LEON BYNER: It’s been revealed that the amount of water Minister Wong already purchased using taxpayer funds is grossly exaggerated. An audit by the Department of Environment and Heritage [federal Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts] shows that 40 per cent of what water was purchased will actually reach the river in any year because the water that the Government says they bought doesn’t actually exist unless there’s a flooding event and it has to flood in every part of the Basin for this water to actually be there in any given year. This makes all the rhetoric about which party has delivered somewhat suspicious and you have to be cautious … the statement that the Government had bought 900 billion litres and returned it to the river was plastered over the front page of our paper, The Advertiser, a few days ago, the day the PM visited Adelaide, but a lot of that 900 billion doesn’t exist … this is why the levels at Goolwa and the Lower Lakes are barely noticeable. Seeing is believing … the Government’s been deliberately misleading in the way they’ve explained what they’re actually doing and it needs to be pointed out that you can either purchase water that’s there and use it or you can shore up your political prospects by announcing the purchase of water that theoretically is there if it rains … as we saw with the floods in Queensland and New South Wales this year a great deal of water that can theoretically be purchased never reaches the River Murray, let alone the Goolwa lakes … unreal, or water in cyberspace or wherever it is, it’s not actually there until it rains, affects every tap in South Australia. No wonder the State Government is frantically building a metre-wide pipeline to spread the desalinated water, perhaps it too knows that the Murray is half full of imaginary water … Simon Birmingham … Coalition spokesman on the Murray … the Department of the Environment and Heritage [federal Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts] have unravelled one of the claims that was made by the Government that they had purchased 900 billion litres of water to put back into the Murray … it’s now been found that a large proportion of that water doesn’t actually exist … when the Liberals and Tony Abbott make comments about water purchases, what water are they talking about?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: … it’s very important to be open and honest on this topic … water is a complicated issue and it comes in two different types of bundles. In the long term you buy what are known as water entitlements, that’s like selling a house, you actually buy the whole holding and you hold it forever and a day. They come in different sorts, some of them are high security where you frequently get the water against your entitlement, some of them are called low security where you don’t get so much of it. We will buy a mix of those as part of our buy backs process but unlike Julia Gillard we won’t fly into Adelaide and claim that every drop of those hundreds of billions of litres will actually flow. That’s the real point of difference between us and them. In the short term … we are also going to buy 150 billion litres of water in the next 12 months for Lake Alexandrina and the Coorong … that will be real water, that will be a short term allocation of water that goes into the Lakes and the Coorong this year and it’s actually water that if you touch it you will get wet whereas Julia Gillard’s exaggerated claims are water that will just leave you dry.
LEON BYNER: … the Department of the Environment and Heritage [federal Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts] are suggesting that the original 900 billion litres that the Government were saying were going back into the river is actually far short of that, how far short is it?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: … they are short by at least 30%, a lot more than that in some states … Julia Gillard came to Adelaide this week, was happy to be called the ‘River Queen’ on the front page of The Advertiser, she claimed to have returned to the river some 900 billion litres … that’s just not true. Hundreds of billions of litres of that claim are missing, they will never flow unless we have floods of biblical proportions up and down the east coast of Australia. To mislead in this way on an issue that is so important is reprehensible … Julia Gillard should be apologising to South Australians for leading them up the garden path on this very important issue of Murray Darling reform.
LEON BYNER: Penny Wong was critical of you and Tony Abbott because you had announced a one-off purchase for 12 months and that’s it … she used the analogy it’s like giving a Berocca for a broken leg. How do you reply to that?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: … Penny Wong is, just as they did on their own water buybacks, being misleading about our policy. We are committed to fixing the Basin for the long term. This is something the Liberal Party started in 2007, we budgeted $10 billion to do it without having to borrow a cent of money and we will actually get on and deliver, fix the Basin for the long term … we don’t think the Basin can wait to get the long term plan in place … you need some action now as well … the Lower Lakes and the Coorong deserve to get an injection of water in the next 12 months. That’s why we’re committing 150 billion litres to definitely, rock solid go into the Lower Lakes and for some of that to flow into the Coorong for the first time in years, this year as well, so you get real action this year as well as reform and commitment to deliver healthy rivers in the long term.
LEON BYNER: … there are two issues here, how much of that 150 gigalitres that’s going to be delivered will actually evaporate and be lost in the journey from where it’s coming?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Leon, we’ll make sure we purchase it in a strategic way through the Lower Murray system so that overwhelmingly most of it will get to the Lower Lakes, that is a commitment we’re giving, we are also saying that we will ask the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder, which is a statutory position that actually owns and holds all of the water entitlements that the Commonwealth has bought… we will ask them to give priority to flows to the Lower Lakes over this 12-month period and make sure that we get the water we’re promising down there.
LEON BYNER: The growers are still asking and Ray Najar [General Manager, Murray Darling Association] made this point yesterday … and Nick Xenophon as well, the growers want a fair deal. They are saying that the water buyback, the price they’re being offered is not right and unfair. I did ask Tony Abbott to clarify this yesterday and all I could get was … you need a willing buyer and a willing seller. We do know that but can you give a guarantee that if the Coalition gets into power after the election that the farmers who are going to sell their water will be treated fairly?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: I’m very happy to give that guarantee … we have committed in our policy to reviewing the way in which water buybacks happen and we’ve committed to do that because we want to make sure that they happen in a fair and an effective way. That means that it’s fair for the sellers, that they get a fair price, that taxpayers get good value for money and of course that the rivers ultimately get the water …
LEON BYNER: Some experts have said that if you want to do a buyback, the way that it’s done in the corporate world is that if you … want water, if you want shares or a commodity like water, when you go out into the market you offer a premium price so you will get what you’re looking for and yet we’re not really doing that here. We’re saying … if we can find a willing buyer and a willing seller we’ll do the deal.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: … that’s just not strategic at all, we want to make sure that the buybacks we do are against the Basin Plan, this national Plan that will set a cap on how much water can be taken out for the first time so that they actually deliver on that Plan as well as our undertaking in a way that is fair for the seller and gives value for money for the taxpayer.
LEON BYNER: Okay.