Wednesday, 15 October 2008
Water Amendment Bill 2008
Debate resumed from 14 October, on motion by Mr Garrett:
That this bill be now read a second time.
upon which Mr Hunt moved by way of amendment:
That all words after “That” be omitted with a view to substituting the following words:“while not declining to give the Bill a second reading, in respect of the Lower Lakes and Coorong area of South Australia the House acknowledges the dire situation faced by the local people, local businesses, local communities and wildlife due to the devastation of the area’s economy, and calls on the Government to support the Opposition in its commitment to the provision of $50 million for immediate and practical assistance to provide support
- to the local community, small business, tourism operators, the fishing industry and farmers, and
- to protect wildlife and flora in the region”.
At the time that I was interrupted last night while speaking on the Water Amendment Bill 2008, I was referring to the water buyback and reallocation program that is currently underway. I make this point: under the present arrangements, we have reached a point where water rights have become more valuable than the property itself. Having said that, the present water price is insufficient as fair compensation for those who wish to exit the industry. There are too many expert commentators, too many opinions and too much politics being played when it comes to the Murray River and Australia’s water supplies. As with the financial woes of the world, securing our long-term water supplies is a matter of national security and should be a politically bipartisan issue. The Murray-Darling Basin, because of its national importance, needs to be managed by a single authority. It should have been done a hundred years ago. That is why this bill is so important. It is time that the states put their parochialism aside, that communities along the Murray-Darling system work together and that individual politicians stop putting their political interests ahead of the national interest. There has been too much of that occurring for far too long and our time has now run out. It is time to act, and any delay of this bill should be and will be condemned by the Australian people. I commend to the bill to the House.
It is important to participate in this debate on the Water Amendment Bill 2008, but it is farcical for the previous speaker to say that we should be condemned if it is delayed. This is another ‘gonna’ piece of legislation. It is nearly two centimetres thick and it delivers no practical outcomes. As the second reading speech—to which I will refer in due course—tells us, it is still dependent on states passing legislation, which the Minister for Climate Change and Water in the Senate tells us has been introduced. When one looks at the period of time that the members in New South Wales choose to sit in their place—and most of that is, of course, spent on changing premiers, sacking ministers and trying to fight various other elections because members are resigning—one might wonder when they will ever get around to passing the complementary legislation on which this matter resides. To suggest that it needs any priority in this place in those circumstances is, of course, silly.
There is another reason why this legislation in all its complexity is worthy of criticism. The simple fact is that the Murray-Darling system is not in its parlous state because of lack of legislation; it is in its parlous state because it is not raining. It is drawn to our attention that it is some modern-day miracle and that people have been suddenly producing large amounts of CO2 and emitting it into the atmosphere. I can neither confirm nor deny the truth of that scientific argument, because, contrary to claims made that all the scientists are united on this, I am constantly receiving communications and representations from highly qualified scientists who have an entirely different opinion. As a layman, I am left somewhere in between and choose to look at the problem rather than the cause on this occasion.
It also has to be taken into account that it is some miracle. In fact, it is not that long ago that I read in the paper that some green activist said it was the first time in a thousand years that the Murray River had failed to reach the ocean. There is a photograph over the fireplace in the Berri Hotel—which is virtually the width of the road and a short area of grass from the Murray River; the photograph was probably taken from the front veranda—of the 1914 Berri Primary School picnic being held in the middle of the river. That photograph appears on the front page of a report of the standing committee on agriculture in the previous parliament, which in fact looked at these problems and of which I was a member. The only sign of water in the photograph is a puddle in the foreground in which sits a sunken dinghy. The dinghy has a half-a-metre freeboard, if not less, and half of that is sticking out of the water. That was the Murray River in 1914.
During its heyday as a means of transport, paddle-steamers travelled great lengths up the Murray River and up the Darling. It was quite common that the water levels would fall and they could not get back, but eventually the river flowed again and they did get back. On one occasion a large number did not, and I am advised that some of those vessels were eaten by white ants. That is what the river was like in its natural state. It was Australia’s largest stormwater drain. I am happy that this sort of progress was achieved, because I think water is something that should be used for the benefit of people and, more particularly, to grow food on their behalf. But the reality is that, as man introduced dam storages, lake storages, weirs and locks, the nature of the river was changed irretrievably. I guess there would be some who would say that that was not to its benefit. It is not a natural river. And I endorse that fact.
So what are we talking about? We are talking about the fact that people went out there as pioneers in a desert and created the opportunity to produce 40-plus per cent of Australia’s food. They utilised that water for that purpose, but it relied heavily on the amount of rain that came and the extent to which it filled those storages. The other thing that I find quite outstanding is that this government, in cooperation with the New South Wales government, have gone up to Bourke to buy a station that happened to be storing some of the water up there for the purpose of food production, jobs and economic development. It rained in Bourke just the other day, but that will be of no benefit whatsoever to Toorale Station and the workers once employed there—a number of whom I understand are Indigenous—because, in typical fashion, the New South Wales parliament has taken control of that property and intends to turn it into a desert. It will produce nothing. It will not remain a livestock, pastoral, grazing enterprise and the area of it that was irrigated will be no more.
What is the outcome of that? There is a belief that that water will somehow start filling the lakes near Adelaide, the Lower Lakes. I note that Mr Windsor, the member for New England, who is over there, is smiling because he happens to live up that way. He, of course, would know very well that rivers do funny things. Rivers actually appear and disappear from time to time. Anybody who knows the facts of the northern sections of this basin would know that much of that water has never, ever entered the main waterways of the Murray-Darling system as we know it. It just soaks into the ground, presumably, and that may be a major contributor to the Great Artesian Basin—I do not know. Some argue that there is some beneficial outcome of cutting off that water supply, as compared to using it as close as possible to the source. For every metre that water runs down a river, some leaks away and some evaporates. So if you can catch it right up in the headwaters, why wouldn’t you put it to good purpose there? Why wouldn’t you?
Let me take another point I have made: we do not use water. There is as much water in the world today as there was a million years ago, and there is as much water in the world today as there will be in another million years. Some of it exists as ice, some of it exists as water vapour and some of it is in storages, but nobody uses it. People contaminate it in the process of benefiting from it. We all know what happens to the water we drink! You do not drink it again in that state! I hear greenies on the radio carrying on about how many litres of water it takes to produce a kilogram of steak. It takes none. It just happens during the process where water evaporates out of our salty oceans—in which state we cannot use it—falls on the ground and produces fodder which is consumed by animals, which also have a drink and carefully replace that water on the ground nearby. Of course, if we eat their meat then we carefully extract the water and do the same thing.
We do not use water. We have never depleted the reserves. What is more, at a CSIRO presentation I attended here a fellow got up and quoted a leading astronaut who said that we talk about the ‘planet Earth’ but we should talk about the ‘planet Water’ because the quantities of water that exist on this planet far exceed the areas of land that still protrude above it.
When one takes all those matters into account, what is our problem? Our problem is that there has been a shift in the incidence of rain. As I pointed out, now is not the first time. Obviously there was not much rain around the areas to the north or east of Berri in 1914. The river typically dried up until all the weirs and dams were put in place, which conserved water in localities for its use in those localities. Why then must we go along, as the minister boasts in her second reading speech, and tell people that water is overallocated? It is not overallocated in a flood and it is typical of the climate events here in Australia that nearly every drought, as history records, is followed by a flood.
From my reading of history—and history is something I understand we are going to forbid; you are not going to be allowed to talk about Australian history in other than a black armband fashion—around the time of Federation there was a drought of some years and that was significant. I do not know how many power stations Australia had burning coal in those days but I do not know what caused the drought. I have recently had the opportunity to read the history of public works throughout Western Australia, where a population of 100,000 people could build and fund what is still Australia’s longest freshwater pipeline between Perth and Kalgoorlie. In 1937 the population constructed nearly every dam storage that exists around the city of Perth. I think the most expensive was under £200,000. But in reading this I learnt of the history of the comprehensive water scheme in Western Australia, which virtually services my electorate, and I learnt of the reason that it was implemented in around the 1940s—for a period of years the communities and the farms in that area had no rain at all and it became necessary to get water from the coastal region around Perth.
These are the facts, and we now have a government that does nothing to conserve the little water that is left in that river system due to the lack of rain. No, we are just going to go around, as happened at Toorale, and take away, with the lure of money—the bottomless pockets of government!—the water entitlements of people who have obtained them for the purpose of producing food. But it is worse than that, because I have a book here that deals with one river system: the Murray-Darling basin. The legislation is two centimetres thick. I cannot find a word in the minister’s second reading speech that tells me what this government is going to do about those areas of Australia that have an abundance of water.
A group of we Liberals took the opportunity a few weeks back to visit Kununurra, where, for the expenditure of an amount of money which is probably seven or eight times what they paid for Toorale station to steal water off the agricultural sector, you can expand food production from an available water resource. When we visited Kununurra it was pointed out to us that the amount of water flowing to the sea, from the Argyle storage and over the distribution dam that is part of that system, was equivalent to all the water that was consumed in Sydney and Perth on that day. That is the amount of water that was running to the ocean. Because they have a small hydroelectric scheme there that works 24/7, that water is flowing down into the other dam which is designed to distribute the water through the agricultural area, and there is not enough land to use it. There is plenty of land—hundreds of thousands of hectares extending from Kununurra into the Northern Territory up the valley—but somebody has got to pay for the distribution system.
And all this government can legislate for, and all the minister can tell us about, is how the government is going to save the Murray-Darling system by kicking everybody out. There has been no commitment, as was the previous government’s priority, to reducing the loss of water in a hugely inefficient and ancient channel system where the water leaks from the top and the bottom. There is nobody achieving the efficiencies on property from a pressurised system. There is nobody achieving, from a piped system, the metering opportunities that give accurate control of water entitlements. We see those turning wheels. You get up in the morning after you have put them on all night and—oh, my goodness!—a bit of three-by-two has floated into the wheel. How did that get there? The water has been flowing all night.
I come from and spent 25 years of my life in the town of Carnarvon. It has an irrigation system in the desert based on water that can be extracted only from the sands of the riverbed. Its production per kilolitre of water is the highest in Australia. Why is that? It is because back in the sixties I, as the then shire president, had to fight with the growers to properly meter the bores they installed themselves. They were highly enraged, but boy did they pick up their productivity! A couple of young blokes went to Israel in those days and brought back the first trickle systems and all those things. Surely that is where the money should go. Surely, because the quantity of water is less, government should be out there spending money on infrastructure of whatever sort is needed to improve the opportunities.
If the climate change scenario is so, it tells us there is going to be a lot more rain in the north. We already have one of the biggest dams in Australia up there. It is totally underutilised, and nobody is contemplating doing anything about it. We have the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and the Arts proposing to lock up the entire Kimberley region, with all its other freshwater rivers, with all its capacity to produce with renewable power 10 times Australia’s current installed generating capacity. He wants to call it a World Heritage area so the Crocodile Hunter can make a couple more TV shows or that silly Tim Flannery can paddle a boat up there. It is a major resource. Flannery is an opportunistic dope, and if he wants to have a bit of a go with me on television at any time I would love to do that. His attack on the Ord River dam is typical of someone who makes their living out of playing to a very small percentage of the Australian community.
We have a responsibility to feed not only Australians but also the growing population of the Third World. All the evidence at the moment is that we will not even be able to feed ourselves; we can just have a bit of melamine or whatever it is that gets added to food products in foreign places. That is the white stuff you put on chipboard. (Time expired)
I am not quite sure what the member for O’Connor was saying, but I think he was saying that the fate of the Murray-Darling River is not about climate change. We have yet another climate change denier on the opposition benches.
The Water Amendment Bill 2008 is very much about working together as a nation to solve one of the great environmental disasters in Australian history: the near death of our great Murray-Darling river system. Parramatta, my electorate, is nowhere near the Murray-Darling, and yet I know how concerned people are about the state of our rivers and the Murray-Darling in particular. We do not feel it the way people on the land do; we are far away. I walked in the bed of the Darling just two years ago, when circumstances were nowhere near as bad as they are now, and I was shocked by the condition of the land and the condition of the mighty Darling, which I had heard about so frequently in school. Even back in 2004, some four years ago when I was doorknocking prior to the 2004 election, water was one of the most commonly raised issues among my constituents. We as a community were not fully informed of the circumstances in other parts of the country, but we knew it was a major problem. The idea that we could lose such an iconic river system to self-interest and a lack of action beggars belief in my community, as it does around the country.
This bill is special not because of what is in the bill itself but because it comes about due to a change in attitude and a willingness to work together to save what is a magnificent river system. It gives effect to the agreement on the Murray-Darling Basin reform signed by the Prime Minister, the premiers of New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland and South Australia and the ACT Chief Minister at the 3 July COAG meeting. The bill enables the Murray-Darling Basin Authority and the Murray-Darling Basin Commission to be brought together under one institution, to be known as the Murray-Darling Basin Authority, and it ensures that the Basin Plan process can address the provision of water for critical human needs. It strengthens the role of the ACCC by extending the application of the water market and water charge rules to cover all bodies that charge regulated water charges and all irrigation infrastructure operators. The bill will enable water resources in the Murray-Darling Basin to be managed in the national interest, optimising environmental, economic and social outcomes.
The bill is a real example of the ending of the blame game and working cooperatively with the states. The bill requires enabling legislation to transfer power from the basin states to the Commonwealth. Already legislation has passed both houses of the New South Wales parliament and has been introduced in South Australia. We are now waiting on Victoria and Queensland. It is a historic agreement for the long-term reform of water management in the Murray-Darling Basin. It well and truly introduces a new era of cooperative arrangements between the Commonwealth and the states so that governments, industry and community can face head-on the challenges of water scarcity and water security. Conflict over water entitlements has been long-running in the Murray-Darling, with conflicting interests between states slowing down the process of reform for many decades. The new Murray-Darling Basin Authority will have the autonomy to prepare a basin plan, the first ever single, basin-wide water resource management plan.
