House debates

Tuesday, 17 October 2023


Water Amendment (Restoring Our Rivers) Bill 2023; Second Reading

4:43 pm

Photo of Matt BurnellMatt Burnell (Spence, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

When the debate on this bill was adjourned, I was talking about the member for Riverina and his constant insistence on being perceived as the elder statesman of debates like this. I'm sure he longs for the National Party of old, whatever that means. Right now, could there be a 're-Joyce'? It's always possible. Either way there's 'Little-to-be-proud' of and they're stuck in a 'Pitt of despair'.

The member for Riverina rightly mentioned that the member for Watson was indeed the minister responsible for the plan a bit over a decade ago now. The member for Watson was the Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities in the Gillard Labor government. In researching the plan, I came across comments the member for Watson made regarding cooperative federalism in Australia with river systems, and they really struck a chord with me. The member for Watson noted that, for a number of decades, policymakers had allowed the Murray-Darling Basin to be governed as though rivers would respect state boundaries, but in the end we must have this legislation pass as a means to hit reset and return the system to something that is a bit closer to the vision the member for Watson and the Gillard government had for the basin all those years ago. It's a bit cliched to use this line: the best-laid plans do not survive contact with the enemy. But what if the enemy were part of a government which allowed it carte blanche to dismantle that policy almost entirely over nine long years? You'd make some alterations to that policy to allow more time for it to work. You'd allow more options through which to achieve the aims of that policy. You'd allocate additional sources of funding towards achieving those aims and you'd certainly put more accountability in the system. This bill does all of those things.

In closing, especially with water, we stand up for ourselves quite vocally, as we aren't particularly used to those others stepping in to stand up for South Australia. When we just want to be included in the conversation at times, to be remembered, we have a government that wants to stand up for Australia. I commend this bill to the House.

4:45 pm

Photo of Nola MarinoNola Marino (Forrest, Liberal Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Education) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak on the Water Amendment (Restoring Our Rivers) Bill 2023. As an irrigation dairy farmer I understand the importance of the irrigation sector, not just to farmers but also to food processors, our food security and affordable food for Australians—quality food. More importantly, I know exactly what happens to communities and food production when water—water which is the lifeblood of the region—is removed.

At the heart of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan has been the need to balance the needs of the various water users, including the environment, in the basin, as well as the water quality, and to balance the critical social and economic factors. It's this very balance that the government is directly legislating against. The social and economic testing must be retained, and the 1,500-gigalitre cap on water buybacks should not be removed. If the Labor government progresses these amendments regional communities will be devastated, with direct impacts on the communities, on local workers and on jobs, as well as on small and larger businesses and food processors. We will also see people leaving smaller communities, and the whole community will be affected.

What really concerns me is that these smaller communities, the farmers, the processors and the local businesses will simply become collateral damage of this Labor government decision, which is clearly described by the government, in the explanatory memorandum, as 'removing necessary impediments'. As someone who has farmed and lived in a small community dependent on irrigation, I'm appalled that the government would describe the impacts and cost to communities this way. It also demonstrates a complete ignorance of the importance of water and the potential increased costs of living and shortages of food for Australian consumers, as we see in WA with the superficial approach to shutting down live sheep exports. This process is the same. It's simply the Labor government's contemptuous tick-and-flick approach to achieve what they have already decided to do, along the way just paying lip-service to the affected local communities, businesses and local people. If the government is in any doubt about the impacts of water buybacks, the minister needs to have a look at the devastating effects on the Owens Valley in California for an example of what happens when governments destroy irrigated agriculture in a region.

A rough estimate puts the potential losses from the proposed 450-gigalitre buybacks at around $2 billion per annum as an initial cost. That's an ongoing annual cost, as food production is severely reduced or lost entirely. And why? Because an enormous amount of water will be taken away from those communities. Four hundred and fifty gigalitres is around the equivalent of the water in Sydney Harbour, which is around 500 gigs. It's an enormous amount of water to take away from the community. However, there will be an additional ongoing cost at the check-out for consumers of fruit, vegetables, milk and dairy products, and beef.

The Water Act of 2007, as originally legislated, aimed to balance social, economic and environmental factors for water management in the Murray-Darling Basin, and to act in the national interest of Australia. There has been no feasibility assessment of the consequences of that, or the Basin Plan impacts of removing the impediments to trade or enacting the constraints management strategy to achieve higher Basin Plan flow volume targets for the Murray River measured at the Coorong, Lower Lakes and Murray Mouth in South Australia. There's been concentration on physical water recovery for the environment in the southern basin, primarily in the Murray system, the Goulburn River and the Lower Darling.

Social and economic impacts of buybacks are not just confined to a reduction in irrigation entitlements used for regional agriculture. Buybacks impact pricing and supply of water entitlements, reducing supply and forcing prices higher by creating shortages and stranding critical irrigation assets, and encouraging third-party profiteering at the expense of the productive use of water. The Murray-Darling Basin Authority regulatory impact statement severely underestimated the social and economic consequence of the Basin Plan. Buybacks produce economic inequities in geographical areas and, as I said, aggravate the social and economic impacts for affected regions. The advice to Minister Plibersek on the Basin Plan's implementation briefly acknowledges these impacts when it stated:

Through water recovery under Bridging the Gap, 98% of the surface water target has been transferred to entitlements with the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder (CEWH). We acknowledge that this water recovery has predominantly occurred in irrigation dependent communities, and these communities have been impacted by water reform.

Concerns about the Commonwealth buyback include the lack of a strategic approach, causing what we term the 'Swiss cheese' effect; that sellers are not necessarily willing sellers but under pressure due to drought or financial situations; that there will potentially be insufficient sellers, creating shortages and forcing up prices; and the tender process, which historically has been too slow and not transparent. For those who don't understand irrigated agriculture, perhaps the Swiss cheese effect can be a challenge to understand. Ill-considered buybacks create a Swiss cheese effect in irrigation districts where the Commonwealth purchases water entitlements, when buybacks once again focus on the southern Murray-Darling Basin. The term refers to what happens when some entitlement holders along an irrigation channel sell their water entitlements, cease irrigating and dry off their land. That creates 'holes' in an irrigation area, increasing losses, reducing the efficiency of delivering water down that channel, stranding assets and increasing the maintenance costs and delivery fees for the entitlement holders who remain.

As irrigators know, irrigation pipes and channels operate on a water ordering system. To supply an irrigator at the end of a pipe or standard channel, the pipe or channel must be filled so the water reaches the end of the pipe or channel. The total water entitlements in any irrigation scheme consists of irrigator owned water entitlements and those required to deliver the water to the irrigators. Most, but not all, irrigation schemes separately hold water delivery entitlements to deliver this allocation to their irrigators. Harvey Water, in my part of the world, was the first irrigation scheme in Australia in 1996 to hold separate delivery entitlements independent of irrigator owned water entitlements. Water efficiency is focused on reducing the amount of delivery entitlements required to deliver water. If a number of irrigators, partway down the channel, sell their water entitlements and dry off their land, the losses to supply the irrigator at the very end of the channel may well result in the need to close the end of the channel as it's no longer sustainable. Even if the irrigation scheme has automated channel control that allows the water to be filled and emptied through a series of gates, the water losses and cost of supplying an irrigator at the end of the channel, if their neighbours dry off their land, may become prohibitive.

There were examples of this given to the Senate standing committee in 2014. The Murray Shire gave an example of the effect in their area:

… within Murray Shire, there is a scheme in Mathoura which formerly had 14 members and now has seven. This reduction in members is already having severe economic impacts on the remaining members of the scheme.

The whole issue is affecting, and will continue to affect, business confidence, which will in turn affect property values.

Coleambally Irrigation referred to the Swiss cheese effect as hindering planning efforts within irrigation districts. It didn't allow them to plan. It didn't allow the board to plan. They did not know where the next dry farm was going to come from. They couldn't plan ahead for bridges or other infrastructure. Irrigation Australia also noted some of the social effects. A fourth-generation farmer who is told that they are at the end of a spur channel that is being abandoned is going to be really upset about that decision because all of their friends and family are in, and their whole lifestyle revolves around, that little community district. They're being told to pick up and move to somewhere else completely out of the way from where they live. It's important that social costs and social issues get included in those decisions.

A separate effect is that the Commonwealth and states have spent billions of dollars upgrading irrigation systems and schemes in the Murray-Darling Basin. If the buyback is not strategically managed—and there is no indication that it will be—millions of dollars spent over the last 15 years will have been wasted as newly upgraded channels and pipes are forced to close due to the latest proposed round of ill-considered buybacks. Make no mistake: the government will remove water from between 50,000 and 70,000 hectares of vital food-producing irrigated farming land.

I'm particularly concerned about the dairy industry in the basin, which underpins Australia's food security. Dairy farmers have been—and are—keen innovators in adapting to climate change. They've invested in irrigation technologies. They've improved their infrastructure and water use efficiency. They supply, in that area, their milk to 42 milk processing plants. The very viability of those local processing plants is critical to dairy farmers and consumers. Milk is a perishable product. It has to be collected and manufactured seven days a week as soon as you can after the cows are milked. Along with the previous water buybacks in the Murray-Darling Basin, we've seen milk volumes in Australia reduce from 11 billion litres a year to eight billion litres a year. These reduced volumes threaten the viability of milk processors and the industry. Both dairy farming businesses and processors are the backbone of their local economies and communities, something that's frequently underestimated.

There are other options available to the government besides water buybacks, through infrastructure, water use efficiencies and water delivery system efficiencies. There are plenty of examples in the millions of investments already committed to for the Murray-Darling Basin infrastructure to date. Water for the environment needs to be managed so it doesn't damage food supply or further damage the farmers and their communities. Since 2008, Murray-Darling Basin farming communities have lived with the stress, the heartbreak and the uncertainties of the ever changing demands of government on their livelihoods and the viability of their business and townships. The river system is the lifeblood of these communities, and that very lifeblood feeds Australia and many people in the international community. As my own irrigation co-op, Harvey Water, says, 'Where water flows, food grows.'

But I see that the bill delivers on the water market reform final roadmap, a process initiated by the former coalition government to restore transparency, integrity and confidence in water markets and water management in the basin, a process that finally addresses the need to regulate the water broker intermediaries. Concerns have been raised since the introduction of water trading that there needed to be monitoring and regulation to prevent potential insider trading and that proper provisions requiring a trust account to be held and monitored needed to be included. Whilst early reports from the ACCC denied that this regulation of intermediaries was necessary, it's actually a relief that it's being done after it was first raised.

Concerning, however, are matters subject to regulation and not actually detailed in the bill itself. The government's track record of a lack of consultation means that people are rightly nervous about what the government will do with these regulations. There is a genuine need for more time to meet the requirements of this plan. Murray-Darling Basin communities should not be the ongoing victims of arbitrary deadlines. Meeting planned goals is important, but so is the wellbeing of local communities, the wider Australian public and the people—the farmers themselves. They actually matter. The reintroduction of buybacks from willing sellers is a cause of deep concern. Unmanaged buybacks create the risk, as I said, of stranded irrigation assets, assets in some cases that may have recently been maintained or built with millions of dollars of Commonwealth and state funding support. It needs to be seriously considered. Most of the use occurs in the three large southern valleys of the Murray, Murrumbidgee and Goulburn-Broken rivers, made possible by the many wonderful large dams that facilitate the regulated releases of water downstream and divert them into those irrigation canal systems. So I am very concerned about what the government is proposing here. Anyone who doesn't understand the value of irrigated agriculture, where the food is produced in Australia and the impacts on the people who actually matter is of great concern to me.

