Wednesday, 14 February 2018
Regulations and Determinations
Basin Plan Amendment Instrument 2017 (No. 1); Disallowance
That the Basin Plan Amendment Instrument 2017 (No. 1), made under the Water Act 2007, be disallowed.
This motion is very important. As a South Australian senator it is increasingly important to my home state of SA and, of course, it is important to the health of the entire Murray-Darling Basin system. After decades of debate on how we share the water throughout the Murray-Darling Basin in a way that would be fair and in a way that would keep the river alive, the Commonwealth and the various states came up with the Murray-Darling Basin Plan five years ago. The nexus of that plan was that too much water was being taken out of the river and the river just simply wouldn't survive unless something was corrected.
Five years on we've seen scandal after scandal, allegations of corruption and water being stolen from the environment—siphoned off by big corporate irrigators, only to simply feather their own nests. Yet hundreds of millions, in fact billions, of dollars in taxpayers' money has been spent buying water that is meant to be for the environment, only to then have no idea—as we've seen from leaked correspondence from the Environmental Water Holder and as confirmed by the Murray-Darling Basin Authority themselves—how much water there actually is for the river and for the environment.
There are several investigations underway into a number of these allegations of theft and corruption. We have the issues in relation to Norman Farming. The Queensland senior crimes unit is investigating Norman Farming—which, I might point out, is run by a man related by marriage to the Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources, David Littleproud. The minister's own relative by marriage is being investigated on issues of water theft and corruption. We have investigations underway in Victoria. We have a royal commission into water theft in South Australia. We know that there are New South Wales water bureaucrats being hauled into the Independent Commission Against Corruption because of allegations of water theft and mismanagement.
Despite all of this, we have a regulation before us in this place that suggests the Murray-Darling Basin Plan should be amended to take more water out of the river, to take more water off the environment and to hand it to big corporate irrigators upstream. It is rewarding bad behaviour. That is why today's vote is very, very important. Amongst this cesspool of water theft, corruption and mismanagement, why on earth would this parliament sign off on giving more water to the people who have behaved badly and less water to the river that desperately needs it?
I just want to point out that many people may think that in fact this Northern Basin Review and its results were actually written into the Basin Plan and that, as such, that voting on this disallowance motion is either voting for the plan or not. I want to be very clear: that is not the case here. What the plan allows for is a review, but it is up to the Senate to scrutinise that to ensure it is robust and appropriate. In the environment of all the allegations of corruption, water theft and a lack of credible data or reliance on science, it is right for this Senate to say, 'No, we're not going to take an extra 70 billion litres of water out of the river and off the environment to reward bad behaviour.' In fact what is allowed for in the Murray-Darling Basin Plan is a review, but there is no insistence that the water going to the environment should be increased or indeed decreased. You'd have to have the evidence on the table for that argument.
Of course, we've seen from many experts who have looked at the detail of the Northern Basin Review that that evidence just isn't there and that the assumptions that have underpinned this regulation are inherently flawed. For example, the modelling assumes compliance. We've seen over and over again that there is no compliance throughout the Murray-Darling Basin. There is no compliance that has been able to stop the theft of billions of litres of water that was meant to be for the environment, paid for by the Australian taxpayer, that is now being siphoned off into dams by greedy, big corporate irrigators in upstream states. In fact, the Ken Matthews review highlights clearly that compliance is lacking and insufficient. Yet that is one of the key assumptions that this regulation put forward by the government is based on, so it is already flawed from the beginning.
The MDBA have said themselves that compliance isn't good enough. We know that the environmental flows downstream must be coordinated, and there is no way that that can be measured properly by the Murray-Darling Basin Authority at this point. Of course, the lack of consultation in relation to this regulation is astounding too. The communities that are inherently going to be affected by this have cried foul and that this government and the process of this were corrupted from the beginning. The trust in the Murray-Darling Basin Plan is wafer thin because people can see for themselves the mess that has been created by big corporate irrigators who have been taking too much water, getting too greedy and having a blind eye turned to them by the water minister—particularly the former water minister, Minister Joyce, who perhaps, if he'd spent a bit more time focused on his day job, would have known that this was going on.
But let's be clear: the Nationals from the beginning have not ever supported the Basin Plan to a point that would ensure the environment got its fair share. We know that right from the beginning the National Party criticised, didn't think the environment deserved as much, didn't care about downstream states and always tried to undermine this process. Of course it was the former water minister, Barnaby Joyce, who said that it was all a Greenie conspiracy that there were allegations of water theft and irrigators downstream crying poor and saying that the water was being ripped off by their big corporate neighbours. That doesn't sound like a Greenie conspiracy to me. It sounds like community members sick and tired of being ripped off by big players. Of course, the former water minister, Barnaby Joyce, boasted that, because the Nationals had the water portfolio, he would do his job to keep as much water for big irrigators as he could. This regulation that is on the table and that we are voting on here today is proof of that.
We know that there are significant problems with the way water is being managed throughout the Murray-Darling Basin. We know that billions and billions of dollars have been spent, and no-one can tell us where the water is and where the money went. We need an independent audit before we start playing with the rules. Voting down this regulation by voting for this disallowance motion will give the Murray-Darling Basin Plan the chance to be fixed, the chance to have integrity so desperately needed reinjected into the process and the chance to ensure that the river, the environment and those communities that rely on a healthy Murray-Darling won't simply be left high and dry.
