KEITH CONLON: The River – we know now that the Murray-Darling Basin report – draft report [proposed Basin Plan] – is out. It’s up for about 20 weeks of consultation; it begins as of now. It is a killer blow to some districts, an early report has put out. What about South Australia? Well, Simon Birmingham – a federal Liberal Senator – will look at it for both the state and nationally because that’s his job. Good morning, Senator Birmingham.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Good morning, Keith, John and listeners.
KEITH CONLON: So, have you been up and at least read the short version – 128 pages?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: I have read what’s described as the Plain English summary, which… some of it’s plain English and some of it’s not so, but really it sort of leaves me with more questions than answers, I guess, at the end of it, I’m afraid to say.
KEITH CONLON: Well, obviously the irrigators are very concerned and the Riverland is being asked to do with even less, despite its efficiencies. How are they faring?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, this is the unknown. We have a minimum cut for the Riverland – for the South Australian Murray district – of 101 gigalitres, so that’s the minimum cut they’ll face, but they then have to contribute to a share of 971 gigalitres. Now, all of this gets a little bit confusing but there is this unspecified cut for the southern Basin of 971 billion litres which it doesn’t specify which communities that will come from, so SA knows that the minimum cut for our irrigators will be 101 billion litres or 101 gigalitres but it could be 201, it could be 301 – there’s just no certainty in this Plan.
KEITH CONLON: And what does that represent in terms of a cut from where we are now?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: We’re currently on 665 [‘baseline diversion limit’, or current take], so if you actually apportion the 971 just based on South Australia’s current share of extraction you start looking at a cut somewhere in the order of 27 per cent or so from where SA is today.
KEITH CONLON: But we’re already down, aren’t we? I mean, we’ve had a lot of the communities sell the water back already. Buyback schemes have worked for the farmer who’s left the property, not necessarily for the community.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Oh, well, a large part of that 101 has been achieved – 79 gigalitres out of the 101 has already been achieved – but, of course, it’s what’s above the 101 that is the question mark and none of what’s above it has been achieved so there’s a 22 [gigalitre] gap to get to 101 and then there’s who knows how much more to be recovered from South Australia and that will cause real pain in the Riverland. They’re already feeling the pinch when you go up and talk to the Central Irrigation Trust and others around the Riverland about buyouts and what it’s done for the efficiency of their system and anybody who just drives through, of course, can see you go from one very healthy looking irrigated crop and you pass the next block where there’s just a bulldozed block and nothing’s happening on it and of course this has effects right through the town and communities around the Riverland.
KEITH CONLON: Now, this will presumably be being felt right up through the Murray and the Darling and the Murrumbidgee, so is anybody happy?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Oh, well, Keith, nobody’s happy and of course it’s important to be realistic here. You can’t probably do this reform and make everybody happy. If we want better environmental flows through the system, the water’s got to come from somewhere but South Australians will rightly wake up this morning and wonder how it is that 12 months later from a Plan that was howled down last year we’re presented with a new Plan that involves smaller environmental flows but possibly more water coming from South Australia’s irrigators. That really, of course, seems to be a double hit to SA.
KEITH CONLON: What about that environmental side from your point of view? What about the fact we’ve gone backwards again?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, the key thing on the environmental side, Keith, really, is the outcome. It’s about what the water will be used for and again the Plan lacks detail here. It’s one thing to talk about a headline figure – to say some 2750 gigalitres will be returned to the system – but where will it go and what will the impact be? And, again, there’s no guarantee as to how much of that water flows across the border into SA, particularly how much of it makes it into the Coorong and Lower Lakes district, so that’s really the type of detail we want to get down to and it’s the questioning that certainly I’ll be pursuing on behalf of the Opposition to try to hold the Government to account for why it is, four years after this process was started, there still seems to be so many uncertainties.
KEITH CONLON: Thanks for the preliminary look today, Senator Simon Birmingham, looking at it for the Federal Opposition.