5:00 pm

Photo of Kate ThwaitesKate Thwaites (Jagajaga, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The Water Amendment (Restoring our Rivers) Bill 2023 is critically important to the water security of basin communities. It will rescue the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, and that plan and the river itself are in need of rescuing. Our country is facing an environmental emergency, and, if we don't act now to preserve the Murray-Darling, we know that our basin towns will be unprepared for drought, our native animals will face the threat of extinction, our river ecosystems will risk environmental collapse and our food and fibre production will be insecure and unsustainable. A healthy basin means healthy communities. It is really vital that a river that provides clean drinking water to three million Australians every day is in the healthiest possible condition it can be in. This is an important moment for basin communities and for any Australian who cares about the health of our environment.

In the context of the health of our environment and the health of our rivers, I want to reflect more broadly on the work our government is doing across water, waterways and the environments that they are connected to—because it is all interconnected. It's demonstrative of the approach our government is taking on water and environmental issues, led by the Minister for the Environment and Water, that we are looking at these issues in a holistic way. We're not taking it piece by piece. We know that there is so much work to be done across the country to protect and restore waterways and to protect and restore our environment. We have a strong agenda for supporting rivers and waterways throughout Australia, including in my local community.

I have spoken in this place before about how my community of Jagajaga is home to many waterways. The south-eastern boundary of Jagajaga is, of course, the mighty Yarra River, or the Birrarrung. The Darebin Creek is in the south-west of the electorate, and the Kurrum, or the Plenty River, and the Diamond Creek cross through the electorate. On the far north-eastern edge of Jagajaga, we have Watsons Creek. These are all very important waterways in my community. Across Australia, the population growth that we've seen in decades past can be traced along these rivers and these waterways and seen in the use of them and the importance of them to those communities.

The Yarra River in Melbourne can sometimes be regarded as a dividing line—we joke in Melbourne about whether you're from the north or the south side of the river and what that means for you culturally—but it is also a connector. In my community, any day of the week, you can see people drawn to the river, walking, canoeing, spotting wildlife and spending time together. Our waterways are important for so many reasons. So those initiatives, as I said, that our government is taking to look at waterways across our country, including the Murray-Darling Basin, are really important for communities like mine.

It's initiatives like the Urban Rivers and Catchments Program, with dedicated funding for waterways and supporting the environment in my community. In fact, in Jagajaga, we have three projects underway under this program: at the Yarra Flats Park alongside the Yarra River, along Darebin Creek and in Eltham North along the Diamond Creek. These waterways are, I will acknowledge, a bit smaller than the Murray-Darling Basin, but again I highlight that they are interconnected. Our commitment to protect waterways across our country extends from the mighty Murray-Darling all the way to these waterways in my electorate of Jagajaga in the City of Melbourne. This is really important, and our government is not afraid to take up the challenge that is before us—to take up this work that has been neglected for far too long and to do the work that is needed to try and restore and protect waterways across this country.

At last year's federal election our government did make a promise to deliver the Murray-Darling Basin Plan in full, as it was designed, and in line with the science, and with this legislation we are fulfilling that promise to the river system and to every community and every Australian who depends on it. The agreement that Minister Plibersek recently struck with New South Wales, Queensland, South Australia and the ACT is historic. It is an agreement that will deliver the plan in full after a decade of sabotage and delay by the Liberals and Nationals, another issue that those who were formerly in government failed to land, another issue that they put in the too-hard basket and let lapse. We are suffering from the consequences of that, and the Murray-Darling Basin and the communities along it are suffering from the consequences of that.

This new agreement is a balanced and reasonable agreement. It took more than a year of detailed consultation to put it together. It includes 450 gigalitres of water for the environment, and our government worked with the states and territories, with farmers and irrigators, with scientists and experts, with environmentalists and with First Nations groups as we put this plan together because we do know that we all need to work together to make the plan work as it should. The measures contained in this bill offer more time, more options, more money and more accountability around how we do this work. It offers more time to deliver the remaining water, again based on expert advice. This includes the recovery of the 450 gigalitres of water for the environment by December 2027 and the delivery of water infrastructure projects by December 2026. It offers more options to deliver the remaining water, including water infrastructure projects and a voluntary water buybacks. It offers more funding to deliver the remaining water and to support communities where voluntary water buybacks have flow-on impacts.

It offers more accountability for Murray-Darling Basin governments on delivering the remaining water on time. For this aspect, federal funding will be based on achieving water recovery targets within deadlines, and that is important. We know that across our country since the time of Federation we have had issues with resources being shared across states and territories, and it is important that all of us are accountable: all levels of government for their roles in delivery on this plan for protecting the Murray-Darling and supporting the communities along the Murray-Darling Basin. This plan does deliver more water for the environment, more certainty for farmers and industry, more financial support for affected communities, more protection for native plants and animals and more hope for Australia's most important river system.

We shouldn't lose sight of why Australian governments designed the Murray-Darling Basin Plan in the first place. Without a plan in place, we know where we would end up. The next drought is most likely just around the corner. We have seen the devastating impact of drought in our country all too often, and we know how devastating a drought is for those communities that rely on the Murray-Darling Basin, so we need a plan in place to get all those levels of government working together to support communities along the river in the basin, to help us through what we know will be dry years and to make sure that there is enough water flowing through those systems at what could be the basin's lowest moments. It is a challenge that our government has taken on to help rescue the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, a return to common sense.

We're not interested in trying to score political points here. We're not interested in trying to play communities or groups off against each other. We recognise there are a myriad of interests that come together to rely on the Murray-Darling, and we are interested in trying to work with all of those groups, all of those people who have a stake in this most important river system so as to put the plan back on track. For too many years it was of course off track. For too many years it was in the too-hard basket. For too many years we had politics happening around the plan, trying to play communities and interest groups off each other. That is not the approach of this government.

We have come back to the basics, to the point of view of remembering what the point of having this plan is: to ensure that we have a healthy and sustainable basin for the future. We are working to get it back on track, and I am really pleased that that is something this government has brought such focus to here with the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. As I said, we have also brought focus to it with our support for rivers and waterways across the country and for the environment more broadly. We are once again trying to make up for a decade of denial, a decade of not doing the work that should have been done to protect some of the most iconic and important environments in our country, by protecting areas that are habitat for endangered species and making sure that we protect what is left—to both restore and enhance it.

The original deadline for the Murray-Darling Basin Plan was set for June 2024. In the early years of the plan we were in fact on track to meet those deadlines. But during their nine years of government the Liberals and Nationals spent their time sabotaging the plan. We've seen this time and time again from those opposite in their approach to government—not delivering, just politicking, and not doing the work that our country needs for the long term. They tied projects up in impossible rules so that they couldn't deliver water savings. They blocked water recovery programs. They tried to cut the final recovery targets to keep them below scientific recommendations. As a result, progress slowed to a dribble under those opposite. It is a great shame that because of this it is now impossible to deliver the plan on the original time line. In the nine years of the Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison government they delivered just two gigalitres of the 450 gigalitres. Their efforts in fact put the plan on track to be completed sometime around the year 4000. It sounds very sci-fi, doesn't it? I can't really comprehend what life might be like around the year 4000, but I think it's safe to say that the Murray-Darling Basin probably wouldn't be surviving under the trajectory put in place by those opposite. As I said, it is very important that our government is now getting on with this, has put this plan in place and is doing what those opposite could not do during their nine long years in government.

This plan will deliver more water. The 450-gigalitre target has its own funding mechanism, the Water for the Environment Special Account. The coalition were told during their time in government that this wasn't working. They were told that in the first Water for the Environment Special Account report and they were told that in the second Water for the Environment Special Account report. They knew this program had stalled completely, but for nine years they kept a pause on water recovery. This legislation removes that pause so that we can finally deliver the water, giving this account more flexibility in line with the Water Act's objectives.

With these changes, we are opening up the full suite of water recovery options. We will be able to invest in on-farm water infrastructure, in land and water purchases and in other novel water recovery mechanisms where it is sensible to do so. We will be able to purchase water from willing sellers where it's needed to deliver the plan. We do know that water purchase is never the only tool in the box. It is not the first tool at hand, but it does need to be one of them. This is critical nation-building work.

As I've said, the Murray-Darling Basin is vitally important to all the communities along it, and it is also important to our entire country. It is an iconic piece of our natural landscape, and we all have an interest in making sure that it is protected and that it is healthy into the future in a climate that we know is changing. In an environment where we know it is likely that we will face more droughts and challenging weather, it is so important that we have in place a plan that is deliverable and a government that is willing to do the work to deliver that plan: a government that is prepared to work with state and territory governments—that shared accountability that we all have for the Murray-Darling Basin to achieve the aims of the plan; a government that knows that we have to get on with this, rather than focusing on the politics of this; and a government that does all of this work in the broader space of trying to restore and protect our environment around the country after too long, almost a decade of denial, with critical pieces of our nation's natural infrastructure being lost to us through the incompetence and the denial of those opposite. I'm very pleased to be supporting this legislation. It is very important to our country.

5:15 pm

Photo of David GillespieDavid Gillespie (Lyne, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak on the Water Amendment (Restoring Our Rivers) Bill 2023, which unfortunately the coalition cannot support. It is a very badly designed bill, masking a misunderstanding of the original Murray-Darling Basin Plan. In the original plan in 2012, after community dissent and unrest, with threats of violence and people's livelihoods potentially vanishing, it was settled that 2,750 gigalitres would be the sustainable diversion limit. The 450 gigalitres was not in the original plan by the honourable Craig Knowles, who worked up the plan back in 2012, which Minister Burke eventually tabled. There are agreements on the socioeconomic neutrality test around this last-minute additional 450 gigalitres. At five minutes to midnight, back in 2012, wrangling with the Greens added 450 gigalitres. But the socioeconomic neutrality test that the Liberals and Nationals nutted out with the current government back in 2018 meant that there had to be social and economic neutrality in any further buybacks that use the Water for the Environment Special Account to use buybacks to get 450 gigalitres. It was meant to be using efficiency and on-farm and off-farm infrastructure to achieve that.

The process for this bill has been incredibly disappointing. There was no inquiry. There was a webinar, and that was it—a webinar. People in the Murray-Darling Basin were ropeable. The coalition decided to do the work that the government should have done, and, over four days, the coalition backbench policy committee went out to these affected regions. Four days of meetings were held in Shepparton and Mildura in Victoria, Renmark in South Australia, Griffith and Moree. We heard in Renmark from an organisation representing the irrigators at the bottom of the basin, while in Moree we had representatives from Queensland shires at the very top of the basin. We heard from three members in separate locations and from a committee legislated by the government, called the Basin Community Committee—that is set up by legislation—which had not been consulted on this bill. The bill in itself is not compliant with its own existing legislation. The government has effectively torn up the bipartisan agreement about the use of water in the Murray-Darling Basin.

