LAURA JAYES: After more than a hundred years and decades of state bickering, a Plan for the Murray-Darling Basin has finally been signed into law. This is the fifth version handed down by the Murray–Darling Basin Authority and, before that [National Press Club] speech from the Environment Minister, Tony Burke, he and the Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, went to the Governor-General and had this signed into law. Now, the Plan is all about balance – balance between the states but balance also between the farmers and the environment. There’s plenty of stakeholders in this, so did Tony Burke and the Government get the balance right here? We’ll be hearing from plenty of those stakeholders here on Lunchtime Agenda – that is, the National Farmers’ Federation, also the irrigators and, later, the Greens. We are also standing by to take you to a media conference, which you can see on Multiview, from Swimming Australia but, first, let’s get some instant reaction from the Opposition – Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for the Basin and the Environment, Senator Simon Birmingham. Now, that is a long title.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Yes it is, Laura.
LAURA JAYES: Now, this is a national plan for the Murray-Darling Basin. As I mentioned, it’s been more than 100 years in the making, there’s been plenty of versions of this. Do you give some credit to the Government here, and for Tony Burke, for finally getting some kind of plan signed into law?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: I do, Laura, and, look, I acknowledge the fact that Tony Burke was very generous in acknowledging that John Howard, Malcolm Turnbull, John Anderson in the Coalition Government really started this process – the National Water Initiative in 2004, then the Murray-Darling Basin Plan and the Water Act in 2007 really kicked this going and that 2007 agenda of John Howard’s really was the last great reform of the Howard Government. Now, I’ve been very critical over the last five years of the delays and the problems and the fact that too much has been spent on buybacks and not enough on infrastructure but, if we’re to reach a point now of finality and if it ticks the two key tests of ‘does it deliver for the environment?’ and ‘will it be implemented in a way that preserves the economic value of river communities?’ then that’s a good thing but, obviously, we need to look through the detail of it.
LAURA JAYES: Yes, the detail… the final Plan if you like, not handed down until about an hour from now, as I understand it, but, look, I guess, when we look at all the stakeholders involved and, as I mentioned, we’re about to hear from them, not everyone is completely happy with this final Plan. Does that say to you that the right balance perhaps has been struck here?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, it probably was and always will be impossible to get everyone on the same page about this. For 120 years, Australia has argued about how to manage the Murray-Darling – the states have argued; the environmentalists and irrigators have argued – so what we want to do, though, is go through the 641 pages that has been dropped today, make sure that it delivers the environmental results that it should, make sure that it’s going to be implemented in way that ensures the 2.1-plus million people who live in the Murray-Darling Basin, whose towns and economies depend on water for irrigation, actually have their futures preserved as well.
LAURA JAYES: Let’s look at the Plan in total. It won’t come into operation for another six years – 2019, I believe – when the South Australian water plan does expire and then it will be another five years on top of that to see the full environmental effects, so we’re talking another ten years here. Now, the river is somewhat healthy at the moment but what happens if there’s another major drought? Will this Plan hold?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Laura, look, delays have been a concern of mine. Originally, the hope was to see most of this Plan implemented in 2014 – that’s what Malcolm Turnbull announced back in 2007 when he was the Water Minister and he was criticised then that 2014 was too late and too long. Well, now it’s… 
LAURA JAYES: But is the reason that this Plan has been able to be put into law is because that those sacrifices have been made and it’s incremental change?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: And it does have to be slow change and I appreciate that, so the fact that it’s 2019 and then out to 2024, in terms of its full ambition of the Government… I understand the reasons for those delays and, if it ensures you can get the change in a way that keeps the social and economic fabric of communities intact, then that’s understandable as to why you’d take that bit longer. I think this isn’t a plan to ensure and guarantee that you have water in a drought. When you have a drought, the definition of a drought is there’s less water available. It’s a plan to ensure that the Murray-Darling system is more robust and has greater resilience when you go into droughts and that we don’t get into the crisis points we saw in the last drought as quickly as we got into them in the last drought.
LAURA JAYES: Okay, let’s look to the other balance of this Plan – the states. We’ve heard from New South Wales that they’re not going to be happy with any Plan here. Now, when it comes to one of the areas, when it comes to that 650 figure, the states… Tony Burke said they need to reallocate that water back to the river but it’s up them how they do it. Isn’t there some problems here if the states aren’t all onboard?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: You need, ideally, to have the cooperation of the states to make this happen and, certainly, it seems as though what Tony Burke is saying is that, if the states want to achieve 650 gigalitres returned by environmental works and measures, it’s up them to prove it up and get those projects on the books and happening. That’s reasonable up to a point but the Commonwealth needs to make sure it has a firm commitment and buy into this as well and it’s something we’ll be looking for in the detail. When Tony Burke says ‘the days of mass buybacks are over’, it really is conditional upon meeting that 650 gigalitre target from environmental works and measures instead. He needs to be just as committed to meeting that and the Commonwealth should be just as committed to meeting that as the states are, so that we actually do ensure we have some guarantees the days of buybacks are over.
