House debates

Thursday, 3 June 2021


Water Legislation Amendment (Inspector-General of Water Compliance and Other Measures) Bill 2021; Second Reading

11:16 am

Photo of Terri ButlerTerri Butler (Griffith, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for the Environment and Water) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak in relation to the Water Legislation Amendment (Inspector-General of Water Compliance and Other Measures) Bill 2021. In so doing, I also move:

That all words after "That" be omitted with a view to substituting the following words:

"whilst not declining to give the bill a second reading, the House notes that the Coalition Government have bungled the implementation of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan and have all but abandoned its targets, leaving basin communities behind and risking our future water resources".

This is an important piece of legislation. Of course, as the minister said in his second reading speech, water is essential for the health and wellbeing of the basin's 2.2 million people and it's essential to support our national economy. The basin contributes $24 billion in agricultural earnings and $8 billion in tourism dollars in a normal, non-COVID, pre-COVID year. Water is of course also essential for the natural environment in the basin, including the 16 internationally significant wetlands and all of the endangered species that inhabit the basin.

Water is incredibly important to everybody who needs it to survive, but the water resources of the Murray-Darling Basin are important to all of the basin jurisdictions. That's why it is so important that people living and working in the Murry-Darling Basin and people across Australia can have confidence that water resources are being used properly and fairly. That's why this bill is so important, because report after report, study after study, has found that there is a growing lack of confidence and lack of trust amongst people living and working in the basin and amongst people who have an interest in the Murray-Darling Basin water resources.

This particular bill would amend the Water Act 2007 to effectively split the Murray-Darling Basin Authority to create a new agency with responsibility for the compliance function. That new agency would be headed by the new Inspector-General of Water Compliance, which is being established by this bill. This bill establishes that role, and that role will monitor and provide independent oversight of water compliance. The bill also proposes new offences and civil penalty provisions for unlawful conduct relating to contraventions of the Basin Plan; taking water when not permitted, as a basic provision, and there's an aggravated provision; and also water-trading issues akin to insider trading.

It's important to note that the government has sought to secure agreement on this new position and agency from the other basin jurisdictions. It's also important to note that, because conduct relating to taking water would also be the subject of the basin states' laws, this bill would actually require the new inspector-general to notify the appropriate agency of the state before taking certain compliance action, and, if a state says that they're dealing with the matter, provide them with an opportunity to do so before this new agency itself takes enforcement action. The intention is obviously for the Commonwealth to have the ability to take action but only after giving the basin state the opportunity to do so first, as the primary, frontline compliance body.

Compliance has been an issue of concern and has been considered in various reports and agreements, including the 2017 Murray-Darling Basin Water Compliance Review conducted by the Murray-Darling Basin Authority and an independent panel; and the Murray-Darling Basin Compliance Compact jointly agreed to by COAG in December 2018. But it's important to note, in particular, that the Productivity Commission has been sounding the alarm for some time about the problems that arise, the potential for conflict that arises, when the Murray-Darling Basin Authority has multiple different functions that, as I said, can come into conflict.

In its five-year review of the Basin Plan that was published in 2018, the Productivity Commission raised concerns that the conflicting roles that the Murray-Darling Basin Authority had, such as supporting the other jurisdictions to implement the plan, and plan evaluation and compliance, could create conflicts and lead to the Murray-Darling Basin—as the Productivity Commission described it—'marking its own homework'. The Productivity Commission, in that report, recommended that the Murray-Darling Basin Authority be split into two separate institutions: the Murry-Darling Basin agency and the Basin Plan regulator. That, as I said, was a recommendation that was published in the Productivity Commission's 2018 report. But it isn't until now, until today, 2021, that the government has actually taken steps to give effect to that recommendation—this step of splitting out the compliance function and creating a new agency, and it has been a long and winding road, frankly, to get to this point that we are now at.

In 2016, there was a Northern Basin Review, and that Northern Basin Review proposed that the water recovery target be reduced by 70 gigalitres per year in the northern basin, provided that the jurisdictions committed to what were described as Northern Basin Toolkit measures. After that review, there was a new role established, and that was called the Northern Basin Commissioner. That was a non-statutory role, and it was intended to be funded for three years, and that role arose from the Basin Plan commitments package in May 2018, which was a collection of commitments agreed between various jurisdictions, in respect of which we were also consulted. Former AFP commissioner Mick Keelty was appointed as that Northern Basin Commissioner in August 2018. So it was meant to be a three-year role, but only a year later, in August 2019, the Liberal-National government decided to scrap that role and create a new role, an Inspector-General for the Murray-Darling Basin. They said at the time—this was in August 2019—that that new role of inspector-general for the basin would have the powers needed to ensure integrity and delivery of the Basin Plan, that it would be a statutory position and that it would be able to refer issues to the Commonwealth Integrity Commission once it was established.

So in 2018 the Northern Basin Commissioner is created. In 2019 a Murray-Darling Basin inspector-general is announced. That new inspector-general is supposedly going to be a statutory role and is supposedly going to be able to refer matters to the new Commonwealth Integrity Commission. What happened was that Mr Keelty was appointed to the new position. His appointment was for a year, and that came and went without a statute being enacted, without a bill even being tabled, and obviously, as everyone in this place knows, without a Commonwealth integrity commission even being established, let alone his being given the capacity to refer to it. Then we had a period where there was no Murray-Darling Basin inspector-general whatsoever. So, there was a gap between Mr Keelty's appointment and his successor's appointment. But, at the same time, not only did his position come and go without being established as a statutory position, without being given any powers, without having a Commonwealth integrity commission to refer matters to, which were all breaches of the commitment made the year before by this government—yet another example of this government being all about the photo-op but never about the follow-up and all about the announcement but never about the delivery—they announced all of these things, they committed all of these things, Mr Keelty was in the position for a year, and his appointment came and went without any of those things ever actually happening.

Then there was a period of no inspector-general, and then, in September 2020, last September, the Commonwealth announced yet another new arrangement. They'd had the Northern Basin Commissioner and scrapped it. They'd had the Murray-Darling Basin inspector-general. They've now announced that they are scrapping that. They announced that there would be a new position which is Inspector-General of Water Compliance. They announced it in September. They announced the establishment of a statutory Inspector-General of Water Compliance position, and it was at that time, a bit more than a couple of years after the Productivity Commission had recommended it, that they finally announced that the compliance functions would be moved out of the Murray-Darling Basin Authority.

As I said, it has been a long and winding road to get to this bill. I'm pleased that we're now in a position where we are debating this proposed legislation, because this is something that should have been done years ago. The major difference, I should say, between that September 2020 announcement and the announcement that the government made more than a year before in August 2019, was that the announcement at the end of last year provided, as I said, not just for the creation of yet another new inspector-general but also for the splitting of those compliance functions from the Murray-Darling Basin Authority. So, after a couple of months of just no inspector-general whatsoever, no cop on the beat in the Murry-Darling Basin, even though the government had been talking about a cop on the beat for a very long time, the government finally appointed, in December 2020, the Hon. Troy Grant to the newly created role of Interim Inspector-General of Water Compliance for the Murray-Darling Basin.

