Monday, 2 May 2016
Water Amendment (Review Implementation and Other Measures) Bill 2015; Second Reading
I present the explanatory memoranda and I move:
That this bill be now read a second time.
I seek leave to have the second reading speech incorporated in Hansard.
The speech read as follows—
WATER AMENDMENT (REVIEW IMPLEMENTATION AND OTHER MEASURES) BILL 2015
The Australian Government is committed to implementing the Basin Plan in ways that deliver the best social, economic and environmental outcomes for the Basin and its many industries and communities. Water lies at the core of agricultural production and the associated wealth supports regional communities and the nation.
The Water Amendment (Review Implementation and Other Measures) Bill 2015 further delivers on the Government's commitment to support communities, businesses and the environment in the Murray-Darling Basin. It also shows that the Government takes the opportunities that arise from ongoing statutory reviews to consult the community and respond to their concerns.
The main purpose of this Bill is to implement the recommendations of the Report of the Independent Review of the Water Act 2007, following extensive consultation with state and territory governments and stakeholders across the irrigation, community, Indigenous and environment sectors. Of the 23 recommendations made by the Panel, 21 have been accepted in full and two have been accepted in part.
The Government thanks the Review Panel members – Mr Eamonn Moran, PSM QC; Mr Peter Anderson; Dr Steve Morton; and Mr Gavin McMahon – for their efforts in reviewing the Water Act, their consultative approach, and for identifying a package of balanced and sensible amendments.
The amendments proposed by the Panel support this Government's approach to delivering the Water Act's objectives, including:
This Bill supports each of these objectives, and in doing so underpins the Government's aim of delivering water reform in ways that support communities, businesses and the environment.
Water recovery – background
The Government's approach to achieving the sustainable diversion limits outlined in the Basin Plan is to prioritise investment in productivity-enhancing water infrastructure and cap surface water buybacks at 1,500 gigalitres. The Government recently enshrined the 1,500 gigalitre cap in the Water Act. This provides vital reassurance to communities by limiting any potential economic impacts associated with water purchases.
Capping water buybacks provides greater certainty to Basin communities that the Government is focused on water recovery through investment in infrastructure as a priority to bridge the gap to the sustainable diversion limits. Indeed, the Government is undertaking the most significant water infrastructure programme in Australian history, investing over $2.5 million per day in the future sustainability of irrigated agriculture out to 2019. A total of almost $13 billion has been committed to Basin initiatives out to 2024, with the majority of funds assisting irrigators and communities to make more efficient use of the Basin's water resources in the production of food and fibre. To put that into perspective, this expenditure represents a bigger investment in real terms than that made by the Commonwealth to build the Snowy Hydro scheme. These investments are already delivering very good results from both off-farm and on-farm infrastructure projects, with more than 10,000 individual irrigators benefitting from infrastructure renewal and upgrades.
The Government, through the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder, is now the largest license holder in the Basin, for the purpose of sustaining environmental assets.
The Government is committed to delivering the maximum outcome from the Sustainable Diversion Limit Adjustment Mechanism. Delivering the same environmental outcomes with less water is common sense and will reduce the impact on Basin communities. We have already seen projects – such as pumps at Hattah lakes and regulators at Perricoota forest – markedly improving our environmental water use efficiency.
There are significant opportunities in the Gunbower forest, Chowilla floodplain, Burra creek floodplain and Lindsay Island for works and measures to deliver environmental benefits with less water. And then there is the Menindee Lakes. This is a great opportunity to undertake environmental works that actually provide more water to the Basin without removing water from productive use.
Basin water ministers continue to strive towards a supply contribution of up to 650 gigalitres. In other words, and noting that over 70 per cent of the Basin Plan water recovery target has already been achieved, the adjustment mechanism will see the 2,750 gigalitre water recovery target fall to as low as 2,100 gigalitres, reducing the socio-economic impacts of implementing the Basin Plan.
Separately, the Northern Basin Review, which is supported by all Basin water Ministers, is re-examining sustainable diversion limits set for the northern Basin in light of new and additional scientific and socio-economic information. The Government is looking forward to considering the outcomes of the Northern Basin Review when its findings are released next year. We must identify detrimental economic impacts as a result of the reduction of water available for agricultural production and determine whether substantial environmental outcomes have been achieved as a result of that reduction.
Efficient and effective management of environmental water
We know that farmers and irrigators are working hard to ensure that their use of water is as efficient and effective as possible, and so too is the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder.
One way in which Commonwealth environmental water can be used more efficiently is through trade. Trade opportunities for the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder can arise when, for example, the annual allocations associated with permanently held entitlements are not needed in one part of the system, and water could be used more effectively elsewhere or at another time. To date, the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder has traded water for this purpose in a number of catchments, such as the Gwydir in New South Wales. This has assisted those communities to finish crops.
Recently, the sale of 20 gigalitres of environmental water allocations in the Goulburn catchment – the first in the southern Murray-Darling Basin – represented a good outcome for irrigators, who purchased over 20 billion litres of water for agricultural use at a time when prevailing seasonal conditions are dry.