In July the government announced investments of close to $3.7 billion in the basin states to improve irrigation efficiency, raise productivity of water use and return water savings to the rivers. The federal government is, for the first time in history, buying water entitlements from willing sellers to tackle overallocation. The Australian government has already completed the first-ever federal government water purchase program, which will put 22.6 billion litres into the Murray when water is available, with a further 5.5 billion litres expected to be settled soon. Recently, the Australian government also assisted the New South Wales government to purchase Toorale, a cotton station near Bourke, which currently holds entitlements to extract 14 billion litres of water. The Minister for Climate Change and Water, Senator Penny Wong, last week released guidelines for groups of irrigators wanting to submit proposals to sell combined water entitlements in ways that deliver simultaneous benefits for farmers, irrigation water providers and the environment.
It is worth while, particularly for those of us who are so far from the Murray-Darling, considering the sheer size of the system and the problem that the nation faces—and this is a problem for the nation, not just for those who live along the banks of the Murray-Darling and draw their water from that system. The area comprises 1,059,000 square kilometres and has a population of over two million, according to the 2006 census. In 2005-06 temperatures recorded in the Murray-Darling Basin were two degrees hotter than average. The Murray-Darling Basin receives over 530,000 gigalitres of rainfall each year, of which 94 per cent evaporates or transpires, two per cent drains into the ground and four per cent becomes run-off. Eighty-four per cent of the land is owned by businesses engaged in agriculture, with 67 per cent of the land being used to grow crops and pasture.
Fifty-two per cent of Australia’s total water consumption is used by industries and households in the Murray-Darling Basin. There were 7,720 gigalitres of water consumed for agriculture in 2005-06—20 per cent for cotton, 17 per cent for dairy farming, 17 per cent for pasture and other livestock, and 16 per cent for rice. The Murray-Darling Basin produces 100 per cent of Australia’s cotton, 95 per cent of its oranges, 62 per cent of its pigs, 54 per cent of its apples and 48 per cent of its wheat. The gross value of agricultural production was worth $15 billion in 2005-06. This great river system that we learn about in primary school and in high school is more to Australia than a great river system; it is well and truly the food bowl of our nation.
The Water Amendment Bill is a cooperative effort with the states and stakeholders to manage our natural resources, these extraordinary natural resources, in the national interest. The 1995 cap on diversions of surface water from the Murray-Darling Basin was based on historic levels of use. Thirteen years on, with climate change and droughts, those levels are no longer sustainable. Our rivers are stressed and overallocated and we need a whole-of-basin approach to combat the problems that have arisen over the years. A properly functioning water market will be essential to help irrigators manage future reductions in water availability. It is a responsibility of the whole nation to assist our farmers to manage the changes that they will need to make with climate change. We have lived on the back of our farming community for decades and it is now time for us to be there when they need us.
The reforms this bill will bring are in the medium- and long-term interests. The first Basin Plan will start in 2011.The Rudd government has a $12.9 billion Water for the Future program, which has four priorities: tackling climate change, supporting healthy rivers, using water wisely and securing our water supplies. It is well and truly time for us all to get behind the farmers in the Murray-Darling Basin, to get behind the Murray-Darling river system itself and to make the changes that we need to make to save this astonishing river system.
I thank the House for the opportunity to speak on the Water Amendment Bill 2008. Water is possibly the most complex issue that parliaments can deal with. I was in the New South Wales parliament when the Water Act 2000 was passed, and a lot of the same issues that are arising from this bill were also reflected in that legislation. The issue of water seems to be simple to everybody, and it is obviously a requirement for life. It may be surpassed in complexity when we drift into the emissions trading system that is currently being developed. Water is a very important issue and, being so complex, it is very easy to politicise it and try to simplify it. I think there are some oversimplifications in many parts of this legislation.
I was interested to listen to the member for O’Connor, who has left the building for the moment. I thank him for swapping speaking spots with me. I do not think any of us totally agree with the member for O’Connor on some issues, but I do think that we should listen to some of the things he had to say today, not only with respect to this legislation, the four-state agreement and the COAG process that has been entered into in relation to the Murray-Darling system but also with respect to comments that he made about the northern parts of Australia and the potential impact of climate change on rainfall. We are told there will be more rainfall in some parts of Australia, and we have to decide whether we are going to take advantage of that. There are a number of issues intertwined in that debate and in this legislation which send mixed messages, and I would like to spend a bit of time on those.
We have the carbon debate, the water debate, the food security debate, the global crisis and the carbon footprint in transporting food to other nations and in bringing energy from other nations to this nation. A whole range of economic jargon is developing on emissions trading. I think we have to put in place a narrative on this that actually tells people where we want to go. If the agenda is to feed the world, you have to put in place certain policies to drive that agenda. If the agenda is to cut back on water use, that is a different. We cannot run the two agendas at the same time and expect any meaningful policy outcomes to come from that.
To highlight what I am saying, just look at the Murray-Darling system for a moment. We have a dam at the end of it. We have the lakes at the end, and the opposition is moving an amendment to put some money into those communities. The Lower Lakes, Lake Alexandrina and Lake Albert, I think, hold something like 2,850 gigalitres of water. That is an unnatural system. The dam’s water goes back about a hundred kilometres to the Murray Bridge—completely unnatural. A lot of this bill is about driving water into that system so that those people at the end can have some water and so that Adelaide can have some water. Adelaide has a lot of water; it just happens to have salt in it. They could do what Sydney is doing and take a bit of the salt out. If we believe the message of climate change, which I do, there will be more salt water around our cities, so the net effect of desalinating some of it to give some water to our city populations and to our coastal people will not be felt.
We have these barrages at the end of our system. They have caused enormous environmental destruction in that area. The water table has risen. The salt has risen. There have been government funded schemes to try and drain some of the country to get the water table down. There are a whole range of things. I have visited the area a number of times now. I went to one particular property, which I will always remember, that was farming fish in tanks; it used to be a dairy farm and they used to grow lucerne. I said, ‘Where do you get your water from?’ The answer was, ‘Saltwater fish.’ Out in the backyard, they had dug a hole about a metre deep and had a Davey house pump pumping salt water out of the ground into the system where there was once a dairy farm.
I do not have any sympathy for what is happening at the end of the Murray system because I think it is a disgrace what we have done down there. For people to come in here and argue that we should send more water down there so it can be evaporated in a pond at the end of the system, in the way it is now, is just adding to the hypocrisy and the mixed messages that are going on in this place. Those lakes are 22 times the size of the electorate of the former Minister for Environment and Water Resources Malcolm Turnbull. It is a massive area. I am told that about a thousand gigalitres of evaporation takes place. The cotton industry in New South Wales is condemned by people as one of the great maulers of water; there is this mythology out there. The cotton industry uses about a third more than the evaporation from that system, about 1,350 gigalitres of water, yet 1,000 gigalitres is evaporating from a system that we have dammed up at the end of the Murray. We have the Menindee Lakes, where enormous evaporation takes place. There are a whole range of things. These bills do not go to some of those issues, and that is the point I am making in terms of the member for O’Connor. Some of those efficiency measures and other measures that he spoke about should be looked at very closely, because there is innovation out there, and part of the process should be to encourage people to move into some of those innovative areas.
In terms of the message, we have to determine what the problem is here. I raised the issue of climate change with the Prime Minister a couple of weeks ago in question time. I raised it with the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and the Arts. I still have not received an answer. I am told by the Prime Minister’s office that they will be replying in writing. Climate change threads through these bills. I personally believe there has been overallocation in some of the Murray-Darling system—not in all of it, but in some of it. In my electorate, there has been massive adjustment to some of those overallocation issues, particularly in the groundwater systems, where some people have accepted a 90 per cent reduction in their extraction. This was the question to the Prime Minister: if climate change is creating the problem, how many gigalitres of water are not occurring or will not occur into the future as inflows into that system because of climate change—humanly caused reduction in inflows into that system?
I have seen documents that say it is between 2½ thousand and 4½ thousand gigalitres. I do not know what the true number is; the Prime Minister said he would get back to us on that. But if that is the case, if that is the issue, that is going to have an enormous impact on those people, including me, west of the range in the Murray-Darling system. If that is the case—and in other areas, we are also told that there will be more water because of climate change—why are we not looking at replacing some of the climate change impact portions impacted by climate change with water from other systems? The argument in the past has always been that, if you bring water in by diverting it from the Clarence or from North Queensland or wherever, you will impact on the water table and the saline levels in the system. If we believe in climate change—the minister apparently does and I do—that argument is refuted, because all you would be doing is replacing the humanly caused climate-change component of the reduction in inflows with water. The member for O’Connor made a very important point: there is no less water now than there was a million years ago and there probably will not be in another million. There are ways and means of overcoming some of these issues. If we want food production in that system and there is a way of doing it through efficiency gains et cetera, the parliament really has to add some water—and this relates to the climate change component and presumes that global communities do not come in on emissions reductions—to the system.
There are a number of things that I would like to mention. The bill talks about communities and the human need for water and the priority over it that they would have. There are two circumstances in the electorate of New England that I would like to mention. One is the upgrade of Chaffey Dam, which is the water supply for the major town in the electorate of New England—that is, Tamworth. Tamworth very nearly ran out of water a couple of years ago. Rainfall has added water to that system and there is currently a proposal before the Commonwealth and the state to upgrade it. I pay credit to Minister Wong for the way in which she has conducted this debate so far in terms of the Chaffey Dam issue. It has to be part of the process, and this bill is part of that process, with the Basin Plan and other issues in terms of the caps on valleys et cetera. I believe there is an opportunity and I think Senator Wong believes there is an opportunity. The bill relates to the need for communities to be safeguarded in terms of their water supply, so I mention Chaffey Dam.
Another much smaller community in my electorate is the town of Barraba, which is located about 20 kilometres from the Split Rock Dam. Barraba has had enormous problems with long-term water security and is looking to pipe water from Split Rock Dam, a very large 800-gigalitre dam, to the community. That can be done through the transfer of licences et cetera, but obviously the missing link there is money. So I put on the public record—and I have in terms of Infrastructure Australia—that they are two significant areas where communities are at risk of running out of water and we have to look at upgrading their storage facilities within the Basin Plan, of which the structure is put in place in this particular bill.
Another issue that I would like to raise is the amendment that I will move during the debate. It relates to the exploration of coal or subsidence mining activities on alluvial floodplains. I know this is happening not only in my part of the world but also on parts of the Darling Downs in Queensland. The amendment effectively, in terms of this bill, is putting in place a Basin Plan based on certain numbers—gigalitres of inflows et cetera—and certain reductions because of climate change and other issues. I believe that you cannot have a firm document of inflows unless you fully understand the contribution the groundwater systems make to the surface water system. I have heard Senator Heffernan and others talk about this in the past. No-one seems to have a definitive knowledge of how much we are talking about in this bill and in a lot of the other documents that are out there, how much of the system is being replenished by groundwater systems and how great the interconnectivity of those systems is.
The former Prime Minister, John Howard, and Minister Turnbull, as he was then, both said in this chamber that we really do not understand and that we need more research. On the Liverpool Plains, for instance—the Namoi Valley system, which is in part of my electorate—we have an interconnected groundwater system of about 20 systems. We think they are all interconnected. We believe that they are connected to the Murray-Darling system. If they are not, there are some holes in this bill. The assumption is that they have some connectivity to the inflows into the Murray-Darling system, but we have very little scientific knowledge about what the impact would be of subsidence mining on the land above those sorts of systems, not only on water flows but on the quality of that water.
My amendment calls for a fully independent study. Senator Wong is well aware of this, as is the New South Wales government. The former Minister for Environment and Water Resources, Malcolm Turnbull, was as well when he duped a group of people just prior to the election into suggesting that he would fund this particular independent study and then failed to give the appropriate advice to the department. He left Senator Wong with this particular issue sitting on her desk and me nagging about it. This is an important amendment, and I will be very interested to see how former minister Turnbull, now Leader of the Opposition, votes when this amendment is put to the test in this parliament. It calls for an independent study into the impacts of subsidence mining on the groundwater systems.
To carry out that study you really have understand the interconnectivity issues. You need to understand those interconnectivity issues not only with the various water systems but also with the surface water. The Namoi system in itself—and it is one of six alluvial valleys in New South Wales; I am not fully conversant with Victoria but I do know a little bit about some of the Queensland parts of the Murray drainage system—covers 350 kilometres. If you upset the hydraulic nature of those systems and the way in which they relate to the river systems, what happens? What happens to this document? What happens to the Basin Plan? I do not know. Senator Wong does not know, Malcolm Turnbull did not know. John Howard did not know. I do not think Prime Minister Rudd has a clue. None of us know.
We have not carried out those activities in that sort of system anywhere in the world without a disastrous impact, and I would suggest—before Senator Wong and others come back and say, ‘That’s a state issue; the granting of exploration licences is a state issue,’—that that process is flawed. It is flawed because the environmental impact and planning processes of the state mining licences are based on a localised impact: you buy your 10,000 acres, dig it up, put a bank around it and do not affect anybody outside. You can effectively mine land. I am talking about these interconnected systems that are part of the inflows into this system that everybody is saying is so stressed. I urge the government to look very closely at that particular issue.
