KIERAN GILBERT: More now on the resignation of the Chair of the Murray-Darling Basin Authority. Senator Simon Birmingham is the spokesperson for the Murray-Darling for the Opposition. I spoke to him a little earlier.
Senator Simon Birmingham, thank you very much for your time. We’ve known for some time that there have been differences of opinion between the Government, the Murray-Darling Basin Authority and others when it comes to the interpretation of the Water Act. Now, doesn’t this just formalise that difference of opinion, that they couldn’t reconcile what the Government believes the Water Act says and what the Basin Authority believed?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well this shows the entire process is in a state of crisis at present, Kieran. It shows that on a leadership front the independent statutory Murray-Darling Basin Authority is now bereft of the leadership of its chairman. It shows that in terms of actually what their job is, which is defined by the Water Act, there is an absolute gap in agreement between the Government, and the Water Minister, and the independent Authority and it has put them at serious loggerheads. I see that today the Prime Minister has said ‘well the Government has advice and it’s sticking to that advice’, well it seems the Authority has its advice and it’s sticking to that advice and its advice is more recent according to Mr Taylor’s resignation statement and somehow the Government has to reconcile these two views and they have to take responsibility for reconciling these two views.
KIERAN GILBERT: But isn’t it the reality that the same situation would be occurring if the Coalition was in government because of course the Coalition shared the same view when the Water Act was put in place by the then Environment Minister Malcolm Turnbull?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Not at all, Kieran, and I’ll explain why. Because, firstly, our intentions were very clear from day one, and Tony Burke’s acknowledged this himself, and that was to put in place a balanced framework and we’ve argued from day one that this Basin Plan for the Murray-Darling Basin should balance environmental, economic and social objectives and we’ve said that was the case all along. We’ve also been quite transparent in saying that if the Act for some reason doesn’t allow for that, if it does provide favouritism, we’re happy to look at changes, whereas the Government have given mixed riding instruction all along.
Penny Wong while she was Water Minister wanted to play politics with the topic. She wanted to play politics here in my home state of South Australia and she wanted to put the environment front and centre at the expense of all else, and they were the riding instructions that were very clearly given to Mr Taylor and the Authority for the first two and a half to three years of the Rudd-Gillard Governments. Tony Burke’s now come along. Confronted by a Plan that proposes to rip the guts out of many regional communities, he’s changed those riding instructions and the Authority unsurprisingly has said ‘well, you can’t change the riding instructions mid-stream’ and it’s reached such a point of crisis that the Authority chairman has said ‘enough, I’m outta here’. Well, clearly Tony Burke needs to get this process back on track.
Water reform is important. It’s critical to the health of the river system in the future and to the health of these Basin communities. He’s got to take responsibility to get it back on track and to get the Authority and the Government on the same page.
KIERAN GILBERT: But, Senator Birmingham, much of the debate at the moment is on the Water Act itself and any ambiguities that are inherent in that Act because clearly if the Basin Authority has one view firmly held and then the Government another, clearly there is enough room for that difference of opinion and if the ambiguity is there, isn’t it the then Coalition Government that was responsible as the architects of the Water Act as it stands?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Kieran, there’s not room for ambiguity in this, because ambiguity is the worst of all outcomes in this process. If we end up with an ambiguous interpretation of the Act when the Plan is finalised, I’ll tell you what will happen. The Plan will end up being challenged through the court system, it will end up in the High Court, and that is the last thing that anybody who wants certainty for regional communities or a decent management plan for the river system would hope to see, so these ambiguities need to be sorted out.
KIERAN GILBERT: But if it’s there in the Bill, if it’s there in the Act I should say, if it’s there in the Water Act, those ambiguities, isn’t it Malcolm Turnbull and the then Coalition Government that was responsible for creating that ambiguity?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: We haven’t shirked away from the fact that we started the Basin reform process, we wrote the Act and we want to see the system and the process through but we also haven’t shirked away from the fact that if there’s a problem, if the Act doesn’t deliver for a balanced outcome, then we would expect to see some provisions to ensure you do get a balanced outcome. It’s not like these major reforms, these major pieces of legislation, are cast in stone and sit there forever. The Tax Act is forever changing, Social Security Acts are forever changing, all of those major fundamental Acts of the Parliament are forever being refined and improved. Now, if this needs to be refined and improved, let the Government bring forward suggestions as to how they’re going to fix it, but the Government at present is essentially at war with its own independent statutory Authority over an interpretation of a key Parliamentary Act and it is the Government’s responsibility to get itself, its Minister and the Prime Minister, on the same page as that independent Authority, the Murray-Darling Basin Authority.
KIERAN GILBERT: But the bottom line is, it’s the Government, isn’t it, and the Parliament, that will have the final say on any Plan that… the Basin Authority will provide its recommendations but at the end of the day it will be the Parliament that decides and therefore, I suppose, creating a greater importance for the Parliamentary inquiry which is underway, chaired by Tony Windsor. Do you think that the Parliament itself assumes a much greater importance and relevance in this whole process now, given the events of the last day or so?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: I notice Mr Windsor keeps saying that and I think it’s important to disavow him and others of that view. The final Basin Plan that is approved by the Minister is presented to the Parliament as a disallowable instrument. That means the Parliament can either accept it holus-bolus or reject it holus-bolus and that’s it. We don’t have the capacity as a Parliament to actually change what this Basin Plan for the Murray-Darling is, to change the sustainable diversion limits in it, to change the environmental practices in it. The Parliament has no capacity to do that under the Act as it’s written. The Parliament simply accepts it or rejects it and if we get to that point where the Parliament is rejecting the Basin Plan, that will take us back five years, ten years, back to first base on this whole Basin reform process, so it’s critically important that the Basin Plan that is presented to the Parliament, by Tony Burke if he’s still the Water Minister at that time, is a Plan that’s acceptable to the Parliament. It’s absolutely essential that it’s a Plan that’s acceptable to the Parliament or it will just cripple the whole process of Basin reform once again. So I think Mr Burke and Mr Windsor need to stop presenting this idea that the Parliament has a final say of what’s in the Basin Plan. That is quite misleading. The Parliament simply has a final say on whether to accept it or reject it and they need to make sure, Mr Burke in particular needs to make sure, that it is an acceptable document by the time it gets to the Parliament.
KIERAN GILBERT: Senator Birmingham, appreciate your time on PM Agenda, thank you very much.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Always a pleasure, Kieran.