SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, today we have what hopefully will be an historic step in the management of the Murray-Darling Basin. I want to acknowledge that Tony Burke was generous in recognising the role that John Howard, Malcolm Turnbull and John Anderson played in the Coalition Government in getting this process underway; that in 2004 with the National Water Initiative and 2007 with the passage of the Water Act and the budgeting of $10 billion for Murray-Darling reform, the Howard Government played an important lead role and, in fact, in many ways, what we have here is a debate about the most important of the final legacies of the Howard Government but today, of course, we see, after more than five years of waiting, of numerous delays, and of failures to actually spend properly monies budgeted on infrastructure projects rather than on non-strategic buybacks… we finally see a Plan handed down. Now, this is a very, very long Plan. There’s a lot of detail in here and the Coalition will be going through that detail very carefully and thoroughly. We welcome the fact that it’s been released and that’s important but, as always, the devil may well be in the detail. The rhetoric we’ve heard from Tony Burke today is encouraging. The rhetoric’s encouraging. We want to make sure the detail matches and lives up to his rhetoric – in particular, the rhetoric about ensuring an end to the bulk buybacks that have hurt so many river communities and a focus on win-win outcomes of water-saving infrastructure. That’s welcome but it needs to actually be matched by detailed commitments in the Plan, not just warm words from the Minister. That’s what we’ll be looking for as we work through this process. We note, as well, that the Minister has indicated that he is still in talks with the states and that he’s indicated that he has under consideration some amendments to the Water for the Environment Special Account legislation [Water Amendment (Water for the Environment Special Account) Bill 2012] that provides for the extra 450-gigalitre top-up in this process. We, of course, want to see the outcomes of those amendments and those talks with the states to help inform where we’re going in the future on this. As I said, the Coalition started this process of water reform in 2007. We want to see an outcome but we want to see an outcome that meets our dual tests of providing for sustainability for the Murray-Darling Basin and the rivers within the system as well as economic and social sustainability for the communities of the Murray – the 2.1 million people who live in the Murray-Darling Basin – so many of whom rely on extracting water from it for the economic future of those communities and, of course, Australia’s economic future which is, in so many ways, dependent on actually securing food producing communities, not just for our own food security in the future but for the export potential we have into the Asia-Pacific in the future.
JOURNALIST: The Greens have already indicated that they’re going to move a disallowance motion to strike out the Basin Plan. Will you be voting with Labor to save this blueprint?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: The Greens are nothing but wreckers in this process. They are more interested in headlines than they are outcomes. The Coalition’s interested in outcomes for the river and river communities. Now, we’ll go through our proper process of considering where we stand finally on the final Basin Plan as it’s been released and all of the accompanying details around the water security strategy and water recovery strategy but, in the end, I suspect that most Coalition Members would think that any day we vote with the Greens is a bad day, that there’s never really a good time to be voting with the Greens and so I would hope that we can work with the Government to get the types of assurances and commitments in place that are needed to be able to get an outcome from this, not be the wreckers like the Greens are.
JOURNALIST: Specifically, what additional commitments are you calling for? The irrigators want you to slap a cap on buybacks to 3 per cent. Is that what you’re considering looking at doing or what, specifically, do you need to see?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, it seems from what the Government is saying that, if everything is delivered as they’re promising, there is effectively a cap on buybacks in there, that there’s only a very small amount still necessary to be recovered by buybacks. Now, the Minister, however, seems to be handballing some of that responsibility back to the states, saying there’s 650 gigalitres of environmental works and measures to be achieved and it’s up to the states to identify those projects. We want to make sure that the Minister and the Commonwealth are just as committed to getting that 650 gig of environmental works and measures as the states should be committed to delivering it so that we do actually have in place not just a promised cap as such, effectively, on buybacks but actually one that will be delivered effectively in the future.
JOURNALIST: The New South Wales Government and New South Wales Farmers’ Association are not particularly impressed with what’s been released today. Are we still going to see the bickering between upstream states and South Australia on this or what would you say to those about… who are still pretty unimpressed with what’s been released?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, 120 years ago, at the Federation conferences that were held, there was plenty of bickering between upstream states and downstream states and it’s been going on for 120 years. I don’t know that we’ll ever totally end dispute between the states on managing the Murray-Darling Basin but what I hope is that we can get a fair outcome for all of the states but, most importantly, a fair outcome for the river and river communities. They’re the ones to care about in this process. I don’t much care about the feelings of individual state governments. I care about the future livelihoods of people who live in river communities and the future health of the rivers themselves.
JOURNALIST: But you can see there’d be some communities – say, Griffith, for instance, in New South Wales – that would still be annoyed and frustrated at the situation?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: I have no doubt there are people who will still be very concerned about this. There are, of course, strong passions on this and the strong passions exist for very genuine reasons. People’s livelihoods are at stake, the future value of the businesses and the homes in their towns is at stake if there isn’t a sound economic underpinning to these communities. That’s why the Coalition is putting so much emphasis not just on the volume of water to be recovered and how it delivers for the environment but on how it is recovered and making sure that it is recovered in a way that keeps intact the economic basis, the productive base, of river communities.
JOURNALIST: If a disallowance motion is moved in the House of Representatives by either Adam Bandt or someone like Bob Katter, will the Liberal Party or the Coalition be forgiving if some of your Basin colleagues decide to either abstain or cross the floor on this one?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, I’m talking to all of my Basin colleagues about these matters on a regular basis, as is Barnaby Joyce, as, indeed, of course, will be Tony Abbott as we work through this. Ultimately, at every stage of this process to date, the Coalition has moved as one. When it came to passing the Water Act in the first place, we all voted for it. When it came to amending it, under the Rudd Government, we all voted for it. I hope that we can get an outcome here that everybody can live with, as well.
JOURNALIST: You mentioned earlier today that there’s been vigorous debate within the Coalition – isn’t that a bit of an understatement?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Look, we have local MPs who are passionate about representing their communities – as they should be, as I want them to be and would encourage them to be. That is, of course, what they’re elected to this Parliament to do, so I’m sure that, as we work through this, we’ll hear different views from those who represent the Lower Lakes communities versus some of those who represent irrigation communities. That’s totally understandable but what we want to do is make sure the outcome is fair for all of those communities.