The other issue that I want to raise is the issue of Toorale. People have been calling it ‘Toorally’; it is called ‘Tooral’. I know that property reasonably well. I have shot a lot of pigs on it. I have done a lot of helicopter work over the top of it. I do not have a problem with them acquiring the water if that is what they believe that they should do. But they should not acquire all the land. I would urge Senator Wong and the Prime Minister to sit down with people up there—not the people who are playing political games with this—and talk through the issues to do with that land. Anybody with any understanding of the nature of that particular property—and it is highly productive for grazing—knows that it is a honey pot for feral animals. I have shot a lot of them out on that particular country. That particular land will be destroyed if it is left to the New South Wales national parks to look after it. That will have added impacts on the Burke economy.
Burke is not in my electorate, but I have spent a lot of time on that river with my sons on various holidays et cetera. That particular property should be looked at very closely. Take the water and take a small part of it. I believe that there is an option to do that. Take a small part of it that does have some unique features and include it in a national park. Sell the rest back into the community so that the economic benefits remain there. Otherwise, you send a mixed message and make a mockery of the idea that we want to produce food to feed the starving millions and that you cannot have biofuels because you would take food out of the mouths of the starving millions. Toorale is a highly productive property and has been for many years. Buy the water and stop the cotton if that is the nature of the game. But do not acquire the land. Let the land return to the productive activities that have been carried out on it for well over 100 years.
The River Murray has been one of the life sources for Adelaide and South Australia since its settlement and fears of its demise are nothing new. Almost 70 years ago, my only Labor predecessor in Wakefield, Sydney McHugh, asked a question of Prime Minister Robert Menzies about this and expressed his and other South Australian fears that the river might go dry because of irrigation issues. Back then, in response to development along the river, he called on the Commonwealth to ‘cooperate with the government of South Australia in augmenting the storage supplies’. I note that the member for Makin talked about Ralph Jacobi, the former member for Hawker, and the concerns that he expressed 26 years ago.
We know that there have always been tensions between the interests of the basin states, Queensland, Victoria, New South Wales and South Australia, and between farmers and irrigators, the natural environment, and the Commonwealth government. We heard the member for New England expressing his views about the Lower Lakes. That was an expression of that tension.
Fears of the River Murray’s demise are nothing new but the risks of real irreversible damage to the river system have never been greater. We have reached a point in our history where the old management approaches to the river are demonstrably inadequate. The system is in real trouble and its governance is in need of urgent reform. We can no longer afford to carry on with the approach of the previous government, which was at best piecemeal and too little too late—a last desperate gasp of policy in the final year of the government. The previous government wasted 10 years appeasing sections of the National Party and other upriver communities. They allowed the River Murray to reach crisis point.
This bill will amend the Water Act 2007 to give effect to the historic Agreement on Murray-Darling Basin Reform signed by the Prime Minister and the premiers of each of the basin states at COAG in July It will end the bickering and the buck passing that is strangling the river system and allow the Murray-Darling Basin Authority and the Murray-Darling Basin Commission to be brought together as a single institution.
This bill seeks to give the new Murray-Darling Basin Authority the responsibility of preparing a basin plan to ensure the health, prosperity and sustainability of the river, its users and the communities around it. It will be the first whole-of-basin natural resource management plan and will set out to protect the critical human water needs of people who depend on the river, as well as manage the allocation of water for irrigation and other commercial use.
We have to face the unpalatable truth that, over 100 years, our uncoordinated state based approach to the Murray-Darling—the irrigation and the establishment of locks and weirs—has led us to the point where only a clear and uniform national approach, as well as a serious concerted effort to look for alternative sources of water for communities, will save the river basin. A national independent authority is the only solution to manage the river basin and coordinate sustainable and capped water extraction and that is why it is essential that this bill pass in the House. It is time for coordinated action and it is time to end the discord and self-interest that has dominated this issue since before Sydney McHugh was elected. This bill will allow decisions to be made about the future of our most important river system that are in the interest of the whole of the nation and the whole of the river rather than in the interests of individual states or individual communities.
An important aspect of this bill is that this legislation will strengthen the role of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission and empower it to enforce a uniform approach to regulation; to extend the application of the water market rules and water charge rules to cover, respectively, all bodies that charge regulated water charges and all irrigation infrastructure operators; and to provide for any state or territory to opt in such that the water market and water charge rules apply to water resources outside the Murray-Darling Basin. In other words, it will provide clear and effective regulation of the water market, ensuring that the public has confidence in the trade of water. That is something that is sorely needed.
There is a lot of talk out there in the community about the trade in water, and I have met with farmers in places like Rosedale who are very concerned about the consequences of water trading, particularly when it is married to managed investment schemes and the expansion of agricultural systems in their area. As members will be aware, this bill, in order to achieve its aims, will require individual basin states to refer specific powers to the Commonwealth in accordance with section 51 of the Constitution, and it will give the Commonwealth control of what is a national icon. It leaves the states with an important role to play but not a dominant role.
As a South Australian, I find that at the end of the river system the issue of water security is perhaps more urgent than anywhere else. Under the leadership of Premier Mike Rann and the Minister for the River Murray, Karlene Maywald, South Australia has been leading the way and is the first state to introduce legislation to refer its constitutional powers to the Commonwealth on the management of the Murray-Darling Basin. It is useful to note that it was also Premier Mike Rann who first demanded an independent and public source of advice to the minister and the federal government on the Murray River. He locked horns with the former Prime Minister on that, but I think it was in South Australia’s interests and the country’s interests.
The Rudd and Rann governments take water security very seriously, and I know that they are determined to work collaboratively on lasting solutions. In South Australia the drought, climate change, river regulation, and the overallocation of water upstream over a number of years have crippled the Lower Lakes and the Coorong and changed the ecology of the lakes and the Coorong. The Rudd government is already taking action to address the consequences of human settlement and development all along the river. With the support of the state government, the Rudd government is providing up to $200 million to support a coordinated response to environmental problems facing the Lower Lakes and the Coorong and is delivering up to $120 million for integrated networks of pipelines to service townships, communities and irrigators currently reliant on the Lower Lakes for their water supply, vastly improving their water security and the quality of water for critical human needs.
The Murray-Darling Basin Commission is also developing and evaluating a range of short-, medium- and long-term management strategies for the Coorong and options to stop the acidification of the Lower Lakes. Make no mistake: if the drought does not break and if climate change continues, we may have to make some very tough decisions about the Lower Lakes and the Murray-Darling system. The choice may be between supplying Adelaide with drinking water and saving the lakes as freshwater lakes.
My fear is that in the longer term Adelaide will be forced to rethink its entire approach to water. We heard some of the comments made by the member for New England, and it gives you a bit of an insight into how people upstream think. I think that in the longer term Adelaide is going to have to consider additional water-saving measures, including a massive expansion of our re-use of stormwater and the use of treated waste water for critical human needs. The city of Salisbury has already basically got the technology in place to treat stormwater in that way; its council is a leading authority in this area. It has been joined now by the city of Playford to produce what will probably be the biggest aquifer storage recharge in the Southern Hemisphere. When we join up the Stebonheath Flow Control Park, which is currently under construction, with the city of Salisbury’s already fairly extensive wetlands facilities, we will have a world-quality facility there in the seat of Wakefield. I think Adelaide will have to look at changes in the design of our new suburbs and particularly to wean itself off the idea of the quarter-acre block with the lawn and the European-style garden. In the longer term it is simply unsustainable to have those sorts of gardens in South Australia. It is the driest state on the driest continent, and climate change will only increase the challenges that we face in that regard.
The establishment of the national authority to take control of all aspects of the Murray-Darling river system will be a step in the right direction. The bill before us today is a great start. It is an essential and urgently needed component of the Rudd government’s overall approach to water. It will complement the $12.9 billion Water for the Future plan. Of course, a critical component of that plan is the allocation of $3.1 billion over the next decade to purchase water to put back into the Murray-Darling waterways through the Restoring the Balance in the Murray-Darling Basin program. This purchased water will be used to address the problem of overallocation and to protect and restore high priority environmental assets in the Murray-Darling Basin, which will include the Lower Lakes. We have already completed the first ever water purchase program, putting back 35 billion litres into the Murray once that water becomes available. We have assisted the New South Wales government to purchase Toorale—I hope I have pronounced it to the member for New England’s satisfaction—which currently holds an entitlement to extract 14 billion litres of water.
The government should also be congratulated for announcing the first comprehensive, detailed and externally reviewed audit of both public and private water storages in the basin. I think that audit will go a long way to making sure that we do not have this constant upstream-downstream debate, which is pretty toxic and does not bring us together as a country; it divides us and means that there is a fair bit of finger-pointing around the place. The people of Adelaide really cannot afford that. We depend on the Murray for a good portion of our drinking water and our livelihoods, and we just want the system to work, to be fair and to be sustainable. This bill provides water security into the future, and I commend it to the House.
I am pleased to be speaking on the Water Amendment Bill 2008, which will lead to better governance of the Murray-Darling system. One of the tragedies is that we could have had a functioning national authority in operation by March this year. It was only last year that we were debating the Water Bill which became the Water Act 2007. The problem was that we were unable to get the full sign-up and Mr Rudd and COAG promised that there will be no functioning basin authority until 2009 and no basin plan until 2011.
The notion of a revolution in the management of water was announced on 25 January 2007. It was announced by the then Prime Minister and also by the current Leader of the Opposition who was then the environment minister. This was a very farsighted plan, a $10 billion plan to address water efficiency and the overallocation of water in rural Australia. When we look at the previous 106 years before that since 1901, this has been one of the problems with the state management of the Murray-Darling Basin. We have never been able to get agreement on what should be a fair allocation and a fair distribution of the water resources within the Murray-Darling Basin. The $10 billion plan did address infrastructure and investment in irrigation infrastructure and it also addressed once and for all water overallocation in the Murray-Darling Basin.
As observers would remember, it has been the intransigence of Victoria which held this plan back. As a South Australian, it is just incomprehensible to me why our own Premier Mike Rann will not take up this fight with the Victorian Premier, then Steve Bracks, now John Brumby. It has just been incomprehensible why he will not stand up for the residents of South Australia against the overuse and overallocation in Victoria.
I represent a metropolitan electorate in Adelaide and one of the prime concerns of residents is the security of Adelaide’s water supply. Adelaide has a heavy reliance on the Murray, depending on the year. It can draw between 30 and 80 per cent of its water supply from the River Murray. It has been very obvious for some time that Adelaide needs more solutions for their water supply. That is why I have supported a desalination plant and last year circulated a petition calling on the state government to begin work on a desalination plant, and I am pleased that they have begun work on that. This notion of a desalination plant was originally proposed by then state Liberal opposition leader, Ian Evans. Many other countries around the world such as Singapore and Dubai have desalination plants and Perth are beginning work on their second desalination plant. I think that a desalination plant is critical for Adelaide to have some security for their water supply into the future. Another of the problems that Adelaide has is a very low reservoir capacity. There have been no new reservoirs built in Adelaide since the 1950s. These are the issues that the state government has delayed for far too long.
In addressing some of the specific parts of the bill I just want to speak a little bit. In 2003 it was recommended that 1,500 gigalitres be returned to the environment. Unfortunately that water has not been found and we are now in the situation that we have never been in before where there are essentially no reserves in the Murray-Darling system. You do see that a lot of the environments are severely stressed. One of these areas which is particularly stressed is the Lower Lakes and the Coorong region. The Coorong is a Ramsar listed wetland and it is very important. Ecologists have observed a decline in the numbers of birds in the Coorong since the early 1980s. The Coorong and the Lower Lakes are severely stressed and there have been reports that they may only have in the order of months before they pass the point of no return.
That is one of the reasons why the opposition has proposed an amendment for an emergency assistance package for the people of the Lower Lakes and the Coorong region who have been affected by the ongoing drought. The opposition proposal is for $50 million in emergency assistance to the people of the Murray Lower Lakes and the Coorong, which will help local residents, farmers and tourist operators to deal with the ongoing record low levels of water in the region. It will also provide urgent and real assistance to help the community to deal with this unfolding environmental crisis in South Australia. It will help with practical measures such as carting water for domestic and stock use, building a boat lift for boats, providing rent relief for small businesses, and retraining and skills development. It will also support a rescue plan for the Murray turtles and provide assistance to schoolchildren who are trying to save them. I think that everyone who has been to Milang in recent times has seen the problems that the turtles have in dealing with that saline environment.
In finishing up, one of the shames of this is that it is now 21 months since the vision of national water management was first unveiled. Unfortunately, the Labor Party have had plenty to say but have actually delayed real reform on this. My colleague the shadow minister for the environment, the member for Flinders, has outlined the opposition’s position on this and we have also proposed this amendment which will critically deal with support for people in the Coorong and the Lower Lakes.
I commend many of the contributions so far in the debate on this important bill, the Water Amendment Bill 2008. The previous speaker, the member for Boothby, has outlined what is probably my greatest regret about the discussion today, and that is that we have missed almost two years of opportunity to get on with the job while there have been discussions and posturing around the innovative and quite visionary strategy that the previous Howard government had outlined. The Leader of the Opposition, Malcolm Turnbull, was front and centre in that work, and I think very courageously and boldly moved forward with a legislative agenda, a support package and reform initiatives. Maybe if we had had the support of the then opposition, the Labor Party, and, more importantly, of the Labor leaders in the states and territories involved we would be talking about the gains that had been secured to date and what more could be done, not talking about getting started. I think that is the greatest tragedy about this discussion.
Notwithstanding that fact, the opposition has indicated its support for the bill and the reforms. My friend and colleague the member for Flinders, the shadow minister for the environment and water, has outlined some important amendments that emphasise the consequences of action and inaction and particularly highlight the plight of the Lower Lakes and the Coorong area and what is needed to address the dire situation faced by those communities—and, I guess, by our entire nation—with a Ramsar listed wetland on life support and a need for an infusion of scarce water. Many argue that that water is available within the system, but we have not had the wherewithal and the cooperation to bring it in a timely way to that very important part of the Murray-Darling Basin system. We also need to recognise that the flora and fauna that gave rise to that Ramsar listing is under threat in the region, as well as the many businesses that rely upon a healthy ecology in the Lower Lakes and Coorong area in order to pursue their ambitions for a quality of life. So they are very timely amendments and I would urge the government to take account of them.
