Senate debates

Tuesday, 14 August 2012


Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities

5:13 pm

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

I seek leave to move a motion in relation to the response by the Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities regarding the Murray-Darling Basin Plan.

Leave granted.

I move:

That the Senate take note of the document.

This is a brief response from the minister to what ended up being a brief motion. A more extensive motion was moved in the Senate by my colleague Senator Joyce and me on 9 May this year; however, only one part of that motion was passed, and that part called on the government to ensure that the final Murray-Darling Basin Plan is based on the most up-to-date data and the best available science, consistent with the requirements of the Water Act 2007.

I welcome the response of the minister insofar as it addresses this. The minister's response restates the fact that the government's position has always been that the Basin Plan should have a sound scientific foundation and that the final plan should optimise environmental, social and economic consideration. The minister's response further highlights the requirements of the Water Act 2007 that the Murray-Darling Basin Authority and the Commonwealth water minister act on the basis of the best available scientific knowledge and socioeconomic analysis when developing the plan.

Insofar as the government has restated what we already knew, the response is indeed welcome. However, it is important to note that the motion, limited though it was, did have further intent behind it, which was to ensure that the final Basin Plan is based, firstly, on the most up-to-date data and, secondly, on the best available science, consistent with the requirements of the Water Act 2007. Here is where we run into, in many ways, the crisis of confidence that is afflicting the progress of the Basin Plan throughout the community, both upstream and downstream. Upstream communities have made clear their real concern that the data and the modelling undertaken by the Murray-Darling Basin Authority is not as up to date as it possibly could be and has not included the most recent wetter years within its modelling and data analysis. I do note that the MDBA has responded in other fora indicating that, were those recent wet years to be included, there would be a very small difference of negligible value. However, I do believe it is important that the most up-to-date data is applied to ensure that you try to harness and maximise confidence in this important reform process in those upstream communities. Similarly, there are concerns about the best available science and whether that is being used, and those concerns are particularly imminent in downstream communities.

Knowing what is the best available science is something that is often a matter of debate. 'Best available economics', 'best available science' and 'best available modelling' are terms that are sometimes thrown around rather loosely in this chamber and in politics generally. Indeed, there will be, as one would always expect, different scientific opinions as to the impact of different things. But it is important, it is vital, in order to try to reinstate confidence in this process that the MDBA and the government demonstrate that the science they are relying on for the modelling they are doing and for the proposed Basin Plan they are putting forward is science in which credible scientists have confidence. That is what I would ask them to do. I am not going to stand here and pick one scientific organisation and say, 'Their modelling is the best available in this,' which I know some state governments and some other stakeholders have done. But I am going to urge the MDBA and the government, as they seek to finalise this plan, to ensure that they demonstrate it is based on credible science and that it has credible scientific supporters behind it.

We are reaching the very pointy end of this process. It is five years since the Water Act was passed, and it has been a long, drawn out and tortuous process to get to what is almost a final Basin Plan. The Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities, Mr Burke, really is the only person now, barring some surprises from the MDBA, who can influence the outcome of this plan. It rests with him, and I would expect that he will finalise it over the coming weeks or month or two and that we will see it tabled in this parliament shortly.

Let me make it clear that I want to see it finalised, I want to see it tabled and I want to see it succeed. This is an important reform. It is vital for my home state. It is an issue on which I have probably spoken more in this place and in Senate estimates hearings than on any other issue at all. For that reason, can I say that the tactics of some involved in the progress of the Basin Plan are starting to concern me. The tactics of those who want to try to ramp up pressure around the place, on different parliamentarians, on government, opposition and crossbenchers alike to talk more about this and to judge us, as one organisation is proposing to do on what we do over the next two weeks, concerns me greatly. Many of us, and some in the chamber right now, have worked on this for many years. I have received an email from the Australian Conservation Foundation, who tell me that they propose to track parliamentary and other public communications of South Australian federal MPs and senators during the next two sitting weeks and that they will publish a report at the end of this period to see what it is that we have done and said about the Murray during that time.