LAURA JAYES: Well, we are going to get some reaction from the National Farmers’ Federation and also the Irrigators’ Council. We’ll just take you there now.
JOCK LAURIE: … There hadn’t been any consideration given to the longevity of those communities, about how those communities were going to operate in the new system and a consequence of that… I think there’s been a tremendous amount of lobbying work done with the Minister and with his Department to try and get them to understand that rural communities… the importance of rural communities first of all to the Australian economy, certainly the importance of irrigation to those rural communities and the desperate need to make sure that we got a balanced Plan that actually delivered water savings, environmental outcomes, but at the same time maintain the economic capacity of those communities throughout that region. Now, I think what we’ve heard from the Minister today… he has taken a lot of that into consideration. It’s about making sure that we’ve got environmental works and measures that are done properly, that we’ve got good money and investment put into infrastructure which is crucially important, understanding about how we’re going to deal with those communities and he made some mention about Simon Crean… some announcements there, so all of that, I think, is crucially important. All of that I think has been a very good step forward, as far as we’re concerned. It is very difficult to sit down and say whether this Plan is going to be balanced long term or whether it’s going to generate that longevity, that economic longevity, but I think some of the infrastructure money that’s going in is going to be crucial to be able to do that. I think the difference between the 2700 and the 3200 [gigalitres], that being an investment of money to deliver water outcomes I think is going to be absolutely crucial and working with those communities to maintain that economic base is what is going to actually allow those communities to be able to work in this environment. Without that, it would have been extremely difficult for those communities to continue to survive and I think that evidence was quite clearly shown prior to or at the launch of the Draft. We also have got to remember that there’s about 2700 going out in this first tilt. There’s already been… about 90 per cent of that water has been recovered or committed to and the importance of the 650 to be delivered by the states… our expectation is that that will be delivered by the states and that that will close that gap right up. There’ll only be a small amount of water – about 230 gigs, I think – left to be purchased out of the system, so about 90 per cent of that water is either accounted for or been recovered already, so there has been substantial change made already. This is not something that is going to from now forward – there has already been a substantial amount of change made already. So, having said that, I think we’re in a position where a lot of work has been done. I must congratulate the Minister and Craig Knowles on the fact that they have actually consulted wisely. I think they’ve been pretty smart in the way they’ve managed the process. They have taken into consideration rural communities and the angst in those rural communities and it is about, as much as you can, delivering a triple bottom line. I think they’ve done as much work as they possibly can to deliver that. I’ll now hand over to Andrew Gregson.
ANDREW GREGSON: Thanks, Jock. Andrew Gregson from the New South Wales Irrigators’ Council. There’s little doubt that what we’ve seen over the course of the last four years is some very significant movement from the Government and from the Minister based on what he’s said today. They’ve recognised that water rights are property rights. They’re acquiring them in the market as opposed to simply taking them via a reliability reduction. The question is whether they’ve moved far enough and only the communities and the farmers that are associated with this can make that determination. They’ll be looking through the 600-odd pages of the Basin Plan over coming days but the simple outcome is this: it’s moved a very long way through the consistent efforts of industry and, indeed, of communities – they’ve had some significant wins on the Basin Plan – but, when all is said and done, in a number of years time Australia will look back on this as a decision that was a bad decision in terms of our resource management and it will eventually be reinvestigated. Tom.
TOM CHESSON: Tom Chesson, CEO of the National Irrigators’ Council. What we’ve got now is a decision by the Government that means communities will have to take them on trust. We’ll have to trust that the Government can actually deliver the 650 gigalitres of what is known as environmental works and measures. What we would prefer to see is the Government back themselves and put that 650-gigalitre environmental works and measures into legislation to make it compulsory. We’d also like to see a cap on buybacks. The Government has admitted that there is a downside to communities through buybacks, so certainly we’d like, again, to see them back themselves. We note that Tony Abbott down at Griffith, at the same meeting that the Minister referred to during his speech, made a commitment that he would not support a bad Basin Plan. What we’d like to see the Coalition do today is support a better Basin Plan and that means putting a cap on buybacks and ensuring that the 650 happens and all water recovered is done in a way that has a neutral or positive benefit for rural communities. Thank you.
