Tuesday, 27 November 2012
Water Amendment (Water for the Environment Special Account) Bill 2012; Second Reading
The Water Amendment (Water for the Environment Special Account) Bill 2012 is another ill-conceived, poorly drafted, slapdash piece of legislation rushed into the House. If this was simply some administrative measure for some obscure practice it would not matter so much. But this is about the Murray-Darling Basin. It is going to be a critical part of a plan that has been now lodged as law in this House but is subject to disallowance.
This particular piece of legislation is critical to the future of the more than two million people who raise families, grow food and fibre, play, recreate, and wish to have generation after generation working hard there for Australia. The business of this bill underpins the economy of the basin communities and it is about the environment. The explanatory memorandum for this bill does not faithfully echo or mirror the contents. In his second reading speech the minister tried to outline the contents of the bill but what he said was quite different, when you compare it with the bill.
I am a supplementary member of the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Regional Australia when it deals with Murray-Darling Basin issues, and in reviewing the bill last week and this week we had to ask the Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities to interpret key parts of the bill for us so we knew exactly what it was driving at—the matters were so obscure and so badly drafted.
So what is this bill all about? What is it attempting to do? Why is it with us? Why has it been rushed into the House? Why did it suddenly appear after the announcement by the Prime Minister at Goolwa in South Australia just a couple of weeks ago? On 29 June 2012, the Murray-Darling Basin Ministerial Council commissioned the Murray-Darling Basin Authority to respond to the calls by the South Australian Premier Jay Weatherill to:
… complete a ‘relaxed-constraints’ model scenario with a Basin-wide reduction in diversions of 3200 GL/y. The purpose of this scenario is to explore the flow regime changes and potential environmental benefits that would result if some major existing river operating constraints in the southern connected system were relaxed.
That quote was from the Murray-Darling Basin Authority hydrological modelling paper of October 2012. This bill is a consequence of that modelling undertaken at the request of the South Australian Premier. In fact, this bill provides the funding for the acquisition of the additional 450 gigalitres of water the Premier asked for. It is meant to achieve certain outcomes by the removal of the natural constraints that exist in the river.
What are these constraints? They include things like the naturally narrow parts of the river, low bridges, levies, dams and storages of fixed volumes. There are roads, railway lines, towns and private farmland. There are all sorts of constraints, and this bill is all about how they can be removed in order to get that extra water pushed down the river to help with the environmental condition of some environmental assets which are listed amongst examples in the bill itself. That is quite an unusual situation.
I am not surprised at all that the previous speaker on this bill—the member for Makin; a South Australian member—was so excited about this bill, because it is all about South Australia. I love South Australia. I am sure everyone in Australia appreciates some of the good things that happen there, but the fact is that the basin includes Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria and the ACT. There are ecosystem assets, Ramsar listed sites, throughout that basin. This is about more than keeping the mouth of the Murray open nine years out of 10. It is about more than increasing the depth of water at the mouth of the River Murray. It is about more than increasing the depth of water in the Lower Lakes. But we are told that this is why the extra 450 gigalitres of water has to be pushed down the rivers—the Murray in particular and the other major tributaries that are interconnected in the southern part of the basin.
The Murray-Darling Basin Authority was nervous about this, and they make it clear in their paper on the hydrological modelling of the relaxation of operational constraints. They say:
The removal of some of these constraints may lead to increased flow peaks further downstream, which may create nuisance flooding on privately held land. If this were to be pursued in reality (rather than in modelled scenarios), it is likely that governments would approach this by negotiation of easements. Assessing the downstream implications of managing higher flow rates from a flooding perspective will require detailed hydrodynamic modelling of the river system, and was not within the scope of this work.
So I am afraid we do not have detailed hydrological modelling of what this massive increase in the volume of water would do to the communities and ecosystems that would be flooded deliberately and in a calculated way. So despite that statement—that pleading statement—from the Murray-Darling Basin Authority, here we are with this bill being debated tonight. We are to add another 450 gigalitres on top of the 2,750 remaining gigalitres to be found for the environment, according to the Murray-Darling Basin Plan.
What are we going to do about this? It is incredible that despite the absence of detailed hydrological modelling we are supposed to simply suck it up. It is quite unrealistic to expect that the $1.7 billion—the additional money—which is to be appropriated, will cover the costs of the range of projects including acquisition of flood easements, provision of access works—for example bridges and culverts—changing watering regimes and increased outlet capacity on major dams and storages. That is what that money is supposed to do. It is also supposed to compensate all of those who will find themselves in the pathway of these man-made and additional floods.
We had a hearing on Friday on the impacts of this bill and there were pleadings from those in the southern part of the basin in particular who will be flooded as a consequence of these extra gigalitres. Mrs Jan Beer, who lives around Seymour on the upper Goulburn said, under the sworn conditions of a parliamentary hearing:
I am very concerned that federal politicians are about to vote on a bill allowing increased environmental flows, with no constraints, down the Goulburn River system, when absolutely no studies or investigations of any consequence have taken place to know whether this is even possible without flooding freehold landowners and businesses on a very regular basis.
That flooding would occur every 2½ years or every four years out of 10. This would create far-reaching implications such as changing the natural flooding region of the Goulburn tributaries. I believe that Prime Minister Gillard and Minister Burke are dreaming. They are in fantasy land. The proposal to send increased environmental flows down the Goulburn River under the relaxed constraints policy—to deliver 40,000 megalitres a day at McCoys bridge for an average duration of four days every 2½ years—and not exceed minor flood level, simply cannot be done. I repeat: it cannot be done without creating floods well in excess of minor flood levels.
She went on to explain further the horrific consequences for those in the Goulburn valley. Flooding is not just a problem of loss of livestock, loss of livelihood, loss of housing and loss of infrastructure. In our very flat part of the world, particularly in my electorate of Murray, flooding lies on and in the landscape for months if not years. The floods that occurred naturally some two years ago are still seen in our landscape in the form of low-lying areas under inundation. That causes salinity problems, it causes significant issues with blue-green algae and, ultimately, it is a problem for weeds and a problem for loss of biodiversity. Red gums in particular and box trees do not like their feet wet for long periods of time. So this is also an environmental hazard. It is a problem for us if this bill were in fact carried through as it proposes.
