Senate debates

Wednesday, 14 October 2015

Matters of Public Importance

3:54 pm

Photo of Stephen ParryStephen Parry (President) Share this | | Hansard source

A letter has been received from Senator Moore:

Pursuant to standing order 75, I propose that the following matter of public importance be submitted to the Senate for discussion:

The Turnbull Government's disarray and division over water policy.

Is the proposal supported?

More than the number of senators required by the standing orders having risen in their places—

I understand that informal arrangements have been made to allocate specific times to each of the speakers in today’s debate. With the concurrence of the Senate, I shall ask the clerks to set the clock accordingly.

3:55 pm

Photo of Lisa SinghLisa Singh (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary to the Shadow Attorney General) Share this | | Hansard source

Today we have seen an unbelievable short-sighted attack by crossbench senators on the future of the Murray-Darling water system. Apart from the blindingly obvious point that, without a healthy environment everywhere, no farm anywhere can be viable, the bipartisan progress already made on the Murray-Darling Basin Plan proves beyond doubt that all of its stakeholders can plan together and work together on multiple priorities to achieve multiple outcomes.

But, in their press conference this morning, those six crossbench senators claimed that this parliament needs to choose—that it needs to choose between either farmers or the environment. Those of us on this side of the chamber do not believe that you have to choose. In fact, you can walk and chew gum at the same time. But these crossbench senators have unwittingly highlighted the abyss of disarray and division—which we all know is there—into which the coalition has now drowned. They call for full responsibility for water, including water being stored to save the Murray-Darling Basin, to be placed in the unsteady hands—very unsteady hands, if I might say so—of a maverick Nationals minister, which would constitute a major blow to the health of the Murray-Darling Basin when combined with their demands to amend the Water Act and for the Basin Plan to be paused. These are possibilities dangerous enough to catch the breath of every South Australian and all Australians that support a healthy river system and a viable farming community.

Minister Joyce's reckless approach is not one which properly guards agriculture's long-term interests, nor does it balance the environment and production interests. His approach unsettles the consensus and will make it hard to secure support for even the most modest yet necessary and acceptable reforms. So let us be crystal clear. The Murray-Darling Basin Plan has bipartisan support at the federal level and has the support of the basin states—South Australia, Victoria, New South Wales, Queensland and the ACT—and importantly also has the support of the farming, environmental and Indigenous groups. There is no doubt that not everyone got everything they wanted from the plan. We know that. But it does remain supported—why? Because it is an excellent example of the sort of negotiated compromise that defines effective governance in this country. The Basin Plan will set basin-wide sustainable diversion limits and return 2,750 gigalitres to the environment. The basin states are required to prepare water resource plans that will give effect to the sustainable diversion limits from July 2019.

Around two million people live and work in the basin in communities ranging from fewer than 1,000 people to large urban centres such as Wagga Wagga, with over 45,000 people. A further 1.2 million people—

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

Mr Acting Deputy President, I raise a point of order. I just want to express my regret for not getting on the speakers list for this—

Photo of Christopher BackChristopher Back (WA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

What is your point of order, Senator Heffernan?

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

because most of this is political bullshit, and all the speeches that follow will be. The person in charge of the weather is Mother Earth.

Photo of Christopher BackChristopher Back (WA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Heffernan, resume your seat. That is not a point of order. Senator Singh, please resume.

Photo of Lisa SinghLisa Singh (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary to the Shadow Attorney General) Share this | | Hansard source

Thank you, Mr Acting Deputy President. A further 1.2 million people depend on its waters to survive. This is so important to those communities. The health of the river channels themselves and the flora and fauna they support are not only vital in their own right but also vital for the economic and social wellbeing of basin communities. We have seen the devastating impact a lack of environmental flows has had on the basin over the past 100 years or more. And, with that knowledge, we must never return to the days where water allocations are based on politics rather than science. If the Prime Minister gives full responsibility for water to Minister Joyce, we will be witnessing the remarkable outcome of the previous Prime Minister having stronger and more principled environmental credentials than the current Prime Minister—a Prime Minister who should know better and care more, considering that he was in fact once the Minister for the Environment and Water.

Labor is committed to the delivery of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. The Murray-Darling Basin Plan is the only key we can turn that will return our most important river system to health. If we do not turn that key, there will not be a healthy river system. Without a healthy river system we will lose our sustainable communities and industries in the Murray-Darling Basin. The success of the Basin Plan is critically important for Australia. Its success is dependent on the continuing support of the two major parties and the basin states, who I recall all reconfirmed that support just weeks ago during the debate on the Water Amendment Bill. This was another example of the good policy outcomes in extremely complicated areas that can be secured through reasoned debate; when everyone with an interest in the issue can have confidence in the system and the decision-making process.

It should not be up to Labor alone to keep reinforcing the need for bipartisanship and a strong Murray-Darling Basin Plan. The crossbench senators should be aware that there has been significant and ongoing Commonwealth investment that ensures farms remain productive as the plan is delivered. Crossbench senators should understand that there has been significant commitment to the Basin Plan and to the health of our rivers and the ecosystems and communities they support. The government should confirm unambiguously that on its side of this chamber this significant commitment to the plan remains. Short-sighted attacks on the future of the Murray-Darling Basin water system must be dismissed.