There are parts of surface water that simply aren't metered at all. I must say, as a South Australian, that I'm very proud of how South Australia manages the water that comes over the border into our state. South Australians overwhelmingly are doing the right thing. Among the states, South Australia has the highest meter rating, with 96 per cent of all take from the river being metered. Meanwhile, as the Murray-Darling Basin Authority's own water compliance review found, in the northern basin it's as low as 25 per cent. That means 75 per cent of surface water diversions are not metered at all. We've got no idea, but what we do know, because communities are starting to cry foul, is that big corporate irrigators got too greedy. They got too ahead of themselves digging trenches, siphoning off water, pocketing the taxpayers' money and hoping no-one would notice. Well, we have noticed. We've noticed right throughout the basin, particularly down in South Australia, and we're not happy about it.
This instrument cannot go ahead if we want a Murray-Darling Basin Plan that is actually going to work for the river and the communities that rely on it. We should not be rewarding bad behaviour. Big corporate irrigators are ripping off the river and ripping off the taxpayer, and all this instrument does is reward them. The Senate should vote for this disallowance motion, send it back to the government and say: until you clean up this mess, there is no way we're going to start to take more water off the river just to give it to those who have already been too greedy by far.
I rise to speak on behalf of the Labor Party on this disallowance motion and make clear that Labor will be voting to disallow this instrument. We do so because we support the plan; in fact, we're the party that delivered the plan. It was Labor that delivered the Murray-Darling Basin Plan in government and it is Labor that will fight today to save that plan—the whole plan, the entire plan—for all Australians.
It's useful, I think, to have a little bit of history when it comes to the plan, because it was a long time in the making, in many ways a century in the making. It was agreed only after 11 weeks of negotiations by governments right across the basin, and it was the first time that all basin jurisdictions had come together and agreed to manage the basin coherently.
I went back and looked at the Advertiser articles from that time—written, actually, by the much loved Greg Kelton—and the paper remarked at the time:
Getting all the signatories to agree to the 47 points in the Memorandum of Understanding signed by the Commonwealth and the states was, according to one source, "taxing".
I was the water minister in that room, in that COAG discussion with former Prime Minister Rudd, and together we brokered that deal, and I can tell you that 'taxing' doesn't even begin to describe what we had to go through to get all the states, as well as the Commonwealth, on board. But we did it; we did it as a Labor government with the support of the states.
I would make this point, notwithstanding that very impassioned speech by Senator Hanson-Young: the one party that has not supported the plan, and did not support it when we implemented it in government, is the Greens. They didn't support the plan at the time and, I have to say on this, have been happy to grandstand but have never delivered a single drop to the River Murray. When Senator Hanson-Young goes out in the media and calls on me and other Labor Party senators to stand firm on the River Murray, I would remind people listening that the Greens didn't support the plan and they've never delivered a single drop of water. They continue to lecture me and others in this place about the need to enforce a plan they have never supported. I tell you who did deliver the water, and that is the Labor government. I am proud that as water minister in that government between 2007 and 2010 I secured almost a thousand gigalitres of water for the river, something for which I have been criticised, to this day, by the National Party and various irrigation communities, perhaps even by you, Mr Acting Deputy President Williams—as you're entitled to do, but I do make that point. It was something that was hard fought and remains hard fought.
I'm also proud to be part of Labor's ongoing fight to ensure this plan is delivered on time and in full. We will not stand by and see the plan wrecked after a Labor government delivered a historic agreement, at the Council of Australian Governments, that for the first time in a century ensured all the jurisdictions along the Murray-Darling Basin were directed to one end—that is, the health of the basin. I am not going to stand by and see a plan that was delivered under legislation that a Labor government delivered wrecked by this government.
Let's understand why the plan is at risk. The plan is at risk because Mr Turnbull handed the National Party the water portfolio. He did so because, in order to secure his own job, he needed to keep Mr Joyce and his colleagues happy with a plan they did not support. It is the years of backsliding under this government, and particularly under the Deputy Prime Minister, that have brought us to this point, where this Senate is forced to disallow the instrument on the table. This was no accident. Let's remember that it is Mr Joyce who said that the plan didn't have a hope in Hades of being delivered. It is Mr Joyce who said that South Australians should move where the water is. You can't deliver half a plan, and that is fact.
We have had extraordinarily serious allegations of water theft and corruption in the northern basin. They confirm South Australians' worst fears. Yet Mr Joyce's response made it clear he had no intention of doing anything about those allegations. You know what he said? He said it's overwhelmingly an issue for New South Wales. As my friend and colleague Tony Burke pointed out:
The problem for 100 years was that the Murray-Darling Basin was treated as a state issue rather than as a complete river system. What Barnaby Joyce has said today effectively unwinds the entire reason for Murray-Darling reform in the first place.
