Wednesday, 6 February 2013
Water Amendment (Water for the Environment Special Account) Bill 2012; In Committee
I move amendment (1) on sheet 7335.
(1) Schedule 1, item 2, page 7 (lines 25 and 26), omit paragraph 86AD(2)(b).
This is in regard to issues pertaining to buybacks. What we have clearly stated is that the economic consequences of buybacks in regional towns—and we are seeing it right now in some cases—have been dire especially in parts of Victoria where buybacks have led to reduction of milk quota into the processing factories and therefore you get a closure of processing factories which brings about unemployment. This is not a situation which a responsible government should be part of. If we are going to talk about employment and regional development, we cannot be closing down regional towns.
We fully support the capacity of saving water through basically being clever in how we use it. We want to make sure our efforts are concentrated on being clever in how we use it. We acknowledge that strategic purchases in certain areas were part and parcel of the initial parts of the plan, but we have stated categorically that we believe there should be a cap at 1,500 gigs—which means that there are around 250 gigs left to purchase to get to that number, because we have already purchased a substantial amount. After that, the money that is employed should be through strategic purchases and not through haphazard purchases—strategic being that you take into account the economic viability of irrigation, the economic viability of delivering water, and the economic viability of the mechanisms and the production of the town being sustained in such a way as it keeps the employment of the town there and keeps a future for the town.
This first amendment on sheet 7335 is to make sure that we remove from this extra 450 gigs the capacity for it to be attained through buyback. If it comes via buyback this will send a real sense of fear through the irrigation communities from South Australia all the way up to Queensland. We are talking about an amount of water that is approximately the same amount as what South Australia and Queensland each use. So it is an immense amount of money, and we cannot just be going into these areas and buying up all the water and shutting the areas down. Some might say that that is the cheapest way to get the water. Yes, but it is also the most devastating way to get the water.
We have stated all along that we believe that, in being part of this process, there should be an equivalence between the social and economic outcomes for the 2.1 or 2.2 million people who live in the Basin and the environmental outcomes and there should not be superiority of one over the other—and certainly not superiority of the environment over the people this parliament is here to represent. We welcome an investment that delivers water back to the river in a way that takes into account the economic viability of the towns and allows the productive capacity to remain as unscathed as possible. But that will not happen if we just go in there and start purchasing with an extra $1.77 billion the water licences or trying to attain 450 gigs. Technically, you could buy all the water in South Australia or all the water in Queensland. That would not be a good outcome. That would be a devastating outcome.
So, to make it completely unambiguous, we should remove the capacity of this money to be used for buybacks and show—in the good faith that has been asked of the people of these regional communities—that we intend to get this water through infrastructure upgrades and through environmental works and measures. The way to do that is to make it unambiguous that we are not just going to have a haphazard arrangement of going to areas and buying back water. To be honest, after talking to people from Victorian areas, I know so many of these communities are at a tipping point right now. We have already lost rice mills and dairy processing factories. We cannot lose anymore.
For every one that goes, there is an employee—and a working family—that loses their job. Nothing is being offered to them by way of compensation. Nothing has been offered to these towns that have the lost the value of their houses. Nothing has been offered to the businesses that have lost income and to those who have lost the money that they have spent purchasing a business on the belief of an income stream that is supported by irrigation. Nothing has been sent to them. So we cannot add any more uncertainty into this environment. We cannot add any more uncertainty into their capacity to refinance with banks. We cannot add any more heartache into areas where people say, 'I can't get young kids and families back on the land, because the government, by its own actions, is showing that it has no intention for there to be an economy there.' So, in the first instance, this amendment will remove that ambiguity. If this amendment were passed then the subsequent amendment, I think, could be withdrawn. If it is not passed then I have a further two amendments, one of which is an amendment to try and go about this in another way.
I just indicate that the government does not support this amendment. It has taken a very long time to get to the point where we now have a Murray-Darling Basin Plan. There is a reason why it has taken a long time: because it has been very difficult to get all of the states and the federal government to a point where they are all in agreement on how to restore the mighty Murray-Darling Basin to good health. We have achieved that now, and this is the final link in that chain to deliver that result. There have been delicate negotiations with all of the parties—all of the states and the Commonwealth. We believe that we have got the balance right. We do not believe that it is necessary to have any further amendments. If we were to introduce or accept further amendments then we would risk this very finely balanced piece of legislation. So the government does not support the amendment.
I ask the parliamentary secretary: what guarantees does the government provide that these buybacks will not be delivered or inflicted in such a way as to bring further socioeconomic detriment, especially to the areas that rely on the dairying capacity and the rice-producing capacity, and that we will not have families losing their main breadwinner through the economies of these areas shutting down? What confidence can you provide the Australian people that this money will be delivered in such a way that it does not inflict that if they are allowed to just go in and buy the water?
I have the greatest confidence that the combination of what we have done with the Murray-Darling Basin Plan legislation last year and what we are doing with this piece of legislation this time will in fact achieve the result that you want. The whole point of going down this track, the whole point of the negotiations and the whole point of getting a consent outcome by the states and the federal government has been to do exactly what you say.
In addition to protecting the communities along the Murray-Darling Basin, of course, we are getting a fantastic environmental outcome as well. I had the great pleasure last week of going down to Piccaninnie Ponds, in the south-east of South Australia, and seeing a newly introduced Ramsar site in South Australia. What we are going to see as a result of this legislation passing is the communities along the Murray-Darling Basin being protected but also fantastic environmental outcomes. So I do not think there will be anybody who lives in the Murray-Darling Basin who should have anything to fear from this legislation going through. It is going to deliver protection to the communities, particularly in my home state in South Australia, but also protection to the environment.
I refer the parliamentary secretary to a statement by Minister Tony Burke at his press conference on 26 October in Canberra, where he says:
Now, the extra 450 gigalitres is acquired through the sorts of on-farm infrastructure projects that we've run to date.
It is more expensive than just straight buyback, but environmentally it achieves the same benefit and for those communities, it is a way of making sure that we work with them.
Seeing that the minister himself has stated that the 450 gigalitres is to be acquired through the sorts of on-farm infrastructure projects, why do we have in this bill that it can be obtained through buybacks?
That is what has been agreed. That is the nature of the negotiations. That is what has got us to the point where we have a consent resolution on the issue of the problems of the Murray-Darling Basin. We want a good outcome for the communities and we want a good outcome for the environment. We want the river to be strong and healthy. That is what this legislation does. I do not think there is anything inconsistent with what the minister said on that occasion and what you are seeking to achieve for your communities along the Murray-Darling. The minister needs to be congratulated for being able to bring all of the parties together, so that we do have a consent arrangement between the Commonwealth and the states. I have seen plenty of arguments between South Australia and the other states on the issue of water. We now have a consent resolution to this process. It is the best outcome that we can achieve and we do not believe any further amendments are required.
The problem is that the statement made by the minister when addressing his press conference clearly stated that he believed it was going to come from on-farm infrastructure. On-farm infrastructure is implicitly different to buybacks. You are fully aware of that, as we all are. What exactly does the government mean by this? Why can the government say in one instance it is going to come from on-farm infrastructure, but now we have the capacity for it to come from buybacks? How much of the 450 gigs do you intend to get from buybacks?
I cannot answer that question, because that will be in the future. I can say for all the communities along the Murray-Darling Basin that this is the best resolution that is capable of being achieved to get the results they want—namely, continued strong and sustainable communities along the Murray-Darling Basin, a good environmental outcome and a return to the health of the river. That is what we want and that is what the minister wants. This is also what all the communities along the Murray-Darling Basin want. We think this is the way to achieve it. Just how particular amounts of money will be spent in the future we cannot say for sure, but we can say that by supporting this legislation and passing this legislation we will restore the Murray-Darling Basin to health and we will protect the communities along the river.
It is extremely important, because the vagaries of this are growing. It was quite clear from the minister in his representations and his discussions that this was from on-farm infrastructure. You either believe that overwhelmingly and predominantly this is going to come from on-farm infrastructure, it will partially come from on-farm infrastructure or you give no guarantee whatsoever where it is going to come from. I truly believe that people have a right to know this, because we are talking about more water than South Australia uses. Your own state has the right to know exactly how you intend to get this water. If there were a change in government, would you give licence to another government to buy all the water from South Australia, buy all the water from Queensland or shut down the southern part of New South Wales? These people have every right, as this legislation comes to finalisation, to get the government of the day to clearly state its intention. This is of immense interest and people are going to be making economic decisions on this piece of legislation: whether they invest, or whether they do not invest or where they are based. I think, with the greatest respect, they deserve more than a platitude and 'this is a great outcome' because that is not what we are talking about. We are talking about what proportion of this money is going to be used for direct buybacks. If we cannot get any sort of recommendation from the government then unfortunately, in some areas, people will just see this as the worst, they will see that anything is possible. I do not believe that was initially the government's intention. I do not think that is what they will want to be leaving people with in this parliament by reason of reflection on this amendment.
