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

Speech to the Murray-Darling Association Conference, Goolwa, South Australia

Wednesday, 9 October 2013

I thank the Murray-Darling Association for inviting me here to Goolwa today, on what is just my 21st day in the job as Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for the Environment, with particular responsibilities for water policy issues.

It is a pleasure to address an association with such a rich history, spanning some 69 years, of constructive engagement in the many debates that have centred on the development and management of the Murray-Darling Basin.

Local governments should rightly hold a powerful voice on matters that impact their local communities. The more representatives of local communities can speak with one voice on an issue that connects them, like the management of the Murray-Darling, the better.

I most certainly look forward to working with local communities, local government representatives and the Murray-Darling Association during my time in the water portfolio.

Just a few years ago, not far from where we meet today, there were dried and acidified lake beds at some places around the Lower Lakes, emergency infrastructure works and, throughout many of the wetlands and iconic sites of the Basin, we saw an eco-system on the brink of collapse.

Many Murray-Darling communities were also on the brink of collapse, as farmers paid record amounts for diminishing volumes of water, often just to keep crops alive. Others de-stocked their properties or went through year after year after year of not even planting a crop. Debts spiralled, local businesses closed and the social impact was horrific.

Water storages reached critically low levels, urban communities were threatened and public anxiety around the management of our water resources reached fever pitch.

Today, things are better, but by no means perfect.

Nature has done its job. Much of the environment has bounced back from the millennium drought, responding to several years of floods or strong rains and the early steps in environmental watering

Communities are faring better today too, but the stress of drought has, in some areas, been replaced by the stress of reform.

I come to this job - and the Coalition comes to government - knowing that while reform must continue, we must ease local stresses and demonstrate to Murray-Darling communities that we intend for them to continue to make a strong contribution to Australia's economy, just as they have done for generations, and that we will implement the policies required for them to do so.

While a drought of (hopefully) once-in-a-century magnitude created the actute crisis that engulfed the Murray-Darling at the start of the new millennium, decades of poor management decisions, including overallocation and a failure to maintain best practice infrastructure, led to the chronic problems that necessitated the comprehensive reform journey we are in the middle of undertaking.

The Abbott Government is committed to completing this reform in a way that delivers against a triple bottom line of communities, economies and the environment.Overall our Environment Plan rests on four pillars:

  • First, The Direct Action Plan, centred around the Emissions Reduction Fund, which will deliver on Australia's emissions reduction targets without an anti-competitive carbon tax.
  • Second, our Clean Land policy based on the Green Army and Landcare reform, which is about a return to practical community-based environmental work, as well as simplification of environmental approvals and cutting green tape.
  • Third, and of most interest to you today, there is the Clean Water policy which includes our Murray Darling, Water Security and Reef 2050 plans.
  • And fourth our Heritage policy, based on both community and heritage icons programs.

The focus of this national conference is fitting.

'Sharing our Basin - from the source to the mouth' succinctly sums up the thrust of the Abbott Government's clean water policy and our vision for how the Murray-Darling Basin Plan should be implemented.

Today, I want to make several commitments to all of those communities who are affected by the Murray-Darling reform agenda. Firstly, that the Abbott Government is committed to ongoing water reform.

The Coalition has a proud record of leading Australia in water reform, but we also have unfinished business.

In 2004 the Howard Government, working together with the states, oversaw the development of the National Water Initiative. This was followed in 2007 by John Howard's ten point National Plan for Water Security, which included reforms to develop for a national plan for our greatest river system.

The Abbott Government will work to finish and build upon these important reforms of the Howard Government.

We will achieve their implementation in a balanced way … ensuring practical and workable steps are taken to deliver a balanced outcome for the economy, for the communities of the Basin and for the environment and ecology of the river system.

My focus today, naturally, is on how we will improve the implementation of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. In time I intend to have more to say about continued market reforms related to the NWI, as well as those aspects of the ten point plan relevant to the Great Artisian Basin and development of Northern Australia.

As Dorothea Mackellar so memorably put it, we are truly a land of droughts and flooding rains. Just the first thirteen years of this century has reminded us all of that fact.

