Thursday, 27 November 2008
Water Amendment Bill 2008
Consideration resumed from 26 November.
In respect of this amendment we may need either to decide to call a quorum or, if you could let me know where we are up to, I can argue the case whilst I get an adviser. Perhaps if you wanted to add something to the debate, Senator Nash, I can then take a lead?
I will assist by saying that I believe we had concluded debate on this particular amendment yesterday. We are at the point where the amendment was going to be put.
Senator Nash is correct. However, we had just ordered an additional piece of information from the minister on the question of, if I remember correctly, the ACCC inquiry. I think the minister was just about answering a question that I had asked about whether the inquiry was able to look at the issues around third parties and the extent to which they could look at the restructuring, or potential restructuring, of a particular district. I was interested in what people are now calling a ‘Swiss cheese approach’ of just buying out particular properties and, as a result, additional expense being put on the whole of the district when those properties are bought out. That would have been my subsequent question in response to her answer. We left the debate yesterday with her saying that she thought that the ACCC was looking at some of that information and that their report was being provided to the minister. She said that the minister would then make a decision. So I am, in fact, still interested in getting an answer to that question because it will help us to decide how we should be voting on this inquiry. If the work, as the minister is saying, has already been done then I do not see any need to repeat it. But if that work is not being done, this inquiry would help to gain that information.
Senator Siewert is indeed right. I think we had reached that point yesterday but, if the amendment had been put at that point, we would not have been able to take into account that information. As I indicated yesterday, I was also very interested in hearing the response from the minister on that particular issue. My understanding, as I said yesterday, is that particularly within the industry there is not a level of comfort—that what Senator Siewert is trying to ascertain is indeed the case. I certainly understand that there has been some interaction between the industry and the ACCC. That having been the case, and with them still coming to the coalition with concerns about the process, it really leads me to believe that perhaps it is not the case that that third-party effect is going to be undertaken by the ACCC. Hence the need, we thought, for moving our amendment.
Again, just to reiterate from yesterday, there is going to be, as Senator Siewert and others have pointed out, a lot of adjustment throughout the communities. We are looking at bulk water holders and the impact on them of changes in arrangements, of potentially taking water out for a public good. We believe that needs to be very closely looked at to ensure there are not consequences flowing on from the act of taking that water out for that public good. So we feel that this amendment is entirely appropriate in making sure at the very least that there is a safeguard for this process. I am sure the minister will very shortly give us some advice on the workings of the ACCC and I am sure she will very definitively point out how it is all in hand and all being undertaken through the ACCC process. But our view is very clearly that this amendment is appropriate. It will work, at the very least, as a safeguard to ensure that the effect on third parties around the bulk water arrangements is taken very much into consideration.
I thank Senator Nash for enabling me to arrive in the chamber. I apologise to the chamber; I was somewhat delayed. I think I went through yesterday the issue of where the government is currently proceeding in relation to the ACCC and other matters. I think it might be useful if I perhaps go through where those inquiries are at. First, in relation to termination fees, which I think Senator Nash talked about on the last occasion when this amendment was being debated, they are a legitimate mechanism to do with third-party impacts of irrigators terminating access to an operator’s irrigation network. Obviously, one of the discussions that have been raised with me on a number of occasions is the quantum. Unsurprisingly, depending on where people are in that commercial arrangement, they have different views about that. Currently the schedule E protocol to the Murray-Darling Basin agreement on access, exit and termination fees requires that the termination fees only be allowed when an irrigator terminates access to the operation network and that the termination fee be capped at 15 times the annual fixed access or shadow access fee. My advice is that the 15 times limit was a decision of the previous government.
I do not know whether I should wait until Senator Siewert is able to listen; I do not know whether she wants me to explain this or not. In terms of the termination fee, which obviously is a legitimate mechanism, as I said, to deal with third-party impacts, the current arrangements are that, under schedule E to the agreement, the termination fee is capped at 15 times the annual fixed access or shadow access fee. As I understand it, that was a decision of the previous government predicated on advice which had been provided, including by the ACCC.
The Water Act, which passed through this parliament under the previous government, requires the Commonwealth minister to obtain and have regard to advice from the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission in making the water market and water charge rules to apply in the basin. I am advised the ACCC is undertaking an exhaustive three-stage process of consultation to develop these rules. In July of this year, in response to stakeholder feedback—I emphasise also at the request of the ACCC—I extended the deadline for the ACCC to provide its advice in order to allow more time for stakeholder consultation. Currently the ACCC is due to provide its final advice on rules for termination fees and water market rules to me next month. The draft rules for termination fees provide for operators to levy termination fees but only when they choose to terminate access to the operator’s network and recommend that termination fees be capped at 10 times the annual fixed access fee. I am advised this provides 12 to 15 years of annual access fees. So that is the mechanism by which third-party impact is managed.
The draft rules also provide for the ACCC to approve the imposition of higher termination fees where contained in new or existing contracts. For those operators worried about security against irrigators transforming and trading out without paying termination fees or ongoing access fees, the draft water market rules provide for operators to obtain security. There is obviously no clear formula by which we can calculate the correct termination fee multiple. Setting the multiple is not a deterministic process but takes into account a range of competing objectives. In recommending in the draft rules the termination fee level be at 10 times the access fee, the ACCC has attempted to strike the right balance between providing, on the one hand, investment certainty for operators and irrigators and, on the other hand, incentives for rationalisation to promote the efficient delivery of required services and water trade.
I pause there to emphasise that point. I think Senator Siewert asked, if not yesterday, perhaps last night, about third-party impacts. As I said, a termination fee is one of the ways in which one manages that. It is important to recognise the countervailing policy considerations, and that is that an excessive termination fee—and I appreciate people may have different views as to what that will mean—clearly operates as a barrier to the sort of rationalisation or adjustment we know will be required in the industry. So there are balancing policy objectives here in terms of ensuring that you have a certain investment environment so as to provide an appropriate and sufficient level of investment certainty without, at the same time, creating barriers to the sort of adjustment that we know will need to occur and which irrigators may want.
The government believes it is prudent to monitor any new regulatory arrangements to ensure that they have the desired effect in terms of setting appropriate rules for the market and for market participants and do not have any unintended consequences. To this end, the draft rules recommend a review of the water charge rules, which would include termination fees, to commence by 2012 and conclude by 2013.
I trust that that assists the chamber in terms of some of the questions which arose yesterday in relation to this amendment. I suggest that a range of the issues that Senator Nash has raised concerns about are already being considered by government and I am certainly happy, if senators are seeking it, to provide further information after the ACCC has provided to me their final advice on termination fees and water market rules.
I move opposition amendment (1) on sheet 5664 revised:
(1) Schedule 2, page 318 (after line 32), after item 162, insert:
162G At the end of Part 12
- 263 Lower Lakes and Coorong emergency assistance
(1) As soon as practicable after the commencement of this section, the Government must determine an assistance package of a minimum $50 million for Lower Lakes and Coorong communities to help farmers, small businesses, tourism and community sectors to respond to the crisis caused by the lack of water.
(2) Payments of assistance in accordance with a scheme determined under subsection (1) are to be made from money appropriated by the Parliament for that purpose.
There has been a lot of discussion, particularly over the last few months, about the Lower Lakes and the Coorong. Indeed, I participated in one of the inquiries that went to the Senate Standing Committee on Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport looking particularly into the state of the Lower Lakes and the Coorong and into what arrangements might be necessary to assist. It looked at, initially, the state determining whether there was any water able to go south to the Lower Lakes and the Coorong and what steps governments should take to remedy the situation. One of the recommendations that came forward from coalition senators at that time was that there was a very distinct need for assistance for the Coorong and the Lower Lakes given the very dire situation that they were in.
With this amendment we are intending to require the government to determine an assistance package of a minimum of $50 million for the Lower Lakes and the Coorong. This is to assist communities, farmers, small businesses and the tourism and community sectors to respond to the crisis which has been caused by this lack of water. We think it is an entirely appropriate amendment. We believe that the financial assistance that would then be put forward from the government would go a significant way to alleviating the hardship being experienced by the people in that region at the moment.
I have a question for the minister that may be related. Minister, I want to ask about the definition of ‘conveyance water’ in the bill. I am sure you are very familiar with it. I am referring to schedule 1, item 2, page 12, lines 22 to 24 of the bill which defines conveyance water as:
Minister, can you explain the intent of the inclusion of the words in that definition ‘as far downstream as Wellington in South Australia’?
I assume the senator is aware of what conveyance water is—I was actually asked by a senator in a division the other day what it is. It is additional water to the water that is used required to ensure delivery. So you need to release more water than you actually need at the other end, for obvious reasons, because of the losses on the way. These words were agreed through the IGA process, including with South Australia; this is a critical human need of communities around the Lower Lakes below Wellington. The Senate would be aware that we are already funding a pipeline network for those purposes to the tune of $120 million to enable towns and communities, as well as irrigators who are currently relying on the Lower Lakes, to connect to a higher point on the Murray.
