Senate debates

Tuesday, 21 August 2012


Murray-Darling Basin Plan

7:21 pm

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

I rise tonight to speak on an issue of great importance not just to my home state of South Australia but to the entire nation, and that is the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. By the end of this year the Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities, the Hon. Tony Burke, will present the final Murray-Darling Basin Plan to the parliament. There is no question that we need a plan for this river system but I have grave concerns about whether the plan in its current form will be able to achieve any of its key objectives.

I have made this point countless times before but I believe it is pertinent to reiterate it now: governments do not own the environment. They do not own the lakes, they do not own the rivers; they are simply custodians of these environmental treasures. And when it comes to taking care of this treasure, the Murray-Darling Basin system, we as custodians have done an appalling job. But as custodians we now have an obligation to do the right thing with this great river system and the right thing by the communities that rely on it.

I, like many others in this place, worry that this plan will not meet its key environmental, economic and social objectives. In fact, I worry that we are not even close. The latest version of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, which was released on 6 August, again proposes a sustainable diversion limit of 2,750 gigalitres for the Murray-Darling river system. This is the same sustainable diversion limit put forward by the Murray-Darling Basin Authority in various drafts of the basin plan, although it is worth noting that it is significantly less than the proposals of the guide to the proposed basin plan. The guide suggested the minimum would be 3,000 gigalitres. This watered-down plan—no pun intended—is now offering the environment far less that what was the absolute minimum just 18 months ago, without revealing the real basis for this new magic number. Not only is the lack of transparency in this regard alarming and brash, but it is also particularly concerning given the weight of evidence that suggests that 2,750 gigalitres will not go even close to flushing the two million tonnes of salt from the system each year.

I refer to the work of the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists, which comprises some of Australia's best and most decorated environmental scientists and engineers. They state:

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.

The Goyder Institute, which again comprises leading scientists from the CSIRO, Flinders University, the University of Adelaide and the University of South Australia, concluded that:

… the ecological character of the South Australian environmental assets, as defined in current water management plans, is unlikely to be maintained under the Basin Plan 2750 scenario.

Further, a CSIRO review of the draft plan, released in November 2011, found that a 2,800 gigalitre scenario met only 21 per cent of the hydrological targets prepared by the authority with high certainty and 24 per cent with low certainty. The list goes on.

These groups have joined a score of others in urging the Murray-Darling Basin Authority—the MDBA—to undertake urgent modelling of higher water recovery targets. Not only does that appear to have fallen on deaf ears, but it also seems such suggestions have been viewed with virtual derision by the authority, the department and the minister.

I, like many others in this place, do not want to criticise for the sake of criticising. I want a basin plan that will work. But, as many other colleagues in this place have begged, please just show us the science. I am happy to be wrong, which, I concede, may be an unusual trait for a member of parliament, but show us this figure, how we reached it, and show us how it would be enough to keep the Murray mouth open and flush two million tonnes of salt—enough to fill the MCG from the turf to the top—out of the system each year. Explain to us why ground water extractions are slated to increase to over 17 hundred gigalitres—17 hundred billion litres. In the absence of total transparency, how can we as parliamentarians make an informed decision when we are asked to vote on this plan later in the year?

I also have serious concerns regarding the transparency and fairness of the federal government process for awarding taxpayer-funded grants of funding to irrigators. In June 2012, the Australian National Audit Office report headed Administration of the private irrigation infrastructure operators program in New South Wales raised some serious concerns about the operation of this program, which is a key component of the federal government's $5.8 billion Sustainable Rural Water Use and Infrastructure Program. Alarmingly, the ANAO's report concluded that all applications for funding rounds 1 and 2 of the New South Wales program:

… did not contain sufficient detail to facilitate a thorough assessment, particularly in relation to addressing the economic/social criteria, environmental criteria and the projects' cost-benefit analyses.

That is a staggering $649 million of taxpayer dollars to projects that had not undergone a cost-benefit analysis. Not only this, the report also concluded that the department had not established baselines from which to measure water efficiency improvements nor identified the quantity of water savings that would be returned to the environment based on these taxpayer-funded investments.

Unfortunately, such appalling mismanagement is not an isolated issue. The Victorian Ombudsman's report into the Foodbowl Modernisation Project, which attracted $1 billion of federal funding, found that the project allocated:

… substantial funding although it had not undertaken a business case and feasibility studies critical to assess and evaluate investment options.

It is extraordinary that so much money can be wasted without a proper cost-benefit analysis.

South Australian irrigators have applied for funding under a number of federal government programs, most notably the Sustainable Rural Water Use and Infrastructure Program, but as they capped their water diversions in 1969—that is what South Australia did—and invested in irrigation efficiency measures out of their own pockets, to a large extent they have been deemed too efficient to qualify. For example, the Renmark Irrigation Trust, the central irrigation trust in the Riverland in South Australia, is already in the order of 97 per cent plus efficient, according to research conducted by the Charles Sturt University International Centre for Water. There is a clear lack of flexibility in the use and criteria of the infrastructure fund which disadvantages early adopters and, in particular, those in regions such as the Riverland. The Riverland irrigators that I know have done the right thing for many years—people like Jim Baleros, and Mick Puntiero, who I have got to know very well. They have done the right thing but, instead of being rewarded for it, in a sense they are being punished for it under this proposed plan.

In October 2010, the approval rate for projects in South Australia was less than 50 per cent and I am advised by irrigators in the Riverland that the success rate has not improved since then. I am advised that, as at July 2011, out of this $5.8 billion fund, only $14.4 million had been allocated to private irrigator grants in South Australia. But not only are the upstream irrigators getting money for jam, they are also getting to keep half the water they save. That in itself is very problematic because it distorts the water market in the sense that what the MDBA is saying and what the government is saying is that the in-valley target to meet for South Australia is 101 gigalitres plus a further 971 gigalitres from the southern-connected basin, of which South Australia is a part.

In Senate estimates on 23 May I had an interchange with Dr Rhonda Dickson from the Murray-Darling Basin Authority, who I accept works particularly hard for the authority, has a difficult job to do and is a decent person. But I am concerned that the response of, the position of, the authority is to say that their current proposal is to have a market based approach so that, for South Australian irrigators who wish to sell some or all of their entitlement, it will be done through market mechanisms.

The problem is this: if you distort the market by virtue of the infrastructure fund—the $5.8 billion fund that South Australian irrigators could hardly access—then you distort the way that water is bought back for the environment. It will put those irrigators at a significant disadvantage; it will skew the buyback market dramatically against South Australia. South Australia must receive recognition of its past efforts in adhering to the cap, but this has not been addressed in any version of the proposed basin plan. For the authority to glibly say, 'Everyone says they're more efficient in other regions; that shouldn't be a factor,' is quite unfair and must be addressed.

Time is short. I will have much more to say about this in the weeks and months to come, but the plan in its current form will not secure South Australia's future. It will not protect our wetlands, our ecosystems and our wildlife. It will do nothing for our irrigators and it will have catastrophic consequences for my home state of South Australia in its current form. It needs to be amended. It needs to be fair.