Our challenge, whether as farmers or local community leaders or state and federal policy makers, is to work within the realities of our unpredictable natural environment, to get the best outcomes for both our rivers and the communities that rely upon them. The ambition to have both healthy rivers and healthy communities is not contradictory, but complementary.

Although they may debate how best to achieve river health or, sometimes, what a healthy river entails, I am yet to meet an irrigator who doesn't realise that long term river health is essential to long term farm productivity and the long term viability of river communities.

Our farmers, as managers of land and water, remain our most important environmentalists and conservationists.

The Murray-Darling Basin Plan, established under the 2007 Water Act, is all about delivering a healthy river system with healthy river communities that can sustain each other for decades into the future.

It is the fulfilment of a century long hope for agreement and cooperation about the sustainable sharing of water resources across state and territory borders.

The Basin Plan won't stop future droughts and all of the problems they will inevitably create, but it should mean that the river system is more robust and better able to face the tests of such future droughts, thereby making our river communities more robust too.

The new Government will ensure the Basin Plan is implemented on time and in full.

This leads to my second core commitment...

The Abbott Government will work to ensure the Murray-Darling Basin remains Australia's primary food bowl.

Debates about the future of the Murray-Darling should not and can not be reduced to a choice between the environment and agriculture.

Basin communities generate an estimated 39 per cent of the national income that is derived from agricultural production, which equates to an annual average of around $15 billion worth of produce.

Two million people living and working in the Basin are relying on us to work collaboratively to support and promote smart water use, revitalise the environment and ensure the viability of their food producing communities.

Our government wants to see as much food, fibre or produce grown in Australia, by Australians for Australians and for export to the world as we can sustainably achieve.

During the election Tony Abbott outlined the five pillar economy he wants to see support Australia's economic growth into the future. Agricultural exports lie at the heart of this plan.

The Abbott Government will focus on maximising the strengths and productive capacity of regional communities.

A major component of our Clean Water policy is to achieve the best productive outcomes from the government's $12 billion investment in the Basin, while simultaneously delivering the environmental water returns required to achieve sustainability.

The government has given clear priority over the coming years to water recovery through infrastructure investment.

Fixing inefficient infrastructure is the best way to return water to the environment whilst helping irrigation communities position themselves for a sustainable future.

It is for this reason that we have committed to re-phasing four years of water buyback spending over six years, to cap buybacks in the Murray-Darling Basin and to work with the states to deliver offset targets via agreed environmental works and measures.

Meanwhile, almost $3 billion is forecast to be spent on rural water use and infrastructure projects over the next four years.

Infrastructure projects are empowering local communities to improve agricultural productivity and achieve better environmental outcomes.

They also generate economic benefits for Basin communities by creating both direct and indirect jobs.

Infrastructure improvements are helping producers achieve water efficiency, minimise costs and maximise production. Done well, water saving infrastructure projects can deliver a win, win, win outcome.

It is my intention to give effect to our policy commitments through the release of a new Water Recovery Strategy later this year.

In opposition the Coalition was highly critical of the unstrategic way in which water was recovered, creating inefficiencies and a so-called 'Swiss cheese' effect in many irrigation districts.

While we will ensure there is no such repeat of Labor's mistakes, I am also eager to ameliorate the damage of previous policy failures too.

To this end I have asked the Department of the Environment to review the impact of certain past policies, in particular conditions imposed on exit grants previously paid to irrigators.

The Small Block Irrigators Exit Grant Package provided exit grants of up to $150,000 to assist irrigators out of production, requiring water licenses to be sold, plantings to be pulled out and irrigation equipment to be removed.

Grant conditions also required that, during the five years after the grant was paid, the grant recipient and others with an interest in the block could not conduct any irrigation farming enterprise and that the land involved must also not be used for irrigation purposes for five years, unless the exit grant is repaid

A total of 297 grants were provided under the program, locking up 2,747 hectares of land from use. This is the equivalent of 1,373 Australian Rules Football ovals scattered quite randomly throughout irrigation districts that are no longer being used for productive purposes.

