Senate debates

Wednesday, 23 June 2021


Water Legislation Amendment (Inspector-General of Water Compliance and Other Measures) Bill 2021; Second Reading

10:50 am

Photo of Glenn SterleGlenn Sterle (WA, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Road Safety) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to make my contribution to the Water Legislation Amendment (Inspector-General of Water Compliance and Other Measures) Bill 2021. This amends the Water Act to effectively split the Murray-Darling Basin Authority to create a new agency with responsibility for the compliance function and to create a new position of Inspector-General of Water Compliance to head this agency and establish new offences and civil penalty provisions for unlawful conduct relating to contraventions of the Basin Plan, taking water when not permitted and insider trading with water.

I should state from the outset that Labor supports this bill. It's a long overdue and much needed addition to the regulation of this country's largest river system. But unfortunately this bill does nothing to address one of the principal threats to the Murray-Darling Basin Plan and to communities and ecosystems up and down the river. The threat is the junior coalition partner, the National Party, under the leadership of Mr Joyce. One of the first acts of the National Party after Mr Joyce's re-elevation to leadership was to vote against a motion on Monday supporting the implementation of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan in full and on time. Minister Pitt may well say that the government is committed to implementing the full Basin Plan, but let's wait and see how long he maintains that portfolio or, indeed, his party maintains that position.

The Murray-Darling Basin Plan includes 450 gigalitres of additional flow that was supposed to be secured through efficiency measures. It was a key part of the plan. In fact, on some views, it was this commitment that secured South Australia's participation in the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. That additional water was supposed to be delivered by 2024. But here we are, just three years out, with no clear pathway forward. The government has ruled out on-farm measures and buy-backs and would be looking exclusively to off-farm efficiency measures to find the additional 450 gigalitres. The problem is that the government's listed infrastructure is almost exclusively for irrigation infrastructure in New South Wales and doesn't specify how much water, if any, would be saved by the investment. In fact, only two of the 450 gigalitres have been delivered so far.

This outcome seems relatively unsurprising when you take into account the ongoing antipathy towards this additional water allocation by the Nationals. Back in 2016, Deputy Prime Minister Joyce, as he was then and as he is again now, wrote to the South Australian water minister to say that the 450 gigalitres couldn't be delivered without hurting river communities. He was more blunt in other comments, saying there wasn't 'a hope in Hades of South Australia getting the water'. Mr Joyce's comments were so alarming that the Nick Xenophon Team promised to block everything that came through the Senate, prompting then Prime Minister Turnbull to confirm in writing the government's commitment to the plan. Well, Prime Minister Turnbull's gone and Deputy Prime Minister Joyce is back and, with that, the water allocation for crucial ecosystems is under threat.

As Senator McKenzie explained to the Senate on Monday, the Nationals believe that the 450 gigalitres was never guaranteed and apparently, 'The science is now pointing to a complete rethink of how we manage the Lower Lakes in South Australia.' Even the coalition government in South Australia is spooked, with the Liberal state water minister, David Speirs, saying: 'I would be extremely disappointed if the change in the leadership for the Nationals saw a change of approach. The time for talk is over and we will continue to push all basin jurisdictions to get on with delivering what's already been agreed.' The problem is that delivering what's already been agreed, as quoted earlier, hasn't been a strong suit of this government, and this bill is the perfect example.

It is worth reviewing how this legislation came to us. Compliance has been an issue of concern for a long time and has been considered in reports, including the 2017 Murray-Darling Basin water compliance review conducted by the MDBA. The issue registered on the public's attention, though, with the 2017 Four Corners investigation into water theft, which went on to spark no less than a royal commission. In 2018 the government, in effect, accepted the recommendation of the Productivity Commission to create a Basin Plan regulator when it appointed former AFP commissioner Mick Keelty as Northern Basin Commissioner in 2018. A year later, the government scrapped the role and replaced it with an inspector-general for the Murray-Darling Basin. That appointment was on an interim basis. It was supposed to be a statutory position. It was supposed to have powers attached to it. The role was supposed to be able to refer matters to a Commonwealth integrity commissioner. In fact, Mr Keelty spent his entire time in the role without any of these things happening. It is only now, years later, that the government has introduced legislation to do any of these things. Mr Keelty's replacement in the role of Inspector-General of Water Compliance is still performing his functions on an interim basis until this legislation is passed. This hasn't been an omission without consequences. It has meant that the regulator who is meant to be charged with protecting the basin has been without the powers needed to properly investigate water crimes. It has meant that prosecutions have depended on state bodies and authorities. And it has meant that the Murray-Darling Basin Authority has been left to 'mark its own homework', as the Productivity Commission put it in its review.

So although Labor supports this bill, we are disappointed that it has taken eight years for this government to get to this point. This government has consistently failed to put in place the regulation needed to support the plan. It has failed to make the investments needed to make the plan work. The river, its communities and its ecosystems would be better off if the government were half as interested in delivering the Murray-Darling Basin Plan as the National Party under Mr Joyce is in turning it into a culture wars issue. Australia's longest river system deserves so much better.

10:57 am

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

I rise to contribute to this debate on the Water Legislation Amendment (Inspector-General of Water Compliance and Other Measures) Bill 2021. As I do, I want to say with a heavy heart how disappointed I am that, two days into Barnaby Joyce's appointment as Deputy Prime Minister, we have a new war being launched on South Australia and the Murray-Darling Basin by the National Party. Two days of Mr Joyce as Deputy Prime Minister, the deputy chief sheriff to the Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, and they want to take water out of South Australia and off the Murray-Darling Basin and screw over the environment. Two days in, and the National Party have said to South Australia: 'Nup, nothing. You can be left at the bottom of the system with nothing.' Why is that? It's because they're more interested in looking after their big corporate irrigator mates up north.

The last time Barnaby Joyce—Mr Barnaby Joyce—was in government as water minister, he told South Australians that if they wanted more water they should just move. This is a bloke who has never, ever supported the management, the fair management, the sustainable management of the Murray-Darling Basin. He has never supported a plan that would have this river system managed nationally, fairly and for the long term. He has never supported making sure that at the end of the system, where South Australians rely on a healthy river, we would be able to have access to the water to keep the river alive. In the midst of the millennium drought he snubbed South Australia, basically saying 'tough luck', while his big corporate mates were sucking and sucking the river dry. So forgive me if I stand here today thinking that this government is going to do anything that betters the management and the transparency and accountability of the management of the Murray-Darling Basin, because—boy!—the track record shows something different.

The whole reason we need an inspector-general and a cop on the beat is blokes like Barnaby Joyce and his cotton-growing mates. That's why it is just absolutely appalling that, as I stand here this morning debating what is meant to be an accountability measure, we have the National Party in the Senate moving amendments that take water out of the river system and take water from the environment to give to the big corporate irrigators and leave South Australia running dry. So forgive me if I think, as many South Australians do, that this government will never ever be able to manage the Murray-Darling Basin properly, fairly and in a way that makes sure we look after the environment and the small users all the way throughout the system. Under this government we have had rorting, we have had water theft and we have had public money used as a slush fund for the mates of the National Party. The only reason we need a cop on the beat is that the National Party think the Murray-Darling Basin is a river of gold—for themselves.

The amendments moved by the National Party today rip water out of the environment and cut water from the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, which, let's remember, was designed because the Murray-Darling Basin had been mismanaged for decades. Too much water has been extracted and greed has dominated. If we want a future for our nation's food bowl, then we have to manage this water more sustainably. Of course, with the drying climate there's less water available all round, but the National Party don't care about that because they don't even believe in climate change. They don't give two hoots what the science says. It is just take, take, take.

The whole point of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan was to try and put in place a system where the river would be managed fairly and sustainably for the long term. That meant water needed to be returned to the river because too much water was being taken out. Now, nine years later, we see Mr Barnaby Joyce as Deputy Prime Minister and his supporters here in the Senate wanting to blow a hole in the plan, steal more water, thieve from the environment and leave downstream users and downstream states worse off.

There are a few other elements. This legislation is meant to be about putting in place an Inspector -General of Water Compliance. Just imagine—if Barnaby Joyce makes himself the water minister again, who will he put in place in this job? You can't trust the National Party to manage the Murray-Darling Basin and you certainly can't trust the National Party to put in place a proper watchdog. This inspector-general bill has some good elements but some very worrying elements. There are some other amendments that have been moved today to try and fix the bill that we will be supporting. But we need to make sure that the integrity of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan is kept intact. The whole purpose of returning water to the environment is to save the river from death, to ensure the survival of the Murray-Darling Basin, the nation's biggest river system, the life blood of our nation. We need to make sure that extra 450 gigalitres is protected and is delivered in time and in full. We need to make sure that if we need to return water to the environment that we can still do it through buybacks. It's the most efficient mechanism, environmentally, economically and socially, to return the water that the river needs.

