Senate debates

Monday, 22 July 2019


Murray-Darling Basin Commission of Inquiry Bill 2019; Second Reading

11:13 am

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

I move:

That this bill be now read a second time.

I rise today to speak in favour of the Murray-Darling Basin Commission of Inquiry Bill, put forward by the Greens, to establish a commission of inquiry into the Murray-Darling Basin. Now we know that this place here in the Senate can be incredibly powerful for setting the tone of how we inquire into and really take on some of the big issues plaguing government policy from time to time. We did it with the banking royal commission. My colleague Senator Whish-Wilson put forward a very similar piece of legislation to establish a commission of inquiry into the banks, and at the time we got the response from Labor and the Liberal-National government that this was a stunt. Of course it wasn't; it was putting on the agenda the fact that everyday Australians were sick and tired of the big banks ruling within their own rules, not meeting public expectation and screwing over little people and little businesses all over the place.

Here today we have a very similar piece of legislation, to establish, essentially, a royal commission into another scandal—that is, the management of the Murray-Darling Basin. We need this because there have been years and years of evidence—and scandal after scandal—that the management of the Murray-Darling Basin is a joke. It has been an expensive use of public money to not deliver the results that the Australian people expected, and, indeed, that this parliament set—the results that the $13 billion Murray-Darling Basin Plan was meant to achieve. We know that after decades and decades of infighting and blame-shifting between the different states, upstream and downstream, and the federal government, the Murray-Darling Basin Plan was meant to deal with the real issue that confronts us all, which is that the system has been overallocated. Too much water is being taken out and not enough is being left there to keep the river alive—to give it a chance for sustainability.

Of course, those river communities right throughout the basin need a living river if they are going to be communities that are able to survive. We've got farmers—family farms right throughout the Murray-Darling Basin—who are struggling today because they can't access the water they need at an affordable price, the water that allows them to keep doing what they're doing.

Meanwhile, even under this Murray-Darling Basin Plan, with $13 billion put on the table, we've seen big business expand irrigation in the Murray-Darling Basin. Some six or seven years ago, this place and the other place decided that we needed to reform the system. We needed to get more water back into the river to give it a fighting chance, to ensure that river communities would be sustainable, because everybody knows there are no jobs on a dead river. What we've got is that most of that money's now been spent, there were a million dead fish in Menindee at the beginning of this year, farming communities are struggling and there is an environment in crisis.

However, there are a select handful of people—businesses—who have done pretty damn well, actually, out of the mismanagement of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, and they're laughing all the way to the bank. They've had huge public funded handouts. They've had water bought from them at an inflated price. They've had public money handed to them to implement irrigation and efficiency works that they were going to fund themselves anyway; they've had it subsidised now by the taxpayer. Meanwhile, communities are still struggling.

The previous South Australian government, the Weatherill government, was of course very concerned about what this meant for those of us who live at the bottom end of the system. I must say, former Premier Jay Weatherill did the right thing when he took on Mr Barnaby Joyce, who had been the water minister under the Abbott and Turnbull governments. Jay Weatherill took on Barnaby Joyce after Barnaby Joyce had been busted bragging in a pub that he was going to manage the Murray-Darling Basin in such a way that it would look after his big corporate irrigator mates at the expense of the environment and everybody else—that he had rigged the system, and he wanted a good slap on the back and a, 'Good job, mate,' from them because he had rigged the system in their favour. It was that astonishing, brazen attitude which spurred the South Australian government at the time into action. They established their own South Australian commission, and it got to work at trying to dig into the management of the system. What it found was that mismanagement is rife; maladministration is rife. In fact, even the legality of the plan itself is in question.

There's the South Australian royal commission, but, of course, we've had both the Department of the Environment and Energy, whose job is responsible for a lot of this, and the Murray-Darling Basin Authority stopped and gagged from participating in the South Australian royal commission because the federal government, the Liberal-National Party, did not want the truth to be uncovered. They didn't want senior bureaucrats to have to sit across the table from the commissioner and be asked the right questions, so they gagged them from being able to participate in the South Australian inquiry. That in and of itself I would argue is a reason why it's time to blow this whole thing open, to shine a spotlight on what is going on and to make sure that the people responsible for stuffing up the Murray-Darling Basin so badly are held to account.

Of course, it's not just the South Australian royal commission that has uncovered a lot of this evidence and has been so damning in its assessment of the management of the plan; the Productivity Commission delivered a scathing report over summer. The government sat on it for quite some time and tried to release it at 4 or 5 pm in the afternoon on a Friday in the middle of summer—that's what they do, of course, when they don't want the public to know what's really going on. The Productivity Commission was scathing in its assessment of how things had been managed. The Productivity Commission's five-year assessment of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan presented a bleak picture. Only two of the 11 metrics were on track. They raised concerns about the current management and governance arrangements. They said that the Murray-Darling Basin Authority cannot be trusted to oversee itself and that it 'lacked candour and transparency with stakeholders'—well, we know about that, here in this place, from the amount of times that I and other senators have asked for information to be put on the table and it has been denied or, when something is finally delivered through an order for the production of documents, it's so heavily redacted it's useless. Secrecy and cover-up are rife in the management of the Murray-Darling Basin under the guise of the National Party, who are in charge of the water portfolio, and, of course, the mismanagement from the Murray-Darling Basin Authority itself.

