PATRICIA KARVELAS: … so they have to sort of be able to arguably oppose this but also kind of come up with an alternative to what they would do to try to restore some of the river’s health and I don’t know how they come… arrive to that decision, I think it’s going to be very difficult for them.
PETER VAN ONSELEN: Let’s find out right now because we’re joined out of Adelaide in our studio there by the Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Water [sic, actually Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for the Murray-Darling Basin], Simon Birmingham. Simon, thanks for your company.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Good morning, Peter.
PETER VAN ONSELEN: Well let me ask you straight up, you’re in Adelaide, Adelaide needs the water, it needs the flow and no doubt irrigators, Nationals and country Liberals down the line on the Murray-Darling don’t like this report, where do you sit on it?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well Peter, this is a very difficult report and interesting challenge for us in a situation where the Howard Government did initiate a plan in this case, and we’d planned for a healthy sustainable river future. We also, however, put $10 billion on the table to deliver an easier pathway for irrigators and farming communities to be able to adjust to this, to ensure they could be as efficient as possible and actually have the type of efficient infrastructure that’s necessary to give water for the environment while keeping productive capacity in those communities. And the real criticism of the Government in this case is twofold.
Firstly, that they have strayed from the Howard plan, which was [a ratio of] four dollars for infrastructure efficiency, one dollar for buybacks and one dollar for community adjustment assistance. Instead, every year, they have spent far more on buybacks than they budgeted and less on infrastructure than they planned.
And then in releasing this Guide to the draft Murray-Darling Basin Plan, the Government has not even had any type of response. All you can hear from Minister Burke is consultation, consultation, consultation. Well that’s great, but he is killing these communities with uncertainty. There should have been a Government response to this report and it should have outlined just how much water can be saved through efficiencies, what the Government’s plan actually is and how they will minimise the buybacks that take the productive capacity out of regional Australia and out of our food production.
PAUL KELLY: But if we just take up that point, you’re concerned that the Government has not given a substantive reply. Can you give us a substantive Opposition response to this report?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Look, Paul, we will go through the detail of this report and we want to see a lot more of the detail behind it. The economic modelling behind this report is unpublished and secret. If the Government’s serious about genuine consultation, they should release this economic modelling and they should take up the Coalition’s commitment at the election campaign to make sure that there is a comprehensive Productivity Commission and ABARE joint study into the social and economic impacts, not just Basin-wide but area by area and community by community because it’s people’s lives we’re talking about.
PAUL KELLY: Okay, but just on my point, we have Barnaby Joyce saying that communities would be decimated. Do you endorse that sort of remark?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: If all the Government does is pursue the policies they’ve had of the last three years, which is buybacks and no other assistance for communities in implementing this report, then communities will be decimated. The Government needs to accept their policies have to change if they’re to avoid that level of decimation.
JENNIFER HEWETT: But the Minister’s saying very clearly that they won’t just be relying on water buybacks, so again, what is the Opposition’s view on this? I mean, do you think this plan to take this much amount of water out is at all credible? I mean, do you think something more should be done?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: We want to see a sustainable river system. That’s why we started this process and we absolutely accept that there has to be more water flowing through the rivers to deliver this sustainability. Now, we want to analyse the science behind this report, it’s a lot of scientific detail into it, and there’ll be lots of debate about whether the environmental flows forecast are too much, too little or just right. Let’s let that debate take place, and that’s why we have an independent Authority, but on the other side of the equation is the Government response and how the Government minimises this impact on our food production and on these communities and that really is where we need to focus our efforts and where we need to make sure the Government does minimise the pain for communities and ensure that Australia continues to be the type of vibrant food producer that we should be for our country and for the rest of the world.
PETER VAN ONSELEN: But Senator, does the Opposition have a core response here, because at the end of the day, it sounds to me, frankly, like you’re playing oppositionist politics here. I’m not hearing an alternative… do you support putting dams in place? Do you believe that water buybacks are needed in the measures that have been outlined in the report or do you have some alternative that you would like to see pursued that isn’t being?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Peter, we would put infrastructure efficiency absolutely front and centre in our response. It was front and centre in our response during the election campaign, in fact it was front and centre in the original Howard package, and that’s where we need to get the Government policy response back to, how we make all of these communities put every drop to good use, ensure that we get maximum dollar value for the Australian economy and keep these healthy, vibrant communities there. That’s what we expect the response to be, and certainly we will be outlining further… we’ve looked… I’ve travelled throughout the Basin, Barnaby Joyce has, Greg Hunt, Tony Abbott… we can identify lots of projects where you can save water, from the Menindee Lakes at the big storage level through to individual irrigation systems that can be upgraded. The Government’s ignored these projects for three years.
PAUL KELLY: (unclear)… we have Senator Nick Xenophon, this is almost completely unacceptable to South Australia, he said ‘from a South Australian perspective it should be simply rejected’. What’s your view on those comments?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: I think South Australia needs to take a big picture here. We, as South Australians, have argued for a long time for Murray-Darling reform, we’ve argued for a healthier river system because a healthier river system is good for South Australia, and that’s what of course this report tries to achieve by increasing flows through the Murray Mouth.
However, I recognise that the irrigation communities in South Australia are facing some pretty tough cutbacks as well under this report and we need to make sure that, as the Coalition response, it addresses the concerns of those communities just as much as it does irrigation communities throughout the rest of the Basin. So Nick’s got a point in highlighting that South Australia’s irrigators are very efficient and that the cuts will hit them hard, and I’ll certainly be… I was in the Riverland earlier this week, and I’ll be in the Riverland again this week… talking to those irrigators and trying to work through how we can get the best response for them as well as irrigators throughout the rest of the system. They’re all facing pain, they’ve faced the pain of drought for years and the uncertainty from the Government’s response now is only heightening that pain for the next few years.
PETER VAN ONSELEN: Alright, Senator Birmingham, coming to us from South Australia, we appreciate your company on Australian Agenda.