Thursday, 7 February 2013
Water Amendment (Water for the Environment Special Account) Bill 2012; In Committee
I move Nationals amendment (4) on sheet 7336:
(4) Schedule 1, item 2, page 8 (after line 36), after section 86AE, insert:
86AEA Limit on purchase of water access rights
The total amount of water access rights purchased by, or on behalf of, the Commonwealth since 2009, whether with amounts debited from the Water for the Environment Special Account or otherwise for the purposes of the Basin Plan, must not exceed 1500 gigalitres.
This is about reinforcing the coalition's strong belief in the buyback cap. The buyback cap, as we have always stated, should be at 1,500 gigalitres. Buyback is distinctly different to the gains made from infrastructure or environmental works and measures. There is currently only about 250 gigalitres to purchase to get to that 1,500-gigalitre cap. Most of it has already been purchased.
We note that the real economic problems that happen always happen by reason of people buying the water licences out of areas. We have walked down the path of being good citizens in trying to bring about an environmental outcome but we are not going to do it at the expense of the communities of people who live in the area. You can see today with the discussions of the development of the north, trying to make sure we get a northern development area, we do not want to do that and then all of a sudden forget about the south. We have a widely developed irrigation area in the Murray-Darling Basin. The actual purchase of raw water licences, general buyback, causes immense economic hardship. We want to make sure that we limit that and that the efficiencies, the delivery back to the system, come from environmental works and measures in such things as deeper ring tanks, use of laterals, use of trickle, more efficient delivery of water. That is where the gains are made—from weirs that give us the capacity to make water more of an environmental asset with less water because we do not have to wait for a spill event; we can actually create a weir that allows a spill event with the use of far less water. These are the things that we believe are important. I think it is absolutely prescient that the public clearly understand that the coalition's policy is the cap at 1,500 gigs. Most of that has already been purchased. We only have about 249 gigs to go.
I would like to move item (5) on sheet 7336. I move:
(5) Schedule 1, item 2, page 10 (after line 35), after paragraph 86AI(2)(c), insert:
(ca) for all water recovery for which an amount was debited from the Water for the Environment Special Account during the report year for the purposes of paragraph 86AD(2)(b)—how that recovery achieved a neutral or beneficial socio-economic outcome;
We do not intend to divide on this. We want to make sure that the amount is recovered—an environment special account during the report year for the purposes of paragraph 8682—and that they report back to us as to how this recovery was neutral. We have talked about socioeconomic and environmental neutrality. We need to know and the Australian people need to know how the government is doing this. At this point in time it is case of taking them on trust, and taking people on trust is a very dangerous proposition.
The purpose of this amendment is to make sure that the Water for the Environment Special Account is achieved in the form that has been promised by the government—and by us—that there will be a socioeconomic neutrality for environmental outcomes. If we do not have this oversight, we have a strong belief that we are not going to get it and there will not be the delivery of the outcome back to the towns in such a way that does not decimate the towns.
We have got bureaucrats running round the joint cooling the planet. We have over 1,000 people in the climate change department. Let's see if we can give people a job that really matters: making sure that we do not destroy the economic base of places like Shepparton, Mildura, St George, Bourke—the places where we live.
I have got a question for the minister around allocations. It goes to how much of the 50 million allocated in the forward estimates will be allocated to a constraints removal works and on farm efficiency grants, bearing in mind that these are the types of things that I am assuming that our review would be interested in knowing.
I thank Senator McKenzie for her question. The government intends to spend that money in accordance with what we have indicated in the legislation and in the agreement with the parties. That is exactly what we will do.
I would still like more details on the parties and who is invited. We cannot get the details on what is going to be removed with the proportionality. I thank you for answering that aspect of it, that the majority of the $50 million will be going to constraint removal. Please outline how much will be going towards the study and information gathering that is clearly required to undertake that work.
That will be a component of the expenditure. I do not think I can give you an exact amount at this stage, but it will be part of the overall spending of the $50 million.
My understanding is that the Murray-Darling Basin Authority is required to develop a constraints management strategy. That will be done in consultation with the states and it will then be clear just how much money is going to be spent in this area.
