Friday, 10 November 2023
Environment and Communications Legislation Committee; Report
On behalf of the chair of the Environment and Communications Legislation Committee, Senator Grogan, I present the report of the committee on the provisions of the Water Amendment (Restoring Our Rivers) Bill 2023, together with accompanying documents.
by leave—I move:
That the Senate take note of the report.
I rise to take note of the Senate Environment and Communications Legislation Committee report into the Water Amendment (Restoring Our Rivers) Bill 2023. From the outset it was bitterly disappointing that this committee, which had a two-month inquiry into the bill, failed to hold any hearings in any basin community outside of Canberra, outside of the ACT. I acknowledge timing is a factor; however, in the two months of this inquiry the coalition backbench committee on agriculture was able to put together a four-day, three-state, five-town tour of basin communities to hear firsthand from the people who will be impacted by this bill. We did that without any support—without any secretarial support, without the support of Hansard—and yet we were able to conduct those hearings just like it was a Senate committee. It is absolutely appalling that this committee would not travel to basin communities to see and hear firsthand what the impact of this bill would be.
In saying that, the core recommendation that the committee has put forward—there are 15 recommendations, but the core recommendation is that this bill needs to be amended. I agree wholeheartedly. This bill absolutely needs to be amended because this bill proposes to allow an open tender, open slather, free-for-all buyback of 450 gigalitres of water from communities, irrespective of the social and economic impacts that may be felt.
Now, a bit of a history lesson for people. Back in 2012, when the Basin Plan was being negotiated through this place and with communities, Tony Burke, to his credit, travelled to Griffith, travelled to Deniliquin, travelled to Adelaide. He listened to people; he heard the concerns of the communities.
This is after five years of open-tender, open-slather buyback conducted by the Labor government at the time without a basin plan in place. So they didn't even know what the water they were purchasing was for.
At that time, Tony Burke wrote into the Basin Plan that any pursuit of 450 gigalitres of water had to be done in a way that was either neutral or had positive social and economic impacts, because he acknowledged there is a downside to open-tender buybacks. He also prohibited the Commonwealth resorting to open-tender buybacks for the 450. I have not seen any justification for the change in the Labor Party's position. The coalition—the Liberals and the Nationals—will not support open-tender buybacks as a method for recovery of the 450. We will not support lifting the cap on buybacks, as this bill proposes, and we will not support pursuit of the 450 in the absence of a socioeconomic test.
I do want to commend the work of the committee and the chair of the committee for the way she conducted the hearings in Canberra—unfortunately, only two days of hearings in Canberra.
It was a long two days—thank you, Senator Hanson-Young. I acknowledge the participation of all members. It was conducted respectfully. But what we absolutely heard through those hearings and what we saw in the evidence and the many submissions that were put forward is that there is very little support for this bill in its unamended form. Sixty-one per cent of all submissions put to the committee did not support the bill, 56 per cent did not support water buybacks and 68 per cent sought social and economic impact assessments to be undertaken and to be tied in. So, yes, the committee is right. This bill needs to be amended.
by leave—Finally, we've got the report into this piece of legislation, and I acknowledge the enormous amount of work that went into it from the secretariat, who worked very hard on this particular issue. It is a complex one. It involves many different facets. Of course, the Murray-Darling Basin Plan is a plan that has been in place for over a decade now, but the reason this bill has come before us is that, despite the promises, the plan has not been delivered in full or on time.
There has been promise after promise from both the Labor Party and the Liberal-National coalition over the last decade, yet here we have today a report into a bill that the government would like to, I assume, bring forward and have passed this year to blow out the time frames, because someone didn't do their homework. Rather than just giving them an extension, we want to make sure that the work is actually done. Sadly—and we can see this from the report being tabled today—this bill does not make sure the work is going to be done.
In this current legislation, the report makes it very clear that there are no guarantees that the Murray-Darling Basin Plan will be delivered in full or even within the new time frame. There's no legislative guarantee for the 450 gigalitres that, of course, is so urgently needed to keep our river system alive. There is no guarantee that the outstanding water from the 605 SDLAM programs will be delivered in full and on time. In fact, it's the opposite.
