Monday, 27 November 2023
Water Amendment (Restoring Our Rivers) Bill 2023; Second Reading
Thank you very much for the opportunity to speak on the Water Amendment (Restoring Our Rivers) Bill 2023. We have seen this morning the result of the Greens-Labor coalition in government coming to a town near you to buy back your water, to increase the cost of your groceries. We have seen this government and its ideological approach to governing. It does not have a practical approach at all. It is full of promises and full of rhetoric, but it is very short on practical action and very thorough on actions that hurt Australians' hip pockets.
Before they were elected they promised to reduce power bills by $275. That hasn't happened. Your power bills have gone up. They promised your mortgages would go down. That hasn't happened. Your mortgages have gone up. They promised that real wages would increase and, while there have been wage rises, real wages have gone backwards, thanks to inflation. They promised to reduce the cost of living. Well, I'm sorry, but that has not happened.
Now they are going to come and hit your hip pocket again because of this ideological deal. This deal with the Greens will strip further water from productive use in the Murray-Darling Basin on top of what has already been recovered and what is already set aside purely for the environment. It is not the case, as the Minister for the Environment and Water promised on the 7.30 program the other week, that water recovery under this deal will protect drinking water and town water because that goes against the objects of this act. You cannot use this water for drinking water or town water unless we are in an absolutely devastating crisis, which we hope we never get into again. You can't: this water is not for that. So anytime someone stands up and says. 'This water is going to help Adelaide,' or 'This water is going to protect your drinking water,' that is an out-and-out lie. It cannot be used for those purposes. But, taking this water out will drive up input costs for farmers because it will increase the price farmers pay for their water, it will drive up the cost of delivery of the water and it will drive up the cost of groceries.
Just in the last fortnight, Murray-Darling Basin MPs and senators hosted a 'Taste of the Basin' event here in parliament. It was very gracious of the minister to come and to talk to the cotton growers, the fruit growers, the farmers who had come up and the producers. She went across to the SPC stand. SPC produce those beautiful tinned peaches and tinned tomatoes. She said she always likes to use Australian produce in her cooking and that she uses SPC tomatoes. Well, she's just made it harder for that to happen. At our Senate committee inquiry, we heard from the head of SPC that anything that drives up the costs for his farmers and increases the cost of production makes the job of SPC harder and makes it harder for them to compete against cheap Chinese imports. That's what we're seeing today, and to what end?.
The government cannot definitively say what improved environmental objectives they are going to achieve with this water. We know, from the work done by the previous Labor government, between 2010 and 2012, that just holding this volume of water in the portfolio of the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder is not enough. To actually have improved environmental and ecological outcomes from this extra water, you need to address constraints, and there's nothing in this deal today that's going to address constraints. Are they proposing to continue to put pressure on the Barmah Choke, the Goulburn River Choke and other vulnerable environmental areas by trying to ram an ideological volume of water downstream just so they can say they ticked a box? That's what this is about; this is about ticking a box. And at what cost?
We saw on the weekend the Minister for Climate Change and Energy refuse to answer questions put to him by David Speers on Insiders about what the cost of this rush to renewables will be to the Australian taxpayers. Minister Bowen refused to answer the question. We're seeing the same from Minister Plibersek.
She said, 'You don't go to an auction with your cheque pre-signed to tell everyone what you're willing to pay for a house,' but we're not talking about what she's going to pay for the individual entitlements. We're talking about what she's going to pay in total for all of this. How much is this policy going to cost the Australian people? What we do know is that there's an extra $100 million for Aboriginal entitlements. They still don't know how they're actually going facilitate that—they still haven't spent the $40 million that the coalition government set aside for Aboriginal water entitlements because they can't work out how to do it. So instead of fixing the problem they're just going to throw more money at it and hope that, somehow, it works out. So we know that cost, but we don't know the cost of anything else. Even with the past government, we saw that every time Penny Wong went out with a tender she would announce what the total value of the tender process was. But the current minister is absolutely refusing to be clear about what it will cost.
We were talking to the government as well—and, congratulations, Senator Hanson-Young, on reaching your deal. That's the glory of politics. I would have preferred her to support what I was offering to put on the table. What I was offering to put on the table was consistent with what the then Labor government wrote into the original Basin Plan. And don't just believe me: in a press release in October 2012, then Prime Minister Julia Gillard stated that there would be, 'An additional 450 gigalitres of environmental water to be obtained through projects to ensure there are no social and economic downside for communities.' That was Prime Minister Gillard. And in his second reading speech to the House on the Water Amendment (Water for the Environment Special Account) Bill 2012, then Minister Burke stated, 'Importantly, the plan being proposed by the MDBA stipulates that an additional 450 gigalitres of water only be acquired through methods that deliver additional water for the environment without negative social and economic consequences.' That is what I was taking to the government: to maintain the original intent and to keep a social and economic test as a safeguard to our communities in this bill. But that, clearly, is not the objective of this minister. For all of her words about having regard to the social and economic impacts of water reform on basin communities, she was not committed enough to that to write protections into the bill. I think it's a sign this government acknowledges that what they're proposing will hurt basin communities.
At the press conference we saw this morning, the minister refused to state how much will be from buybacks and how much would be through other mechanisms. One thing we know for sure is that the buyback will be more than 225 gigalitres, because if it weren't going to be that much there would be no requirement to lift the cap on buyback as is proposed by this bill. That was my other ask of the minister: if you are honest about your commitment that all options are on the table, that new projects can come forward and that buybacks are only one part of the package then keep the cap on buybacks, because there are still 225 gigalitres available under that cap. Keep the cap on buyback to force your department and your people to focus on alternative options. There would be nothing to prevent the government coming back in 18 months time to say, 'We're near the cap, let's have another crack.' But at least it would signal that they were going to put the hard work in first.
Let me make it perfectly clear: while, yes, I've heard the economists say, 'Buyback is the cheapest form of water recovery,' it is the laziest form of water recovery. It is the simple option. It is pulling out a chequebook and waving it in the air over the heads of stressed farmers—like farmers who are struggling with the current wine industry situation. These are people who will get compensated; they will—farmers will get compensated. And mark my words: the government will pay a premium, because that's how they'll get the water. They're just not being clear on how much premium they will pay. But then the truckies who cart the grapes or the grain to the processing plants will lose their contracts. Then the rice millers and the dairy processors will lose their jobs. Then they'll leave town, so they'll take their kids out of school. Then you'll have teachers who are all of a sudden being told, 'Thanks, but you don't need to come back next year because we're closing one of our classrooms.' And it goes on.
We know that both the Victorian and New South Wales governments have proposed alternatives. Both of them have requested that the government work out how to account for complementary measures such as incidental water savings, rules based changes and changing infrastructure to support fish movement. That work is hard. I admit, that work is hard. The department has continued to refuse to do the work, and the minister has not put the hard word on the department.
So I will be moving a second reading amendment, and I have a series of amendments which I will be proposing through committee of the whole, because I haven't given up. I have to fight, for the sake of the communities in which I live, and the communities that produce 40 per cent of Australia's food and fibre, and the dairy processors, the rice millers, the winemakers and all of those industries in the Murray-Darling Basin. I have to fight until the last minute. I have to throw everything I can at this, to try and take some of the rough edges off this bill which I fear is going to be the straw that breaks the camel's back for a lot of our small communities in the Murray-Darling Basin.
We saw rallies last week in Deniliquin, Griffith and Leeton, all at the same time, because these people are saying, 'How can we be here again?' The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and thinking you'll get a different result.