Even worse, when Mr Joyce thought the media weren't listening, he made his contempt for the plan crystal clear. Out of his own mouth he told irrigators in Shepparton that the Four Corners expose of water theft was a plot to steal their water:
We have taken water, put it back into agriculture, so we could look after you and make sure we don't have the greenies running the show … Four Corners, you know what that's all about? It's about them trying to take more water off you …
These are incredibly serious allegations, with credible evidence of theft and corruption, and he says it's about trying to take the water off irrigators. That's the federal minister responsible for water publicly condoning water theft, for which he is responsible, and making it very clear he had absolutely no intention of backing the plan he was required by law to enforce. He was happy for the water to be diverted and to see the plan wrecked. When we are followed in this debate and in the media by Senators Birmingham, Ruston and others, who I'm sure have a slightly different view to Mr Joyce, let's remember that the people who put the plan at risk are the National Party and the people who put the National Party in charge of the plan are the Liberal Party.
Frankly, Mr Joyce's performance is simply not good enough for all of those whose lives and livelihoods depend upon the health of the Murray-Darling. The person who should shoulder most of the blame for this is Prime Minister Turnbull, because he allowed Mr Joyce to take control of water, knowing full well it was his intention to wreck the plan by walking away from the commitment to deliver the full 450 gigalitres to South Australia. We need to restore confidence in the plan, and that means ensuring what this government promised and committed to is upheld—that is, the Murray-Darling Basin Plan delivered on time and in full—and that the 450 gigalitres of water for the environment will be delivered.
The South Australian government, led by Jay Weatherill, has fought hard for that. It is a key part of the plan. We need to ensure that environmental water, paid for by taxpayers, is not simply diverted to irrigation dams. Until we can guarantee that water purchased by taxpayers gets to the parts of the river where it is needed, it is difficult for us to support the northern basin proposal. Until this government demonstrates it is serious about tackling the allegations of theft and corruption in the basin, we are not in a position to support the northern basin proposal. Let's remember that Labor put this plan in place, fought for additional water for the environment and put money on the table to make it happen. We need the plan to be delivered in full. As Mr Burke has said:
Now, you can't have a situation where the Australian taxpayer is paying for environmental water and environmental watering events being organised and that exact water is being pumped straight back into dams.
We want to make sure that the review is done comprehensively and that the rules that have created significant problems for the integrity of this whole system are dealt with at the same time.
I'm pleased to say that Labor has been in discussions with the new minister for water to try to resolve these issues. We acknowledge the challenges he faces in cleaning up the mess that has been left by the Deputy Prime Minister, and we are pleased that there are signs that this minister, unlike Mr Joyce, does appear to be interested in dealing with these issues, including the issue of water theft. But Labor cannot today say those issues have been resolved. They have not, and time has run out.
We have said the whole way through we cannot allow a reduction in the volume while it is still possible for environmental water to be pumped back into irrigation. We want the Murray-Darling Basin Plan to survive; it is the plan we delivered in government. But we cannot agree today to reducing the volume of water without the proper assurances that the basin will remain healthy and that work is delivered that addresses serious concerns around compliance. These concerns are not just ours and they continue to be aired, whether it's on Four Corners or, I think last night, on 7.30, along with other information that is put into the public arena by people who live in the basin.
We are prepared to work constructively with the government and the authority—the Murray-Darling Basin Authority—to deliver a genuine outcome. I hope this plan doesn't fall apart—we worked very hard on it for many years—but if it does, I'll tell you where the responsibility would lie: the responsibility would lie with the government that has, for the past four years, allowed the Deputy Prime Minister to wreck it for partisan interest at odds with the needs of the river and the needs of the overwhelming majority of the people who rely on the river.
This isn't just about South Australia or Queensland or Victoria or New South Wales; it is about whether our greatest river system has a future. And it is about whether there is a Commonwealth government that is prepared to act in the interests of all Australians to safeguard that river system for all, for now and for the years ahead.
I come to this debate relatively late in the piece. My interest in the health and wellbeing of the Murray-Darling Basin system was piqued by the Four Corners report into the allegations of theft and corruption upstream. That's why I joined with most of my South Australian colleagues to say there needed to be a royal commission into the Murray-Darling Basin allegations and the theft.
In not knowing what I don't know, I've been open to all sorts of representations. I have to say my judgement has been clouded by the lack of disclosure in some instances, the wilful misrepresentation of particular points of view by those with vested interests. I've tried to balance those against those whom I respect and have judgement for. I do want to acknowledge that Senator Ruston—the second time today I've damned Senator Ruston with faint praise—has tried to be a very straight player in this, and I do accept that what she has told me has been accurate and said in very good faith. But I still labour over this decision. I labour over it because I'm deeply concerned about the long-term wellbeing and health of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan.
But this is tempered by the fact that I don't like being bullied by people who I think have essentially been crooked in this. For the New South Wales government to say the entire Basin Plan is at risk over 70 gigalitres of water, when they are essentially on the hook for undermining the entire effort—turning a blind eye to it and, I would say, blatant, outright corruption—is appalling. And if bullying or threatening these sorts of tactics are the ways they want to get a resolution, they should think again because they don't have any credibility in this space.
I also happen to agree with Senator Wong about the problems with the Deputy Prime Minister being in charge of the water portfolio. I think there was enormous compromise there. I respect the fact that many people say the new minister is committed. I've had meetings with him, and he's been committed to this program. But my confidence in the new minister was undermined when, shamefully, he decided to put out a press release calling upon a party member of mine, who happens to be in Queensland, to 'stand up for Queensland'. A member of a political party has been told to stand up against this South Australian-centric politician who's here representing the interests of the state and trying to balance it across the whole thing. And the minister said, 'The people in Queensland would be worse off as a result of this disallowance today.'
