Tuesday, 17 October 2023
Water Amendment (Restoring Our Rivers) Bill 2023; Second Reading
Water is life. The Murray-Darling Basin covers more than half of eastern Australia from Charleville and Toowoomba in the north; down to Broken Hill and Adelaide in the west; south across to Tamworth, Orange, the ACT, Albury-Wodonga, Shepparton, Bendigo; and almost to Melbourne in the south-east—and all points in between. The environment and the economy depend on the water that flows through this vast tract of land, and so do Indigenous communities, farmers, pastoralists, dozens of towns and capital cities as well as the businesses and consumers who rely on the affordable and reliable food the basin provides.
It's a shame that this essential national resource was not handed to the Commonwealth in the Constitution back in the beginning to manage on behalf of us all, but that was not to be. Interstate rivalries saw to that, and now we are where we are. As Margaret Simons wrote in the Saturday Paper:
If politics is how societies, short of war, decide on the sharing of resources, then water—particularly in a dry country—is unavoidably political.
It is not about parties. It is the politics of place, of community, of food security and ultimately the nature of our federation. It could hardly be more difficult, or more important.
I've consulted widely on this legislation, as I always try to do before making a considered judgement on how I will vote. I thank the minister and her staff for their readiness to consult. I've spoken to irrigators; environmentalists; the Inspector-General of Water Compliance, Troy Grant; as well as representatives of horticultural interest in the Goulburn Valley among others. I thank them all for their insights and their advice. It is about the environment. It's also about the economy.
I particularly welcomed the insights of Rob Priestly, who reminded me to go into Coles or Woolies and look around at fruit and veg that costs less than $5 a kilo—carrots, onions, apples, pears, potatoes. He says that between 20 and 80 per cent of these are grown in the southern basin. Rob says that if all the water buybacks come in the southern basin, it will crush all milk producers, representing 20 per cent of national supply, but 50 per cent of Brisbane and Sydney's fresh milk, and all these products. Victorian food producers should not be penalised for having done the right thing. Rob notes that the Darling used to contribute 39 per cent of the water to South Australia. Now it contributes 14 per cent. He says that it's dying due to massive dam and surface water diversion in northern New South Wales and southern Queensland.
The fact of the matter is, of course, that we've been taking too much water out of Murray-Darling and its various tributaries for too long, and climate change is only making that more difficult. The absence of the impact of climate change from the objects of the act is a significant oversight. I am proposing an amendment to rectify this omission. According to the Murray-Darling Basin Authority, winter rainfall and streamflow in the southern basin have declined by nearly 40 per cent since the mid-1990s.
The Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists points out that the basin has warmed by around one degree Celsius since 1910. They say that the 3,200 gigalitre target of water recovered for the environment under the Basin Plan was based on the historical climate and will be insufficient to restore the long-term sustainability and health of the important wetlands and rivers in the basin, particularly in the absence of agreed mechanisms for climate change adaptation. As the Wentworth Group argues in its submission to the current Senate inquiry, new approaches are required regarding the management of river flows in a changing climate, including the use of likely future climate change projections, not just historical records, in water management modelling and planning; rules to conserve and protect priority flows; the design and implementation of environmental triage for wetlands; and new arrangements to support communities to adapt to climate change.
This last point is particularly important and goes beyond our policy responses to the Murray-Darling. If we don't look after communities affected by our policy responses to climate change, we risk losing the support of much of the broader community for the urgent actions we must take to have any hope of getting to net zero.
Central to the legislation is the aspiration to recover an additional 450 gigalitres of enhanced environmental water. However, this is not a legally binding target, and according to the MDBA only three per cent of that amount has been recovered so far. I will move a further amendment to entrench this requirement in the legislation. I agree with the Wentworth Group that the Commonwealth should encourage states, basin communities and industry groups to contribute to a suite of projects to address this issue and that the government's transition fund should assist and encourage this approach. The basin states should also be required to meet annual milestones in the water recovered towards the 450 gigalitres target—in other words, around 100 gigalitres per year through to 2027.
I welcome the continued achievement of SDL compliance in Queensland, South Australia, Victoria and the ACT. In his latest sustainable diversion limit compliance statement, delivered last month, the Inspector-General of Water Compliance pointed to New South Wales's conspicuous absence—alone amongst the basin states—in complying with SDL commitments. He notes that, in the middle of last year, he gave a speech which called out the failure of the New South Wales government to deliver water resource plans. The evidence is now in that, during 2021-22, New South Wales failed to deliver the outstanding obligations and commitments to the Basin Plan. Therefore, the 20 water resource plans in New South Wales were not accredited or operating in the 2021-22 water accounting year, an absence for the third year in a row since the commencement of SDL compliance. The inspector-general goes on to say in his report:
Without water resource plans, New South Wales is subject to a lower level of accountability under the Basin Plan than the other four Basin States.
The amending legislation pushes out the review date from 2024 until 2027. This is not good enough. So for reasons of accountability and transparency, I will be looking to bring that forward.
Also, given New South Wales's behaviour, the legislation may, perversely, offer that state a reward. Water resource plans are an integral part of implementing the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. All jurisdictions other than New South Wales have successfully completed their MDB water resource plans and had them accredited. As the Wentworth Group points out, despite being more than four years late and having accumulated deficits over the past three years as a result of the overextraction of 71.1 gigalitres in the case of the Barwon-Darling, and 111.8 in the Gwydir River system, these cumulative deficits will be zeroed under provisions in the existing Basin Plan when the water resource plan is accredited by the Commonwealth.
As all other jurisdictions have met their commitments under the Basin Plan to submit and have their water resource plans accredited by the Commonwealth, New South Wales remains the only jurisdiction not to have had their WRP accredited. When they eventually do, they will not be penalised for exceeding the STLs from 2019 to the accreditation date. New South Wales should not be so rewarded, so I will look to move an amendment designed to remedy this. The minister's office is reluctant to accept these amendments, but I want to make it clear that I appreciate the diligence with which the minister and her cabinet colleagues have taken my representations to them on this and other legislation. The climate change minister, for example, took on board my concerns that the legislated target in the climate change bill of 43 per cent by 2030 should be explicitly a floor and not a ceiling. I also made the point that 43 per cent was inadequate to keep us on the path to net zero by 2050. Equally, I sought to offer amendments to the safeguard guarantee legislation which were designed to ensure that our biggest polluters could not account their way to zero.
Shortly after the legislation was passed, we discovered that Australia is increasing its carbon emissions and not reducing them. I say this to the government, in closing: you cannot please everyone all the time, and by trying to do a bit here and a bit there you run the risk of pleasing no-one. I fear that this is the case with this legislation too. On balance, I will support it because it's a good start. But I note that that's all it is.