But, today, as we stand here debating what is meant to be an integrity measure, we have the laughable farce of the National Party wanting to undermine the whole damn thing. Mr Barnaby Joyce is in negotiations with the Prime Minister right now over ministries for the National Party and his new team. If the Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, has any mettle, he will deny the water portfolio to the National Party. They have shown themselves over and over again to be inept, shady and tricky and to misuse and mismanage the water portfolio. There are serious questions about corruption. They can't be trusted with the water portfolio, and Mr Barnaby Joyce cannot be trusted to be in charge of the Murray-Darling Basin. I say to the Prime Minister directly today: be a proper national leader and strip the National Party of the water portfolio. Put it in the hands of someone who actually cares about the survival of our river and the sustainability of our environment and all of the communities that rely on a healthy river, from top to bottom. Don't allow the National Party to continue to use the Murray-Darling Basin and the billions of public dollars attached to the plan as their own personal slush fund. I tell you what, if Mr Scott Morrison, as Prime Minister, allows the National Party to keep hold of the water portfolio in today's negotiations, the Liberal Party are going to suffer in South Australia, and suffer hard.

We've got two Liberal Party frontbenchers in this place: Senator Birmingham and Senator Ruston, both proud Liberals and South Australians. How are they going to fare going back home to South Australia after Barnaby Joyce, as Deputy Prime Minister, has just flipped the bird to SA? Today, in this place, they've moved an amendment to steal water from South Australia. When are the South Australian Liberals going to stand up to this nonsense? It's a challenge now to the Prime Minister, to Senator Birmingham and to Senator Ruston to stare down this wacky, crazy, untrustworthy mob and make sure they do not get their mitts on the portfolio, on the public money, or on any more of the water. Thank goodness South Australia has such a strong wedge of representation in this place from the crossbench, the Greens and members of the Labor Party. I call on our Liberal South Australian colleagues: do not let the National Party steal from our state again.

If this piece of legislation today is going to go forward, it needs to be fixed. We need to make sure that the National Party don't get their mitts on any more water, any more money or any more power. South Australians are horrified at what's transpired over the last 48 hours. If you're a member of the voting public in Boothby, think about what you want to do with your vote at the next election. Would you really want to trust a member of the coalition when they are thumbing their nose at our state and our river and our environment, at the future survival of our state? Every South Australian gets to vote for who they want to represent them in the Senate. I'd be thinking pretty clearly, right now, that it is not worth your time, your faith, the future of our state, to be voting for this mob when the Deputy Prime Minister himself is prepared to sanction such an attack on South Australia, such an attack on our environment and our Murray-Darling Basin.

You've got one job today, Prime Minister: tell the National Party to back off—hands off—and lay off attacking SA, stealing water from the river and cutting water to the environment.

11:12 am

Photo of Penny WongPenny Wong (SA, Australian Labor Party, Leader of the Opposition in the Senate) Share this | | Hansard source

This morning the Adelaide Advertiser printed—I'm glad Senator McKenzie has come in here. She can explain how much she doesn't support the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, how much she is acting against the interests of South Australia, and how much she is being permitted to do so by the man who has just been elected the Deputy Prime Minister of Australia. The Deputy Prime Minister is allowing you, the Leader of the Nationals here, to attack South Australia. I'm very happy to have a debate with you on this, any time. In fact, why don't you come down to Adelaide and have a debate with us on water policy—you, me and Senator Birmingham? It would be quite interesting to see who is on which side.

Anyway, I come back to this morning's paper. The Adelaide Advertiser printed a headline that said it was 'bad news' for the River Murray, that 'Barnaby's Nats won't back the Basin Plan'. And do you know what? That story sounded the alarm on what we already know, what every South Australian knows. The coalition, particularly with this new Deputy Prime Minister, cannot be trusted to deliver for the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. The fact that Barnaby Joyce—Mr Barnaby Joyce—and his Nationals don't support the plan is actually no surprise, because he never has. This is not news. This bloke has never supported the fundamental principles behind the Murray-Darling plan, which is that we have to return the river to health, that we have to return water to the river.

There are a whole range of mechanisms, including buybacks, efficiency measures, changes to water rules, integrity measures and many other reforms, which are all about recognising what Malcolm Turnbull recognised and what John Howard recognised: that this river system is desperately in need of reform. They don't want to hear that down there, because all they're interested in is playing a bit of internal politics, a bit of power politics with the Liberal Party. And guess who loses out? South Australia. It's always South Australia, when it comes to Barnaby Joyce.

Everyone in Adelaide and in the regions remembers what Mr Joyce said when he was last leader of the National Party. He said to South Australians, who were worried about the River Murray, 'Move to where the water is'! This is his great plan to resolve the environmental and economic challenge of the Murray-Darling Basin: you just tell South Australians to move—easy! Well, that went down really well. Despite this, this weak Liberal Party, who go to South Australia and pretend they care about the Murray-Darling, handed control of the water portfolio to Barnaby Joyce—unbelievable. The bloke who didn't support the plan got to deal with the plan, got to implement—or not implement—the plan.

We see it again today, if anybody thinks there's been any change. We remember Mr Joyce, when Deputy Prime Minister, saying to South Australia, 'There's not a hope in Hades of getting the 450 gigalitres of water secured under the plan.' This is the bloke who was supposed to be implementing it, and then the Deputy Prime Minister of Australia, saying to a state of the Commonwealth that something that the Commonwealth agreed to with every basin state had 'not a hope in Hades' of being delivered—as though he was proud of it! What sort of cabinet minister does that? I know we signed up, but 'not a hope in Hades'? Apart from anything, it is utterly disrespectful.

If anybody thought that was an aberration, we have Senator McKenzie, today in the Adelaide Advertiser, saying, 'Labor has forgotten the 450 gigs was never guaranteed.' Oh, so we just agreed it, but it was never guaranteed—I mean, give us a break. Basically, you don't care about South Australia and you don't care about the downstream communities; you just care about upstream irrigators, and you always have. That is how you will always play this. Until the Liberal Party decide that they are going to stand up to this sort of vandalism, you will be condemned. The plan was supposed to end a century of infighting between basin states. It promised the equivalent of 3,200 gigalitres back to the basin. They were pretty critical of me, but I'm proud of securing, when I was water minister, nearly 1,000 gigs for the river, something—

Senator McKenzie interjecting

Oh, here we go. She didn't like that, did she? She's even interjecting as she's walking around the chamber. I mean, get a grip—seriously. Yes, I purchased almost 1,000 gigalitres, consistent with the plan, in order to help restore the basin. And do you know what? They're critical of it. They want to stop it. They don't want to do anything like that. They don't want to do any of that. They don't want to restore the basin to health; they just want to play to their constituencies in the upstream irrigation communities, and they want to lie to them. They want to pretend to them that things can be as they were. Well, they can't. John Howard knew that. Malcolm Turnbull knew that. Frankly, Liberal and Labor people in South Australia—people across the political divide—know that.

We have to change. It's why Senator Ruston has been in here saying, 'We're committing to delivering the plan on time and in full,' and then the next day the Nationals Leader in the Senate comes out and moves amendments that are completely contrary to that. I would say this: we expect the National Party to be like this. We understand what they're like. We understand that this is all about the politics of a few seats upstream. It's all about the internals. It's all about Senator McKenzie getting her cabinet seat back. That's all this is about. It's not actually about what's right for the plan. But do you know who I am most critical of here? It's the Liberal Party of Australia, and their weakness. They know that Barnaby Joyce is no friend of South Australia. They know that his first priority as leader is shredding this once-in-a-generation plan. They know what the Nationals are like. Well, they have to stand up to them.

So, this is a test today, not only on these amendments—which the Liberals are very embarrassed about—but for Scott Morrison. It's also a test for Steven Marshall, and I look forward to Premier Marshall, of the Liberal Party of South Australia, standing up today and calling on the Prime Minister to stop the vandalism from his coalition partner. I say to Mr Morrison: This is a test for you. There are three things you need to do. Firstly, strip the Nationals of the water portfolio. Secondly, give a clear commitment that you as Prime Minister will deliver the plan in full and on time. Thirdly, give a public commitment that there will be no change on water policy as part of the secret coalition agreement. That's where these deals get done.

Senator McKenzie interjecting

Then table the agreement. Go on! You stand in here telling me, 'It's very unlikely.' Apparently South Australia should be happy to take Senator McKenzie's statement, 'Don't worry, Penny; it will be very unlikely.'

