Senate debates

Wednesday, 13 March 2013


Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport References Committee; Report

5:20 pm

Photo of Bill HeffernanBill Heffernan (NSW, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I present the final report of the Rural And Regional Affairs And Transport References Committee on the management of the Murray-Darling Basin together with the

Hansard record of proceedings and documents presented to the committee.

Ordered that the report be printed.

I move:

That the Senate take note of the report.

While we have not got time today to discuss the full 23 recommendation of this report, what the committee and the hard-working secretariat have done over a period of time is to have already presented to the parliament an interim report which involved the coal seam gas industry. It is interesting today that a lot of the recommendations of that report are finally working their way through the system to the point where the minister has made some recommendations on water and salt et cetera in the coal seam gas industry.

This report into the management of the Murray-Darling Basin deals with some historical facts. It deals, sadly, with a lot of the political mistakes of the past, because most governments of most persuasions for all time have managed to bugger up water management in Australia—if that is the inappropriate word then 'muck up'. I have to say the present plan is more driven by politics. I think the chairman of the Murray-Darling Basin Authority recognises that to get this into perspective and to get the political parties past the next election there was more consideration given to the politics of the management of the Murray-Darling rather than the science of the management of the Murray-Darling. To the best of knowledge, and we have made some recommendations along these lines, sadly there has not been much thought in a Murray-Darling Basin plan as to the actuarial assumptions of the science of the future. If the science of the future is 40 per cent right, by 2050 there will be very little general-purpose water in the system available per annum and we will absolutely have to reconfigure the way rural Australia manages itself. That is if the science is 40 per cent right; it might only be 10 per cent right, it might be 100 per cent right. The variation in the science most people do not want to know about, do not want to think about, but if you are a farmer you can notice the weather changing and whether it is a 50-year cycle or 50,000-year cycle I will not be around to work that out. But in the event we have to take notice and have a plan to say, 'If it is 10 per cent, this is what should happen. If it is 50 per cent right or 100 per cent right, then these things should happen'. Bear in mind that the Murray-Darling Basin is 23,400 gigs run-off—roughly 6.2 per cent of Australia's run off. The community are sick of hearing this. And 38 per cent of the run-off comes from two per cent of landscape down the back of Canberra here and north-east Victoria. The snow days are forecast to come under 10 per annum. Who is to know if it is right or wrong? If we have a two degrees increase in temperature and a 15 per cent decline in rainfall, we will get up to 35 per cent decline in run-off. If that is 40 per cent right, you can say cheerio to general-purpose water in the Murray-Darling Basin.

These are serious issues which should go beyond the politics. We absolutely should have a 50-year plan that takes into account the vagary of the science. The report mentions things like non-paddy rice. The water is only on the paddy to confine the variation in the temperature of the plant because a cold change at the wrong time for the plant sterilises the plant. They have now got plants where you do not have to do that; the plant does it for itself. It has got an inbuilt thermostat. All those things need to be taken into consideration.

I will not speak at length today but I do intend to speak at great length at another opportunity. I will give other speakers a crack at this because we are confined today, and I hope that the last speaker on this report will be good enough to ensure continuation of the debate.

5:25 pm

Photo of Sean EdwardsSean Edwards (SA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

This was the first inquiry I sat on when coming to this place. Indeed, I started out with an area of this inquiry which delved into the coal-seam gas industry in this country. We went to Roma in July of 2011 and heard about the impact of coal-seam gas mining in the basin from both miners and those people affected. Here we are now tabling the final report with some 24 recommendations looking to address the significant and complex issues facing the basin.

The basin's importance cannot be overstated, particularly in my home state of South Australia. To put it in perspective for those who need to quantify the massive impact that this river system makes on every Australian, it contains around 11 per cent of Australia's population and generates agricultural production worth $15 billion per annum in gross value terms. It represents about 40 per cent of Australia's total agricultural production. It is obviously around 65 per cent of Australia's irrigated farms. This is a significant factor in the economy of rural Australia and is very important for everybody. It has been a long and well-considered inquiry ably led by the chair, Senator Heffernan, and the secretariat staff, who are in the chamber today. I acknowledge their great efforts and contribution as well as those of their predecessors.

Senator Birmingham will have some comments to make about this in his portfolio relationship to the Murray-Darling Basin, but the committee does remain concerned about how the allocation of 2,750 gigalitres—the reduction in the environmentally sustainable level of take—will occur. Obviously there is discussion which relates to the environmental improvements and the water buybacks that will continue the debate around south-eastern Australia while we implement this plan.