What we saw in the inquiry into this piece of legislation and what this report clearly identifies is that no-one believes that any of these time frames are going to be met. Yet here we are being asked to pass a piece of legislation by the government and extend the deadlines. Even their own government-chaired report says the new time frames will not be met. The Productivity Commission says they won't be met. Every expert in the country that submitted to this report says they will not be met. In fact, the state governments who have been asked to sign up and endorse this acknowledge that these new time frames will not be met. This is, of course, after years, a decade, of dragging the chain, slowing things down, putting all the hard stuff in the hardest basket they could find—plod, plod, plod. Meanwhile, the river system has gotten sicker and sicker.
I'm standing here today in this place, giving this contribution, on a day when my home state and my home town in Adelaide will be hitting 40 degrees. We are heading back into one hell of a hot summer. Forty degrees, and it's not even mid-November. We are heading into a horror summer. Rainfall is going to be low, run-off into the river system is going to be low, and our Lower Lakes and Coorong are going to really start to feel the heat. Our river system from the bottom to the top cannot handle another drought. Our river system from the bottom right up to the top is already so fragile, because so much water has been taken out for greed and for profit, not for the sustainability of the river system.
The whole point of this plan is to return water to the river to keep it alive, because it doesn't matter what business you are in; it doesn't matter whether you're a farmer, or a member of the local community, or a fisherman in the Coorong, or a member of the Murray cod fish school: a dead river is a dead river, and there are no jobs on a dead river. You can't eat cotton. You can't drink mud. A river that is dead is good for no-one.
If you listen to the Labor Party and you listen to the Greens, you'd think that all is lost for the Murray-Darling Basin, when it isn't, because communities and industries right up and down the river have done the heavy lifting over the last decade, particularly in my home state of Victoria, where water licences actually deliver actual water. It is the industries and communities up and down the basin who've seen almost 80 per cent of the water required under the plan delivered. What else has happened over the last decade? We've got better science. So the bald numbers of gigalitres—and some say 'gigababble'—that we've been arguing about over the last decade are meaningless, because what we actually want is a healthy river, healthy communities, and healthy environmental assets that this plan was set up to deliver.
The fact is we now have better science, so we can use that existing amount of water that we've been able to get back under sometimes very trying and difficult circumstances and use it in a better way to deliver the environmental outcomes that we all want to see. Instead of using the science, the Greens and the Labor Party—the government in particular—is much more interested in getting votes in capital cities where people don't understand and, worse, don't care about the millions of people that live in the Murray-Darling Basin and grow our food and our fibre.
The reality is we have studied this to death. The reason the 450 gigalitres was subject to socioeconomic tests was because we know that water is wealth.
We know that that is how not just the river is sustained but our capacity to grow food and fibre is sustained, families are sustained and communities are sustained. Coming after the 450 gigalitres and removing the need for socioeconomic impact to be assessed, evaluated and compensated for just shows the level of disinterest and disregard this Labor government and Minister Plibersek have for rural and regional Australia.
We've heard the National Farmers Federation president in recent weeks calling out the Labor government on the cumulative impact of its decisions across a whole range of portfolio areas and for the absolute disregard it has for the nine million of us that don't live in capital cities and export 70 per cent of what we grow so that one in four Australians can have a job. Just because we live outside, the government can't see us, don't feel it and don't know it. They think we are not worthy of actually having a government that cares about what happens.
When Anthony Albanese came to government, he promised to be a prime minister for everyone and that no-one would be left behind. It is decisions that this government is bringing in on the Murray-Darling Basin Plan which will mean rural and regional basin communities will be left behind, and the suicides that will come will be on the Labor Party's head. They care about a number, not actually about environmental, social and economic outcomes. Even Minister Burke, a Labor Party minister, when he set this up recognised that there would be a negative, detrimental cost to taking water out of these communities. Somehow that doesn't matter anymore.