The practical implication of constraints removal are real and come with various costs. They are demonstrated, for example, at McCoy Bridge. This was evidence given by the Victorian Farmers Federation at another Senate inquiry just very recently. They say:
… it is nonsense to say that you can push 40,000 mega litres a day passed McCoy Bridge—
that is one of the outcomes we are told to expect—
without causing serious flooding of not only public property but also private property.
Senator Bridget McKenzie, a senator for Victoria, quoted the Victorian Minister for Water, Minister Walsh, when she said:
If you look at the Goulburn Broken Catchment Management Authority's environmental flow hydraulic study, it says that if you had that much water at McCoy Bridge—
as this bill proposes—
you would flood 100 buildings, you would flood 250 kilometres of road, you would flood 8,000 hectares of dry land agriculture and you would flood 1,000 hectares of irrigated agriculture.
This is a serious business. What democratically elected government of a developed country would deliberately set about flooding farmland, infrastructure and towns, causing environmental damage for an outcome that they describe in the act as 'greater depth of the channel of the flow of the water out to sea at the end of the Murray'? For deeper water in some of those lakes?
We all know about the myths and legends to do with not touching any of the engineered barrages and other infrastructure that currently does not allow the estuarine conditions to influence the mouth of the Murray in South Australia. We know that this is a sacred cow. We are not supposed to talk about it out loud. The realties are if you actually apply engineering common sense to support the Lower Lakes, to let them have the natural Murray River flood flows into them then you achieve an outcome without having to flood the upper reaches or the middle reaches of the Murray-Darling Basin.
The coalition amendments, which our shadow minister pre-empted at the beginning of this debate, stressed that the bill also fails to make it absolutely clear that any water found would not simply come from non-strategic general buyback. We know from Minister Burke's remarks that he now understands the damage done, first by Minister Penny Wong and then from his own time as minister, with non-strategic water buybacks. We now have stranded assets and we have higher costs for irrigators tipping some of them out of the business. This bill, we are told, is not meant to take more water for this environmental flow out of irrigators' pockets, but it is not clear in the bill at all. The amendments of the coalition would try to make that clear.
Let me make something else absolutely clear. As far as the people of northern Victoria are concerned, the source of the 450 extra gigalitres is a problem, but it is the impacts of the deliberate, calculated, man-made flooding that will wipe out their futures. That will also not add to the environmental amenity or the sustainability of the Murray River, the Goulburn River, the Murrumbidgee River and the other tributaries that are to be given much greater flows in order to push that extra water down the river. I could quote many more local people, like Mr Ian Lobban, who also gave evidence last Friday to a Senate committee. He said:
We have employed a certified practising valuer to look at the impact that this will have on properties. The figures to hand so far have indicated quite clearly that properties are already devalued by one-third, and that is a considerable loss of asset value. In a lot of cases it is people's superannuation. In our vicinity of the river we estimate that the compensation would be in the vicinity of $53 million.
He is talking about the compensation if those man-made floods were made to occur at the timing that the bill implies. This is a serious problem for our Murray-Darling Basin. It is bad enough that we have the Murray-Darling Basin Plan now as law if we cannot in fact have it disallowed. That bill is deeply flawed. It is a bill that does not rest on decent modelling. It does not rest on good science. It is not a bill that has a triple bottom line principle attached to it. It does not deliver environmental, social, community or economic outcomes in equal measure. The plan is deeply flawed.
As most people know in this place, I intend to try to disallow the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. I also object to this bill. This bill is a nonsense. It is an absurdity. It destroys the environment at the same time as it absolutely destroys the futures of people who in the future have to look forward to a man-made flood pushed down the river every couple of years, with their bridges raised so the water can get under them. What is the point of raising the bridges if the land all around is inundated, with dams and storages apparently made bigger so that more water can be captured and pushed down the streams so that the mouth of the Murray is deeper? It is a nonsense. This bill is another example of a government that is incompetent or simply does not care.
It will be no surprise that I support the Water Amendment (Water for the Environment Special Account) Bill 2012. This bill does have a triple bottom line, and I will explain that to the House. Each and every community throughout the Murray-Darling Basin and beyond will see in this debate whether their MP supports the triple bottom line—the win-win-win scenario so often sought in this issue but so infrequently achieved. We have here such an outcome on offer—an outcome which will achieve the three objectives of protecting the Murray-Darling environment, maintaining economic development and industry and sustaining communities dependent on a healthy river system. This bill will, with the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, deliver that triple bottom line—and it is affordable. So, there is no excuse for not supporting this bill. Only those who oppose reform for opposition's sake or spite will oppose this bill.
On the first point—the environment—this bill delivers water which is absolutely needed to reach those parts of our Murray-Darling environment that are typically dependent on larger floods to keep them alive; those wetlands and forests which are central to the health of the greater river system and which are not catered for in any shape or form by the mooted Murray-Darling Basin Plan's 2,750 gigalitre compromise. The additional 450 gigalitres, when added to the 2,750 gigalitres expected to be within the plan, represents a win for the environment and the health of this tremendously important river basin.
On the second point—economic activity—this bill will use water sourced from water savings. This is not water currently being used by farmers or industry but water that is currently being lost to the system—wasted, blown, squandered, evaporated et cetera. Water currently lost to both farms and the river will be saved by federal infrastructure spends and only half of the water saved will be returned to the environment. The farms get to keep the rest. The farmers win, the environment wins and everyone, everything, is better off.
On the third point, with farmers increasing their effective water supply, communities will be able to better sustain their local economies and the social vitality of their regions. As I said, this is the epitome of the triple bottom line and that result is realised in this bill. Why would anyone want to oppose the bill?
The subject matter contained in this bill was made public by the Prime Minister on her recent visit to South Australia. Some from Victoria and New South Wales will ask, 'Why South Australia?' A number of the key Murray-Darling icon sites that we have heard so much about are in South Australia and each of them has been battling to get, at best, some prospect of recovery from the degradation of the millennium drought. These sites include the Lower Lakes, the Coorong and the Murray mouth. These are collectively an icon site as determined by the Liberal-National Party under the 2004 National Water Initiative. The National Water Initiative is held up by those opposite as being evidence of the Howard government having regard for our river systems. Yet we hear today a view different from that. In the same breath as they applaud the National Water Initiative, members of the opposition coalition, as we have just heard, dismiss the significance of these assets and the claim for enough of the water of the Murray-Darling Basin to keep them in a good state of health. Members opposite say one thing but mean another. The opposition say they uphold the principles of the National Water Initiative, so they really should support the objectives of the National Water Initiative—to protect these icon sites.
