GLENN RIDGE: It’s been reported that over the past year something like $750 million more have been spent on water buybacks than was originally earmarked, while something like 300 million less than was budgeted for was directed to water saving infrastructure. The thing which hit me was as at October, as in two months ago, a month and a bit ago, just 437 million administered funding had actually been spent on irrigation infrastructure from the Government’s $5.8 billion fund. Now they’re millions and billions of dollars we’re talking about there. Big numbers and let’s face it, it’s very important for the country that our water resources are saved and we do the best we can. However, someone who doesn’t agree with what’s happening, and I’m sure many of you don’t as well, is Liberal Senator for South Australia, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for the Murray-Darling Basin, Simon Birmingham joining us on the phone. Thanks very much for joining us tonight, Simon.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Good evening Glenn and listeners, it’s a pleasure to be with you.
GLENN RIDGE: Now, Mr Burke has conceded that the figures of infrastructure spending appear a little low. What are your thoughts on it?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Look, everywhere you turn in relation to Murray-Darling Basin reform this Government is really letting Australians down and letting particularly the people who live in, and live off of, the Murray-Darling Basin down and in those figures you cited just before, the $437 million expenditure out of $5.8 billion that the Howard Government budgeted back in 2007, really shows just how slow progress has been under the Rudd and Gillard Governments in getting infrastructure projects up and running and the important thing about those projects is they’re the things that can provide ‘win win’ outcomes. They’re the types of projects that can actually save water for the environment, put more water back into our rivers for environmental flows, but do so through efficiency measures and making our farmers more efficient so they can keep growing the food we need for Australia but do so with less water and that’s why we see them as what should be the first priority of any decent water reform agenda, not as it’s been under Labor where every year they’ve been in office they’ve overspent on water buybacks and underspent on critical water saving infrastructure and that’s just not good enough.
GLENN RIDGE: Simon, am I being really simple? When we’re talking about infrastructure things, we’re talking about closing in open irrigation channels and things like that?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Look, that’s right, Glenn. You look at it in basically in two sectors. There’s what’s called on-farm infrastructure and off-farm infrastructure. The off farm stuff is basically the networks and the systems, the channels that you use which can be better lined or covered over or in some instances piped to give greater efficiency and there’s the on farm stuff which is about in some cases moving from flood irrigation practices to more high tech options, things like drip systems and of course there are a lot of very high tech options out there nowadays that allow careful measurement of soil moisture and ensure that every drop that is used in producing food throughout the Murray-Darling are done as efficiently as possible.
GLENN RIDGE: Simon, it’d be very easy to sink the boots into the Government at the moment and say ‘look at the all the water which is here, couldn’t you plan for that’ and I want to… I guess very few would have really expected as to what we’re going through now. However, with all the water buybacks and we hear it quite regularly, they’re buying back properties and buying back rights and all that sort of thing. Now, if they’ve spent $750 million more than they’d expected to, what does that amount totally? What was their budget originally for that?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, the Howard Government in water reform budgeted basically about a $10 billion fund, of which about $6 billion was designated for infrastructure and about $3 billion for buybacks and some structural adjustment assistance. Now, of that $3 billion, it’s hard to get an exact figure out of the Government at present, but it would appear that around half has already been spent. More has been spent at present Tony Burke, the Water Minister, announced just a few weeks ago a further round of water buybacks and this of course still comes at a time when the infrastructure spending, in the last budget update the Government produced since the election, was pushed out further, another $450 million was delayed beyond the forward estimates of the budget so that means it won’t be spent for another three years and that’s three more years of lost opportunity and getting decent ‘win win’ outcomes for farmers and for the environment.