The Productivity Commission's report went on, raising serious concerns that the remaining funds spent on efficiency projects were 'likely to fail or be implemented properly.' And in the last two weeks we've seen evidence of that through exposes and reporting from Four Corners. Indeed, it wasn't just the journalists, the farmers and the locals talking about how badly managed and what a rort these efficiency projects have been; the Productivity Commission say it is, in black and white, as well. The Productivity Commission highlighted the conflicting role of the MDBA, the Murray-Darling Basin Authority, being both the implementers of the plan and those who are meant to be in charge of the compliance. They simply can't be trusted to manage themselves.

The Murray-Darling Basin Royal Commission, as I've mentioned, named the elephant in the room: is the Murray-Darling Basin Plan even legal if it has been so politicised and corrupted that it's not actually achieving the objectives of the Water Act? The royal commission in South Australia asked whether the plan itself may be illegal, contravening the Water Act and drastically underestimating the environmentally sustainable level of take. It questioned the whole politicisation of the plan and the ignorance of the science. Numbers have been chosen, figures have been declared and money has been handed over, yet it is not in line with what the science requires if we are to save the river. The Commissioner of the Murray-Darling Basin Royal Commission, Bret Walker, found instances of corruption and maladministration. He found that the plan and its implementation lacked transparency and meaningful consultation, particularly with First Nations communities right throughout the Murray-Darling Basin. He highlighted the dangers presented by the lack of metering and the uncertain nature of flood plain harvesting.

The rort that is going on in the northern basin with flood plain harvesting should anger every Australian. It is not the right of people, simply because they've got enough capital to build big dams, to stop overland flow being able to go into the system, into those small creeks and rivers that all link up to feed into the broader and bigger basin rivers. It is not their water—it is the Australian people's water. Yet they have been allowed to get away with harvesting these flood plains for their own greed. Why is it that the cotton industry in Australia recorded a bumper profit and crop last year, yet downstream, in places like Wilcannia and Menindee, in areas like the Riverina, where I was only a week or so ago, those communities are struggling? We're about to debate a multibillion-dollar package for drought relief this week in this place, yet we've got big corporations taking water for free and then charging the taxpayer to build the dams by which they're capturing all of that water. It is a rort. The environment's suffering, the river's dying and small farmers are at their wits' end. It is time that we cleaned up the rorting and corruption and got this plan back on track.

We'll hear, when other people debate this issue, that we shouldn't have a royal commission because we shouldn't put at risk the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. I put it to you, Mr Acting Deputy President, that the plan is not working. Billions of dollars are rolling out the door, filling the pockets of big business and big corporations, but small farmers are suffering, the river is dying and we've got a million dead fish. It is only madness that would suggest that we continue on as if nothing is wrong. Whether you are in the northern basin, whether you're in the southern basin, whether you're a scientist, whether you're somebody who understands the environmental imperative of this, or whether you are a dairy farmer in the Riverina, you know—we all know—that the management of the Murray-Darling Basin is absolutely failing. It's failing our nation's largest food bowl. It's failing the next generation of Australian farmers.

For far too long those who have not wanted us to put the river system back on a sustainable footing have said that this is about the environment versus farmers. Well, it's not. It's not the environment versus farmers; every farmer I know understands that they need a living river to keep their business alive. Every farmer who's grown up in their area for generations understands that the river is sicker than it's ever been. They don't want just a cash handout from a drought fund. They want the management of the Murray-Darling Basin back on track. Small farmers are being priced out by big corporates who have international and foreign interests, coming in, buying up water, pushing up the price so no-one else can afford it. We don't even know how many foreign owners of water licences we have in Australia, because that information isn't readily publicly available. What we do know is that the signs that we can see for ourselves are stark: millions of dead fish; no drinking water in Wilcannia—a town that used to be an inland river port. They can't even turn on the tap and drink the water. Nothing comes out anymore. You've got farmers right throughout the southern basin having to close up shop after generations because the big corporate next door has bought up all the water or has just dammed the flood plain so there's nothing coming when the rain next breaks.