The inquiry also found that there was an increased amount of extraction taking place out of the basin, not only with coal-seam gas but also with groundwater. As we know, river water is groundwater, it is just at a different level on this planet, and one does affect the other. As I said, the scope of the environmental works and the effectiveness of the environmental works are obviously something that the committee also identified as needing to be carefully structured to ensure that the intent of the Murray-Darling rejuvenation, or review, or this whole plan gets implemented

Also, the committee identified that there was an overallocation of water entitlements in the basin in the previous decades, which has been the role of state governments of all persuasions and which has led to the current water scarcity problems and inequity as seen by the states through this basin area. The other thing which was of concern to the committee was the different types of water entitlements and the complexity of the water entitlements. In fact, with some of the water entitlements that existed, the likelihood of getting flows in average seasons was questionable. Then there were the issues with possible water buybacks in areas which were going to flood anyway. So it was very difficult to try and identify areas where you could buy water back and where the water was going to flow on those flood plains. But we will probably hear more about that as we settle this plan down.

Another issue of profound importance through New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia and, of course, Queensland was the socioeconomic effect of any of these reforms taking place. As we went on the inquiry through the country centres, district councils quite rightly made representations about their economic viability and the socioeconomic impact of the patchwork of taking water out of established irrigation regions and what that does to towns, businesses, schools, hospitals and the like. All these things are at the heart of this plan, and all these things have to be considered in a bipartisan way. We have to try to leave the politics out so that we can get over this issue which has driven this planned Murray-Darling Basin reform. Another big issue was the need for a great deal more research into the flows, the water trading environment and the proposed engineering works which this plan, if it is to be successful, takes into consideration.

We in this inquiry have made these 24 recommendations, and now we will leave it to the community and the legislators for the debate that I am sure will ensue. Before I sit down, it would be remiss of me not to remind the chamber that South Australian irrigators have been at the forefront of water efficiency for decades. After the 1968 drought, South Australian operators saw the—

Photo of Bill HeffernanBill Heffernan (NSW, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

They used to thieve a lot of water too.

Photo of Sean EdwardsSean Edwards (SA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Yes, Senator Heffernan, as you quite rightly point out, there was probably a lot of water thieving in those days. I can only suspect. However, we did not get a chance to thieve water, because we were at the back end of the water system, so we got what was left over. As you are aware, we have been very efficient—probably the leaders in this country, if not the world, in our irrigation practices. I would like to think that the communities and governments upstream and across this basin will also come to recognise that when equity is short as to how this is administered from here on out.

The recommendations are clearly articulated. There is not time in this chamber to fully cover these areas, so I would encourage those listening to have a very good look at this report, because it will have a major impact going forward on this country.

Photo of Bill HeffernanBill Heffernan (NSW, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Mr Acting Deputy President, could I raise a point of order. It is really not a point of order. I just want to note in the chamber Mr Chris Curran and Mr Stephen Palethorpe. They both look very relieved because we have eventually got to this report. Do not frown there; it is right.

5:34 pm

Photo of Fiona NashFiona Nash (NSW, National Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Regional Education) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to also make some comments on the report before us today. It has been a very long time coming. I firstly want to commend the secretariat staff: our current secretary, Stephen Palethorpe, the rest of the secretariat staff, and also Jeanette Radcliffe, who was the previous secretary and did an enormous amount of work on this report as well. I particularly want to thank the secretariat staff for their long-suffering natures in putting up with those of us on the committee.

Photo of Bill HeffernanBill Heffernan (NSW, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Putting up with me!

Photo of Fiona NashFiona Nash (NSW, National Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Regional Education) Share this | | Hansard source

I have to take that interjection from the chair, Senator Heffernan, about putting up with him—I didn't say it, he did! We are a rather unorthodox and unusual committee, so we are very appreciative of the time and the dedication and hard work that the staff put in. We do try to be collegiate on this committee and we do try not to give too much grief to the secretariat staff, so we thank them very much.