The parliamentary secretary did not look like he was about to respond to Senator Joyce. On a similar line to Senator Joyce, I ask the parliamentary secretary to step down from the broad rhetoric in his answers and turn to the actual detail of the legislation that is before us. And particularly to answer the question of whether, firstly, it is the government's understanding that the funds appropriated in this special account could be used for general buyback tenders; secondly, if it could be, then is it the government's intention to do so; and, thirdly, if it is neither the government's understanding that it could be used for general buybacks nor is it not the government's intention for it to be used for general buybacks, then in what circumstances, would the government please clearly spell out, does it expect that buybacks could be undertaken?
It does answer the first two questions, Senator Farrell, and I am pleased you have spoken to the advisers and that we have got somewhere in this. You have indicated it is your understanding that under this legislation the government cannot undertake general buybacks. What assurances can the government then give as to the power that it has under this legislation to undertake buybacks, exactly how those buybacks will be undertaken and, in particular, what the relationship is to infrastructure programs?
Perhaps I can give an example of how this might work. I can indicate that where water savings are normally shared on a 50-50 basis between irrigators and the environment, under the initiative it will be asking farmers to sell their half of the water savings to the Commonwealth at market prices as well as transferring the other half by way of an infrastructure investment. Farmers who consider that they will be better off will participate in the program and will continue to work with the basin states and other stakeholders on a win-win basis to recover an impact neutral water.
I thank Senator Farrell for that example, which is most welcome. Are there any other circumstances aside from the type of example that Senator Farrell has outlined to the Senate in which the government would be using the funds appropriated in this bill to undertake buybacks?
I do not think that we can go through every possible permutation of arrangements. I have given you an example of how it will work. The important thing here is that we have got a consent arrangement between the Commonwealth and the states. I have tried to explain to you particular examples of where and how this arrangement will work, but I do not think it is possible to elucidate every single possible permutation as to how this legislation will work into the future. What I think we can say is that this legislation will protect the communities along the basin and it will deliver that environmental outcome that I know you want and that the communities along the basin want.
Senator Joyce and I pursue this line of questioning because it is important to have on the record in these debates exactly how the government understands these things will work and how these measures that are being legislated for will work. I appreciate Senator Farrell's answer that perhaps it is not possible to give every single set of possible circumstances. What we currently have is a grey zone as to where the line is drawn. Senator Farrell has made clear that it is not possible under the legislation to simply undertake general buyback tenders. That will be welcomed by the communities in question.
He has given an example of where buybacks may be undertaken whereby we will see circumstances of infrastructure projects being undertaken making better use of water. And rather than the Commonwealth taking 50 per cent of the water saving, they will get 50 per cent by virtue of the infrastructure project and they will buy the other 50 per cent, and it will be farmers' free choice as to whether they participate in those projects. That is a good example; it is understood and something that communities will see as the type of measure that they can work with. The question is: where does the line get drawn in between those two examples? How is that line drawn?
Senator Farrell, what assurances and what safeguards are enshrined in this legislation and/or can be given by the government to the communities that any water buybacks undertaken will be undertaken in a way consistent with what the Prime Minister and Minister Burke have said will be measures that will have no socioeconomic detriment on the communities where those buybacks are undertaken? Can you explain to us how the legislation draws the line that guarantees that no-socioeconomic-detriment test?
The totality of the legislation, when you combine the Murray-Darling Basin Plan with this piece of legislation, gets the outcome that you say you want. We protect the communities, we do not cause them any economic disadvantage and we get the environmental outcomes. That is what the totality of this legislation does. That is what it is all about. That is what we have been working for. This legislation, let us face it, started under the Howard government. They realised the problems in the middle of the drought, finally, that had occurred along the Murray-Darling Basin. We have taken that work and achieved a consent outcome between the Commonwealth and all of the states. You come from South Australia, Senator Birmingham. You know how difficult the issue of water has been, particularly with regard to relationships with other states. You know how difficult it has been to get a consent outcome. The guarantees that you say you want from this legislation are, in fact, the guarantees that this legislation will achieve. That is the whole point of this legislation. It has been the point of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. It is the point of this additional legislation to achieve a consent outcome, to restore the river to health and to protect those local communities along the Murray-Darling Basin. That is what this legislation does. If that is the guarantee that you want, I give you that guarantee. This will restore the health of the river and protect those communities. That is what the legislation in totality does and that is why it is so important that we get this legislation through.
That is a very bold claim that you have made that you are going to restore the health of the Murray. You can work in that direction but to say that you have achieved the goal is quite a claim. What I will bring to your attention, what needs to be clarified, is that you were dead right that the initial legislation is part of the coalition's. But, Minister, this one was actually drawn up by you, by your government, so it is not correct. When you say that you have given a guarantee that you have addressed socioeconomic neutrality to environmental issues, then it would stand to reason, if that is what you truly believe in the objects noted in 86AA all the way through—or the purposes in 86AD—then we would see that stated. Could you please direct me to what part of your legislation, Minister—your legislation—clearly states that you are going to deliver through these buybacks socioeconomic neutrality in such a way as to not compromise the economic integrity of towns in the basin.
I note that again we are about to proceed to a vote in those circumstances. We were making some progress with Senator Farrell's answers earlier, but then we returned to what might be classically described as the 'vibe' of the bill. I appreciate the vibe of the bill, but let me try to help Senator Farrell by asking another fairly specific question.
Senator Farrell gave an example of how buybacks may occur in tandem with an infrastructure project and that is one means of a buyback happening under this bill. Also under this bill there are provisions for the Commonwealth to undertake other water recovery activities if those activities are agreed to by a state government and that state government has determined and agreed that such activities do not have socioeconomic disadvantage. Presumably, those state government agreed activities could include some form of buybacks if the state government has ticked off that there is no socioeconomic disadvantage in there. Are there any other circumstances aside from the whole manner of projects that could be covered in a state government agreement—so I am not asking you to specify what they are; they could be anything under the sun really if the state government has agreed to it—or projects that are part of an infrastructure water-saving recovery activity that are engaged directly between the Commonwealth and farmers? Is there anything else that you can foresee could happen where water buybacks form part of the expenditure of this money?
I invite you to check with the officials there because certainly it has been my understanding through elements of this debate as they have occurred that certainly it is the intention of the government. Really what I am looking to see is whether the intention matches up with the detail of the legislation and that the government is willing to put on the parliamentary record that the intention matches the detail of the legislation before the parliament. It has been my understanding that really they are the two areas. We have questioned how the buybacks would work, why it is that buybacks exist as an area in this bill for expenditure when the Prime Minister—when she announced this—made it very, very clear that she wanted this money spent on infrastructure. It came as a shock to everybody when the bill was released and we saw a buybacks provision there, hence a number of stakeholders and Senator Joyce and Senator McKenzie and I and others have constantly said: 'Why is this buybacks provision there? Why is this part of the bill?' During the Senate inquiry we asked all of those questions as well, and the impression we were distinctly left with was that it was there either for the types of infrastructure projects—and you gave an example, Senator Farrell—or for possible buybacks that might happen under a state government sanctioned and approved agreement with the Commonwealth. Are they the only two types of areas where buybacks are going to be facilitated, or is there something that I cannot foresee that could be allowed under the bill?
This legislation is drafted the way it is, hence the buyback provisions that you are referring to, because that was the agreement. That was what was necessary to get the states and the Commonwealth to an agreed position on this legislation. I think that we all wanted an agreed outcome. We did not want the Murray-Darling Basin—
Senator Birmingham interjecting—
I am answering the question in the way I think it needs to be answered. You are trying to ask me to predict what is going to happen into the future. I cannot do that. What I can say is that if this legislation passes today, as I hope it will, we will have a sustainable long-term solution to the problems of the Murray-Darling Basin for the first time in Australia's history. That is what we want. That is the outcome we set out to negotiate. These buyback provisions are in here because that was what was necessary to get the parties to an agreed position. That is why they are there. Just how exactly, precisely, they are going to work in every situation into the future I cannot tell you—and I do not think anybody can tell you that. You are asking for answers to questions that cannot be answered. But there is an objective here that I think everybody in the parliament wants to see achieved—that is, a long-term sustainable return to health of the Murray-Darling Basin. We negotiated with the states. We negotiated with all the parties. We have got an agreed outcome. That is what is in this legislation. We do not want to see any adverse socioeconomic impacts along the Murray-Darling Basin and we believe that the way to achieve that is with this piece of legislation.
There is an element of exaggeration and frustration creeping in here. I am not asking for Senator Farrell to make predictions of what will happen in the future; I am asking for him to explain how the government's legislation before us in this chamber at present will work in effect. That is exactly what this process is for. We have second reading speeches where we can talk with great rhetorical flourishes—and maybe, occasionally, I vaguely reach those levels. We can talk about the vibe of things where we in the second reading speeches can talk about the fact that legislation is based on overall state agreements—and these are all very important things—and, yes, Senator Farrell, you and I both want the river to be healthy. You and I both want healthy outcomes in our part of the river system in South Australia.
It is not a waste of time, however, to go through the proper processes of this parliament. That is exactly what we are meant to be here for. If you want us to come in here and just rubber-stamp things, then we might as well just abolish the whole damn process. This process is actually where we go through the detail of the legislation; this process is where all senators get the opportunity to ask you questions about how clauses in the legislation will work and how this legislation will be applied—and there will be other issues that crossbenchers and others will no doubt wish to ask questions on as well.
