Thursday, 4 April 2019
Resolutions of the Senate
Murray-Darling Basin Royal Commission; Consideration of Senate Message
When a piece of public policy is tolerated at best and hated at worst in the entire area of its application, that should signal to the parliament responsible for that policy that something is wrong. A perfect example is the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. Go anywhere in the basin, and anyone who is affected directly as to their livelihood, their business, their family or their community by this plan tolerates it at best and hates it at worst.
I don't care about some no-name senator coming up with a no-name motion about water buyback. What I care about is the media release put out by the member for Watson only five days ago and the ensuing change to Labor Party policy on what, as our minister has just enunciated, was clearly bipartisan. So the media release that Labor has put out says:
Two changes made by the coalition are going to be undone, it says. One is the cap on buybacks and the second is:
… a change to the socio-economic definition for delivering the 450GL of water for the environment.
So those two things have now been picked up by Labor as a change in their policy.
I think there was some very clever speaking just now by the member for Watson. I think what you could have said, Member for Watson, is that you are walking away from your bipartisan approach, because the two things that you have said you are changing were subject to passage through this parliament. You agreed to them. They went through this parliament in 2012.
The letter I have here was written to me by the then Leader of the Opposition, Tony Abbott. Many members of this House have changed, but I've been here for this journey all along. I know the history. I've lived and breathed it and my communities have hurt more than any other group of communities in the country when it comes to water policy. This letter from Tony Abbott clearly said: 'We will implement the triple bottom line'—we've always said that; we've maintained it all the way through—'of the cap on buy-backs of 1,500 gigalitres, the 450 gigs and the socioeconomic test.' The member for Flinders as environment minister then spoke about it in the House in the debate on the Water Amendment (Water for the Environment Special Account) Bill 2012. It was agreed to by Labor. It went through the parliament and actually changed the socioeconomic test. That was the only reason that we agreed to it. They were the conditions that we signed up to it, because we knew how much it would hurt farmers. We knew it was a piece of politicking by South Australia to add the 450 gigs. It's physically impossible to deliver. Everyone on the southern basin actually understands that. But we agreed to it with these careful tests. They were secured and confirmed by the minister and the ministerial council in December last year at MinCo. So everyone, all the basin states, were on board with this. Only last week, as we lead into the pre-election period, did Labor change their mind.
So I come back to the plan itself and the awful reality that my constituents now face if there's a change of government. For them, it will go back to what we all call the bad old days of buyback. That's because the buyback was completely nonstrategic. It was completely haphazard. It divided communities, it divided irrigators and, as the minister said, it divided the country. What Labor have told us they will do is go back to buyback and scrub the neutrality test on the 450 gigs. That is absolutely, totally unacceptable. I really want to appeal to the crossbench. Obviously we're locking in behind our teams here on this message from the Senate, but it's the crossbench that holds the key to this. I appeal to my colleague the member for Indi, because she knows what damage this has done and she knows how much these communities have been hurt. She's very familiar with them. She's a person who cares about farming. I understand the member for Mayo has seconded this bill and I understand the member for Melbourne will lock in behind the Greens but, for the rest of us, if this 450 gigalitres is undone in the way it's recovered, the water will come from my electorate and the member for Murray's electorate. For us to confront our communities that are on their knees right now and actually say to them that we have an opposition in Canberra, potentially the government, that will come back into our communities to recover upwards of 200 gigalitres, if you combine our two electorates, and buy that back we may as well lock the door, turn out the lights and forget about the future. We have almost turned the food bowl of Australia into a dust bowl as it is.
For the member for Watson to talk about how this is good for communities and how this will work for communities is absolute nonsense. Walk down the main street of Finley. Look at the number of shops that have closed. Go to the high school. Talk to the kids. Listen to the stories. Understand that farmers are watching what is notionally a healthy river run straight past their doorstep, taking the water past their region. Their allocation is zero. That's right—zero. We have to accept that the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder know exactly what they're doing with all this environmental water. Not one drop was able to be borrowed by irrigators through a sensible proposal I put forward last year to allow them to finish growing their winter crops and grow food to feed the rest of the country that was struggling with drought.
These rivers are flooding. It is physically impossible to deliver this water down to the bottom end of the basin. But people all over Australia think they're experts on this subject. Lots of people come in here who have no idea of the reality of life. They have no idea how we have effectively said to some of the best, youngest, smartest, most innovative and efficient farmers in the country, 'Actually, don't worry about your future in farming because it won't exist under a Labor government.' It won't exist if you, the opposition, become the government in Canberra, because turning your back on the Basin Plan at five minutes to midnight—just before an election—is absolutely pure politics.
As the minister said, this is not easy. I am just hanging in there. At one stage I said to the New South Wales minister, 'I think it might be time to exit the Basin Plan.' That was before we secured the northern basin disallowance agreement and we sorted that problem out. Before then, the states were the gatekeepers. What's Labor saying? They're creating enemies of the states in their conversation in the House today. They're saying, 'The states won't do the right thing.' The states are doing the right thing. They're looking after their people. They're standing behind their farmers. At the moment, they are the only thing between this Labor Party and decimation.
This is a piece of public policy that is tolerated at best and hated at worst all across the basin. This is so not just in my patch; it is all across the basin. Surely, that sounds an alarm in this parliament that something needs to be done differently. Where are we now? Yes, I accept the plan is a framework. Yes, I'm just hanging in there, along with most of my community. But what I do know is that it needs flexibility. It needs to have the ability to change the rules. It needs a smart assessment—an examination of water allocations and entitlements that actually proves the viability and the value of irrigated agriculture and our need to have and introduce that flexibility so those communities can say, 'Yes, we're valued by the parliament of Australia. Yes, we're valued by everyone who sits in this place.'
I cannot overstate what I see as the huge risk in the Labor Party in government owning this policy. They're not going to get there; we're going to get there. But people have to think about this very, very carefully and really consider how hard it's going to be for our farming families, their children and their future if this policy passes. This policy crept into the parliament by way of an independent senator but was seriously backed up by a release put out by Labor last week that they're not really talking about. But don't worry, it has been heard loud and clear across my electorate. It's a release that actually says they will remove the cap on buyback and restore the original socioeconomic definition for delivering the 450 gigalitres to the system. Not only that, they're moving the Murray-Darling Basin Authority compliance functions to the EPA and having an urgent review of climate change impacts on the basin, which, from my point of view and that of my community, is an excuse to get in there and suddenly say the plan's not working, we have to change it, we have to find more water and we have to do these things.
There is all this expertise but none of the hard, practical understanding of talking, listening and learning. Anyone anywhere is welcome to come and speak to my people. Understand the situation and think very, very carefully before you take the actions that it looks like you're going to take.