SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Later today, Tony Burke will address the National Press Club and, as I understand it, will outline what the final Murray-Darling Basin Plan looks like. The fact that we’re reaching a point of finality is welcome because this is a long overdue reform. It’s more than five years since the Howard Government started this process, passed the Water Act and committed to a national plan for the Murray-Darling Basin for the future. I want to see a Plan implemented. The Coalition wants to be in a position to support a Plan but we will have to go through the detail and see whether this Plan is a good plan and the right plan for the river’s future. It needs to be a plan that delivers on the environmental side and on the human side. It needs to ensure that we have sustainability for the river system in the future and that it protects the economic Basin fundamentals of the more than 2.1 million people who live in river communities and whose economy depends on using water from the river for the future, so we will go through the detail and go through the proper processes. We hope, in the end, to be in a position to support something which gets an outcome after more than 120 years, frankly, of arguing in the Federation.
JOURNALIST: Are you going to have enough time to go through it, to go through the report?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, we’re not quite sure, of course, when the Government is proposing to table it and when, of course, it may or may not ever come to a vote in the Parliament. It’s a disallowable instrument; it will depend on whether anyone moves to disallow it. Technically, we have until next year, though.
JOURNALIST: Does it matter if four or five of your colleagues cross the floor?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, I hope that doesn’t happen. We’ll be working with all of our colleagues. You certainly need to understand that, within the Coalition, we have Liberal Members representing the communities around the Lower Lakes, Liberal and National Party Members representing every irrigation community in every state, so there are passionately held views and they’re entitled to hold those passionately held views and they should all stand for their community but we’ll be working to get a position on this Plan that, of course, is united and, of course, delivers on those key tests – Does it deliver for the environment? Does it protect the base of communities?
JOURNALIST: Is there a number you’ll be looking for?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: There is definitely not a magic number. There are magic outcomes and the magic outcomes are a healthy river and socially and economically sustainable communities.
JOURNALIST: [unclear] a certain figure that you’re looking for today, in terms of how many litres are returned to the Murray-Darling Basin system?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, I think everybody knows what the figures are in any event. It will be 2750 gigalitres as a base commitment and there will be up to 450 gigalitres extra on top of that that the Government says it’s going to try to return, so we know that’s the overall figure. It’s about how that’s used and how that water is going to be recovered from communities and they’re the tests we’ll be looking for.
JOURNALIST: Do you believe the Government has been doing enough to meet the Coalition’s requests?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Look, over the course of the last five years, the Government has failed spectacularly. We’ve had multiple delays in the release of this Plan. There, of course, has been a terrible sight where we’ve seen all of their infrastructure targets failed to be met whilst they have overspent on water buybacks – that has decimated a lot of the communities in the Murray-Darling Basin and it has really hurt confidence in those communities – but the Government’s promising a different approach for the way forward. We’ll have a look at the detail of that different approach and, if it stacks up, then we’ll be happy to support it and see some progress on this matter.
JOURNALIST: Will you be pushing for the efficiencies that the South Australian irrigators have done in the past to be recognised in the Basin Plan?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, we hope that we see something that has a fair, reasonable socio-economic test in there – that there is no disadvantage for communities, be they South Australian communities or Victorian or New South Wales communities – so if you have the right test in there then efficiency matters will be dealt with as well.
JOURNALIST: How long is it going to take for the Coalition to digest the Plan once you’ve got it in your hands and come up with a position on the Government’s recommendations?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: We’ll have to work through our proper processes. As I said, there are some things about this Plan that are known but there’s always, of course, the devil in the detail and we especially want to go through and see what’s been agreed with the states, what hasn’t been agreed with the states, what is in the Water Recovery Strategy that might be being released, that goes to the heart not of how much water is being returned for the environment but how that water will be recovered from irrigators to be returned to the environment, so we’ll go through all of those things, of course, and we’ll go through our proper party processes so that we can consult with all of our Members about it.
JOURNALIST: Katrina Hodgkinson says she won’t support it and New South Wales won’t support the Plan at all. Is it worth doing if New South Wales isn’t involved, as the biggest Basin state?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Of course it’s worth doing – the states have argued about this for 120 years. We need to get an outcome. It may never be possible to get all of the states on the same page with the same conditions at the same time. Hopefully, we can get something that everybody may not love, may not like, but at least can live with and work with and, as I say, meets the test of delivering for the environment and preserving the economic base of river communities.
JOURNALIST: So, realistically, we’re not going to have a full response from the Coalition until next week after the party room meets?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, obviously, that’s when our party room meets, that’s when I expect we will have a full discussion [unclear].