Now, this is not the first time we've removed water from productive uses, and we're not getting the environmental outcomes we want. There are other ways. We've seen it. Land and water management plans worked, because they're holistic—the Barmah-Millewa choke and so on— (Time expired)
I rise today to speak to the Water Amendment (Restoring Our Rivers) Bill 2023. Water is life. Millions of Australians rely on the Murray-Darling Basin for drinking water, for jobs, for recreation. Without water flowing through our rivers, ecosystems will die. Communities will suffer. The truth is: you can't eat cotton and you can't drink mud, and there are no jobs on a dead planet or a dead river.
The Murray-Darling Basin Plan was intended to address the impacts of overextraction on the health of the river system, yet it was a compromise from its inception. Since then, greed, vested interests and politics have trumped science, resulting in cuts to real water delivery and further decline of the whole health of the Murray-Darling Basin. As climate change has continued to get worse, the health of the river has been further compromised. The failure to deliver the Murray-Darling Basin Plan on time is a broken promise to our rivers, to South Australians and to ecosystems and communities basin-wide. And yet we have seen this coming for a long time. For over a decade Australians have watched the Murray-Darling Basin Plan fall apart with rorts, water theft and delays, leaving our precious rivers in a precarious position. I have smelt the stench of thousands of dead fish on the banks of the Darling/Barka. I have seen our Murray Mouth run dry. I have heard from countless people across the basin—from First Nations peoples, farmers, fishers and environmentalists—each with their own stories of watching the river die, begging politicians to stand up to corporate interests and overextraction, and to save our river for all of our interests, for the national interest, for the interests of our environment.
Governments can no longer sit by and let our river die at the hands of greed, vested interests and political game-playing. We need water flowing across the whole Murray-Darling Basin, and we need it urgently. We need to be fighting for more water, not less. Without it, we will see more fish kills, blue-green algae, species decline, and the degradation of floodplain and wetland ecosystems. Basin communities will suffer. Jobs will be lost when climate change will see the river dry up. We cannot simply continue a plan that just kicks the can down the road without changing business as usual. That is why the Greens have today secured a critical lifeline for the Murray-Darling Basin. This is a significant win for the environment and river communities to stop our rivers running dry. The changes that the Greens have secured in negotiation with the government will guarantee delivery of real environmental water across the basin—north and south. It will close the loopholes in the plan to increase transparency and accountability, and deliver First Nations outcomes.
In the plan's first inception, South Australia fought hard for the inclusion of the extra 450 gigalitres for the environment. Scientists said it was needed. And yet, since then, this 450 gigalitres has been viewed as optional. South Australians have been told by upstream states for a decade they would never get the water they were promised. More than a decade on and six months out from the current deadline, only 26 gigalitres of that 450 gigalitres has been recovered. Rivers die from the mouth up, and that's why it is critical and crucial for the Coorong, the Lower Lakes and the Murray Mouth to be healthy for the entire river system. Deadlines for recovery cannot be extended without a guarantee that the minister will treat the 450 gigalitres as a core part of this plan and ensure its delivery in full by the new deadline. That is what the Greens have fought hard for and that is what the minister has announced today that she will accept.
Now, for the first time, the minister for the environment will have a legal, enforceable obligation to recover the 450 gigalitres and deliver real water for the environment in full and on time. For the first time, there will be consequences for ignoring this part of the plan. This guarantee, coupled with the lift of the cap on buybacks, will ensure real additional environmental water can be brought and returned to our rivers. The minister will be held accountable along the way, with the Greens securing a requirement to publish an implementation schedule for the delivery of the 450 gigalitres. This will detail the government's plan to recover the 450 gigalitres by the new deadline of 31 December, 2027. It will include interim targets and milestones. There will no longer be an excruciating wait, a question mark around when we will see water flowing for our environment, or whether we will see it at all. In securing this commitment, the Greens have ensured water will be brought back for our rivers as soon as possible. We will see water flowing in our rivers before the next election.
Despite the plan being a compromise to begin with, over the course of the last decade we have seen cuts to real environmental water across the basin—for example, through the creation of the SDLAM offsets projects, which have resulted in 605 gigalitres less of real water recover. If we're extending the deadlines of the plan, we will need to be fighting for more water, not less, and that's why the Greens have secured a commitment that will ensure the scrapping of the failed water-saving projects and the ability to start recovering real environmental water in its place sooner rather than later. The Greens will amend this plan to ensure that failed SDLAM projects can be unilaterally scrapped by the Commonwealth government. The states will no longer be able to drag their feet on projects that we already know have failed. Real water will be bought back to make up this shortfall. Not only is this commitment critical to stopping further delays and excuses from the states; it puts real environmental water back on the table.
In the northern basin, overextraction and barriers to connectivity have resulted in mass fish kills. We need to ensure better regulation of overextraction and, instead, get the water flowing to the places where it's needed most. The Greens have ensured that this plan will include real additional water for the Darling-Baaka, allowing rule changes that increase connectivity in the northern basin to be recovered towards the shortfall.
Rule changes in state water-sharing plans have long been called for by scientists, academics, environmentalists and farmers. We need embargoes on extraction to ensure that, in our driest times, irrigators are prevented from taking water that is critical for the survival of the ecosystems and communities downstream, because in the worst times we all need to pull our weight and do our fair share of heavy lifting. These changes will be critical in promoting better connectivity across the northern basin and through Menindee Lakes, allowing benefits to flow through the Murray to the Lower Lakes and the Coorong.
As well as guaranteeing real additional water for the environment, the Greens have called for measures to close loopholes and build back public confidence. That is why the Greens have today secured an independent basin-wide audit of the water in the basin to stop the rorts, inject integrity and restore trust after a decade of mismanagement from vested interests. It is critical that the Basin Plan is underpinned by up-to-date, scientifically robust models and methods. Otherwise, as we have seen, it will not deliver the environmental water the river needs and that has been promised. This independent audit will be conducted by the Inspector-General. The Inspector-General will be provided with the powers and resources to audit water accounts, determining if they match the reality of water in the basin—what is on paper and what is really there. Doing so will determine whether the processes and systems underlying the plan are fit for purpose and helping to achieve what was intended. This important audit, won by the Greens, will be critical in identifying areas for improvement ahead of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan review.
Further, it will hopefully create a model that is reliable, is trusted and has integrity, to lead to more regular auditing processes and ensure that they are being performed at their best and can be regularly updated to inform adaptive management of the basin. The government will be required to publish a tracking mechanism to track recovery progress towards the plan. The public will be able to track water flows in real time and hold the government to account if they are not meeting the milestones to recover the real additional water that has been promised—integrity, transparency and truth. Further amendments will close loopholes that have allowed overextraction in New South Wales for years and will increase the powers of the Inspector-General to enforce compliance. This will allow the Inspector-General to do his job properly, forcing the basin states to comply with limits on extraction.
First Nations people have been critical of the delivery of the Basin Plan, and rightly so. As my good friend, Major 'Moogy' Sumner, who grew up on the mouth of the Murray in his country, Ngarrindjeri, said: 'We've been looking after our river for thousands and thousands of years. When the waters are sick, everything is sick. The government needs to not just be listening but hearing and implementing the teachings from First Nations people on how we look after our rivers and our water systems.' He is right. The knowledge, rights and interests of First Nations people have long been left unacknowledged when it comes to the Basin Plan.