Just so that listeners have no misunderstanding: the Murray-Darling Basin Plan had a nominal value of around 13,000 gigalitres when full. It has, courtesy of a La Nina period, had healthy flows. But, since records commenced, the Murray-Darling Basin, during drought periods, has very low flows. It's not like the Mississippi, the Danube or any of these major great rivers in other countries and continents that have huge mountainous snowfields, glacier feed-in et cetera. It winds its way across thousands of kilometres of flat land, without any major feed-in mountain ranges. The first explorers recorded the Darling as a chain of ponds. Things dry out. People think that when you see the Murray-Darling Basin with low water levels it's because everything has been sucked out by farming, but that is not the case. Many of the water rights that exist aren't necessarily guaranteed extraction rights. They're water access rights. Depending on which state you're in, there are amounts that are only delivered pro rata to the amount of water in the river. During the millennium drought allocations were sometimes zero per cent, not the nominated face value of their water rights. But often for years in these severe droughts the farmers may only get three, five or 10 per cent of what is put on their water licence, depending on what state they're in and whether it's high-security permanent water or whatever.

But this legislation is doing multiple things that will totally set back that process. The impatience of the minister is quite obvious. It takes a lot of time to implement these efficiency measures on the river. It takes time, with the amount of regulation there is to go through, to get water saving infrastructure on-farm and off-farm. All the approvals take time. The critical thing in this legislation is that it aims to add the 450 back and facilitated by buybacks. We know that no-one wants buybacks because they ruin not just the agricultural production but the communities around it. An individual seller of a water right may be compensated, but the whole community—the whole agricultural output—goes down.

In towns like Griffith, Coleambally and down in Renmark, if there's no water for agriculture, there is no agriculture. You can have the best farm and the best soils, but, unless you have water to add to it, you don't have agriculture. And that's the wonder of the Murray-Darling Basin. It is one of the most engineered waterways. It is a working river. It's not a national park. It supplies water for communities and also for agriculture.

Forty per cent of the farms in Australia exist in the Murray-Darling Basin. It contributes $22 billion to our agricultural output. It is a matter of food security, for the nation and for countries that receive our food exports, that it flourishes. Communities that don't have farms that are active and producing will shrivel up and die. That is where we put in the socioeconomic neutrality test. By bipartisan agreement it has been working well. The 450 gigalitres can be achieved over time with those efficiency infrastructure gains. But the bill is going to facilitate open slather buybacks. The money's there. Historically, last time they did buybacks, they paid way over top dollar for a lot of licences that didn't even provide permanent or high-security water. They were actually buying thin air—water that only occurred when there was a flood—and it was paid for by the former minister back in the last Labor government. This is really going to remove the cap on buybacks for a start. The current Murray-Darling Basin Plan, with the 1,500 gigalitre cap on buybacks, hasn't even achieved what the plan outlined. There are still 225 gigalitres that the minister can buy back as part of the plan, before they go opening up another 450 gigalitres. There's potentially 760 gigalitres of water that could be bought back and flushed out to sea. That will be devastating for all those river and irrigation economy towns as well as cause a paucity of produce.

In August 2022 the Victorian government looked at what the costs would be in its report on the social and economic impacts of the basin plan in Victoria. If the buybacks were used to recover the long-term average of 450 gigalitres of water, this would mean 200 gigalitres of Victorian high-security water and would be expected to reduce annual water in northern Victoria by 216 gigalitres. That would devastate places like Shepparton and all those towns along rivers that feed into the Murray-Darling. The reduction in irrigation area would be 50,000 hectares. That's a staggering amount of productive land. Not having water in agriculture is like trying to drive an internal combustion car without petrol or diesel. Farms don't work without water, and that's the beauty of irrigation. The Egyptians and people living on the Tigris and Euphrates realised that, for their civilisations to make enough food, you need water. Dams happened in Ethiopia 3,000 years ago. The Egyptians were building dams thousands of years ago. The Murray-Darling Basin Plan is a solid plan, but to throw it all out with impatience and go hell for leather to start buybacks again will end badly.

Say there's a millennium drought mark 2 coming down the line. It may not happen because historically, following La Nina patterns, we generally don't have super El Ninos. The meteorologists I've sourced that information from are all professionally trained, so it's not likely that we're getting one now, although we're in an El Nino pattern now. The Victorian government worked out the economic impact in those areas would be a decrease of $500 million annually in the gross value of irrigated product. We need to think about those farmers and all the people that work on their farms. There was one farmer who had 15 employees at work, producing milk and products from irrigated pastures. If his water becomes too expensive, which it will when you take up to 760 gigalitres out, it's not economic to produce dairy as the inputs go through the roof. If there's no absolute water, well, for this 500-hectare farm—I haven't mentioned his name for privacy reasons—he'll be flat-out supporting just himself and his family. The northern Victoria gross value of agricultural production would be $270 million down per year, and agricultural employment down 900 farm jobs. But that's just an estimate for the agricultural jobs. All the town jobs that feed off agriculture would mean that number would multiply: the hairdressers, the shops, the retailers. Upstream and downstream there would be bad effects.

The other thing that's in this bill is the water market reform section. Reading through the explanatory memorandum there are fairly scary things for people involved in agriculture, and other documents coming from New South Wales, fed by this desire, show that they are changing the water access rights. They will be able to reclassify them as Commonwealth-held environmental water. That is a major change. It's not just irrigators that may have their water limited, but stock and domestic water in the basin may be affected state by state. What is also changing is that, rather than the Murray-Darling Basin Authority running the water trading, it would go to the Australian Consumer and Competition Commission and the Bureau of Meteorology. We know the ACCC is capable, and market transparency is good in any market, but it talks about fixing up insider trading and implies a lot of things are happening that shouldn't be happening. It's not a feature that I had heard of because it's a pretty transparent market. Knowing a lot of people down on the Murrumbidgee and people I visited in these irrigation towns when I was in the health portfolio, water is life. Water is the economy in these areas. The Inspector-General will remain, but all of the hard regulations will come out of the ACCC.

I move:

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

"declining to give the Bill a second reading, the House:

(1) is concerned that the legislation represents the worst solution on national water reform;

(2) notes that the following is needed for national water reforms in the Basin to be successful:

(a) a cooperative and constructive approach with all Basin State Governments to assist water reform and investment in urban and rural water infrastructure;

(b) bipartisan support;

(c) proper face to face consultation with key stakeholders in the Murray Darling Basin, including all water users, farmers, water scientists, environment groups and the broader community to ensure the adoption of a Basin Plan which has at its heart a triple bottom line approach which optimises social, economic, and environmental outcomes.

(3) criticises the Government for failing to consult the Basin Communities Committee which is the legislated voice for people living in the Murray Darling Basin, on the Water Amendment (Restoring our Rivers) Bill 2023".

Photo of Ross VastaRoss Vasta (Bonner, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Is the amendment seconded?

Photo of Rick WilsonRick Wilson (O'Connor, Liberal Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Trade) Share this | | Hansard source

I second the amendment and reserve my right to speak.

5:31 pm

Photo of Fiona PhillipsFiona Phillips (Gilmore, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to lend my support to the Water Amendment (Restoring Our Rivers) Bill 2023. As someone that has grown up on a dairy farm, I know how important water is for our farmers, our communities and of course our environment. My electorate is home to many great rivers, like the Shoalhaven River, the Clyde River, the Moruya River and many more, and I know we really appreciate our rivers. They sustain our towns, and businesses rely on them. We utilise them for recreation and tourism as well.

Around the Batemans Bay, Moruya and Tuross Head region, you will find the best oysters, which of course rely on clean, clear water. At Greenwell Point you will also find the best oysters and champion oyster shuckers. These oysters get sold locally, domestically and sometimes internationally as well. What do these oyster farmers want? They want clean good-quality water. There's a common theme there—rivers, rivers, rivers. Everyone loves our rivers. River health is of great importance—and not a truer word could be said—and so we have Shoalhaven Riverwatch.

The late Charlie Weir was the founder of Shoalhaven Riverwatch. Charlie had a deep love of the Shoalhaven River, having grown up at Riversdale and fished the river throughout his working life. During this time he witnessed the deterioration of the river, so in his retirement he worked tirelessly to restore the river to good health. Charlie was a founder of Shoalhaven Riverwatch in the early 1980s and was a passionate advocate for the next 40 years. Although I was only about 10 at the time, I am told that Charlie was a thorn in the side of many politicians and bureaucrats, fighting numerous battles to protect the river. Some of the things he championed were pollution of the river through industrial discharge into the river, an issue Riverwatch took to the Land and Environment Court in 1992; erosion caused by bad agricultural practices, such as allowing cattle to graze the riverbanks; riverbank erosion caused by wake boats; and re-establishing mangroves along the river, which are the nursery for fish.

Charlie, together with Riverwatch, worked with people and groups to plant trees, planting in excess of 100,000 mangroves and 25,000 Casuarina trees, most of which were propagated in his backyard. Charlie was named the 2003 winner of the New South Wales individual land carer of the year, the 2004 runner-up national individual land carer of the year and more. I'm pleased to say that Charlie's legacy lives on through the Shoalhaven Riverwatch team. Their goal is to improve the health of the Shoalhaven River by working in partnership with government and the community—and that they do. They have many projects, including working bees to clean up the river, bank restoration projects as well as support for signage and small infrastructure such as fishing platforms. They are a very social group, with a barbecue after their working bees.

I tell this story because our rivers are the lifeblood of our communities—healthy river, healthy town. That's why I'm happy to support this bill, which I know is a welcome relief to constituents who have raised this issue with me. I'm really proud that our government recently announced that we had reached an agreement with basin governments to deliver the Murray-Darling Basin Plan in full, including 450 gigalitres of water for the environment. This legislation will rescue the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, and we know that, just like for my communities, this legislation is really important for basin communities and for every Australian who cares about the environment.

What this legislation will do is give basin governments more time to deliver the remaining water based on expert advice. This includes the recovery of 450 gigalitres of water for the environment by 31 December 2027 and the delivery of water infrastructure projects by 31 December 2026. There will be more options to deliver the remaining water, including water infrastructure projects and voluntary water buybacks. There will be more funding to deliver the remaining water and to support communities where voluntary water buybacks have flow-on impacts. There will be more accountability from Murray-Darling Basin governments to deliver the remaining water on time. Federal government funding will be contingent on achieving water recovery targets within deadlines. This is about a return to common sense. It's about remembering what the point is: to ensure a healthy and sustainable basin for the future, just like Charlie Weir role-modelled so well with the Shoalhaven River.

The Murray-Darling Basin Plan is a complex plan with a simple objective: to set the river up better for the future. We know that this plan has been off track for many, many years. This comes after a decade of delay and, frankly, sabotage by the Liberals and Nationals. In fact, of the water recovered towards the plan so far, more than 80 per cent has been done under Labor governments. Put simply, we want more options, not more restrictions, and it's urgent. If this bill doesn't pass this year, the current legislation requires states to withdraw their unfinished projects. That's about half of them. This means a major part of the plan will fall over, incurring substantial costs and delays. Delivering the plan is good for the environment, good for jobs and good for communities. Our government made a commitment to deliver the Murray-Darling Basin Plan in full, and that's exactly what we are doing.

