JAMES CARLETON: Nationals Senator Barnaby Joyce has been ‘slapped down’ twice this week for his comments on the pending sale of Cubbie Station, in south-east Queensland, to Chinese interests. First up was the Opposition Treasury spokesman, Joe Hockey, and then yesterday former Foreign Minister Alexander Downer joined in. Now Barnaby Joyce’s junior colleague, the [Shadow] Parliamentary Secretary for the Murray-Darling, Liberal Senator Simon Birmingham, has entered the fray. He’s defended the sale of Cubbie, which is crippled by debt of more than $300 million. Senator Birmingham says he’s hopeful that the new owners, with deep pockets, at Cubbie will aspire to implement world’s best practice for water efficiency and deliver a much needed better environmental outcome for the Murray-Darling Basin. Simon Birmingham is speaking here with Gregg Borschmann.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Many people in South Australia have long worried about Cubbie Station but my message has always been that it’s about taking a Basin-wide perspective and making sure that we get sustainable flows throughout the Basin, not picking on or targeting any one water holder.
GREGG BORSCHMANN: Senator Joyce says that the sale of Cubbie is an important issue for the Coalition. He says ‘it’s a bloody disgrace’ that Australians didn’t get a chance to tender for the station or the water rights.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, ultimately, in terms of water management, there’s a genuine question over why it is that the administrators, who offered to sell some water to the Government a couple of years ago… why that offer was turned down by the Government when the draft Murray-Darling Basin Plan does require some water to be returned from that area and they’re questions, certainly, that the Government should absolutely be answering but, in terms of seeking and achieving the water necessary to get sustainability in that northern part of the Darling Basin, obviously water will have to be recovered and I would hope and expect that Cubbie, like all other properties up there, will be asked to play its role in finding efficiency options, upgrade potential and possibly selling water back to the Commonwealth where that exists.
GREGG BORSCHMANN: Another specific concern that Senator Joyce raises is Chinese ownership. Do you see a problem with that?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Look, I think, in the end, we should be treating foreign investors, and all investors in Australia, on equal terms and I think that is critical for the approach that Australia takes. Our relationship with China should be like all good economic and trading relations – one based on mutual reliance and mutual respect. I hope that if this sale proceeds, and it looks like it will… that we will see responsible owners who will invest in achieving greater water efficiency in Cubbie and hopefully will return some of that water back into the Murray-Darling system.
GREGG BORSCHMANN: Because the clear implication from what Senator Joyce is saying is that it seems to be threatening Australia’s ability to decide its own water policy. Do you dispute that?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, look, I don’t know whether that is what has been said or claimed but I think it should be very clear that Australia should expect that all licence holders in the Murray-Darling Basin, regardless of who may own the property in question… all licence holders will apply and respect the same laws of water licensing, water extraction, water trading, as each other.
GREGG BORSCHMANN: Is this ‘dog whistle politics’ by the National Party? Is Senator Joyce ‘off the leash’ here? I mean, Joe Hockey says he’s ‘freelancing’ on the issue and not speaking on behalf of the Coalition.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, Gregg, I want to focus on my area of portfolio responsibility and that’s related to the Murray-Darling Basin. That’s where I want to see a sustainable Basin Plan put in place sooner rather than later. We’ve been waiting five years for that.
GREGG BORSCHMANN: So you don’t see any issue whether the owners are Chinese, American or even Australian?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Australia has long enjoyed the benefits of foreign ownership and foreign investment and I would hope that these new owners will be able to turn Cubbie Station around. We have to remember that, of course, it sent its previous owners broke and the property’s been in administration for a number of years but that, in doing so, they will invest in water efficiency so hopefully they can provide a better environmental outcome than has been the case to date.
JAMES CARLETON: Senator Simon Birmingham, the Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for the Environment and the Murray-Darling Basin, speaking with our environment editor, Gregg Borschmann.