TREVOR HARDEN: When we last spoke with South Australian Liberal Senator Simon Birmingham, in March this year, on Making Sense he was the shadow parliamentary secretary with responsibility for the River Murray and water and so on. Now he is the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for the Environment, Greg Hunt, and he still has responsibility for, as I understand, the River Murray and water and so on. Simon, welcome back to Making Sense.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Good afternoon, Trevor, and good afternoon to your listeners – a pleasure to be back.
TREVOR HARDEN: Yeah, good to have you here. Look, I know your time is pressed and so, sort of cutting straight to it, there are a couple of issues that I particularly wanted to follow up. One of them, I… when you were on the program in March, I specifically asked you, given the possibility, the probability perhaps, of change of government, what would happen to the Basin Plan under a Coalition Federal Government and you were very reassuring. You said that not only was there a legislative sort of lock-in of what was happening there but there was also political will not to stuff around with that and I was rather nonplussed when sort of two days before the election I saw as part of the Coalition’s major savings plans that funding for the Basin Plan was sort of featuring in there. Can you explain what’s happening there?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Sure, Trevor, and, look, it’s important to appreciate and understand the way in which the Basin Pan works and the timelines for its delivery and then how that relates to funding and implementation and how we actually get to achieving the full Basin Plan but, firstly and most importantly for your listeners, I’ve given a commitment, and the new Government is committed, to seeing the Basin Plan implemented in full and on time and that means that we will have achieved the water recovery targets set in the Plan, under law, by 2019 and by 2024 at the various stages that are outlined there. Now, there are then questions as to how you get to those water recovery targets in 2019 and beyond and they then flow into the budgetary implications and what we said going into the election campaign, which was quite consistent with what we’ve been saying for a long time, was we wanted to give greater priority to water saving infrastructure investments ahead of water buybacks and so part of our budgetary commitments in the election campaign was to phase water buybacks over a longer period of time, over six years rather than four years’ worth of spending, so that we could prioritise in the earlier years the type of infrastructure programs and see how much water we can achieve from them and whether we can really maximise the returns to get the water for the Basin Plan from water saving infrastructure which is really about getting ‘win-win’ outcomes – outcomes where we get the water for the environment not just by buying it off farmers and leaving them as less productive but by jointly investing in infrastructure on farms or through irrigation systems that make them more efficient, get the water then for the environment but leave the farmer with maintained or even enhanced productivity on their properties, able to keep growing food for Australia.
TREVOR HARDEN: Yeah, so the savings… it’s more, as you say, a timing thing, so in the immediate sort of forward estimates period there would be savings but that money is still there to be used for that same purpose, just further down the track? Does that sum it up?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: The same amount of money will be spent between now and 2019 as was originally the case under the previous Government. It’s just that we’re reprioritising how and when that will be spent.
TREVOR HARDEN: Yeah, well, that sort of fits in a little bit with, as I understand it, the Basin Plan. Talking to Craig Knowles on this program, I think it was towards the end of last year… he was talking about the sort of adaptive management thing where you sort of go halfway and then review it, say in 2015, and see how far you’ve come, so what you’ve just described sounds a similar sort of principle to that – you know, see how you go with infrastructure, because I guess there’s a certain amount of problematic… a question of how much you can save with infrastructure. You know, it’s not as easy to put a number on as just simply buying an allocation back. Yeah…
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: There are challenges there but, equally, the longer the Commonwealth has been in the business of investing in these infrastructure projects, the better it’s become and, talking to the public servants in charge of that since I came into the office after the election and we took on government, they’re far more confident nowadays that they can structure programs that will get take-up by farmers and will achieve the water efficiency than perhaps they were five years ago when they were first rolling out these types of programs, so there’s a real growth in the knowledge. Yes, of course you, with these sorts of things, sometimes get the low-hanging fruit early and it will get a little harder as time goes on but there’s a lot of farmers that we can still partner with and do good work with to achieve the outcomes and get the water for the environment whilst leaving them there as more efficient and your comments before about Craig Knowles are also right that there’s sort of a reconciliation process that has to happen, with a range of particular reviews and options that were built into the Basin Plan that will happen around the 2016 mark, for an assessment of how much we think we can achieve by environmental works and measures, things that will make it more efficient to get environmental outcomes with perhaps a little less water, as well as ways that we can potentially lift constraints that may impede the amount of environmental water we could deliver and allow us to aim a little higher, so there’s sort of a downside and an upside equation to be worked through with the Basin states and that’ll all happen over the course of the next couple of years.
TREVOR HARDEN: Yep, sure, no, that’s reassuring. I know the environmental movement… you know, they can be quite strident at times with their campaigning and so on. They seem to have an ideological objection to anything engineering, you know, and infrastructure is something they don’t like the sound of and they certainly have been consistently over these last couple of years saying that they prefer the buyback of allocations, so do you anticipate sort of any great difficulty there, in having the environmental movement sort of run interference on your policy there?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Look, I know the comments they’ve made over a number of years but I think some have eased off in that sense and have said to me recently that their concerns are not really how the water is recovered as long as it is recovered and that certainly should be their outlook. I mean, it… you can go and get the water for a little less budgetary cost by buying it back across the Basin but it comes at far greater economic and social cost because, in those river communities that rely on farmers and irrigation, if you just buy it back you take the productive capacity out, the farmer’s growing less, he’s employing less, he’s spending less in the local community and the local community suffers detriment as well, so our policies are about trying to preserve those farming communities, make sure they can keep growing food that we want in Australia and want for export to the world, but getting the water at the same time for the environment.