Senators may be aware that earlier this month I visited that area with Premier Rann and Minister Maywald to inspect and announce the work that had already been commenced, and in fact was proceeding quite rapidly, on 130 kilometres of pipeline to supply potable water to households and properties around Langhorne Creek and Raukkan and also to the Narrung and Poltalloch peninsulas. The definition is agreed with South Australia and, in relation to the Lower Lakes and the Coorong, the critical human needs are being secured by the mechanisms, including a very substantial amount of funding, that I described.
I am advised that Wellington is the end of the regulated system, and that portion of the river—as the senator would know—includes the off-takes for Adelaide’s water supply. My advice is that it is the end of the easily regulated system. I am not sure if that is, in fact, a term. The point is, the off-takes to Adelaide are upstream of Wellington, as the senator would know.
Yes, I do know the off-takes for Adelaide are upstream. My question, in both legal and practical terms, relates to what is not upstream of Wellington, to what is downstream of Wellington. If I understand the definition of ‘conveyance water’ correctly, it means that conveyance water would not be provided beyond Wellington—in other words, conveyance water would not be provided under the bill for anything downstream of Wellington. Is that right?
I anticipated that proposition, which is why I made the point about the $120 million the government is already putting in place to ensure potable water. I hope the Liberal Party in South Australia are considering very seriously their position on this bill. There are a range of significant advantages in the bill for South Australia. One of them is, for the first time, the formalisation of arrangements which have worked informally until now through the process that the former Prime Minister and other former ministers established, I think on Melbourne Cup day 2006, to deal with the extraordinarily low levels of inflow and to ensure that critical human needs were met. What we have achieved through this legislation—and South Australian senators from all sides of the chamber should be aware of this—is to obtain agreement from the states, including the upstream states, to formalise those arrangements, thereby giving a far greater level of water security to South Australians.
I know the political point that Senator Fisher is trying to make. We are addressing the issue of the supply of potable water to the Lower Lakes communities, as I have described, through the pipeline mechanism. But this is not a problem where there is a quick and easy fix. It is certainly not a problem that her government was able to find any solution to in 12 years. We are facing an extremely difficult situation, as senators are aware, in the Lower Lakes and Coorong—as we are, frankly, at many wetlands upstream. Senator Fisher can try and make some points about a definition here, but the fact is that this is a more beneficial set of provisions for your state, Senator, than your government ever achieved in the Turnbull bill and, frankly, it should be supported.
My point is not political. My question is trying to ascertain the basis of the critical human water needs being met for communities below Wellington in South Australia. I am endeavouring to understand the basis upon which—the reasons why—the definition in the bill does not contemplate conveyance water for critical human water needs going any further than Wellington in South Australia. I am trying to establish the reasons why it is seen fit to have those communities rely on external mechanisms rather than conveyance water and critical human needs water, which the bill sees as appropriate for the rest of the basin. I am trying to ascertain and understand the reasons why it is not seen as appropriate for communities downstream of Wellington in South Australia.
The off-takes for Adelaide and the communities which I have outlined around the Lower Lakes—Langhorne Creek, Raukkan and the Narrung and Poltalloch peninsulas—will be upstream of Wellington. Second, in terms of delivery of water to those communities, given the situation in the Lower Lakes, the most reliable way of delivering water to those communities in the current circumstances is through the pipelines network that the federal government is funding.
I would like to put on record the Greens’ support for the coalition amendment here. I think it is really important that we do something to support the communities who rely on the Lower Lakes and the Coorong. We know that the lack of water has been devastating for people in those communities. We know that, even though we hate to talk about these things, the level of suicide in those communities is increasing. That is how desperate the situation is for people whose businesses are folding, whose schools are closing, whose lifestyles and livelihoods are on the brink of collapse because they just do not know what the future holds for them. We need to be doing whatever we can to support those communities, whether it is transitioning to other types of industries or whether it is giving them a bit of a stopgap measure until we get some increased flows. I am quite concerned—and I spoke about this in my speech in the second reading debate—that this bill as it stands does very little for the Lower Lakes and the Coorong area to respond to the desperate and urgent need for increased flows and support for the community. The opposition should be commended for this amendment.
I would just like to echo the words of Senator Nash and Senator Hanson-Young in particular in support of this amendment. The opposition has, particularly throughout the course of the second reading and committee stage debates of this legislation, sought to recognise that many communities are stressed throughout the system. We have sought to do this by calling for structural adjustment funding throughout the basin system. We have sought to do this by calling for support for exit grants and packages that are necessary throughout the system. In doing so, we have recognised that, right throughout the Murray-Darling Basin system, many, many communities are under stress, particularly irrigation communities in my home state—and the home state of Senator Hanson-Young, Senator Fisher and the minister—of South Australia. We recognise that those Riverland irrigation communities are under particular stress and pressure.
But coming down through the system, with this, one of the last amendments that we propose, we recognise that the Lower Lakes communities are also under pressure. We have recognised, throughout the second reading debate and the committee stage debate, the strains that communities throughout the basin system have been facing. We now recognise that the Lower Lakes communities equally are feeling particular pressure. We have seen thousands upon thousands of South Australians protest in support of those Lower Lakes communities, protest in support of delivering additional water and additional support for the communities there, particularly the people of Goolwa, who are very passionate and are urging the state government and others to consider alternative proposals. This amendment tries to help them through the tough times. Just as we have sought to find ways to help irrigators through the tough times, we see this as a way to try to help those businesses, those tourism operators, those many people suffering throughout the Lower Lakes through the tough times. I commend the amendment to the house.
I support the comments of my colleagues Senators Nash and Birmingham and also many of the sentiments put by Senator Hanson-Young. The state of the Lower Lakes and Coorong in South Australia has now been well documented and I think is recognised, as it needs to be. I recognise that there are measures in progress to provide some assistance for the Coorong and the Lower Lakes. The trouble is that it is becoming too little and we fear that it will be too late. These initiatives need to be progressed more quickly and, pending progress of those initiatives, the opposition sees the need for the sorts of measures outlined in this amendment.
It is very good that the South Australian government, particularly Minister Maywald, in the last couple of days has been able to announce the pumping into Lake Bonney in the Riverland in South Australia of 10 gigalitres of water over the next two months, designed to stop Lake Bonney from becoming acidic and in particular to save, for example, the Murray cod, which are attempting to continue to inhabit Lake Bonney. It is very good that the state government and the federal government through national initiatives have found a way to find 10 gigalitres of water to pump into Lake Bonney in the Riverland in South Australia in the next two months. However, I do note that through the recent Senate committee process coalition senators and others, including the Greens and Independents, were cognisant of evidence given to that inquiry that 30 to 60 gigalitres would be very prudent at the very least in respect of Coorong and the Lower Lakes. So it is very pleasing that state and federal governments through a national system have found a way to secure 10 gigalitres to be pumped into Lake Bonney in the next two months. It does raise a question as to when the same mechanism will be able to deliver 30 to 50 gigalitres required to help Coorong and the Lower Lakes.
I indicate my support for this amendment and I support the sentiments expressed by Senators Fisher, Hanson-Young and Birmingham in relation to this. The people of the Lower Lakes are bearing the brunt of years and years of policy inaction and mismanagement of the river upstream, and I think it is entirely appropriate that there be this additional package. I think it would be churlish not to acknowledge the assistance that the Commonwealth has given in terms of the pipeline project and a number of other measures. That needs to be acknowledged and it is welcome. But I believe this additional assistance is warranted in the context of the additional pressures the people of the Lower Lakes have been facing, through no fault of their own, as a result of not only the double whammy of drought and climate change but also the fundamental issues of overallocation and of mismanagement of the river system upstream.
I want to respond first to Senator Hanson-Young’s contribution. Senator Hanson-Young says the opposition should be commended. I want to place on record here that I think with respect to the Greens, or certainly from that comment from Senator Hanson-Young, they are becoming dangerously close to becoming apologists for the Liberal Party in terms of their approach to the Murray. I do not mind the crossbenchers holding governments accountable; you should do that. But what I do mind—
Mr Temporary Chairman, I raise a point of order. The minister can say what she likes, but I think if we are going to have this debate get to a personal slur match it is not going to enhance the outcome for the people in the basin. I think we should get back to debating the matters at hand.
I want to make these points and perhaps remind the chamber, including the crossbenchers, of the Liberal Party’s position and the National Party’s position on water. I hope that the Greens when they hold us to account also hold to account those opposite for failing to do anything for 12 years. I hope when they hold us to account they also hold the opposition to account for their criticism of water purchase, which I understood the Greens to support and which this government has had the courage, in the face of very significant opposition upstream, to continue. I hope that, just as the opposition is commended for moving an amendment, the Greens would also commend the government for, in the face of significant political opposition, continuing water purchases because we believe it is the right thing to do.