But there is another icon site which, under the Murray-Darling Basin Plan as negotiated between the Murray-Darling Basin Authority and the states, would not have a hope of surviving—the Chowilla Floodplain, which straddles the Victoria-South Australia border. This is another icon site which the opposition's favourite National Water Initiative held up for saving but which the opposition now want to see dead. The Chowilla Floodplain is a large area which is more elevated from the River Murray's water level than many wetlands. It takes a flood to get water up and over the banks and across the floodplain.
Despite its best efforts, the Murray-Darling Basin Authority was not able to include this icon site as a beneficiary of its proposed 2,750 gigalitre compromise plan. The particular problem with Chowilla is that there is so much salt beneath the soil. Without watering from flood, this salt rises through the soil and enters the root zone, killing the forests and a range of other vegetation in the area. The salt rises and enters the topsoil, and from there it enters the streams and eventually the Murray itself. Without watering to keep the salt deep in the ground, we end up with a wasteland of death and salt that will enter and kill the river system. Chowilla needs to be watered not just for its own health but for the health of the wider environment.
As I said, the compromised plan's 2,750 gigalitres is not enough to water this icon site. It would die. This leads to the purpose of this bill. The additional 450 gigalitres, added to the 2,750 gigalitres, will give the Murray-Darling Basin Authority the weight to water the Chowilla Floodplain and force the salt down, saving not only the floodplain itself with the benefits that brings but also the river system, in which salt is a constant problem requiring constant attention and effort to remove. Without this bill, Chowilla dies.
This is not just a South Australian issue, as the icon site spans the border shared with Victoria. This is not just an issue for South Australia and Victoria, as saving this stretch of the river and beyond is required by national law—it is an issue for all of us and action is required by law. If members of the coalition stand by the intent of the National Water Initiative, if they stand by the intent of the Water Act as proposed by the Howard government, I would like them to stand up and tell the Australian people whether or not they support the National Water Initiative as a whole, or just the river's icon sites in the eastern states. I would like them to stand up in this place and inform the Australian public that they support John Howard's plan for the Murray-Darling Basin as it pertains to New South Wales alone, or that they support John Howard's national plan for Victoria only. This bill amends the Water Act 2007 to provide a secure funding stream to enable up to an additional 450 gigalitres of water to be recovered for the environment to ease or remove constraints and to deliver environmental water without having a negative impact on the social or economic future of the communities of the Murray-Darling Basin. The bill complements the Water Amendment (Long-term Average Sustainable Diversion Limit Adjustment) Bill 2012, introduced into the parliament in September 2012. That bill facilitates the adjustment of the long-term sustainable diversion limit under the Basin Plan within clearly set limits and with a clearly defined process to provide transparency to this parliament and the community.
Amounts credited to the account may be debited for purposes including: improving the water efficiency of infrastructure, such as on-farm irrigation efficiency programs; improving or modifying infrastructure that constrains the delivery of environmental water in order to ease or remove those constraints, increasing the capacity of dams and storages to deliver environmental water, and entering into easements or agreements; purchasing water access rights and making payments in relation to projects whose aim is to further the objects of this bill; and, of course, addressing any detrimental social or economic impact on the wellbeing of any community in the Murray-Darling Basin that is associated with a project as mentioned above so as to offset any such impacts.
The majority of the proposed funding will be directed towards continuing and increasing existing programs, especially the On-Farm Irrigation Efficiency Program. The proposed funds will also enable increased environmental water to be delivered to wetlands by easing or removing constraints—for example, increasing the outflows from storage dams, raising a bridge and improving other infrastructure, and, importantly, providing for flood easements or agreements with landholders. I commend the bill to the House.
As I rise to speak on the Water Amendment (Water for the Environment Special Account) Bill 2012, I hold in my hand the proof committee Hansard, which runs to 33 pages,of the hearing of the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Regional Australia, which inquired into the bill, on Tuesday, 20 November 2012. I inform the House that the member for New England, who is the chair of that committee; the ALP member for Bendigo; the Liberal member for Murray; and I as the Nationals member for Riverina were in attendance at that hearing and we took evidence from a number of witnesses, following the submissions that were sent in to us, to discuss this very important bill. Certainly, people took a lot of time on their submissions to the committee.
The bill was referred to the Regional Australia committee on 1 November. The reason for the referral was that the bill commits future parliaments to appropriating $1.77 billion. This is an unusual approach which deserved scrutiny by the committee, given its impact on the budget—and we know how important the budget is. We know how important it is for the future of Australia and we certainly know how important it is to the future of Labor in government, which at this point in time has not delivered a budget in surplus since 1989. The committee received 16 submissions and undertook a public hearing, as I said, on 20 November. The submissions were tabled and we took evidence from a number of people at that hearing.
To my way of thinking, the fact that tonight we have put aside the adjournment debate because the Leader of the House has opted to exhaust the list of speakers on this bill makes a mockery, really, of what the Regional Australia committee members were trying to achieve. We read the submissions, we listened to the evidence at that hearing and we had a meeting just this afternoon to discuss our recommendations. We have had a series of meetings since the hearing. We have discussed it in this parliament amongst ourselves. We have exchanged telephone calls. We have done all that to come to a set of three recommendations, and the wording of those recommendations was the subject of considerable debate. We had agreed that, in the morning, we would finalise the actual wording and report back to the parliament, for the benefit of members, the standing committee's recommendations, which would affect this bill. But tonight we are exhausting the speakers list and tomorrow, the Leader of the Government tells me, we will vote on it. So members will vote on the bill with all the speakers having spoken on it but without the benefit of knowing what the Standing Committee on Regional Australia's recommendations are.
After all that—the 16 submissions that were made by people in good faith, and the evidence that was given in good faith last week in Sydney by environmental groups, farming groups and irrigators—I wonder: what was the point of it? What was the point of it when tonight we are being told to hurry up our speeches and to get all this debate out of the way? For what? The members cannot take a vote without the informed recommendations of the Regional Australia committee. The Independent member for New England keeps the Labor government in power, but what must he think? His committee have spent hours and hours on this inquiry and have deliberated on the bill, and taxpayer money was spent on all of us to travel to Sydney to hear the evidence—for what? We heard the evidence and we made recommendations, and those recommendations will be, what, just tabled in parliament? I cannot see for what purpose.