So, we had the Northern Basin Commissioner, the interim inspector-general of the Murray-Darling Basin, no permanent inspector-general of the Murray-Darling Basin, then a gap, and now an Interim Inspector-General of Water Compliance. Hopefully, now that this bill is finally before the House, we will finally get a permanent, statutory, independent Inspector-General of Water Compliance and that person will be able to rely on actual powers, not just moral suasion, to do their job to restore confidence, to restore trust, to restore the sense that people are all playing by the rules and that everyone is playing by the same rules—that everyone is getting a fair go and that no-one's being taken for a mug. That's the importance of this really significant role. I'm looking forward to the inspector-general having the statutory basis, independence and budget that he needs in order to undertake this work. But the passage of this bill is not enough by itself to make that happen, because if you read the bill you can see that it doesn't commence until after the state jurisdictions, the basin jurisdictions, have all approved the referred provisions.

As I said, we had the 2016 review, we had the 2018 announcement of the position, we had the 2019 announcement of the new position, we had the interim inspector-general, we had the gap where there was no inspector-general, we've now got another interim inspector-general and we're now finally seeing this bill. But what we're not going to have is a statutory inspector-general until all of the basin jurisdictions have approved the amendments to the referred provisions. I just want to encourage our friends in other jurisdictions to make sure that they do move swiftly to undertake the necessary work to ensure that this legislation can commence as rapidly as possible. I wish the minister very great luck in securing those referrals, those approvals, so that this legislation can finally kick in and we can have the inspector-general empowered, independent and really doing the work that's necessary to restore that confidence in the basin.

It's important to note that this inspector-general would be appointed by the Governor-General and he would be conferred—and I say 'he', because we assume that it will continue to be Mr Grant, though I can be corrected if I am wrong—with the existing compliance functions and the powers of the Murray-Darling Basin Authority. He would also replace the existing non-statutory interim inspector-general role. The functions of the new statutory role would include monitoring and providing independent oversight of Commonwealth agencies in the performance of their functions and exercise of their powers under the act, the regulations, the Basin Plan and water resource plans; monitoring and overseeing basin state agencies in relation to their obligations in the management of basin water resources; monitoring the implementation of water restrictions of various agreements that are specified in the bill relating to the basin and the Basin Plan; community engagement; and exercising the proposed new enforcement provisions, which, as I said at the outset, include both civil penalty provisions and offences. These functions would be supported by new inquiry powers and the power to issue guidelines and standards. The power to undertake audits would be transferred from the Murray-Darling Basin Authority and the inspector-general.

It's also important to note that the Murray-Darling Basin Authority will obviously continue and that this new position, the inspector-general role, to ensure that it is able to undertake its work, will have a significant degree of independence, will be making its own decisions, as I'm advised, in respect of the work plan and will have budget allocations. It will also be able to appoint other people to assist in the performance of the roles and, where those people are not directly employed and subject to Australian Public Service obligations, they will be subject to a fit and proper person test.

I'm grateful to the minister for the collegiate way in which he has worked with us in respect of the establishment of this new role, and I also thank him for consulting with us as to the proposed provision of this legislation and listening to us with matters that we have raised. I also want to say to all Australians who have an interest in the Murray-Darling Basin, which is really all Australians, that we recognise the importance of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan and of making sure that we continue to insist that there be Commonwealth leadership in relation to this plan.

This plan is really one of the most crucial instruments of the Commonwealth because it does go to the management of those water resources—as I said at the outset, agricultural use, tourism use, environmental use and community use. It's also important to acknowledge the very significant cultural use of water by traditional owners. There are tens of Aboriginal nations in the Murray-Darling Basin to whom these water resources have a great spiritual and cultural significance as well as environmental and economic significance and, for that matter, their significance for the sustenance of human life.

It is important that as a nation we do better when it comes to the Murray-Darling Basin and the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. It has been, I think, really regrettable to see some of the delays and concerns about the implementation of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. For example, there's a great deal of concern in our community about the environmental outcomes that are intended to be delivered, that would be equivalent to 605 gigalitres per year of water, and whether those outcomes will actually be delivered given the delays and failures of implementation in respect of the projects that are meant to give rise to those outcomes.

There is also, I think, a great deal of concern about the very significant underperformance in respect of the 450 gigalitres per year of additional water that's meant to be delivered through efficiency measures. This 450 gigalitres per year secured South Australia's participation in the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. Yet here we are, only a few years before the deadline for that 450 gigalitres, and we've had the Water for the Environment Special Account report last year saying that only 1.9 gigalitres of that 450 gigalitres has been delivered to date. That report said that the water is just not going to be delivered. In September last year, at the same time as the government announced the creation of this new inspector-general role and the splitting of the compliance functions from the Murray-Darling Basin Authority, they were also making clear that they—the government with responsibility for national leadership for the implementation of this plan—were almost fatalistic about their capacity to deliver that 450 gigalitres per year. The minister announced that there would a shift from all other forms of efficiency measures to exclusively looking to off-farm efficiency measures to deliver the 450 gigalitres. We've now seen, in recent days, the release of a report from the Australia Institute and the South Australian Conservation Council that says that, for those off-farm efficiency measures, so far the only proposals listed by the government are proposals for irrigation infrastructure in New South Wales, and a number of them—almost all of them—don't specify the amount of water that would be recovered through those proposed irrigation infrastructure measures.

The government is really running out of time to explain to the Australian people how they're going to deliver that 450 gigalitres of water per year. If it's not delivered, that's a significant problem. As I said, it was that 450 gigalitres that really secured South Australia's participation in the plan. I think South Australians would be entitled to be deeply concerned about the future not just of the basin more broadly but of, for example, Ramsar listed wetlands in South Australia if that water is not delivered, if that commitment is not met. I think South Australians would also be looking to their own government and asking questions about whether their own government has done enough to secure that additional 450 gigalitres.

We know that as a nation we have to protect this crucial water resource for all of those reasons that we have talked about—the agricultural benefit; the tourism benefit; the sustenance of farmers, farming communities, local communities; the cultural use of water; and the environmental use of water. The government really needs to explain to the Australian people how they're going to make sure that the spirit of the plan and the letter of the plan are met and delivered. They need to explain to the Australian people how we're going to, in the face of declining inflows—that was the finding from the previous interim inspector-general when he did his report—in the face of climate change, in the face of growing demands on the water resources that we have, make sure that those water resources are managed as well as possible and that they're managed in a way that maximises the best possible use of the water, not in a narrow sense but in the sense of all of those different uses of water that I've talked about.

