House debates

Tuesday, 17 October 2023


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

5:53 pm

Photo of Jerome LaxaleJerome Laxale (Bennelong, Australian Labor Party) Share this | Hansard source

Given how vital water is for our country, communities, ecosystems, farms and planet, I am proud to speak in favour of this Water Amendment (Restoring our Rivers) Bill 2023.

The Murray-Darling Basin Plan is not just an environmental issue; it's a matter of national significance. A healthy basin ensures healthy communities and countless benefits for Australians. It allows families to enjoy the river for recreation and tourism, it provides clean drinking water to three million Australians daily and it supports important food and fibre production. The basin is deeply entwined with the cultural fabric of Australia. Beyond its environmental importance, this iconic region holds profound cultural links for Australians, including significant connections to Indigenous culture. It transcends generations with deep-rooted connections to the communities around it. It's more than just a physical landscape. For many, it holds a spiritual connection to land, ancestors and traditions.

The basin has been a source of food, water and shelter, and these resources are deeply intertwined with cultural practices. From the Barkandji people in the Menindee Lakes region to the Ngarrindjeri people in South Australia, each community has its unique ties to the Murray-Darling. Its cultural, social and economic ties to Australia underscore the importance of this bill. This legislation is not just about restoring the basin's ecological balance. It's also about preserving the deep cultural connections it holds for Indigenous communities and for those who use the basin for recreational spaces, and it ensures the continued prosperity of the nation.

The Basin Plan was born out of the work of the 1994 Council of Australian Governments, which recognised that the degradation and unrestricted appropriation of our water system could not continue. That was over 28 years ago. Then, over a decade ago, in line with the National Water Initiative, a bipartisan agreement was reached to create water targets for the Murray-Darling Basin that would support the sustainability of life throughout the river system. To the detriment and devastation of so many communities and ecosystems, this plan has been a failure for many years because of the actions, or lack of action, of those opposite.

The coalition were told again and again that the Basin Plan wasn't working. They were told that in the first Water for the Environment Special Account report. Then they were told that in the second Water for the Environment Special Account report which, naturally, was kept secret by the member for Hume before the last election. Thanks to the actual transparency provided by the current minister, Minister Plibersek, we know that official scientific advice indicates that their plan simply can't be delivered on time.

In nine years, the coalition delivered just two gigalitres of a 450-gigalitre target. That puts them on track to complete the Murray-Darling Basin plan sometime around the year 4000. The original deadlines were set for June 2024, and in the early years the former government was well on track to meet those deadlines. Of course, the Liberals and Nationals spent a decade sabotaging the plan. They tied up projects in impossible rules so that they couldn't deliver water savings. They blocked water recovery programs. They tried to cut the final recovery targets to keep them below scientific recommendations and, as a result, progress slowed to a dribble under the previous government. Because of their deliberate choices, it is now impossible to deliver the plan on the original time line.

Thankfully, this bill addresses three key areas of urgent reform. Firstly, we're committed to actually delivering more water to the 450-gigalitres target through a dedicated funding mechanism: the Water for the Environment Special Account. With these new changes, we'll be able to invest in on-farm water infrastructure, land and water purchases and other ways to recover water. We will then be able to purchase water from willing sellers where it's needed to deliver the plan. Water purchasing is never the only tool in the box. It's also never the first tool at hand. Frankly, it's delusional to suggest that we can take it off the table for good. I, for one, would struggle to explain to locals why overseas funds would still be allowed to be used to purchase water but Australian elected governments' funds couldn't be used. Of course, we'll provide significant transitional assistance if voluntary water purchases have secondary impacts on communities.

The second key area this bill addresses is the piecemeal nature of water infrastructure projects left by those opposite. Currently, 16 of the 36 projects initiated by the former government are not forecast to be ready or operational by July next year. If we are going to achieve this plan in full, we need to give the states more time to deliver viable projects, and this bill gives them that extension until 31 December 2026. Should this bill pass, the onus would be on basin states to finish projects that they have started.