What should have happened is that there should have been enough time to table the recommendations. Members on both sides of the House would have benefited from being able to read the recommendations, and we would have been able to vote on the bill based on those recommendations. It is all lip-service, as is typical of this government. Had it not been for the passion and pride shown by those who live in the Coleambally and Murrumbidgee irrigation areas at the original meeting with the Murray-Darling Basin Authority, the public rally on 14 October 2010, this whole water debate would have headed in a different direction, because it was at that meeting that 7,000 locals told the MDBA that they were not going to watch their communities be destroyed by a bad guide to a draft of the plan without a proper environmental watering plan and without proper scientific validation. Had it not been for those 7,000 people turning up and telling the MDBA that they needed to go back and rethink this, the minister for regional Australia and the minister for water would not have charged the Independent member for New England with the responsibility of heading the House Standing Committee on Regional Australia's look into the MDBA.
We did that and we produced a fine report, Of drought and flooding rains: inquiry into the impact of theGuide to the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, which itself produced 21 really worthwhile recommendations. It talked about buyback. It talked about the patchwork economy that we are in, but also about the 'Swiss cheese effect' of which the member for New England constantly reminded members in this House. It talked about the need for water savings infrastructure to be put in on farm, and for environmental works and measures to ensure that the water recovery was such that it did not have an impact on those regional communities which grow fibre and food to feed our nation and, indeed, other nations as well.
As I say, we produced a really good report. It was produced in May 2011. Yet it took until the last sitting day of last year for the water minister to come into this place and actually acknowledge the fact that that report had been delivered. I do truly believe that that only happened after I implored the minister for regional Australia that this should be so. Yet, still, those 21 recommendations have not been followed through.
As to the three recommendations that our committee has made—which are being worked on as we speak and will be finalised in the morning—we made them for what? The members will not have the benefit of those informed submissions, the benefit of that informed hearing that we had in Sydney, and the benefit of those people who took the time and trouble to actually give us evidence—and that is the environmental groups, too—and tell us what they thought about this particular bill, which is now going to be voted on in the morning after the speakers list has been exhausted tonight. Well, that is a disgrace. It makes a mockery of the democracy we are supposed to be upholding.
Within hours of that meeting ending at Griffith, as I say, the member for New England was given charge of it and the Standing Committee on Regional Australia was set up. And we have done some great work. We went right around—we met in 12 regional centres in four states, with the largest attendance, apart from the hearing in Griffith on 25 January 2011, being 70 at Deniliquin on the previous day.
The people of Griffith and the people I serve are understandably concerned. Only last week I told some locals in Griffith that, had the Prime Minister, on 26 October when she made the big announcement in Goolwa, in good faith come to Griffith and said: 'I am going to set aside, as the Prime Minister of this country, a special account of water for South Australia, but I am going to do it just through works and measures. I am going to do it with a special fund that I'm going to set aside. It's going to cost $1.77 billion. I have not actually worked out how I am going to fund that. I know how you people work hard, and I acknowledge the fact that your area of Griffith is celebrating its centenary of irrigation. So, after this meeting in Griffith, I am going to go to Goolwa and announce this special fund,' I think the people of Griffith might have thought, 'Well, you know, the water's going to come out of works and measures—it's not going to come from further buyback; it's going to be coming from a special water account fund,' I think they might have accepted it. I think they might have thought, 'The Prime Minister has come here in good faith; we should listen to her; we should go along with what she says.' But no—absolutely playing the politics, the Prime Minister went to South Australia and said: 'I've saved the ailing Murray! I've done that.' She had the minister for water there, and they both took credit for saving the ailing Murray.
I can tell you that some of the river red gums in my part of the world are actually dying, drowning, through too much water. We heard Senator Hanson-Young going on about the river red gums dying. Well, I would like to know where they are dying, because many of the river red gums and many of the trees have been underwater for so long, due to the last two floods that we have had in the Riverina, that they have actually got too much water. I would love to know how the government is planning to put more water down the system when—and we heard the member for Murray talk about the low-lying areas in her electorate—there are parts of my electorate which have been underwater since March, and the people of Darlington Point are fearing that, with the amount of water that we are proposing to put down the river, they could be permanently underwater. That simply is not good enough in a country which says that it is going to look after its people, particularly its regional people.
The final Murray-Darling Basin Plan has been put forward, and I have signed a disallowance motion with the member for Murray. I stand by doing that. But, as I say, all Australians want a healthy river system. We cannot survive without this happening. Regional cities and towns along the rivers also know we desperately need a Basin Plan with a focus not solely on environmental outcomes but also with economic and social implications taken into consideration. And we do not have that at the moment.
The Prime Minister needs to know that no region has been more interested in, passionate about and vocal in the Basin Plan deliberations than my electorate of the Riverina. This is because the Riverina people have the most to lose if too much productive water—that which is used to grow food and fibre—is lost to the local area through buybacks. And I am so pleased that the opposition leader, Tony Abbott, this morning made his strongest statement yet that buyback in a Basin Plan under a future coalition government—and, God willing, that will happen next year—would be capped at 1,500 gigalitres, because that will mean that only 249 gigalitres are still to be recovered through buybacks. Over the years, I think the irrigation communities can wear that. Certainly we cannot take buybacks totally off the table because there are some irrigation farmers who want to sell their water. But too often in the past we have seen the other side of politics talking about buying water from willing sellers when they have actually been debt-pressured sellers. They really did not want to sell their water, but they had to because they were pressured by banks and because the Labor government, the biggest irrigator in the country, had gone into the marketplace and were paying over the odds for water. Why wouldn't an irrigator want to sell his or her water if they were due to retire, their kids did not want to take up the farm and there is money being offered to do it?
At the moment, the Burrinjuck and Blowering dams, which produce a lot of hydroelectricity and a lot of irrigation productive water, are almost chock-a-block full of water. If we put too much more environmental water into the system, there is not going to be any air space; the dams are full as it is. Unfortunately, when we experience floods, as we have for the past couple of years, we then experience the typical environmental flows going into an already flooded Murrumbidgee Valley, which is just what we do not need.