Photo of Bridget McKenzieBridget McKenzie (Victoria, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

You don't want to hear—

Photo of Penny WongPenny Wong (SA, Australian Labor Party, Leader of the Opposition in the Senate) Share this | | Hansard source

No, you don't want to hear about your dishonesty. For years and years you've pretended to people that things did not have to change, and you knew they'd have to change.

Senator McKenzie interjecting

Photo of Helen PolleyHelen Polley (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator McKenzie, your interjections are out of order!

Photo of Penny WongPenny Wong (SA, Australian Labor Party, Leader of the Opposition in the Senate) Share this | | Hansard source

You have fought and undermined water reform at every stage. It is the easiest thing in the world to go to communities and say: 'You don't have to change. It's all Penny Wong's fault. It's all Malcolm Turnbull's fault. It is all X, Y and Z's fault.' The reality is that it is unsustainable. The South Australian Liberal Party know that. Most of the Liberal cabinet know that. But you don't want to hear it. Mr Joyce just wants to play politics with it. The people who will suffer most are the people who elect me to come here, and that is the people of South Australia. We are the ones who will suffer most, and we always have, because of the interests of the upstream states.

What I would say to Mr Morrison is: You have a test today. Are you going to do the right thing or not? Are you going to allow Barnaby Joyce to run your government or not? The choice of Mr Morrison is to either lead the nation or be led by the National Party.

11:21 am

Photo of Perin DaveyPerin Davey (NSW, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

It is absolutely clear that Labor and the Greens—and Rex Patrick, but he has always been honest about his position, so I applaud Rex Patrick—who sit there and purport to represent Australia are focused on only one state when it comes to water: the state of South Australia. We are not about stealing water from South Australia. We are not about stealing water from South Australian farmers, who I applaud. The farmers of the Renmark Irrigation Trust, the farmers of the Berri Irrigation Trust, the South Australian Murray Irrigators—I support all of them. That is why we have flagged amendments to legislate the social and economic test applied to the 450 gigalitres by all basin ministers, including the South Australian minister. The South Australian minister agreed to that because the impact on those very South Australian irrigation communities that I've just mentioned would be horrific if all of a sudden they woke up and a big chequebook was being waved under their noses supposedly in the name of their environment. When we are talking about the Basin Plan, apparently it's only the South Australian environment that matters, and not even the South Australian environment across the state. Only one environmental icon site do the Greens care about. Only one does the Labor Party care about. Well, I care about the Narran Lakes. I care about the forests. I care about the Chowilla floodplain. I care about the environmental sites within the Renmark Irrigation Trust. That company did a great deal with the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder to ensure that you can get water to them and that the water doesn't just flow past their gates and out to sea at the expense of the environment throughout the rest of the basin.

Senator Wong was absolutely right when she said she purchased 1,000 gigalitres of water. I remind people when that happened. She purchased 1,000 gigalitres of water in the middle of the millennium drought, when people were desperate, before we had a Basin Plan and before there was any indication of where the water needed to be used or where the water should come from. She purchased that water at a time when farmers were on their knees looking for help. She came to help them alright, with a massive chequebook. She closed the cotton gin at Bourke, sending hundreds of people into unemployment queues. Yes, the farmers got their money for the water, but nothing was done for the communities where those farmers supported local businesses.

Senator Wong and Senator Hanson-Young say that we're doing this today because of Barnaby Joyce, because of our new leader.

Photo of Helen PolleyHelen Polley (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I will remind you, Senator, that you should be using the correct titles.

Photo of Perin DaveyPerin Davey (NSW, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Sorry: the member for New England. I just want to clarify that that is not why we're doing this today. We are doing this today because we have been listening to our communities. This was flagged at a Senate committee inquiry last year, on 23 September. When the New South Wales water minister, Minister Pavey sat down before the committee—the only state minister to front that committee, despite invitations being sent to all—she said that there were problems with this plan. We are all committed to a Basin Plan. We are all committed to our environment—the whole environment, not just one icon site but the whole environment. But we're not going to achieve the good environmental outcomes that we can achieve if all we're focused on is a number printed in black and white in a schedule of the Basin Plan. That is where we have all got lost over time.

I was involved as a stakeholder, representing irrigation interests—I will put my hand up—back in 2010, when we were negotiating the Basin Plan. I applaud the then minister, Tony Burke, who at the time did listen. He came out to Deniliquin. He fronted 3,000 angry people. Let me put that into perspective. You might sit here and say: 'Three thousand people? That's nothing.' I'm talking about 3,000 in a town with a population of 6,000 or 7,000, in a regional area with a population of 30,000. Ten per cent of the whole regional population came together to front Tony Burke that day, and he stood there and he listened and he took on board what they said and he did make changes.

Then, at the eleventh hour, then Prime Minister Gillard did a dodgy deal with South Australia for 450 gigalitres. I'm convinced that the then minister, Tony Burke, understood the ramifications of that. That is why, in the Basin Plan, there were tests set, and the 450 gigalitres could only be recovered on two provisos. The first was that it was voluntary, that farmers came forward offering their water. The second was that it had no negative social and economic impacts. Well, we have had report after report after report telling us that we've already seen negative social and economic impacts. We've already seen the demise of some of our most vulnerable irrigation communities. In my area I have seen dairy farmers walk off the land in droves because of the impact of buyback. Senator Hanson-Young says it's the most economic and the easiest form of water recovery. What a farce! If your economics is based on what is cheapest, then maybe. But what is the most effective and most efficient, with the least economic damage? It is not buyback. We need to get better and smarter about the way we manage our water.

We have been accused here today of stealing water from the environment and stealing water from South Australia. We're not stealing anything. We are not proposing to take the water that is already allocated to them; we are not proposing to change the Murray-Darling Basin Agreement, which distributes the water between the states; and we are not proposing to take any of the water out of the accounts held by the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder. What we are proposing is to stop and say: 'They have enough. Now let's look at how they manage it. Let's look at how they get the water to those environmental sites. Let's make sure the whole environment, from top to bottom, is taken care of.'

We have heard, through the Senate Select Committee on the Multi-Jurisdictional Management and Execution of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan—and I note that Senator Hanson-Young, even though she is a member of that committee, has not attended any of the—

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

Senator, you are aware that it's not appropriate to reflect on a senator's attendance in here or in committees.

Photo of Perin DaveyPerin Davey (NSW, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I withdraw. Through that committee, we have travelled to basin communities in Moree, Goondiwindi, Shepparton and Deniliquin. My colleague on the other side, Senator Deb O'Neill, heard firsthand the pain of these communities. She heard from them that buyback has to stop and that the impact on the water market has affected their businesses. People who haven't even actively participated in the Basin Plan are being negatively impacted by the Basin Plan, just as innocent bystanders. That is poor public policy.

In one of these hearings, it was put to us by a witness: 'Stop with the games and actually legislate what you tell us your policy is.' We have government statements saying, 'We don't want any more buyback; we will focus our water recovery off farm.' All our amendments today are doing is actually putting that into legislation. We know that the Murray-Darling Basin Ministerial Council have agreed to a strong, robust social and economic test for the 450. All we are proposing is to put that test into legislation. We know that both the New South Wales and the Victorian water ministers have asked for flexibility with the sustainable-diversion-limit projects. That's what our amendments propose, so that those state governments have the capacity to make sure the projects they undertake will actually deliver the environmental benefits that they're meant to and that we want them to.

I've been accused of being a climate denier today, but I am not. We know climate change is happening. We know there is an incredible risk of sea level rises, and we know that, while everyone is looking upstream and saying, 'Give me more water,' no-one is looking downstream and asking, 'What's going to happen when sea levels rise above the scope of the barrages?' Nobody is looking at how to manage that risk, and that is a significant risk. We have heard from scientists who have told us that, while, yes, the Lower Lakes are Ramsar listed, Ramsar is not for a fixed point in time; you can apply to adjust it in accordance with what's happening. We've heard from scientists that the ecology of the Lower Lakes in the Coorong is changing due to climate change. But, instead of looking at the Lower Lakes and what can be done to help save them, everyone is looking upstream and accusing farmers—the very people who produce your rice, wheat and potatoes—of being greedy. They are all painted as being greedy corporate irrigators. My husband works on a corporate farm. If it wasn't for some of those corporates, there would be people in rural and regional Australia without jobs. But I have also sat around the dinner table, the kitchen table and the coffee table with farmers at breaking point because they are so scared that the government is going to come out with another big cheque book, that their neighbours are going to sell out from under them, that their costs of doing business will continue to rise exponentially and that they will have no choice but to walk away from the job that they love and from the family homes that they've been in for generations.

