House debates

Thursday, 12 November 2020


Appropriation Bill (No. 1) 2020-2021; Consideration in Detail

10:47 am

Photo of Terri ButlerTerri Butler (Griffith, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for the Environment and Water) Share this | Hansard source

It's interesting that the minister talks about 'a wheelbarrow full of reports', because, of course, one of the people who's been writing reports on the basin has said of this set of communities that they feel like they've been overconsulted but under-listened-to. That is a real theme that comes out when you talk to people in the basin. They feel like there have been a lot of wheels turning in attempts to consult them, but there has been very little action, there are very few outcomes, and there hasn't really been enough listening—or, at least, they're not being heard. There has been review after review, but there hasn't been enough action yet. I want to talk about that, but let me start by agreeing with the minister and saying, 'Yes, Minister, I am very interested in compliance in the basin, and I'm not the only one.' One of the reasons I'm so interested in compliance is that trust and confidence are central to communities in the basin being able to not just survive but thrive. They need to know that they're getting a fair go. That's what farmers want, that's what traditional owners want, it's what communities want, and it's what environmentalists want. They want a fair go. Part of that fair go is trust and confidence. This is important.

The Basin Plan is a $13 billion plan, and the value of agricultural production in the basin is $24 billion annually. It is massively important, not just to the communities in the basin—although, that is, of course, a very wide geographical area—but to the entire nation, so we need to make sure that we have a government that understands what needs to be done. But this government has no plan for water security for our nation and has been quite woeful at handling the many criticisms that have been expressed about the way that the Murray-Darling Basin has been governed and how the plan has been implemented. There is, of course, their traditional approach of saying one thing in the regions and then doing something else in Canberra. With that as the context, let me talk about compliance. Let me talk about trust and confidence.

The minister mentioned Robbie Sefton's report, Independent assessment of social and economic conditions in the Murray–Darling Basin. Robbie Sefton and her panel said:

We found many people have diminished trust in federal and state governments to deliver good long term policy and support rural and regional Basin communities. People in Basin communities repeatedly said they had lost trust because they feel over-consulted and under-listened to. We heard strong messages that successive governments have hollowed out their local and regional capability and knowledge and have not provided clear leadership or a compelling vision.

She also said, in making recommendations about how to improve the way that we all work together:

Governments and Basin communities need to work together to rebuild trust, and communities need to be put at the centre of conversations about their future.

This wasn't new. The Productivity Commission in 2018 had spoken of the legacy of community distrust and warned that if things didn't improve then trust and confidence would be reduced further. Infrastructure Australia has acknowledged the impact of the Menindee fish kill and other events in undermining confidence in the government's management of water. And, of course, Mr Keelty, who I join with the minister in thanking for his work in his time as inspector-general, said:

In the absence of strong, basin-wide leadership, there is a perception that some parties are too busy 'playing politics' and are ineffectual at making any tough decisions, especially when it comes to making decisions in the national interest and at the whole-of-basin level.

So a range of concerns have been raised by reviewers, by the Productivity Commission and by the inspector-general.

Minister, that is why we are so interested in compliance—because it goes to the question of trust and confidence, and those things go to the question of the quality of life of the people who live in the basin, and the quality of life for our entire nation, because of the significance of agriculture and water to it. So that's why we're interested.

Your predecessor as minister, back in August last year, announced the creation of an inspector-general position for the Murray-Darling Basin., and we welcomed it at the time. In a press release, the government said, 'This Inspector-General will be able to refer issues of concern off to the Commonwealth integrity commission.' There's only one problem with that: the inspector-general has come and gone and still no Commonwealth integrity commission has actually been established. So that never happened.

But what also never happened was a range of things that had meant to be occurring with the inspector-general. It was meant to be interim, for a short time, and then a statutory basis for the inspector general position with statutory powers. It never happened. Then, a year later, the government abolished the position. They say, 'We'll have a new position.' That's great, but—guess what—it's not going to be stood up until September 2021. So there will be a year gap in compliance. And, of course, as has been said by the minister, Mick Keelty did not continue. There is no current interim inspector-general. There is no compliance entity of this type that was sold to Australians with so much fanfare back in August last year. It's was just another photo op with no follow-up.


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