LAINIE ANDERSON: … Simon Birmingham … what do you think or what do you make of the idea that former South Australian Water Minister Karlene Maywald could head the Murray-Darling Basin Authority or is one of many being touted as a possible head?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: … Karlene’s obviously an ably intelligent woman, she obviously has a depth of understanding about Murray-Darling issues. But I think you and Tim [Whetstone] just canvassed some of the reasons why she’s probably not the ideal pick for the role and that is that of course there are questions over how strong the confidence of the people in the Riverland region of SA would be in her and I think there are genuine issues as to whether anybody who takes this role should be seen to come from any particular region or have any real vested interest in it. If you think about the fact that the big challenges, the real outrage in relation to the release of the Plan at present, have come from irrigation districts, particularly in South Australia but also in New South Wales and Victoria… if you went into the communities of Griffith or Deniliquin or Shepparton and told them you were about to appoint a former South Australian Water Minister as Chair of the Murray-Darling Basin Authority, that’s not going to help to get the type of consensus and cooperation to get a Plan approved and to progress this thing forward. So we need somebody who can be a true independent, honest broker to make sure we get a real plan that’ll work for the river system and for all of the communities along it.
LAINIE ANDERSON: Do you agree with Tim that it should be somebody who commands respect and a proven track record for actually getting things done and working with a massive range of parties from all sides of the spectrum … but who doesn’t necessarily have a knowledge of, or an in depth knowledge of, the water industry?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well … certainly those attributes are what you want in somebody. Whether they have good, strong knowledge to start with, or not, of water policy issues is something that can be weighed up. I think they certainly need to come without any sense of a vested conflict of interest, any sense that they might be favouring one part of the equation over another in terms of getting that balance between environmental flows and economic support for regions and so on right. So somebody who can be clearly an able leader but has also got the capacity be a good, honest broker is important. If we look at the way things have broken down so far, and I feel very sorry for Mike Taylor who has tendered his resignation as Chair of the Authority. Mike is an able man, he understood the issues but quite clearly he saw the brief that he had from one Water Minister, Penny Wong, change when he got a new Water Minister in Tony Burke and obviously he felt it was untenable for him to change his outlook and his approach midstream just because the Minister had changed. That really left him strung out to dry and he obviously decided that the honourable thing to do was to vacate the role and that means it’s going to be very difficult for the next person to come in to really get it all back on track.
LAINIE ANDERSON: …you’ve raised doubts as well about the Gillard Government’s claims that they will try and get the … Murray-Darling Basin Authority’s final plan released by the end of 2011 …
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: … I used the freedom of information laws to get a raft of documents out of the Murray-Darling Basin Authority recently and they’ve exposed that the Authority thinks it will take, even if there is a sense of cooperation and things all go very well, a minimum of 40 to 50 weeks from when the draft Plan … is released to when a final Plan can go before the Parliament to be approved. So it’s basically going to take close to a year in good circumstances, and we’ve seen how difficult it’s going to be to get those good circumstances. Now, Tony Burke … has said he wants the Authority not to release the draft Plan until after the Tony Windsor House of Representatives inquiry into this process concludes its findings and that will take place … in late May next year. So that means we’re not looking until the second half of 2012 at the absolute earliest for seeing a finalisation of this Plan and that will just mean that the requirements under the Water Act for it all to start operating in 2014 simply cannot be met. The states will not be able to get their complementary local regional water plans in place if they don’t have an agreed national Plan until late 2012. That means the timing is really looking at a crisis point and I’m looking for Tony Burke to step up the plate and show a bit of leadership and tell us how he’s going to get us through this because everybody wants to see an outcome and we want to see it get back on track and know exactly what the timelines from here on in are going to be.
LAINIE ANDERSON: And so the status quo could remain for at least another few years? …
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: … the status quo at present remains until 2014. There is a real risk that that 2014 deadline won’t be met because of the delays that have now been put in place since the election … during the election campaign Julia Gillard came to town, was hailed ‘The River Queen’ in a big headline on the front page of The Advertiser saying she’d accept all the recommendations of the Authority and there’d be no delays. Well, we now know they’re not committed to accepting those recommendations, there will be delays, it probably won’t be done by 2014 in terms of actual start date. We need to hear from the Minister exactly when it can be done in a sensible, logical manner that ensures we get a good plan that everybody can live and work with.
LAINIE ANDERSON: …a lot of callers to FIVEaa say that rather than … just focusing as Julia Gillard did in that election … on just buying the water allocations, there has to be a focus on actually making irrigation more efficient …
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: … there aren’t magic answers to water reform but so far as you can get a win-win outcome, infrastructure projects, provided for by us, they are the only way you can manage to keep those regional communities intact. Importantly they’re the communities that produce a huge proportion of Australia’s food … we actually do need to keep water available for irrigation purposes but we need to use it as efficiently and wisely as possible … I spent three days … travelling through country New South Wales … that have significant irrigation … works there at present but big opportunities to make those more efficient, projects that we should be able to roll out to ensure every drop is used wisely, put more back to the environment but keep farmers on the land growing food for our future.
LAINIE ANDERSON: …thank you so much for joining us.