I hope when people criticise the government for its perceived failures that there is also a recognition of statements being made by opposition frontbenchers such as, ‘Minister Wong’s decision to buy $3.1 billion of water entitlements guarantees that communities currently in the worst drought in living memory will go from a natural drought to a Rudd-made drought.’ I hope those sorts of comments are the subject of criticism from the Greens and from Liberal senators like Senator Birmingham who say we should buy more. I hope when we talk about the Lower Lakes that Liberal senators who stood up in here and said that we should save the Lower Lakes will come out and condemn frontbenchers of their own party who say that we should open the barrages to the Lower Lakes. But I have not heard Senators Birmingham and Fisher do that.
People criticise this government for seeking to move to free up water trading and to negotiate to remove the caps that limit that trading. I hope that those who think we should do that also criticise Liberal frontbenchers who criticise those efforts, such as Dr Stone, and say those caps should not be removed. So let us inject into this debate a little bit of fairness, a little bit of policy rigour, because I for one am tired of this debate not recognising the extraordinary inconsistencies of those opposite. Senators Birmingham and Fisher can come in here and talk about the Lower Lakes but refuse to roll people in their own party who are critical of water purchases.
We had the extraordinary situation in Senate estimates where we talked about a 1,500-gigalitre target. I think the Greens have been on record wanting double that. My recollection, Senator Brown, is that in one of the elections you indicated 3,000 gigalitres. That is reasonable for an environmental party to push; I accept that. We had Senator Joyce saying, in front of everybody, to Senator Birmingham, ‘We don’t support that.’ This is the alternative government. What is their policy? What is their position? So all I say to those from an environmental perspective who commend the opposition is this: I trust you will be reasonable enough and fair enough and recognise your own constituency enough to also condemn them for the great many things that they either failed to do or still are not supportive of.
In terms of this Lower Lakes issue, the same sorts of inconsistencies by those opposite that I have already outlined are really most patent. Senators, you cannot come in here professing that you do everything for the people of the Lower Lakes and professing that you want to see water returned to that area unless you are prepared to do the hard yards and roll those in your party who are opposed to water purchases and who have described this purchasing as a ‘Rudd-made drought’. You cannot have it both ways, because ultimately people will judge you by what you do, not by what you say. You speak but you do not act. You do not come out and say, ‘They’re wrong.’ You do not come out and say, ‘This is our position.’ You do not come out and say: ‘Yes, we will do this. We will purchase. We will ensure that those upstream know that the Victorian Liberals and the National Party members who are opposed to purchases, those who are critical of purchases, do not represent the views of Mr Turnbull and the party.’ I actually think Mr Turnbull does think we should do something, but clearly he and those around him are unable to control the members of the National Party who are running this debate in the Senate and the members of their own front bench who are more interested in speaking to their local constituency and not dealing with the big problem.
Opposition senators interjecting—
The reality is the honourable thing to do is not to play local politics and build on people’s fears but to be upfront with them about what reality we confront in the basin. This government is actually prepared to do that. We are prepared to say upfront to these communities: ‘Yes, we think you have to adjust. We think all in the Murray-Darling Basin have to adjust. That is why we are doing what we are doing. That is why we are prepared to purchase.’
In relation to the assistance that is proposed here, my recollection is that, although those opposite never made a formal funding decision to allocate structural adjustment, they are now requiring that of this government. I assume, given their position, that they would want that taken out of the water purchase entitlement. I do not know, in terms of this agreement or this position between the Greens and the Liberal Party, whether that has been agreed. I want to make the point that this government has done more in one year to assist this community than was ever done by those opposite. I would hope, just as Senator Hanson-Young commends the Liberal Party for an amendment requiring $50 million to be paid—
Senator Hanson-Young, I hope you will also commend this government for having the courage to purchase water for the first time—I hear silence. I hope you will also commend this government—
Mr Temporary Chairman, I rise on a point of order. I do not know what the minister had for breakfast but the point of order here is that she must not encourage the flouting of standing orders by talking across the floor. She should be addressing her remarks through you, Mr Temporary Chairman.
Through you, Mr Temporary Chairman, I note Senator Hanson-Young is prepared to interject to criticise the government but not when I say that perhaps it is reasonable for the Greens, consistent with their policy position, to commend the government for having the courage to be the first government in the nation’s history to purchase water. I hope also that when people talk about the Lower Lakes they might recognise that, while those opposite can move an amendment, we are actually the ones putting money on the ground. We have committed some $320 million in total to the Lower Lakes and Coorong: $120 million for piping to secure the water needs of the communities which were discussed in the previous amendment, plus $200 million for a lasting solution as to the Lower Lakes for the South Australian government. We are working with them to develop that. These are important reforms.
We know that much more needs to be done. Yes, I do have a personal understanding of this area, Senator Hanson-Young, but the problems in the Lower Lakes are problems which are endemic to the system as a whole, particularly the southern basin. And, as many environmentalists have said, this is the most obvious example of the legacy that we—all of us—have inherited, particularly this government in having to address it, and is most obvious at the Lower Lakes. There are a great many wetlands, a great many environmental assets upstream which are also under pressure. I have spoken before in this place about a visit which made a great impression on me: I went to Bottle Bend near Mildura and an irrigator talked to me about the fact that the acidity levels in that billabong were equivalent to sulfuric acid.
There are environmental pressures throughout this system. That is why we are committed to purchasing: because that is the fastest way to return water to the system. Again, it is opposed by many of those opposite. Senator Nash can get up and say, ‘We support water purchases but in the right environment, in the right circumstances.’ There are many on your frontbench who do not, and they are on the record as saying it. That is why we are investing in infrastructure return efficiencies to the river, and I notice again that the shadow minister and others have been critical of the government for not rolling this out. Firstly, we have rolled out more than was ever the case under the previous government. Secondly, we know that investing in irrigation infrastructure is the right thing to do to ensure that the economic base for those communities continues to be viable and productive. But we also know that savings yielded through that process take far longer to be returned to the river simply by virtue of the nature of getting those projects out.
I simply want to place on record here that this is a government that takes this issue seriously and that is undertaking practical measures to address these issues. We are making progress. A solution will not be achieved overnight and I do not think anybody—if they are honest—in this chamber believes that. We do not support this amendment. We point to what we are already doing and that is providing $200 million for a lasting solution to the Lower Lakes, $120 million for pipelines and a continued program of returning water to this system in order to improve its health, because that is what is demanded in the basin.
The minister said that we need to inject a little bit of fairness into the debate. I would also like to inject a little bit of history into the debate. The Greens for years and years have been calling on calling for action for the Murray, for the entire basin. We have continuously criticised whatever side of this chamber was in government and called for better action, for better foresight in seeing what we needed to do to tackle the overallocation issue and its implications for communities further downstream. I would like to remind the minister that when this bill first came into play it was the Greens that were moving amendments to strengthen the arrangements, to strengthen the impact on saving the river Murray, saving the basin and giving communities hope and security. There was very little support from either side—either the then opposition, the Labor Party, or the then government, the coalition. So as well as injecting a little bit of fairness, I think we also need to inject a little bit of history.
Even as recently as yesterday, the Greens stood up and acknowledged the good things the government has done on this issue over the last 12 months. But we are talking here about an amendment to give some immediate relief to those communities in the Lower Lakes and the Coorong. We acknowledge that things are happening slowly and further down the track in terms of trying to offer security to these communities, but this package is about trying to relieve the pressure that the communities feel now—and it is important to do that. It is a shame that the minister cannot see that that is an important thing that these communities need right now. They need this support right now. They need action right now.
We have probably been debating this bill for close to 10 hours, through the second reading stage and the committee stage. Throughout those debates, at numerous intersections, Minister Wong has accused us and others in the chamber—but particularly those of us on this side—of playing politics with the debate. She has accused us of being overtly political throughout the debate. Perhaps the pot should look in the mirror at the kettle, because we just had 15 minutes of overt politics, of totally playing politics. However, it is not for the first time in this debate by any means—for the umpteenth time, the minister has felt the need, particularly during this committee stage, to hector and lecture on political point-scoring matters.
I would like to think that we will have robust debates here and yes, Minister, we will actually have robust political debates too—you know that and I know that; we are all grown-ups and we all recognise that politics will be engaged in just as the issues will be engaged in—but do not lecture us on the one hand about playing politics and then give us 15-minute political lectures on the other hand.
The minister knows full well that the process of funding buybacks was started by Mr Turnbull. The minister knows equally well that it was also not long before the election that the Water Act was passed; it was passed only a couple months prior to the election. It was one of the last pieces of legislation dealt with in this chamber. Minister, you know that. You know very well that that is the case. If it had not been for the fact that Minister Turnbull had allocated $10 billion of funding in last year’s budget, you would not have managed to get the funding through the razor gang this year. You would not have managed to get the extra funding that was required to have that $10 billion to be able to do these things. So you owe Mr Turnbull a lot for the fact that he put the process in place. He started things going. He started the ball rolling. Indeed, if your Victorian Labor Party counterparts had not been playing politics with this issue throughout the course of last year, throughout the lead-up to the last election, more may well have been able to be done. The minister obviously feels like she needs a little bit more loving today. She wants some commendation. Minister, I am happy to commend you.