This Bill amends the Act to provide greater flexibility for trade while ensuring that the environmental outcomes sought by the Basin Plan are maintained or improved. This Bill enables the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder to use proceeds from the sale of water allocations to invest in activities that improve the effectiveness of Commonwealth environmental water use and help to achieve Basin Plan environmental outcomes. This flexibility will enable the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder to get the best environmental outcomes possible, as efficiently as possible.
This recognises that achieving environmental outcomes in the Basin will often require both water and complementary environmental activities. We know it is not just about adding water, because the lack of environmental works and measures, such as fish ladders and carp screens, can be a real barrier to maximising environmental outcomes.
The Bill also implements important safeguards recommended by the Review Panel including:
The scope of potential environmental activities that can be funded through water sales is broad, but must be tied to improved outcomes from the use of Commonwealth environmental water. This enables targeted investments that complement, rather than duplicate, existing environmental programmes. The Government wishes to make it clear that the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder will not use this new flexibility to invest in natural resource management activities that are already being funded by other programmes, whether at the local, state or federal level.
A further change in this Bill is to bring the conditions on the sale of water allocations in systems with continuous accounting into line with systems which have an annual accounting framework. This means that if water is not required to meet environmental objectives in a water period, the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder will have an option to sell the water rather than forego allocations due to account limits.
Flexibility and practicality are central to these amendments, and key to achieving positive environmental outcomes in the Basin, in ways that also deliver social and economic benefits to Basin communities.
The Government also recognises that there are many other stakeholders besides the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder that are working to improve environmental outcomes in the Basin. For example, the development of a biological control agent for European carp, which comprise over 70 per cent of all fish in the Basin, could deliver transformative change to our most iconic river system. This collaborative work – between federal and state governments, research and development corporations and universities – has the potential to massively reduce carp populations and significantly improve the health of the Basin's rivers and wetlands.
Transparent and effective water markets
In a drought-prone country with a highly variable climate, it is particularly important that water has a market price that reflects its changing value, and that farmers can realise that value through a transparent and effective water market. It is clear that the development of a water market has made a significant difference in helping Basin industries to get the most out of their water assets, and to navigate their way through the worst of our dry times. However, while trade is vital to many agricultural industries, it is apparent there are some concerns within the Basin community in regards to how the water market operates.
In line with the recommendations of the Review Panel, the Government will encourage water market industry representative bodies to establish industry-led self-regulation of water market intermediaries. Commonwealth regulation will be considered if evidence emerges that this would alleviate or remove risks in the water market and provide an overall net benefit to business, individuals and community organisations.
The Review Panel made a number of other recommendations which aim to improve water market transparency. Two recommendations were accepted immediately on release of the Panel's report – a review of the water charge rules and a review of water information reporting requirements.
The ACCC is undertaking extensive consultation across the Basin as part of its review of water charge rules and released draft advice on 24 November 2015 for comment. Among other things, the review is considering how best to ensure consistency in the application of national water charging objectives and principles across the Basin. The review of water information reporting requirements was completed in June this year and is due for release in coming months.
The Bill also ensures transparency and accountability in the trade of Commonwealth environmental water, requiring it to publish details of all water it sells and the purpose for which the proceeds are used.
Separate to the review of the Water Act, but complementary to its aims, the Government is also improving transparency in the water market by agreeing to introduce legislation to Parliament by December 2016 to establish a register of foreign ownership of water entitlements. Foreign investment plays an important role in funding the development of many industries in Australia, including the agricultural sector. A register of foreign ownership of both land and water will provide more reliable and transparent information to the public, participants in the water market and the agricultural sector about the value and extent of foreign investment in the sector, as well as trends. Improved oversight of foreign ownership is in response to a wide public call.
The Government is aware there is some anxiety in the Basin about speculators in the water market and will be looking at further options that improve transparency in the water market.
Monitoring and evaluating Basin Plan impacts
Aside from monitoring and evaluating the environmental outcomes of the Plan, this Bill amends the Act to improve monitoring of the social and economic impacts of the Basin Plan. This is an important amendment that responds to many stakeholders' concerns that insufficient attention is being paid to the social and economic impacts of implementing the Basin Plan. This recognises that community confidence and support is integral to the attainment of triple bottom line outcomes in the Basin.
This Bill will also provide further certainty to stakeholders about the direction and pace of water reform. In line with the Review Panel's recommendations, a further review of the Water Act will be conducted in 2024. Furthermore, the first legislated review of the Basin Plan, previously set for 2022, will now take place in 2026, with 10-yearly reviews thereafter. This strikes the appropriate balance between regulatory certainty and allowing the Basin Plan to be reviewed when its outcomes can be better assessed.
Reducing the regulatory burden
A key focus of the Review Panel's Terms of Reference was to identify opportunities to reduce or simplify the regulatory and reporting burdens imposed by the Water Act. Even small changes in regulatory burden can have a large productivity effect on the many small- and medium-sized businesses that operate in the Basin, leading to improved farm gate returns.
In this respect, the Bill makes several important amendments that will streamline the Water Act by improving regulatory clarity, simplifying the process of water resource plan accreditation and repealing redundant provisions.
