Senate debates

Monday, 25 October 2010

Matters of Public Importance

Murray Darling Basin

Photo of John HoggJohn Hogg (President) Share this | | Hansard source

I have received a letter from Senator Fifield proposing that a definite matter of public importance be submitted to the Senate for discussion, namely:

The Gillard government’s failure to properly manage the Murray Darling Basin reform process.

I call upon those senators who approve of the proposed discussion to rise in their places.

More than the number of senators required by the standing orders having risen in their places—

I understand that informal arrangements have been made to allocate specific times to each of the speakers in today’s debate. With the concurrence of the Senate, I shall ask the clerks to set the clock accordingly.

4:55 pm

Photo of Barnaby JoyceBarnaby Joyce (Queensland, National Party, Leader of The Nationals in the Senate) Share this | | Hansard source

Well, here it is: the guide by the Murray-Darling Basin Authority. It is an incredible document. Today it has even lost its own minister as a friend. Today, even Minister Burke has come out and slammed his own report. He has slammed the report, saying that there are some things in it that are probably worth while. I think those things are the font size and the photos. I think he likes the font size and the photos and that is about it.

This is yet another part of the retinue of Labor Party stuff-ups—from the ceiling insulation scheme to the Building the Education Revolution and to their current NBN. But this is the daddy of them all. They decided that they would redesign the way Australia feeds itself. After gaining power on the back of saying that they would look after regional Australia, in the process of looking after regional Australia they came up with a guide that pulled the economic rug out from underneath towns in the Murray-Darling Basin.

This is the most absurd process that has come before this parliament, including the consultation period that follows the release, the almost riot-like conditions and the fact that we are getting legal opinions after the fact. Then there is the fact that, whilst I am sitting down here reading the legal opinions, the minister representing this portfolio is asking me for a copy of his own legal opinion. This is the Labor Party as its best! We have a guide before us that is going to absolutely decimate regional Australia. To go into areas and say, ‘You are going to lose 45 per cent of the water,’ is like going to a motel and saying, ‘We’re going to take 45 per cent of your rooms back.’ How naive were you to set up a committee that could deliver this?

And Minister Wong, the person who was going to stand behind ‘the greatest moral challenge of our time’, not only deserted the ship on ‘the greatest moral challenge of our time’ but also deserted the ship on the Murray-Darling Basin. She bolted and then poor, old Minister Burke had to come in and pick up the pieces in this disaster. I cannot have a debate with Minister Burke at the moment, because he has agreed with me every day. He is coming back to where we are. He is agreeing that this process is absurd, that the outcome is absurd, that the outcome is an anachronism of ever trying to manage anything. This was a case of ‘look after the environment and count the bodies later’—and it got the response that was due to it.

People were absolutely livid that our nation could go down this path. People were absolutely livid to think that you could deliver such hurt to regional Australia—that you would go to people in towns and say, ‘We will pull the economic rug out from under you so that the value of your house is taken away’ and that you would go to people in businesses and say, ‘We will take the sustenance out of your community so that your business will be without purpose.’ By the way, I live in one of those towns—so I declare my interest. I sold my accountancy practice to someone in one of those towns. I now wonder whether that person would have bought my accountancy practice had they known that this was coming down the track. This is the sort of hurt that you are causing people.

The socioeconomic study that sat behind this was appalling. They were still banging the socioeconomic study together literally hours before they released the report. What total and utter incompetence! Then we had the process of the release of the report. It should have been released before the election so that the Australian people had the right to do what was democratic: to vote, taking it into account. But isn’t it convenient that a document as toxic as this one could not come out before the election? Surprise, surprise! And then the negotiations were going on with the Independents. It was going to be released then—remember?—by the end of August. But, while the negotiations were going on with the Independents—surprise, surprise!—it could not be released. It is yet another reason. Why, pray tell, could it not be released then?

Then we get to the absolute fiasco—no, the penultimate fiasco, not the final one—when they did release it on that Friday afternoon at four o’clock, where they locked the politicians up in one room and locked the fourth estate and the peak bodies up in another room so they could not talk to each other. They obviously have mistaken us for some new breed of political mushrooms! This is the way that the Labor Party had decided to work. This is the way they were going to conduct their business. After all that we find out why—because, basically, this was going to be an absolute bomb. It went off like a bomb throughout regional Australia.

Also through the process we have had this draw for some of the environment in some of the catchments. It is peculiar, because these people had received letters saying that they were not in the purview of having water purchased off them because they had no environmental assets around them and yet, a matter of a month or so later, we get declarations such as that, in the Macintyre Valley, they are going to take in excess of 30 per cent of the water. Why? I do not know. Why was there a change of opinion? How could this be? How could this happen—how could these opinions just change? Surely there was not a political motive behind this! Surely not—surely this was not a plasticine committee that was bending and twisting to the inclinations of those within it!