More importantly, my contribution today is to try to encourage some transformational thinking. Just doing more of the same is not going to cut it; it is not going to bring about the results that we are looking for. Many of the elements of the coalition’s strategy that was stymied by Labor politics nearly two years ago touched some of these things: the need for structural reform and institutional arrangements that actually support our goal; the need for some funding to bring about change and the required transformation in the way we do things; the enormous opportunities for improvements in efficiency; and the nobbling of the market for water that sees it go to its highest and best use and gives people some confidence that they can plan with certainty. It also addressed the bizarre position in Victoria of building a north-south pipeline to take water from one microclimate that is most likely to have the same drought environment and conditions as greater Melbourne and then shift it down to Melbourne which raises questions about the implications for the longer term. The strategy also recognised the fact that water reform itself needs to be completely systemic. It needs to look not only at the investments we make in infrastructure but at the efficiency and performance of that infrastructure to make sure that those investments are actually building a better way forward, not simply extending what is happening at the moment. Support for voluntary trading and purchasing of water is important, but there needs to be an informed marketplace so people can invest, as they would in other key inputs for their production, with confidence in what they are purchasing and that its reliability and bankability is transparent and understood by all.
That constructive plan was outlined by the coalition when it was in government. Sadly, I have to say—as a Victorian who was an adviser to the former Kennett government’s natural resources minister, the wonderful human Geoff Coleman, who understood the importance of water and water reform for long-run prosperity in those markets and in the rural sector reliant upon water—that Victoria was a leader in much of that work. It recognised the trade-offs between resource security and price; that overallocation undermined everybody’s future prospects; that work was required by governments to make sure that that overallocation, born out of perception of perpetual abundance, was actually weakening the security of the allocations that were out there; and that water trading was an important reform to embrace the fact that the environment is a key entitlement holder to water. I remember vividly the government purchasing water in the marketplace to make sure the Barmah Forest got a drink because its needs had to be addressed, and the government led in that work. It also led in recognising the partnerships that are essential, such as for innovations like the Wimmera-Mallee pipeline—
that my friend and colleague at the table well recognises—where a partnership between government and water users to improve the distribution and delivery systems was a good outcome for everybody. In some cases in the sandy channels up near the Sunraysia they were getting about four or five per cent efficiency from the water released from channels to the point of delivery where it was being used. The rest of it was just soaking into the sand or evaporating, and that was in nobody’s interest. The piping of much of that system and therefore the recovery of that water meant improved security for those relying upon it for productive purposes, better quality for those using it for stock and domestic applications and also the recovery of some water for other uses, including the environment. This was Victoria’s contribution to water reform—and, boy, we’ve gone backwards, haven’t we? We have seen, for no other reason than political posturing, the Victorian Labor government impede work on water reform that could have been nearly two years advanced. Here we are today talking about actions that could have started 21 months ago and been delivering benefits today.
The issue we need to face when investing in water reform is that we actually carry out the reform. We need to ensure that that investment, whether it be private or public, is delivering the outcomes we hoped for. We have seen a profound change, a change which I think few would contest, in the availability of water due to reduced rainfall patterns. We have seen example after example. The statistics are compelling. There are always arguments about why it is occurring and there is information about much of south-east Australia experiencing a stepped decrease in rainfall and reservoir inflows.
My own community around Melbourne had not a bad August, as I recall, but the rainfall did not translate into inflows. For the water engineers around us, the rainfall coefficient between what falls and what is recovered was nothing like it used to be because the environment was so parched it soaked up a lot of the encouraging rainfall and the inflows to the catchment were nothing like what we might have expected some years ago. There has been a step down in rainfall and reservoir inflows. In Melbourne alone, one-third of its average reservoir inflows have disappeared in the last decade. That presents us all with a challenge. We need to understand that water is not solely a rural issue; it is a very real issue for our metropolitan communities. In my new role as shadow minister for sustainable development and cities, that is something I will be focusing a lot of energy on.
I raise that because it highlights the need for a comprehensive approach to water reform. It means that doing more of the same is not the answer. It picks up some of the work being discussed at important high-level forums like the Australian Davos Connection and the like where really facing up to the full costs and pricing for water, including infrastructure, is something we must do, recognising that at the moment there are institutional impediments for people doing the right thing, where water institutions are encouraged to make more water available because that is directly linked to their revenue. Where do we put the price incentive and the revenue incentive to water authorities to achieve efficiency outcomes so that that becomes a rewarded goal for all of them, including the institutions involved in managing our scarce water resources? It also means making sure that the water market is well informed and that there are not any needless barriers to the operation of that market, but that the water entitlements out there are fundable, that they are real and verifiable. We see enormous fluctuations in the price of water in some irrigation districts at a time of scarcity when it is $1,000 a meg, compared to $60 a meg when we had 100 per cent allocation of water entitlements. That is an example from the Goulburn-Murray irrigation district.
What do we do about activating sleeper water entitlements, a claim to water which has rested, been dormant, held as an asset but not activated and then, when activated, adds greater burden, greater demands? We can look at smaller scale projects. I have long been reminded that enough rainfall lands on Adelaide to meet Adelaide’s entire metropolitan water requirements, that innovation and incentives around stormwater recovery are what is needed. The excellent work of Salisbury City Council is a good example of what is achievable. In my own community on the Mornington Peninsula, Frankston City was recently awarded the Keep Australia Beautiful Council’s Sustainable Cities Award. It was a great pleasure to be there just a week ago to make that presentation. The biggest threat to Port Phillip Bay is when it rains and all the hydrocarbons and E. coli wash off our suburban streets into Port Phillip. There is a pollution risk, but that water itself represents one of the most cost-effective ways of supplementing water availability.
With sewer mining, in Melbourne we have two mega sewage treatment facilities, one in Werribee and one just to the north of my electorate in Carrum in the Eastern Treatment Plant. As people talk about the impact of urban consolidation around cities, they say, ‘But the infrastructure can’t cope.’ It might not cope if we keep doing more of the same—that is, collect waste water and then pipe it tens of kilometres to a treatment facility. If people were able to intervene and recover water at that point and then make it available for non-potable use, that would be a good solution. It would expand and improve the efficiency of the existing infrastructure. All of these things are examples of what we can do. All of them go to the question of looking at reforms and impediments to optimising the efficient use of our water and scarce resources, and other price-sensitive resources such as energy and the like. This is the challenge ahead of all of us.
I was encouraged to hear Wilson Tuckey talk about instrumentation and the need for smart systems and the crucial role they can play, not only in properly recording the timing and volume of flows but also the price associated with them. We need to start thinking about just-in-time water delivery. It happens in every other sector, but we see an enormous loss of water as it is stored for some purpose down the track when really we could be thinking more creatively about making sure we have the volume of water required at the time it is needed and then have pricing reflect that. I have heard many people speak about the government’s intervention in the marketplace and the right of all water entitlement holders to know what is being bought and at what price, so that the market is informed about those interventions.
I have touched on incentives for other behaviours. Even with the initiatives we have spoken about in recent days I am frankly flabbergasted that the Rudd government, which flicks to environment and sustainability talk when that is the purpose of its message, could have overlooked opportunities with the economic security rescue package, particularly with the added first home buyer incentives, not to seek to pursue more sustainable features for housing, particularly for new homes. We know there is very cost-effective, commercially available technology. Why are we not saying that those sustainability features are important and should be rewarded in the added financial assistance? I do not know why that has not featured. It seems very short-sighted.
This is the case even with the National Rental Affordability Scheme, which was touched on earlier in the speech of my colleague and friend the shadow minister for housing, Scott Morrison. He talked about changes that could be made there. Again, why is the sustainability of rental accommodation not a key feature? I do not understand that. It is a missed opportunity. If housing affordability is our goal, the cost of running that housing should be as important, certainly to a tenant, as the cost of actually establishing it, yet you do not hear anything about that.
So my contribution to the debate on this bill is to encourage the government to recognise the systemic reform that needs to be pursued, with demand management efficiency, targeted infrastructure—not just more of the same—and smart systems, pricing signals and encouragement, reward and incentive for those doing all that we could ask of them. A whole-of-system approach needs to be part of this work, and a number of speakers today have already touched on opportunities that seem to have been overlooked. I can assure the House that I will make sure they are not overlooked in my new role as shadow minister for sustainable development and cities. I will seek to make sure that every step we take is a step towards a more sustainable economy, a more sustainable way of living and, hopefully, a nation and a people that treads a little bit more lightly on our earth as we go about our legitimate goal of improving our living standards, hoping and working for our families and making sure that we grow the economy and improve the environment simultaneously, which is what I really think the Australian public is expecting of all of us.
The Murray-Darling Basin is the fertile crescent of Australia. It occupies some 14 per cent of the continent, including more than half of Victoria. The basin includes at least 65 per cent of the total irrigated area of Australia, making it one of the most productive agricultural regions. It is the food bowl of the nation.
The climate affecting the basin, of course, is highly variable, with years of higher rainfall and lush abundance, with rivers flowing and the wetlands bursting with life. The times of abundance, however, alternate with long dry spells, which over millennia have built up sand dunes, lunettes and natural salt lakes. Many of the flora species, like the great river red gums, have evolved to sustain long periods of drought as well as inundation. Many of the bird and fish species only breed en masse when there is a sudden abundance of water, and they are migratory, moving to billabongs, lakes or plains which might be hundreds of kilometres apart but which have received some recent rain, triggering this massive breeding event. Fish, birds, frogs, crays—it is an extraordinary ecosystem which, as I say, has evolved to be able to survive in one of the most variable seasonal climate cycles anywhere on earth.
The original owners of the country, the Indigenous Australians along the Murray River—for example, the Bangerang and the Yorta Yorta, who are in my electorate—were so often able to walk across the empty Murray that none of their country boundaries followed the river banks. Their territories actually straddled the Murray River. It was not a water barrier in all years at all.
One of the most vivid illustrations of the climatic variation and bust-boom cycles of drought and plenty in the basin came from the experience of the first Europeans who travelled across and down through the basin, setting off from around Sydney in the mid-1800s. In 1836 Major Sir Thomas Mitchell, the Surveyor-General of the colony of New South Wales, overlanded with wagons, crossing the Murray into the great northern plains of Victoria, a region of about 300 millimetres of annual rainfall on average. Mitchell wrote in his diaries—later to become a best-selling book—that this was ‘Australia Felix’. The grass was waving under his horses’ bellies and the land was ‘unencumbered with too much wood but possessing enough for all purposes’. He called himself Adam in this glorious Eden. He was astounded and astonished by the lushness of the growth and the quantity of the feed. He had no problems at all in imagining what close settlement would follow in his footsteps.
But then in 1842 Joseph Hawdon was bringing stock overland and he literally followed the tracks of the Mitchell expedition. Following the route through northern Victoria in particular was dead easy, because it apparently had not rained in the intervening six years since Mitchell went through. Of course, Hawdon was in great strife. His livestock was dying. He said that the country that Mitchell had called the Garden of Eden was in fact of ‘the worst possible description’—endless flat, bare plains with wind-blown roly-polies, and a type of pigface was virtually the only feed for his animals. Hawdon was unlucky. He was crossing the basin in the long dry spell of the seasonal cycles; Mitchell had most fortuitously seen it after plentiful rains.
The earliest European settlers in the basin needed water security to survive, to live in towns and cities but also in order to establish productive agriculture. The solution was seen in damming and diverting the Murray and its tributaries. Amongst the earliest state owned irrigation systems was the tapping of the northern Victorian tributaries to the Murray—the Loddon, the Campaspe and the Goulburn. And of course there was the Tragowel Plains Irrigation Scheme, near Pyramid Hill, now a part of the Goulburn Murray Irrigation System. The Governor of Victoria turned the first sod on that irrigation scheme in 1886.
With that irrigation scheme, the land did flow with milk and honey, not just when it rained but year after year after year. Drought proofed and with further damming—filling ephemeral swamps to establish permanent storages, threading thousands of kilometres of irrigation channels between and through natural waterways—northern Victoria became the pre-eminent food bowl within the food bowl of Australia, with the most intensive food-manufacturing sector to be found throughout the country. There were the dairy, fruit and tomato industries and the cropping, livestock and pig industries.
Northern Victoria boasted the closest settlement of any rural communities in Australia. Indeed, we had government policy further pushing closer settlement through soldier settlers and wave after wave of new Australians who began picking and packing fruit in the 1920s in this region. They soon moved up to own the farm and then the other businesses in the communities, and then their children became the next generation of Australians serving the region as the professionals.
The Victorian irrigation region of the basin until recently had the most secure water in Australia, despite the extraordinary bust-boom seasonal fluctuations. In the late 1980s, the Victorian government very radically reformed its water law and separated water entitlements from the land in order to introduce a market system which would make the water even more likely to go to agribusiness with the highest value.
Each of the states in the Murray-Darling Basin has its own history of trying to drought-proof or water-secure their communities within the basin—communities which provide most of the food for our country and its exports. The basin unfortunately continues to be a patchwork of different water laws, different water security entitlements and different water market regimes. The water is, however, traded between states despite this lack of harmony.