Of course, as a senator from South Australia, I know all too well that if we don't manage this river system fairly, if we don't manage it properly, my state is done. We need a living Murray River for us to survive, and the best way of doing that is to make sure there is enough water left in the river system to let it flow. There are no jobs on a dead river, and, at a time when climate change is really starting to take hold, we have to be realistic about the management of our precious water resources. The current Murray-Darling Basin Plan doesn't even include the impacts of climate change. And why is that? It's because the politics at the time meant that we couldn't talk about what the real science was saying. This plan has been corrupted because of vested interests, and it continues to be used as a rort because of those same vested interests.

When Mr Joyce, as Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources, bragged that he was going to manage the Murray-Darling Basin so it benefited his big corporate, big business mates, he wasn't just joking. It wasn't a joke. He meant it, and he's done it. Now we're left with a river system in further crisis, and yet most of the money has walked out the door and not into the hands of the small farmers and farming communities who needed that support to help transition. It's ended up in the coffers of big corporate irrigators, hedge funds and foreign pension funds in the US and in Canada—they're the people who are banking the money of Australian taxpayers because of the way this Murray-Darling Basin Plan is being managed.

We need a thorough royal commission into the management of this river before it is too late. This isn't about the environment versus farmers; this is about corporate vested interests against everybody else—the environment, the scientists, the economists and our farming communities. We can't afford to wait another three or four years to get things back on track. By that point all of the money is going to be gone, the river system will not be able to be restored and those farming communities and those of us who live downstream will yet again be wondering what on earth happened. I implore the opposition to get off the fence when it comes to this issue. You know that the National Party have stuffed this up for far too long.

11:33 am

Photo of David FawcettDavid Fawcett (SA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to make a contribution to this Greens bill, the Murray-Darling Basin Commission of Inquiry Bill, calling for a royal commission into the Murray-Darling Basin system and its management. I direct my remarks, in part, to the schoolchildren I see sitting above and whom I welcome to this place. It's important to understand that what you read in the papers and what you hear in places like this are the opinions of one group of people, and it's very important to test the facts before you accept at face value what one particular group says. That's because, whilst often there are elements of truth and good intent, bias, whether conscious or unconscious, can very definitely flavour what people say.

In the time that I have I'd like to address some of the facts and issues that Senator Hanson-Young raised. I'll have look at some historical context around our environment, our climate in Australia, the Murray-Darling Basin and the use of water in this country, and then go specifically to the management of the Murray-Darling Basin system and the irrigators—and the communities that in fact rely on irrigation, as well as our broader community, that sees it, rightly, as one of the great food bowls of Australia.

Senator Hanson-Young talked a lot about the river in crisis, and I do not deny that up and down the river there are areas that are in incredible stress—historically, it has always been thus. And yet the benefit we see from management means that last year, in the middle of this period where the east coast of Australia is suffering a very bad and prolonged drought, South Australian irrigators had 100 per cent of their allocation from the river. The current forecasts from the South Australian environment department indicate that even under dry conditions they can expect to get 100 per cent of their allocation this year. Even under very dry conditions, allocations are expected to get to 97 per cent this year. So, in a time when there is stress on the basin as a whole because of factors such as drought, the management of the river means that from a South Australian perspective we should actually look at the fact that we have had 100 per cent, and have every expectation that, after environmental and critical human needs have been accounted for, our communities that rely on irrigation will again receive 100 per cent of their allocations. That is a good news story. We should actually look at that and say that, in a time where there's great stress on other parts of the basin, the Murray-Darling management means our irrigators are in a good place.

I think it's also important to look critically at some of the reporting on some of those areas under stress. I go in part to the issue that Senator Hanson-Young raised about the Four Corners report. We would expect, given the criticisms of that report and the comments that Senator Hanson-Young has made, that groups like the National Farmers' Federation would indeed come out, as they have done, to criticise the kind of reporting and the lack of objective evidence—the lack of a broad range of witnesses from different sides of the argument—that Four Corners came out with. The NFF have made quite strong statements about the fact that since 2012 the plan has returned 2,100 gigalitres of water to the river system, with almost 700 gigalitres coming from efficiency and infrastructure projects, and that the majority of those projects were not carried out by large corporates but in fact by family farming operations with works valued on average at less than $152,000. And they went on to talk about the fact that for farmers to access the scheme they actually have to agree to sell water entitlements to the government—that is, return the water to the environment—and they ran through a number of the checks and balances. I understand that some people would go, 'Well, obviously, they have an interest'. I'm disappointed, personally, that if the ABC claims to be an organisation that puts forth news to the Australian people—and I think their little jingle says 'without bias or agenda'—they didn't, in fact, have an unbiased and wide set of witnesses for that report.