Now we have the legal opinion that has come out and stated the bleeding obvious—that ultimately we should be looking at both the economic and social consequences, that they should not be secondary to environmental consequences, and that the minister at the end of the day has the power to change it anyhow. So the minister is doing it inch by inch, and he was just on Sky News a second ago bucketing his own report. And well may he do that, because it is the only thing that is really left. I do not know what we do with these things. What do we do with the boxes of these things? What happens to them now? And how can we trust a government that has been so totally and utterly incompetent? How can we trust a process which has failed so miserably—by their own minister’s admission? How can that come about? How do we get ourselves into this position? How can you send a sense of confidence back to the people that the process, as overseen by the Labor Party, will be fair?

We accept that the river system was overallocated. We never denied that. We accepted that and we actually set up a process for the purchase of water. We set up the process for the structural re-engineering, which they never got round to, by the way—which they have never actually done. But only the Labor Party could then go out and oversight a process that would come out with something like this.

Some of the fiascos in this Labor Party are just so incredible they are beyond belief. Like the purchase of Toorale Station—$23.75 million, 23.75 cold, hard ones—and it does not even deliver water into the Darling system; it spills out over flood plain. How could they make such a botch-up? Because they never inspected it. They never actually went to have a look at it. Obviously, what is $23.75 million between mates! You had a minister, Minister Wong, overseeing a process with not one person setting foot on that place before the Australian public picked it up. Then you have the purchase of Twynam for in excess of $300 million. The problem was that a lot of what they were purchasing was actually air. It was a right to water which, the vast majority of time, was not there. It was yet another fundamental fiasco overseen by the Labor Party when it was under the care of Minister Wong.

Then of course you had the big one—Menindee Lakes storage. We had report after committee after report after committee. It was a Kafkaesque devolution into anarchy. And what happened at the end? They waited so long that even God could not wait for them: it rained and filled back up with water. This is what we have got. So the Labor Party by their own admission by their own minister, as recently as an hour and a half ago on Sky, is bucketing its own report. I bet as you are speaking you are not even aware he has done that, yet you are going to give a speech, Senator Wortley. What are you going to say now—that you support it and you do not support your own minister? Your own minister has bucketed your own report because as a process, as a government, you are absolutely an utter fiasco.

5:05 pm

Photo of Dana WortleyDana Wortley (SA, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to address the matter of public importance currently being debated in this place. Can I say to begin with that I do not know why Senator Joyce thinks you have to shout and scream to get a point across. I sat there and listened to the raving that went on and I think the only truth that I heard, the only thing that was actually correct, was the title that he gave when he referred to the report, when he said that it was the Guide to the proposed Basin Plan. It is not the plan; it is a guide to the plan, Senator Joyce—and we know the fearmongering that your side has already started. The Murray-Darling Basin Authority, as you would well know, is an independent authority. What has been produced by that authority is a guide; it is not the plan. There is a consultation process now which people can be involved in, and you are aware of that. Let me just go through it now.

The government acknowledges that the Murray-Darling Basin is, without doubt, one of our most precious environmental assets and is our largest single source of food. We do not disagree on that, do we? Healthy river systems are essential to the long-term future of communities throughout the Murray-Darling Basin, and that is why it is important that we develop long-term, sustainable extraction limits. The government understands also the issue of impact on local communities and the very real need to get the balance right. On many occasions those on this side of the chamber have spoken about this issue, both in opposition and, in more recent years, while in government. Not only have we spoken about it, but in government we have taken action which has gone some way to addressing some of the challenges we are now facing.

We know that poor management and the lack of a national plan saw the health of the Murray-Darling Basin reach a critical point over the past decade. I have said it before and it still rings true today: for more than 11 years, while those opposite were in government, they failed to prepare Australia for the tough challenges of the future. And we all know that amongst those failures are the challenges facing us today: climate change, skills shortages, water availability and the Murray-Darling Basin.

This government refuses to turn its back on a crisis, denying its existence, like those opposite did for more than 11 years. History will record that it was a former coalition government—which included many of those sitting opposite in this chamber today—who were in government for nearly 12 years that failed to act in a timely manner to better collect, store, use and reuse water. It took a Labor government—confronting the problem of historic overallocation, compounded by more than 10 years of drought and a future where it is likely that there will be less water in the Murray-Darling Basin—to act. When we were elected to government, we needed to act to protect Australia’s long-term future and our children’s future, to protect our economic security, and to insist on protecting our environment.

For too long, those opposite have had many different positions on many important changes. They cannot agree on climate change. They cannot agree on a national broadband network. They cannot agree on how to address the issues facing us in water. What we have seen, though, and what they have demonstrated is that, in many cases, their position depends on which state they live in, which state they are visiting or who they are speaking to. When in South Australia, some of them express outrage at the state of the Lower Lakes and call for emergency action. When they are upstream, they tell their constituents that the lakes cannot and should not be saved and the government should stop purchasing water entitlements. So, on the issue of water, as on many other issues, they are all over the place. They lacked leadership when it came to our environment, and they continue to lack leadership.