There has been a failure in proper and adequate governance across the Murray-Darling Basin for more than a century. It was the coalition under John Howard which finally said: ‘Enough is enough.’ The Murray-Darling Basin is a single ecosystem. It is a complex geographic region but it must be governed by a single authority and have an agreed harmonisation of water law, water security objectives and measures, some security of tenure to ensure ongoing agribusiness investment and a sense of a future that goes beyond bust-boom or the erratic water law applications of individual states. So on 25 January 2007 in an address to the National Press Club former Prime Minister John Howard announced the National Plan for Water Security. He in particular focused in on the Murray-Darling Basin. He said:
The existing mechanism for the management of the Basin … the current arrangements, have made some substantial contributions to Basin-wide … management over the decades—
the shortcomings of the current model are of concern to the Commonwealth Government and, indeed, many others.
The decisions taken by the MDBC often reflect parochial interests and do not reflect the best interest of the Basin as a whole.
I would go on to say that those decisions do not reflect the best interests of the nation. Therefore, the coalition government put an extraordinary package of over $10 billion on the table, which was an inducement for the states to sign up to a cohesive management regime where in addition there would be significant investments in water-saving infrastructure, in water-monitoring and metering arrangements, in new investments to help address the overallocation problems that in particular blight New South Wales and in reforming the decision-making processes in the basin.
The Victorian government in particular said ‘No way’. They refused to sign on to this national water agreement even though they were to be the state which would benefit the most in terms of having additional investment for their decrepit, underresourced and poorly maintained state owned irrigation infrastructure. The Victorian government held out and held out, and at the time we were not really sure why. Tragically for us in northern Victoria, it was very soon made very clear why: Melbourne had a problem. It was having water restrictions.
Melbourne of course is not in the Murray-Darling Basin. It is hundreds of kilometres away from the basin. It is a much better watered place than northern Victoria, which is within the Murray-Darling Basin, but former Premier Bracks had a problem. Melbourne was on level 3 water restrictions and—guess what?—these water users were blaming the Victorian government for lack of investment in proper water recycling, stormwater harvesting or even a desalinisation plant. Melbourne people were aghast to think of the treated water pouring out of Gunnamatta outfall in a volume which would virtually meet their needs, in terms of the drought impacting on Thomson Dam, but there was no commitment from the Victorian state government to do anything about the water that passed them by, literally going out to sea around the corner from where the city is.
So what did Mr Bracks, followed soon by Premier Brumby, do about Melbourne’s water shortage? They looked, no doubt, at the political allegiances of those in northern Victoria. Of course these allegiances were with the National and Liberal parties because we are the parties that understand and care about rural and regional Australia. Our constituencies are the agribusiness producers in this country, and they long ago understood that Labor do nothing for rural and regional Australians and instead make token gestures from time to time. Unfortunately, Mr Bracks, and then Mr Brumby, had a solution to the political problem of Melbourne people saying the government had done nothing about their water security. Premier Bracks said: ‘We’ll pipe the water out of the basin—not a problem. It’s simple technology. Anyone can build a pipe, even the Victorian government. We’ll put a pipe into the Goulburn River a few kilometres down from the Eildon Dam, and the job’s right. We’ll do this because we’ll put some investment into our state owned irrigation infrastructure’—the Goulburn-Murray irrigation system, over a hundred years old—’which we own in entirety. We’ll invest some $600 million into that system and we’ll ask the Commonwealth to chuck in another $1 billion or $2 billion. Then we will find some water savings through this investment by, for example, replacing the dethridge wheels with water meters, plastic lining some of the channels or putting in total channel control systems.’
The Victorian government said: ‘We know that those measures don’t add up to significant water savings, particularly in drought years, but that doesn’t matter. If there aren’t the savings to deliver water through the Melbourne pipeline by 2010’—when the pipeline will start to flow, just before the state election—’we will use the environmental reserve in Eildon Dam, of 30 gigalitres. We don’t really think that’s a problem. The environmental reserve has been sitting there. It’s not used very often.’ But of course the point about the environmental reserve in Eildon is that it is tagged to be used in the Goulburn River when the blue-green algae blooms occur and kill murray cod, tortoises and other endangered species in the Goulburn River.
Does the Goulburn River, a tributary to the Murray, have any spare water capacity? Is it a river in great health? According to the CSIRO and the Murray-Darling Basin Commission itself, the Goulburn River is the most degraded tributary to the Murray in the system. It has extraordinary stress in terms of its wildlife and natural ecosystems. The water quality is significantly degraded and, of course, its quantity is hugely reduced due to the seven years of drought now impacting the region and the fact that with climate change there is an estimation of some 20 per cent reduced run-off into the catchment now and in the future.
But none of that fazed the Brumby government. They said, ‘We’ll take the environmental reserve. It will come first down the pipeline and then we’ll have the other 75 gigalitres a year from the savings that we have produced by investing in different meters, total channel control systems and a bit of plastic lining in the channels.’ This is, on the one hand, an enormous problem for the communities that produce the food for Australia, the northern Victorian communities. On the other hand it is an enormous problem, which I consider as significant, for the ecosystem of the Murray-Darling Basin itself. Now, fortunately, the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and the Arts, Mr Garrett, has said, ‘Hang on, Victorian government. I have decreed that this is a controlled action under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act. You cannot use the environmental reserve—I’m sorry, you must not.’ He has also said, ‘You are not to send Goulburn system water to Melbourne if it has already been allocated to the Living Murray or Water For Rivers programs’—in other words, for the Murray-Darling Basin ecosystem.
On first blush, that would appear to be the end of the pipeline to Melbourne for Mr Brumby. There is no water if he is not allowed to take the reserve, and the few water savings that have been produced so far and that are due to be produced are already paid for and allocated to the Murray River itself—and have been committed for quite some time. Unfortunately, Mr Brumby and his minister for water said, ‘That’s not a problem either. We’ll decide where we designate water as allocated out of the Living Murray or Water For Rivers programs. It doesn’t have to be the long-known and website documented central Goulburn channels 1 to 4. It can be anywhere we choose it to be.’ I beg Minister Garrett to hold firm on the conditions that he has codified for this north-south pipeline.
I am disappointed that Mr Garrett did not simply say that no water is to leave the Murray-Darling Basin for consumption outside the basin, on the grounds that there is no superfluous or additional water at all in the Murray-Darling Basin. We know the system is dying. We know the red gums are dying from Echuca through to the mouth of the Murray. We know the lower Murray is in desperate straits in terms of acidification and rising salinity levels—the ecosystems there are dying. We do not believe it was an appropriate call for Minister Garrett to say, ‘You can do this, but here are some conditions.’ We believe the EPBC Act listed enough species which will be impacted significantly and that he should have simply said, ‘No go.’ But he said, ‘Yes, with wriggle room for the Victorian government; you can do this with conditions.’ I am asking him therefore to apply those conditions.
But it gets worse. While Minister Garrett has said that no environmental reserve may be taken out of Eildon to Melbourne, he has not said that the Bendigo pipeline must stop taking that environmental reserve right now. We have some 10 gigalitres for the Bendigo pipeline for the city of Bendigo coming from the environmental reserve. We are told, quite cheerfully, that Ballarat will sometime soon be hooked into that same pipeline and that Geelong will be hooked into the Melbourne pipeline out of the Goulburn system.
If you wrote this in a science fiction book people would laugh and say, ‘No governments in a parliamentary democracy would behave like that. That is absurd. You can’t have an elected government steal water from an ecosystem which is so stressed and documented to be in the worst state of anywhere in the entire Murray-Darling Basin. You can’t take water from that system across a mountain range and pump it using fossil fuel derived energy to a city that has options.’ What are Melbourne’s options? Stormwater harvesting, recycling or desalination, if it is carefully planned. There are a whole range of options. They can use pricing options in Melbourne. They can talk about more conservation of use in Melbourne. The same applies for Ballarat, Geelong and Bendigo. Instead, as I say, this democratically elected Victorian government has said, ‘No, we have an easier, quicker solution, and those people don’t vote for us anyway. Let’s take it out of the Murray-Darling Basin, particularly the Goulburn Valley, take it across the divide and pump it into Melbourne’—75 gigalitres a year, with carryover rights and, indeed, with no questions asked about the impacts on the Ramsar listed wetlands in the Murray, whose major tributary is the Goulburn River. In fact, I am disappointed to say that Minister Garrett refused to extend the EPBC Act referral beyond the pipe off-take. He refused to consider the downstream wetlands, which are served with water from the Goulburn. These are the Ramsar listed wetlands in the Barmah forest.
The Water Amendment Bill will have to serve us in a way that ensures the states are brought to heel. The Victorian government must understand that it cannot operate alone and for party political purposes when the Murray-Darling Basin itself will have its ecosystem further degraded and parts of it destroyed. This bill, therefore, has a very difficult job to do. I am not sure if the Rudd Labor government is up to it, quite frankly. It has not managed to convince me that the states have any sense of cross-basin purpose. (Time expired)
The purpose of the Water Amendment Bill 2008 is to amend the Water Act 2007 and to give effect to the Murray-Darling Basin reform intergovernmental agreement signed by the Prime Minister and the first ministers of each basin state, being New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia and Queensland, and the Australian Capital Territory. This was done at the July meeting of the Council of Australian Governments.
It is about demonstrating the Rudd government’s commitment to a reform process that goes right across the whole of government in a whole range of areas—particularly in the way that we deal with the states, and in the way that we use the COAG process to create efficiencies and better policy to work as one country, trying to achieve an outcome that may be based in one region but often affects people right across other states and jurisdictions. It is particularly important to note in this debate the partnership that the Commonwealth has entered into with the states and the effort that our minister is putting towards working with each of the ministers in the states to ensure that a strong process is in place, that an effective policy is maintained and that we get the outcomes that are needed at a national level in what is a very stressed water basin. This is a very vexed issue right across the community.
On that particular issue, there have always been many great debates in this place broadly on the issue of water. But I think there have been no more heated debates than on the Murray-Darling Basin and what that means to our national identity, to farmers, to our culture, to tourism and to those regions that are affected and the people who live and survive around the water that is provided by that particular basin. It is fair to say that the previous government, now in opposition, will come into this place and will argue, oppose, hinder and put in place all forms of barriers to stymie any good work that this government is doing in terms of this particular water issue. The opposition is particularly annoyed at the way we might be using the COAG process properly to ensure that we actually get some outcomes and results in this particular area. The matter of the fact remains: the previous government had—
And that as well. The previous government had 12 long years to take action. They had 12 long years in times where there were, perhaps, other options and more opportunities to act—more options and other opportunities to put in place mechanisms and work with the states that would have meant, perhaps, that what we need to do today would not be necessary in the same form. This is something that is lost on, or perhaps not acknowledged by, the opposition. They criticise what we do when we take strong, decisive and firm action on very important issues and matters. But for 12 years they dithered. For 12 years they sat on the government benches, not taking action in these particular areas at the same time as they purported to be the representatives of the very people that they did not act on behalf of. I find it an atrocious and disgraceful manner in which they now carry themselves when it comes to these particular bills and motions.
In particular, I am acutely aware of how important the issue of water is—as is the member for Blair, who is sitting next to me. It is important right across Australia. I know how critical it is in South Australia—I know the problems they are going through there. I know how important it is in Victoria and in particular cities across the country. I know the desperation that certain communities have felt as their water supplies dwindle to almost zero levels; and I know the desperation that has been felt in our shared communities in the Ipswich and western corridor regions. In Queensland, we have been under heavy water restrictions for many years, and there has been an escalation of those water restrictions.
The simple fact of the matter is that we just are not getting enough rain. Our dams are not filling up, and over 50 or 60 years no real infrastructure or commitment was made by any previous state government in Queensland to tackle the future needs of that state in terms of water. It is now left up to the Bligh government, and the Rudd government at a Commonwealth level, to actually tackle the very difficult, and sometimes vexed, issues. I can understand that from a community perspective. Now the hard decisions need to be taken by government to ensure water security. I do not think this is something that should be debated in this place in terms of a partisan view. It is something that ought to be debated in this place in terms of ensuring water security for each and every region in Australia. How do we ensure agricultural security? How can we ensure the security of our cities? How can we ensure that we provide the right mechanisms, regulatory reforms and the right legislation to ensure that water is properly measured, paid for, acquired and used for the purposes it is intended to be used for? At the core, these are the big issues that we are discussing here today.
It is also fair to say that, while governments make big decisions on these matters, the community will come with us. They will come with us, and they will support good, strong moves—decisive action in terms of protecting their water security. At the heart of it, they understand how important that is. I have seen no better example than in Queensland, where we went onto level 5 and level 6 restrictions and people made personal commitments to reduce their water consumption. A target was set of 140 litres a day per person. Not only were those targets met but people achieved well beyond those targets—down to 120 litres and falling, at one stage. It might be easy to say that it was just people making efforts in difficult times, but the reality is when some water did return to our dam systems, and our dam levels did rise, a bit of an experiment took place over a particular weekend in Queensland. People were again allowed to use their hose—for the first time in years, for some. To my pleasant surprise, people actually did not abuse that water. The consumption levels actually did not rise. As a Queenslander, I am really proud of that—people have changed their habits.
That is an important fact in this debate: people will change their habits. People will change, given the necessity and given the right government leadership and direction. They will also make the tough decisions that are needed. That is what is at the core of this bill. The Commonwealth government is prepared to put serious money on the table, $12.9 billion, to ensure that the necessary changes and reforms are actually followed through.
We are prepared to sit down with each and every one of the states to negotiate in good faith about the future of the Murray-Darling Basin. We are prepared to acknowledge the difficulties that exist. We are prepared to acknowledge the ecosystems and the agricultural importance. We are prepared to work with each and every one of our ministers, our own members, opposition members and the community to ensure that we find a solution.
