CHRIS KENNY: Well, there we have it. After 100 years or so of Federation we’ve still got states and federal governments at loggerheads over the future of the Murray-Darling Basin. I must say we have got bids in to speak to the Federal Environment Minister, Tony Burke. He is available but because of various commitments either sides we may not get to him today. If we don’t we’ll try and follow up tomorrow but just to stress that he is available, he is cooperating, and we’ll try to speak to him if we can get the diaries in synch but we do have, on the line now from Canberra, Liberal Senator, and the Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for the Murray-Darling Basin, Simon Birmingham. Thanks for joining us, Simon.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM:A pleasure, Chris. Good morning to you and your listeners.
CHRIS KENNY: Look, Simon, you’ve heard there the Premier, Jay Weatherill, saying yet again that he is prepared to go to the High Court if he has to. He’s very unhappy with what’s been promised under the Murray-Darling Basin Plan but, of course, I think what’s elevated it today is the strong comments from the Federal Minister suggesting really that Canberra’s going to come in and override the states. Now, as a federal politician, do you think this is the way forward, that it really should be Canberra that imposes its will on this issue?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM:Well, ideally that wouldn’t be the case but we do need to recognise that when the Howard Government passed the Water Act back in 2007, we recognised it would be far easier, though even this wasn’t easy but that it would be far easier, to get the states to agree to a process of putting the Murray-Darling Basin’s management in the hands of an independent national authority to come up with a plan based on expert evidence than it would be to necessarily get the states to agree on what that plan actually was, so that’s why the powers were left there and put deliberately in the Water Act to give the Federal Water Minister that power, at the end of the day, to say ‘okay, if you guys can’t agree, we will come up with a solution’ and it’s a solution that, unlike what Jay Weatherill says or claims is based on matters of politics or a lack of political will… it must be a solution based on evidence and developed by this independent national expert body. It’s got to be above politics and I think one thing that is missing from this discussion at present is that… the recognition that the Murray-Darling Basin Authority is a serious group of six people, individuals, all of whom appointed by this Federal Labor Government, three of them appointed by Penny Wong when she was the Water Minister – of course, a fellow South Australian Senator. They are making the independent assessment here. It’s not actually politicians setting this figure. It is actually an independent authority trying their best, with a South Australian person on there, to come up with an outcome that everybody can live with; most importantly, though, that the Murray-Darling Basin system itself can live with.
CHRIS KENNY: Do you think if we get this intervention from the Federal Government that there’s any chance of bipartisan support or is it just too early to tell because you need to see exactly what sort of solution is proposed?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM:Well, Chris, I’m not going to declare support or opposition for a final Plan that I haven’t seen. Tony Burke, curiously, when the latest draft was released and provided to the states, said that it wasn’t a draft that he was happy to sign off on. If he speaks to you in the next couple of days I’d be interested to know what changes he wants to see in the final draft, for him to sign off on that and bring it to the Parliament but I want to hear and see what that final Plan is. I want to hear the views of all of the states, especially, of course, my home state of South Australia. I’m very sympathetic to the argument that South Australian irrigators deserve a fair go – either a better deal in terms of the funding that’s available or a better deal in terms of the water and how it’s allocated, so I want to see some of those details and then we’ll consider it but I do want to see an outcome to this. It’s been more than a century of debate. The Howard Government started this process and we’re committed to being constructive and seeing it through and, frankly, it’s going to take all the leadership in the world at the federal level to get this to happen because it’s very clear that each of the states, including the South Australian Premier, appear hell bent on just sticking with a parochial approach.
CHRIS KENNY: We’ve had a bit of an insight into the… how hardball the states are playing on this issue with the revelations in The Advertiser today of a strategy document from the New South Wales irrigators. Well, they’re basically claiming the scalp of the former Murray-Darling Basin Authority Chair, Mike Taylor, and talking about how their strategy is to talk up price impacts on consumers and the like. Firstly, does this surprise you and, secondly, does this demonstrate why South Australia may indeed be forced to take this matter to the High Court?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM:Look, it doesn’t surprise me, Chris. I think all parties are playing hardball in this. We see, of course, the situation where the environmental groups claim the system will die without more water than the MDBA is proposing and irrigator groups claim that towns and communities and food producing areas will die if this volume of water is taken away. Now, we see New South Wales claim that it will cause devastation to their state; South Australia claim it’ll cause devastation to our state so the usual, predictable positions have been taken by all parties. Now, I just hope that we can actually get back to the core of relying on some independent advice, expert analysis and come up with something that gives a good step forward. We probably won’t get a perfect Plan; it’s probably impossible to get a perfect Plan because this type of management of the system, on a national level like this, is really being tried in Australia for the first time and so there will be lessons to be learned and the Plan will have to be adjusted and fixed and improved over the years to come, but if we can return…
CHRIS KENNY: Alright, thanks very much. There’s no doubt there’s going to be need for some form of compromise as ever on these things but thanks very much for joining us today, Simon Birmingham. Appreciate your time. That’s the Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for the Murray-Darling Basin, Simon Birmingham, on the line from Canberra.