Desperate attempts like those that have been made by Minister Joyce to claw at the Prime Minister's attention must be ignored—and that is all that is going on here with the crossbench senators. The government must share the load, overcome its self-induced confusion and division and stop considering options that undermine public perceptions of its commitment to the plan or reduce and confuse stakeholder confidence in the plan, its processes and outcomes—because that is what you will do.

Labor is calling on the Prime Minister to stand firm on his bipartisan position on the Murray-Darling Basin Plan for the sake of the farmers, for the sake of the environment and for the sake of the communities. Do not change the longstanding bipartisan commitment that we have for the Murray-Darling.

4:03 pm

Photo of John WilliamsJohn Williams (NSW, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise with pleasure to speak on the subject of water policy. I am amazed that the Labor Party is game enough to talk about water. Senator Singh should realise that, when we were in opposition, the shadow minister for water, then Senator Joyce, actually worked with then Minister Burke to get bipartisan position—the reason being that then Minister Burke was having discussions with none other than Senator Hanson-Young from the Greens from South Australia, who wanted 6,000 gigs taken out of the water system in the Murray-Darling Basin.

Let's talk about what Senator Wong did when she was the water minister. We know what sort of a finance minister she was. Before the auction of Toorale Station in north-west New South Wales, Senator Wong bought Toorale Station for—how much?—a total of $23.7 million. That was to get water into the Murray-Darling system; to get water down the Murray. She paid $23.7 million for the property—way over its value, I might add—and the property had cattle on it. The department said, 'We want those cattle off the property,' and the owner said, 'Righto, $700,000 and I will move them.' So they threw in another $700,000 for them to take their cattle off the property. How ridiculous is this whole situation! There were ring tanks there that had a heritage order on them. So they could not remove the ring tanks—and that just stores the water back. So there were 93,000 hectares of National Park ready to burn that was full of wild pigs, feral goats and you name it, and no water was going into the Murray. That was Senator Wong's first great move on getting water into the Murray.

Then she went to the Twynam Pastoral Company, the Kahlbetzer family, and paid $303 million of taxpayers' money or borrowed money to run more water down the Murray. One of those properties is on the Gwydir River, up where I live. When the Gwydir River is in flood, guess where the water runs. It runs out of the Gwydir wetlands; it does not run into the Murray—but the Kahlbetzer family said, 'Thank you very much for the cheque.' Then there was Jemalong Station on the Lachlan River. I have harvested wheat there. It is a nice property. It is a good irrigation property. They buy the water back off that, when once in a hundred years—once in a lot longer than a blue moon—the Lachlan runs water into the Murray. They paid $303 million for water buybacks that never put water into the Murray. This is ridiculous! Why the Labor Party would raise this matter of public importance on the issue of water when the fact is that then shadow minister, Senator Barnaby Joyce, worked with then Minister Burke to bring about the bipartisan plan is beyond me.

What we need is a triple bottom line: social, economic and environment. That is why I am very pleased with the agreement that the National Party put in place with Prime Minister Turnbull when he was elected. My leader, Mr Truss, made it quite clear back in January at our meeting at Wodonga that, if there were to be a change of Prime Minister, there would have to be a new agreement with the National Party, because Mr Truss, as Deputy Prime Minister, had signed a letter to the Governor-General saying that he would support Mr Abbott as Prime Minister. This was part of the agreement: water back to agriculture—as it was when Mr Truss himself was agriculture minister and controlled water, and as it is in New South Wales with the Hon. Niall Blair, the agriculture minister and water minister—the two go together.

It was a bipartisan agreement to have the water savings in the Murray—as I said before, set up by then Minister Burke and opposition spokesman for water, former Senator Barnaby Joyce. We have a situation where Labor are talking about water in the Murray and the health of the Murray, which is quite amazing. Remember, the Murray is never going to be the river it used to be, and I will tell you why: man intervened with it. Mother Nature looked after the Murray for hundreds of thousands—perhaps millions—of years. We came along. We put in a barrage in South Australia at the Lower Lakes. We put in the locks. We put in the dams—and even the Greens are not talking about taking them out and giving the river back to Mother Nature. No matter what happens, the Murray will never be the river that Mother Nature made who knows how long ago.

For Senator Wong and the Labor Party to be talking about water when they made such a monumental mess of the management—fancy paying $23.7 million for a property that was worth about $16 million at the time. When they bought it, they did not even look at the property. The department did not ever go and see the property. They bought it unseen: 'We've got to get those cattle off, so here's another $700,000 to move the cattle.' If someone was going to buy my property and said, 'Yes, I'll give you $200,000 to get the sheep off.' Good: I would sell the sheep, keep the money and get another $200,000. That is how outrageous this whole situation is.

We have the opposition, the Labor Party, in this debate leading with their chin. They must be suffering severe amnesia and have forgotten what they did when they were in government and the monumental mess they made of the whole scheme. Keep it going. We will look after the water, and I hope Minister Joyce has it very soon.