But let's put aside even the National Farmers' Federation and look at the open letter that was written by a group of top scientists, people who work with water and the environment, that criticised the ABC's reporting over that. They said that the ABC Four Corners episode propagated myths and misrepresented the science of the plan. They highlighted that the letter was written because of a growing frustration among experts that there was a widening gap between the broader public perception of the basin and what was actually happening on the ground. So the comment I made to the previous group of children, who are here from schools, was that they need to test the facts of what they see in the media. They need to test the facts of what people say in places like this so that they actually understand what is happening on the ground and not just take one perspective. The beauty of a democracy like ours is that there is an opportunity for people to come here with different perspectives. But if we are to work as a cohesive society then we need to look at a range of perspectives and understand how to work cohesively together to benefit our whole community.

I will make a few historical comments because I think they are important, particularly in the context of a bill which is seeking to set up another inquiry—in fact, a royal commission-style inquiry. In going back and looking at various what I would call independent groups—including the National Museum of Australia—and looking at the history of our environment and the Murray-Darling Basin system, they highlight that historical accounts and scientific analysis indicate that south-eastern Australia experienced 27 drought years between 1788 and 1860 and at least 10 major droughts between 1860 and 2000. So, well before any of the human-induced factors that people blame for either the management of the Murray-Darling Basin or broader climate impacts, here in Australia what we have is a country that has periods of good weather, of rains, and periods of droughts.

What my own state of South Australia, and my own family, who come from a broadacre farming background, saw in the 1870s and into the 1880s was an unprecedented period of good rains in the far north of the state. Despite the work of the well-renowned surveyor Goyder, who drew the now infamous Goyder's line, which separated arable land from pastoral land, people started believing that rains would follow the plough. We saw people—including my own family, who bought land at Tarcoola—who went north, bought land and planted crops with an expectation that rain would follow the plough. And, indeed, during the 1870 and 1890s, that did occur for a period, and there were productive areas in the far north of South Australia. But those areas then reverted to type and are now regarded—as, indeed, Goyder forecast—as pastoral lands with occasional good rain. They are not areas with reliable rainfall.

In that period, around the time of Federation, Australia suffered what was known as the Federation Drought between 1895 and 1903. To quote from the National Museum of Australia, the CSIRO:

… said that more than 60 bird, fish, mammal, reptile, and plant species were severely affected across more than a third of Australia's land mass.

…   …   …

In New South Wales, most rivers stopped flowing and dust storms filled dams, buried homesteads and created ghost towns as people fled,…

Wildlife and stock starved or died of thirst. Native birds and mammals died under trees, in creeks, and on the plains.

So what we see is that, well before there was a Murray-Darling Basin Plan, well before any of the factors that people say are accounting for climate change, Australia had a very variable climate. So we need to be careful to not attribute things like the fish kill that was widely reported in the media recently to something like the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, or the management thereof; we need to understand that the plan is an effort to moderate the impacts of an extremely variable environment, which, in Australia, throughout its recorded history, has included periods of floods and rains as well as devastating droughts.

But the important part from the National Museum of Australia and its history was: what was the response of governments to that? One of the criticisms that was made was that the responses of governments were a number of commissions and inquiries as opposed to practical measures to help. In terms of opposing this bill today from the Greens, that's the point I'd like to start from, because history tells us that these things occur as part of Australia's natural climate and that governments have been quick to put in place inquiries, whether they be commissions or parliamentary inquiries or others, but have been slow to put in place practical measures. After decades of disagreement between the basin states here in Australia about the Murray-Darling Basin, we have a plan that we're only halfway through which is seeking to invest in a collaborative approach and productive measures that will return water to the environment and will support communities who rely on irrigation through those systems, so that the water that we do receive is better managed for the benefit of all.

The government's focus—and I note the fact that the opposition has acted in a very bipartisan manner over the years and I commend, in particular, Mr Burke for his role in this—has been on trying to bring together a plan for the benefit of Australia and the states and communities that rely on the river. It provides certainty for them. Having said that, I recognise that, as the plan continues to unfold, there will be areas, particularly around transparency and compliance, where we need to continue to invest effort. We have seen already, as a result of the 2017 inquiries of the MBDA and others, a huge investment by the government and agreed plans across the ministers of the states and the Commonwealth around additional compliance and transparency measures so that the Australian public can have confidence that those who do the wrong thing—and there are some; we know that—will be held to account, and the full force of the law will be applied to them. But we don't throw out the whole plan because some people have done the wrong thing. We increase compliance checking and we increase the amount of resource we spend in encouraging the kinds of behaviours that have seen 2,100 gigalitres returned to the environment through this plan, which has secured that water for the environment each year on average.

The Basin Plan, as I said, can't prevent drought nor is it the cause of drought. In focusing on compliance and enforcement, the government is putting in place the 2017 review recommendations, and in 2018 the Murray-Darling Basin Ministerial Council approved the basin compliance compact, and that was endorsed in September last year by the Council of Australian Governments. In 2018 also, Mick Keelty AO was appointed the Northern Basin Commissioner to monitor and to advise on compliance commitments. So here is someone who has served Australia in many years who is not associated with agricultural industry or the environment but who is associated with broader governance and compliance in Australia who will be running that effort. The government has also committed some $9.1 million specifically to the issue of compliance, and this year already we have announced an additional $35 million to expand metering as well as satellite remote-sensing technology in the Northern Basin as well as $25 million for the installation of meters so that we can do the kind of compliance checking that is required.