This bill excludes the ACCC from its purview, but it is worth noting that the ACCC has been doing some complementary work that would assist with the restoration of confidence in the basin, and that is to look at water market rules within the basin. I really want to encourage the government to step up its game in considering the recommendations from that ACCC report. They've done an excellent piece of work in looking at all of the different issues in water markets, whether it's information asymmetry, whether it's the lack of real oversight and the lack of things like market surveillance, whether it's the special nature of water markets because of the physical nature of the water and things like the loss that you have from the conveyance of water when water rights are traded. There are a range of issues that have been considered through that ACCC report. I know the government have set up a committee to consider the report. The report was produced by the ACCC, the expert competition regulator. Setting up the committee is one thing, but actually implementing the tough changes that need to be implemented arising from the recommendations that have been received is quite another. So I encourage the government to really step up and take action to make sure that the water markets are as fair as they can be and function as well as they can because these things go to trust, to confidence and, frankly, to water security and ensuring that the water is going to its best possible uses in the Murray-Darling Basin.

I should also mention that Australians are looking to the government for leadership as to the future of the plan. Certainly, as I said, there's a range of concerns from people about the role of climate change and the effect that that is having on the amount of water that is available in the basin. I've had concerns flagged with me about how well or otherwise the issue of floodplain harvesting is being considered within the plan. These matters are all about making sure that the government continues to take a science informed approach to adapting to changes that occur over time, and making sure that it shows that national leadership when it comes to managing this incredibly precious natural resource that we have that sustains our environment, our lives, our agriculture, our tourism, our cultural life, our spiritual life, all of the different uses that this water is put to across many different communities and by many different peoples and, as I said, by many different Aboriginal nations as well.

This is an important bill. It's a bill that needs to be passed. It is also important that the approval of the other basin jurisdictions be secured as rapidly as possible, so that this bill can actually commence operating. It has been a bit of a winding road to get here, but we're here now. Let's see the new Murray-Darling Basin Inspector-General of Water Compliance empowered, independent and able to actually undertake that work to help to restore some of that confidence and that trust in and amongst basin communities. It's absolutely fundamental, and I ask that the government take every step that it can to continue to improve the circumstances for the people who rely on the water resources and the environment that relies on the water resources in the Murray-Darling Basin. Thank you.

Photo of Sharon BirdSharon Bird (Cunningham, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Is the amendment seconded?

Photo of Ged KearneyGed Kearney (Cooper, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Health and Ageing) Share this | | Hansard source

I second the amendment and I reserve my right to speak.

11:42 am

Photo of Damian DrumDamian Drum (Nicholls, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak on the Water Legislation Amendment (Inspector-General of Water Compliance and Other Measures) Bill 2021, which gives me a great opportunity to touch on an important issue that is absolutely critical to my electorate of Nicholls. There would be nobody in the Goulburn Valley that hasn't heard of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, and a considerable number of people in the Goulburn Valley are very much across the detail of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. But this form is now over 14 years old and has been implemented by all sides of government. What has to be said is that we rely not just on our agriculture but on our towns and on our people, and I think it's fair to suggest that at the implementation of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan we had very healthy communities and we probably had some reasonably sick rivers. Now what we've got is very, very unhealthy communities, unhealthy people being forced off their land and too much water running down the rivers, to the extent that we have to worry about the degradation of those river systems and we've got to pass regulation to pull up some of these flows that take place and cause damage.

Today we welcome the opportunity to reform and to establish a statutory position of the Inspector-General of Water Compliance. This role will combine the compliance and enforcement powers that are currently held by the Murray-Darling Basin Authority. This is currently under the interim inspector-general's role. We've listened to the community saying that the Murray-Darling Basin Authority cannot mark its own homework. This is a very strong aspect. The Murray-Darling Basin Authority has been proven not to be a source of single truth. That's the damning indictment that's been put on the Murray-Darling Basin Authority by the Interim Inspector-General, Mick Keelty, when he did his report and said: 'Having worked with the authority for over six months, the most important thing that we need is a single source of truth,' effectively saying the authority is not that. That's a damning assessment of the Murray-Darling Basin Authority. It's been out of that inquiry that we've seen the need to break compliance away from the other roles that they have. We need stronger compliance and greater accountability, which are going to be important steps to improving the Murray-Darling Basin Plan.

We must not stop here with our improvements. The community has been calling out for reforms, and it's important that as a government we listen and we act. The original plan was set out to recover 2,750 gigalitres of water for the environment. A political deal at the time was also struck with South Australia to see an additional 450 gigalitres of water delivered to the environment if and only if there are no socio-economic impacts on the community. This is very, very important, because the amendment that the member for Griffith has put forward is effectively going against the communities within the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. This is where the Labor Party is in a horrible position trying to say that they support basin communities, but the legislation and their policy are absolutely damning towards the impacts that they will have on Murray-Darling Basin communities.

It's been proven now, over many years, that every time you take water out of the Murray-Darling Basin from agriculture that you actually cause damage to those communities. Every time you take any policy that's going to force the price of water up, you are damaging the communities and you are having a negative impact on the communities. It's been proven, time and time again. The Murry-Darling Basin Plan now states—thanks to all of the states coming on board in late 2018 to accept and acknowledge—that for buybacks and water efficiency plans where half the savings are taken out of agriculture and put into the environment you have a damaging impact on the communities every time that takes place. Yet the Labor Party still have this as their primary policy towards water recovery within the Murry-Darling Basin and Murray-Darling Basin Plan. So the Labor Party are more or less saying with their policy and their amendments that: 'We don't care about the impacts that we have on communities. We don't care what the Murray-Darling Basin Plan says. We want to keep going after water, and we want to keep going after it until we recover another 450 gigalitres.' They have to be called out on this.

We have to start protecting our people, and we have to start being proud of agriculture. We have to start acknowledging that during the COVID pandemic the one thing we haven't had to worry about was agricultural product finding its way to the supermarket shelves. For many other countries around the world, that's their primary problem—is there going to be food on the shelves tomorrow? In Australia, our agricultural sector has been able to keep our supermarkets full of everything that we've needed. We need to protect this. We need to honour this. We need to be very, very proud of the fact that communities such as mine are continuing to deliver the agricultural produce so that we can, in fact, worry about our health problems through COVID. And, as we worry about sovereignty and our ability to operate as a nation, we need to look at water policy to ensure that we give our agricultural sector the opportunity that they need.

Effectively, what we need to do is wipe out this idea that there's another 450 gigalitres that we can somehow or other take out of agriculture without causing social and economic damage or without having social and economic impacts. The 450 has run its race, and we simply cannot take more water out of the system—this has been proven—without causing a whole range of social and economic damage. That's just simply the facts.