I'm proud to be part of a government that is tackling the difficult issues, like the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, and making the health of our rivers a priority. I have also been proud to work with Shoalhaven City Council in my community and with many great local groups, like Shoalhaven Riverwatch and Shoalhaven Landcare, to provide $1.5 million in federal funding from the Urban Rivers and Catchments Program for the connecting community to Shoalhaven waterways project. This is a multifaceted approach to connecting community with waterways through school aged education and activities, linkages to waterway heritage and providing volunteers with a helping hand. This will increase the likelihood of sustainable environmental management pertaining to waterways in the Shoalhaven. Activities will include pollution reduction, water-quality management, bush care and revegetation, and sediment and erosion control. Similarly, in the Batemans Bay region, I secured $20,000 in federal funding for the clean up the Clyde River project, which was all about helping restore the Clyde River, involving local schoolchildren and raising community awareness about the impact of litter and weeds on the environment and Snapper Island's little penguin colony.

I want to conclude today by sending a shout-out to everyone who volunteers their time and/or works to improve river health. Just like we're proud to be delivering the Murray-Darling Basin Plan in full, we can be proud that we are working to keep our local rivers healthy, which is good for everyone in our communities.

5:39 pm

Photo of Helen HainesHelen Haines (Indi, Independent) Share this | | Hansard source

The Murray-Darling Basin system is the lifeblood of a vast area of regional Australia, with almost all of the 29,000 square kilometres of my electorate of Indi falling within the basin. I want to start by declaring my own interest in the Murray-Darling: I live on the banks of the King and Ovens rivers within the Murray-Darling Basin, and I have a water use licence of 56 megalitres per year on the King River. The health of the Murray-Darling river system is not an abstract concept for me nor for my constituents.

As a regional independent member of parliament I make my decisions based on what is best for Indi, what is evidence based and whether the legislation demonstrates good governance and sets up rural and regional Australia to thrive.

Despite three years of higher than average rainfall and near full water storages, we know dry years are on the horizon and farmers are facing significant economic headwinds, and the impacts of climate change and water mismanagement on the basin ecosystem health are more apparent than ever. We need a Murray-Darling Basin Plan that puts us on the front foot of these challenges, with a healthy river system that delivers for basin communities, for farmers, for First Nations people and for the environment, and is resilient in the face of a changing climate.

Without this bill, the current Water Act 2007 and Basin Plan 2012 will not achieve these outcomes. In July, the Murray-Darling Basin Authority advised that full implementation of the Basin Plan would not be possible by the legislated deadline of 30 June 2024, leaving a shortfall in water recovery for the environment of around 750 gigalitres per year.

The Water Amendment (Restoring Our Rivers) Bill presents an opportunity to get the Basin Plan back on track towards meeting the agreed targets. The bill amends the Water Act 2007 and Basin Plan 2012 to achieve many outcomes, and I will list some of them: to extend the deadline for basin states to deliver the sustainable diversion limit adjustment mechanism projects; to expand options available to deliver the 450 gigalitres per year of additional environmental water, including through the use of water buybacks; to repeal the 1,500-gigalitre cap on Commonwealth water buybacks; to allow the funds from the Water for the Environment Special Account, or WESA, to be used to enhance environmental outcomes in the basin through a broader range of measures, including community assistance funds; to provide a road map for the delivery of constraints relaxation projects across the southern basin; and to enable the Inspector-General of Water Compliance to determine whether a basin state has met its commitments and whether it has a reasonable excuse for a failure to do so.

I've met numerous stakeholders from across Indi and from across the basin more broadly. Water policy is complex and contested. I've had several meetings with the minister's office and discussed how this bill could be improved so that I could support its passage. I strongly believe it can be improved to better serve both the people whose life and livelihood depend on the water, and the environment. The two, of course, are critically interrelated.

This bill is so important to me because my electorate of Indi is the link between the headwaters of the Murray and the wide-open plains of the basin. In fact, 'Indi' is the Indigenous name for the upper reaches of the Murray. It holds a special place in the story of the Murray-Darling Basin. The magnificent alpine areas and foothills of Indi receive high rainfall and winter snowfall, feeding streams that transform into some of the basin's most important rivers. The Kiewa, Ovens, King, Broken and Goulburn rivers all begin their journey in Indi, and, with the Murray and the Mitta Mitta, these rivers grow as they traverse the valleys and plains of our electorate. All together, water catchments across Indi supply more than 50 per cent of the surface water to the whole Murray-Darling Basin.

Indi also contains the basin's largest water storages, the Dartmouth and Hume dams and Lake Eildon. Along with some smaller dams in the electorate, these dams and lakes amount to 63 per cent of the storage capacity in the southern basin and 45 per cent of the total storage for the whole Murray-Darling Basin. So you see, Deputy Speaker Vasta, the rivers and infrastructure of Indi are central to efforts to achieve a healthy river system.

Delivering water for the often competing needs of agriculture, river communities and the environment inevitably comes with challenges, and I've spent time listening, to understand these different experiences and perspectives. I've met with farmers on the Goulburn; irrigators on the Murray; wine grape growers; catchment management authorities; scientists, including from the Wentworth group; Landcare and other environmental groups; businesspeople; and many, many local water experts. Among those I consulted, I'm particularly fortunate to be able to call upon Water For Indi, a voluntary community group that I set up in 2019 with local experts, including Dr Anna Roberts and Patten Bridge, with experience all across impacted sectors. I also acknowledge valuable contributions from other individuals who live and work in the basin, particularly Rob Priestly, Suzanna Sheed, Lee Baumgartner and John Pettigrew. I thank everyone who shared their valuable perspectives and expertise with me.

In addition to consultation, I've carefully read submissions to the Senate inquiry and other documents which predate this bill. I've sought frank discussion and constructive suggestions on how to improve it. In particular, I heard from scientists and farmers alike about the most controversial part of this bill—the Commonwealth's new power to purchase water to return 450 gigalitres to the basin. Many basin communities are experiencing hardship with increasing cost of production, economic pressures and flow-on social impacts. This hardship is a reality, and water buybacks are one of the several factors that are having real impacts on those communities. We do need more examination of the specific impacts of buybacks and where other factors are at play. Analysis by Professor Sarah Wheeler published by the MDBA shows that many studies indicating large job losses from buybacks have low scientific reliability. However, what is absolutely clear is that many communities are suffering, and we need to adequately address impacts with far-reaching, genuine regional development.

I consistently heard that, when the Commonwealth purchase water entitlements, they must also consider the physical realities of actually being able to deliver this water to where it's needed and intended. In many cases, we simply can't deliver the desired environmental flows from Lake Eildon or Hume Dam without causing more environmental, economic and social damage along the way. In Indi, the negative economic and environmental impacts of increased water flows are a real concern. Just last week, I was down on the Goulburn River near Alexandra with local farmers Jock Blakeny and Jan Beer, who showed me the impacts of the flooding from recent high flows from Eildon Weir. Jock, Jan and other farmers along the Goulburn and below Hume Dam stand to be significantly impacted by increased environmental flows. The message from these farmers in my electorate is clear: the impacts on them and their farms and the health of the rivers need to be considered when planning the volumes and the timing of environmental flows.

Many farmers and other stakeholders across Indi and across Victoria feel that the southern basin is shouldering an unfair share of the burden when it comes to purchasing water entitlements by government. They say water recovery in the northern basin would have a bigger environmental payoff and less negative impact than delivering this water from the southern basin. These sentiments are compounded by stories of water mismanagement in the northern basin, delays in submitting water resource plans across the northern basin and fish kills resulting from insufficient environmental water flows.

Local land and water management organisations hold grave concerns for river health if additional environmental water is to be purchased from the southern basin. If water is stored in Indi, there is almost no way of getting it to South Australia without significant further river bank erosion from high flows close to the source. These organisations are certainly not against improving environmental outcomes downstream. Far from it. They're just asking that the government consider the impacts on our upstream river systems, like the impacts I saw on the Jock's and Jan's farms.

To make sure we're returning the right amount of water to the right basin locations, stakeholders I spoke to also want to see greater accountability and transparency around water use and water recovery projects—notably, around the Sustainable Diversion Limit Adjustment Mechanism projects, or SDLAM projects, and their actual impact. SDLAM projects aim to improve environmental outcomes in the basin while keeping water in productive use.

My constituents are calling for consistent, independent and publicly available accounting processes to ensure that the actual water savings for these projects match the promises. To adequately assess progress towards meeting the targets of SDLAM projects and the targets of the Basin Plan in general, we need better modelling and we need more data. In Indi, water experts spoke to me of the need to have whole-of-basin modelling that is annually validated and publicly available to overcome the discrepancies between what current basin state models are reporting and the reality. Farmers spoke to me of their requests to have additional gauges installed to provide real-time information on flow volumes in certain sections of the rivers. They were told that the $20,000 to $30,000 cost per gauge was too much. Many would argue, and I would too, that this is money well spent if it means local farmers have sufficient warning of floods and can act before stock are lost. And water authorities and the Bureau of Meteorology would have better data to model flows and improve management of our river systems. It's critical that the minister listens to these concerns and solutions so her department can act on them.

A final theme that emerged in almost all discussions I've had on this bill was the need for improved community engagement. Basin communities need to be involved in decision-making and adequately compensated when they're negatively impacted by buybacks. I'm not just talking about money for playgrounds or a new piece of silo art but long-term commitments that allow communities to invest in their future and for them to decide how they do it.

As for my position on this bill, I support the extension of the deadlines for delivering the SDLAM projects. I want to see these projects have a another chance to deliver promised environmental gains for the basin. But we must be realistic on where projects still won't meet the extended deadline, and I support the expansion of the powers of the Inspector-General of Water Compliance to pursue accountability. I note that only three per cent of the 450-gigalitre target for additional water for the environment has been sourced, and that changes are needed to deliver the full amount. I support broadening the scope of measures that can be used to meet this target, noting that water purchases should be seen as a last resort. I acknowledge the removal of the cap on Commonwealth water purchase. This is highly contested by the irrigated agriculture communities, and I stress the importance of supporting impacted communities with transition funds. I therefore support enlarging the scope of measures that can be funded by the Water for the Environment Special Account.

I also support efforts to reduce the risk of manipulation of water markets for financial gain. Expanded regulation of water markets, informed by regulation of financial markets, is a much needed step. Water markets should exist for the benefit of farmers, not for the benefit of financiers. While the bill proposes much needed progress, I nonetheless believe the bill can be further improved and I will move amendments to further strengthen the independent auditing powers of the Inspector-General of Water Compliance to improve accountability and transparency when it comes to meeting Basin Plan targets and delivering projects as promised. Further, I will move an amendment to review the Water for the Environment Special Account's new ability to make payments to address detrimental social or economic impacts on communities from the purchase of water. It is my hope that the special account will also be used to provide First Nations groups with meaningful opportunities to protect and enhance cultural values associated with environmental flows.

I will move amendments that would place basin communities at the centre of reforms, requiring improved consultation with communities impacted by constraint projects—notably communities that will experience flooding as a result of the increased environmental flows. I will also move amendments that ensure the purchasing of water is strategic, particularly so that water from the northern basin is appropriately considered, improving environmental outcomes in rivers like the Darling—the Baaka.

