Tuesday, 12 February 2019
by leave—I move:
(1) That the Senate:
(a) notes with alarm:
(i) the crisis that has unfolded in Menindee Lakes over the summer with unprecedented fish deaths,
(ii) the Productivity Commission report into the implementation of the Murray Darling Basin Plan,
(iii) the findings of the South Australian Murray Darling Basin Royal Commission, and
(iv) the 1500GL cap on water buybacks for environmental watering,
(b) is of the opinion that the 1500GL cap on water buybacks be repealed;
(2) That so much of standing order 111 be suspended, as would prevent Senator Pratt moving that the following bill be introduced at 6 pm today:
A Bill for an Act to amend the Water Act 2007, and for related purposes.
I bring this motion forward in the Senate today because we have seen unprecedented environmental collapse in the Murray-Darling Basin over the summer and unprecedented fish kills in the lower Darling. We've seen the River Murray and the Darling absolutely crippled by mismanagement, water theft and a failure to implement the objectives of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, which was meant to save our river system and give it a fighting chance.
We know that in the Murray-Darling we have our nation's largest river system—a river system that waters our nation's food bowl. It is a symbol of Australia and how we protect our environment and how we look after the sustainability of our environment. More than 2.6 million Australians call the Murray-Darling Basin home. The basin is the food bowl of our nation. The agriculture industry within the basin is worth $24 billion annually. It is responsible for producing around one-third of our nation's food. The basin is, of course, also rich in culture. It has been home to more than 40 Aboriginal nations for thousands and thousands of years. Tourism is worth $8 billion a year to basin communities.
There are 30,000 wetlands across the basin, and 16 are internationally significant. Over three million people have access to fresh, clean drinking water from the basin. The basin is unique, providing diverse habitats for 120 waterbird species and 46 native fish species. The fishing industry in the basin employs 10,000 people. The Murray-Darling Basin is the largest and most complex river system in Australia. It runs, of course, from Queensland, through New South Wales and even the Australian Capital Territory and Victoria, and into my home state in South Australia, spanning 77,000 kilometres of rivers. It covers about 14 per cent of Australia's landmass.
What we have seen this summer is the environment in collapse—a river system on the brink of death. We've seen millions of fish floating on the top of the river because there is not enough water for the system to survive. When I visited Menindee in the days following the second mass fish kill, I was struck by the heartbreak of the locals—farmers in the area who'd been there for generations. One particular man, who was in his late 70s, said to me as he picked up a big, dead Murray cod that this was one of the ones that had got away when he, as a kid, had been fishing on the banks of the Darling.
For generations and for years we have known that the water wars that govern the Murray-Darling Basin have left our river high and dry. We know that there is too much water being taken out of the system to give the environment the chance for resilience and to survive in the drier periods. We know, after years and years of debate on managing the Murray-Darling Basin, that we had to have a set of rules that were fair so that, whatever part of the basin you live in, you would know that the river would be given the chance to survive and be there for future generations. In order to do that, we knew that we had to return more water to the system. That's what the Murray-Darling Basin Plan was meant to do—return water to the river to give it a chance to survive.
Six years after the Murray Darling Basin Plan had been implemented, with $13 billion on the table, what we see is a river system in collapse—$13 billion of Australian taxpayers' money; six years of mismanagement, water theft and corruption. We've brought forward this motion today because the government doesn't want to talk about this. The water minister, David Littleproud, hasn't even bothered to go to Menindee and see the catastrophe for himself. We know that this government continues to do the bidding of big corporate irrigators, at the expense of the environment and river communities and those smaller farmers that need the river to survive. One of the elements of this motion is to call for the immediate repeal of the cap on water buybacks, because with $13 billion on the table we should be having water returned to the river, but instead we have a river system that is being sucked dry. Meanwhile, big corporate irrigators are having their pockets lined with Australian taxpayers' money. The government and the National Party are looking after their big corporate mates, while everybody else is expected to suffer in silence.
In my home state of South Australia, people are pretty angry at what is going on. They're pretty angry that, despite what was meant to be put in place to manage the Murray-Darling Basin, to give the river a fighting chance, we see millions of fish dead, a river system in collapse. Rather than putting more water into the river, lifting that ban on buybacks, getting water into the system, tackling the overallocation of water licences and regulating and properly accounting for the vast amounts of water that are being harvested across flood plains, this government says, 'Don't blame us; just pray for rain.' That's the Prime Minister's answer to the crisis in the Murray-Darling Basin right now: 'Don't blame the National Party. Don't blame Barnaby Joyce. Blame God. Pray for rain, and all will be okay.' There is a total lack of leadership coming from Prime Minister Scott Morrison right now.
This river system is our nation's lifeblood. It waters our nation's food bowl. We need this river if we are to survive as a country that prides itself on clean produce and sustainable agriculture. Those millions of fish floating on the top of the Darling over summer struck a chord with Australians right across the country. Everybody knows there is something wrong with this system. Everybody knows that too much water is being taken out of the river, and it's time we put some back. Australians aren't silly. They know who's been sucking our river dry; it's the greedy big corporate irrigators who care more about their profits than they do about the health of the river and keeping the river system there for future generations. Those big corporate foreign cotton farms don't care if the river runs dry. In fact, they are spending millions of taxpayers' dollars harvesting overland flows and floodwaters so that the water doesn't get into the river system, so they can keep it for watering their cotton crops. There is something rotten with the management of the Murray-Darling Basin, and every Australian who's been watching what's happened this summer knows it.
The Productivity Commission three weeks ago handed down a report into the implementation of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. The Productivity Commission said very clearly that the objectives of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, to restore environmental flows, had been forgotten. Those objectives are now divorced from the way the Murray-Darling Basin Plan is being implemented. This parliament has approved $13 billion of taxpayers' money that was meant to be spent saving the river system, and we have a river in crisis and fish dead in the lower Darling.
The South Australian royal commission report that was handed down two weeks ago was very clear in its condemnation of the management and implementation of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan as well. In fact, it confirmed many of the things that the government's own Productivity Commission report had said. Clearly, these two reports nail what is going on: maladministration, greed and unlawful activity. What we've seen is a Basin Plan that has become corrupted because of political and corporate interference. What we've seen is the management of the Murray-Darling Basin become more about lining the pockets of big corporate irrigators, the mates of the former water minister Barnaby Joyce, rather than securing the water the river needs.
When Mr Joyce was the water minister, he got caught bragging about how much water he'd taken off the environment to give to his mates in the corporate irrigating industry. What have we got now? A dead river, dead fish, an environment in collapse. If there is anyone responsible for this environmental disaster this summer, it's former water minister Barnaby Joyce. This is on his head. It's up to this government to do something about it. If they won't, this parliament should. One of the urgent things that needs to be done is water needs to be secured for the river. That doesn't mean praying for rain. That means lifting the ban on the buybacks, purchasing water and getting it into the system. We've had the Prime Minister and the current water minister say that there's nothing that can be done. They're in charge of this system. This has happened on their watch. They say it's just drought. Well, no, it's not. It's corporate cotton, it's corruption and it's climate change. While this government has its head buried in the sand on all three of those issues, it's never going to come up with a plan to save the river.
Back home in South Australia, we have the state Liberal government doing whatever they can to cover up the incompetence and corruption that have been going on in Canberra and interstate—so much so that the South Australian water minister was singled out in the South Australian royal commission report because of his failure to stand up for our state. The commissioner, Bret Walker, is clearly not a man to mince his words. He called out the irresponsibility of the South Australian government and the minister, saying that he may have even breached the ministerial code of conduct because he sold South Australia out so badly at the last ministerial council meeting.
I don't think South Australians give two hoots about who fixes the river; they just want it fixed. They want the water returned to the system as we were promised. We know that that extra 450 gigalitres that South Australia was meant to get will never be delivered as long as this government is in charge. South Australians deserve better than this. The people of Menindee deserve better than this. The people living throughout the Murray-Darling Basin and those river communities all deserve better than this.
It's not rocket science; the system has been over-allocated for decades. If we want to save the river, we have to give the environment back its fair share. It doesn't matter how much negotiation there is or how many tricks of accounting this government or the Murray-Darling Basin Authority want to dream up; Mother Nature is crying out for help. The Prime Minister says that what happened in Menindee is a disaster. Well, yes, it is—a man-made disaster on his government's watch, and it's time they did something about it. The things that can be done instantly are lifting the ban on buybacks and ensuring water is purchased for the environment and the river, including the extra 450 gigalitres that South Australia was promised.
