KEITH CONLON: … now to a story late in the election, just before you get to vote, as we saw the costings come out with Shadow Treasurer Joe Hockey yesterday, there’s been a change to the way the buyback on the Murray is going to happen. Is it a storm in a billabong or is it a genuine threat to the health of the river, particularly downstream – our end – and maybe even the irrigators and the towns? Kate Ellis is federal Childcare [Early Childhood, Childcare and Youth] minister and Member for Adelaide, of course, and joining us in a moment, Simon Birmingham, Liberal Senator for South Australia, who has had a long concern and interest in the Murray. Kate Ellis, good morning.
KATE ELLIS: Good morning, Keith. Good to be with you.
KEITH CONLON: Can you first of all describe the water buyback scheme, briefly, for us and its importance?
KATE ELLIS: Well, absolutely. We know that one of the central issues with the River Murray is that there is more water that is allocated for use than there is. We need more water flowing through the river, flowing to South Australia, and meeting environmental targets, so what was announced yesterday was a cut over the next four years of some $650 million which is allocated to buying back water from the Murray. Now, this, of course, was part of an agreement which South Australians, in particular, have fought not just for years but for decades to get and I think it is deeply disturbing that it adds to the issues which are on the chopping board which go against South Australia.
KEITH CONLON: Well, you’re lumping it in with cuts. Let’s hear from Simon Birmingham, Liberal Senator. Good morning.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Good morning, Keith and listeners.
KEITH CONLON: When is a cut not a cut?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, Keith, this is an accounting change, effectively. What we’re seeing is four years’ spending shifted to be spread over six years of spending and it’s actually consistent with something that the Coalition’s said all along and that is that we want to recover water the smartest way to deliver the Basin Plan and that is by undertaking water-saving infrastructure as the first priority and using buybacks as the last resort because, by doing water-saving infrastructure, you make farmers more efficient, irrigators more efficient, they get to stay on the land and grow food for Australians here in Australia and you get the water back to the environment by making them more efficient. Buybacks just strip productivity out of farming communities and we only want to do that where it’s the last resort, so the key point here is the Basin Plan, as legislated, comes into effect by 2019 and every drop of water required for that Basin Plan will be delivered under a Liberal Government.
KEITH CONLON: So, you’re calling it a re-phasing – basically that means you are delaying the spending of money?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: We’re shifting the priorities so we do more infrastructure first – do the infrastructure works first – and then we’ll do what buybacks are necessary to get to that 2019 target. 2019 is when the Basin Plan comes into effect, under the Labor Government or a Liberal Government, and every drop of water required for it to come into effect by 2019 will be delivered if a Liberal Government is elected tomorrow.
JANE REILLY: Minister Ellis, what’s your response to the Senator’s words?
KATE ELLIS: Well, I would say a couple of things. The first thing is: Simon tries to indicate that they are instead spending new and additional funding on water infrastructure instead of buybacks. What we actually know is they are spending $650 million less in the next four years on the River Murray, so they’re not reprioritising, they’re actually cutting buybacks and doing what was otherwise going to be done in the Plan anyway. The other thing, though, I would say is that, I mean, I’m appalled that they’re cutting funding to the Murray but I’m also appalled that we would have a South Australian Liberal actually trying to justify this. What we need is all South Australians standing up for the Murray. All those who proudly wore their ‘I heart Murray’ T-shirts should be arguing against these cuts and what it shows is that we need strong people in the Parliament who are going to argue against cuts to the River Murray and that you can’t trust the Liberal Party to do that, as Simon is illustrating this morning.
KEITH CONLON: Kate Ellis. Now, we seem to have a debate here about more than half a billion dollars. Simon Birmingham for the Liberal Party, is it a cut? Is it gone, as Kate Ellis says?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Absolutely not, Keith, and this is just more desperate lies from an increasingly desperate Labor Party at the eleventh hour of the election campaign.