I have asked some of the officials sitting in the advisers' box next to you questions about this during the Senate inquiry and I have heard the answers they have given. I have tried to ask ever more leading questions in terms of how this is meant to work because they have given answers to these questions previously. Today all we are wanting is to get on the parliamentary record your answers to the same level of detail that officials in the Senate inquiries or behind closed doors have been willing to give so that the information is on the record for all to see and for all to ultimately hold the government to account should there be something in the bill that has not been foreseen. So I really would appreciate it if you were able to look at the detail of the bill and very clearly explain it for the record.
Maybe I have misinterpreted the advice I have heard along the way and, if I have, then tell me that this buyback provision is more open-ended than I had thought, at which point you will create all manner of concern in certain communities. But if this buyback provision is not open-ended, and you have said that general tenders could not occur under it—and you gave a clear answer to that and that will be very welcome—does that mean that targeted tenders could occur? Could any type of tenders occur? Or, as I have been led to believe, are the only sorts of buybacks that could occur either those that occur in tandem with infrastructure projects or those that are signed off by a state government? Please consult with the advisers and see whether you can give an answer that might allow us to just move on from this to the next issue. I am not asking you to predict the future; I am simply asking you to say very clearly what this legislation will allow Commonwealth money to be expended on when it comes to buybacks.
I thought I had answered your question before, Senator Birmingham, but if I have not then I will make it as clear as I possibly can. The on-farm infrastructure and the state mechanisms are the only two ways in which we see the buybacks working. If that helps you, then I am happy.
We are going to take that as the crucial answer. You have now confirmed that it is going to become a mechanism for infrastructure projects and that is where your buybacks will be. You have ruled out general buybacks. If that is not the case and you have not ruled out general buybacks, you must now clearly state that. I can assure you we will go back to our office and there will be a very irate minister from the state parliament of Victoria on one line, a very irate minister from the New South Wales state parliament on another line and an irate one from Queensland on another line, because the recommendations and the warrants that have been given to these people will be entirely different to what we are actually delivering.
I know it is crucial for you and that the predominant minister is the Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities, Tony Burke, but you do have advisers sitting approximately four feet away from you. It is also a recommendation about competency in the delivery of an answer, because this is not fluff. This is absolutely crucial to how people perceive and trust the government. You have been asking for our trust in a bipartisan way. We implicitly are also asking for this recommendation to be explicit and held to account, otherwise we will have to change this in such a way that it will be at some point in time. We have to know.
I refer to earlier comments Senator Farrell made about his desire for the legislation to protect communities. In that vein I want on the parliamentary record, as the shadow minister has requested, a guarantee that the government will not simply use the funds for the bill to expand or recommence a water recovery program.
The CHAIRMAN: The question is that Nationals amendment (1) on sheet 7335 be agreed to.
by leave—I move Australian Greens amendments (1) to (6) on sheet 7314 together:
(1) Schedule 1, item 2, page 4 (line 6), omit "can be achieved", substitute "must be achieved".
(2) Schedule 1, item 2, page 4 (line 21), omit "per litre", substitute "per litre in any 2 consecutive years and less than 1000 electrical conductivity for 95% of the time during those 2 years".
(3) Schedule 1, item 2, page 5 (line 1), omit "open", substitute "open to an average annual depth of 1 metre or more".
(4) Schedule 1, item 2, page 5 (line 5), omit "as a long term average", substitute "over a 3 year rolling average".
(5) Schedule 1, item 2, page 5 (after line 35), after paragraph 86AA(3)(a), insert:
(aa) purchasing water access rights in relation to Basin water resources to deliver environmental water to the environmental assets of the Murray Darling Basin; and
(6) Schedule 1, item 2, page 5 (line 37), omit "by", substitute "at least".
The first lot of amendments here go to the environmental objectives in the bill. In my speech in the second reading debate I spoke about the inadequacy of guaranteeing the 450 gigalitre amount be returned. It says 450; we obviously need to understand that in order to achieve the environmental outcomes that we have all discussed that we want in order to restore the river's health, we would like to see at least 450 gigalitres returned. We also need some other environmental indicators in there.
This goes directly to what the objective of this bill is meant to achieve, and that is to guarantee the health of the system. I would like to hear the government's position on these amendments, seeing that we have heard directly from both the Prime Minister and the water minister that they both agree that 3,200 gigalitres in total is a minimum that is required in order to save the system and that it should not be capped at that amount.
I thank Senator Hanson-Young. We have heard many times the Prime Minister say that she is committed to the outcomes that the senator just referred to. She has taken a great deal of interest in the formation of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. I think that what has now been achieved by negotiations between the Commonwealth and the states gives us every prospect of returning the Murray-Darling Basin to good health and of protecting the communities that exist along the Murray-Darling Basin, including in your home state of South Australia, Mr Chairman.
I can certainly indicate that the Prime Minister fully supports the plan. She has been actively involved in keeping this process on track, and I think it is beyond question that she supports what has been achieved here in this agreement to restore the health of the Murray-Darling Basin.
After reading the amendments put forward by Senator Hanson-Young, the coalition will not be supporting them. This would create a disaster, basically. The reason for this is that if you are obligated without question to provide all these outcomes then you would have to take action that could involve the shutting down of Deniliquin. You would have to take the water, as required—all of it—from Deniliquin, from Shepparton, from Mildura and from Berri. It would be an economic disaster. It is just impractical, taking into account the vagaries of the weather, to start asking for something, saying that the average daily salinity in Lake Alexandrina would have to be 1,000 microsiemens per centimetre for 95 per cent of the years and 1,500 microsiemens per centimetre for all time. If we get our heads put in a vice and told this is the predominant goal, then there is definitely no balance between social, economic and environmental outcomes. No-one would make a business plan upstream, with knowledge of these items, because they would know that at any point all their water could be purchased and taken. When you think about it, so many things are goals, because we have to take into account the vagaries of things that are before us. But when we make them explicit outcomes, then we completely and utterly turn the whole purpose of the plan on its head. I do not think that is economically credible. In fact, it is absolutely economically fatal.
Despite the hyperbole of Senator Joyce, I would just like to indicate that these amendments highlight what the environmental indicators are to ensure that the plan is meeting its objectives. If the whole point of the plan is to return the river system to health, then you need to know what that health looks like and that is precisely what these amendments do. We have all agreed that we want to return the river to health. You actually have to put some indicators down—and Senator Joyce has indicated that he disagrees with that. That just proves that the coalition have absolutely no commitment to ensuring that the plan, as currently constructed, would fulfil its objectives. These amendments state very clearly in environmental terms what those objectives are. Either you believe them or you do not. Either you think that is what we are meant to achieve or you use as many weasel words as possible to ensure that you do not have to deliver. As a senator for South Australia I know that, unless we have these environmental targets identified and accepted, then the upstream states will continue to just dismiss the environmental concerns downstream, where we are, particularly when the next drought happens.
I have a couple of comments. The first amendment is pretty much identical to an amendment that I will shortly be moving that relates to having at least 450 gigalitres to ensure that there is a minimum amount, but I do have some questions about the prescriptiveness. It is not a criticism of Senator Hanson-Young, but it is a concern about how it will work in a practical sense.
I ask the parliamentary secretary for water, Senator Farrell: what does the government say are the targets for salinity in the lower reaches of the Murray, because of course it is South Australia that is more vulnerable and we know that in the last drought salinity levels were a real issue? For instance, what does it say about targets in respect of salinity in the Lower Lakes? I say, parenthetically, that we still have hypersalinity in the Coorong, which is a real issue, and I will get to that in a moment.
My questions are, in order: firstly, what are the targets of the authority and of the government in relation to salinity in the lower reaches of the Murray, particularly below lock 1 and in the Lower Lakes? Secondly, what steps have been taken to address the issues of hypersalinity in the Coorong? There has been much talk about engineering works and further flushing to reduce the levels of hypersalinity in the Coorong. What steps are being taken in respect of that? Thirdly, if there is a minimum of 450 gigalitres via the mechanisms of this bill, what effect will that have on salinity levels in the lower reaches of the Murray, particularly below lock 1? And what modelling has been done by the government?
I thank Senator Xenophon for his question. The questions you have asked are principally set out in schedule 5 of the Basin Plan. I will read those out to you for the record:
(2) The outcomes that will be pursued are:
(a) further reducing salinity levels in the Coorong and Lower Lakes so that improved water quality contributes to the health of macroinvertebrates, fish and plants that form important parts of the food chain, for example:
(i) maximum average daily salinity in the Coorong South Lagoon is less than 100 grams per litre; and
(ii) maximum average daily salinity in the Coorong North Lagoon is less than 50 grams per litre; and
(iii) average daily salinity in Lake Alexandrina is less than 1000EC for 95% of years and 1500EC all of the time;
(b) keeping water levels in the Lower Lakes above 0.4 metres AHD for 95% of the time and above 0.0 metres AHD at all times to help maintain flows to the Coorong, prevent acidification, prevent acid drainage and prevent riverbank collapse below Lock 1;
(c) ensuring the mouth of the River Murray is open without the need for dredging in at least 95% of years, with flows every year through the Murray Mouth Barrages;
(d) exporting 2 million tonnes per year of salt from the Murray-Darling Basin as a long-term average;
(e) increasing flows through the barrages to the Coorong and supporting more years where critical fish migrations can occur;
(f) in conjunction with removing or easing constraints, providing opportunities for environmental watering of an additional 35,000 ha of floodplain in South Australia, New South Wales and Victoria, improving the health of forests and fish and bird habitat, improving the connection to the river, and replenishing groundwater; and
(g) achieving enhanced in-stream outcomes and improved connections with low to middle level floodplain and habitats adjacent to rivers in the southern Murray-Darling Basin.