Enough is enough. We need to respect our people and our farmers. I don't care whether they're South Australian farmers or New South Wales farmers—from the north or the south. I don't care if they're irrigators or dry land. What I do care about is those farmers deserve the right to farm. They were given a property right and they have seen that being slowly undermined, because we are fixated on a number. I want to get back to the intent of the Basin Plan.

Senator O'Neill interjecting

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


Photo of Perin DaveyPerin Davey (NSW, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I will take the interjection, Senator O'Neill. We have been in government for eight years and the challenge was put to you. You can support us today, and we will get the change that our people want.

Senator McKenzie interjecting

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

Senator Davey, resume your seat. Senator McKenzie, stop the interjections. I note that you are listed as a contributor. You will have your opportunity to contribute. I ask that Senator Davey be heard in silence. Please continue, Senator Davey.

Photo of Perin DaveyPerin Davey (NSW, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator O'Neill, I take your interjection. We've been in government for eight years, and I welcome you supporting our amendments so we can get the change that you heard yourself from witnesses is needed to support our farmers and our communities that rely on farmers to buy their coffees, to get their hair done, to go to their shops and to support their towns. We can give those communities some certainty in to the future.

I commend the inspector-general part of this bill, which I haven't had a chance to cover off on, because I've been addressing everything else. I commend our amendments. I would welcome the chance to take our amendments to a committee so that people can consider them thoroughly and understand where we're coming from here. This is not about blowing up the Basin Plan. This is about getting it right.

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

Senator Whish-Wilson, I have next Senator O'Neill, unless you are on a point of order?

Photo of Peter Whish-WilsonPeter Whish-Wilson (Tasmania, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I just want to foreshadow that Senator Hanson-Young will be moving a second reading amendment.

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

Thank you. Senator O'Neill.

11:37 am

Photo of Deborah O'NeillDeborah O'Neill (NSW, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

After the contribution we have just heard from Senator Davey, I have no doubt about her passion for the community she lives in but I cannot believe the disingenuous nature of the way the National Party come into this place and act as if they're not a party of government.

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

You will resume your seat. Senator McKenzie?

Photo of Bridget McKenzieBridget McKenzie (Victoria, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Yes. There is a ruling about reflecting on senators, and I would seek you to consider what Senator O'Neill just said in calling Senator Davey, who actually lives in the basin and who has raised her family in the basin, disingenuous.

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

Senator McKenzie, please resume your seat. I didn't hear the comment but I—

Senator McKenzie interjecting

Don't argue with the chair. You have asked me to rule and I intend to. My rule stands, whether you like it or not. Senator O'Neill, I didn't hear the contribution, because I was seeking advice from the Clerk, but I would invite you, if you made a remark about Senator Davey, to withdraw it.

Photo of Deborah O'NeillDeborah O'Neill (NSW, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I would do so, if that was the case, but my comment was about the National Party. I, in fact, was quite complimentary of Senator Davey's passion because I know she lives in the community. I will withdraw, if it assists, but I do deny that it was directed at Senator Davey, and I think the record would show that.

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

Thank you, Senator O'Neill. I will take your invitation to withdraw, and I note the comments you have made, and I invite you to continue your contribution.

Photo of Deborah O'NeillDeborah O'Neill (NSW, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Thank you very much. I will state again that these comments from the National Party in here that 'we need to respect our farmers', farmers need to hear them in the context of eight years of those opposite being in government. If farmers are feeling disrespected, they're feeling disrespected because of this government, the Liberal-National Party government, which has left them hanging and abandoned. They failed to do their job. This piece of legislation is happening, because this government failed to do its job.

I'm speaking on the Water Legislation Amendment (Inspector-General of Water Compliance and Other Measures) Bill 2021 and I welcome this legislation because it is long overdue. This is legislation for an investigation and penalties framework for malfeasance in the Murray-Darling Basin. If the government had got onto the job when they came into office instead of waiting until two minutes to midnight of seeking a fourth term of government to start bleating and moaning about what's happening in their communities, the people who are out in rural New South Wales and Queensland and Victoria and South Australia wouldn't feel as abandoned by the government as they currently do. It has taken far too long for this government to listen to the communities that it claims it represents and it has taken far too long for them to come to the table and legislate for this position of Inspector-General of Water Compliance.

In fact, in terms of getting the timing wrong, the government were more than happy to give this job of inspector-general to a former New South Wales politician from the National Party—a minister in the New South Wales Liberal-National government from 2011 to 2019, when he was in parliament—and employ him on $200,000 a year, when his job didn't have any powers or official role. He's been in the role for six months. They got the guy in the job, they made the announcement, but they're only now bringing in the legislation, which the National Party is seeking to amend today. They're just lodging amendments today. That's how out of control and haphazard this government is. And the tension between the National Party and the Liberal Party is well and truly on show here. This is a government that has not stood up for Australians in the regions. They've played some sort of con job out there, but they haven't been doing the job here in Canberra.

All we've seen from Mr Grant—and I do hope he can undertake this task with vigour and vim and integrity, and get on with it, because it's desperately needed—is him moving up and down the river. 'Travel up and down the basin' is what he declared. I wonder what bang for their buck the Australian people have got for the $100,000 already spent in the last six months on a man whose capacity to do the job will be seen in retrospect and who was placed in a position without any powers or authority, which is what this bill is seeking to introduce today, six months after he got the job. It's just not up to par, not for the government of a country.

The bill just scratches the surface of the issues that are rolling through the waters and the communities of the Murray-Darling Basin. This gargantuan public policy has been mishandled and mismanaged by members of the coalition at state and federal level from the moment they took office. The rationale for the plan, which they agreed to—let's be clear about this; what Senator Davey was railing against is a bipartisan plan that her government voted for—remains. We must ensure that agriculture, the environment and the river communities are all able to be sustained in the basin, together. The communities could not have made that clearer in their comments to us on the Murray-Darling Basin committee, which is chaired by Senator Brockman—and Senator Patrick is also here in the chamber. We've been all over New South Wales and Victoria, and we're heading to South Australia in the coming weeks.

As we approach the 2024 deadline for the Basin Plan, we must continue the great unfinished business that is before us. But, even though the government have been in office for eight years, one of the amendments that we've got on the table from Senator McKenzie is to push that date out to 2026. They've stuffed it up for eight years and now they're saying, 'Please, Miss, give me an extension.' That's what they're trying to do here today. It's a joke. It's an absolute joke.

The people of the bush cannot continue to swallow the nonsense on water that this National Party are dishing out to them. Those people have very few champions in this place—and they're not in the National Party. Despite what they say, that they've been looking after you for eight years, how does it look out there? You're telling us it's not looking too good. Flood-plain harvesting, regulation of the water market and the achievement of water recovery projects in New South Wales: all of those issues are still not fixed. They need to be fixed to ensure that the Basin Plan works for all communities equally and that water use is sustainable and ecologically sound.

The CSIRO data put some facts on the table. It now shows that there's been a huge fall in inflows over the past 20 years, nearly halving to around 4,820 gigalitres, which means less water for irrigators, less water for rural communities and less water for the precious ecosystems that depend on the flows. As the effects of climate change continue to creep up and further disrupt weather events in the basin, we need to examine further how that will affect flows for the environment and crops. We had evidence in Shepparton from the Victorian Farmers Federation, who said, 'Ten years ago, we didn't believe in climate change, and we weren't engaging with the Basin Plan through that lens, but now we absolutely do.' They are much clearer about their policy for sustainable business practice in the part of the country where they live, love and farm. They are much more committed to a fact based response than the National Party in this government.

The ABC reported that ricegrowers have gone from receiving regular flows through the general security licence to years of low or no water. In fact, we received evidence that, in 2019, despite Australia's sense of how much rice we grow in the Riverina, we actually imported all our rice from overseas, because ricegrowers could not get their hands on water in Australia to provide high-quality rice for the Australian market and overseas. That's what it looks like in the Riverina after eight long years of multiple leadership under the Liberal-National government. That's what it looks like on the ground. It's a debacle out there.

Over the summer of 2018, we all watched in horror as decades of old fish gasped their last breath in a mass death event that looked like it was written out of the Book of Revelation. Hundreds of thousands of fish suffocated to death as fluctuating weather, death of algae and lack of critical flows created a crisis situation. Water birds are also in long-term decline in the Menindee Lakes. Numbers have dropped every good wet year since 1985. The fact is that our environment isn't bouncing back. We have to look at better ways to manage the water to preserve our precious ecosystems and the communities that thrive and live along the river. Sadly, the concept of thriving is something that too many people who rely on the river are starting to fear may never happen again.