Where it falls on shamefully hollow ground is the fact that the minister himself is related to one of the people in Queensland who have been accused of rorting the water systems themselves. They've been raided. It doesn't matter whether Mr Norman is the brother-in-law, as reported, or the wife's second cousin. There is a direct link with someone who has been rorting the water system or is alleged to have been, whose farms have been raided by the Federal Police, who has been accused of building 'roads'—in those quotation marks again—that just happen to store piles of water from the flood plains and prevent it getting down the river. The fact that this wasn't disclosed, except by the ABC, and I had to start digging through it and find out about it in recent times is extraordinary.
So, if the minister wants to harangue one of my party members about standing up for Queensland's rights, perhaps the minister would stand up for Queensland's rights and his electorate and tell his brother-in-law, or his wife's second cousin, to bulldoze those illegal structures, to stop ripping off water, to stop ripping off the money from the Murray-Darling Basin system, as have been detailed on the ABC.
I will not stand for the hypocrisy in this place. I do not know what I do not know. I have made efforts to find out what it is. Every time you turn around, you get this stench of crookedness and corruption, and unfortunately it all comes from a very similar space.
I am absolutely proud of what South Australians have done in managing a scarce and precious resource. We—and people far more interested, far more energetic, than me—have worked very, very hard in making sure we manage our water rights absolutely well, and we are being let down by what is happening upstream.
I do not trust them. That is the regret. They want to walk away from this basin agreement, an agreement that they signed up to. But, when they find it slightly difficult because of—who knows?—one of the people that have been on the receiving end of their beneficial allocations, or the illegal water structures, or the mismanagement and misallocation of taps, they go to water, if you'll excuse the pun, and expect the rest of us to pick it up.
As I said, I don't know what I don't know, but what I do know is this: the lack of trust and the lack of accountability fills me with scepticism. For that reason alone, I will be supporting this disallowance, because to make changes of this nature, which could have a profound impact not only on my state but on the entire Murray-Darling Basin river system, due to threats, bullying and intimidation is not the way that business in this place should be done.
I rise to contribute to the debate on the disallowance motion moved by Senator Hanson-Young. I can indicate to the chamber that the Nick Xenophon Team will be supporting this disallowance. It is a decision that we have considered carefully, and it is a decision that we have not taken lightly. The Murray-Darling river system is a vital national resource. In my first speech I said that ensuring the health of the Murray-Darling river system so that it's sustainable from both an economic and an environmental point of view was an important priority.
There is a rich history behind the Murray-Darling Basin, and the establishment of an overarching management for the whole of the basin was not without dispute. It took the severe Federation Drought, from 1895 to 1902, to bring the states together to start to agree on the management of the Murray. From the 1970s through to the 1990s, state governments undertook initiatives to sustainably manage land and water. An intergovernmental approach was needed, and in 1987 the first Murray-Darling Basin agreement was reached, which established the Murray-Darling Basin Commission. With the passage of the Water Act in 2007, the establishment of the Murray-Darling Basin Authority and the development of the Basin Plan with bipartisan support, there was a hope that the dispute would be resolved. However, over 100 years later, and five years after the plan was implemented, it is apparent that that dispute still exists.
While NXT is supportive of the plan being implemented in full, there has been a significant reduction in public confidence in the plan's implementation over the past 12 months. We've heard a few of the allegations around the chamber. I did travel to Goondiwindi last year and visited one of the farms that have been talked about on the ABC, and these allegations are serious.
NXT is not alone in its view about the lack of confidence. It is a view that has been expressed by a variety of stakeholders and, indeed, government authorities, and that includes the New South Wales government's Matthews review and the federal Murray-Darling Basin Water Compliance Review. The solution to restoring this confidence lies with a range of measures relating to both transparency and compliance. I would like to take this opportunity to put on the record some of these measures.
NXT is firmly of the view that transparency must be codified before proceeding further with the plan. As a minimum, the following must be released publicly for any proposed water measure, including water buybacks: all modelling and modelling reports, not limited to the final proposals, but those carried out to evaluate the effects of any measures; an independent assessment of the measures; and, in the case of water buybacks, all valuation and assessments made by the government and including independent valuations assessments, which must be made public. The contracts to implement the measures must also be made public. In the case of water buybacks, the contracts should show as a minimum the expenditure amount, the scope of the work associated with the expenditure amount, and the associated volumes of water. In respect of the contracts, we also need to see verification reports showing that the contracts have been complied with. We also need to disclose validation reports—I will talk about those a little bit later—to make sure that we understand that the measure that was intended has been achieved. All complaints in respect of noncompliance must be published on an annual basis, de-identified as required, including a report as to the outcome of any investigation triggered by a complaint.
NXT is also of the view that a number of compliance measures must be put in place before proceeding with the plan. Measures that must be addressed include basin-wide accurate, reliable and tamper-proof metering and the implementation of real-time water accounts. These are not radical ideas. These are ideas that actually reside within the Murray-Darling Basin Water Compliance Review recommendations. Furthermore, all water measures should be subject to strict verification and validation procedures to show contract compliance and, again, the effectiveness of the measure. So, we do something to the river and then we measure it to make sure that what we've done is achieving the results that we thought we were paying for. There must be a substantial increase in the number of compliance officers across the basin, including the Murray-Darling Basin Authority compliance officers. New South Wales has one compliance officer per 355 gigalitres of diversions. Queensland has one per 235 gigalitres. South Australia has one per 56 gigalitres.
