Tuesday, 12 February 2019
I had not intended to contribute to this debate, but given some of the assertions that have been made by some contributors in this debate I think it is very important that, on behalf of our national government, I summarise the position of the government succinctly.
Let me make it very, very clear at the outset that the government will not be removing the 1,500-gigalitre cap on surface-water buybacks. We are currently 276 gigalitres below the cap, as has been mentioned by others. This is well beyond the amount of water we actually need to achieve sustainable diversion limits under the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. At present, just 30 gigalitres of surface water is needed to bridge the gap to the Basin Plan's SDLs. The government legislated the cap in 2015 to provide greater certainty to basin communities, and that has been an incredibly important reform indeed. Open buybacks have been shown to have negative social and economic consequences. The Northern Basin Review and the report on the southern basin communities made these impacts very clear. We have made very good progress towards the Basin Plan's water recovery targets, and we remain committed to ensuring these targets are achieved. The initiative by Labor and the Greens here today puts these significant achievements at risk.
Back on 14 December 2018, the Murray-Darling Basin Ministerial Council agreed a number of key actions, including the application of additional social, economic and associated assessment processes for efficiency measures: projects that contribute to the additional 450 gigalitres to be recovered for the environment; a commitment by New South Wales and Queensland to protecting environmental water; the provision of high-quality, well-consulted water resource plans for accreditation; and the creation of a permanent Indigenous member position on the Murray-Darling Basin Authority board. What the Greens are trying to do today is essentially to hijack this whole process and try to make a unilateral decision that would make the situation worse. It would manifestly and demonstrably make the situation worse.
The Commonwealth and the basin states are working to ensure sustainable diversion limits take effect from 1 July 2019 and to have all of the relevant plans accredited by the end of 2019. The government will continue to work with basin states on delivering the outcomes of the sustainable diversion limit adjustment mechanism in the Northern Basin Review to meet the sustainable diversion limits in 2019. We have also taken action to improve compliance and enforcement across the basin through the appointment of Mick Keelty as the Northern Basin Commissioner and a $20 million investment in improved hydromatic and satellite monitoring. When it comes to the delivery of the Basin Plan, the government is getting on with the job. We are working with all relevant stakeholders to ensure that we continue to take the most appropriate way forward that is fair to everyone and delivers the best possible environmental outcomes.
We know that the Murray-Darling Basin is facing difficult times. We have seen that this summer, with fish deaths across the system and communities and irrigators being without water. We are responding and taking appropriate action to those recent events. The fish deaths we have seen over recent months are absolutely horrible. On 24 January 2019, the New South Wales government Fish death interim investigation report found that the devastating fish death events in recent months appear to be a result of a range of factors—primarily, the breakdown of the stratification of water layers but also the breakdown of organic matter, algal blooms and the high temperatures followed by cooler periods. The poor inflow conditions are not unique to Menindee and the lower Darling. They are being experienced in systems across the northern basin. Without rain it is true that further fish deaths are a possibility.
The Murray-Darling Basin Authority convened meetings of water managers, environmental water holders and state fisheries experts to look at the immediate risk of further fish deaths and at options to mitigate and avoid this risk where feasible. The government also announced $5 million in funding through the Murray-Darling Basin Authority for the development of a native fish management and recovery strategy. This strategy will support the emergency response and recovery actions and additional research into native fish stocks and their management. An independent panel, chaired by Professor Robert Vertessy, has been established to identify the causes of the fish deaths in the lower Darling and to make recommendations on strategies to prevent similar events in the future. Only the other week, the Murray-Darling Basin Authority announced that up to 26 gigalitres of environmental water would be released to the lower Murrumbidgee over coming weeks to improve river flows and help reduce the risk of further fish losses in the lower Murrumbidgee.
The New South Wales Department of Primary Industries has also commenced a rescue effort involving the movement of fish to the lower Darling or to some of the New South Wales government hatcheries. Basin governments are working together in doing everything possible to respond to recent events and to mitigate the risk of similar events occurring in the future.
Achieving the best possible outcomes in the Murray-Darling is not going to be helped by this latest stunt by the Greens political party. The truth is that the Greens political party has now gazumped nearly two hours of government business time. We've got about 2½ sitting days left this week. There's a lot of important legislation on the agenda. We've had lots of non-government senators contributing to this debate. I counted at least three non-government senators before the government got the call back. The point I would make to the chamber is: reflect very carefully on the workload. There are normal, routine processes available to anyone who actually, in good faith and genuinely, wants to introduce a piece of legislation rather than to pursue a stunt. There is an established Senate process available to the Greens if what they want to do is introduce legislation. It is rather novel to have a Greens senator moving a motion to introduce a Labor bill. I mean, I'm—
Senator Wong interjecting—
Oh, apparently there is a Labor-Greens coalition starting to get formed. I gather that there are some other discussions taking place elsewhere in order to ensure that Labor gets closer to the Greens again when it comes to weakening our border protection arrangements. That is, of course, the other conversation that is taking place around the parliament today: Labor getting captured by the Greens, getting moved by the Greens into ever worse policy positions. And so what I would say to the Australian people is: be very careful about a Labor-Greens alliance on the other side of the election. I can tell you that the Liberal-National coalition will continue to make our country stronger, will continue to make our economy stronger and will continue to make our border stronger, whereas, of course, any Labor-Greens alternative, as is being witnessed again today, would make our country weaker, would make our borders weaker and would put the Murray-Darling Basin in a worse position, in a weaker, environmentally less sound position. So what I would say to the Australian—