Senate debates

Wednesday, 15 October 2008

Matters of Public Interest

Murray-Darling Basin

1:00 pm

Photo of Mary FisherMary Fisher (SA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Unfortunately, I feel compelled to rise on this occasion to explore the matter of very much public interest in the crisis facing the Murray-Darling Basin and in particular the concerns in that regard of my home state of South Australia, and indeed all Australians. South Australians and the rest of Australia want to know from where they will get their water, how they will get water and on what terms and conditions they get their water. Like most Australians, South Australians want to see Prime Minister Rudd’s evidence based plan to resolve the crisis facing the Murray-Darling Basin. They want to see an evidence based plan to bring water back into the system. They want to see the government’s transparent and evidence based plan to better collect, store and reuse water. And they want to see the Rudd government’s transparent and evidence based plan to distribute water in the short, medium and longer term.

There has been a fair bit of debate about bringing water back into the system and much public interest in the mechanisms being utilised thus far by the Rudd government to bring water back into the system. We have been talking about buybacks, we have been talking about investment in infrastructure to more efficiently use and reuse water, and we have been talking about mechanisms to better collect, store and use water. However, there has been much public interest but far less public debate about distributing water, be it distributing the water that is currently available, noting that the government says there is not enough, as well as seeing the government’s evidence based plan to distribute water in the medium and longer term. There has been far less public debate about that.

In terms of parliamentary and government context, we are part way through a Senate committee inquiry, initially focusing on the Lower Lakes and Coorong in my state of South Australia, and in the second place to report in early December focusing on the Murray-Darling Basin in the broad. In the context of that inquiry we have a government concluding that there is not enough water in the system. We have government members opposite referring to evidence given by witnesses before that committee to the effect that all users of the river are equal. In times of plenty, users are indeed able to be equal, at least hypothetically. But the government has failed to publicly acknowledge that, when times are not of plenty, priority needs to be given. Hard choices and hard decisions need to be made, which of necessity means that priority needs to be given to some users over others.

In another place the parliament is part way through considering a bill to amend the Water Act proposed by the government. That bill refers to the uses to which water can be put and attempts to assist the public debate on the term ‘critical human needs’. Thus far, to the extent that we have been able to look at the legislation, it potentially raises far more questions than it answers, and as currently drafted it potentially reinforces the current inconsistencies and inadequacies in the approach to who gets to use the water and on what terms and conditions.

Leading Adelaide ecologist Professor David Paton has long argued that the Murray-Darling Basin states have been unable to agree—in fact, they have disagreed long and hard—on an equitable distribution of water in the basin between the users and the environment. Professor Paton has recently publicly recognised that not only is there lack of equitable agreement in respect of the users versus the environment but also there is lack of agreement on equitable distribution between users of water. He expressed this on Adelaide radio recently by expressing his concern about the amount of River Murray water being secured for critical human use. In saying essentially that he thought less water needed to be taken out of the system, he said:

I still think the situation is dire. If you are serious about having a functional river that can support communities through the long term then clearly we are going to have to reduce the quantity of water that is currently being taken out for human use, et cetera.

Unfortunately, he must be right. State and federal governments have essentially been resorting to the use of the term ‘critical human needs’ to hand out water to those to whom they want to hand out water. In short, it has been able to be exploited for political expediency and for political purport. That must stop. The proposed amendments to the Water Act in this bill are the opportunity to bring that to an end—to provide the Australian and South Australian public with clear terms and conditions on who is entitled to water, when they are entitled to it and on what terms and conditions.

Why does it matter? In respect of so-called ‘critical human needs’, which one might think is obviously a term capable of definition, water so tagged by a government is effectively excised from the system. Those to whom water is notionally given for critical human needs get priority use of that water above all other users and uses. It is therefore imperative that the basis upon which such water is distributed and the terms and conditions upon which governments expect it to be used are clear. Thus far, that clarity and transparency unfortunately have been splendidly lacking.