Well they can track this comment: I think it is a childish game they are playing. I think there are too many stunts being played. Stunts by my hometown government, the South Australian state Labor government, stunts by interstate coalition governments, stunts by my hometown media, the Adelaide Advertiser, stunts by some irrigator organisations and stunts by some environmental organisations. Frankly, anybody who looks at this rationally is going to know that it is impossible to present a Basin Plan that will make everybody happy. Any Basin Plan is of course going to require certain trade-offs. I make those statements not because I want to sell my home state out but because I want to see us take a good step forward. I want to see us take the best possible step forward in this basin plan to achieve a more sustainable management of the Murray-Darling Basin in the future. But I want to see us take a step forward not take no step at all.

I am concerned the approaches of some of the stakeholders throughout this process are putting us at such polar extremes in this debate that the risk will be we will get no Basin Plan whatsoever. If that is the case, if the final plan that is tabled is rejected by this parliament because it is not perfect in the eyes of some, that will be a devastating act, I believe, for my home state. Yes, of course, we should fight to get the best possible outcomes for our states. I believe that is what I have done in the five years that I have been here. I believe that is what I did when I first stood in this place—happily, on the other side of the chamber—to speak for the passage of the Water Bill, as it then was. It was the last great reform of the Howard government: to try to have a national plan in place for the management of the Murray-Darling Basin system, a national plan that did not rely upon state jurisdictions but could ensure the basin would be managed sustainably. It was a plan whereby $10 billion was budgeted to aid in the transition for its implementation and to ensure that it could be implemented in a manner most sympathetically to the irrigation communities throughout the Murray-Darling.

I have been and remain incredibly critical of many of the ways this government has gone about spending, or in some cases not spending, that $10 billion. I remain very concerned about many of the approaches the Murray-Darling Basin Authority has taken throughout the course of this. However, we are at the pointy end now. I want to see us get the best possible outcome. That is what I will fight for. But I do not need any community organisation to start tracking the number of times I—or, frankly, any other colleagues—say words in this place on a topic that is so important.

5:24 pm

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

I rise to speak on the same matter as my South Australian colleague Senator Birmingham. I think it is extremely disappointing that we are at this point of the review into the Murray-Darling Basin Plan—draft after draft—and yet we still do not have the accurate modelling that we need to allow parliamentarians and our constituents to understand exactly what it is that we are being asked to decide between. What is it that we are being asked to trade off and what is it that we are being asked to favour when we talk about the amounts of water to be returned to the river under the current plan, as put forward by the Murray-Darling Basin Authority?

For quite some time—in fact, since the guide to the draft plan—many people, not just in South Australia but across the rest of the country, politicians, environmentalists and irrigators alike, have asked for correct modelling on the different volumes of water to be returned to the Murray-Darling Basin. The best available science continues to tell us that a minimum of 4,000 gigalitres is what is needed to return the river to health—or to give it a fighting chance—into the future. Yet the Murray-Darling Basin Authority has refused to model the impacts of returning 4,000 gigalitres. They have absolutely refused to model the return of that amount of water and put on the table squarely for everybody to see what that would mean.

They have also refused to model returning the figure that they had originally suggested, based on the best available science, was needed if we were to have a gold-clad guarantee that we would save the river system, and that would be in the vicinity of 7,600 gigalitres. We are being asked to sign off on a plan without being given all the information that should be available if parliament is going to lock in a plan that is meant to take us out to 2029, which is what this plan does. It nearly takes us to 2030 and yet there is nothing in the current draft plan that takes into consideration the impact of climate change.

The best available science tells us that there is a drying climate—that there is going to be less run-off, particularly in my home state in South Australia and other parts of the southern basin, where the climate is drying. Run-off is going to be lower. None of that modelling, none of that data, is being used in this plan, and there is no avenue for incorporating it into the management of the Murray-Darling Basin once this parliament signs off on the plan, which of course Minister Burke would like us to do before the end of the year.

