Senate debates

Wednesday, 9 May 2018

Regulations and Determinations

Basin Plan Amendment (SDL Adjustments) Instrument 2017; Disallowance

5:42 pm

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

) ( ): I move:

That the Basin Plan Amendment (SDL Adjustments) Instrument 2017, made under the Water Act 2007, be disallowed [F2018L00040].

I'm standing here today to, obviously, speak in favour of the motion to disallow the Basin Plan Amendment (SDL Adjustments) Instrument 2017. Of course, we've all seen the stories—there is story after story of how water is being stolen from the environment by greedy corporate irrigators. We know this because we've seen these reports in Four Corners and in numerous articles in the Fairfax newspapers. We've seen the stories written in local newspapers. We've heard the stories from farmers on small, family owned farms. We've heard them from members in the community who live throughout the Murray-Darling Basin. They are reports of corruption, theft, undermining and downright sabotage of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. The file of these reports shows how appallingly the Murray-Darling Basin Plan has been managed and how it is being implemented. No longer can Canberra continue to turn a blind eye to what is going on in the Murray-Darling Basin.

In 2012, when the Murray-Darling Basin Plan was enacted, it was promised that this would be the plan that ended the water wars across state borders. This would be the plan that ensured that the water that the river needs would be returned to the river, to the environment, to ensure that the Murray-Darling had a fighting chance of survival.

What I have here is a file of all of the various reports of how the Murray-Darling Basin Plan has been misused: reports of water theft, dodgy figures, lack of water meters and undermining of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. In this file are stories of millions of litres of water that were meant for the environment and that are now going to the big corporate irrigators, embedded with their mates—and I will say it here: their mates in the National Party. There are stories of water bureaucrats being pulled before ICAC in New South Wales for allegations of offering to share secret departmental files with irrigation lobbyists. There are stories of billions in spending achieving nothing at all, of senior water experts saying this plan is not working and then losing their jobs because they dared to speak the truth.

In the background of all of these stories is the sound of a dying river. What it takes to secure the river is more water, not less. This is what the expert consensus tells us. And yet we are here today to vote on whether we remove 605 billion litres from the river every year and pay $1.3 billion for the privilege. We're paying more than a billion dollars to vote on a series of projects that have not been scrutinised because they don't have a business case to scrutinise. We don't know the details of these projects, as outlined in these amendments that this disallowance attempts to deal with.

Apparently, this place is about to vote for them anyway. We've heard of the deal between the Labor Party and the Liberal Party. There is $1.3 billion on the table for 37 projects that this Senate has no idea about—whether they are going to work and what the details of them are. This is because the Labor Party has backflipped and backslid into supporting the coalition government with a handshake in exchange for a cut. Labor has achieved nothing in its dirty deal with the Liberal Party. In exchange, the Labor Party have sold out everything.

Of course, that isn't what Labor thinks. Labor is very good at spinning for all they are worth—you do a good job over there! Labor's spin would have us think that they've secured the world and then some. Let's have a look at how much it costs to buy Labor's vote.

Labor's environment spokesperson, Tony Burke, says that Labor has won the following commitments from the government to vote against this disallowance moved by the Greens today: (1) an expression of interest to commence the recovery of 450 gigalitres of upwater environmental flows; (2) an assurance that 650 gigalitres of downwater will be delivered by linking the payments of supply measures with efficiency measures for environmental water; and (3) a 'package of measures' which Labor says represents, 'A serious response to the allegations of water theft in the northern basin,' including daily extraction limits and embargoes on irrigators pumping during environmental water releases, as well as no meter, no pump rules and a northern basin commissioner.

That all sounds very impressive until you start to take a closer look. Let's just pull apart this dirty deal just for a second. Let's take the 450 gigalitres and start with the commitment to recover that inefficiency measure. The Labor Party says it has managed to extract a commitment from the government that is literally identical—literally identical!—to what the government was already saying. So they got the government to repeat themselves. In his first week on the job, water minister, David Littleproud, told reporters he would support the basin plan's recommendations in full, including the recovery of an extra 450 gigalitres of productive water to supply environmental assets. Of course he would say that, because that is what he had already agreed to do. The Intergovernmental Agreement on Implementing Water Reform in the Murray Darling Basin says at section 4.6:

The Commonwealth has committed a further $1.58 billion to recover 450GL of environmental water with neutral or beneficial socio-economic impacts …

It said that in 2013 when Labor was in government. It said it in 2017 when the coalition was in government. Labor's then water minister in South Australia, Ian Hunter, belled the cat the same way, saying:

The 450 gigalitres is not an optional part of the basin plan. It was agreed to in 2012 and we have to deliver it.

