Irrigators help Baldwin dive in

19 Jan, 2015 03:00 AM
MP Bob Baldwin (left) with Environment Minister Greg Hunt. Photo: Max Mason-Hubers
Mr Baldwin and the government still have a mountain of work to do
MP Bob Baldwin (left) with Environment Minister Greg Hunt. Photo: Max Mason-Hubers

IRRIGATION stakeholders have offered new Environment Parliamentary Secretary Bob Baldwin a crash course on water policy to ventilate their mounting concerns about the Murray-Darling Basin Plan’s implementation and other issues.

Mr Baldwin was appointed to the new position late last year following Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s cabinet reshuffle.

He replaces South Australian Liberal Senator Simon Birmingham, who was well-regarded by water stakeholders for his comprehension of policy details and long-running involvement with the Basin Plan’s design and implementation.

Mr Baldwin will now have responsibility for the Bureau of Meteorology, the Sydney Harbour Federation Trust and Parks Australia, with a focus on Indigenous development.

The NSW Liberal MP will also assist with a leadership role in the roll-out of the Basin Plan, Environment Minister Greg Hunt said.

Mr Hunt also described Mr Baldwin as an experienced rural member who’s “deeply focussed on the balance between the needs of farmers, communities and the environment”.

He said his new Parliamentary Secretary would particularly focus on means to improve irrigation efficiency for farmers and ensuring the government meets full commitments under the Basin Plan.

“He (Mr Baldwin) is a formidable worker and wonderful communicator with a particular passion for the concerns of rural Australia,” he said.

Mr Hunt said he would retain overall responsibility for settling agreements with the States.

NIC voices concerns

Following the appointment, the National Irrigators’ Council (NIC) and others irrigation groups have written to Mr Baldwin offering to provide him with a tour of irrigation facilities and communities.

They are keen to meet and discuss various irrigation issues and water policy concerns, like the escalating negative impacts of high electricity prices coupled with uncertainty about the Basin Plan’s roll-out.

NIC chief executive officer Tom Chesson said the NIC was looking forward to working with Mr Baldwin to ensure the Basin Plan was implemented in a “pragmatic and sensible way” and start building confidence in Senator Birmingham’s replacement.

Mr Chesson said the government had repeatedly vowed it wouldn’t hurt basin communities, most of which are situated in the electorates of Coalition MPs.

But he said, “unfortunately this is proving not the case with jobs and opportunities being lost as water is removed from communities”.

“There are still many outstanding issues that need to be rectified and if not handled in a pragmatic and sensible way could lead to severe problems,” he said.

Mr Chesson said many irrigation communities are starting to “get fed up and feel like they are being treated like mushrooms”.

“It is very important that the fourth federal Minister/Parliamentary Secretary responsible for water policy that we’ve had in two years gets out and about in the Basin and across the irrigation districts around the country as soon as practical and often as possible to understand exactly what is happening,” he said.

“As our champion in the government, it’s vital that Mr Baldwin see and understand first-hand whether the government’s policies are helping or hurting regional communities.”

Mountain of work: NIC

Fairfax Media contacted Mr Baldwin’s office for interview but the request was declined with a spokesperson saying he needed another week to “get his head around the details”.

Mr Chesson said many NIC members and the communities they live in are starting to question how the Basin Plan was being implemented.

He said particular concerns existed with the Northern Basin Review; methodology behind the Sustainable Diversion Limits adjustment mechanism; ongoing funding for Basin Plan implementation; increased red/green tape across the private and public sectors; and the current and future social and economic impacts of the Basin Plan.

“Mr Baldwin and the government still have a mountain of work to do if the Basin Plan is to be implemented as promised,” he said.

Mr Chesson said beyond the Basin Plan’s roll-out, irrigation stakeholders held serious concerns that electricity prices are “out of control” across the country.

He said the Commonwealth government – via the Australian Energy Regulator - had responsibility for setting the prices that network companies can charge consumers.

Mr Chesson said the regulator’s five-year pricing reset was currently occurring for Queensland and South Australia, and the final pricing determination due soon for NSW.

But he said the Agricultural Industries Taskforce’s submission to the current Senate inquiry that’s investigating network companies had highlighted how the Commonwealth and State governments can cut electricity prices for everyone by 30 per cent and “stop the price gouging that is occurring”.

“It’s a no-brainer,” he said.

“If agriculture is to be profitable and competitive and transform our economy from a mining boom to dining boom we have to have affordable energy.

“We are sick and tired of the political class pontificating about electricity prices being too high and then actively working to ensure that prices go even higher.

“We have provided them with workable solutions.

“It is time for all political parties to pull their thumbs out and cut the price of electricity to all consumers by 30 per cent.”

The Senate inquiry into electricity pricing was referred to the Senate Environment and Communications References Committee on October 2 last year and due to report in March this year.

The inquiry has currently received 55 public submissions open for public viewing but has not published where or when public hearings will be held.

Mr Chesson said the NIC met with Senators prior to Christmas and received a positive response to a request to hold at least two regional hearings - one in Bundaberg, Queensland, and another in Berri, South Australia.

“We believe that the issue of electricity is one not simply confined to the cities,” he said.

“In fact a Ernst Young survey last year found that of all the respondents, people in regions were almost twice as likely as those in metropolitan areas to report they were 'unable to afford' the electricity bill.

“It is vital that Senators get out of the capital cities and understand why it is that some of the highest pockets of unemployment are in regional communities.

“We hope that when Senators understand that high input costs, especially electricity costs, are job killers they may actually do something about reigning in out of control electricity prices.”

Steep learning curve

Murray Irrigation chairman Bruce Simpson said Mr Baldwin – having the NSW semi-rural coastal seat of Paterson – had a “steep learning curve in front of him to get across all of the issues in the Murray-Darling Basin”.

“I look forward to the opportunity to meet with Mr Baldwin and talk to him about the issues facing this region,” Mr Simpson said.

“Murray Irrigation has had a constructive working relationship with all previous ministers responsible for this crucial portfolio and I am sure that will remain under Mr Baldwin.

“The previous Parliamentary Secretary, Senator Simon Birmingham – now promoted to the outer Ministry – made it a priority to travel through the Basin to talk to communities.

“We have invited Mr Baldwin to do the same.

“A key issue for this region is the ongoing water recovery and how that is achieved.

“We want to see Mr Baldwin finally legislate the cap on buyback that Senator Birmingham committed to.

“We also want to see the Murray-Darling Basin Authority (MDBA) start to take seriously the community concerns about constraints management and the SDL (sustainable diversion limit) adjustment mechanism.

“There is no doubt Mr Baldwin has a huge job ahead of him, but we are confident that we will continue to have a good working relationship with him and the government.”

Colin Bettles

Colin Bettles

is the national political writer for Fairfax Agricultural Media


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I've said this before but if farmers are not happy with their CBH Board they should put up or