Not everyone is going to be happy with that solution; not everyone is going to agree with that solution. But for 12 years there has been an absence of action. After 12 years of idly sitting by and watching this great water catchment be depleted of its water resources, after hearing the voices of people concerned and understanding just what that would mean long term for this country, not acting in my view was a shameful, wilful and disgraceful act that the previous government should be very ashamed of. They will come in this place and they will argue. They will argue the toss over funding and different mechanisms and who should be doing what and what they should be doing and where, but the reality is that it has been left to us to take the action. It has been left to us to make the difficult decisions. I am more than happy, as I have done on other occasions on similar issues, to stand up in this place and put my name on the record and speak about these matters because I think they are of vital importance to this country.
Right now in Queensland—again, using my home state as an example—we have taken some very tough, very costly but very important decisions about Queensland’s water security into the future. On our shared boundary between Oxley and Blair in the western corridor is the Bundamba recycling water facility. There is also the pipeline that is going through a number of electorates in Queensland. We are building a water grid. We are ensuring that Queenslanders’ water security is ensured, whether they live in Brisbane, on the Gold Coast, on the Sunshine Coast, out in the bush or out west past Ipswich, whether they are beef farmers, agricultural farmers or whatever and whether they use water for recreational purposes,. That is our responsibility, and that is a responsibility that we are more than prepared to take onboard and to act on.
I am prepared to accept criticisms from the other side. I will wear their criticisms more than happily because I know, at the end of the day, that it is our minister and our government that are prepared to take action. We will sit down with the states, and we are doing that now. We will use every avenue open to us to move forward. We will consult with the community, something which is a foreign concept to the opposition. We will actually talk with people who are involved in this. While the other side have always purported to be the friends of the bush, small business and the farmer, it is just not reflected in what they actually do; it just seems to be what they say. It is just like when, as a bit of a joke, they used to come in this place and say that they were the best friends that workers ever had or the best friends that Medicare ever had. We understood the joke—everyone got it—but the problem is that people actually suffer through lack of action and for the past 12 years there has been that very stark mark of a lack of action and a lack of understanding of the very nature of the issue and how important it was to ensure water security for the next 40, 50 and 60 years. It is not just about the next election cycle.
I am more than happy to put my name on the public record. I am more than happy to come into this place and stand up to back our legislative changes, to back our minister, to ensure that our government has the support of the backbench. What we are doing is improving strategic water planning and improving management arrangements and we want to do that for the whole of the basin and not just look after one particular interest group or one particular region within that basin. We want to make sure that we improve the water market and the charging arrangements, as I said earlier, and we want to provide a uniform approach to regulation. I think these are the key factors that will actually deliver the water security that we are talking about.
I heard the previous speaker talking about options and alternatives—desalination, water recycling and harvesting of stormwater. These are all good ideas. There is nothing wrong with any of those ideas, but the problem lies in this: for 12 years, when the other side had the opportunity to do something about those good ideas, which they do not own, they did nothing. So, when the critical time comes, we are left with no options any more, because the options that the previous speaker was talking about do not exist today. Today we need to take action. We need to take firm, decisive action and leadership on this issue. That is the expectation of everybody that needs this water and needs this basin to be properly regulated and managed. That is the task that we will take onboard. That is the task we are taking onboard with this bill and that will deliver for Australia’s future water security.
I note with interest the comments of the previous speaker, the member for Oxley. While I do not disagree with everything he said, it was a wonderful example of rewriting history. I would like to place on record now that we would not be here today discussing this bill, the Water Amendment Bill 2008, if it were not for the work of my predecessor, John Anderson. The whole idea of a Murray-Darling Basin Plan and an Australian water plan was the initiative of John Anderson and a former Labor minister in New South Wales, Craig Knowles. We should not forget that in the attempt from the other side to rewrite history. We would have had this plan underway much sooner if it were not for the recalcitrant states, particularly Victoria. The weakness of this bill that we are discussing today is that, while ever the states have a veto power, this plan will struggle. This will never be a truly Commonwealth plan while ever the states have the power of veto.
We have heard a lot of talk here about the importance of water to communities, and I would like to highlight the communities in my electorate because they have been relying on the Murray-Darling Basin for hundreds of years. Quite often we talk about irrigation and things like that but we must not forget the people who live in the towns that rely on water—towns like Walgett and Mungindi and villages like Corinda that are wholly and solely reliant on the water that comes down the rivers in this electorate.
Also, in this debate, when we are talking about taking water from one part of the basin to another, we must not forget the importance of agriculture. Agriculture is important not just to the farmers and the communities that produce the food and fibre that our country relies on; agriculture is important to the whole of Australia. After all, food and clothing are two of the basic needs for human survival, and if we make the production of food and fibre too hard, by taking away the resources to produce them, our country will suffer. And not only will our country suffer but the rest of the world will suffer. It is important to understand that Australia’s farmers not only feed and clothe the 20 million people in Australia but also feed 70 million people worldwide. If we start cutting into our farmers’ ability to do this, we are going to create the possibility of famine in other countries. We need to keep that in mind as we decimate the water supply for our rural areas so that we do not end up with starvation across the world.
Irrigators are quite often maligned in this place. We hear people ask, ‘Is there any place to be producing cotton in Australia?’ We should note that Australian farmers are the most efficient water users anywhere in the world; there is more production from a megalitre of water in Australia than there is anywhere else. But are we prepared to let cotton production take place in Third World countries, where the environmental controls are not so great? We are a global community and, as the world gets smaller and smaller, we cannot just push what we perceive as our problems onto somewhere else.
We have heard a lot of members speaking very eloquently about water in this debate, without much common or practical experience. If they would like to come to my electorate, I could take them to farms in the four major basins, the river valleys, and show them the world’s best practice that is undertaken by the farmers in that area and how they are producing more and more with less and less.
As the debate moves on beyond water and the Murray-Darling Basin, the underlying issue of food security comes up. Up until this point Australia has never had to worry about food security, but, as we look at the growth explosion in the world’s population, food security is becoming more and more important. I can see that a lot of the irrigation areas in my electorate will switch from more extensive cropping to more intensive food production. As the cities and coastal strip grow at a rapid rate and valuable agricultural land is gobbled up by the urban sprawl, areas such as the centre and north-west of New South Wales will become very important for food production for Australia as well as the rest of the world. Tying in with that, we will also need to develop the infrastructure to enable that to happen—such as inland rail so we can get food to ports efficiently and very quickly.
The attempts by this government to deal with the situation in the Murray-Darling Basin at the moment are very much stopgap measures. Perhaps there is no greater example of their misguidance than the purchase of Toorale Station at Bourke. Apart from the devastating effect that taking 100 jobs out of that community has had, the fact that that station will no longer pay rates means that the rest of the ratepayers in Bourke will have their rates go up by four per cent. It is going to be a very, very hard struggle for that community. If they were going to get some benefit from that, perhaps the people of Bourke could come to terms with it, but there will be no benefit.
I challenge anyone in this House to stand on the banks of the lower Murray and send me a photo, when the effects of the buyout of Toorale get to the Murray River, that shows me that purchasing that beautiful property in western New South Wales has had some positive effect somewhere else. If I could see such evidence, perhaps I would change my mind. But we will not see any evidence of that. That water will not make it to the Murray. It certainly will not make it to the Coorong and South Australia. We will be lucky if it makes it to Menindee—and, if it does make it to Menindee, most of it will probably have evaporated. As a matter of fact, if you want to get one megalitre of water into the Murray River, you have to purchase 15 megalitres of water from the top end of the basin in my electorate. So we take 15 megalitres water out of the top end of the basin and, if we are lucky, we get one megalitre into the lower Murray. Mathematically, economically and morally that makes no sense at all.
I heard the member for Oxley mention consultation. There has been no consultation. The federal government moved into Bourke like a thief in the night and did a deal with New South Wales to purchase the property. As a matter of fact, no representative of the federal government set foot on Toorale Station. There was some movement from local people who thought, ‘Well, we’ll try and make some good come out of this; perhaps the water can be taken from it but the rest of the land can be used for some sort of valuable production,’ but the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and the Arts has put paid to that idea: ‘No, this area has to be locked up.’
So we are going to see this area go from being a productive area, an area that was very economically aware and had some very valuable wetlands, to being a wilderness. Anyone who has any knowledge of what happens on a river system in western New South Wales when there is no more management knows that the first thing to move in will be wild pigs. They will absolutely destroy any remnants of the pristine environment that was there. We are going to end up with a terrible, weeping sore on the banks of the Warrego as a result of this action. It is an absolute, crying shame for that to happen.
In my electorate I have the Macintyre Valley, which is a highly productive valley, and the Gwydir, Namoi and Macquarie rivers, plus some smaller rivers. They are a large part of the productivity in the Murray-Darling Basin, but neither Minister Wong nor Minister Garrett, to my knowledge, has ever set foot in any of those valleys or consulted with local communities, with farmers or with irrigators. So where does this consultation come from?
It is hypocritical that the very day that the federal government and the New South Wales government purchased Toorale was the day that they gave the go the go-ahead for the pipeline into Melbourne. So, while the water we have flushing out to sea on a daily basis is sufficient that, if it were recycled, it would sustain Melbourne, we are now raiding what little water we have in the Murray-Darling Basin for cheap political points for the Victorian government. That is an absolute crying shame.
The member for Oxley was rewriting history and talking about the wonderful job the new government is doing. One of the measures the previous government put in was the community water grants. Right across my electorate, and indeed in my hometown of Warialda, we are recycling all our water. That was made possible by a federal government community water grant. We have sporting clubs and schools right across Australia that are efficiently using water due to the community water grants. Now that scheme has been taken out. Where is the leadership on saving water? Indeed, it is my understanding that, as part of a previous $10-billion plan, $600 million was to go into engineering, saving water and making efficiencies. To my way of thinking, that is the way to go. We need to have an incentive to save water and keep our production levels up, and the water that can be saved can be returned to the river for the environment and for further production. While most farmers are extremely efficient in their use of water, some of the delivery systems have been there for a long time and there is a great case for re-engineering these systems and helping some farmers put in place the latest technology.
The other thing is that we are hearing a lot about climate change. I do not think there is anyone that doubts we are living in a changing climate, but I think we need to give it further thought. When I look at the dams that I have in my electorate—Pindari, Copeton, Split Rock—
They are on my rivers. I acknowledge the honourable member for New England sitting next to me. He might own the dams, but my electorate uses the water, and I thank him for that wonderful privilege. But those dams are at record lows, and something that is never discussed is the fact that the changes in management practices—and I know that the member for New England talks about this in this House often—mean that now every millimetre of rain that falls on a farmer’s land is retained. There will be no run-off out of an agricultural property in this day and age until the subsoil moisture is full. It is important to remember that when these dams were constructed—with no disrespect to the member for New England—a lot of the areas above these dams were overstocked with sheep and rabbits, and 25 mils of rain would give a run-off event and fill the dam.
Last winter in my electorate at Mudgee above Windamere Dam we had a series of rainfall events, the profile filled up, the spring started to run, and we were one rainfall event from getting major run-off into the dams. Of course, that did not come. So, while we acknowledge that we have been in drought for more than seven years, we must not discount the efficiencies we have made in farming—the fact that we are retaining water and using it. The other side of that is that, further downstream when you get into the agricultural areas, the introduction of no-till farming techniques means that farmers are filling their profile before any water runs off. Indeed, across my electorate now, we are looking at a very good wheat crop. There are some magnificent crops, particularly in the north area in the Mungindi and Weemelah areas and down through Walgett towards Coonamble. Those crops are there because of the management practices of the farmers and the fact that those crops are grown on stored water. When I started in the farming game, as little as 30 years ago, we battled erosion, which is a cause of water run-off, and suffered massive losses. Purely because of the improved management practices as a farming community, we have stopped that.
I think that we do not want to get too excited about gloom and doom. What concerns me in this place is that we are making decisions in the midst of a drought. To think that this is a new phenomenon—that it has not happened before—and therefore we need to take drastic action to do something about it needs some further thought. Indeed, when I was a child, the old-timers in my hometown of Gravesend would talk about the Gwydir River being completely dry in 1910 for a matter of time. As a matter of fact, it had a bed of grass growing across it—it was that long since it had run. Anyone here who is up with history would realise that the Darling certainly went dry on many occasions in the early part of the 1900s and in the late 1800s. It is not a new thing to have drought and the rivers running dry.
If we hamstring the country areas, the rural areas and the farmers in the Murray-Darling Basin so that we secure the water supplies of Melbourne and Adelaide, when we have a wet season and the seasons return to normal and the water runs past our rural towns and farms, down the Murray and out through the lake system into the sea, and as a country we start to struggle with our commitments not only in Australia but also worldwide with our responsibilities for food production, we will wonder what we have done wrong. We need to take a deep breath in this debate and think this through before we severely cut back our allocations to rural areas. Indeed, in my area now, farmers are changing. There are large plantings of citrus going in in more intensive areas so that there is more efficient use of water. We need to keep that in mind. I trust that, as we work our way through the terribly complex situation of what we are going to do with the Murray-Darling, we do not sacrifice our rural communities and farmers for short-term political gain.
I am pleased to speak on the Water Amendment Bill 2008 and in doing so represent the views, interests and very strong passions of the water users in my electorate of Farrer. I shall describe their different interests. I think it is fair to say that the further downstream you get in any river system the more concerned you become about the activities upstream. My electorate takes in areas of the upper Murray in New South Wales and all the way down past the mid-Murray to the South Australian border. My electorate also includes the very important Menindee Lakes and part of the lower Darling system. These are regions of Australia critical to the debate that we are undertaking today.