So, I don't know what Labor thinks they have secured but a reiteration of what they have already said. Labor's backflip has achieved an agreement from the government to keep saying what it's always has been saying. Labor has achieved a commitment to recover what Labor already committed to recover and what the coalition already committed to recover. Labor says this means the 450 gigalitre recovery target is back on the table. Presumably it was on the table when it was explicitly detailed in the Water Act. Presumably it was on the table when it was explicitly detailed in the basin plan itself in three separate sections. Presumably it was on the table when the water minister himself said:

We've made a decision to support the plan and that's part of the plan.

When you go into a negotiation and your big ask is to get the other party to not change a thing, it's hard to lose that negotiation. It achieves not a single drop of water. It achieves an expression of interest. That does not guarantee a single drop of water. There's no certainty that anything will eventuate other than a cut. That is all that has been achieved here—another cut.

Let's talk about the second point of Labor's dirty deal with the government on this issue: assurance—assurance that Labor is so proud of. Labor's assurance to link the 605 gigalitres with the 450 gigalitres is literally just what the government—wait for it—had already said. In an opinion piece in January 2018, water minister David Littleproud said, 'The 450 gigalitres for the river and the 650 gigalitres for irrigators are tied together.' In February 2018 he said the same thing, telling one reporter:

All players must understand the 605GL of 'downwater' and the 450GL of 'upwater' are tied together.

You would be forgiven for thinking that Labor has been scouring the water minister's media transcripts for things to demand in their negotiations, because Labor has sold its soul and they have sold out the river. They have sold out South Australia. Their greatest hit for this negotiation is the water minister's own media lines. What is worse is that this assurance is worth literally nothing. Labor says this government can't be trusted to keep its word. They say that when it comes to schools, they say it when it comes to hospitals, they say it when it comes to Medicare, they say it when it comes to the ABC and they say it when it comes to pensions. But, when it comes to water, all of a sudden the Labor Party is satisfied to take the government's promises at face value. Give me a break.

This really begs the question, if all it takes for the Labor Party is to trust the word of the Turnbull government on water, and what the water minister says he'll do, why did they bother negotiating at all? After all, Labor's demands were to just get Minister Littleproud to reiterate what he had already said. If you can trust the Turnbull government to do what they have said they will already do, then the Labor Party, really, has achieved nothing at all. That is what this comes down to: if you are content to believe that the Turnbull government will do what they say they will do, then Labor didn't secure any new commitments. If you don't think that you can trust the Turnbull government at its word, then the Labor Party has simply secured nothing. They've secured nothing. The 'trust us, she'll be right, mate' doesn't cut it, and this government has proven that when it comes to water, when it comes to the environment and when it comes to the health of the Murray River and the Coorong in South Australia the Turnbull government's word is rubbish. It cannot be trusted.

Let's talk quickly about the third point that Labor has apparently negotiated in order to sellout South Australia, the River Murray and the Coorong, at the lower end of the system and the Murray mouth. That third element, of course, is in relation to compliance measures. Labor has crowed about how it has achieved new compliance measures. Let's have a look at them. The key plank to the basin plan reform is to put a cap on the level of extraction. If there is no compliance there is no cap. With no cap there is no reform. That's why compliance has been at the centre of the plan since its inception. It's so important that compliance measures are strong and penalties are enforced.

Let's look at what Labor actually achieved. It says it's achieved a commitment to introduce a new rule in the northern basin: no meter, no pump. The New South Wales government announced it was already doing this in December 2017. It says it has achieved a commitment to daily extraction limits. This was also already achieved and flagged by the New South Wales government in February 2018—another reiteration of the minister's press releases. It says it's achieved a commitment to have embargoes on irrigation pumping during the release of environmental water flows. This was already put in place by the New South Wales government in April this year. In fact, the only thing that is new is the northern basin commissioner and it is also the only idea that was not mentioned anywhere in the Murray-Darling Basin review into water compliance. They didn't think a commissioner was going to cut it either. So everything that Labor went in asking for is what we already had. As for the one new thing, nobody liked the idea anyway.

Let me bring us back to why we are here today and the vote that we are going to be having. Labor says it has extracted a series of commitments from the government, but, in fact, Labor has achieved nothing. In exchange, it has agreed to throw $1.5 billion at a series of projects that have no experience of scrutiny. No-one's seen the details. Either the government have them or they don't, and if they have them why are they hiding them? If they don't have them, why on earth are the government asking the Senate to sign-off on $1.5 billion with a 'trust us' attitude? The business cases for these projects that form the basis of an amendment have been not finalised. They have not been made available to the public or to the senators who today will vote on this amendment. The Murray-Darling Basin Authority are now saying that is because the business cases have not been finalised. Even the Murray-Darling Basin Authority doesn't know what the final cases will look like. What this means is that there's not a single senator in this place today voting on this disallowance who knows what they are voting for. Not one person in this room will know what they are actually voting for.

Let's reflect on that. We are voting to spend more than $1 billion with no underlying information about what we're buying. This is from the party that prides itself on economic management. This is from the Labor Party that says it values transparency and accountability. Not a single person in this room knows which projects will deliver what outcomes. Not a single person in the country knows. What we are doing is voting to spend $1.3 billion of taxpayers' money on a hope that we will get something in return for it six years from now.

