House debates

Tuesday, 17 October 2023


Water Amendment (Restoring Our Rivers) Bill 2023; Second Reading

5:15 pm

Photo of David GillespieDavid Gillespie (Lyne, National Party) Share this | Hansard source

I rise to speak on the Water Amendment (Restoring Our Rivers) Bill 2023, which unfortunately the coalition cannot support. It is a very badly designed bill, masking a misunderstanding of the original Murray-Darling Basin Plan. In the original plan in 2012, after community dissent and unrest, with threats of violence and people's livelihoods potentially vanishing, it was settled that 2,750 gigalitres would be the sustainable diversion limit. The 450 gigalitres was not in the original plan by the honourable Craig Knowles, who worked up the plan back in 2012, which Minister Burke eventually tabled. There are agreements on the socioeconomic neutrality test around this last-minute additional 450 gigalitres. At five minutes to midnight, back in 2012, wrangling with the Greens added 450 gigalitres. But the socioeconomic neutrality test that the Liberals and Nationals nutted out with the current government back in 2018 meant that there had to be social and economic neutrality in any further buybacks that use the Water for the Environment Special Account to use buybacks to get 450 gigalitres. It was meant to be using efficiency and on-farm and off-farm infrastructure to achieve that.

The process for this bill has been incredibly disappointing. There was no inquiry. There was a webinar, and that was it—a webinar. People in the Murray-Darling Basin were ropeable. The coalition decided to do the work that the government should have done, and, over four days, the coalition backbench policy committee went out to these affected regions. Four days of meetings were held in Shepparton and Mildura in Victoria, Renmark in South Australia, Griffith and Moree. We heard in Renmark from an organisation representing the irrigators at the bottom of the basin, while in Moree we had representatives from Queensland shires at the very top of the basin. We heard from three members in separate locations and from a committee legislated by the government, called the Basin Community Committee—that is set up by legislation—which had not been consulted on this bill. The bill in itself is not compliant with its own existing legislation. The government has effectively torn up the bipartisan agreement about the use of water in the Murray-Darling Basin.

Just so that listeners have no misunderstanding: the Murray-Darling Basin Plan had a nominal value of around 13,000 gigalitres when full. It has, courtesy of a La Nina period, had healthy flows. But, since records commenced, the Murray-Darling Basin, during drought periods, has very low flows. It's not like the Mississippi, the Danube or any of these major great rivers in other countries and continents that have huge mountainous snowfields, glacier feed-in et cetera. It winds its way across thousands of kilometres of flat land, without any major feed-in mountain ranges. The first explorers recorded the Darling as a chain of ponds. Things dry out. People think that when you see the Murray-Darling Basin with low water levels it's because everything has been sucked out by farming, but that is not the case. Many of the water rights that exist aren't necessarily guaranteed extraction rights. They're water access rights. Depending on which state you're in, there are amounts that are only delivered pro rata to the amount of water in the river. During the millennium drought allocations were sometimes zero per cent, not the nominated face value of their water rights. But often for years in these severe droughts the farmers may only get three, five or 10 per cent of what is put on their water licence, depending on what state they're in and whether it's high-security permanent water or whatever.

But this legislation is doing multiple things that will totally set back that process. The impatience of the minister is quite obvious. It takes a lot of time to implement these efficiency measures on the river. It takes time, with the amount of regulation there is to go through, to get water saving infrastructure on-farm and off-farm. All the approvals take time. The critical thing in this legislation is that it aims to add the 450 back and facilitated by buybacks. We know that no-one wants buybacks because they ruin not just the agricultural production but the communities around it. An individual seller of a water right may be compensated, but the whole community—the whole agricultural output—goes down.

In towns like Griffith, Coleambally and down in Renmark, if there's no water for agriculture, there is no agriculture. You can have the best farm and the best soils, but, unless you have water to add to it, you don't have agriculture. And that's the wonder of the Murray-Darling Basin. It is one of the most engineered waterways. It is a working river. It's not a national park. It supplies water for communities and also for agriculture.

