Senate debates

Wednesday, 23 June 2021


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

11:37 am

Photo of Deborah O'NeillDeborah O'Neill (NSW, Australian Labor Party) Share this | Hansard source

Thank you very much. I will state again that these comments from the National Party in here that 'we need to respect our farmers', farmers need to hear them in the context of eight years of those opposite being in government. If farmers are feeling disrespected, they're feeling disrespected because of this government, the Liberal-National Party government, which has left them hanging and abandoned. They failed to do their job. This piece of legislation is happening, because this government failed to do its job.

I'm speaking on the Water Legislation Amendment (Inspector-General of Water Compliance and Other Measures) Bill 2021 and I welcome this legislation because it is long overdue. This is legislation for an investigation and penalties framework for malfeasance in the Murray-Darling Basin. If the government had got onto the job when they came into office instead of waiting until two minutes to midnight of seeking a fourth term of government to start bleating and moaning about what's happening in their communities, the people who are out in rural New South Wales and Queensland and Victoria and South Australia wouldn't feel as abandoned by the government as they currently do. It has taken far too long for this government to listen to the communities that it claims it represents and it has taken far too long for them to come to the table and legislate for this position of Inspector-General of Water Compliance.

In fact, in terms of getting the timing wrong, the government were more than happy to give this job of inspector-general to a former New South Wales politician from the National Party—a minister in the New South Wales Liberal-National government from 2011 to 2019, when he was in parliament—and employ him on $200,000 a year, when his job didn't have any powers or official role. He's been in the role for six months. They got the guy in the job, they made the announcement, but they're only now bringing in the legislation, which the National Party is seeking to amend today. They're just lodging amendments today. That's how out of control and haphazard this government is. And the tension between the National Party and the Liberal Party is well and truly on show here. This is a government that has not stood up for Australians in the regions. They've played some sort of con job out there, but they haven't been doing the job here in Canberra.

All we've seen from Mr Grant—and I do hope he can undertake this task with vigour and vim and integrity, and get on with it, because it's desperately needed—is him moving up and down the river. 'Travel up and down the basin' is what he declared. I wonder what bang for their buck the Australian people have got for the $100,000 already spent in the last six months on a man whose capacity to do the job will be seen in retrospect and who was placed in a position without any powers or authority, which is what this bill is seeking to introduce today, six months after he got the job. It's just not up to par, not for the government of a country.

The bill just scratches the surface of the issues that are rolling through the waters and the communities of the Murray-Darling Basin. This gargantuan public policy has been mishandled and mismanaged by members of the coalition at state and federal level from the moment they took office. The rationale for the plan, which they agreed to—let's be clear about this; what Senator Davey was railing against is a bipartisan plan that her government voted for—remains. We must ensure that agriculture, the environment and the river communities are all able to be sustained in the basin, together. The communities could not have made that clearer in their comments to us on the Murray-Darling Basin committee, which is chaired by Senator Brockman—and Senator Patrick is also here in the chamber. We've been all over New South Wales and Victoria, and we're heading to South Australia in the coming weeks.

As we approach the 2024 deadline for the Basin Plan, we must continue the great unfinished business that is before us. But, even though the government have been in office for eight years, one of the amendments that we've got on the table from Senator McKenzie is to push that date out to 2026. They've stuffed it up for eight years and now they're saying, 'Please, Miss, give me an extension.' That's what they're trying to do here today. It's a joke. It's an absolute joke.

The people of the bush cannot continue to swallow the nonsense on water that this National Party are dishing out to them. Those people have very few champions in this place—and they're not in the National Party. Despite what they say, that they've been looking after you for eight years, how does it look out there? You're telling us it's not looking too good. Flood-plain harvesting, regulation of the water market and the achievement of water recovery projects in New South Wales: all of those issues are still not fixed. They need to be fixed to ensure that the Basin Plan works for all communities equally and that water use is sustainable and ecologically sound.

The CSIRO data put some facts on the table. It now shows that there's been a huge fall in inflows over the past 20 years, nearly halving to around 4,820 gigalitres, which means less water for irrigators, less water for rural communities and less water for the precious ecosystems that depend on the flows. As the effects of climate change continue to creep up and further disrupt weather events in the basin, we need to examine further how that will affect flows for the environment and crops. We had evidence in Shepparton from the Victorian Farmers Federation, who said, 'Ten years ago, we didn't believe in climate change, and we weren't engaging with the Basin Plan through that lens, but now we absolutely do.' They are much clearer about their policy for sustainable business practice in the part of the country where they live, love and farm. They are much more committed to a fact based response than the National Party in this government.

The ABC reported that ricegrowers have gone from receiving regular flows through the general security licence to years of low or no water. In fact, we received evidence that, in 2019, despite Australia's sense of how much rice we grow in the Riverina, we actually imported all our rice from overseas, because ricegrowers could not get their hands on water in Australia to provide high-quality rice for the Australian market and overseas. That's what it looks like in the Riverina after eight long years of multiple leadership under the Liberal-National government. That's what it looks like on the ground. It's a debacle out there.