It is acknowledged that there have been a number of useful recommendations flowing from the Matthews review and the Murray-Darling Basin Water Compliance Review, particularly in relation to compliance measures. It is noted that timetables have been put in place to implement the recommendations. Nonetheless, the implementation of the recommendations is subject to risk. That's been overtly stated in the case of the Matthews review.
Time is required for the recommendations to be implemented and to bite into the issues they are intended to resolve. It is not an unreasonable position to delay any changes to the plan until the recommendations start to deliver positive outcomes. It is noted that Queensland's independent audit of Queensland's non-urban water measurement and compliance will not report until March 2018. This may be a critical piece of the compliance puzzle. Let's wait and see what it says.
In relation to the northern basin, NXT has concerns with respect to the modelling associated with the Northern Basin Review. For example, the modelling omitted certain hydrological indicators on the Barwon-Darling River, thereby not properly considering the impact of reduced water recovery on low flows, and the modelling was based on best-case scenarios. Another aspect of the changes, for instance, is a lack of statutory requirement to protect water that is recovered with taxpayers' money. These concerns have been exacerbated by The Australia Institute's 'Northern disclosure' paper, which came out a few days ago, which makes a claim that the effect of the proposed SDL adjustments to South Australia has varied from 20 gigalitres down to four gigalitres without any explanation as to the change. Some light needs to be shed on the reasoning behind those changes so we can be confident that what is finally presented is correct.
I will also talk to the SDL adjustments, because—as I will come to—we need to think about an integrated approach to moving forward. Talking about some of the issues associated with the 36 projects that will be used to offset the 605 gigalitre changes, NXT has sought the Murray-Darling Basin Authority's acceptance of the 36 projects by way of a Senate order for production last week so that we can examine the authority's view on the projects as a counterweight to the public perception, which is currently bad. It is important to see this information in order to be informed with respect to any final decisions on the SDL adjustment mechanisms. I note the government is cooperating.
It is also NXT's understanding that the Water Act states that, in setting the SDLs, the Murray-Darling Basin Authority must act on the basis of best available scientific knowledge and on socioeconomic analysis. They must take into account the principles of ecological sustainment and development and give effect to relevant international agreements. The proposed amendments include a provision for states to request a reallocation of the SDLs between valleys within basin zones, for example, within the northern basin of New South Wales. This amendment suggests the MDBA has left it open to a state to vary the SDLs by valley outside the recommendations in the Northern Basin Review or the SDL adjustment mechanisms. Such a change would be outside any parliamentary process and there is no requirement for the revised SDLs to be set with regard to best available scientific knowledge and socioeconomic analysis, principles of ecological sustainable development or relevant international agreements—so there's a problem there.
Any scientific algorithm that was used to initially justify the SDL can subsequently be replaced by an alternate algorithm by the MDBA and the states behind closed doors, and this proposition is clearly unacceptable. The MDBA did not consult publicly on this amendment. It is NXT's view that changes to the plan should be presented in an integrated package: that being, changes resulting from the Northern Basin Review—and we accept that there needs to be some adjustments—changes to the southern basin SDLs and the 450 gigalitre efficiency measures. Ernst & Young reported into the feasible of the 450 gigalitre efficiency measures, but we note that it is, at this stage, only advice to government. This advice needs to be transformed into an approved action plan, which is presented at the same time as changes flowing from the Northern Basin Review and changes to the southern basin SDL adjustments. NXT support for the changes to the plan are contingent on this sort of integrated approach.
The Nick Xenophon Team strongly believes there is a way forward. The Murray-Darling Basin Plan is a national plan that represents a sensible compromise across competing requirements, including socioeconomic and environmental requirements. No stakeholder was completely happy with the plan, but they recognised its importance. It is noted that some stakeholders have indicated that the disallowance of the instrument before this parliament would cause the plan to collapse. That is in nobody's interests and it will be for the government to ensure this does not occur. In support of the government, NXT indicates that it is willing to support the passage of the instruments through the parliament, just not under the current circumstances. A pause is required for some issues to be addressed and to permit implementation of the recommendations of the various reviews, including the Queensland review when it reports. The Northern Basin Review instrument can be brought back before the parliament, and NXT is open to agreeing to amend the Water Act to allow the SDL adjustments to come back before the parliament.
There is a suggestion from the New South Wales government that a successful disallowance today would cause them to walk away from the plan. I have to say this is a little disingenuous, considering the New South Wales government has its own serious river compliance problems. Their own Matthews review stated this clearly. Indeed, there is an ICAC investigation underway into corruption on the Barwon-Darling.
Everyone needs to remain cool headed. We are dealing with a national river system that must be managed on a national level. Abandoning the plan would be counterproductive, and, again, the government must act to ensure that does not occur. It seems everyone agrees there is a problem, including governments, and there is general agreement on what needs to be done to fix it. The solution just needs time to be implemented, and the Nick Xenophon Team believes supporting the disallowance on the Northern Basin Review gives us that time.
