DAVID SPEERS: As we mentioned earlier, the Government is, well, starting to react to the growing anger from farmers and local regional communities to the Guide to the first draft of the Murray-Darling Plan. Simon Crean, the Minister for Regional Australia, says he understands those concerns, particularly for those who think that the impact on local communities wasn’t factored in to a good enough extent. He’s announced a six-month parliamentary inquiry this afternoon which will focus on the human impact of these proposed cuts. Joining me now is the Coalition’s spokesman on the Murray-Darling, Liberal Senator Simon Birmingham. Senator, thanks for your time. Do you welcome this parliamentary inquiry?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: David, look, this is in many ways a very weak response from a weak Government. The Minister has been too weak himself to go out and talk to these communities this week. There’s no commitment from him to front up to them, yet instead he’s expecting a parliamentary inquiry to go out and talk to the communities instead.
Well, that’s fine, and any level of parliamentary scrutiny is always welcome, but frankly this has only come about because of the Government’s policy failures to date. It could have been avoided…
DAVID SPEERS: But he would say the process was set up by you guys, by the Coalition in Government, to have this independent Authority come up with a proposal, it’s done that, the consultation process is now running. The Government has a separate job and now it’s doing that.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: And the Coalition not only put in place a process with the legislation for Basin planning, we also put $10 billion on the table to ease the adjustment for that and the Government has wasted time and opportunity around that $10 billion. It could have actually, when releasing this Plan last week, said at the same time ‘we expect from that $10 billion, and particularly from the 5.8 billion for infrastructure projects, to be able to save X billion litres which would be water that won’t have to be bought off of farmers’. It could have eased the concerns. But they’ve got no capacity to do that because they’ve wasted three years and what we see now is a panicked response from the Government to the type of community concern that could always have been predicted and that’s why the Coalition, during the election campaign, committed to a Productivity Commission inquiry into the socio-economic effects of this Basin Plan, because we knew people were going to be concerned. I can’t believe…
DAVID SPEERS: But what’s the difference between a Productivity Commission inquiry and a parliamentary inquiry. Yes, you’ll have politicians involved in the parliamentary inquiry but, essentially, what’s the different aim?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, in fact, the parliamentary inquiry will be relatively meaningless without some genuine expert input. It’s great to go out and talk to people in the community and hear their concerns…
DAVID SPEERS: They can talk to experts.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: … that’s fantastic, but the Government should commission the Productivity Commission today to undertake this type of socio-economic inquiry in tandem with this new parliamentary inquiry, so you can actually have some expert input.
DAVID SPEERS: (unclear) … this parliamentary inquiry will talk to experts, they’ll call experts to give evidence, they’ll question them, they’ll listen to that?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: This is not just a case of ‘invite an economist in for a sit down and a chat about what the impact may be’. We need some detailed serious modelling done, community by community, commodity by commodity in terms of the types of food and crops we’re talking about, to really genuinely know what the impact across four states, hundreds of towns, of taking water out of these communities will be and the Government, even the Authority, admits there’s a paucity of information, no real data they can rely on at present and the Government’s just left them swinging as an Authority and they will leave the parliamentary committee exposed to the same allegations unless they give this parliamentary committee the resources of expertise like the Productivity Commission to make sure the analysis is thorough and genuine.
DAVID SPEERS: Well, will the Coalition… I know you’re a Senator and this is a House of Reps inquiry but will the Coalition take part in it?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Look, I’m sure we’ll take part in it. I believe it’s a… proposed to be a standard…
DAVID SPEERS: So you could recommend that some matters be referred to the Productivity Commission through that?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: And I’m sure these will be very early recommendations the Coalition will be seeking to make, but it shouldn’t take that. The Government should recognise, from the words of the very members of the Authority that they appointed themselves, that there’s a lack of genuine analysis already of the socio-economic effects and especially the economic impact. Now, a parliamentary inquiry is valuable, it can achieve certain things, but it’s not an economic modelling agency. The Productivity Commission can do that and can go beyond just looking at the impacts of the Plan but can also look at the types of policies and opportunities to minimise those impacts and that’s really where the Government has just let the whole process down. They’ve failed to deliver the economic analysis and they’ve failed to deliver on policies that could have minimised the impacts and therefore minimised community concern.