The Labor government was the first federal government to purchase water entitlements. The opposition failed to deliver a single drop of water over their 12 years in government. They refused to support urban water infrastructure, and now they are running a fear campaign with the promotion of misinformation. They are not dedicated to taking the high road when it comes to the Murray-Darling Basin Plan; they simply want to destabilise the government’s plans. The people of the Murray-Darling Basin will suffer as a result. In other words, the opposition have pulled out their wrecking ball and, shamefully, have no genuine interest in the long-term future of Australia’s water supply or their constituents along the Murray-Darling. An interesting article I read recently in the Business Spectator points out that the opposition is only interested in ‘maximum fear, minimum policy’. To quote from the article, as printed, about the opposition’s ‘maximum fear’ policy when it comes to the Murray-Darling Basin:

This is not behaviour befitting an ‘alternative government’. If the Coalition really has abandoned the independent body its own legislation set up, perhaps it should explain to its Murray-Darling constituents why trusting their future to such a statutory body was a good idea in the first place.

This shameful politicking by the opposition is in stark contrast to the government’s reform agenda.

What we cannot do is to hide away from the fact that our wetlands have been devastated and many of our irrigators have gone out of business. We cannot hide away from the fact that algal blooms and acid sulphate soils have made much of the water unusable to farmers and destructive to the environment. And we cannot hide away from the fact that the way we have been using water in the Murray-Darling Basin is not working—it is not working to support the long-term viability of the rivers or of rural communities. Climate forecasts show that we can expect hotter and drier conditions in the southern basin; longer and drier droughts; and more extreme weather events, including floods and storms. Only by returning that river to health, and managing limited water supplies, will we be able to provide more certainty for the businesses and the communities that rely on it.

As I have already mentioned, there has been, unfortunately, and sadly, a fear campaign generated by those opposite regarding this issue. The government is aware that communities are suffering—that they are worried. This is a very difficult issue, and we understand that anything that involves reform to water usage is particularly difficult for irrigation based communities.

We need to be very clear about the process that we are going through to achieve these goals, and we need to understand that process. As I have already said, the Murray-Darling Basin Authority is an independent authority. The document released on Friday, 8 October, is officially titled Guide to the proposed Basin Plan. The guide that is out now is just that—a guide to a draft plan. It is not the plan. It is not a proposal from the government. It is a proposal from the independent authority. And what this guide does is to provide for additional opportunity for consultation and engagement with communities.

Public community consultations for the guide will run until mid-November. The authority will release its proposed basin plan next year and, under the legislation, it will be followed by 16 weeks of consultation. There are over 12 months to run this consultation process, and the authority will be conducting these consultations to get better feedback on the social and economic implications of the plan before the minister is presented with the plan at the end of next year—that is, 2011, not 2010.

The authority will then present a final plan to the Ministerial Council, which includes representatives from each of the basin states, for consideration. The minister can ask the authority to reconsider issues or make some changes. The final plan will then be signed off by the minister. Once the minister has signed off on the final plan, it is tabled in parliament, where it may be disallowed in either house. It is a disallowable instrument and it needs to go through both houses. (Time expired)

5:15 pm

Photo of Simon BirminghamSimon Birmingham (SA, Liberal Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for the Murray Darling Basin) Share this | | Hansard source

Madam Acting Deputy President Kroger, congratulations on your appointment to the office of Acting Deputy President, which I am sure you will fill well. This Labor government simply cannot manage a reform agenda. Anything of substance, anything of note, that they touch just turns into mush, turns into waste, turns into expense and delay and problems for taxpayers and for Australia that we all end up having to wear for many, many years to come. We have just heard Senator Wortley speak on this matter of public importance. We heard her talk about the process. Like so many others on the Labor side, she tries to have it both ways in this debate. When they feel under pressure about the way Murray-Darling reform is going, they say: ‘The coalition initiated this. The coalition were the ones who passed the Water Act. The coalition were the ones who started this whole process.’ But when they want to boast about the reforms they say: ‘The coalition never did anything. The Howard government never did anything at all.’ It is a remarkable tactic: wanting to have it both ways.

I am very happy and proud to say that the Howard coalition government did pass the Water Act and did initiate water reform. We did it with a complementary $10 billion fund—and amazingly, given Labor’s propensity and capacity to spend money, you have barely been able to dribble any of that out the door. You have barely been able to spend a cent of the money on infrastructure—a key point of your failure to which I will return in just a moment.

Senator Wortley also says that we on this side have been initiating some type of fear campaign across the basin. Let me say that I only wish we had the capacity to mobilise people like they have been mobilised these last couple of weeks. I have attended these community meetings personally. I have gone into those basin communities and talked to people. I have not asked one person to attend the meetings. I have not had to encourage people to go along. I have not had to encourage people to do anything. They have come of their own accord and they have mobilised en masse because they are scared and worried—and their worries and concerns are only amplified by the failings of those opposite in their mismanagement of this program. You have mismanaged this program from the day you took office.