For 21 months, Labor, in opposition and now in government, has opposed or delayed real reform. This has been enormously frustrating to me because we almost had game, set and match on the national water plan. It was brave, visionary, necessary and extremely difficult, and then something got in the way. It has been suggested that Victoria refused to sign up for political reasons. I do not know what the reasons were, but the fact was that no signing up took place, so we have essentially been in a holding pattern for far too long. Finally, after having stood in the way of this reform, we have seen what I would call a partial acceptance of the coalition’s water reforms in this bill to the extent that it embraces the principles of a single water authority, greater transparency—which is most important in the decision making and in how those decisions are rolled out on the ground—and an agreed national framework for water allocation. To that extent, we do support these reforms, but this bill is way too slow in a number of important areas.
There is no truly national referral of powers, which I think is what the previous government almost had the states signed up to. I am not sure whether you could call it a national water plan if there is not a truly national referral of powers. There is no early basin plan. I think that introduces more years of uncertainty for our farmers and irrigators. What concerns me most is the abolition of structural adjustment funding. How can a government consider major structural adjustment without looking at the costs to communities and what might be done to repair some damage in those communities when you remove enormous sources of income, wealth, production et cetera? And there is the reprehensible failure to begin the real on-farm water efficiency projects that have been identified so that most people know where they stand and it is just a matter of providing the resources to make the projects happen.
I think we have a good record in water reform in the Liberal and National parties. We had put in place a three-part rural recovery plan. Those are important words to use: rural recovery. There were infrastructure investments and efficiency, selected voluntary trading and purchasing—not the outrageous buyback that we are seeing taking place across the basin now—and, most importantly, community support. As anyone will tell you, if the community does not come with you, that is not a good position to be in. It means the government has lost its moral perspective and is acting, I think, in an immoral way by disregarding the communities to the point where they are not informed beforehand, they are not incorporated in the decision making and, after the decision has been made, they will be completely ignored.
The bill that we are debating today has four main aims. Firstly, it aims to transfer the powers of the Murray-Darling Basin Commission to the new Murray-Darling Basin Authority, providing only one independent body to manage the affairs of the Murray-Darling Basin. I have dealt with the Murray-Darling Basin Commission for a long time. I have great respect for its executive officers and its CEO, Wendy Craik. I think she has actually done a remarkable job. I do not know what their view on this is, but the average person would say, ‘You’ve got one authority now and you will have another one with a different name. What’s really changed?’ Secondly, it aims to enable the Murray-Darling Basin Authority, through the basin plan, to specify three tiers of emergency management guidelines so as to balance critical human water needs and irrigators’ needs. That function is taking place now with the various authorities, but, yes, it is incorporated as a main aim of this bill. Thirdly, it aims to strengthen the role of the ACCC by giving it jurisdiction to monitor water transactions carried out under the act. All I will say about the ACCC is that it has wide responsibilities in many areas of corporate Australia. Agriculture may or may not be its speciality. I would like it to consider learning more about how agriculture works in view of its powers under this bill. And, fourthly, it aims to give the Commonwealth a greater share of the risks relating to future reductions in water allocations, which were previously the responsibility of the states and individual contractors. So we simply have another level of government managing the scheme. As I said, unless there really is national power and there is an ability to make national decisions in the national interest, we have to be careful that we are not simply creating additional layers of bureaucracy and decision making that will slow down the effective allocation of the limited resources that we have.
Senator Wong could have had a functioning basin authority working on the basin plan from March this year, because the Water Act 2007 was in place, but the Prime Minister promised that there would not be a functioning basin authority until 2009, and no plan until 2011 at the earliest. I know that it is argued that time needs to be taken to get it right, and I accept that, but for those who will have major changes made to their irrigation allocations at the end of this, we are drawing out a very long and painful process and introducing great uncertainty. And that is very difficult when you have to run a business. There is enough uncertainty in farming, particularly in these times, without governments introducing more.
The coalition’s three-point rural recovery water plan which I referred to was quite different to the Labor Party’s ad hoc buyout of farmers. It was based on a water efficiency revolution and $6 billion of infrastructure funding, which this government seems to have given up on. That was $6 billion to make a real difference in and on the farms of those who are the most important water users and food producers in the country. That plan appears to have been abandoned by the government.
We advocate a planned and limited buyback in consultation with communities, bringing communities with us rather than having an ad hoc buyout like the one we have seen—it has been mentioned quite often—at Toorale Station at Bourke. That was a completely ad hoc approach. That ad hoc approach has been emphasised by members of government departments. I know that I am speaking anecdotally because I was not present, but I have heard reports—and they all seem to match up—that when government ministers sent their officials and members of their departments to areas in my electorate to discuss water buyback they came with a simple message: the government wants as much water as possible as cheaply as possible. I think they have been a bit surprised at the responses they have got—which have not been entirely positive, as you would appreciate.
The third part of our rural recovery plan—and I think it would have to be the most important part, even though it does not have the most dollars attached—is the community support program. The Rudd government has abandoned the $1.5 billion structural adjustment component of our original water plan. Structural adjustment recognises that communities that might lose a great deal of their water deserve something in return to help them manage the transition and to help them look after their communities.
People have mentioned the community water grants program. It was a small thing. It dealt with recycling in schools and in one area that I know of it kept the caravan park green so that tourists were far more likely to stop at that one rather than the dusty caravan parks further down the river. Rainwater tanks and recyclable toilets were installed. These grants often involved schools, community groups and service clubs. Even just something like that gives towns a lift. It helps people understand that water is scarce. They know that already but it makes them feel that they, in their communities, can do something about it. But that part of our water plan has been abandoned.
Last night, comments were made by you, Deputy Speaker—I am not sure that I can refer to you as the member for Wills as you are now in the Speaker’s chair—and I am going to refer to them, because in those comments you referred to me. You said, ‘The member for Farrer said to the parliament in 2003’—it is an awfully long time ago:
I would like to see our own agriculture department detach itself from the environmental debate somewhat and conduct some critical analysis of exactly what these proposals mean—
these were environmental flow proposals—
to agriculture and what threats they pose to agriculture.
The member for Wills pointed out that I was referring to the conclusions of the Wentworth Group and he went on to say:
Of course under the policies championed by the member for Farrer agriculture in the Murray-Darling has suffered greatly.
I would say that agriculture is suffering considerably now and the only thing that made agriculture suffer under our policies was the drought and the Labor government. But the reason I refer to those comments is that I believe the member for Wills was saying that I had not understood the importance of environmental flows to our river system and the importance, therefore, of a healthy river system to agriculture. That is quite a reasonable proposition except that it is not correct.
I was part of an inquiry, the member for New England was part of the inquiry and many people who have spoken on the water bill were also. I think that inquiry was conducted in 2003—it might have been a bit earlier—and it concluded that environmental flows are one of 23 indicators of catchment health. We had the Wentworth Group endorsed that. We had the CSIRO appear before us with the science. It was not a revolutionary finding; it was simply a reflection of scientific fact.
I have seen in the last five years this complete focus on environmental flows. Get water from anywhere, buy it as cheaply as possible and get it into the river with very little strategy or plan because once it is in the river and flowing down the system the system will be healthier! Well, yes, there are instances where that is the case, but we should be talking about catchment-wide plans. I refer people to that House of Representatives standing committee inquiry. It is very instructive. It is shocking to think that the policy has simply remained absolutely static in the minds of those in the Labor Party and that they think the issue is just about environmental flows and nothing else.
I mentioned at the beginning of my remarks the regions in my electorate and how people in those regions feel about the current state of affairs. I will start with the upper Murray and talk from the perspective of the constituents in these areas, because everyone has different views. I think that demonstrates the extremely high importance of getting the national plan right and the importance of making national decisions in the national interest, because those decisions have to capture all of these views. They probably will not, but they should capture all of these views.
If you live in the upper Murray then you are probably annoyed about the fact that the river is being used as a channel to send water further downstream. There are some natural rivers, like the Mitta Mitta River and the upper sections of the Murray and Tumut rivers, that are quite different from how they once might have been, because they are carrying a great deal of water in a limited channel capacity. When I used to represent the areas further upstream there was often a claim brought to me: ‘We don’t have our fishing and we don’t have the river in its natural state,’ because people could remember how the rivers were.
Moving down the river to Albury, there is huge storage on the Hume Weir. A lot of the area around the Hume Weir relies on boating, tourism and caravan parks. People come to that inland water body for recreational reasons. Because of the low levels in the Hume and the probability that more and more water will be stored just upstream of it rather than in a large, evaporative basin, which is effectively is what it can be, those opportunities for development around the Hume Weir are being lost. We must not forget industry. Industry is an important user of water. When we had the critical water shortages recently, the Norske Skog paper mill, which is very close to Albury, was seriously worried that it would not be able to continue its production of pulp and paper because it did not have the same security allocation as the town. Further on we have feedlots and manufacturers that use a lot of water, and they are quite concerned about continuing low water allocations. If you talk about a big regional centre, you talk about the need for people to keep their parks, gardens and recreational areas green. That is difficult for everybody but, as I said, with our community water grants I think we were teaching people how to go about doing this.
Further on down the Murray River we come to an area which I call the Murray Irrigation area. Murray Irrigation is the largest diverter of water from the Murray River when there is any water, and it is a general security user of water. Its allocation, as the season opens at the beginning of this financial year, is—for the third year running—zero per cent. When members opposite talk about looking at the statistics sheets for how much rice, cotton et cetera is grown in the southern Murray-Darling Basin, they need to be aware that the largest area that supports that growth, Murray Irrigation, has had a zero allocation for the last three years. You can imagine how terrible that is for somebody who relies on water to produce food to produce their income. Each year they think, ‘We’ll somehow get through this year, and next year will be better,’ and now they are facing a third year where they still have a zero allocation. They are often targeted quite openly, and I say to the Minister for Climate Change and Water that if she wants to take water out of the Murray she really has to come to the Murray Irrigation area.
The western end of that area is considering putting together—I do not know how formal the process has been made at this stage—a package where the whole Wakool Channel would be disconnected and that entire area of irrigation cut off. Water would be saved—because that appears to be what the government wants—but when I went to the town of Barham last week I feared greatly that the effect on that town would be extreme and I am very worried about its future. It was there that the farmers said to me that people from the government had simply said, ‘We’re here to get as much water as possible as cheaply as possible.’ I think that is an awful approach to take. It is not hard to sit and listen. It is not hard to take a visit to farms and understand the dynamics. If one is talking about a livelihood that has been built up over generations, I do not think governments should be acting like mortgage repossessors, as we have seen too much of lately.
General security allocations grow annual crops. There is a reason why general security and high security are what they are. This obsession with going to high-value crops is not necessarily sensible, because it makes sense that there are annual crops grown where there is less security of water allocation and there are high-security crops grown where the water is more secure. As you travel past Deniliquin and Barham you get to Wentworth, the lower Darling and that end of the Murray, where the water security is higher and the people are able to grow horticulture—almonds, grapes and various other fruits. That encompasses the Murray part of my electorate.
I must mention the Menindee Lakes, which are much targeted. There is a fantastic group in Broken Hill, the Darling River Action Group, and they are all volunteers. They very much have the environment at heart. They certainly are not about as much water as possible for farmers. When you go and visit areas on the ground, this is never a debate about farmers versus the environment. That might come as a surprise to people, but it is never about that. Farmers do care. Menindee is a great example. I think they are pretty bemused and bewildered by the numbers of people who have been tracking a path to the Menindee Lakes, spending by the time they fit it into their rushed schedule maybe a couple of hours there. Half of that time they are probably on their mobile phones, running around in circles, taking the usual shots and disappearing again without actually taking the time to understand what is really going on. I do not want to lecture here, but I really do think it is important. Members of the government perhaps do not have the connection with these rural areas that members of the opposition do. It is simply a matter of representation. You have to walk a mile in our shoes and understand what it is like for these communities. They are trying not to throw their hands up in the air. They do want to work with the government. They want a solution. They are coming forward with some quite innovative solutions, but they are not going to be sold down the river for nothing and abandoned. It is not fair to expect that.
There is the money in the national water plan to do this thing properly. There is the money to—I am not going to use the word ‘compensation’—provide a structural adjustment where changes are as dramatic as it appears they are going to be. We as a nation can afford to do that. Eighty per cent of Australians live 50 kilometres or closer to the coast. Every time I visit regional cities, I talk about water because I desperately want to know how people perceive it. There is a view out there that we must save the Murray, but what does that really mean? People do not understand what saving the Murray means. We know that we must manage our water more efficiently, but we must continue to grow food. We must continue to recognise that 39 per cent of our agricultural production comes out of the Murray Valley. Thirty-nine per cent of Australia’s income from agriculture also comes from that area. If we are going to continue the approach of the government, we have to be very aware of the consequences both for Australia’s income as a country and for the large number of communities represented there. (Time expired)
Mr Deputy Speaker Thomson, as I entered the chamber I thought to myself how fitting it is that you are in the chair for this very important debate. I think back to 2002, when Simon Crean, the then Leader of the Opposition, in his budget reply speech committed the then opposition to finding the resources to enable an injection of 1,500 gigalitres of water back into the Murray-Darling Basin, and I really credit you, Mr Deputy Speaker, with putting that firmly on the Labor Party’s agenda at that time. I think it was sending a signal then that this was something that had to be a national priority. In the six years that have passed, it has become even more critical that we get that action happening to rescue the health of the Murray-Darling Basin.
From earlier speakers in this debate, we know just how significant these measures are and how significant the Murray-Darling Basin is to the life of Australia, to the economic output of Australia, to the issue of food security in our country and of course—as was put very eloquently by the most recent speaker, the member for Farrer—to the livelihood and sustainability of the communities that rely on the health of the Murray-Darling Basin. It is an enormous area of land, covering over one million square kilometres of our country, which is equivalent to 14 per cent of Australia’s total area. The amount of farming and agricultural activity that takes place in that area is quite staggering. It accounted for 65 per cent of the total area of irrigated land in Australia a couple of years ago and it really does deserve the label of ‘Australia’s food basket’. It is something that we need to protect in the interests of not only our economy but also Australia’s environmental performance and the ongoing sustainability of so many people and communities who rely on the river system for their businesses and livelihoods.