I do understand the process. My question was: of the $50 million allocated in the forward estimates, how much will the construction of the strategy cost? Seeing we do not know exactly what constraints are going to be removed and where, yet we have allocated this bunch of money, I am assuming some proportion of the $50 million will have to go to finding all that out. Do you have a figure of cost for that sort of study, work and consultation with water engineers et cetera, and getting out on the ground to see the types of constraints and the types of work that need to be done? I understand you might not have an exact figure of how much that research and study will cost, but I believe that either you or the officials beside you will have a ballpark figure of what that sort of work would cost.
I thank Senator McKenzie for her question. Most of this work has been done by the states. We are working closely with the states to find out where they have identified these constraints. We will continue to do that, and at this point in time I cannot give you an exact figure. If I could give an exact figure I would give it to you, but I cannot.
I am happy to, Senator Farrell. Could you confirm that the work of the constraint removal will be done by the various states? My understanding from your earlier answer was that the identification research work has been done by the states, and in the future they are going to be doing the constraint removal program.
The point I am trying to make is that the identification of the constraints has principally been done by the states, though not entirely. But there is a process, and there is going to be a strategy developed. When that strategy is developed then there will be a course of action that follows from that which will involve the removal of those constraints and the spending of that money.
I noted in one of Minister Burke's previous media releases that he nominated $200 million to be allocated for constraint removals. I wonder, in light of that media release that Minister Burke put out, and in reflection of the previous $50 million figure being talked about, why these two figures do not seem to line up? Could Senator Farrell elaborate on them a bit?
Thank you, Senator Joyce, for your question. The questions being asked by Senator McKenzie related to the $50 million over a specific time frame. You are correct, Senator Joyce, that Minister Burke referred to $200 million, but that is over the entire life of the project. We are getting some confusion about the period: Senator McKenzie was talking about the $50 million expenditure; you are talking about an amount over the entire life of the project.
That is good. I am pleased you object to that. There is nothing like facing the truth! My question is about the $50 million that is going to be expended. Senator McKenzie has pointed out the proportion of what we will be thinking about and planning to do about it as opposed to actually doing it. You say that the Murray-Darling Basin mob are going to do some of the planning and thinking. My question is: will you be transferring into their normal budget some of the budget for the planning and thinking from this particular pocket of money, or will they expend their own budget in doing that? In other words, is this just a fancy way of topping up their budget? And you don't know the bloody answer because there is none!
Bearing in mind that we are lacking a little bit of the detail on how the money will be spent, where it will be spent and how much the research to spend the money will be as a proportion of total allocated money, you mentioned earlier in an answer to Senator Joyce that the process has a specific timetable. Can you give a time frame of when various programs will be rolled out—as examples, the constraint study, the research that needs to be done in order to inform the work, when we are thinking of starting the work on infrastructure and when we think on-farm grants may be available to primary producers. I am sure we have thought this out a little further, given the amount of time and money that has gone into the consultation process and the desire of a lot of people to see this sorted. I am sure we have done some work on time lines. Could you please outline that for us.
While you're thinking about it, this is one of the worst examples of a taxpayer farce—
The TEMPORARY CHAIRMAN: Senator Heffernan, please come to order.
Senator Heffernan interjecting—
The TEMPORARY CHAIRMAN: Senator Heffernan, are you seeking the call in order to ask a question?
No, I'm waiting for the answer.
The TEMPORARY CHAIRMAN: Then please refrain from interjections.
As you say, Senator McKenzie, an awful lot of work has been done, but the reality is there is an awful lot more work to be done. The reason the government has allocated this funding is to ensure—
No, it is not to get us through the next election. It is to do something about restoring the health of the Murray-Darling Basin—something that was long overdue under your government. We have done something about it. Minister Burke has done something about it. This government have done something about it. We are trying to proceed to save all of those Murray-Darling Basin communities which you claim to want to represent and, most importantly, to restore the health of the Murray-Darling Basin. That is what we want to do. We have allocated funding so that we can do that. Senator McKenzie wants to pin me down to the exact time frame for the expenditure of that money. I cannot do that, but what I can tell you is that this money will be well spent and spent in a way that does what we want to do, which is restore the Murray-Darling Basin to good health restore the environment.