I want this bill to be the best bill it can be, because I want a healthy and resilient river system and a basin plan that is fair, transparent and pragmatic—one that ensures our critical food production is maintained at maximum efficiency and, importantly, where we give genuine voice to the basin communities of Indi and of regional Australia, who are directly impacted.

5:53 pm

Photo of Jerome LaxaleJerome Laxale (Bennelong, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Given how vital water is for our country, communities, ecosystems, farms and planet, I am proud to speak in favour of this Water Amendment (Restoring our Rivers) Bill 2023.

The Murray-Darling Basin Plan is not just an environmental issue; it's a matter of national significance. A healthy basin ensures healthy communities and countless benefits for Australians. It allows families to enjoy the river for recreation and tourism, it provides clean drinking water to three million Australians daily and it supports important food and fibre production. The basin is deeply entwined with the cultural fabric of Australia. Beyond its environmental importance, this iconic region holds profound cultural links for Australians, including significant connections to Indigenous culture. It transcends generations with deep-rooted connections to the communities around it. It's more than just a physical landscape. For many, it holds a spiritual connection to land, ancestors and traditions.

The basin has been a source of food, water and shelter, and these resources are deeply intertwined with cultural practices. From the Barkandji people in the Menindee Lakes region to the Ngarrindjeri people in South Australia, each community has its unique ties to the Murray-Darling. Its cultural, social and economic ties to Australia underscore the importance of this bill. This legislation is not just about restoring the basin's ecological balance. It's also about preserving the deep cultural connections it holds for Indigenous communities and for those who use the basin for recreational spaces, and it ensures the continued prosperity of the nation.

The Basin Plan was born out of the work of the 1994 Council of Australian Governments, which recognised that the degradation and unrestricted appropriation of our water system could not continue. That was over 28 years ago. Then, over a decade ago, in line with the National Water Initiative, a bipartisan agreement was reached to create water targets for the Murray-Darling Basin that would support the sustainability of life throughout the river system. To the detriment and devastation of so many communities and ecosystems, this plan has been a failure for many years because of the actions, or lack of action, of those opposite.

The coalition were told again and again that the Basin Plan wasn't working. They were told that in the first Water for the Environment Special Account report. Then they were told that in the second Water for the Environment Special Account report which, naturally, was kept secret by the member for Hume before the last election. Thanks to the actual transparency provided by the current minister, Minister Plibersek, we know that official scientific advice indicates that their plan simply can't be delivered on time.

In nine years, the coalition delivered just two gigalitres of a 450-gigalitre target. That puts them on track to complete the Murray-Darling Basin plan sometime around the year 4000. The original deadlines were set for June 2024, and in the early years the former government was well on track to meet those deadlines. Of course, the Liberals and Nationals spent a decade sabotaging the plan. They tied up projects in impossible rules so that they couldn't deliver water savings. They blocked water recovery programs. They tried to cut the final recovery targets to keep them below scientific recommendations and, as a result, progress slowed to a dribble under the previous government. Because of their deliberate choices, it is now impossible to deliver the plan on the original time line.

Thankfully, this bill addresses three key areas of urgent reform. Firstly, we're committed to actually delivering more water to the 450-gigalitres target through a dedicated funding mechanism: the Water for the Environment Special Account. With these new changes, we'll be able to invest in on-farm water infrastructure, land and water purchases and other ways to recover water. We will then be able to purchase water from willing sellers where it's needed to deliver the plan. Water purchasing is never the only tool in the box. It's also never the first tool at hand. Frankly, it's delusional to suggest that we can take it off the table for good. I, for one, would struggle to explain to locals why overseas funds would still be allowed to be used to purchase water but Australian elected governments' funds couldn't be used. Of course, we'll provide significant transitional assistance if voluntary water purchases have secondary impacts on communities.

The second key area this bill addresses is the piecemeal nature of water infrastructure projects left by those opposite. Currently, 16 of the 36 projects initiated by the former government are not forecast to be ready or operational by July next year. If we are going to achieve this plan in full, we need to give the states more time to deliver viable projects, and this bill gives them that extension until 31 December 2026. Should this bill pass, the onus would be on basin states to finish projects that they have started.

Thirdly, this bill will tackle much-needed water market reform. Water markets play an essential role in our agriculture system, serving as the lifeblood of many farming communities. They facilitate the allocation of water resources and support economic activities that contribute significantly to our nation's prosperity. However, we cannot ignore the critical shortcomings that currently plague our water market system. Australia has the largest water trading system in the world; some may argue that it is also one of the least transparent. For a $3 billion market, there are no laws against market manipulation, the insider trading prohibition is too narrow and the legal requirement to maintain proper records is too weak. Changes are needed to help secure Australia's water future through the next series of droughts and beyond. One does not need to look very far in the past to see why oversight is urgently needed to protect the environment, basin communities and Australian farming families from an unregulated private market for one of our most precious resources. The value of high-security titles increased from $1,693 per megalitre in June 2014 to $4,211 per megalitre in June 2017. In the six months of water trading in the 2018 drought investor Duxton Water reported an increased revenue of 348 per cent, and after-tax profit increased over 20 per cent in that quarter alone.

The lack of laws against market manipulation, the narrow scope of insider trading prohibitions and the weak legal requirements for maintaining proper records have left the system vulnerable to abuse and exploitation. This bill seeks to rectify that. It seeks to introduce a framework to enforce a mandatory code for water market intermediaries, holding them accountable for their actions. Civil penalties for market manipulation will be introduced, with insider trading penalties doubled to deter illicit practices. In essence, we aim to bring the water market in line with the standards observed in other markets, ensuring fairness, transparency, and accountability. As the code of conduct regulator, it will allow the ACCC to monitor water prices and investigate misconduct allegations. This will bring water markets in line with the standards in other markets. These changes will not only penalise bad behaviour but also increase public trust in the system, fostering that trust and confidence in such an important marketplace.

This bill will also require the Commonwealth basin states and irrigation infrastructure operators to make water market decisions available publicly. There will be new obligations on basin state governments, infrastructure operators and water exchanges to generate, record, collect and report water market information. The Bureau of Meteorology will collate this information from across the basin and make it publicly available via a water data hub with live market updates on a new water markets website. We simply need to improve water regulation in this country, and that is exactly what this legislation will do. It will make the sector more transparent, more open and more accountable.

Australia is in the middle of and facing an environmental emergency. If we don't act now to preserve the Murray-Darling, our basin towns will be unprepared for drought, our native animals will face the threat of extinction, our river ecosystems will risk environmental collapse, and our food and fibre production will be insecure and unsustainable. This bill is therefore about a return to common sense, a complex plan with a simple objective: to set up the Murray-Darling Basin for a better future. Our government has worked with the states and territories, with farmers and irrigators, with scientists and experts, with environmentalists and with First Nations groups. It is about remembering that the point is to ensure a healthy and sustainable basin for the future. This means there will be more time to deliver the remaining water based on expert advice. It means there will be more options to deliver the remaining water, including water infrastructure projects and voluntary water buybacks. It will mean more funding to deliver the remaining water and to support communities where voluntary water buybacks have flow-on impacts. More accountability from Murray-Darling Basin governments on delivering the remaining water on time also forms part of this bill. Federal government funding will be contingent on achieving water recovery targets within deadlines. Put simply, the government wants more options, not more restrictions.

If the bill doesn't pass this year, the current legislation requires states to withdraw their unfinished projects. As I mentioned earlier, that's about half of them. This means that a major part of the plan will fall over, incurring substantial costs and delays. Of the water recovered towards the plan so far, more than 80 per cent has been done under Labor governments. So inaction is not an option. Failure to act will jeopardise the future of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, putting our environment, native animals, river ecosystems and food production at risk. Those opposite knew the program had stalled completely, but, for nine years, they kept the handbrake on water recovery. What this legislation does is remove that handbrake so we can finally deliver the water to the basin. That means giving the account more flexibility, in line with the Water Act's objectives. With these changes, we are opening up the full suite of water recovery options to get water back into the basin.

The water amendment is not just about fulfilling our promises; it's about safeguarding the future of the Murray-Darling Basin. It's about ensuring that the basin towns are prepared for drought, that native wildlife faces a lesser threat of extinction and that river ecosystems remain robust and healthy. More importantly, it's about securing a reliable and sustainable source of clean drinking water for millions of Australians. This legislation marks an important moment in history for basin communities and for all Australians who care deeply about the health of our environment. It symbolises a collective effort to put the Basin Plan back on track and ensure that its objectives are met. This bill champions environmental preservation, it acknowledges the profound cultural ties we all have to the basin, and it paves the way for the reformation of our water markets. These changes are pivotal for Australia's future, ensuring the availability of clean water, supporting our agricultural sector and enhancing transparency and accountability of how our water markets work. Australia is facing an environmental emergency, and this bill is the response we urgently need.

6:07 pm

Photo of Sussan LeySussan Ley (Farrer, Liberal Party, Shadow Minister for Women) Share this | | Hansard source

It's really important that I speak for the second time on this bill. My first remarks were in a five-minute statement, but today the bill itself is before the House. As I've listened to Labor members talk about this legislation, I've been somewhere between laughter and tears—laughter because it's so ridiculous to hear the comments they make; tears because I know that their way is likely to prevail in a part of the world that is precious and important to me and to whom water matters more than anything else.

I've heard the member for Bennelong, I think, I've heard the member for Gilmore, and I've heard the member for Jagajaga talk about their parts of the world. The Yarra River mangroves on the south coast are obviously nowhere near the basin. Labor members have carefully read their talking points and talked about the environmental catastrophe, but they haven't actually visited my electorate. We would welcome them. They haven't actually visited the Murray-Darling Basin. They haven't actually seen what happens to the water that they want to take away right now or what it does in that part of the world. We often descend, as my colleagues say, into giga-babble, where we talk about the complexities of water in a way that makes it difficult for average Australians to understand what we are going on about. I understand that. So I'm going to address this issue for the perspective of someone like so many of my colleagues opposite, who don't understand the detail of the Murray-Darling Basin. I don't mean that in a way that is dismissive of them; I'm distressed by their contributions because I realise how ill-informed they are. But that doesn't mean I don't want them to actually understand what's going on here.

Effectively, what this government is doing is taking the bipartisan Murray-Darling Basin Plan, which was hard fought between states and different sides of politics in the Commonwealth and across the regions in Australia and so many groups, and completely rewriting it. It's completely rewriting it and changing it up to say: 'It doesn't matter, regional communities, what you think. It doesn't matter, farmers, what you think. It doesn't matter, irrigated agriculture, what you think. And the truth doesn't really matter either because we made an election promise to do a certain thing and we're going to go ahead and do it, and that certain thing can come at the cost of all of you.'

That's not good enough and we're going to fight back on this. We expect people to get angry. We expect people to get very angry, because when I talk to my communities they are genuinely bewildered by what this means. They can't understand what is happening. They can't understand why a government would break the bipartisanship that I spoke of and break a commitment to have a balance between the environment and communities in the Murray-Darling Basin that does looks after the environment and does respect and value communities, because if you don't respect and value communities you will lose them.

Everywhere in all of these seats that the Labor members occupy, they have that balance in their own backyards. They have that balance between housing and native vegetation. They have that balance between waterways and buildings. They have a complete and demonstrated balance all around them. But they don't want to see that balance in rural and regional Australia. They don't want to see our communities—my communities—thrive.