In this government, I'm very proud of what the minister has done in relation to ruling out buybacks. Buybacks are simply where the government finds a desperate farmer somewhere who needs to repay his debts and simply says to him, 'We'll buy your water off you, and we'll pay you a premium over and above what it's worth, simply to take water off your farm put it into the environment.' Buybacks totally decimate communities. They totally isolate the stranded assets that an irrigator might have because four of his farming neighbours have effectively sold their water under a buyback scheme. This might be all right for the farmers who sell their water and recover their water and recover the money they need to pay their debts, but it is decimating to the area and the community around those farms that have lost their water.

Our minister has effectively ruled out buybacks, as has the Victorian government. The Victorian government—the Victorian Labor Party—could teach the federal Labor Party a thing or two about water policy. Maybe they're a little bit closer to it. Maybe they understand it a little better. The idea that our minister has ruled out buybacks is incredibly encouraging for our farmers, but we need to legislate this, because we know that as soon as the Labor Party get their opportunity to sit on this side of the chamber in government—this is their policy at the moment—they will start buying back water from desperate farmers, with no regard whatsoever for the communities that they decimate. We all understand the importance of water in our regions. We need somehow to get the Labor Party in the federal sphere to come on board with supporting some of our communities. Reading the words of their own amendments, they don't want to leave basin communities behind, but their policies do exactly that. We are always prepared to work with them if they have the people of our areas as their No. 1 priority.

It's also been touched on in relation to the 605-gigalitre targets that some of them are not stacking up very well. These are projects that have been put forward by the states where we can achieve certain environmental objectives without using water—instead, being able to use engineering works and pumping processes but not having to flood with gigantic amounts of water. These projects have been struggling to come forward, especially from New South Wales. I'm suggesting that we need flexibility within these projects that are legislated and written in as gospel. Maybe if these projects are not able to proceed—I think again the minister is right on the ball here. Let's get on to the states to get on with it. Let's do what we can. Let's not talk about what we can't do. Let's not talk about the projects that can't be done. Let's go and complete the projects that can be done so that then we are looking at a smaller amount. Let's just see then if we can create some flexibility in the projects that are going to give us those 605 gigalitres of additional savings of the plan.

Once we build in that flexibility—we need to understand that, with climate change, we are going to have less water flowing into our river systems in the future. If that's going to be the case then we need to protect agriculture first. We need to protect our people first. That's where South Australia has some very serious questions to answer in relation to the science that was put around the history of the lower lakes. That science was doctored, so we have built on incorrect science about what the history of the lower lakes was for tens and hundreds of thousands of years. We need to look at that and at whether we need to have all this fresh water flowing into Lake Alexandrina. Do we need to have fresh water, trying to freshen the Coorong from the bottom of the mouth? The policies we have in place for South Australia at the moment are just absurd. All of this water comes out of communities further upstream. I can understand South Australia being concerned, because their system is more or less run through piping and sprinklers. Their system is contained. Their system has no losses and no leakages, whereas in Victoria you have the open channel system in concert with the centre pivots.

What we need more than anything is an understanding that the plan has been and continues to be incredibly damaging. The member for Griffith spoke about various reports and reviews that have been done. Well, we've done reviews looking into the Goulburn Valley, and $500 million per year in productivity is lost from the Goulburn Valley alone. But no-one wants to take that seriously. No-one wants to make any changes. The Labor Party continues to have some of the most damaging policies associated with water retrieval, policies that make it even worse for the communities that live and exist within the Murray-Darling Basin.

When the droughts come and the water starts to tighten, the prices go up and the farmers walk off their land. If the Labor Party think this is okay, then they can stick with their current policies, because that's the impact they will have. If the Labor Party wanted to, we could get together tomorrow and change the Water Act; we could change the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. We could work our way through this together. We could take no more water off the agricultural sector. We could say enough is enough. It has been proven that the 450 gigalitres cannot be delivered without serious social and economic pain and detriment to those communities, with damaging impacts. That has been proven. Yet the Labor Party's policy is still that if the 450 gigalitres is not returned then they're going to go back in and buy the water off desperate farmers. That is their policy, and it's disgraceful.

What we need to do is look at what our people have been telling us. We need to honour our agricultural sector. We need to look at the damaging impacts. Do we want to have New Zealand dairy products on our shelves, outcompeting our own? Do we want to have a thriving and prosperous dairy sector? Do we want to have a fruit sector that is up and vibrant and again competing on the world markets? Do we want to give our farmers an opportunity to compete on the world markets, or do we want to hamstring them completely? We've already taken so much water out of the Goulburn Valley, out of the Riverina and out of the Sunraysia. What we've taken out of those communities will never be able to be put back. We've already seen so much erosion and damage done to our river system because of catchment management authorities running so much water down the rivers at the wrong time of the year, causing all of this erosion. We've got to look at the damage we're doing to our environmental system, on top of the damage we're doing to the agricultural sector.

This bill is a fantastic start, bringing in the Inspector-General of Water Compliance, but we have to do a lot more work to achieve the outcomes that we want. (Time expired)

11:57 am

Photo of Tony ZappiaTony Zappia (Makin, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The Water Legislation Amendment (Inspector-General of Water Compliance and Other Measures) Bill 2021 establishes the Office of the Inspector-General of Water Compliance. It's a role that initially commenced with the Northern Basin Commissioner being appointed and was gradually expanded to the whole of the Murry-Darling Basin. Labor will of course support this legislation because compliance with water extraction allocations and ensuring the integrity of the water market are important objectives. However, the legislation is also an admission that the Murray-Darling Basin Authority has failed in its oversight of the basin waters.

Whilst the legislation does have merit, water compliance alone will not resolve the underlying problems within the basin or the disputes between the basin states, which have been going on for over 100 years now. It was hoped they would be resolved when the 2012 Murray-Darling Basin Plan was agreed to. Regrettably, that agreement never sat comfortably with the eastern states or, indeed, with coalition members, as we just heard from the member for Nicholls. They have constantly sought to discredit and undermine it. In particular, there has been constant resentment about the additional 450 gigalitres of environmental water that was sought by South Australia and the volume of water that goes into South Australia's Lower Lakes. The member for Nicholls talked about both of those matters in his comments. As Labor's shadow minister pointed out in her response to this legislation, of the 450 gigalitres only 1.9 gigalitres has been delivered in almost a decade. That's because coalition governments that have been in office for most of that time have simply not been interested in trying to deliver that water.

The reality is that there were many experts at the time who argued that the amount of water that should have been returned to the system should not have only been the 2,750 gigalitres plus the additional 450 gigalitres that was contingent on other factors but that it should have been much higher. That was the advice of many of the experts. To reach a compromise that could be agreed on by all of the states at the time, the figure was settled on an initial 2,750 plus 450 that could be returned back to the system as a result of efficiency measures that could be put in place over the ensuing years, because the parliament at the time knew that it would take time to get those projects in place.