4:08 pm

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

I rise to participate in this debate today as a senator from South Australia. Of course it is my home state that bears the brunt when politics gets in the way and upstream states decide that they would prefer to take more water out than allow water to run through the system as the environment requires. By the time you get down to South Australia, there is very little flow left.

For years we have been overallocating the river system over and over again—so much so that we got to a point in the last decade where more water was being taken out of the river than was going in through rainfall and run-off. It is outrageous for anybody to suggest that, despite everything that has happened—the negotiations that have happened in this place and the consultations with communities elsewhere—that we put a hold on reforming the river system.

We cannot keep going in this the way. We need to change business as usual. The Murray-Darling Basin Plan is in place now. Even at this stage it is not at what the science suggested as a bare minimum. The politics of this place and the play-offs between the different states meant that the environment lost out at the end of those negotiations. It is time that we started to understand it.

We heard from Senator Day during question time that the climate is drying and we are heading into a drought period. Of course climate change means we need more water conservation for everybody. The ridiculous idea of trying to play with the Murray-Darling Basin Plan now—rather than increasing the amount of allocations that are going to be to the environment to keep it healthy for the future to ensure that our mighty Murray keeps flowing—and that the plan delivers too much is that it did not even take into consideration the impact of climate change. That is how foolish the politicians in this and the other place were when they struck a deal that cut out and blinded the Murray-Darling Basin Plan from even building into it—and accepting and understanding—a response to climate change.

We are already seeing the levels in the Lower Lakes in South Australia starting to drop. We are already hearing from communities along the lower stretches that salinity levels are rising again. We never got the full flush that we needed when the drought broke only three years ago anyway. Why? Because more water continues to be taken out, but we hear from the coalition, 'Let's just ensure that we prioritise everybody else but the environment.' It does not work like that. If you do not have a living river, nobody is able to use it. If you do not have a living river, you have got nothing left over—not just for now, not just for the medium term but for future generations.

I cringed at the idea of Minister Joyce being given responsibility for the Murray-Darling Basin. I cringed as a South Australian, because I remember what he said when it was the driest river in South Australia in decades. Do you know what he did? He came to Adelaide and said, 'Oh well, if you want more water, you should move upstream to where it is.'

I tell you what: I like Adelaide, thank you very much, Minister Joyce. I like it so much I will be staying in South Australia. I am not packing up, and neither are my South Australian colleagues, my community or my electorate going to pack up and move to Queensland, because you want to dictate as the minister who should get access to the water and who should not.

It is laughable that Minister Joyce is going to be responsible for dictating who gets access to water in the Murray-Darling Basin system and who does not, because we know he does not give a damn about those further downstream. We need to make sure we start protecting the river for the future.

4:13 pm

Photo of Alex GallacherAlex Gallacher (SA, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I too rise to make a contribution on this matter of public importance. I think it is worthwhile just recapping in the short time we have available what is actually at stake. We know that, as far back as July 1997, the Murray-Darling Basin Ministerial Council introduced a permanent cap on the volume of water which could be diverted from rivers for uses such as irrigation. In 2007, the Commonwealth intervened to address the overallocation and established the Murray-Darling Basin Authority That had the charters to develop and implement a Basin Plan to include sustainable diversion limits. CSIRO advised the MDBA about the future climate scenarios for use in modelling future water use and yield from the catchments in the Basin Plan. Under the Water Act 2007, the MDBA is responsible for planning the integrated management of water resources of the Murray-Darling Basin. Then we know that on 22 November 2012 the Murray-Darling Basin Plan was signed into law.

If it is true that Mark Twain said, 'Whiskey is for drinking; water is for fighting over,' then that was a culmination of a decade or more of pretty strong negotiations involving governments of all political persuasions, involving state and federal responsible entities to get something into place that we could sit down and put into practice. Of course, there is the rub. The challenge of whoever looks after water will be to put into practice—on the best advice possible—the agreed position and to manage the environment, return some water to the river and manage the social cohesion and economic fabric of those irrigators right along the river. South Australia is to be credited, and amongst the best advice I have had is that they initiated drip watering and took responsible water positions. Despite advice to move up the river, they decided to stay and just get more efficient. What we clearly have here is a political situation involving the termination of a first-term Liberal Prime Minister—the first time in the history of that party that they have taken such an action.

Photo of John WilliamsJohn Williams (NSW, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

You've got a bit of history on it!

Photo of Alex GallacherAlex Gallacher (SA, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Our history is on the record, Senator Williams. I was just merely making the observation that you have not got a lot of history on it.

Anyway, in the event that you did have to do a deal—some of you had to do a deal to save respective parts of your electorates—basically we want to know: have the Nationals been given control of water? Answers to repeated questions to the good Senator Colbeck indicate that it is work in progress. The best summation of the three or four questions that he has attempted to answer is that it is a work in progress and that we do not know who has got responsibility for water. But we do know that if it has been traded off in a factional deal—despite the fact that you do not have any factions!—to keep the largest faction, the Nationals, in the tent and they have got power over water, then we would like all of the agreed positions, from 1997 all the way up to 2012, not only to be honoured but also to be implemented.