It is important in considering these Greens amendments to clearly understand what we are talking about. If we turn this into a 'must', we have a peculiar position. I 'should' lose weight—I really should lose weight—but if it becomes a position where I 'must' lose weight then the question is: what happens if I don't? I suppose they would say 95 per cent of the time you should be underweight otherwise in three months time we will take you out and shoot you at dawn! You cannot just start taking things and making them absolute obligations. It is not credible. It is not economically responsible. You have a goal and that is it.
To go through the Greens amendments in seriatim, just so that Senator Hanson-Young knows that we have given this due consideration and proper respect for the work they have put in, amendments (1) to (4) have always been goals, not mandatory targets. It is not appropriate for such prescribed targets to be made mandatory in legislation. The termination of the Basin Plan process requires detailed consultation, advice from the Murray-Darling Basin Authority, the final tick-off from the minister and ultimately the ability of the parliament to disallow the plan. The Greens in the past have always supported the process of the authority of the MDBA, but when they are not getting the answers that they want, they want to ignore the consultative process and insert their own designs over the wider interests of the basin and the nation. You cannot have two positions. You cannot say, 'I want to support an independent MDBA but when I do not agree with them I want to override them.' You are either in the camp or you are not.
It goes beyond just the 2.1 million people who live in the basin; this is an economic statement about our nation and whether we take the capacity to feed ourselves seriously. Or do we believe that in the future we want to relinquish that right and be an importer of food, as you can see when you go to any supermarket where it is predominantly becoming the case? We might be a bulk exporter of grains and barley, but people do not go down for a feed of barley and wheat—they like to eat things that you can see. More and more this process is being imported. It is ridiculous to think we are going to close down a major section of production yet we are going to go to the supermarket and somehow find food that is produced by Australians. We want to be supporting Australia's capacity to eat Australian food.
In amendment (5) the Greens are trying to put into the objects of this bill the ability to purchase water. This is clearly inappropriate as an object clause, even if you do believe, like the government clearly does, that you should be able to use the money in the buyback of water. The coalition does not believe that this money should be used for water buybacks, so we oppose this amendment.
Regarding Senator Hanson-Young's amendment (6), the coalition does not believe in setting a minimum amount of water in this bill. The government has not even shown that it can deliver 450 gigalitres. This is a premature promise to make and one that is largely made for political purposes. It does not take into account the reality—the actual hydrology.
Talking over the break, as I have, with water engineers and looking through issues of such things as shepherding, it is clear that a lot of the assumptions are just absurd. We are not going to be able to shepherd water from Queensland—from Toowoomba, from Warwick, from Killarney—down to South Australia. You are not going to be able to get water through the Culgoa Floodplain. Narran Lakes is a terminal system. The Mehi wetlands rarely deliver water into the systems downstream. The Macquarie River is a system that only delivers water into the Darling probably once in every hundred years. We always lose sight of the actual hydrology of Australia. It is not interconnected garden hoses; it is a flat, dry carpet. A lot of the presumptions are trying to force a hydrological outcome that is just blatantly impossible in so many of these issues.
So it is a political statement. It is hydrologically not improbable but impossible. How can this government start trying to stitch up something that is completely incongruous with the nature of the land that is actually in the basin? I live in the basin. We have 30,000 megalitres a day going past. Cecil Plains was completely and utterly inundated. Towns were cut off. I could not get here. I had to fly out. It was like an inland sea. That water is now arriving at St George and we are only getting 30,000 megalitres. It is still a big flow, but is only 30,000 megalitres a day. It is not a big flow by the time it gets here. By the time it gets to Dirranbandi it will be less. If any of it gets through to Bourke it will be very minor. You cannot start saying, 'Just because we deem it fit we are now going to demand that somehow nature has changed and that water, miraculously, does something that it has never done over millennia, over the history of the continent, and miraculously turn up in South Australia.' If you really want to do that, then we should be investing money in a massive pipeline. Of course, no-one is suggesting that.
In amendment (8), the Greens want to give priority to projects that deliver the maximum amount of environmental water. The coalition has always believed in the triple bottom line. It is a recommendation which we gave here. To get trust from people we had to show them that (a) we were not going to pull the economic rug out from underneath their feet and (b) we showed some signs of economic common sense—that we understood the quantum of the economy that is involved with the 2.1 million people who live in the basin and the food that they produce. You cannot say, 'Well, somehow they are going to produce the food but they are going to do it without the water.' They are not. It is as simple as that. We are going to shut down vineyards, we will shut down the horticultural crops, we will shut down that evil product, rice—how evil it is to feed people! Gosh, we don't want to be doing that with their basic standard carbohydrate in rice! And cotton—that is another evil product!
I always think the people who think cotton is evil should remove from their person every semblance of that product and then run around the building and see how it feels. It is the sustenance of people to be clothed and fed, and, yes, they require water. If you are here today, you are a consumer of water. If you are wearing cotton, you are a consumer of water. If you have eaten a meal, you are part of the reason for the utilisation of water. To say that we can all somehow exist without it? You can—for approximately three days. Then you die.
In their amendment (9) the Greens are tying financial assistance to the states to getting at least 450 gigalitres. Now we are holding a financial gun to people's heads, and this completely goes against the mechanism in which we are trying to build up a system of trust and cooperation. And it has not only been between the government and the states; it has also been between the government and the opposition to show at times that legislation can go through these chambers with people working strenuously but for a targeted outcome. We acknowledge that and we did that, and I think the people in the wider community should understand that not everything is a pointless rhetorical fight or a barb. There are actually times when people sit down and diligently try to get to an outcome, because that is what people want in this chamber and the other chamber. They want adults if they can find them. They say, 'That's a good idea,' and get a couple of them. Does it mean we are entirely happy with everything in this? Of course not. But the responsibility was ours because we knew that the alternative process of dealing with this would be those as have been suggested by the Greens and Senator Sarah Hanson-Young. So many of these amendments would have been just disastrous for regional Australia, for the people of the Murray-Darling Basin, for our economy in general and for any person pushing a shopping trolley through any shopping mall throughout Australia who has a desire to see and gets a sense of security from Australian home-grown products delivered to them on their shelves. Once we lose sight of that concept, we have lost our soul, who we are as a nation.
In amendments (10) to (15) the Greens are proposing to move all the money appropriated in this bill forward in the estimates. This is incredible. The interesting thing about this is that it would test the government's mettle. I will concede this to Senator Hanson-Young: where we are now, a lot of this is rubbish because over the forward estimates there is only $55 million allocated. It is a $1.77 billion program, but there is only $55 million over the forward estimates. To be honest, it is a load of rubbish. There is no money there for it. It is a promise to a future government for them to somehow magically find money, and we are currently $262 billion in gross debt. So that will be an awfully good trick. You just have to also suggest who we are going to borrow this money off. I think the government would be rather interested. Their surplus is gone and they are going to have a $12 billion deficit, but this exacerbates it. But Senator Hanson-Young has clearly pointed out here—and I concede it—that the bona fides in actually delivering the money on this just are not there. There is no money for this. Somehow the concerns are placated in some way, because what on earth are you going to do with $55 million, which is really all you are talking about? That will go in administration charges. There is no real outcome in this.
The last amendment, (16), is just not necessary.
I hope we have shown that the coalition does actually peruse and give due consideration of issues that the Greens put forward. On each item, if you go down to it with some sort of competence and diligence, it is just insanity. And, of course, that is where our nation would be if their economic process were to prevail.
I would like to ask Senator Farrell, who referred in the context of the Greens amendments in the answer to an earlier question, for a clarification of 'parties'. Was it a capital or a small 'p' in 'parties'? If it was a capital 'P', was one of those 'Parties' the Greens?
You can take your pick. It can be a capital or a small 'P'. The point I am trying to make and have repeated is that we have now got to a point where there is an agreement between the parties to do something about the issue of restoring the Murray-Darling Basin to health. That means protecting the communities along the way and ensuring that all of the good things that we need to do to the environment are achieved. There have been a whole lot of people involved in that process, and we have now reached the point where today, if this legislation goes through, I believe we are well on the way to achieving those objectives that all of the people in the chamber say they want.
To the extent that people have been involved in the process and will be voting for this legislation today, that is all the political parties—even, hopefully, the Nationals. I have seen this argument going on between the Greens and the Nationals. What we want to achieve here is a proper, sensible solution for the first time to the problems of the Murray-Darling Basin. We are trying to get as much support for that position as we can and will continue to do that today. Hopefully, at the end of the day, we will achieve that objective and we will set the path forward for the achievement of sustainable communities along the Murray-Darling and good environmental outcomes.
Senator McKenzie, the committee is considering Australian Greens amendments (1) to (6), so you might just hold your fire there. The question is that Australia Greens amendments (1) to (6) on sheet 7314 be agreed to.
