BRETT WORTHINGTON: The Murray–Darling Basin Authority wants to know what you think of its Constraints Management Strategy. That’s a plan that reviews the physical and operational constraints of the river. Constraints are things like river rules, practices and structures that govern the volume of water or the timing of water as it’s regulated throughout the river. Simon Birmingham is a South Australian Liberal Senator and a Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for [the] Environment. Senator Birmingham has been consulting with Basin communities about the Constraints Management Strategy and was in Mildura yesterday. Good morning, Senator.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Good morning, Brett, and good morning to your listeners.
BRETT WORTHINGTON: What does the draft Constraints Management Strategy mean for stakeholders in the Murray-Darling Basin?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, Brett, this is a very important part of the overall Basin Plan process and it was negotiated by the states as part of an arrangement that allowed for some adjustment to the sustainable diversion limit that was set during the Basin Plan last year and this is about looking very carefully at what the constraints are to effectively delivering environmental water, looking at how we can better get that environmental water through to key assets and seeing whether, from doing that, it’s possible to use a little bit more environmental water or not. It’s a very detailed process and it’s quite a long process and this really is only the start of it in terms of looking closely at various options, so there’s a long way to go and communities I really would urge to participate in the process.
BRETT WORTHINGTON: So, is this constraints plan another way of increasing environmental flows from the 2750 up to the 3200 in terms of gigalitres, so an increase of 450 gigalitres?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: It could be and that’s possible but the very clear commitment is that if that were to happen, firstly, constraints would only be being lifted where they’re not going to cause some community detriment and, secondly, that, if we were recovering any more water, it would be recovered in a way that ensures there’s no loss of social or economic productivity within a community, so we’re taking a very cautious approach to this. It was part of the negotiated Basin Plan last year and it’s important to remember there’s also the capacity to generate some 650 gigalitres of savings, against that 2,750-gigalitre figure, through environmental works and measures and there’s some great projects through Victoria that can be looked at in that regard, so there’s an upside and a downside to the Basin Plan as it was negotiated. Each of them needs to be tackled carefully; each needs to be assessed against the science; each needs to be assessed against the economic and social impacts; and that’s what we’re doing very, very carefully and I just wanted to make sure I was there for the first stage of those consultations in Mildura yesterday to see and hear what the community are saying and to make sure that I’m confident the Murray–Darling Basin Authority and Federal Government is doing its job properly in terms of listening to the community and consulting with it.
BRETT WORTHINGTON: Last week, the Victorian Water minister, Peter Walsh, had this to say about the draft Constraints Management Strategy.
PETER WALSH: Well, I’m extremely disappointed, I suppose is the best way of putting it, in the document in that I don’t think it addresses the issues that most people are asking about and that’s the flooding impacts and, although it sort of says nicely about overbank flow events, overbank flow events are floods and can flood private property and put at risk private property, so I’m disappointed they haven’t actually addressed the real issues that the community will want to talk about and I would suggest to people they provide robust feedback over the next three weeks and turn up at the meetings that the Murray–Darling Basin Authority will be holding.
BRETT WORTHINGTON: That’s Peter Walsh, the Victorian Water minister, speaking on last week’s Rural Report about the draft Constraints Management Strategy that’s been released by the Murray–Darling Basin Authority. Now, community consultation is currently underway and I’m speaking with Simon Birmingham, a South Australian Liberal Senator and the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for the Environment, who was in Mildura yesterday for one of those meetings which we just heard Peter Walsh refer to. Senator Birmingham, what was the feedback you were receiving from people yesterday?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Oh, look, the feedback yesterday was generally quite positive. Now, I think it’s worth noting people were keen, given it was my first visit into a Basin community in the very short period of time that I’ve held portfolio responsibilities in the new Government for water… they were keen to talk about broad policy issues around how buybacks will be capped as part of the Government’s commitment, how we will reprioritise things back towards infrastructure but, when it came to the specifics of discussing the Constraints Management Strategy, there are obviously some people who are concerned and, as Peter Walsh rightly said, to know a lot more detail a lot sooner than seems to be possible or available at present and I do hope that we can get the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder and the Murray–Darling Basin Authority providing more information to landholders, about what environmental watering activities will mean in terms of flood events, as soon as possible but I think it is important to recognise that the Strategy as put out at present really is very much in a sort of pre-feasibility stage and, in terms of the specific areas of looking at lifting of constraints, there is a lot of detailed work still to be done, very detailed feasibility assessments, to see whether they are or aren’t possible and that, of course, should address some of those issues that Peter rightly raised about the extent of flooding impacts and what that would mean and I think there was a lot of constructive feedback from the community yesterday. It certainly wasn’t a scene of people in anger or with emotional concerns. They really were just sensibly outlining their views and asking the Authority what the next steps to the process would be.
