SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Australians have spent more than 120 years arguing over how the Murray is managed. Now’s the time for a plan to fix it, to get it right and to provide for sustainable management into the future. Tomorrow’s Plan must deliver. It must deliver some certainty for everyone throughout the Basin and this Plan needs to deliver certainty of how much water is to be recovered, what it is to be used for and how it is to be recovered from communities without destroying those communities. They’re the three tests by which I will be judging the Plan and that I’m sure all stakeholders will want to see – detail exactly how much from which communities, how it’s going to be recovered from those communities and how it’s going to be used for real environmental effect that delivers genuine environmental benefits.
JOURNALIST: Do you think South Australia will be sold down the river on this issue?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, I think South Australians will rightly want to see all of the detail of this Plan. They’ll want to know that SA and particularly the Coorong and Lower Lakes are getting their fair share of water and that it doesn’t come at great expense to our irrigators, so in SA there’ll certainly be a twofold test – water for the environment; not greatly at the expense of our irrigators. We’ve lived under a cap in this state since 1969. It’s not unreasonable to expect that we actually, of course, get some recognition for that responsible usage.
JOURNALIST: They’ve been talking about, you know, the 4000 gig [gigalitres reduction in long-term average sustainable diversion limits] which they’ve conceded they won’t get and now we’re closer to around I think it’s more 2750 or something gig for the environment. Is the science there? You’ve had a look – is the science there?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Look, I want to see whether this Plan tells us exactly how much water’s going to make it to the Coorong and the Lower Lakes, that it actually gives the detail of how much of this figure – whether it’s 2750, 2800, whatever the final figure is – how much of it makes it to the Lower Lakes? How much of it is there for SA for those environmental assets at the bottom of the system? That’s a level of detail that hasn’t been provided yet. I’ll be looking to see that the Murray-Darling Basin Authority spells out for South Australians how much water gets to the Lakes. Then we can determine whether it’s genuinely enough for the Lakes or not.
JOURNALIST: Some groups and states are already talking about fighting the Plan. Are you backing people trying to block it or are you telling Australians to get behind whatever the Plan is?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: I want to see an outcome from this process. We’ve had 120 years of bickering. I think we need to see the states and the Commonwealth work together. I’m disappointed that Jay Weatherill has brought a sense of rampant parochialism back into this process. His threats of High Court challenges have now been met by threats from New South Wales and Victoria that they might pull out of the Plan altogether. That would be the worst of all outcomes. We need the states to work with the Commonwealth to get a good Plan in the end. Whether this Plan is good enough is something that’ll be debated over the coming weeks and months but the states and the Commonwealth, absolutely, must work together to get something that gives certainty for the environment and for those irrigation communities that rely upon the River.
JOURNALIST: So accept the Plan regardless or work on changes?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: We have… this is a draft Plan and there are some 20 weeks of initial consultation, many more weeks for state governments to request changes after that. It could be another year before we get a final Plan, so there is absolutely no reason to expect… for states to start threatening to pull out or to go down the High Court pathway until we get a final Plan. They’ve got to work to make this Plan work and to deliver in the long term.
JOURNALIST: Do you think it’s the case that there will be some losers through this?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Look, obviously you can’t make everyone happy, but what I am concerned about is the fact that the mismanagement of this Plan to date, the delays that have been had to date – all of those things have, of course, added to the angst and the concerns of communities, so tomorrow’s Plan needs to deliver on the detail. It needs to deliver those three things – clear detail on how much water is to be taken, clear detail on how it’s to be used, clear detail on how it’s to be recovered from those irrigation communities without decimating them. If it does those three things, then I think we’ll see a lot less concern than there’s been in the past.
JOURNALIST: Is this a fear that this might not be the final Plan? We’ve been here before, haven’t we?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Oh, look, I’m very worried that the intensity of bickering between the states over the last few weeks – and the intensity of bickering since Jay Weatherill took over as Premier, the response from the eastern states – shows that there’s plenty of heat left in this debate. I just hope everyone cools down a little, looks at the detail of the Plan, then we can judge it on that detail. If it fails the test of the detail, then it will be a case of back to the drawing board but let’s test it on the detail first.