I want to make a couple of brief comments today, mindful that other colleagues also want to speak. We started this inquiry, two years or however long ago it was, because we did not have confidence that the process of determining the Murray-Darling Basin Plan was going to be right, that it was going to be good enough and robust enough. There were so many unanswered questions. There were so many concerns out there in the community around what the government was doing in relation to the Murray-Darling Basin and the plan that we felt it was absolutely imperative that this Senate committee try to provide some oversight and some mechanism through which we could look at evidence, look at all the issues and come up with a balanced report and a balanced set of recommendations for the government to consider and, indeed, for communities and the nation as a whole to consider. I think we have done that with due diligence and a very real concern. Even though those of us on the committee come from different states—thank you for your contribution, Senator Edwards—we do have the interests of the nation as a whole as our primary driver on this committee. While there were a few different views along the way, to say the least, I think we have managed to collectively provide something that is very useful.

If the government had been doing this process properly, in such a way that people in those communities and people outside those communities who were watching this unfold would have expected, we would never have had to do this. A point that has to be made is that the process was extraordinarily bad from this Labor government—probably one of the worst processes I have ever seen. It relates to the fact that there was so little consultation with the rural communities. No attention whatsoever was paid to the triple bottom line until it was raised by those on this side of the chamber. I have to commend my colleague Senator Joyce for the work he did in raising that particular issue and how important it was to underpinning any decision making that was going to happen around the Basin Plan. The government was just leaving out whole sections of the impacts of the plan on the community. It was looking at the environment, but it was not looking at the social, economic and environmental impacts as a whole because it was so focused on the environment.

We all want a cleaner, healthier environment in the future, but we also want sustainable regional communities into the future. What this government was saying for a period of time, and the minister at the time Senator Penny Wong said it herself, was that farmers were just going to have to get used to doing more with less. I was pointing out that the government was providing a man-made continual drought for these farmers, for these irrigators and for these towns—because it was not just about farmers and irrigators, it was about the impact on whole towns—but she said farmers were just going to have to get used to doing more with less. It is just appalling to think that that was part of the mindset that was underpinning this process to get to the Murray-Darling Basin Plan.

Photo of Bill HeffernanBill Heffernan (NSW, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Mother Nature is the referee, by the way.

Photo of Fiona NashFiona Nash (NSW, National Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Regional Education) Share this | | Hansard source

I think perhaps Mother Nature will be the referee on this one. I do not particularly absolutely agree with what we have ended up with, but I think the input we have had from the coalition on this side of the chamber has at least meant that we have had an outcome that is far, far better than it otherwise would have been if the Greens and other people had got what they wanted. They wanted to have a rampant road down an environmental path, without considering this in a balanced way, so God forbid what we could have ended up with. This plan is not perfect, by any stretch of the imagination, and those on this side know that. But it is only because of those on this side of the chamber that we have ended up with something better than what could have been an absolute dog's breakfast.

The recommendations made by the committee are very good. What struck me when reading through them was the sorts of things we are recommending. For example:

The committee recommends that the MDBA provide a clear explanation of how 'localism' is to be implemented under the Basin Plan.

The committee recommends that the government develop and publish a detailed policy for agricultural productivity, environmental and water resource R&D in the Murray-Darling Basin.

It also recommends that there should be a research strategy for future water interception. Interception is something that most of this country—most of the decision-makers around this—does not have its head around. I have to commend Senator Heffernan for the work that he has done in raising this issue on interception, because barely anybody else talked about it until we got into it in this committee.

There are recommendations like:

… the government prioritise R&D into water infrastructure to meet the needs of farming communities …

Why is this Senate committee having to make these recommendations? The government should be doing this anyway. It just shows how out of touch this Labor government is with what is needed for these communities in the Murray-Darling Basin for our Senate committee to have to come up with these recommendations. This is something that, if the government had any sense or sensibility, and any real understanding of what is going on out there, they would have been doing anyway.

Senator Rushton is sitting next to me and nodding her head, and I will take that as an interjection! Thank you Senator Ruston. I commend her and also my colleague behind me, Senator McKenzie, for the work that they have done in trying to at least make some progress towards getting a better plan and outcome for the Murray-Darling Basin.

Conscious of my colleagues, there is—as Senator Heffernan said earlier—much to talk about around these issues. Now is not the time as we obviously have time constraints upon us. But in this report we try to get a good, balanced outcome for those in regional communities and for those in the Murray-Darling Basin communities that were not getting that approach and that tack from this Labor government. There are an awful lot of people out there in regional communities who have been hurt very badly by this process. Hopefully, the government will take into consideration properly and in a detailed way the recommendations that we have made, because they have been made on very good evidence and they have been made with the will of the Senate committee trying to get a better outcome for the people of the regional communities across the Murray-Darling Basin. I seek leave to continue my remarks later.