To rectify this, the Greens have ensured that the undelivered money from the Aboriginal Water Entitlements Program to deliver cultural flows will be increased from $40 million to $100 million to reflect its lost value. To complement this measure, we have pushed for recognition of First Nations' interests to be enshrined in the objects of the Water Act for the very first time. This is a significant step towards recognising and enshrining the rights and interests of First Nations people to our nation's water resources. The Greens will also move amendments to require the Basin Plan review to consider First Nations' rights and interests and whether these are being adequately promoted through the Basin Plan and water resource planning. This will help create a clear road map to holistically considering and implementing changes to benefit First Nations peoples and their communities.
These significant changes are throwing our basin and our river system a crucial lifeline. The Greens have secured amendments and improvements that will ensure the Basin Plan gets back on track and will be finished on time. But let's be clear, we still have a lot to go and a lot of work to do for the future. In particular, climate change and First Nations have been left out of this plan from the beginning, and it's time they were put in. We are facing what experts predict will be another summer of extreme heat. We cannot afford to delay the actions we know are urgently needed to protect our river. We need overextraction stopped and real water flowing before El Nino and the hottest summers, driven by climate change, leave the river high and dry again.
I want to quote Gloria Jones, the wife of the late South Australian fisherman Henry. They have been a family of fishers in South Australia at the mouth of Murray for generations. Gloria Jones said about the current state of the Basin Plan: 'A healthy sustainable river should come first and then you'll have healthy, sustainable communities. If we don't reverse this trend, we'll have let our future generations down. We must take this opportunity to get things back on track and to deliver a much-needed lifeline for our environment and our river.' That's what the Greens have been working hard to do—a critical lifeline for the Murray-Darling Basin. Real water, real accountability and listening to First Nations people will create a better future for our river and a better future for all of us. This is in the national interest, and it's time that we got it done.
I also rise to speak on the Water Amendment (Restoring Our Rivers) Bill 2023. The Murray-Darling Basin is the largest and most complex river system in Australia. We should remember that when we listen to contributions of our colleague Senator Davey from across the chamber. It traverses much of the south-east of Australia—across New South Wales, Queensland, South Australia, Victoria and the ACT. It is more than a million square kilometres. It is home to 2.3 million Australians. It holds significant Indigenous cultural heritage, with members of more than 50 different First Nations peoples living in the basin. The river system is important for communities, industry and the environment. It contains 16 internationally recognised and protected wetlands and provides tourism services worth $11 billion each year. It supports one of Australia's most significant agricultural areas, with around 40 per cent of Australia's agricultural produce coming from the basin.
That is enormously significant, yet what we've done over decades and decades is scrap over it, fight over it. I think where we've landed today shows us that a negotiated balance can be had. I believe that's where we've landed today with the very productive and thoughtful engagement of the Greens, particularly Senator Hanson-Young. It is important to note that we've been fighting over water since the British first colonised Australia. They brought with them theories and experience of vastly different countryside, vastly different water resources, different climate and different agriculture that were not in line with the realities of Australia. First Nations people had looked after the river system successfully for tens of thousands of years, living harmoniously with nature. That experience, and their inherent connection to the land, has been consistently disregarded. First Nations people deserve to have water rights and access declared and enabled clearly and transparently.
Many years of overallocation of water, followed by the millennium drought and the ongoing increasing water needs of our society, have caused significant social and environmental damage. In response, the Water Act was passed in 2007. It established the Murray-Darling Basin Authority and the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder, and also laid the all-important foundations for the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, which was introduced in 2012 by the then Labor government. The purpose of the plan was to end the wars, the fighting and the accusations. It was brave; it was very brave. The fighting over water in this country has been going on for an extraordinarily long time. In fact, we were fighting over it while they were drafting the Constitution. It is time to get over it; it is time to put down each of the individual needs and look at the total needs—to lay down everyone's own personal focus and to think of the whole river system as one and how we protect it so that it can be a river that survives for the next generations.
The idea of the water basin resources being used and managed in a way that optimises social, economic and environmental outcomes is one of the objectives of the Water Act, because it is essential to find that balanced and sustainable way for everyone to get the most available water in a sustainable way. It's not to rip water out of the river and make the river sick and not to prioritise one particular source of agriculture or industry over another but to actually look at all of the needs of that river system. Let's be really honest here: neither human consumption nor agriculture have a future on a sick river. It's short-sighted to say that we have to prioritise farms and agriculture; if we don't keep the river healthy there won't be any farms and agriculture. The balance is what is crucial here.
The plan has been off track for so many years. We had a decade of what could only be seen as mismanagement by the former Liberal-National government. Eighty per cent of the water that has been recovered to date was done so under a Labor government. We had a Senate inquiry into this bill and we heard many outlandish statements. But we also heard many balanced statements; we heard many people acknowledge that change needed to occur and acknowledge that the plan needed to be delivered to ensure everybody could get what they needed out of the river. Let's just step out the players here. The environmental groups, expectedly, support the bill because they care about the environment. They also think the bill doesn't go far enough to protect the environment, but, on this occasion, they're supportive of the bill. As much as they may want more, they know that the protections that are in this bill and the water for the environment will take us on that path. The academics, in the main, support the bill. They obviously have tweaks they'd like. Farmers are split on this. In the main, farmers are those who truly understand the river system and the importance of a healthy river system. And they understand it has to be a healthy river system over the long term to ensure that productive farming is not just for today but that it is for the future, so that generations after generations can continue to use the river. However, they are, understandably, concerned about the river right now, today, and about the available water for their vital crops. And I get that. I totally get that. Most of the farmers are very reasonable and most of the farmers I speak to are very reasonable about this. They get it.
As to the processors, these guys are concerned that any change to volumes of produce will actually increase costs. I think Senator Davey's contribution somewhat overegged what they said to the committee and failed to recognise any of the other evidence that was given to the committee about the cost of food as it relates to water buybacks, whereas ABARES, based on data—real data—advised us that any change would be negligible.
Irrigators, in the main, are not supportive, as their business model is commercial water sales. But there are irrigators that are supportive, as they can also see the long-term problem of a declining river.
The Liberals, as usual, are just waiting to see what the best media hit might be, and, as a matter of principle, objecting to any Labor initiative. The Nationals have been spruiking their support for farmers, but, from what I can see, they are favouring the large commercial enterprises rather than the hardworking, generationally-connected family farmers, who eat, sleep and breathe the health of the river and the productivity of our vital agricultural lands, and, therefore, understand what we must do to ensure the long-term health of the river system.
But our Nationals colleagues are following the age-old path of saying: 'The sky is falling in. The world's going to come to an end.' I think we've even heard from our colleagues in the National Party that the agricultural sector will end, due to voluntary water buybacks. I'm just going to file that with some of the other ridiculous statements we've heard in this place over the years, including that we'll end the weekend—however on earth people think we would do that. That was another empty claim. We've heard that we're going to wipe Whyalla off the map. Well, Whyalla's a place I visit quite regularly, and I can assure you that it's doing fine. So we might just put aside some of these outlandish, unhelpful statements, which are all about political punchlines and social media grabs. They actually don't give a razoo about what's actually happening on the river and the fact that there are so many interests that need to be balanced. But, without a healthy river, nobody gets anything.
So I would like to give a shout out to the member for Sturt and Senator McLachlan. The member for Sturt has supported the 450 gigalitres of water and voluntary buybacks, and Senator McLachlan has agreed that we must prioritise the welfare of our natural world, and both of them have stated this publicly in the South Australian media. I thank them for this wise and balanced approach. In fact, we even had John Howard state:
… we need to confront head on and in a comprehensive way, the over-allocation of water in the Murray-Darling Basin.
