KIERAN GILBERT: Now for the Coalition perspective I’m joined by the Parliamentary Secretary (sic), the Coalition’s spokesman for the Murray-Darling Basin, Senator Simon Birmingham. Senator, thank you for your time on PM Agenda. The irrigators, as you’ve heard, are really, really concerned, environmentalists are positive about what they’ve seen thus far in the leaked reports out of this draft Murray-Darling Basin Plan. What do you think of what you’ve seen thus far?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well good afternoon, Kieran, and thanks for the opportunity today. We are very passionate from the Coalition about ensuring that this reform process is managed and managed successfully. This is something that we started ourselves in government in 2007 and we’re disappointed with some of the things the Government’s done over the last few years. This now provides an opportunity to, in a sense, restart the process, start it with some at least firm information about the thinking of the Authority and to move forward from here. We’re hopeful that the Government is genuine when it talks about consultation. We heard the ridiculous statement during the election campaign from the Prime Minister and then-Minister Wong that the Government was willing to accept whatever Plan the Murray-Darling Basin Authority put on the table. That’s just not good enough. We’re not willing to accept any Plan, we want to see a right Plan, a Plan that balances the environmental, the economic and the social obligations that we have to the river system and to the communities of people who live throughout the Basin.
KIERAN GILBERT: Senator Birmingham, you’re talking about consultation but Water spokesman for The Nationals, your Water spokesman for the Opposition, Senator Barnaby Joyce, is already talking about protests. He says in his statement released today, ‘This is a very peculiar way to help regional Australia by coming up with a plan that could send a large section of it broke.’ That was from Senator Joyce. Senator Nash of the National Party as well says ‘if these reports are correct it would be devastating for irrigation communities across the Basin’. So it seems a very different message from The Nationals as to what we’re hearing from you today.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: No, look, not at all, Kieran. I said we need to get this Plan right and we need to get it right by managing and balancing those environmental, those economic and those social factors. We can’t just have a plan enforced that does devastate regional communities. Every community throughout the Murray-Darling Basin has done it tough over a number of years through this period of drought. Whether they be around the Lower Lakes or whether they be in Victoria, New South Wales or Queensland, they’ve all suffered and of course they’ve all suffered the pain of buybacks from this Government that has failed so abysmally to deliver their promises around water saving infrastructure projects that have the capacity to actually deliver water for the environment without devastating regional communities and the Government’s got the whole balance out of skew in terms of buybacks versus these water saving infrastructure projects over the last three years.
KIERAN GILBERT: But what do you think about… so what do you think about the numbers you’re seeing, though, in this… in the reports today, 27 to 37 per cent in terms of reductions in allocations to irrigators, is that the sort of ballpark that you think is appropriate?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well look, I’m going to be going through this draft Guide to the draft or Proposed Basin Plan when it’s released tomorrow afternoon at four o’clock on a Friday afternoon, I’ll be going through it with Barnaby Joyce and with other members of the Coalition with an absolute fine tooth comb, we want to make sure that the scientific basis of this Plan is sound and robust. We want to make sure that the economic and social impact assessments in the Plan are thorough, and if they’re not thorough, then the Government should adopt the Coalition policy which was to refer the Plan to a joint Productivity Commission-ABARE study to make sure that it’s actually looked at and considered properly and thoroughly for those economic and social impact statements. There’s no point in simply adopting something that decimates communities.
KIERAN GILBERT: Do you have doubts about the capacity… Do you have doubts about the capacity of the Basin Authority to handle it?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Look, I don’t want to bring into question the Basin Authority’s capacity. We want to make sure, though, that the Basin Authority and the Labor Government do a thorough job to deliver a Plan in 12 months’ time if that’s how long it’s going to take, that is the right Plan, a Plan that is actually going to give us sustainable rivers but also sustainable communities throughout the river system. That’s something that everybody should be aspiring to. This isn’t just about irrigators, this is about communities, people’s lives, jobs and Australia’s food production, so yes, we all want to see an environmental outcome, I’m from South Australia, I’m a Senator who lives in Adelaide, I want to see healthy rivers that flow right through the system to the Murray Mouth as much as any person, but I also want to see Australia continuing to be a vibrant food producing nation, and this Government has failed in its duties so far to help those communities upgrade their infrastructure, become more efficient in food production, put extra water back into the environment, but do so in a manner that leaves water for productive use in those communities as well. This is the opportunity Labor needs to grasp.
KIERAN GILBERT: Do you agree… Do you agree with the Government that there needs to be structural reforms of the way allocations are issued, regardless of the flooding rains that we’ve seen in the Basin in recent times and even if they continue?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Look, Kieran, the problems of the Murray-Darling precede the drought we’ve had over the last few years. I know that and I think most people throughout the Basin recognise it. We first started having to dredge the Murray Mouth back in the early 1980s and it’s been dredged most years since then to actually keep it open. Flows haven’t been strong enough, even in some good times and the recent rains are fantastic, they’re welcome, they’ve brought life back and importantly they’ve provided, I guess, an opportunity now for us to take the time to get this Plan absolutely right, to make sure that we do get the right balance in there for the river systems and their communities, and just as necessary and I …
KIERAN GILBERT: Alright, we’re almost out of time, I just want to ask you… I want to ask you, are you confident you can get the balance right with the likes of Barnaby Joyce and Fiona Nash, as I say, with these very strong statements today, much stronger than what you’re saying about this, and the leaked reports, can you and your National Party colleagues get that balance right, do you think you can find common ground with the likes of Senator Joyce and Senator Nash?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: There is absolutely common ground. I may be not as colourful as Senator Joyce in his commentary, Kieran, but we’re on the same page. We want to see the reform process finalised, we want to see healthy rivers. This is something the Coalition Government started in 2007, we legislated for this Plan in 2007, this is a Howard Government initiative in a sense. We’re disappointed the way Labor’s gone about it in many ways, and we want to see those things fixed but we’re committed to it, but we’re also committed to healthy regional communities. I’ve said that again and again that it’s about getting that balance to sustain food and fibre production in those communities. That’s important throughout the Basin, and Barnaby and I are at one on that, for sure.
KIERAN GILBERT: Senator Birmingham, as always, appreciate your time on PM Agenda, thanks very much for that.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: A pleasure, thank you Kieran.