Wednesday, 28 February 2007
Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport Committee; Reports
At the request of the Chair of the Senate Standing Committee on Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport, Senator Heffernan, I present the report on the provisions of the Murray-Darling Basin Amendment Bill 2006, the report on the provisions of the Airspace Bill 2006 and related bill, and the report on the provisions of the Airports Amendment Bill 2006, together with Hansard records of proceedings and documents received by the committee.
Ordered that the reports be printed.
I seek leave to move a motion in relation to the first report.
That the Senate take note of the report on the Murray-Darling Basin Amendment Bill 2006.
I want to briefly speak in relation to this bill. I acknowledge that we do not always speak in relation to reports on bills, but it is important that the Senate consider the report. This report is at least as interesting for its context as it is for its content. Whilst Labor is supportive of the bill and supports the report’s recommendations, we are perplexed as to how this bill will fit in with the proposed Murray-Darling arrangements, given the Prime Minister’s announcement some weeks ago.
Whilst the bill is consistent with the current legislative and governance framework for the Murray-Darling Basin, it is entirely inconsistent with the proposals which are currently being worked through by the states and the Commonwealth. Frankly, you would have to be living under a rock to miss those developments. In fact, they have been the subject of debate in the chamber today. I note that the report does acknowledge that the Prime Minister’s water plan will impact on the bill. In reference to the 25 January plan announced by the Prime Minister, paragraph 1.9 of the report states:
If implemented, this is likely to impact upon the operation of the bill.
That is certainly an understatement. In fact, the Prime Minister’s plan is largely inconsistent with many aspects of the framework that this bill is giving effect to. It seems that the right hand of government is not aware of what the left hand is doing. Why is the government introducing a bill that is likely to be superseded by arrangements which the government has already announced and is likely to be superseded before it is even voted on?
This bill was introduced in December 2006 on the last day of the last sitting. It contains amendments which would have streamlined and improved the financial operation of the Murray-Darling Basin Commission. So it appears that until mid-December 2006 at least the Commonwealth was not planning to take over the Murray-Darling Basin. If people in government did envisage the direction of the 25 January statement then the introduction of the bill on 7 December 2006 would appear quite misleading.
It is concerning that, whilst plenty of effort went into the 2006 bill, no-one appears to have told the parliament or the Senate committee that alternative and largely inconsistent and contradictory plans were being hatched. It is clear from the evidence the Senate has been presented with through Senate estimates and other mechanisms that more effort went into the writing of the Prime Minister’s speech than into the governance, finance and time lines of the original national water plan. We have had some evidence of that discussed today. We know from previous discussions that Senator Minchin has confirmed that the $10 billion water plan was not even considered by cabinet and, as we will recall, the senator ironically justified this by describing the package as ‘only one billion a year, which is less than half a per cent of Commonwealth government expenditure—let’s keep it in perspective’. This is an interesting perspective for a finance minister.
There was no economic modelling by Treasury or Finance, and it has been reported and discussed in here on a number of occasions that the Department of Finance and Administration was asked only to run an eye lightly over the costings, which were contained in a single page. None of the national water commissioners were briefed until the morning of the speech and, importantly in the context of this bill, Ian Sinclair has stated that the Murray-Darling Basin Commission was not asked for advice. The state and territory governments were given contrary advice at the time of the Melbourne Cup Day water summits, and finally we have the government introducing this bill, which assumes existing structures will remain intact and only proposes minor changes.
This bill really confirms that the Prime Minister’s announcement was not well planned. In fact the idea that the PM’s announcement was a well-planned and detailed proposition is frankly a fantasy. Information from key government officials and concerns raised by the National Farmers Federation indicate the lack of detail in the Prime Minister’s water plan and this could mean that important water programs are delayed. Mr Arthur from the NFF has stated that it will take more than a year to nail down the detail of the water plan. We have previously discussed what happened in Senate estimates. This included some questioning of Dr James Horne, the head of the government’s task force, who prepared the water plan. He was asked by me whether it was correct that:
The government has done no modelling of any impact on employment, no assessment of the numbers of people who might have to exit the industry and has not costed any price for purchasing entitlement.
Dr Horne agreed that was the case. He stated:
As far as it goes, that’s correct.
Now we have the National Party undermining the Prime Minister’s Murray-Darling Basin plan. We saw, under pressure from the National Party, the government’s line shifting. The rhetoric about sorting out water overallocation in the Murray-Darling Basin and buying back water entitlements was shifted back quite considerably within a few days. On 25 January the Prime Minister announced that the government’s plan would spend $3 billion buying back water entitlements in the Murray-Darling Basin. Less than a week later, the government was meekly saying that buying water entitlements would only be a last resort. The fact is that we know that the Nationals’ Peter McGauran, the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, has long opposed the government’s buying back of water entitlements. We have the unseemly spectacle of Mr McGauran and Mr Turnbull fighting over whether the Commonwealth should buy water licences from willing sellers.
We have a National Party state MP in NSW, Mr Piccoli, who has stated that he is determined to wreck the water plan proposed by the Prime Minister on 25 January. We want to see what Mr Vaile is going to say about this and whether he supports other members of his National Party—in fact those in his own branch.
The history of this bill has shone the light on a disorganised and disunited government which is hurriedly playing catch-up on water policy. Whilst we welcome the nature of the agreement reached last Friday on the Murray-Darling with most of the states, we are concerned as to the way this process has been undertaken. We have sought to play a constructive role in assisting to bring together the states with the Commonwealth. However, we remain of the view that addressing the overallocation of water entitlements must be a central component of resolving our crisis. Addressing Australia’s national water crisis is an urgent task requiring leadership and action as well as internal discipline, attention to detail and appropriate consideration of policy options. What we have is a bill before the chamber which is entirely inconsistent in many respects with the Prime Minister’s announcement on 25 January. It is simply more confirmation that this was a belated and hasty announcement that was not subject of proper consultation either internally or with the states and territories.
