s time we did have a decent national plan; I think it was the last great reform of the Howard Government to say ‘we’re going to go down this pathway’; it’s one unfortunately that has been bungled and botched to date but we need to work to get it back on track and that requires the states to actually work with the Commonwealth and work together for outcomes that give us healthy rivers as well as sustainable communities.
LYNDAL CURTIS: Would that be your message, too, for communities, particularly those which are named in the Plan as being particularly vulnerable to the impact of this Plan – to have a look at the Plan, be part of the process rather than doing, as we saw last time, copies of the Guide then being burned?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Oh, look, I think everybody obviously needs to have their say. This is still a draft Plan; there’s 20 weeks of public consultation and many more weeks of consultation between the states and the Commonwealth that follow that, so we won’t see a final Plan until the second half of next year at the earliest, but for communities who look like being hit, I would urge them to make sure they get the Water Minister – get the Prime Minister – out there to sit down and talk to them and let’s look at how we can make sure that adjustment is there for them, that they get the dollars on the table to make sure the water is recovered in a way that keeps farmers on the land, keeps food production happening, doesn’t see house prices crash or communities, of course, shut up – they’re the things we want to avoid. Unfortunately to date we’ve spent a lot of time arguing about the numbers to be delivered; not enough time looking at how they will be delivered and how it will be implemented in the smartest possible ways.
LYNDAL CURTIS: Simon Birmingham, thank you very much for your time.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Always a pleasure, Lyndal.