DAVID SPEERS: Well, for some Opposition reaction to this [release of the proposed Basin Plan] we’re joined by the Coalition’s Murray-Darling Basin spokesman, Senator Simon Birmingham. Senator, welcome.
DAVID SPEERS: 2750 gigalitres – is that about right in, your view?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, David, the issue with this Plan is that the devil lies in the detail or, in this case, really the lack of detail when you get into it, so the headline figure, what we’ll look at there are really what outcomes it delivers and for that we want to see what the environmental outcomes are and there’s no real detail to say precisely how much water makes it through the system, how much water is delivered to each of the key environmental assets, but really importantly there’s no detail here to say exactly how much each irrigation community faces in cuts. There’s a headline figure, yes, but more than 1,100 gigalitres is in unspecified locations in terms of cuts, so you’ve got more than 1100 gigalitres that could be ripped out of any particular communities with no detail as to which of those communities face that pressure, so that will really increase the uncertainty. In many ways this Plan is far murkier, far more questionable, than the one we had 12 months ago.
DAVID SPEERS: But looking at each of those issues… just back onto the headline figure, though, are you saying it doesn’t matter what the overall figure is for returning water to the river system?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, of course it matters, but what really matters are what the environmental outcomes are and what the impacts on the irrigation communities are and for those two things you really have to break that headline figure down so that’s where our focus lies – really looking in that level of detail…
DAVID SPEERS: But according to the Minister it does look at each catchment and say ‘this is how much water needs to be returned to the system in the catchment’.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, that’s actually just not true. It does that in one column, but in another column there’s this whole group of 1100 gigalitres… well, more than 100 gigalitres of unspecified share that is shared across all the catchments without saying who’s going to get it so, of your 2750 gigalitres, more than 1100 of it isn’t specified as to who has to give it up, so for these communities the Plan really is far, far murkier than what we had 12 months ago. For them, they will want to know whether it’s 100 gigalitres, 200 gigalitres, 300 gigalitres – how much will their community have to give up? That’s not clear in this Plan and that just creates far, far more uncertainty than they had 12 months ago.
DAVID SPEERS: Bottom line for the Coalition – should any communities have to give up water?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Absolutely, David. Absolutely. We…
DAVID SPEERS: And where should… who should?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: We started this process back in 2007 – the water reform, for the last great reform of the Howard Government. Sadly, they’ve gone a long way off track since then. The money that was put aside has not been spent wisely. Just a few hundred million dollars has been delivered to water saving infrastructure projects that’d give you ‘win win’ outcomes where you make irrigators more efficient and return water to the environment…
DAVID SPEERS: But on this far more politically sensitive issue of who should give up water rights, who should? What part of the river system should be giving up water allocations?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, look, it needs to be shared across the Basin in a fair way – you need to recognise efficiencies that exist in some locations and not in others, and you need to make those locations that are inefficient far more efficient and that’s what the money was all about. If we actually spend that $10 billion wisely, put it into those communities that are inefficient, make them more efficient and get that water back into the system, you can do so without having the enormous pain of simply having the huge level of buybacks we’ve had to date that has overwhelmed any type of efficiency program.
DAVID SPEERS: But the process here is surely one that you support? This is the one that the Howard Government set up – having an independent Authority come up with the recommendations, as they’ve now done on, who should be giving up what water.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: I’m very concerned, the fact that the independent Authority, which in some ways is the same Authority we had 12 months ago but, of course, is now chaired by a former New South Wales State Labor Government Minister… this Authority has now come up with recommendations that are far less clear for communities. Now, we would have hoped to get more certainty out of this Plan than we had 12 months ago, not less, so…
DAVID SPEERS: So you’re saying that the Authority under Craig Knowles has failed?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Oh, look, I am concerned that… they need to explain how it is they think this Plan gives certainty to communities because, certainly from my reading of it, there’s more than 1100 gigalitres of uncertainty for communities there and there’s no clarity as to where the water is actually going to precisely go to environmental purposes and there’s certainly no plan here from the Federal Government has to how they’re going to recover this water with least impact on those local communities.
DAVID SPEERS: Just to be clear, are you saying that irrigators, at some level, in New South Wales and Victoria, should have to give up water?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Absolutely. You cannot get more water back into environmental flows without some water having to be given up. It’s a case of how you return that water – there are smart ways and there are dumb ways. Right now the Government’s been dominated by dumb ways.
DAVID SPEERS: Senator Simon Birmingham, thank you.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: A pleasure, David.