SIMON BIRMINGHAM: The resignation today by Mike Taylor, the Murray-Darling Basin Authority chairman throws into crisis Murray-Darling reform in Australia. This is a resignation that couldn’t have come at a worse time and the statement he has issued comes with very serious implications for the reform process. What we see from the resignation statement by Mr Taylor is that there are fundamental disagreements between the independent statutory Authority and the Water Minister, Tony Burke, over the interpretation of the Water Act. Now if they can’t agree on how to interpret the Water Act, how on earth are they going to deliver sensible Basin reform for the future? We also see Mr Taylor highlight the fact that the Government is failing to progress in other areas complementary measures that would help reform, and highlight that there are real risks of delay in the reform process which can only add to the pain and uncertainty for Basin communities. Mike Taylor was the one who had the courage and the guts to front up to dozens of community meetings and hear the concerns of angry people throughout the river [basin]. Tony Burke, the Water Minister, has not fronted up to one of those, but he can no longer hide. Mr Taylor, in having taken his bat and ball and headed off, is going to now have to have the Water Minister, Tony Burke, front up and actually answer the concerns of the communities and tell Australians how he is going to get this process back on track, how he is actually going to get a unified interpretation of the Water Act and what he is going to do to ensure delivery of sensible Basin reform that provides for sustainable river communities and a sustainable river system.
JOURNALIST: You agree with Tony Burke’s interpretation of the Water Act, though, don’t you? I mean, you agree with him that Mike Taylor was wrong in his interpretation?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: I know what the intent of the Parliament was at the time, and the intent certainly was to get a balanced Water Act. Intentions are one thing, detail is another thing. We now have essentially the independent Authority and the Government standing at 20 paces from each other with conflicting legal advice. Somebody has to act to get them on the same page. The Authority says it’s got new, more, detailed legal advice since Tony Burke made a statement to Parliament. I note Julia Gillard today has said that her view is that the legal advice provides for a balanced outcome. Well that’s clearly not the Authority’s view and unless we have a single view the only view that will matter is the High Court’s view. That’s something we should avoid at all costs. Anybody who wants sensible Basin reform needs to see a single view from all arms of government on how to interpret this Act.
JOURNALIST: Well then shouldn’t those who drafted the legislation take some responsibility for that?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Look, we have said all along that if there needs to be changes, if there are concerns, we’ll sensibly look at them. The Coalition, in fact, has even moved in the Senate to have an inquiry and look at the operation of the Water Act, whether it’s consistent. So we’re quite open in saying ‘yes, we were the ones who drafted the initial Act, but if there are problems let’s front up to them and fix them.’ Now, the Government needs to stop hiding, front up and fix any problems to get this process on track.
JOURNALIST: Do we think it’ll get to a case of having to go to court? You mentioned the High Court, don’t want to be there…
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: The last thing anybody who cares about the river or river communities should want is for this matter to end up in the High Court, but as long as we have conflicting opinions of interpreting the Water Act that is a genuine risk and so the Government needs to intervene here and needs to do whatever it takes to ensure that the Basin planning process can proceed unimpeded with these interpretations of the Act. We need one interpretation, one crystal clear interpretation, from all arms of government to avoid that worst case outcome.
JOURNALIST: What do you think of Labor’s handling of this overall?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Look, the Basin reform process has been going off the rails for years now. The appointment of Mr Taylor and…
[small section missed due to technical issue]
JOURNALIST: … your position, largely in terms of what that interpretation of that Act was, but is that a shift in position from what Labor was saying previously?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: I think you certainly saw prior to the last election Penny Wong and Julia Gillard playing pure base politics with water reform and that didn’t help. If the Government had actually addressed these conflicting opinions from day one we wouldn’t be in this mess right now. Labor has had more than three years to ensure that the Government and the independent Authority are on the one page. They’ve failed to do that in three years and we’ve now reached a crisis point when we should have been close to reaching a resolution point, so instead we’ve seen essentially a new Minister come in, take a new tack it seems from Penny Wong who was purely about appealing for base political motives to Adelaide rather than about getting a Basin reform process that could appeal across the entire Basin and could work for the entire Basin. Tony Burke has been handed a bit of a hand grenade in that pass but he’s the one who’s got to front up and make sure that he actually fixes it and gets it back on track and hiding from scrutiny, leaving it to the independent Authority, isn’t going to fix it. It’s going to take Ministerial intervention.
JOURNALIST: What does it say about the independence of the process that was set up when at the very first hurdle there’s a major disagreement between the Government and the independent Authority resulting in the chairman resigning? I mean, we haven’t even got to the stage of having a complete draft Plan, what does it say about the process?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, what it says is that the Government clearly failed from day one to ensure that the water [Murray-Darling Basin] Authority and the Water Minister were at one. If they’d done that, if they’d actually then stood as one to release the Guide to the [proposed] Basin Plan, stood as one to sell the Guide and to explain it, stood as one to explain the Act, we wouldn’t be in this type of mess, but instead you seem to have had a Government more intent on playing water politics and an Authority just running its own course trying its best to interpret the Act and this is where it’s all fallen apart and the only way it’ll be put back together is for Tony Burke to roll his sleeves up and get his hands dirty in this process and make sure that he gets it back on track. The science should be independent, absolutely, the modelling should be independent, the economic analysis should be independent. Those key decisions, those key inputs, all need to be independently done but it’s going to take some political leadership and it’s seriously lacking at present.
JOURNALIST: Is it [unclear] though that the Authority saying to the Government and the Opposition, ‘look, we believe that unless the environment takes precedence it’s not going to be enough, in [unclear] to save the river system’?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, I think everyone accepts that there is a need for trade off, it needs compromise, and ultimately that’s going to mean a little bit of sacrifice from everything as well to get a fair and balanced outcome that ensures Australia keeps producing food, that these river communities enjoy a sense of economic and social sustainability, but that we get more flows through the river system and have healthier rivers, it will mean everyone has to give a bit of ground, and that means the environment as well as the regional economy and we’re looking as much as we can for ‘win win’ outcomes and certainly that’s why time and time again I’ve been critical, and Tony Abbott and Barnaby Joyce have been critical, of the failure to progress the type of water saving infrastructure plan that can provide ‘win win’ outcomes and one thing that Tony Burke could do here and now to help get this process back on track is to commit to releasing a plan not just of how much water needs to be saved but of how that water will be saved. That’s seriously lacking in the process to date and obviously that’s inspired a lot of panic and concern in communities, that they’ve got no idea whether the water savings will come straight from them or from decent ‘win win’ infrastructure outcomes.