Topics: SA Murray Darling Basin Commissioner; Murray Darling Basin Plan;
David Bevan: Senator Simon Birmingham joins us now. Good morning. Senator Simon Birmingham.
Simon Birmingham: Good morning, David. Lovely to be with you.
David Bevan: The State Government has decided to appoint a commissioner for the River Murray and we spoke to Richard Beasley before 9 o’clock asking him, well, look, what’s your task? What do you do? What are the arrangements in place? It turns out it’s a part time appointment. He will be based in Sydney. He didn’t know how many hours he was contracted to actually work, but he and he didn’t. I think you’ve got a bit antsy when I said so basically you’re going to be a lobbyist. Your job is to represent South Australia and lobby. Well it’s not a dirty word, is it? To try and get what we think is the best plan for the basin and indeed for our state. Do you think we need such a thing?
Simon Birmingham: Well David, I would have thought that first and foremost we had a state Water Minister, a state Premier and indeed members of Parliament, state and federal from South Australia, all of whom have roles to make sure that we are advocating for, lobbying even for South Australia and particularly if the State Government is wanting to make sure it’s putting its best foot forward when it comes to management, the Murray-Darling Basin, then that’s precisely the job of the Water Minister, the Premier and others within the State Government. If they need to get additional legal advice beyond the many lawyers they have at their disposal through Crown Law, to particularly design changes to the Water Act or anything like that. Well, of course they’re free to contract that in, but it does seem odd to go and hire a Sydney based senior counsel or barrister as an advocate or lobbyist in that sense. And I guess we’ll all look forward to seeing just what the terms of that employment arrangement and costs of it are.
David Bevan: But Beasley has got a track record on this. I mean he was senior counsel assisting South Australia’s Murray-Darling Royal Commission, so he knows the river well. We can argue, you know, different people will have different views about how it should be managed. But he comes from a certain point of view which marries the view of Susan Close and the Malinauskas government. You couldn’t ask for a better qualified person if that’s the position you want to pursue.
Simon Birmingham: Look I’m not quibbling with the individual. I don’t know him personally. I think he brings certainly some background of having looked at the issues. I’m not sure that when you challenged him, particularly around issues of water buybacks and whether that has detrimental impacts on certain basin communities and hurts the ability of them to be able to maintain food production in Australia and the type of agricultural activities that water is used for. He seemed a bit dismissive of that, that I’m not sure it goes down well in those communities. But I do think there’s a bigger picture we’ve got to remember with the achievements of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. I’ve noticed all of the media commentary of late seems to only talk about the 450 gigalitres of additional water like that was the only part to be recovered under the Basin Plan, whereas in reality there was the initial requirement under the Basin Plan, which was some 2700 gigalitres or 2700 billion litres of water to be recovered. That means reduced irrigation use across the Murray-Darling Basin and that has essentially been met most of it through licences that have been directly recovered and are now held by the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder. And so each and every year now that entity is able to direct hundreds of billions of litres of water towards different environmental assets, wetlands, lakes, downstream flows, etc. across the basin and to help with fish breeding events, other types of ecological outcomes. And whilst we shouldn’t give up on the 450. I do feel as if there’s a lot of focus on the negativity and not recognising that what has been achieved on the Basin Plan to date is actually quite an incredible achievement of reform.
David Bevan: So you’re saying almost 3000 gigalitres of extra water, water that wasn’t there before the plan is in the river?
Simon Birmingham: In terms of around a couple of thousand of that, about 2100 in licence entitlement that used to be held by irrigators and is now held by the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder and then some hundreds of gigalitres in addition to that of efficiency allocations that have basically been achieved by managing the system much better and being able to undertake those environmental watering activities more efficiently.
David Bevan: But however you get those figures together, is there actual is there an actual extra 2700 gigalitres of water in that river now that would not have been there except for the Murray-Darling Basin Plan?
Simon Birmingham: Absolutely. In terms of as I say, it’s comprised slightly differently. But yes, there are hundreds, even thousands of billions of litres of additional water that is available each and every year in terms of licences that this Commonwealth agency, the Environmental Water Holder, uses, just like an irrigator would, they sit there though and say which wildlife, ecological fish breeding event, which part of the river system do we want to direct extra water to this year to achieve optimal outcomes and I’d really encourage you to ask the CEWH as they’re affectionately known in acronym circles, the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder, perhaps to come on and talk one day and share with listeners what they are achieving. Of course, with more water, if the 450 can be achieved, that can no doubt help them to achieve more in environmental flows, particularly downstream into S.A. But we also do have to be mindful that there isn’t more water created except for when we can do things with more efficiency. It is otherwise the case that it comes from food production and goes into these environmental assets. And that’s always a trade off or a balancing act.
David Bevan: Okay. Well, Simon Birmingham, thank you very much for your time. The Liberal senator from South Australia responding to the interview we did with Richard Beasley before 9 o’clock this morning.