I thank the minister for that interlude. I am sure my fiance, who is looking—I hope—to meet me on the aisle in a week or two will not be getting too concerned about any arrangements that we may have. Nonetheless, I will not give the minister the loving but I will give her the commendation. I commend the minister for the fact that building has started on the pipelines to the Lower Lakes and the Narrung Peninsula for the communities there.
It is noteworthy that two years ago, when this proposal was first made, the South Australian government were not calling for those pipelines to be built. Of course they were not calling for them to be built, because at that stage the water levels in the lakes were higher than they have been this year. At that stage, the process was in crisis but not so much in crisis. At that stage, they did not see piping water to the lakes as the solution; this year they did. And I recognise that the government acted and acted quickly to support them.
The question I pose, though, is: if the government can build infrastructure for the Lower Lakes communities so quickly, if it can fund that infrastructure so very quickly and get works happening on the ground so quickly, why can’t it do it elsewhere? That infrastructure is important. It provides water security for the Lower Lakes communities, but it does not actually save any water. It is not the type of infrastructure that is about increasing efficiencies in irrigation elsewhere throughout the system. It is purely infrastructure that provides security to the communities. That is critical, but it is not the water-saving infrastructure that is so desperately needed throughout the rest of the basin. If non-water saving infrastructure can be put on the ground and started within a matter of months then why can’t other projects where hundreds of gigalitres of water could potentially be saved—the Menindee Lakes and elsewhere—be done in months, not years? That is what we should expect from the government when it comes to delivery across the basin, not just in that one community.
What was noteworthy throughout the minister’s 15-minute contribution was that she barely mentioned the communities. Senator Hanson-Young was right to draw the debate back to the Lower Lakes communities and to the point of this very amendment, which is to ensure that some tangible support is provided to those communities. The tangible support that we have called for is to assist irrigators and communities throughout the basin to help them survive the tough times they are in. The minister was right when she said that progress would not be achieved overnight. That is why these communities need support. They need support because progress will not be achieved overnight, and they need support to be able to sustain themselves into the future. They need support so that all the businesses do not close their doors, so that all the farmers do not leave their properties, so that the marinas are not put out of business by all the boats having to be taken to other marinas, so that the tourism industry and other industries in the area are not decimated, so that the schools stay open and so that the facilities of those communities are sustained through the difficult times until progress is made. That is why this amendment is critically important. That is why it should be supported by this house. I commend it to the Senate.
Just very briefly, I will not counter all the issues that Senator Birmingham put on the record. Robust political debate—I am up for that. I do not think you would accuse me otherwise, Senator Birmingham. But I think there is a political game playing that people should be called on when what they say and what they do are so different. I note that Senator Birmingham, despite his professed support for purchases et cetera, has always failed to condemn or clarify that his government’s position is not that articulated by Dr Stone—
Sorry, opposition. Thank you, Senator Birmingham—that his party’s position is not that of Dr Stone, Mr Cobb or Senator Joyce. The relevant shadow minister, who clearly does not have the internal party political power to deliver this, has never come out and said that Senator Joyce, Dr Stone and Mr Cobb et al are wrong. So my point about playing politics is that people will judge this government and the opposition, as the alternative government, not simply by what they say but by what they do.
I think a number of times in this debate I have been in the rather odd position of being the defender of the Turnbull act. I do acknowledge that Mr Turnbull commenced this process. He did not achieve very much but he did commence this process, and he did get an act through that Senator Nash, on behalf of your party or your opposition, has moved amendments to. We have defended the Turnbull legislation on certain—
No. I leave that to you, Senator Hanson-Young. It is not a perfect act. That is why we have brought forward a very substantial bill to amend it. But there are a couple of key areas where the opposition has moved amendments to its own act. When this comes back from the lower house it will be a test of Mr Turnbull’s leadership. It will be a test of whether those in the opposition who have professed concern on these issues are actually able to stand up to those also on that side who do not want water purchases and who want to continue to oppose it. It will be a test of Mr Turnbull’s leadership as to whether or not those extreme elements inside the coalition will scuttle a piece of legislation that is so important.
I accept that there are differences of views about whether this bill goes as far as people want. There are differences of views from Senator Xenophon and from the Greens, and a different set of differences of views at times from the Nationals and the Liberal Party. But, ultimately, when this comes back from the lower house the test will be whether you are prepared to back genuine reform or whether you are prepared to scuttle it in the interests of playing politics. I would suggest that that latter path will really demonstrate that what you say and what you do are poles apart.
Senator Hanson-Young has really covered the field, but I just want to comment on the minister’s approach to this. As the minister said, the Greens have been campaigning to get action on the Murray-Darling Basin for many years, and that included a 3,000-gigalitre guaranteed flow. We campaigned for that because the scientific evidence was that one quarter of the flow should be guaranteed for environmental purposes. If only the Howard government had acted on that we would not now be looking at a river system in such a parlous state. Indeed, it may have helped if the Labor opposition at the time had been apologists for the Greens and supported the position that we were putting.
We are now debating a very serious piece of legislation; it is a major piece of legislation for the minister. But the whole role of this Senate and its committee system is to, through the community, improve legislation where we can. If the government or the opposition have amendments that the Greens consider meritorious then we will be supporting them. I can make the opposition relaxed by telling them that we are not going to be defrayed from that by Minister Wong’s talk about apologists. The only thing that we do not want to do is have to apologise to the community for denying good amendments on the basis of a political stand. This amendment has merit for the reasons that Senator Hanson-Young and Senator Birmingham have outlined. It is our intention to support it.
I understand that there are other things happening and that there are other things further down the track that you will do to try and support the sustainability of those local communities. But, if you are not prepared to support this rescue package for the immediate relief that these communities need, what is it that you will do?
We can open up this debate again. We are opposing this because we are already doing things for this region—very substantially more than is proposed. This was a Mayo by-election Liberal Party policy stunt, and I think that people know that. We are already putting substantial amounts of assistance into that region. We have taken a consistent position that the best way of ensuring viability for communities throughout the basin—because we as a government have to look at the basin as a whole—and the best way governments can use taxpayers’ funds to assist communities in the basin is to investment in irrigation infrastructure so that we can ensure the economic base of the communities that are reliant in part or substantially on irrigation and so we can assist them to adjust to a future where there is less water. I am not sure that I can add anything further. I understand the position that your party is taking and I have outlined the government’s position.
That the amendment (Senator Nash’s) be agreed to.
by leave—I move Greens amendments (1) and (2) on sheet 5660 together with the exception of clauses 10 and 11:
(1) Page 326 (after line 32), at the end of the bill, add:
- Schedule 4—Amendments related to the recognition of Indigenous water rights
- Water Act 2007
- 1 After paragraph 3(d)
(da) to give recognition to Indigenous water rights and delivery of cultural flows; and
- 2 Subsection 4(1)
cultural flows are water entitlements that are legally and beneficially owned by the Indigenous Nations of a sufficient and adequate quantity and quality to improve the spiritual, cultural, environmental, social and economic conditions of those Indigenous Nations.
- 3 Subsection 4(1)
cultural water has the meaning given by section 6A.
- 4 Subsection 4(1) (definition of relevant international agreement)
After paragraph (h), insert:
- 5 After section 6
- 6A Cultural water
(1) Cultural water comprises water entitlements derived from cultural flows.
(2) Cultural water within the Basin can be used for the following purposes:
(a) empowerment and social justice—water is delivered to Country by the peoples;
(b) growing native plants;
(c) protecting and hunting animals;
(d) song, dance, art and ceremony;
(e) spiritual sites;
(f) improved cultural, economic and health outcomes through the provision of food, medicines and materials for art.
- 6 At the end of section 21
Basin Plan to recognise the right to cultural water
(8) The Basin Plan must be prepared so as to recognise cultural flows and provide recognition of entitlements to cultural water.
Note: cultural water has the meaning given by section 6A.
- 7 After paragraph 22(3)(e)
(ea) the recognition of cultural flows and entitlements to cultural water; and
- 8 At the end of subsection 28(1)
; and (f) recognise cultural flows and entitlements to cultural water.
- 9 At the end of subsection 178(3)
; (h) Indigenous water rights and cultural flows.
- 12 At the end of subsection 202(7)
; or (e) uses water as cultural water.
Note: cultural water has the meaning given by section 6A.
(2) Clause 2, page 2 (table item 4), omit “Schedule 3”, substitute “Schedules 3 and 4”.
These amendments are related to the recognition of Indigenous water rights. This is a very important issue. Members of this chamber will be aware that the Greens have been pursuing the issue of cultural water flows for quite some time. I moved some similar amendments previously, when we were debating the Water Act 2007. This very importantly deals with not only Indigenous water rights but also establishing cultural flows in the Murray-Darling Basin.
