Tuesday, 17 October 2023
Water Amendment (Restoring Our Rivers) Bill 2023; Second Reading
It's really important that I speak for the second time on this bill. My first remarks were in a five-minute statement, but today the bill itself is before the House. As I've listened to Labor members talk about this legislation, I've been somewhere between laughter and tears—laughter because it's so ridiculous to hear the comments they make; tears because I know that their way is likely to prevail in a part of the world that is precious and important to me and to whom water matters more than anything else.
I've heard the member for Bennelong, I think, I've heard the member for Gilmore, and I've heard the member for Jagajaga talk about their parts of the world. The Yarra River mangroves on the south coast are obviously nowhere near the basin. Labor members have carefully read their talking points and talked about the environmental catastrophe, but they haven't actually visited my electorate. We would welcome them. They haven't actually visited the Murray-Darling Basin. They haven't actually seen what happens to the water that they want to take away right now or what it does in that part of the world. We often descend, as my colleagues say, into giga-babble, where we talk about the complexities of water in a way that makes it difficult for average Australians to understand what we are going on about. I understand that. So I'm going to address this issue for the perspective of someone like so many of my colleagues opposite, who don't understand the detail of the Murray-Darling Basin. I don't mean that in a way that is dismissive of them; I'm distressed by their contributions because I realise how ill-informed they are. But that doesn't mean I don't want them to actually understand what's going on here.
Effectively, what this government is doing is taking the bipartisan Murray-Darling Basin Plan, which was hard fought between states and different sides of politics in the Commonwealth and across the regions in Australia and so many groups, and completely rewriting it. It's completely rewriting it and changing it up to say: 'It doesn't matter, regional communities, what you think. It doesn't matter, farmers, what you think. It doesn't matter, irrigated agriculture, what you think. And the truth doesn't really matter either because we made an election promise to do a certain thing and we're going to go ahead and do it, and that certain thing can come at the cost of all of you.'
That's not good enough and we're going to fight back on this. We expect people to get angry. We expect people to get very angry, because when I talk to my communities they are genuinely bewildered by what this means. They can't understand what is happening. They can't understand why a government would break the bipartisanship that I spoke of and break a commitment to have a balance between the environment and communities in the Murray-Darling Basin that does looks after the environment and does respect and value communities, because if you don't respect and value communities you will lose them.
Everywhere in all of these seats that the Labor members occupy, they have that balance in their own backyards. They have that balance between housing and native vegetation. They have that balance between waterways and buildings. They have a complete and demonstrated balance all around them. But they don't want to see that balance in rural and regional Australia. They don't want to see our communities—my communities—thrive.
I want to give, as an example, the community of Griffith in the Riverina. Griffith is the place where they burnt the first Basin Plan, and it has taken a long time, quite rightly, for the people of Griffith to get on board with the bipartisan plan. We had a meeting of the coalition backbench in Griffith recently. We went to Griffith as a backbench group because the government, in putting forward this bill, refused to actually come into the Murray-Darling Basin itself and consult. Senator Matt Canavan in the other place, well-supported by Senator Davey, our shadow spokesperson on water, came to Griffith and the community of 150 people gathered. Many were busy on their farms, busy with their crops and busy with their lives, but those who did come and listen couldn't believe what they heard. They couldn't believe that they were facing something as desperate as the very future of their town and region.
The general manager of the Griffith City Council, Brett Stonestreet, said something that resonated with all of us. Back in 2010, community confidence was rocked by the basin reform process. The Office of Local Government reduced growth projections for Griffith by 20 per cent. That dried up public sector investment, which then impacted private sector investment.
My point there is that the original Murray-Darling Basin Plan was received objectively as reducing the growth of the city by 20 per cent, and that's why the reaction in those years was so strong and so angry. What this is effectively doing is going back to the community of Griffith and saying: 'We might have to take up to 30 per cent of your water because 450 gigalitres is a lot of water and, unfortunately, the place that it can come from is the southern Murray-Darling Basin.' If you take it from anywhere, you affect everywhere in the southern basin. If you take it from the community of Griffith in Murrumbidgee Irrigation, if you take it from Murray Irrigation on the Murray, if you take it from the Goulburn-Murray irrigation district in Victoria, they're all interconnected, and if you reduce the pool by up to 30 per cent, then everyone is affected.
Imagine any business losing 30 per cent of its capital or asset base. How can it possibly go ahead to the same level of prosperity? Michael Pisasale from Murray Irrigation also said in that meeting, 'We have a government which is prepared to spend a billion dollars on buyback'—that's what this is, a billion dollars to buy back the water—'but it will cost our communities that every year.'
I think there is $1.2 billion sitting in the government's special account to buy water, and I think that that will be exhausted fairly quickly. It won't buy 450 gigalitres, clearly. Billions and billions of dollars more will be required. So the bitter irony of this is that, while billions of dollars will be spent to buy water to close down huge areas of irrigated agriculture in our country, there has been some loose language from the government about compensation for those communities, which is the insult that really rocks us to the core. What if a government were to say, 'We're removing your productive capacity and we're shrinking your economic base by up to 30 per cent, but we'll give you a little bit of money to make you feel better'? What would that money do? Maybe it would do something for the supporting infrastructure; that's always a popular thing for governments. But maybe you've got no footy team because you have no young people, or you have no childcare centre because the employees of so much of this value-added agriculture have left town. They will; we have seen this before. So where and what is the point?