The Water Act empowers a number of water agencies to provide and collect information on Australia's water resources and to monitor Australia's water markets. The Review Panel recommended that the Government consider the regulatory burden on industry and water managers in respect of water information requirements, while ensuring that critical information on Australia's water resources continues to be collected. As mentioned earlier, this multi-agency review has now been completed and will be released in coming months. Some of the measures proposed by this review will streamline data collection and reporting requirements, further reducing the regulatory burden on stakeholders and cutting red tape.
Indigenous Australians have a long, rich and close association with the rivers and wetlands of the Murray-Darling Basin. As the submission to the Review from the Northern Basin Aboriginal Nations noted, "water is our lifeblood, and all of us depend on healthy rivers and wetlands."
Accordingly, this Bill includes in the Water Act the existing Basin Plan requirement to have regard to social, spiritual and cultural matters relevant to Indigenous people in the preparation of water resource plans.
The Bill also clarifies that one of the functions of the Murray-Darling Basin Authority is to engage with the Indigenous community on the use and management of Basin water resources.
The Bill adds an additional field of expertise that can be considered for potential appointment to the Murray-Darling Basin Authority's six-person board.
For the first time, 'Indigenous matters relevant to Basin water resources' will be a recognised field of expertise that can qualify a person for appointment to the Authority.
Further, the Bill amends the Act to specify that the Basin Community Committee must be comprised of at least two Indigenous persons with expertise in Indigenous matters relevant to Basin water resources.
The Coalition has a strong track record of delivering water reform for the benefit of the nation. Under the Howard Government, the Council of Australian Governments agreed in 2004 to the National Water Initiative, laying the foundation for nationally consistent water planning and management for rural and urban use, and delivered balanced economic, social and environmental outcomes.
The Coalition also introduced the $10 billion National Plan for Water Security in 2007 and enacted the Water Act, establishing a framework for water reform that included infrastructure modernisation, increased agricultural production and significant environmental improvements.
And earlier this year, the Government announced the establishment of the National Water Infrastructure Development Fund to start the detailed planning needed to build or upgrade dams and pipelines and undertake managed aquifer recharge. This will help secure the nation's water supplies and deliver strong economic benefits for Australia, while also protecting the environment.
This Bill continues the Coalition's longstanding commitment to sensible and balanced water reform that boosts agricultural production, strengthens communities in our food and fibre producing regions, and delivers environmental outcomes.
I rise to speak on the Water Amendment (Review Implementation and Other Measures) Bill 2015. Stakeholders want stability and continuity around the Basin Plan, and so these are minor changes would not adversely impact on the Basin Plan.
The bill implements the recommendations of the Report of the Independent Review of the Water Act200the Water Act review—and recommendations that have been agreed to by the basin states. It will provide for five-yearly reviews of the social and economic impacts of the Basin Plan 2012. One key change is that it will allow the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder to invest in non-water environmental activities, so the holder is not restricted to just water. The bill will also make other minor administrative and technical amendments.
The success of the Basin Plan has always rested on bipartisan support at the federal level, the support of the basin states and at least nominal support of agricultural and environmental groups. Given the support of the basin states, Labor will not oppose the passage of this bill in the interests of bipartisanship and the stability of the Basin Plan.
As many of us in this place will know, disagreement over the management of our most important river system and our most important food bowl pre-dates Federation. The first conference on the Murray was held in 1863, decades before Federation. The Federation drought brought the states together in Corowa in 1902, leading to the River Murray Waters Agreement in 1915 and the formation of the River Murray Commission in 1917.
The importance of the basin to agriculture in South Australia, Victoria and New South Wales led to the construction of numerous dams, weirs and locks. By the late 1960s, drought, the overextraction of water for irrigation and rising salinity began to put the health of the Murray-Darling system onto the radar. Fast forward to the drought of the early-2000s—or the Millennium drought, as it was clearly known—and it was clear that more needed to be done.
Under the Howard government, the National Water Initiative was agreed to and the Water Act 2007 was passed through this parliament. And now, thanks in large part to the former minister for water, the member for Watson, Tony Burke, we have a plan that is restoring our rivers to health, supporting strong regional communities and ensuring sustainable food production.
The Murray-Darling Basin Plan, or the Basin Plan, has bipartisan support at the Federal level and the support of the basin states: South Australia, Victoria, NSW, Queensland and of course the ACT. Importantly, there has been very significant Commonwealth investment in ensuring that farms remain productive as the plan is delivered. Two million dollars a day is being, and will be spent, on efficiency and infrastructure measures out to 2019. This is not just a significant amount of money; it is a significant commitment to the Basin Plan, to the health of our rivers, and the ecosystems and regional communities that that river systems supports. Not everyone obviously got everything that they wanted from the plan, but it does retain significant support throughout the system. It also had the support of farming, environmental and Indigenous groups.
The Basin Plan, brought into force in November 2012, will set basin-wide sustainable diversion limits and return 2,750 gigalitres to the environment. Basin states are required to prepare water resource plans that will give effect to the sustainable diversion limits from July 2019.