I said the other day, in taking note of answers to questions without notice, that Dr Horne made the comment that we know very clearly that there is a lot at stake here. I just want to put on the record what is at stake. James Horne, the inaugural chair of the Murray-Darling Basin Officials Committee said:

… merging the two portfolios—

agriculture and water—

could have several important implications.

Dr Horne said the job of implementing the Murray-Darling Basin Plan would fall to Joyce as agriculture minister, and that would be 'anything but straightforward'.

It involves implementing water planning in a comprehensive way that has never been seen before in the Basin. This planning is a key element to ensuring an end to the environmental degradation seen in many areas of the Basin in recent decades.

There we have the issue: is one of the best conservative politicians in Australia, who, on occasion, has been known to say whatever in respect of his constituencies—in his time in the Senate he was not shy about actually voting against the position that his government held—to take a position on behalf of the whole Murray-Darling Basin and manage it in accordance with the agreed position, or will he take a short-term view to please his constituents?

We have seen very clearly in areas of rural Australia that there has been concern about coal seam gas mining, there has been concern about the mining of coal—the Shenhua mine comes to mind—and we know there have been very strong, deeply felt and widely held positions in rural communities about this. Any minister in this space is going to be unpopular somewhere. The challenge for him or her is whether they can put the best interests of the Murray-Darling Basin—the environment, the sustainability of the river, the social cohesion, the economic opportunities—together and take the best position for Australia, not in a short-term political way or a partisan political way. That is going to be the challenge for whoever takes up this position and responsibility for water. And, as I said, if it has been traded in a factional way for short-term advancement so that someone could become Prime Minister or someone could be ousted as Prime Minister, then I am not sure that is a good indicator of how this extremely important issue of Australia's national policy will be.

I was part of the debate where the party further to our left advocated for greater flows—when we did the analysis the people in the Riverland may have had to move to higher ground on occasion—and I know that these are really difficult issues. They need bipartisanship, if we can get that. They will need strong and clear leadership. It must be abundantly clear to the Prime Minister that someone needs to be given the responsibility of water. They need to uphold the agreed position of the states, uphold the agreed position of the federal government, work to improve environmental sustainability of the Murray-Darling Basin—our part of it and the whole of the Murray River—and, importantly, the agreed position also needs to deliver a fair and just outcome for South Australia. We will fully be up to the task of keeping whoever the water minister eventually gets to be up to those challenges.

4:21 pm

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

I rise to contribute to the debate on this matter of public importance, the government's water policy. It seems like a bit of a beat-up to me, quite opportunistic in some ways, because of the change of leadership. We are now the Turnbull government and we are settling the right people into the portfolios where they can engage their constituency. It is as if all of a sudden it is 'down tools' at the Murray-Darling Basin Authority, just because we are changing ministries and departments and reorganising it so it is better set for the future. Neil Andrew, who chairs the Murray-Darling Basin Authority, and the people who are on the authority are doing a very good job. I have been recently appointed to the Select Committee on the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. Senator Gallacher is quite right when he talks about the agreements that go back to 1997, where the caps were put in, and the formation of the Murray-Darling Basin Authority in 2007. The work of these good people is now just getting underway. I give credit where credit is due. Mr Craig Knowles, a former representative in the New South Wales Labor government, did good work on this across south-eastern Australia, so much so that we now have, by what looks to be 2019, a sustainable diversion limit emerging from what has been a very good Basin Plan.

When you have an El Nino, people get excited, and quite rightly, about the allocation of water, which is the very lifeblood of the inland regions. I have been there and I understand how important it is, on the Murray, the Darling and all of that river system down through there. When you get talk of another drought, you return yourself to the position we were in in 2007, when we had the Millennium Drought. I understand that because I am an irrigator and I did, like everybody, suffer restrictions on water. I also bought water for $1,200 a megalitre. You cannot make money when you are sustaining your permanent crops in that way. So I am very sensitive to the issue of water. But we have to get over what happened. In 1997, as Senator Gallacher rightly pointed out, there was a cap introduced, and that was because the states—and every state is guilty of this—overallocated the resources which were available to them. Different governments, of all different persuasions, over the decades post war overallocated their water resources. There is no question about that. And now the Murray-Darling Basin Authority, the grown-up authority, the one charged with fixing the basin system, is doing exactly that.

There is no question that, when they come into this period of time where profitability is threatened, people get animated. We are seeing that playing out in the hearings that are going on in the Senate inquiry into the Murray-Darling Basin. We have to remember that two million tonnes of salt has to make its way to the ocean, so the Murray-Darling Basin Authority has to ensure that that goes through the Murray mouth, through Lake Alexandrina, through the Chowilla lakes. It starts with Dartmouth, it is stored in Hume and all the way along there are a series of lakes. We have to understand that the Murray-Darling Basin Authority have to be well administered. They will cope for a week without somebody coming and knocking on their door and answering to a minister. This is a beat-up, an absolute beat-up. The authority are doing the work that successive governments have put them there to do. Of course commercial pressure will come at times when El Ninos are being talked about on our television screens and on the radio and where profitability will be compromised—because you cannot replace rain. No bit of legislation, no law, no regulation, will ever replace rain. For the Turnbull government, in its infancy, to be accused of being in any way derelict in its duty—it is doing the thing it should do most and that is appoint the right people to the right jobs.

