House debates

Wednesday, 30 May 2018

Bills

Water Amendment Bill 2018; Second Reading

12:16 pm

Photo of Mark CoultonMark Coulton (Parkes, Deputy-Speaker) Share this | Hansard source

I'm very pleased to rise today to speak in the debate on this legislation, the Water Amendment Bill 2018, that has been introduced to get the Murray-Darling Basin Plan back on track. Before the member for Watson leaves, I will recognise that he is one of the few people in this place that understands water. We might not always agree on how we use it, but he does understand the process. One of the frustrations in this place is I've heard a lot of speeches made by people who don't understand water but understand the politics of water. The challenge in this place is to have science and common sense win, and not be trumped by politics. We nearly saw that happen, and I'm glad that we're back on track. I want to have that on record.

There are others in this building who haven't covered themselves in glory. I can point to Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young, who has made some absolutely ridiculous contributions during this entire time. Senator Penny Wong and Senator Cory Bernardi have also not covered themselves in glory through this whole process. The big challenge we have in here is when politics trumps science. The Northern Basin Review, which I'm probably more familiar with than the rest of the basin, due to the fact that my electorate is pretty well encompassed by that northern basin, came from several years of study, science, negotiations and inquiry by an independent committee that was set up to do that. To get to a point where it was to be implemented, and then to be trumped by the South Australian election, was deeply frustrating to me.

As someone who represents a third of the Murray-Darling Basin—I believe I would probably have the largest section of the basin in my electorate, from the Lower Darling to the reaches on the Queensland border where the Dumaresq meets the Macintyre; it's a very complex issue, and different communities in my electorate see this issue differently—it's very frustrating to come to a position on this where truth goes out the window. I have seen some absolute nonsense being portrayed on social media and even reported in the media. For example, a couple of months ago, just after the Four Corners program, the local paper in Broken Hill, the Barrier Daily Truth,ran a front-page story that said that in 2012, the water minister, Barnaby Joyce, changed the regulations in the Murray-Darling Basin system and allowed irrigators to take whatever they want. Well, in 2012, the water minister was the member for Watson, Tony Burke. Barnaby Joyce was a senator from Queensland who had no responsibility for water. I pointed this out to the editor of the Barrier Daily Truth and on page six the next day there was a small retraction. But the seed was sown that there was somehow large-scale government corruption in managing the river system. Quite frankly, I think the member for Watson's contribution may have put some of that to rest.

To get to this point has required an enormous amount of goodwill and hard work by the states and the territories within the basin, as well as the Commonwealth, as well as the communities, as well as the individuals and the environmentalists and the irrigators right across the basin. They have put an enormous amount of work into this. For the northern review to be portrayed as a fresh grab by irrigators to get more water is a long, long way from the truth. Water reforms started in this country long before the basin plan came into action. In New South Wales, the reforms back probably 25 or 30 years ago saw a lot of water removed from the irrigation industry, with no compensation to irrigators. In some of the early stages of the basin plan, and when Senator Wong was the minister, the buying of large licences willy-nilly devastated towns. In the north-west of my electorate, the town of Collarenebri lost its major and probably only serious employer. Over a hundred jobs went with the stroke of a pen when Senator Wong purchased the water from Twynam Pastoral Company's Collymongle Station. Purchases made without taking into account the interests of the local communities are still impacting on those communities. Collarenebri, quite frankly, will struggle to recover to any form at all. It certainly won't recover to its former glory.

Water is the lifeblood for everyone. The Murray-Darling Basin, particularly the Northern Basin, is not a fixed piece of plumbing. It is not something where there is a set amount of water every year and it's just a simple matter of allocating a certain percentage for production, a certain percentage for the environment and a certain percentage for residential communities. It's an ephemeral stream. The electorate of the minister sitting here next to me is a large catchment for the Darling River. From memory, it hasn't had run-off from 2012. That was the last run-off that came out of western Queensland. The water from the cyclone we had earlier this year, which is now reaching Lake Eyre, goes down through the Channel Country in western Queensland and into South Australia and is not part of the Murray-Darling Basin. A small part—one river—got a catchment and got water from that cyclone. As a result, the Culgoa River is running through into New South Wales, into the Barwon and into the Darling, and that water just last week reached Wilcannia.