Forty per cent of the farms in Australia exist in the Murray-Darling Basin. It contributes $22 billion to our agricultural output. It is a matter of food security, for the nation and for countries that receive our food exports, that it flourishes. Communities that don't have farms that are active and producing will shrivel up and die. That is where we put in the socioeconomic neutrality test. By bipartisan agreement it has been working well. The 450 gigalitres can be achieved over time with those efficiency infrastructure gains. But the bill is going to facilitate open slather buybacks. The money's there. Historically, last time they did buybacks, they paid way over top dollar for a lot of licences that didn't even provide permanent or high-security water. They were actually buying thin air—water that only occurred when there was a flood—and it was paid for by the former minister back in the last Labor government. This is really going to remove the cap on buybacks for a start. The current Murray-Darling Basin Plan, with the 1,500 gigalitre cap on buybacks, hasn't even achieved what the plan outlined. There are still 225 gigalitres that the minister can buy back as part of the plan, before they go opening up another 450 gigalitres. There's potentially 760 gigalitres of water that could be bought back and flushed out to sea. That will be devastating for all those river and irrigation economy towns as well as cause a paucity of produce.

In August 2022 the Victorian government looked at what the costs would be in its report on the social and economic impacts of the basin plan in Victoria. If the buybacks were used to recover the long-term average of 450 gigalitres of water, this would mean 200 gigalitres of Victorian high-security water and would be expected to reduce annual water in northern Victoria by 216 gigalitres. That would devastate places like Shepparton and all those towns along rivers that feed into the Murray-Darling. The reduction in irrigation area would be 50,000 hectares. That's a staggering amount of productive land. Not having water in agriculture is like trying to drive an internal combustion car without petrol or diesel. Farms don't work without water, and that's the beauty of irrigation. The Egyptians and people living on the Tigris and Euphrates realised that, for their civilisations to make enough food, you need water. Dams happened in Ethiopia 3,000 years ago. The Egyptians were building dams thousands of years ago. The Murray-Darling Basin Plan is a solid plan, but to throw it all out with impatience and go hell for leather to start buybacks again will end badly.

Say there's a millennium drought mark 2 coming down the line. It may not happen because historically, following La Nina patterns, we generally don't have super El Ninos. The meteorologists I've sourced that information from are all professionally trained, so it's not likely that we're getting one now, although we're in an El Nino pattern now. The Victorian government worked out the economic impact in those areas would be a decrease of $500 million annually in the gross value of irrigated product. We need to think about those farmers and all the people that work on their farms. There was one farmer who had 15 employees at work, producing milk and products from irrigated pastures. If his water becomes too expensive, which it will when you take up to 760 gigalitres out, it's not economic to produce dairy as the inputs go through the roof. If there's no absolute water, well, for this 500-hectare farm—I haven't mentioned his name for privacy reasons—he'll be flat-out supporting just himself and his family. The northern Victoria gross value of agricultural production would be $270 million down per year, and agricultural employment down 900 farm jobs. But that's just an estimate for the agricultural jobs. All the town jobs that feed off agriculture would mean that number would multiply: the hairdressers, the shops, the retailers. Upstream and downstream there would be bad effects.

The other thing that's in this bill is the water market reform section. Reading through the explanatory memorandum there are fairly scary things for people involved in agriculture, and other documents coming from New South Wales, fed by this desire, show that they are changing the water access rights. They will be able to reclassify them as Commonwealth-held environmental water. That is a major change. It's not just irrigators that may have their water limited, but stock and domestic water in the basin may be affected state by state. What is also changing is that, rather than the Murray-Darling Basin Authority running the water trading, it would go to the Australian Consumer and Competition Commission and the Bureau of Meteorology. We know the ACCC is capable, and market transparency is good in any market, but it talks about fixing up insider trading and implies a lot of things are happening that shouldn't be happening. It's not a feature that I had heard of because it's a pretty transparent market. Knowing a lot of people down on the Murrumbidgee and people I visited in these irrigation towns when I was in the health portfolio, water is life. Water is the economy in these areas. The Inspector-General will remain, but all of the hard regulations will come out of the ACCC.

I move:

That all words after "whilst" be omitted with a view to substituting the following words:

"declining to give the Bill a second reading, the House:

(1) is concerned that the legislation represents the worst solution on national water reform;

(2) notes that the following is needed for national water reforms in the Basin to be successful:

(a) a cooperative and constructive approach with all Basin State Governments to assist water reform and investment in urban and rural water infrastructure;

(b) bipartisan support;

(c) proper face to face consultation with key stakeholders in the Murray Darling Basin, including all water users, farmers, water scientists, environment groups and the broader community to ensure the adoption of a Basin Plan which has at its heart a triple bottom line approach which optimises social, economic, and environmental outcomes.

(3) criticises the Government for failing to consult the Basin Communities Committee which is the legislated voice for people living in the Murray Darling Basin, on the Water Amendment (Restoring our Rivers) Bill 2023".


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