Senator the Hon. Simon Birmingham

Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for the Environment

Senator the Hon. Simon Birmingham

Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for the Environment

The Senate Proof Adjournment Murray-Darling Basin

Speech
2 December 2013

Tonight I wish to draw attention to some significant developments and advancements in our government's progress and commitment to see the Murray-Darling Basin Plan implemented in full, on time and done so in a manner that ensures our irrigation communities continue to be the productive centre of Australian agriculture and continue to produce, with the maximum level of efficiency possible, food, fibre and produce here in Australia, by Australian farmers, for Australians and for export to the rest of the world.

Last week, in my capacity as the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for the Environment, I had the distinct pleasure of approving a raft of grants in funding allocations to the South Australian government that will support river communities in my own state of South Australia. The South Australian River Murray Sustainability Program has been the brainchild of river communities themselves over a period of time. They lobbied and they agitated the former government, the state government of South Australia and all sides of politics to ensure that they could develop a package that would allow them to make necessary contributions towards the water recovery targets required to bridge the gap for the successful implementation of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. But also, importantly, they were seeking funding or support to ensure that they could have strong economic sustainability and security into the future.

Our government has given firm commitments to ensure that irrigation communities do enjoy economic sustainability into the future. It is one of the prime reasons and motivations behind our policy commitment that we are giving effect to, capping the extent of buybacks of water licences that will occur. Instead, we are giving priority to infrastructure developments that will ensure the efficiency of irrigators and allow them to use every drop as carefully and wisely as possible to get maximum value for every drop. In doing so, they could return some water to environmental flows to meet those targets under the Basin Plan whilst ideally preserving, if not enhancing, their own productive capabilities.

This cap that we will apply will be set at some 1,500 gigalitres out of the 2,750 gigalitre gap to be bridged towards the implementation of the Basin Plan. Across Australia, across the Murray-Darling states, a range of projects is being supported to ensure we develop and enhance efficiency of irrigation systems, and of onfarm systems in particular. A lot of work is being done, particularly by state governments, to help ensure that we have the right projects in the right places to develop the necessary infrastructure that will give us the water savings required to meet our objective of full Basin Plan implementation by 2019.

The projects I speak of tonight in South Australia are a good example of projects developed from the grassroots up. In this case, they are developed not just with a water security or efficiency objective, but also with a productivity and economic development objective for those communities. In total, the South Australian River Murray Sustainability Program will support some $265 million of investment across South Australia's river communities. The program is comprised of a number of elements.

Firstly, there is the South Australian River Murray Irrigation Efficiency element. This will support $80 million of investment directly into on-farm initiatives that will help make farmers more efficient in their water usage. In doing so, it will allow them to return a minimum of some 16.8 gigalitres of water towards the Commonwealth's 'bridging the gap' targets for the Basin Plan. The second element, the South Australian Government Water Purchase element, is a $40 million program from which we expect to yield some 19.2 gigalitres towards bridging the gap required to see the implementation of the Basin Plan.

Complementing these two elements is a $120 million package administered out of the Department of Agriculture for the South Australian River Murray Irrigation Assistance program. This is being driven very much by an element of seeking to enhance and further develop the economic opportunities and capacities of those irrigators and farming communities. Through that program, we expect to see some farms get bigger, some farms diversify and some farms undertake significant new business practices. However, ultimately we expect to see all of them pursue something that increases their productivity, hopefully their profitability and their capacity to employ more people in those local communities. We also expect to see them have the capacity to ensure that they actually continue to sustain not just economic production but the lifeblood of the communities that those farms are based in up and down the river system in South Australia. Finally, in the components of this package is an additional $25 million as the South Australian regional development element which will go to support, in particular, works at the Loxton Research Centre.

Overall, this is a very significant package-one of the largest packages and certainly the largest package for South Australian irrigators in particular. Both as the parliamentary secretary and as senator for South Australia, I am very pleased to have been able to see it delivered. I do, however, express some concern at the attitude of the South Australian Minister for Agriculture, the Hon. Gail Gago in this process.

In my time in this role, I have happily enjoyed constructive relations with the South Australian Premier, Mr Weatherill, and the South Australian Minister for the Environment, Mr Hunter, who have both worked very hard to ensure that we take the right steps forward towards the implementation of the Basin Plan. So I was surprised last week, just as I was signing off on these guidelines, to receive a letter from Ms Gago, who seemed to be complaining about the length of time that it had taken for the guidelines to be approved notwithstanding that our government has been in place for all of three months.

Ms Gago seemed to ignore the fact that the real issue lay with the quality of guidelines that had been developed within her own department. Even more surprising was the fact that although I received her letter last Wednesday, last Thursday Ms Gago then issued a press release complaining about the length of time being taken for the development of guidelines. Again, this was ignoring the reality that the problem was that the guidelines developed within her department had not met the standards the Commonwealth expects to be applied to such programs.

I want to work cooperatively with the South Australian government. I want to ensure that I work cooperatively with all of the state governments to get the Basin Plan duly implemented. What I expect though, is that ministers behave more like Premier Weatherill or Minister Hunter than Ms Gago has done, and rather than conducting their negotiations by press release as she chose to do, that they actually make some contact if they have a concern with the way things are progressing. In this case, her concerns were unfounded because, firstly, steps had been taken to ensure the money would flow and, secondly, the problem lay at her end not at the Commonwealth's end. In future, she needs to ensure that her government's house is in order before she starts throwing any blame around.

All of that said, I am pleased that the money is now going to flow. I will be holding the South Australian government to account from here on in as we make payments to them to ensure that they get it out the door quickly to support the irrigation communities of South Australia and that they get on with the job of ensuring that they get maximum value for it, communities get maximum benefit from it and it makes the necessary contributions to see the Basin Plan implemented and irrigation communities have a healthy and vibrant future.

Simon Birmingham

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