FRAN KELLY: And after more than a century of squabbling between the states, an historic deal has finally been reached to secure one of our most precious environmental assets, the Murray-Darling river. The national Plan will return up to 3,200 gigalitres tothe river system each year from 2019.
TONY BURKE: Today’s the day that Australia decided to restore the Murray-Darling to health. It’s been a century in the waiting but the ink is now on the page, the law is now in place and the Murray-Darling Basin will be restored to health.
FRAN KELLY: Environment Minister Tony Burke sensing the historic nature of that announcement. Well, the Greens say that at least 4000 gigalitres are needed to replenish the Murray-Darling and they’ll move to disallow the Plan when it’s put to the Parliament next week but it does have the support of the Opposition despite state-based divisions which have pitted some Coalition MPs against each other. Simon Birmingham is the Opposition spokesman for the Murray-Darling. He’s also a Senator for South Australia, the state with probably the most to gain from the rescue plan for the river. Senator Birmingham is speaking with our political editor, Alison Carabine.
ALISON CARABINE: Simon Birmingham, you have previously cited Mark Twain’s famous quip that ‘whiskey is for drinking, water is for fighting over’. Is the battle to save the Murray-Darling finally over?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, it’s not quite over yet, Alison. There’s a little way to go and I’m sure that some will continue fighting but the Coalition doesn’t want to fight; we want to get outcomes on this and we want to work with the Government to make sure that there’s an outcome that delivers both for the Murray-Darling river system itself and the communities, with the 2.1 million people who live in it, who rely so much on the water from the river for their economic viability and sustainability.
ALISON CARABINE: It has been a long and fractious road to this, the final Plan, after a number of false starts. You have had a look at it. Has the Government come up with the right balance that will restore environmental flows while also preserving the economic and social health of Basin communities?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: There’s 641 pages to the Plan itself and the accompanying documents push that over the 1000-page mark, so there’s a lot for us to get our heads around, in terms of the detail here. The rhetoric from Tony Burke to date is very good. The question is whether the detail matches his rhetoric, especially in relation to the commitments about how the water will be recovered in the most sympathetic way for river communities, that guarantees their socio-economic future.
ALISON CARABINE: You are a South Australian. Your state is downstream and therefore has the most to gain from a Basin rescue plan. Some Liberal and National MPs in the eastern states are less enamoured. Last month a handful of your Coalition colleagues warned that the Plan would have, quote, ‘crippling social and economic consequences and would not even be good for the environment.’ Have they got it wrong?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, the Coalition has, in many ways, all of the skin in the game on this. We represent the electorates right at the bottom of the system, around the Lower Lakes, and all the way up through nearly every major irrigation community in every state. We are heartened by the Minister’s assurances that there is an element of ‘no socio-economic disadvantage’ test built in here. We want to make sure that is a strong test. We’re heartened by the Minister’s statement that this is the end of major buybacks and that there won’t be further huge buybacks that have such an impact on communities but, again, we want to make sure that the detail matches the promise, that the commitment is actually locked into this as best it possibly can be.
ALISON CARABINE: Now, the Greens say that this particular Plan will not save the river. They want at least 4000 gigalitres returned to the system. They’ll move a disallowance motion against the Plan next week in the Parliament. Does this mean, Simon Birmingham, that you are not yet ready to offer your support to the Plan, that you could possibly back the disallowance motion?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: I think nearly or, I’m sure, every Coalition MP would think that any day that we vote with the Greens is probably a bad day and that we would’ve gone in the wrong direction, so I’m sure that we would rather be in a position to support a Plan that gets the outcomes for the river and guarantees the future for river communities. That’s what we want to work with, with the Government, and I think the Greens, frankly, are just playing a wrecking game here and, in many ways, their approach is demonstrating that they’re more interested in headlines than outcomes. We think that 120 years worth of arguing, more than five years since John Howard announced this reform and passed the Water Act under Malcolm Turnbull’s stewardship as Water Minister, we think it’s now time to try to reach a point of finality and deliver an outcome but it’s still got to be the right out come to be guaranteed of our support.
ALISON CARABINE: It was the South Australian Premier, Charles Cameron Kingston, who, 115 years ago, was one of the first to call for federal management of the Murray-Darling. Tony Burke says the Plan will flush an average of two million tonnes of salt from the Basin each year. What will this mean for your home state, in particular the Lower Lakes, the Coorong, even Adelaide’s drinking water?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: I’ve quoted Charles Cameron Kingston many times and it is right, we’ve spent a long time fighting to get this. If only we’d got agreement at the time of Federation we’d never have gotten into this mess in the first place, hopefully, because, of course, it is the over-allocation by individual states and the absence of a national Plan that has got us to this point where we now have to spend billions of dollars to get water back in environmental flows from farmers who, through no fault of their own, have built towns and communities and livelihoods on it. They were invited to do so by state governments who have made mistake after mistake in the management. For SA, hopefully this provides some certainty for the future that there will be sustainable flows through the system and that the river will be somewhat more resilient when we get to the next drought. It doesn’t fix things for droughts, we shouldn’t kid ourselves there. Droughts mean a lack of water and the river system will become stressed during droughts. It’s a matter of making sure it has appropriate resilience going into those droughts so that it doesn’t hit a crisis point or a tipping point as soon as it did in the last drought.
ALISON CARABINE: This Plan doesn’t start until 2019. What happens if there is a drought in the intervening period? Is this still the right Plan, would this still be the right Plan for the Murray-Darling?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, importantly, it’s not like all of the water is recovered just in 2019. Some has been much has been recovered to date and more will continue to be recovered in a graduated way through to 2019 and then, indeed, beyond that to 2024 to get to the final figure the Government’s promising, so there are already environmental benefits that are being realised as a result of these actions that stem from John Howard’s 2007 reforms. Those environmental benefits will only improve as we get closer to those final dates.
ALISON CARABINE: Now, the final stumbling block will be the states. New South Wales is threatening to implement its own buyback limits. Would it be in the best interests of the entire Basin if New South Wales dropped its opposition and fell into line?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, I think the key thing here is, firstly… is that what Tony Burke is promising actually fits within New South Wales’s demands, so the promise and the demands of New South Wales seem to be in alignment in terms of buyback limits. The test is whether there’s enough detail to back up those promises of Tony Burke’s. That’s really what we want to dig through and try to get some firm commitments from the Government on to make sure you have an outcome where New South Wales communities, just like communities elsewhere, feel like they have some security for their economic future. I’m not all that interested in worrying about the concerns of individual state governments because my own in SA went through a process of threatening High Court challenges and everything else. What I worry about is getting a healthy river that sustains healthy communities.
FRAN KELLY: That’s Simon Birmingham. He’s a South Australian Senator and the Opposition’s spokesman for the Murray-Darling, speaking with our political editor, Alison Carabine…