Under the sustainable diversion limit adjustment mechanism, up to 650 gigalitres can be provided through supply measures—projects that deliver environmental outcomes with less water—and that is a really significant and good thing. Proposals for these supply measures are, I understand, in varying states of preparation and assessment. To date over 1,900 gigalitres have been recovered for the environment. This includes over 1,160 gigalitres through water purchase; over 600 gigalitres through infrastructure investment; and over 180 gigalitres through other basin state recovery actions. This is water that can be used, at appropriate times and where it is needed, to improve flows and help restore health throughout the system. And already we have seen successful water releases overseen by the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder and the state and regional water management agencies.
Importantly, there has been significant Commonwealth investment in ensuring that farms remain productive as the plan is delivered. Two million dollars a day is being and will be spent on efficiency and infrastructure measures out to 2019. This is not only a significant amount of money; it is a significant commitment to the Basin Plan—to the health of our rivers and the ecosystems and communities they support. That is why the previous Labor minister for water did so much work in ensuring that we did get this right.
The basin supports agriculture on a grand scale—around 40 per cent of Australia's agricultural production. That is in no way an insignificant figur According to ABS figures, in 2012-13 the basin accounted for over 50 per cent of Australia's irrigated produce, including nearly 100 per cent of Australia's rice, 96 per cent of Australia's cotton, 75 per cent of Australia's grapes, 59 per cent of Australia's hay, 54 per cent of Australia's fruit, 52 per cent of Australia's production from sheep and livestock, and 45 per cent of Australia's dairy. 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 depend on its waters for survival. All of this agricultural production and the two million people living in the basin rely on the healthy functioning of its river system.
The environmental needs of the rivers are of course incredibly important. Within the basin there are approximately 30,000 wetlands, over 60 species of fish, 124 families of macroinvertebrates, 98 species of waterbird, four threatened water-dependent ecological communities and hundreds upon hundreds of plant species supported by key floodplains. The health of the river channels themselves and the flora and fauna that they support are not only vital in their own rights but also vital for the economic and social wellbeing of basin communities. The health of the basin, and particularly the Murray, is epitomised by the Lower Lakes and the Murray Mouth. It is important that we understand the environmental needs of the rivers within the basin system to ensure sustainable communities and sustainable food and fibre production can be maintained. As I said, there are approximately 30,000 wetlands in the basin and over 60 species of fish. These are not insignificant ecological outcomes that we find in our basin environment.
Related to environmental needs and environmental flows, the Aboriginal nations and communities in the basin also want, and should have, access to the flows that they need to ensure the continuation of their health, their culture and their social and economic wellbeing. Aboriginal people feel a deep connection to their land and the waters that flow through and across them, and this needs to be recognised and provided for, not as an exercise in some kind of imperial patronage but by ensuring that Aboriginal people are empowered through governance and water rights, because they are and will always be the custodians of that land. When environmental water is released into the river and wetlands Aboriginal expertise needs to be heeded. The deep knowledge of Aboriginal people of our river systems means that they have important, if not vital, advice to give our water managers that, if heeded, can add great value to the work of those managers. Groups such as the Northern Basin Aboriginal Nations and the Murray Lower Darling Rivers Indigenous Nations have a lot to offer us if we listen to them. Engagement with Aboriginal people in the basin cannot be done as a tick-a-box exercise, and government certainly needs to understand and realise that. Proper ongoing engagement will not only benefit Aboriginal people; it will benefit all of us.
This bill implements a number of recommendations from the review of the Water Act that was conducted through 2014, including: firstly, to allow the CEWH, the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder, to invest in non-water environmental activities so that the holder is not restricted just to water; secondly, to provide for greater incorporation of Indigenous expertise in the governance of the Murray-Darling Basin water resources for the reasons I just outlined; thirdly, to implement five-yearly reviews of the social and economic impacts of the Basin Plan; and, finally, to implement a number of minor administrative and technical amendments. All of those recommendations from the review of the Water Act need to be taken note of by government, and I hope that they will do so. A lot of them are, of course, being done through the passage of this amendment bill.
I would note that there is no definition of 'environmental activities' to assist in the assessment of non-water purchases. The Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder is required to operate consistently with the Basin Plan and its environmental water objectives, but this still may have the potential to be broadly interpreted because of their being no definition. So Labor will be monitoring the appropriate balance between flexibility in the water holder's activities and clarity regarding what activities might be contemplated under these amendments.
There are adjustments to the timeline of key review points and milestones in the Water Act and the Basin Plan which the opposition think broadly make sense. However, there may be some practical issues with reporting on environmental outcomes as long-term watering plans will not have been in place for long prior to their reporting date. So delivering interim results will be important for transparency and for public confidence. By this stage water recovery will have been undertaken for nine years and the environmental outcomes achieved should be made publicly available to the fullest extent possible. Stakeholders as well as the signatories to the Basin Plan want stability on continuity around the Basin Plan, and these changes, if they are well managed, should not adversely impact those objectives.
The success of the Basin Plan rests on the support particularly of both major parties in this parliament—and the Labor Party has been willing to provide that support through the passage of this bill—as well as the agreement of all the basin states, which I mentioned earlier, as well as the ACT. Obviously, there is also a very deep engagement, but not always an easy engagement, with the full range of stakeholders, those being irrigators, farmers, environmental groups and Indigenous communities, and I am sure there are others as well.