But there were projects. Indeed, when the committee of this parliament, chaired by the member for New England, looked at all of the different measures that could be put in place to return more of that water to the system, my recollection is that we identified about 30 different projects at the time that could be looked at to do just that. But that hasn't happened. Indeed, when we do look at the projects that this government has looked at to try and return water to the system, of the 34 that have been funded, I understand that only three can nominate an amount of water that's been returned to the system at all. So you wonder what the other 31 projects were funded for and on what basis they were funded if they couldn't provide a detailed figure as to how much water would be returned to the system.

The states' disputes about water rights existed prior to Federation, and it is somewhat regrettable that, the talks about our Constitution in the late 1890s, didn't result in an agreement between all of the states as to how this would all be resolved and agreed upon. Had it been clearly written into the Constitution at the time, we may not be having the debates here today. The fact that we are still having the debates and the fact that both the federal government and the states now have some responsibility towards the management of the waters in the Murray-Darling Basin simply complicates the arrangement even further.

What I've noticed over the years is that any state that is aggrieved by any of the conditions relating to the agreement that was reached both in, I think, the 2006 Water Act that the Howard government brought in and subsequently the Murray-Darling Basin Plan can simply, I guess, exploit loopholes in the agreement and not play ball in accordance with what was expected of them. We have seen threats by some of the states since that time to withdraw entirely from the agreement, which simply highlights what can ultimately happen when you've got so many parties that are part of an agreement and the agreement itself is not watertight.

The reality is that the Murray-Darling Basin Authority has, since it was established, not only struggled to ensure that the plan, as agreed to in 2012, was delivered but also, in doing so, failed to ensure stability and certainty for the growers. When you add to that climate change, drought and changing weather patterns, the situation for those growers has become even more uncertain. Indeed, between the year 1900 and the year 2000—for almost all of the last hundred years of the 20th century—inflows into the basin averaged 9,407 gigalitres per year. Since that time—that is, in the last two decades—inflows have fallen to around half of that, to 4,820 gigalitres. So we have had a situation over the last two decades where we have had nearly half as much water but probably twice as much agricultural area that we have been trying to ensure survives. That is the real problem, and I'll come back to that a bit later on. But what it highlights is that where you have a system with a reduction in inflows and an increase in water coming out it will undoubtedly be put under strain, and when that strain occurs it not only pits states against states; it pits growers against growers in different parts of the basin. We have seen arguments between the cotton growers and the rice growers and between the rice growers and the horticulturalists and so on all claiming that the others are exploiting the system or taking an unfair amount of water. Indeed, when you get desperate or when growers become desperate then I guess they will resort to whatever they can to ensure their survival.

Regrettably and sadly we have seen cases of water being illegally taken from the basin, as was exposed by the Four Corners program in 2017. I understand that there have been several cases where prosecutions have been launched. I don't know what the outcome of those cases was, nor does it really matter. But what they highlight is that the Four Corners program was absolutely correct: water was illegally being taken and nothing was being done about it until those prosecutions were launched. Again, that was before we had a commissioner of any sort. Indeed, the responsibility for who was to be managing the water extractions is also a grey area, with the states having a role in all of that. Quite clearly, however, the Murray-Darling Basin Authority's oversight, investigations and prosecutions of those illegal takings were inadequate. Then we also have cases of water metre tampering and the like. Indeed, I suspect that the findings to date with respect to illegal takings of water is really only the tip of the iceberg, because I have no doubt that across the basin there are many other examples of where water was being improperly taken.

The fact that we even have water as a tradeable commodity hasn't helped either. It has added to the problems and it has driven up water prices, which in some cases has put the price of water out of reach to some growers. I have spoken to growers who simply couldn't afford to buy the water at the price it was selling on the market and therefore couldn't keep their farms going. We've also had more than one account—in fact, we have had several accounts—of speculators who have profited from the water market, speculators who have no interest in agriculture in this country but are simply buying into the water market just like they would buy into the share market with respect to any other product, speculators who are often are domiciled overseas, as we have also seen. In my view, and this is my view, available water should be allocated by an independent statutory body at a set, affordable price on a priority needs basis. That is the system we should have and that is the system that was in place in South Australia in the Northern Adelaide Plains, where underground water was managed in the same way several decades ago. The government decided who could get access to it, but it did so on a priority needs basis and at a fair cost to the growers, rather than allowing the market to determine it. As I say, the market allows those with money to buy the water, and those who cannot afford it miss out.

I want to turn briefly to the water buyback issue. We know that between 2016 and 2019 there was $190 million worth of water buybacks under a particular program, which saw about 80 billion litres of water bought back. That buyback included the controversial buyback of $80 million worth of water—that is, 28.7 megalitres—from Eastern Australia Agriculture, whose parent company was domiciled in the Cayman Islands. It is understood that they made a $52 million profit from that sale. Again, that is an example that highlights how the market has been exploited at the expense of struggling growers. In many cases, these are small, family owned farms that have been passed on from one generation to another. They can't compete with the big multinational or corporate funds that have been established across the basin.

The reality is that the Murray-Darling Basin, as other speakers have quite rightly pointed out, is an important national asset. It is home to 2.6 million Australians; some 9,200 agricultural farms exist within it; it accounts for, I believe, around 40 per cent of Australia's irrigated agricultural land with a total annual production value of around $24 billion; and it contains 16 Ramsar listed wetlands. You couldn't think of a more important part of Australia than the Murray-Darling Basin, in terms of its economic and environmental importance to the nation. And it sustains hundreds and hundreds of towns throughout it, and, obviously thousands of farmers and other small businesses within the basin area.

The problem with it is simply this: it goes to the case where, over recent decades, we have allowed an expansion of farming within the area, farming that requires water, whilst at the same time water inflows into the basin have reduced. The system, under those circumstances, is not sustainable. Given that climate change is likely to see further reductions in water inflows, it will become an even greater problem into the future. Most of the expansion, with respect to the big corporate farms, has occurred in the eastern states. How the state governments have allowed that to happen, when they know that over the last two decades there has been a shortage of water, is beyond me. Indeed, between December 2018 and January 2019 of we saw hundreds of thousands of fish dying in the lower Darling just outside of Menindee, again as a result of the water inflows falling.

It is time we started taking the issue much more seriously than it has been. Having the fights between the states is not the answer. In my view, the answer lies in the recommendations of the royal commission into the Murray-Darling Basin that was launched by South Australia. It was a royal commission that had 111 findings and 44 recommendations. I have pretty much read the whole of that royal commission report, and I can say it is the most accurate summary of what is happening in the basin. Yet the findings and the recommendations of that commission sit on a shelf, ignored by both the South Australian state government and the federal government. Perhaps, if we want a solution to a future sustainable Murray-Darling Basin, look to the findings of that commission. It was thorough, it was widespread and, quite frankly, it was accurate to the point that it reflects the true situation and provides workable solutions.