The findings and recommendations for things like the South Australian Royal Commission have been contested by a range of people, including the federal government, because of the simple fact that the plan, whilst not perfect, is still being rolled out and is working. There are benefits being delivered and, despite talks about calamities in the river, despite the fact that we have the dreadful stressors in the north of the basin, I repeat, as a senator from South Australia, the fact that we currently have 100 per cent allocation and we expect, according to the South Australian environment department, to have 100 per cent allocation next year even under dry conditions. That is not the mark of a system that is failing because of the plan. The plan is there to moderate the impacts of the extreme variability in climate that we have. We do see, particularly in the southern basin, concerns raised about the impact of water trading and how that has worked. Minister Littleproud has referred to the ACCC the requirement for them to look at how that trading is working and whether that system can be improved to make sure that it achieves the impacts that we're after: the best possible use of available water being the thing that drives the trading in water systems.

The government also—Senator Hanson-Young and others have mentioned this—has the Productivity Commission's five-year assessment of the Basin Plan. That report does make the comment that significant progress has been made. The commission said that arrangements for environmental water are working well, with evidence of improved ecological outcomes. So we're not going to support yet another inquiry into the basin and its management. We welcome transparency. We welcome the fact that people have had previous inquiries, and we are currently implementing funding around both compliance and transparency. But we do not resile from the fact that we would rather invest in efficiency measures, ensuring that water that is saved goes back to the environment, as opposed to taking away water from the very communities that make the Murray-Darling Basin Australia's food bowl. If you don't have water, then you can't actually grow the food that those communities and broader Australia rely on.

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

You can't eat cotton!

Photo of David FawcettDavid Fawcett (SA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Hanson-Young talks about cotton. She knows or should know that, in times of water stress, allocations go down; so, while South Australian irrigators have 100 per cent allocation, cotton growers have zero allocation. They have the ability to carry over water from previous years, but even if you banned cotton they will just go to the next most profitable crop, because irrigators will use water to generate revenue. There will be the use of water, and, in a country that allows people to use things that they own for the purposes that they intend, as we look at the system in the river we see that environmental needs, critical human needs and then other high-value crops—for example, trees that need water to sustain them—get an allocation, well ahead of things like rice or cotton.

That's where it's important to understand the facts of this argument, as opposed to just pulling out the easy political whipping boy to say, 'Cotton and rice are bad; irrigators are bad.' In fact the system recognises the differing priorities for those crops that sometimes get zero allocation, which is the case at the moment in those northern regions. I come back to the point that the evidence that the plan, even in a time when there is great stress on the river, particularly in its northern regions—South Australia, the state with the most to lose if this plan collapses, has 100 per cent allocation for its irrigators because the plan is in place. By all means, we should continue to implement and improve, but we certainly won't be supporting the waste of millions of dollars that would come from yet another inquiry into the Murray-Darling Basin Plan.

11:53 am

Photo of Don FarrellDon Farrell (SA, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Special Minister of State) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak on this proposed Murray-Darling Basin Commission of Inquiry Bill 2019 and put the position as determined by the opposition. Before I do that I would like to pick up on a reference by Senator Fawcett to Goyder's line, that famous historical line across the north of South Australia. I might add that it is mentioned in a Redgum song. Goyder originally did his line about 30 years after South Australia was first founded. One of the reasons was that they wanted to distinguish lands for cropping from those which were for grazing.

Mr Goyder, who was the Surveyor-General for South Australia, was sent out to work out what that line was, and he determined that. But for a number of years people thought that he was wrong and that the old concept that the rain follows the plough applied—that the further north you went beyond Goyder's line, the rain would simply follow. One of the reasons people speculated that there was so much rainfall in the years after Goyder for a relatively short period of time was the explosion of Krakatoa in Indonesia—it threw so much silt and dust into the air that it actually changed the rainfall patterns in the north of South Australia—and so families like my own family ended up in a place called Morchard, thinking that it was capable of being used for cropping. I say that as the first of us born in Murray Bridge, on the Murray River. Having a lifelong love of the river, I have always been committed to its sustainability, its health, so that future generations can use the river in the same way as current generations.