South Australians living at the bottom of the system know very, very well that, if we don't fix this river system now, it's never going to happen. The environment is crying out for intervention. Business as usual must change. There is a view that the Murray-Darling Basin Plan is too big to fail—that we can't do anything about it because it's too big to fail. Well, it's not. It's failing now, right before our eyes, and we must intervene. It is our responsibility as parliamentarians in this place to look at what has happened, to listen to the scientists, to see the evidence before us and to act. The Prime Minister might want us to pray for rain. I want some water to be returned to the river, as do South Australians and river communities right throughout the basin. If we don't get the water returned to the river it will be too late. A million dead fish, $13 billion of taxpayers' money and some pretty greedy, happy corporate irrigators—clearly something is rotten and it needs cleaning up now. (Time expired)
I am privileged to speak on this motion, and indicate that the opposition will be supporting the Greens in this respect. In particular, I make reference to the part of the motion which says that the Senate:
(b) is of the opinion that the 1500GL cap on water buybacks be repealed; …
I think that's the essential part of this particular motion.
I was lucky enough to be born on the River Murray, at the great South Australian Murraylands town of Murray Bridge. Like just about all South Australians, I've been passionate about the health of this mighty river system all of my life. The Murray and the Darling systems are not only iconic parts of our Australian landscape and environment; they're the lifeblood of many Australian communities. We have a responsibility to manage the entire system in a way that ensures its health and its sustainability not just for a year or an electoral cycle or the time between one good season of good flows and the next. As federal parliamentarians, we have a responsibility to manage it in the best possible way to ensure its health and sustainability both now and for future generations.
We've seen what happens when the rains stop, and the worrying reports about further mismanagement of the basin. Acting Deputy President Gallacher, I'm sure you've seen this in recent weeks and months, as the report of the South Australian royal commission has shocked people in South Australia. We've seen the theft and corruption that has gone on and been exposed by the royal commission. We've seen a dry riverbed. We've seen dying crops. We've seen those most shocking scenes of Murray cod, golden perch and other native fish suffocating in their thousands and perhaps millions.
A cap on water buybacks was never part of the original Murray-Darling Basin Plan. Of course, that plan was put through this parliament by Tony Burke, the then environment minister, who worked tirelessly for months and years with Prime Minister Julia Gillard to get that plan through this parliament. What the South Australian Murray-Darling Basin Royal Commission has made clear is that the cap on water buybacks should now be repealed. It was a feature of the original Murray-Darling, but, because of the incompetence and the misuse of the plan by the coalition government, we are now of the view that the only way to save the Murray-Darling Basin is to repeal that cap on buybacks. Repealing the cap on buybacks is also a recommendation of the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists, an independent expert group.
There has to be a mechanism for getting more water through the system to restore it to good health. The Murray-Darling Basin is under pressure from drought and mismanagement by this coalition government. The cap on buybacks reduces the incentive for governments to buy back water for the environment and to develop effective supply projects. Removing the cap removes any legislative barrier to buybacks over 1,500 gigalitres being one of those options. It also means that, if the 650 gigalitres of supply measures—projects that are still under development in some cases—do not deliver, buyback becomes an option into the future.
This parliament must put the sustainability of the Murray-Darling Basin ahead of partisan politics. We must not continue to have the sort of situation we had when Barnaby Joyce was responsible—or perhaps irresponsible—for this portfolio. His South Australian coalition colleagues were more interested in pandering to his personal political interests than they were in standing up for the health of the River Murray in their home state. I can see three of them sitting over there on the other side. Everybody else was calling for action—federal Labor MPs and senators, state Labor MPs and a coalition of local councils along the full length of the River Murray. But where were the government MPs and senators? They were nowhere to be seen. They had trust in New South Wales to deliver on this. Of course, as the royal commission has very clearly identified, that trust was completely misplaced.
Time and time again we've seen undeniable evidence that things are not right with the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. But what do we get from those opposite? Not much more than cop-outs. 'We can't make it rain,' they would say. Well, none of us can make it rain, but we can work together to ensure that the incredibly precious and critical resource that we have in the Murray-Darling Basin is managed in a way that anticipates drought. We're all aware of the cycle of drought and flooding rains. That's probably never been more evident than this year, with those floods in Townsville. Those of us who don't have our heads in the sand are also aware that this cycle changes over time. The millennium drought no doubt played a part in increasing the will within politics to deliver the historic agreement reached under the Murray-Darling Basin Plan.
Recently, we have again seen drought that has had a terrible impact not only on the river system but on many Australian communities. In my home state of South Australia, communities along the river have been ahead of the curve, introducing super-efficient, modern infrastructure and strategies. South Australian irrigators have proven that smart investment and smart management can allow them to make the most of the water that is available to them. We've done it in tough times, but we've made an effort. We need all stakeholders in the health and sustainability of the Murray-Darling Basin to make that effort. I call upon those opposite, in particular my fellow South Australian senators, to work constructively and put the river before politics.
It gives me great pleasure to stand in this place to debate the motion that has been put to the Senate by Senator Hanson-Young. Can I say at the outset how tremendously disappointed I am, on behalf of my colleagues, my communities and my people in South Australia, that once again our river communities are going to be pawns in a political battle in the lead-up to an election.
We saw last year in the lead-up to the South Australian election that the Murray-Darling Basin was foremost on the agenda of political debate and, immediately following that, we heard no more. Standing here today on the eve of an election and once again seeing it pop into this parliament, with this motion to debate an issue in relation to the Murray-Darling Basin, I would have to question the motivation of those who are seeking to put this forward. There is no doubt whatsoever that there has been a track record of questionable timing in relation to this particular issue.
Senator Farrell interjecting —
I hear Senator Farrell on the other side, calling out across the chamber. One of the things I would like to do is take Senator Farrell on a journey with me as an irrigator. I hear you come from Murray Bridge. I was wondering how much time you've actually spent on the river in recent times, Senator Farrell. Do you sit on your front deck and watch the river flow past every day? Have you spent your summer holidays sitting on the River Murray, speaking to irrigators? Have you spent time talking—
Senator Farrell interjecting—
I think you spend an awful lot of time in Clare, Senator Farrell, which is a lovely part of South Australia. It grows great wine, and it uses water from the Murray-Darling Basin to grow that great wine in South Australia. I would just like to point out that the crops that are grown across the whole of the Murray-Darling Basin, including the crop that Senator Farrell grows in Clare to make his beautiful wine as well as the roses that he planted last year, which he tells me are blooming beautifully again—they all come from the Murray-Darling Basin, and that's the food bowl of—
I would draw to the attention of the chamber that Clare does take a certain amount of its water supply from the Murray-Darling Basin. Maybe Senator Farrell lives in the poor part of Clare that hasn't got access to water from the Murray-Darling, and I'm sure his grapes are absolutely lovely because they're all rain irrigated. But, nonetheless, let's get back to the story that we're trying to tell.
At the risk of giving you a history lesson about the development of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, can I pay tribute to those opposite for the extraordinarily bipartisan way the whole of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan was developed? When it was originally established back many, many years ago, there were many people who played a significant part in the development of this plan, and I'll acknowledge many of your counterparts, including previous Prime Minister Julia Gillard. Certainly, Tony Burke has had a very big involvement, as has the previous Prime Minister from our side of politics, Malcolm Turnbull. Senator Birmingham was instrumental in the development and putting together of the plan at the time. We have all had an investment in this plan, so let's go back to that time.
I don't think the Australian public has any idea—and certainly, if you listen to her, Senator Sarah Hanson-Young, hasn't any idea—about the level of negotiation that was required to enable this plan to be born in the first place. Do many people understand that there were 11 houses of parliament that this legislation had to get through? Eleven houses of parliament had to agree for this plan to be put together. So, what I would say is: let's get back to the table and let's start talking about this in a bipartisan way—certainly, for any plan that is going to take as long as this plan will to implement. We had 12 years to implement this plan. We're halfway through that 12 years. I think that we need to constantly be going back to the plan, looking at ways it can be achieved and making sure that it's achieving its outcomes. But this is throwing in a political time bomb three months out from an election and trying to blow the thing up again.