I just want to say thank you to the Labor Party in Victoria, who are standing up against their mates in Canberra. That is a tough thing to do, but they are doing it because they know that coming after this water will decimate our dairy industry and our horticulture industry in northern Victoria. They're coming back in with buybacks. There are 450 gigalitres that are supposed to not be taken unless they can prove it is not going to hurt people. But they can't and they won't. That's why this committee didn't go out into the basin to hear from real people, hear from our farmers and hear from our communities. This bill will tear up a decade-long agreement to collaboratively manage our river system. It turns its back on how we all agreed to make sure water is there for people, for businesses and for the environment. Shame on Labor.
I seek leave to make a statement of not more than five minutes.
I don't think there is anybody Australia who doesn't want to see a healthy Murray-Darling River system. Our farmers do for the amazing food that they produce that ends up on people's tables and in restaurants and gets exported overseas. Communities rely on it because that's where they live. There's the amazing tourism industry that it supports. In cities, when they turn on the tap, in many cases around Australia the water that comes out of that tap comes from the Murray-Darling Basin system. So achieving a healthy river system should not be anything that should be disputed in this place, no matter where you sit on the political spectrum. That's why I have always been a 100 per cent supporter of the delivery of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan in full.
However, the pathway to delivering this plan is being seriously jeopardised by the bill we have before us at the moment, the Water Amendment (Restoring our Rivers) Bill 2023. It throws out a decade or more of a bipartisan approach that saw the states and territories, as well as Commonwealth, working together to try to make sure that we took politics out of this debate and that the outcomes for all Australians, those that live in the communities as well as those that rely on the communities as well as those that benefit from the communities, were at the forefront of our decision-making. But, sadly, those opposite have put politics back into this debate again. They've put headlines ahead of the actual delivery and making sure that we continue to consider the impact on those that are most impacted by this.
And so, as somebody who always looked at my policy through a lens of regional and rural Australia, I cannot possibly support uncontrolled buybacks, as this bill purports to put forward. Taking this amount of water out of the system via buybacks would completely and utterly decimate the community I live in in Renmark in South Australia.
It would no longer exist. With the pressures at the moment in terms of cost of living for many of our agricultural products, this is not the economic environment to come out and say that you're buying from a willing seller. A willing seller is not somebody who has the bank breathing down their neck; a willing seller is not somebody who's forced to sell their water because they have to keep putting food on the table for their family. You cannot come in here and say that these buybacks are going to be voluntary when the pressures that are on our farmers at the moment for a while heap of reasons will mean that they will be forced to because their banks will be demanding that they draw down on their mortgages.
We cannot possibly support this bill coming into the Senate under its current guise. The consideration of the additional water about no socioeconomic impact was there for a reason. We have to have a balance. You cannot take Australia's major food bowl offline and think that it is not going to have a devastating effect on Australia's economy and then continue to push up the price of food in Australia even more. We have a cost-of-living crisis and a government that's doing nothing about it, and here we have a bill that will potentially push the price of food in Australia completely out of reach of the average Australian. We do not want to see Australians eating 2 Minute Noodles; we want to see Australians eating the healthy produce that's produced out of our river communities.
The move to disregard socioeconomic neutrality, which this bill seeks to do, is a shift away from the original intent of this plan. It is a demonstration of the lack of sincerity of this government about truly delivering the best thing for our plan. Taking the water away without a plan on how you're going to deliver it is also ridiculous. We know that to date the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder has not used all of the water that it holds in order to deliver economic outcomes, so please don't take any more water out of our river communities until you know not only you're going to use it but also how you're going to move it through the system.
It was also absolutely disingenuous that the very communities likely to be affected most significantly by this were completely disregarded when it came to hearings. Holding hearings in Canberra—it's a bit like the Canberra voice; this is the Canberra water bill—you actually have to get out and speak to the people impacted by your legislation if you really want to make sure that you are delivering the best possible legislation and regulations for Australians. The idea that you're not going to go and speak to those communities is an absolute reflection of the disregard and contempt that you hold people who sit outside of metropolitan areas in your decision-making and your policy development. As I said, we cannot possibly support this bill.
