SIMON BIRMINGHAM: The Coalition is passionate about getting the Murray-Darling Basin Plan right. This is a process that we started in government in 2007 and we want to ensure that in the end we end up with the right plan for the environment, for irrigation communities throughout the Basin, not just any plan, and that’s why we want to make sure that as this draft plan is released tomorrow, or guide to the draft plan is released tomorrow, that we see a genuine commitment to consultation from the Government, that they’re willing to listen and engage with all stakeholders throughout the Basin, to ensure that expert advice is adhered to and that they get the right plan, not just any plan. We want to ensure that all factors are considered, not just the environmental factors, but also social and the economic factors on communities throughout the Basin. Australia needs to maintain itself as a vibrant producer of food, not just for Australia but for the rest of the world. That means investing in infrastructure, getting the right types of investment throughout the Basin to maximise water efficiency. These are the types of thing the Government’s failed to do in its first three years in office. This Plan provides a start to provide certainty for the communities, an opportunity for the Government to restart its investment priorities, to get them right and to get them right by investing in water efficiency throughout the Basin so that the Plan, a right Plan, can be delivered with a minimum of disruption to local communities and a minimum of loss of food production throughout Australia but still fix Australia’s most important river system.
JOURNALIST: Do you think that if the Government does get it wrong, then there’s going to be that willingness to change? Sometimes they’re hesitant to do backflips out of arrogance or whatever.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: This is too important for the Government to put pride first. They need to be willing to listen to everybody who has a vested interest in this Plan, to the environmental groups who are concerned about making sure we get the right outcome for the rivers’ environmental assets and of course to the irrigation groups and to local towns and communities who want to make sure that we maintain food production in the Basin and that we maintain healthy, vibrant communities. This is a very emotive topic. It’s about a healthy river whilst of course also being about people’s livelihoods and the future of rural towns. That’s why the Government needs to take the time to consult with everybody, to listen to everybody and be willing to adopt changes based on expert opinion, expert scientific, economic and social opinion, about the impacts of their Plan.
JOURNALIST: Before the election we heard Julia Gillard say that she adopt whatever the Murray-Darling Basin Authority recommended. Yesterday we heard Penny Wong say that ‘yes, but they need to be fiscally responsible as well’. What’s your take on that?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: The Government was grossly irresponsible in the election campaign to promise blank cheques and to promise to adopt a plan sight unseen. It needs to be the right plan, not just any plan, for the future of the Murray-Darling Basin and its communities. That’s why the Coalition wants genuine consultation, wants the Government to be open to changes, wants to make sure that we get something that works for all the stakeholders involved in this, not the type of attitude that just says ’we’ll take whatever’s put in front of us.’ So the challenge for the Government is to be willing to go into this with an open mind, listen to people, get more expert opinion if necessary, especially around the social and economic factors and put all of that in to ensure that in a year’s time when we have a final proposal, it’s the right one for the future of the Basin and everybody involved.
JOURNALIST: What’s the point in employing the independent Murray-Darling Basin Authority to do these years of work if the Government can’t trust them that they’ve got it right?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: The Authority has a critical role to play here. Their independence needs to be beyond reproach and we need to see them actively engaging, on behalf of the Government, to ensure that they take all of the advice necessary to deliver a good Plan in the end. But the legislation was written to provide the Minister with the final say. The Minister should preserve that right, I would hope he doesn’t have to use it, but it’s important for him to preserve it so as to ensure that every consideration is given to getting this Plan right for our river system, for the towns and communities that rely on it. This is important to livelihoods, as it is to our environment, and we need to ensure that everybody, when this is finished in a year’s time, is confident that the right outcome has been achieved.
JOURNALIST: The ABC’s been told that the Authority’s going to recommend cuts of 27 to 37 per cent to irrigators. What impact is that going to have, and have you heard anything otherwise?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Everyone throughout the Basin has been doing it tough through the years of drought and reports of significant cutbacks mean that more pain is likely for some communities. This is why the Government needs to redress their failures to invest in water saving infrastructure, making communities and irrigation more efficient means that you reduce the amount of water you need to take away from productive uses in the Basin, you can actually do more with less water by sensible investment in infrastructure projects. The Government promised to do this in its first three years, and yet they failed to invest the amounts they promised. This time they need to deliver on those types of investments. This won’t be an easy process for everybody and at the end of it we don’t expect everybody to be happy with the outcomes, but everybody should be happy that all of the advice and expertise of an environmental, an economic and a social impacts nature have been put into this plan and have been seriously considered and that it’s actually one that balances all of those factors. That’s the way that you get community support and community goodwill and if the Government isn’t willing to listen, respond and change they risk jeopardising that community goodwill right throughout the Basin. This is just too important to allow that to happen.
JOURNALIST: South Australia’s been disadvantaged in the past with upstream states taking water. As a Senator for South Australia are you going to make sure, lobby, that South Australia does get a better deal this time?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: I’ve been passionate for the entire duration of my Senate career about ensuring that the Basin is fixed and put into a sustainable condition, a sustainable condition where we know that the health of our environmental assets is secure and the health of our river communities are secure. That applies for South Australia as much as it does everywhere else throughout the Basin. It needs to be a fair outcome, a fair outcome between the states. Obviously South Australia has felt a lot of pain through this drought, our environmental assets have felt that pain, but we can’t discount the fact that pain has been felt in many other communities throughout the Basin as well. We need to ensure that as we move ahead in developing this Basin Plan, it’s a fair outcome for everybody that provides them with a certain future rather than the type of uncertain future that has been dogging so many river communities for so long now.
JOURNALIST: You talk about a fair outcome, can you go into detail about what that outcome is, cuts-wise or otherwise?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: A fair outcome is going to be one that actively balances the environmental, economic and social impact effects of this Plan. It’s one that looks at how we can best preserve our environmental assets whilst ensuring a sound future for river communities. Now I want to see expert advice on this, I will be scouring this draft guide to the Basin Plan thoroughly to ensure that the environmental science behind it, the economic research, social impacts research is thorough, and if it’s not thorough then the Authority needs to go away and do more work and the Government should be expecting them to do that and to be willing to make changes to consider all of those factors. That’s how we’ll end up with a Plan that’s fair and that has community goodwill and support behind it and that’s what it needs to succeed and deliver in the future.
JOURNALIST: Do you think that the fact that there’s a lot of water coming down the system at the moment is going to make it harder for irrigators to swallow cuts to their allocations?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, it’s a blessing that we’ve seen decent rains and that the system is fuller and far healthier now than it has been for years and that blessing should provide an opportunity for the Government to be able to take the time to get this Plan right, rather than the dogmatic approach they had during the election campaign, ‘any plan will do’, a healthy river system now gives them the scope to have proper consultation, to listen to communities and get the right plan. That’s what we expect it to do in the coming months.