Thirdly, this bill will tackle much-needed water market reform. Water markets play an essential role in our agriculture system, serving as the lifeblood of many farming communities. They facilitate the allocation of water resources and support economic activities that contribute significantly to our nation's prosperity. However, we cannot ignore the critical shortcomings that currently plague our water market system. Australia has the largest water trading system in the world; some may argue that it is also one of the least transparent. For a $3 billion market, there are no laws against market manipulation, the insider trading prohibition is too narrow and the legal requirement to maintain proper records is too weak. Changes are needed to help secure Australia's water future through the next series of droughts and beyond. One does not need to look very far in the past to see why oversight is urgently needed to protect the environment, basin communities and Australian farming families from an unregulated private market for one of our most precious resources. The value of high-security titles increased from $1,693 per megalitre in June 2014 to $4,211 per megalitre in June 2017. In the six months of water trading in the 2018 drought investor Duxton Water reported an increased revenue of 348 per cent, and after-tax profit increased over 20 per cent in that quarter alone.

The lack of laws against market manipulation, the narrow scope of insider trading prohibitions and the weak legal requirements for maintaining proper records have left the system vulnerable to abuse and exploitation. This bill seeks to rectify that. It seeks to introduce a framework to enforce a mandatory code for water market intermediaries, holding them accountable for their actions. Civil penalties for market manipulation will be introduced, with insider trading penalties doubled to deter illicit practices. In essence, we aim to bring the water market in line with the standards observed in other markets, ensuring fairness, transparency, and accountability. As the code of conduct regulator, it will allow the ACCC to monitor water prices and investigate misconduct allegations. This will bring water markets in line with the standards in other markets. These changes will not only penalise bad behaviour but also increase public trust in the system, fostering that trust and confidence in such an important marketplace.

This bill will also require the Commonwealth basin states and irrigation infrastructure operators to make water market decisions available publicly. There will be new obligations on basin state governments, infrastructure operators and water exchanges to generate, record, collect and report water market information. The Bureau of Meteorology will collate this information from across the basin and make it publicly available via a water data hub with live market updates on a new water markets website. We simply need to improve water regulation in this country, and that is exactly what this legislation will do. It will make the sector more transparent, more open and more accountable.

Australia is in the middle of and facing an environmental emergency. If we don't act now to preserve the Murray-Darling, our basin towns will be unprepared for drought, our native animals will face the threat of extinction, our river ecosystems will risk environmental collapse, and our food and fibre production will be insecure and unsustainable. This bill is therefore about a return to common sense, a complex plan with a simple objective: to set up the Murray-Darling Basin for a better future. Our government has worked with the states and territories, with farmers and irrigators, with scientists and experts, with environmentalists and with First Nations groups. It is about remembering that the point is to ensure a healthy and sustainable basin for the future. This means there will be more time to deliver the remaining water based on expert advice. It means there will be more options to deliver the remaining water, including water infrastructure projects and voluntary water buybacks. It will mean more funding to deliver the remaining water and to support communities where voluntary water buybacks have flow-on impacts. More accountability from Murray-Darling Basin governments on delivering the remaining water on time also forms part of this bill. Federal government funding will be contingent on achieving water recovery targets within deadlines. Put simply, the government wants more options, not more restrictions.

If the bill doesn't pass this year, the current legislation requires states to withdraw their unfinished projects. As I mentioned earlier, that's about half of them. This means that a major part of the plan will fall over, incurring substantial costs and delays. Of the water recovered towards the plan so far, more than 80 per cent has been done under Labor governments. So inaction is not an option. Failure to act will jeopardise the future of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, putting our environment, native animals, river ecosystems and food production at risk. Those opposite knew the program had stalled completely, but, for nine years, they kept the handbrake on water recovery. What this legislation does is remove that handbrake so we can finally deliver the water to the basin. That means giving the account more flexibility, in line with the Water Act's objectives. With these changes, we are opening up the full suite of water recovery options to get water back into the basin.

The water amendment is not just about fulfilling our promises; it's about safeguarding the future of the Murray-Darling Basin. It's about ensuring that the basin towns are prepared for drought, that native wildlife faces a lesser threat of extinction and that river ecosystems remain robust and healthy. More importantly, it's about securing a reliable and sustainable source of clean drinking water for millions of Australians. This legislation marks an important moment in history for basin communities and for all Australians who care deeply about the health of our environment. It symbolises a collective effort to put the Basin Plan back on track and ensure that its objectives are met. This bill champions environmental preservation, it acknowledges the profound cultural ties we all have to the basin, and it paves the way for the reformation of our water markets. These changes are pivotal for Australia's future, ensuring the availability of clean water, supporting our agricultural sector and enhancing transparency and accountability of how our water markets work. Australia is facing an environmental emergency, and this bill is the response we urgently need.


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