4:26 pm

Photo of David LeyonhjelmDavid Leyonhjelm (NSW, Liberal Democratic Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Today the opposition is suggesting that the government is in disarray over water policy. The disarray being experienced in basin communities, I can assure the Senate, is bipartisan in origin. The coalition and Labor own the Water Act and the Basin Plan, having supported both in this place. I chair the current Select Committee on the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. We have heard stories from people who are suffering from over a decade of one-sided water reform. It is not just farmers. In fact, it is quite likely that farmers are not the main victims. It is agribusinesses of all kinds, people who sell rural supplies, seeds, pipes, fertilisers. It is people who sell and service machinery. It is people who work in shops. It is schoolteachers and nurses. It is people that most senators in this place will never meet and never plan on meeting.

Some of the people we spoke to were in tears. They are competent businesspeople who have put their life savings into businesses they started in good faith, in towns that depend on irrigation, only to have their lifeblood taken away through no fault of their own. Families, farms, businesses and whole communities are on the brink. We have heard stories of farmers who have ended their lives and we hear that the welfare of many people is hanging by a thread. Nobody is arguing there should not be change to the way we use and conserve water, but it is clear the changes to date are not fair, equitable or balanced. Too much water is being taken with scant consideration for the social and economic costs to people.

Everybody accepts that the environment needs more water than it was getting in the Millennium Drought. This is now happening. However, the environment benefits when it gets enough water. A cycle of drought and flood is entirely natural in the Murray-Darling Basin. The idea that our inland rivers should always be full is not natural; it is an aesthetic ideal espoused by dangerous imbeciles. There is no benefit in always keeping the rivers full and providing more water than the environment needs. We are seeing the result of a water plan developed in panic during the worst drought for a hundred years, rather than a measured and balanced approach to water use. Three months ago, when I attended a public meeting at Barham on the Murray River, there were a thousand people unhappy, frustrated and looking for answers. They told me that the price of temporary water was $120 a megalitre, up from $40 three years previously, and they were going broke. The price of temporary water this week hit an unprecedented $300 a megalitre. Like everyone we have spoken to, I accept that the environment of the Murray-Darling Basin should be looked after, but it is time for the government to take off the blinkers and realise that people are part of the environment. What we have is bipartisan disarray, bipartisan ignorance and bipartisan callous disregard for the welfare of people that we senators are supposed to safeguard. An environment in which people are suicidal is not a healthy environment. I urge the government to lift allowable water use or stop water buybacks while the select committee does its work and to transfer responsibility for water in full to the agriculture minister. Australia's agriculture should not be sacrificed on the altar of false environmental gods.

4:31 pm

Photo of Anne McEwenAnne McEwen (SA, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

In 2012, after more than a century of interstate disagreement on how to manage Australia's Murray-Darling Basin, the Labor government finally won support for the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, which will restore balance to our river system as long as the plan is allowed to be implemented.

The plan is in fact a very hard fought agreement and, if it is to be implemented, it will ensure that we maintain not just a healthy river but also strong regional communities and sustainable food production. In 2012, it looked like, after many years of interstate brawling about the future of the Murray-Darling Basin, we had finally resolved a plan that would take us forward and give certainty to river communities and indeed to my home state of South Australia about the future of the Murray. But now, as a direct result of factional promises and deals in the new Turnbull coalition government, in the space of just a few weeks since he became Prime Minister, Prime Minister Turnbull has thrown the future of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan into chaos. We know that Mr Turnbull gifting the National Party the water portfolio is not going to be beneficial to anyone except the National Party and Mr Turnbull.

As a former minister for the environment and for water during the Howard years, Mr Turnbull knows exactly that, but he wanted to be Prime Minister more than he wanted to protect the river for the future. So he struck a deal that would give the Nats what they have always coveted and in return he got something that he has always coveted, which, of course, is the prime ministership. So the deal was not anything to do with the future of the river. It was not a deal about the sustainability of the river, it was not about securing the livelihoods of the many people who live in the regional towns along the river and it was not about the future livelihood or the security of the two million people that rely on the Murray-Darling. Instead it was a typical selfish, narcissistic political pact to make sure that Malcolm Turnbull could overthrow Mr Tony Abbott and become the Prime Minister of Australia.

As a South Australian living at the bottom end of the Murray-Darling Basin, I am very worried about this pact and what it will mean for the future of South Australia. Mr Barnaby Joyce being placed in charge of water has sent shock waves through the South Australian community because we full well know what Mr Joyce's position on water is. We will never forget when he infamously told South Australians, 'If you do not like living along the river Murray in its southern reaches, up stumps, pack up and move to the northern states.' It was certainly characteristic of Mr Joyce that he would have such disregard for the people of South Australia and, importantly, for the Riverland communities in South Australia along the Murray. Of course, we know that Mr Joyce's concern in this fracas that is going on between the Nationals and the Liberal coalition partners is all about Mr Joyce shoring up his seat in northern New South Wales because he has a bit of a threat on his hands at the moment. He will do whatever he can to hold onto that at the expense of downstream basin states like my state of South Australia. Given Mr Joyce's policy legacy in this area and his oft stated views about water, particularly about the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, when it comes to balancing the economic, social and environmental interests of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, the health of the river will always end up last under his watch.