An important driver in Labor's support for this bill, though, and some other amendments to the Water Act that were proposed by the government last year is the agreement that the government has obtained for these measures from all of the basin states in order to maintain that political consensus. As I said, for the ongoing implementation of a plan that is overwhelmingly in the national interest and that Labor, when in government, played a significantly key role in, Labor therefore provide our support to this bill, retaining that bipartisanship.
Stakeholders from both irrigator and environmental groups have expressed concern, and I understand that concern, about the Murray-Darling Basin Plan becoming politicised to the point of detriment. They have asked that there be no major changes to the plan at this point that would disturb that political consensus. These stakeholders have told us that what is most important for them is stability, predictability and consistency. Therefore, on that basis, and on a number of the other key elements that I have raised in relation to the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, we do not propose to hold up this legislation. We broadly support it. In fact, we recognise the work that has been done not just by this government but also, in fact, by the Labor federal government before this government in getting us to this point where we are today.
The Australian Greens are committed to the full implementation of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. The Basin Plan's current commitment to recover 2,750 gigalitres is the absolute bare minimum required to achieve basin-wide environmental objectives and to keep the river healthy. In fact, the Greens have been advocating for more environmental flows over many years. The Murray-Darling Basin is the lifeblood for the nation's most significant agricultural region. It extends for more than 3,300 kilometres; it accounts for 40 per cent of the nation's agricultural produce; and it contributes about $15 billion to the economy. The jobs of tens of thousands of people living in rural communities are at risk if we do not commit to a sustainable and healthy river system, not just for now but for the generations to come.
We only need to look back over the last few decades to understand the devastating effects that can occur for local communities when we do not look after the environmental health of the Murray-Darling Basin. When making decisions on changes to the water legislation, we must always consider the long-term sustainability of the basin to protect both the environment and the rural communities that rely on it. My home state of South Australia is at the end of the Murray-Darling and has been particularly hard hit, so I do understand firsthand the devastating negative impacts that occur when we do not look after the health of this precious river system. Between 2006 and 2010, a record low amount of water flowed into SA, which put immense pressure on our agricultural and horticultural industries, regional communities and the environment.
The iconic Coorong and Lower Lakes are the end of the line, where the Murray-Darling meets the sea. The area is of international significance, recognised for its ecological diversity, and it is the spiritual home of the Ngarrindjeri people. It is a prime example of why we cannot waver in our commitment to the Murray-Darling Basin Plan and to ensuring that minimum environmental flows are met.
The Greens do have some concerns with the Water Amendment (Review Implementation and Other Measures) Bill 2015 as proposed, and we have circulated a number of amendments to address these concerns. Firstly, we think it is unnecessary to allow the water trade revenue to be used for environmental activities. The term 'environmental activities' is vague in this legislation. It fails to outline how an objective assessment could be made to determine if an environmental activity even improves the ability of the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder to meet the Environmental Watering Plan. While some safeguards are in place for these changes, they do not directly address this concern. The Greens cannot support such broadly written legislation, which threatens to end up being just another blatant cost-shifting exercise by the government.
The Greens have submitted two amendments to address these concerns. The status quo, where the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder is restricted to only use trade revenue for the purchase of water for achieving environmental outcomes, is working well so far. We see no reason to change this process, given that it has been working well over the last few years and delivering good outcomes for the basin.
Secondly, it is unacceptable that, if this bill were adopted in its current form, there would be no review of the Basin Plan for 14 years. Let me remind you that we are talking about the biggest river system in the country, a system that is full of unique and precious ecosystems and generates 40 per cent of our agricultural produce. It is irresponsible to allow 14 years to pass without a review, particularly when the current legislation fails to even acknowledge climate change, let alone address the impact that changing weather patterns will have on environmental flows.
Our amendment ensures that the sustainable diversion limits in the Murray-Darling Basin Plan are reviewed in 2017 to determine if they adequately account for the projected impacts of climate change. This is a responsible approach so that, when the sustainable diversion limits commence in 2019, they will be implemented with the potential impacts of climate change taken into account. Climate change is happening. It may be a surprise to you, Mr Acting Deputy President Bernardi, but climate change is happening. The science is settled. It is appalling that the plan covering our largest river system in this country fails to even consider how the impacts of climate change could alter water flows. If we do not act on this, it will significantly increase the risks to the environmental health of the river, which has flow-on impacts to a whole range of sectors, including agriculture and tourism, and, of course, the long-term future of countless rural communities spread right across the basin.
We are also moving some amendments that look at the socioeconomic impacts on Aboriginal populations. I would like to acknowledge that this bill does provide some minor but important amendments that improve the recognition of Aboriginal water rights and the relationship of Aboriginal people to the land. It is encouraging to see that the Basin Community Committee requirements have now increased from requiring one to requiring two Aboriginal people on the committee—that is a good thing. The Greens strongly believe that the Basin Plan should provide greater scope to understand the impacts of the plan on the Aboriginal population.
Unfortunately, Aboriginal people still remain among the most disadvantaged groups within the basin, especially with regards to low levels of land ownership and water resources. This population is growing at a faster rate than the general population and it is important that we understand the impact of socioeconomic outcomes for Aboriginal residents, who are some of the most disadvantaged in the basin. The bill before us adds an assessment of the social and economic impacts of the Basin Plan as a specific requirement for the five-yearly reviews of the plan. Our amendment will allow for the impacts of the Basin Plan on socioeconomic outcomes for the Aboriginal people living in the basin to be assessed explicitly.
