Senate debates

Tuesday, 16 February 2021

Matters of Urgency

Climate Change: Water

5:20 pm

Photo of Tim AyresTim Ayres (NSW, Australian Labor Party) Share this | Hansard source

Any Australian listening to this would despair and reach the conclusion that the Greens and the National Party can't be trusted with water policy. Listening to Senator Davey's account, she speaks with some authority, I think, on questions around southern New South Wales and the rice industry, and I respect her contribution in that area. The truth is the National Party's administration of water policy, though, has let the people in the southern part of the river system down. The truth is that the National Party is institutionally incapable of administering water policy at the federal and state level in a way that deals with the environmental questions in the river, that deals with the water usage questions for agriculture and, in particular, deals appropriately with the rights of native title holders along the river.

I listened carefully to the Closing the Gap report yesterday. I have to say I was horrified again by one particular political party's approach to those issues, but I guess I will save that for another day. I was considering as I was listening to the Closing the Gap report what that meant for water policy in western New South Wales, because the issues around the gap are nowhere more apparent than in the way that we deal with water, particularly water in New South Wales.

Aboriginal communities and corporations own just 0.1 per cent of the more than $26 billion worth of water entitlements in the system. I travelled to these communities. I visited Wilcannia during the drought, where the Barkindji people have lived next to the river for millennia. Life expectancy for Wilcannia men is 37.5 years. I visited the Brewarrina fish traps, believed to be the oldest human structure on earth. They should be a national monument; they are 10 times as old as the pyramids. They were bone dry. I visited Walgett and talked to local health services. When the town runs dry, and it was dry then, the consequences for people's health and kids' health is catastrophic—drinking less water, bathing less frequently, eating less nutritious food. It is a town that already has endemic health issues concentrated in the town's Aboriginal communities. While I heard the refrain from those senators in the National Party that we just needed it to rain, the truth is the arrival of rain has not solved these problems. In January, Menindee's water supply, its drinking water, turned green. A thick slime now covers a third of its surface. That is despite the fact that north-west New South Wales has received twice as much rain as 2018 and 2019 combined.

Water management is a complex set of problems but what it requires beyond the framework is a rigorous approach to compliance, to dealing with corruption and to dealing with powerful lobbies and interest groups, because the truth is that the people who have missed out under the national stewardship water policy are farmers all along the river. It is the environment that has missed out, it is the people in the towns who should have good, decent jobs coming out of Australian agriculture and it is certainly native title holders or prospective native holders along the system.

Last week, the New South Wales Irrigators Council found that inflows have almost halved over the last 20 years, consistent with climate change projections. That availability will get worse. The Nationals don't have a plan for water and no more evident in that is—

Senator Canavan interjecting—

I will take the interjection from Senator Canavan. Build more dams—these jokers have not built a dam for decade after decade after decade. Putting aside whether or not that would be a good idea, there are plenty of private sector, unregulated dams out there, but you guys haven't built a dam. There is big talk about the dams. In every regional newspaper, there's always some joker from the National Party saying, 'We're going to be out there; we're going to build a dam.' But do they ever build one? They announce and they never deliver. Over and over and over again, these characters sell out the people of country New South Wales and country Australia.

It does invite, I think, a broader consideration of the issues facing Australian agriculture. A political movement that once purported to represent country-minded thinking has become a political front for a very narrow set of interests. With the big questions about Australian agriculture, as we rebuild from a record drought, now is the time for a big debate about building a stronger future for Australian agriculture. This year, the national cattle herd fell to 24.6 million. Australia's sheep flock fell to 66 million, the lowest level since 1905. And these characters mumble about nuclear power and building dams, but they have no substantial solutions.

The government has set the goal for Australian agriculture to be exporting $100 billion by 2030. The government set that goal because the National Farmers Federation set that goal. That is a good goal for the National Farmers Federation to have. But the question has to be asked: is it the right goal for the country? In truth, it lacks ambition. The truth is that Australian agriculture has continued to fall down the global value chain. It's fine for the National Farmers Federation to set an objective for farmers about farmgate prices and volumes, but the truth is we should be having a big debate in this country. If we're really interested in the people who live and work or want work in country towns, we should be focused on a debate about creating value in Australian agriculture, about adding value and about food manufacturing. Where are the National Party on these questions? They are nowhere.

In terms of climate change and agriculture, where are the poor old National Party? They are nowhere. The party that purports to represent the communities that will be most affected is nowhere on climate change policy—it's completely missing. Net zero emissions have been endorsed by every key agriculture body. Poor old Mr Joyce, the member for New England, said:

… a net-zero emissions policy would destroy any hope of expanding Australian farming. If the Nationals supported net-zero emissions we would cease to be a party that could credibly represent farmers.

Well, here is what the peak body for cattle farmers said in their Red Meat 2030 plan:

We will play our role in reducing Australia's greenhouse gas emissions by extending our existing commitment to carbon neutrality by 2030 … across the supply chain.

The National Farmers Federation are there; everybody in agriculture is there. Where is the National Party? Nowhere. They have already ceased to have any claim to credibly representing Australian agriculture or Australian farmers.

We will bring to the next election a credible platform in agriculture. This parliament should be debating the big issues about the future of Australian agriculture. In no small part, one of the key issues facing Australian agriculture is the lack of research in Australian agriculture. Research funding in Australian agriculture has collapsed year after year after year. The small increase in private funding for research is completely dwarfed by the collapse in government funding. And guess who's in charge of government funding for Australian agriculture? The truth is private sector research delivers short-term benefits, but public sector research into the big challenges for Australian agriculture delivers long-term benefits, and you would think that the National Party have nothing to do with the government. There is a complete collapse in research funding for Australian agriculture, and those guys, again, are nowhere to be seen.

So if you've got an interest in the future of the river system, if you've got an interest in sustaining communities along the river and sustaining Australian agriculture along the river, if you've got a concern about the future of Australian agriculture and lifting it up the value chain and increasing jobs in country towns, don't go to the National Party for solutions.


No comments