KEITH CONLON:Murray-Darling Basin Authority [revised] draft Plan is out … it came out just over an hour ago … what do you make of it so far?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM:There’s some good news in there and there’s a lot of details still to get through … the good news for South Australia is that the amount of groundwater that’s allowed to be extracted has been cut from the earlier draft so that is good news and it means that it is greater security as the water flows that will go through the entire system because of that interconnectedness between groundwater and surface water.
KEITH CONLON:…Tim Whetstone…agrees it is good news … that would be largely an upstream issue?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM:Absolutely, groundwater extractions are overwhelmingly upstream … have a look at the detail to see whether there’s any cut to SA’s groundwater entitlement there but primarily I expect that would have an effect upstream in terms of less water being used upstream and it’s good news of course for downstream flows … the other good news for the downstream flows is that they have heeded the concerns that many have put and I know … Jamie Briggs … put in his submission to the Authority for there to be some clear salinity targets for the Lower Lakes and Coorong … put into this Plan so that there is something definitely for it to be benchmarked against.
KEITH CONLON:How does that sit with the notion that they’ve only allowed the water recovery target to the environment of 2,750 gigs, seen by many scientists and advocates in the Lower Lakes and Coorong as too low?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM:Keith, I think we need to keep that figure in some perspective … in the period since the 1960s when the real surge of water use out of the Murray-Darling took place, the growth has been of about 6000 gigalitres in that 40-year-or-so period and what we’re now seeing is a proposal to cut nearly half of that growth out of the system so this is actually an enormous change, and an enormous change for which South Australia and the lower parts of the river system will be the prime beneficiary. Now, it’s not all that some scientists are asking for and it’s no doubt probably not perfect and there will no doubt be things that I’ll be concerned about in this but I don’t think we should do as Premier Weatherill and others seem to is attack the whole basis of this Plan, attack the independence of the Authority that’s developed it when, in fact, there is a big step being taken here and a potential big win for South Australia from the environmental perspective. I do think there are still some concerns there for South Australian irrigators, though, that we need to be very mindful of.
KEITH CONLON:The Senator Nick Xenophon has spoken to us this morning and he says it simply isn’t enough for the environment and he suggests that the Premier in South Australia should reject it. What would your advice be?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM:I think that would be the worst possible result. I think that the South Australian Premier should fight hard to get the best possible results for SA. We need to get a Plan in place at the end of this. For 120 years the states bickering over this has got us in the mess we are in. This is the best chance we have had to get a national Plan run by an independent Authority in place and let’s just remember this Authority is not run by politicians … yes, there’s one former politician on it, but they are six people – all appointed by the current Labor Government, so I’m hardly the person to be out there defending them on a partisan basis, but there are six people – who include an environmental scientist … a South Australian farmer … some respected economists. We actually have an independent Authority trying to balance the competing arguments of the states here and they are very vicious arguments between the states. Wearing my hat as an Opposition spokesman at the federal level, I see all of the irrigator groups from the other states come to meet with me, all of the other state governments talk to me as well as, of course, South Australian groups and trying to get everyone happy with this is an impossible task. What we need to do, though, is get something that everyone can live with and it will be a good step forward for the environment, for the system, and I think we’re at least on the right track. Let’s go through the detail and still work to get the best possible Plan but this should not be rejected out-of-hand – that would be the worst of all outcomes.