We are already seeing positive outcomes from the implementation of this plan: improved freshwater flows have kept the Murray mouth open, preventing millions of tonnes of sea salt from flowing back into the Murray and damaging the Coorong. Greater flows have also replenished the water levels of wetlands across the system, leading to healthier vegetation and increased numbers of waterbirds and fish.
Now is not the time to waver. We must not allow 14 years to pass without a review, especially when the current plan does not take into account the impact that climate change may have on environmental flows. We should not be allowing water trade revenue to be used for environmental activities without adequate oversight and reporting requirements, and we should continue to improve the involvement of Aboriginal people in the implementation and review of the Basin Plan.
The Greens remain committed to strengthening the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, not weakening it, and we will always take action to ensure we have a sustainable and healthy river system for generations to come. I encourage all parties here in this place to support the Greens amendments as a way of improving the bill that has been proposed. Thank you.
I spent a fair bit of time last year travelling around the Murray-Darling river system—from Queensland, through the MIA and down to the mouth of the Murray River. My job as Chair of the Senate Select Committee on the Murray-Darling Basin Plan was to listen to people.
I am here to report that under the Basin Plan many people in the Murray-Darling Basin are hurting. The places we visited were diverse. But one thing that towns dependent on irrigated agriculture have in common is that they are suffering. Businesses are in decline, jobs are being lost and people are leaving. It is not just irrigators who suffer in these towns: it is the mechanics, the retailers, the teachers and the contractors. We heard far too many sad stories of personal hardship. What is more, under the current Basin Plan food processors tell us that Australia's aspiration to become a food bowl for Asia is not a vision, it is a pipedream. Without water, we cannot produce food.
Mr Acting Deputy President, I tell you this to explain that while I am prepared to support the Water Amendment (Review Implementation and Other Measures) Bill 2016 before us today, I view it as a great disappointment. The bill slightly expands the circumstances where the Commonwealth can sell water to irrigators, which is a good thing. But it delays future reviews of the Water Act and the Basin Plan, which is a tactic to avoid hearing from suffering basin communities and to avoid doing anything to fix the plan before it does more damage.
The most disappointing thing is that this bill addresses none of the fundamental problems with the Basin Plan and its implementation that have been raised in the report of the Senate Select Committee. And it does nothing to improve water allocations for irrigators.
It demonstrates that the government remains wedded to the childlike notion that it somehow benefits the environment to simply fill the river to the brim, while people are denied water. National Party senators in particular should be ashamed that on this most important issue they have pulled their Akubras over their ears and tuned out. If there were any doubt about this, it was removed when they voted against my modest proposal for a one per cent increase in water allocations for irrigators late last year.
Allow me to remind the government of just a few of the recommendations of the select committee, based on what the people of the Murray-Darling are crying out for. They say there should be no more water buybacks. Buybacks might be okay for those who are selling water, but there are many others affected. The bottom line is that they are destroying regional Australia.
They say too much water is being taken from 'terminal' systems such as the Macquarie Valley and Gwydir Valley for little or no environmental benefit. They say there should be a judicial inquiry into the shambolic management of the Goulburn-Murray Water Connections Project. They are worried that government sanctioned floods will damage their properties. They, and state water agencies, say cold water releases by the MDBA are killing off native fish and promoting the proliferation of carp.
They say federal and state governments need to secure Broken Hill's water supply and allow the Menindee Lakes to retain water. They say we should consider how much fresh water is evaporating from the South Australian lower lakes, and whether it would be better for all concerned if this were salt water. This could be accomplished quite easily by removing the barrages that prevent the end of the Murray from returning to its natural estuarine state and building a weir near Wellington to maintain a freshwater source for Adelaide and its irrigators. The Murray River is Australia's only river where we allow fresh water to run out to sea, but we do not allow sea water to flow back in. It is abnormal.
The people of the Murray-Darling are crying out, at the very least, for a cost-benefit analysis of the Basin Plan. They cherish the environment they live in, but say that we need to stop putting people last. Economic and social considerations need to be given equal priority.
I urge the government to respond to the report of the Senate Select Committee before the election, and for this response to accept the committee's 31 majority recommendations. Between now and the election I will pressure the government to better serve the people of the Murray-Darling Basin, and so long as the Liberal Democrats have any representatives in this chamber this pressure will continue after it as well.
I can indicate my support for this bill. I respect Senator Leyonhjelm's differing view in respect of this but I fundamentally disagree with it. I do not believe it is good for the health of the river system—not just in South Australia, but for the entire basin—for salt water to be allowed into the lower lakes. The lower lakes do have an important role. As people such as Professor Mike Young from the University of Adelaide have indicated, they are the lungs of the river system. It is absolutely critical that we have that flow of water. To have a hypersaline environment is something that will ultimately be like gangrene going up the river system, and that is something that worries me considerably.