But what are we giving away as we do this? We're voting for the money to start flowing when the water won't be. What we're doing in the context of allegations of rampant water theft, of corruption, of mismanagement of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, of rorts, of rip-offs, of a royal commission, of an ICAC investigation and of fraud charges being laid in Queensland is handing off $1.3 billion while cutting 605 billion litres from the river and the environment.

I am a very proud South Australian. Last week I was down at the Murray mouth and the Coorong, and those places are sick. They need a drink. The whole point of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan was that this place promised it would give the environment back its fair share so that all the communities that rely on a healthy Murray-Darling Basin would have access to it—so that all communities who rely on the Murray-Darling Basin for their livelihood would know it would be there for generations to come. There was a minimum amount of water promised to the environment. It was even less than the scientists said would be needed. It was the bare, bare minimum needed to give it any kind of fighting chance. And here today this government, lining up with the Labor Party, is going to vote to cut the environmental flows from the river again. It can't afford another cut. The Murray mouth is being dredged; the Coorong is sick; and rivers die from the mouth up. If we don't give this river system the drink it desperately needs, it's not going to be here for future generations.

I implore the senators in this chamber today: don't vote for something you haven't even seen the detail of, don't saddle the taxpayer with funding projects that have no business case, and don't sell out future generations. The truth is: there are no jobs on a dead river.

6:02 pm

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

The Murray-Darling Basin Plan was negotiated during the millennium drought, in an atmosphere of crisis, based on the perception that drought was the new normal. As a result, it is deeply flawed. Had the plan been developed in a normal year, I am confident it would have been substantially different.

This disallowance motion, if passed, would not improve the plan. It's based on the simplistic notion that all the environment needs is more water—not the right amount of water in the right place at the right time, just more water. In the last parliament I chaired the Senate Select Committee on the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, which inquired into the implementation of the plan. The committee spent a lot of time examining what was right and what was wrong with the plan and how it was being implemented.

Australia is naturally a land of droughts and flooding rains. Droughts are normal, and too much water can be as harmful as not enough. We had plenty of people telling us the plan was great because it would add more water to the environment, and that the amounts of recovered water in the plan were absolutely essential, yet not once did someone tell us that an environmental watering plan was required in a particular area that didn't have one—not once. We had people tell us they'd like water in the Menindee Lakes, and I sympathise with that, but they wanted it for recreational purposes, not the environment. The fact is there is now an abundance of water available for the environment, and if any more water is added to the Murray River it won't have the capacity to carry it within its banks. It's full, and nobody wants to take responsibility for the damage to private property that will occur if there is man-made flooding caused by adding more water to it.

Speaking of the Murray: it's not a natural environment. In nature it ends in an estuary, and so water would naturally come in when the river flow is low and water would go out when flow is high. The mouth might close from time to time, but it would be open much of the time due to natural tidal scouring. Since 1940 the Murray has not been allowed to operate like a normal estuary. There are barrages near its mouth that prevent the sea from coming in when river flows are low. As a consequence, its mouth is now rarely open naturally. During the spring of 2016, for example, there were major floods in the Murrumbidgee, Murray and Goulburn rivers which saw flows to South Australia in excess of 60,000 megalitres per day for over five weeks, peaking at over 94,000 megalitres on 30 November. From 30 November until 18 December, flows across the South Australian border exceeded 65,000 megalitres per day, and yet on 9 January 2017 the South Australian government resumed dredging of the Murray mouth. The five weeks of high flows had failed to clear sandbars at the Murray mouth.

Natural tidal scouring of the Murray mouth is severely restricted by the presence of the barrages, which prevent the entry of sea water into Lake Alexandrina and also by Bird Island, which is located directly in front of the Murray mouth. And Bird Island has only formed since the barrages were erected. It continues to grow in size and impede flow, and it would not be there in a natural environment. And the Murray is the only river in Australia with an artificially fresh estuary. Because of the barrages, the mouth of the Murray cannot even remain open one year in 10, no matter how much water is sent down the Murray.

And yet one of the aims of the plan is to keep the Murray mouth open nine years out of 10. This is not a realistic environmental outcome and should not be an objective of the plan. In fact, what happens to a lot of the water that flows down the Murray and the Darling is that it evaporates in the Lower Lakes. That's Lake Alexandrina and Lake Albert. Between 800 and 900 gigalitres of fresh water evaporates per annum. That is one-third of all the water saved in the plan. If this evaporation were sea water or, more correctly, a mixture of sea and fresh water, a significant amount of fresh water would be available for consumptive or environmental use within the basin. If this water were used for agriculture production, the potential benefit is worth $300 million to $900 million.