I want to give, as an example, the community of Griffith in the Riverina. Griffith is the place where they burnt the first Basin Plan, and it has taken a long time, quite rightly, for the people of Griffith to get on board with the bipartisan plan. We had a meeting of the coalition backbench in Griffith recently. We went to Griffith as a backbench group because the government, in putting forward this bill, refused to actually come into the Murray-Darling Basin itself and consult. Senator Matt Canavan in the other place, well-supported by Senator Davey, our shadow spokesperson on water, came to Griffith and the community of 150 people gathered. Many were busy on their farms, busy with their crops and busy with their lives, but those who did come and listen couldn't believe what they heard. They couldn't believe that they were facing something as desperate as the very future of their town and region.

The general manager of the Griffith City Council, Brett Stonestreet, said something that resonated with all of us. Back in 2010, community confidence was rocked by the basin reform process. The Office of Local Government reduced growth projections for Griffith by 20 per cent. That dried up public sector investment, which then impacted private sector investment.

My point there is that the original Murray-Darling Basin Plan was received objectively as reducing the growth of the city by 20 per cent, and that's why the reaction in those years was so strong and so angry. What this is effectively doing is going back to the community of Griffith and saying: 'We might have to take up to 30 per cent of your water because 450 gigalitres is a lot of water and, unfortunately, the place that it can come from is the southern Murray-Darling Basin.' If you take it from anywhere, you affect everywhere in the southern basin. If you take it from the community of Griffith in Murrumbidgee Irrigation, if you take it from Murray Irrigation on the Murray, if you take it from the Goulburn-Murray irrigation district in Victoria, they're all interconnected, and if you reduce the pool by up to 30 per cent, then everyone is affected.

Imagine any business losing 30 per cent of its capital or asset base. How can it possibly go ahead to the same level of prosperity? Michael Pisasale from Murray Irrigation also said in that meeting, 'We have a government which is prepared to spend a billion dollars on buyback'—that's what this is, a billion dollars to buy back the water—'but it will cost our communities that every year.'

I think there is $1.2 billion sitting in the government's special account to buy water, and I think that that will be exhausted fairly quickly. It won't buy 450 gigalitres, clearly. Billions and billions of dollars more will be required. So the bitter irony of this is that, while billions of dollars will be spent to buy water to close down huge areas of irrigated agriculture in our country, there has been some loose language from the government about compensation for those communities, which is the insult that really rocks us to the core. What if a government were to say, 'We're removing your productive capacity and we're shrinking your economic base by up to 30 per cent, but we'll give you a little bit of money to make you feel better'? What would that money do? Maybe it would do something for the supporting infrastructure; that's always a popular thing for governments. But maybe you've got no footy team because you have no young people, or you have no childcare centre because the employees of so much of this value-added agriculture have left town. They will; we have seen this before. So where and what is the point?

We are going to fight this every step of the way. I call this a 'dog act' by the government. It's a cowardly act. It's an act of cowardice by a minister who has not looked any irrigator, farmer or community member in the eye during the course of this debate and actually said: 'This is my proposal. I'm going to lift the cap on buyback,' which is what we put in place and which prevents the act of buying water back. Let me make this very clear: when you recover water for the environment you can do it in two ways. You can simply purchase it—a very lazy way, and that's what the Labor Party did before. Or you can put infrastructure, works and measures in to use what you have more efficiently; as I said, to improve the delivery of water both for agriculture and for the environment—to make it more efficient.

Most of that work has already been done, so there's no easy work to be done to make irrigation more efficient. Come and have a look—see how we actually are the best in the world. We have the latest technology in the world in our irrigation systems. But if you overlook infrastructure measures completely, which is what a lazy buyback does, effectively you miss out on the opportunity that has been presented to the government by Murray Irrigation. To our and this government's credit, they haven't snatched the money back off the table. It uses existing irrigation channels to send water to areas that are sensitive in the environment—to wetlands. It's a perfect win-win because it's using the same delivery system. You can imagine one conveyance body of water carrying water for the environment on top of it, so it's actually saving water for both the environment and for farmers. But it's about getting that balance right. That's one example.

But a buyback is something completely different. To their credit, we saw the state of Victoria saying, 'We don't want any part of this.' When the minister made the announcement about the new Murray-Darling Basin Plan and the new water act, she had to say, 'Everyone isn't on board yet; Victoria isn't on board.' All credit to Victoria for not coming on board; the Victorian state government understands what this would do to their farmers, their regions and the Goulburn-Murray Irrigation District. They understand that enough water has been taken from their regions already.

Sadly, the new New South Wales government didn't have a clue about this and they made some general statements that they would prefer not to have buyback. But they signed on the dotted line, took money from this government and didn't even fight for their irrigation districts. They didn't fight for their communities. I can tell you, Deputy Speaker Vasta, that the old country Labor that was in western New South Wales when I first became a member of parliament would never have done this. But the government of Chris Minns has done this, aided and abetted by the local Independent member, the member for Murray, Helen Dalton. Really, she could have said to the Premier, with whom she claims to have a good relationship, 'If you come into my communities and take my water I won't give you confidence and supply as an Independent member of the New South Wales parliament.' The Independent member for Murray didn't say that. But I'm still calling on her to say that, because right now New South Wales could pass an amendment to their own water act that could prevent water trading. That's a tool they have at their disposal, and it could mean that water would not leave our region. Water would not be sold and water would not be taken away from productive agriculture.

The sad thing is that having been the environment minister and represented irrigation communities, I think I have a fair idea of the balance. It was always important to me; I think we all, as a community and as parliaments here and across the basin states, got that right. So for this government to come in here and rip up that promise at all was that good work is really, really extraordinary. Ever since the Basin Plan was introduced, farmers and irrigators have been striving to use their precious resource better and smarter, doing more with less in a bid to balance the use of water for food and for the environment. And we were nearly there!

The second awful irony of this is that this will have an effect on the cost of living for all Australians. Irrigation isn't just some abstract concept that happens which you may choose to like or dislike; it's actually the transformation of inland regions with relatively low rainfall into farmland—into areas which bloom. People who came out, post war, dug irrigation ditches with their hands, and with carts and horses, and slaved for years to build a future for their families and communities, and they built the production of food for the nation and the world. Irrigation feeds the nation, and it feeds the world.

When you go shopping you might look for apples and pears from the Goulburn Valley. You might look for the amazing citrus that comes from my region and also from the Riverland and the Mallee. You might even look for sustainable cotton, because it's a sustainable fibre that's grown organically in the basin. You might look for our pecan nuts. You might have our almonds, when you have almond milk in your morning coffee. You might have our wine grapes and table grapes and a whole range of beautiful products which I look forward to showcasing in this parliament.

We are going to fight this hard and we are going to demonstrate how awful it is to do this to our farmers and our food producers.

But it does come back to a cost-of-living issue. Dry and economic though that might sound to some it matters a great deal to people who live a long way from the basin but who have come to value, respect and love our Australian-grown produce. That is all under threat. Do not mistake this. It is all under threat. If you take away the ability to produce up to 30 per cent of your food and fibre, you won't have enough left in many cases. People are always asking, 'What's the tipping point,' as if somehow we have to push our communities right to the edge until they fall over. I think the tipping point was reached the last time the Labor Party was in government and the last time the Labor Party pursued this hideous agenda.

This is a water minister who has no idea. This is a government that has no idea, that has no conviction and that continues to leave Australians behind, particularly, and so sadly, the communities of the Murray-Darling Basin.

6:21 pm

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

I'm so grateful, as I'm sure most of my constituents are, to have access to the beautiful Murrumbidgee River which runs through the ACT and into the Murray-Darling system. In fact, Lake Burley Griffin, just a short walk from here, runs into the Molonglo River and into the broader Murrumbidgee. Over the entirety of the Murray-Darling Basin, my home town of Canberra is the largest population catchment.

Canberrans love nature, and they love our local natural environment. Our urban wetlands are stunning places to spend time outdoors in, and our continued access to the water is just one of the reasons that Canberra is such a great place to live. Beyond Canberra, the Murray-Darling Basin keeps all Australians fed. The agricultural industries, the river communities, our national environmental sustainability all rely on this great river system to be healthy. So it's of vital importance to my constituents that the future of the river system is secured.

I want to thank the Minister for the Environment and Water for introducing the Water Amendment (Restoring Our Rivers) Bill 2023 and for the work that has gone into it. I also want to thank the minister for coming with me to the Jerrabomberra Wetlands, again, just down the road from this place, to talk with local Landcare groups and the Woodlands and Wetlands Trust about how this government is investing in our local urban rivers. It was a fantastic morning to be outside with some really passionate environmentalists to announce much-needed funding for these beautiful wetlands and all the wildlife that call them home.

In 1889, the great Australian writer Henry Lawson wrote the poem The Song of the Darling River:

The skies are brass and the plains are bare,

Death and ruin are everywhere —

And all that is left of the last year's flood

Is a sickly stream on the grey-black mud;

The salt-springs bubble and the quagmires quiver,

And—this is the dirge of the Darling River:

These lines demonstrate to us how this debate, this issue has been ever present since before Federation. Indeed, debates over water and water use were so intense, largely pitting the eastern states against South Australia, that when the Constitution was written section 100 was written. It reads:

The Commonwealth shall not, by any law or regulation of trade or commerce, abridge the right of a State or of the residents therein to the reasonable use of the waters of rivers for conservation or irrigation.

The key words 'reasonable use' in that section are part of what brings us here today in this debate. What is reasonable use?

Drought has always been a feature of the Australian landscape—something we've always dealt with. But there is a broader context that has since arisen in this debate: the dual challenges of climate change and of industrial scale irrigation and irresponsible water use, which I will talk about a bit later in this speech. Australia has seen the consequences of climate change already. The drought we went through from January 2017 to December 2019 was the driest three years on record. And the Murray-Darling experienced its lowest water level on record in 2019.

Our government is committed to the Murray Darling Basin plan. This government is committed to restoring our rivers. This government is committed to protecting the Australian environment and leaving it in a better state than when we came to government. Our government is committed to strong action on climate change, and this bill is part of that. If you filter out the hysteria from those opposite about what this bill does, you will see it's simple. It will deliver the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, which they agreed to in full, including the recovery of 450 gigalitres of environmental water, which was promised under their government but not even attempted to be achieved. This bill acts to protect, repair and manage our environment so that it grows stronger.

Responsibly managing the water resources of the Murray Darling Basin is vital; it is so that, when climate change challenges us with longer droughts, more frequent floods and bushfires, and everything else, the basin can survive. It's worth remembering why the basin plan exists in the first place. The plan was established in 2012, agreed to by the federal, ACT, New South Wales, Queensland, Victorian and South Australian governments. It responded to the devastation of the basin following the millennium drought. The catastrophe of the millennium drought was at that time so unprecedented—environmentally catastrophic, economically catastrophic and socially catastrophic for basin communities. The plan was a promise to the Australian people that we could work together as one to protect what was precious to us all.