JOURNALIST: Can I just get you to clarify the last point you made? I just didn’t quite catch what you were getting at.
ANDREW GREGSON: What we’re looking at in Australia now is a use of a natural resource that is limited to around about 30 per cent of its volume. There’s nowhere else on the planet that’s looking at only using 30 per cent of its resources. It’s a water hungry world. It’s a world that will in the future be looking for greater food and fibre exports from Australia and, as a result, this decision is going to eventually have to be revisited by Australia.
JOURNALIST: When the controversial 2010 Guide [to the proposed Basin Plan] came out, it was torched in districts such as Deniliquin and Griffith. What do you anticipate the mood to be there tonight?
JOCK LAURIE: Look, I think there’s still going to be a degree of frustration. As I said before, about 90 per cent of that water has already… that work has already been done. The commitment, as Tom said, with the Government hitting the 650 is absolute. They must meet that target as part of the process so there’ll be less water taken out of production. Now, that water has already been taken out of production in those communities and they’ve already felt the pain and felt the adjustment over the last couple of years, so I think there’s going to still be a lot of angst out there. There’s a lot of anger in those communities. They feel very much like they’ve been isolated and been left alone and, to a certain extent, been picked on by the rest of the Australian community to deliver an outcome for the Australian community but at the expense of those individual communities and individual people, so there will still be a tremendous amount of angst… I’ve got no doubt about that.
LAURA JAYES: Jock Laurie from the National Farmers’ Federation. You can continue watching that media conference on Multiview but we’ll go back to Simon Birmingham. Now, we heard there that the National Farmers’ Federation and the irrigators are pretty pleased with this Plan. One of the irrigators even called on the Coalition to support this Plan – they described it as better Plan – so will you guarantee that no Coalition Member will move a disallowable instrument, which they are entitled to do so, in Parliament?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, I’m not going to provide guarantees for every single Member of the Coalition. We’re going to work through this in a proper process and…
LAURA JAYES: Do you expect any Members to be crossing the floor?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: I don’t expect that. I’m sure that, in the end, just as all Members of the Coalition voted for the Water Act back in 2007, we’ll be on the same page when it comes to responding to this Plan this time round. I think you’ve seen a… as you said, certainly a calmer response from farmer and irrigator groups this time than we saw to the previous iterations that the Government handed down. That’s good news but, equally, they’re putting some tests on the table and, as I said before, I think one of those is that the Government and Tony Burke need to be very clear about just how committed he is and how much buy-in he has to getting this 650 target that he seems to be potentially handballing to the states as their responsibility.
LAURA JAYES: Yeah, well, Jock Laurie did say there, as well, one of the big concerns is the water buybacks and how that will affect farmers and, I guess, the socioeconomic make up of some of these towns but, look, Tony Burke did say in his speech today that the days of big water buybacks are over and that water buybacks will happen much more slowly. Surely, you’re heartened by that?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Absolutely. The rhetoric today has been very, very good. We want to see that the detail matches the rhetoric and that’s really the key thing we’ll be going through. If it all stacks up, as I understand it, there’s only about 239 gigalitres of potential buybacks left to be recovered. That is something that, over the period of time to 2019 that we’re talking about, should be able to be done in a sensible way that doesn’t hurt communities but it’s got to all stack up and there’s got to be that commitment to delivering on the 650 environmental works and measures.
LAURA JAYES: Just finally, we don’t have a lot of time left but $11 billion in total has been put towards this Plan, $5.8 billion to go to investments. Assuming the Coalition is going to be in government at some point over the next ten years, do you anticipate that…
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: I hope that’s the case!
LAURA JAYES: …enough money has been set aside or do you see that the Coalition might need to add to this pool, or this funding of this… funding envelope?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, some of this money, of course, is still the money that John Howard himself committed in a $10 billion fund in ’07 that is being spent over a long period of time and the Rudd and Gillard Governments have both supplemented that. The Government gives us assurances that the sums stack up and they stack up to be able to get the water that’s achieved and that they’ve based this on their experience of what they’ve recovered to date. We have to, in a sense, take them on trust of that – that the money is going to be there. We know that it’s being legislated through a special fund for part of it. We’re going to deal with that legislation sensibly as well but I think that it really is about assessing how that water’s recovered at present rather than necessarily an argument so much about either the money or the volume of water being talked about.
LAURA JAYES: Simon Birmingham, thanks so much for talking to us on Lunchtime Agenda
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: A pleasure. Thanks so much, Laura.
LAURA JAYES: … an instant reaction after Tony Burke’s speech…