ALI MOORE: The Opposition’s Parliamentary Secretary for the Murray Darling Basin is Senator Simon Birmingham. He joins myself and Political Editor Chris Uhlmann from the ABC’s Adelaide bureau. Simon Birmingham, welcome to the program.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Thanks Ali… good afternoon… good afternoon Chris.
ALI MOORE: You’ve committed to implementing the Murray-Darling Basin Authority Plan, you’ve also committed to ‘fully and finally implement the 2007 Howard-Turnbull-Anderson plan for the Murray Darling Basin’… how do you know the two are going to work together?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well because, indeed, all Labor has done in the last three years is take the Howard-Turnbull plan, adopt it as its own, but apply it rather poorly. So what we’ve committed to do today is to put the process back on track, to make sure that what John Howard’s vision was in 2007, which was for a Murray Darling system managed by an independent national body in the national interest with healthy rivers and healthy river communities, is actually delivered once and for all, and that’s what we’ll be achieving through our policy, and having an effective and fair national Basin Plan as a key part of that.
CHRIS UHLMANN: I think Ali’s point though, Senator, is that how do you know that the old plan that you were working on and the new Plan which you haven’t seen from the Authority are going to gel together?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well Chris, the new Plan and you’re right, this Plan has been delayed three times by this Government, under their watch… it’s a great disappointment and it stems back to the fact that it took Penny Wong 18 months to appoint the members and the chair of the Murray-Darling Basin Authority and they were 18 wasted months and the draft Basin Plan should and could have been out not just days or weeks ago but months ago if Penny Wong had actually got her act together… but we will look at the Plan, we’re committed to implementing a good Plan, there’s a process already outlined in the Water Act, the Water Act of 2007 that was passed by the Howard Government, for this Plan to go out to public consultation, for it to be considered by the Murray-Darling Ministerial Council, and ultimately for it to have Ministerial approval. We’re confident by the end of that process it will be a good Plan and it will deliver healthy rivers and healthy river communities.
ALI MOORE: But the question remains, that… the same question… you have committed to implementing the Howard-Turnbull-Anderson plan of 2007 which had certain emphasis on fixing irrigation, certain emphasis on buybacks… how do you know that that plan is going to work with the Murray Darling Basin Plan and, if they’re not the same, which one will take precedence?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well Ali, because the buybacks and the fixing of the infrastructure so that you get water efficiency are all about getting water banked in the system to have a sustainable Basin Plan. The sustainable Basin Plan being developed by the Murray-Darling Basin Authority is essentially just a cap on how much water can be taken out of the system. It’ll be a Basin-wide cap. That will be a great step forward. To achieve that Basin-wide cap, the Government has to either buy back water or find water savings through ensuring that it’s used more efficiently and make sure that [through] whichever of those means, the water flows are returned to the environment. That’s the methodology of how you achieve the Basin Plan. We’re confident that, ultimately, the Plan developed by the Authority hopefully will be a good Plan, we’ll make sure that it’s a good Plan, and we’ll implement it, being a good Plan, and we’ll achieve it by actually having the buybacks and the infrastructure spend and delivering on all of those things.
CHRIS UHLMANN: Simon Birmingham, there’s been some criticism from farming communities about the way that the Authority’s going about its business and that it’s biased towards environmental flows at the cost to some of those communities.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Chris, we are certainly cognisant of those concerns, we’ve heard those concerns. A lot of the concerns from farmer groups come from a couple of different areas. Some are concerned that the Government has failed to spend the infrastructure money that was on the table, the things that can allow farmers to produce more with less, the become more efficient, that can provide for environmental flows without taking farmers off the land or food production out of supply. So that’s one concern. Other concerns are that there isn’t enough consideration for the economic and social impact of Murray Darling reform being given. That’s why today we’ve committed to a joint Productivity Commission and ABARE study into that. We’ve committed to $300 million extra for on-farm infrastructure spending so that there’s direct benefit there for farming communities, and we’ve committed to the fact that if there is a gap between the existing funding to have buybacks and to have infrastructure reform, and the water that those things can achieve, and the water that is actually needed for the Plan that is finally agreed to, well then we will find a way to bridge that gap in terms of ensuring that the ownership rights and the funding and the compensation for farmers and irrigators is provided for in the long term.
ALI MOORE: So do I take it from that that you would not follow the Government’s endorsement of whatever the Murray-Darling Basin Authority Plan says in terms of water buybacks… it will do whatever the Plan says is necessary… you’re more inclined to have a look and see what the review panel comes up with?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Ali, we think that a responsible government should know what it’s signing up to. We are committed to fixing the Basin, we’re committed to getting healthy rivers and to doing so in a manner that creates sustainable river communities as well, with the farming produce that comes from that. But we’re not just going to sign up to a Plan that we haven’t seen. Julia Gillard says she hasn’t seen the Plan and yet she’s already signed up to it. That strikes us as grossly irresponsible. There is a process laid out for in the Water Act, it involves proper public consultation with all of the vast stakeholders in the river system, it involves the Ministerial Council having a say, it ensures that by the end of the process the Basin Plan is a good one, a right one, and that it has the ownership of all the stakeholders. We think that’s the responsible thing to do.
CHRIS UHLMANN: Senator, do you think the people understand, when you and the Government talk about buying water, that you’re not actually buying water, you’re buying water rights and in a lot of cases they’ve never been met… the quantities that you’re talking about haven’t been filled in years.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Chris, look, there’s a lot of confusion, about these processes and so I’m not sure that people understand the difference. We have Penny Wong today criticising the Coalition for saying that we will buy immediately some temporary water for the next 12 months to put some freshwater into the Coorong, that fabulous estuarine environment of international repute, for the first time in more than four years and in any significant quantity for the first time in a decade. She’s criticising that because it only happens once, but what will happen there is we will actually be buying real water allocations. We know that it will be 150 billion litres that we’re going into the market to buy because that’s real water, whereas so much of the entitlement that she has bought is just that paper water against which far less is actually allocated. Now that’s still important for the long term and we’re committed to buybacks as part of that long term process but it’s a complex area and unfortunately people like Penny are prone to trying to play a bit of politics with it and a bit too much parochialism with it… water should really be above all of that and particularly the Murray Darling.
ALI MOORE: Well, Simon Birmingham, there is no doubt it is complex, it’s probably also worth pointing out the Basin Plan’s not due for implementation until 2014, thank you very much for joining Afternoon Live.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Thank you, Ali, and thank you, Chris, a pleasure.