House debates

Thursday, 10 August 2017

Resolutions of the Senate

Murray-Darling Basin; Consideration of Senate Message

9:57 am

Photo of Tony SmithTony Smith (Speaker) Share this | | Hansard source

I have received the following message from the Senate relating to the Murray-Darling Basin Plan:

The Senate transmits to the House of Representatives the following resolution which was agreed to by the Senate this day:

That the Senate—

(a)affirms its support for the Murray-Darling Basin Plan;

(b)expresses deep concerns about allegations of theft and corruption in management of water resources in the Barwon-Darling Basin raised by the Four Corners report on 24 July 2017;

(c)notes the matter has been referred to the Australian National Audit Office and New South Wales authorities for investigation;

(d)considers a state-based inquiry into allegations, revealed in the report, to be insufficient and that the only way to ensure confidence in states’ commitment to achieve the Murray-Darling Basin Plan is through a national investigation;

(e)calls for the establishment of an independent national judicial inquiry through the Council of Australian Governments; and

(f)calls on all governments to commit to achieving a healthy, sustainable Murray-Darling Basin which supports the future prosperity of the communities which rely upon it.

The Senate requests the concurrence of the House of Representatives in this resolution.

Copies of the message have been placed on the table for the information on honourable members. I do not propose to read its terms, which will be recorded in the Votes and Proceedings and Hansard.

9:58 am

Photo of Christopher PyneChristopher Pyne (Sturt, Liberal Party, Leader of the House) Share this | | Hansard source

I move:

That consideration of the message be made an order of the day for the next sitting.

Photo of Tony SmithTony Smith (Speaker) Share this | | Hansard source

The question is that the consideration of the message be made an order of the day for the next sitting.

Photo of Mr Tony BurkeMr Tony Burke (Watson, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Finance) Share this | | Hansard source

I move, as an amendment:

That all words after “That” be omitted with a view to substituting the following words “the message be taken into consideration immediately”.

In moving this amendment, I say that, if the House defers this and makes it an order of the day for the next day of sitting, the House will never have another debate on this issue. The opportunity to deal with this issue is now, and there is an urgency in dealing with the issue that is before us. The allegations that were made on the Four Corners program with respect to the Murray-Darling Basin are serious. A series of inquiries has been initiated as a result by the Auditor-General and by New South Wales ICAC; the New South Wales government has a separate review, the Matthews review; we also have a review that has been put in place by the Murray-Darling Basin Authority. Not one of those inquiries—even though all of them are being conducted with good intentions by those in charge—has the power to deal with the allegations that are before us in their totality.

The allegations that are before us go to compliance functions of the New South Wales government. They go to the interaction between the New South Wales government and Commonwealth officials. They go to the actions of a former New South Wales minister as to whether or not he told the irrigators that they could pump at a time when they were not lawfully allowed to. They go to a series of issues which cross the federal and state boundaries. Only a judicial inquiry instituted through COAG has the capacity to deal with that. New South Wales ICAC will be able to have the power to compel witnesses to provide protection to whistleblowers and to be able to subpoena documents, but not once they hit federal officials. In the same way, the Commonwealth Auditor-General will have a series of powers, but the moment he hits state officials those powers stop. When you are dealing with the Murray-Darling Basin, you need to be able to have an investigation that can cross jurisdictions. The Murray-Darling Basin Authority with its inquiry, while it technically is a body that does cross jurisdictions, doesn't have the power to compel witnesses, doesn't have the power to subpoena documents and doesn't have the power to provide protection for whistleblowers.

Yesterday we had this debate out, in a way, during the matter of public importance—during the MPI after question time. Let me remind the House of the arguments that were put by the government as to why we don't need a judicial inquiry. The member for Cowper finished his remarks by saying, 'Let's put an allegation about a billion litres of water being stolen into context,' and then told us how much water there really was in the Murray-Darling Basin: 'We're only talking about a billion litres of water when there are billions and billions of litres of water flowing down the river.' That's like arguing: 'Look, I know they stole the Lamborghini, but it was a really big car park. There were lots of other vehicles there. We really need to put this into context.' I thought that meant the government was probably starting with its weirdest argument, but then we finished off—and the environment minister will love this one—with the member for Barker arguing there is a different solution for fish stocks in the Coorong. Instead of it being about providing environmental water, what we needed to do was kill the native fur seals, because they, outrageously, are feeding on the fish. So the solution to look after one native species is to kill the other ones—kill the predators and it'll all be okay. Those were the arguments put yesterday by the government. Call me biased, but I just don't think they were compelling arguments.