The Prime Minister, in her 3 May 2012 speech to the Global Foundation summit in Melbourne, spoke of strengthening irrigation. Her more recent Australia in the Asian century white paper also acknowledged the huge role Australia has to fulfil regarding the global food task in the years ahead. I commend the Prime Minister for making those statements, because they are true. But she knows as well as anyone that Australia is well placed geographically, economically and agriculturally, with our agricultural industry already well established, to more than meet the growing food demand in Asia. But we cannot do it if we do not give our farmers productive water and we cannot do if we set up special accounts for South Australia. Why isn't there a special account for the Riverina? It has already had 360 gigalitres bought out of it, more than any other place in the basin. It is just totally unfair. My people will not keep copping this, let me tell you. I would like to see the Prime Minister come to Griffith and explain to them the Basin Plan and acknowledge the great job that they do on behalf of this nation. (Time expired)
It is a great pleasure to follow the member for Riverina on this Water Amendment (Water for the Environment Special Account) Bill 2012. This reform of the Murray and the Darling river systems has gone back a long time in history. It is not something that only this government has been dealing with. In fact, I well recall John Anderson, the former Deputy Prime Minister and the former member for Gwydir, introducing the National Water Initiative, which was instrumental in starting a very credible process that not only was designed to deal with reform of water and ensure environmental flows within the Murray-Darling Basin system but also acknowledged that we have got to look after the communities where there is a water buyback or a loss of allocation and what that might mean to some of the regional economies along the Murray-Darling system.
In relation to the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, I put a submission in to the initial inquiry of this government. One of the points I raised was that the Murray and the Darling are two ecologically different systems. The Murray is in southern Australia and it comes from more of a Mediterranean type climate. A lot of the water comes from winter rainfall patterns and it also comes from a lot of melting snow. I represent the seat of Maranoa, which has the entire Condamine-Balonne river system, the Warrego River system and the Paroo River system within its boundaries. They are all part of what we call the Murray-Darling Basin catchment area. I also have within my electorate the border rivers of the Macintyre, the Weir and the Moonie. The Macintyre is one that I share with my good friend Mark Coulton, the member for Parkes.
Indeed, as the member for Bowman says—but it extends further back. It goes right back to the headwaters of the Macintyre system and the Severn system, which comes right up into the back of Stanthorpe. I know that at Stanthorpe, for the last 20 years, they have been searching for ways to be able to get more water to secure the horticultural production that is so important not only to the food source in Australia but also for the export effort that goes into the products that are produced in the Stanthorpe and the Southern Downs Regional Council area.
I have a very real concern that, whilst a large part of the bill that we have before the House—and the works and measures and the proposed buybacks of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan—has much support from this side of the House and many of my producers, there are still very real concerns that there is not science backing up the issue of the quantum of water in relation to buybacks nor is there any research or regional impact study that has been done on where that water is proposed to be bought from. That is a very real concern. In the Lower Balonne region in my electorate, I know that the government want to buy back some 100 gigalitres. They have already bought 35 gigalitres.
As the member for Riverina said, there are farmers who will sell water for all sorts of purposes. We understand that, but what we must understand is that when water is purchased from a region there can be a regional impact on the economy of that area. There has not been the research done to satisfy me nor many of my constituents, whether it is concerning the Macintyre, the border rivers, the Condamine or the Balonne river systems in my electorate. In fact, they are telling me in the Lower Balonne that, if 100 gigalitres is purchased, it will equate to 25 per cent of the total allocation in that part of the Condamine-Balonne river system. They say they can live with the 35 gigalitres that has already been purchased and at this point it is not having any impact on the regional economy. But they tell me that if the government does buy up to 100 gigalitres—in other words, the other 65 gigalitres—it will inevitably have an impact on the regional economy of that part of the Condamine-Balonne river system.
I want to also point out at this juncture that in Queensland we have been through an exhaustive process for the last 10 to 15 years in relation to water allocation management plans and the resource operational plans that have been done by state governments. In the Condamine-Balonne river system, 15 per cent of the allocations were given back to the environment as part of that process without compensation. They moved from the older type allocation systems to an events based process of allocation—the 'event' meaning the time of the year and the flow in the river, which determined how much water you would be able to extract at that time.
Many in my community and many of my irrigators are exhausted at this process that has gone on for so long. It creates a great deal of uncertainty in the communities. It does not give confidence to business to invest in the region. What they are saying to me in relation to buybacks is they want a cap on the buybacks, that there will be no more buybacks without the science being presented to the community so they can understand. They are prepared to look at good science, as they did with the ROPs and the WAMP allocation process, where they moved to an events based allocation rather than the older type where they just had an allocation from the river systems. So they want to see the science that underpins the buybacks. They want to see more work done and they do support the works and measures money, because out of efficiency you can get a win-win situation. You can get water for the environment. As a result of that, you can also make the use of that water more efficient, which gives both a dividend to the farmer and a benefit to the environment.
We have little time tonight, and I am disappointed that the government want to see this going through here tonight. As outlined by the member for Riverina, there has been a House Standing Committee on Regional Australia inquiry going on and we have not seen the report tabled in this place, which we should have seen before this final bill was presented for consideration by members on both sides.
The Border Rivers Food and Fibre group have said to me—and they have said it to the state ministers on both sides of the border—that they still believe that the Basin Plan remains unacceptable in its current form. I have outlined some of the concerns that they have. They see that, as I said in my original submission, the northern part of the Murray-Darling system—in other words, the Darling system—should be considered separately from the Murray system. I outlined earlier in my remarks tonight the reasons why. They believe there should be a completely separate Basin Plan. I reflect those comments on behalf of Border Rivers Food and Fibre. Before any further buybacks are conducted, they want to see the science that underpins why that water is needed, where it will be delivered and where it will be bought from within the system. These are all very, very real concerns that Border Rivers Food and Fibre have, whether it is the Macintyre River system, the Condamine-Balonne or even the Warrego system.
I was out in the Warrego only 10 days ago, talking to the irrigators. There is very limited immigration there at the moment. It is a very arid area but there is limited irrigation, particularly for high-value crops such as grapes and melons and some organic production of cereal grains. When we went through the water allocation management plans for the Warrego some seven or eight years ago, 8,000 megalitres was given back to the environment without any compensation for the impact that the loss of that water from the Warrego would have on the economic activity in the Warrego business areas.
I have to say that the producers in my electorate will work with a good plan. They still believe the science does not underpin the 1,500 gigalitres that the government wants to buy. They are concerned that there is no assessment of the regional impact, the cost of the buyback and what it would mean to some of those communities if they lost that volume of water in those areas. That should be done before any buyback occurs so it can be explained to the community and a package of measures put in place to ensure that there is no loss of economic activity in that part of the basin.
