KIM LANDERS: The Chief Executive of the Murray-Darling Basin Authority, Rob Freeman, has resigned. Mr Freeman will finish up in the role on the 1st of June. He’ll be replaced by Rhondda Dickson from the federal Agriculture department. The Basin Authority has been under fire since it released a plan recommending large cuts to water allocations along the river system. A short time ago, our Political Editor, Lyndal Curtis, spoke to the Opposition’s Murray-Darling spokesman, Simon Birmingham.
LYNDAL CURTIS: Simon Birmingham welcome to News 24.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Thank you, Lyndal.
LYNDAL CURTIS: The Chief Executive of the Murray-Darling Basin Authority, Rob Freeman, has resigned. The Government’s replaced him. Will that speed in replacing him help keep things on track?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Look, I’m pleased the Government has replaced him quickly and I understand these events are sometimes unavoidable but this is a process that has previously been plagued with difficulties, plagued with delays, and the Minister really needs to reassure people throughout the Basin communities that this change won’t result in yet more delays to a process that is already behind schedule.
LYNDAL CURTIS: What’s the timing of the process? When is the Government due to respond to the draft Plan, the Guide to the draft Plan that the Murray-Darling Basin Authority put out at the start of the process?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, originally the Government was meant to have a draft Plan out early this year and the Plan finalised by the end of this year. They’ve revised that program, they’ve got the States to agree to a revised program, but that revised program requires them to still have the new draft Plan out next month and from there to finalise it by early next year, so to have this change now just one month away from releasing the new draft Plan does pose an awful lot of questions and the Government does need to come up and answer those questions as to whether there will be further delays of any sort.
LYNDAL CURTIS: There are two inquiries – two Parliamentary inquiries – into the Plan, one from the House of Representatives and one from the Senate that you’re on. Where is that inquiry at?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, the Windsor inquiry is due to report any day or any week now, and indeed there’s a question there as to just how strong or sweeping their recommendations will be and obviously if they have a vast range of recommendations, that in itself will delay the process if the Government is to listen to that Parliamentary inquiry and seeing as Minister Burke set that one up himself, I would be hoping that they do listen to that inquiry and give it due heed, so the Senate inquiry, which is a more detailed one into the operation of the Water Act, has a little way to go yet, but it is the Windsor inquiry that the Government has put so much stock in, so much faith in, they need to be genuine about ensuring that they actually are going to listen to what Tony Windsor and the other members of that inquiry have to say and that in fact their findings will be incorporated somehow into this report.
LYNDAL CURTIS: You were very critical of what the Murray-Darling Basin [sic] originally proposed and you’re critical of the process, but isn’t it – putting it to a Parliamentary inquiry to take submissions, to listen to people – the way to go about the process, the way to get people’s input into it?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, the disappointing thing is just how far off the rails it went, that it ever to that stage. The Water Act was actually legislated for under the Howard Government. The process was there in place when the Rudd Government took over. Three-plus years later we saw it go so far wrong that they’ve in a sense had to go back to first principles and send it off to this Parliamentary committee. Now, I hope that we’re not going to see interminable delays. Of course, what’s happened, though, is that it has rained throughout the system, we have a far healthier system now. That means there’s a chance to take a little bit of time, a little bit of breathing space, to get it right but it’s important that we don’t just put it on the backburner. Reform of the Murray-Darling is important to communities throughout it. These communities are living with uncertainty about future water allocations. They deserve to know what they’re going to get in the future and, indeed, everyone has a genuine concern as well, of course, about having a sustainable, healthy system and achieving that so that when the next drought comes we know we’re going to manage it far, far better than we did in the last drought.
LYNDAL CURTIS: Is there any commitment from you for the Opposition to, when the Windsor inquiry comes up with recommendations and the Government formulates a Plan based on those, to support them?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, look, the Windsor inquiry has Coalition Members on it. Obviously they will form their own views and they may concur with Tony Windsor and the Government Members. They may not. I don’t know – that’s a matter for those individual House of Representatives Members, but we want to approach this process constructively. We’re so critical of it going off the rails because in a sense we have a real commitment to it. It was one of the, if not the, last great reforms of the Howard Government, to put $10 billion aside, to legislate the Water Act, to set it on this path and we’ve seen it go so far wrong under this Government, so we’ll do what we can to get it back on the right track because that’s important for every community in the Murray-Darling.
LYNDAL CURTIS: Senator Birmingham, thank you very much.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Always a pleasure.