Tuesday, 17 October 2023
Water Amendment (Restoring Our Rivers) Bill 2023; Second Reading
I stand to speak on the Water Amendment (Restoring Our Rivers) Bill 2023. First, let's be clear what we're talking about. The Murray-Darling is Australia's largest and most complex river system. It crosses four states, one territory, and spans many thousands of kilometres of interconnected rivers, from Queensland where the water runs into the Darling Barka to South Australia where the Murray meets the ocean, and including the Castlereagh River which starts in the heart of the Warrumbungle Mountains and wraps around my childhood home in Coonabarabran. It is a complex, vast, richly biodiverse and interconnected system, home to 16 internationally significant wetlands and 35 endangered species.
It is also a food bowl for the nation. Forty per cent of Australia's agricultural output comes from farmers in the Murray-Darling Basin. So, when people in my electorate of North Sydney do their grocery shop and stock up on rice, milk and fruit, chances are they are buying produce grown in the basin.
The Murray-Darling is of deep cultural importance to Indigenous people. There are 99,000 First Nations people from over 40 different First Nations that live in the Murray-Darling Basin and have a unique connection to the river, the ecosystems, and to country. The basin is, in fact, a site for many traditional activities like fishing, hunting, ceremonies and harvesting. It is home to burial mounds, camp sites and records of Indigenous history within the landscape. It is also a recreational place for the communities living along the river and for the many tourists who visit.
Delivering on the objectives of the Basin Plan requires cooperation from all basin states and strong leadership from the federal government. It also requires a comprehensive and holistic approach to the management of the basin. In this context I'd like to offer the following analogy. If a medical patient presented with full body aches, no doctor in the world would simply treat just their head or their feet. We cannot fix the Murray-Darling by focusing only on the southern or northern basin.
The science is clear. The over extraction of water, particularly for irrigation, has reduced the natural flows of the river system. Climate change is compounding these issues. Increased warming brings increased evaporation and more extreme drought and flood events. According to the Murray-Darling Basin Authority, 'Scientists predict that the basin's climate is likely to become drier and more variable.' We can expect more extreme droughts and more extreme floods. If left unmitigated, these extremes will have significant impacts on the communities, businesses and ecosystems of the basin.
When I think of the Murray-Darling, it's difficult not to picture the devastating scenes of the Menindee fish kills earlier this year—kilometres of dead fish floating downstream. According to the New South Wales Chief Scientist's report, the event was 'symptomatic of degradation of the broader river ecosystem over many years'. It was impacted in part by the long-term effects of reduced flows from the increasing diversions from the rivers and catchments in the basin. Management of the basin has been marred by decades of major party politics, and it's a sorry state of affairs when petty politicking determines the health and wellbeing of one of our most complex and important river systems.
In this context, then, I welcome the intent of this bill to introduce the necessary measures to implement the Basin Plan in full and restore the integrity of water management in the basin more broadly. I appreciate the legislation attempts to strike a balance between the environmental needs and the needs of the communities and businesses built around the Murray-Darling. It seeks to reverse overextraction of the basin's waters while recognising the important role of the farmers, communities and businesses that rely on those waters. But we must remember that those communities and businesses built around the Murray-Darling cannot thrive if the ecosystem does not thrive. The health and sustainability of this basin is a prerequisite for the health and stability of all of the communities that rely on it, both north and south.
In order to implement the Murray-Darling Basin Plan in full, this bill provides more time to deliver water recovery targets, pushing deadlines out to 2027. While I acknowledge that that extension of key time frames for delivery of water recovery targets is a necessary measure given the lack of progress made to deliver on the targets to date, this is not a free pass for further delays. We cannot kick the can down the road any longer. There should be no further extensions to deliver the 450 gigalitres of water for enhanced environmental outcomes. It is clear that we must do everything we can to return the full 450 gigalitres to the environment, and that is why I welcome the removal of the cap on water purchase entitlements by the Commonwealth, which was introduced by the previous government, as well as the expansion of the types of projects that can deliver the Basin Plan target of 450 gigalitres of additional environmental water, including by purchasing water entitlements from willing sellers.
According to the Productivity Commission:
Purchasing water products from willing sellers is generally the most effective and efficient means of acquiring water, where governments are liable for the cost of recovering water for the environment.
However, I believe the buybacks should be concentrated on areas that have historically been neglected and are most in need and that money from the buybacks should be invested back into the basin communities to support the local economy, reduce local debts, create jobs and assist the local communities to adapt to climate change. I also welcome the much needed assurance and accountability measures in this legislation. The politicisation and mismanagement of the Murray-Darling time and time again highlight the need for greater accountability and transparency measures in the management of the basin. But more is needed.
This legislation is a small step on the long pathway to restoring the Murray-Darling. Far more must be done to ensure that sufficient environmental water is available in the basin in order to build resilience to the human induced climate change that we know will further strain this already damaged ecosystem. The bill, while a good start, does not adequately address the impacts of climate change or water justice for First Nations communities. Water rights for traditional owners should be prioritised, enabling First Nations people to exercise their custodial responsibilities to care for the river system. In summary, I welcome this legislation as a small step on the long road to restoring the Murray-Darling. But, as I said, while it is a step in the right direction, it cannot come soon enough.