In September 2010, I was appointed to the position of Parliamentary Secretary for Sustainability and Urban Water. From that time, I worked closely with the Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities, Tony Burke, to continue the good work of Senator Penny Wong to secure a sustainable future for the Murray-Darling Basin. The sign-off of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan and its passage through the parliament in November 2012 were historic moments of basin-wide cooperation after decades of mismanagement of our most precious natural resource. We must not allow short memories to see us return to a situation where self-interest is prioritised above the national interest when it comes to this mighty river system, which of course is the lifeblood of such a vast region of our nation. The health and sustainability of the Murray-Darling Basin is, as I said in my maiden speech in this place, 'a national problem demanding a national solution'. That's true of any potential threats to the integrity of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan itself.

About two years ago, Four Corners aired allegations of water theft and corruption in New South Wales. In April this year, the Liberal-National government was faced with another water scandal, this time about a massive water buyback worth $80 million, from Eastern Australia Agriculture, which was linked to the Morrison government minister Angus Taylor. And, more recently, Four Corners this month reported concerning claims in respect to the Murray-Darling Basin Water Infrastructure Program. The Morrison government doesn't appear to know where and how taxpayer dollars are being spent or what environmental or water efficiency value is being achieved for these very significant investments. If that's the case, then this government has failed Australian farmers, communities and the environment.

We are in the middle of a very serious drought. In fact, one of my neighbours, who is into his 80s now, says that he believes this is the worst drought that he's encountered in his lifetime. Holding a royal commission would likely delay action that is urgently needed. We have seen it all before with this government: 'Let's wait for an outcome. Let's wait for the recommendations'. Well, the Murray-Darling Basin doesn't have time to wait. With public confidence and the plan being undermined by the government's water gaffes, the time for transparency and accountability in the plan is now. To restore confidence, transparency is needed first and foremost. That will require immediate physical, scientific study rather than a drawn-out lawyer-led process. The government must commit to a comprehensive independent audit of the water infrastructure scheme and come clean with the details of the payments under that scheme.

The Morrison government's water-related gaffes and controversies are undermining public trust in the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. Labor has been calling on the government to take real action in relation to the plan. The Productivity Commission told the government in December 2017 that better monitoring, evaluation, auditing and reporting is needed. The government needs to do its job and to act. The government needs to dramatically and urgently expand the monitoring and evaluation of river health right across the basin. There's a need for scientific monitoring. We cannot have a delay or allow this government to kick the can down the road while the Murray-Darling Basin waits for the urgent action it now requires.

The Murray-Darling Basin Plan was an historic agreement, delivered by a Labor government, in which all basin jurisdictions were to work together for the good of the whole basin. The plan forged a consensus after more than a century of intractable conflict, but it is meaningless if water theft is allowed by upstream states. For the same reason that the plan requires jurisdictions to work together, any potential threats to the plan need to be dealt with through means that will be effective across jurisdictional boundaries. Everyone knows that action is needed. I know it, Labor knows it and the Murraylands and Riverland Local Government Association of South Australia know it. Australians who live on and make their living from the Murray River know it.

Let me read what River Murray irrigators had to say about the issue. On 31 July 2017, Broken Hill farmer Robert McBride said: 'We watched our river die for 8½ months last year, and that's a catastrophe. It's your catastrophe and it's my catastrophe. What is critically important is the bipartisan support we're receiving. It's your river, and it's not going to last much longer unless it's protected accordingly.' On the same day, South Australian River Murray irrigator Sam Dodd said: 'The main issue is government and bureaucracy being complicit in undermining the Basin Plan. I certainly support the minister and the Premier and others to support a judicial inquiry.'

The Greens have struck a deal with the government today to be able to debate this bill. They were the ones who referred the bill to the Senate inquiry. This move by the Greens to debate the bill without first considering the report of the inquiry and understanding the bill's ramifications is premature and arrogant. Labor believes that the Senate should not pre-empt the outcome of the Senate inquiry into this bill.

Australians want accountability and transparency, but the Morrison government is asleep at the wheel in relation to the Murray-Darling. Across state borders, communities know what needs to happen, and they have asked the government to get on with it. Sadly, Liberal members from South Australia in the federal parliament are more interested in proving to their eastern state mates that they have their backs than they are in representing South Australian Murray River communities. They know that the Nationals can't be trusted with the water portfolio. In fact, the member for Barker, Mr Tony Pasin, said it himself. When Barnaby Joyce was given responsibility for water, on 21 September 2015, Tony Pasin said:

I'm just a little concerned about the fact that we now have a deeper involvement of the National Party with respect to the implementation of the plan.

The National Party don't have significant interests in the lower end of the river system …

When Senator Ruston took on responsibility as the Assistant Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources, on 21 September 2015, she said she'd stand up for the full implementation of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. Senator Ruston told the ABC at the time:

We mustn't forget the framework is already in place. The plan has been passed and is in legislation.

She also said:

I'd like to think that I've got the negotiation skills to make sure we get an outcome for everyone.