When you say 'be well spent'—
The TEMPORARY CHAIRMAN: It does not sound like a point of order.
It is going to be a point of order if you could be patient.
The TEMPORARY CHAIRMAN: Senator Heffernan, you do not have the call. Senator Farrell.
Senator Heffernan interjecting—
The TEMPORARY CHAIRMAN: Senator Heffernan, you do not have the call.
Senator Farrell, I apologise; I am seriously not trying to pin you down. When I read the bill I saw clause 86AG, which gave a schedule of yearly payments of varying amounts over time from 2014 to 2024. When I look at that I assume—maybe naively—that some work has been done to come up with those figures. I am not trying to pin you down; it was my assumption that we have put some money there and done some thinking behind how we are going to spend that. But I understand what you are saying; there are parties—little ps and big Ps, going back to our discussion yesterday—to this discussion which have to have input into the process, the basin states being a key group. So when I ask for a time frame it is because we want to know and our communities want to know so that the uncertainty that both the government and the coalition are keen to see ending in Murray-Darling Basin communities will not be strengthened. I do not want an actual date; just a month, a quarter or even a semester would be good.
How long, roughly, is the constraint study going to take? I do not want a start date. I do not want an end date. Is it six months, is it a year, is it 18 months? How much have we allowed to gather the information we need in order to start the constraint-removal work that we want to do so we can start getting some environmental to those assets, as the plan sets out?
When do we think that the on-farm efficiency grants might happen? I do not think I am out of line in thinking that if we have allocated money along a timeline we might have thought about the next level down in the budget process. I would like you, Senator Farrell, if you can, to give me a loose time frame around that. I would be very appreciative, as would the constituents who have come to see me on a regular basis on this issue. I was at the Mildura public meeting years ago for the first draft. This has been a long process, and there are a lot of people who would like some rough guidelines.
My understanding is the way in which these programs are going to be rolled out will be different to the way in which past programs have been rolled out. Do you have any commentary around the likelihood of producers and irrigators in taking up these programs? Are they going to be as fully subscribed in the same manner as previous programs have been?
I thank Senator McKenzie for her question. You talk about wanting some certainty for these communities; the best way to get some certainty for these communities is to finish the debate on this legislation and vote in favour of it. Then we can get on with the job of restoring the health of the Murray-Darling River.
In terms of the constraints management strategies and the time lines, they are specifically referred to in the Basin Plan. If you like I can read those out for you:
(1) Within 12 months after the commencement of the Basin Plan, the Authority must prepare a constraints management strategy that:
(a) identifies and describes the physical, operational and management constraints that are affecting, or have the potential to affect, environmental water delivery; and
(b) assists all jurisdictions to participate in constraint measures in order to allow environmental water to be used to maximum effect and to maximise the benefits of any increase in held environmental water; and
(c) evaluates options, opportunities and risks to water users, communities and the environment, associated with addressing key constraints, including through constraint measures that are relevant to measures that might be notified under section 7.12; and
(d) assesses the impacts of modifications of constraints on environmental water delivery and third parties, as well as downstream impacts, and assesses options to address those impacts; and
(e) identifies mechanisms by which impacts on third parties can be addressed.
Of course, this is all in the current Murray-Darling Basin Plan.
It is a competitive process, and I am not sure that we can say whether the price will be higher or lower. I do not know that we can necessarily predict that at the moment. Just from the knowledge I have of the process, there are so many other factors that come into the price you might get for the sale of water that I think it would be difficult to make a prediction as to what the price will be in future by comparison to what has occurred in the past. Obviously, at the height of the drought, the prices were very high and they have certainly come down. But I am not sure we can predict at this stage exactly what will happen in the future.
Are you able to inform the Senate of moneys allocated, whether the $50 million mentioned or any other moneys, for communities in northern Victoria which have had land or water buybacks by the government? We currently have some farmers who have sold their land and water to the government and others have chosen to retain their land and water and now find themselves in a position where their adjacent neighbours have sold their properties and water rights, and properties across the road from them have been sold. These farmers have now been told that the channel that feeds the properties where they want to stay will be shut down. Has any money been allocated so that these people will still be able to access water, or will they be left high and dry, so to speak?
