CAMERON WILSON: There’s still no date on when the new Federal Parliament will sit but behind the scenes there’s a lot going on amongst irrigators in the Murray-Darling Basin. That’s because parts of the Murray River were listed as critically endangered by the Labor Government just days before the election was called. Irrigators oppose the move to list parts of the Murray from the Darling junction in New South Wales to the mouth of the river in South Australia and what makes the matter more urgent is that, when Parliament finally sits, Members have only 15 sitting days to repeal the listing. To find out whether that’s possible under the Coalition Government, we’ve invited Senator Simon Birmingham to join us. The Senator is the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for the Environment. Senator, good morning.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Good morning, Cameron, and good morning to your listeners.
CAMERON WILSON: Will the Government move to disallow this listing once Parliament returns?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, Cameron, we are looking very closely at this listing. We have a real concern about the process that was followed and the lack of consultation that took place prior to the listing which, as you indicated, occurred just on the eve of the election. It was a decision of the very short-lived Minister for the Environment [, Heritage and Water], Mark Butler. The Labor minister made the decision just on the 5th of August, really on the eve, of course, of the Government going into caretaker mode and there have been numerous concerns expressed not just by irrigators and regional communities but also by state governments across the board that this may well be a really unnecessary listing that doesn’t effectively improve environmental protection for critical areas but does potentially increase ‘red and green tape’ for those who operate within the listed areas.
CAMERON WILSON: So, have you made the decision yet as to whether or not this needs to be repealed?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Not yet and obviously we’re conscious of the timelines – that, to disallow it, it needs to happen within 15 days of it being tabled in the Parliament and that clock will start ticking once the Parliament resumes later this year. We, though, obviously, being critical of the previous Government for not undertaking appropriate consultation, want to make sure that we take the time to listen to the views of all the stakeholders, talk to them carefully about their concerns and the issues here and then Minister Hunt and I will have a chat and a decision and recommendation will be put forward to the Government from there.
CAMERON WILSON: So, Mark Butler’s decision was based on the advice of the national Threatened Species Scientific Committee. Will you consult that committee in this, when making this decision?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Obviously we have access to their advice and their recommendations but I think what is important to note out of their advice was that they recognised that the implementation of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan and other management plans already in place that are relevant to the regions listed, together with a range of other research and actions already taking place, mean that there is no need for a separate recovery plan that would often occur under these listings, so even the Threatened Species Scientific Committee have acknowledged that the processes are in place to provide the protections and the actions that should be supporting this River Murray ‘Darling to sea’ region and so that’s why we are conscious of their findings but also very conscious that there is an acknowledgement that there was a very restricted consultation process on this and it’s only right that we should now engage with the communities and listen to their concerns.
CAMERON WILSON: What are the problems with the listing? How does it restrict activities along that stretch of the Murray River?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, a number of the key assets, key environmental assets, are already covered by the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, so Ramsar [Convention on Wetlands of International Importance] listed wetlands, for example, are listed separately. There are a range of other areas which would be covered by the listing of threatened and migratory species but in terms of for regional communities, for farmers and businesses operating, there does become a new level of environmental approvals that they have to go through, potentially, for actions that occur within a listed area and obviously these are very large listed areas that cover a lot of farmers, a lot of businesses, and so that’s why we’re concerned about the impact. We came to government with a very clear promise to reduce ‘red and green tape’, we have a clear commitment to develop a ‘one-stop shop’ for environmental approvals with different states to make sure that we don’t have a duplication of assessments and approvals processes in terms of getting environmental approval to undertake particular projects or actions and there’s a concern that this, obviously as a very large listing, will add potentially a whole raft of additional ‘green tape’ onto communities where it just may not be warranted.
CAMERON WILSON: But the former Environment minister, Mark Butler, made a point of saying that this was a listing that would affect major developments and he noted that the most likely industry to be affected would be future mining developments. How do you think it actually affects farmers or can affect farmers?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, let’s be clear that major developments of that nature that affect a Ramsar listed site, or affect threatened or migratory species that are listed, would already be covered by the EPBC Act, so there are very strong protections there covering a lot of the key critical environmental assets throughout this region, so we shouldn’t look at the fact that… if this listing is disallowed, there shouldn’t be some cry that says ‘well, now things are not protected’. They will very clearly be protected. Obviously there is the ‘water trigger’ that applies to coal seam gas and coal mining operations, as well, which will apply wherever they take place, so there are a range of protections that are already there and we’ve got to weigh up whether this additional listing puts in place protections that are worthwhile and beneficial as against the potential for additional ‘red tape’ and ‘green tape’ and compliance costs for people who are doing business in those regions.
CAMERON WILSON: And when do you expect to reach that decision?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, we’ll obviously be reaching the decision within the critical timeline, which is within those 15 sitting days, and we’ll reach it well within that timeline to make sure that, if a disallowance debate has to take place in the Parliament, it can take place within that timeline. I’m conscious that the communities want some certainty here and Minister Hunt is very conscious of that as well, so we’ll be making sure that we do it as quickly as we can but we’re going to be thorough with listening to people and consulting on this as well.
CAMERON WILSON: Okay, thank you, Senator. Senator Simon Birmingham is the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for the Environment…