In conjunction with the state government of New South Wales and the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder, a series of environmental flows have been let go from various dams in the upper catchment to hop onto the tail of that flow to continue it for a longer period of time. To allow this to happen, irrigators in the electorate of the member sitting next to me, and in my electorate, forewent the entitlement they could have had. What frustrates me is that there is no credit or recognition from the environmental lobby that that's actually happened—that there's water now heading to Menindee from Wilcannia. Cooperation between state and federal governments, the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder and irrigators is enabling that water to flow down to the river. I believe that deserves some form of recognition.

The deal that has been done by the member for Maranoa and the member for Watson is, I believe, a good compromise. Part of the compromise that is going to be of great benefit to my communities is the Indigenous water—the water for Aboriginal communities. Unless you go to those places, you will not understand the importance that the river has for those communities. If you go to the communities in Bourke, Brewarrina, Wilcannia and Menindee when there's water in the river, they are different places from when the river is dry. Those communities exist because of the river. I think that allocation of water will be helpful. We have now got over this speed hump in the process, which has stopped a lot of other things happening from the state governments as well. The environmentalists, in their great charge to try and blow this up, have actually stopped some projects that are of great benefit to the communities that they are supposed to be helping. I'm very hopeful that we're getting to a point where we'll see an allocation of funding for a weir at Wilcannia, which is long overdue; the re-engineering of the Menindee Lakes so that it has the ability to hold more water; the cutting off of Lake Cawndilla from the system; and the purchase of water from Tandou, which will mean that Lake Cawndilla will only fill when there is a flood. With the re-engineering, more water will be held in Menindee to provide for the communities who live in that area.

The other part of this legislation is about compliance. If there has been theft, then it needs to be dealt with in the appropriate manner. But I want to point out that Four Corners is not a court. Four Corners is a program that provides entertainment for people. It can present facts in a way that it wants but that is not necessarily balanced. I believe this is part of a larger scheme to actually attack the cotton industry in Australia, and irrigation in general. There are court proceedings in place, and I won't comment on them because it would be inappropriate. Until those findings are dealt with through the proper judicial manner, I think we have in this country a presumption of innocence until proven guilty.

In defence of the irrigators and the cotton industry in my electorate, we have just seen a very, very good harvest grown on less water per kilogram of cotton than anywhere in the world—certainly much less than we would have used in that area. Part of the whole process that the member for Watson was talking about with the re-engineering of the Trangie-Nevertire scheme and the Narromine and other schemes in the Macquarie valley is that we are seeing huge yields of cotton grown, with much, much less water. The lining of the channels has reduced the wastage by up around 90 per cent. We are seeing efficient use of that water. Quite frankly, with the season we're having, the only income of those towns is coming from the water generated by the irrigation industry. There is this idea that we need to get rid of cotton in Australia. We grow cotton in Australia because we have an ephemeral system. When you've got water in the dam, you can grow the crop. We've tried permanent plantings at Bourke, and that ended up very badly because in a dry season those trees ultimately died.

Congratulations to the minister, the member for Maranoa, on pulling this off. I have acknowledged the member for Watson for this process getting back on track. The communities in the Murray-Darling Basin have absolutely had it up to their back teeth with water reform. They have been going through this process for three decades now, and for it to be derailed by pure base political pointscoring from South Australia is one of the lowest, most appalling acts I've seen in my 10 years in this place. I thank the minister for getting it back on track, and I know the communities right across the basin want to get this reform done and dusted so that they can get on with their lives. Thank you.

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