Tuesday, 9 February 2010
Questions without Notice
My question is to the Prime Minister, and it relates to the government’s commitment to critical human water needs within the Murray-Darling Basin. Is the Prime Minister aware that the township of Barraba, north of Tamworth, has effectively run out of water from normal sources and is entirely reliant on emergency groundwater bores for its highly restricted water supply? Given that this town has been experiencing a water crisis for some years now and that the only long-term solution is a pipeline to Split Rock Dam, would the Prime Minister be amenable to investigating a financial solution in conjunction with the Tamworth Regional Council and the New South Wales government?
I welcome the question from the member for New England. I know his concern for his constituency and people who are doing it tough, particularly because of problems with the Murray-Darling system and the secure delivery of water to individual towns and areas within his electorate. I am not aware of the circumstances that concern that town. In response to the honourable member’s question I suggest that the parliamentary secretary now engage the honourable member on what can be done about his specific proposal. This side of the House seeks to engage other members when they come forward with a practical idea of how to fix X, Y and Z and A, B and C. The honourable member has come forward with an idea. I will have the parliamentary secretary investigate it to see whether we can do something about it that is practical and sustainable.
More broadly, the honourable member’s question goes to the challenge of the Murray-Darling Basin. As a country we are dealing with the fact that the Murray-Darling has in the last decade enjoyed perhaps less than half of its normal average inflow in terms of rain and over the last three to four years something like a quarter of its normal inflow. This has had a cumulative effect on the entire system. We see it right across the Murray-Darling system.
We had one set of events recently that concerned the release of water into South Australia by the government of New South Wales, which occurred through the new arrangements put in place by the Minister for Climate Change and Water, Senator Wong. We now have in place the decision-making mechanism, through the Murray-Darling Basin Authority, to for the first time put a cap on the overall use of water in the system. We also have the capacity for the first time, from next year, in the history of the Murray-Darling for the federal water minister to have responsibility for setting that cap on a scientific basis. We also have for the first time the Australian government buying back water entitlements from what is a hugely taxed river system. From memory, we have purchased back some 780 gigalitres—am I right?
776 gigalitres from the entire system in terms of water entitlements. Over the period I have just been referring to and for some decades before that, as the Murray-Darling became progressively constrained because of the declining inflow of water, the issuing of entitlements by various state governments trebled in number. So on the one hand we had a massive trebling in the entitlements of farmers to take water out of the system; at the same time on the other hand the supply of water was affected by the decrease in rainfall. Of course, climate change is relevant to all of those considerations as well.
The other thing, as the honourable member will be aware, is that we are seeking to improve the efficiency of the irrigation infrastructure being used in the Murray-Darling. That is why the government are investing, from memory, in excess of $3 billion with the irrigators across the system, in order to improve the efficiency of irrigators. The last advice I had was that the irrigation system in the Murray-Darling was in many places so antiquated that it was resulting in something like a 30 per cent water loss.
The member for Sturt interjects. I always enjoy interjections from the member for Sturt, as he is such a positive contributor to the deliberations of this place. I do like, however, what Senator Cory Bernardi had to say about him. He said that the member for Sturt said:
I live in a Liberal seat, so I had to be a member of the Liberal Party …
I am always taken by what Senator Bernardi says. He says that member for Sturt said:
I live in a Liberal seat, so I had to be a member of the Liberal Party to get into Parliament. If I lived in a Labor seat …
Opposition members interjecting—
Mr Speaker, I rise on a point of order. It is a very important point of order. My office has now provided me with the precedent to which I drew your attention. It is to be found in the Hansard of the House of Representatives, 27 August 1981. The Speaker said:
In other words, the Speaker intervened. He said:
The Minister will answer the question and not engage in irrelevancies, such as contrasting the Government and the Labor Party.
In Hansard on 9 September 1981 a member of the House by the name of Charles—
Order! The member for O’Connor will resume his seat. I am reluctant to now address a point of order which is about the question before the question before last. The member for O’Connor will refer to page 553, where that very incident is mentioned at footnote 280. What we need to do to have a balanced discussion is to have his office research the question.
Order! The member for Sturt yet again! I am trying to catch up to that point. In the question that the member for O’Connor first raised, mention was made of past practices. I know that many will cringe because that is code for a practice that perhaps many consider is unhealthy in this place. I think the view on the degree of unhealthiness depends on which side of the chair you sit. I simply say that, on the present circumstances that confront me, there is a lesson here. The member for Sturt might dampen his enthusiasm by way of interjections and the Prime Minister should perhaps ignore those interjections. The interjections themselves are out of order. They do not justify in any way responses that stray from the intent of the question. The Prime Minister will respond to the question.
The member for New England’s question goes to the locality and the town. I have outlined the course of action that we will undertake. In response to the question, I did go through the other reforms that we have brought into the system. They are in three categories. The first is, through the basin authority, the capping of water and the scientific basis for it. Secondly, I mentioned what we are doing in terms of investment in irrigation infrastructure. Thirdly, I spoke about what we are doing in the buying back of water entitlements. This is a fundamental challenge for the nation to restore health to the Murray-Darling system. It is being severely challenged by drought, which is in turn exacerbated by the long-term impacts of climate change. Therefore, we must act to deal with the consequences of climate change in a practical way now, while dealing with the long-term causes, which is why some in this House are united in their resolve to act on climate change in an effective national and global manner.