The purpose of Water Amendment Bill 2008 is to amend the Water Act 2007 and to give effect to the intergovernmental Agreement on Murray-Darling Basin Reform. That agreement was signed by the Prime Minister, the premiers of New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia and Queensland, and the Chief Minister of the ACT. All the basin states came together with the Commonwealth government to reach that important intergovernmental agreement. That took place at the Council of Australian Governments meeting on 3 July. As we have heard from previous speakers, this did mark a real watershed in the governance arrangements for the Murray-Darling Basin. The issues and the attempted solutions to the problems in the Murray-Darling Basin have been bedevilled by the conflicts between the state and federal governments in dealing with the divide in responsibilities between the different states and the various vested interests that each state brought to the table in the past whenever it came to finding solutions to the challenges that the Murray-Darling Basin was facing. I am pleased to say that we have now moved beyond that, with the signing of the agreement which put into effect arrangements earlier agreed to by the various governments in the memorandum of understanding that was signed earlier in 2008.
For the first time, with this bill and the intergovernmental agreement, you can truly say that water resources in the Murray-Darling Basin can now be managed in the national interest, optimising environmental, economic and social outcomes. The reforms that were addressed by the intergovernmental agreement include bringing the Murray-Darling Basin Authority and the Murray-Darling Basin Commission together as a single institution, to be known as the Murray-Darling Basin Authority. The agreement also established the Commonwealth-state water management partnerships, which include significant funding. That funding is subject to due diligence of course, but goes to basin state priority projects. The agreement also looks to strengthen the role of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission in regulating the water market and water charging rules within the basin and, very importantly, enables the basin plan to provide arrangements for critical human water needs. I think everyone in this place would agree that that is an important step forward in the governance of the Murray-Darling Basin, and we now look forward to seeing those new governance arrangements turning the page on so many years of neglect and conflict around the basin. We now turn our attention to what is required to protect and preserve the environmental and economic values of the Murray-Darling Basin.
The intergovernmental agreement really did signal that all of the governments involved have committed to a new culture and practice of basin-wide management and planning through new structures and partnerships. Key elements of the arrangements are the preparation of a whole-of-basin plan by an independent, expert Murray-Darling Basin Authority. Central to the basin plan will be sustainable diversion limits on water use in the basin to ensure the long-term future health and prosperity of the Murray-Darling Basin and to safeguard the water needs of the communities that rely on its water resources. The Commonwealth has agreed in principle to provide significant amounts of money, in the billions of dollars, for significant water projects in the basin states, subject to a due diligence assessment of the social, economic, environmental, financial and technical aspects of the projects.
I will turn to the projects we are looking at in Queensland. The Commonwealth has committed to provide up to $510 million towards Queensland’s priority projects—again this is subject to that due diligence process. The Queensland government is ready to roll out community level irrigation planning and infrastructure investment. The Commonwealth will provide up to $115 million to assist Queensland with this project. SunWater is currently planning the modernisation of its delivery system to reduce water loss, and the Commonwealth will contribute up to $40 million to assist with the modernisation process. Coal seam gas water, which is currently a significant waste management issue, is a potential significant water resource. The Commonwealth will provide $5 million for the conduct of a detailed feasibility study to examine the viability of using coal seam gas water as an alternate water resource. In addition to these infrastructure projects, the Commonwealth will provide up to $350 million for the future purchase of water entitlements from willing sellers in the Queensland section of the Murray-Darling Basin. Together these initiatives will deliver long-lasting benefits to Murray-Darling Basin communities in Queensland and down stream.
I will now turn to an issue that is of some concern in Central Queensland at the moment. We heard from earlier speakers about the concerns in other parts of Australia about the impact of mining operations on groundwater and water quality generally. In recent weeks there have been real concerns about the impact of rising sodium levels in the Fitzroy River, which is very important to Central Queensland, particularly to the agricultural sector but also to the communities that rely on the Fitzroy for their water supply. As a result of the serious flooding in the central highlands earlier this year coalmines, like the Ensham mine at Emerald, were very severely flooded. There has been a program of disposing the water out of those mines into the Fitzroy River. That has raised concerns in Rockhampton and further upstream about the effects of sodium and other elements in the water.
My state colleague Robert Schwarten, a Queensland minister, has taken those concerns to the state government. The Premier, Anna Bligh, has acted very quickly and announced earlier this week that there will be an independent expert panel to be headed by Emeritus Professor Barry Hart from Monash University and to include University of Queensland Vice-Chancellor Professor Paul Greenfield and Mark Pascoe, the CEO of the International WaterCentre. That independent expert panel will immediately undertake tests and investigations of the water quality in the Fitzroy River. They will be working with bodies like the Environmental Protection Agency and the Fitzroy River Technical Working Group to thoroughly investigate the quality of the water in the Fitzroy. The quality of the water in the Fitzroy is a very serious issue for communities right along the river and the Fitzroy River flows into the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, so we have to be mindful of the impact on the Great Barrier Reef of anything that happens in the basin.
While I welcome the announcement by the Premier that she is taking that action, it is important not to overstate the problems that exist. We need to be very prudent in investigating this, testing the water and making sure that there is nothing to be concerned about. Queensland Health has already done some testing and has been very reassuring in saying that it found the levels of sodium, whilst elevated, to be quite safe for human consumption. We do need to have that ongoing program of water testing to make sure that people’s concerns are allayed and we deal with the impact of water quality on environmental outcomes.
Bob Noble, a retired senior official of the Queensland Department of Natural Resources and Water—he is very well regarded in our region—sent me an email last week saying that we now have this issue of what the Ensham mine water is doing to water quality in the Fitzroy and said it is really time to have a look at the whole approvals process for these kinds of projects in the Fitzroy Basin and make sure that the EIS process that is currently in place does allow for a look at the impacts not just on the immediate area of the mine but on the Fitzroy Basin and the river itself. I give an undertaking to Bob Noble that I will follow that up and see where we can go with that proposal because it is becoming a much bigger issue with increased mining activity in the Fitzroy Basin. I commend the bill to the House. Like all members, we hope that there is a brighter future ahead for the Murray-Darling Basin.
The Water Amendment Bill 2008 before the House is a much needed, long overdue reform in governance that will put the Murray-Darling Basin on the right footing to face the challenges that lie ahead. I thank the members who have spoken on this bill and recognise the significance of this reform. Let us consider that some 94 years ago in 1914 New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia and the Commonwealth signed the River Murray Waters Agreement and established the River Murray Commission, which later became the Murray-Darling Basin Commission. The resulting governance model required the agreement of all basin jurisdictions before anything could be done by the commission. These arrangements have remained largely unchanged to this day, have been an obstacle to reform and have encouraged decision making that was not in the interests of the basin as a whole.
The overallocation of water resources in the basin, combined with record low inflows and the onset of climate change, was not envisaged at the time the River Murray Waters Agreement was signed. In the Water Act 2007 a key element is the preparation of a whole-of-basin plan by the independent, expert Murray-Darling Basin Authority and in the context of clear accountability of the Commonwealth minister. The Basin Plan will also include an environmental watering plan, coordinating management of environmental flows including the additional environmental water that is recovered by the Commonwealth in the basin. Central to the Basin Plan will be sustainable diversion limits on surface water and, importantly, groundwater use to ensure the long-term future health and prosperity of the Murray-Darling Basin and to safeguard the water needs of the communities that rely on its water resources.
Further to the Water Act, the Water Amendment Bill 2008 introduces governance arrangements for the new Murray-Darling Basin Authority that take account of the need to work closely with the states. These reforms are needed to ensure a governance model that is responsive to the current and future challenges facing water management in the basin. The reforms in the Water Amendment Bill 2008 are needed to ensure the viability of the basin’s water dependent industries, to ensure healthy and vibrant communities and to ensure the sustainability of the basin’s natural environment. Importantly, these reforms reflect a new era of cooperation and collaboration between Murray-Darling Basin governments for basin-wide water management.
This government was elected on a platform of ending the blame game between Canberra and the states and territories and we have invigorated the Council of Australian Governments with a major reform agenda underpinned by more effective working arrangements. In May 2008, government took a major step forward with a memo of understanding on Murray-Darling Basin reform, signed by the Prime Minister, the Premiers of New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia and Queensland and the Chief Minister of the Australian Capital Territory. In July 2008, as promised, an intergovernmental agreement on Murray-Darling Basin reform was signed by first ministers, which built on the principles of the memorandum of understanding. In the intergovernmental agreement, governments committed to a new culture and practice of basin-wide management and planning through new governance structures and partnerships.
The historic governance reforms in the Water Amendment Bill 2008 are only possible because basin state governments have agreed to pass legislation providing for a referral of certain powers to the Commonwealth in accordance with section 37 of the Constitution. As the Water Amendment Bill 2008 is being debated here, bills to refer powers to the Commonwealth have entered all the Murray-Darling Basin state parliaments and each parliament is progressing this referral. Indeed, in New South Wales, the referral has been passed in both houses and has been given royal assent. I wish to again sincerely thank the governments and parliaments of the basin states for acting promptly in progressing the referral of their powers and I look forward to the finalisation of the referrals by the Victorian, Queensland and South Australian parliaments so that this bill can be considered in the other place. The referrals will commence in a matter of weeks, subject to the completion of these legislative processes.
I thank honourable members for their contributions to the debate in this House over the last two days. I note from the debate the long-term interest that members on both sides have had in the health of the Murray-Darling Basin and, in particular, from my parliamentary colleagues in the Labor Party, an awareness of the need to have a concerted national approach to dealing with the issues of water health in the basin in the long term and including those of environmental flows. The level and breadth of this debate shows the importance of the reforms which are being delivered and on behalf of the Rudd government I want to recognise and appreciate the support of the opposition on this bill.
This bill delivers on our election commitment to bring the Murray-Darling Basin Authority and the Murray-Darling Basin Commission together into a single body by transferring the current powers and functions of the Murray-Darling Basin Commission to the Murray-Darling Basin Authority. This ensures there will be a single body, the Murray-Darling Basin Authority, responsible for overseeing water resource planning in the Murray-Darling Basin. A key role for the independent, expert authority will be the preparation of an enhanced whole-of-basin plan upon which the Commonwealth minister will be the decision maker. The ministerial council of basin governments will provide advice on the plan to ensure it is the best possible plan.
The first Basin Plan will be finalised in early 2011, and the Basin Plan will put the national interest first by providing a new, sustainable diversion limit on water use, taking account of past overallocation in the basin. For the first time ever we will have an enforceable, scientifically-informed limit on the amount of water that can be taken out of our rivers and groundwater systems across the basin. Also, this bill strengthens the role of the ACCC by providing for the water charge rules and the water market rules to apply to all water service providers and transactions. This means that all users will be assured of a uniform approach to regulation irrespective of the structure of their water service providers. The bill also extends the current powers of the ACCC to determine or accredit determination arrangements for all regulated water charges. This will promote a uniform approach to the regulation of rural water charges to the benefit of water providers and users.
The Commonwealth government recognises the severity and urgency of the current condition of the basin. We are complementing this governance reform with our $12.9 billion Water for the Future program, which has four priorities: tackling climate change, supporting healthy rivers, using water wisely and securing our water supplies. In delivering Water for the Future we are setting a new standard in national leadership and cooperative relations with state and territory governments. In July 2008, when the Intergovernmental Agreement on Murray-Darling Basin Reform was signed, the Commonwealth announced investments of close to $3.7 billion for significant water projects in South Australia, New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland and the Australian Capital Territory. These projects will improve irrigation efficiency, raise the productivity of water use and return water to the rivers of the Murray-Darling Basin. Australians want action in the Murray-Darling Basin. This government is responding with immediate practical measures to take the stress off the rivers of the basin. For the first time in the history of Federation, the Commonwealth is buying water entitlements from willing sellers in the water market to tackle overallocation in the Murray-Darling Basin so that rivers and wetlands will get a greater share of water when it is available.
In relation to buying water entitlements, the Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts is conducting a review of these purchases. An independent assessment of the purchase program was recently completed and results will be released shortly. This assessment considered the issues raised by stakeholders, including price transparency and the impact of the program on the water market and regional communities. A stakeholder consultative committee provided direct input into this assessment. Eight regional workshops were also held to obtain feedback from the wider community. The independent assessment and the department’s review will guide the way future water purchasing is conducted by the Australian government.
The reforms in this bill formalise the new culture of cooperative and accountable governance arrangements agreed at the Council of Australian Governments meetings in May, March and July this year. The government has committed some $200 million to the South Australian government towards an enduring solution to the problems of the Lower Lakes and the Coorong and $120 million for piping works to connect towns, communities and irrigators currently relying on the Lower Lakes to a higher point on the Murray. It appears that those opposite may not be aware of these commitments, given that an amendment to the second reading was moved by the opposition to provide just $50 million to the Lower Lakes and the Coorong.
The cooperation of basin states is an integral element of this reform and the effective implementation of the Water Amendment Bill 2008. This is an historic moment for the Murray-Darling Basin, a turning point that will ensure the long-term future health and prosperity of the basin and safeguard the water needs of the communities that rely on its water resources. The Water Amendment Bill 2008, along with our $12.9 billion Water for the Future package, provides the capacity to meet the future challenges facing water management in the Murray-Darling Basin, one of this nation’s great natural assets. With climate change a reality, these reforms are vital to ensure vibrant communities while maintaining a healthy natural environment. I commend the bill to the House.
That the words proposed to be omitted (Mr Hunt’s amendment) stand part of the question.
Original question agreed to.
Bill read a second time.
Message from the Governor-General recommending appropriation announced.