Leave granted.

5:42 pm

Photo of Anne RustonAnne Ruston (SA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Before I start my remarks, I put on the record the appreciation of the people of the communities that I came from. I came into the process of the debate on this Murray-Darling Basin plan very late. As a person who lives on the river and as a water licence holder, we watched the whole development of the plan unfold over the last few years with complete and utter horror. It was not until I got here and realised that a committee such as the one that has produced this plan was actually in place to deal with all of the issues that the people in my community had been raising as matters that had not been addressed in the process of the plan.

So, I thank very much the members of the committee and the secretariat for taking up the work on behalf of those people who are living out there in rural and regional Australia, particularly those who live along the Murray-Darling system. Without the support that we were provided with from this committee I think we would be in a hell of a lot worse state than we are at the moment. Obviously, we support the plan. As Senator Nash said, it is far from perfect but it is a long way better than nothing. I just want to put on the record today a couple of things that I think are matters we need to watch over the coming months.

One of the things that was announced in October last year by Minister Burke and then by the South Australian Premier, Jay Weatherill, was an allocation of $265 million towards water recovery and industry regeneration programs in South Australia. This was in recognition, as Senator Edwards pointed out, of South Australia's very good and responsible track record with responsible water use over the last 40 years. The business case was supposed to be finalised before Christmas; before the end of 2012. I understand that a draft business case has only just been to presented to the department.

The other thing that is of great concern to the people in the communities in South Australia who were very grateful that they had been recognised by the allocation of this $265 million is: does the business case that has been provided to the government and developed with the South Australian government actually reflect the intent of how that money was supposed to be spent? The other thing I would also draw attention to is that Minister Burke announced $265 million: $180 million from the Sustainable Rural Water Use and Infrastructure program and $85 million from a fund to be established for 'research, regional development and industry redevelopment' in South Australia. I went onto the Water Industry Alliance website a few minutes before I came in here and it says that $240 million has been allocated to this project, so I would like to know where the $25 million has gone. I would also like to know how much of this funding, this $240 million that now appears to be left, is to be consumed by government departments, authorities and agencies in the administration of the Water Industry Alliance project.

The other question that still remains to be answered is: where are the plans? Where are the environmental watering plans? When are we going to see them? Without them, how do we actually know what works and measures and what changes to constraints we are going to need to be able to deliver the environmental outcomes that have been projected in the plan? Where is the impact of modelling? Where is the impact of 80,000 gigalitres a day across the border at South Australia? What is that going to do to caravan parks? What is that going to do to pastoral land that is low lying? I do not think anybody has actually bothered to really have a good, close look at it. We seem to be constantly putting the cart in front of the horse, and I do not think anybody has really looked at the potential for compensation.

One thing that we need to continually put on the record is that we must not have any more buybacks. We have spent enough of taxpayers' money on removing water out of productive use and reducing the basin's capacity to grow food. I would argue that any more cutbacks or buybacks will only have further detrimental effect on these regional communities. In the Riverland of South Australia we have lost 6,000 hectares of land that is out of production already. Projections suggest that anywhere up to a third of South Australia's irrigation water could be lost by 2024, and the flow-on impacts are absolutely massive. We should have addressed the efficiency gains through infrastructure first before we went to buyback. We did not do that, but let's call it quits now.

I would also like to draw the attention of the house to comments made by the Premier of South Australia in relation to this water industry funding: 'The funding, along with the Prime Minister's commitment to return water to the river, will provide much-needed water to our six million professional fishermen.' How can the Premier and Minister Burke be making a statement like that at the very same time that they have scrapped the Native Fish Strategy? It just does not seem to make much sense. On one hand, they are out there crowing about the fact that they have allocated all this money and they are going to achieve this for our fishermen; on the other hand, they have completely scrapped any possibility of developing a native fish strategy for the continuation and the preservation of our very important native fish.

As many people live in the Murray-Darling Basin as live in Western Sydney. Is the Prime Minister intending to visit the communities of the basin over the coming months to try and gain their hearts and their votes? I wish her all the best there!

