SABRA LANE: Liberal Senator Simon Birmingham was the Chairman for much of the Senate inquiry, he’s also the Opposition’s spokesman on the Murray-Darling Basin.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: It’s worth highlighting it was a bipartisan report supported by Liberal and Labor Senators and the like…
SABRA LANE: The Senate inquiry made four recommendations, the first that the Government publish annual reports on infrastructure programs in the Basin, to assess the efficacy of plumbing programs including how much they’ve cost, whether they’re meeting their timelines and how much water they’ve returned to the environment. It also says when the Government conducts water buybacks, it should conduct community impact statements on affected regions and offer appropriate compensation packages for those entire communities.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: When you take water out of a community, it is taking part of the productive capacity out of that community. All of these river communities rely on water as part of their agricultural output, they’re all reliant on agriculture for their economies, there’s a direct correlation there between water that’s available and the communities’ ongoing survival, so we passionately believe that you’ve got to of course address this issue of what happens to the communities and how you assist those communities to adjust. It’s not to say that you don’t secure water for the environment but, in an ideal world, firstly you secure it from efficiency, from using it more wisely, so that you maintain the productive output and you can return it to the environment without losing that economy for those local communities. If you can’t get enough water that way, that’s when you turn to buybacks. This Government’s priorities have been all the wrong way about, where they’ve surged ahead with buybacks at the … delivering the efficiency that is available in these upstream communities in particular.
SABRA LANE: But there was also a Productivity Commission report out earlier this year which came to the conclusion that buybacks were a more effective means of returning water to the environment over and above the plumbing programs, the sorts of things that you’re talking about.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: If your sole objective is to return water to the environment, then buybacks are probably the cheapest and most efficient way to do it. But Australia’s sole objective should not just be to return water to the environment; it should be to maintain healthy food-producing communities in the Murray-Darling Basin. The Murray-Darling Basin produces around 30 per cent or so of Australia’s food, and if you start taking 30 per cent of the water away from 30 per cent of our food-producing basin, people can quickly do the maths and see that’s a very significant impact on our food resources.