He did show leadership on this. It's a shame that's all gone now. It's a shame that what we look at now is what I would say is the disgrace of those opposite, and of those in the Liberal and National parties more broadly, in not seeing how vitally important the health of this river is. It's vitally important to human consumption, vitally important to the environment, vitally important to our agricultural sector and vitally important to our tourism sector.
But addressing the overallocation of the water is exactly what we are doing. The Labor government will go on, and we'll amend the Basin Plan to ensure that we have a healthy river.
Now, we know that, in July 2023, the Murray-Darling Basin Authority advised the Minister for the Environment and Water that full implementation of the Basin Plan would not be possible by 30 June 2024. I think a lot of people knew that was coming and were concerned that that was the case, but that's as it was. Then, in August 2023, the Australian government, as well as the New South Wales, Queensland, South Australian and ACT governments, agreed to changes to implement the Basin Plan in full. That was because they all knew that the health of the river was critical to the future.
This bill will provide more time and options to deliver the remaining water, including water infrastructure and voluntary buybacks; more accountability; and more money to deliver the remaining water and support communities. And there is also a suite of measures to bring integrity and transparency to the water market. Labor and the Greens have worked together to identify ways to strengthen the legislation, both through our work at the committee inquiry and also through negotiations with the minister. These amendments provide further rigour and protections, are well supported and will start us on the pathway of mending what has occurred in terms of Indigenous water access and water rights, which I think are a critical part of how we move forward. And it will provide better protections and more transparency.
For the benefit of those opposite, who don't yet seem to be quite grasping it, what it also delivers is more certainty for farmers, more support for affected communities and more protection for our environment. If this bill does not pass this year, the current legislation requires states to withdraw their unfinished projects. This will result in the plan falling over and in further substantial costs. I wonder if that's exactly what those opposite are looking for? But I'm standing here urging everyone in this chamber to understand the importance of the health of the river—the importance of it being healthy and of us protecting it. That's for everyone: for agriculture, industry and communities. Please, get behind this.
I rise today to speak on the Water Amendment (Restoring Our Members) Bill 2023 and to call out Labor for doing a deal with the devil, in the Greens, in agreeing to this plan. This plan is an utter disgrace. All I can say is that the Labor Party of old, and people like Ben Chifley, must be rolling in their graves. That's because former Labor parties would actually build dams. It's exactly what Ben Chifley did after World War II. He used to the sovereign powers act of the Constitution, under the national defence powers, and he actually undertook to build the Snowy Hydro plan. That plan took water from the Snowy River in southern New South Wales and Victoria, and diverted it westwards so it could go into the Murray and the Murrumbidgee—basically, to start a food bowl and southern Australia. That was along the Murray basin and the Murrumbidgee basin so that we could have irrigation and provide certainty to our farmers as to water supply. That's what you call nation-building vision. Yet here today, we have a Labor Party, in alliance with the Greens, that actually wants to destroy primary production in this country.
I notice that we have a South Australian senator in the chamber. Who actually knows what the current depth of Lake Alexandrina in South Australia is? Does anyone know? I know that Senator Grogan there was telling us that we didn't know what we were talking about. I'll tell her what the average depth of Lake Alexandrina is: it's 0.85 metres, which is less than three feet deep. But this plan will take water out of the northern basin, including the Darling River, the Murray and the Murrumbidgee—it will take water away from the farmers—so that it can run all the way downstream to sit in the Lower Lakes in South Australia. Senator Grogan said, 'We have to store water and protect water for future generations.' Here's a fact: water evaporates! If you don't know about that, I think you should educate yourself. You should google 'BOM evaporation map' and you will get an evaporation map of Australia that looks like this. You will see that in the southern part of Australia, where the Lower Lakes are, evaporation occurs at two metres a year.
Of course, what we get here, when we start providing facts and figures, is that evaporation in the Lower Lakes is at two metres a year. Lake Alexandrina's depth at the moment is 0.85 metres, so that will evaporate in less than six months.
There's a way to solve all this, and that is to remove the lower barrages. The Lower Lakes, before settlement in Australia, were actually estuaries. They were more saltwater than freshwater. The only time they were more freshwater than saltwater was when there were big floods. So we need to be removing the barrages and letting the Lower Lakes return to their natural state. That is what we should be doing. That is the true way to protect the environment of the Lower Lakes. The idea that we would build massive dams and tunnels in southern New South Wales and push water from the east to the west, only to then let it run all the way down to Lake Alexandrina, where it'll just evaporate, is absolutely absurd. We should be maximising the use of that water flow as it goes through the system. If anything, we should be building more dams, not fewer.
We should replicate the Snowy Hydro project about 1,500 kilometres north at a place above Grafton, where we've got the mighty Clarence, a beautiful river. It runs for 200 kilometres from north to south and then another hundred kilometres from south to north. Where it turns and runs out through Grafton and Yamba, you've got 300 kilometres of catchment of high rainfall. It's one of the few rivers in Australia on the eastern seaboard that runs north to south, parallel with the Great Dividing Range, so it maintains its height. All you've got to do is build a 10-kilometre tunnel to push that water into Copeton Dam and get it out into the Gwydir River. That is a much smarter idea. People will often talk about bringing water down from North Queensland into the southern basin. That won't work. There's way too much evaporation for that water to get there.
If you really want to protect the environment and get more water into the Murray-Darling Basin, why wouldn't you divert some of the waters, like Ben Chifley and the Labor Party—the real, blue-collar Labor Party that no longer exists—did after World War II? It's become a green, Marxist ideology party of the elite, rather than looking after the workers. Why wouldn't you divert the water from the Clarence into the Gwydir? The beauty of the Gwydir is that it comes in above the Macquarie Marshes. That's another issue. Not many people realise that a lot of water sits in the Macquarie Marshes, so you could keep more water in the Macquarie Marshes from the upper part of the Macquarie River, which, interestingly enough, starts at Bathurst and runs all the way up to Bourke. But, no, that's not what the Labor Party and the Greens want to do. They don't want to build this country and build more dams. Labor is the same party that has an immigration rate of 500,000 people a year. If you want to increase the population by that much through high immigration, you have to feed these people. Not only are Labor trying to overpopulate Australia; they're going to starve us at the same time, because they're trying to shut down the very food bowls that feed us. The absurdity of this legislation is that it is completely ineffectual. Not only is it ineffectual through evaporation; it's going to destroy our very food bowl.
We also see that $100 million will be provided to Aboriginal First Nations people. They're going to get an allotment of $100 million. There's been no explanation of how that money is going to be spent. I'd like to see how much of that ends up on bureaucrats and not out there in the regions where it could be useful. Then the water holders are going to have to do up a plan to demonstrate how they liaised with First Nations Aboriginal people as to how they use that water. That's more regulation. They're losing their water supply, and now they're going to have to deal with all this extra regulation. Why you would want to be a farmer anymore or to be in any small business in this country is beyond me. The amount of bureaucratic regulation—red tape, green tape, black tape, blue tape; you name it—is choking entrepreneurship in this country. It is choking innovation.
The other thing that really grinds my gears when it comes to water rights in this country is the fact that, three years ago, our own tax office ruled that the sale of water rights by foreigners is not subject to capital gains. How does that work? We should be bringing in legislation in here today that says that sale of water rights by foreigners is subject to capital gains. Even better than that, we should just stop foreigners owning water rights altogether. Those water rights belong to the Australian people and should be used, first and foremost, by our farmers and our irrigators, and what's left, we can divvy it out with the environment. But, if you want to solve the Murray-Darling problem and have a growing population, we need to be putting water in the system, not taking it out.