5:48 pm

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

I commend the work of the secretariat—Stephen Palethorpe, Chris Curran and the other very hardworking members of the secretariat—that helped produce this report, The management of the Murray-Darling Basin, and also the work of the Chair of the Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport References Committee, Senator Heffernan, and the other members who participated on this committee. This really is the Senate committee system working at its best to drill down into an area of great public importance, of public policy importance—of importance to literally hundreds of thousands of Australians who live in the Murray-Darling Basin and to the millions of Australians who rely on the basin as one of the food bowls of Australia.

This report makes a number of key recommendations. These recommendations must not be ignored by government. I note that the committee looked into the whole issue of the Nimmie-Caira water buyback, and I am very grateful to Senator Heffernan for the work that he has done in raising this as an issue. I agree with the views of other members of the committee that the Nimmie-Caira water buyback ought to be referred for appropriate inquiry to the Australian National Audit Office. The Auditor-General's office ought to look at that whole issue as to whether all due processes were followed, because I think that there are some serious concerns about that whole process.

I think it is also important to note the matters that have been referred to by Senator Ruston and Senator Edwards. Those relate to South Australians being early adopters in the context of water efficiency measures and the $265 million fund—or is it a $240 million fund? Senator Ruston—it is not an interjection, Mr Acting Deputy President—is just putting her hands up in the air. She does not know, no-one seems to know, but it is very clear that that fund was basically an acknowledgement of the early adoption measures and water efficiency measures of South Australian irrigators. It appears to have been stalled. I am very concerned about that. This is an issue that I will take up with the new South Australian water minister, the Hon. Ian Hunter, who I must say in previous portfolios in which I have dealt with him as a state minister I have found to be a good and efficient and capable minister. This is something that we need to sort out because it is of vital importance to South Australia and to the integrity of the whole process.

I put out some additional comments in relation to this matter in addition to the very good recommendations of the committee, that there ought to be urgent evidence of the current marketplace buyback approach that will not distort the water and commodity market, that there ought to be clearer advice as to the methodology for setting the basin diversion limits, that there ought to be a close look at the comparative efficiencies of irrigation communities in the Murray-Darling Basin, and that irrigators must receive recognition for their past water efficiencies. They are just some of the additional recommendations I included in my additional comments because I believe that these are issues that must be addressed, that must be dealt with. Otherwise you will not have real equity in the scheme.

This report is a substantive report that must be dealt with as a matter of some considerable urgency. We are spending billions of dollars to get this right. It is not just the billions of taxpayers' dollars at stake; it is about the hundreds of thousands of people whose livelihoods and whose lives in the basin are about getting this plan right. I reiterate that I am grateful to Senator Heffernan, the chair of the committee, that the committee did recommend that the Nimmie-Caira water buyback go to the Australian National Audit Office for investigation. I can tell you, Mr Acting Deputy President, that was not made lightly. It indicates the seriousness with which the committee has considered this issue. The Australian National Audit Office ought to look at this. Obviously it is a matter for them, but I am hoping that they will look at the matter raised by the committee, because there is a lot of taxpayer money at stake. There was also a question of the integrity of the process and the actions of the New South Wales government, and the use of taxpayer funds ought to be looked at very closely by the audit office. I hope that it will do so as a matter of some urgency.

I commend this report. It is important and I am looking forward to the government's response to the very comprehensive recommendations because this is an issue that we cannot get wrong; we have to get it right for the sake of this nation and for the sake of those communities that rely on the Murray-Darling Basin.

5:52 pm

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

I too rise to provide some very brief comments to what is a quality report out of the Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport References Committee, ably chaired by Senator Heffernan, into an iconic system in our nation and one that has been a part of our national history pre- and post-European settlement, the Murray-Darling Basin. It is home to over two million people and 11 per cent of Australia's population. Forty per cent of Australia's total agricultural production comes from the basin. I could go through a whole list of produce which is proudly produced right throughout our basin but I am sure that is already on the record somewhere else, and in the interests of time I had better keep trucking.

From my own perspective as a Victorian senator in this debate and conversation, the basin in my state is home to a very hardy people. The Mallee people are hardy men and women one and all, soldier-settler blocks right throughout the Murray-Darling Basin in northern Victoria. They and those in Goulburn Valley and the upper catchment areas of Victoria have all been concerned and quite vocal throughout this very protracted process in coming to a way that we as a national body manage the Murray-Darling Basin. So, the Senate referred the inquiry to RRAT on 28 October 2010, almost 22 months ago. And here we are today: 381 submissions, 14 public hearings right throughout the Basin, two interim reports and an almost exhausted secretariat who have done a sterling job in bringing all of that research and data together to bring a report for the Senate today that, other than some additional comments from Senator Xenophon, has been agreed to. I think that is quite an achievement—something that our forefathers at Federation could not quite get to, but the secretariat has managed to get us all on the same page.