DAVID SPEERS: Is Tony Windsor in your view the best person to chair this inquiry?’
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well look, Tony Windsor I’m sure will bring a compassionate approach hopefully to the regional communities. I would hope he will also bring an approach to see through the process of Basin reform. Reform is never easy and that’s why the Howard Government put the balanced approach forward, legislated for reform, funded adjustment. The Government needs to make sure that this committee isn’t some means for them to backtrack on a commitment to that reform. This Labor Government in three years has got very little of a reform agenda to show for its work and they can’t allow this to be a way to backslide out of it so they need to commit to seeing the job through, just to doing it properly and that’s what they’ve failed to do so far.
DAVID SPEERS: I want to show you some of the scenes at the community consultation meeting in Griffith today in New South Wales, some angry farmers there made their concerns heard, have a look.
DAVID SPEERS: Do you think this is really achieving anything, these meetings?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: The passion in these communities is one of palpable anger and I understand that. I was in Shepparton on Tuesday, I’ll be in Renmark for the consultations there tomorrow and between Barnaby Joyce and I, we’ve covered communities in all four of the big Basin states in SA, Victoria, Queensland and New South Wales and we know the anger that’s there and the anger is there because the Government for some strange reason has been caught so flat-footed on a process that has been in tandem from the day they were elected.
It’s not like this process began a few weeks ago or at the time of the election we just had, this Government has had three years to get its act together on this. They’ve failed to do so and now because the Ministers have been too weak in succession, between Minister Wong and Minister Burke, to plan for the release of this report, they seem to want to buckpass it off to a parliamentary inquiry chaired by an Independent and seek some sort of cover under cloak of this Independent.
DAVID SPEERS: Well, you’re saying the Government should take a firmer position in all of this, but just to clear up, the Coalition’s position is essentially to now take this draft Plan, give it to a Productivity Commission for another inquiry, I mean you’re not saying where you would draw the line on cuts either, are you?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: David, we would have preferred the Productivity Commission inquiry to have been done up front. Would have preferred there to be genuine economic analysis to actually inform and be part of this Plan. The fact is there’s not…
DAVID SPEERS: But at the end of the day, it’s just another inquiry. What is the Coalition’s position on how much water would be acceptable to cut?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Our position remains the same as it was in 2007 and that is, what’s necessary to deliver sustainable rivers whilst maintaining sustainable Basin communities and that’s always going to be a balance…
DAVID SPEERS: Therein lies the quandary…
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Therein lies the quandary…
DAVID SPEERS: … which is the difficulty that the Government’s going through as well.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: The Government unfortunately, in three years it’s had, has only focused on half of that equation, and they’ve ignored the sustainable Basin communities half. They need to get the balance back into this and I’m personally not convinced that a parliamentary inquiry is the whole solution and that’s why, if they’re going down this path, they need to ensure that both the Murray-Darling Basin Authority, who presumably will still be going through their consultation sessions, still be releasing their Draft Plan in February next year and doing their job, that they’re informed with expert opinion, and that the parliamentary inquiry is informed with expert opinion.
DAVID SPEERS: So if the Government were to announce a Productivity Commission inquiry as well, you’d give them a tick a say yep, they’re doing everything right?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: If they were to announce that, I’d give them a tick and say they’re starting to catch up with where they should have been before now and that would at least be a step in the right direction.
DAVID SPEERS: Now just taking a step back from all of this and looking more broadly at sustainability. The World Wildlife Fund released a report tody ranking Australia eighth worst out of 152 countries when it comes to sustainability. They say if the world lived by our standards here in Australia we’d need four planets to survive. Do you acknowledge we do need to do a better job as Australians in living sustainably?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Look, I think we’ve made some great steps forward in the last decade or so, if you look at a couple of the benchmark pieces of legislation passed by the Howard Government, the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act and this Water Act that we’re talking about, they are about putting Australia back onto a more sustainable footing. There’s work to be done and, as I say, reform is always difficult in these areas and that’s why Government needs to spend every dollar and every minute of time wisely to make that reform process work.
DAVID SPEERS: It certainly is difficult… Simon Birmingham, we’ll have to leave it there, thank you for joining us.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: A pleasure, David.