We went through all of this debate 12 months ago when we had the issue about whether we wanted to support the SDL adjustment or whether we were going to support the northern basin review. So we threw a bomb into this place, creating great uncertainty amongst all of our communities out there in the Murray-Darling Basin. It created great uncertainty, because what we need to realise—and you can stand on your high horse and you can bleat for as long as you like—is that the cold, hard reality is that we are not going to have this plan delivered in full for the benefit of all communities, the river, the river system, the environment, and all Australians unless everybody continues to stay at the table. Constantly poking the bear has the likelihood that, if you poke the bear one too many times, one of our constituencies that have to stay at the table to get this plan delivered will walk away and we will blow the whole plan up. Be it on your head. If you're going to be smart here, you're going to cause one of the parties to walk away from this table that they've sat around. We've negotiated. There have been huge differences of opinion as we've sat around the MinCo table.
Senator Storer interjecting—
Senator, you haven't sat around the MinCo table. I have. I've seen all the people that sit around the MinCo table and I have seen all of the different competing interests from the states and everyone. We're all here for our states—for the best interests of our individual states.
Senator Hanson-Young interjecting—
I'll take Senator Hanson-Young's interjection. States don't have to just look at one aspect; they can look at many more. I can assure you that when I sit around the MinCo table—
Senator Hanson-Young interjecting—
You haven't been there either, Senator Hanson-Young. You just sit there on the sidelines, throwing your bombs. You couldn't care less what the outcome was here; you just want to grandstand on this. I care about delivering an outcome for our environment, for South Australia, for Australia and for all our river communities.
Senator Hanson-Young interjecting—
Well, that's your opinion. I've got to tell you that South Australia currently has 100 per cent of its water allocation—I will say that again: 100 per cent of its water allocation—because of the good management of South Australia over the last 40 or 50 years and the good negotiations of South Australia.
Anyway, let's get back to our history lesson. I want to tell you about my community. My community was the second established irrigation community in the Murray-Darling Basin, after Mildura. My community is Renmark. It was established by the Chaffey brothers. My grandfather was actually the chair of the Renmark Irrigation Trust. Proudly, to this day, it still stands as the only irrigation trust in Australia that has its very own act of parliament.
I am an irrigator, and I am very, very proud of my community. I'm proud of a hundred years of responsible water management. I am proud of the fact that we were innovators; we were leaders in our community. We went to pressurised, piped irrigation systems. We have been the most efficient and effective water users in the country since irrigation first started in this country and first started in the Murray-Darling Basin. So I stand here as a proud, proud member of my community—a proud member of a community that has never done anything that would have a consequential detrimental impact on the river system. So my story is one of great pride, and it's greatly disappointing, and I should imagine that every single member of my community and Mr Morrison: any others who live along the Murray-Darling Basin would be devastated, to see the rubbish that gets said in this place about the community and how they've been handling the river.
I'd just like to comment on a couple of the things that Senator Hanson-Young put forward. She said that the river system is in collapse. Well, certainly, the northern part of the system is suffering an extreme amount of hardship and stress because of the fact that we are in one of the worst droughts that anyone can remember. We remember, in the southern connected basin, the millennium drought and the consequences that that had on us and our irrigation communities, on the health of the river and on the people who rely on the river, whether it be for drinking water, for public amenity or for growing the food that every single one of us in here is quite happy to put on the table for our families and our children to eat for dinner tonight. Let's not forget where that food comes from. So as to suggesting that the river system is 'in collapse': certainly I will accept the fact that the northern system is under a lot of stress. But in South Australia, with 100 per cent of our water allocation, the southern part of the system is actually in reasonably good health at the moment, and part of that can be attributed to the Murray-Darling Basin Plan working. We have 2,100 gigalitres of water that has been returned to the environment. That's flowing down the river as we speak. We've still got some more to go, and we are absolutely committed to getting to the 3,200 gigalitres of water that we said would be returned to the basin under this plan. But in 2024, we have the opportunity to assess where we have actually got to.
In another comment that Senator Hanson-Young made—and I'm not quite sure she actually realised the ridiculousness of her comment—she referred to the Murray-Darling Basin as the food bowl of the country. Well, yes, Senator Hanson-Young—it is the food bowl of the country. But it won't be if you take more water away from irrigators and completely decimate the communities. Just a little lesson in economics, Senator Hanson-Young: if you take so much out of a community that it can no longer exist as a community, the entire irrigation district collapses.
What we sought to do with the Murray-Darling Basin Plan is to make sure that we took a responsible approach to making sure that we delivered the outcomes that addressed the concerns and the needs of the entire basin and all of its stakeholders. We're not just going to return the river to pristine environmental condition and completely trash the food bowl of the country and the people who grow the food that will sit on your table for dinner tonight. We're not going to trash river communities so they no longer exist. We're going to work systematically, sensibly and thoroughly through a 12-year process to deliver the Murray-Darling Basin Plan in full.
Others may want to prosecute whether there's enough water or there isn't enough water. I'd like to think that the Labor Party will remain committed to the bipartisan position that they came to this place with in the first place, and that is that we are going to deliver this plan in full. We accept 3,200 gigalitres is the amount of water that we want to deliver by 2024, when we will reassess the success of the plan. So I'm hoping that they haven't moved away from that—that this particular publicity stunt for political purposes is only about the 1,500 gigalitres, which I'll get to in a minute.
The other comments that we heard coming from the other end of the chamber were about large corporate irrigators sucking the river dry. Certainly there are corporate irrigators along the river system. But what about the tens of thousands of mum-and-dad irrigators, the tens of thousands of people who live in communities just like mine, who might have 20 hectares or 30 hectares? In my case, I had only 11 hectares. These are small irrigators. They are integral parts of the fabric of the community in which they live. They are responsible water users. They have bought their entitlements completely legally. They have participated in the process of trying to find water savings to put back for environmental use.
Our river communities have been through a really tough time, but they're still standing. They're resilient. They've done the hard yards. So it's really disappointing that we should even be standing in this place today. The question has to be: why now? We're halfway through a process. This was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to do a great environmental, social and economic readjustment in a system. Why are we talking about it today, but halfway through?
Our international reputation in terms of water management is second to none anywhere around the world. But, standing in this chamber, you'd be excused for thinking that we were anything other than the most incompetent water managers in the world. What I would say to you is that we need to allow the process to take its course. This is a really complex plan. I'm not making any qualms about that whatsoever. We had the initial plan at 2,750 gigalitres. We then dealt with the 650 gigalitres of the sustainable diversion limits, which we put through the parliament with the support of the opposition last year. We are locked into providing the extra 450 gigalitres of up water to supplement the amount of water that's returned to the environment to 3,200 gigalitres. We put in the Northern Basin Review so we can make sure the northern basin considerations are taken as an iterative process as the plan goes forward. It is a very complex plan. If it was easy, it would have been done an awfully long time ago. It's not easy. It is really, really tough balancing the triple bottom line needs of the environment, the social impacts on communities and the economic driver that the Murray-Darling Basin is for the Australian economy. This is an absolutely fundamental piece of public policy that has been supported by those opposite up until now.
Moving on to the 1,500 gigalitre cap to which this particular motion refers, can I say it is extraordinarily lazy or it's extraordinarily political that we should be standing here today dealing with the 1,500 gigalitre cap. Can I just put on the record that, as we stand here today, 270 billion litres of water is still available through the cap buyback. We haven't even reached the cap of 1,500 gigalitres. So why are we standing in this chamber, three months out from an election, having a debate about the cap? If you had come in here and tried to debate some other thing, you might have had some more credibility. But to be debating the cap when you haven't even reached the cap is absolutely hypocritical. You cannot defend what you're doing in any other way than saying that you're doing this for purely political purposes, because you want to be re-elected come the next election.
So I put it on the table: it is lazy politics and it is not good policy. It might be cheaper and it might be easier to buy back water, but that is not the best thing for our river communities. It is not the best thing for our economies that live and grow the food in the Murray-Darling Basin. So it is purely lazy and cheap politics, because it does not take into consideration the communities that depend on the river and the irrigation from the river. And it will have a massively, massively devastating effect for two reasons. Firstly, it will have a devastating effect because, of course, there is more water that has to come out of these communities. But it will also have a devastating effect because you will put these communities back into uncertainty. How much more uncertainty do you want these communities to have to suffer? We have been through 10 years of uncertainty in the Murray-Darling Basin, not knowing from one year to the next how much water we're going to have and whether water has to be taken away.