We also need much greater scrutiny of the damage made by greedy humans to the Basin Plan. The plan's been rocked by scandals such as meter tampering in New South Wales; the debacle over floodplain regulations, which is called overland flow in Queensland and floodplain in New South Wales; the rorting of on-farm efficiency programs; and the countless inquiries that have documented these failures in the course of the eight years that the Liberal-National government have been in control of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan and its implementation. They have a failed record on this important national asset. They cannot be trusted. They should never have been trusted, and their record reveals that they cannot be trusted into the future. People all up and down the basin have little or no faith that the plan is working for them. It's on this government's watch that that's become apparent.

Through my involvement with the Select Committee on the Multi-Jurisdictional Management and Execution of the Murray Darling Basin Plan, I know that there's a great belief that the plan is rigged against ordinary farmers, and they've complained to the government who's failed to respond.

Senator McKenzie interjecting

You voted for a bipartisan piece of legislation that you've been responsible for managing over the last eight years. You are responsible for the management of the Murray-Darling Basin, Senator McKenzie. You know it. People in the know are making massive profits while long-held family farms are shuttered. In Moree, I heard from farmer John Gordon, who described the practical reality of the mismanagement under this government. The school bus from Bourke to Brewarrina used to be full. In the last year of his son going to school, that bus had only one child on it. There's been total decimation of farming communities on the watch of this Liberal-Nationals government. We've seen massive corporates like Webster flourishing in this new regime, while other communities have withered on the vine. The independent assessment of social and economic conditions in the basin released a draft report last year. It found that there is a growing sense of hopelessness within the communities across the Murray Darling-Basin. We heard from people caught in a one-way conversation—overconsulted and under listened-to. Overconsulted by who? The government of announcements. These people have been under listened-to and underserviced by the government that fails to deliver in every policy area. Here in Canberra we see it day in and day out. The people who sent the Nats here to stand up for them know they have been profoundly let down by this government and its representation through the National Party.

The ACCC also released a report this year into the water markets, which noted:

… there are very few rules governing the conduct of market participants, and there is no specific agency to oversee trading activities …


… the complex nature of Basin water markets are best understood and leveraged by professional traders and large agribusinesses with the time and knowledge to analyse and navigate them

We heard evidence of people who have such speedy capacity because of their access to a particular internet speed and their digital capacity to trade water ahead of farmers who are trying to move it from one part of their farm in one valley to another, taking the power and control from the farmers. The government have known about it. This Liberal-National government have known about this and had eight years to do something about it. They have failed on every measure.

This area of water management, water access and the water market needs a significant and considered reform and it can't be delivered by a rolling litany of ministers going through the door, as the National Party tries to sort out who is in and who is out from time to time. No-one has proper care of this vital resource in the country. The Nats say it matters to them, but it only matters to them until it is politically expedient for it to not matter to them. That's why the people in regional New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland and South Australia are poorly represented here by this National Party. They're just pawns in their political games, while, out there, people who live off the land, who live in those communities and who love the communities, First Nations people who have documented cultural flows and their importance to their cultural identity and the benefit to their nations and the entire basin community have been completely ignored by this government—deaf to the pleas of the constituents they claim they stand for.

Currently in New South Wales, two-thirds of irrigators are non-compliant with new water-metering laws. This is now four years after a Four Corners report that found huge irrigators were tampering with their meters. They were dodgying it all up, pretending, reporting incorrect figures, turning meters off, turning meters on, turning meter dials back to indicate they had taken less. All of that was going on, the plundering of billions of litres from the Darling River, on the watch of the Liberal-National governments of New South Wales and of this government here in Australia. This was a massive eight-year failure, a log of failures by those who are not standing up for those in the regions of Australia.

As a former manager of the Department of Primary Industries strategic investigations noted in that documentary:

It was clear that not just one property was involved, that there was basically an entire river system that was seriously lacking accountability, and compliance with the water legislation of New South Wales.

These issues have to be resolved. They cannot be resolved by this government. It has failed for eight years; there's nothing different now.

11:53 am

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

I rise to speak about the Water Legislation Amendment (Inspector-General of Water Compliance and Other Measures) Bill 2021. There has been a total distraction in the chamber in respect of the purpose of this bill because of the actions of the National Party, because of the weakness of the Prime Minister to control the new National Party—the new Joyce National Party that is so against the river that it's incomprehensible. The government need to recognise exactly what is going on here and they best not support the Nationals' amendments.

The Murray-Darling Basin is a national resource. It serves a number of states—Queensland, New South Wales, the ACT, Victoria and South Australia. It is a national river system; it does not belong to any particular state. For a very long time, in fact since the Federation debates, we've talked about the river system. South Australia is very aware of its importance. We know—I know, being a senator from South Australia—that much of the South Australian population relies on the river. The people of Adelaide use it for drinking water, and people throughout regional South Australia, all the way through to places like Whyalla and Pirie, all rely on the Murray-Darling to supply their water.

The Murray-Darling resource must be managed effectively. It must be managed fairly. There are a number of stakeholders that have an interest in the river, including irrigators. I don't think anyone in this chamber is anti-irrigation. Stakeholders also include the environment, Indigenous people, tourism operators and a whole range of people who have an interest in the river. Everyone is appreciative of the balance and the need to assist all stakeholders, except the Nationals, who say this is only about irrigation. They cut their nose off in spite of their face by working to destroy a river. It's pretty simple: it's a river system that, if you extract too much from it, dries out and you don't have water flowing out of the Murray mouth. That causes all sorts of problems in terms of salt levels. And guess what? It's a pretty simple concept: rivers flow to the sea. This is just craziness.

If we go back to the history of the plan and how we looked at it, it was supposed to be developed—in fact, the law requires it to be developed—on the basis of best available science. When the plan was first proposed and the Murray-Darling Basin Authority did its work, we knew that in order to make the river sustainable we needed to reduce the water take, and we needed to reduce it by somewhere between 3,900 gigalitres and 7,600 gigalitres. They were the scientific numbers. Immediately, when that best available science came out, so too did the political interference, predominantly from the National Party—and indeed, I might add, from Troy Grant, who at the time was a member of the National Party, working against the best available science. Of course, he's going to go on to become the Inspector-General. Everyone's alarm bells ought to be ringing now in relation to that. We're seeing what the Nationals are doing today, and we've got a National who is now the acting Inspector-General. All of the events of the last 48 hours have put fear into my spine in relation to what is happening.

We were supposed to have between 3,900 and 7,600 gigalitres, but it got whittled down to 2,750 gigalitres, well below what was required for best available science. I know best available science is something that National parties aren't really interested in, but that's what happened: it went down to 2,750. As a result of that, in order for South Australia to protect its right and protect its people, agreement was reached for an additional 450 gigalitres of what is called upwater. If you look at the act, it specifically directs that, through section 86AA, at South Australian environmental sites. It's important.

What we're seeing here is the Nationals, who are not represented in South Australia—and it's understandable why they're not—trying to make a play. Understand what this is all about—it's about politics; it's about what happened over the last 48 hours. Barnaby Joyce

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

Senator Patrick, I remind you to refer to the member from the other place by his proper title.

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

Mr Joyce, the now Deputy Prime Minister, committed a coup in this building. He's a person who has caused nothing but difficulty with the Basin Plan. He has actively stated that he doesn't believe we will ever get the 450, even though it was agreed. It was the compromise position between all of the stakeholders and between all of the states. That was what was agreed. We now have a Deputy Prime Minister in a government that purportedly supports the plan who doesn't actually support the plan. We're now seeing that getting played out. It is getting played out by the Nationals here who have self-interest and are manoeuvring themselves for positions in the cabinet. That's what's happening here. It's all about self-interest. It's about self-interest over national interest. That's what's happening here—no question. There is no sensible reason as to why the amendments of the Nationals should get any support at all—none whatsoever. There's no scientific basis. It's about the Nationals supporting not irrigators but big irrigators—alpha irrigators who think any drop of water that flows past their property is wasted water.

I don't even understand why Senator Davey is standing up for this. She knows that in her community they are suffering. I share her concerns. They are suffering because they have to bear all of the load to get water to South Australia, because it's all being taken in the northern basin. And you allowed that to happen. Your minister allowed that to happen. That's the problem. We've got Victorian senators in here trying to break the plan when, in actual fact, what is going wrong is that there is just too much water being taken out of the river system in the northern basin, so none flows down the Darling River. That means the Victorians have to bear all the load. I feel a bit sorry for them, but the solution is not in the amendments that have been proposed by these Victorian Nationals. The remedy is in dealing with the overextraction in the northern basin.

