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

Topics: South Australian River Murray Sustainability Program

Transcript: ABC Riverland - Interview with Edwin Cowlishaw
29 November 2013

EDWIN COWLISHAW: ...for South Australia and also the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for the Environment. Senator, good morning.

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Good morning Ed, good morning to your listeners.

EDWIN COWLISHAW: Now earlier this year it was announced that two-hundred-and-forty million would be given to irrigation districts in South Australia, you've recently approved the guidelines for this funding. Can you run through some of the guidelines that you've announced?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Sure Ed, this is a really important funding package for river communities right around South Australia and two-hundred-and-forty million dollars which is part of - lest anybody think we're short changing them, a total two-hundred-and-sixty-five million and a packaged twenty-five million which is for the Loxton Research Centre and a few other projects that need to be worked through in an economic development phase. The two-hundred-and-forty million dollars is comprised of three components. There's eighty million dollars to support the irrigation efficiency measures, some forty million dollars to support water purchasing measures and then a one-hundred-and-twenty million dollar package, that really is for an economic development measures, by irrigators who are participating in one of the other two programs. So there's a very large sum of money there, it's meant to compliment the implementation of basin planning, but importantly it is to really provide a strong economic base to underpin the development of the river land and irrigation communities throughout SA. It's a project that frankly a lot of congratulations and credit goes to the local community, local irrigators and their representative organisations who have driven this for a long period of time. I'm very pleased to see that we'll now be able to have the money starting to roll out.

EDWIN COWLISHAW: So you've ticked off the guidelines, now locals here in the Riverland are going to go oh right brilliant, when do we get to see the money?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: The money will start to flow from the Federal government to the South Australian Government, they are going to administer all of the details of this. We will be giving them some thirty million dollars this year and the two-hundred-and-sixty-five million total will flow over a six-year period. We would expect that they will get money starting to hit the ground before 30 June next year. We'll be driving that quite hard to make sure the SA government lives up to its end of the bargain, but they are receiving thirty million dollars from the Federal Government which should flow through this year. Therefore we anticipate they will be quick out of the starting blocks, getting applications in pronto to assist them quickly and starting capacity for some on ground movement and works, before we get to the end of the financial year.

EDWIN COWLISHAW: So what you're saying is the Federal government has pretty much said right we'll transfer the money over no worries, it's all ready to go. Now it's up to the state government to start doing some work on this?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Absolutely Ed, they have for some period of time complained about the way water acquisition and buy back and basin planning implementation has proceeded in SA, and frankly a lot of those complaints have been valid to the previous Labor government, through its exit grants programs, through its non-strategic water buy backs. Really left a lot of holes in irrigation districts, undermined their productive capacity.

I hope that this program and the funding that's available will really restore the productive base of those irrigation communities, give a brighter future to Denmark and all of the other districts around or up and down the length of the [unclear] in SA, who rely so heavily on irrigated agriculture for their livelihoods.

EDWIN COWLISHAW: Were discussions tenuous between the Federal Government and the State Government of South Australia in getting this across, was there much argy-bargy on this?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Look a lot of it of course predates the election. When I came to office, when the Abbott Government came to office and I was appointed the responsibilities for the water portfolio, I made it clear I wanted no delays in getting this finalised. There were some issues with the say South Australian government initially drafted guidelines. We've worked through them to get that done as quickly as possible, it's of course less than three months since the election and the new Government came in. So I think we've done pretty well to get it all ticked off, get the ball rolling and be in a position where the money will start to flow to SA's coffers within days. As a result of that they can start the process of getting applications in and ensuring that it starts to hit the ground and make a difference in Riverland communities.

EDWIN COWLISHAW: You're on ten sixty two ABC Riverland with Ed Cowlishaw we're sitting on about nineteen minutes away from nine. I'm joined by Senator Simon Birmingham the liberal senator for South Australia and Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Environment. Just before the Federal election, a stretch of the River Murray between Wentworth and the Murray mouth was labelled critically endangered, you're not happy about this why?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Ed look, we have some concerns about it and we're viewing that listing. It was made very much at the eleventh hour by the previous government to just before it went into caretaker period. And it lists the entire stretch of the Murray from the Darling Junction to the sea as critically endangered under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, which is essentially the Federal Government's environmental planning laws. We have certain concerns and they're sort of two fold. One is we're not convinced that it provides any real improvement in the environmental protection of the critical assets for the river, because your ramps are listed wetlands, a lot of critically endangered species are already listed and already have protection under this existing act. But the second concern is that by having listed such a large slap of land, you capture an awful lot of potential activity, economic activity, developments and proposals, under a whole new raft of possible red tape and green tape that they all have to jump through before that can actually happen. As a government we were elected on a very firm platform of wanting to reduce regulatory burden you know we promised to strip some one billion dollars of red tape out of the Australian economy. And frankly if when the assessment is ultimately finished we find that there's not a tangible marked improvement to environment protection, but there is an increasing red tape from this listing, then we'd be looking to unwind it. But we're doing that assessment as we speak.

EDWIN COWLISHAW: But surely scientific evidence would have been done to label this critically endangered surely?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: There was a process that was gone through, however it wasn't an ideal process, there was a lack of consultation in certain ways as a result of process. And it seems overlapping with the implantation of the Murray Darling Basin Plan and there were a number of occasions where the previous government pulled the consultation out, or the basin land consultation occurred, so as not to confuse the two matters. And then they ended up making this last minute listing before going into caretaker mode.

EDWIN COWLISHAW: Did the signs say that it's critically endangered? Is there scientific evidence saying that it's not in a good state?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: There's scientific evidence that has looked at it and it's passed some thresholds for consideration of listing and not others. Ultimately it was a decision to be made by the former environment minister, now he chose to list it based on the evidence given to him. We of course are reviewing that evidence as well, but really with the Basin Plan in base, with the listings that already exist. The question is does this listing provide any extra tangible environmental protection than what is already there. If it's just a duplication, that by duplicating it generates extra red tape and extra bureaucracy, then it's not worth doing regardless of scientific evidence. Because you've got to actually be getting something tangible out of these listings as well, some extra level of protection. And if we really already have effective protections for our Ramsar listed wetlands, for our critically endangered species, then why do you also need to tie up an awful lot of land listing as well.

EDWIN COWLISHAW: Now you can overturn this, what's the process?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: The process for us would most easily be to disallow the listing in parliament. It's a regulation, it has a period of fifteen sitting days in parliament, during which it can be overturned. Because it...

EDWIN COWLISHAW: So it has to sit fifteen days, is that what you're saying? It has to be in parliament for fifteen days?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: It has to be - we would have to move a motion to disallow it within fifteen days, so the clock is ticking on that and we will have to make a final decision on exactly where we go with it, before the year's end. So there are two more sitting weeks left, we'll be making...

EDWIN COWLISHAW: December 12 is the last one, isn't it?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: That's right. We'll be making a decision this week or next week as to where to go from here.

EDWIN COWLISHAW: And do you think that a disallowment will go through with you and the Environment Minister making that decision?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well I don't want to pre-empt on that one Ed, but obviously we do have some significant concerns. But we're undertaking the proper consultation with all the different stakeholders, we're meeting with them, we're reviewing all the scientific advice and we'll have something to say about it within the next two weeks.

EDWIN COWLISHAW: Senator Simon Birmingham, we thank you for your time this morning.

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Anytime it's an absolute pleasure.

EDWIN COWLISHAW: Senator Simon Birmingham joining us here on ten sixty two ABC Riverland.

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