I say tonight that I am disappointed that this government has decided that they want to see this bill passed tonight, in the last sitting week of this year—almost rammed through this place. It is such an important issue. It has gone on for many years—in fact, decades. In Queensland we have been going through this at a state level and now at the federal level for 10 to 15 years. Farmers do want to be part of the solution. They want to work for an outcome that is sustainable and will mean greater security for their business operations and also no loss of economic activity in their business areas.
I rise tonight to welcome the government moving on the Water Amendment (Water for the Environment Special Account) Bill 2012 and on this reform, unlike my good friend and colleague the member for Maranoa. This is an issue which has plagued our country since Federation. This is one of the last acts in a too-long debate to fix a mistake of the Federation. This issue should never have been left to the state governments to handle because this is an issue that will always divide the states, but particularly it will always divide water catchment areas. We have just heard another member talk with passion and belief about his water catchment areas and the people in them he represents. We have heard representatives from other water catchment areas this evening representing irrigation districts. We will hear more, I am sure, during this debate.
But I remind those in the House that this plan, when it eventually passes the parliament in the coming days, will undoubtedly have an effect on different economies throughout the Murray-Darling Basin. I also remind the House, the member for Maranoa and others who have spoken that some of those irrigation districts did not get a choice. That is often forgotten. There seems to be some unique distinction between the irrigation districts that get a choice about how they adjust structurally to a change in the economy and those where it is forced upon them, where all of a sudden the water has just dried up. The fact is that the history of this debate is long because it is splintered. The reason that we have differences of views on this side of the House, particularly, is that we have representatives from throughout the basin, which those on the other side do not have, and the communities will never, ever come to an agreement on this issue. It does not matter whether you are a South Australian, a Victorian, a New South Welshman or a Queenslander; what really matters is if you are from one irrigation district or another. I grew up in Mildura, which is in Victoria, in the Sunraysia irrigation district. I can tell you, Madam Speaker, that those in Mildura when I was growing up used to look down the river at people in the electorate of Indi and say: 'Those people misuse water. Those people are inefficient users of water.' They would also say that people in the electorate of Farrer misused water. Equally, people in my electorate, at the end of the system, on the Lower Lakes, point all the way up the system and say, 'They all misuse water.'
The member for Wentworth, who was the water minister when this process began—nearly six years ago, on Australia Day 2007—under Prime Minister John Howard, often said that, no matter where you were in the basin, you would hear the words: 'Those people upstream misuse water,' and, 'Be darned with the people downstream.' When you are on the Lower Lakes in South Australia, there are not too many people downstream to not worry about. There are plenty of people upstream you can blame, and they often are blamed—very often unfairly. But, at the end of the day, this is a responsibility that should be with a federal independent authority. That was the policy that was announced in January 2007.
I am not surprised that the member for Maranoa says that he has had contact from constituents today who have said that they do not agree with this plan. I am not surprised by that at all. I am sure the member for Riverina had those contacts right up to the moment he spoke, and I respect that. But you will never get agreement. What the people in my electorate think is a good plan will not be thought of as a good plan in the electorates of Maranoa, Indi or Riverina. The reason this issue is 120 years old is that we cannot come to an agreement. We have to hand this to a group of people who look at the best available science. And again I disagree with the member for Maranoa: there is lots of science available. It might be disagreed with by different people—different stakeholders and different irrigation districts—but there is plenty of science available.
This plan is a negotiated settlement, undoubtedly. I have got some time for the minister and the effort that he has put in, and particularly for the chair of the Murray-Darling Basin Authority. I acknowledge the contribution of someone from the other side of politics. When he was appointed, I was suspicious about that appointment, I must say, but nonetheless I think he has done a terrific job in engaging with those communities that will be affected. But the idea that any minister—whether it be the member for Wentworth when he first started this plan, or the current minister, or any minister since Federation—could somehow bring these disparate interests together and get complete agreement is really dancing in fairyland. It really is. Inevitably, we need a system of management which is outside this place, which is outside the state governments, particularly, and which is outside the irrigation districts—because ultimately we will never get agreement.
Now, Madam Deputy Speaker—I mean Madam Speaker—
The minister in question time today raised a point which I could not agree with more, and that was when he pointed out the utter, complete and disgraceful hypocrisy of the Australian Greens. If nothing else proves that that group of people are in it for nothing other than to be a protest party, then this bill and this plan prove it. The disgraceful behaviour of the Australian Greens, particularly when representing South Australia, is something that they should have on their tombstone as a political organisation. The senator from South Australia who is the water spokesperson for the Australian Greens cannot see that, after 120 years and after nearly six years of this debate in this parliament, this is the opportunity for South Australia to adopt a plan and for this parliament to adopt a plan for the first time since Federation to correct the mistake of Federation. That they would rather play cheap, partisan politics to try and differentiate themselves in South Australia from the Australian Labor Party and the Liberal Party of Australia is shameful. It is a disgrace. It will stay on their tombstone as a political party forever, in my view. And I will make sure that my electorate knows very well that the only people in this parliament, the only self-interested organisation in this parliament, not representing their own electorates with the passions of their own irrigation districts on their side, who tried to stop this from becoming law, were the Australian Greens and, shamefully, a senator from South Australia.
It is a disgrace that they have taken the position that they have taken, purely for politics, purely to try and differentiate themselves so that next year the very slim hope that that senator has of holding onto her position in the Senate will somehow be enhanced by this position that she has taken and her party has taken today. I say to this House: it will diminish the Australian Greens in South Australia. It will diminish them greatly, because any right-minded South Australian will know that the campaign that the Premier of South Australia has played over the last 12 months has been about politics. This bill is in part about politics, undoubtedly. I say that, but this bill really is about aims in five or six years time, and this is not really the big debate. The big debate is to ensure that we get, for the first time since Federation, an independent national authority to lay out a plan for the management of the basin.