There is another reason why we should have dams. I noticed Senator Hanson-Young said: 'The river's dying. I saw some dead fish.' You've got to love this stuff. The lack of expertise and knowledge in this Senate about how our river system works is absolutely appalling. Those dead fish are a result of a blackwater event. These things happen all the time. We live in a country where we have droughts followed by floods followed by droughts. What happens when we have floods that follow a drought is that all the debris flows down the river and chokes up the river. That kills the fish. That's been going on for thousands of years. It's nothing to do with climate change or anything like that. I'll read what the Murray-Darling Basin Authority has to say about managing blackwater events:
Flooding that leads to blackwater events is a natural feature of Australian river systems, limiting the capacity to prevent and manage negative impacts.
Frequency or severity of such events can be reduced by managing water systems …
So how about we have dams that store water in floods and let the water flow down the river in dry periods? We couldn't do that, could we? We couldn't do what the former Labor prime ministers used to do, and that's because the Labor Party of today isn't the Labor Party of yesteryear, that's for sure.
The document goes on to say that we can 'ensure adequate flows to reoxygenate the water'. Wow! Listen to this: 'During blackwater events, downstream systems also benefit from organic inputs once the water has reoxygenated.' There's a lesson there for our senators who seem to think that a dead fish means the river is dying. That's a natural cycle. It's a natural part of the cycle. If you see a dead branch in the forest, it doesn't mean that the forest is dying. It just means that one branch has fallen off a tree. To somehow claim that because you're seeing dead fish that's the end of it and the Murray-Darling is all over is absolutely absurd, but that's what we are dealing with in this chamber. We are dealing with intellectual pygmies who don't have a clue about managing water. They have no idea about managing water and no idea about evaporation rates. In the middle of Australia, the evaporation rate is four metres. Around the Menindee Lakes, it's three metres a year. That's half the depth of the Menindee Lakes. That's another thing we hear people say: 'Oh, the Menindee Lakes have run dry.' They're ephemeral lakes. They run dry in droughts. That's what happens. But every time we have a drought, we hear, 'The Menindee Lakes are drying up.'
We must not take the 450 gigalitres from the farmers who feed us. We don't have a manufacturing industry in this country, thanks to the Hawke-Keating government of the eighties that introduced the Button plan that destroyed manufacturing, and it looks like the Albanese government is now going to destroy primary production by, effectively, destroying our ability to control water. The foundation of civilisation was when man learned to control water by getting stable water flows and by building dams in the Tigris, the Euphrates and the Indus Valley. This is where our ancient civilisation began. This was when the neolithic revolution began, and it was because they were able to store and manage water. It was by damming water, by being able to put water aside for when we have droughts in Australia—which we do because our climate is very much like the Middle East was back at the time of the Neolithic Revolution. We need to be able to do this. We are a marginal country. Once you go west of the Great Dividing Range it is marginal country—it is marginal rainfall. We need to increase the certainty of water supply, and the way we do that is by building dams and managing water, and letting the Lower Lakes—and I will call out my colleague Senator McLachlan because he needs an education. The average depth of the Lower Lakes is—I will repeat it—0.85 metres, with two metres of evaporation a year. The best way to manage those lakes is to let the seawater back in and remove those barrages.
It is completely absurd: we have all of this infrastructure in the Snowy Hydro scheme that diverts water, which runs all the way down to South Australia where it sits in in a great big lake and evaporates away in six months. That is completely absurd. We need to keep that water for our farmers. It is our farmers who feed us. Without being able to control your water, without irrigation, this country will starve, as will our primary production. I say, shame on Labor and the Greens to be wasting money on buying back water when that money should be building dams on the eastern seaboard and pushing it westwards back into the Murray-Darling. That will put water into the system. That will add water to the system. It can be a win-win: you can have more water for environmental flows and you can have more water for irrigation. How do you lose there?
Under this scheme, we're going to cost the taxpayer hundreds of millions—if not billions—of dollars, we're going to lose our food source and we're going to let this valuable water run down to South Australia and sit in Lake Alexandria only to evaporate in six months. As a Queenslander, I resent the fact for every 11 litres of water that crosses the border from the Murray-Condamine Basin, only one litre makes it through to South Australia. The other 10 litres evaporate on the way down because it's so hot and dry through there. It's absolute madness. I suggest the people on the other side of the chamber do a geography lesson, learn a little bit about elevations and evaporation and the way our rivers flow, and look at building and protecting our Murray-Darling system, not destroying it.
I am sure we all enjoyed being lectured on scientific expertise and intellectual rigour by you, Senator Rennick, so thanks for that. I also rise to speak on the Water Amendment (Restoring Our Rivers) Bill 2023. While I won't pretend to be an expert or make up some science on the run, I can say, sure as sure, that there is nothing more important to my home state of South Australia than the future of our river. This is an existential question for my state. My state's future depends on the river's future. The health of my state and the people within it depends on the health of our river, and this bill will get us back on track to delivering the Murray-Darling Basin Plan as designed and in line with the science.
It will see the promised 450 gigalitres restored to the basin—those 450 gigalitres that are essential to the health of our river—to ensure our river can withstand the next dry spell. This gives us more time, options, funding and, critically, more accountability—all things we need because we've had a decade of sabotage by the Liberals and contempt by the Nationals, and this is the only way we will get there. Everything Senator Rennick just said gives everyone the indication they need on what those opposite think of the river and the science, and their commitment to doing something about the unfolding challenging and the risks not just to the basin as a whole but also to my state of South Australia.
Those are existential questions for my state. We need our river to be healthy in order to be healthy. But for almost a decade, the other side—the Liberals and the Nationals—have failed on this front. The Nationals have been running the show. There are so many South Australians deeply disappointed that there have been so few Liberal South Australian voices on this. I acknowledge those who have stood up for our river in recent years, but they have been far too few and far too soft. For almost a decade the former coalition government ignored their own reports that the plan was in trouble. They've ignored the comments of one of their own. Even John Howard said during the millennium drought that the old way of managing the basin had reached its use-by date. Even John Howard knew we needed to 'confront head on'—and these are his words—'and in a comprehensive way, the overallocation of water in the Murray-Darling'. Instead, the other side have gone in the opposite direction. They undermined their own projects so that they couldn't be delivered. They stalled and stalled; they sabotaged and sabotaged. In South Australia their own minister capitulated to the other states.
My state of South Australia cannot afford this any longer. Delivering the plan requires strong and decisive action. That is what our government promised; that is what our government will deliver. As I have said in this contribution and in many others: if we don't do this, if we don't take the action needed to protect the Murray-Darling Basin and the plan which upholds it, the lifeblood of my state is at risk. That's what the river is to South Australia. We must ensure the water resources of our most productive region, the Murray-Darling Basin, are better managed to withstand longer, deeper droughts; more frequent floods and bushfires; and everything else that we know climate change will throw our way. Our basin is treasured for its productivity and its beauty. We know irrigated agriculture in the basin produces about 15 per cent of Australia's food and fibre. Tourism is worth $11 billion. It's home to 2.3 million Australians, and more than three million people drink its water each and every day. Within it we have 16 internationally significant wetlands, 35 endangered species and 120 different species of waterbird. This is why it is so imperative that this bill passes. We need to implement the Basin Plan in full. That includes recovering the 450 gigalitres of additional environmental water the basin needs. This is the only way we're going to get there.