Under the conditions imposed this exclusion period continues to apply to this land until November 2014 for the earliest grant recipients, and March 2016 for the last of the recipients.

Obviously, exclusion periods should apply to the actual people recieving an exit grant, because they were being paid to exit the industry. However, I believe the exclusion requirements placed on the use of land were misguided and damaging. This condition fails both the principle test and the practical test.

At the principle level it seems to ignore the key objective of the National Water Initiative to separate land from water. The Exit Grants appeared to be somewhat contradictory, saying not only would the government recover water to help meet the new Sustainable Diversion Limits of the Basin Plan, but that government would also limit land use decisions too.

At a practical level, irrigation systems have been left less efficient, with water having to flow passed previously productive properties before it gets to those still under irrigation. It is an impediment on the efficiency of the water market, which should see water being used on the properties where it can deliver the greatest benefit. Why should a neighbour, with efficient operations and surplus water entitlement, face additional restrictions from gaining efficiencies of scale by acquiring and producing on their adjoining properties?

Many of these properties are lying dormant, overgrown and acting as havens for pests.

Sadly, unscrambling the egg of such bad prior policymaking is not without complications. There are issues of equity and probity to consider, even the potential to create liabilities to the taxpayer. However, if it can be done without significantly negative consequences, then it is my intention that we find a way to again make the affected land available for productive use as soon as possible.

At a broader level our government intends to reduce the costs faced by farmers, irrigators, businesses and people throughout the Basin, as we will for people throughout Australia.

By eliminating the Carbon Tax, which has perversely made being an efficient water user more expensive due to the higher electricity costs associated with piping and pumping water or operating high tech watering systems, we will markedly reduce the costs for both irrigation systems and irrigators.

It is also our intention to significantly reduce red and green tape across the economy. I know many water users have concerns about the number of government agencies they need to supply data and information to, creating hours and hours of often repetitive paperwork. I look forward to discussing with water users practical ways to reduce the time and costs associated with such reporting.

Listening to and responding to such concerns leads me to my third key commitment...

The Abbott Government will give local Murray-Darling Basin communities a real say.

I am not the font of all wisdom about the management of the Murray-Darling Basin. Nor are my state ministerial colleagues. Nor are any of our federal or state officials. Nor are the people in this room, irrigator groups, environmental groups or, indeed, nor is any single stakeholder.

We must put the skills of each participant in managing the Murray-Darling to the best and most relevant use.

Certainly, the closer you get to a local community, the more that local community generally knows about how the river, floodplains and wetlands work in their local environs. We must - and we will - harness that local knowledge.

Our government intends to use local knowledge and experience to help maintain a healthy and resilient river system, one in which irrigated agriculture can flourish and in which environmental assets are preserved for the interests of all Australians.

I intend for local people to help us determine what works best in each catchment.

Local people can deliver greater ingenuity when it comes to the modernisation of local irrigation systems, maximising the water savings in the most efficient way.

I appreciate that it is local communities throughout the Basin who ultimately face the challenge of meeting the new Sustainable Diversion Limits under the Basin Plan. We must help them adopt solutions that benefit local economies and meet local needs.

In addition to our prioritisation of water saving infrastructure works, where projects should be genuinely identified, developed and implemented at an on-farm or in-region region level, a key component of the Plan is the Sustainable Diversion Limit adjustment mechanism, which will be operational by 2016 following consultation between state and territory governments and stakeholders.

Basin governments have already begun work on this important task and our government is committed to investment in approved initiatives to enable their completion by 2024.

Securing the full commitment of all governments to the Intergovernmental Agreement will provide the framework for the cooperative implementation of Basin Plan reforms and secure access to funding to deliver on measures such as the adjustment mechanism.

I have had some harsh words to say about the states in the past, albeit mainly in an historical context, but having now met with each of the basin states I have been very impressed by their willingness to cooperate and to see this reform through, so long as we respect the needs and differences of each State in doing so.

Similarly, local people can usually identify the most effective and efficient means for the delivery of environmental water to where it is needed, when it is needed.