Now, I've been listening to some of the speeches from those opposite, and the amount of misinformation is extraordinary, but one claim really sticks out to me, and that's the claim that this bill is the end of bipartisanship on the plan. Bipartisanship on the Murray-Darling Basin Plan ended when those opposite tried to sabotage the plan over the last 10 years. It was only when we got into government that this sabotage was fully uncovered. The plan is supposed to be fully implemented by next year. It won't be. It won't even be close. That is entirely due to the damage done to the plan by those opposite. The advice to the government from the Murray-Darling Basin Authority was unequivocal. Implementing the plan on time is impossible because of the vandals sitting on the opposition benches.

We are now at a critical juncture. Implementation of the plan takes action. The government received 131 submissions from groups and individuals right across the basin, and overwhelmingly those submissions supported the plan. The government heard calls for greater flexibility in achieving water recovery targets, calls to extend time frames and calls for investment in measures that deliver tangible environmental outcomes. We heard those calls and, when the environment and water minister met with her colleagues from the basin states, she worked hard and in good faith on this package of measures.

It is a package that provides more money, more options and more accountability; a package that extends the timelines to achieve water recovery targets and timelines for states to deliver water infrastructure projects that keep more water in productive use; a package that removes overly restrictive rules so we can recover the 450 gigalitres of water for enhanced environmental outcomes; a package that removes the cap on voluntary water purchase; and a package that increases integrity and transparency into the system so that those buying and selling water can have confidence that the market is operating fairly, that everyone is subject to the same rules and that everyone has access to the same information at the same time.

We on this side of the House know that the next drought is just around the corner. We know that the threats to the health of our iconic rivers and the people, plants and animals that rely on them are increasing. We know that it's more critical than ever to ensure that our rivers are managed in the interests of communities and industries. We know that we must finish what we started in 2012.

What would have happened if those opposite had remained in government? The environmental, economic and social vandalism of the Liberal and National parties would have continued. We would have seen more water theft, more improper storage, much reduced water flow and substantial environmental damage. It's been over half a decade since Four Corners exposed the greed and the protection racket that had been going on in the basin. Australians watched in horror as we witnessed industrial-scale cotton farmers rorting the system and stealing water that belonged to the environment and to communities. We watched as their profits were sent offshore to tax havens. We saw, and continue to see, downstream communities struggling to survive wondering whether they would have enough water to brush their teeth. We saw the environment buckle under the pressure with multiple mass fish kills at the Menindee Lakes—a true ecological disaster and one that was entirely preventable.

We've seen a South Australian royal commission which slammed the former federal government. The commission found that the Commonwealth committed gross maladministration, negligence and unlawful actions. It found that they all but ignored the catastrophic risks of climate change to the river system. The consequence of their gross negligence and of their horrendous disregard for the river system is that the 450 gigalitres of committed environmental water cannot be delivered on time. The former government delivered a grand total of two gigalitres—two out of 450. On their trajectory we wouldn't reach the 450 gigalitres until the year 3000.

Since we were elected we've already managed 24 gigalitres—12 times the amount that those opposite managed over the better part of a decade—because, unlike those opposite, we actually care about the future of the system rather than short-term political opportunism. We want our basin communities to prosper. We want our environment to thrive. We want to support sustainable agriculture. What is clear, and should be clear to those opposite, is that if the Murray-Darling Basin system disappears—if it dies, as it is currently on track to do—everybody loses.

6:32 pm

Photo of Kylea TinkKylea Tink (North Sydney, Independent) Share this | | Hansard source

I stand to speak on the Water Amendment (Restoring Our Rivers) Bill 2023. First, let's be clear what we're talking about. The Murray-Darling is Australia's largest and most complex river system. It crosses four states, one territory, and spans many thousands of kilometres of interconnected rivers, from Queensland where the water runs into the Darling Barka to South Australia where the Murray meets the ocean, and including the Castlereagh River which starts in the heart of the Warrumbungle Mountains and wraps around my childhood home in Coonabarabran. It is a complex, vast, richly biodiverse and interconnected system, home to 16 internationally significant wetlands and 35 endangered species.

It is also a food bowl for the nation. Forty per cent of Australia's agricultural output comes from farmers in the Murray-Darling Basin. So, when people in my electorate of North Sydney do their grocery shop and stock up on rice, milk and fruit, chances are they are buying produce grown in the basin.

The Murray-Darling is of deep cultural importance to Indigenous people. There are 99,000 First Nations people from over 40 different First Nations that live in the Murray-Darling Basin and have a unique connection to the river, the ecosystems, and to country. The basin is, in fact, a site for many traditional activities like fishing, hunting, ceremonies and harvesting. It is home to burial mounds, camp sites and records of Indigenous history within the landscape. It is also a recreational place for the communities living along the river and for the many tourists who visit.

Delivering on the objectives of the Basin Plan requires cooperation from all basin states and strong leadership from the federal government. It also requires a comprehensive and holistic approach to the management of the basin. In this context I'd like to offer the following analogy. If a medical patient presented with full body aches, no doctor in the world would simply treat just their head or their feet. We cannot fix the Murray-Darling by focusing only on the southern or northern basin.

The science is clear. The over extraction of water, particularly for irrigation, has reduced the natural flows of the river system. Climate change is compounding these issues. Increased warming brings increased evaporation and more extreme drought and flood events. According to the Murray-Darling Basin Authority, 'Scientists predict that the basin's climate is likely to become drier and more variable.' We can expect more extreme droughts and more extreme floods. If left unmitigated, these extremes will have significant impacts on the communities, businesses and ecosystems of the basin.

When I think of the Murray-Darling, it's difficult not to picture the devastating scenes of the Menindee fish kills earlier this year—kilometres of dead fish floating downstream. According to the New South Wales Chief Scientist's report, the event was 'symptomatic of degradation of the broader river ecosystem over many years'. It was impacted in part by the long-term effects of reduced flows from the increasing diversions from the rivers and catchments in the basin. Management of the basin has been marred by decades of major party politics, and it's a sorry state of affairs when petty politicking determines the health and wellbeing of one of our most complex and important river systems.

In this context, then, I welcome the intent of this bill to introduce the necessary measures to implement the Basin Plan in full and restore the integrity of water management in the basin more broadly. I appreciate the legislation attempts to strike a balance between the environmental needs and the needs of the communities and businesses built around the Murray-Darling. It seeks to reverse overextraction of the basin's waters while recognising the important role of the farmers, communities and businesses that rely on those waters. But we must remember that those communities and businesses built around the Murray-Darling cannot thrive if the ecosystem does not thrive. The health and sustainability of this basin is a prerequisite for the health and stability of all of the communities that rely on it, both north and south.

In order to implement the Murray-Darling Basin Plan in full, this bill provides more time to deliver water recovery targets, pushing deadlines out to 2027. While I acknowledge that that extension of key time frames for delivery of water recovery targets is a necessary measure given the lack of progress made to deliver on the targets to date, this is not a free pass for further delays. We cannot kick the can down the road any longer. There should be no further extensions to deliver the 450 gigalitres of water for enhanced environmental outcomes. It is clear that we must do everything we can to return the full 450 gigalitres to the environment, and that is why I welcome the removal of the cap on water purchase entitlements by the Commonwealth, which was introduced by the previous government, as well as the expansion of the types of projects that can deliver the Basin Plan target of 450 gigalitres of additional environmental water, including by purchasing water entitlements from willing sellers.

According to the Productivity Commission:

Purchasing water products from willing sellers is generally the most effective and efficient means of acquiring water, where governments are liable for the cost of recovering water for the environment.

However, I believe the buybacks should be concentrated on areas that have historically been neglected and are most in need and that money from the buybacks should be invested back into the basin communities to support the local economy, reduce local debts, create jobs and assist the local communities to adapt to climate change. I also welcome the much needed assurance and accountability measures in this legislation. The politicisation and mismanagement of the Murray-Darling time and time again highlight the need for greater accountability and transparency measures in the management of the basin. But more is needed.

This legislation is a small step on the long pathway to restoring the Murray-Darling. Far more must be done to ensure that sufficient environmental water is available in the basin in order to build resilience to the human induced climate change that we know will further strain this already damaged ecosystem. The bill, while a good start, does not adequately address the impacts of climate change or water justice for First Nations communities. Water rights for traditional owners should be prioritised, enabling First Nations people to exercise their custodial responsibilities to care for the river system. In summary, I welcome this legislation as a small step on the long road to restoring the Murray-Darling. But, as I said, while it is a step in the right direction, it cannot come soon enough.

6:39 pm

Photo of Daniel MulinoDaniel Mulino (Fraser, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I'm pleased to rise today to speak in support of the Water Amendment (Restoring our Rivers) Bill 2023. This is an important bill in relation to very, very significant intergovernmental public policy coordination that has been in place for over a decade. But, during the course of the previous government, it was given insufficient attention, which has led to very, very poor outcomes for the community and poor public policy outcomes more generally.

The Murray-Darling Basin is the largest and most complex river system in Australia, covering over a million square kilometres. It's very complex in the sense that it covers a very wide range of environmental forms, a very wide range of weather systems and, in a political sense, a very wide range of jurisdictions. It covers four states and, as the previous speaker on this side pointed out, a territory, the Australian Capital Territory. All of that means that there is a sensitivity and a vulnerability to that river system as well as a need for coordination. What we've seen is that that river system has been susceptible to natural droughts. In addition to that, it has been susceptible to increasing risks: greater variability in rainfall and greater variability and susceptibility to extreme events as a result of climate change and increasing human use. Those issues had been emerging in the lead-up to 2012, when the Murray-Darling Basin Plan was put into place, over a decade ago, and some of those risks have only become more severe in the interim. That's why the mismanagement of the river system in the last decade is so tragic.

The key elements of the plan were that there should be water for consumption, water for the environment, investment in infrastructure, monitoring of water quality and water markets and trade, and other elements as well. All of those elements, to me, also reflect that there needs to be balance. We need to balance a range of different constituencies and a range of different uses of water. The water uses that we're trying to balance include: water for irrigation and the huge amount of agricultural production that we see in the basin; water for drinking and other uses by the communities that live in the basin area; water for industrial uses and other uses; and, of course, water for the environment. The way in which we balance all of those uses needs to be informed by experts—environmental experts, public policy experts, economists—and the views of those in the community, First Nations groups and other stakeholders. It's critical that we achieve balance across all of those different constituencies. I think it's really important to note from the outset that, in developing this bill, the minister and the government have undertaken exhaustive consultation with other governments, all of the stakeholder groups that I talked about and experts. What we've landed on is a bill that represents a major step forward, by giving state governments and those who are implementing the Murray Darling Basin Plan more time, more funding and, importantly—I'll speak about this a little bit later in relation to the strengthening of the trading arrangements—more transparency and accountability.

The Murray-Darling Basin Plan, developed in 2012, was developed two years after the Millennium Drought broke. The purpose of the plan was to provide more water for the environment, certainty for farmers and protection for native plants and animals, particularly in view of the fact that Australia's environment lurches from rainfall, plenty and drought. It's critically important that we who are living and producing in this environment manage the scarce water resources sensibly for ourselves, our human communities and our production, as well as for the environment. The way in which we live in that environment and use water to produce in that environment impacts on the environment. It's particularly poignant, if you will, that we're discussing this bill, given that it's highly likely that we are heading into an El Nino event. We need to protect ourselves, our communities and our production from future droughts, but also, of course, protect the environment.