We gave some certainty back to our River Murray irrigators when we put in a cap of 1,500 gigalitres. We never moved away from the target of 3,200. We stand here rock solid, with everybody in this chamber, that we will deliver the Murray Darling Basin Plan in full. We don't move away from that. All we are saying is, 'Leave our irrigators with the certainty of knowing that they are not going to have buybacks come in and take their water.' Let me make it very clear: a lot of the buybacks that initially happened were not from willing sellers. An awful lot of these people were under stress from banks because they'd just come out of the millennium drought, and they sold their water under hugely stressful conditions. So don't be conned into thinking that there is a whole heap of people out there who want to sell their water to you—there aren't.
I note that this morning, Tony Burke, the shadow minister for water, was talking on ABC Radio South Australia and he made the comment, 'Buybacks at the moment haven't reached the cap.' So Tony Burke, by his own admission, accepts the fact this is not necessary at this time. He went on to say: 'If we get to 2024 and we haven't reached our targets, well, let's have a look at the mechanisms which we might have to use to be able to get that water.' By his own admission he says that this is not something that is needed now, so why are you bringing this into the chamber now? It can only be for politics. You need to justify that to your electorates. And another thing: David Bevan, the ABC journalist who was interviewing Tony Burke, said:
There will be regional communities right across the Murray-Darling Basin who would be very worried about that, because they see buybacks as killing communities.
Guess what Tony Burke said? 'That's right.' Is that okay?
The other thing that I'd love somebody to perhaps ask Tony Burke—and maybe some of you in your contribution to this debate this afternoon could explain this to me—is where these buybacks are going to come from. Are they going to come out of my community in Renmark? Are you going to turn up in Renmark and tell people that you're going to take more water out of their community? I have to tell you right now that Renmark has just recovered from the massive number of buybacks that have come out of the community. They're just back on their feet and the economy is starting to move after a time when every second shop in the main street of Renmark was shut because of the uncertainty and the Swiss-cheese effect of ripping water entitlements out in the middle of a community. The cost of the delivery of our irrigation water went through the roof, because there were half the number of irrigators irrigating off the same system. You don't understand until you're part of these communities how it rips the very guts out of the communities when you come in and randomly take from here and there.
Senator Hanson-Young interjecting—
I'd love to know, Senator Hanson-Young, which communities you are going to take the water from. You tell me. Is it coming out of Renmark? Is it coming out of Berri? Where is it coming from?
Senator Canavan interjecting—
In conclusion, I'm tremendously disappointed that anybody in this place or in the other place would seek to use the members of my community as pawns in a political game. They have had enough, and you have to stop. The removal of the cap of 1,500 gigalitres is completely unnecessary because we haven't reached the cap yet. It is totally politically motivated—unless somebody can explain to me otherwise. It is a totally defeatist attitude to think that, six years into a plan, we aren't clever enough and innovative enough to be able to achieve this water recovery. In Senator Farrell's very own words, if we continue with 'smart investment' and 'smart management', we can reach the goals and water targets within this plan without destroying my community.
I rise in support of this motion. Since the last sitting I have travelled the Murray-Darling extensively, right down to Murray Bridge. I've been to Wentworth, where the Murray intersects with the Darling. I've driven up the Lower Darling twice. I've been to Menindee twice, before the highly publicised fish kill. I've been across to Mudgee, up to Dubbo, through Brewarrina, Dalby, Goondiwindi and even to Tilpa, about 200 kilometres north of nowhere in New South Wales, where the river was as dry as a bone. We've seen the fish kills; I don't think we need to talk much more about them. I've seen bone-dry rivers.
When I left Dubbo two Mondays ago to drive north up into the northern basin, there was 1,665 megalitres of flow at Dubbo. A three-hour drive north on the same river, the flows were down to zero. The only thing in between was irrigators taking water for their crop. People say they have an entitlement, but what about the people downstream: the people at Brewarrina, who are desperately worried that they won't have any water; the people at Bourke, who are on the verge of not having any drinking water; the people at Walgett, not on the same river system but in northern New South Wales, who have no drinking water from the river because of the state it is in?
Since the last time I was here, we've also seen the Productivity Commission hand down a review on the state of the Murray-Darling. That review raises some very serious concerns about the risks associated with the 605-gigalitre SDLs and in relation to the 450-gigalitre efficiency measures. We need to have regard to what the Productivity Commission has said.
We've also had a royal commission report handed down. That report was quite scathing. That report suggested in no uncertain terms that the Murray-Darling Basin Plan is based on legally and scientifically flawed data. I think all of us who have regard for the rule of law in this place, and indeed for science, need to pay heed to what the royal commissioner has said. The royal commissioner also raised allegations of maladministration and political interference. Those are not my words; they are the words of the royal commissioner. And yet the response to the royal commission was disappointing at best. In fact, it was quite disrespectful in some instances.
I've just been looking at the resume of Mr Walker, an eminent QC. He was appointed for three years as the inaugural Independent National Security Legislation Monitor, a very important role in the context of national security. He ran a special commission into the Sydney Ferries Corporation. He was counsel conducting inquiries into the Casino Control Act in 1992. He conducted the Special Commission of Inquiry into Campbelltown and Camden Hospitals. His resume is quite deep with very important roles, and he is an eminent QC; a man of intellect. And yet some of the responses we saw to the royal commission report were very disrespectful—coming from government ministers. I understand that Mr Niall Blair, the water minister in New South Wales, and Mr Littleproud, the federal minister, both represent communities that have irrigators in them. Mr Littleproud, of course, represents the townships of St George, Dirranbandi, Dalby and Goondiwindi, all cotton-growing and irrigation areas. I would imagine that, if I were ever in the position that he is in, where as a minister he represents the Federation, I would be much more measured in my response to the royal commission and much more respectful. Even in South Australia we've had very soft responses from the Premier there, Steven Marshall. These sorts of responses are quite disrespectful of a royal commissioner, because people just don't want to hear what he has to say. Has anyone said the same sorts of things about Commissioner Hayne? People might have argued the toss, and are arguing the toss, about some of the recommendations that he's made, but they're not playing the man; they're playing the ball. That's the appropriate way in which we should be approaching the report of the royal commissioner.
Senator Hanson-Young stood up and criticised the irrigators, and the corporate irrigators in particular. I'm not going to do that, because they're not actually the problem. They are a symptom of the problem. They take water they are legally entitled to take because the system allows them to do that. I think we need to be careful about directing blame unnecessarily at irrigators. I might add—and we know this from the Four Corners show 'Pumped'—that there were some irrigators who were breaking the law. That is totally unacceptable, and some of them are actually before the courts right at this very moment. That's where they should be, answering charges under judicial processes, so there's fairness. We need to deal very swiftly with people who are taking water unlawfully. The situation we have at the moment is not about breaking laws; it's about broken laws. It's about us letting them do what they do.
I have foreshadowed that tomorrow I will introduce a bill into this parliament to ban the exporting of cotton. I have done so after my trip up into the north, seeing the expanding nature of that industry. Once again, they're not doing anything unlawful; they're doing what they are allowed to do. I've looked at this and said, 'Okay, if we can't solve this problem in a sensible and measured way then we need to look at perhaps more extreme approaches.' If we can't sit around and say, 'Let's deal with the recommendations of the royal commission in a sensible way,' then we might have to do something else.
For me, cotton is a crop that is grown and then merely exported. It is a water-intensive crop that is grown and exported. It is the equivalent of exporting water. That's a silly thing to do in a country that is actually the driest inhabited continent on the planet. It does not make sense. So I've put up what people might call an unpalatable bill, but it is sitting there hoping that we find a better solution, hoping we find a solution that balances out the needs of all the people across the river. We need to look at the river from a needs based perspective and we need to prioritise some of those needs. I have given the example before about what's happening in Dubbo, where all of the water flowing down a river is going to irrigators. I don't mind water going to irrigators, but all of it? And in circumstances where people are running out of river water to drink? We need to look at this properly.
The Murray-Darling Basin Plan, born of unlawful and unscientific methods—according to the royal commissioner, for whom I have great respect—deals with the allocations of water, the total amount of water we can safely take from the river. The royal commissioner comes to the conclusion that it shouldn't be 3,200 gigalitres that we need to return; it should probably be a number starting with '4'. We need look at that again. An allegation has been made by a royal commissioner. We need to tackle that allegation. I would like to have both the state jurisdictions and the federal jurisdiction look at what is written and deal with it. If not, there's an awful bill that I have put up, which only requires passing by this parliament to be enacted into law. It is the total domain of the federation to deal with matters such as export. So we need to be looking at allocations. We need to be looking at the SDL projects, because we know from the Productivity Commission report that there is risk associated with the delivery of that 605 gigalitres. We need to look at the 450 efficiency measures. We know there is risk, and, where there is risk, we must manage it properly.
