Thursday, 4 April 2019
Resolutions of the Senate
Murray-Darling Basin Royal Commission; Consideration of Senate Message
That the House of Representatives does not concur in the resolution of the Senate.
This is why the Australian public hate politicians. For the first time since Federation, we have had agreement from the basin states in the Commonwealth on the delivery of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. When I became minister 15 months ago, I wanted to take the politics out of water. It had to be about leadership. I have to acknowledge the member for Watson, who's sitting opposite, for the leadership that he showed with me. The two million Australians that live up and down the Basin Plan are fatigued. They've had a gutful. They want certainty. The water wars needed to end. And near the end of the 45th Parliament, we sit in this chamber, this great chamber, with great history and great relevance to the Australian people, and we revert back to the politicisation of this most important piece of environmental reform. This is the biggest environmental program in our nation's history.
Instead of continuing on the pathway of bipartisanship for a plan that was created in 2012, at a point when I was not even in this parliament—as a minister who lives in an electorate that's been impacted on by the Murray-Darling Basin Plan and as a member of parliament who has seen the fatigue and hurt in the lives of those people who have been impacted on by this is something that I find abhorrent—we are now standing here trying to tear down the very Basin Plan that we all agreed on. It's not a perfect plan. I acknowledge that in fact the member for Watson was the architect, but I'm delivering it. That's leadership. That is what this nation wants. That is what the Australian people want. They are sick and tired of state against state. To belittle the Australian public and to bring us into conflict, state against state, brother against brother, is something I thought this parliament was above. I thought the people within this parliament were above that. For this to be politicised for cheap political gain by a political party in South Australia that has political irrelevance—it is at the fringe of relevance in South Australia—to try to pit states against state again sets this nation back.
This is an opportunity for our nation to be led by its politicians, not torn apart. I've never yelled. I've never screamed. I've always made sure we got to this point with bipartisanship. Before I became minister, let me say, the likelihood of delivering the Murray-Darling Basin Plan was next to zero. It took leadership, and that is what I want to continue to deliver—not to let those who want to take advantage for their own political gain in their own electorates to try to tear down something that is so important to this nation, to this nation's future and to the certainty of two million Australians.
I sat in a small country town in my own electorate and I held in my arms a 68-year-old man whose town has basically been decimated by buy-backs. He owned a small business. He owned a small business that was his superannuation. After 40 years, that business was worth nothing. This man was beside himself. He told me he had nothing to live for. He had nothing left. For a South Australian senator to try to tear away that man's future, that man's certainty, to gain a political point in this place, to bring the parliament of this nation down, is something we should never be proud of. You should never be proud of that.
This isn't a perfect plan. There's been pain up and down the basin. We all acknowledge that. But let me tell you: if you tear away at this, you will have nothing. For those from South Australia, let me tell you: we've recovered approximately 2,100 gigs. If you want to tear away at this plan now, that'll be it. That's all you'll get. The reality is that, unless we have the basin states with us, we won't deliver the plan. So your motion is more about politics than reality. It would be easy for me as a Queenslander, as someone who represents nearly all of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan in Queensland, to sit here and say, 'No more; let's tear it apart.' I could do that. But do you know what? That's not the right thing to do. That's not the right thing to do by those people in Queensland. It's not the right thing to do by anybody. We're above this.
What you would invariably do is put at risk this fragile peace that has taken so long to achieve, with hard work and with leadership, not only from the federal level and from those on the other side but also from state ministers. For the first time we have had state ministers from all political persuasions agree with the management of this plan. That took courage. That took leadership. I said to those ministers when we got through the Northern Basin Review, the sustainable diversion limits and the 450 gigalitres of up water: 'We have to take a leap of faith with one another. We have to trust one another. For the first time since Federation, we have to take each other's hands and we have to lead.' They did. And now you want to tear it apart. That's something none of us should be proud of. I thought this place was better than that. I thought that we could continue on the pathway of a plan that's not perfect but is one that would deliver outcomes. We had leadership from the states that understood clearly that they had to look outside their state boundaries, and they have. I need to acknowledge former New South Wales water minister Niall Blair for his leadership. It was so easy for the parochialism of each state to stand tall and to call each other names so that the plan didn't progress. It took real leadership and courage for him to stand tall with Victoria, South Australia, Queensland and the ACT and say, 'We've had enough.' That's what we are here to do—to lead. Niall Blair led. So did Lisa Neville. She lead and so too did David Speirs, the South Australian minister. He could easily be doing what those from the Centre Alliance are trying to do today to try to gain a cheap political point. He could walk out in front of the Adelaide media and say that he stood up for South Australia and he's going to work for South Australia at the expense of all other states. But he didn't. He showed leadership—not a cheap political stunt.