The Labor Party inherited the Water Act, which established the Murray-Darling Basin Authority. Yet for some reason it took nearly 18 months for the members of that authority to be appointed—nearly 18 months of delay and procrastination before you actually got people sitting around the table to start this process. It is little wonder then that what has just been released is only a guide, not the original plan that was proposed; it is little wonder that its release was delayed three or four times; and it is little wonder that its final implementation was rushed—because the first 18 months of the three years for which the Water Act has been in existence was wasted with total and complete inaction. Most particularly, we have seen inaction on the promise to deliver water-saving infrastructure projects. This inaction has only heightened the fears and concerns in the communities that all of the water that is required to implement basin reform will simply come out of productive capacity rather than through the win-win benefits that the coalition envisaged when we committed $5.8 billion to water-saving infrastructure projects in the first place.

In a 2008 intergovernmental agreement, Labor signed off on some projects which you even had the gall to call priority projects. We have seen what COAG reported just last Friday in a very timely report on those priority projects. It said that, in the 18-month period between when the IGA was signed and the end of the reporting period, only two projects were completed, or largely completed—that is, two out of 17 projects—and there were significant delays in the development and approval of all the other projects. COAG highlighted that this seemed to stand in contrast to the urgency that people give to this topic. And it does stand in marked contrast to talk about the urgency of action here when we have not managed to get 15 out of 17 projects progressed in any meaningful way. And all Labor’s failure to progress these projects has done is to amplify concerns throughout basin communities that the water required for the environment is going to come wholly and solely out of their productive capacity rather than by demonstrating that large parts of it can come from water-saving infrastructure efficiency upgrades.

Every year that Labor have been in office they have spent more on buybacks than they budgeted and less on infrastructure than they budgeted. That, of course, has highlighted concerns that this government has a one-track focus. Where people have put together structured packages to retire entire irrigation channels, they have been turned away. You will only take the piecemeal, Swiss-cheese-effect type buybacks that leave stranded assets and increase the cost and concerns for people throughout the community.

We have seen the failure of the MDBA to actually undertake a thorough, decent, comprehensive socioeconomic analysis before releasing this guide. The MDBA’s own chairman acknowledged that the guide is seriously lacking in socioeconomic analysis. Well what on earth has the government been doing in the regular briefings ministers have with the chairs and CEO of the MDBA if not saying: ‘Have you done detailed economic analysis? Is it part of the guide? Is it part of the plan?’ The failure to do that has only heightened those fears and concerns throughout the community. That is what has driven people to protest. That is what has driven people to express their concerns.

Then there was the great lie of the election campaign when the Prime Minister, Ms Gillard, flew into Adelaide and announced that the government would accept whatever the recommendations were of the independent authority. She was greeted by an entire front-page picture in the Adelaide Advertiser under the headline ‘River Queen’. I am sure Senator Wortley remembers the headline well. It turns out that that promise was made by the river rat, not the river queen, because the river rat has demonstrated that it has no commitment to its word or its promise and that this government, instead, has no intention of implementing the independent authority’s report. The Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities, Mr Burke, went to great lengths in the other place last week to highlight that he reserves the right to change that report himself. We always said during the campaign that was the right thing to do, yet we were pilloried for it. Australia deserves a Murray-Darling plan, but a good plan—not just any plan.

5:23 pm

Photo of Fiona NashFiona Nash (NSW, National Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Regional Education) Share this | | Hansard source

I am very happy to stand here and join my coalition colleagues in this debate, because there is probably only one word that can properly describe this government’s management, if you want to call it that, of the Murray-Darling Basin water reform—that is, an absolute shambles. How they have run this has been a shambles from day one. It took them six months to get to a water policy and 18 months to actually establish the Murray-Darling Basin Authority. It has taken them 36 months to get to any kind of understanding that there needs to be a proper analysis of the social and economic impact. It is an absolute shambles.

As my good colleague Senator Birmingham has just pointed out, we have had a situation over a period of time now of who actually has the responsibility for all of this. Apparently, it is a guide to a plan, and the Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities is not going anywhere near that. The government says, ‘This is simply a guide. Don’t be scared, everybody; don’t be worried.’ Let me tell you: the minute it hit the public domain, people out there in regional communities were, quite rightly, so concerned about what this meant for them that they mobilised and took to the streets and their towns and community halls. It had nothing to do with any kind of fear campaign, so-called by the other side, in this place. It was genuine heartfelt fear about their communities and what the future holds in store for them.

Senator Penny Wong, the former Minister for Climate Change, Energy Efficiency and Water, said on 1 July last year that the final decision on the basin plan ‘rests with the Commonwealth minister for water alone’. Then, during the election campaign, we heard from the government: ‘Gee, we’re going to absolutely accept whatever the authority throws to us.’ Now they are apparently distancing themselves again and saying, ‘No, it does come back to the minister.’ They have not got a clue. It is an absolute shambles, and those on the other side of this chamber and in the other place have no idea of the impact on our regional communities of permanently removing the water.

I do have to place on record that I am a farmer and I do live in a basin community, but this government has not a clue about what permanently removing that water is going to do. It is going to give those communities under the guide to this plan—this Court of King Caractacus plan that they have going over there—a permanent drought. I asked the minister in May 2009 about the development of the plan and the consultation process with communities on the social and economic impacts of the decisions that are going to be made in the development of the plan. I asked, ‘What is the process for that?’ I got a wishy-washy answer. Over a year ago, the social and economic impacts, and how important it was to get a proper understanding of that, was being raised with this government. We have heard absolutely nothing.

