Wednesday, 6 February 2013
Water Amendment (Water for the Environment Special Account) Bill 2012; In Committee
It is important in considering these Greens amendments to clearly understand what we are talking about. If we turn this into a 'must', we have a peculiar position. I 'should' lose weight—I really should lose weight—but if it becomes a position where I 'must' lose weight then the question is: what happens if I don't? I suppose they would say 95 per cent of the time you should be underweight otherwise in three months time we will take you out and shoot you at dawn! You cannot just start taking things and making them absolute obligations. It is not credible. It is not economically responsible. You have a goal and that is it.
To go through the Greens amendments in seriatim, just so that Senator Hanson-Young knows that we have given this due consideration and proper respect for the work they have put in, amendments (1) to (4) have always been goals, not mandatory targets. It is not appropriate for such prescribed targets to be made mandatory in legislation. The termination of the Basin Plan process requires detailed consultation, advice from the Murray-Darling Basin Authority, the final tick-off from the minister and ultimately the ability of the parliament to disallow the plan. The Greens in the past have always supported the process of the authority of the MDBA, but when they are not getting the answers that they want, they want to ignore the consultative process and insert their own designs over the wider interests of the basin and the nation. You cannot have two positions. You cannot say, 'I want to support an independent MDBA but when I do not agree with them I want to override them.' You are either in the camp or you are not.
It goes beyond just the 2.1 million people who live in the basin; this is an economic statement about our nation and whether we take the capacity to feed ourselves seriously. Or do we believe that in the future we want to relinquish that right and be an importer of food, as you can see when you go to any supermarket where it is predominantly becoming the case? We might be a bulk exporter of grains and barley, but people do not go down for a feed of barley and wheat—they like to eat things that you can see. More and more this process is being imported. It is ridiculous to think we are going to close down a major section of production yet we are going to go to the supermarket and somehow find food that is produced by Australians. We want to be supporting Australia's capacity to eat Australian food.
In amendment (5) the Greens are trying to put into the objects of this bill the ability to purchase water. This is clearly inappropriate as an object clause, even if you do believe, like the government clearly does, that you should be able to use the money in the buyback of water. The coalition does not believe that this money should be used for water buybacks, so we oppose this amendment.
Regarding Senator Hanson-Young's amendment (6), the coalition does not believe in setting a minimum amount of water in this bill. The government has not even shown that it can deliver 450 gigalitres. This is a premature promise to make and one that is largely made for political purposes. It does not take into account the reality—the actual hydrology.
Talking over the break, as I have, with water engineers and looking through issues of such things as shepherding, it is clear that a lot of the assumptions are just absurd. We are not going to be able to shepherd water from Queensland—from Toowoomba, from Warwick, from Killarney—down to South Australia. You are not going to be able to get water through the Culgoa Floodplain. Narran Lakes is a terminal system. The Mehi wetlands rarely deliver water into the systems downstream. The Macquarie River is a system that only delivers water into the Darling probably once in every hundred years. We always lose sight of the actual hydrology of Australia. It is not interconnected garden hoses; it is a flat, dry carpet. A lot of the presumptions are trying to force a hydrological outcome that is just blatantly impossible in so many of these issues.
So it is a political statement. It is hydrologically not improbable but impossible. How can this government start trying to stitch up something that is completely incongruous with the nature of the land that is actually in the basin? I live in the basin. We have 30,000 megalitres a day going past. Cecil Plains was completely and utterly inundated. Towns were cut off. I could not get here. I had to fly out. It was like an inland sea. That water is now arriving at St George and we are only getting 30,000 megalitres. It is still a big flow, but is only 30,000 megalitres a day. It is not a big flow by the time it gets here. By the time it gets to Dirranbandi it will be less. If any of it gets through to Bourke it will be very minor. You cannot start saying, 'Just because we deem it fit we are now going to demand that somehow nature has changed and that water, miraculously, does something that it has never done over millennia, over the history of the continent, and miraculously turn up in South Australia.' If you really want to do that, then we should be investing money in a massive pipeline. Of course, no-one is suggesting that.
In amendment (8), the Greens want to give priority to projects that deliver the maximum amount of environmental water. The coalition has always believed in the triple bottom line. It is a recommendation which we gave here. To get trust from people we had to show them that (a) we were not going to pull the economic rug out from underneath their feet and (b) we showed some signs of economic common sense—that we understood the quantum of the economy that is involved with the 2.1 million people who live in the basin and the food that they produce. You cannot say, 'Well, somehow they are going to produce the food but they are going to do it without the water.' They are not. It is as simple as that. We are going to shut down vineyards, we will shut down the horticultural crops, we will shut down that evil product, rice—how evil it is to feed people! Gosh, we don't want to be doing that with their basic standard carbohydrate in rice! And cotton—that is another evil product!
I always think the people who think cotton is evil should remove from their person every semblance of that product and then run around the building and see how it feels. It is the sustenance of people to be clothed and fed, and, yes, they require water. If you are here today, you are a consumer of water. If you are wearing cotton, you are a consumer of water. If you have eaten a meal, you are part of the reason for the utilisation of water. To say that we can all somehow exist without it? You can—for approximately three days. Then you die.
In their amendment (9) the Greens are tying financial assistance to the states to getting at least 450 gigalitres. Now we are holding a financial gun to people's heads, and this completely goes against the mechanism in which we are trying to build up a system of trust and cooperation. And it has not only been between the government and the states; it has also been between the government and the opposition to show at times that legislation can go through these chambers with people working strenuously but for a targeted outcome. We acknowledge that and we did that, and I think the people in the wider community should understand that not everything is a pointless rhetorical fight or a barb. There are actually times when people sit down and diligently try to get to an outcome, because that is what people want in this chamber and the other chamber. They want adults if they can find them. They say, 'That's a good idea,' and get a couple of them. Does it mean we are entirely happy with everything in this? Of course not. But the responsibility was ours because we knew that the alternative process of dealing with this would be those as have been suggested by the Greens and Senator Sarah Hanson-Young. So many of these amendments would have been just disastrous for regional Australia, for the people of the Murray-Darling Basin, for our economy in general and for any person pushing a shopping trolley through any shopping mall throughout Australia who has a desire to see and gets a sense of security from Australian home-grown products delivered to them on their shelves. Once we lose sight of that concept, we have lost our soul, who we are as a nation.
In amendments (10) to (15) the Greens are proposing to move all the money appropriated in this bill forward in the estimates. This is incredible. The interesting thing about this is that it would test the government's mettle. I will concede this to Senator Hanson-Young: where we are now, a lot of this is rubbish because over the forward estimates there is only $55 million allocated. It is a $1.77 billion program, but there is only $55 million over the forward estimates. To be honest, it is a load of rubbish. There is no money there for it. It is a promise to a future government for them to somehow magically find money, and we are currently $262 billion in gross debt. So that will be an awfully good trick. You just have to also suggest who we are going to borrow this money off. I think the government would be rather interested. Their surplus is gone and they are going to have a $12 billion deficit, but this exacerbates it. But Senator Hanson-Young has clearly pointed out here—and I concede it—that the bona fides in actually delivering the money on this just are not there. There is no money for this. Somehow the concerns are placated in some way, because what on earth are you going to do with $55 million, which is really all you are talking about? That will go in administration charges. There is no real outcome in this.
The last amendment, (16), is just not necessary.
I hope we have shown that the coalition does actually peruse and give due consideration of issues that the Greens put forward. On each item, if you go down to it with some sort of competence and diligence, it is just insanity. And, of course, that is where our nation would be if their economic process were to prevail.