As I said earlier, the Murray-Darling Basin Plan is deeply flawed. It gives no consideration to the barrages that prevent the entry of sea water and whether they are still required or there are better options for preventing sea water from mixing with Adelaide's water supply. Amazingly, the plan excludes the Coorong, probably the most neglected environment in South Australia. I'm delighted that Senator Hanson-Young has now decided to agree with me about that. She didn't when I first raised it. And yet, no matter how much water is sent down the rivers, it won't benefit the Coorong. With the Murray mouth nearly always closed, it doesn't get properly flushed by sea water, which it would if the environment was operating naturally. To claim it should be assisted by more fresh water flowing down the Murray, as Senator Hanson-Young has done, is utterly absurd. The Coorong's narrow entrance is seaward of the barrages and operates in an unnatural tidal environment dictated by the barrages.

That said, the Coorong in its natural state would receive a lot of run-off from the surrounding area. However, that's not happening. That's because of the South East Drainage Network, which diverts fresh water to the sea instead of the Coorong. If that water were allowed to flow into the Coorong as it previously did, it would restore the natural environment.

Environmental outcomes in the basin have improved since the end of the drought. However, it's not clear whether the improvement is due to the 2011 and 2016 floods and improved water, the results of the existing Living Murray program initiatives or environmental watering under the plan. This uncertainty is due in part to the failure to set baseline environmental benchmarks and to report against those benchmarks. This is unacceptable, given the expense of the plan to taxpayers. What is clear is that water taken from Queensland, New South Wales and Victorian agriculture has had a devastating impact on rural communities. It is also clear that more water sent to South Australia will have no additional environmental benefits.

The environment can be an emotional subject for some people, but it's high time some facts and reason were applied to the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. South Australian politicians who don't know the difference between the Darling and Murray rivers, who can't explain why the Lower Lakes should remain fresh and who can't explain why the Coorong is dying, are part of the problem; they are not part of the solution.

6:10 pm

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

I rise to make a contribution in this debate. First and foremost, I want to put on the record that the current shadow spokesman, Mr Tony Burke, has an impeccable record in this area of portfolio responsibility. The previous Labor minister, Senator Wong, also had a very outstanding record in this area.

If there are people in the Senate who don't understand the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, I commend the contribution to the National Press Club in 2012 made by the then Minister Burke. He clearly sets out the entire history and evolvement of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. One thing that particularly struck me, just to demonstrate his environmental credentials, was the contribution he made in a couple of paragraphs there. He said:

… it was in 1991 when the game changer arrived and a new player turned up to the negotiating table. In 1991 the new player arrived with a blue-green algae outbreak that went for one thousand kilometres and the environment turned up to the negotiating table and proved to be more ruthless and less compromising than any of the states. The environment turned up to the negotiating table in 1991 and said, if you're going to manage the river this way then none of you can have the water. Effectively, the rivers decided collectively that if we were going to manage the water as though it stopped at state boundaries then the water was willing to stop …

So the environmental credentials of the shadow minister and former minister, in my view, are absolutely impeccable. He does understand the whole range of complexity in this century-old plan. We have to get it right.

The contribution from Senator Hanson-Young, I thought, was more parochial and more provocative than normal. If she has a preselection problem in South Australia, she shouldn't bring it in here and talk about it in this section. Don't bring it and talk about it in here as a disallowance motion.

The Labor Party's credentials, I believe, are impeccable. Our spokesperson is across all of the issues. In my view, we went through the appropriate processes, with consultation and caucus agreement, and we struck a deal. The deal is simply this: we will not support the Disallowance of the Basin Plan Amendment (SDL Adjustments) Instrument 2017 for the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, nor will we support a future disallowance motion on the Northern basin review. This decision by the Labor Party means that the delivery of the full Murray-Darling Basin Plan will be back on track with new levels of compliance and transparency. This agreement means that the 450 gigalitres is back on track and will start to be accumulated, and the compliance will return to the northern basin.

Senator Hanson-Young did make some useful comments: the compliance was in question in the northern basin. I've seen that evidence. I've seen the Four Corners review. I've participated in hearings up and down the Darling and the Murray rivers. We do know that certain areas of the river are better at compliance enforcement and the use of efficient measures and infrastructure than others, but this agreement means we will be back on track. In reaching this decision Labor has been mindful of ensuring that all elements of the plan will be properly implemented, the independence of the Murray-Darling Basin Authority will be preserved and the demands that we put forward in February of 2018 will be met.

Legitimate questions have been posed regarding the content of the Northern Basin Review and the SDL adjustment mechanism. The best way to deal with these concerns is through improved transparency and new auditing and compliance requirements to ensure a healthy working basin. Labor has also determined to make sure that decisions about the volumes required to restore the health of the river system are determined by the Murray-Darling Basin Authority and do not instead become the subject of daily amendment through the political process. The proper people should be in charge, and they are the Murray-Darling Basin Authority.