Yes, it does work like that, but it also works with a bit of fairness, Senator Cameron. We've had the Greens, Senator Bernardi, Labor, the crossbench, and no government at this stage. I'm trying to be fair and go from side to side, as the chair normally does. We just took a speaker from that side of the chamber. Now I'm taking a speaker from this side.
I'm tempted to vote in favour of this disallowance. What holds me back is that I'm not sure if New South Wales and Victoria would, in fact, stand by their decision to walk away from the plan. But I wouldn't be too upset if they were to walk away from the plan, because the plan is deeply flawed. It requires social, economic and environmental issues to be equally balanced in terms of managing the water in the Murray-Darling Basin. However, the problem is that only one of those three—environmental issues—is seriously taken into account.
The plan arose in the context of the millennium drought, the most severe drought for 100 years. It prompted panic about climate change and it led some to conclude that droughts were the new normal, that it would never rain again, that water would always be scarce and the environment was facing catastrophe. Sensible people knew otherwise. Droughts always end, and, in 2010-11, that happened. There was widespread flooding and the recovery of wetlands. Birds bred enthusiastically, frogs and fish proliferated, and life carried on as it always has. Dorothea Mackellar's Australia—'a land of droughts and flooding rains'—was never better demonstrated.
During the drought, this plan was devised—first by the Howard government and then by the Rudd-Gillard government. Its intention was to remove water from agriculture in order to save the environment. The details were negotiated during the Labor government period against a background of panic over the drought, state bickering over water sharing, and the threat to Labor from the Greens. As a result, the plan was one per cent science and 99 per cent politics.
The plan calls for the return of 2,750 gigalitres of water to the environment, to be obtained both by buying back water rights from farmers and efficiency measures. There is a further 450 gigalitres to be returned, subject to certain conditions. Water rights have been bought back from farmers in southern Queensland, the northern basin area, New South Wales and Victoria, and a small quantity from South Australia.
In 2015 and 2016, I chaired a Senate inquiry into the effects of the plan's implementation. We held hearings all over the country. What we found was that the loss of irrigation water in Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria was having a very profound impact on rural communities. Farms that previously grew irrigated crops—fruit, cotton and pasture for dairy cows—were now growing dryland crops or running a few sheep. They required far fewer inputs—machinery, fertilisers, seeds and so forth—and, as a result, those input suppliers were the ones who were missing out and their workers. The farmers who sold their water were fine, but everybody else who benefitted from those farmers and those farms being active were really suffering. Workers moved away from towns. Communities had fewer people. There were fewer children in schools, volunteer firefighters weren't there and there were fewer customers in local shops and so on.
What we also found was that there's very, very poor understanding of the plan. There's this almost religious belief that the environment simply needs water—just add water and it will all be okay. It doesn't really matter whether it's in the right place, in the right quantities or at the right times—just add water was pretty much what we heard. The fact is, of course, that too much water in the wrong place can do more harm than good.
There is another factor, which nobody seems to be addressing, and that is the river at the moment, in particular the Murray River, is running pretty much right up to the top of the bank. More water added to it, as the 450 gigalitres extra would do, couldn't be carried. The river could not carry that amount of water. Nonetheless, it is often heard that unless that water is added some sort of environmental disaster is going to occur.
I struggle to see why this was ever a South Australian issue, particularly in relation to the Northern Basin Review. The northern basin is all about the Barwon-Darling rivers. The amount of water from those two rivers that ever reach South Australia, or even join up with the Murray at Wentworth, is tiny—on average, across all years, six per cent. It's a tiny amount. It wouldn't matter if irrigation stopped in the entire Queensland and New South Wales areas, where it currently occurs; there would be very, very little additional water ending up in South Australia.
The other problem is: when it does end up in South Australia, what's it used for? It's not as if irrigation in South Australia has been suffering. It ends up in Lake Alexandrina. Lake Alexandrina is kept artificially fresh. It is not a natural freshwater lake. It is an artificial freshwater lake. Large amounts of water, an estimated 900 gigalitres, evaporate in Lake Alexandrina. Here we are taking fresh water, which could be used for agriculture, away from what were thriving rural communities—used for irrigation and so forth to produce food and fibre—and it is running down the river and ending up in South Australia to be evaporated. It's an absolute travesty. If that plan were to blow up and not be re-established unless on more sensible terms, I, for one, would not really mind.
The other issue is South Australia's water supply; it was never in doubt. There is plenty of water for Adelaide. There is plenty of water for South Australia. In fact, there is a guarantee in the plan of 850 gigalitres—more than enough. I am hugely sympathetic to those poor farmers in northern Australia, in Queensland, and in northern New South Wales, who, in the Northern Basin Review, have lost their water. I'm immensely sympathetic to them. Taking more water off them, which would occur if this review were not implemented, would be an absolute tragedy. I will be voting against the disallowance, but, if I thought that voting in favour of it would blow up the plan then that's where my vote would be going.
Senator Cameron interjecting—
Senator McAllister has been here waiting patiently to get the call. You ignored her last time. You said you would go from side to side. I really think you should do what you said last time—go from side to side, and, as you said, be fair.