The bill also implements recommendations from the Water market reform: final roadmap report, a report, along with an ACCC report, which was commissioned by the previous government but not acted upon. This will ensure that transparency, integrity and confidence are restored in our water markets. The bill before us removes restrictions on the recovery of water and the extension of time lines, including for water saving and efficiency projects. It also represents a significant investment in a nature-positive Australia—those precious wetlands, endangered species and waterbirds, all of which deserve our protection. It gives us more time, more options, more funding and, critically, more accountability. It's a plan that will get us back on track.
It could not be more important to my home state of South Australia that we get back on track. We know delivering the plan requires strong, decisive action. We need to deliver the plan in full because my state cannot afford to wait any longer. We cannot continue with the stalling and the capitulation anymore. We need to take action. Our government will take action. That requires listening to the science, not making it up on the run. That's what we will do. This is an existential question for my state of South Australia. We will get this back on track.
I stand to speak on the Water Amendment (Restoring Our Rivers) Bill 2023. As somebody who has lived on the Murray-Darling for just about all of my life, I know that, along the entire corridor of the Murray-Darling Basin, everyone wants a healthy river system. That includes the farmers who live in the communities who rely on the river and who grow our food—the food that we all enjoy at our restaurant or dinner tables every night in cities and towns around the whole of the country. Think of the export earnings that we make from the abundance of product that's grown in the Murray-Darling Basin, much of which is exported to places around the world. Think of the amazing tourism opportunities that our wonderful river provides for so many of our communities, for the enjoyment not only of our international visitors but of Australians the length and breadth of this country, who come to waterski on our river and to canoe and kayak up our creeks and backwaters. Tourism is a huge part of a healthy river system. The river is also important in our cities, when people turn on the tap and expect the water to flow. This all comes about because we have the Murray-Darling Basin, and every single one of those people should want a healthy river system.
I categorically state once again that I support the delivery of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan in full. If it takes some more time—which this bill seeks to achieve—then that's okay too. It's more important that we get the outcome without doing the damage. No state could be more impacted or aware of the impacts of the delivery of the Murray-Darling Basin than my home state of South Australia. I put on the record that, for 50 years, the South Australian consecutive governments of all persuasions have always been responsible with the way we have managed water policy within our state. We have never breached our caps. We were very early in adopting water-saving measures by investing in water efficiency measures before many other places around the basin even considered them. Water was being delivered in my home community of the Riverland under pressure pipes before anywhere else in the country.
But I cannot support this bill unamended, despite the fact that I absolutely am committed to the delivery of the plan in full. The reason I cannot support this bill unamended is because a very, very important component was built into this act that meant there needed to be no socioeconomic detriment delivered to river communities in the achievement of the outcomes. That was put in there for a very good reason, because the destruction of our river communities was something that could not be tolerated by any state or territory in the basin or by the Commonwealth when this plan was first put together. I can't support this bill unless we maintain the cap on buybacks and maintain that buybacks are only used as a mechanism of last resort. Buybacks are plain lazy policy. The minister says that the buybacks will only be voluntary. I can tell you: if you are a farmer who is under pressure from your bank, and they're breathing down your neck—because we know that many of the commodities that are currently being grown along the Murray-Darling Basin corridors are suffering the impacts of low commodity prices—you are not a willing seller. You're a seller who is being forced to sell because your bank is putting pressure on you. There are plenty of markets out there where you can buy and sell water at the moment. Do not be convinced when the minister says that people are voluntarily wanting to sell all of their water into the buyback schemes that she's putting forward. That is simply not true. A willing seller is not one with a bank breathing down their neck.
I also would argue that we need to audit the water that is already available for environmental use through the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder and what outcomes are currently being achieved, and to make sure we do not take any more water out of productive use unless we can actually demonstrate how that water is going to be used and how it's going to be moved through the system. What is being done in relation to constraints and the actual moving of water throughout the system? What about investing more time and effort into more innovative ways to make sure that we are securing the water that the environment needs, when it needs it, but not necessarily taking it out of productive use when it is not needed?
We know that not every year will the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder need the full amount of the water that it is seeking to achieve through this plan, so why don't we leave that water in the hands of our irrigators? Let the irrigators continue to own the entitlements to use that water to grow the food and fibre that Australia so heavily relies on, which has such a huge impact and delivers so much to the economic benefit of this country. Why don't we leave the water in the hands of those who are going to productively use it, until such time as it's needed for the environment? There are so many innovative proposals currently out there that this government could be looking at. But, instead, it's gone for the lazy, easy option of saying that buybacks will be the easiest way to go. If that's not the case—if the minister says buybacks aren't going to be the be-all and end-all in terms of the delivery of the targets in the plan—then let her leave the caps in place. More importantly, for communities like the one that I live in, can we please make sure that the no-socioeconomic-detriment test remains in place? I don't want to see my community destroyed as a result of an ideological policy position of this government that has not been properly thought through.
It's also clear that the government really doesn't care about what these communities think. It doesn't care about the impact on these communities of the changes being proposed by this bill we're debating here today. If they did care, they would've gone out to those communities and spoken to them when this bill was being debated and when it went to committee. But, no, we didn't go out to the communities; we did not go outside of Canberra. We had a hearing here, in Canberra. The government refused to move outside of Canberra, outside of their Canberra bubble, which is serving them so well at the moment, isn't it? They refused to do that. They refused to go out and face the people in these communities who will be most immediately impacted by this bill.
Make no mistake: it will not be just the people in rural and regional communities that will be impacted by this particular bill. Right now, you could not have picked a worse time to bring a bill into this place. In the middle of a cost-of-living crisis, this government intends to bring a bill in here that is likely to have an impact on the cost of food in this country. How out of touch can you possibly be with the people of Australia, to bring a bill in here with no regard whatsoever for the likelihood—almost the inevitability—that it will push up the price of food, particularly of fruit and vegetables, which are things that the Murray-Darling Basin grows in quite a level of abundance?
It's a pretty simple economic equation: less water means less production, and less production means higher prices. But it also means substitute products. So we will see the products that were previously being grown in a really efficient Murray-Darling Basin system, be replaced and substituted by products that are grown overseas. If we want to get the same amount of fresh fruit and vegetables onto our tables, if we're not growing them here, in Australia, we're going to have to bring them in from overseas. Many of the countries that we would seek to import our food from do not have the kinds of environmental standards that we have here in Australia. So we're going to offshore our production to places without the same level of environmental standards while, at the same time, pushing up the prices of Australia's clean, green, home-grown produce. I would say to the government, 'Have you actually thought about the impact of this on families when they turn up at the supermarket?' They're struggling currently to pay for their groceries because they're worried about paying their mortgage or their energy bill, and they're worried about what they pay when they go to the bowser. They're also having huge pressures put on them because we've seen an escalation in the price of food. But those opposite want to put policy into this place which makes that price go up even further.
They have also forgotten to actually speak to the people of Australia. We know that the sentiment has moved in relation to water buybacks, as was evidenced by an article in the Daily Telegraph and syndicated this morning. We know that 56 per cent of survey respondents actually thought investing in water efficiencies were a better idea than buybacks. Only 13 per cent of those people who were surveyed thought that buybacks were necessary. I would agree with the 87 per cent of people who don't think buybacks are necessary. There are other ways that we are able to achieve the water and to make sure we have an environment that is sustainable going into the future for the Murray-Darling Basin but, at the same time, not destroying the river communities that rely on it—river communities like the one I live in, in the Riverland in South Australia.