Labor has an assurance around the government's commitment to deliver 450 gigalitres of environmental water through efficiency measures. We have assurances that the concerns regarding the quality of projects to deliver the 605 gigalitres of environmental equivalent outcomes will be resolved, as will be the need for taxpayer funded environmental water to be used for environment purposes, a comprehensive response to the allegations of corruption and water theft in the northern basin, Indigenous consultation and engagement in water planning and governance, and the accuracy of data in modelling assumptions. The government has provided a new package of measures, which provides Labor with sufficient confidence that the basin plan is back on track. These measures include the commencement of the recovery of 450 gigalitres of environmental water through an expression of interest and assurance that the 605 gigalitres will be delivered by linking payments for supply measures with efficiency measures for the 450 gigalitres for the environment. Critically, this means that the 450 gigalitres, which was put in doubt by the former water minister, Barnaby Joyce, is now back on the table and the process to acquire the water will now commence.

This package of measures also means that there is a serious response to the allegations of water theft in the northern basin, which had the potential to undermine the foundations in the water market on which the plan rests. These include the protection of environmental water through daily extraction limits; embargoes on irrigation pumping during environmental water releases; metering and no meter, no pump rules; and a new northern basin commissioner.

Labor will commit to strengthening the SDL reconciliation process, and we will work with stakeholders about the best way to do this, whether it is through a legislative change or guaranteeing the independence of the reconciliation. If upon reconciliation the projects did not deliver the full 605 gigalitres, Labor would make up the shortage through a buyback. This puts the Murray-Darling Basin Plan back on a solid footing to a brighter pathway for the river's return to health.

That is Labor's position in a nutshell. I absolutely and categorically reject all of the assertions that were made about Labor's position by the senator for the Greens party. We have a way forward which has integrity. We are represented by the best people in the shadow cabinet in this area. They have a long track record and history. They understand and have environmental concerns in their DNA, so to speak. If you do want to find out or know a little more about the history of this plan, I commend the National Press Club speech by the Hon. Tony Burke.

6:18 pm

Photo of Rex PatrickRex Patrick (SA, Centre Alliance) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to contribute to the debate on the disallowance motion moved by Senator Hanson-Young. This motion seeks to disallow the government's approval of the sustainable diversion limit adjustment mechanism projects. As I remarked in my contribution to the debate on the Northern Basin Review disallowance, there has been a significant reduction in confidence in the basin plan's implementation over the last 12 months, with serious allegations that arose last year of rorting, water theft, dodgy water buybacks, a lack of compliance, questionable modelling, a dearth of transparency from within the MDBA, and new claims by the South Australian Murray-Darling Basin royal commissioner, Bret Walker SC, that the Murray-Darling Basin Authority may have fallen into legal error. The proper execution of the plan has well and truly fallen into error.

There have been a number of reviews, and some of them have been mentioned by my colleagues in the chamber. There were the Murray-Darling Basin Water Compliance Review and the Matthews review in New South Wales. The Auditor-General has conducted a review. There is an ICAC inquiry ongoing in New South Wales, there is a South Australian royal commission and, indeed, a Queensland review into water related matters. I can see that some of those reviews have concluded and that there are some very good recommendations in those reviews, but those recommendations have not yet been implemented.

There are 36 SDL projects proposed for Victoria, New South Wales and South Australia, to allow 605 gigalitres of water to be returned to irrigators on the basis that the projects give an equivalent quantity of water back to the environment. These projects are at various stages of development. Some of them are at scoping, some of them are being advanced and some of them are actually in operation. Back in February, Centre Alliance sought the technical assessments that the MDBA had made in relation to those 36 projects, and did that by way of an order for the production of documents. That order for production was returned to the Senate. It was returned late, but I must admit that it was returned in full.

The day after that was tabled in the Senate, the Murray-Darling Basin Authority wrote to Centre Alliance to confirm that the technical assessments of the 36 projects that had been tabled, obtained through that order for production, showed an incomplete picture of the state of affairs. So that means that the Senate is being asked to vote on the approval of the SDL projects without a complete picture of the state of affairs. That means that we require a degree of trust and confidence, and remember that at the start I said that public confidence has eroded in the execution of the plan. It requires the confidence that the projects will be implemented in a way that will result in positive environmental and socioeconomic outcomes.

The Labor Party—and, I gather, some of my colleagues on the crossbench—obviously have trust and confidence that the projects will deliver these outcomes. Centre Alliance, at this point in time, do not. This does not mean that we will never have the necessary level of trust and confidence to support the SDL projects, but at this point in time we cannot justify supporting changes to the SDLs. A lack of transparency, coupled with the criticism of the MDBA's technical analysis, does not fill me with confidence.

