KIERAN GILBERT: Let’s get some more reaction now to the Murray-Darling draft Plan. I spoke to the Coalition’s Murray-Darling spokesman, Senator Simon Birmingham, a little earlier in the day.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: We’re not looking at anything arbitrary here, Kieran. The Government’s had more than four years to get this right. The Water Act was passed by this Parliament, before the Labor Party was elected, more than four years ago. They were elected more than four years ago. Here we are now and they’re presenting a Plan that doesn’t manage to detail where the water comes from or where it’s going to go. Now, that’s hardly any sort of plan – it’s a ‘Clayton’s plan’ to not actually be able to tell you, of course, what you’re going to do with the water and where you’re going to get it from.
KIERAN GILBERT: But obviously it’s a very complex river system. You’re from South Australia. You know that the bottom line is ensuring enough water to flush out the salt in the Lower Lakes and to keep the Mouth of the Murray open. Do you think that these targets will provide that?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Nobody’s ever pretended this is an easy process and so it’s a very technical and difficult process – I acknowledge that – and achieving the reforms is very difficult as well and is going to be painful for some communities. In terms of getting there, what’s important is how you go through the process and, to date, the Government really has botched it. They’ve underspent on infrastructure projects that can actually ease the pain for irrigators and return water for the environment in ‘win win’ ways. They’ve overspent on buybacks despite having no Plan against which to buy the water back. This Plan has been delayed several times now. It was due more than 18 months ago, so we’ve been waiting more than 18 months to see the detail of this Plan. We get it and it’s sadly lacking in detail. I mean, what have they been doing?
KIERAN GILBERT: But there’s an enormous tug-of-war, as Craig Knowles, the Authority head describes it, between, you know, the northern states and the southern states, between the irrigators and the environmentalists. It’s obviously a very, very complex thing to find the balance. If you’re being criticised from both sides, doesn’t that show the Government might have got it right, at least in terms of how much of environmental flows they want back in the river system?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, it depends what you’re being criticised for and in this case they seem to be being criticised, not just by the Opposition for this lack of detail and lack of information, but by all sides of the debate as well. I don’t pretend this is easy but the Government seems to have gone out of its way, almost, to make the process harder, to aggravate people through this process by, of course, not actually taking the sensible pathway that was outlined in 2007 – recovering water through smart methods rather than dumb methods – and by building up expectations about this Plan that has now failed miserably to meet any of the level of detail that people expected to find here.
KIERAN GILBERT: But you talk about the need to detail the environmental assets but aren’t those assets obvious? Don’t we all know exactly what they are?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: It’s not just a list of assets…
KIERAN GILBERT: From South Australia, you’d know better than most.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: There is a list of assets – that’s wonderful, that’s welcome – but it’s actually, of course, what you’re going to do with the water and if the Government’s going to recover some 2,750 billion litres of water for extra environmental flows, where are they going to put it? What are they using that water for? That’s what we expect to see in an environmental watering plan that should be attached to this Basin Plan – something that actually says we’re going to put X gigalitres here and X gigalitres there and the outcomes will be X and Y. All they’re able to tell us is that the Murray Mouth will be open an estimated 89 years out of 100. Well, I welcome that – that’s a good improvement – but that’s just one little fact. It’s one little fact that sounds nice in the Adelaide media where I come from [Adelaide, not the Adelaide media] but there’s a whole lot more, both in South Australia and throughout the rest of the system that should be identified.
KIERAN GILBERT: But in terms of that sort of detail, what exactly would you have done? What do you need to articulate that isn’t in this Plan and the Government says that it is the start of a process – the Authority spokesman says that this is just the start, that it’s a seven-year phase-in period where you’ll be negotiating and they’ll be negotiating throughout that. It sounds to me like a reasonable way to go about it – that you’re consulting with the communities; that obviously a lot of them have got some difficult restructuring ahead.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, there’s got to be consultation, absolutely, and it’s got to be that level of engagement and the fact that there is a slower introductory period is a welcome step in that regard but for irrigation communities they need to know and have some certainty of what the maximum amount of water that could be taken from them is, not the minimum amount. Again, to use my own state as the example, for the SA Murray irrigators, they’re told the minimum cut they face is 101 gigalitres, but then they’ll have to give some sort of share out of 971 gigalitres of cuts as yet to be specified. Well, that could, of course, double or treble or even push up higher that baseline cut they face. That’s no certainty for anybody; that, of course, doesn’t mean that anybody knows what they’re planning on for the future. What that means, not just for the irrigators themselves, but for the shop owners, for everybody who owns a house in those towns, it really just prolongs the uncertainty.
KIERAN GILBERT: But it seems to me that with certainty comes less consultation, that if the Government and the Authority wants to phase this in and work with communities as they, you know, have to deal with less water entitlements, that that provides, you know, greater flexibility and the other point to make there is that these people won’t be forced to give up their entitlements, that this is all voluntary and it will be done where they’ll be paid the market price, so it’s not like they’re being told ‘they lose these arbitrarily, that’s it’.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, there’s two points to make there – one in relation to this whole certainty argument and does consultation mean you can’t have certainty? You should at least be spelling out to people what the worst case scenario should be. At present, all they’ve told people of are the best case scenarios and left the worst case to be dealt with later. Well, you’ve got to be honest with people and acknowledge there’s more than a thousand gigalitres of water across the northern and southern Basin that has to come from somewhere and they’re just not fessing up as to who or where it’s going to come from. The second point as to voluntary buybacks… well, of course, we’ve long said that this should always be through voluntary buybacks and, again, that’s welcome but it’s not just the irrigators affected here. When the irrigator sells up, he’s fine; he pockets the money; he or she goes off and lives a happy life. It’s the town folk that are left behind – the people running the small businesses in those communities – who feel the pain, who need to be certain that there’s a worst case scenario there and certain that the adjustment will be done by smart means, not by dumb means.
KIERAN GILBERT: And the Authority, just finally, is arguing that there should be a greater focus or emphasis on improved infrastructure, so that’s very much in line with what you’re arguing and, indeed, what the original plan [A National Plan for Water Security, 25 January 2007] under the Howard Government had envisaged?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Hallelujah! It’s been four years in the making since we outlined that plan. Every step of the way since we went into opposition we have constantly said from the Liberal and National Parties ‘put this focus back on infrastructure; get the water by smart means’. Finally the Government has started to say ‘yes, we agree’. Well, that’s great, let’s see them actually do that – end the overspending on non-strategic buybacks and put the money into ways that can keep farmers on the land producing food for us whilst returning some water to the environment. That’s the smart thing. That’s what John Howard said in 2007.
KIERAN GILBERT: Senator Birmingham, appreciate your time. Thanks for that.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Always a pleasure, Kieran.