I think it is a bit rich to expect South Australians in particular to cop locking in a plan that is currently delivering less than the best available science tells us that we need. What is currently on the table is 2,750 gigalitres but that is much less than what the best available science tells us is needed to flush those two million tonnes of salt out to sea, to keep the pollutants flushed out, to keep our river healthy, to ensure that we have quality water that can be drunk, used for feeding our stock and of course keeping the ecosystem healthy and well. The best available science tells us that we need 4,000 gigalitres and yet what is on the table is 2,750 gigalitres. The difference between 2,750 gigalitres and 4,000 gigalitres is the death of the Coorong and the death of South Australia's Lower Lakes. That is what South Australian parliamentarians, along with everybody else in this place and the other, are being asked to tick off on.

Yet this is a plan that is meant to be in line with the Water Act, which says, 'We know there has been overallocation throughout the basin for generations.' Some people have been far too greedy, taking more water than they can sustain, more water than they deserve—'Let the river run dry'—and are now squealing about the fact that we have to start putting some of that water back to keep the river healthy. Yet South Australians are being asked just to go, 'Okay, we'll take the bare minimum.' Well, no, we will not take the bare minimum. We will not lock in a system that is going to create failure for our system and that is going to condemn the Lower Lakes to a slow death and kill the Coorong, to leave our irrigators in South Australia high and dry when drought hits. This plan has a lack of modelling, a lack of data and a lack of a basis of having the best available science, resulting from ignoring Australia's top scientists when it comes to putting this plan together. This has meant that we are being asked to tick off a plan that is not a plan for drought. This is not a plan for the tough times and it is only going to help us in the good times.

We know that it is not actually that long ago that we were in drought in South Australia, which of course had been extremely exacerbated by overallocations and by a greedy 'take and then take as much as you can and hope no-one notices attitude', particularly by the big irrigators in the upstream states. South Australians remember how high and dry we were left by the rest of the country. Our communities remember, as it was not so long ago, the stories of the members of our elderly communities who were living in communities along the river and could not shower and even boil their kettle because the water that was coming out of the tap was polluted and salty. That was not that long ago, yet we are being asked to sign off on a plan that does not take the tough times into account and will not set us up to be resilient when we need to be resilient the most. When the chips are down, when there is less water in the river and when everybody is worried about the little amount of water that there is available, it is those of us who live at the bottom end of the river who suffer the most. I am not just saying that because it sounds nice to say, as a good sound bite. We know that because it has happened consistently over years and years and years—and it happened only five years ago in South Australia.

I am extremely disappointed that Minister Burke has not required the authority to do the appropriate modelling so we can have an honest and transparent discussion about what we are trading off if we do not go with what the scientists tell us we need. If we accept 2,750 gigalitres, tell us what that means we are going to lose. It will be the Coorong and the Lower Lakes. Tell us what that means for Adelaide's water quality when the dry time hits. Tell us why the plan will not be enabled to take into consideration the impacts of climate change when this is meant to be a plan for the future. There is no justification for this place or the other place accepting a plan to be handed to this parliament that does not tackle the issue that it is meant to, overallocation. If we do not start putting more water back into the river and if we do not tackle those big greedy irrigators from upstream, we are setting ourselves up for failure, we are selling out South Australia's beautiful Coorong and Lower Lakes and we are going to be condemning South Australian communities to drink salty water for years to come and saying goodbye to our irrigating communities in the Riverland in particular.

At the moment this is a plan for failure. This is a plan that fails South Australia and because it is so inconsistent with the objectives of the act, to save the river system, it is destined to fail in the courts as well. I do note that the minister has also refused to put the government's legal advice on the table in the way that the Senate has asked. I think there is very little excuse for the minister to be refusing to do that. It is everybody's right in this place to know what this plan will do and what it will not do, who it will fail and who fails because of it.