I'm strongly of the view that no senator who is conducting due diligence in their consideration of the passage of the SDL adjustment mechanism instrument could possibly support the changes if they were aware of the incomplete dataset that is available to them. And it's not as though senators haven't had the opportunity to have private briefings on the proposed changes. I know this, because I have visited both the New South Wales and the Victorian state authorities that are proposing and implementing these plans. When I visited them, I asked them, 'How many other senators have come and had a bit of a chat to you about what you're doing?' And the answer was zero; I was the first. I find this quite remarkable. Not one senator who is voting on this disallowance motion, even Senator Hanson-Young, who has moved the motion, has sat down with the Victorian or New South Wales public servants who are responsible for implementing the business cases of the SDL adjustment projects.

So while Centre Alliance is fully supportive of the plan being executed in full, it has to be implemented properly. A plan by name only is not a plan, and it's not very useful. Centre Alliance's informed view is that it is necessary to stop and take stock of the situation before making adjustments to the plan. The plan should be paused, even if it's just for a short period of time, to let some of the compliance measures be put in place, or to answer some of the questions about some of the modelling or, indeed, to allow the full dataset—and I note the Senate did support an OPD today for the remaining data necessary to review these projects. But, until we have that full information, we should pause and reconsider. We need to wait for the compliance and transparency measures proposed by both the states and the Commonwealth to take effect and for the legal situation to be properly examined. There is a legal controversy now that probably needs to be addressed.

I would like to acknowledge the cooperation of Minister Littleproud and Assistant Minister Ruston as I undertook the due diligence work that I did. Although we may disagree on some of the issues, I appreciated that they undertook to provide me with further information that was necessary to increase the transparency of the SDL adjustment mechanism approval process not just for the Senate but for all interested parties. That includes the general public. The general public needs to be able to see this data. I acknowledge that Assistant Minister Ruston has given an undertaking there will be more transparency. To date, she has honoured her undertakings to me on the Murray-Darling.

However, as with all disallowance motions, time is of the essence and, despite trying to get more information, the race against time has been lost. Centre Alliance cannot support the SDL adjustment mechanisms at this time.

6:26 pm

Photo of Janet RiceJanet Rice (Victoria, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I remember when the Murray-Darling Basin Plan was finalised about a decade ago, and there was such hope. We'd had the millennium drought. It was clear that the river system was in such dire straits. It was absolutely on its knees. It was such a political, hard-fought, fraught issue. I remember the negotiations and finally the agreement coming down that there would be environmental flows on average of 3,200 gigalitres a year allocated to the river. I remember that that in itself was a compromise. The scientists, the people who knew the river so well, absolutely felt that more was required. That 3,200 gigalitres was a compromise and everybody thought, 'Maybe if we get the 3,200 gigalitres it'll just be enough to keep this river system, this lifeblood of half of Australia, healthy.' That was the context.

In the decade since, fortunately the drought broke. Good. But it seems that the pressure has gone off and there's a sense that maybe that 3,200 gigalitres wasn't really as essential as it was painted to be back when the plan was finalised. Then we have had the political context and layer over that Murray-Darling Basin Plan which has been added over the last decade, particularly what has come to light over the last year—the water theft, the fraud and the appalling rorting of the whole plan by corporate irrigators in the upstream reaches of the basin. That puts the whole basin plan into a different perspective. We've got that figure of 3,200 gigalitres, but it's clear that quite a lot players involved in this were never serious about 3,200 gigalitres. We had the 450 gigalitres that was obviously seen to be an optional extra. That never had a strong commitment to it. There has been pressure for that not to be delivered. Then we had the sustainable diversion limits and now this sustainable diversion limit adjustment mechanism actually taking yet another huge chunk out of that 3,200 gigalitres which—remember—I said was acknowledged at the beginning of the plan as being the absolute minimum that was required for the river to stay healthy.

I want to move from that political, bureaucratic context in talking about megalitres to talk about what this means for the river. My colleague Senator Hanson-Young speaks so eloquently and so passionately about the impacts of this basin plan on the river in South Australia. As a Victorian senator I have a particular passion for the Murray in its Victorian reaches, particularly the river system and the river red gum forests of Victoria. I took the opportunity recently to go and visit some of the remaining river red gum forests in Victoria near Swan Hill, the Nyah-Vinifera forests. This area of forests is pretty small. If you think about the massive extent of river red gum forests that were all along the river at the time of white settlement, we've got these remnants. The Nyah-Vinifera forest is a remnant; it's only 820 hectares. But it is a much loved and valuable remnant of the much larger river red gum forests that were once there. It is incredibly valued by the local community. Because it's a remnant, it is even more important for its ecological value and for what was once there.

This trip was organised for me by a couple of local activists. I want to pay tribute to them in this speech, Jacquie Kelly and Morgana Russell in particular. They wanted me to visit the forest with them so that we could see together what the state of that forest was. We met an orchardist, local farmer and irrigator, Peta Thornton, who is as passionate as Jacquie and Morgana are about the health of the river. She was outraged that her name as an irrigation farmer was being used to justify reducing the level of water that was going into the river. She knew that the health of her business and her community depended upon the health of the river. She knew that without enough water going down the river, her business and the community, as well as the life of the river, were going to suffer.