I am aware of the issue that you have raised. It is an issue that potentially affects all of the basin communities. The particular program—again, I am not particularly familiar with the circumstances in Victoria—in South Australia is probably a state-based program, as are many such programs. It may very well be that the program you are referring to is a state-based one, but I will get some more information for you and try and respond to you.
Are you able to enlighten the Senate and affected people about these things? One of the farmers I mentioned has been told, 'If you want to access your water, you're going to have to pay $800,000 to have it piped down the road from the main channel.' What do you say to people like that who wish to remain on their land and wish to retain their water? These people have been left high and dry to date. I acknowledge what you said about certainty, but these people have no certainty even though they have made a decision to remain on their properties. Their families currently are in limbo and have been for some time.
The answer to Senator Madigan's question is that undoubtedly there have been lots of problems in Murray-Darling Basin communities. The one you have identified is one that probably replicates itself in many other parts of the Murray-Darling Basin. It is not simply a northern Victorian problem, it is a problem in the Riverland and other parts of the Murray-Darling Basin.
The whole point of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan is to restore certainty to these communities, to provide some support for these communities and to restore the environmental health of the Murray-Darling. It is the government's intention that by passing this legislation we will achieve that. That is what we want to do: we want to bring prosperity back to these Murray-Darling Basin communities, we want to restore the health of the river, and the way we see that being done is by the implementation of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, which we have done. By adding to that this piece of legislation, which has been agreed by the affected federal and state governments, we will bring about those achievements. That is our aim: to sort out these sorts of problems. I cannot say it will solve every single problem of every single community in the Murray-Darling Basin, but I can say that this is absolutely the best plan that we can come up with to set about the task of restoring the prosperity and the health of the river. That is what we are aiming to do with this legislation.
We all know what the objective supposedly is, but the problem for these people is the devil is in the detail. I acknowledge what you said about the state governments buying land and water rights, but the people just want to know what the physical plan is and how you are going to go about achieving it. I had many calls yesterday and last night about our discussions in the chamber, but people are none the wiser and are even more confused than they were. They are becoming more and more confused by the day. They just want to know: what is the actual plan? What is the actual coordination? And how are we going to achieve these things in a tangible way?
by leave—I move amendments on sheet 7314, Nos (8), (9) and (25) together:
(8) Schedule 1, item 2, page 8 (after line 5), after subsection 86AD(2), insert:
(2A) In debiting amounts for the purposes of making payments in relation to projects mentioned in paragraph (2)(a) or (c), priority is to be given to:
(a) projects that will produce the maximum guaranteed increase in the volume of Basin water resources that are available for environmental use within the shortest time; and
(b) projects that demonstrably take into account the most recent scientific knowledge in relation to ground water and climate change; and
(c) projects that demonstrably enhance the environmental outcomes referred to in the objects to this Part.
(9) Schedule 1, item 2, page 9 (after line 9), at the end of section 86AF, add:
(3) The terms and conditions must include a requirement that the financial assistance granted will be used for a purpose that:
(a) is consistent with achieving, by 31 December 2019, an increase of at least 450 gigalitres in the volume of the Basin water resources available for environmental use; and
(b) will enhance the environmental outcomes referred to in the objects to this Part.
(25) Schedule 1, item 6, page 13 (line 4), omit "subsection 86AF(2)", substitute "subsections 86AF(2) and (3)".
This group of amendments goes directly to how the money can be spent and for what purpose. The Water Amendment (Water for the Environment Special Account) Bill 2012 contains a long list of purposes for which the $1.7 billion in the special account may be spent. There are also various conditions on the spending included in the bill. These amendments as circulated add requirements to guarantee that any expenditure from this account will be spent in the best possible way to give the best value for money. This means that expenditure on the project is buying the most water with the greatest certainty for the least money—getting the best bang for our buck, so to speak.
The amendments take into account recent scientific knowledge in relation to groundwater and climate change. We do not know, as I have said many times in this chamber before, what the future will bring and what new science might soon have to tell us about how we can be using our water resources more wisely. These amendments prioritise and reward new projects that reflect the most up-to-date knowledge and science on these important issues. We know that overallocation and falling into bad habits caused this entire environmental crisis in the first place. We need to make sure we are acting more wisely and smarter and that we are saving taxpayers' money along the way.