We have the internal brawling in the coalition to worry about, but earlier today I was particularly worried to see six of the eight Senate crossbench senators come out and attack the future of the Murray-Darling. Through what I can only presume is the influence and manipulation of Mr Joyce as he desperately clutches at straws to maintain control of the water portfolio for his own self-interest, crossbenchers have apparently been used as bait to grab the Prime Minister's attention. They have been used as bait to persuade the Prime Minister to keep his promise and give water to the National Party. In the press conference this morning, the crossbench senators claimed that we need to choose between farmers and the environment. This is not an either/or situation. We do not have to choose between agriculture and the environment. The advancement in the Murray-Darling Basin Plan to date proves that we are making progress. Indeed, the whole context of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan was to ensure a balance in allocation of resources for the river, for agriculture and for sustainable communities.

It concerns me most that, amongst those crossbenchers this morning, I saw Senator Bob Day, a South Australian senator. Surely, of all the crossbenchers, Senator Day, from South Australia, would know how catastrophic it will be for South Australia if Mr Barnaby Joyce gets control of water. But of course we know that Senator Day likes to play politics with the river. I was also disturbed to see this morning that, although there is a Senate select committee afoot to consider the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, the crossbench senators—who are both chair and deputy chair of that Senate select committee—seem to have predetermined what the outcome of that Senate committee process will be. They seem to have predetermined what the outcome of that Senate committee process will be, for political gain.

You have to ask: what is the dodgy deal that Senator Bob Day has done with the coalition or with Mr Barnaby Joyce that would make him go out there and attempt to undo more than a century of work that has arrived at the Murray-Darling Basin Plan? Why is he kowtowing to the representatives of upstream states in this issue? And why does he want to stop the plan in its tracks? To do so will bring back to South Australia the uncertainty and confusion about the future of the River Murray. We do not need any more uncertainty. The plan was hard fought. States and, I have to say, all of the parties in this Senate worked very hard to get that plan finalised and through the Senate. We saw again bipartisan support for the Water Act amendment just a little while ago.

The future of the Murray absolutely depends on bipartisanship. Once we have the situation where senators who have the balance of power, if you like, in this place start playing politics with the river yet again, the only people who will benefit from that will be those crossbench senators. We do not know what they got in return for the position that they articulated today, but what we do know is that the people of South Australia will get nothing in return for that. We will go back to the bad old days of interstate fighting over allocation of water from the Murray-Darling Basin system, and the state that will miss out as a result of that infighting will be South Australia. I urge the crossbench senators to think very carefully about what they are doing in using the river as a political bargaining chip.

4:40 pm

Photo of Bob DayBob Day (SA, Family First Party) Share this | | Hansard source

What an intro! To quote Oscar Wilde:

On an occasion of this kind it becomes more than a moral duty to speak one's mind. It becomes a pleasure.

Yes, the crossbench did address this matter this morning at a press conference. As Senator McEwen says, I am a senator for South Australia, and the River Murray is indeed our lifeblood. There is a simple formula, Senator McEwen. Family farms will thrive and communities will grow if they have enough water. But the opposite is also true. Family farms and communities will shrink and die if there is not adequate water.

Personally, Senator, I do not care who has the water portfolio. We have a Murray-Darling Basin Plan and an independent Senate inquiry, of which I am proud to say I am a member, reviewing that plan. What I care about, Senator— (Time expired)

Photo of Cory BernardiCory Bernardi (SA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Is someone drawing my attention to the state of the chamber?

Senator Williams interjecting

Just a moment. Senator Day, I interrupted you because you were allocated one minute on the clock for speaking. There is still time in this debate, and I will seek further speakers, or I will give you the call.

Photo of John WilliamsJohn Williams (NSW, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Mr Acting Deputy President, I draw your attention to the number in the chamber. I think it is very important that they should be in here during this most important debate.

(Quorum formed)

Photo of Cory BernardiCory Bernardi (SA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

For the benefit of the Senate, Senator Day had one minute allocated, according to the timesheet, and a quorum was called at the conclusion of that one minute. Next on my sheet is Senator Madigan but you are still on your feet, Senator Day. It appears to me that Senator Madigan has provided two minutes of his time to Senator Day. That being the understanding, Senator Day, you have two further minutes.

Photo of Bob DayBob Day (SA, Family First Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Thank you, Mr Acting Deputy President Bernardi, and thank you, Senator Madigan. Personally I do not care who has the water portfolio. We have the Murray-Darling Basin Plan and an independent Senate inquiry reviewing that plan of which I and Senator Madigan are members. What I care about is that there is certainty that whoever is responsible for water can respond urgently to the circumstances in the Basin.