The TEMPORARY CHAIRMAN: The committee will now move on to National Party amendments to schedule 1, item 2, Nos (1) and (2), on sheet 7336.
by leave—As Leader of the Nationals in the Senate and also on behalf of the coalition, I move:
(1) Schedule 1, item 2, page 4 (line 12), at the end of subsection 86AA(1), add "while achieving neutral or beneficial socio-economic outcomes".
(2) Schedule 1, item 2, page 5 (line 31), at the end of subsection 86AA(2), add:
; (i) investing in water efficient infrastructure and other on-farm works.
We have always stated that there should be a balance. The whole purpose and premise of the inception of this is that there would be a balance between socioeconomic and environmental outcomes. It was explicit in the statements of the previous government, the Howard government, and also in the statements made by the Labor Party. Therefore, if that is what we say to people, especially when you go to Griffith and Mildura and Shepparton and Forbes, then we should put our words into actions and actually state it clearly as a neutrality of socioeconomic outcomes in that piece of legislation and any pertinent piece of legislation that sits beside it, which this one obviously does.
We have to clearly dispel the fear that, all of a sudden, precedence is held by the environmental issues over the lives of the people in the basin. As I have said, we have so many issues that go away from the basin that mean people want a vibrant basin. People want to drink Australian wines. They want to eat Australian food. They want to see a manufacturing sector and that can only rely on having a product to put in a can by having our food processing sector, and this relies on a basin. Most importantly, the Australian populace want the capacity to go into a shop and buy Australian product. We believe in our nation, but if we do not have a clear dedication to economic neutrality then this is put under threat because all of a sudden other factors come into play and the fallout is that we lose the capacity to eat Australian food.
As I have said before, we will be a net exporter of food, but it will be unprocessed wheat, barley, beef. In more and more areas you see when you go into supermarkets that we are eating products that comes in from overseas. That is going to be exacerbated if there is a primacy of the environment over the capacity of the Australian people to produce an Australian product for an Australian population. We are already doing it in other areas—we are importing 72 per cent of our fish product and the majority of our grocery produce. Let us realise that. Every year you read of the shutdown of further manufacturing sectors in food processing.
I know the Labor Party have put at the forefront—and good luck to them—that they want to keep a manufacturing sector. But you cannot keep a manufacturing sector if you want to shut it down in favour of frogs. You have to decide which one comes first: the working family or the frog. Frogs are very important. I am not for one moment denying the rights of frogs, but we are hoping that the rights of people might be somewhere up there with them.
We have said clearly on this issue that we want to achieve a neutral or beneficial socioeconomic outcome. I think that is a fair requirement if we are fair dinkum about wanting to help working families and any other family who may be around. If we do not, we are quite clearly saying that we do not believe in working families, we believe in compromising the rights of working families for environmental outcomes. If that is the policy you want to take to an election well, good, take it. I do not think it will fly; I think it will crash and burn. But you cannot then selectively say at a later stage, 'We've changed our mind now that the crowd in the western suburbs of Sydney is getting a bit angry because we don't seem to be standing behind our own nation and we seem to have been overrun by green issues rather than working family issues,' and you want to change your rhetoric. This is a clear way to say that you believe, and it is doing it in such a way that you are not saying environmental outcomes are superior but you are at least putting them on a level playing field—and I don't know why we don't do it.
We want to make sure there is a clear object of investing in infrastructure and on-farm works. A clever country does increase its capacity to deliver more of a product with less input, but I have to say that one of the areas where we have been losing so much in research and development support from government has been in agriculture. If we clearly focus on this, there are clever people out there who can do better things and grow more with the water they have—that is, if we invest as was always thought we should, by putting the majority of these funds into providing on-farm infrastructure outcomes. It is the simple things: making the water storage cells more economic; raising the level of ring tanks so we reduce the surface capacity proportion to the water held and therefore reducing evaporation.
In our area we lose about two metres of water each year to evaporation. Most of the water taken from the river goes up in the air. If it goes down the river it just goes up into the air in a different place, like a floodplain. The greater the capacity to reduce evaporation by the delivery of water through trickle or lateral systems, or the more appropriate storage in more efficient cells, making sure you keep one storage cell full, and as deep, as cool and with as low a surface area as possible—these are the sorts of things that can make real savings for us.
We have also had good examples of the lining of channels, especially around Warren, with a greater capacity and technical use of gates. These are the sorts of things that can be done and that provide water savings as well as a better infrastructure platform for the future. This is, in a way, building for the nation for the future. But that is completely different to just shutting things down. If you are just shutting things down there is no point whatsoever. It is basically abhorrent to our purpose in parliament because we are borrowing money from overseas—86 per cent of our debt comes from overseas—not to build productive capital so as to assist us to repay the debt but to retire capital and make it harder for us to repay the debt. That is economically Python-esque. Let us invest in ways to make our productive capital larger and more efficient so we have a greater capacity to repay our debts.
We have talked quite clearly in amendment (4) about re-investing in this cap. We have talked about having a buyback cap at 1,500 gigalitres. We have already purchased most of it. There are only about 249 gigalitres to go. That is where it should stop, and all water we get back to the river after that should come from environmental works and measures, putting a weir in, having less water, with water more of an environmental asset or on-farm works and measures, so we can keep the economic capacity and the economic quantum where it is and even let it grow in some instances, keeping the economic base of the basin right and keeping Australian products on Australian shelves. To do that we need to make sure we limit the amount of general buyback. For that last 249 gigalitres that would need to be purchased to make 1,500 gigalitres, we should make sure that is purchased strategically. There is still a lot of water, but there would be a diligent process.
It concerns us that the government does not want to walk down this path of capping it at 1,500 gigalitres, because that means they are going the lazy way, buying as much water as possible. The examples thus far with some of those processes have been bizarre, and in some instances completely incompetent. We have been through the Twynham issue and the Toorale issue, and there are many others we could deal with. We have to make sure this purchase is effective and efficient, and that it stays within the concept of both what we have put forward—that it is a triple bottom line between social outcomes for people who live in the towns, the economic outcomes for our nation and that vast area that is the Murray-Darling Basin—and the environmental outcomes, which was to start with the inspiration for trying to get a better outcome but which should not have been the overarching principle from that point forward.
I move these amendments on sheet 7336. If the previous amendment that I put up had been passed I would not, but because it has not I think it is vital that we move these amendments.
I note the Greens' opposition to these amendments and I stand with all coalition senators in wishing that the precautionary principle also applied to people in this case. I am very proud that we are choosing to make this legislation better for the people within the Murray-Darling Basin and their industries.
Our first principle as legislators and those holding legislators to account should be to do no harm. If you drive through Shepparton in northern Victoria, where there are 200 closed shops and where the local economy is underpinned by irrigated agriculture and food manufacturing, you will know the impact that the non-strategic buybacks have had on our local and regional economies. These are real people in real jobs delivering food and fibre not just to our nation but also to the world. Our amendments go to ensuring that, as parliamentarians, any legislation going through here ensures that it is not the environment over social and economic principles but that we can achieve a triple bottom line.
People involved in this debate have been made aware of the very real impact that non-strategic buybacks have had, and the impact of the lack of certainty out there in our communities at a local level, so our amendments go some way to addressing that lack of certainty. I recommend our amendments to the chamber.
The CHAIRMAN: The question is that the amendments moved by Senator Joyce, (1) and (2) on sheet 7336, be agreed to.
The CHAIRMAN: Senator Xenophon, do you wish by leave to move your amendments together?
by leave—I move amendments (1), (4) and (5) on sheet 7315 together:
(1) Schedule 1, item 2, page 5 (line 37), after "by", insert "at least".
(4) Schedule 1, item 2, page 11 (line 20), after "by", insert "at least".
(5) Schedule 1, item 2, page 11 (line 34), after "by", insert "at least".
These amendments relate to the volume of water to be reclaimed for environmental use and are identical to the first amendment of Senator Hanson-Young. Currently the bill states a flat amount of 450 gigalitres. These items will amend the bill to state that 450 gigalitres is a minimum figure. This will give the account more flexibility and will emphasise the fact that it is vital that the greatest amount of water possible is set aside for environmental use. This amendment is also inspired by the wastage we have seen in other infrastructure funds where only a small number of projects have been approved and water returns have been smaller than expected. Last night I made reference to the fact that the Australian National Audit Office, the office of the Commonwealth Auditor-General, has been very critical of some infrastructure programs in terms of their effectiveness and the processes by which they have been approved. These amendments ensure that the object of the account is to increase the volume of water for environmental use by gigalitres, but that figure is the baseline and not the ultimate goal. It is about having a greater degree of transparency, of accountability and efficiency in terms of water being returned to the environment.
If I may, I just indicate that I am grateful for the support of the Australian Greens given for the last question. They seem to have been my only colleagues to have supported it. I want, on the record, to save the Senate time in respect of another division.
The TEMPORARY CHAIRMAN: Thank you, Senator Xenophon. We will now move to National Party amendments which I have listed as No. 1 on sheet 7337. Senator Joyce, if you would like to incorporate other amendments, I am sure the Senate can consider that.