In February last year, we voted on a northern basin review. This chamber rejected the proposal to return 70 gigalitres of water from the river back to irrigators in the northern basin. Unfortunately, when it was brought back in May, it passed. So we allowed 70 gigalitres to be returned to irrigators, and just look at the situation we are in. It's not necessarily because of that legislation, but, looking at it beside the circumstances we find ourselves in now, I think that was a most unwise thing for the Senate to do. I said at the time that I was concerned about the size. I said at the time that the Senate was not well informed; we didn't have all of the data before us.
We need to look at the river system in terms of not just allocation but also what are the smart crops to grow. We need to look at it and ask: 'Is it right to grow cotton? Is it right to grow almonds? Is it right to grow permanent crops or seasonal crops? What is the right mix of those crops?' That's how we should be approaching this problem. Instead we have denial; we have conflict across this chamber and, indeed, across the community.
Unfortunately, there are too many vested interests in this whole process. On the first day I sat in this chamber, my first day as a senator, I lodged a motion for an order for the production of documents relating to the Murray-Darling. I have been fighting since I've been here for transparency. Indeed, the royal commissioner found that the whole Murray-Darling Basin Plan is being implemented under a veil of secrecy. The Murray-Darling river is not a weapons system; it's not an intelligence operation. We need to be completely transparent in how we are managing that river and how we are spending taxpayers' money, and that is not happening at this point in time.
A claim has been made about political interference. That should alarm people. Indeed, I know Senator Hanson-Young is proposing a federal royal commission. We know that Bret Walker was fettered in his inquiry because the federal government would not cooperate with him, the Murray-Darling Basin Authority would not cooperate with him and other states would not cooperate with him. In a circumstance where questions have been raised as to governance, political interference and maladministration, it is appropriate that we look at things like royal commissions, because it doesn't matter what you do to fix the plan; if the governance structure is corrupted in some way, we just end up landing back in the same space.
Let's stop rejecting ideas; let's sit around the table with cool, calm heads and sort out how to fix what is clearly broken. It doesn't help that Senator Ruston stands and says, 'This is all political'. No-one has controlled the timing of the deaths of murray cod at Menindee. To suggest that somehow this is motivated by an election is, in my view, disingenuous. We've got dry rivers. We've got people running out of—please don't smile, Senator Canavan! We've got people in Walgett without water. I had a briefing the other day from a scientist down from the Coorong, and we've got problems down there too. We need to look at solving the problem. We don't need people with vested interests—I understand people represent their electorates, but you have to be mindful of national interest. We need to fix this. This is about the national interest; it's not about the Nationals' interest. Thank you.
We have the balance wrong. It's very clear. The Murray-Darling Basin needs more water to ensure its survival. The intent of the Water Act—to share savings between irrigators and the Commonwealth on a fifty-fifty basis—should be returned to. Irrigators are the primary beneficiaries of a plan originally designed to increase flows to the environment to have a sustainable system. But the irrigators won't benefit for much longer if the river dries up. The Menindee Lakes fish kill will only be the start of much larger and regular catastrophic events. So we must reorientate the plan to fairly balance environmental sustainability of the system with economic concerns of individual irrigators.
Management of the Murray-Darling Basin requires urgent reform. That reform must be pragmatic. We must improve the integrity of the plan carefully and methodically without putting the plan itself at risk. Reforms outlined by the Murray-Darling Basin Royal Commission, delivered 29 January this year, include critically important recommendations to improve transparency by requiring real-time data sharing and publication on water extractions, and a call to abolish the water buyback cap of 1,500 gigalitres, which we're addressing today. It recommends to undertake further research into return flows, so that we know the effects of irrigation efficiency projects.
The Productivity Commission also delivered its findings to the government, on 19 December last year, pointing out that the Murray-Darling Basin Authority's twin roles as overseer of the plan and its regulator are conflicted and that the conflicts will intensify in the next five years. Structural separation of the Murray-Darling Basin Authority into a basin plan regulator and a Murray-Darling Basin agency is required to ensure effective implementation of the plan. That is per the Productivity Commission.
I am encouraged that the Labor Party, the Greens and others are moving to abolish the water buybacks cap following the recommendation of the South Australian royal commission. I drafted an amendment to the Water Act to double the cap, which I had planned to introduce this week. The system needs more water to survive, and water buybacks have proven to be the most successful mechanism to achieve that aim. There is overwhelming evidence that water buybacks are cheaper, more reliable and more effective than other measures of water recovery. It's important to note that the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder puts out a blind tender, and those who want to sell put an offer in—so Senator Ruston's analogy regarding Renmark and the irrigators there is not solid—yet, since 2013, water buybacks have stalled just below the 1,500 gigalitre cap imposed by the coalition government in 2015.
I call upon the government to adopt each and every recommendation proposed by the Murray-Darling Basin Royal Commission, which includes abolishing the water buyback cap of 1,500 gigalitres, and to proceed with the structural separation of the Murray-Darling Basin Authority as proposed by the Productivity Commission. We must act now before it is too late, but we must act carefully and responsibly, putting the sustainability of the system above short-term political gains. I, for one, believe that is the priority.
I find it galling—in fact, the height of hypocrisy. There must be an election on for this debate about the Murray-Darling Basin to be so dominated by South Australians. In fact, the motion is moved by a South Australian. It seems that practically every South Australian in this chamber wants to have their two bob's worth, as if their voices matter more than anybody else's. In fact, I suspect they think that theirs are the only voices that matter.
Now, let's talk about South Australia in the context of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. First of all, Australian water licence holders have sold almost 1,500 gigalitres of water under the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. You would think, from all the bleating that has been going on, that the bulk of that has come from South Australia. Not so. Thirty-two gigalitres out of almost 1,500 gigalitres have been bought back from South Australian irrigators. I heard, previously, Senator Ruston say what effect that had had on her town of Renmark. Most of those licences must have been bought back in her area, because the rest of South Australia's irrigators have not felt the pain. I can tell you where the pain has been felt; it has been felt all along the Victorian border, close to the Murray River, and all along the New South Wales rivers. Go to towns like Shepparton, Deniliquin, Griffith and many, many other small towns, where the loss of water and the loss of irrigated farming has had an absolutely devastating effect on those country areas. South Australia's price for participating in the Murray-Darling Basin Plan is a pimple on a pumpkin.
Another thing that South Australians seem to forget all the time is that the Lower Lakes are kept artificially fresh. They wouldn't be fresh in their natural state. They are kept fresh because there are barrages across the mouth of the Murray which prevent the Murray from behaving like an estuary—the only river in Australia that is prevented from behaving like an estuary. In an estuary, when the river flow is low, the sea comes in; when the river flow is high, fresh water goes out to sea. That's how the Lower Lakes would be kept wet, permanently wet, so they wouldn't get salt-encrusted shores as occurred in the drought. They would be kept wet. They wouldn't be kept artificially fresh under natural conditions but for those barrages.
Now, of course, that fresh water evaporates in the Lower Lakes. Nine hundred gigalitres a year evaporates from the Lower Lakes, all of it fresh water. Vast quantities of it, naturally enough, are water that has flowed down the Murray, a little bit of it down the Darling River, and into the Lower Lakes, where it evaporates. If those lakes were not kept artificially fresh, that 900 gigalitres of water which evaporates from Lake Alexandrina—and a little from Lake Albert, of course—could easily be brackish water, a mixture of seawater and fresh water. A lot of that 900 gigalitres could be retained further up the system either for environmental benefits or for irrigation and agriculture.
The Lower Lakes are an artificial environment. When we talk about protecting the environment, we are not talking about the natural environment. It's an artificial, man-made environment, and the South Australians don't ever mention that.
The other man-made impact that is very, very significant in this debate—also in South Australia, naturally enough—is the state of the Coorong. Until a few months ago, when I tweeted that the Coorong was dying and got criticised by Senator Hanson-Young for that, I don't think she knew where the Coorong was. Since then she's gone to look at it, and finally she now agrees with me: the Coorong is dying.