I also had the great privilege of meeting some of the traditional owners from the Wadi Wadi and Wemba Wemba people, in particular Cain Chaplin, a traditional owner who spent an afternoon with us as we walked the forest. It was such a privilege to walk this area of forest with Cain and to be there to see his love for the forest and his connection to the forest, but also to feel his pain of how unhealthy and how stressed that forest is.

This river red gum forest needs to be inundated every few years. Because of the efforts of the local communities and massive campaigns, it's now being protected from logging. It's being protected as a regional park. When that occurred, there was great hope that this forest had a chance of being brought back to a healthy situation. But, sadly, even over the last decade, even though the drought has broken, even though we haven't had the dreadful conditions of the millennium drought, this area of forest is under stress. It is not getting the water it requires. It needs to be inundated every couple of years. It's not happening. Every large tree that we looked at, Cain, Jacquie and Morgana said to me, 'Have a look up there.' You could see the dead branches. You could see these trees were under stress. We could think about what the future was going to be like for these forests. You could see dead trees. You knew that more and more of these trees were going to die because they were not getting the inundation they required. This was exactly the sort of issue that the Murray-Darling Basin Plan was meant to resolve to make sure that these areas of river red gum forest were healthy. It's not yet working. And what is the government planning on doing? Reducing the level of water that's going to be available to this forest.

The sustainable diversion limit adjustment mechanisms that are being proposed, which we are debating tonight, are actually going to mean there is less water available for this area of forest than is currently the case. Even if the project worked, even if every one of them was effective at watering the forest, they are only going to cover approximately 60 per cent of the forest in the Nyah-Vinifera area, leaving 40 per cent aside. That means that 40 per cent of the forest is going to be dying a very sad, tragic death. That's presuming that these sustainable diversion limit adjustment mechanisms actually work. That is something that is absolutely very questionable, because nobody yet knows the details of what the sustainable diversion limit adjustment mechanisms are in these forests. Basically, for the local community, the local traditional owners and the local environmentalists, the details of what the adjustment mechanisms are are not yet public. And, as Senator Patrick has just said, they haven't yet got business cases for them. They can't tell them what they are. What they are told is, 'You're going to have a series of levees, locks and weirs.' And that's going to mean that rather than having water flowing into these forests and then flowing out again, it's going to stop that water. The theory is that instead of 'wasting' this water—so-called wasting—and having it flowing through, that inundating this area of forest and having the water sit there for various periods of time will be the same as allowing the water to flow through. This is absolutely questionable—more than questionable. In fact, it is highly unlikely that this is going to be the equivalent of having a natural flood flowing through that forest.

What's more, whereas we now have an area of forest that is pretty much in its natural state—despite the stress that it's under—an area of forest that is beloved by people from all over Victoria, who come and camp there regularly to be there in that forest, we're going to have levee banks, locks and these massive great concrete structures to hold this water in place.

The likelihood of those adjustment mechanisms, those actual constructions, meeting the needs of the forest is so small. I can see that we are going to spend hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars on these projects and then, in 10 years time, actually find that they're not working—that we're getting blackwater events because we have this water sitting stagnant rather than flowing through and that, actually, they're not serving the purposes that they set out to do. But, it will be too late then, and too late for the health of the river. That is the issue; that is the focal point of what we are discussing tonight.

I heard Labor saying that the Murray-Darling Basin Plan is back on track. That is a ridiculous assertion. How on earth can they say that the Murray-Darling Basin Plan is back on track when there is still so much that's unknown? We're going to spend $1.3 billion on these untested adjustment mechanisms—

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

Cutting out 605 billion litres of water.

Photo of Janet RiceJanet Rice (Victoria, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

That's right! Cutting out 605 billion litres of water. Senator Gallacher talked about improved transparency, where we are being asked to sign off on $1.3 billion worth of projects without having business plans and without knowing that they're going to work. It is just something that is totally unacceptable and something that, for me, concerned about the river—that for us as Greens, concerned about the health of this river and the health of these communities—absolutely cannot acquiesce to.

The other aspect I think that we need to talk about, going back to my point about the 3,200 gigalitres being an absolute minimum: it is absolutely necessary that we get all of that. Every single gigalitre of that water is needed for the health of the river. That is what the Murray-Darling Basin Plan doesn't actually even consider—the fact that that allocation of water, when it was worked out a decade ago, didn't take into account the impact of climate change. If we look at what's going to happen to flows in the basin with a warming climate, we're going to need a lot more water allocated to the environment than what is being proposed if we're going to keep it healthy.

A month ago I was in Swan Hill. Under a scenario of three to four degrees of warming, the climate in Swan Hill is likely to become like the climate of Cobar. These are the sorts of impacts that we are talking about with climate change, and yet we are talking about taking water out of the river!

It is just completely unscientific. It is completely irrational. It will just mean that the river will be left a dying, sad vestige of its former health.