Well, Senator Ruston, the framework is in place and the plan has been passed and is in legislation. Now is the time to demonstrate those negotiating skills to make sure that the plan is implemented as it should be. Now is the time to stand up and make the case on behalf of the communities who rely on the river and to understand the importance of utilising sustainability. It's time to make that case on behalf of the communities and the irrigators who have stood up and backed Labor's call for these serious allegations to be investigated in an appropriately thorough and transparent way.

In August 2017, Senator Ruston and Tony Pasin, in response to a letter I wrote to the editors of the Murray Pioneer and Loxton News in the Riverland, stated, 'We must also never forget that it will be our state which risks the most if it does not work with other jurisdictions to deliver it.' They're right about South Australia risking the most if the integrity of the plan is threatened, but, as elected representatives of South Australia, they have a duty to ensure that other jurisdictions are working just as faithfully as South Australia to deliver the plan. They have a duty to South Australian Murray River communities to ensure that irrigators upstream are working just as hard and investing just as much to deliver efficiencies as irrigators in our home state have been doing for years. Their duty isn't to Victorian, New South Wales or Queensland irrigators, or to their colleagues in those states; it's to the people of South Australia. If Senator Ruston and Tony Pasin are serious about representing South Australian Murray River communities, they'll stop parroting their eastern state mates and start standing up for the current and future health of the Murray River in the interests of the people of South Australia.

As a proud South Australian with a lifelong love of the River Murray, I'll always do my bit to ensure that this parliament protects a sustainable, healthy future for the entire river system, and I know all of my Labor colleagues here in the federal parliament and the basin states will do the same.

12:06 pm

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

I rise to speak in support of the Murray-Darling Basin Commission of Inquiry Bill 2019. At some stage on 15 November 2017—my first day in this chamber—I wandered out to the Table Office and tabled a motion for an OPD, an order for the production of documents. That order for the production of documents was returned to the Senate, and those documents became the source of the controversy that everyone understands as 'watergate'. That's where we had a purchase of 29 gigalitres of water from the Kia Ora and Clyde properties for $80 million. The water was overland flow water, which means it's tied to a property and, apart from that, doesn't have any legally tradeable basis. Originally, the property owners offered to sell the water for $2,200 per megalitre, but the government managed to negotiate them up to $2,745 per megalitre—not very impressive. It was sold by Eastern Australia Agriculture, a company that has ties to a Cayman Islands company called Eastern Australia Irrigation. We know that the company effectively booked a $52 million profit in relation to this particular sale, and then, of course, that was shifted off to the Cayman Islands, where I'm sure very little tax has been paid—certainly none from an Australian perspective. We also don't know who the beneficiaries are.

There have been two other sales. There was the Tandou sale, where the government bought water from Webster. They paid $38 million for 21 gigalitres—2.5 gigalitres of high-security water and 19 gigalitres of general-security water—and they also paid $40 million in compensation. That has never been seen. Nowhere else has compensation been paid in respect of water infrastructure across the basin when there have been buybacks. The interesting thing, of course, is that they bought Darling River water. For the benefit of the chamber, Tandou is just slightly south of Weir 32, which everyone knows is where the Menindee fish kill occurred. There is no water. We bought water that simply isn't there and, on the face of it, may never be there. We paid top dollar for that. In some sense, Webster saw the taxpayer coming and took the money, and now we see no water along the river there.

It's quite interesting, if you watch the cotton growers, that Cubbie Station is actually having problems with water now because of the amount of water that's been extracted upstream of them. We've seen all the cotton growers shifting further to the north, and now, because they're having difficulties even there, they're shifting to the Murrumbidgee, where they'll take that water as well and we'll end up with an ecological disaster.

Then there was the Warrego sale: 10.6 gigalitres of water for $16 million, which is two times the price paid when the Labor Party did some water buybacks in 2008. The very minister that approved that purchase, Minister Joyce, declared back in 2008 that this water would 'have no effect on solving the problems of the lower Murray-Darling'. So we've ended up buying water that we know flows down the Warrego and goes to marsh lands, and very little of it makes it to the Murray-Darling. Then what the government did was swap the entitlements to the border rivers so that water could, effectively, be used by the irrigators, predominantly cotton growers, up along the border rivers.

Of course, there were other things going on prior to my arrival in this chamber. As has already been mentioned by Senator Farrell, there was the 'Pumped' show by Four Corners, which showed there was theft, rorting, meter tampering and corruption going on. We had an investigation by ICAC in New South Wales on the lack of enforcement. Also, I was personally involved in investigating the activities of Norman Farming, up near Goondiwindi, where, unfortunately, Mr Lamey, a very small and ethical irrigator, was having trouble with a neighbour. I won't say too much more about that because the matter is before the court. There are fraud allegations before the court, so I'll leave that alone. But, for someone to stand up and suggest that the plan is running well—there are so many things going on that we need to be looking into.