It has been this process that has taken an exhaustive amount of time. I was present at the time of the Guide to the proposed Basin Planin October 2010 in a very angry Mildura. Fruit growers were very, very angry with the Murray-Darling Basin Authority and their Guide to the proposed Basin Plan. There were iterations of the proposed Basin Plan, a revised draft, the ministerial council comments on the draft proposed plan, an altered proposed plan in August 2012 and a final Basin Plan being delivered in November 2012. I, with other senators in this place, realised that it is an imperfect plan. But because we are committed to a triple bottom line on this side of the house, where environment counts in equal parts with the community and the economy, we are committed to actually making it work.

During that process the Nationals moved amendments to clarify the socioeconomic no-detriment test within the plan. Unfortunately, those amendments were not successful, but we live to fight another day. And that is what I think, within the body of this report, we flesh out quite well in chapter 7: the impact that the Murray-Darling Basin Plan has had on the local community and the processes that communities have had to go through to get to the point where we are now. I think that is a really worthy chapter for understanding the local impact and why so many of us are concerned about the socioeconomic impact on the regions—that it is both people and the planet together that ensure the environment; otherwise, you are just living in a museum. Chapter 8 is another particular favourite of mine, because it focuses on the future, and it focuses on areas of research and development.

I know Senator Ruston spoke about it this morning on an earlier bill—about soldier-settlers and the things that we have learnt over time in the way we farm our nation and our patches of land: what we grow where, and how. We have made huge steps. We have gained an incredible amount of knowledge, thanks to our scientific community and also thanks to the common-sense approach of our agricultural specialists—the farmers on the ground—who have actually driven this innovation, not only this increased productivity but this increased environmental responsibility that is happening, going hand in hand in our local communities. I believe there are some key areas going forward in which we can get better at what we do—which is why I think we argued against a number in the Basin Plan in the first place, because it restricted us. We do not know what science is going to be able to deliver for us in terms of engineering solutions and infrastructure development and farming practice to do more with less water. So I think chapter 8 is fantastic. Environmental and socioeconomic development of the Basin is actually discussed and debated. This committee has been able to not just harness the conversation that was happening out in communities in regional Australia and bring it to the Senate but to distil that, analyse it and come up with some really great solutions to move forward—highlighting the issues but being a real positive contributor to the ongoing conversations that we will be having in our communities.

Just briefly, in the interests of time, I would like to point out a couple of my favourite recommendations. You might want to check out recommendation 5. From a Victorian perspective, some of the modelling that indicated we were going to have X gigalitres flowing down the system did not recognise the fact that that would flood actual people; it might actually have negative environmental impacts on its way to somewhere else. Particularly for the upper catchment in Victoria, that was an area of issues that was of particular concern for us.

Photo of Bill HeffernanBill Heffernan (NSW, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

And the Murrumbidgee!

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

Well, Senator Heffernan, the Murrumbidgee is your patch, and I know you take very good care of it. My job is the upper catchment in Victoria. It is great that our recommendation there calls for an adaptive management approach where we look at not only climate change and coal seam gas mining et cetera but also the positive and negative effects of overwatering, which is sometimes underspoken about.

Recommendation 8, where we look at the research and projects on water recovery, recommends that the research should also include socioeconomic impacts to irrigation communities of increased levels of buyback. We all know personally that anyone who lives in the basin or cares about regional Australia has seen firsthand the impact of those non-strategic buybacks early in the process. We would hate to see that sort of irresponsible behaviour continue, and we hope that it does not.

Finally, recommendation 16, where we look at socioeconomic modelling on local impacts of the Basin Plan, recommends that a strong focus on the communities likely to be most affected and strategies to address the impacts should be developed. The modelling should also include tabular or graphical data depicting the location and volumes of buyback on an irrigation district basis. Sometimes, when we take the bird's eye view of things and when we take a one-size-fits-all policy view we miss out the fact that that community and their one little milk processor or their other industries attached to the local agricultural productive capacity shut down. That means more than just farmers leaving communities; it means entire communities shutting down and the long-term, devastating effects that that can have. I commend this report; it is a quality piece of work and it is comprehensive. Well done to the committee secretariat, the chair and all those in the basin communities who gave us evidence.