Over the summer of 2018, we all watched in horror as decades of old fish gasped their last breath in a mass death event that looked like it was written out of the Book of Revelation. Hundreds of thousands of fish suffocated to death as fluctuating weather, death of algae and lack of critical flows created a crisis situation. Water birds are also in long-term decline in the Menindee Lakes. Numbers have dropped every good wet year since 1985. The fact is that our environment isn't bouncing back. We have to look at better ways to manage the water to preserve our precious ecosystems and the communities that thrive and live along the river. Sadly, the concept of thriving is something that too many people who rely on the river are starting to fear may never happen again.

We also need much greater scrutiny of the damage made by greedy humans to the Basin Plan. The plan's been rocked by scandals such as meter tampering in New South Wales; the debacle over floodplain regulations, which is called overland flow in Queensland and floodplain in New South Wales; the rorting of on-farm efficiency programs; and the countless inquiries that have documented these failures in the course of the eight years that the Liberal-National government have been in control of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan and its implementation. They have a failed record on this important national asset. They cannot be trusted. They should never have been trusted, and their record reveals that they cannot be trusted into the future. People all up and down the basin have little or no faith that the plan is working for them. It's on this government's watch that that's become apparent.

Through my involvement with the Select Committee on the Multi-Jurisdictional Management and Execution of the Murray Darling Basin Plan, I know that there's a great belief that the plan is rigged against ordinary farmers, and they've complained to the government who's failed to respond.

Senator McKenzie interjecting—

You voted for a bipartisan piece of legislation that you've been responsible for managing over the last eight years. You are responsible for the management of the Murray-Darling Basin, Senator McKenzie. You know it. People in the know are making massive profits while long-held family farms are shuttered. In Moree, I heard from farmer John Gordon, who described the practical reality of the mismanagement under this government. The school bus from Bourke to Brewarrina used to be full. In the last year of his son going to school, that bus had only one child on it. There's been total decimation of farming communities on the watch of this Liberal-Nationals government. We've seen massive corporates like Webster flourishing in this new regime, while other communities have withered on the vine. The independent assessment of social and economic conditions in the basin released a draft report last year. It found that there is a growing sense of hopelessness within the communities across the Murray Darling-Basin. We heard from people caught in a one-way conversation—overconsulted and under listened-to. Overconsulted by who? The government of announcements. These people have been under listened-to and underserviced by the government that fails to deliver in every policy area. Here in Canberra we see it day in and day out. The people who sent the Nats here to stand up for them know they have been profoundly let down by this government and its representation through the National Party.

The ACCC also released a report this year into the water markets, which noted:

… there are very few rules governing the conduct of market participants, and there is no specific agency to oversee trading activities …


… the complex nature of Basin water markets are best understood and leveraged by professional traders and large agribusinesses with the time and knowledge to analyse and navigate them

We heard evidence of people who have such speedy capacity because of their access to a particular internet speed and their digital capacity to trade water ahead of farmers who are trying to move it from one part of their farm in one valley to another, taking the power and control from the farmers. The government have known about it. This Liberal-National government have known about this and had eight years to do something about it. They have failed on every measure.

This area of water management, water access and the water market needs a significant and considered reform and it can't be delivered by a rolling litany of ministers going through the door, as the National Party tries to sort out who is in and who is out from time to time. No-one has proper care of this vital resource in the country. The Nats say it matters to them, but it only matters to them until it is politically expedient for it to not matter to them. That's why the people in regional New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland and South Australia are poorly represented here by this National Party. They're just pawns in their political games, while, out there, people who live off the land, who live in those communities and who love the communities, First Nations people who have documented cultural flows and their importance to their cultural identity and the benefit to their nations and the entire basin community have been completely ignored by this government—deaf to the pleas of the constituents they claim they stand for.

Currently in New South Wales, two-thirds of irrigators are non-compliant with new water-metering laws. This is now four years after a Four Corners report that found huge irrigators were tampering with their meters. They were dodgying it all up, pretending, reporting incorrect figures, turning meters off, turning meters on, turning meter dials back to indicate they had taken less. All of that was going on, the plundering of billions of litres from the Darling River, on the watch of the Liberal-National governments of New South Wales and of this government here in Australia. This was a massive eight-year failure, a log of failures by those who are not standing up for those in the regions of Australia.

As a former manager of the Department of Primary Industries strategic investigations noted in that documentary:

It was clear that not just one property was involved, that there was basically an entire river system that was seriously lacking accountability, and compliance with the water legislation of New South Wales.

These issues have to be resolved. They cannot be resolved by this government. It has failed for eight years; there's nothing different now.


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