Indigenous nations are, and have been since time immemorial, connected to and responsible for their lands and waters. The peoples of every Indigenous nation obtain and maintain their spiritual and cultural identity, life and livelihood from their lands and waters. In addition, Indigenous nations each have responsibilities and obligations under their Indigenous law and custom to protect, conserve and maintain the environment and ecosystems in their natural state to ensure the sustainability of the whole environment.
In November 2007, Indigenous peoples for the nations represented within MLDRIN, which is the Murray Lower Darling Rivers Indigenous Nations, met in Echuca to come to an agreement on the definition of cultural flows and to discuss the impacts and benefits. The Indigenous nations of the Murray-Darling Basin have been working on this for quite some time and are very keen to ensure that their water rights are recognised and that cultural flows are provided for in the Murray-Darling Basin plan.
I would just like to remind the chamber that it is often cited that within Australia the percentage of land in the Indigenous estate is around 20 per cent. However, in the Murray-Darling Basin, Indigenous peoples currently hold less than 0.2 per cent of the land, despite comprising around four per cent of the basin’s population and despite land reforms such as the New South Wales Aboriginal Land Rights Act 1983 and the Native Title Act 1993. In other words, Aboriginal people’s connection to and involvement in the management of the Murray-Darling Basin has been extensively broken over a considerable period of time. We believe it is about time that we start recognising this and making provisions for Indigenous water rights and cultural flows.
The right to access water is supposed to be provided by the National Water Initiative and other Commonwealth and state mechanisms, but many of these are contingent upon positive native title determinations. Given the current disparity of Aboriginal land tenure within the Murray-Darling Basin, we believe access to water for Indigenous peoples has been severely limited and restricted. Unfortunately, until relatively recently, cultural flows have not been on the political agenda in Australia. They have not been part of the discussions on natural resource management. So, while Australia has moved on and is finally starting to recognise environmental water flows and the importance of natural resource management, we still have not adequately incorporated Indigenous knowledge, expertise and experience into natural resource management. As I said, making provision for cultural flows, in particular, still has not been fully and properly incorporated into our decision making.
MLDRIN defines cultural flows as water entitlements that are legally and beneficially owned by the Indigenous nations and that are of a sufficient and adequate quality and quantity to improve the spiritual, cultural, environmental, social and economic conditions of those Indigenous nations. Cultural water flows have many benefits and impacts. These include empowerment and social justice, where water is delivered to country by the peoples. They further include growing native plants, protecting and hunting animals, song and dance, art and ceremony, spiritual sites and improved cultural, economic and health outcomes through the provision of food, medicines and materials for art.
The difference between environmental and cultural water is that cultural water is the Indigenous peoples themselves deciding where and when water should be delivered, based on traditional knowledge and aspirations. This ensures that Indigenous peoples are empowered to fulfil their responsibility to care for country. The question of volumes needed under cultural flows needs to be acknowledged and scoped. More work needs to be done. MLDRIN acknowledges that that work does need to be done. But of course we need to make provision for cultural flows in the first place in order to ensure that there will be water available once the decisions have been made and the calculations have been done on the issue of volumes.
I would like to point out that there are a number of international conventions and processes through which there has been recognition of Indigenous rights to water. They include the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination 1965. A number of the provisions of this convention relate to the rights of Indigenous peoples to access and use their traditional water resources. For example, paragraph 5 of recommendation 23 of the convention says:
The Committee especially calls upon State parties to recognise and protect the rights of indigenous peoples to own, develop, control and use their common lands, territories and resources and, where they have been derived of their lands and territories traditionally owned or otherwise inhabited or used without their free and informed consent, to take steps to return those lands and territories otherwise inhabited or used without their free and informed consent, to take steps to return these lands and territories.
The World Heritage Convention also recognises cultural landscapes and their links to conservation and diversity. Included within that is a new category of cultural landscapes. Despite the emphasis on the recognition of Indigenous concepts of culture and appreciation of the sacred nature of these particular sites, a recent analysis of the implementation of the provision for the protection of cultural landscapes revealed that there is a Eurocentric nature to the sites listed and cites the fact that there has been a gap in recognition of the role of Indigenous peoples and Indigenous involvement in those cultural landscapes. The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights also applies here, as does the Convention on Biological Diversity 1992 and of course the draft declaration on the rights of indigenous peoples.
So the issues around cultural flows are recognised internationally. Australia is still to adequately deal with the issues surrounding cultural flows. Cultural flow issues certainly were not given recognition in the Water Act 2007 and are not included in the Water Amendment Bill 2008. We believe it is time that we start recognising these issues and start including a legislative basis for cultural flows. We acknowledge that further work needs to be done on how to implement cultural flows, but we believe we are far past the time when we should have given this issue a legislative base.
The Greens amendments on sheet 5660 relate to a number of issues, including the recognition of Indigenous water rights and the delivery of cultural flows, and we have used the MLDRIN definition of ‘cultural flow’. The amendments provide mechanisms by which we can start to incorporate cultural flows in the act and then start to implement those commitments, if the amendments are accepted, into the legislation—for example, establishing an Indigenous water subcommittee including people with expertise in Indigenous water rights and cultural flows. The amendments include recognition of cultural flows and also how we start to include cultural flows in decision making. I commend the amendments to the chamber.
The coalition has looked very closely at these amendments. We have the greatest respect for the intent with which the Greens have moved the amendments, but we are not convinced that there will not be unintended consequences and, as a result, we will not be supporting them.
I thank Senator Siewert for having a discussion with us about moving clauses 10 and 11 on sheet 5660 separately to enable some discussion to occur. Indigenous water rights are an issue that I am personally aware of and about which I have had some discussions with Indigenous representatives. I understand that the Murray-Darling system has enormous cultural significance for many Indigenous people and communities within the basin. I think this is a timely reminder that the natural wealth of the Murray-Darling system has sustained countless generations of Indigenous people but, by contrast, the people and cultures that have come to Australia in recent times have only taken a century or so to preside over the current crisis we see in the Murray-Darling. What I have suggested to Senator Siewert is the consideration of clauses 10 and 11. The remainder of the amendments, at this stage, probably go a little beyond where I think the current discussion and Basin Plan arrangements are at. I am very conscious of the importance of considering Indigenous issues in relation to basin water resources through the Basin Plan process. In my view, the best approach to take would be to allow that to occur through the development of the Basin Plan and the consultation that is expected and required.
I thank the minister for her comments. Obviously, we are extremely disappointed that the government does not think it can go as far as accepting the recognition of Indigenous water rights in the Water Act. We think this is a particularly important issue. Aboriginal people have been disconnected from the management of the Murray-Darling Basin over the last 200 years, and these amendments seek to re-establish and give a legislative base to Indigenous water rights. We think this is particularly important, so we are disappointed that the government and the opposition cannot support these amendments.
Before I move clauses 10 and 11 of Greens amendment (1), I would like to explain the amendments we will be making to them. Clause 10 refers to the Basin Community Committee and the subcommittees that exist under the Basin Community Committee. It seeks to establish an Indigenous water subcommittee. Our amended clause will read: ‘an Indigenous water subcommittee to guide the consideration of matters relevant to the basin’s water resources’.
I am sorry, Senator Siewert; I think this might be my fault. Can I suggest that it read: ‘to guide the consideration of Indigenous matters relevant to the basin’s water resources’.
In order to clarify, I will amend my amendment. I apologise for this amendment writing on the run. The wording is: ‘An Indigenous water subcommittee, to guide consideration of Indigenous matters relevant to the basin’s water resources.’ I also seek to amend clause 11, which deals with the basin community committee’s membership, by changing the wording to: ‘An individual with expertise in Indigenous matters relevant to the basin’s water resources.’
Clause 2, page 2 (table item 4), omit “Schedule 3”, substitute “Schedules 3 and 4”.
Page 326 (after line 32), at the end of the bill, add:
- Schedule 4—Amendments related to the recognition of Indigenous water rights
- Water Act 2007
- 10 After paragraph 202(3)(b)
and (c) an Indigenous water subcommittee, to guide the consideration of Indigenous matters relevant to the Basin’s water resources;
- 11 At the end of subsection 202(5)
; and (c) an individual with expertise in Indigenous matters relevant to the Basin’s water resources.
I can indicate that the government is supportive of this amended amendment. I thank the Greens for their discussion with us on the wording to enable that to occur. The only caveat I place on it is that, as I indicated to Senator Siewert, given the nature of this bill we obviously will need to have consultation with the states on these issues. With that caveat, the government indicates its support for the amendment.
I move opposition amendment (1) on sheet 5657:
(1) Schedule 1, item 1, page 11 (after line 2), after subsection 18H(1), insert:
(1A) Until the States of New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia have each achieved the objective of increasing the flow of water in the River Murray as required by the Living Murray Initiative, these States’ water savings programs are to be independently audited and, as soon as the saved water becomes available, the water must be allocated to the Living Murray Initiative and must not be used for any other purpose.
