MIKE NARRIER: … today is a big day for the Riverina… some movement on the Murray-Darling Basin Plan and he’s just jetted into town… the Honourable Senator Simon Birmingham joining us in the studio. How are you, Simon?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Good, Mike. Good afternoon to you; good afternoon to your listeners.
MIKE NARRIER: Now, it is a big day because the water buyback scheme is kicking off today, isn’t it?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: That’s right – this is a small buyback, a very targeted buyback, that we’re undertaking in the areas of New South Wales Murray and Lower Darling regions. Really, we’ve given, as a Government, a commitment that we will cap the level of buyback, that we’ll give priority to water-saving infrastructure, instead, and that we’ll make sure that any buybacks we do are small, careful, targeted towards what’s required under the Basin Plan and have as little impact on communities as possible. This is the first one. It’s a $10 million buyback. It’s much more careful and smaller and more targeted than the previous Government used to do but it is important that we still undertake these activities – in small, bite-sized chunks – so that we can implement the Basin Plan in full and on time.
MIKE NARRIER: So, what exactly does it mean for our farmers around here? What can they expect?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, this is, for some, an opportunity, of course. It’s an invitation to tender to the Government over the next few weeks for the sale of water entitlements. We’ll be in the market for up to $10 million worth of entitlements. We’ll only, of course, be taking them if they’re reasonable value for money for the taxpayer but, importantly, it sits alongside programs like our on-farm infrastructure investment and contrast the fact that last week I announced $158 million worth of investment in farm infrastructure, which will try to recover water through investing in making people more efficient, with a $10 million buyback. You can see that we’re really trying our best to put as much priority onto infrastructure as we possibly can.
MIKE NARRIER: So, is this a kind of… for want of a better way of putting it… is this a kind of ‘see how we go’ – start out small, only $10 million worth, and then, you know, go into more buybacks down the track?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: No, it’s kind of the opposite of that. The previous Government, the Labor Government when they were in power, put a lot of priority onto buybacks and they spent a lot of money on buybacks, often very broad, open tenders across multiple regions with large sums of money involved. We thought that was the wrong thing to do. That’s why we’ve capped the level of buyback at 1500 gigalitres under the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. I hope that, if all goes well, we won’t necessarily even get to that 1500 figure but we know that we still need to undertake, in certain regions where there’s a fair gap to the new sustainable diversion limits, the new caps that have to be in place by 2019… there’s a gap to be reached to get to those caps from current usage levels. We know we’re still going to have to have a little bit of buyback in those areas. These happen to be a couple of those regions that we’re targeting this time.
MIKE NARRIER: And is this a good balance between environment and industry?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: That’s what we’re seeking to achieve. We know that we need to have, overall, a sustainable, managed Murray-Darling system. Everybody accepts that. Wherever I go in the Basin, people understand that. The debate, of course, is ‘well, what is sustainable and what usage is reasonable in that regard?’ A lot of work – and a lot of it was controversial, of course – went into the Basin Plan. What we’re trying to do now is see that implemented in the most sympathetic way possible, which is why we want to see investment in infrastructure where we can, dollars flowing through local communities where we can in terms of works and measures, so we’re really trying to work on a program that ensures that local communities, the economies of those local communities, are underpinned by investment through making irrigated agriculture as efficient as possible and, from that, we can hopefully maintain or even grow productivity levels, despite the fact that we have to return a bit of water entitlement back to the environment.
MIKE NARRIER: And you’re in town today. Are you going to be out meeting with people and explaining what’s going on, I imagine?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Spending a few days now around Griffith and Deniliquin and Balranald and so forth, so getting around the local region a bit… time with Michael McCormack, the local MP here, and Sussan Ley, adjoining this seat, so really trying to, of course, spend as much time as I can with the local irrigators, the major industries, particularly of course the rice growers and the wine growers and really working with those sectors and hearing what they’ve got to say about how our programs are working, what’s not working for them, what their concerns are about water management and the way we’re working with them in the Basin Plan and we’ll, of course, be all ears to what they’ve got to say.
MIKE NARRIER: Have they had anything to say to you so far?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Ah, well, I’ve literally…
MIKE NARRIER: Have you heard anything on the streets?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: … literally just, of course, hit town but I expect that there’ll be some feedback about how the farm-based programs are working, whether we’ve got sufficient funds going into the different regions in that regard. I anticipate some feedback, of course, about the buyback that you’ve flagged and I was very conscious, in the timing of that, to make sure that it was announced before I came to town so that I could actually hear the feedback, make sure then that anything we do in future addresses any community concerns that exist around these things but I didn’t want it to be a case of having just left town and announcing something as important… take the heat if there is any heat, hear the feedback and the views and make sure that we’re as responsive as we can be in how we structure federal water policies, going forward.
MIKE NARRIER: Well, I’ll let you get out and see those farmers and people across the Riverina. I hope you enjoy your time over the next few days. It’s a beautiful part of the world and we’re very happy to have you here so, Senator Simon Birmingham, thank you so much for popping into the studio this afternoon.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Looking forward to it, Mike. It’s not only beautiful but it’s a very productive part of the world and that’s the way we want to keep it.