12:12 pm

Photo of Angus TaylorAngus Taylor (Hume, Liberal Party, Minister for Energy and Emissions Reduction) Share this | | Hansard source

Firstly, I would like to thank the members who have contributed to the debate on the Water Legislation Amendment (Inspector-General of Water Compliance and Other Measures) Bill 2021. The Murray-Darling Basin is Australia's food bowl. It's home to 2.2 million Australians, internationally significant wetlands and First Nations people. Basin communities have asked for and deserve strong leadership, and they need confidence in the compliance and enforcement institutions that are in operation within the Murray-Darling Basin. This is what the government is delivering with this legislation.

Photo of Kevin AndrewsKevin Andrews (Menzies, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The original question was that this bill be now read a second time. To this, the honourable member for Griffith has moved as an amendment that all words after 'that' be omitted with a view to substituting other words. The immediate question before the chamber is that the words proposed to be omitted stand part of the question.

A division having been called and the bells being rung—

Photo of Tony SmithTony Smith (Speaker) Share this | | Hansard source

The Manager of Opposition Business, on a point of order?

Photo of Mr Tony BurkeMr Tony Burke (Watson, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for the Arts) Share this | | Hansard source

The call was given to the minister for the right of reply when there were still people seeking the call. The debate had not yet concluded. As I understand from the minister, that was inadvertent and wasn't intended. If that's the case, I seek leave for the remaining two speeches from the opposition to be able to be given, at which point we'd then have the division following that. I seek leave for that to be able to occur, because I think it would be contrary to standing orders otherwise.

Photo of Tony SmithTony Smith (Speaker) Share this | | Hansard source

The debate hasn't been closed on the second reading, so, if there is no objection to leave, I think that will be the quickest course of action. We won't lock the doors. We'll call the division off. That will save everyone time.

Leave granted.

12:20 pm

Photo of Alicia PayneAlicia Payne (Canberra, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise today to speak on the Water Legislation Amendment (Inspector-General of Water Compliance and Other Measures) Bill 2021. It's been two years since the Morrison government announced the establishment of a tough cop on the beat for the Murray-Darling Basin, two years of this Morrison Liberal government kicking the can down the road again and again. What we are seeing in the Murray-Darling Basin is an unfolding ecological, cultural and social disaster. It's been over two years now since people around Australia saw images of fish in Menindee choking for air in that water, and they were shocked by it. Just over a year ago one of the last events that I went to before COVID hit was to speak at a FanForce screening of the documentary When the River Runs Dry. I had the opportunity to meet Rory McLeod and Peter Yates, who are the makers of that incredible documentary. I would urge anyone who has an opportunity to see it to do so because it really brings home the scale of the disaster that we are seeing.

To put it in perspective, the Murray-Darling Basin covers more than one million square kilometres of the Australian mainland, or 14 per cent of the total surface area of this country. The Barwon-Darling river system is over 2,700 kilometres long. The mighty Murray-Darling river system that begins in Queensland and run through New South Wales and Victoria before emptying into the Southern Ocean near Adelaide has been the lifeblood of this continent, particularly in times of drought. But what we're seeing at the moment is the mismanagement of this critically important river system. The When the River Runs Dry documentary is so important because it really shows the scale of this ecological and cultural disaster that we are seeing unfolding. Importantly, the filmmakers talk with the Barkindji people, the traditional owners of the land there, about the importance of that river to them culturally and the full extent of the environmental degradation we are seeing as part of this mismanagement.

The documentary has several key messages: first of all, just how important water is globally to both Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples; that water trading can lead to perverse outcomes if economic values trump social values; and that First Nations people should have rights to water and should be directly involved in water management decisions on their river systems. The documentary explores how not only the rights but also the knowledge and environmental practices of First Nations people have been ignored for too long in terms of water management. Australia needs to be honest about what is happening in this centrally important river system. The management of Australia's rivers needs to be consistent with the Water Act. The documentary also calls for a federal royal commission, which is needed to restore confidence. The Murry-Darling Basin Plan needs to be reviewed. The documentary makes the point that a river system is a system and it must be managed as a whole for the good of all.

Labor will support this bill because we understand that the basin communities have been crying out for reform for years. We support this bill, because supporting farmers and supporting the regions is incredibly important. Labor don't just talk about supporting the reasons; we actually stand up and do it, which is more than can be said for the National Party at the moment, and I'll speak more about this later.

The purpose of this bill is to amend the Water Act to effectively split the Murray-Darling Basin Authority and create a new agency with responsibility for its compliance functions, headed by a new inspector-general of water compliance who will monitor and provide independent oversight of water compliance. The bill will also implement new offences and penalties for unlawful conduct, including fines of up to $1.1 million for individuals and $11 million for companies who engage in water theft. The inspector-general would be appointed by the Governor-General and confer with the existing compliance functions and powers of the Murray-Darling Basin Authority. The inspector-general would also replace the existing non-statutory interim Inspector-General of Murray-Darling Basin Water Resources, which in turn had replaced an earlier interim inspector-general, which had replaced the Northern Basin Commissioner. So here's hoping the fourth time is the charm.

The inspector-general's functions would include monitoring and providing independent oversight of Commonwealth agencies in the performance of their functions and exercise of their powers under the act; regulations of the Basin Plan and water resource plans; monitoring and overseeing basin state agencies in relation to their obligations in the management of basin water resources; monitoring the implementation by all jurisdictions of various specified agreements related to the basin and Basin Plan; community engagement; and exercising the proposed new enforcement provisions, which include both civil penalty provisions and offences. These functions would be supported by new inquiry powers and the power to issue guidelines and standards. The power to undertake audits would also be transferred from the Murray-Darling Basin Authority to the inspector-general.

Labor has been able to secure some positive changes to this bill from the first exposure drafts. Labor argued for assurances that the position of inspector-general would be independent from the department. We also argued for a fit-and-proper person test to apply to authorised compliance officers not covered by public sector employment arrangements, and I'm glad to say that the government has accepted these changes. However, unfortunately this bill won't commence immediately after the parliament passes it; the act will only commence after all basin states have approved its provisions. So, in that vein, I urge basin states to immediately approve the provisions so that the inspector-general can get to work.

The changes this bill makes to the current scheme are undoubtedly a good thing. For far too long, the Murray-Darling Basin Authority has not had the power it needs in ensuring the stakeholders complied with the law. In its five-year review published in 2018, the Productivity Commission raised concerns that the authority's conflicting roles would 'create conflicts' and potentially lead to it 'marking its own homework'. In that report the commission recommended that the authority be split into two separate institutions, an agency and a plan regulator. Labor accepted these recommendations and committed to restoring integrity to the plan as part of our 2019 election commitments. As part of those commitments we pledged to move the compliance arm of the authority to a dedicated environmental protection agency, an agency which I note Professor Graeme Samuel recommended to be established in his review of the EPBC Act, which the Liberal government has so far refused to accept. So it is about time this bill was introduced. It's about time that the Morrison government actually did what they promised in 2019.