But why is it dying? I'll tell you why. It's because, again in South Australia, they have a thing called the south-east drainage project. The swamps and the various other sources of water which stop the land from being productive agricultural land have been channelled into drains. The water is sent down and, instead of draining into the Coorong, which is where it used to go before it was channelled, it now goes straight out to sea. All that fresh water which used to go into the Coorong is now going out to sea. As a result, the tail end of the Coorong—in fact, the bulk of the uphill section, I suppose, if you put it that way—is deprived of fresh water because the water that would, under the natural environment, flow into the Coorong is not going into the Coorong.
Another aspect that I find the South Australians completely hypocritical about is this fish kill in the Menindee Lakes. Why did the fish die in the Menindee Lakes? There are two factors. One is not enough water. The other one is the high temperatures. That's what does it. You get blue-green algae. You get other bugs growing in the water. The water's not flowing; there's not enough of it to maintain an oxygen supply, and it kills the fish. Why was there not enough water in the Menindee Lakes? Because it was sent down the river to South Australia. They let it out. They've done it twice in the last five years. Both times it's caused problems.
Now, the Menindee Lakes are not some sort of sacred environmental thing either. They're man-made. Under the natural environment, they are called ephemeral. They dry out when water flow is low, and, when water flow is high, there's water in them.
I have some sympathy for the people who live around the Menindee Lakes. They like to go out and waterski and ride their boats, but you couldn't call that an environmental argument. In fact, the best person to emerge out of this issue on the Menindee Lakes is the Hon. Niall Blair MLC, the New South Wales Minister for Regional Water, who is now saying there will be no more releases of water from the Menindee Lakes to send down to South Australia. Guess what happens when it gets to South Australia. It ends up in Lake Alexandrina and evaporates. Nobody is any better off, and neither is the environment any better off.
I'm appalled that the South Australian royal commission is being quoted. The South Australian royal commission—despite the fact that it was a New South Wales QC: he might as well have said, 'Give me all your propaganda, South Australia, and I'll put it into a report,' that's what it amounts to—was a fancy argument for saying, 'Send more water to South Australia.' Why? 'The environment.' What about the environment? 'Don't go there—just, "The environment". South Australia needs more water. The whole Murray-Darling is going to die unless South Australia gets more water.'
One final aspect that I want to bring into this discussion about South Australia is the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder. The Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder is the custodian of all the water owned by the Commonwealth for environmental purposes. But it is asked to release water by the various water owners. There is good evidence that the South Australian government has requested—and it has been acted on—the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder to send water down to the South Australian lakes in order to raise the level of the lakes to allow a sailing regatta to occur at Goolwa. They asked for environmental water to be sent down the river to raise the lakes so they can have a sailing regatta. There is good evidence of that.
So what is the solution we hear from the South Australians? 'Send more water from Victoria and South Australia—and Queensland too, for that matter—down the river to South Australia.' And then they can't even get their rivers right—the Darling and the Murray. They don't even know there is a difference between them. Very little of the water up the Darling River, whether it is stolen or not, ever makes it to South Australia. The average is six per cent—that's it. Hypocrisy knows no bounds.
My solution to this, my advice, is that New South Wales should simply withdraw from the Murray-Darling Basin Plan and tell South Australia to grow up, stop whingeing and answer a few questions. New South Wales should not rejoin any plan involving the Murray-Darling until South Australia can answer some serious questions. Why can't the Murray River return to being an estuary? That's the natural environment. Why is it being artificially blocked in South Australia, with no justification by the South Australians as to why it shouldn't return to being an estuary, the natural environment? Why can't the water from the south-east drainage program go into the Coorong and save it, like it used to? Why should the barrages stay at Goolwa? Why should New South Wales, Victorian and Queensland farmers sacrifice—and they have paid hugely so far for their involvement in the Murray-Darling Basin plan—so that you can have a sailing regatta on the Lower Lakes at Goolwa in South Australia?
From the moving of this motion, and from the arguments put in this chamber so far, it is clear that there are two main conclusions to make from the contribution of the Greens—both the presentation of this motion and also the arguments put. One is that the Greens political party, as a movement, is much more interested in problems than solutions. The oxygen that the Greens political party breathes and lives on is around perpetuating a problem, not creating a solution. It is only when problems arise—and problems have arisen over the last couple of months, no-one denies that, in relation to the death of fish in the system—that the Greens appear. They are never involved in trying to find the solution to such problems—the hard work that is involved in getting agreements with a variety of governments and getting support for legislation through parliaments which, obviously, have a variety of different views on a matter like this. Because there is no attempt from the Greens to do that, they can never claim any credit for improvements that are made—and there have been improvements made, as I will go through in my contribution.
The second point is that, for the Greens political movement, emotion always trumps reason and allegations always trump fact. Their contributions are often devoid of fact and are—at least, certainly in this instance—absent of any knowledge of the local circumstances on the ground within the Murray-Darling, which is an enormous environmental system, obviously incredibly complex. It runs from the headwaters around Toowoomba, west of Brisbane in my home state, all the way down to not quite Adelaide but to the east of Adelaide in South Australia. It's the biggest water catchment in the country. In an average season only around eight per cent of the water that falls around Toowoomba and in western Queensland will end up down at the mouth of the Murray. That's in a normal season. In a dry season, like we've had over the past year, or past couple of years in some places, you'll get much, much less than that, often absolutely nothing at all, because there's no connectivity. As people have remarked to me before, the Murray-Darling is like a big, dry, old carpet. It's not a garden hose. You don't put water in one end of the hose and it comes out the other end. You pour water on one corner of the carpet and, if it's wet enough, if there's enough water across the carpet, water will flow from one end to the other, but only in those circumstances where it is wet. And it certainly hasn't been wet recently.
Before I come back to some of those points, I want to put a few of those local facts on the table here in the Senate, particularly as they relate to my area of Queensland and also northern New South Wales, where it has been incredibly dry these last couple of years. Take the Condamine-Balonne subcatchment within the Murray-Darling. It is broadly centred around St George, which is the largest irrigating community around that area, but it does have other large centres at Miles and Chinchilla, although they rely more on groundwater and surface water extraction. But the average annual consumption in the Balonne system is 1,298 gigalitres a year. I apologise for the jargon. It probably doesn't mean much to people—1,298 gigalitres. That amount of water would be about three Sydney Harbours a year—it's probably a bit under that—that is used in the Condamine-Balonne subcatchments. Just keep in mind that that 1,300 gigalitres is the average annual use of water in that system. Some years it's higher; some years it's lower. In 2017, the use in that area was 156 gigalitres. The average is 1,300 gigalitres and in 2017, a relatively dry year, it was 156 gigalitres. Last year, in 2018, it was 73 gigalitres. So far this season—it hasn't been long, but this is when the water would tend to come in that area—only six gigalitres has been used. That is 1,300 down to 156, down to 73. It will obviously rise above six this year, but unfortunately it might not be much higher than that 2017 low this year either.
This is an example of how the system responds. We have a system which does respond. When it's dry, the use of water by farmers, primarily by irrigators, reduces. Most of that 73 gigs last year would have probably been stock and domestic use to keep households and animals alive, and in the towns, including St George and Dirranbandi, for town water. There would have been almost zero use of water for irrigation. I'll come back to that question in a second.
For example, at Cubbie Station, which is often held up, as the Greens have been saying, as corporate farmers or witches—people always want to burn witches in the Murray-Darling Basin. If someone has a witch, that witch has to be burnt. 'If only we could burn that witch, the whole thing would be right.' For some people it's Cubbie Station. For others it's Menindee Lakes. For others it's the Lower Lakes or the Coorong, as Senator Leyonhjelm mentioned. There's always something. 'If only we could get rid of it, everything would be fine.' As I indicated earlier, it's much, much more complex than that. Cubbie Station is sometimes held up as that witch, the witch from western Queensland in this case. Cubbie Station is a large cotton farm in western Queensland. It has not taken any water from the system—not one drop—since 2017. All of last year and so far this year there has not been one allocation of water to Cubbie Station.
But you wouldn't believe that. Over there we heard interjections earlier that it's the big corporate farmers who are responsible here. These corporate farmers are taking the water, and that's preventing the water going to the Menindee or Lower Lakes or lower. The evidence is there, but, as I said earlier, the Greens never resort to bringing a fact to a debate. The facts are all there on the record. The Murray-Darling Basin Authority monitors this very closely. Cubbie Station has not taken any water since 2017.