BRETT WORTHINGTON: How important is it, when we deal with topics like this, that it is communicated in a clear way, because I think when we talk about the Murray-Darling Basin Plan a lot of people start to gloss over and we start to talk about constraints and overbank events which essentially are floods, so how important is it to you, then, to have this message communicated to people clearly so they understand what exactly is happening and how it will impact on them?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Oh, look, it is really important and there were a couple of good suggestions around language that were put at the roundtable meeting yesterday about making sure that language was both simple and reassuring to people. It’s easy in these things to either have bureaucrats looking like they’re trying to talk in a lot of ‘giga-babble’ about water entitlements and the like and equally easy for people in communities or stakeholder groups to pick out one small bit of a large document and get quite scared about that small aspect to it whereas, if it was read in context, you’d see that there’s still a lot to happen before that eventuality could occur, so it’s important that people take a sensible and cautious approach. It’s important government is straightforward and upfront with people and, certainly under my watch in the portfolio, it’s my intention that governments better be straightforward and I’ve delivered that message quite clearly to the Authority and to the Department of the Environment that that’s what I expect but I think that we are just at the start, really, of a consultation process on this Strategy and there is a lot to be said about it still and a lot of consultation still to happen on the specific aspects and ultimately hopefully it can ensure that, for all of the pain and angst that communities like Mildura and surrounding districts have been through and for all of the billions of dollars government has spent in terms of acquiring water… that we might actually get the best bang for our buck in the use of that environmental water in future years and that’s ultimately really important to ensure that, where we have this environmental water, we’re using it as effectively and efficiently as possible as long as it’s not to the detriment of communities or impacting on the rights of individual irrigators.
BRETT WORTHINGTON: Simon Birmingham, it’d be remiss of me to let you go without checking in on the Sunraysia Modernisation Project. Last time we had a chat, it was being assessed. Have you got an update for us as to where that process is at?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, Brett, I’m pleased to say that the due diligence assessment by the Commonwealth in its initial stages has been completed and returned to the Victorian Government, so it’s now back with Victoria and I am supremely confident that the final ‘tic-tacking’ between the state and the Commonwealth will be resolved very, very soon and that we’ll have a positive announcement on that very, very soon.
BRETT WORTHINGTON: What’s involved in these final stages?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, the final stages of assessment really are just about how and when the Commonwealth will make payments and on what conditions and what milestones need to be met and a lot of administrative detail behind that and obviously it’s a $103 million project. We don’t just throw $103 million around lightly, especially not the new Government. The old one perhaps did in some rather foolish ways but we want to make sure that taxpayers’ money is looked after and that just means ‘dotting our i’s and crossing our t’s’ but the Victorian Government is being very helpful in that regard and I’m quite confident that we’ll have an announcement that the project will be up and running and that we’ll be able to see the works that will really bring back to life parts of the Sunraysia district and hopefully really boost agricultural productivity in that community.
BRETT WORTHINGTON: Are we thinking weeks more so than months?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: I’d hope so, Brett.
BRETT WORTHINGTON: Simon Birmingham, I appreciate your time this morning.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: An absolute pleasure.