I had a point of order, but I won't waste any time so that I can let Senator McAllister speak. I stand here speaking on behalf of the coalition government to stress the absolute importance of the delivery of this plan in full and on time, not just to the people of South Australia, as Senator Leyonhjelm has just described, but to every single citizen of Australia. Every single citizen of Australia has a stake in this plan. This is a shared resource. The importance of making sure that we have a sustainable Murray-Darling system into the future is absolutely paramount because it is the obligation of this generation to make sure that that river is in the same state or a better state and a sustainable state for future generations.
The development of this plan has been a long time coming, Mr Acting Deputy President, as you would well know. We worked for 100 years to be able to get to this place and this time. In 2012 then-Minister Burke, the Labor minister who was responsible for water, sat down and managed to negotiate the bipartisan support for the delivery of this plan. This plan is not bits and pieces; this plan is a total plan. It includes up-water, it includes down-water and it includes gap water. There are reviews built into it to enable us to adaptively manage as we get more information. This whole plan has been built on the bipartisanship of the support between the coalition—the Liberals and the Nationals—and the Labor Party. So it is with great regret that I stand here today with the suggestion that there is some likelihood that this disallowance motion will get up and put this plan at risk.
I would also say that one of the great things when we as Australians and as people in this place travel around the world is that we are the envy of the rest of the world because of our water management policies in this place and in this country. We're the envy of the world because we tackled a huge problem like the Murray-Darling Basin. We got together and we provided a blueprint for that solution. We are six years into the 14-year delivery on that plan, and it scares the hell out of me that we would suggest that for political reasons—which appear to be the reasons today—we may disallow one of the important components of the plan and that we could actually put this plan in jeopardy. I suppose that, whilst I'm disappointed in Senator Hanson-Young's disallowance motion, I don't suppose I'm particularly surprised. I certainly don't believe she's about the sustainability of the system; I believe this is all about the fact that the Greens don't want us to grow food in the Murray-Darling Basin. They don't want us to take any water out. I'm not particularly surprised at their obstruction.
I would like to put on the record that there were many things in Senator Hanson-Young's contribution that were factually incorrect. There was no acknowledgement for the good practices that have been put in place in the basin. There was a total over-exaggeration in relation to the threat. They come in here and they make allegations under privilege. Senator Hanson-Young came in here and said John Norman was Minister Littleproud's brother-in-law. He's not Minister Littleproud's brother-in-law, and I'm sure she probably knows that. But the inference and the insinuation, by making these accusations, is that something untoward is going on. I would suggest that if she's going to make those insinuations she could go outside of this chamber to make them so Minister Littleproud has an opportunity to respond.
The amendment that is currently before us that we are seeking to pass through this chamber is an amendment that's actually been generated through a review that was put in place, into the Water Act, by Minister Bourke when he was the minister responsible for water in the previous Labor government. What we are seeing here today is a response to a completely complied-with consulted review put in place by Mr Burke. Now we have a suggestion from Senator Wong that they are now going to vote against the very outcome of the review they sought to have. In the northern basin, 200 people's jobs are going to be threatened if this particular amendment is disallowed today. There is no recognition that there is the potential to deliver really good outcomes and really good environmental outcomes in the northern basin with the delivery of the water targets that we are proposing now should be implemented. The livelihood of 200 people—200 families—are not going to be destroyed for the sake of a very nominal and potentially negligent improvement in environmental outcomes. I would call on the Labor Party to think about the hypocrisy of what they are doing here. Think about the hypocrisy of the fact that you are seeking to vote down an amendment that was of your own making.
Can I also say how tremendously disappointed I am in the Nick Xenophon Team for coming in here and indicating that they don't want to support the amendment either; they're going to support the disallowance. This is Humpty Dumpty politics as its absolute worst. I have read the correspondence that we have seen from the Nick Xenophon Team and I have listened to the contribution of the Nick Xenophon Team. They come in here and say they want to work with us and that they want to deliver the plan. But this is Humpty Dumpty: we are going to come in here today and push Humpty off the wall and smash him into a thousand pieces, and then after the South Australian election we will ride in on our big white horse and help you put the plan back together again. Well, let's not break it in the first place, Nick Xenophon Team, because if we don't break it we don't have to put it back together again. And we can walk and chew gum at the same time—we can continue to deliver the plan and at the same time fix up the problems that you have so eloquently highlighted, which we admit are occurring out there in the basin.
Needless to say with Labor, it is politics over the river's health, politics over our local communities, politics over the people who grow the food that we all like to put on our tables so that our children can eat healthy, clean, green Australian-grown food. We're going to put that at risk. We are going to jeopardise the plan. I say to everybody in this place: please don't think of a game of bluff—the New South Wales and Victorian governments have been quite clear that they are going to respond if this disallowance is upheld. I hope they don't. I will work very hard to get them back to the table, as I'm sure you would expect me to. But please don't threaten them. Basically, what you have done is put a gun to their heads and they've now put a gun back to your head. Why don't we all put our guns down and come back to the table and continue to deliver this plan, as we all said we were going to do in 2012.