This amendment goes to the Living Murray Initiative. People will be very aware of these water saving programs under this initiative. The amendment is aimed at preserving saved water for environmental flows. The amendment’s purpose is to ensure that water saved through the Living Murray Initiative is not held back from the Murray but is returned to it. It is a very straightforward amendment. We think it is an entirely appropriate amendment to include in what has been a very long list of amendments. It actually enforces the government’s own EPBC decision that the north-south pipeline should not use Living Murray water.
For the reasons that Senator Nash outlined, and at the great risk of being seen to be an apologist for the opposition, the Greens will be supporting this amendment. We believe that the integrity of the catchment should be maintained and that, at this critical time when there is simply not enough water, water should not be taken out of the basin. There are perfectly good, and much wiser, options that the Brumby government has not undertaken—and I do not mean the building of a desalination plant but the use of the water that falls over metropolitan Melbourne much more wisely—that would obviate the need for this diversion of critically needed water out of the Goulburn River basin and, therefore, out of the Murray-Darling Basin as a whole.
I want to make a number of points about this amendment. I want to make the point, first, that there is already an audit process covering the Living Murray, known as the Independent Audit Group. On the issue of the protection of water from the Living Murray, there are detailed arrangements in place for this purpose, such as the provisions of the Living Murray Business Plan and the Living Murray Intergovernmental Agreement. Section 28(1) of the Water Act for the Basin Plan, the environmental watering plan, has the purpose of safeguarding existing environmental water. I also make the point that, on completion of the water recovery project, an independent review is undertaken by one or more members of an independent review panel to ensure there is evidence of project implementation and outcomes, and this report comes to the ministerial council, which I chair, before the savings are listed on the formal register. So the agreements associated with the Living Murray already provide that this water is not used for other purposes.
In terms of Senator Brown’s apologist comment, I simply would make the point that this was a Howard government initiative—in 2004, from memory—but, obviously, this amendment was not moved by them in the context of their Water Act 2007. But I would make the point that we do not regard this amendment as necessary, given that there are already very clear audit requirements and intergovernmental agreement requirements that those opposite were actually party to as part of the Living Murray arrangements—and which they are seeking to supersede now they are not in government. Regarding Senator Brown’s point about the Sugarloaf, this amendment, as I understand it, is not needed to ensure compliance with the EPBC conditions. We had a lengthy discussion, Senator Brown, and I cannot recall for what aspect of that discussion you were in the chamber, but I am sure you are aware that there are compliance provisions under the EPBC Act which are directed at ensuring compliance with those conditions. So, as I understand it, this amendment is not necessary in terms of compliance with EPBC conditions.
The advice I have, given what I have read out in terms of Living Murray arrangements, is that it is unlikely to alter the audit mechanisms that are already being applied pursuant to the intergovernmental arrangements which apply under the Living Murray and which the previous government was party to. I would make the point that this directly goes to issues that are relevant to the states, so the states would have a direct interest in the amendment that is before the chamber, and it certainly was not something that was discussed or negotiated in the context of the intergovernmental agreement. So I come back, in terms of the opposition, to your consideration of how much risk you are prepared to put this legislation to, and that will be a decision that awaits you when this returns from the lower house.
Question agreed to.
I move opposition amendment 2, on sheet 5657:
(2) Schedule 2, item 50A, after subsection 21(10), insert:
(10A) To avoid doubt:
(a) the delivery of water for the initiatives of the Water for Rivers project was an existing use of water prior to 3 July 2008; and
(b) the taking of water for the initiatives of the Water for Rivers project is not contrary to subsection 21(8); and
(c) the construction and operation of water infrastructure for the initiatives of the Water for Rivers project is not contrary to subsection 257(1); and
(d) all commenced and provisionally agreed Snowy River environmental flows are preserved and excluded from the provisions of subsections 21(8), 21(9) and 257(1).
This amendment put by the opposition is about the Water for Rivers project. There were some concerns raised with us. We believe that none of the amendments moved on the bill would have an impact on the various sources of environmental water for the Snowy River, but we recognise that those concerns have been raised and that it has been requested that some confirmation be provided that the amendments could not be misinterpreted. This amendment simply confirms the pre-eminence of the Snowy flows.
I would like to register the Greens support of this amendment. We also have sought advice as to whether the amendment that was moved last time would in fact adversely impact on this project. Our advice is that it does not but, to ensure that it is absolutely abundantly clear that it does not, we think this amendment is worthwhile and we will be supporting it.
It is self-evident that the opposition have had to hurriedly put a further amendment in to protect the Snowy River Water for Rivers arrangements in light of the amendments they previously moved in their attempt to criticise the Sugarloaf issue and make that the central issue of water reform in the Murray-Darling Basin. This demonstrates exactly one of the things that we said was a problem with that amendment: that it is all about political gains and trying to make the pipeline the political issue—not the broader and much more significant policy issue of the Murray-Darling. The chamber needs to be aware that this is an amendment which recognises—from the opposition’s own pen—the risk and unintended potential consequences of their amendments in relation to the pipeline, which were clearly politically motivated. I will put that on the record, because I think there is no doubt about that, looking at the history—in particular, looking at the Victorian Liberal Party position and what motivated that. The government does not support this amendment. We did not support the previous amendments that this amendment is trying to fix up.
Again the minister raises the point of political commentary, but certainly it is becoming very obvious that that is coming from the other side of the chamber and not this side. I would just point out to the chamber that it is highly appropriate. We are merely clarifying an amendment so that there can be no doubt.
Question agreed to.
I seek leave to move amendments (1) and (2) on sheet 5677 together.
I move opposition amendment (1) on sheet 5677:
Schedule 2, item 161A, subsection 255A(1), omit “exploration”.
I indicate to the chamber that, subsequent to further discussions with stakeholders, an amendment is appropriate here to more clearly reflect the intent of the amendment.
The Greens will not be supporting this amendment. Yesterday we moved that there be an independent assessment of the impact on the aquifers and the catchment of mining exploration and/or mining before licences be granted. That is a very sensible proposition. I say at the outset: where is the logic in having a mining corporation being allowed to proceed to exploration and then doing a water study, which would show that mining interrupted and degraded the aquifer, and therefore the productivity of the farmlands above, so that the mining is halted? Clearly, the study should be done before any licence for exploration or mining is carried out. That is the clear logic that was accepted by the coalition yesterday. Overnight, the Australian Mining Industry Council and the big miners have moved in, alarmed by this sensible proposition, and have talked the opposition, in particular the National Party, into reneging on the decision to support this amendment.
I understand the lobbying power of the mining industry as against the farming industry, but I do not understand the logic of saying that we will require a study of the impact of mining on the catchment but not before exploration takes place. The mining industry itself ought to look at this because it is being invited to expend large amounts of money on exploration at the risk that an independent study will show significant risk and the mining cannot then go ahead.
The second amendment here is the important one that I will be asking the opposition to look at again, because it effectively says that no matter what happens or what is found in an independent study it will not impact on the go-ahead for mining. I want to quote from the debate yesterday. Firstly, Senator Williams said:
We need to have a proper independent inquiry into underground aquifers in these areas … It is vital that the truth be brought out about these prime agricultural areas. It is vital that this study be undertaken;—
that is, to have a study before licences are granted for exploration—
hence I offer my support for this amendment.
He goes on:
The National Party has worked on this area over the last 12 months. My state colleagues Andrew Fraser, Rick Colless and Andrew Stoner have had a close look at the issue. We need to ensure that the long-term viability of this agricultural land is not put under threat at any stage …
That includes, of course—and I am interpolating here—before exploration is undertaken. Senator Joyce said:
I hope the message is conveyed to the people of the Caroona area …
And we are talking here about the Liverpool plains, where there is a farmers’ blockade of BHP Billiton’s plan to explore farmlands for the potential underground mining operation. Senator Joyce went on:
… that we will support them on this matter, create the numbers so that this amendment will succeed.
Well, overnight, suddenly the support is gone, the numbers are going and the people of Caroona have lost that support. Senator Joyce said:
As Senator Williams rightly said, there is no point in compromising the prosperity of the future and our capacity to feed ourselves for the sake of a 30-year window in mining.
Yet these amendments being put forward by the National Party today would do just that. Senator Joyce went on to say:
I hope the wonderful people of Caroona and Breeza Plains and the Haystack Plains realise that, for something to succeed, you need at least 39 senators to vote for it and you need more than half of the lower house to vote for it. I hope that is recognised and taken back to the people of the Liverpool Plains, and I hope we get a chance to read about it in the Northern Daily Leader.
I hope if it is in the Northern Daily Leader that Senator Joyce will read it, because overnight he has reneged. Suddenly the numbers that are necessary to get this vital amendment up—and, yes, it did come from the Independent member for New England, Mr Windsor—are very different. Senator Boswell said:
I find it very unusual that we seem to be getting closer and closer to the Greens. We have not seen eye to eye with the Greens on this for the last seven or eight years.
