Senate debates

Wednesday, 9 February 2011


Murray-Darling Basin

7:48 pm

Photo of Mark BishopMark Bishop (WA, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Tonight I want to talk about a topic that is dear to the heart of any Western Australian member of parliament—that is, the Murray-Darling Basin, a topic previously addressed by Senator Nash. At the outset it is fair comment that in recent times there has been a remarkable degree of vitriolic debate about the Murray-Darling Basin. On one hand we have the absolutist environmentalists and on the other we have the absolutist exploiters of water, neither of whom, I hold the view, really understand the issue or the problem.

These extremes make a lot of smoke and shed little light. Like so many other interests, either vested or narrow and with a poorly informed view, they make life extraordinarily difficult in this area for this government and for previous governments. But in the centre are many who either understand or are confused largely because of the media exploitation of this confected drama. It is difficult to imagine a matter with more complexity than this one, or one which has been so wilfully ignored for so long.

The Murray-Darling water management task represents an awesome challenge. For too long we have taken our scarce water resources for granted. We have extracted water from our rivers and artesian sources as if it were never-ending. State governments and industry too have exploited these sources in the same way for revenue in the first instance and to support investment. As we now know, the state exploitation was such that water was sold that never existed. The buy-back bill was in fact an ambulance pass for the Commonwealth in the national interest.

Yet within this framework, there are many sensitivities which surround water extraction. First, there is a simple need for drinking water for human consumption—of all human settlements in the basin, the largest is Adelaide, which many overlook—not to mention all the other needs for water for those settlements just to continue their current existence. Attached to that are the industrial needs of both primary and secondary production, which sustain those settlements and the broader economy.

Finally, there are environmental interests. These are the subject of just as much misunderstanding as those demanding continuing support for human settlements, their economies and the livelihoods of so many people. The simple fact is that the amount of water available is finite. It is only available if it rains and there is sufficient storage to eke it out. The book burners, whose recent behaviour as seen on television reminds one of French farmers’ antics to protect their unproductive livelihoods, need to come to terms with that concept. So too do environmentalists, who romantically imagine that this river system is perennial, which it has never been. So too do those of the good old National Party, who continue to survive by exploiting the fears of country people for their own particular purpose.

There are a few facts here which Australians need to know and understand as context in this debate, and which are unalterable. The first is that the Murray-Darling system is not perennial. It frequently dries up and it frequently floods. The mighty Murray cod, the riverine red gum forests, the flood plains, the swamps and marshes and the river mouth lakes have all seen both—and have survived, as at present in brilliant fashion. Indeed, as the first explorations of Captain Charles Sturt and others revealed in the 1820s, this river system was bone dry at a time of no human settlement.

Let me quote some evidence of drought and flood written up on the Murrumbidgee River at Wagga, by Mr Ron Pike. It is an excellent article entitled ‘Bunyips in our rivers’ published in the Daily Advertiser on 4 December 2010, and says that essentially this detail demonstrates the degree of hysteria and misunderstandings about the dynamics of this important part of the system—all this clearly driven by the ‘we’ll all be rooned’ syndrome attached to the recent drought. It does nevertheless mask a serious problem to be dealt with.

Mr Pike outlines that in 1840 the Murrumbidgee at Wagga was reduced to a chain of waterholes, such that horse races were held in the dry bed. Floods—that is, over 8.2 metres—then occurred in 1844, 1852 and 1853. The 1852 flood resulted in the drowning of 80 people at Gundagai. Then followed 14 years of no floods in which many of the rivers ran dry. There were floods in 1867, 1869, three in 1870 and further floods in 1878, 1879, 1887, and four in 1891. The next flood was in 1892, and there were another five in 1894. Drought returned in 1894 for six long years. Floods resumed in 1900, twice, and again in 1905 and 1906, after which the rivers again ran dry until 1916 when there were two floods. In this period the Burrinjuck and Hume dams were built. There were further floods in 1917, the 1920s and the 1930s. Between 1939 and 1950 there were no floods but the rivers were sustained by releases from the new dams. Flooding resumed in 1950 and continued regularly. There were 22 floods between 1959 and 2010, and between 1993 and 2010 there were no floods. That is where all our recent attention has been focused—on whether it is about drought, global warming, climate change, and all manner of doom and dire predictions.

I thank Mr Pike for his illuminating revelation of fact. It is such a pity that so few would have read his piece, including policy advisers and politicians who might not appreciate his critique of current programs such as the buy-back scheme. It is correct to say that, as a public asset, water can be provided and taken away at will. But there is often an uncomfortable political reality for which we all pay a price sometimes. Poor political decisions often result in compensation—and that is all it is. Except, as I have said, the decisions were made by state governments and the Commonwealth has to clean it up.

Simply put, the question is what is all the brouhaha about? Drought and flood are clearly natural phenomena in this river system. Yet everyone has survived—and in fact I am reminded of another recent revelation. Despite an 80 per cent reduction in water availability in one year, the value of production in the basin area has barely dropped. In the current spate of wonderful rainfall, everyone is agog at the resilience of nature. But, really, the environment is doing what it has always done. The riverine environment has been replenished, notwithstanding the new dam catchments. The South Australian lakes are full. The Murray is pouring out to the ocean. The doomsters and gloomsters have gone quiet. So I think it is fair to say that those people ought to take a Bex and have a good lie down.

That does not mean of course that there is no basis to some of the concerns. As I have already mentioned, the quantity of water available at any one time might be seriously limited. Nor can we deny a whole range of other issues such as salinity and the need for conservation measures such as piping and better irrigation practices. We do need to conserve and protect our water resources from the mindless exploitation of the past. We need to honour the far-sighted thinking of those who planned and built our dams in the national interest. At the same time we need to prevent senseless short-term exploitation to the cost of the entire basin. That is the current task for members of the Murray-Darling Basin Authority—who all have interests to provide for as part of their charter.

Clearly water will always need to be rationed in accord with the priorities established. A constant balance needs to be struck in favour of sustainability. That word ‘sustainability’ actually means something. But it might not be achieved at any cost. Water can only ever be available for as long as it exists. But it is a concept for the long term, not the here and now affecting profits and losses on an annual basis. Clearly, in extended years of drought many agricultural users will lose out—that is a clear business risk. No amount of book burning can change that. Water is not a right—it is an entitlement which can be purchased according to the principles of demand and supply. It is a valuable resource to be managed carefully, not to be used simply because it is there at any one time.

For the environment, though, it is also clear that it can sustain long periods of no water at all—unlike human settlements and industry. As we are seeing, flooding is part of the natural cycle, and storage upstream seems to enhance that in dry years rather than damage it. The only exception to this is the Snowy River and, while it has its own different set of issues, there seems to me to be no rational reason for its exclusion from the whole.

With all this in mind I am happy to say that I think the Commonwealth is on the right track. Clearly there are some interests who have difficulty understanding the issues, but there is no choice. There is a critical national interest at stake here, and the government needs to press on. But in so doing it must explain the context and change the perceptions many have about water. The blunt instrument of price is already having a dramatic effect in our urban areas. Overall people are much more savvy, and hopefully they will not be influenced by the populist and misinformed attitudes expressed by the minority opposed to change. (Time expired)