Senate debates

Wednesday, 9 February 2011


Murray-Darling Basin

7:29 pm

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

Before I begin, I acknowledge Senator Faulkner’s contribution. Forget about the Prussian revolution in 1870; it was all happening in Glebe! That was probably the most detailed and comprehensive defence of a post office that this place has entertained.

Photo of John FaulknerJohn Faulkner (NSW, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

You’ve heard nothing yet.

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

We look forward to your further contribution, Senator Faulkner, with enthusiasm.

Tonight I want to discuss the issue of water. There is probably no more significant issue for this nation over the coming years and decades than the issue of water. I am a farmer from the central west in New South Wales, so I live, eat and breathe with the people who are affected by this. I travel throughout New South Wales and indeed the rest of the country talking to people about water issues. And it is not just people in regional Australia; this is going to affect people in the cities as well. We have seen over a number of years both sides in government try to work out what we should be doing with a future plan for water. To date, this government’s approach to dealing with the issue of water and water delivery has been lacking. They have demonstrated no ability to comprehend the effect of potential government policy on our irrigators, farmers and broader regional communities. I am not standing here making that up as a political point; I am passing back to the chamber what has been very clearly said to me and many of my coalition colleagues as we have travelled extensively around the Murray Darling Basin.

For some time now, we have seen this government completely mismanage the issue of water. Prior to the current minister responsible, Minister Burke, we had the minister in this chamber, Minister Wong, in charge of water. Way back in 2009, during the estimates process when I was having some discussions with Senator Wong about the water issue, she in no uncertain terms said that farmers just had to get used to doing more with less—meaning water—and that that was the way it was going to be from now. Obviously, Senator Wong did not take Mother Nature into account when we reflect upon the events that we have seen over the last several months. One of the things that the government has been completely unable to grasp is the effect of water policy on the people in our regional communities. What I am talking about here are the social and economic impacts of water policy and, in the instance of this Labor government, the policy of permanently removing water from those communities.

For quite some time now, we on this side have recognised that it is vitally important that those social and economic impacts of permanently removing water from those communities are taken into account. I talked with Senator Wong about this issue back on 28 May 2009 during Senate estimates. Here is what I said:

Yes, just on the Basin Plan. With respect to 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, what is the process for that?

For a long time now, those in the coalition have understood the potential impacts in our regional communities. I must note that, on this side of the chamber and on this side of politics, our approach has been to improve infrastructure, to make sure that we utilise water better and to give our regional people—the irrigators and the farmers—the tools to do that. We did not just blindly go down the road of buybacks when the opportunity was there to make sure that we invested in the infrastructure, both on farm and through transmission, and improved those circumstances. It has indeed been very disappointing to see that the government has by and large ignored that process, which over the previous years would have delivered water immediately back into those communities.

What we have seen recently with the advent of the basin plan in October—and this issue has been raised by the irrigators, farmers and businesses in our communities—is that there has not been a balanced approach on the impacts of permanently removing water from those communities through government policy. There has been a real concern that the idea of water being taken from those communities to go to the environment has taken priority over the social and economic impacts of permanently removing that water. This has been heard loud and clear by this side of the parliament and, I have to acknowledge, now by Minister Burke on the other side. But what we saw from the other side prior to that was a complete lack of consultation with those people on the ground in those communities who would have been affected. So it is only very late in the piece that this government has realised that there are concerns out there about the priority that seemed to have been given to the environment when it came to the changes in water policy leading to the permanent removal of water from those communities.

On this side of the chamber, we recognise that if there is a problem you fix it. You do not hide under a rock; you do not do nothing. If you identify a problem—and especially one of this magnitude that has been brought to us by all those people in those regional communities—you fix it. So I am very pleased to say that today my very good colleague Senator Joyce, who has been working tirelessly on this issue and all water issues come to that, has secured an inquiry of the Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs References Committee into whether there are ambiguities in the act that prevent the environmental, social and economic impacts of removing water from our regional communities from being treated equally. That to me is very sensible. There are concerns with the act as to whether the environment takes priority. This concerns people out in our regional communities—and in other communities as well, I should add; certainly people in our cities are just as concerned about making sure there is a balanced approach and a balanced outcome. Therefore, this committee will inquire into whether there are ambiguities and, if there are, what process we take to fix that.

I note that the former chair of the Murray-Darling Basin Authority, Mike Taylor, constitutional law expert Professor George Williams and Professor Judith Sloan have all agreed that in their interpretation the environment takes primacy. Obviously, there is enough ambiguity there that we need to see whether it needs to be fixed.

What did the government do today? They voted against the motion. We have a minister on the other side, Minister Burke, who is on the one hand saying to people out in regional communities, ‘Yes, I believe that the environmental, social and economic impacts should all be treated the same’, while on the other hand, here in the chamber, the government is refusing to look at the very act that has carriage of providing that equivalence. I do not know why the government—and I am sure many people, particularly in regional areas, will have a real concern here—is not prepared to have a look at the act, when it comes to delivering equality across all of those three areas. The minister said he wants equality. He should be looking at the act and making sure that it does deliver those things.

It has been said that it was this side of the chamber, the coalition, that introduced the Water Act. It certainly was. But on this side of the chamber, as I said before, we know that, if there is a problem, you fix it. So we have no problem with looking at the act to determine if there are ambiguities and what we need to do to fix them. That is streets ahead of what the government are doing, because they simply will not support looking into the act.

Those out there can only ask: why is this the case? Who knows, but at least now we have the inquiry underway so we can look into that, to make sure, because it is vitally important that we get this right for regional communities. We have farmers out there in these communities who have no idea what the future holds for them. We need to give them some certainty. On this side of the chamber we are not going to stand by and watch this government pull water out of those communities permanently, effectively giving them a man-made drought, and not take into account, properly under the legislation, the effect that that is going to have. The coalition are going to make sure that we absolutely get the right outcome for people in regional communities. And it is not just about the farmers and irrigators; it is not just about those regional towns. This is about being able to deliver food security for this country into the future for decades to come. I commend Senator Joyce for what he has done today in instigating the inquiry. The coalition will get a balanced outcome for our farmers, irrigators and all Australian people.