I will just take the opportunity to speak briefly on this, seeing it is now before the chamber. I do think that it needs to be emphasised how absurd the situation is. A piece of legislation was introduced into parliament late last year which is significantly at odds with a major announcement by the Prime Minister just a couple of months later. As Senator Wong said, it is a clear indication that basically the government are making this up as they go along. That is not adequate for such a serious issue.
The Democrats have long advocated a national approach to management of the Murray-Darling Basin, so we are certainly not critical in principle of the idea of what is going ahead. That makes all the more reason for us to be critical when such a process gets adopted in such a slapdash way. It reinforces the Democrats call for a proper Senate inquiry not into this piece of legislation but into what is actually happening, which is not this piece of legislation—a proper Senate inquiry into the total water package that the Prime Minister has put forward. Even the state premiers who have signed up to it have made clear that details are still being sorted out and nailed down. I believe it is very much in the public interest for further examination to take place via the Senate committee process to bring out into the open what is going on and what it will mean for the people affected. Clearly, the state governments in most cases have been just as sloppy and just as responsible for the debacle that has been dragging on for so long. Having some sort of political deal stitched up among all of the culprits, the ones most responsible for the shambles we are now in, is not my idea of the best outcome. We need much more transparency, a spotlight shone on it from the community’s point of view rather than just backroom stitch-ups by state and federal governments.
I also think that it is important to emphasise—particularly from the point of view of my own state of Queensland—that as part of all of this we even have left-field things thrown in after the Prime Minister’s announcement such as Queensland’s Premier Beattie unearthing once again the bizarre Bradfield scheme to redirect the rivers from the north down into the Murray-Darling Basin. Indeed, it has been stated by the federal government that that can be looked at as part of this northern water task force that Senator Heffernan is going to chair. I believe that all of these things need examination by a proper Senate committee inquiry. That is the parliament doing its job and it is particularly important given such a poor record by governments at all levels over such a prolonged period of time.
The other key point here—and again, Senator Wong went to this—is what is going on within the federal government. As recently as this week we are getting mixed messages about what is happening with the money and how it is going to be applied to ensure that adequate water is returned to the Murray-Darling Basin. That is what this is all about at the end of it all. It is about making the Murray-Darling Basin ecologically sustainable once again so that communities can continue to survive off it along with ecosystems, wetlands, biodiversity and flow-throughs to the mouth of the river—domestic supplies and the lot. That can only work if there is enough flow and enough water in the system that is not extracted. We have overallocation: how is it going to be addressed?
We still have a problem. Just yesterday in the House of Representatives question time in the answer to a question from, I think, Mrs Danna Vale to the National Party leader, we had Mr Vaile saying that as a last resort there will be a buying back of water entitlements from those who may wish to sell. This is a completely different message from the one being put out from Mr Turnbull. Frankly, we need to be willing as a last resort to have a buying back of licences from people who are not willing to sell, if that is what is needed. Otherwise, the whole package, the huge amount of public money that is potentially involved, is not going to reach its full value and is potentially going to be wasted. This is not something that you do half right and get a half-good result. If you cannot get past that crucial hurdle about adequate water in the system then all of the money spent getting you somewhere closer to it but not over it can be wasted. The damage can still be just as severe. So it is not a matter of halfway there is a good enough approach. We have been trying that for too long. That is why these things need to be sorted out.
It is not usual to speak to the tabling of reports pursuant to the Selection of Bills Committee reports, I might say, but given that the Senate gave leave, obviously the Senate believed it was sufficiently important to do so. This is actually an unusual situation. The complete dissonance between a major prime ministerial announcement not very long after a piece of legislation that came into this parliament seems like a classic example of the left hand not knowing what the right hand is doing. We heard earlier this afternoon that not even the hand of Finance knew what the hand of the Prime Minister was doing. The idea that it is only $10 billion so what does it matter is a disgracefully irresponsible one.
I do have to wonder sometimes: $10 billion over 10 years for a lot of people in government—particularly with the short-term mindset that applies in election years, where any amount of money can be promised for six, seven, eight, nine or 10 years down the track—is not real money anyway. Things change so much even from one year to the next that a promise that money will be spent six years hence is, frankly, a pretty shoddy one. I would love to hear Senator Abetz defend this government’s record with regard to their complete failure to deliver on their promises of so many funding packages. They promise massive amounts of money over an extended period of years and then when you get halfway through those years, surprise, surprise! It has been extended for another four years. Surprise, surprise! The money has not actually been spent. Or surprise, surprise! We only promised up to a certain number of billions of dollars. We did not actually promise we would spend that money; we said we would spend up to that amount. We see all the slippery tricks of the trade that this government has become a master of over the years.
We have the master of them all—a promise in an election year for money that is supposedly going to appear in 10 years time. I think the Senate has every right to examine this in great detail, and I think the public has every right to be sceptical of all sides of the arguments that are in play here. And, just to be balanced, they will be sceptical of not only the federal government but also some of the state governments when it comes to what is involved and what is really going on. It deserves greater scrutiny and I think this report and the specific curiosities it throws up are just one more reason why there is a very understandable level of scepticism in the community, despite the fact that some agreement has been reached. I welcome the fact there has been some agreement; I welcome the fact there has been some progress. But that is still far from a guarantee that it is actually going to deliver results.
Question agreed to.