Thank you, Chair. I move amendment (1) on sheet 7337:
(1) Schedule 1, item 2, page 5 (lines 36 to 37), omit paragraph 86AA(3)(b), substitute:
(b) increasing the volume of the Basin water resources that is available for environmental use by up to 450 gigalitres.
We were thinking of delaying because we were thinking, for brevity, of moving a few more of these amendments together. The amendment under discussion is to make sure that we remove the words 'up to'. This is basically about making sure that 450 is a target that does not become explicit in the requirement. If we define 450 gigs, that could cause real problems. It is an object, it is a target we want to achieve, but we do not want to have any sort of suggestion that we are being held over a barrel for it.
Just understanding the quantum of this water, this is as much water as South Australia has. It is a large, large requirement and they have only allocated $55 million over the forward estimates for this. So it is kind of absurd to say, 'We are going to lock in this 450 gigs', even though with the real dollars that count in the forward estimates we only have $55 million. You have not got a hope. You will not get anywhere near it.
This is to make sure that the process is not tied to having to make sure of 450 gigs. It is ambiguous at the moment. We want to remove the ambiguity because ambiguities can work in both ways. They can work in your favour and they can work against you. We note the Greens and Senator Xenophon want to make a minimum. Obviously that would cause absolute problems. You would have to ask: where do you intend the water to come from—which towns, what areas? Then we would have to discuss with those people what we were going to do with their houses and where we were going to move them off to. I think they would deserve that right.
What this amendment talks about is omitting from paragraph 86AA(3)(b) and substituting:
(b) increasing the volume of the Basin water resources that is available for environmental use by up to 450-gigalitres.
We believe that in the use of the words 'up to' we are not going to be tying people into an outcome which the reality is we do not have the money for.
Even if you budget out the 450 gigs, it is looking at about $4,000 a megalitre and the current cost of where we are at the moment is around $10,000 a megalitre. If we really want 450, just purely from an accountant's perspective it is completely impossible to be able to deliver the outcome that you are requiring with the money available. It is just not possible so why do we say two incongruous things? It is like saying, 'I demand we buy a car for $4.50.' They are two incongruous statements. We should realise that the money that we have can aim towards a target but, with the $55 million we have in the forward estimates, you are not going to get anywhere near there. You are not even going to scratch the surface of what is required.
Obviously from a socioeconomic position—trying to look after the people of regional Australia and making sure that we maintain the capacity to provide Australian shelves with Australian food—we must provide the socioeconomic sustenance of the community. If we get to where we are passing the economic tipping point, where they are shutting down production facilities, losing manufacturing jobs, losing the underwriting of the value of houses and losing the capacity to underwrite the service industry that is pertinent to these towns, we are not going to compromise them for a number. We are going to make sure we look after the people first, so we set 450 gigalitres as a target. This amendment clearly states that we are not going to be held over a barrel by it.
I will comment on just the final part of Senator Joyce's contribution about jobs being lost. That is a concern I have very deeply for regional communities. I can tell the story of Ron Gray, a Riverland irrigator who has been a champion for decent country-of-origin food labelling laws in this country. Australian citrus growers are competing with concentrate for which we have had positively misleading food labelling laws under which you can call orange juice 'made in Australia' but it could be 90 per cent Brazilian concentrate. What are Ron Gray and his fellow farmers doing? They are ripping up their trees. It is absolutely heartbreaking.
The issue of water is absolutely critical but we also have issues about the high Australian dollar—an artificially high Australian dollar—that is killing our farmers. There has been no decent policy response from the Australian government to this. There is also the dumping of products from overseas at below cost. We have weak antidumping laws. There is another issue of our food labelling laws, which are woefully inadequate. I know that Senator Joyce and then-senator Bob Brown co-sponsored a bill. If that is not an unusual unity ticket in relation to country-of-origin labelling laws, I do not know what is. Senator John Williams has been absolutely passionate on this issue as well. So, let us look at a whole range of issues as to why jobs are being lost in regional communities. It is because of the policy failures of successive Australian governments in relation to country-of-origin labelling and the dumping of products from overseas below cost. Right now in this country our food labelling laws positively mislead consumers, and the government's response has been woeful.
I cannot support Senator Joyce's amendment because, by saying 'up to 450 gigalitres', means it is simply aspirational. There are no real teeth to the amendment. You might as well say 'up to 450 squillion gigalitres'—I do not know what 'squillion' is defined as in the Macquarie Dictionarybut, whatever the amount, 'up to' does not give it any real teeth.
My question to the parliamentary secretary, and this is not in any way a criticism of Senator Joyce, is about the reference to 450 gigalitres being about the amount that South Australia takes from the Murray. It would be useful to put on the record what the present amount is. I have a view as to what the amount is but I may be quite wrong. The parliamentary secretary, through his advisers, might be able to assist us on that.
There are a few things to respond to there. Firstly, I indicate that the government does not support the amendments that Senator Joyce is moving. We did seem to get off the legislation a bit, talking about some of the matters that Senator Xenophon referred to. Talking about trees being removed, one of the great benefits of this legislation will be that those beautiful red gums along the Murray will be restored to health by virtue of this legislation. There is a very famous band of that name—Redgum, which I think I have heard. In answer to Senator Xenophon's question, my recollection of the figures is that, certainly prior to the drought, Adelaide took about 200 gigalitres off the Murray. There were about 40 gigalitres from other parts of the state and the total amount extracted was about 600 gigalitres, so that would include all of the extra water for irrigation. Putting that into perspective, when Senator Joyce says that 450 is more than comes out of South Australia, in fact it is probably less.
In the context of the 450 gigalitres-amendment that is in front of us, Senator Xenophon, you are absolutely right to raise those issues. I ask the parliamentary secretary on the issue of 'up to 450 gigs': if the government is not going to agree to the amendment to have in place up to 450 gigalitres, which is entirely the appropriate thing to do, if the 450 gigalitres simply cannot be reached through the infrastructure efficiencies and the works and measures, what happens then? What if you simply cannot get that? We have already had some discussions around the 650 currently in place for the states to reach through the environmental works and measures and the efficiencies. There is some consternation about whether we will be able to reach that. What happens in the event that we do not have the wording 'up to 450 gigalitres' and that simply cannot be found through the efficiencies and the works and measures?
I have an update on the figure I mentioned a moment ago—a more exact figure. The total South Australian extraction is 665 gigalitres a year. I was about that mark but it was slightly higher. On Senator Nash's question, our objective is to get 450 gigalitres. That is part of the agreement that has been reached between the Commonwealth and the states. We are confident that that figure will be reached. I do not think we really want to get into hypotheticals as to what may happen if we do not reach that figure, but that is the objective of the government. We are confident that that figure will be reached and that what we have agreed in order to get this historic piece of legislation through the parliament will be achieved.
I note that the parliamentary secretary has used the word 'objective' and I agree, of course, that that is the intent of the government. So, if it is an objective of the government, why is the government opposing the amendment by saying that 'up to 450' is perfectly in line with an objective to reach 450 gigalitres, and on what basis is the government confident that the 450 gigalitres will be available through those processes? Specifically, what work has been done to identify that so that the parliamentary secretary can make the claim that he is confident that that 450 gigalitres will be reached through those processes?
You can say that, Senator Williams, but this government has achieved what no government in the past, in Australia's history, has been able to achieve. That is, for the first time, agreement between the federal government and the states on the restoration of the communities in the Murray and the environmental outcomes. We have achieved that. Most people thought that was impossible. We have achieved it. When we say we are going to implement this plan, that is exactly what we are going to do: we are going to implement this plan. We are going to restore the environmental health of the Murray—we are going to see those red gums returned to health along the Murray and the Murray-Darling—and we are going to protect those communities that rely on the water from this river. That is what we are going to do. That is what we have set out to achieve, and that is what we will do—if you pass this legislation.
I was hoping for a rather more fulsome answer from the parliamentary secretary as to what work had been done through the process to underpin his claim that the 450 gigs will be reached. I am sure the parliamentary secretary will forgive me for not being prepared to take on board his assurance, 'The minister says it will be so, so therefore it will be,' from a government that said there would be no carbon tax under this government with the Prime Minister that currently leads it. So the parliamentary secretary may be able on a bit of reflection to provide rather more assurance to the chamber on the detail that underpins his claim that the 450 gigalitres will be reached. Otherwise there is absolutely no reason for this government to oppose this amendment, because what the amendment does, as I said earlier, is to align what the parliamentary secretary just said—that the 450 gigalitres is the objective. This amendment reflects that intent very clearly.
Strike me down with a bolt of lightning, but when we get the statement, 'Because we say it, it's going to happen,' one thing comes into my mind, and that is, 'There will be no carbon tax under a government I lead.'
Yes, a rolled gold budget surplus. So I am sorry if there is a hint of cynicism, but I think that for Minister Burke it is just skiing downhill very quickly from that point as to where exactly this all leads.
What I can also say—without being a smartypants—is that, in regard to the figures, Senator Farrell is correct that 665 is our current position, but this legislation is subsequent to the current position and I think you will find that 483 is the position you are at after the plan. Therefore, if you are talking about 450, that is proximate to 483, and if you have 200 wandering off to Adelaide then that is vastly more than the agriculture sector in South Australia uses. If we are to suggest to South Australia that we are going to take all the water from their farming sector and half the water from their major city, I think they would be rather surprised.