Water is being sold in the Murray-Darling Basin at prices as high as $300 a mega litre out of the Goulburn-Murray water area and $240 a mega litre in the South Australian Murray River at the moment. Price does matter. It may not matter to some senators in this place but, for farmers and people in the communities that depend on the river, price does matter. These prices are double what they were last year, treble what the average price has been over the last three years.

The number of drought affected areas in the Murray-Darling Basin is expanding. As has been said in this place earlier, this season's El Nino event is predicted to be worse than previous events and likely to persist until next year. Something urgent needs to be done.

4:46 pm

Photo of John MadiganJohn Madigan (Victoria, Independent) Share this | | Hansard source

Since his appointment, the Prime Minister has been telling Australians we are entering some new age of political Aquarius. He tells us we have a 21st-century government. Last month Mr Turnbull promised us—no, he guaranteed us—the best policy his government can formulate to meet the challenges of today. Mr Turnbull also said there has never been a more exciting time to be an Australian. This is an extraordinary boast.

Today we are calling on the Prime Minister to address urgently the crisis in the Murray-Darling Basin. The Murray-Darling Basin is one of the most productive food and fibre regions of Australia. It produces 45 per cent of Australia's irrigated agricultural product. The Murray-Darling Basin, which covers the states of Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia, as well as the ACT, is home to 2.1 million Australians. The Basin is an essential part of Australian agriculture. What happens in the Basin impacts the rest of Australia. And right now, because of two factors, this critically important region is a tinderbox. We are, without exaggeration, on the verge of a national crisis.

Firstly, the price of temporary water has sky rocketed to $300 per mega litre. In comparison, it was almost 30 per cent cheaper last month. Farmers tell me their businesses are unsustainable at these prices. There is a water market in Australia that is out of control and is being manipulated. You can buy and sell water like stocks on the share market. Water trading has become an insider's market of corruption and back-room deals, and farmers cannot compete.

I received this email from a constituent yesterday. She farms with her husband in northern Victoria. In part, her email reads:

My local real estate agent through whom we buy water suggested the big water traders are continually competing for the limited amount of water on the market and can pretty much set the price as they like because large horticultural companies can afford whatever price is put on it.

Where does that leave the small family farmer such as us? To add insult to injury our 650 hectares of dryland crop is a complete failure, making the irrigated production even more critical.

Our youngest son Josh aged 21 is justifiably proud of himself that he bought his own irrigated farm last year but is now wondering why on earth he committed to such a debt when it is unviable to purchase water. His off-farm income and significant subsidies from us are the only things keeping him going.

We are not greedy people, Senator. We don't have a new house, or a new car and in the 27 years of our marriage have had three family holidays. We have educated our four children and put two of them through university. We are hard-working and committed to our enterprise. I just don't understand how the most precious natural resource we have in this country can be owned by people/corporations who do not engage in agriculture.

Mr Turnbull, her question demands an answer.

Second, Australian farmers are facing a scorching end to the year as the threat of drought from a very large El Nino intensifies. This, combined with the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, has created a perfect storm for our agricultural sector, ladies and gentleman. People are walking off farms. People are committing suicide. These is the early death throes of one of our most important farming regions. And our Prime Minister, the former Minister for Water, seems to us to be unaware.

What is it we want? First, we need immediate reform of the Water Act 2007. This is urgent. It must be amended to give equal consideration to the economic and social consequences as well as the environment. Second, that Prime Minister Turnbull must give agricultural minister Barnaby Joyce full responsibility for the water portfolio. The link between agriculture and water is indisputable. And third, as a matter of urgency, the Prime Minister must pause the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, including buy-backs, pending conclusion and reporting of the Senate inquiry into the Murray-Darling Basin Plan.

Simply, do not sit on your hands; do something about it. Communities, people and families are suffering.

4:51 pm

Photo of Glenn LazarusGlenn Lazarus (Queensland, Independent) Share this | | Hansard source

Firstly, I would like to thank the government and the opposition for allowing me—and my crossbench colleagues—a little extra time today to speak on this matter of public importance. I would also like to add that, while some of my senate colleagues have chosen to speak about the Murray-Darling Basin water issue today, I have chosen to speak about the water issues most affecting Queensland: CSG mining and the drought.

The Murray-Darling Basin issue is also a concern for Queensland, and I agree the Water Act of 2007 needs to be suspended to enable reassessment of its impact. As the only Independent senator for Queensland, I am the only senator in this place able to talk about the real issues affecting Queensland in relation to water, because all the other senators are constrained by party policy.

Jo Lindgren (Queensland, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

That is not true.

Photo of Glenn LazarusGlenn Lazarus (Queensland, Independent) Share this | | Hansard source

I am not. I am driven by people policy, not party policy.

Jo Lindgren (Queensland, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Oh please!

Photo of Glenn LazarusGlenn Lazarus (Queensland, Independent) Share this | | Hansard source

I would encourage senators across the chamber to listen in. Let me tell you about the water situation in Queensland and why the state of water across the country is an absolute mess.

In my home state of Queensland, more than 50 per cent of our people live outside the state capital. This means that the majority of Queenslanders live across rural, regional, northern and western Queensland. With so many Queenslanders living outside the state's capital, you would think that most people have access to town water. Unfortunately, you would be wrong. Many people across Queensland still do not have access to town water. As a result, many Queenslanders have to rely on bores, rainwater tanks, purchased water and dams to survive—to shower, to run their homes, to operate their businesses, to feed their stock and to irrigate their land.