As previous speakers on this side and, indeed, the minister in her contribution noted, those opposite, when they were in government for almost a decade, delivered two gigalitres out of the 450 that is required by the environment. At that rate it would be in the year 4000, roughly, that we would achieve the goal—a fanciful number, of course. What it shows is that essentially nothing was being done. Since we've come to government, in nine months the rate has picked up dramatically, but, even allowing for the fact that we've upped the rate substantially—26 gigalitres in just nine months—more is needed. More is needed in terms of infrastructure investment, more is needed in terms of voluntary buybacks and more is needed to get the water trading system working better, and that's exactly what this bill will deliver. But I do think it's worth noting that we've been put in the situation we're in because those opposite basically sat on their hands for decade. We see that refrain so often on so many bills in this place, but it's certainly worth making explicit when it comes to this one.

Part of the negotiated outcome—this bill does reflect a negotiated outcome between the federal government and the governments of New South Wales, Queensland, South Australia and the ACT—is to give the states a new deadline, to give them more time to finish key projects and also to bring forward further projects that can be delivered within the new deadline. That's a key element of the package.

I also think it's important to talk about the way in which this bill, and what it will put into place, strengthens trading arrangements. The basin provides great economic benefits. There are tourism benefits, which exceed $10 billion a year, and farmers in the basin produce something in the order of 40 per cent of Australia's agricultural output. It's critical that we have trading arrangements so that, if we are to see water being put back into the environment, it's done in the most efficient way.

Markets are really a very important way to achieve this outcome, and I want to speak very briefly on the fact that markets are critical because they bring information into the process of achieving an outcome, in a way that other mechanisms often don't. If you have a trading mechanism, then what you will have is different people—different farmers, different users of water—bidding in to provide water to the environment, or whatever it might be that the trading mechanism is trying to achieve, and providing information about how much they value that water. That is incredibly important because, if we are going to buy back water, we want to make sure that we are doing it in a way that has the least impact on local economies and that is the most efficient way. Markets are the most efficient way in which to reflect all of the detailed, nuanced information that each user of water holds and that a regulator or any other entity won't necessarily hold. That's why it's critically important that markets function efficiently. Of course, markets, where they involve voluntary transactions, will involve mutually beneficial transactions, and that's why it's so important that the buybacks that we're talking about are voluntary.

When the ACCC looked at water trading arrangements, they found that water trading has brought substantial benefits to many water users across the basin. Water markets allow irrigators to increase their available water seasonally and to earn income by selling water rights, when they are more valuable, to somebody else or release capital for investment in their businesses. But the ACCC also found that it is critical that people are able to trade in confidence and that improving the efficient operation of water markets is likely to enhance the financial operation of water markets and is in turn, I would argue, likely to enhance the balance of social and environmental outcomes. What the ACCC found when they investigated the operation of water markets is that there was insufficient regulation of market manipulation, that the insider trading prohibition was too narrow and that that was having significant negative impacts on the efficiency of the markets. Essentially they found that they needed more transparency.

The coalition received this review in 2019, with a whole series of recommendations about how to make those water markets work better. No action was taken. Again, this is something that comes up perennially in bills under consideration in this place, but it's certainly worth noting that the ACCC made a series of very clear recommendations, many of which are reflected in this bill. Those opposite had it in 2019. No action was taken.

This bill makes a number of concrete measures that will significantly improve the functioning of water trading. First, it will introduce a framework to create an enforceable mandatory code for market intermediaries. Second, it will create civil penalties for manipulation. And, third, it will double the penalty for insider trading.

I'll just reiterate that at the heart of what this plan is trying to achieve is balance. We are trying to protect the environment with water flows reserved for the environment, but we're trying to do that in a way that is the least disruptive to local communities and to the broader agricultural economy across the Murray Darling Basin. A key element of that is to allow water to be traded, to allow farmers and other water users and other holders of water rights to swap water with other uses or potentially with the government for environmental protection. This bill will significantly improve the functioning of those markets.

I'll conclude by saying that this bill has the support of stakeholders right across the gamut. As I mentioned before, it has the support of the New South Wales, Queensland, South Australian and ACT governments. The consultation took over a year and involved a range of stakeholders, including farmers, scientists, environmentalists and First Nations groups. A range of environmental NGOs support the full delivery of the plan reflected in this bill. And so many scientists have worked towards devising the goals and the targets in the plan, and they stand behind the implementation of the plan which this bill supports. This bill is an important step towards getting us back on track in delivering the very important Murray Darling Basin Plan, and I'm very pleased to support the passage of this bill.

6:53 pm

Photo of Zoe DanielZoe Daniel (Goldstein, Independent) Share this | | Hansard source

Water is life. The Murray-Darling Basin covers more than half of eastern Australia from Charleville and Toowoomba in the north; down to Broken Hill and Adelaide in the west; south across to Tamworth, Orange, the ACT, Albury-Wodonga, Shepparton, Bendigo; and almost to Melbourne in the south-east—and all points in between. The environment and the economy depend on the water that flows through this vast tract of land, and so do Indigenous communities, farmers, pastoralists, dozens of towns and capital cities as well as the businesses and consumers who rely on the affordable and reliable food the basin provides.

It's a shame that this essential national resource was not handed to the Commonwealth in the Constitution back in the beginning to manage on behalf of us all, but that was not to be. Interstate rivalries saw to that, and now we are where we are. As Margaret Simons wrote in the Saturday Paper:

If politics is how societies, short of war, decide on the sharing of resources, then water—particularly in a dry country—is unavoidably political.

It is not about parties. It is the politics of place, of community, of food security and ultimately the nature of our federation. It could hardly be more difficult, or more important.

I've consulted widely on this legislation, as I always try to do before making a considered judgement on how I will vote. I thank the minister and her staff for their readiness to consult. I've spoken to irrigators; environmentalists; the Inspector-General of Water Compliance, Troy Grant; as well as representatives of horticultural interest in the Goulburn Valley among others. I thank them all for their insights and their advice. It is about the environment. It's also about the economy.

I particularly welcomed the insights of Rob Priestly, who reminded me to go into Coles or Woolies and look around at fruit and veg that costs less than $5 a kilo—carrots, onions, apples, pears, potatoes. He says that between 20 and 80 per cent of these are grown in the southern basin. Rob says that if all the water buybacks come in the southern basin, it will crush all milk producers, representing 20 per cent of national supply, but 50 per cent of Brisbane and Sydney's fresh milk, and all these products. Victorian food producers should not be penalised for having done the right thing. Rob notes that the Darling used to contribute 39 per cent of the water to South Australia. Now it contributes 14 per cent. He says that it's dying due to massive dam and surface water diversion in northern New South Wales and southern Queensland.

The fact of the matter is, of course, that we've been taking too much water out of Murray-Darling and its various tributaries for too long, and climate change is only making that more difficult. The absence of the impact of climate change from the objects of the act is a significant oversight. I am proposing an amendment to rectify this omission. According to the Murray-Darling Basin Authority, winter rainfall and streamflow in the southern basin have declined by nearly 40 per cent since the mid-1990s.

The Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists points out that the basin has warmed by around one degree Celsius since 1910. They say that the 3,200 gigalitre target of water recovered for the environment under the Basin Plan was based on the historical climate and will be insufficient to restore the long-term sustainability and health of the important wetlands and rivers in the basin, particularly in the absence of agreed mechanisms for climate change adaptation. As the Wentworth Group argues in its submission to the current Senate inquiry, new approaches are required regarding the management of river flows in a changing climate, including the use of likely future climate change projections, not just historical records, in water management modelling and planning; rules to conserve and protect priority flows; the design and implementation of environmental triage for wetlands; and new arrangements to support communities to adapt to climate change.

This last point is particularly important and goes beyond our policy responses to the Murray-Darling. If we don't look after communities affected by our policy responses to climate change, we risk losing the support of much of the broader community for the urgent actions we must take to have any hope of getting to net zero.

Central to the legislation is the aspiration to recover an additional 450 gigalitres of enhanced environmental water. However, this is not a legally binding target, and according to the MDBA only three per cent of that amount has been recovered so far. I will move a further amendment to entrench this requirement in the legislation. I agree with the Wentworth Group that the Commonwealth should encourage states, basin communities and industry groups to contribute to a suite of projects to address this issue and that the government's transition fund should assist and encourage this approach. The basin states should also be required to meet annual milestones in the water recovered towards the 450 gigalitres target—in other words, around 100 gigalitres per year through to 2027.

I welcome the continued achievement of SDL compliance in Queensland, South Australia, Victoria and the ACT. In his latest sustainable diversion limit compliance statement, delivered last month, the Inspector-General of Water Compliance pointed to New South Wales's conspicuous absence—alone amongst the basin states—in complying with SDL commitments. He notes that, in the middle of last year, he gave a speech which called out the failure of the New South Wales government to deliver water resource plans. The evidence is now in that, during 2021-22, New South Wales failed to deliver the outstanding obligations and commitments to the Basin Plan. Therefore, the 20 water resource plans in New South Wales were not accredited or operating in the 2021-22 water accounting year, an absence for the third year in a row since the commencement of SDL compliance. The inspector-general goes on to say in his report:

Without water resource plans, New South Wales is subject to a lower level of accountability under the Basin Plan than the other four Basin States.

The amending legislation pushes out the review date from 2024 until 2027. This is not good enough. So for reasons of accountability and transparency, I will be looking to bring that forward.

Also, given New South Wales's behaviour, the legislation may, perversely, offer that state a reward. Water resource plans are an integral part of implementing the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. All jurisdictions other than New South Wales have successfully completed their MDB water resource plans and had them accredited. As the Wentworth Group points out, despite being more than four years late and having accumulated deficits over the past three years as a result of the overextraction of 71.1 gigalitres in the case of the Barwon-Darling, and 111.8 in the Gwydir River system, these cumulative deficits will be zeroed under provisions in the existing Basin Plan when the water resource plan is accredited by the Commonwealth.

As all other jurisdictions have met their commitments under the Basin Plan to submit and have their water resource plans accredited by the Commonwealth, New South Wales remains the only jurisdiction not to have had their WRP accredited. When they eventually do, they will not be penalised for exceeding the STLs from 2019 to the accreditation date. New South Wales should not be so rewarded, so I will look to move an amendment designed to remedy this. The minister's office is reluctant to accept these amendments, but I want to make it clear that I appreciate the diligence with which the minister and her cabinet colleagues have taken my representations to them on this and other legislation. The climate change minister, for example, took on board my concerns that the legislated target in the climate change bill of 43 per cent by 2030 should be explicitly a floor and not a ceiling. I also made the point that 43 per cent was inadequate to keep us on the path to net zero by 2050. Equally, I sought to offer amendments to the safeguard guarantee legislation which were designed to ensure that our biggest polluters could not account their way to zero.

Shortly after the legislation was passed, we discovered that Australia is increasing its carbon emissions and not reducing them. I say this to the government, in closing: you cannot please everyone all the time, and by trying to do a bit here and a bit there you run the risk of pleasing no-one. I fear that this is the case with this legislation too. On balance, I will support it because it's a good start. But I note that that's all it is.

Debate adjourned.