House debates

Thursday, 21 February 2019


Future Drought Fund Bill 2018, Future Drought Fund (Consequential Amendments) Bill 2018; Second Reading

12:16 pm

Photo of Rebekha SharkieRebekha Sharkie (Mayo, Centre Alliance) Share this | Hansard source

I applaud the government for taking a forward-leaning position on drought mitigation by creating a future drought fund. Climate change projections indicate a permanently hotter future for Australian farmers, accompanied by more extreme droughts, and I wholeheartedly agree that steps need to be taken now to help futureproof Australia's agricultural communities. We know drought all too well in South Australia. My electorate at the end of the Murray is still recovering both environmentally and economically from the millennium drought. Sadly, I cannot say that the federal government has been forward-leaning on the management of the greatest freshwater resource our country has available to it: the Murray-Darling Basin.

The Menindee Lakes have been the latest casualty. Those who have the most to lose from alterations to the management of the river say it is all the fault of the drought. It is not all the fault of the drought. No-one has denied that the drought has contributed to this situation and it has contributed to fish kills. However, some of those fish were 80 years of age, and we know we've had many, many droughts since then.

Ultimately, there is one fundamental challenge to the management of the Murray-Darling river system that our country leaders are yet to accept and acknowledge: more water is needed for environmental flows to keep the Murray-Darling River alive. Along with a historic cycle of droughts on this continent, political leadership is creating a man-made drought through poor management exacerbated by climate change. If the river dies, all of the crops, the fish and, ultimately, the communities will die as well.

Sadly, I do not mean this figuratively. We know the mental health toll the drought takes upon rural communities. It is an issue I investigated with my private member's bill on rural finance reform that sought to create a level playing field between the banks and farmers in times of financial hardship. The report of the Australian Academy of Science on the recent Menindee Lakes fish kills is impeccable and yet another canary in the coalmine in the ailing health and dwindling resilience of our Murray-Darling river system. If only science was actually used to guide our decisions on the river's management and not just politics, we wouldn't be where we are today. It is illuminating which groups have come out attacking the report of the Australian Academy of Science.

The Australian Academy of Science concludes that it is unusual to see fish kills on this scale. Over a million dead fish have been killed in the Murray, and that is not remotely normal. Something is seriously wrong. Their report concludes:

The root cause of the fish kills is that there is not enough water in the Darling system to avoid catastrophic decline of condition through dry periods.

There is not enough water. Remember that our country is no stranger to drought, and yet the report concludes that too much water has been taken out of the system. There are eight headline recommendations in the report and the top recommendation is to:

… take urgent steps to ensure that there is sufficient flow—considering both quality and quantity of water—in the Darling River to prevent stratification and blue-green algal blooms.

The Murray-Darling Basin Plan is complex, and I acknowledge that these problems are hard to tackle easily.

However, there is one quick and necessary step: if we can remove the government water buyback caps, I think that will go a long way to ensuring that we can get more water in the river. Irrigators should be able to sell to who they want, and the government should be prevented from telling a participant in the market whether they can sell or not. Water buybacks are the quickest and most efficient way to safeguard regular flows and thus the livelihood of farmers and irrigators all the way along the Murray-Darling Basin.

A second, longer term, but equally urgent and necessary step is to properly incorporate the effects of climate change into the hydrological modelling of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. We are kidding ourselves if we think climate change will not have a drastic impact upon the delivery of the plan. If the plan does not incorporate the science of climate change into its modelling, it is no real plan. We are spending much-needed money on drought resilience and on a drought fund because we realise that climate change exists and we realise that this drought will be one of many droughts, sadly, that our future Australia will experience.

Thirdly, the federal government needs to invest more in water science research. Despite being the driest inhabited continent in the world and becoming drier still, my understanding is that the government investment in water research has declined substantially in recent years. If that is correct, that is dumbfounding. I've lodged questions in writing to the relevant minister to get to the bottom of Australia's water research spending trajectory.

There is another topic I also briefly wish to discuss, which also relates to the pressure from drought and other circumstances facing farms, family farms and mum-and-dad farmers: the pressures that are exacerbated by ongoing drought. Yesterday, as I mentioned earlier in this chamber, I met with a young woman, Casey Treloar, whose family have walked away from their dairy farm in the electorate of Mayo, in my community, because they were brought to their knees financially due to years of low milk prices and rising costs. Casey's emotional Facebook video is about the plight of the dairy industry and of her family farm as she said farewell to the herd that her family had born and bred. When I spoke to Casey yesterday, she said that her dad has had these cows—he loves these cows and has hand-reared them—for 40 years. He knows every single one. Anyone who has been around dairy cows knows that every cow is different and they all have their own personality.

Casey's video has been viewed more than 1.5 million times. This means that the Australian community actually wants us to fix this. They want this place to fix the issues that our family farms are experiencing, the reasons why people are leaving dairy farms and the reasons why people are walking off the farm if they're producing horticulture. I applaud Casey for harnessing the subsequent media attention and trying to bring about change for the industry. I thank the dairy farmer advocacy group Farmer Power for not giving up the fight and bringing Casey to the parliament to plead for action.

We are running out of time. Farmer Power says that the price crunch has reached a critical point and farmers need emergency intervention. I personally don't support a floor price in milk. I think the member for New England articulated the argument quite well earlier today. We would start having floor prices in every industry. If we have one for dairy, others will then come along. But what we do need is to address the anticompetitive nature of the market that exists in Australia. I don't believe a floor price will fix the issues; however, I do believe divestiture powers will. We know that, both at processor level and at supermarket level, farmers in Australia have very few buyers and are beholden to whatever the buyer is willing to give them. I am open to a temporary levy to help our growers survive the coming years, but we need to act urgently on this in this place. We can't just wait for months. We know that many farmers, every day, contemplate leaving the farm or ending their life. We need action urgently. As I said, I believe that we need divestiture powers in this nation. We know that fines the major supermarkets have received from the ACCC in the past are considered really just part of the cost of doing business. In the end, the losers are our family farmers. We've had inquiries; we know what the problems are; now we need to act. I ask the government to urgently—urgently!—consider how we address this.

I would like to thank the member for Indi for the sensible amendments she's put forward with respect to this legislation. She has circulated those amendments and I understand that the government is supportive of them. We need to ensure that this package of money has very transparent governance arrangements around the fund, because transparency and a proper review of the drought resilience funding plans are imperative to ensuring that every dollar is spent well.

In closing, let me say I support the Future Drought Fund legislation, with the member for Indi's amendments, and I look forward to this money going to farmers in great need. I encourage anyone who cares about the Murray-Darling to read the Australian Academy of Science's report. The full title of the report is: Investigation of the causes of mass fish kills in the Menindee region NSW over the summer of 2018-2019. I seek leave to table this report.

Leave granted.


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