We cannot afford to see an amount such as this, almost $2 billion, simply frittered away because we are not using it in the smartest and most efficient manner. It does make sense at a time when we know all sides of the chamber are continuing to talk about the amount of money that is in the budget to pay for services. We do not want to see money unnecessarily spent on things just because we did not specify in the legislation that we are trying to get the best value for money for the environment and for the taxpayer.
The coalition will not be supporting this Greens amendment. I note that amendment (9) talks about 'at least 450 gigalitres'; that is not what we propose to do because that would force the hand and cause immense hurt.
I have a question for Senator Hanson-Young as to how the money will be spent. I refer to the schedule under 86AG, and note that the Greens proposed earlier amendments rearranging that schedule. I would just like an explanation from the Greens of the data they used to rearrange that schedule.
In 86AD, titled 'Purposes of the Water for the Environment Special Account', under 86AD(2)(a) we see:
(v) entering agreements to acquire an interest in, or in relation to, land (including easements) to facilitate environmental watering—
Does that actually mean this money can be used to acquire land, not water? It is a pity I had not come here a couple of days ago, I would have pulled all this apart properly. It is a joke.
I understand, from speaking to the officials, that this money will not be used to, shall I say, subsidise estate purchases. But, in the Nimmie-Caira instance, which is a complete fraud on the public purse, there is a proposition, which was agreed to before the licences were issued—and they were issued with no environmental plan—to pay for the licences before they were issued 2¼ times the value of the water in those licences, which will enable them to acquire the land. How do we know that value? Given that this is in this agreement in this bill, how do we know that this money will not be just blown buying land? That is acquiring a flood plain and, because there is a constriction from the Maude weir to Balranald, when there is just above a supplementary flow the water must go down that flood plain. It has been agreed with the minister's office that they are going to buy this flood plain. This is a complete fraud because when the river is constricted between Balranald and Maude the water is going to go down that flood plain and the only way to get it down there without going over the flood plain will be to shepherd it somehow through the flood plain. And if you then shepherd it through the flood plain, you will turn that flood plain into a desert of blow away grass and poverty bush. Given that this actually authorises the acquisition of that sort, which is to buy the land, which in this case has been covered by the bureaucrats and the filling of the water-buyback book of 370 gigalitres gross and 175 gigalitres net average annual calculated flow, calculated without any measurement, how do we know that under this agreement to which this parliament is about to agree that this money will be spent in the best way possible? That is the vaguest proposition I have ever seen in water management. I agree with you, Minister, that the management of the water, under all governments and for all time, has been buggered up. It started with allowing the trading of supplementary licences in the Murray-Darling Basin. How do we know that this will be used? It says here:
… entering agreements to acquire an interest in, or in relation to, land (including easements)—
In the case of the Nimmie-Caira thing, they are actually going to acquire the fences, the gates, the windmills—and there is no likely proposition that that water will get back into the Murrumbidgee. How vague do you have to be to get political cover to get you past the next election? This is an agreement to buy land.
The TEMPORARY CHAIRMAN: Senator Farrell, I would note that questions are supposed to be directed towards these amendments. These are broad remarks. Respond if you feel like you need to.
Thank you, Madam Temporary Chairman Pratt, and thank you, Senator Heffernan, for the question. My understanding is that the particular project that you have concerns about is not a project that is going to be covered by this legislation. This legislation will deal with issues into the future. That is currently a proposal under consideration, so I am not sure that it is relevant to these proceedings. I will simply reiterate: it is the government's intention, and I believe it will be the case, that whatever expenditure we make as a result of this legislation will be money that is well spent.
I do not know how you measure to the best event. One of the greatest criticisms of the Australian National Audit Office was the acquisition from Twynam Pastoral Company without a tender process—which my good friend Mary Harwood and I had a disagreement over, but I won—and they acquired $230 million worth of water. Part of the deal with Twynam, because they were trying to fill the buyback bill, was, 'You buy this water, but you can't have that water unless you take this water.' In other words, it was some sort of political blackmail. What I want you to agree to is that under this—
I would like to take a point of order in relation to relevance. The particular amendment that we are dealing with here is Senator Hanson-Young's amendment. I have made myself quite available in attempting to answer all of the questions that Senator Heffernan has raised, but I think we ought to stick with the procedure.