It is only now because of community concern—because people out there in the communities have risen up and had their voices heard—that we are now going to have a report and another inquiry. The guide states that 800 jobs would be lost through the implementation of the plan. What a load of rubbish! Every single person that lives in a regional community knows that that figure is a furphy. The Cotton Catchment Communities, the CRC, commissioned a report recently. The estimation was that a 25 per cent cut in water equates to 14,000 lost jobs. This government has not a clue. It did not even understand its own legislation—the environmental versus the social and economic impacts. We had the authority out in the community saying the guide was only written under their interpretation of the act, which meant that the environment had to take priority over the social and economic impacts on those towns.

We now have the minister commissioning his own advice, which is telling him that that is an absolute furphy, that you can treat them equally. How can that minister not understand or have any input into the interpretation of the act that the Murray-Darling Basin Authority was working under? This is the crux of the whole thing, and the minister simply had no understanding of his own act. Here we are in October 2010, and he has to go off and get some advice on what the act might mean. It is not good enough. How this is being managed by this government is an absolute shambles.

What we have seen from this minister is total incompetence. He just distances himself and says, ‘Well, it is only a guide to a plan.’ My good colleague Senator Joyce said that apparently this afternoon he has been out there bucketing his own guide to the plan. When is this government going to take regional Australia seriously? We have heard from the Prime Minister—since the last election campaign, of course—on how important regional Australia is, yet they have simply no understanding. Not once since this guide to the plan has been announced has the minister, Tony Burke, been publicly out into any of these communities. He has not been to any of the community meetings. He says, ‘That’s for the independent authority,’ but he will send his department. There must be some link to government, I would imagine, and the link is the minister. He should have been there to see those people at the meetings I went to in Deniliquin and Griffith.

These are real people that this policy is going to affect. These are not just numbers that are pulled out of thin air. These are real people with real families, real lives and real businesses in the communities that this policy is going to affect, and it is about time this government realised the impact it will have. These people are dead scared about their future. This is the region that feeds this country. This is the region where we have our farmers toiling away through hardship and through difficult times, still, to provide for this country.

If we are going to rip the rug out from underneath them and not give them the capacity to produce—not give them the ability to grow food and fibre and feed this nation—then we are going to go down the road of becoming a nation of importers. I do not think anybody in this country wants to go down that route, with its lack of quality assurance and lack of security of supply. It is about time that this government stopped mouthing words and started paying attention and listening to those people living in the communities in those regional areas, who truly understand what sustainable nature needs to be for those regional communities—not some guide to a plan that is going to scare the willies out of them. That plan should never have been dropped on them like it was, and this government has to take responsibility for that uncertainty out in the community. And this government has to take responsibility to make sure those regional communities have a sustainable future.

5:30 pm

Photo of Nick XenophonNick Xenophon (SA, Independent) Share this | | Hansard source

It was Mark Twain that likened the River Murray to America’s great river, the Mississippi, but a couple of years ago the Courier-Mail’s Mike O’Connor wrote:

Were Twain to see the Murray River today it is unlikely he would repeat the comparison, for the Murray and its sibling the Darling are dying, strangled by a combination of political apathy, cowardice and stupidity.

In 1999, Philip Coorey, when working for the Adelaide Advertiser, wrote of a leaked CSIRO report that said Adelaide’s water would be too salty to drink in two days out of five by 2020 unless there was a major shift in water management along the Murray-Darling river system. We are still waiting for that shift. That is why it is important that there is a process of reform.

The rains that we have had in the basin are incredibly welcome. They have given new life to the river system and new life to the Lower Lakes and the Coorong and to irrigators up and down the entire Murray-Darling Basin at large. We now have breathing space to get it right.

The process that the government has used has not been perfect but I think it is fair to say that both the government and the opposition—and the Liberal Party when they were in power—agreed to a process with the Water Act. There were amendments that were supported by the opposition in respect of the Water Act in 2008. I opposed those amendments. I believe I was the only member of this chamber that opposed the Water Bill, because I believed that unless we had a national takeover of the river system we would be left at square one. We will still have a case of state against state, irrigator against environment, region against region. And it does not need to be like that. The only way to solve that is to have, for one river system, one set of rules. Unless we have a national takeover we will continue to be hamstrung in the way the Murray-Darling Basin is administered and the way it is managed.

The issue of overallocation needs to be dealt with. One factor in overallocation is the managed investment schemes which have completely skewed the water market in many parts of the basin. Huge tax write-offs have been given to corporations by virtue of their managed investment scheme status, which has created more demand for water and put up unviable farming enterprises—those that family farmers and small corporate irrigators would not have entered into. By virtue of these tax minimisation schemes we have seen a terrible distortion of the water market and of agriculture in the basin.