I suspect, actually, that we have seen eye to eye but there is some political mystique here which is getting into the commonsense that is required to ensure that, in the interests of farmlands right throughout the Murray-Darling Basin, a proper study of the impact on aquifers is done before exploration or mining takes place. Nevertheless, Senator Boswell went on to say:
As Senator Barnaby Joyce has pointed out, you can have all the best ideas in the world, and you can have right on your side, but if you do not have the numbers it does not mean one iota.
Well, right was on the side of the people of Caroona yesterday, and right is on the side of the people of Caroona today. The only thing that has changed is the National Party, which is withdrawing the numbers. It is going from right to wrong. It is going from right to wrong because they do not have the lobby firepower in this place. The Australian Mining Industry Council and BHP Billiton have got at the National Party overnight and have changed their minds. And the people of Caroona still have right on their side. It is the National Party and the coalition that are wrong here today. It is the Australian Mining Industry Council, which has might on its side, which is overriding the people of the Breeza Plain, who have right on their side. Senator Boswell went on to say:
Today we have delivered the numbers in the Senate to carry this amendment, and that will give them—
some sort of satisfaction. I again point out to those people that Independents can do nothing.
That was aimed at Mr Windsor. I think it will be left to the people of the Liverpool Plains as to who is doing something for the farmers as against the big mining companies who have suddenly got hold of the coalition and changed its mind. Senator Boswell said:
Anyone can huff and puff, but it is only the numbers that will deliver on these issues.
He is not here today. There is no huffing and puffing going on. There is nothing. And suddenly the numbers are not going to deliver. Senator Nash said:
It is about a study to be undertaken about due diligence.
I totally agree, because due diligence means you do the study before the exploration which leads to the mining takes place. You do not wait till after the exploration and you certainly do not insert an amendment like her second amendment, which says: ‘If you find that the aquifers are going to be interrupted and significant damage will occur to the potential of the farmlands and their productivity, you don’t have to do anything anyway. Remove that clause.’ Senator Nash went on to say:
What we are seeing here is a very sensible measured approach to ensuring that the operations of mining in rural areas do not impact in an untoward fashion on the water system.
She was right yesterday and she is wrong today. The only thing that has happened is that, overnight, BHP Billiton has got to the National Party. Yesterday Senator Nash said:
Perhaps in the Senate the minister might be rather more agreeable to what is a very sensible, very pragmatic and very good amendment.
But what was ‘very sensible, very pragmatic and very good’ yesterday is today neither sensible, pragmatic nor good. Suddenly this amendment is being eviscerated by the National Party because that is what BHP Billiton and the Australian Mining Industry Council want.
Let me go back to the basis of the amendment here, which came from Mr Windsor, who has done a lot of work on this and who has simply said it is good sense to do a study on the impact on the aquifers and the catchment—because the above-ground water and the below-ground water are interconnected—before you go to explore or mine. That compelling good sense has not changed overnight. I will tell you what has changed, Chair, the Mining Industry Council and BHP Billiton have said: ‘Suddenly this is for real. Suddenly this is important. This amendment may be adopted by the government in the House of Representatives in order to get this important piece of legislation through, because it is an amendment of compelling good sense. We’d better get down to the National Party and the Liberal Party and change it from good sense to bad sense.’ That is what has happened, and I am disgusted by it. I appeal to the National Party to get back to what was described just yesterday by Senator Nash as ‘very sensible, very pragmatic and very good’.
We will, of course, oppose this amendment because it means that the impact of mining on the groundwater systems would not have to be studied before exploration proceeded, the implication being that, once exploration had found that the mining should go ahead—and big mining corporations rarely put millions into exploration if they are not intending to mine—you then do a study. The second amendment here says, ‘And when you’ve done the study, if you find a significant impact is going to occur to the water system, you don’t have to take any notice of that. We abolish that clause as well.’ I will be moving for some consistency when we get to the second amendment. I think this is a very sad outcome. The principle has not changed but the people have. The representation in here has changed because the mining lobby got at the National Party overnight. That is not good enough.
Perhaps I could just very briefly respond. There has been no deviation as Senator Brown is indicating, in spite of his rather lengthy dissertation. One of the things that I have always admired about the Senate is its ability to accommodate improvements in legislation where they are identified. This is one of those cases where, again, I am very impressed with the Senate’s ability to do that. The revised amendment very clearly still echoes the intent of the first, requiring the studies to take place before mining commences.
That is the problem, isn’t it? Senator Nash says the revised amendment ‘echoes’ the original amendment. We do not want an echo; we want substance. It is the National Party that is the echo—of yesterday. The substance has gone overnight. All we are left with is an echo. What are the farmers going to think about that? Let me just explain this to the committee. Farmers at Caroona—and these are not deep green activists; these are quality, long-term, committed farmers on the Breeza Plain—have gone out of their normal routine productive lives to blockade BHP Billiton coming onto their land to drill for what is obviously going to be a massive subterranean mining operation. Their last resort was to put themselves in the way.
Let me tell you that they did not do that lightly. They effectively may end up on the wrong side of the law because the natural law of protecting their farmlands comes first and because they are outmanoeuvred in Sydney when it comes to the legislature, which empowers the mining corporations to cut their fences and move in and do exploration. This process, by the way, is being echoed, to use the senator’s term, up on the plains near Dalby, where there is another mining exploration underway which farmers object to. And we are going to see more of it.
What the farmers sensibly want is a study of the impact on their farms of that mining if and when it comes. That is what the amendment that I brought forward, through the grace of an earlier amendment of Mr Windsor in the House of Representatives, will do. But it is being emasculated by the National Party and the Liberal Party here today. You have got to feel for those people sitting with their tent and their stalls and their display and what it means to them out in the bush south of Gunnedah today. They were not able to come here overnight and fight what they know is a manifest wrong. They are disempowered by this process. Who is going to argue that these are not quintessential Australians standing up for their patch of land, being overrun by—a minister objected to this term yesterday but I will use it again—the big end of town. It is unfair, and they deserve the numbers of representatives who stand up for the bush to be in here today. A big issue was made of that yesterday, that the coalition was giving them the numbers. I am not shy to say that I will make a big issue of the fact that those numbers evaporated overnight and we are left, in Senator Nash’s terms, with an echo of the defence of those people’s rights which we heard here yesterday.
In terms of some technical issues, we put on the record yesterday our view about the best way to deal with these issues, and I set out the provisions in the act which enable the basin plan to deal with the assessment of interception activities such as mining. I pointed to the sections of the existing act which enabled that to occur. We do think the amendment represents some improvement in terms of one of the technical issues that I raised. We retain concerns particularly in relation to amendment (2), which I understand has not been moved. We do retain concerns generally about the constitutional validity of the second part of the original amendment.
I want to make a broader point about what is happening here, in two parts. First, when this amendment was first supported by the National Party—and I notice, Senator Brown, that yesterday you had a lot of friends on your right, on the opposition benches, who are noticeably absent from the chamber now—I wondered whether Senator Nash and others had actually consulted with their Liberal Party colleagues, particularly from mining states, and the shadow resources minister. I wonder whether overnight they have worked out they have got a problem and now they are moving an amendment and clearly reneging on an arrangement they had, from what Senator Brown said, with the Greens.
More broadly, what we have seen is that the historic coalition between the Greens and the Liberal and National parties that the shadow minister spoke about yesterday was historic in part for its briefness. Less than 24 hours later, we see that there is already a breach of what was agreed yesterday, certainly a change in position. People can make their own judgement, but I suggest that this brief and historic coalition was good for the Liberal Party to try and get them on television looking a little bit green for a period of time but actually does not deliver very much at all, other than good pictures. It remains our view that those on the other side are not interested, from what they have said in here, in behaving in relation to this bill in a way that recognises their own leader’s position in the past, and I assume now, and the responsibility to act on these future challenges.
I assume that we will separately debate the second amendment. We have been consistent, and Senator Brown has also been consistent. We think this is an important issue, but we do believe the best way to approach it is the way I outlined yesterday. I will not re-traverse those arguments.
The minister has pointed to a section of the bill which she says would enable a study of the impact on the water catchment to be undertaken if the authority were to so ordain. I ask the minister: will she or will the government seek to have an independent study of the potential impact on the aquifer of BHP Billiton’s plan undertaken? And is she prepared to have the Commonwealth fund such a study, to at least clear the air on the potential impact on the Liverpool plains of the proposed massive mining operation that BHP Billiton have in mind?
Senator Brown, in fairness, I think I answered those questions yesterday. You may not have got the answer you wished, but I responded directly to the same questions yesterday. We have been debating this for a very long time. I only propose to refer you to my previous answers on this, because we did traverse this in detail.