JOURNALIST: What are you expecting for South Australia? Is it really going to be that bad?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, look, I think what we need from this Plan is some certainty and it’s got to provide certainty for everyone in the Murray-Darling. We need certainty of how much water is going to be taken out of every community, certainty of how that water’s going to be used and certainty around how it’s going to be recovered without decimating communities – that’s the real test for this Plan. For SA, that means we need certainty for what it means for the Riverland and just how big those cuts are and how little we save and what it means for the Lower Lakes and Coorong in particular. How much water will they get? We keep hearing of these figures of 4000, 3000 or 2800 but how much of that actually makes it to the Lower Lakes? That’ll be the real test.
JOURNALIST: What makes you think there won’t be any certainty? Isn’t that the idea of having the Plan – that there is a figure and that’s what it’s going to be?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, I would hope that there is that level of certainty in the Plan because communities have been suffering uncertainty throughout this process and especially with the constant delays. We’ve seen… this Plan is now running 18 months late from where it was originally meant to be. For those people living in the Riverland, living in irrigation communities, that just means constant pain, constant uncertainty for them. They deserve some detail as to how it’s going to work for the future.
JOURNALIST: But, again, isn’t that what the idea of the Plan is? Won’t they get that detail once it’s released in the Plan?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, I hope so but, to date, we’ve seen extensive leaks but they’ve been leaks at a very broad level – very broad level – about headline figures. Those headline figures need to be broken down in the Plan. I hope they will be and in particular not just for the irrigation communities but also for the environmental assets. We’re meant to be getting, with this, an environmental watering plan. That environmental watering plan should be detailing how much goes to the Lakes, the wetlands, the key assets and especially the Lower Lakes and Coorong.
JOURNALIST: In the past… I did a story in May this year… the Wentworth Group [of Concerned Scientists] at that time expressed a great deal of concern about what the environmental flow would be and the impact upon that in South Australia and that basically South Australia was effectively at great risk of being ripped off under the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. They’re holding off to comment until the Plan itself is released so they won’t comment today. Do you share those concerns, that South Australia will be the big loser?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, look, I think a good Plan has got to provide a good step forward for SA. In the end, it was South Australians that really demanded this to start with – South Australia that set us on the course to having a national Plan and we’ve been calling for it from this state for more than 120 years so it’s a long, long time in the making to get a national management plan. Now, anything that returns extra water to environmental flows should be good news for this state at the end of the system but the devil is in the detail – how much of that 2750 gigalitres, if that’s the figure, will make it through to the end of the system; how much of it is earmarked for the Lower Lakes and Coorong. If it’s a decent amount, if it’s an amount that sustains the health of those Lakes, then environmentally SA’s okay and the test then becomes what it means for the irrigators and irrigation communities, but those are the tests that we’ll look at. The Wentworth Group obviously wants to see the detail. I think all stakeholders want to see the detail and that’s what we’re waiting for.
JOURNALIST: Do you think there’s been a level of anxiety among irrigators, particularly in the Riverland, given that they’ve, you know, the State Government has stuck to their limits in terms of their water entitlements even though, you know, we have had some rain and, you know, they’ve been quite rigid in their entitlement… sort of… allowances or whatever? Do you think there is that level of angst there still?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: South Australians have got a fair argument to make that this state’s lived under a cap since the 1960s and our irrigators have not exceeded that cap and they’ve lived very responsibly in that time, so it’s not their fault that we need to return environmental flows through the system and especially to the Lower Lakes. It, of course, comes out of the entire lack of national management of the system. That’s what this Plan needs to deliver – something that ignores state borders, recognises that the river system’s an integrated national system and manages it to the best effect for the entire nation, preserving healthy rivers and sustainable communities.
JOURNALIST: The reform… ‘four years of bungling’. This has been quite a long, drawn out process, hasn’t it?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, it is now nearly five years since John Howard announced Murray-Darling reform; put $10 billion on the table. So much of that money has been wasted. We’ve seen umpteen delays to the Plan…
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: It’s nearly five years since John Howard announced Murray-Darling reform, four years since Kevin Rudd took it over and since then all we’ve seen is delays – constant delays – billions of dollars not invested where it’s meant to be on water efficiency infrastructure that can save water for the system whilst keeping irrigation communities strong. I’m very worried that after all of these delays, all of this bungling, we’ve got to make sure this Plan is a good one that communities and states can actually support.
JOURNALIST: And you are that pessimistic?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, I am concerned, having seen all of the fighting between the states recently – Premier Weatherill’s threatened High Court action; the eastern states have responded to that by threatening to withdraw from the process – we could unravel this whole thing if we don’t see the states, led by the Commonwealth, recognise that it still requires leadership to deliver national management of the system.