I think it is fair to say that if the minister was involved in any way in interfering with the processes of the Murray-Darling Basin Authority he would have been castigated. He would have been politically crucified for interfering with that process. So I believe the minister did the right thing in letting the authority do what it was meant to do within the constraints of the Water Act. I do not think criticisms of the minister are fair in respect of that.

But I think it is fair to say that the Murray-Darling Basin Authority ought to have looked at issues of efficiency for those irrigators who were early adopters with respect to climate change and water efficiencies. It is interesting that in the lead-up to the federal election campaign the Prime Minister said that early adopters with respect to climate change ought to be rewarded for that. My argument is that early adopters with respect to water efficiency ought to be rewarded for that. In my home state of South Australia, in the Riverland, those irrigators had to be more water efficient because they are at the end of the river system, and they are not getting any credit or cannot fairly access the $5.8 billion that has been set aside for water efficiency projects.

I was in Renmark just a couple of Fridays ago for the community consultation with the authority. It is fair to say that that was a shemozzle. The hall—the meeting area—was too small. The audio system broke down. Those are things that I think the authority needs to take heed of, because the community consultation did not work because of that. I know the authority has worked tirelessly for this but it is important that we balance issues of food security with issues environmental flows. I draw to the attention of each of my colleagues here and of my colleagues in the other place page 113 of the guide. It makes reference to the fact that, as iconic as the Murray mouth is, it is more than that because it is essential to the environmental health of the entire basin for a range of reasons, including the export of salt and nutrients that will toxify the river system unless something is done. I also draw to my colleagues’ attention page 95 of the report, which is about the productiveness of various parts of the basin, where South Australia is by far the most productive part of the basin per hectare. These are matters that must be considered.

5:35 pm

Photo of David FeeneyDavid Feeney (Victoria, Australian Labor Party, Parliamentary Secretary for Defence) Share this | | Hansard source

I am pleased to have this opportunity to speak on this matter of public importance concerning the Murray-Darling Basin reform process.

The first point to make about the speeches of senators opposite is that they share the characteristics of most of their other attacks on the record of the Labor government. First, they assume that history began in December 2007 and that none of these problems existed before that date. Second, they seek to ignore and conceal their own record in government. Third, they ignore all external circumstances—including, in this case, climate change. Fourth, they make demagogic appeals to affected communities, while ignoring the wider national interest.

The crisis in the Murray-Darling Basin is a crisis we inherited from the previous government, just as they inherited it. In fact, we inherited it from every federal and state government of the past 100 years. It is a crisis that results from the chronic unwillingness of previous governments over many decades to face up to facts and to take the necessary steps to secure the future of the basin, its environment and its people. Failure to face up to facts is a hallmark of this opposition.

The root cause of the crisis in the Murray-Darling Basin is the fact that for decades we have been taking more water out of the river system than rainfall has been putting into it. The opposition is not willing to face the fact that many of the water use practices in the basin are simply unsustainable. It is not willing to tell the truth about that to its own supporters in the region. It was not willing to do so when it was in government and it is certainly not willing to do so now. Nor is the opposition willing to face the fact that climate change is worsening the situation in the basin and will continue to do so. Although we are currently having some welcome respite from drought in the eastern states, all climate experts agree that the long-term trend is for this region to become hotter and drier. Since this opposition refuses to accept the science on climate change, it is not surprising to find that they refuse to accept facts about the long-term climactic future of the basin.

As we read in the Age this morning, water use in the basin has increased by an extraordinary 500 per cent over the past 80 years. As we read in the Financial Review just last week, new research by the CSIRO and the Bureau of Meteorology shows that there is a long-term trend to lower rainfall and higher temperatures in south-eastern Australia linked to atmospheric changes caused by global warming. The consequences of these two trends should be obvious to all. Over the past decade the amount of water available in the basin has declined by 40 per cent compared to the long-term average. The current system of water usage is simply not sustainable. It is not sustainable for the environment but it is also not sustainable for the region’s primary producers—the people whom senators opposite claim to represent. To give but one example: in the Lower Lakes of South Australia some years ago there were some 23 dairy operations; today, as a result of a sustained drought and upstream overuse, that number has fallen to three. This should tell us that the current system of water usage in the basin, the system that has been in place for many decades, is simply not working and must change. This fact should be obvious to all, but it seems to not be obvious to the opposition, which always prefers the short-term political grandstanding to serious policy work.

To be fair, there have been some people in the coalition willing to face the facts about climate change, water use and the cumulative effect on the Murray-Darling Basin. Former Senator Robert Hill, who was environment minister in the Howard government, warned in December 1999 of ‘an impending disaster of almost biblical proportions’. He said:

As a South Australian, I don’t believe that I’m being melodramatic when I say this: if we continue to strangle our river, we will inevitably strangle our state.

But of course Senator Hill’s efforts to do something about overuse of water were vetoed by the National Party. The then Nationals leader Tim Fischer campaigned against any restriction on water use in the basin with the slogan ‘Zap the cap’. Some members of the Nationals, however, were willing to face facts, at least in the past, about unsustainable water use. In August 2007, former Nationals leader John Anderson said:

I think we need to sober up a little and recognise the reality that a great deal of the hysteria surrounding water at the moment stems from the fact that there is a shortage of water, which has nothing to do with any government, which is beyond the control of any government and which is, frankly, outside the purview of any of we mere mortals to greatly influence.