In fact, around St George—and Cubbie is close to Dirranbandi, which is not too far from St George in Queensland terms, at least—in that immediate area, only one per cent of the area is being planted with cotton or was planted with cotton last year. In a normal year, I think it's about 900 hectares of cotton being planted. That was planted last year because of this lower water use that I mentioned earlier. Down further south—and Senator Williams will be able to speak more about the situation in New South Wales—it's a similar situation in a lot of the dry cotton districts in New South Wales. My understanding is there was no cotton at all grown in Bourke last year, because of the incredibly dry conditions.
This brings us, I think, to an incredibly important point in this debate. I understand why emotion can come into these types of debates and I completely recognise that those not exposed to irrigation districts or the practices of farmers might work under misconceptions of how crop choice works, how farmers decide what to use. But No. 1, in my view, our farmers are our best environmentalists in this country, for a start. They live on the land. They live off the land. If they don't protect the land, they don't have any livelihood for themselves or their families. They know exactly how the environment works and how brutal it can be. They must manage it for the their long-term sustainability and that of their families. The way the system works is that a farmer will be provided with an allocation of water each year. They'll have an entitlement to a certain amount of water. Each year, depending on how much water is in the dam, they'll be allocated a certain amount of water. I mentioned earlier that the allocations in the Balonne have been something like six per cent of their average amount at the moment, and that leaves them less water to use.
In many parts of the system, particularly up in the north, in the upper Darling and Condamine-Balonne areas of the system, water uses can be very variable. There aren't as many dams in that part of the system as there are in the southern part of the system, so you can have a lot more variability in water availability, as we've seen in the last decade. We've had very, very large rainfall in the last decade and 100 per cent allocations for many seasons, but in the last couple of years that's reversed and we've had dry conditions. In that environment, obviously, you want to pick a crop that can respond to that variability. You don't want to plant something or grow something which is going to need water every year without question. That's why in many parts of this system exposed to this variability we have farmers growing what are called 'annual' crops, where you choose every year whether to plant that particular crop. Cotton is one of those. Rice is the other major annual crop in the system.
So, because we have a variable climate, because we know we're a country of flooding rains and droughts, we often have farming systems that respond to that variability and allow a farmer to choose to plant every year. That is the best choice not just for the farmer but for the system as a whole, because it can then respond flexibly to that variability. I want to bust this myth that cotton is terrible and you shouldn't grow it. Actually, because of the variable system, cotton is a perfect crop for that, because, when it's wet it can be very wet, as we've seen in the last decade. It's been very wet around St George for many years with floods. It's sometimes hard to remember those years, but they were only in the last decade. When it's wet, you can ramp up the cotton use. You can plant a lot of cotton and use the water. It's largely going to evaporate anyway; as I said, the whole system is not a garden hose; a lot of it will evaporate. So you can use that water, put it to productive use, make wealth for our country, create jobs and create vibrant communities and towns like St George, which are brilliant places.
Then, in the years when it's dry, as we've just seen, the farmers pull back. They pull all that production back. I know it's the same in the rice-growing districts around Murrumbidgee in Senator Williams's part of the world. We don't grow rice much in Queensland, but down in those areas where rice can be grown they'll do the same thing. I haven't got the stats, but I know that in the previous drought they went back to well over 90 per cent reduction in their rice production during the worst of the drought. They can do that because it's very variable.
If you plant trees, like there are a lot of in South Australia—there's no problem with that; I'm not criticising, but in the South Australian growing districts there are a lot of almond orchards et cetera—they need water every year. You can't rip those plants out when it's dry. So they've invested a lot more in reticulated systems, saving water, in response to the crop choice that they've had in that area. Likewise in Victoria, with again a less variable system and more dams, they have dairy cattle. Cattle need to be fed food and grass every year. You can't just scale your water use back up and down. The system works a lot better because of that.
Because, as I mentioned, the northern part of the system is not as regulated—there are not as many dams and water use is more variable—that system is exposed to the types of events we've seen in the past few months around the death of fish. We've all been touched by that tragedy. It's an unfortunate aspect of nature that we do have floods and then droughts. It does lead to these kinds of events. You can see this locally on the ground. This is a problem with this debate. Not enough people who have contributed to this debate have spent enough time in the areas of the basin where these events occur. They'll turn up for the photo shoot. They'll turn up when the fish die, do a 30-second social media post and then fly back to the city and not think twice about it.
Take Copeton Dam in the Gwydir catchment. Right now it's pretty dry in that area, as it is across many areas. Downstream of Copeton Dam, downstream of the wall, where they can regulate the river because they release water as per need, there are no fish kills. The dam has been able to keep, for now at least, the river full and regulated to an appropriate temperature and height, and there are no fish kills. Just upstream of Copeton Dam in that same local area there have been fish kills, because obviously you can't regulate the water. I might have to step through this for the Greens. Upstream of a dam you can't regulate the amount of water in that river. You can't pump water back up the river. You can only send it down the river. So upstream of the dam there have been fish kills. Downstream of the dam there haven't been any fish kills. This is in the same local area. Why? It's because we have a dam, that's why. The more we have dams, the fewer fish kills we have. The more you can regulate a system, the better you can manage the environment and make sure you don't have these types of events.
As I say, we are exposed to these types of events in the upper Darling in western Queensland because we do not have the same amount of water infrastructure as they have in South Australia with all the locks. You have locks all through South Australia. You can regulate the flow of water. You have the Hume Dam, the Dartmouth Dam and the barrages. You can regulate your system. That's fine; there's no problem with that. But up country we don't have such regulation, for largely good reasons. The topography is not as attractive to the construction of dams as it is in South Australia. So we have to manage these things.
I could go on about this for a long time, but I want to spend some time coming to that point about solutions. We need to find solutions. That is what we as a government have been focused on. I also recognise the efforts of the previous government, who came to an agreement with the states which has been concluded under our government. But it looks like they might be supporting this ridiculous notion, which I suppose is the irresponsibility that comes with opposition. But in government we try to find solutions where we bring parties together, bring states and territories together and get a better-fit deal for South Australia. No-one is questioning the fact that water has been overallocated in the system in the past. That's why we have gone through a more-than-10-year process here to reduce water use in the Murray-Darling Basin and to do so in a way that is responsible, common sense and leads to better outcomes.
We have had better outcomes. We have had enormous watering events right across the Murray-Darling Basin which have led to better environmental outcomes in the Macquarie Marshes, the Lower Lakes and at Menindee as well, notwithstanding the dry conditions they're facing at the moment. But because of the limitations of our infrastructure, because we don't have dams everywhere, we are still going to suffer situations where there is not enough water: not enough water for towns, for farmers, for the environment and for fish as well. We're never going to completely resolve that situation because we cannot build enough dams to store water long enough to get us through the dry period. Anybody who tells you otherwise is selling you absolute snake oil. It cannot happen.
What we have to do is find the best way to manage a scarce resource in the system, to ensure that it is appropriately allocated, so that we can have vibrant communities that produce food for our nation and so that we can have and protect the wonderful environment we have, and that's a managed environment. Senator Leyonhjelm was right when he said that the Lower Lakes and other parts of the South Australian system are regulated. They're not like they were when there was no-one from European countries here, but that's fine. We have made, in my view, a better system through those regulation dams because we can at least manage them. If we didn't have those dams, we would probably have fish kills downstream of Copeton Dam—we almost certainly would right now—but, because we have Copeton Dam, we don't. So that is a good outcome.
Senator Hanson-Young interjecting—
Senator Whish-Wilson interjecting—
Another important aspect of how we've sought to balance this—and this is something I think we've improved on from what we were left with from the Labor Party, and I recognise the work that the former Labor government did—is putting a cap on the amount of buybacks.
Senator Hanson-Young interjecting—
I'm trying to listen to Minister Canavan here, and I'm getting interjections from Senator Hanson-Young all the time. She was free to speak without interjections. Could you ask her to show the same respect to others in this chamber, please?
Thank you, Madam Acting Deputy President. The one thing I think we really have improved on is putting a cap on the amount of buyback from the system. Those on the other side of this debate would have you believe that that has put a cap on the amount of water that can be returned to the environment. That is wrong. There has always been, under the Murray-Darling Basin Plan—before we were in government and now—a variety of means to recover water. One of the ways is to buy directly from farmers, willing sellers, to take that water out of the system. The other main way is to improve the efficiency of the system by lining channels and by better levelling our country. You save water, and the saved water can go back to environmental purposes.
