SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Tony Burke has become the missing man of Murray-Darling Basin reform. He’s not showing up to communities to engage in the consultation process. In stead, he’s leaving it to public servants to front angry and aggrieved people whose futures are on the line.
Equally, Tony Burke and the Labor Government now appear to be resorting to taxpayer funded advertising to cloak their Murray-Darling report in some type of nicety or message of pleasantry rather than fronting up to the difficulties this will cause many rural communities.
Taxpayer funded advertising is all too often the last resort of the scoundrel and in this case the Labor Government is spending taxpayers’ money trying to hide a very difficult adjustment message rather than fronting up to the challenges of doing Murray-Darlign Basin reform in a way that gives us sustainable rivers without driving people off the land and, as the Financial Review has confirmed today, through reports commissioned by the Murray-Darling Basin Authority actually risking closing down of communities in New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland, throughout the Basin.
This is an important process of reform, but it’s one that has many people aggrieved. Today we have thousands of people rallying in Griffith outlining their concerns about the process. It comes from meetings that have happened already in Deniliquin, in Shepparton, and will tomorrow happen in Renmark.
Throughout Australian, Basin communities are expressing their concern that there’s not enough socio-economic data that’s gone into this Plan, there’s no clarity from importantly the Government as to their policy response from this Plan.
This may be an independent Authority that is trying to set sustainable limits, but it is Government policy that determines how those limits are applied and how they’re actually implemented in the end, and it’s Government policy and Government answers that are sorely lacking from Tony Burke and Julia Gillard at this stage.
JOURNALIST: Farmers in some of these communities are absolutely furious about these plans as we’ve seen over the last couple of days with the turnouts at these public meetings. Do you think that’s the reason that Mr Burke isn’t showing up?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Tony Burke needs to answer for himself why he refuses to go into these communities. Coalition representatives have been covering the Basin. Between Barnaby Joyce and I, as the two water spokespeople of the Coalition, we’ve visited Basin communities already in South Australia, Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland. Our local Members are turning up to all of these consultation sessions to date. Tony Burke is missing in action. Labor’s Water Minister needs to get out there and hear what angry people in these communities are saying and give them some answers as to how the Government plans to ease the impact of these reforms on those communities.
JOURNALIST: The Authority says it’s an independent body and it should be the one that’s facing the public.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: The Authority is an independent body but there is Government policy tied up in this. If it’s good enough for the Government to fund, through its own Department, taxpayer funded advertising on this message – it is unrelated to the independent Authority – then it’s good enough for Tony Burke to front up and answer some questions himself at these meetings or in different sessions in Basin communities. He needs to get out there and if he’s going to spend taxpayer dollars trying to sell a message, he needs to be willing to answer questions himself in return.
JOURNALIST: The Plan suggests that cuts are needed to actually, you know, save the river and maintain the ecosystem, and this is just one of the by-products of it, that there might be effects on the communities there. What’s your response to that?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: The Coalition supports Murray-Darling reform. We started the process ourselves in 2007 but we did two things, importantly. One was legislate to put a sustainable Basin Plan in place, and that’s a process we’re seeing being undertaken at present. The other was to put $10 billion on the table to make it easier for that process on regional communities, on our food producing communities. The Government has dropped the ball on how they spend that $10 billion. They’re failing to do it wisely and effectively in a manner that minimises the impact for regional communities. They’re the questions that are generating so much heat at many of these consultation fora. In the meeting I attended in Shepparton a couple of days ago, and I know in Deniliquin yesterday and I’m sure in Griffith today, there was plenty of outrage not just about the cuts, but about Government policies on water buybacks and the failure of the Government to deliver on infrastructure projects. They’re questions that go to the heart of the Government, Tony Burke as Minister should be fronting up to answer those questions about why they haven’t used the $10 billion the Howard Government budgeted wisely to make this painful process far less painful for the communities involved. 
JOURNALIST: How worried are you that Nationals like Barnaby Joyce will stymie a buyback scheme into the future?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: The National Party and the Liberal Party are working as one on this. Barnaby Joyce and I, as the two water spokespeople for the Coalition, have been crisscrossing the Basin not just in the last few days but for months and throughout the course of this year. We want sustainable rivers, but we also want sustainable Basin communities and that means providing those communities with a healthy economic future. This Government, through its failure to deliver proper policy, is simply looking at closing down these communities rather than actually helping them through a difficult adjustment process.