MARIUS BENSON: Simon Birmingham, has the Government done the right thing by announcing this Parliamentary committee to be headed by Tony Windsor to look at the human impact of cuts in water supplies in the basin to residents in the Basin?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well any type of Parliamentary oversight involvement is always welcome, Marius, and I’m happy to see that the Government realises that they’ve botched this process to date and that there is a significant level of community concern that they need to act upon. But frankly, the Parliamentary inquiry risks being meaningless unless both it and the process of the Murray-Darling Basin Authority’s consultation are informed by some genuine, serious, detailed economic analysis. Even the Authority themselves concede their economic modelling is flawed and lacking and that’s why we’ve been calling consistently for a detailed Productivity Commission assessment inquiry. That’s where the Government really needs to go and if they’re serious about ensuring this report strikes a good balance and minimises the impact of getting sustainable rivers and river communities they should bring the Productivity Commission in.
MARIUS BENSON: Is it a bit early to say the process is botched? This is just the beginning of a process to consider a proposal for a plan to guide discussions about possible legislation a year or more down the track.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Look, I don’t think so at all. Anybody could have seen, from some distance out, that reducing irrigator entitlements was always going to be a difficult process. Reform itself is always difficult. But it was going to be difficult and there would be a passionate and angry reaction unless the Government had dotted all the ‘i’s and crossed all the ‘t’s and made sure that they had a complementary Government policy discussion paper about how they would minimise the impacts of these reductions on these communities. Instead, what we’ve seen is a process where the economic modelling, by the Authority’s own admission, is seriously lacking. There is no Government sort of policy response to outline how they will minimise impacts on these communities. So the outrage is entirely predictable and the Government of course is now looking a little panicked, as is always the case it seems with this Labor Government, when they’re panicked the first thing they turn to is to establish a new committee or inquiry.
MARIUS BENSON: Well, just looking at that committee they’ve appointed, they’ve appointed Tony Windsor to head it, is he the right man for that job?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Look, I hope Tony will bring an approach that is sympathetic to getting the right outcome and that outcome is sustainable rivers with sustainable river communities. If you look back to the original Howard plan, three years ago now, or more than three years ago, it was legislated by the Howard Government as a process to bring about sustainable river flows and we budgeted $10 billion to make the adjustment and the transition easier. The real criticism with this Government at present is they’ve spent three years… or they’ve wasted three years of opportunity to get that $10 billion in shape, in a manner that would actually make this process easier. They can’t tell us today or give us today any estimate as to how the $5.8 billion on infrastructure will be spent, what sort of water savings there will be from it that could offset and minimise the need [for water] to be bought and taken out of productive capacity in these communities. And that’s the real scandal here that Government negligence for three years has only heightened the anger in these communities and made this process that is so important harder at this critical time.
MARIUS BENSON: There are arguments today that much of the debate that is going on is irrational or indeed unnecessary because the targets needed to save water are going to be achieved regardless of the buyback.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well I’ve noticed that a report in newspapers today has highlighted a few regions where buybacks have already met large parts of the possible cuts, however in the regions the Murray-Darling Basin Authority has been in this week, in the towns of Griffith, Deniliquin, Shepparton and Renmark today where I’m currently headed, there are significant cuts still to be achieved and unless the Government can outline a genuine infrastructure agenda with its $5.8 billion that the Howard Government left budgeted, then there is real pain for a lot of these communities.
MARIUS BENSON: Simon Birmingham, thank you very much.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Always a pleasure, Marius.