I can simply indicate to you that the government is not supporting the Greens' amendment, so, to the extent that there is anything in this Greens amendment that relates to the issue that you have raised, the government is not supporting that amendment.
There is no obligation for me to respond; I am not a minister, but I will point out that I think the question that you are asking relates to the previous amendment that we voted on yesterday, and the answer to your question—I will answer it anyway—is that the extra money was brought forward from when we changed the time frames.
My question to the mover of this amendment went to my understanding of the amendments before us right now. Clause 9 goes to the timing and clause 8 goes to the making of payments, so I was simply seeking clarification from the Greens around that. I do have some questions on constraint removal, which I understand could be projects under this bill, and I will put all of my questions on the table and hope that somebody answers them: will South Australia's and New South Wales's decreases in funding for the shared Murray-Darling Basin programs have any effect on the programs—
They are. They go to constraint removal, which could be a project identified to get more water down the river. Do you see flooding liability issues as being a non-physical constraint in increasing river flows? Rivers' operators or state authorities hold the ultimate responsibility and liability for adverse flooding impacts—and it is a particular issue for the upper catchment in Victoria, which is why I am asking these questions—on private property. The state authorities and river operators might act in an ultraconservative way in releasing the environmental water because they are liable. I am seeking solutions or for someone to categorically state who is responsible—because I have asked these questions in estimates and I have asked them during the inquiry and I am still not clear—for the unintended flooding of private property as a result of environmental flow releases from dams. Would the Commonwealth consider indemnifying the states from flooding liability caused by the delivery of the environmental watering plans? I would really appreciate some clarity around that. I am not trying to be difficult; I have asked these questions before and I would seek a response, please.
I do apologise. I note that the government will not be responding to those questions, which could equally apply to the bill itself—and my understanding is that the overall question before us today is actually that the bill be agreed to—but I would seek that the Greens, given that they are talking about how the money in the special account will be spent, actually give the upper catchment landholders in Victoria an understanding of who they think is legally responsible for any flooding events that may be caused on their properties as a result of releasing water for environmental flows.
Minister, in the consideration of this political fix—even Craig Knowles owns up to that: it is the best deal they could get politically, nothing to do with science—what consideration has been given to the impact on the aquifer of the works and the various water acquisition buybacks, given that we have not completed the study into the interconnectivity between the aquifers and the rivers? What consideration has been given in this bill and the use of this money to the impacts on the various aquifers that are connected to the various rivers?
by leave—I move Greens amendments (17) to (24) on sheet 7314:
(17) Schedule 1, item 2, page 10 (line 27), after subsection 86AI(2)(b), add:
; (iv) whether it is anticipated that that increase will meet the target of at least 450 gigalitres by 31 December 2019;
(18) Schedule 1, item 2, page 10 (line 27), after subparagraph 86AI(2)(c)(iii), insert:
; (iv) whether the project achieved the optimum water recovery volume against the expenditure of funds under the Water for the Environment Special Account as under subsection 86AD(2);
(19) Schedule 1, item 2, page 11 (line 19), omit "30 June 2024", substitute "31 December 2019".
(20) Schedule 1, item 2, page 12 (line 5), omit "30 September 2019", substitute "30 September 2015".
(21) Schedule 1, item 2, page 12 (line 7), omit "30 September 2021", substitute "30 September 2017".
(22) Schedule 1, item 2, page 12 (line 14), omit "2020-2021 financial year", substitute "2016-2017 financial year".
(23) Schedule 1, item 2, page 12 (line 16), omit "2022-2023 financial year", substitute "2018-2019 financial year".
(24) Schedule 1, item 2, page 12 (after line 16), after section 86AJ, add:
86AK Audit of Water Special Account
(1) Pursuant to the powers under Part 3, the National Water Commission must audit the Water for the Environment Special Account as soon as practicable after 30 June in each financial year from the date of establishment of the account.
(2) The audit must report on:
(a) the quantity of environmental water that was delivered to each project that receives payments under this Act; and
(b) the value to the community of any payments made under paragraph 86AD(2)(c)(ii).