6:01 pm

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

I, too, join this debate to take note of the Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport References Committee report on the management of the Murray-Darling Basin. I will be keeping my remarks relatively brief, but I congratulate the members of that committee led by Senator Heffernan, all of those who participated in this long inquiry and the secretariat for their work in producing what is a substantial report that deserves appropriate consideration from all involved in the Murray-Darling process.

As this chamber well knows, I viewed the adoption of the Basin Plan at the end of last year as a positive step forward. It was by no means perfect, but it was a step forward in what has been a long and difficult debate around the management of the Murray-Darling. However, what this report demonstrates is that that Basin Plan is a work in progress as much as it is a static document. It is not a static document, it is a work in progress and it is something that future governments of whatever persuasion will have to look at as to how they adapt, manage and improve upon it in the years ahead. We are awaiting at present the National Water Commission's report on the Basin Plan. In the interim and, I am sure, even beyond the release of that NWC this Senate inquiry's report will stand as a very important guide of the types of ongoing work, analysis and future review that the Basin Plan requires.

The report canvasses the full range of topics that need to be considered in the evolution of the Basin Plan and Murray-Darling management. It highlights the importance of considering the impacts of climate change and what impacts that will have in terms of future run-off scenarios and future water use capabilities. It highlights the need to look at the range of intercept scenarios that could occur in the future and to recognise that we are dealing with by no means a set or static system in the Murray-Darling but something that varies dramatically from year-to-year and season-to-season. The report identifies the fact that there is a lot of work still to be done in terms of environmental watering requirements, how environmental watering occurs, what environmental watering will actually mean and how it can most efficiently be delivered. Equally and very importantly, as a number of my colleagues have touched on, it looks at the socioeconomic costs and benefits of the types of things that occur as part of the Basin Plan and are mooted as some of the further activities, especially when it comes to constraints management, constraints removal, which, as I and Senator Joyce—who I note is in the chamber—have often reflected is not some amorphous thing but is very much an activity that can have real effects on real property and people's livelihoods as well.

Within the realm of the socioeconomic considerations it says that governments need to be mindful of and act on is also, of course, the matter of distressed sellers. I note the comments that have been made already about issues of buybacks and once again state the coalition's very firm commitment and belief that future buybacks should be minimised. We are deadset committed to ensuring that infrastructure projects and proper environmental works and measures are given the priority they deserve so that that is where the water is recovered from, rather than the types of non-strategic buybacks that have been prioritised by those opposite over the last few years.

The committee has highlighted again that there is a lot of work to be done as to what localism is in terms of the delivery of the Basin Plan and those issues of localism which the government has highlighted and talked about as being important to both the approach to water recovery and the use of that water in future. Yet it has really failed to spell out just how those principles of localism will be applied in practice.Communities, at too many times during the development of the Basin Plan and the debate around the Murray-Darling Basin, have felt like they have been cut out of the process. Local communities need to be front and centre in this, whichever part of the basin they are in. They need to be front and centre in providing the solutions for how water can be recovered from their communities and they need to be front and centre in ensuring that where environmental water is to be used in their communities their local knowledge, expertise and skills are applied to ensure that water is used as sensibly, effectively and efficiently as possible.

Importantly, as well, the committee has identified the fact that we need to do some long-term work to ensure that the Murray-Darling Basin remains a leading food bowl for Australia and, I would certainly hope, for our region—investing in R&D and policy initiatives to drive agricultural productivity to ensure that every drop of water is used as efficiently as possible, that our farmers and irrigators are as efficient as possible and that their costs are minimised as much as is humanly possible. One of the tragedies of what we are seeing at present—as government policies, in particular the carbon tax, have driven the cost of electricity up so much—is that the nation's most efficient water users are the ones who have been penalised the most by those very policies. If you spend a lot of money piping and pumping water and, in doing so, are ensuring that you are treating every single drop preciously—that it is not evaporating, going back, leaking out of your system or anything else—you are paying a very high price for that under the policies of this government.