Senator McKenzie interjecting

It is absolutely true, Senator McKenzie, but you wouldn't know about science. I will go to Richard Beasley, who wrote a book recently on the river system. Let me read what he said: 'Several people involved in agriculture and in other basin states, and some of the politicians they support, consider any water that flows out of the Murray River to be an exercise in irrigating the Southern Ocean. These people are idiots.' I will let the Australian public make their own minds up about who these idiots are, but it's pretty obvious and it's pretty present. This is just complete stupidity.

We have a plan. It's not the best plan for South Australia, but it's a compromise plan. It's a compromise between all of the different users of the plan. It's not perfect. It requires commitment from everyone. It requires sacrifice. But everyone understands that if the sacrifice occurs we will end up with a sustainable river system, or something that comes close to it—noting that already the numbers have been compromised. The original plan was 2,750. We went to an extra 450, which is owed to South Australia and was agreed by everyone, but the real number ought to have been somewhere between 3,900 gigalitres and 7,600 gigalitres.

Senator McKenzie interjecting

I've got Senator McKenzie interjecting, suggesting that there was no science in those numbers. Absolutely there was. That was the finding of the Murray-Darling Basin Authority; it just didn't suit the politics of the Nationals. Every second week in New South Wales the Nationals threaten to leave the basin plan. New South Wales is a petulant child, with various Nationals ministers in control of the water system there. This is what they're like. They have no regard for sustainable agriculture. They're simply looking after big irrigators. That's all they are doing, and it's not acceptable. What has to happen here is the government needs to take charge.

I know that with my fellow South Australians in this place—and I've had a talk to some of my parliamentary colleagues in the other place—if the government supports this there will be extreme difficulty. I can tell you, right now, I will block my phone from every minister in the federal government. I won't be talking to them about any legislation. They can play Russian roulette if they want. This amendment cannot go through. It cannot be supported by the government.

Do you know what? If the government doesn't support it, that tells you something: there's a split in the coalition. When you've got a split, when you've got a party that is not complying with the policy position of the government, the last thing you can do is let their member be the minister. You can't have the Liberal Party saying, 'We support the plan but we're going to give the water portfolio to the Nationals,' when they don't support the plan. The evidence of that is clear. Previous statements that have been made by Barnaby Joyce and the amendment that's been circulated today by the Nationals tell you there's a split, and it can't be allowed to stand.

The Nationals need to be stripped of the water portfolio. They cannot be trusted with the water portfolio, and it's inconsistent with coalition policy. It's quite unbelievable. Scott Morrison, the Prime Minister, now has to show leadership and remove the Nationals from the portfolio. Replace the water minister with someone from—

An honourable senator: South Australia.

the Liberal Party. I don't say it has to be a South Australian; it just has to be someone sensible. I can't believe what is going on. This is a disgrace. At the end of the day, I support the idea of an inspector-general, because that will give strength to the program. I note that we used to have a commission that looked after compliance. That was stripped by the Abbott government. Now it's coming back. That was a huge mistake they made. Throughout that process, where we didn't have that compliance, we had rorting and theft on the river. That does no-one any good, including other irrigators. That's the situation we find ourselves in. We've got to get back to the point where we do have an inspector-general.

In terms of amendments, I have circulated one that does seek to remove authority or an overreach where the Murray-Darling Basin Authority is seeking extraordinary powers. I will also advise the chamber that I do not intend to move my second reading amendment.

12:08 pm

Photo of Bridget McKenzieBridget McKenzie (Victoria, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Today I rise very proudly in this place not just as the National Party Senate leader—and I do foreshadow second reading amendments, and I'll step the chamber through those—but as a Victorian senator who lives in a basin community and was raised in a basin community, and as a senator who was in this place when Penny Wong was water minister and when the Labor Party went into our communities, purchased buybacks during a millennial drought and devastated not just families and communities but also industries who are only just now recovering.

What really galls National Party senators—you heard it from Senator Davey and you'll hear it from me—is those who choose to portray us as somehow not interested in a triple bottom line, not understanding how important ecosystems and environments are to the sustainability and health of the river and our communities. It is incredibly galling, because we live there and we know it. What you're seeing here today is a repeat of the debate that we had 10 years ago, and in the two years before that, as it was mooted, about a bald set of numbers that we know weren't based on science. We know that. The numbers were just picked out of the air. There was no modelling behind them. Really it was about winning city seats for the Labor Party, supported by the Greens. We knew the river needed work, and we were prepared to put in place a plan that would be adaptive and flexible, that would rely on the science and that would deliver great outcomes for everyone.

You don't need to be a rocket scientist—and you've even heard it from Labor senators today—to know the trauma that the implementation of this plan has wrought right throughout the northern and southern basin communities. It is our job, as National Party senators and MPs, to do something about it. We know that the council of water ministers is responsible for the operation and management of water at a state level, but our communities have been ripped apart. It is Senator Davey who hears that, day out and day in. It is Senator McKenzie who holds the hands of farmers who have had to sell up because they cannot afford their water because of this plan. We are the ones who deal with the human and economic toll that this plan has wrought on our communities and on industry, and it is incumbent upon us to try to do something about it.

Senator O'Neill interjecting

I will take the interjection, Senator O'Neill. We are in government, and that is why we are moving amendments today, as the second party of government. I look forward to your support, Senator. I look forward to the Labor Party supporting these amendments.

The plan was continually described as an adaptive plan. The Basin Plan was never to remain static. That is what our communities were told 10 years ago. It was supposed to adapt to new information as the science came in, because we knew we hadn't metered all the rivers. We didn't have the data available, as a Commonwealth and as states, to really map it out. So the plan was supposed to gather the science, gather the data and adapt along the way. Today is an example of the plan adapting, as we consider the establishment of the independent office of the Inspector-General of Water Compliance.

I believe it's important to correct a number of falsehoods suggested by federal Labor and the Greens regarding water recoveries in the basin. They would have you believe the environment still needs more water. That's their primary argument. They say the environment needs more water, with volumes as high as 40,000 megalitres, because that was the figure quoted in the Basin Plan guide back in 2011. The guide's figures were just a guide, and that's a direct quote from the guide. They were based on a rule of thumb of the environmental requirement at predevelopment levels. There was no science behind these numbers. This was an unrealistic approach, given there were no plans to remove the many dams, weirs, locks and barrages that regulate the basin and have done so for 100 years. The MDBA modelling, reviewed by CSIRO in 2011, found that the 3,200-gigalitre plan delivered 'few additional benefits, relative to a 2,800-gigalitre option'.

As I stand here today, the Basin Plan has recovered over 21,000 gigalitres for the environment. That is 21,000 gigalitres of water that is no longer used by agriculture to produce food and that is now flowing to the environment. We need to be proud of that. Given these numbers had no scientific basis, that is a hell of a lot of water. It has devastated the southern basin. Labor and Greens would have you believe the pain endured by these communities has been for nothing and that the Murray River is still dying. Well, it's not. Go check it out. I'm here to correct those falsehoods. The MDBA, in its 2020 evaluation, stated:

    It's not me saying that; it is the Murray-Darling Basin Authority saying it. The 2,100 gigalitres that have been recovered have done what they were supposed to do. It devastated our communities, but the actual environmental degradation that would have occurred through the last drought hasn't.

    Today I put forward a number of other adaptations required for the Basin Plan, incorporating the latest science and new information. The National Party have listened to rural communities and the pain caused by the plan and believe we are long overdue to be putting people back into the plan, front and centre. Our rural communities in the basin have been producing the bulk of the nation's food for home and overseas. Food production keeps people in jobs. It keeps our rural communities thriving. Just as our farmers adapt their practices based on new information, the Basin Plan has to adapt. It's required to ensure food production can continue with confidence and certainty.

    As I said, there are four key amendments that as National Party Senate leader I will be foreshadowing in this speech in the second reading debate. The first is to remove the 450-gigalitre water buybacks. It's to get them off the table and get out of the legislation the notion that government can just walk back into our communities and grab the 450. We know the socioeconomic detriment. That's No. 1. The second is we are going to put confidence back on the table for irrigators and remove the threat of buybacks. If the Labor Party have the water portfolio, they will be racing back into our communities to buy back water, decimating irrigation systems. They are proud of it. They can't wait to get their hands on the chequebook.