So these are all the questions that we have. These things should be straight off the top of your head. Yes, you are dead right that 665 is now, but we are not living in now; we are talking about a subsequent piece of legislation after the plan is complete. After the plan is complete, by your own figures, you believe that we will end up with about 483 gigs, and if we are taking 450 and it is from buyback and there are no real controls on it then there would be the possibility to take all the water from South Australia and some of the water from the city of Adelaide. I do not think you want to do that. That is why we try to set down targets and not get people compelled to reach these outcomes. I might also tell you that is more water than I think you will find Queensland is extracting at the end of this plan, so once more you are going to shut down all the irrigation towns in my area. To be honest, I live in an irrigation town. I think Senator Nash and Senator McKenzie are also in the basin. But this is why it is extremely important that we get this right.
It also stands to reason that if there were some authenticity about this figure and if the government actually meant it itself then it would have to allocate money in the forward estimates. It has not. It has no intention of allocating money in the forward estimates, because there is no money. What the government has made is this massive promise out into the never-never. How are you going to hold anybody to that? Also, most importantly, 'up to' was what was originally there. That was the original position, so why did it change? Why did we change away from 'up to'? It is quite simple: to placate the government's coalition colleagues in the Australian Greens. That is well and good, but one may be so bold as to suggest that, in placating your coalition colleagues in the Australian Greens you are doing yourselves unmitigated damage in your own political branding.
I ask the parliamentary secretary: if the amendment is not successful and the wording in the legislation remains '450 gigalitres', will he unequivocally rule out that any of that 450 gigalitres will come from buyback at any stage?
It is fairly simple, really. We are discussing the terminology 'up to 450 gigalitres'. We have not been assured on this side of the chamber that the 450 gigalitres is attainable through the processes that are outlined. If the 450 gigalitres cannot be attained by the government, or by whoever is in government at the time, through those infrastructure works and the efficiencies, will the minister unequivocally rule out that any of that 450-gigalitre requirement will come from buybacks?
You were not in the chamber earlier, Senator Nash—I know that you have come in recently. This issue was dealt with quite extensively earlier in the debate and so I recommend that you go and read those comments made earlier.
The fundamental answer to your question is that we are confident that we will achieve that 450 gigalitres. That is the answer and we are not speculating about any other outcomes. We believe that is a realistic objective and that that is what we will achieve. That is what we agreed and that is what the legislation says. We intend to honour our commitments made in this legislation and carry them through.
I do appreciate that I was not able to be in the chamber earlier, Minister, but I am asking in relation to this particular amendment. In the event that the amendment is not successful, we are left with the wording as it currently stands and I just require from the minister for the chamber a simple yes or no answer. I do not want to hear that it is the intent of the government to do it; I want a simple yes or no from the minister as to whether he will unequivocally rule out any of the 450 gigalitres coming from buybacks in the future.
With due respect, Minister, I think that even if Senator Nash had been here for your answers, she would have found that you did not actually really give an answer. I am quite comfortable with Senator Nash having another crack at trying to get something resembling blood out of a stone, because there were non-answers, prevarication and obfuscation before.
I would like you to answer it, Senator Farrell, and I was in the chamber at the time. My question refers to your answer earlier but, if you could, I would like you to repeat it for Senator Nash's benefit at this particular stage of the proceedings so she can fully participate with her unique knowledge of irrigated agriculture and communities in New South Wales, something she knows so much about. My question is: if the existing on-farm efficiency programs are not taken up in a significant way by farmers, how will the government achieve its 450-gigalitre target?
I will make it about as simple as I can. I will read from the legislation, Senator McKenzie. Note 1 in schedule 1 says:
As a result of subsection (4) of this section, water access rights may be purchased only if the purchase is related to an adjustment of a long-term average sustainable diversion limit under section 23A. That section requires the Basin Plan to prescribe criteria in relation to such adjustments. The effect of the criteria prescribed by the Basin Plan is that water access rights may be purchased only in conjunction with improving irrigation water use efficiency on farms or an alternative arrangement proposed by a Basin State.
Note 2 says:
Under this Part, the Commonwealth will not conduct open tender rounds that are available to all water access entitlement holders in a water resource plan area to purchase water access rights.
Senator McKenzie did ask the minister—and I thank Senator McKenzie for her intervention—to answer the question that I had asked earlier. To assist the minister I will ask again: could the minister give us a yes or no answer whether the government will unequivocally rule out that in the future any of the 450-gigalitre target will come from buyback and, if the minister cannot say that that is correct and that none will come from buyback, do basin communities now have the understanding that there is a possibility that the 450 gigalitres will indeed come from buyback? That is the only way basin communities will be able to read this if the minister is not prepared to unequivocally say that it will not come from buyback.
I really have to support Senator Nash on this. The Nationals are asking the chamber to reinstate the 'up to' that was removed from the original bill. I was part of the inquiry into that piece of legislation and everyone was quite happy with the flexibility that 'up to' gave the states that are going to have to implement this piece of legislation on behalf of the Commonwealth. They were happy with that flexibility because everybody understood that science gets better and farming gets better. We are not irrigating now the way we irrigated 30 years ago. Our farms are incredibly efficient and we believe that we can make them more efficient. So what is the use of being prescriptive about a number and not allowing states, communities, farmers et cetera to exercise flexibility in how we achieve enough water for the environment? Through a lot of questioning right now, we do not know exactly how much water is required by each of these environmental assets at any one given time, so why be so prescriptive about a volume?
You mentioned the intent of the legislation. I understand the minister's intent is not to cause socioeconomic damage to basin communities, so why will he not allow his Senate colleagues to support National Party amendments which enshrine that intent in legislation? That is simply what we are trying to do today. I sat in the inquiries in which we were talking about 'up to'. I was part of the discussions which saw it very quickly removed from the legislation. I would like if, in addition to answering Senator Nash's question, you would answer mine: why did you remove 'up to'?
If the minister does not want to answer questions, perhaps he could rise and give an indication to the chamber why he is refusing to answer questions. This is most extraordinary given the gravity of the issue. The fact that the minister is not prepared to give the chamber the respect of an answer is extraordinary. They are very, very simple questions. We need a yes or no answer to whether buybacks will be considered as part of the 450 gigalitres and why 'up to' was removed. These are very important questions and the fact that the minister is refusing to rise and answer very simple questions takes away any small amount of confidence we on this side of the chamber may have had in the process. I assume the minister will sit there and will not stand up again, or if he does it will be to make a prevaricating comment such as Senator Joyce referred to.
On this side of the chamber we can only have the understanding that buybacks may be part of the 450-gigalitre requirement in the future. We have to assume that, because the minster will not give us an answer otherwise. We already have the 2,750 gigs—this is over and above—and 'up to' is a perfectly appropriate request of the government. The government know this because, as my colleagues Senator Joyce and Senator McKenzie said earlier, it was originally in the legislation. The government know that this is the right thing to do and that it is appropriate. This is only because of the fact they are being corralled and handcuffed by the Greens on this issue, which is no way to run policy, particularly water policy. I give the minister another opportunity to answer my question, with a simple yes or no, or it will have to be the understanding of this chamber that buybacks indeed may be a part of the 450-gigalitre requirement.
I thank Senator Nash for her question. I have answered the question. Senator Nash may not like the answer, may not like the way in which I have answered or may not accept the answer, but I will read it again from the notes in the legislation:
Under this Part, the Commonwealth will not conduct open tender rounds that are available to all water access entitlement holders in a water resource plan area to purchase water access rights.
I am not sure how I can make it any clearer to Senator Nash. If you do not accept my answer then continue with your amendment and we will vote on it. That is obviously the way we will resolve this issue, but I am not prevaricating. I am answering your question in the most honest way I can, and that is by referring to the legislation itself. You may not accept it, but it is the answer in one of the notes to the legislation. I think it resolves the issue.
It does indeed resolve the issue. The minister well knows that quoting a piece of legislation that has been subject to interpretation is in no way, shape or form the same as giving the chamber a very direct answer that no, buybacks will not be included in the 450-gigalitre requirement.
In referring to comments the minister made around the intention of the government to buy back or not water for the 450 gigs, he also said at the end of his comment 'or alternative arrangement'. That means: 'We are not going to do it for all these reasons, all these caveats, or we might seek it through alternative arrangements.' Can the minister provide us with some information on discussions with the states that may assist in clarifying what those alternative arrangements may be?
You talk about negotiations with the states, but when asked which states you say you do not know which states, but you do believe you will find 450 gigalitres—'Just trust us! I love you in the morning, the cheque's in the mail and trust me, we'll get 450 gigs!' Which states the agreement was made with is pretty pertinent. I imagine we can rule out Western Australia and Tasmania, but after that it gets a bit cloudy as to which ones we are talking about. Are they all on board? Is South Australia on board? New South Wales? Are we talking about both of them?
When you think about it, your capacity to deliver this is crazy. Even if you did it is financially impossible, because we do not have the money. It is hydrologically impossible because even Dr Dickson, the head of the MDBA, stated that they came up with 2,750 because of the restraints that made it highly unlikely that you would get any water further down. Hydrologically, by the department's own words, this is improbable. There has been no socioeconomic study to say whether it is moral
You are affecting people's lives unreasonably—destroying them—and financially it is completely and utterly impossible. It is $55 million out of the forward estimates—it is just not going to happen. Even the $1.77 billion is a cost that you cannot possibly provide. It is costing around 10 grand a meg at the moment and you think you are going to do it for four in the future. It is just madness! I know you have to say, 'We believe strongly that we can deliver 450,' but it is just not right.