In fact, it goes even further back than the 'Pumped' program. It goes back to the formation of the plan. If you've taken the time to read the well-written words of Bret Walker SC, the commissioner for the South Australian Murray-Darling Basin Royal Commission, you'll know he has determined that the plan is not lawful because it is based on improper science. The Water Act requires the plan to be based on science and it is not—not proper science. It shouldn't be 2,750 gigalitres—not even 3,200 gigalitres. It should more likely be a number starting with four. Of course, we've all heard the jokes about whether or not the number for the sustainable diversion limits will be a New South Wales postcode. The royal commissioner also made findings of maladministration. The royal commissioner also made findings of political interference. So there's stuff going on here. I can understand maybe some people don't want to have an investigation, some people don't want to look into this, but there's $13 billion of taxpayers' money at stake here and, more importantly, there's a river system at stake.

Of course, whilst I was in this chamber, I saw everyone in this chamber, bar a few, including the Greens, vote for a 70-gigalitre increase to water allocations into the northern basin as part of the Northern Basin Review. Once again, there were claims of flawed science. Initially it was indicated that the effect on South Australia would be 20 gigalitres, but that became politically unpalatable, so the number got changed to four without any particular explanation. So that 70 gigalitres has gone. That was in the same year as the first fish kill occurred downstream of the northern basin at Menindee—a shocking situation. Walgett has run out of water, as we've put irrigation before water for the community.

Moving forward, we have the SDL projects. They were voted upon in this chamber but not by Centre Alliance; we didn't vote for the Northern Basin Review or the SDL projects. It was very clear that this chamber did not have the information that it needed to make a good decision in respect of the legislation. We were blind to the approvals that were given.

The Productivity Commission has looked at these projects and found that they are highly risky, which means the likelihood of them delivering what they intend to deliver is highly unlikely. That was also a view shared by the royal commissioner—once again, Bret Walker SC. In fact, there's been a fair amount of analysis that suggests that this is probably the most expensive way to recover water from the river. I know there's a need, or a want, to have no negative socioeconomic effects. I get that, but, actually, there are studies now that show that, instead of spending a whole bunch of money on infrastructure, you could simply take that money and invest it in the community and you would create four times the number of jobs. So we're not even achieving the objectives. There's very little doubt that the SDL projects will deliver water back to the river. It's hugely expensive and it creates fewer jobs than simply buying back water, which the river desperately needs.

The river is in a parlous state. We have had the Menindee fish kills. There's no question: the Academy of Science basically came to the scientific conclusion that the fish kills were the result of not just the drought but the overallocation of water. These are the facts. I know Senator Fawcett was suggesting that the facts are being made up, but these are from scientific bodies. This is the Productivity Commission. This is a royal commissioner. This is the ABC, with 'Pumped'. That led to several inquiries and massive change. It's not like these things were made up. The ABC did a fantastic job with that particular program in revealing issues with the river.

We're running out of water. As I mentioned, Cubbie Station is having trouble getting water now because all of the cotton growers have shifted north, upstream, and they're taking the water before it gets to Cubbie. That's why we have the absurd situation where the Foreign Investment Review Board has again extended the time frame for Cubbie's owners to sell the property, because it's actually worth nothing now. And it ain't going to get any better. I'll be interested to see—perhaps foreshadowing some questions on notice or a question in the chamber—exactly when the decision will now be made, or when the sale of shares, as is required by the Foreign Investment Review Board—and down from 80 per cent to 51 per cent—will in fact take place. As I mentioned before, we've seen cotton shifting to the Murrumbidgee, because that's the next place to get water—for now.

There's no place you can go with this Murray-Darling Basin Plan where you can get a good feeling for the inflows and the diversions, and who has the diversions, and how much overland flow there is. We're all blind to that. No-one can see that. When I asked questions at estimates about money that's getting spent on some of these programs, we hit a block when we got to, 'Money got transferred to New South Wales,' or, 'Money got transferred to Queensland.' We can't see what's happening there.

How can the government not support this very worthy bill that's been put up by the Greens to simply inquire into some of the allegations that are floating around—some of the issues that, if addressed, would make the plan work better? That's all that's being asked here, to try and make something better by shining a light on it. Senator Fawcett says, 'You've got to rely on the facts.' In some instances, we can't see the facts. Today—I note Senator Ruston is sitting there, and she'll be listening eagerly to what I'm about to say—we still don't know what the valuations are for these water buybacks. They are still redacted. What's there to hide? There are some real problems with the Murray-Darling, and right now we do need to inquire as to what is going on. That's pretty important—

Photo of Sue LinesSue Lines (WA, Deputy-President) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Patrick, I do believe we're moving to another matter.

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

I seek leave to continue my remarks later.

Photo of Sue LinesSue Lines (WA, Deputy-President) Share this | | Hansard source

You'll be in continuation.