    The third one is to allow new 605 projects, to put flexibility in there for states so that they can meet those targets—because right now they can't. The Murray-Darling Basin Plan has them so wrapped tight in a quite legalistic interpretation of the plan that there is none of the flexibility required now that we have more science and more data. And no further water is to be taken from our communities when the Basin Plan is reviewed in 2024. So I say to those people that want to flag the 2024 review and say we are going to get basin plan No. 2, no, you're not. You will never, ever be able to come back into our communities and take water. We have the science and the data to ensure that the water we have right now, the 2,100 gigs I spoke about, is used better and to water environmental assets differently so that they get the environmental outcomes that they need and our communities continue to produce food. It's about being smarter, not using the blunt instrument of numbers alone to justify your commitment to the environment, which is what they're doing.

    The 450 was never guaranteed as Labor and the Greens would have you believe. It was always conditional on no negative socioeconomic impacts. When we actually did a review into the socioeconomic impacts of the plan on our communities it said, 'The need for change is pressing.' These are our own government reviews. The need to change this plan is pressing. So that's why we are here today. There is no point us as National Party senators drafting a private senator's bill to sit on the Notice Paper in some pious approach to actually dealing with the substantive issues. We have been waiting patiently not for a change of leader, as they would have you believe. We have been waiting patiently for the Water Act and the Murray-Darling Basin Plan to come before the Senate so we would have the opportunity to move the amendments our people have sent us here to make to save our industries and our communities from the devastating impacts of these plans.

    The science underpinning the requirement for the 450 for the Murray mouth and Lower Lakes in South Australia is flawed. We learnt in 2019 that Professor Gell's work in 2007 had been altered by other scientists in 2009 to support their claim that Lake Alexandrina was a freshwater system. However, recent scientific reviews have shown us that Lake Alexandrina was always an estuary, for over—wait for it—7,000 years. For 7,000 years it was an estuary. But here we are, decimating communities and families, for some purpose that's not even backed by science. It can only be defined as a freshwater system based on construction of the barrages in 1940. So, you're not returning the lake to its natural state; you're returning it to its wartime state. This led to an independent review of Lower Lakes science in April last year, which found:

    Without the barrages, the Lower Lakes would be seasonally estuarine with prolonged periods of high salinity during droughts.

    That's not me, not the National Party, but scientists. So it makes no sense to send all the fresh water from upstream that's being used to produce vital feed to South Australian Lower Lakes that will evaporate by over 800 gigs every single year.

    Wetland ecologist and associate professor at Charles Sturt University Max Finlayson is arguing for change—another scientist. I heard firsthand from him at our Senate hearing in Shepparton, along with local communities, about the devastation on our communities from the plan. The hard truth that science is telling is us that salty water entered the Lower Lakes over the top of the barrages. The 450 is not achievable, and therefore we are proposing that it's removed from the legislation.

    As Robbie Sefton's report into socioeconomic impacts says:

    Buybacks have also exacerbated the reductions in drier years, and this effect worsens the price impacts on irrigators and irrigator communities.

    The difficulty for local communities is where buyback leads to the long term loss of economic resources and community wherewithal and increased exposure to risks that are not offset by other compensatory gains.

    So the milk factory closes. The rice mill closes. The cotton gin closes. And then when you can afford water again you don't have the local infrastructure to employ people.

    So we are asking that water buybacks be removed; they must be removed. ABARES said in September that buybacks reduce the supply of water available for irrigators, so therefore increase allocation prices unless there is a proportional reduction in demand for irrigation water. Rural communities remain fearful that any shortfall in the plan will see water buybacks back on the table. We've heard it straight from the mouths of Labor Party MPs in the other place. They can't wait to get their hands on the chequebook and enter our communities and purchase that water.

    Flexibility: our third reform relates to the sustainable diversion limit adjustment mechanism, and we want to see much more flexibility for that. Time and time again we've heard from rural communities that we need flexibility in these projects, and the legislation doesn't allow for that. We need a more common-sense approach that allows us to back the science. Certainty: our final amendment focuses on ensuring that farmers and communities have certainty about the plan. John Howard said, back in 2007, that these reforms were a once-off. So we cannot continually be going back into communities, reviewing the plan—mark 2, mark 3, mark 4. We've got the water. The assets are being watered appropriately. That's a triple bottom line.

    I'm committed to putting people back in the plan. That National Party is committed to putting people back in the plan, and I look forward to moving my amendments. (Time expired)

    12:23 pm

    Photo of Jenny McAllisterJenny McAllister (NSW, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Cabinet Secretary) Share this | | Hansard source

    Well, this is what an emboldened Nationals party looks like under the leadership of Mr Joyce. Here we have it. One of the very first acts of the Nationals, under Mr Joyce's leadership, was to vote, on Monday, against a motion calling on the Murray-Darling Basin Plan to be delivered in full and on time. The whole agenda is laid bare, isn't it? For eight years, they have obstructed, delayed, told falsehoods, misled their own communities and misled people in this place about their intentions in relation to the plan. But here it is, in here now, a bald-faced statement: 'We do not intend to deliver it. We are not interested in delivering it. We are going to destroy the architecture that has been created to deal with the very real problems in the Murray-Darling Basin.' A healthy working river does meet the needs of the ecological communities—the birds, plants and animals that depend on this river system—and it meets the needs of the rural communities that live and farm in those regions and it meets the needs of the Australian economy, but that is not what is being proposed by these people. The National Party simply want to destroy the basin. They want to pretend we can go on overextracting it without limit. That is simply false. There is no science that will support that and there is no reasonable person who, looking at the state of the Murray-Darling Basin today, will support that either.

    I indicate that Labor will move a second reading amendment in this place. I seek the advice of the Deputy President that I am in a position to do that at this point. I don't believe there are any other amendments before the chair.

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

    Yes, you are.

    Photo of Jenny McAllisterJenny McAllister (NSW, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Cabinet Secretary) Share this | | Hansard source

    I move the second reading amendment on sheet 1340 standing in my name:

    At the end of the motion, add: ", but:

    (a) the Water Legislation Amendment (Inspector-General of Water Compliance and Other Measures) Act 2021 be referred to the Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport References Committee for inquiry upon Royal Assent to examine any potential further amendments to improve the operation of the Act, and any related matters; and

    (b) the Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport References Committee:

    (i) present an interim report three months after the date of Royal Assent, and

    (ii) report six months after the date of Royal Assent".

    Thank you.

    12:26 pm

    Photo of Andrew McLachlanAndrew McLachlan (SA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

    I rise to speak on the Water Legislation Amendment (Inspector-General of Water Compliance and Other Measures) Bill 2021. Those of you who were listening carefully to my maiden speech will recall that I raised the importance of the River Murray to each and every South Australian. Every South Australian is committed to the Murray-Darling Basin Plan and its successful operation. This bill, which I am strongly in favour of, provides the compliance mechanisms that are much-needed to ensure that we all have surety that the plan is working, that everyone who relies and lives on the river has an opportunity that is not degraded and that each and every person in their interaction with the river is transparent and fair.

    We talk about environmental flows. I think the river itself should be seen as having been given a voice, and the 450 gigalitres is effectively its voice. South Australians have custody of the Coorong, one of the jewels of this country. The management of a river in the manner of the plan is not a new concept. Its management is unique, but it's not a new concept. Ancient rights always have been allocated to those living by a river or relying upon a river. They weren't just rights; they were obligations. Every community has rights and obligations, but so do the river and the environment. The river has to have a voice, and that is what the plan ensures.

    Senator Patrick interjecting

    I'm going to ignore the interjections of my South Australian friend, whose passion for this river I share. As a lawyer, I take great comfort from the structure of this accountability mechanism, particularly the enforcement provisions. I think this is what has been lacking in the management of the river. There are many different views along the banks of this river, but I ask honourable senators to spare a thought for those of us who live at its end. It is the sole purpose of our community. It is our lifeblood. It is the representation of our aspirations. If it is sick, we are sick. If it thrives, we will thrive. We understand better than anyone the importance of responsible management of this river and the importance that the environment, the community, the wildlife and the biodiversity have to the health of the river and also the communities. I do not see them as being binary concepts.

    The development of this plan has had a long history. We've all invested, as South Australians, in the success of this plan. It is disheartening to ever hear, from any quarter, no matter where, that there is a lack of commitment elsewhere to the success of this plan. We do not want, as Australians collectively, to degrade one of our greatest national assets, which weaves across what are, in essence, artificial borders. This plan is underwriting the success of the Commonwealth itself. If this federal parliament, the Commonwealth, the collected states and territories, cannot agree on a plan that delivers a healthy river, then how can we expect to be credible in trying to help all Australians, no matter where they come from or what their issues are?

    The inspector-general replaces and assumes the independent assurance functions of the non-statutory interim inspector, and I thank the interim inspector for his work. But, like all positions, it needs the authority of statute and enforcement mechanisms. Importantly, the bill, if enacted, will create real deterrence around water theft and illegal water-trading offences by establishing criminal and civil offences. Compliance is at the heart of any water-sharing system. This will be a strong, independent regulator and give comfort to all those who see the river as important to their lives.