This is not a game of bluff. If we see an outcome where New South Wales or Victoria choose to walk away from this plan, as they are threatening to do at the moment, it would be an absolute unmitigated disaster for our state of South Australia. We are the great beneficiaries of the plan delivered in full. I want the plan delivered in full, all 3,200 gigalitres of it. I want it delivered in full and I will work with anybody to make sure we deliver it in the best possible way. I'm happy to listen to everybody's comments about how we can do it better, how we can deliver better outcomes and how we can be more efficient with irrigation water and environmental water. So, why don't we all get back to the table and start being constructive, because pulling this thing apart and going in different directions is serving no purpose for anybody.
Today, Professor Williams from the University of Adelaide went into print to say that the danger of blowing up this plan is absolutely extreme for South Australia. Do not call New South Wales and Victoria's bluff, because if they are not bluffing South Australia is in a very serious and precarious state. I would suggest to all of you that you read Professor Williams's comments about the legal consequences. It is all very well and good for Minister Hunt to say he is going to take it to the High Court, but I have to tell you that the losers will be South Australia, our river and our river communities.
I'm not moving away from the serious allegations that have been made about what is going on. But let's fix them. Let's not come in here and blow up the plan. Can I also say that among everybody who has stood up and made a contribution in this place on this particular disallowance motion I haven't seen too many people who live in the basin. I haven't seen too many people whose livelihoods depend on the river. I'm lucky, I have another job, but I wouldn't be earning too much money if this plan fell over. My irrigation business that grows roses—the business you referred to earlier, Senator Hanson-Young—will be in a very precarious state if this plan is not agreed to. It is also interesting that everyone becomes a scientist when they walk into this place. We've employed an extraordinary number of very good scientists. We've consulted to within an inch of our lives on this plan, but all of a sudden everybody in here seems to think they're smarter than the scientists out there.
I call on everybody to stop the blame game—stop blaming each other. Can we please come back to the table, because the only outcome—the best outcome and the only outcome—that is going to serve the interests of Australia, its people and our communities, is going to be the delivery of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan in full. Part of that means that we have to allow amendment mechanisms like the one that is before us to pass this chamber. Please, everybody, reconsider your vote on this disallowance motion. We must pass this amendment because we have to get on with delivering the plan.
I understand that a government minister does have precedence, but I will draw attention to the fact we've had Senator Leyonhjelm, Senator Ruston and now Senator Birmingham. The call has not been provided to this side of the chamber for some time now. I had wanted to place on record my concerns as a New South Wales senator. It's been widely observed that this is not just a South Australian issue. There are serious issues in relation to New South Wales that do need to be canvassed. I am disappointed I haven't been allocated time in this debate, which is about to expire.
Thank you for your point of order. Unfortunately, I saw Senator Birmingham first. Senator Birmingham, could I ask that you perhaps leave two minutes, out of fairness, for Senator McAllister to make a contribution.
Make no mistake: the Australian Senate tonight puts the Murray-Darling Basin Plan in peril. We've heard plenty of claims made, none of them based on science. No specifics—just pure opportunistic politics, coming, sadly, from too many sides.
I, like Senator Wong, have held the water portfolio. I've been there through all the difficult steps of the development of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. I was there when the Water Act was passed initially, by Malcolm Turnbull, back in 2007. It is rank opportunism that now sees, in the midst of a South Australian election and the Batman by-election, the Labor Party, the Greens and the Nick Xenophon Team play politics with this issue. It puts at risk the basin plan, and, in doing that, it potentially leaves stranded a plan that could have, and should have, secured environmental sustainability throughout the basin and secured the equivalent of 3,200 gigalitres of environmental water support and flows throughout the system. But, instead, it leaves that stranded far, far short. Yes, there are serious allegations of noncompliance in places, and they're being investigated by serious entities: the police, the New South Wales ICAC and others. But, frankly, just because people still commit crimes, we don't throw out the laws.
By destroying and by turning their backs on the commitment that Tony Burke gave as water minister six years ago to deliver a review of the northern basin, the Labor Party are tonight turning their backs on the word they gave by siding with the Greens instead. That's shameful. That puts at risk something that many of us have fought for for over a decade—
He was going to, but he shouldn't be speaking. We've already had a government minister speak on behalf of the government, and now we have another one attacking the Labor Party in an untimely way.
I rise to place on the record my grave concerns about the water management operations and the regulation of water in New South Wales. It is those concerns that give rise to the disallowance that's before the chamber today, and it's those concerns that have prompted Labor to indicate its support for this disallowance as the debate has proceeded.
The issue is this: the position just presented by Senator Birmingham—that this is merely a matter of a handful of people committing crimes—is not what is happening in New South Wales at all. What is actually happening is that there has been an ongoing failure of the New South Wales government to put in place the regulations necessary to protect the health of the river.
These are the findings of those inquiries that Senator O'Sullivan refers to in his interjection. The Basin-wide Compliance Review at the end of last year, for instance, concluded that there has been a concerning systemic failure to protect low flows in unregulated rivers in the northern basin. That failure is not a failure arising from criminal activity; it is a failure deliberately engineered by the New South Wales water minister. That minister made changes in 2012, which were extremely significant, to allow irrigators to exchange lower-security water licences for higher-security licences at next to no cost, to allow unlimited carryover from year to year, to remove any limits on pump sizes, and to allow an individual take limit of up to 300 per cent in one year. These aren't failures that arise from a handful of criminals; these are systemic failures that arise from a failure of management by the New South Wales government.