Senate debates

Thursday, 22 March 2012


National Water Commission

6:49 pm

Photo of Bridget McKenzieBridget McKenzie (Victoria, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to take note of document No. 13, the National Water Commission Act 2004: COAG review into the National Water Commission. This report obviously looks at the National Water Commission, the body responsible for driving progress towards sustainable management and use of Australia's water resources under our blueprint for water reform. Under the Water Act 2007 the commission had a new and ongoing function to audit the effectiveness of the implementation of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan and associated water resource plans. Stakeholders are largely supportive of the National Water Commission and its achievements. However, there is a potential for the National Water Commission's independent standing to be reduced through being given additional tasks that support some contentious programs. Obviously, the Murray-Darling Basin Plan and its implementation will be one of those.

I will turn to chapter 8 of the review itself and highlight a couple of the recommenda­tions. Recommendation 3 states:

The purview of the NWC should encompass all reforms associated with implementation of the NWI, including the MDB reforms …

That is incredibly contentious work. As a Victorian, I have been to the Murray-Darling Basin public meetings in my home state. There have been three throughout the 20-week consultation period, which ends in a little over 3½ weeks. There are significant issues with this plan from a southern basin perspective and I would like to talk briefly about them today.

Our communities along the Murray River in Victoria contain a vibrant and diverse people. We work hard on the land, predominantly in horticulture but also in dairy in northern Victoria. The people in towns like Mildura, Echuca, Shepparton and Cobram—obviously Mildura and Echuca are part of the Murray and lower Darling river system—and in other communities such as Swan Hill have over $1,799 million per annum tied up in irrigated agriculture. Shepparton, which is part of the Goulburn-Broken system—it is experiencing its own particular difficulties at the moment with floods—is home to 147,000 Victorians, with $712 million associated irrigated agricultural products. These are the areas that grow and process our food, and we need to ensure that the Murray-Darling Basin Plan takes into consideration the socioeconomic impact of taking the water out of these communities. I know there is a Senate committee going to Mildura shortly. Hopefully they will hear directly from our communities not only about the impact that this will have on our ability to produce and process the food enjoyed by Australia and the world but also about the social and environmental impacts. I call on Victorians within the southern basin and northern Victorians right along the Murray to get out and make submissions in the last 3½ weeks. We have to make sure that our perspectives on this plan are heard and recognised.

I found it quite interesting that one of the recommendations talks about knowledge leadership and says that the function should encompass reform implementation nationally, including in the Murray-Darling Basin. That concept of knowledge leadership is something that seems to be lacking in the whole process of the development of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. Wherever I go, there are screams about a lack of data, including a lack of socioeconomic data, late release of reports such as the CSIRO reports and the hydrology reports, and a lack of detail. I am hoping that we will get answers to questions such as 'How much water does the Commonwealth actually hold at this point?' and 'How are they going to use it?' We think of the Barmah Forest, an environmental asset that has had more than its fair share of watering of late, and our trust and confidence in the Commonwealth's capacity to do this are sorely tested.

6:54 pm

Photo of Doug CameronDoug Cameron (NSW, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I am pleased to participate in this debate on the COAG review of the National Water Commission in accordance with the National Water Commission Act 2004. I find it quite bewildering that members of the National Party can continually stand here in this place and talk about their concerns for the people in Mildura, Shepparton and the Murray-Darling Basin, given the history of the lack of analysis of and decent progress on the Murray-Darling Basin problems under the Howard government. The National Party had 11½ years to deal with the problems of the Murray-Darling river system, but they did nothing. Why? They did nothing because it would have meant their having to admit that the CSIRO, the Bureau of Meteorology and Australian scientists were correct and that climate change is a problem that has to be dealt with. The coalition, for 11½ years, refused to deal with it, and they still refuse.

What was the approach of former Prime Minister John Howard to the Murray-Darling Basin? He suddenly woke up one morning and said: 'There's a problem in the Murray-Darling Basin. How do I fix it? Let's throw some money at it.' There was $10 billion allocated overnight to the Murray-Darling Basin, with no plan, no strategy, no understanding of what the money was for—to the extent that Dr Ken Henry, the then Secretary of the Treasury, threw his hands up in the air and said, 'We've not been asked for any advice on what the implications of this $10 billion spend are.' Did the $10 billion spend go to cabinet? No, it did not. It was typical of the Howard government to wake up one morning, understand that they had a problem and throw money at the problem.

On the one hand, you had John Howard throwing money at every problem, such as the problem of the Murray-Darling—with no strategy, no analysis, no scientific basis—and, on the other hand, you had that failed Treasurer Peter Costello out there trying to cut taxes and cut taxes. So the big spend was on and the big tax cut was on. That created a problem for the structural basis of the economy, and we are still faced with that. This mob across the Senate have got no understanding of how the economy works. They have got absolutely no economic credibility at all.

When the history of Peter Costello is written, it will say Peter Costello needed a spinal transplant because he could never stand up to John Howard and get a decent economic policy in place. John Howard was too busy throwing the money out—every budget a new record of what he could give to areas where there was a problem. The economic profligate John Howard had absolutely no understanding: 'Here we go: the Murray-Darling Basin, $10 billion. We won't take that to the Treasury to find out what the Treasury thinks about it. No, let's not do that. We won't take it to cabinet to see if any of the cabinet ministers have got a view on it.' They would not, because they were all spineless like Peter Costello anyway. So the former Prime Minister John Howard had his way with government funds—just throw them out there. They would throw the money around. Peter Costello would try and cut taxes to try and be the epitome of a coalition Conservative Treasurer. And what did we end up with? We ended up with a mess. We ended up with no investment. We ended up with productivity declining in this country. We ended up with no approach to the Murray-Darling river system. We ended up with nothing on the environment. You were frauds and you are still frauds and you should admit it.

Photo of Claire MooreClaire Moore (Queensland, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Cameron, are you seeking leave to continue your remarks later?

Photo of Doug CameronDoug Cameron (NSW, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I seek leave to continue my remarks later.

Leave granted; debate adjourned.