    A key priority for the inspector-general will be to encourage greater consistency in the guidelines and standards across the basin so that all water users are held to the same high bar. Consistent standards and guidelines will provide the inspector-general with a framework to evaluate the performance of basin jurisdictions, including the Commonwealth, in delivering the Basin Plan. I understand that the bill builds on many years of engagement with communities and stakeholders. All community members—and I emphasise 'all'—will have greater protection from water theft and water trading as a result of the passage of this bill. It is often said that sunlight is the great disinfectant. In this case, this is the necessary piece in the puzzle to support the future operation of this plan—and not just its operation but it success.

    Each and every South Australian is committed and tied to this river not only economically but emotionally as well. It is a sacred water path to us all. One only needs to spend time near Goolwa and on the Lower Lakes to see that its beauty should never be compromised. Our Indigenous people have a deep and abiding connection to this place. Practically, if the Murray mouth fails, salinisation will be a problem further up the river into Victoria and ultimately New South Wales. South Australia as a state is committed to every tool required to keep the health of this river.

    I return to the ancient and magical doctrine of common interest, which I first read about while studying law at the University of Edinburgh. This plan puts the skeleton and the flesh on that ancient concept—rights, yes, but also responsibilities. The people who live off the river are extremely important, but their livelihoods will not be secured if the river itself, as an entity, almost a living being, is abandoned for rank commercial interests. South Australia may never have been settled if it were not for this river. It is the one political issue that binds every South Australian, regardless of their political stripe. We will continue to advocate for this plan. For us, the Murray-Darling Basin Plan was a compact for our future, a compact in which we could participate in this Commonwealth, this federation of states and territories, as an equal partner—not under the sword of Damocles, constantly under threat by the actions of others, further up the river, who would otherwise be self-interested.

    The problems faced by communities living off rivers that weave through countries are not new. We should show the world that you can come together as a community, as a Commonwealth, and deliver water justice for all. I implore all honourable senators, particularly those from upstream, to have regard for the fact that you have ancient obligations to the people of South Australia, not just legislative obligations but moral ones. Therefore, I would like my plea to the Senate to be seen not just as an endorsement of the legislation that underpins the plan—and this bill, which seeks to enforce it—but also as making the moral case for one community to show compassion and care for another. Otherwise, what is the point of the Commonwealth? What is the point of this parliament? What is the point of this Senate? I recommend this bill favourably to my honourable senators.

    12:37 pm

    Photo of Malcolm RobertsMalcolm Roberts (Queensland, Pauline Hanson's One Nation Party) Share this | | Hansard source

    As a servant of the people of Queensland and Australia, I want to discuss not only an addition to this bill, which would give it some teeth, but also the current state of the Murray-Darling Basin, to understand the context in which the inspector will be working. I also want to discuss the causes and the core issue before providing an interim solution. Senator Sarah Hanson-Young says this legislation declares war on South Australia. Then she adds personal attacks. Why the continued lack of data and facts? Why the continued smears and personal attacks? Why the continued appeal to emotions? It's because she lacks data and lacks facts as a solid base for her position.

    The Water Act 2007 and the Murray-Darling Basin Plan are an attack on Australia. It's repeatedly specified throughout the Water Act, three or four times, that its aims include compliance with international agreements. Why are we specifying compliance with international agreements as an aim for a water act governing our country? I know of prominent Liberals who now regret voting in favour of the Water Act. The war on Australia, through the Murray-Darling Basin Authority and the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, is based on lies and misinformation. South Australian drains are taking water straight out of the basin and dumping it into the great Southern Ocean. The Coorong, as a result, has become polluted. Lake Alexandrina is a mess because they have not maintained its natural state and have continued to abandon the science. It is devastating southern Queensland, southern New South Wales and northern Victoria. The Murray-Darling Basin Plan now appeases large corporate agriculture. It devastates the Barmah Choke and the Murray River itself. So much for giving life to the basin.

    We've travelled across the whole basin. We've flown over it and gone across it on the ground, listening to people in the south and in the north, in South Australia, Queensland and New South Wales. I have felt the frustration, the anger, the incredible hopelessness, the devastation and the stunned incredulity of people in southern New South Wales. In towns like Moulamein I was nearly brought to tears just listening to the people. In Dirranbandi, similar. In Wilcannia, people are feeling devastated, angry, frustrated, hurt and lonely. People are needing honesty, integrity, support, understanding, certainty, some security, some reassurance, some confidence, some competence—they cannot see the competence in the way it is governed—leadership, care, hope and respect. They want to be free to get on with their lives and have fulfilling livelihoods. Above all, the people right across the basin want to be heard and want to be treated with respect with objective data so that they can see what's coming. Farmers, families, communities and whole regions need this care.

    I want to thank the many people who turn up to community gatherings to voice their concerns to us and give us their ideas and solutions—hundreds of people at a time. Whole communities turn out, because we listen, and they know, through our actions in parliament, on social media and in person, that we care, we work and we take action. We thank the people across the Murray-Darling Basin for their support and their encouragement.

    Let's look for a minute at what others are doing in creating a bigger, deeper and messier mess. The Greens environmental vandalism is stealing more water and saying to frogs, 'this is environmental water' and 'this is farm water'. It gets into the environment, but it doesn't matter. They're just destroying livelihoods and causing environmental problems in South Australia and have been since 1864. Labor is seeking votes in South Australia, sacrificing our country in a grab for power. The Liberals are looking after their moneyed mates in corporate agriculture and around Lake Alexandrina. The Nationals are sleepily awakening after One Nation has exposed the Murray-Darling Basin Plan's flaws for five years. First of all the Nationals tried to ignore us then they tried to ridicule us then they tried to misrepresent what we exposed and then they pretended to address what we exposed in their sham actions, which we exposed again.

    All we do is keep on getting the facts. We keep on getting the facts. Now the Nationals are desperately trying to bring back in Barnaby Joyce, the counterproductive, to counter Mr Michael McCormack, the unproductive. The ultimate cause of this mess is decisions, policies and party positions based on ideology, emotion, state partisanship, grubbily and dishonestly grabbing votes and ignoring or contradicting the data. This lack of objectivity makes it ripe for divergence and misrepresentations.

    The core issue is atrocious governance. Let's look at Mr Barnaby Joyce's behaviour. You decide for yourself. Ask Queensland farmers what they think of him selling them out and being a circus performer to get media attention while a senator. He was the most colourful speaker, and I give him full credit for his words against the climate scam. But then he entered cabinet and let Malcolm Turnbull spend $400 million of taxpayer funds on wind turbines. He splashed them across his electorate to try and beat Tony Windsor. Then, when we entered the Senate, we called out the same person who has been a sceptic and then became a climate alarmist, and he eventually went quiet. Then he exited cabinet and now he's whispering messages implying he may be a sceptic again. Really? He's now indicating he may be thinking of standing up because One Nation is attracting people who put Australia first.

    Photo of James McGrathJames McGrath (Queensland, Liberal National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

    Senator Canavan, on a point of order?

    Photo of Matthew CanavanMatthew Canavan (Queensland, Liberal National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

    On relevance. I know One Nation are incredibly worried about the return of Barnaby Joyce, Leader of The Nationals party, but I hardly see how his positions on climate change relate to this bill on the Murray-Darling.

    Photo of James McGrathJames McGrath (Queensland, Liberal National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

    Senator Canavan, it is a broad-ranging debate so far, so I think I will let Senator Roberts continue.

    Photo of Malcolm RobertsMalcolm Roberts (Queensland, Pauline Hanson's One Nation Party) Share this | | Hansard source

    Thank you. I note I have the support of the Greens and Senator Lambie for my comments, because they are supporting the truth on this. It is my right to speak.

    Mr Barnaby Joyce is now indicating he may be thinking of standing up, because One Nation is attracting people who put Australia first, who put data first and who know that climate alarm is a UN con to control. Then we have his mate Senator Canavan, climate sceptic initially, climate alarmist, with a speech proclaiming that humans are hurting the climate. Senator Ian McDonald pointed it out to me. I hold Senator Canavan accountable. Now we've got whisperings from Senator Canavan implying that he's a climate sceptic again, talking up coal and pretending to support coal while voting for the Liberals' anti-coal policies. For years Mr Morrison has been talking about coal but putting in place policies that oppose it. So let's step back in the Murray-Darling Basin Plan to their predecessors, Mr John Anderson stealing—

    Debate interrupted.