In its place, Labor is simply saying that, when you have allegations this serious, you have to have an inquiry with the power to get to the bottom of it. It may well be the case that some of the allegations turn out to be not well founded. It may well be the case that some of the allegations are worse than we thought. It may well be the case that what has happened and has been reported are not the only instances of this sort of behaviour. We don't know the answers, but we have a right to know. Why do we have a right to know the answers? Because the water being stolen under those allegations was paid for with $13 billion worth of taxpayers' money, which has gone into the projects and the plans to be able to restore the rivers to health—$13 billion. Members here, who represent within their local electorates irrigators that have not broken the law, seemed to want to brush this aside yesterday. They owe it to the irrigators in their area to say, 'If you're obeying the law, we will get to the bottom and find out about the people who are breaching the law.' That's how you respect law-abiding citizens—not by turning a blind eye.

The government can't run that this is somehow just an issue for the Labor Party. Yesterday, unusually in an MPI, the member for Mayo, who is here now—not a member of the Labor Party but a member of the crossbench—took one of the spots because of her passion in wanting to make sure that the Murray-Darling Basin is restored to health. In the Senate, you have a range of parties. I don't think you can get a broader spectrum of parties than what you get when you look at the collection of senators who were all voting the same way yesterday. The principle there is: when you have allegations like this, that have rocked the nation and, in particular, rocked communities within the Murray-Darling Basin, the first thing you must do is get to the bottom of what has happened. The first thing you must do is say, 'We will have an inquiry with all the powers required to find out whether or not the allegations that were televised stack up, whether or not the behaviour of the New South Wales government was as bad as it appears to have been.' Only a judicial inquiry will provide those powers.

I urge members of the House to vote that we deal with this immediately. What nobody on that side of the House should do is think that they can vote against this today, to turn a blind eye to the allegations, and ever again claim that they are on the side of restoring the Murray-Darling to health. Unless there is integrity in the water market, unless there is compliance being provided by the state governments, then irrigation communities, communities relying on environmental assets and every Australian taxpayer gets let down.

Photo of Tony SmithTony Smith (Speaker) Share this | | Hansard source

Is the amendment seconded?

10:06 am

Photo of Amanda RishworthAmanda Rishworth (Kingston, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Health) Share this | | Hansard source

I second the amendment. It is imperative that we deal with this issue right here, right now. Quite frankly, we've seen these very, very serious allegations, which have really dented confidence in the Murray-Darling plan, and there's nothing more important than this parliament coming together and backing this essential plan.

I was listening to the MPI yesterday. I grew increasingly concerned about the talking points that those on the other side had. The talking points seemed to go as follows: 'It's not that much water. What we're talking about isn't that important and it's not that much water.' The other argument that seemed to be in the talking points was that Four Corners wasn't telling the truth, that somehow Four Corners was leading everyone up a garden path. The only way to get to the bottom of this, the only way to ensure that we are able to actually find out what went on, is to have a judicial inquiry.

This plan, the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, was put in place because, after a century of squabbling and arguments between the states, we came to a national agreement. It is not good enough that the national parliament and the national government now shirk their responsibility when it comes to this important plan. When we see these types of allegations that dent confidence right down the system—South Australia, Victoria and also in New South Wales; we've had New South Wales irrigators, we have had people in Broken Hill saying they thought something was up and it wasn't until Four Corners actually aired these allegations that they saw the light of day—then it is critically important that this motion is dealt with in the House today.

The motion clearly states support for the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, clearly states that we have deep concerns as a parliament about this theft of water, and, importantly, calls for the establishment of an independent national judicial inquiry. It is the responsibility of the Commonwealth to actually deal with this issue. We cannot just say, as the minister for water has said in the past: 'This is just a localised issue. It's not that important. It's not something I'm going to get involved in.' He kept saying that until they realised, and I think the Prime Minister realised, he was getting a lot of flak and then suddenly the position changed.

Today is an opportunity for this House to recommit to the Murray-Darling, to commit to a judicial inquiry. And it is a test. It is actually a test for all those on the other side, particularly those South Australian members of parliament. How are they going to vote? Are they going to put the interests of South Australians and, indeed, all those communities along the Murray-Darling Basin first? Are they going to demand that this House pays attention to these issues that mean a lot for South Australians, or are they going to shirk their responsibility? Are they going to shirk their responsibility and put this off for someone else to deal with this? The test is theirs today: will they bring this on for a proper debate and ensure we have an independent national judicial inquiry? I commend the amendment to the House and urge all members to support it.

Photo of Tony SmithTony Smith (Speaker) Share this | | Hansard source

The original question was that the motion be agreed to, to which the honourable member for Watson has moved as an amendment that all words after 'that' be omitted with a view to substituting other words. The immediate question is that the amendment be agreed to.

The question now is that the motion moved by the Leader of the House be agreed to.