Monday, 22 February 2021
In serving the people of Queensland and Australia, tonight I will review the National water reform 2020: Productivity Commission draft report, dated February 2021, a periodic review of the operation of the National Water Initiative. Put simply, this report is a celebration of profit over people. Let's go through the many failings of this report.
Failing No. 1: the National Water Initiative has resulted in water being taken from family farms that were producing food and fibre for the world. Instead, large corporate agriculture purchased that water. The result has been a huge reduction in the number of family farms growing varied crops that support a wide range of local services and local communities. Commercial agriculture, also known as monoculture, uses large acreage devoted to crops like almonds, grapes or oranges. These properties are highly mechanised, reducing local employment to just a handful. Compared with family farms, corporate agriculture puts a fraction of the wealth back into local communities. The profits from corporate agriculture are moved to capital cities and then to overseas tax havens. There's nothing in corporate agriculture for everyday Australians and their communities. The Productivity Commission celebrates this increased profit, even though it comes at a massive cost to employment and the health of regional Australia.
Failing No. 2: corporate agriculture uses its ability to run at a loss during the growth phase to purchase water at whatever price it takes. That's forcing family farms out of the water market and ultimately off the land. This water is then moved downstream through natural constraints like the Barmah Choke in search of cheaper land. Water has to be stuffed through these constraints to meet downstream irrigation requests. The environmental devastation in the Barmah Choke, the Goulburn River and elsewhere in the connected basin is not included in the Productivity Commission's calculations, yet protecting the national estate matters. The extra profits accruing to the big end of town must be balanced against the environmental damage that the creation of these profits causes. Money might be all that matters to the Productivity Commission. One Nation suggests it goes back and factors environmental damage into its calculations now, not at some point in the future. These natural constraints can't wait for the next review in 10 years, as suggested on page 13, table 2. By then, the damage will be irreparable.
Failing No. 3: the Productivity Commission failed to quantify the risk to Australia's economy from shifting agricultural production from diversified family farms to monoculture. For example, one negative movement in the price for almonds, for oranges or for table grapes—and that has happened before—will decimate billions of dollars of agricultural production. The Productivity Commission might not understand risk; One Nation does. Before the National Water Initiative corrupted the water market, Australian agriculture was resilient and diversified; not now.
Failing No.4: the report praises water trading as transparent. This government tried to introduce a transparent water scheme register in 2012, and it failed. Following this sole attempt, the Murray-Darling Basin Authority simply gave up. We do not have a national water register. Water trading is a feeding ground for ruthless water traders and speculators. If the Productivity Commission considers this system to be transparent, the Productivity Commission must be using X-ray glasses. It's not transparent; it's broken. Shortly, the Senate will be asked to vote on a bill to create the office of the inspector-general for water compliance. The key responsibility of this office will be to investigate water trading. Since its inception in 2007, the Water Act has provided for a water register on which to record these trades. No such water register has ever been created. The Liberal-National government continues to break its own laws. How does the inspector-general inspect water trading when there is no register of water trades? It doesn't and it can't. A complete, transparent, basin-wide water register is 14 years overdue and should be started immediately.
Failing No. 5: water licences, once taken from family farms through unequal economic power, are then being traded into different valleys. The Productivity Commission report applauds this. There's no analysis in the report of the effect on the land of this changed distribution of agricultural production. Corporate agriculture is buying up marginal farmland cheaply, then miraculously it's brought to life with water transferred from traditional agricultural areas. This is not for cropping purposes where the land can rest. These new areas are being devoted to permanent plantings that require continuous watering and continuous run-off. The result is massive salination and environmental damage. This is a time bomb with a short fuse. Just a few years of this irresponsible agriculture due to unrestrained water trading and the issue of salination will be back in the headlines. At that time we'll ask: how did this happen? Well, it happened because we listened to the Productivity Commission. We valued corporate profits and so-called market efficiency over careful custodianship of the land, custodianship that family farms practised for almost 200 years successfully.
Failing No. 6: custodianship of the land goes back much further than just 200 years, and the Productivity Commission has 'provided some views on Aboriginal submissions for consideration by the committee'. Meaningless nothing words is all the Productivity Commission has to offer, because Aboriginal use of water can only be quantified by volume, not by utility. Soon after my return to the Senate in 2019, I flew over the whole Murray-Darling Basin and then toured the whole Basin, including the northern Basin, which is northern New South Wales and southern Queensland. In Wilcannia, I spoke with Aboriginal community leaders, Wadi and Eddie Harris. I thank Eddie and Wadi for explaining that their people are a river tribe. At the heart of their culture is their connection to the river, the Darling River. Kids used to spend the day in the river entertaining themselves in a healthy and constructive way. Sometimes there were fish or yabbies for dinner. Elders used to take the young ones and sit in the river and tell Dreamtime stories to encourage respect for themselves and their culture. When mismanagement drains the river, these things are not possible. River tribes can't move downstream chasing the water; they need water where they are—there.
Wilcannia has the same problem many country towns have; their town weirs are insufficient. Wilcannia's weir is in the wrong spot and frequently suffers blue-green algae blooms. The New South Wales government has been promising a new weir for 30 years yet still construction has not started. What a metaphor that is for the way in which the Nationals have abandoned their so-called country constituency. That's why One Nation's weirs for life program will build new weirs in country areas to increase water storage for human needs. One Nation listens to and engages with rural Australians, with family farms. I ask our rural supporters listening to this speech: when was the last time you saw someone from the Productivity Commission on your farm, asking you about how agriculture really works?
In summary, the Productivity Commission report into water policy does not consider the damage to rural communities. It does not consider environmental damage in a meaningful and responsive way. It does not consider the risk to Australia's economy and exports of having billions of dollars of production tied to monoculture. It does not consider employment lost from monoculture. It does not consider the final mile of the financial transactions, where the money winds up and who pays tax on the income. It does not consider that water-trading accountability must have a transparent accurate water register. It does not consider custodianship of the land, in particular, salination from corporate agriculture's permanent plantings in areas that are not suitable for permanent plantings. Finally, it does not consider or factor in the dislocation of Aboriginal river tribes for whom water is the centre of their culture.
There have been way too many desk audits from bureaucrats in the big cities, falsely declaring the Murray-Darling Basin Plan is working just fine. They are audits that cannot quantify environmental damage, damage to rural communities and deprivation of Aboriginal cultural use of water. These things are ignored, and a glowing report card issued—falsely. Meanwhile, the Nationals, the self-proclaimed party of the bush, is busy chasing city votes and saying 'yes, Sir' to the Liberals. Rural Australia can't take this. Rural Australia has had a gutful. If the final report does not widen its calculations to include the full issues, One Nation will move to reject the report.
Senate adjourned at 22:14