The Water Amendment (Review Implementation and Other Measures) Bill 2015 does implement a number of measures that are, in a sense, an update of the plan. It is something that has been brought about by discussion and compromise and consultation with basin stakeholders. I note that the South Australian government does not take issue with the bill. I think it is important to establish what the role and the position of the South Australian government is in respect of that. I want to make it clear that, when it comes to water, South Australia—being at the end of the river system—is incredibly vulnerable. Not only are we the driest state on the driest continent, but Australia's greatest river system, the Murray-Darling, winds its way from Queensland through New South Wales, Victoria and, of course, the Australian Capital Territory to the lower lakes in South Australia. The lower lakes are the lungs of the river system. They flush out salt and nutrients essential to maintaining the health of the entire river system.
Whenever there is a drought or overallocation upstream, South Australia's environment and irrigators can suffer the most. I make no apology for doing what I did back in February 2009 when I negotiated with the then Rudd government for $500 million in fast-tracked water buybacks, $200 million for drought-affected communities and another $200 million for much-needed stormwater harvesting. That was for not just the basin but the nation. It also ensured that those irrigators who wished to do so could leave their properties with dignity. These are important factors that need to be considered in the committee stage. I note that there are some amendments. Also, the shadow minister in the other place made reference to there being no definition of environmental activities to assist in the assessment of non-water purchases and the role of the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder in respect of that. I think that ought to be explored in the committee stages of this bill. The point the shadow minister made reference to in his contribution in the other place, about the adjustments to the time line of key review points and milestones in the Water Act and the Basin Plan, does make sense. I agree with him in that but I would like to hear from the government as to what the practical reporting mechanisms are in relation to that.
I also acknowledge the concern I have for the social and economic impacts as well as the environmental impacts. I think there is a synergy between all of those. You need to have good environmental flows in order to have good social and economic outcomes. If you do not have a healthy river system then that puts those social and economic outcomes in jeopardy. I am concerned that the South Australian government announced just last week that the minimum baseline allocation for next year will be 36 per cent, after it was at practically 100 per cent for a number of years after the drought broke. That concerns me, although I do note that it is a baseline; there will not be anything less than that. It is a worrying development and something that I want to take up with the South Australian government, both as to the methodology used and whether the basis of that 36 per cent figure is fair and reasonable for the irrigators in South Australia. That is something, of course, that needs to be ventilated outside of this debate but, in this respect, I think this bill does have a number of measures that are practical, that make sense and that help to implement the Basin Plan. It is not a perfect plan by any means, but the alternative of not having a national approach and not having some methodology that is based on the science would have been much, much worse.
Thirteen billion dollars—it is a lot of money, isn't it? Such large amounts, though, do not trouble politicians; in fact, big figures like this are proudly unveiled at election time. There are big, fat, empty promises laden with money. Of course, $13 billion refers to the total funding for specific initiatives to support water reform in the Murray-Darling Basin. According to the Parliamentary Library, $5 billion has already been spent on what are referred to as 'water programs'. That is a nice, watery, vague term, isn't it—water programs? I have made clear my view on the Murray-Darling Basin Plan and the associated authority. I am not a big fan of the plan and, in my view, it has brought nothing but hardship. It has ruined regional communities, driven farmers to the wall, driven up the price of water and done little for the environment.
Let's get into the real world: $13 billion on one hand, and what have we got on the other? We have real people facing immeasurable hardship, real people facing loss, real people getting out of bed every day and facing the increasing challenge of survival.
On Friday night I received this letter from a real person. June is the wife of a Victorian farmer in the Shire of Gannawarra in northern Victoria. June is not her real name, but that does not matter. I share this letter with the Senate because it explains starkly and clearly the challenges facing our farms. June writes:
Each month my family of four receives $5000 from our farming partnership.
$1600 of this goes on an interest-only payment on the farming land.
$1000 is paid to our farming partners for our interest in the stock — that is, our milking cows heifers calves).
We pay $403 a month on family health insurance.
$470 goes every month on vehicle repayments.
June told me that leaves a total of $1,527 to pay for food, clothes, school fees, household accounts as well as repairs and maintenance of their home for the month. That works out to $381.75 for a family of four. June says there are no discount supermarkets in her area. Fuel is 10c a litre dearer than in Bendigo, just 100 kilometres away. June writes:
Now last week our milk price was suddenly slashed from an already low income.
The cows still need to be feed regardless of if we are being paid or not.
The question was raised of my $381.75 a week allowance … how much could I put back into the farm account to pay feed bills.
So the question is raised do I feed my two children or do I choose to feed the animals that in turn feed us.
I wonder is this a choice any of you have to make.
It is a very good question. How many of us have been faced with such an extraordinary decision? June writes:
I have an Applied Science Degree. My husband has his diploma in agriculture. We are a 'higher' educated family. We work seven days a week. We haven't had a day away from work in well over 18 months.
I - as a farmer's wife with numerous ongoing health issues since having our two children aged 6 and 3 - have taken a job to work off farm, to meet just the basic necessities of life. I'm talking school fees, children's clothing and toilet paper not the latest accessory or an iphone!
While I work off farm rushing from here to there I am criticised for not staying home to raise my family, for not supporting my husband in his endless work and for not being the house wife I should be.