I do commend this report. I am confident that I, like everybody, probably do not agree with every single word in the report, but that is the nature of this debate. It is a very important and solid body of work that contributes to it. There are concerns that I continue to have about what seem to be continued delays in the Murray-Darling Basin process and the work around the Basin Plan—continued delays that see Minister Burke failing to reach an intergovernmental agreement that is so important as to how the Basin Plan will be delivered. We expected this would have been finalised at the end of last year. Here we are now, in March, still waiting to see that critical body of work done. Given all the other delays we have seen in the Basin Plan process that saw its end date pushed out from 2014 to 2019 to 2024, I really do hold concerns that we are seeing a range of other delays. But those are debates for another day. Today is a day to praise the work of the rural affairs committee on this report and to commend it to all those who have an interest in the management of the Murray-Darling Basin.

6:09 pm

Photo of John MadiganJohn Madigan (Victoria, Democratic Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I acknowledge the recommendations of the Senate References Committee on Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport report on the Murray-Darling Basin Authority. The recommendations are on their face quite good. But when you travel around Jerilderie, Finley, Cobar, Deniliquin, Thyra, Kurri Kurri, Stanhope, Shepparton and Benjeroop there are some many people in those communities who have serious concerns. They are very concerned about the so-called Murray-Darling Basin Plan. They are unclear what the states are doing with their water and land buybacks. These things need to be acknowledged. There is a serious body of concern in these communities in the Murray-Darling Basin. They feel that they are not being listened to. There is a hell of a lot of apprehension among the communities—the farmers and the businesses—in these towns. And it is only growing. The Senate and the government must note these concerns and address them and stop this division of our community. In this quest to help the environment, we must make sure that we do not destroy people and communities. We are not just talking about figures in a book; we are talking about individuals, their families, their communities, their schools, their children and their future. The Senate and the government needs to note these concerns, as I said, and not merely pay lip-service to them.

6:11 pm

Photo of Barnaby JoyceBarnaby Joyce (Queensland, National Party, Leader of The Nationals in the Senate) Share this | | Hansard source

I will be brief. I mostly concur with the remarks of my colleague Senator Birmingham, who outlined a lot of the concerns. But I want to reinforce that we commend the work of the Senate References Committee on Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport. I also want to note the reality that if we are going to have irrigation in a temperate climate then we are still going to be highly reliant on the Murray-Darling Basin as the provider of Australia's food requirements. It produces 40 per cent of Australia's agriculture, 60 per cent of Australia's irrigated agriculture. It is the home for 2.1 million people. The resources of the Murray-Darling sustain my town and so many others. We have to acknowledge that so much of our nation's economic future is reliant on increasing capacity and our ability to deliver an agriculture product with an efficient use of water.

We should not put aside one of the most vital elements in the Murray-Darling Basin, the people. Some of the most iconic things in the Murray-Darling Basin are the houses that they live in. We must make sure that those people are entitled to a future. Their future is certainly not subsequent to the future of the frogs or the moss or anything else. As far as I am concerned, their lives are more important than the wildlife. As important as the wildlife is, the people come first. We have to make sure that their dignity remains so that we can sustain an economy.

Some of the actions taken thus far, such as the arbitrary purchase of water without any real thought behind it, have caused real problems. They might not be completely apparent in wet years but as soon as we have dry years again we will see that. That is why we in the coalition commit to capping buybacks at 1,500 gigalitres. That is what must happen. We know that buybacks pull the economic rug out from underneath towns. We are quite happy to look at the advantages of more efficient environmental and on-farm use of the water. But when we buy back the licence to give it to the environmental water holder, the question becomes: are they able to use it? How do we acknowledge the difference that it makes? What is the actual difference that has been made thus far? What has been compromised in regards to the social and economic future of the people who live in the basin?

More and more, we see issues surrounding imported food. On a related topic—and this was on the television last night—there are problems with imported fish products. We have now come to the conclusion that the use of antibiotics in fish means that we are eating our way into a superbug. The Australian people will demand a clean green product. The only clean, green product we can really vouch for is the one we produce ourselves. That will most likely, if it is a temperate product, be produced in the Murray Darling Basin, in an area that goes from the agricultural regions of Stanthorpe down to the agricultural regions of Murray Bridge and everywhere between. They are all linked by one river system, one river basin—obviously made up of a number of tributaries.

I commend this report and look forward to the continued growth of the economic and social future, the population and the agricultural potential and production of the Murray Darling Basin. I seek leave to continue my remarks later.

Leave granted; debate adjourned.