TREVOR HARDEN: Yeah, the ‘win-win’. I know, speaking with then Senator Barnaby Joyce on this program earlier in the year, he… it was just used as an example of the infrastructure stuff… you know, you could have a… he mentioned a particular wetland in his sort of electorate area up there in northern New South Wales, or electorate-to-be, and how to get that wetting/drying cycle with flows through the river you had to have overbank flows for an extended period of time with a lot of water involved whereas you put a little weir in there, you could sort of control that and make it happen with much less water and that’s the sort of… I think most of understand that infrastructure changes and engineering influences can be very worthwhile. Look, I’m just watching the clock. There’s one other thing I’d like to run past you if I could – the ‘Darling to the sea’, the ecological community was listed under the EPBC Act [Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999] as one whole connected, interconnected, critically endangered ecological community by the outgoing Minister – Mark Butler – for the Environment, I think just before caretaker mode, and as soon as you guys got in I think Greg Hunt, as Minister for the Environment, said ‘well, look, no, I’m going to review that, we’ve got 15 sitting days to do something about it if we have to, if we want to, and we’re going to look at it closely’. Can you give us an update on what the likely situation is with that listing?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: So, it is still under review and it’s something that we’ll finalise our position on close to when Parliament goes back, or shortly after Parliament goes back, on the 12th of November. It’s something we have real reservations about the process that was applied. You had the Government, just before it entered the caretaker mode, listing this entire section of the river under the EPBC Act and that was done, it seems, with truncated consultation periods and with a lot of concern from the communities along the river about what the implications will be, what additional bureaucracy or ‘red tape’ they’ll now face for any developments in those areas and real questions about whether it effectively improves the environmental protection of the areas because, of course, the Lower Lakes are Ramsar [Convention on Wetlands of International Importance] listed wetlands that are protected already under the EPBC Act, a range of other critical environmental assets are already listed, a range of species within the Basin are already listed, so a lot of the key protections are already in place and all we really seem to have added here is a very long stretch of land to add into consideration there and what that means is that a whole lot of potential future activities would then be subject to having to get specific federal environmental approvals on top of whatever their existing local and state approvals processes are, so, you know, we’ve been elected on a platform of reducing ‘red tape’, we’re taking a close look at this one to see whether we think it really gives environmental benefit or whether it just leave ‘red tape’ for those communities and, unlike the previous Government, we’ll take the time we’ve got available to us to consult properly and we’ll make a decision but that will have to be decided upon this year, given that 15-sitting-days requirement.
TREVOR HARDEN: Yeah, we had Dr Gina Newton who was formally with the federal department of Environment as one of the key scientists, sort of managers of that whole process from 2009 onwards on our program and discussed that process. I was a little bit surprised, I guess, as someone who’s probably more than averagely connected with what’s going on, about this whole thing. I had no idea that this was in the pipeline until it really happened, you know, and that consultation period was virtually already over and so I was a little concerned about that but it seems that the area involved is within the ’56 flood line – it’s a nice handy sort of a boundary to use for the length of the river and getting the river flows which is key to everything – but it also includes the tributaries, so the eastern Mount Lofty Ranges and I would imagine the catchment over there. That extends it over a whole lot more area of land in South Australia here than would have otherwise been the case and, you know, I said to her ‘look, would I have to get an EIS [environmental impact statement] to build my home if it was in place five years ago?’ and she said no, she didn’t think it’d go that far, you know, but you worry a little bit about that sort of stuff.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Probably not but, indeed, there are potential implications from those sorts of things and I think one of the key things to also appreciate is that the Threatened Species Scientific Committee that looked at this said that there was no need to put a specific recovery plan in place for this listing of the Murray because the Basin Plan that we have in place is already basically working towards those objectives, so we already have mechanisms either to protect assets, through the listings that already exist, or to achieve better management and recovery of some environmental assets, through the Basin Plan, which is what has sparked this real question of ‘well, do you… has this provided a tangible net improvement to environmental protections or is it just a layer of ‘red tape’ that we could do without?’
TREVOR HARDEN: Yeah. Okay, look, I’m looking at the clock. I think we’ve already gone over the ten minutes, so I… look, is there anything else you’d particularly like to say to our listeners in this sort of new era of a Coalition Government and the Basin Plan underway and the Lower Lakes at the moment with lots of water and so on? How do you sort of see the future down here?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, Trevor, only to provide that real reassurance to people that the new Government is proud of our history as a Liberal Party that we started water reform under the Howard Government back in 2004 with the National Water Initiative and 2007 with the National Plan for Water Security and the Murray-Darling reform agenda and we really are committed to picking up particularly on that 2007 plan and making sure it’s implemented and making sure the Basin Plan is done on time and in full, just in a way that is a lot more sympathetic to the economic and social concerns of farming communities.
TREVOR HARDEN: Great stuff. Okay, look, thanks again for your time and we’ll no doubt touch base again down the track.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: A pleasure. Thanks so much, mate.
TREVOR HARDEN: Thanks a lot. Cheers.
TREVOR HARDEN: Okay, that was Senator Simon Birmingham, now in government – a difference I suppose from time in opposition, getting your head around a particular area, but always being a person there commenting on what might be done as an alternative but now in a position of some influence on what is done, so… but at least he’s in the same area and the portfolio area and so no doubt has quite a lot of background knowledge and information to draw upon in making those judgements.