While my friends who have worked their 9-5 hours 5 days a week enjoy 12 plus months of maternity leave I have bundled my children into the car to take with me to meetings I have sat up all night catching up when I have had to nurse a sick child through the day.
There are no family days for farmers, no vacation pay, no long service leave.
She writes that she graduated from university in 2012 and has been working in the same job on the same farm for 14 years. Ten of these years were drought declared. June says:
For some of those years it was through the blessings of the Salvation Army that household bills where paid. We have attended services for friends, fellow farmers, who have taken their own lives. We heard how the milk tanker driver found them hanging from the rafters. Did we ask why? No we didn't have too. I knew why. Some have the fortitude to keep placing one foot in front of the other, to keep moving forward while others no longer have the strength.
The farm the bank owns for us was once a thriving dairy farm. The channel system was laid with a bullock team and the system flowed with gravity feed as the farm was carefully planned.
When we moved in the farm had not a blade of grass on it after 10 years of drought. In that time the water right had been sold off it leaving only a stock and domestic usage capability of a mere 19 mega litres.
Fortunately that year we had a break and the farm showed its lush full potential. A dairy was rebuilt, fences erected and the cows moved in.
Then June makes another salient point. She says:
In the country's wisdom water has been sold away from the land holders. Now it becomes a game for the investors who wait until farmers are desperate. They wait until it's so dry that farmers have to buy water to keep their animals alive. Speculators wait until then because that is when they will make the biggest profit.
June explains that her farm is entitled to have the usage of 385 megalitres on the current market. That would be $103,950 for the use of that water for one season.
If we do not use the water we have purchased in this season, the water body reclaims that water and we are unable to use it next season.
Don't be tempted to pre buy for next year at a reasonable price because you won't be able to use it anyway. Now if we attempt to buy that entitlement permanently it would cost $847 000.
I repeat: for June and her husband to buy a permanent entitlement for their small farm, it would cost $847,000. This is madness. It is extortion. But wait; there's a catch. June says:
The organisations overseeing water will only allocate a percentage of that water for your actual use. So we are left to buy the minimal amount of water to get through. This means we can no longer grow our own supplement feed. So we have to outsource for grain and hay. However, those farmers are also hanging out for the highest price. They have bills to pay too.
As a normal business would work you add up how much the product has cost to produce and then add on your profit yes?? N0000000! No this is when the CEO's in the city step in and dictate how much they will pay you and you have to try and work in those parameters to make a profit.
No wonder our farmers are committing suicide. June says—and I agree with her:
Surely by now you can see how this system can not possibly work. Farmers are being stripped bare, paying premium prices selling at ridiculously low prices and being charged for the freight. Meanwhile forests are burning down because they are not grazed and there is too much fuel on the ground. Rivers are going stagnant and growing algae because of the lack of flow.
Good healthy Australian produce is being decimated and replaced on the supermarket shelves with imported products not grown to our exacting standards, imported products full of chemicals and enhancers that are being fed to an ever-increasing society with major health issues.
June asks a crucial question:
What happened to common sense?
While farmers struggle and country towns die, new stadiums replace perfectly good stadiums that already exist. I have seen the floor in the Bendigo market place be replaced three times in as many years. Why when it's made of concrete?
WASTE so much selfish waste in our country. Australia is a country driven by selfish wants as opposed to what it needs to survive. While other countries come in and buy farm land and water to secure food for their nations, Australia throws a temper tantrum until they get their latest … iPhone. It is a disgrace what this country has become.
June finishes on a poignant note. She says her six-year-old son has a dream:
He dreams of owning the family farm and a contract harvesting business. He has a plan to house a team of Clydesdales so that on the front of his farm he can turn the soil the old way and show people how it was done. Then on the main part of the farm he plans to use his modern day machinery to till and plant and harvest to show people how he grows the food.
June tell me her mission is to outlast this era of selfishness and stupidity and to hold onto her land at least so that maybe her children have a chance. She asks:
How will we do that? We already have a backup plan if the stock have to go. It will be one less farm growing food for Australians.
June says she has learnt this country values money more highly than food. She says:
So maybe we will both have to work off farm to keep our kids alive. But know this while you all eat petrified food imported and kept for months in transport, I'll be eating fresh Australian vegetables, home-grown lamb and beef and I'll continue to at least milk a cow for us. Why? Because I'm a farmer and I know how to grow the best food. Just because Australia chooses not to eat home grown doesn't mean we have to.
June is understandably angry:
Enjoy the destruction Australia, I hope the cash you are bleeding from Australian farmers tastes as good as our steak because the cash is all you'll have.
June finishes off with a solution. She says:
Re-gift the young farmers with water rights. Re-open the grazing land. Ban water being taken from the land. Give the farmers a chance to produce the food you want to eat. Stop importing cheap subsidised products. See to the country's needs. You don't let a petulant child dictate what is for dinner. Stand up and lead with dignity justice and strength. A government is meant to strengthen a country not destroy it.
I do not support the plan, but I will vote in support of these amendments. If they bring only a pinch of improvement and relief for our farmers and our irrigators, they deserve to be passed. But may this be only the start of the return of common sense to our agricultural and water policy in this country.
Question agreed to.
Bill read a second time.