But, alas, such common sense can no longer be found in the contemporary National Party.

This government is willing to face facts on the situation in the Murray-Darling Basin. This government is willing to take the necessary decisions in the interests of both the environment and the communities that live in the basin. By returning the Murray-Darling Basin system to health and managing limited water supplies more sustainably, we can provide more certainty for the businesses and communities that rely on it. We cannot do that by ignoring facts and resorting to cheap and dishonest populism for short-term political gain, as seems to be the current tactic of the opposition. That is why this government is developing a plan for the Murray-Darling Basin, a plan to revive our rivers by addressing the overuse of water. Its objectives will be a healthy Murray-Darling river system, strong regional communities and sustainable food production. This is what I believe is called the triple-bottom-line. There is of course some tension between these three objectives, but the government believes that with careful planning and proper attention to the science they are all achievable.

The opposition has sought to make short-term political capital by criticising the proposals made in a document called the Guide to the proposed Basin Plan, recently released by the Murray-Darling Basin Authority. It must be pointed out that the Murray-Darling Basin Authority is an independent authority. It does not make government policy and its statements cannot be seen as reflecting government policy. The opposition knows this because, of course, the Murray-Darling Basin Authority was established under their legislation, the Water Act 2007. As Senator Colbeck said in 2007:

The Murray-Darling Basin Authority will be an expert, independent body which will report to the Commonwealth Minister for the Environment and Water Resources. Its primary responsibility is the preparation of the basin plan.

It follows from this that the document recently released by the authority was not a statement of government policy. The document issued by the authority is an opportunity for consultation. It will inform the drafting of the proposed plan, but it is not government policy. The government’s policy will be announced by the Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities at the end of the consultation period.

Sadly, but predictably, there has been a great deal of misinformation put out by the coalition in relation to these issues. Members such as Dr Sharman Stone and Mrs Sophie Mirabella have been spreading this misinformation in communities along the Murray, trying to whip up fear and hysteria for their own short-term political purposes. First, opposition members have claimed that the document issued by the Murray-Darling Basin Authority represents government policy, which of course it does not—and they know it does not. Next, they have claimed that the government will forcibly acquire water from people. This is untrue. They have also alleged that no account will be taken of the water conservation work already done in basin communities. This is also untrue.

Nevertheless, there is no point in pretending that we can go on as we have for the past century, taking more water out of the Murray-Darling river system than rainfall is putting into it. Since we cannot make it rain more, any rational plan for the Murray-Darling must involve reducing water usage. In the past, when they were in government, opposition members were willing to recognise this very simple but very fundamental fact. Let me quote Ms Mirabella from 2007, speaking in the debate on the Water Act:

Important elements of this bill, which give effect to the National Plan for Water Security, include an independent Murray-Darling Basin Authority with enforcement powers; a basin plan which sets a cap on water systems; an environmental watering plan to coordinate management of the available water in the basin; a Commonwealth environmental water holder to manage environmental water in and out of the basin; …

So in 2007, contrary to what she is saying now, Ms Mirabella recognised that there would have to be a cap on the use of water from the Murray-Darling system and that there would have to be a body to enforce that cap. So she was quite willing to see the Howard government pass a bill that would give the Murray-Darling Basin Authority coercive powers over irrigators and other water users in the basin. It is curious that now she is in opposition she no longer sees things the same way.

Let me outline briefly the process that the government has set out for the development of this plan. The government has announced a parliamentary inquiry into the social and economic impact of cuts in water allocations in the basin. Mr Tony Windsor, the Independent member for New England, will be chairing the committee undertaking this inquiry. The inquiry will of course seek input from people living in the Murray-Darling region. The inquiry will have a strong focus on understanding the social and economic impacts of the necessary changes.

In the meantime, the government is investing more than $12 billion in the Water for the Future initiative to help communities adjust to a future with less water, and the Murray-Darling Basin Authority is undertaking more detailed studies on the local and community impacts of the proposed Basin Plan. This study will consider the likely impact of reductions in water use. This study will be completed by March 2011.

The opposition claims to be representing the interests of farmers. They do not seem to understand that ‘if we strangle the river, we will strangle Australian agriculture’—to paraphrase former Senator Hill. A viable Murray-Darling Basin Plan must secure long-term water supplies for all water uses, including for agriculture. The government wants to ensure that water for agriculture is used for sustainable, effective and efficient food production. This means working with farmers and rural communities to ensure that irrigated agriculture in the basin continues to be an efficient and sustainable contributor to Australia’s economy.

We cannot kid ourselves that things can go on as they are. Denying the reality of climate change will lead only to disaster for Australian agriculture. The erosion of soils, the decreasing food production, the decreasing rainfall and the recent long drought should inform all participants as to the very real crisis facing the Murray-Darling Basin, even those who do not believe in the science of climate change. The government fully understands that change will impact on regional communities. But it is important to appreciate that no change will also impact on regional communities.

