ED COWLISHAW: Last week, on the program, South Australian Premier Jay Weatherill and the federal Water minister, Mark Butler, were in the Riverland announcing $265 million dollars for security of the River Murray. Earlier this morning I spoke to Senator Simon Birmingham, the Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for the Murray-Darling Basin, to gain his thoughts on the announcement.
ED COWLISHAW: Well, Senator, welcome to the program. Surely, $265 million in funding for South Australia has to be a good thing when it comes to the Murray’s security?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Good morning, Ed, and good morning to your listeners and, yes, it is; it’s just a shame that this money was promised last year and we’ve been waiting for so long to actually see some progress on how and when it’s going to be delivered. In the end, the Coalition, the Liberal Party, has strongly supported reform in the Murray-Darling, we strongly support implementation of the Basin Plan and we strongly support assistance for river communities including this funding package. We’re just concerned that all we’re seeing are constant announcements rather than any delivery.
ED COWLISHAW: Well, the allocation of money… now we have some answers on that front.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: And that’s welcome progress. It’s long overdue progress and it’s concerning that we only seem to get progress when an election is imminent. We have had to wait for a long period of time for these negotiations. This money, of course, was promised way back last year by a different Water minister. We’ve seen, it seems, endless delays in terms of the discussions between the Federal and State Governments and what the Liberal Party wants to do with the Murray-Darling is ensure we get the process on track so that we get the reform and the assistance to river communities done without any further delays.
ED COWLISHAW: But isn’t that politics, though, where you generally have to wait four years for announcements to be made or, at least, allocations of funding in various parts? That’s part of politics, isn’t it?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, it shouldn’t be the way, Ed – especially not when this money was committed with great fanfare by the former Water minister and the former Labor Prime Minister last year and I know the Labor Party has its difficulties with revolving door leadership and changing ministers but, in the end, the Government should be able to get on and progress these things, not have people suffer and wait in between elections to have to wait for the next promise. Promises don’t address the problems on the ground; delivery does and that’s really what we want to get back to – a government that can deliver things on the ground, that actually assists people through these trying circumstances.
ED COWLISHAW: The minister was quoted saying ‘soon’ – that’s when we’re going to see infrastructure. The Premier said that the money has been allocated to various regions. When do you expect to see infrastructure and projects started?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, we would be looking to see things happen as soon as we possibly can and obviously a lot of faith has now been put in the State Government under this deal to actually get on and deliver the agreement. We, of course, if we’re elected on September 7, will be looking to hold the State Government very much to account. There’ll be two clear tests that I, if I’m lucky enough to be in a position to do so, will be applying and the first is that they deliver these promises without any delay and that they are very clearly how, what and what people can expect and the second is that the state definitely does not skim any money off the top for their own bureaucratic purposes or to cover Labor’s state debt. This is funding that’s meant to be assisting adjustment in the river communities and it’s very important that’s exactly what it is used for.
ED COWLISHAW: Senator, if there is a change at the next federal election or at the state election here in South Australia, is this money still locked in to these projects for the River Murray?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Absolutely. We have made it very clear all along – our support for the Basin Pan, our support for appropriate adjustment. We’ve been very critical of the fact that the Government has, along the way, spent far, far more than budgeted on water buybacks and far, far less than budgeted on water saving infrastructure projects – the things that provide ‘win-win’ benefits. We want to get the balance right again. We want to basically move to a cap on buybacks, ensure that the remaining water to be recovered under the Basin Plan is done through infrastructure projects that can give ‘win-win’ outcomes, can ensure we keep productivity and capacity in river communities and what’s really important, I know, in the Riverland areas of South Australia, is to make sure that we deliver the funding to allow flexibility in those adjustments to ensure that we are supporting economic development in those areas, not just water saving projects, because I know that that region of my home state is so very, very good already as being one of the most efficient in the country, so that’s why there’s got to be this flexibility and support and we’ve long called for it, long argued for it, been very critical of Labor’s delays and their over-reliance on buybacks and we certainly will look to be rectifying and delivering on what we’ve said.
ED COWLISHAW: Senator, the Loxton Research Centre’s set to benefit by $7.5 million – a facility that’s probably been mothballed of late – and also $12.5 million in employment grants and various other aspects there. What else could have been used for this money, in your eyes?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, look, I don’t want to be too critical of the specific purposes or priorities that have been given. I hope and trust that there’s been appropriate consultation with the local community and I’ll be looking to make sure I can get on the ground in the Riverland again in the near term to have a talk to some of the locals about whether they think the right priories have been identified and, in the end, these projects do need to be driven with strong local support and that’s really what we want to do if we’re successful… is work with the local communities to ensure that, where funding’s available, it’s delivered to projects that local people want, that local people believe will get real benefits and that can be delivered to get the water saving outcomes but also the economic dividends that communities really need.
ED COWLISHAW: So, what you do believe is that it is a positive for the Riverland in South Australia.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Look, as I’ve said all along, we supported the funding when it was first allocated. We should never forget that the $10 billion for water reform was first committed by the Howard Government in 2007. This was a reform agenda set down by the last Liberal Government. We’ve always been committed to it. We’ve been very disappointed by Labor’s delays and mishandling of it. We just want to get the process back on track, have no more delays and give river communities some confidence that, in the future, they’ll be working under a Basin Plan, they’ll have been helped through the adjustment process for that Basin Plan and that then they can get on with their lives without further real interference from government.
ED COWLISHAW: Simon Birmingham, we thank you for your time this morning.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: It’s an absolute pleasure, Ed
ED COWLISHAW: Senator Simon Birmingham, the Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for the Murray-Darling Basin.