I want to quote Craig Knowles, a previous Labor member of the New South Wales parliament, when he said: 'A healthy, working river is what we want. At this rate we may end up with a healthy river, but it won't be working anymore.'
I'm rising to speak as the minister for agriculture of Australia. I cannot emphasise how important the Murray-Darling Basin is for the future of agriculture in Australia. The Murray-Darling Basin is Australia's major food bowl. It always has been, and, as a Labor government, we want to keep it that way.
I also want to mention that I suspect the chair of the committee will seek to make a short statement at some point this morning. She is detained in another committee hearing at the moment. If people could give her that privilege, that would be much appreciated.
All Australians know, and certainly Australian farmers know, that the Murray-Darling Basin is in extreme trouble. As I say, it is the nation's most important food bowl, and it is vital that we protect the river system that underpins it, that underpins agriculture in the region and that underpins so many rural communities across that basin. If we don't fix the Murray-Darling Basin, we are not just jeopardising the river system that underpins it, but we are jeopardising the agricultural production and the rural communities that rely on that flow of water well into the future. I can't speak for coalition senators, but I can say that this Labor government, the Albanese Labor government, values the work of our farmers and our rural communities incredibly deeply.
The agricultural production that feeds our country and so many other countries is vital from a food security point of view, an export point of view, an economic point of view and a social point of view.
But we do need to accept the reality that the Murray-Darling Basin is in severe distress. And why is that? It is because, despite the Murray-Darling Basin Plan being finalised and agreed to by all the relevant partners more than a decade ago, we then went through a 10-year period of coalition government where the National Party held the strings when it came to the Murray-Darling Basin Plan and allowed that plan to be sabotaged, for 10 years—10 years of national sabotage of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan.
That's best demonstrated by the fact that the plan required—and this was agreed to—the environmental recovery of 450 gigalitres of water from the basin system. And guess how much was recovered in 10 years of coalition government? Two—two gigalitres, out of 450 that was supposed to be recovered for the environment. And it's not just about the environment; it's about the health of the river system that is needed to support the agriculture sector and the rural communities that depend upon it. Two gigalitres out of 450: we cannot allow that to go on. If we do, if we follow the National Party approach, the Murray-Darling Basin and the river system that underpins it will die, and so will our agriculture sector and the rural communities that depend upon it. So, this measure that the government is taking is about saving the Murray-Darling Basin. it's about saving the agriculture sector that relies on it and it's about saving the rural communities that rely on it.
Throughout this debate the National Party and some of their allies have completely misrepresented what is being put forward here in this legislation. If you believed them, you would think that the government's only solution to deliver the 450 gigalitres is about compulsory water buybacks. But nothing could be further from the truth. For starters, Minister Plibersek, the relevant minister, has made absolutely clear that any water buybacks would be completely voluntary—not compulsory, no forced acquisition. They would be voluntary buybacks, from willing sellers, at market prices. That's the first point.
But, more broadly, we're not saying that this has to be achieved only by buybacks. There are going to need to be buybacks to deliver the water that's required. The former government wasn't prepared to do that. We can't get there without some level of voluntary water buybacks. But what Minister Plibersek has made clear is that this plan that is being put forward by our government provides more time to deliver the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, more funding than has ever been provided before, and more options—not just voluntary water buybacks but water infrastructure investments and water efficiency investments—and we are working our way through the various opportunities that are being presented to the government to do that.
So, it's about time people were honest about what the government is putting forward, rather than continuing to run a political campaign that is based on false information, because this is all about saving the Murray-Darling Basin, the agriculture sector and the communities that depend upon it.
Acting Deputy President, at the beginning of my contribution—so, you wouldn't have heard it—I clarified that the chair of the committee, Senator Grogan, is tied up in another committee hearing, and she'd like the opportunity to put on record her statement at some point over the course of the day. But I don't think there are any other speakers right now. And I seek leave to continue my remarks.