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: Water tender

Transcript: Mornings 891 ABC Adelaide - Interview with Ian Henschke
20 January 2014

IAN HENSCHKE: Now, Senator Simon Birmingham is the parliamentary secretary for water and, of course, a South Australian Senator and a Senator that would have a very good understanding of how much we need the water here in South Australia, so if they're selling it off, and there's plans to sell some of it off, is that going to mean we're going to have less available for us and for SA Water's needs, Simon Birmingham?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Good morning, Ian; good morning and happy new year to your listeners and the short answer there is 'no'. The management of water is a complex thing. The Abbott Government is committed to implementing the Murray-Darling Basin Plan in full and on time in accordance with the timeline laid out to 2019. What happens, in implementing the Basin Plan, is that we undertake a range of activities to acquire water licences across the Murray-Darling and, as soon as those licences are acquired by the Government, they're transferred over to an independent office holder known as the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder. They then have the power, once they've got hold of those licences, to trade water within the licences to get better environmental outcomes and that's what...

IAN HENSCHKE: Or better outcomes for farmers, as I understand is being reported today, as well. There's been suggestion that you can have your, you know, crop and keep your river.

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, the thing is you can actually do both when it comes to how you trade the water once you've got hold of the licences dedicated for environmental use and that's because what will happen is the Environmental Water Holder will potentially sell a bit of water in one part of the river system where it can't really be put to effective environmental use so that they can buy a bit of water somewhere else in the river system where they can get better bang for their buck and get better environmental outcomes, so in the using the term 'trade'...

IAN HENSCHKE: So, who is this particular... I haven't heard of this particular person before. Is it one person that's going to have power of buying and selling water across the river or an ultimate decider... it's all going to be held by one person?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: David Papps, who was appointed by the previous Labor Government, is the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder. He'll be making the announcement a little later today about the first ever trade within the portfolio of holdings he has. He's not subject to ministerial influence or direction, so he makes his own independent assessments. He is subject to the requirements of the Water Act which require him to adhere very much to achieving the objects of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan and to maximise environmental outcomes and these provisions were built into the Water Act way back in 2007 because it was always seen that, in accumulating a big portfolio of water licences right across the Murray-Darling Basin, you could better manage it and get better environmental outcomes by trading within that portfolio and across the Basin from year to year and if you think about it in a...

IAN HENSCHKE: Well, he's going to have to have an incredible understanding of river ecology to be able to do this and ensure that everything works, isn't he, because if he gets it wrong and he sells too much water and we end up in the situation that we had a few years ago where Adelaide was even talking about... you know, we were going to have to truck water... that's why we built this desal plant and now we're getting huge bills and if we'd only managed the river system a bit better we may not have had to build the desal plant.

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: And he obviously has a lot of expert advice that he works with and an office of people that he works around. Now, he's made very clear that he anticipates only ever trading a small parcel of the some... currently 1900 billion litres of water entitlements that the Federal Government currently holds any one year. All of that has been acquired for environmental purposes. The new Government is continuing to acquire it through smart infrastructure investment, record levels of infrastructure investment across the Murray-Darling Basin, so we're going to continue to build on that environmental portfolio. He will make decisions on how best to use that for environmental purposes and if I can just give you a little example, a taste here, if you think about it, Ian, that... all of the wetlands and floodplains throughout the Murray-Darling Basin of course don't flood or fill up every single year in a natural state. They fill up every few years, dependent on what they are and where they are, if nature were left to run its course. Now, the system is, of course, highly, highly regulated - locks, dams, weirs, extractions et cetera across the Basin. What he's trying to do, based on expert advice, is best replicate for the key environmental assets those sort of natural events, so it's not just about how much water flows through the River and flows out the Mouth at Goolwa; it's also about how and when you put water into the Chowilla Floodplain up there in the Riverland region of SA or a...

IAN HENSCHKE: In other words, using... these are some of the things that we've been talking about for the last 20 years which is the 'switch on, switch off' factors that trigger the environmental cycles, which sounds like a good thing. Let's go to Ian Hunter, Water minister for South Australia. Ian Hunter, do you support what the Federal Government is doing - managing the river and, at the same time, having the 'switch on, switch off' system operating?

IAN HUNTER: Ian, this is just flabbergasting, really. I mean, we have another example, the second example, of the Federal Liberal Government walking away from its commitment to South Australia and the River Murray. We've already seen them cap buybacks - they say that they're going to push back their buybacks and caps by a couple of years and we're not even sure they're going to actually be able to meet their targets in 2019 - and now they're giving into massive pressure from the Liberal states in New South Wales and Victoria to put environmental water back into the hands of irrigators. This is just environmental vandalism.