The other thing this bill does—and I'm not sure this bill does a lot that's particularly good, apart from allowing greater time frames—is that it ignores 12 years of bipartisanship. And it ignores the states and territories and the fact that, when this particular plan was put forward, it was a landmark decision. All the states and territories, and the Commonwealth, came together; 14 chambers of parliament voted unanimously for this plan, and that all gets thrown out by today. Every single council in the basin has said that they don't support this bill unless it is amended. It is really disappointing that we have to be standing here today, basically assuring mutually assured destruction to the delivery of a sustainable river system going forward by the actions of this government. A sustainable system is not a system that destroys the river communities that rely on it and the food they produce, which Australians enjoy eating every night.
But this is just another example of the Labor Party's absolutely contemptuous ignoring of rural and regional Australia. This is not the only thing this government is doing in terms of treating rural and regional Australia, as if we're somehow the poor cousins that can be sacrificed on the altar of their city seats. We saw it with the cuts to infrastructure—there was no regard for the fact that we have to get the produce out which makes our balance-of-payments figures so good—the thing, our resources sector, that is actually delivering the budget surplus that this government is claiming. But we won't worry about the infrastructure to support getting that to market! In my own portfolio of health and aged care, I can assure them that Australians' health outcomes and support in their older years is much worse the further they move away from metropolitan areas. It's the continued policy changes of this government that continue to make sure that Australians who live in rural, regional and remote Australia continue to have worse outcomes than those people that live in the city. It just goes to show the level of contempt that this government has for rural and regional Australia.
I'd say to anybody who is in this chamber and who has to vote: 'Have a really serious think about whether you want to be party to voting for a piece of legislation that's, firstly, going to have a much more significant impact on rural and regional Australia than anywhere else. Do you want to vote for a piece of legislation that's going to mean your grocery prices are going to be higher than they were last week? Do you want to vote for a piece of legislation that is going to mean that we will have to import our food from overseas, coming from countries that are less environmentally friendly and don't have the same clean, green standards that we do in Australia?' I think every Australian needs to understand what this particular bill does. It does nothing to deliver the environmental outcomes, because an environmental outcome can only be sustainable if the river communities that sit along our river system are there. That's because it is our farmers, irrigators and river communities that are the stewards of our river system.
You don't see too many people from Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Adelaide, Canberra and Perth out there looking after our river system. You see the people in the communities who actually live on the river caring for our system. So I would say: don't take the lazy option today of allowing buybacks to be one of the core sources of securing water going forward. Don't do that. Be smarter. Be cleverer. Be innovative. Let's be proud about the way we can achieve this. As I said, we all want a sustainable and healthy river system, none more so than me. I live on the river. I know what it means to have a sustainable river system but I don't want a river system that means that my community in the Riverland in South Australia would be entirely wiped out if we sought to buy back the remaining water that is required for the delivery of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan.
In final, to quote a former New South Wales Labor Minister, we do need a healthy working river. However, at this rate, we may end up with a healthy river but it won't be working anymore.
For South Australians, the Murray-Darling River is life. It is our water supply, and without the river so many South Australian citizens would be without a water supply. For three million Australians, drinking water comes from our Murray-Darling system. It is our food bowl. The river is also a centre of community life, up and down the valley. It feeds our towns. It sustains our communities. It is a source of culture for so many of us, especially for First Nations Australians. It is a place of recreation for so many citizens. And it is a place where so many plants and animals are threatened and where a healthy system is critical to the survival of plant and animal species.
I was born on the river in Berri in South Australia. My grandfather and grandmother were 'blockies'. My grandfather returned from World War I, like so many Australians, and took a block to grow food and make a future for the family. My mother grew up in Barmera, and we all knew holidays every year on the river Murray, a place of recreation, of community making. As kids, we loved the river. Like so many South Australians, we see it as a place of community, family, food, water and recreation. The communities from the river system—Mannum, Berri, Barmera, Waikerie, Loxton, Renmark, Swan Reach—are all dependent on a healthy river. The City of Adelaide is dependent for its water supply on a healthy river. We all need a system that works, an ecology that functions.
For over 15 years, vested interests have been permitted to dilute and derail the Basin Plan, with some particular corporate interest prioritised over the health of the river and the communities that depend on it. The river is now in a bad way—rising salinity, mass fish deaths, algal blooms and a deteriorating water quality. There are no jobs on a dead river and there are no communities on a dead river. The existing plan has failed. The 2019 targets have not been reached and there's been no credible pathway to restore the pitiful level of environmental flows promised under the compromised and corrupted Basin Plan. Over the course of a decade, less than 13 of the 450 gigalitres promised for the southern basin have been recovered. That is just over a gigalitre a year. Richard Beasley, the commissioner for the River Murray in South Australia, described the existing plan as 'an opportunity that has been squandered'. However, he still held some optimism for the future, and that is why the plan that comes to us today, amended by the Greens, is a vital and important step forward. With a very hot summer bearing down upon us, it's urgent we change course now to overhaul the plan and start putting water back into the system.
I recently met with the Murray-Darling Conservation Alliance. It's a group of national conservation groups across the basin area, and they highlighted four keys areas they see as critical to the repair of our Murray-Darling Basin: restore natural flows to ensure environmental flows that are key to survival and recovery of our wetlands; invest in regional communities to build security and prosperity through the floods and the droughts; buy back water from willing sellers and secure guaranteed flows to rejuvenate the river and its larger ecology; and deliver funding for First Nations Australians. The Murray-Darling Basin is First Nations country. More than 40 First Nations communities have lived and live in the basin and they call for the right to protect, to manage and to own water resources in order to heal country and to heal people. After decades of water reform, the time for token gestures has long passed.
Our country is dependent on a healthy river system across the Murray-Darling Basin. For decades we've been let down by poor deals and very bad governance of our river. Most recently we experienced an appalling decade of neglect by the Liberals and the National parties—a basin plan that was and is completely off track. Three million Australians depend on the river system for water and yet there is a failed plan. We need more water in the river system and we need a better plan that is properly governed.
The Greens have worked hard with the government to take action and to address this crisis. Today's announcement is a huge win for South Australians and a huge win for Australians. I acknowledge the work of my colleagues in working with the government to bring this plan to bear, especially my colleague Senator Sarah Hanson-Young, who has worked so hard for decades around the river to push for a better plan—a plan that works, a real plan, a plan that will make a difference, a plan that reflects the science and a plan that holds government accountable.
As Sarah said, a river dies from the mouth up. South Australia was promised 450 gigalitres of environmental flows—additional water—more than a decade ago, but the Liberal and National parties dropped the Basin Plan off a cliff. Today's plan rebuilds it. At last, by December 2027, South Australia will get its 450 gigalitres. Most importantly, we will have also increased accountability. We will have an independent audit on the water allocated through the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder. We've all watched the news, the shows, the Four Corners programs and the 7.30 reports that show our river system in crisis and that tell us the story of overallocation, the corruption and the greed that have led to fish kills, to blue-green algae blooms, to species decline and to low flows and the degradation of flood plains and wetlands. Fraud, rorting and lack of accountability have put this system at risk.
We know our Murray-Darling River system is in need of fundamental increases in water flows. A river is not a resource to be used up and be expended to its last drop. It is life. We need an environmentally sound plan for our river, for our drinking water, for our animals, for our wildlife and for our communities. The agreement and the amendments the Greens bring today include for the first time an acknowledgement in the plan of First Nations peoples' connection, history, heritage and water needs. There is real funding on the table for an Aboriginal Water Entitlements Program—$100 million—and a mandatory say for First Nations in environmental water management and decision-making.
