SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Four years ago today John Howard convened an urgent meeting of Premiers and Chief Ministers to talk about Murray-Darling Basin reform. In that time, we’ve seen legislation passed, $10 billion put on the table. But that all happened within the first 12 months. Since then, we’ve seen the process slowly but surely fall apart. Delay after delay is impeding Basin reform and now we’re seeing that because Labor has botched the opportunities of the last three years, the process is going to be delayed once again with no final Basin Plan until 2012. You’ve got to wonder with this Labor-Greens alliance that’s in place now whether there’s actually any real hope of achieving serious reform or whether Labor is just going to play for time and risk the future of not just the health of the river system but kill the Basin communities with a continuum of uncertainty for ever and a day.
JOURNALIST: The latest delay appears to be because of the community consultation process. Don’t you think that should be allowed to run its course?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well it shouldn’t have come to this. If the Government had ensured the interpretation of the Water Act was accurate to start with, if they’d ensured there was decent socio-economic analysis to start with, if they actually had a plan of how to recover water, rather than just how much water was necessary, you could have had a far smoother process, you may have been able to bring communities with you. The outrage is understandable because the process has been botched, and it’s the botching of the process, and that outrage that’s resulted from it, that is driving these delays now. I accept that it may take longer to get this thing right, but it’s unfortunate that it has to take longer when the framework was there three years ago – the Act was there requiring a balanced approach, the $10 billion was there to be spent to ease the pain of adjustment. Unfortunately those things haven’t happened.
JOURNALIST: But if the Coalition was in power, would you have really done things better? We obviously do have these two competing interests, irrigators against the environment – it’s a difficult situation either way you look at it.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: For every year that Labor’s been in office, they’ve spent more than they budgeted on water buyback and spent less than they budgeted on water saving infrastructure projects. Now it’s those infrastructure projects that can provide the efficiency gains to give environmental flows without driving people off the land, without destroying productive capacity. The Coalition would have stuck to the original plan, and that plan was really focused and skewed towards infrastructure and efficiencies that gave communities the best chance for win-win outcomes to return water to the environment whilst continuing to produce food for Australia and being efficient for the future and that’s the focus we would have applied and that we think the Government needs to get back to. When I say that this process has stalled in part because the Government has no plan of how to recover the water, that is a key thing. All of the communities throughout the Basin that I’ve travelled to are fearful, not just of the size of the cuts but because they believe the cuts are simply going to be ripped out of them through buybacks, through a loss of productive capacity rather than actually being helped through the type of infrastructure projects that we envisaged and that the Howard-Turnbull plan put $5.8 billion on the table for.
JOURNALIST: What’s the Coalition asking for now, are you asking for the process to be sped up?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, we accept that it may now take longer to get it right, but that’s because of Labor’s bungling – the delays in appointing the Authority, the delays in releasing the Guide, but most significantly the failure to interpret the Act right, to deliver the socio-economic analysis, to progress infrastructure projects and have a plan of how to recover water are the reasons this process is stalling.
JOURNALIST: There are mixed messages here… so you’re criticising the delay but you’re praising it at the same time?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: I’m not looking to praise the delay. Unfortunately the delay is a reality of a failure of process to date, of a failure to be able to actually drive this reform agenda. This Labor Government seems incapable of implementing any serious reform, and Murray-Darling Basin reform is now the latest in a series of bungles, but you’ve got to look at the fact that it is the failures along the way that have brought them to this point. The reality is that there’s probably no way to get a decent Plan finalised before 2012 now. It’s their failures that have put them in this position.
JOURNALIST: What do you think of Tony Windsor’s comments on radio this morning? He was saying that the Authority has no authority, that the Basin Authority has no authority. He’s the head of that committee [Chair, House of Representatives Standing Committee on Regional Australia, inquiring into the impact of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan in Regional Australia], so he’s expressing no confidence in the Authority, isn’t he?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Reform is always difficult and it takes political leadership to achieve reform, and I would really urge Tony Burke and this Labor Government to make sure there’s genuine commitment to finalising the process of Murray-Darling Basin reform. This delay must be the last delay. There’s got to be a commitment to get this right and to get it implemented, because otherwise it is only a case of continual uncertainty for Basin communities and for the health of the river system and that’s not going to help anybody. Tony Burke, Tony Windsor, the Labor Party and the Greens all need to be dragged onto the same page of agreeing a balanced outcome for a sustainable future for all the stakeholders in the Basin.
JOURNALIST: Do you agree with Tony Windsor, that the Authority has no authority? Are you confident that the Coalition has confidence in the Authority?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: I think the Authority has taken a hammering these last few weeks and that’s because they’ve been allowed to proceed with a flawed interpretation of the Act, they didn’t do the decent work on the socio-economic analysis. All of the warning signals were there, though, to Tony Burke and before him Penny Wong, to the Labor Government. You’ve got to question why they didn’t act and make sure the Authority was getting this process right from day one.