In our view, we've got to have an appropriate balance. That's because, as we've seen—Senator Williams, myself and others, and I think Senator Ruston was mentioning similar outcomes—when you buy too much water out of an individual community you take away the economic base of that community. It has enormous impacts, not just on the irrigators—actually, the irrigators do okay because they get to sell their water and do something else with their life—but also on the local petrol station, the local newsagent and the coffee shop in town. They are left destitute because they no longer have the business that they did when the irrigation was in the community. So we've got to find that appropriate balance. I know—I've been out to Dirranbandi since we started this process, and it's had a terrible impact on that town. I think we've managed that better since we've been in government.
I firmly believe that what we need to do going forward is ensure we continue the good work of this government in finding a sustainable outcome to this problem. It is a wicked problem. But the outcome that will be sustainable for the long term is one that still creates food production and jobs in the Murray-Darling; still creates social communities where people can have the confidence to invest and buy houses in their local towns and join sporting clubs—do all the great things people in communities do; and also protects the environment for the long term. If we don't do those three things, if we just focus on one, it won't be a sustainable solution.
One reason is there'll be in-built issues that will come back to get us. The other reason is political reactions—there will be a political reaction if we don't properly manage all of those issues. Notwithstanding what we've seen over summer, the system is much better than it was 10 years ago. It's moving in the right direction. All of the responsible people in this parliament need to keep contributing to the good work that has been done.
I had not intended to contribute to this debate, but given some of the assertions that have been made by some contributors in this debate I think it is very important that, on behalf of our national government, I summarise the position of the government succinctly.
Let me make it very, very clear at the outset that the government will not be removing the 1,500-gigalitre cap on surface-water buybacks. We are currently 276 gigalitres below the cap, as has been mentioned by others. This is well beyond the amount of water we actually need to achieve sustainable diversion limits under the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. At present, just 30 gigalitres of surface water is needed to bridge the gap to the Basin Plan's SDLs. The government legislated the cap in 2015 to provide greater certainty to basin communities, and that has been an incredibly important reform indeed. Open buybacks have been shown to have negative social and economic consequences. The Northern Basin Review and the report on the southern basin communities made these impacts very clear. We have made very good progress towards the Basin Plan's water recovery targets, and we remain committed to ensuring these targets are achieved. The initiative by Labor and the Greens here today puts these significant achievements at risk.
Back on 14 December 2018, the Murray-Darling Basin Ministerial Council agreed a number of key actions, including the application of additional social, economic and associated assessment processes for efficiency measures: projects that contribute to the additional 450 gigalitres to be recovered for the environment; a commitment by New South Wales and Queensland to protecting environmental water; the provision of high-quality, well-consulted water resource plans for accreditation; and the creation of a permanent Indigenous member position on the Murray-Darling Basin Authority board. What the Greens are trying to do today is essentially to hijack this whole process and try to make a unilateral decision that would make the situation worse. It would manifestly and demonstrably make the situation worse.
The Commonwealth and the basin states are working to ensure sustainable diversion limits take effect from 1 July 2019 and to have all of the relevant plans accredited by the end of 2019. The government will continue to work with basin states on delivering the outcomes of the sustainable diversion limit adjustment mechanism in the Northern Basin Review to meet the sustainable diversion limits in 2019. We have also taken action to improve compliance and enforcement across the basin through the appointment of Mick Keelty as the Northern Basin Commissioner and a $20 million investment in improved hydromatic and satellite monitoring. When it comes to the delivery of the Basin Plan, the government is getting on with the job. We are working with all relevant stakeholders to ensure that we continue to take the most appropriate way forward that is fair to everyone and delivers the best possible environmental outcomes.
We know that the Murray-Darling Basin is facing difficult times. We have seen that this summer, with fish deaths across the system and communities and irrigators being without water. We are responding and taking appropriate action to those recent events. The fish deaths we have seen over recent months are absolutely horrible. On 24 January 2019, the New South Wales government Fish death interim investigation report found that the devastating fish death events in recent months appear to be a result of a range of factors—primarily, the breakdown of the stratification of water layers but also the breakdown of organic matter, algal blooms and the high temperatures followed by cooler periods. The poor inflow conditions are not unique to Menindee and the lower Darling. They are being experienced in systems across the northern basin. Without rain it is true that further fish deaths are a possibility.
The Murray-Darling Basin Authority convened meetings of water managers, environmental water holders and state fisheries experts to look at the immediate risk of further fish deaths and at options to mitigate and avoid this risk where feasible. The government also announced $5 million in funding through the Murray-Darling Basin Authority for the development of a native fish management and recovery strategy. This strategy will support the emergency response and recovery actions and additional research into native fish stocks and their management. An independent panel, chaired by Professor Robert Vertessy, has been established to identify the causes of the fish deaths in the lower Darling and to make recommendations on strategies to prevent similar events in the future. Only the other week, the Murray-Darling Basin Authority announced that up to 26 gigalitres of environmental water would be released to the lower Murrumbidgee over coming weeks to improve river flows and help reduce the risk of further fish losses in the lower Murrumbidgee.
The New South Wales Department of Primary Industries has also commenced a rescue effort involving the movement of fish to the lower Darling or to some of the New South Wales government hatcheries. Basin governments are working together in doing everything possible to respond to recent events and to mitigate the risk of similar events occurring in the future.
Achieving the best possible outcomes in the Murray-Darling is not going to be helped by this latest stunt by the Greens political party. The truth is that the Greens political party has now gazumped nearly two hours of government business time. We've got about 2½ sitting days left this week. There's a lot of important legislation on the agenda. We've had lots of non-government senators contributing to this debate. I counted at least three non-government senators before the government got the call back. The point I would make to the chamber is: reflect very carefully on the workload. There are normal, routine processes available to anyone who actually, in good faith and genuinely, wants to introduce a piece of legislation rather than to pursue a stunt. There is an established Senate process available to the Greens if what they want to do is introduce legislation. It is rather novel to have a Greens senator moving a motion to introduce a Labor bill. I mean, I'm—
Senator Wong interjecting—
Oh, apparently there is a Labor-Greens coalition starting to get formed. I gather that there are some other discussions taking place elsewhere in order to ensure that Labor gets closer to the Greens again when it comes to weakening our border protection arrangements. That is, of course, the other conversation that is taking place around the parliament today: Labor getting captured by the Greens, getting moved by the Greens into ever worse policy positions. And so what I would say to the Australian people is: be very careful about a Labor-Greens alliance on the other side of the election. I can tell you that the Liberal-National coalition will continue to make our country stronger, will continue to make our economy stronger and will continue to make our border stronger, whereas, of course, any Labor-Greens alternative, as is being witnessed again today, would make our country weaker, would make our borders weaker and would put the Murray-Darling Basin in a worse position, in a weaker, environmentally less sound position. So what I would say to the Australian—
And Senator Wong has now come in on the debate. She says: 'Bring it on! Bring it on!' I've got to say the cockiness of the Labor Party—
Opposition senators interjecting—
They have their tape measure out to measure the curtains at The Lodge. Let me tell you: there is still a little formality in front of you, and it's called an election.
If Senator Wong could refer to the clock—if Senator Wong could have a short look at the clock—she'd see I've got another minute and a half to share my pearls of wisdom with Senator Wong and the chamber. What I would like Senator Wong to understand is that between now and the election we will be fighting every single day for a stronger Australia, for stronger borders, for an Australia where Australian families have the best possible opportunity to get ahead and where we're doing the right thing by the environment in a way that is economically responsible. We will continue as a strong and united team. We will continue to work, as a strong and united team, to do the right thing by the environment in a way that is economically responsible.
This Greens stance, seeking to pursue Labor legislation, is not the way to do the right thing by the environment in a way that is economically or socially responsible. Of course, it seeks to cut across very important processes designed to ensure that the way forward is fair and environmentally, socially and economically sustainable for all of the relevant communities involved. This attempt by the Greens to hijack this very important process today is not in our national interest. The Liberal and National coalition, as we always do, will stand up for what is right. We will stand up for a stronger Australia and we will continue to fight the attempt of the Labor Party to make Australia weaker and to make Australians poorer. With those few words, Mr President, I think I might finish my contribution to this debate. But I have not yet sat down. I don't know that— (Time expired)