These amendments are the last of the Australian Greens amendments to this legislation. They go specifically to auditing of the account. They are to make sure, of course, that the Australian community gets value for money within this special account. It is almost $2 billion and we need to make sure we spend it in the best possible way. It cannot just simply be left to chance as to whether or not, as the years progress, this money is actually delivering the water that we are setting out to achieve.
We do not want to find ourselves in 2019 or, God forbid, 2024 suddenly realising that the well is dry and the water has not been returned but that it is all too late because we have spent the money from the special account. It needs to be carefully audited every year so that everybody, from the Murray-Darling Basin Authority to the scientists to members in this chamber and our local communities and constituents, knows exactly how much water has been purchased or returned so far and how much money remains in the account. Every time the Commonwealth Water Holder buys water at an inflated price through expensive means, such as some of the more expensive on-farm infrastructure grants, we know less money is available to buy the water that is outstanding.
We are seeking to amend the bill to ensure that the National Water Commission will properly, rigorously, audit the special account after every financial year to make sure that the $1.77 billion is being spent wisely and productively. This is an appropriate role for the National Water Commission. It enhances its current oversight role and the list of tasks it has to achieve. It is true that this bill as it stands has some inbuilt review mechanisms including a requirement for annual reporting to parliament and two ad hoc reviews. These reviews have their place, but they are very limited in their scope and timing. They will work in parallel with the audits under the Water Commission, as proposed by these amendments, so that the community can be confident of knowing exactly where this money is going and what they are getting for every dollar.
The Greens amendments will make sure that whenever the department is required to table the annual report before parliament it has to state clearly whether the volume of water secured, project by project, was bought in the most cost-effective way. We know that we have examples of porkbarrelling in this area already—Senator Heffernan has spoken about this many times during this debate over the last three days. We need to make sure we put as many safeguards as possible in this legislation to ensure that Australian taxpayer money is not simply frittered away because this chamber cannot be bothered ensuring that we put some proper rules and regulations in place.
Could you give us the detail of how many extra gigalitres of groundwater extraction we allocated in the last plan? Was it 1,700 or 2,700? I think it was 2,700 gigs. If we spend some of this $450 million between Narrandera and Leeton where the main channel to the MIA goes through some sandy country, and we actually fix that up, and given that we have allocated an extra 2,700 gigs of groundwater extraction in various aquifers around the state, what calculations have been made on improving the infrastructure against the increasing allocation of groundwater when a lot of the infrastructure you improve will actually take water away from the aquifers which you have allocated extra water to because of the connection between the two?
In response, we are at cross-purposes here a little bit. We are dealing with further Greens amendments, so can I indicate that the government does not support those amendments. I think it is fair to say that the National Water Commission is already dealing with the audit under the terms of the Murray-Darling Basin process and we are satisfied that that is the appropriate course of action.
Senator Heffernan has raised a couple of questions. One was in relation to the link between groundwater and other parts of the water system and he has now raised a further question. I think it is fair to say those questions are not directly relevant to this particular bill.
Thank you, Minister. Just to make sure you understand that it is relevant, in part (v) it says, 'entering agreements to acquire an interest in, or in relation to, land (including easements)' et cetera. These issues are very relevant to the way this money is spent. I am sure—I will bet you £1,000 to one peanut—that is the answer to the question I have asked, and that is: have we studied the likely implications against three things? They are: the minimum decline by 2050 of 3,500 gigs in run-off in the lower Murray-Darling Basin, the fact that the interconnectivity studies between the rivers and the aquifers are not complete, and that we have increased the allocation from the aquifers by 2,700 gigs and are increasing money to make more efficient some of the works to save waters for the environment but some of the water that we save would have ended up in the aquifer and been allocated to those extra licences. So there is a serious flaw in the thinking of this bill.
If Senator Heffernan already knows the answers to his questions I am not sure why he is asking them, but I reiterate my offer to get the department to respond as best we can.
I rise on a point of order. I thank the Parliamentary Secretary for his comment and let him know that the best way to be informed is to be told.
The TEMPORARY CHAIRMAN: There is no point of order. The question now is that Australian Greens amendments (17) to (24) on sheet 7314 be agreed to.