Thursday, 4 April 2019
Resolutions of the Senate
Murray-Darling Basin Royal Commission; Consideration of Senate Message
That all words after "That" be omitted with a view to substituting the following words—
"the House concurs in the resolution of the Senate".
I acknowledge the member for Mayo as the seconder, which, obviously, will happen at the conclusion of my speech. This has come from the Senate and was originally moved by members of Centre Alliance, by her party.
I should, after what the minister just said, explain what the resolution actually says. The resolution, first of all, notes a finding from the royal commission that I don't agree with. This particular recommendation is one that would, in fact, undo the original agreement of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan; that is, that the additional 450 gigalitres be achieved through general tender buyback. A lot of people will say that that is the most efficient way to get the water, and my original premise that I took to the negotiations when they took place was for that water to be attained through buyback. The exact people who the minister referred to as the people we need to be listening to are the people who persuaded me, including the state ministers at the time, that additional water of that nature should be obtained through on-farm infrastructure projects. That's how that water should be obtained. This resolution simply notes that recommendation. If it asked the parliament to back that recommendation, I'd be recommending that we vote against it because it would be a breach of the agreement and it would be a breach of the plan. But it doesn't ask that; it simply notes that recommendation. What the resolution before us does ask the parliament to endorse is a call on the federal government to support the urgent repeal of the cap on buyback—the 1,500 gigalitre limit on buyback.
First of all, I say this: when the minister said, 'For the first time we now have agreement between the states on how the plan should be implemented,' that was not strictly true. We had agreement when the plan was introduced. That agreement disappeared for a period while the member for New England was the Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources. The minister at the table has worked very hard, to his great credit, to get agreement back on track with the states and across the aisle. I pay tribute to him for that. But it is untrue to say that now is the first time that we've had that sort of agreement; it's not. But it did have to be retrieved, and he's done that work. The reason I say that is not, 'Here's a bit of rhetoric; let's have an argument about it.' It's for this reason: when the original agreement for the plan was put in place, there was no cap on buyback. The cap on buyback was introduced as an election commitment designed by the member for New England, the very person who caused the whole thing to almost collapse. So I don't accept that a promise made by the person who tried so actively to undo the whole plan can be seen as something that is integral to holding the whole thing together. I can't logically accept that.
The second thing is: what does a cap on buyback mean? When the cap on buyback first went through, the government had just been elected and they had a mandate for it. We didn't oppose it in the Senate on the basis that where it was set was above where the take was expected to get to anyway, so the cap on buyback was something that had a rhetorical value but didn't in fact have any impact in substance. Since that time we've had two amendments to the plan which were within the parameters of the original agreement. It was said there would be a Northern Basin Review and it was said that there would be things called supply measures which would bring the numbers down. The Northern Basin Review came back with numbers that I didn't like, that I never expected, but they came from the independent authority and were within the parameters of the original agreement, so we agreed for them to go through a negotiation with the minister. The supply measures give a 605 gigalitre reduction in the total amount, and there is some doubt as to the extent to which those supply measures will be fully realised.
Now, here is the catch, and this is where the cap on buyback becomes a real issue that will hit the plan in the next few years. If there is a cap on buyback, the states will know they don't have to go hard on delivering the supply measures they put forward because they have this seatbelt that says, 'If you don't actually deliver, not much can happen under the plan anyway because there's a cap on buyback.' If the cap is removed, we may well find that we never needed to use it anyway because the pressure will be on the states to deliver those supply measures. That's what will happen because they will know full well that if they don't deliver, buyback becomes a live option. What incentive is there on the states other than how much Commonwealth money they get to take if they know, whether or not they deliver the supply measures, the Commonwealth has no recourse because there's a statutory limit on buyback?
All of this has a real outcome. The reason the numbers were allowed to be reduced is because supply measures provide effective ways of delivering under the plan equivalent environmental outcomes using less water. They provide the exact sort of outcomes the minister was saying we should be able to do to listen to the communities. Whether they're fully delivered or not matters. The reason we need them to be fully delivered is that they go to the health of the basin. We need to get right back to first principles here. Why did the Keating government set up a ministerial council? Why did the Howard government put the Water Act in place? Why did the Gillard government put in place a Murray-Darling Basin Plan? Why, under the Turnbull government, did this minister work so hard to keep it alive?
The reason is that the major river system on our continent is at risk of collapse. There are no jobs on dead rivers. If you have ecological collapse, the communities don't get their agriculture water and they don't get their drinking water and you get all the knock-on impacts from that. If you think ecological collapse is an exaggeration then look at the summer we've just had. The need for the plan to be fully delivered is real.
This cap now creates a disincentive for the states to deliver those supply measures. So, please, don't come in here and argue that this is an attempt to have buyback all over the place, because the plan doesn't allow that. I've ruled that out. And, with respect to the 450 gigalitres, the plan doesn't allow a drop of that 450 gigalitres to be through general tender buyback. Those supply measures will only be delivered if the states have an incentive to deliver them. If they don't deliver them and there's a cap on buyback, the river will just take the cut and the ecological collapse that we saw over summer will become an annual event. Don't think it can't happen, because we've watched the beginnings of it happen. This is no ordinary drought. The in-flows are dropping and, as the in-flows to the basin are dropping, the extent to which what once was simply an overallocation now becomes an overextraction that imperils the future of the rivers.
I won't accept the argument that somehow by keeping to the original plan we're playing a political game. I can't accept that. Ultimately, no matter how we negotiate back and forth across the aisle, the rivers have commenced negotiating back, and they are the most uncompromising of all. So I urge members to vote for the amendment that I've moved and the member for Mayo will second, even if you hope that total buyback never goes beyond where the current cap is. By removing the cap you guarantee that the supply projects will happen. I know people will go to their electorates and will want to run a different argument, but this plan was put in place to make sure that the rivers are restored to health and that it's done in a way that works with communities. The cap on buyback is the one part of this that was nothing more than an election commitment concocted by the member for New England.