5:34 pm

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

There is no bigger issue in South Australia than the issue of water and water security and the health of the Murray-Darling Basin so I note the minister's very cute response to the Senate resolution. It would be laughable if this were not such a serious issue. We still have no real indication of how the authority has reached its 2,750 gigalitre a year figure. Further still, many of our leading scientists, including those of the Goyder Institute for Water Research, the CSIRO and the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists have suggested that this figure will not be sufficient to flush two million tonnes of salt—enough to fill the MCG—from the system every year. What did the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists say? They said:

Our fundamental objection is that none of the 2011 draft Basin Plan documents provide even the most basic information as to the volumes or timing of water that are required to give a reasonable prospect of achieving these objectives.

Take the CSIRO review, that by the Commonwealth scientists, if you like. They said that a 2,800 gigalitre per year reduction does 'not achieve the majority of the hydrological targets that have been set in the draft plan'. The Goyder institute has again reinforced those views that this is not good enough.

As for what is at stake here, the motion of Senators Joyce and Birmingham that was truncated and passed was simply to ask for the scientific modelling. This is simply about transparency. This is about accountability on an issue that is of fundamental importance to the people and environment of South Australia. I am concerned that unless we get this right South Australia will be left in a terrible position, in terms of its communities that rely on the river, in terms of its agricultural production, in terms of the environmental assets of South Australia, particularly the Coorong and the Lower Lakes, and in terms of the health of the lower reaches of the river. We in South Australia are the vulnerable ones because we are the ones that cop it with salinity, with the toxins in the river system that need to be flushed out through the Lower Lakes, through the Coorong. Professor Mike Young, the eminent water scientist and economist, has said the Lower Lakes are effectively the lungs of the river system. And, as Professor Young has said on many occasions, great river systems die from the mouth up—so this is a great concern.

The minister is someone I have a great regard for, but his response in this case was completely and utterly inadequate. It concerns me that the Murray-Darling Basin Authority takes the glib view that things will be sorted out by the market; that somehow, amongst the more efficient irrigators, the market will sort out the 971 gigalitres that need to be clawed back under the plan from the southern reaches of the basin. The problem with that is this: South Australia has been done over. The Water Efficiency Fund of some $5.8 billion is skewed against the state, because South Australian irrigators have already done the hard yards in water efficiency measures many years ago. They had to after the 1968 drought. They had to begin to do things such as having closed pipes and more efficient water irrigation measures. So the ability to be more efficient, to have access to that fund, is limited. I think only $10 million or $20 million has gone to South Australia. It is a tiny, tiny fraction of the billions in the Water Efficiency Fund.

The irrigators and communities in those states that get the water efficiency funds—the lion's share will go to New South Wales and Victoria and some to Queensland—will get money to be more efficient and they will get to keep half the water and the other half will go to the environment. That is the deal, and I understand that. But the concern is that, if the Murray-Darling Basin Authority so glibly says, 'We will let the market sort this out,' the market will be skewed by virtue of that very fund—instituted by the Howard government, continued by the Rudd and Gillard governments—because those irrigators will have extra water to play with, extra water to put in extra crops, extra water to trade with, whereas South Australian irrigators will not have that benefit. From a market point of view, from a basic water economics point of view, that is a disaster for South Australian irrigators because it will mean entire regions will be wiped out.

If we are going to get this right, if we are going to do this once and for all in a way that is in the national interest, that is in the interests of communities and in the interests of the environment, we need the information, we need the science and we need the modelling. I find it extraordinarily disappointing that the minister is not prepared, as I understand it, to order more modelling by the Murray-Darling Basin Authority to ensure that the 2,800 gigalitres per year reduction actually achieves the majority of hydrological targets, because the CSIRO review says it does not. Let's see that modelling.

I think it is very important that we get it right. What concerns me is that, with predictions of an El Nino weather pattern, things will be tough. We could have very dry conditions in the next year or two and the impact on South Australia will be devastating. I have spoken to so many irrigators in so many communities who had to sell their assets, who had to sell their water entitlements, who had to mortgage their homes in order to keep their permanent plantings—their citrus trees and other crops—alive. It is completely untenable that we are not given the basic information, the basic research and the fundamental modelling to make sure we get this right. That is why it is important that this totally inadequate response by the minister be noted.

Question agreed to.