Eighty per cent of my state is in drought. In fact, we are experiencing one of the worst droughts on record. We have been in drought for four years and the drought is expected to worsen. Despite this, governments at all levels have let my state down by doing absolutely nothing to help with the drought or address the issue of water in Queensland.

With so many people relying on water sources other than town water, you would think governments would understand the importance of people being able to access clean water via other sources, such as groundwater. Again, you would be wrong. The scourge of coal seam gas mining is devastating rural and regional Queensland. Queenslanders have no legal right to stop a mining company from entering their land to mine for CSG. Governments have been giving mining companies, including international mining companies, unfettered access to our water; any amount of water they want to extract from the ground, without regard for the impact on the people of Queensland. This means that CSG mining companies drill into the ground, depleting underground water tables and contaminating what water is left.

Landholders who are not connected to town water, who rely on underground water, are being left with no water. Their bores are going dry because CSG mining companies operating on their land or near their land are extracting water from the underground water table with such ferocity that they are depleting underground water resources across huge—

Senator Heffernan interjecting

Photo of Cory BernardiCory Bernardi (SA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Excuse me, Senator Lazarus. It appears—

Senator Heffernan interjecting

Just a moment, Senator Heffernan. Did you have a point of order?

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

Yes, a point of order, and a correction. Glen, you said—

Photo of Cory BernardiCory Bernardi (SA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Order! Senator Heffernan, resume your seat—

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

that you are the only person in here that can speak freely about—

Photo of Cory BernardiCory Bernardi (SA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Heffernan, resume your seat. That is not a point of order; it is a debating point.

Senator Heffernan interjecting

Resume your seat, Senator Heffernan.

Senator Heffernan interjecting

Senator Heffernan, resume your seat! You are being disorderly.

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


Photo of Cory BernardiCory Bernardi (SA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

It is not good.

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

It is a bloody disgrace.

Photo of Cory BernardiCory Bernardi (SA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

No, you are. Please continue, Senator Lazarus.

Senator Heffernan interjecting

Withdraw that, Senator Heffernan.

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

I withdraw.

Photo of Cory BernardiCory Bernardi (SA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Thank you. Senator Lazarus.

Photo of Glenn LazarusGlenn Lazarus (Queensland, Independent) Share this | | Hansard source

I am calling for a royal commission into the human impact of CSG mining, because CSG mining is affecting the health and welfare of our people, and it is affecting their ability to live in this country. This is why I am calling for the establishment of a resources ombudsman, so that people affected by CSG mining, who have lost access to water and are experiencing other issues, have somewhere to go to raise issues and concerns and to receive advice, support and assistance.

What are the people of Queensland supposed to do when governments are allowing mining companies to deplete our land of water, leaving hardworking, decent people, without water. I will tell you what happens: the people of Queensland become stressed and sick with worry. They turn to suicide as a way to escape the horror of their situation. Today, I learned of yet another Queensland farmer, who lives in Chinchilla, who tried to take his own life, because he just could not cope anymore with the stress of dealing with mining companies wanting to enter his land to mine for CSG. He has fought hard for many years to resist the mining companies coming on to his land, because he did not want his family to deal with the toxic hell associated with CSG mining. The mining companies bullied him, harassed him and intimidated him to the point where, out of sheer despair, he tried to take his own life this morning. He could not see any other way to save his family.

Landholders are being left to fend for themselves against the might and money of international mining companies because governments have been giving mining companies unrestricted access to landholders' properties in Queensland. I am ashamed at the way governments are treating the people of Queensland. I am ashamed that governments are turning a blind eye to the damage CSG is doing to our water and our people's lives, simply because mining companies are donating to political parties.

As I have already mentioned, 80 per cent of my home state of Queensland is in drought and has been for four years. Farmers across Queensland are suffering. The land is so dry, farmers are having to put animals down and walk off their land. Towns and communities across rural and regional Queensland are on their knees. Mental health issues are on the increase. Social issues are on the increase. Banks are foreclosing on farms, and international companies and overseas countries are buying up our land.

Australia should be the food bowl of the world. As a nation we have the capability to increase our food production capacity if we better manage our water resources. North Queensland desperately needs infrastructure investment. If the Romans could build aqueducts across Europe thousands of years ago to shift water from one place to another, why can't we build infrastructure to shift water across Queensland?

Water infrastructure would enable the distribution of water to farmers across the state. It would enable towns and communities across Queensland to survive and prosper. It would enable people affected by the scourge of CSG mining to access clean, safe drinking water. It would enable our country to manage the consequences of drought by simply moving water around to where it is needed, like many other civilisations have done successfully before us.

In summary, water management in this country is a mess. Australia needs to establish a national water management body to manage the use, distribution and cost of water across the country as a whole. We urgently need to undertake a water audit to fully understand the status of our water resources.

Photo of Alex GallacherAlex Gallacher (SA, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The time for discussion on this matter of public importance has expired.