I am not sure where we are heading with all of this. The whole purpose of this piece of legislation is to try and do two things: restore the health of all of those communities that rely on the Murray-Darling Basin and improve and restore the environmental health of the Murray-Darling. All of the purchases that have been made have all been designed to achieve that outcome. We want this legislation passed so that we can continue the work that we have started, and so all of those communities that you, obviously, are concerned about in the area you have just mentioned can get the benefit of this legislation.
You can doubt whether or not we will achieve our goals. I am confident that the work that has been put in, the agreements that have been reached and the efforts that the federal government and the states have put into this legislation—
You can have smart alec answers, Senator Nash, but the reality is that we intend to restore the health of the Murray-Darling Basin. Buybacks have been part of that process, and once this legislation is through we will continue to achieve that goal. That is what we have set out to do, and those communities that you are concerned about, Senator McKenzie, will benefit by the passing of this legislation and the restoration to the health of the Murray-Darling and all of those communities within it.
Okay—I am just clarifying that, because I am. If we are not going to legislate flexibility into the number and if we have failed to put into the legislation no socioeconomic detriment, then I think it is fair enough that I ask the people who are doing the purchasing and who are asking us to trust them—asking our communities to trust—about the water that has already been purchased from irrigation districts. My understanding from my conversations within communities, particularly in northern Victoria and also evident throughout the inquiry into this piece of legislation, is that the lack of trust is out there. I simply want to give the government the opportunity to put on the record why basin communities should trust that it is not going to come at socioeconomic detriment. It is as simple as that.
Given that I doubt I am going to get an answer around the socioeconomic impact of the water already removed around this issue, I ask the minister what he thinks the impact is of environmental science research and development on watering environmental assets? Obviously, water engineering innovation will have an impact on the use of water not only for agricultural purposes but in watering environmental assets efficiently and effectively.
Senator McKenzie talks about her concern for the Murray-Darling Basin communities. I was born in Murray Bridge; I have a sense of what those communities want and need out of this legislation. I am confident that the things we have done so far and the things that we will be able to achieve into the future once this legislation is passed will do what you claim you want—and I do not dispute and I accept that you want those Murray-Darling Basin communities restored to health and prosperity. All of the things you have mentioned are things that the federal government is doing. All of those things will be things into the future that will assist in that restoration process.
The key here is to get this legislation through. The key is to say to these communities: 'We have now got some certainty. We now know what direction we are heading in.' That will ensure that those communities that are seeking the support that we are going to get from this process do so and that all of that can happen. It can only happen once we pass this legislation. That is why the government is pushing ahead with it. We have reached agreement with all the parties about how to proceed with this. Now we want to implement it. The only way we can implement it is by passing this legislation. The sooner we pass it, the sooner what you say you want—namely, the restoration to health of those communities—will be achieved.
My questions went to the removal of the words 'up to' and the legislation before us today, without the Nationals' amendment being agreed to, takes away some flexibility. I have a science degree. I am concerned about being so prescriptive with a number when we do not know so much of the detail. I am confident, Senator Farrell, that our scientific community, water engineers, farmers and environmental scientists will get better at how we use water. So to not put 'up to' in the legislation is being derelict; it is being prescriptive. We could be actually collecting water under this legislation that we do not have to use and that we do not have to take out of communities, simply because you needed to do the deals with the parties you needed to do the deals with. Senator Farrell, it is lovely to hear that you are from Murray Bridge and it is a pity you are not sitting over here on our side of the chamber, maybe as a National Party local member.
Senator Farrell interjecting—
I note your wry smile! Be that as it may.
The option is there. You mentioned the word 'certainty'—that we have got to get this legislation through so that we can be certain and so that those communities can have certainty. If you take 450 gigalitres and if they are not able to be flexible in the number and are not able to innovate and get better at what they do, then you are just continuing the uncertainty for these communities rather than backing them, backing our scientists and our states in the agreement that was reached with them—that is, that it would be up to 450 gigalitres.
Minister, are you or the government aware of the water/land buybacks around Benjeroop, Stanhope and Carag Carag in Victoria and their effect on the communities socially, economically and environmentally? And are you able to explain to the chamber what will happen with the land that the state government has bought, now that the water has been stripped from those lands to return it to the environment? And what is the effect on these communities?
I thank Senator Madigan for his questions. I am not personally aware. I understand they are state government programs that you are referring to, but I will attempt to get some information to answer your question.
I am really fascinated—the Murray Bridge has captured my imagination, Senator Farrell. Going on from Senator Madigan's questions, have you, Minister, during this debate, been to the northern Victorian communities and seen these irrigation districts?
Yes, I have spent a bit of time in that area, but I am not sure what my travel arrangements have got to do with this debate. We are at the point where this legislation has been agreed between the federal government and the states. We want the restoration of the health of the Murray-Darling Basin to happen as quickly as possible. We want this legislation to pass and we want to get on with the job of the restoration of its health.
Thank you for your indulgence, Mr Temporary Chairman—this is my last question. The removal of 'up to' removes flexibility and makes assumptions about the figure of 3,200 gigs. I would like to know what work has been done to make that so prescriptive. The legislation as it was drafted, as agreed to by the states, with the inbuilt flexibility was changed at the very last minute. What new data or research was there from the time of the inquiry starting to the inquiry finishing and to when the legislation was changed?
We know from what Senator McKenzie said about her science degree that she is a very smart lady and a smart senator as well. Senator, what we want to do is what you say you want to do—that is, restore the health of the Murray-Darling. The government has received all sorts of information about the best way to proceed to achieve that—information from its own departments and advice from the states. We have now reached a consensus position here between the federal government and the states. We want to implement that and the best way we can do what you say you want—to achieve the restoration of health of these Murray-Darling communities—is to pass this legislation.
The CHAIRMAN: The question is that amendment (1) on sheet 7337, moved by Senator Joyce, be agreed to.
by leave—I move amendments (7) and (10) to (16) on sheet 7314 together:
(7) Schedule 1, item 2, page 5 (after line 37), at the end of section 86AA, add:
(4) To achieve the object of this Part, the authority must propose an adjustment under section 23A to increase the volume of the Basin water resources available for environmental use by at least 450 gigalitres with the water to be secured by 2019.
(5) The Authority must propose the adjustment by 31 December 2016.
(10) Schedule 1, item 2, page 9 (line 16) (cell at table item 1, column 3), omit "$15,000,000.00", substitute "$187,000,000.00".
(11) Schedule 1, item 2, page 9 (line 16) (cell at table item 2, column 3), omit "$40,000,000.00", substitute "$212,000,000.00".
(12) Schedule 1, item 2, page 9 (line 16) (cell at table item 3, column 3), omit "$110,000,000.00", substitute "$282,000,000.00".
(13) Schedule 1, item 2, page 9 (line 16) (cell at table item 4, column 3), omit "$430,000,000.00", substitute "$602,000,000.00".
(14) Schedule 1, item 2, page 9 (line 16) (cell at table item 5, column 3), omit "$320,000,000.00", substitute "$492,000,000.00".
(15) Schedule 1, item 2, page 9 (line 16) (table items 6, 7, 8, 9 and 10), omit the table items.
(16) Schedule 1, item 2, page 9 (after line 16), at the end of section 86AG, add:
Note: Any amounts standing to the credit of the Water for the Environment Special Account at the end of a financial year remain available to be debited during subsequent financial years for the purposes mentioned in section 86AD.
These amendments in particular go to the time frame of this piece of legislation and the required timing of when the extra water—450 gigalitres—is to be returned. We know, of course, that the rest of the plan has to be in place by 2019, but the disappointing and concerning aspect of this legislation is that this extra 450 gigalitres is not required to be returned to the environment until 2024. That is 11 years from now. If we have all agreed that we know the best available science says 3,200 gigalitres is the absolute bare minimum—it is not even enough, much of the scientific evidence says—why on earth would we want to wait and blow out that time frame to 2024? South Australia is not going to be able to handle waiting that long in order to replenish our Lower Lakes and the Coorong and to keep Adelaide's drinking water healthy.
Of course, climate scientists are telling us already to prepare to go back into drought over the next couple of years. We are going to be back in a drying period long before 2019 and long, long before 2024. We do not have time to waste. We have been debating about the management of the Murray-Darling Basin for decades, since Federation. We now have a plan in place, albeit with the weaknesses and the problems that it has. At the very least, we should stick by the time frame that all sides in this chamber had originally agreed on back in 2008.
For reasons that I have already pointed out in relation to the first of the Greens amendments, we will not be supporting it. I add to that that the predictions about drying out may or may not be correct, but I would never assert that they are fact. The last time I heard that was when Professor Tim Flannery told us the storages in South-East Queensland would never fill again, and since he said that we have had flood after flood after flood.
The CHAIRMAN: The question is that Greens amendments (7) and (10) to (16) on sheet 7314 be agreed to.