I have to say that David Speirs is one of the most courageous politicians I've seen. He didn't have to come in on any of this. He could have continued on the journey that Ian Hunter was on and was committed to, but instead he thought about the delivery of the plan. It wasn't just about getting as much water across the barrage. More importantly for him, it was also about the environmental benefits up and down the basin. The blunt instrument that we've created in everyone's mind is that to make the plan work we have to get as much water across the barrage as we possibly can. It's not. There is an enormous number of ecosystems up and down the basin that we are getting environmental outcomes on. It's not just a blunt instrument—not just a cheap political instrument to try to win some points when coming up to an election.
As the member for Murray will testify, I could have gone out only two weeks ago and stood in front of a hundred angry irrigators who were baying for blood and asking for the plan to pause. I could have gone with the pack. I could have said to them 'I'm with you. Let's pause the plan and break it up.' But I didn't. The easiest thing for me to do was to fly in there and tell them what they wanted to hear and then never see them again. Instead, I looked them in the eye and told them the truth. I didn't play games—I told them the truth. This plan hurts me; it hurts my people. That 68-year-old man is still hurting—that man who lives in Western Queensland and worries about his future. I could have done the easy thing. I could have walked away and said, 'You know what? I'm going to blow it up.' But that's not the right thing to do. That's not the right thing for any of us to do. The right thing to do is to stick the course, as ugly as it is, as hard as it is. That's our job as leaders of this nation: to lead the nation and not divide it.
What is proposed tonight will be a step back from the cliff that we were about to fall over before we came to a bipartisan approach to the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, on 7 May last year. We instigated a northern review and the sustainable diversion limit—in fact, a world first in our nation's history of a $40 million Indigenous fund. I sat in St George last week with the elders. Ronnie Waters, a great mate of mine, is a great Indigenous elder in St George, a man who cares about his community and cares about his culture. He understands the economic impacts for his people in St George if we continue down the path of destroying this plan. He's had enough. His people have lost opportunities. But the member for Watson and I were able to get to a point where we brought our First Australians with us—and rightly so. They'd been forgotten in this plan.
You tear away the $40 million economic plan we have also put in place. If one state falls out of this, the whole thing dominoes. To anyone who says that doesn't happen: let me tell you, it does. I've faced those ministers. I understand the parochialism. We hold this by a thread because of the leadership that we have shown. It's important that we don't blink. As soon as we blink, as soon as we allow politics to creep back into this, we bring back uncertainty and we destroy the lives, again, of two million Australians who expect us to lead. They pay us to lead, to come into this place and work for outcomes, not for our own political glory.
The greatest achievement I think I'll ever make in my life is to get the Northern Basin Review through—the sustainable diversion limit and the 450 neutrality test—because those two million Australians expect it. No matter what else I've achieved, I've achieved that. I can go back and sit in the shop of that 68-year-old man, and look him in the eye and tell him that I led for him. There are more like him right up and down the basin. There's a whole generation that we owe it to to continue the path—not only the ones that are there now but the next ones to come.
We will continue to divide this nation if we do not use this as a defining moment to continue to come together as a nation and push away the fringe elements that want to destroy it, that want to tear away at the very fabric of what is so great about this nation. When we look down Anzac Avenue and see that memorial to what those brave men and women have fought for, we should respect it in this place. We should respect it by delivering certainty and by giving outcomes. We're a great nation. But, if we continue to tear each other apart to win a vote, then, I'm sorry, we tear away at this nation; we tear away at what we are and what we've become. I say to each and every one of you here tonight: we have an opportunity to lead or divide.
I've been clear. I've got to look my people in the eye. I've been honest with them every step of the way. You need to look them in the eye and be honest. It's not a perfect plan. I acknowledge the work the member for Watson has put into this. He's the architect. It's a legacy that he will leave. It's a legacy I want to leave because I've delivered it, as imperfect as it is to that 68-year-old man who sits out in western Queensland tonight, scared about his livelihood and his future. He's important. He's as important as any other Australian in this country. If we don't lead tonight, then we've let him and everyone else down.