MICHAEL CONDON: Well, sensible and considered aren't necessarily the two words most commonly used to describe discussions about water policy in the Murray-Darling Basin but that’s exactly how the Abbott Government’s new Parliamentary Secretary [to the Minister] for the Environment, South Australian Senator Simon Birmingham, described a meeting in Mildura which discussed the Murray–Darling Basin Authority’s draft Constraints Management Strategy. The document is the beginning of a decade-long process to remove barriers and make environmental water delivery in the Basin more efficient and effective. Anna Vidot spoke with Senator Birmingham, who has responsibility for Water in the new Government.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: What I heard was really a lot of sensible and considered commentary from people who are eager to know what the next steps will be, what the process is and when they will get some more detail but appreciate that this Constraints Management Strategy is very much in what’s being called a pre-feasibility stage. It’s just identifying some broad priorities that the Murray–Darling Basin Authority thinks should be looked at. Beyond that there’s a lot of detailed feasibility work across those priorities to take place over a couple of years and, importantly for people to appreciate, for any of these constraints to be addressed they ultimately are the subject of consideration by the Ministerial Council involving all of the state ministers and finally a decision of the Commonwealth minister, which I’ll be exercising on guidance of course from the rest of the Government about what we feel, but our very firm commitment to people at the outset is that we won’t be supporting things that will cause detriment to communities, we won’t be supporting changes that undermine the existing rights of irrigators or water entitlements holders, but we are of course going to go into this to see whether we can get a better outcome from environmental flows without causing economic or social detriment.
ANNA VIDOT: Very simplistically speaking, there are two significant areas of concern for farmers and communities along the river when you start talking about constraints, the first around water entitlements which I’ll come to in a moment but clearly for many communities, on the southern Basin floodplains in particular, what all of this means for flooding of their properties, local roads and bridges and even homes. How are you and the Federal Government approaching the issue of flooding in dealing with removing constraints from the system?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, I think even before we get to the removal of constraints, it’s important that there’s a lot of consultation and engagement with local people before environmental watering events take place that could have an impact on private farmland or public infrastructure and I’ve given very clear instructions to the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder that I want to see detailed plans on how we can best engage local people not just in a token consultation process but in actually having a say in decisions around environmental watering and how they take place at the local level but then when it comes to the issue of addressing constraints, well, that of course is in many ways about making sure that decisions taken are mindful of where they have impacts in terms of flooding on land or on infrastructure and that we make sure that those issues are addressed upfront and, if the impacts are unsatisfactory, if the impact in terms of the economic impact to a farmer or the economic impact or community impact to a local region of flooding something is too negative, it won’t happen ultimately and it’s very…
ANNA VIDOT: What does that mean, though? Who will assess whether or not the economic impact of a flood is just the cost of doing business or is sufficient enough that that environmental watering event should not happen? Who will assess that?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, ultimately the Murray-Darling Basin Ministerial Council and the Commonwealth minister. That’s the ultimate area of decision making but hopefully, well before we get to then, there’ll be effective discussions between the Murray–Darling Basin Authority, local landholders and those in the community where they can work through where there might be ‘win-win’ outcomes for people and that’s quite possibly the case and, in terms of certain areas of low-lying floodplain, there are benefits to farmers in seeing that getting a regular drink occasionally too. Now, obviously there are times where flooding is detrimental and so you’ve got to make sure that it’s all done with their knowledge, cooperation and understanding and, if need be, the Commonwealth can then negotiate things like easements over certain parcels of land if that’s going to be in the environmental benefit and if it’s not going to have some form of economic detriment, so…
ANNA VIDOT: Easements is one thing. What about compensation?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, look, there are a number of options that are flagged in the Constraints Management Strategy in terms of what type of arrangements could be put in place with individual landowners and they’re the types of things that we need to talk through and it’s why this whole process is at this incremental stage of saying ‘well, what are going to be the best options?’ Is it an easement that provides essentially a permanent entitlement to the Commonwealth in terms of flooding activities and gives the landowner a form of upfront compensation or is it something that is more on an ongoing basis in terms of certain access rights for which compensation would be paid where that’s necessary, so…
ANNA VIDOT: When you say easements, too, do you mean the Commonwealth buying land from landholders or would it be some kind of leasing arrangement? I mean, how would an easement kind of an option work?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, an easement is a partial right over a title and so essentially you’d have an agreed arrangement with a landowner, they got compensated for it upfront for the Commonwealth to then have a stake, in terms of that title of land, that allowed for certain events to take place on that land from time to time but the rest of the time the farmer is still owning and operating the land as normal. Now, obviously this can only happen and will only happen with the consent and agreement of any landowners and if it’s seen [unclear] benefit.