Since 2019 the Morrison government have appointed two inspector-generals, who without legislation to empower them were toothless. This isn't the first time such a role has been established. In August 2018 the government appointed the Northern Basin Commissioner. The Northern Basin Commissioner had no statutory powers and was supposed to be funded for three years, yet only a year later the government decided to scrap this role to establish the inspector-general. In the meantime they set up those interim positions with no statutory powers and no authority to refer matters onwards. You might have thought that the government would act with some degree of urgency to ensure this new role would have some powers—apparently not, because the interim inspector-general's term ended last year. They actually appointed someone and waited for their term to expire before they even had actual powers conferred on them.

The Murray-Darling Basin Plan is a $13 billion plan. It is of absolute vital importance to farmers, regional communities and consumers all around the country. It is key to Australia's ongoing agricultural success, and it is absolutely appalling that, after eight long years of this tired Liberal government, they're only now getting to these important reforms. But that's typical of this government, isn't it, Deputy Speaker? This is the government that, after countless corruption and integrity scandals, promised a federal ICAC. Yet 2½ years later we find out in its budget that not a single cent, not a single person, has been allocated to establishing this long-overdue reform—just another case of Scott Morrison kicking the can down the road, another case of this government being all about the announcement and never about the follow-up. The great irony is that the inspector-general that we're voting on today was promised the power to refer matters to the Commonwealth Integrity Commission—which doesn't exist yet. So how on earth is it supposed to do that, when we have not even had this government take the necessary steps to establish that commission?

The truth is that this government is terrified of accountability. It is terrified of the Australian people becoming aware of the dodgy things that it does. A prime example of that is in the Senate estimates going on right now, where ministers are failing to answer the difficult questions asked by Labor and the crossbench. It's been four years since Four Corners exposed the corruption, the greed and the protection racket that has been going on in the basin. Australia watched the program with horror as we witnessed industrial-scale cotton farmers rorting the system, stealing precious water that belonged to the communities and the environment and sending huge profits to offshore tax havens. We saw downstream communities struggling to survive, wondering whether they would have enough water to brush their teeth. As I said earlier, we then saw the environment suffer with the mass fish kills in Menindee Lakes, a true—and preventable—ecological disaster.

Since then we've seen a South Australian royal commission which slammed the federal government. The commission found that the Commonwealth committed gross maladministration, negligence and unlawful actions. It found that the Murray-Darling Basin Plan all but ignored the catastrophic risks of climate change to the river system. That's like making a car and forgetting the minor step of adding an engine. We've seen clearly in recent years the problems that ignoring climate change mean for the plan. From 1996 to 2010 this country suffered through the horrendous millennium drought, and from 2017 to 2019 our regions were decimated yet again by another historic drought. New South Wales was declared to be 100 per cent in drought in 2018, remaining at 98.6 per cent through 2019. The Bureau of Meteorology found that, for the Murray-Darling Basin, this drought was the worst ever recorded.

Despite what the climate deniers in the government's ranks would tell us, we know that climate change is causing and exacerbating these disasters. We know this. We know that climate change directly contributed to the latest drought. We know it contributed to the devastation we saw in the Black Summer bushfires. And we know that, without urgent action, these disasters will only get worse. Farmers know this better than anyone else. Farmers know that their livelihoods, their businesses, their animals, will continue to be impacted by rising global temperatures. Farmers understand that we need to take urgent action. They understand that they will have a role to play and that their business practices will have to change. The National Farmers Federation have matched Labor's commitment to get to net zero emissions by 2050, but this government fails to do so. The National Party, for all their talk of sticking up for the regions, are abandoning them on this pivotal issue impacting the industries that power those communities. Labor will never abandon the regions and we will never abandon farmers. And we will never shirk the responsibility to fight for all Australians and our planet by taking serious action on climate change.

The government doesn't just abandon farmers when it comes to climate change. Right now farmers across New South Wales, Victoria and southern Queensland are experiencing one of the worst mouse plagues that this country has ever seen. Millions of mice are currently ravaging farmers' crops, some of the first good harvests these people have had since the drought ended. These mice are destroying the hope that had only just returned to these farmers. They are destroying livelihoods. What is the response of the Liberal-National government? Crickets. Just today the Morrison government shut down debate on the member for Franklin's motion calling for an urgent federal response. How is that even controversial—helping our suffering farmers and families through something that this government refuses to even talk about?

It is time that this government actually did something to fix this mess and to restore confidence in the Murray-Darling Basin. It's about time that this government took its blindfold off and realised that some leadership is required on this issue. Labor has been calling on the government to do something for years. We have put forward positive, practical solutions which have fallen on deaf ears. I am glad that they have finally acted but, seriously, what has taken so long? This government has had eight years to fix this issue. The government committed to these reforms two years ago and it is only now that we are seeing this bill introduced.

It simply should not be taking so long for a government to follow through on its promise and to address clearly urgent issues that we are seeing in the Murray-Darling Basin. It is an ecological disaster as well as a social and cultural one that this government is turning a blind eye to and belatedly bringing in this bill. We support this bill, but it could have happened so much sooner and with more urgency. It is just another example where this government does just enough to say that it is doing something but not to address the critical issues facing Australians every day, facing our environment and facing our world—which will be destroyed by climate change, as the government will not even commit to net zero by 2050.

12:36 pm

Photo of Mr Tony BurkeMr Tony Burke (Watson, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for the Arts) Share this | | Hansard source

I want to commend the Water Legislation Amendment (Inspector-General of Water Compliance and Other Measures) Bill 2021 to the parliament, give some of the context behind the bill itself and also deal with some of the issues that were raised in earlier presentations, in particular from the member for Nicholls, and some of mythology that is there around the plan, because there is a reason why we got to the point where, ultimately, I, as the water minister at the time, signed off on the document with the support of all the various state water ministers and there is a reason why it is the interests of everyone in this chamber for to it be properly implemented.

First of all, if there was a single core misunderstanding that we could say was present at the time that the Basin Plan was brought into place, across both sides of the chamber, it was the fact that we took the water market as a given and we presumed that the integrity of water trading would function as a market. When we saw that Four Corners story a few years ago now and we saw the cases of water theft occurring, we realised that the foundations that underpinned everything about the plan needed to be far more secure than they were.

The government and the minister at the time—now the minister for agriculture but then the minister for water—worked closely with the opposition to establish the position of the Northern Basin Commissioner. The role was a compliance role, and we supported the appointment of Mick Keelty, because it was important to have somebody with a law enforcement background doing that job. I must say that, while the government didn't in fact legislate to give him any extra powers, at that point there was good work that Mick Keelty was able to do simply because of his background as being in one of the most senior police positions that exists in this country.

