WALEED ALY: The Murray-Darling Basin Authority announced on Friday that it wants to cut overall water allocations along the river by between 27 to 37 per cent. But the Opposition says the Plan will destroy some regional communities that rely on irrigated agriculture. Senator Simon Birmingham is the Opposition’s spokesman for the Murray-Darling and he joins us now from the ABC’s Adelaide newsroom. Good morning, isn’t the problem that the death of the Murray-Darling Basin means the death of these communities anyway?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well good morning, Waleed, and it’s a pleasure to have the opportunity to talk about this. Reform is always difficult and reform of the Murray-Darling Basin is not an easy process. This is a process that the Howard Government began in 2007 and importantly it set about doing two things. One was to legislate for basin-wide planning, to help us achieve sustainable rivers, to put some more water back in the system. And that’s what we’ve seen undertaken with the release of this guide plan at the end of last week. Secondly, though, the Howard Government budgeted $10 billion to make it easier for communities to adjust to that Plan, to ensure that they were as efficient as possible with the water that they use and to ensure that, in particular, we drove an agenda of irrigation infrastructure efficiency, made sure that every drop of water was put to good use, and regrettably the Labor Government over the last three years has strayed from that. They’ve pursued buybacks almost exclusively, they’ve ignored the infrastructure agenda and that means, if they keep doing that and follow that approach, buybacks simply take the productive capacity out of those communities and that’s of course when you will maximise the pain on them rather than minimising that pain which the infrastructure agenda could do.
WALEED ALY: There seems to be a lot of analysis based on assumption there, though. The Water Minister, Tony Burke, has specifically said that now begins a process of consultation, that we’re not exactly sure the mechanisms that will be used to meet the allocation targets that are in place. Surely it’s a bit early to be criticising the Government for failing to respond to the report when there’s a consultation process about to begin?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well the problem, Waleed, is the Government has been responding to this report in advance. Of the $3.1 billion that was budgeted for water buybacks, the Government has already spent around half of that. Yet in terms of the $5.6 billion that was budgeted for infrastructure assistance they’ve spent a mere pittance and they can’t tell communities how much water they’re going to save through these infrastructure efficiency projects because the Government has just dragged its heels on them and what that’s doing is creating massive uncertainty in those communities. The Government should have released, in tandem with this guide plan, its own analysis of how it intends to go about actually achieving reductions in water use through the system to put into environmental flows. The Government did that, all they’re saying… they’re leaving it to the Authority to talk about what the size of the water cuts will be whilst saying nothing themselves about how they will actually spend money wisely to ease the pain of those cuts.
WALEED ALY: And that’s the entire point of the consultation process, isn’t it? I guess what I’m asking you is, aren’t you suggesting they should essentially bypass that?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: No, not at all, Waleed, this is where the Government is being quite misleading in talking about the consultation process. The Murray-Darling Basin Authority’s sole task is to actually set the sustainable diversion limits, to determine what extent the cuts should be. It’s not the Authority’s task under the Water Act to outline how those cuts will be achieved and the Authority’s chairman on Friday in releasing this Guide was very explicit that it’s not up to them to determine whether it’s through buybacks, whether it’s through infrastructure – that’s a matter for Government policy. So that’s where the Government is failing in their duties here. They’re failing to step up to the mark in saying how they will actually ease the pain of these cuts. The Authority has essentially a scientific remit to work out what the environmentally sustainable water flows in the river are and to make sure that’s the way the river system’s managed.  It’s up to the Government to determine economically and socially how they will actually minimise the pain of those cuts on regional communities throughout Australia and of course maintain our food production that comes out of those communities.
WALEED ALY: But I can envisage that had the Government announced the way it was going to achieve these targets right up front before any consultation, you would then be criticising the Government precisely for doing that, for saying that it didn’t consult with key stakeholders, that the Opposition, for example, wasn’t involved in that process. I’m just not exactly sure on what basis you can criticise the Government for failing to have a plan already in place right now when there’s a consultation period about to begin?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Waleed, they could at least have had their own initial response that could have been open to consultation from there, but they have nothing at present. There’s nothing to judge them on except for what they’ve done over the last three years and if they keep doing that over the next three years-plus, to achieve what’s proposed by the Murray-Darling Basin Authority, then that’s what will deliver maximum pain for communities throughout the Basin. They haven’t given any sense, anything on which for people to consult or discuss, about what the Government’s response as to how they propose to implement this Plan, how they propose to minimise the pain, will be. So consultation’s fine but you would expect the Government to have some type of starting base and the starting base that we can only judge them on is what they’ve done to date and what they’ve done to date has been buybacks at the exclusion of infrastructure which means taking productive capacity out of communities and if they just keep doing that, that’s where the pain will be maximised into the future.
WALEED ALY: What do you envisage the Opposition’s contribution to the consultation process will be? Will you get involved?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Oh look, we will certainly be getting involved. Most of the electorates through the Murray-Darling Basin are held by Liberal or National Party MPs, virtually all of them in fact. So we will expect our local MPs to be involved on behalf of their local communities. I’ll certainly be visiting different Basin communities this week myself, I’m sure Barnaby Joyce will be doing likewise as our other water spokesperson, and I hope that Tony Burke and the Government will be getting out there and doing that as well, not just leaving it to the officials of the Murray-Darling Basin Authority to go out and talk to people, but use this week in particular before Parliament goes back to get out and talk and listen to people and make sure that that informs the type of policy discussion we have from here.
WALEED ALY: Simon Birmingham, thanks very much for your time today.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: It’s a pleasure, Waleed.