No change, continued destruction of the environment and continued overuse of the basin will inevitably and inexorably see our Murray-Darling system die. That is why the government is committed to helping communities adjust, through water buybacks, rural water infrastructure investments and its Strengthening Basin Communities program. This is a government that believes in evidence based public policymaking, this is a government that will tell the people of Australia the truth and this is a government that will make hard decisions when they have to be made.

5:48 pm

Photo of Sarah Hanson-YoungSarah Hanson-Young (SA, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

Today’s debate comes in good time, as the minister has tabled a ministerial statement regarding legal advice received today from the Government Solicitor in relation to the Water Act. Unsurprisingly, the Water Act clearly shows that the necessity of ensuring environmental sustainability, coupled with looking at the social and economic costs and benefits for the community, has always been there. Any reform regarding the basin needs to give the river and the communities that rely on it the best fighting chance.

Reform to management of the basin has been such a long time coming. We know that we have grossly overallocated the system for decades. We have played the river off—state versus state, community versus community and state versus federal government. This is not a new debate that we are having. It was a debate that happened around the formation of the Constitution when states did not want to have to give up their water rights. It is a debate that we are now suffering the consequences of—generations on—because we did not make the necessary reforms we should have 50 or 60 years ago.

I obviously come from South Australia. I can see for real the effects of an overallocated system—a system that has had so much water come out of it that it has started to kill itself. The river system is dying. Yes, the rains that have fallen in the last couple of months have been blessed and wonderful for all of the various sections and communities within the basin—and no-one is rejoicing as much as those communities down on the Lower Lakes—but we rejoice with the concern that, unless we get these reforms right, there will simply be another time when this river system is in crisis. If we do not tackle the overallocation problem, if we do not take into consideration the issues of climate change, then we simply will not be able to rely on those good rains when they come.

We know how hard communities throughout the basin have struggled in the past few years—through the drought and as a result of overallocation. We did not leave enough in the system for those drier times. There will always be wetter times and drier times. With climate change it will get drier and drier, particularly in the south. That is what the science tells us and that is what the modelling shows us. We need to ensure that we leave enough water in the system for when times are poor.

The government’s legal advice as suggested in the Water Act says that of course the government must look at the social and economic costs and benefits of any reform that puts the river on a sustainable footing. Why is that? Clearly it is because if we do not give back to the river the water it needs—if we do not keep the river living and do everything we can to revive it and put it on a sustainable footing—of course there is going to be a significant impact on both costs to those communities that rely on it and food production in Australia. If we want to have a basin where communities are vibrant and have security and if we want there to be a future for our basin communities, we need to make sure there is a future for the river.

If we want food production to be secure in Australia, we need to make sure that the places that produce our food are sustainable and therefore have security into the future. The best way for us to do that is to tackle the river crisis. To do that, the best available science tells us that we need to put a minimum of 4,000 gigalitres back into the system and that if we really want to save the river we need to be looking at 7,600 gigalitres. That is what the best available science tells us and that is what we need to be talking about. These figures are now on the table. We should not be debating the figures; we should be looking at how we engage with those communities to find out how we can work with them so that they can be sustainable in a future with less water. That is the reality. Otherwise, this river is going to be dead and the communities are going to suffer.

So the government has an amazing opportunity here. Rather than seeing the government find every which way to backtrack and back-pedal on these reforms let us see a true commitment to the volume of water that science tells us the river needs, and then let us get out and engage those local communities in how they can be helped and how they can be innovative living in a future with less water. The government has an amazing opportunity because there is money on the table. We do not have to fight about that—there is $9 billion sitting there. The government needs to go out and engage with these local communities about how they can transition and how they can take ownership of their participation in this necessary and urgent water reform. The money is there. If we have the political will, we just need the resources to go and do it.

Of course those communities are concerned, because there has been enough fearmongering about their future to scare anyone. But most of these communities in South Australia, in Victoria, in New South Wales, in Queensland and even here in the ACT know that they have no future if there is no river. What they want to know is how we can help them in a drying climate where we need to put more water back into the river to keep it alive and how they can work sustainability, efficiently and effectively with less water. We have the money, so let us engage those communities. Let us give them some ownership of this reform.

That is what the government needs to be doing rather than backtracking on the best available science. We have to listen to that. We know that this water needs to be returned to the river. Let us not go back to the drawing board. Let us not talk about amendments to the Water Act. We have done that hard work. There is meant to be tripartisan support for these reforms, so let us figure out how we can deliver them. That means engaging with communities; it does not mean scaremongering and it does not mean a government trying to distance itself from some really necessary reforms that have been outlined by the Murray-Darling Basin Authority.

We have to remember that one of the best things about this process is that we all agreed some years ago that the Murray-Darling Basin Authority needed to be independent of politics if it was going to deliver the necessary reforms. In the last couple of weeks the saddest thing has been the backtracking on that—the sense that politics is now playing into it. If we are to get this right, we need a commitment again from the government, from the opposition and from all the crossbenches to put politics aside and put our communities first.