We presume that Troy Grant will end up as the Inspector-General of Water Compliance after this legislation is carried—and I genuinely hope it works. There has been some scepticism and concern around the place. With every appointment, the fact that someone has a political background doesn't necessarily mean it can't work. But we need it to work, because the integrity of the water trading system is essential. This is not simply for the plan to work or simply for the environment to not be ripped off; it's also for every honest irrigator to not be ripped off either. There is a lot at stake in making sure that this role has the powers that it needs and that it is able to perform properly.

The original theory that the role would be able to make referrals to the National Integrity Commission seems to have fallen prey to the fact that the National Integrity Commission that we were told was on its way appears to has got lost on its way. But, even with the integrity of water compliance, we have a problem with the plan now, because, effectively, even though we had bipartisanship when the plan was arrived at—and I'll always remember the vote in this parliament where, for the money to go to the 450 gigalitres, we had a division, and on the side of the chamber that voted no we had the representative from the Greens party, we had Bob Katter and we had the person who is now Deputy Prime Minister of Australia, and we had pretty much everybody else in the chamber voting yes, to go ahead with all the parts of the plan—what we have now is not what anyone started with at the table.

The act didn't allow us to compromise on the minimum environmental conditions that we needed to get to, but it did allow us to compromise on how we would get there, and some of those compromises worked in favour of industry and some of them worked in favour of the environment, but in each case there was a protection. For those that work in favour of industry—and this is what we call the down water, the 605 gigalitres down—instead of having to get the 2,750 gigalitres as total held water, if you can achieve the same environmental outcomes through other works, then less is acquired. That principle of achieving the same environmental outcomes goes directly to minimum standards that are contained within the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. But the flip side is that you can acquire more water if it's done in a way that minimises the impact on communities, with a specific part of the plan that says 'the participation of consumptive water users in projects that recover water through works to improve irrigation water use efficiency on their farm'. It specifically says there that, if you do it through on-farm irrigation, it is taken as not having a negative impact on the community—for a pretty obvious reason. If a farmer gets Commonwealth money to improve the quality of the infrastructure on their farm and, as a result, they don't need to use as much water, you're getting the same production from the farm, you're getting the same production from the enterprise, but you're getting a better outcome for the environment, and that means that it costs the taxpayer more than it would if we were just in a world of buybacks. That's what it means. And we made the decision that we were willing as taxpayers to put that extra investment directly into the farmers and irrigators of the Murray-Darling Basin.

Now, of that money that was put aside that almost everybody voted for to acquire 450 gigalitres, we find that, of the 450 gigalitres, 2.1 gigalitres has been acquired. That doesn't just mean there's less water for the environment than there was meant to be; it also means farmers and irrigators who were meant to get Commonwealth money to improve the quality of the infrastructure on their land haven't been given a cent—that the government would rather leave those irrigators without improved infrastructure than allow the basin to be healthier. Of all the things that we predicted and worked through when we were putting the plan together, it actually never occurred to anyone that there would be a government so determined to have a culture war about water that they would deny irrigators and farmers improved infrastructure in order to make sure there wasn't additional water for the environment.

I don't know who they think they're doing a favour. Maybe they think it means they can rally around in a town hall meeting in the country and pretend to people that they're fighting for them. But the only outcome is that the irrigators end up with older infrastructure than they would otherwise have, that the government subsidy that was available to them never reaches them and, from an environmental perspective, that the extra water is never acquired.

There are no jobs on a dead river. There are no communities on dead rivers. What happens with the Murray-Darling Basin, particularly on the Darling part of it, is it will always be a situation that, through periods of drought, part of the natural cycle is for there to be a drying cycle. But the combination of overextraction and climate change means that those dry years now are much more than would ever be the case naturally. The concept of held water is that once those dry years start you've got some held water to effectively be able to provide some sort of palliative care to stop the system from breaking down altogether.

There's a lot of mythology, particularly in the Darling system, about where water would flow, and because the land is so flat sometimes people will take a particular irrigation property and say, 'If they weren't allowed to have so much water then that would fix the entire Darling system,' which is not how the system works. It's an incredibly flat system and it is meant to go through a drought cycle, but overextraction kills the river. The way to resolve a whole lot of these issues is to make sure that you have water held for environmental purposes through a combination of methods, some of it through buyback and some of it through infrastructure projects.

I predicted what would happen when the government first put the cap on buyback. We didn't have a cap on buyback in the plan, for a very clear reason. If you wanted the states to come forward with projects that, in time, they would implement for the 605 gigalitres of down water, then you had to give them an incentive to do that. If they knew that if they didn't do the projects then buyback was what would occur, they would come forward with the projects and they would make sure that they worked. But when the government foolishly, for the sake of a political slogan, got rid of the cap on buyback they created an impossible situation for basin communities. The states now don't have an incentive to go ahead with their projects and—surprise, surprise!—we're now starting to hear the states aren't going to be able to meet the deadlines on their projects. Of course they can't. Of course they won't, because the incentive to make them do it was taken off the table.

So now we have a world where, for the plan, the government says, 'The states might not do it and we won't buy back either.' Under the plan as a legal document, the water has to be acquired. Every day the government allow this farce to continue they make the situation that's coming down the line for basin communities more and more perilous. Part of the reason that the plan had a staged gradual accumulation of water for the environment at the same time that money was going through to communities and farm businesses was to make sure that you could do this slowly, to make sure that at a gradual pace you could help communities with the transition and help make sure that the irrigators themselves were becoming more efficient, so as to make sure that the jobs that were then available in the communities weren't disappearing on the way through. But what the government has done is create a situation of brinkmanship where we are heading down to deadlines, they have hardly acquired any water, the states are not coming through with their projects and the irrigators are not getting the improved infrastructure. Yet the targets need to be met. If there was ever a triumph of messaging over reality in regional communities, it's what members of the government have done here.

Let's not pretend that the only victims here are people at the end of the system. There is no doubt rivers die from the end of the river all the way back up, and the worst and most immediate impacts are in the state of South Australia. I am always astonished at the hypocrisy of people when they say, 'You need to remove the barrages. You need to remove the interventions at the bottom of the system but keep every other intervention further up the system.' If you believe it should be a completely natural system, argue that, but don't argue that it should only be true in South Australia. But then don't pretend that South Australia is the only place that is going to be let down by the way the government is holding back on the implementation of the plan, because, right through New South Wales and Victoria and all the way up to Queensland, communities are getting closer and closer to a situation where tough decisions have to be made and those decisions will be much worse because of the inactivity year after year from this government. There are programs that were meant to happen over a decade—the process of acquiring 450 gigalitres and they're at 2.1, and projects to get the 605 gigalitres of down water are now looking like major ones not going ahead, and with no incentive to deliver on it.

What this government has done is think you can take a document that brought people together and only take the bits that are the easiest to sell, only take the bits that are easiest to message into your local papers. Communities and the health of the rivers are all at stake here, and negligence from this government continues to put them at risk.

Question agreed to.

Bill read a second time.