WILL GOODINGS: … someone with quite strong opinions on this matter and others is Senator Simon Birmingham for South Australia. Senator, welcome to the program.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: G’day, Will, pleasure to be here.
WILL GOODINGS: Simon, can you tell us your reaction to Mike Taylor stepping aside.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, look, I feel very much for Mike Taylor, and Rob was making some very good points there about the hard work that he’s put in. In the end, Mike Taylor is the one person, alongside Rob Freeman, the CEO of the Murray-Darling Basin Authority, who went out and fronted up to dozens of community meetings, heard the concerns, the angst, the anger that all of those people up and down the system had at the way this process was being handled and clearly he was willing to engage and listen. They didn’t always agree with what he had to say, but he handled himself admirably at all of those meetings and he clearly was put in a difficult position from a Government that, frankly, before the federal election, when Penny Wong was the Water Minister, wanted the MDBA to whistle to one tune, which was really to sort of focus wholly, solely on an environmental perspective and then, after the election with a new Minister put in place, he was told it was time to change that tune and to accommodate political concerns, I suspect driven very much by having country Independents controlling the balance of power in the Parliament, and as a result of that he’s had to try to tread a very difficult line and he’s obviously found that too hard to tread and found himself in conflict with his Minister over the interpretation of the Water Act and the requirements under that and it’s just become untenable for him so I do feel for Mike and unfortunately what it’s done is his resignation and the issues he’s highlighted in his statement have plunged an already troubled process into deeper crisis.
ROB KERIN: Yeah, I suppose, Simon, what we’ve got now is a process that… I think it was put by people on both sides and state Premiers and whatever early in this process of trying to find a way ahead for the Basin that there needed to be an independent body who could actually get on and do the job and I think what we’re seeing at the moment is a very different process than that and politics just seems to be playing a hell of a major role in this so how long do you think it’s going to take for this to get any resolution in Canberra and can you see it coming out with a decent outcome?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, Rob, look, I hope there aren’t too many delays to this. It is important for everybody, whatever your concerns and whatever your perspective on management of the river system, that we get an outcome and that it provides some certainty for the system itself and for the people on the land and the communities up and down the Basin. I would hope that, in a sense, the resignation at least will trigger the Government to realise just how serious the trouble is with this process. I know there’s an upcoming meeting of Murray-Darling Basin Ministers and I hope that they will recommit at least to the process of reform, to having a nationwide Basin Plan, and to working out in some way, shape or form what is going to be acceptable under that. It’s going to take a bit of give and take on all sides and a bit of sacrifice from all sides. It’s not going to give South Australians everything that we might want here, it’s not going to give people up and down the system in New South Wales and Victoria and Queensland everything that they might want, so we need to recognise that a good Plan will probably make everybody a little bit unhappy but ideally at the end of it we need to look at something that, as you say, does go above politics and actually gives us a sustainable system for the future.
ROB KERIN: Yeah, over the past couple of months, Simon, we’ve been making the point on the program quite often that the more of the savings that are needed that can be found with infrastructure and engineering, be that for irrigation or the environmental side, the better and the less hurt on communities and the best for everybody and yet, again, we see the politics of the Victorian election and the way this was signed off with Victoria having a say in that we had the Prime Minister announce several weeks ago announce the money for the Food Bowl project in Victoria but part of that was also that there would be new allocations for irrigators.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Yeah, indeed. Look, excuse my cynicism that three years into office they finally announce allegedly some progress on the Victorian Food Bowl project three weeks out from the Victorian election. I’ll see whether there’s genuine progress when I actually see the works starting on the next stage of that project and see some tangible returns of water to the environment but you’re spot on to say overall that it is important we have infrastructure up front because it’s the only way you get ‘win win’ outcomes, you get water for the environment without sacrificing farmers on the land or the productivity of those farmers on the land and unfortunately only around, at last report, $437 million of the $5.8 billion that was originally budgeted for water infrastructure has managed to get its way out the door so far. That shows just how slowly that process is grinding on and unfortunately it’s putting it all about the wrong way. You should be looking at how much water you can return to the environment through sensible infrastructure projects and then where there’s a gap to be bridged to get the decent environmental flows required, that’s when you go in and do the water buybacks. Instead, it’s been buybacks first, infrastructure coming a very poor last, and that’s only added to the angst and concerns of communities throughout the Basin.
WILL GOODINGS: Simon, how hopeful are you that the process can be retrieved, given that as you say it has been politicised now and clearly, with political desires in play, you’re not necessarily going to get an outcome like the one you describe where you’re going to get a number of stakeholders upset with the outcome because I think we all agree that that’s probably in the best interest of the Basin at large, but given now that irrigators and others seem to be applying pressure on Canberra and Canberra seems to be wilting under that, how hopeful can we be that we get the right outcome, not just an outcome?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Will, there’s a key thing here and that is the Water Act is in place. All of the states referred levels of powers to the Commonwealth for that Act to be passed and for it to take effect, so there are certain legal obligations for the Government and the states that they really all need to stick to now and in a sense it’s passed the stage of bickering over what should be in the agreement and it is at the point where it is a case that the Commonwealth needs to get this Plan right, but once that Plan is settled and finalised it should be locked in for the first ten-year process of requirements under the Water Act so I’m hopeful that having in a sense done a lot of the hard part of political agreement of getting the Act passed, of getting an referrals from the states we’re a good part of the way there. This is obviously a really tricky part, though, to get this Plan bedded down and I just hope that my colleagues on the other side of the political fence share the same commitment that certainly I do and I think the Coalition does to see this process through. We started the process of water reform in 2007, sadly we lost office a few months later but we do want to see this through.
ROB KERIN: Yeah, because I think that as we’ve said before infrastructure should be the answer we’re looking for as much as we possibly can but what the Prime Minister announced for Victoria sets the high bar very high in that if you’re going to spend money, federal money, on infrastructure and say that half of it will go in extra allocations… half the savings will go in extra allocations to irrigators… then that’s going to make it very hard to achieve those savings within a reasonable amount of money.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Yeah, look, it certainly makes it a more expensive way to get water but it is a case of making sure that we get as much as possible of those ‘win win’ outcomes before the Commonwealth has to go in and simply do more of it through water buybacks that do risk just taking it all out of productive capacity.
ROB KERIN: Yeah, and I think that South Australian irrigators who paid for… like, part of the payment formula and didn’t get extra allocations when the work was done here would look at the Victorians and say ‘well you’re not putting any money forward and yet you’re getting half the savings back as new allocations’, it just seems to be a tilted playing field and I think that’s going to make it hard to sell new schemes into New South Wales unless they also create extra allocations up there and every time you do that you’re actually making the whole job harder.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Yeah, Rob, you highlight some valid concerns there and they really do present many of the challenges for getting through this mess but it does take, as I said, a lot of give and take from all parties and my appeal to Tony Burke now, as the Water Minister, really, is to show a bit of leadership on this. Mike Taylor’s resignation has created a void of leadership at the Authority. It really needs some good, clear, political leadership now and he needs to accept that this is not a process in which he’s going to make everybody happy. He’s going to have to show some strength to say ‘well, we need to do what’s right here’ as well.
WILL GOODINGS: Well, Senator, we do appreciate your time today and interest in the issue. It’s one of utmost importance wherever people are in the country at the moment and needs to be dealt with in the quickest possible fashion and hopefully the Mike Taylor resignation sends the right message and that we get the right outcome. Thanks, Simon.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: A pleasure, guys, any time.