GLENN RIDGE: Simon, I was never really good at maths so I apologise if I screw this up but saying what you were saying there on the buybacks, so they’ve spent maybe half of it, and throwing in the 750 million on top of that, that’s about $2.5 billion that they’ve spent on buybacks but very little putting back in to saving the water which they’re purportedly putting into the river system.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: The 1.5 billion or thereabouts figure I used is the total they’ve spent on buybacks, so that…
GLENN RIDGE: Oh, okay.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: … they’ve spent 750 million more than planned is of course more than they had budgeted to spend over the years that they’ve been in office. The Howard Government envisaged a process, and the Coalition still thinks this is the way it should be done, where you front end the infrastructure works, so that you get every drop you can through being as efficient as possible and saving as much as you can, and then you work out what else you need for the environmental flows and buy back what’s necessary from there. Instead, for largely political reasons, to satisfy during the times of drought and crisis particularly my home state of SA, the Labor Government decided to do it in the reverse way, so spend it all on water buybacks first and worry about the infrastructure later. Well, that’s just causing more harm and more grief in regional communities than necessary and what we’ve seen from that is of course the real fracturing of support for decent Murray-Darling planning in those regional communities and that’s seen all of the protests and all of the concerns about the Basin planning process that have been evident to people over the last couple of months and that could have been avoided if we’d only had a decent plan of how to recover the water, not just the Government sort of stumbling in there, buying back a heap and saying ‘and here’s how much water we’re going to take from you still’.
GLENN RIDGE: Simon, your thoughts on the resignation of former chairman of the Murray-Darling Basin Authority Michael Taylor?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: The resignation of Mr Taylor takes an already troubled process deeper into crisis. It shows a real dearth and crisis in leadership of the reform process now but what’s really important is that Mr Taylor’s statement he issued yesterday was a real missive aimed at the Water Minister, Tony Burke, and the Government and it highlighted that there are deep divisions between the Labor Government and the independent statutory Authority on how the Water Act should be interpreted. There are real divisions about whether enough is being done to support the reform process and I think much of what we were saying about infrastructure spending is what… underlines what Mr Taylor was saying in his statement there, and there are real concerns about delays, and with delays of course comes… just gets more uncertainty for river communities and Basin communities about what the future holds so Mr Taylor really belled the cat, as they say, on the problems in the process and he took his bat and ball and walked away, basically indicating that there were some fundamental disagreements between himself and the Labor Government.
GLENN RIDGE: Simon, let’s be honest, though. We’re not going to find a middle ground between the environment side of what we should be doing with our water and also sustainable future for farmers, are we? It’s going to be a long hard battle for whoever’s going to be there to keep all sides happy.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Oh, look, that’s very true, Glenn, and much as I talk about getting ‘win win’ outcomes where you can, the truth is that a decent, sustainably managed system is going to require a little bit of sacrifice on all fronts. That means we can’t expect to have every environmental asset up and down the river system preserved in a pristine state if we also want to have vibrant, food producing communities and those communities sort of producing exports and food for all of us across the country, so we have to recognise that there’s got to be give and take on both sides of the ledger. We saw during the prolonged drought, though, and the lead up to that drought in particular, you’ve got to remember it went well before that, that there was a level of over-allocation of water in the system. States for many decades were giving out ever increasing amounts of licences for water to be taken out, that we’re reaching an unsustainable point. Bring that back to sustainable levels, do so sensibly so it doesn’t decimate those communities and keeps our food production up as high as possible.
GLENN RIDGE: Simon, appreciate your time, I think you’d better go and feed your dog. [Dog has been barking in background for some time]
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: That’s actually the neighbours’ dog.
GLENN RIDGE: Oh, is it?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Hopefully they’ll give it some tucker soon.
GLENN RIDGE: Well and truly. And you must be very pleased the Coorong and… the Murray flowing through the Mouth and the Coorong has heaps of water in it? It’d be looking beautiful down there at the moment, wouldn’t it?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Oh, look, it’s… whilst the floods that people have suffered are terrible, the rains have been a delight for the system. It’s just such a shame and a pity that so many of our farmers who looked like having one of the best years ever are now doing it so tough. Mother Nature’s a cruel thing but she’s certainly brought the environmental assets back to life.
GLENN RIDGE: Certainly has! Simon, really appreciate your time and have a good evening.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Thank you, Glenn. You too.
GLENN RIDGE: Take care. Simon Birmingham, Liberal Senator for South Australia, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for the Murray-Darling Basin there.