KEITH CONLON: Well, what about the …
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: This money will be available to ensure the Basin Plan is delivered on time by 2019. Every single drop of water that needs to be there for the Basin Plan will be delivered on time by 2019. I don’t know how much clearer I can be about that. We believe you can…
KEITH CONLON: Well, you may be getting around it because we thought, in South Australia, that we had money for buying back water. Are you saying now that you won’t necessarily buy back the water; you will spend the money elsewhere? Is there money in your budget costings for this water-saving infrastructure?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, there absolutely is, Keith, but this is an interesting point you raise because actually the Labor Party has no idea how or when or where they’re going to spend this money. They released in November of last year, as the Government, a draft Water Recovery Strategy to implement the Basin Plan. You know what? It’s still a draft. They still have not finalised it; still have not actually said how and when and where any of this money will be spent. We’ve been transparent all along, saying ‘there’s a smart way to get water back and that’s by making irrigators more efficient; you then take the efficiency dividend from them, the water that they’ve saved, put that back into environmental flows; you’ve kept them on the land growing food for Australians and you’ve got the water for the Murray’. Labor’s approach seems thus far to have been to say ‘we’ll take the easy way, not the smart way, and just buy water’ but you really do harm those Riverland communities, communities throughout the Murray-Darling Basin, who we rely upon to grow food for Australians and for export to the world.
KEITH CONLON: Kate Ellis, we thought we had an agreement between the parties. Were we naïve?
KATE ELLIS: Well, I think what we have seen is that, in the Coalition, we’ve seen Barnaby Joyce and the National Party arguing against this every step of the way. They would much rather appease upstream voters in some of the seats they’re trying to hold on and we’ve seen the consequences of this already. Now, Simon just said he couldn’t possibly be more clear. I think the way that we can put it in the clearest possible sense is that they will spend $650 million less on the River Murray in the next four years and Simon can’t argue against that but the other…
KEITH CONLON: But they do talk about re-phasing; they don’t talk about taking it out.
KATE ELLIS: Well, I know that we have worked not just for years, Keith – 120 years it took for all of the bickering, all of the arguments, all of the politics between different states, to be put aside and us actually work to save the Murray. Now, I don’t think that we should be pushing it back any further; I think we need to be getting on with the job but the other thing that shouldn’t be pushed back further is the fact that they have snuck this policy out less than two days before an election and I’ll tell you why that upsets me because we know that thousands of South Australian voters have already voted. I’ve actually received an email this morning from one of my constituents who wrote to me saying he had already voted for the Liberal Party because he had no idea that they would do this and cut $650 million from the Murray in the next four years and government is about spending priorities. If they want to talk about budget emergencies then I think someone should say ‘why are you cutting $650 million from the River Murray when you’re spending well over $20 billion on a new Paid Parental Leave scheme?’ You know, this is about making the River Murray a priority; it is something that I have always fought for and it is something that I wish all South Australians would fight for, but we can clearly see that that isn’t the case.
KEITH CONLON: Kate Ellis, the Federal Member for Adelaide… last word with Simon Birmingham, Liberal Senator for Adelaide [South Australia], that is a factor, isn’t it, Mr Birmingham, that up to 200,000 South Australian voters are just learning that you’re changing the deal on the Murray?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, Keith, we actually said we would do this way back when the Basin Plan came into law late last year. We said, at that stage, we would give priority to water-saving infrastructure and that we would be working to cap buybacks if we could and make sure that we gave that priority to infrastructure first, buybacks last. That’s been very clear from us all along. Kate can call this a cut all she wants; the truth is: every single dollar that has been committed will still be spent on the Murray-Darling Basin, including that $650 million, to get the Basin Plan in place by 2019. It really is just another hysterical scare campaign from Labor. There’s nothing for South Australians to worry about. The Coalition, when last in government, were the ones that put the Water Act in place, started the process to get the Basin Plan, committed $10 billion to make it happen. We started this process and, if we’re elected on Saturday, I guarantee South Australians we will finish it and see it through on time.
KEITH CONLON: Thank you, both – Liberal Senator Simon Birmingham then and, before that, Kate Ellis, the federal Member for Adelaide. That is a good point, isn’t it, that we… whatever you make of that discussion, it is surprising, now, that… the highest number ever of South Australians who have voted already.
JANE REILLY: Incredible number, yes, already through postal votes or those early election booths, like we saw the Port [Adelaide Football Club] players voting at yesterday, so a big number already put their ballots in.