I believe in the reform of the Murray-Darling Basin. I always have. I grew up in the Murray-Darling Basin. My parents still live in Mildura, in the middle of the Murray-Darling Basin. I represent people along the Lower Lakes who have been affected in the most devastating way. Down on the Lower Lakes, they have been used—and I am sure the minister will acknowledge this—over many years as political props in this debate. There are people like Henry Jones, who I have the utmost respect for, who has fought for this since 1983, when he stood at the Lower Lakes as they silted up for the first time. Mind you, Madam Speaker, the water allocations increased exponentially after that drought, when we did not realise that there might have been a problem and the system was telling us that there might have been a problem. Henry Jones has fought every day of his life since that time. He is a fisherman on the Lower Lakes. He did not want to spend his life fighting for this, but he has. He should be and he will be acknowledged, I am sure. There are people like Kym McHugh, the Mayor of Alexandrina Council, the council whose district is along Lower Lakes, who saw the devastation of his community during 2006, 2007 and 2008, when you could walk out most of the way through the Lower Lakes.
Droughts will happen, and they will come again. But the issue with the last drought—and this cannot be denied—was that the system went into the drought stressed. It went into the drought with a lack of water in it to cope with what in the end was a more significant event than anyone predicted. I believe that these reforms and the reforms that were started in 2001 by the Howard government, working with the states to put water back into the system to address the overallocation crisis, will ensure that, the next time a significant drying event occurs, the system is able to manage in a much better way than it did last time.
Ultimately, we are making a judgement here on which environmental assets we decide can survive, because we want to continue to produce the food and fibre from the basin. Of course we do. My producers in my area want to continue to produce. They want access to water. They do not want those five years where they could not get a drop of water, where that structural change that the member for Maranoa was talking about just before, which has been debated in his area now, was forced upon them, where they woke up one morning and they had to drag the pumps out that extra 10 metres to the further part of the Lower Lakes to desperately try and get their legal water entitlement, which we have heard so much about from so many other members. No-one asked them if that was okay. But somehow, as irrigators, they do not seem to be as important to some people in this debate as others. Of course, that highlights why we need this reform, why I support this reform in the strongest possible terms. I started my first speech in this place on this reform.
I am sick of the politics of this debate. I am sick of having to speak on this issue every couple of months. I look forward to the moment when we get through a year without having to talk about the Murray-Darling Basin, when we can address the issues and ensure that the food producers, who are so important to our country and to our future, who stand at the doorway of such great opportunities, are able to get on with certainty, knowing what their water entitlements will be into the future. That is why the urgency of this is important. That is why this parliament should deal with this bill. That is why the parliament should endorse in the strongest possible terms this plan, because it was a process which was started in January 2007; it is a process which has taken far too long to implement. But it is here, it is before us and it is time for us to act. It is time for us to deliver this plan. We will play the politics as we may, as members on the other side have done tonight and as some on our side have done, no doubt. In the end, for the good of the system, to ensure the sustainability of our food-producing areas not just today but tomorrow, I say to this parliament: once and for all, let's get on with this reform to the Murray-Darling Basin.
This is undoubtedly a difficult issue. It is very hard for many people in this place. But that just sums up why, in the end, we need this reform. We need it desperately. We need it to pass the parliament tonight so that we can get on with ensuring the certainty that is required by irrigation districts throughout the Murray-Darling Basin, ensuring the sustainability of the basin into the future. That is why I thoroughly endorse the plan before the parliament. I argue to the House that this bill should be passed. Even though it is not the most important piece of legislation relating to the basin, I would still say that this bill should pass as proposed and in conjunction with the plan that should be endorsed before we leave this place this week.
I am pleased to speak tonight on the Water Amendment (Water for the Environment Special Account) Bill 2012. This bill is separate from the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, which of course is not a piece of legislation before this House but a disallowable instrument. But this bill is intricately connected with the plan and, in talking about this bill, I will of course pick up some remarks about the plan itself. It has been a process that has been exhaustive for everyone in the basin. I want to talk about the lived experience of my constituents in the electorate of Farrer, which represents most of the Murray River in New South Wales and most of the Darling River in New South Wales.
I want to start by saying that on the weekend, as I sometimes do, I flew my small plane—licensed and dangerous—out west from Albury airport. I used to be an aerial mustering pilot, so I do not fly very high off the ground. I looked out and saw the magnificent patchwork of farmland, irrigated agriculture, rice paddocks, cereal and horticulture lining the Murray River on my left as I travelled further west. On the right, towards Hay and the Murrumbidgee and further towards the western division of New South Wales, which is also in my electorate, I saw country which can only be described as 12- to 13-inch rainfall scrub country. If it were not for irrigation, all of western New South Wales would look like that; it would not support the towns and the communities that it does and it would not have the vibrancy and the life-giving experiences that we participate in each and every day as members of that community.
I came to this place 10 years ago very much arguing for the rights of the irrigator farmers in my electorate. I came to understand that it was about much more than agriculture, important though the contribution of that is to the nation's economy; it was about the communities and about life on our greatest river system. It was, we believed—and, some days, I still believe—a life very much threatened by what is in front of us with the Murray-Darling Basin Plan.
It has been a process which has exhausted and drained so many people that I represent—the irrigation corporations, the representatives from community groups, the people who try to help young people into jobs when jobs are scarce and the people who survived almost 10 years of drought, and what an awful experience that was. That has nothing to do with anything other than Australia's climate, but it highlights what life deals up for us in the bush and rural Australia. Here we are almost at the end of the line.
There are difficult decisions to make when you belong to a party that represents all of Australia. I am a very proud member of the Liberal Party, and I know that, as Liberals, we represent very diverse constituencies and a lot of different points of view. That is one of the strengths that we as a party have and it is one of the things that has always attracted me to the party. The challenge in the Murray-Darling Basin Plan process is to bring these different interests together. Sometimes I vigorously disagree with my colleagues. Sometimes they drive me crazy. When the subject is water and the colleagues are in South Australia they often drive me crazy—and I am sure I do them as well, because each of us comes to this place with the interests of our constituents at heart.
For us to walk away at the last hurdle, at the eleventh hour, I do not believe is an option. Today I spoke to many of the people who have been on this journey with me. I asked them, 'Would you like to see the plan chucked out or would you like to see it passed with minimum damage? What types of changes might we make on your behalf'—I was pretty sure I knew how they felt, but I wanted to ask them firsthand—' that could make this process easier for you?' I did not speak to everybody, but some in the Murray Group of Concerned Communities. I spoke to RAMROC, which is a group of mayors and councillors in rural New South Wales. I spoke to SunRice, representing rice growers in western New South Wales. I spoke to many other individuals whose opinions I respect, ranging from the catchment management authorities to individuals. Nobody said to me that they wanted us to walk away from this at the last hurdle. The response was that that would be almost too much to bear. I understand that. That is why I am still here and still fighting for the things that I believe we can achieve within this process with a government that I think in many respects has failed the constituents that I represent.