It is expected that David Papps, the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder, who you will hear from later today, will play an important role in applying a practical, evidence based approach to environmental watering supported by local knowledge.

To paraphrase an old environmental adage, David must plan Basin-wide, but act locally.

By taking a Basin scale approach to coordinating watering, we should be able to engage in local environmental water use that achieves greater environmental benefits than has previously been possible.

Ultimately, environmental watering priorities should be determined and planned across years, with a greater degree of certainty for all concerned.

However, these benefits from Basin-wide coordination should in no way diminish our use of local knowledge. I have asked David to ensure that we look at every reasonable way to ensure local communities are not just consulted about the decision making process around environmental watering, but that they are a part of that decision making process.

The Commonwealth Environmental Water Office is already planning to embed local engagement officers across the Basin and I look forward to further developing the local engagement process with these officers.

It is worth noting that the Commonwealth Environmental Water Office have already started to work with local communities throughout the Basin, as part of efforts to manage this complex system of rivers and environmental assets.

I understand a good example is the partnership with Nature Foundation SA, in which local landholders, businesses and conservationists are working together to help the delivery of environmental water to Clark's Floodplain near Berri. This intervention should improve the condition of black box woodlands and lignum shrubland and provide refuge for the many species of threatened and vulnerable birds, fish, frogs and invertebrates for which they provide habitat.

The Basin Plan also provides for a Constraints Management Strategy, which is being developed by the Murray-Darling Basin Authority in consultation with Basin states and the community.

The aim of this Strategy is to acheive greater environmental benefits while at the same time addressing the concerns of landholders and the community regarding potential flooding of private land and infrastructure.

The MDBA is now beginning consultations on its constraints management strategy, as is required under the Water Act. In fact a draft document is being released today for public comment.

I know there are already concerns about this strategy but I emphasise that this is just the start of consultations and I urge everyone to engage openly with the Authority and to have their say. Local knowledge is vital to ensure the MDBA develops the best possible constraints management strategy.

Ultimately, governments will decide whether any proposals stemming from this strategy happen or not. Today I give this guarantee to local communities: the new federal government will only support a strategy that focuses on what can be done to improve environmental outcomes without detrimental impacts on local communities.

And this leads me to my fourth and final commitment...

I will visit local communities, listen to local communities and, wherever possible, act in accordance with the interests of local communities.

I am pleased and honoured that the Prime Minister asked me to take on responsibility for water within the new Coalition Government.

Prior to entering the Senate I worked in the wine industry, dealing with winemakers and grapegrowers alike. The big drought was well underway then and it was witnessing the impact on growers and industry alike that helped to forge my interest in water policy.

The Water Bill of 2007 was one of the first pieces of legislation I spoke on as a then new and young Liberal Senator and, as many of you would know, I have followed each step of water reform closely since then, including the last four years with shadow ministerial responsibilities for the portfolio.

I fully appreciate that not everyone in the Basin will be thrilled to have another Senator from South Australia in this portfolio. However, I assure them that in undertaking the job as Parliamentary Secretary I appreciate that I must value the interests of each of their communities just as I value those of my own.

For years now I have, when travelling upstream, defended the freshwater existence of the Lower Lakes. Equally, in many downstream communities I have continually defended the role of opportunistic annual crops like rice and cotton.

My colleague Barnaby Joyce has often said that there are many straw men built up in different parts of the Basin. However, I believe the reform process is improving the knowledge across different parts of the Basin and helping to tear down some of those straw men.

Organisations like the Murray-Darling Association play a valuable role in sharing knowledge, information and different perspectives across the Basin. In many ways you have been helping to tear down straw men for each of your 69 years and I thank you for doing so.

I also thank you for allowing me the time to speak with you today. I only regret that I am unable to spend a little more time participating in your conference program.

However, as the initial rush of briefings and meetings that come with a new government settle just a little I do look forward to visiting many of your communities over the coming months.

Together I believe we can implement Basin reform that delivers long term sustainability to the Murray-Darling system and to the farmers and communities who rely on it. I thank you in advance for your assistance in helping me to do so and wish you a very successful conference.

Simon Birmingham