The river under the plan as proposed—under the sustainable diversion limit adjustment mechanism—is being sold out. The river needs more water, not less. For those of us in this parliament who are concerned about the health of the river, who are concerned about the livelihoods of the people who rely on the river, who are concerned about the livelihoods of the irrigators, who are concerned about the livelihoods of community and who are concerned about the areas like the Nyah-Vinifera forests, a cultural landscape of immense significance to the traditional owners, we cannot agree to these sustainable diversion limit adjustment mechanisms to be passed.

6:40 pm

Photo of Anne RustonAnne Ruston (SA, Liberal Party, Assistant Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources) Share this | | Hansard source

The announcement this week that the opposition is once again going to join us on the journey to restore health to the Murray-Darling Basin is an absolutely overwhelming relief to the millions and millions of people who rely on this valuable resource for their very livelihoods. Ever since the passage of the Water Act in 2007, the basin has enjoyed bipartisan support in federal parliament, and it would have been an extraordinary situation for the Australian Labor Party to now walk away from this plan, which it delivered in 2012. Our river communities up and down the basin require certainty, and that is what the Senate can unequivocally deliver today for those communities by defeating this disallowance motion. By restoring bipartisan support and commitment to the basin plan we can start the process of restoring the confidence in the plan in the wider community.

However, if you listen today to Senator Hanson-Young, you would believe that the basin was only minutes away from collapse. Nothing could be further from the truth. No-one is denying that the allegations that were raised of non-compliance were very serious, but by Senator Hanson-Young's own admission most of these issues have already been addressed by the government. She's just spent the last 20 minutes accusing the opposition of gaining nothing in their negotiation with the government, because we had already committed to fixing the problems that have been raised.

The plan is a very complex program. It's a once-in-a-generation opportunity to restore our wonderful river system to health. The plan is on track, and this government is committing to delivering this plan in full. We know the Greens don't support the plan, but, instead of working with us constructively to get the best possible outcome, they instead try to destroy confidence in the plan through misinformation, exaggeration and mischief. But we only have to remember that the only party in this place not to vote for the Murray-Darling Basin Plan in 2012 was the Greens.

Thankfully, many in this place agree that the delivery of this plan is absolutely essential and they have indicated that they will not be supporting this disallowance. That's because the sensible money is on the facts, the science based model to deliver a plan that recognises that there are social and economic as well as environmental imperatives that need to be addressed.

We also shouldn't forget that the SDL adjustment mechanism was incorporated in the basin plan in 2012 at the question of all of the basin ministers in all of the states that have the Murray-Darling Basin rivers and tributaries running through them, because they saw the necessity for flexibility in setting water extraction limits into the future. The mechanism was designed specifically to ensure that we didn't take water out of productive use—water out of our river communities—if we could deliver our environmental targets by cleverer means. The SDL adjustment is a legislated once-off opportunity to strike the balance—a good balance, the best possible balance—between the environmental, social and economic outcomes that we all seek to make sure that we have a healthy river system.

Just like the commitments to the Northern Basin Review, the SDL adjustment was part of the package of the basin plan, agreed by all basin jurisdictions and delivered by the then minister, the member for Watson. It allows for up to 605 gigalitres of irrigation water to remain in productive use in the southern basin without compromising the basin plan's environmental outcomes. This provides irrigators with the certainty that they need to get on with what they do best: growing the food that we love to eat and growing the fibre that makes our clothes.

The SDL adjustment mechanism also provides for the recovery of 450 gigalitres of additional environmental water through efficiency measures with neutral or improved social and economic outcomes. In fact, it was an independent report from Ernst & Young, at the request of the Murray-Darling Basin Ministerial Council, that analysed and proved that there is a pathway by which we can deliver these efficiency measures. The agreed final package of projects means significant new Commonwealth investment in state led environmental works and other regional SDL offset projects across the Murray, Lower Darling and Murrumbidgee catchments. These include environmental works and projects, and changes to river operational rules that achieve basin outcomes using less water.

I acknowledge the constructive and comprehensive approach taken by Senator Patrick and his team in the Centre Alliance in analysing this amendment. I'm sure we will be able to convince him in the next few weeks of the merits of these projects and the package, because the amendment that is before us today is a win for basin communities and it is a win for our environment.

The government is absolutely committed to working to deliver a healthy and productive future for the Murray-Darling Basin and for the rural communities that depend on it for their livelihoods and their very existence. Disallowance of this amendment would have thrown into question the delivery of the basin plan, an outcome that is bad for the river and a disaster for communities which will have lost the certainty that the Murray-Darling Basin Plan has given them and will give them for future generations. The government is very pleased that the opposition has agreed to join with us today to vote against this disallowance.

Photo of Chris KetterChris Ketter (Queensland, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Order! The question is that the Basin Plan Amendment (SDL Adjustments) Instrument 2017, made under the Water Act 2007, be disallowed.