I cannot allow that to pass. It is a complete duck. I expected a bit more directness from the minister than that. This is a changing landscape. It is a moveable feast, because there is inconsistency on the opposition benches. But there have been a number of proposals for a study of the impact on the integrity of the groundwater in the Gunnedah Basin. I refer to the proposal from the Liverpool plains Land Management Committee which involved three universities and other independent assessors. Part of the proposal states:
… a clear, scientifically-robust statement of the areas where coal development might proceed with least impact on the water resources and land productivity of the region will be available for the approvals/assessment process.
It should be there before the assessment process. My understanding is that it means exploration. The proposal goes on to state:
This project approach provides a comprehensive water resources assessment process—spatial risk assessment underpinned with sound natural resources science directed and implemented by a community group—whose principles would be applicable in many situations of competitive development. It will be the first time that an extensive model of the geological and hydrogeological context of the Liverpool Plains has been achieved. This alone will significantly improve the basis upon which natural resource management and development decisions are made.
I simply ask the minister if she will look favourably at this submission from the Liverpool plains Land Management Committee, because it is a reasonable submission. And if her asseveration that the prospect is there in the legislation for such a study to take place is correct, here is the upfront test case. Ministerial authority, government authority, carries a lot of weight here. This is an utterly disappointing day for the bush and for the people of the Liverpool plains. I ask the minister: will she not have the resources of government brought to bear—she says the way is open for it—and will she not commit the government to ensuring that this study is undertaken?
Senator, with respect it was not a duck; it was a recognition that we have been in the chamber for hours. I think even the opposition would agree that I gave a quite detailed response to those questions on the last occasion. I was pointing out that we do not believe the amendments that were originally moved by you and supported then by the opposition were necessary, because the effect of interception activities could be dealt with through the Basin Plan in the circumstances I outlined, and the basin authority obviously has the independent authority to enable that to occur if it sees fit.
I also gave you information that the National Water Commission was funding a project to develop tools and guidelines for the assessment of groundwater mining. My recollection is that involves in the order of $2 million. I also recollect that the Liverpool plains is one of the case studies that is being looked at. Senator Brown, I am not going to—and, in terms of appropriate decision making in government, I hope you would not expect me to—make a decision on funding a project on the basis of a senator asking me a question about it across the chamber. What I will say is that these are issues that do require attention. The act enables them to be given attention for the reasons I outlined. We also need to do more work to enable better assessments within states about the impacts on groundwater of mining. So that is the purpose of the project that I funded.
I appreciate Senator Brown’s views on this. We have been consistent about the approach we think ought to be taken in relation to this issue. We were consistent when this previously came up. We retain the same position.
I will not delay the committee, but I will just say that if we cannot debate a matter like this and get an answer out of government on the floor of the chamber, the public is left to think that what is more important is those lobbyists who come in the stilly, stilly night, as happened last night with I think Mr Mitch Hooke and the Minerals Council of Australia, to change the whole position and outcome of legislation against the wider interests—
Senator Wong objects and says she hasn’t changed her position. The problem is she does not have a position. When I asked specifically about ensuring that a study be done, the position was the same as the National Party’s and the Liberal Party’s. That is the problem, isn’t it?
Let me end this by saying we heard in here yesterday from the Nationals—most of whom are missing now—that Independents are not worth their salt and you have to have the numbers. Well, if ever in this parliament there was a demonstration of the value of an Independent committed to his electorate, it is the value of Mr Tony Windsor to his electorate of New England. I am a Green. I would describe Mr Windsor as a conservative, and one thing he wants to do here is conserve the farmland. We are perhaps on opposite ends of the spectrum. But he is dinkum in this, and he is standing up for his electorate. It is just a pity that that electorate has been sold out in this way in the last 24 hours.
That the amendment (Senator Nash’s) be agreed to.
I move opposition amendment (2) on sheet 5677:
(2) Schedule 2, item 161A, omit subsection 255A(2).
In doing so, I want to raise a couple of points. It has been quite interesting that over the last few days accusations about playing politics have been made from one side of the chamber across to the other. But I do not think I have seen a more extreme example of that than what Senator Bob Brown has done this morning. The issue of water is very serious. There is no doubt about that. In spite of Senator Brown’s new-found professed love for farmers coming to the fore, it is the very fact that he could turn this into such a political statement—indicating that his Independent friend from New England might be able to solve the problems of the world by himself—that makes it quite simply untrue. There were also comments made about the Nationals and some changes of position. This amendment seeks to ensure that the outcome that Senator Brown so clearly referred to before, about farmers being able to have a study undertaken on the effects of mining on groundwater and surface water systems before mining commences, still stands.
Senator Brown can use as many words and take up as much time as he wants to. It is entirely his prerogative to grandstand on this issue and to play politics, but that does not help the people of Caroona. It does not help the people right around the Murray-Darling Basin who are extremely concerned about water, which, to the end, is what this debate is all about. This is about the Water Amendment Bill 2008 and all the issues related to it. I would suggest to Senator Brown that he might like to stop playing politics with this issue. He knows full well that the substance of the amendment remains. That an independent expert study will take place before any mining commences is what we are putting forward in this amendment today. Senator Brown may well take up a whole lot more time. As the minister and I have been here for some 10 or 11 hours, a bit more time will not make any difference. Take up as much time as you like, Senator Brown. We will stay as long as you want. But it does not matter what you say or what you indicate. The substance of our position remains. Yesterday my Nationals colleagues indicated very clearly that their position to have a study undertaken substantively remains.
The Australian Greens oppose this amendment absolutely. I move Australian Greens amendment (1) on sheet 5678 to opposition amendment (2) as circulated:
(1) At the end of the amendment, add ‘, substitute:
(2) Where a substantial risk is identified licences must not be granted.”
This amendment is to ensure that we are very clear about this issue. Senator Nash said, ‘There will be a study done before mining is undertaken,’ under the previous cave-in amendment of the coalition. That does not change the fact that there is no longer any need for a study to be sensibly done. The bush common sense that she agreed with yesterday is that the study should be undertaken before exploration takes place. The amendment that we now have from Senator Nash means that yesterday’s position—jointly held by the Greens, the Nationals and the Liberals that, where a substantial risk is identified, exploration licences must not be granted—is abolished. When you look at that, together with the amendment that the Nationals have just moved, you get to the point where the amendment from Senator Nash would mean that, where a substantial risk is identified, licences for mining are not altered. You can identify a substantial risk but the mining can go ahead.
My amendment is simply to accept, as the numbers beat us, that a study does not have to be undertaken before mineral exploration; it now has to be undertaken before mining. My amendment would mean that, where a substantial risk is identified, the mining licence must not be granted. I ask the coalition to look at that carefully. If what Senator Nash says is true then my amendment should be supported. It is consistent with the last amendment that was made. We have lost the fight to ensure that a study is done before exploration is undertaken. It now has to be undertaken, as Senator Nash says, before mining is carried out. My amendment is to ensure that, where a substantial risk is identified in that study, the licence for mining is not granted.
I see that there are hurried discussions between Senator Nash and Senator Wong. That is fine. But I think this is very important. What I am doing here is ensuring that, where a substantial risk is identified, the licence to go ahead with the mining is not granted. I beseech the coalition to support this amendment. It is entirely consistent with what Senator Nash has been putting to the committee this morning. It is a very important and logical amendment and I would expect that the government would also support this amendment. What is the point of having a study if a substantial risk is identified and it does not make any difference?
You are quite right, Chair; it is not a point of order.
This is shocking. Here we have a situation where yesterday we had the opposition supporting the requirement that there be an investigation—a scientific study—of the impact on water catchment of mining operations before those operations took place, including exploration. Then, where a substantial risk was identified, the mine would not go ahead. Now we have got the government and the opposition turning down this absolutely pivotal requirement. Where damage to the farmlands in the short term or long term can be identified, and there is a substantial risk of that damage, both the big parties say, ‘Well, we will leave that to the lobbying power of the mining organisations.’ This is a dreadful sell-out of common sense, let alone the farming communities that are getting the wrong end of this outcome.
Senator Nash may say that I am making a political statement here. Well, I am. I am a politician elected not just to get better outcomes for the people of Australia but to surely levy common sense in situations like this. I ask Senator Nash, or Senator Wong: how can you justify turning down a parliamentary requirement that where substantial risk is identified to farmlands, like those of the Breeza Plain or the Liverpool plains or indeed anywhere in the Murray-Darling Basin, there should not be action following that to protect those farmlands from that identifiable substantial risk? What is the point of doing a study if you then do not act upon it? It is incredible. This is an astonishing turnaround. I understand the excruciating position Senator Nash is in, and I ask her if she would say who it was from the Minerals Council of Australia—was it Mr Mitch Hooke or someone else—who so effectively got to the coalition overnight with this extraordinarily negative outcome.
by leave—The Greens oppose this amendment. I have the feeling that, if we had an amendment in here to compensate out of the public purse mining corporations if they were to rupture an aquifer and water was to get into their mines, that would get the same result that we are getting here today.
Question agreed to.
Bill, as amended, agreed to.
Bill reported with amendments; report adopted.