We will never accept this plan's poor science and its poor modelling. We will continue to fight for the priority to be about people and infrastructure, and not the buyback of water. But this piece of legislation, which is a crazy—if I may say so—bolted-on addition to what had been quite an exhaustive Basin Plan process, makes no sense to the people of the New South Wales Murray and Darling. I want to highlight some of the reasons why.
It makes no sense because it talks about relaxing constraints as if constraints can be just waved away. It allocates $200 million to remove constraints. It describes the flows in the Murray and Darling river system that would result if we removed constraints. If I could pick on the Darling, it talks about flows of 14,000 to 18,000 megs a day in the Lower Darling. To achieve those flows you would actually have to channelise the Darling. You could not have it looking like the river it is now. Maybe we could have—ridiculous though it sounds—concrete structures out there to build channels.
Many years ago we did a project on the Great Darling Anabranch which piped the Anabranch to the Darling and restored, I think, about 47 gigalitres to the environment and cost about $57 million. That project has been waved away in this process because the Anabranch can just be cut off and the water can continue down the Darling. That makes no sense to me and it certainly does not to the people who live there. The minister has talked about constraints meaning perhaps lifting bridges. Sounds easy! I think, in the Wakool Shire in my electorate—and the minister has visited the Wakool Shire; I give him credit for the visits he has made to my electorate—there are about 43 bridges. Many of them were re-done; they were old timber bridges. Under the previous government, we allocated an awful lot of money to repairing those bridges so they were safe for cars and trucks. In terms of relaxing constraints, what this would actually mean is that every single one of those 40-odd bridges would be raised to cope with a higher flow. Can anyone in this parliament imagine how—in a fiscally constrained environment post the next election, no matter who is in government—we might refuse cancer drugs, hospital treatment, education, benefits to people who come from disadvantaged backgrounds, but have infrastructure activity that was to raise 40 perfectly good bridges in order to increase the flow underneath them? It is patently crazy. There is no sense at all in talking about something that cannot possibly be achieved.
I want to place on record now some remarks from southern Riverina irrigators in my electorate, and they would like me to say this. The government is acquiring water for the environment without ever having done an analysis on how proposed volumes could be safely delivered. The Basin Plan is based on a model that assumes man-made, or even natural, system constraints can be removed or overcome without any real understanding of what these constraints actually are. For example, the relationship of the Cadell Tilt Barmah choke on the Murray River flows in summer and during winter flow events—to work out a constraints management strategy over a future 12-month period after decisions are made on the Basin Plan is unacceptable. There are significant data gaps in social and economic studies that have accompanied development of the Basin Plan. In short, the full cost of the Basin Plan far exceeds the $10 billion to $12 billion that has so far been identified. There has been no evaluation of costs associated with reduced productivity in Australia's food bowl, nor with delivery of environmental flows. I just want to bring that sense of the craziness of relaxing constraints and allocating $200 million to do that.
In the area between Lake Hume and Yarrawonga, efforts were made to negate the third-party impacts and increase the flow some years ago to 25,000 megalitres a day. Under this proposal, in this legislation, that flow would increase to 40,000 megalitres a day. That would flood homes. It would flood properties. It would change the character of the people who use the river for amenity—for camping, fishing, holidays. It would simply turn it into a fast-flowing channel.
If the minister is serious about this then he should direct his department to do some serious analysis on this and bring some confidence to our communities. That is why we have moved amendments to this bill that will reflect our grave concerns about there being no socioeconomic evaluation of what it means to relax constraints. We will move amendments that will legislate the commitments that have already been made by the government, because the minister has said many times that he does not intend to resort to a market buyback. If he considers our amendments, he should accept them, because they would actually legislate what he has pretty well stated.
We will also move an amendment that says that expenditure on farm infrastructure works cannot be used for buybacks, and the total amount of buybacks will be capped at 1,500 gigalitres, and that means that the gap that exists between the water that is being bought back now and 2,100 gigalitres, which is a baseline figure that people will, reluctantly, as a second-best solution, accept, that is all that can be bought in a market buyback. We will cap the total amount of buybacks at 1,500 gigalitres and we will require that actions to remove constraints and those needed to achieve this potential 450 gigalitres recovered under this account must satisfy an improved or a neutral socioeconomic test—in other words, no socioeconomic disadvantage.
Those are sensible amendments. So we really are putting it to this government and this minister to consider them. If the statements that he made at the Press Club in good faith to the constituents that I represent about their futures mean anything, then he will agree to our amendments. We accept that this plan is a flawed process. There will be more that I can say about the plan, perhaps, in a future debate. This is not the plan that the coalition would have ever brought to this parliament. There are enormous challenges, including the environmental watering plan, what happens in the relationship between the states and the federal government, where the fixed charges for water end up, who pays, what the cost will be, what the regulation impact statement will be and how to formalise the savings. There is a plethora of work that has simply not been done.
The Murray-Darling Basin Authority has not filled any of us with confidence. We have been let down by the authority time and time again. It has never had a focus that has meant anything to farmers or agriculture. It has never done any socioeconomic studies, although it has ticked the various boxes to say that it has. It has failed the basic test of inspiring confidence in the communities that it has worked with, because it has not actually worked with the communities at all.
This legislation is bad. Our amendments need to stand to neutralise it—to make it bearable. I will hold this government to account for the things they do in relation to Basin Plan processes in my electorate for the foreseeable future. This is not something that is easy for any of us on this side of the House. These are difficult decisions but I do accept that to go back and start again is simply untenable. But I will be here at the table.
The member for New England is not here but visited large parts of my electorate—as did I and other members of this place—during an inquiry which actually made recommendations that were agreed to by all sides of the House. But the government has ignored many of those recommendations. I would like to hear the member for New England vote in favour of our amendments, because the member for New England understands this stuff very well, and people trusted him when he travelled through my area. They are very much looking to him now to make some statements about this legislation and this Basin Plan process that restores their faith in this parliament.
The remainder of the transcript will be available online on Wednesday 28 November 2012.
The DEPUTY SPEAKER (M r Mitchell ) took the chair at 16:01.