IAN HENSCHKE: But isn't the person - as we've just heard from Senator Simon Birmingham, Mr Papps - who's in charge of this, someone that was appointed by the Rudd Government?

IAN HUNTER: Ian, it's particularly concerning that this person, the CEWH, the Environmental Water Holder's going to have enormous pressure now put on them to walk away from his primary responsibility of looking after the environment and the River, to actually putting some of that water back into irrigation...

IAN HENSCHKE: So, you're saying he's being leant on, so, rather than being an independent arbiter whose number one concern is the priority of ensuring that the benefits are there for the River, for the system, you're saying he's been leant on by the farmer lobby that is pushing through the Federal Government?

IAN HUNTER: I think he's being leant on by the Federal Government and, quite frankly, where is Steven Marshall? Every time South Australia needs a champion, Steven Marshall goes absent. He hasn't stood up to Tony Abbott, not once - not on Holden's and not on the River Murray - and, if it wasn't for Jay Weatherill's championship of the Murray, we would not have got that extra 450 gigalitres and now it's all at risk because of a Federal Liberal Government giving into pressure from irrigators in New South Wales.

IAN HENSCHKE: Alright, well, let's just put that back to Senator Simon Birmingham. Simon Birmingham, the actual - which I think was the conservative - figure of water that would be allowed to flow through the river system to ensure there would be, I mean, moderate health of the system... is that still guaranteed?

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Absolutely, Ian. We are committed to implementing the full Murray-Darling Basin Plan, in full and on time by 2019, and it's just silly and simplistic claptrap from Ian Hunter there...

IAN HENSCHKE: And are you pressurising Mr Papps to sell water, because this is an ideologically...

SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Emphatically, no, and Mr Papps has the protection under the law of the Water Act that he cannot be subject, in relation to trading of water, to direction by me or any other member of the Federal Government. He makes completely independent decisions and what Minister Hunter would do well to appreciate is that some of the water holdings we have in the northern parts of the Murray-Darling Basin… in a year like this one... not a drop of it will make it to South Australia. Now, what Mr Papps may well choose to do - and this is just a hypothetical - is to sell part of that, in systems in the northern parts of the Murray-Darling Basin, so that he can buy some somewhere else in the south that actually will make it to South Australia, so Minister Hunter is criticising something that could well deliver benefits to SA and it's very important for your listeners to appreciate - and this is one of the complexities of water - that Mr Papps and the Environmental Water Holder is not selling a permanent licence; he's selling this year's allocation of water against that licence in some part of the Basin and what I would anticipate he will do is he will buy water somewhere else in the Basin that may well provide a net benefit to SA but certainly his actions, because under the law this is what he has to do, will provide a net benefit to the environment.

IAN HENSCHKE: Alright, well, look, Senator Birmingham thanks for explaining that. Stay on the line because one of our listeners, Robyn of Magill, has got a question she would like to put to Mr Hunter. Robyn?

CALLER, ROBYN: Hi. I'm a pensioner and, if we've got so much water, how come the water is costing us so much? I got a water bill in the middle of winter for $500.

IAN HENSCHKE: Well, I mean, I think a lot of people are asking that question. Ian Hunter, why are we having such huge water bills as we can see that there is enough water up the system now to, according to the Federal Government, even play around with the environmental flows?

IAN HUNTER: Well, look, I just don't take that information from the Federal Government terribly seriously. How can they possibly argue that the Environmental Water Holder is independent in his decision-making when the front page of The Australian is telling him and the rest of us that they're going to sell water back to farmers? It's a laughing stock.

IAN HENSCHKE: Okay, well, that's on the farming side of it. On the domestic side of it, it was, I think, Minister Playford... years ago guaranteed a certain flow through the system so that everybody could get water in South Australia and that water was cheap. It was very cheap, so...

IAN HUNTER: Well, that water wasn't actually valued at the cost of producing the water, of course.

IAN HENSCHKE: Okay, but that water now...

IAN HUNTER: ...and Mr Playford, of course, wasn't operating in a situation of a decade-long drought, which is only three years ago.

IAN HENSCHKE: But the drought's finished and Robyn of Magill would like to know why they had an outrageous water bill.

IAN HUNTER: Well, Ian, the drought has finished but it will come again and the only way that South Australia can guarantee water supply for Adelaide is to have a desal plant because clearly we cannot rely on the Federal Liberal Government looking after South Australia's water needs. They're selling it upstate to irrigators.

IAN HENSCHKE: Alright, look, thank you very much for your time, Ian Hunter, and thanks also to Senator Simon Birmingham, parliamentary secretary for water.

[ends]

Simon Birmingham

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