We are going to fight this every step of the way. I call this a 'dog act' by the government. It's a cowardly act. It's an act of cowardice by a minister who has not looked any irrigator, farmer or community member in the eye during the course of this debate and actually said: 'This is my proposal. I'm going to lift the cap on buyback,' which is what we put in place and which prevents the act of buying water back. Let me make this very clear: when you recover water for the environment you can do it in two ways. You can simply purchase it—a very lazy way, and that's what the Labor Party did before. Or you can put infrastructure, works and measures in to use what you have more efficiently; as I said, to improve the delivery of water both for agriculture and for the environment—to make it more efficient.
Most of that work has already been done, so there's no easy work to be done to make irrigation more efficient. Come and have a look—see how we actually are the best in the world. We have the latest technology in the world in our irrigation systems. But if you overlook infrastructure measures completely, which is what a lazy buyback does, effectively you miss out on the opportunity that has been presented to the government by Murray Irrigation. To our and this government's credit, they haven't snatched the money back off the table. It uses existing irrigation channels to send water to areas that are sensitive in the environment—to wetlands. It's a perfect win-win because it's using the same delivery system. You can imagine one conveyance body of water carrying water for the environment on top of it, so it's actually saving water for both the environment and for farmers. But it's about getting that balance right. That's one example.
But a buyback is something completely different. To their credit, we saw the state of Victoria saying, 'We don't want any part of this.' When the minister made the announcement about the new Murray-Darling Basin Plan and the new water act, she had to say, 'Everyone isn't on board yet; Victoria isn't on board.' All credit to Victoria for not coming on board; the Victorian state government understands what this would do to their farmers, their regions and the Goulburn-Murray Irrigation District. They understand that enough water has been taken from their regions already.
Sadly, the new New South Wales government didn't have a clue about this and they made some general statements that they would prefer not to have buyback. But they signed on the dotted line, took money from this government and didn't even fight for their irrigation districts. They didn't fight for their communities. I can tell you, Deputy Speaker Vasta, that the old country Labor that was in western New South Wales when I first became a member of parliament would never have done this. But the government of Chris Minns has done this, aided and abetted by the local Independent member, the member for Murray, Helen Dalton. Really, she could have said to the Premier, with whom she claims to have a good relationship, 'If you come into my communities and take my water I won't give you confidence and supply as an Independent member of the New South Wales parliament.' The Independent member for Murray didn't say that. But I'm still calling on her to say that, because right now New South Wales could pass an amendment to their own water act that could prevent water trading. That's a tool they have at their disposal, and it could mean that water would not leave our region. Water would not be sold and water would not be taken away from productive agriculture.
The sad thing is that having been the environment minister and represented irrigation communities, I think I have a fair idea of the balance. It was always important to me; I think we all, as a community and as parliaments here and across the basin states, got that right. So for this government to come in here and rip up that promise at all was that good work is really, really extraordinary. Ever since the Basin Plan was introduced, farmers and irrigators have been striving to use their precious resource better and smarter, doing more with less in a bid to balance the use of water for food and for the environment. And we were nearly there!
The second awful irony of this is that this will have an effect on the cost of living for all Australians. Irrigation isn't just some abstract concept that happens which you may choose to like or dislike; it's actually the transformation of inland regions with relatively low rainfall into farmland—into areas which bloom. People who came out, post war, dug irrigation ditches with their hands, and with carts and horses, and slaved for years to build a future for their families and communities, and they built the production of food for the nation and the world. Irrigation feeds the nation, and it feeds the world.
When you go shopping you might look for apples and pears from the Goulburn Valley. You might look for the amazing citrus that comes from my region and also from the Riverland and the Mallee. You might even look for sustainable cotton, because it's a sustainable fibre that's grown organically in the basin. You might look for our pecan nuts. You might have our almonds, when you have almond milk in your morning coffee. You might have our wine grapes and table grapes and a whole range of beautiful products which I look forward to showcasing in this parliament.
We are going to fight this hard and we are going to demonstrate how awful it is to do this to our farmers and our food producers.
But it does come back to a cost-of-living issue. Dry and economic though that might sound to some it matters a great deal to people who live a long way from the basin but who have come to value, respect and love our Australian-grown produce. That is all under threat. Do not mistake this. It is all under threat. If you take away the ability to produce up to 30 per cent of your food and fibre, you won't have enough left in many cases. People are always asking, 'What's the tipping point,' as if somehow we have to push our communities right to the edge until they fall over. I think the tipping point was reached the last time the Labor Party was in government and the last time the Labor Party pursued this hideous agenda.
This is a water minister who has no idea. This is a government that has no idea, that has no conviction and that continues to leave Australians behind, particularly, and so sadly, the communities of the Murray-Darling Basin.