MIKE SMITHSON: Now, as we heard last week, Tony Abbott’s Coalition has formed a task force to build more dams around Australia to capture stormwater and floodwater given the enormity of the flood in the eastern states, it seems like a pretty sound idea but the Federal Government has already started throwing mud at the plan. One of those on the task force is South Australian Liberal Senator Simon Birmingham … it sounds good but is it a knee-jerk reaction?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Not at all. Tony Abbott sees this as an issue in the sense that we’ve shied away from for too long, that concerns about localised environmental impacts and so on have tended to put the kybosh on almost every dam proposal for decades now and there are sensible dam options or infrastructure solutions that we can look at to better manage water throughout this country. We’re seeing that it’s not so much a water supply problem in years like this one that we’ve had as a water management problem and how we can best put that water to good use, not just productive use to grow more food and boost our agricultural sector, but also to better manage environmental flows in dry times to potentially provide for zero emissions power and overall to hopefully provide for some flood mitigation opportunities as well.
MIKE SMITHSON: But the Coalition’s consistently opposed dams in the drought times. Why have you changed your tune now? Isn’t it a bit hypocritical?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: You have a situation where you have to live and learn as you go along. We proposed at the very end of the Howard Government, I wish it’d been done sooner, but we proposed at the end a massive water reform of the Murray-Darling Basin. I think we were recognising at that stage that there needed to be better management of water across the country. That was of course driven by times of drought. That job needs to be finished. It was disappointing to see it’s not been finished in the way we’d hoped but we also need to work out how to better provide and better manage in times of plenty and we’ve seen of course the debate in SA about irrigators’ allocations. We see that farmers in those times of dry, and the environment, go without flows. If we can actually capture some of the volumes like those flowing past Rockhampton at present some twice the volume of Sydney, of Sydney Harbour, every day’s going out past Rockhampton at present, out to sea on the Queensland coast if we can capture some of that, that can help to provide better environmental flows, better opportunities for farmers in the future.
LAINIE ANDERSON: Some experts are already saying that dams would have not actually saved these areas from flooding. By setting up this Coalition committee, is the Opposition confining itself down this path of dams or it possible that after a year of looking into it, you’ll come back and say dams may not be the right option for Australia?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: I and certainly the three other members of the committee, I am sure, are going into this with open minds. We want to consult genuinely with the public, as Tony said, in ending the ‘dam phobia’ in terms of the discussion that you shouldn’t just put a kybosh on every proposal because there is some local concern …if there is genuine overall benefit…
LAINIE ANDERSON: Even though it’s the Liberals that put have the kybosh on ones in Queensland and New South Wales in recent years?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: That’s not entirely true. The last dam proposal in Queensland was actually rejected by Peter Garrett when he was Environment Minister but that aside, we think it’s reasonable to make sure that you look at all of these proposals genuinely, we’re going to go through a year of genuine consultation and all of that will then be rolled into your policy process and we will take a very open and transparent policy on this to the next election and people can judge it on that basis but it is about trying to find better solutions…open to all of them. We’ve had on the table for many years, since the Howard years, billions of dollars allocated to water reform in the Murray-Darling. We proposed at the last election a $500 million program for achieving investment in looking at better infrastructure solutions right across Australia’s water management and we’re genuine about trying to get outcomes that give us a sustainable environment but also give us maximum production for farmers so that we can grow our own food well into the future.
MIKE SMITHSON: When you look at it, Greens and greenies and the Greens have enormous influence in Federal Parliament…they’re opposed to dams because they tend to wreck the wilderness. Are you going to meet a stumbling block there?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: This, I guess, is part of the problem and part of the reason that Tony made this announcement and what we’re actually having this inquiry and a review. It is to say, and quite openly, that there will have to be, and there always are in things, we’re not very good at it as politicians or the media or Australia generally, there are always trade-offs and there are always winners and losers in these debates. What we seem to have had in the last couple of decades is every time a water storage proposal or a dam or major infrastructure project is proposed we find the one environmental harm that happened locally and that tends to become the focus point and the lightning rod for all criticism and knock out something that may or may not have provided overall benefit. We need to look at these things beyond just those localised issues, look at them at the big picture level as well. That means we’ve got to get however environmental gains out of these projects as well, especially in the Murray-Darling and I’m very conscious of that, and that’s part of the reason Tony put me on this task force is to make sure that whatever proposals, policy changes or solutions we come up for the next election, they are very Murray-Darling friendly as well to aid the process of reform.
LAINIE ANDERSON: At the end of this process will the Coalition have a proposal for dams in certain areas of Australia including South Australia?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: I think it’s more likely that we’ll have policies on how proposals will be considered. We may identify some but I’m not promising that we’re going to come out in 12 months’ time with a ‘we’ll put a dam here and a dam here and a dam here’ because that requires the type of really thorough analysis that may take more than a year. We certainly want to look firstly at policy hurdles, at the benefits, and see what we can come up with, but it will be a very transparent policy and it will be there for all to see…both a statement after this task force finishes its work in a year and then our policy for the next election whenever that may be.