It further matters because, once users have been given water for critical human needs, it is difficult to see how they would ever have that allocation discontinued. I illustrate this with some recent, more controversial examples of water allocated for critical human needs. The people of Australia have been told that about 200-plus gigalitres of water are being stored in Menindee Lakes in reserve for Adelaide’s critical human needs. Thus far the basis upon which the people of Adelaide should have resort to the water from Menindee Lakes for their critical human needs has not been satisfactorily demonstrated, particularly when it is arguable that, by the time Adelaide decides it may need access to that water, the water may well have evaporated.

Critical human needs has been used to justify the proposed construction of a weir at Wellington in South Australia. The Senate Standing Committee on Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport Committee has not heard with any clarity from the South Australian government the purpose for which it is proposing to build the weir at Wellington, but one of the purposes expressed thus far is to provide water for Adelaide. I would have thought the people of the Lower Lakes and Coorong would be entitled to have a reasonably dim view of a weir to provide water for so-called critical human needs for Adelaide, when, were it to be constructed, the weir arguably would prevent, at least in the short term, the lifeline of water—30 to 50 gigalitres—which the Senate committee found would be sufficient to enable the Lower Lakes and Coorong to carry on for the next 10 to 12 months. The people of the Lower Lakes and Coorong would be entitled to the view, I would have thought, that they have critical human needs, which are not being met. How have those so-called critical human needs been assessed and prioritised? Indeed, have they been?

Another controversial example is the proposed construction, approved by Minister Garrett, of the north-south pipeline to provide water to Melbourne—to provide water to a city for so-called critical human needs; to provide water to a city that currently does not rely on that source of water; to provide new water to a city under a COAG agreement. The COAG agreement was supposedly all about reducing the take of water from the Murray-Darling Basin system and bringing more water back in, yet we have a politically expedient agreement to dole out water for so-called critical human needs.

Yes, it does matter, because not only are users of water for critical human needs given top priority and not only is the water so tagged effectively excised from the system—not only is there that absoluteness—but, once a user is on, it is difficult to see that a government, particularly a state government, would want to preside over taking the user off. Indeed, when the Senate committee asked South Australian Minister Karlene Maywald her view as to whether Adelaide could be weaned off the Murray, she gave a very vague and unconvincing answer. Part of her answer seemed to be that there are pipelines and infrastructure to supply the city of Adelaide and we need to continue to provide for a one-in-100-year situation. She seems to be suggesting: we have already got the pipes there; we basically have to keep them wet in case we need them once every hundred years. Let us not fool ourselves into thinking that the city of Melbourne and the state government of Victoria would run a different answer once the city of Melbourne is plugged into the Murray-Darling Basin and has water running through the pipes.

The amendments to the Water Act unfortunately raise more questions than answers, but at least they attempt to address the issue. We look forward to the government providing answers to questions such as: why should it be that the bill provides highest priority water, for critical human needs, for communities dependent on Murray-Darling Basin water and conveyance water thereof? Why should communities already dependent upon the Murray-Darling Basin get higher priority just because they are already on the Murray-Darling Basin? Should not part of the assessment be whether or not they should be on there in the first place, or whether, as in the view of experts providing evidence, cities like Adelaide and Melbourne have choices that other users do not? They have choices in their water use that rural and regional users do not have. Should there not be an examination of why they are there in the first place and whether they are able to be taken off?

The bill talks about core human needs revolving around rural and urban centres. It talks about non-human needs and the prospect that not supplying water for those non-human needs could lead to social, economic and national security costs. We look forward to hearing from the government about what those terms mean and how they might be applied consistently and transparently across the nation. We must see clarity and transparency. We must not allow the resentment to continue to build about who is doing what and who is getting what—which is understandably building not only between states but also between users within states, cities and towns and among irrigators, farmers, communities and Ramsar wetlands. We must not continue to encourage, through a lack of transparency and a lack of consistency, that resentment. (Time expired)