ANNA VIDOT: So, we’re not talking about compulsory acquisition of land?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Absolutely not and that’s why this whole process is a very long and detailed process and it’s important that we really don’t have communities or individuals scared about what might happen. I give an absolute assurance, as the Commonwealth minister responsible in the Water space, that we won’t be supporting any changes that cause detriment to communities and we won’t be supporting any changes that undermine existing rights of irrigators.
ANNA VIDOT: Speaking of rights, because that issue around water entitlements and the rights around those water entitlements has been another issue flagged, particularly by the irrigator lobby groups this week. They’ve pointed to some language which, as you say, is quite complicated in this Strategy but they have pointed to some language which they say suggests that there may be a rethinking of environmental entitlements which would mean that they were basically created as a different category of water entitlement with different rules around their allocation and use to all the other water entitlements. Now, at the moment, of course, those are the same because largely they’ve been bought back from irrigators so they’re the same kind of entitlement. Does the Federal Government, and do you, I guess, have a philosophical view on whether or not environmental entitlements should be the same as all other water entitlements?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, I think certainly, Anna, the security of entitlements, in terms of whether you get water in a given year or not, needs to be on an equitable and equal basis and so I don’t want to see any variation there. What the Authority has flagged is that they want to have a look at some of the rules of how some of the system works and that really is about where and when water is accessed from, how it’s transmitted and what the impacts of those decisions are. Now, I’m not against having a look at rules and I’m not against undertaking essentially a review not just in terms of how those rules may or may not be an encumbrance to effective environmental watering at present but also how they may or may not be an encumbrance in some instances to irrigators’ rights and activities, so let’s make sure that we’re open to addressing all of those things but, very importantly and it’s not just the position of the Government, the MDBA itself has made clear that the Strategy will not create any new risks to the reliability of water entitlements. Now, I will hold them to that 100 per cent. That’s the words of the Authority, I take them at their word but we will also be making sure at the Government level that irrigators’ rights are not undermined in any way. When this whole process started, it was very clear that the recovery of water would be done on a voluntary basis, whether it’s through infrastructure which our new Government will give greater priority to or whether it’s through buybacks, but… and that we would make sure that irrigators’ rights weren’t undermined. That’s still very much the commitment of the Government.
ANNA VIDOT: Now, some of the reaction to this draft demonstrates the enormous challenge of bringing everyone along with you on anything in the Murray-Darling Basin and also just how important clear and effective communication is between the Government and the governments and Basin communities. How do you intend to approach that in this new role?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, I’ve gone out and met with each of the Basin state ministers and I’ve been really pleased with those discussions and with the sense of cooperation with which they enter into this. I’m now embarking on a process of trying to get around to the Basin communities. I’m no stranger, having had the shadow responsibilities in this space for years, to a lot of the issues and a lot of the communities but next week I’ll be spending three days up around St George and Goondiwindi and locations in the northern Basin which I’m really eager to get out and discuss some of those issues on the ground, having obviously been in Mildura yesterday and I’ll be working my way through a lot of the other communities. I want to be open and accessible to people in the Basin. I want them to understand the philosophical approach of the Government which is that, yes, we want to see the Basin Plan implemented in full and on time but we want to see it happen in a way that preserves the Murray-Darling Basin as Australia’s primary food bowl and I will do everything possible to support changes to the policy approach around implementation of the Basin Plan, that it maximise productivity capacity of the communities producing food and fibre and produce throughout the Basin so that they continue to do so well into the future.
ANNA VIDOT: And, finally and quickly, Parliament’s expected to resume in November. How quickly will the Government legislate to introduce the promised explicit 1500-gigalitre cap on irrigation entitlement buybacks?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: I flagged in a speech last week that I expect a new Water Recovery Strategy to be released later this year and I’m having some consultations with various stakeholder groups about how and when we can best implement the legislation around the buyback cap. We’re committed to that cap. I’ll make sure that administratively it’s laid out and is clear this year. It may be that for reasons, as much as anything else, of our chances of getting it through the Senate… that it’s something considered, in terms of a legislative sense, next year but I’m talking to all of the stakeholder groups and they’re well aware that there will be some firm details around how that will work outlined in a new Water Recovery Strategy later this year.
ANNA VIDOT: Simon Birmingham, thank you very much.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: An absolute pleasure, Anna.
MICHAEL CONDON: That’s Simon Birmingham who’s now the Parliamentary Secretary [to the Minister] for the Environment and has responsibility for Water in the new Federal Government and he was speaking with Anna Vidot… quite a lot of detail there. You can hear the whole interview online on abc.net.au/rural.