Senator the Hon. Simon Birmingham
Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for the Environment
Topics: South Australian River Murray Sustainability Program
Transcript: 5RM - Interview with Trevor Scott
29 November 2013
TREVOR SCOTT: To tell us all about it is the man who made the announcement yesterday Senator Simon Birmingham. Good morning, Senator.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Good morning, Trevor and good morning to your listeners.
TREVOR SCOTT: Good to talk to you, Simon. You're back in our region again and having a good look around but two-hundred-and-forty million dollar boost for the SA River Murray communities can only be good news.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: It is absolutely good news for Murray communities. I'm just taking a stroll along the banks of the Murray in Renmark on the beautiful morning and it's a district that, of course, has so much capacity, so much potential. It's done so much for South Australia and Australia over the years. But since the drought, during the process of adjustments to the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, it's been doing it tough. The previous government through its bad exit grants program that focussed on non-strategic water buy back has created real holes in the economy throughout river communities right along the Murray in South Australia. And we hope that this program can really restore much of that economic base for the future.
TREVOR SCOTT: And this is money that is - that has been actually worked on over the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, hasn't it?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: This will complement the implementation of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan so we would hope to recover around forty gigalitres or forty billion litres of water for increased environmental flows 1:28 in return for this two-hundred-and-sixty-five million dollars it is in total. Two-hundred-and-forty were the guidelines that have effectively been approved now which will support a mixture of irrigation, efficiency work, some water purchasing but importantly, there's a hundred-and-twenty million dollars there really for economic development activities by irrigators across the river district. And hopefully, that will really get the industry back on its feet.
TREVOR SCOTT: So the Basin Plan will be committed to by the new Government?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: The Abbott Government, we are absolutely committed to seeing the Basin Plan delivered on - in - all on time by 2019 and we're working through these processes of water recovery strategies with all of the states. But we're really determined to make sure that unlike Labor who just went into the market, bought water in not in a strategic way and really hurt the effectiveness and efficiency of irrigation communities.
We're going to go about it in a far more cautious way where we back investment in communities, get a water dividend for it but ensure we maintain the productivity, the economic capacity, the jobs and opportunities in all of those river communities.
TREVOR SCOTT: Will that take into account these changes to the water usage and the money for the infrastructure changes? The use of the desal plant in Adelaide is a little bit controversial at the moment. Whereas they don't want to put it into high production because they would rather take the water from the Murray because it's cheaper. It's causing us a bit of angst.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well it's - and, unfortunately, again, some board policy making by the previous government where some two-hundred-and-twenty-six million dollars was given by the Federal Government towards the construction of the desal plant with very little water return coming from SA. And so that means that the burden of adjustments to the Basin Plan falls more on irrigators and irrigation communities than it does on SA Water. Now, ultimately, that's a matter of the South Australian Government that if there is any room to move in the allocation that SA Water hold and the entitlements that they hold of water, then I would hope that those SA Water entitlements are considered to be given up to help bridge the gap towards the Basin Plan so there's the maximum amount can be left for productive purposes in irrigation communities.
TREVOR SCOTT: Yeah. Most definite. We - because we were given that money on the belief that it was going to stop taking so much water out of the Murray for the city of Adelaide. Whereas it seems to be not happening that way. Let's talk about the River Murray being critically endangered. The Rudd government made that decision just before the election. What's to happen there? Because I don't see it as critically endangered and I don't think many others do either.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: This was a listing under the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act is really the Federal environmental planning and approvals law. And yes, the Rudd Government, in its dying days, in the dark of night at the eleventh hour just before going into caretaker mode listed the entire stretch of the Murray from the Darling Downs to the sea as being critically endangered. Now, there are two real questions here. One is does it provide any effective additional environmental benefit or protections for the Murray and, secondly, how much extra red and green tape of bureaucracy does it, potentially, pose and impose on developers and businesses throughout the area.
TREVOR SCOTT: That's a good one.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: And we're having a good long hard look at this listing and whether it's warranted because there are real questions whether it adds to environmental protection because at [unclear] wetlands, a range of particular species are all already protected under this act. So there's lots of protection that already exist for that stretch of the Murray. Whilst, unquestionably there is potential for increased bureaucracy and red tape as a result of the listing. So...
TREVOR SCOTT: I think that's the biggest fear.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: ...we're looking long and hard at it.
TREVOR SCOTT: Yes, Simon. I think that's the biggest fear, the bureaucracy, the red tape, all the problems with trying make changes to the way we do things. On top of that, we did have the exit grants. They worked very well for many people but there was one problem and that is the unable to use land for five years for irrigation purposes. How is your investigation into that going and will that change soon?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Trevor, I'm hopeful of having something to announce on that fairly soon. I've made it clear from really my first utterances in the job that after the election as I thought this was a bad condition to have imposed. We've got the water for the services of meeting the Basin Plan from those properties. There's no reason beyond that to restrict how they can be used. So I would hope that we can find the means through it. There are some legal issues around the grants that they were giving out and not wanting to put people in a position where they'll be asked to pay things back or any of those types of circumstance. But if I can find a way that is clear and reasonable to ensure those lands can go back into productive use sooner rather than later, then we certainly will be.
TREVOR SCOTT: And it's very important you - you're driving around the region at the moment, you'll be here for at least today. And you'll see it, lots and lots of very good land that has just gone to weeds. And that's causing more of a problem than it would have being an irrigated crop, maybe a new crop.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Absolutely. It was very evident to me yesterday, travelling around areas and visiting properties. There's some wonderful people that have been the lifeblood of economic activity in this area for a long period of time who have lots of ideas on how they can manage to, in a very water efficient way, increase the level of production. All they need is a bit of a helping hand to do so and that's what we hope this two-hundred-and-forty million dollars that we've approved the conditions of will do for the future.
TREVOR SCOTT: Well, enjoy your visit here, Mr Birmingham. It's always good to have people come in, have a good look at our region and take away some firsthand knowledge. And we will catch up with you in the near future, I'm sure.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Absolute pleasure, Trevor. Any time.
TREVOR SCOTT: Thank you. Mr Simon Birmingham there looking at our region in the world of irrigation.