I have camped on the river at the mouth in Coorong with Major 'Moogy' Sumner, one of the elders of Ngarrindjeri country. He took our Greens community to his country at the Coorong. We camped, and he told us the story of culture and heritage and reminded us of the power of this beautiful country. This is our heritage as a country and as a community. First Nations people, like Uncle 'Moogy' Sumner, on his father's Ngarrindjeri country, have great wisdom to share with us about the health of the river and the care for the plants, the animals, the country and the ecology of our river system. Scientists must also be listened to. We must take account of the impact of climate change on our river system, and the original Murray-Darling plan did not.
This bill is, with our Greens amendments, a critical lifeline—a guarantee in law of greater flows of water down the river, especially for South Australia. It's a breakthrough agreement. It's a landmark. It has the promise to rescue our river from the broken promises of the Liberal and National parties. We are long overdue for an independent audit. Our river has suffered from greed, from overextraction and from failing to take account of climate change.
Not so long ago I paddled out on the river near Renmark and saw the hard work of Riverland communities in recovering the ecologies of the river and its backwaters. We camped and kayaked around Renmark with my friends, who happen to be here with me in the chamber as I talk today. We shared the optimism of the possibility of regeneration of the wetlands and the backwaters of the river: the green shoots on ancient trees, the long-buried seeds of plants recovering in the river and those wetlands as they are well-managed back to health. So thanks, Natalie Fuller and Peter Gill, for that adventure, and for sharing that experience of what good management of our system can look like. People up and down the river care passionately for their river and the community.
I've been the guest of the Renmark Irrigation Trust, one of Australia's oldest irrigation trusts. In five years to June 2022, the trust has rehabilitated many sites—more than 12—putting water back into 120 hectares of land around Renmark. They are regenerating flood plains in partnership with councils, the state and federal governments and local landholders. This is a taste of what we need. We need the water coming down the river. We need the resources to support communities to make these changes, to advocate and deliver the water and the consequences for their communities as we recover from the long-term degradation due to past irrigation practices and the failure of good management and accountability up and down our river.
Locals along the river know we need water to address that degradation, to rehabilitate our river—not just in Renmark, but up and down the whole river system. This plan puts water back into the river. We need that additional water into the Darling/Barka and into the Murray, and we need real accountability to deliver integrity, transparency and truth about the state of our river and the plans we need to rebuild it into the future. This set of amendments and this bill respond to the science, and they promise a more accountable delivery.
This bill offers a better future for South Australians, more reliable water supply and a real improvement in the prospects of generations to come. I especially congratulate Senator Hanson-Young, working with the government, for this effort. The bill is a breakthrough; it promises a way forward. It will make a difference for the kids who come after us, for the food producers, for the communities, for the First Nations people who make their way and live with independence on the river system as millions of Australians do. We need a healthy, sustainable river system, and so many people tell us this.
I'll end with a couple of quotes from South Australians. Glynn lives in South Australia and says:
As a South Australian I have witnessed the result of being 'at the end of the line' as the river struggles to run its course out to sea. I am also aware of how important the river is to all South Australians, including our flora and fauna, as a water supply. It is our lifeblood.
Jacqui, also from South Australia—she grew up in Renmark—says:
I grew up in Renmark and now as an elderly woman I live in Goolwa. i came to live here in the early 2000s at a time of drought and was devastated to see the river so low. the destruction of wildlife and the degradation of the environment that our Nganrrindjeri inhabitants did so much to protect—
over thousands of years.
We must protect our rivers—they are truly our lifeline.
This bill, as it's amended, offers a real opportunity to strengthen that lifeline and to create a better future for our communities up and down the river, for the kids to come and for our animals and plants into the future.
The Murray-Darling is a vital part of Australia's environment and water supply. The river system supports the heartland of Australia's agriculture, provides three million people with their drinking water and sustains over one million square kilometres of Australia's inland environment. The objective of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan is to restore and manage our waters, to protect the basin for future generations. Today's proposed legislation, the Water Amendment (Restoring Our Rivers) Bill 2023, is facilitated by the implementation of this plan and I'm happy to support its passage in this chamber.
The Murray River flows through my ancestral lands, through Swan Hill, the land of the Wamba Wamba people. The Murray-Darling Basin, which covers a vast area across this continent, has been home to First Nations people for over 65,000 years. For my people, the First Peoples of this country, the Murray River and other waterways were an essential life force, and they continue to play that part today in all our lives. We, the First Peoples of this country, were the first to navigate this waterway. We were the first to satisfy our thirst by drinking from these waters. We were the first to catch its fish and the first to use these waters to harvest our food. We've known these waterways for tens of thousands of years, and tens of thousands of years of our memories flow through these mighty waterways.
We don't need the Bureau of Meteorology to tell us that on this land, on this great continent of ours, drought has always been a part of its condition. The millennium drought reminded us of this reality. In response, we saw the Murray-Darling Basin Plan emerge. The idea behind the Murray-Darling Basin Plan is simple. It helps our rivers and those who depend on it to get through the drought years, when rivers are at their lowest, with water still flowing through them. This plan was developed together with the basin states and territory governments, in recognition of the fact that we have to plan to ensure the sustainability of the basin. That is why, in 2012, over a decade ago now, Labor signed off on the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. This is what responsible governments do. We plan for the tough times.
But our nation didn't haven't a responsible government over the last decade. Barnaby Joyce was the Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources when he bought water licences from Eastern Australia Agriculture for $80 million. Eastern Australia Agriculture made a whopping $52 million profit on the deal. We know who really profited from the deal. We know which member of the Liberal Party had ties to Eastern Australian Agriculture, don't we? Those opposite know who I'm talking about. I say to Angus: 'Fantastic. Great move. Well done, Angus.'
I'm happy to withdraw that. The truth is that a decade of the coalition in government, in power, has desecrated this plan. The Murray-Darling Basin Plan recommended we restore 450 gigalitres of water to the rivers. Over the last decade, the coalition restored two gigalitres. Two gigalitres in just over nine years! At their pace, the plan would have been delivered sometime around the year 4000. Since we were elected in May last year, just 18 months ago, this Labor government has restored 26 gigalitres of water to our rivers.
The gross negligence and mismanagement of our water under the previous government has led to catastrophic environmental consequences for the flora and fauna in this region. Three years ago the drought brought the Darling River and those who depend on it to their knees, when the Darling River stopped flowing for more than 400 days. That is not how you care for country. Desperate for water, farming communities suffered and the native fish suffered an indelible loss of life by the millions. That is not how you care for farming communities and is not how you care for our native wildlife. The Murray-Darling Basin Plan should have been completed by 2024, and it would have been completed by 2024 if not for the reckless sabotage of this plan by the coalition. The Murray-Darling Basin Authority has advised the government that the delivery of this plan by the original deadline of June 2024 is no longer tenable. This is the cost of the negligence of the coalition.
Before the federal election in 2022, Labor promised that we would deliver the Murray-Darling Basin Plan in full, as it was designed and in line with science. Our Water for Australia plan outlined our approach to futureproofing Australia's water resources. It includes a five-point plan to safeguard the Murray-Darling Basin: first, to deliver the water recovery targets in the Basin Plan, including the 450 gigalitres of water for enhanced environmental outcomes; second, to increase compliance and improve metering and monitoring; third, to restore transparency, integrity and confidence in water markets and water management; fourth, to increase First Nations ownership and involvement in decision-making to facilitate access to cultural, spiritual, environmental and economic benefits; and, finally, to update the science underpinning the Basin Plan.
This bill is integral to achieving what we said we would do: recover 450 gigalitres of water to support better environmental outcomes. This bill is a product of extensive consultation. Over the last 18 months, this government has held almost 700 consultation activities, including forums and webinars. We've worked with states, territories and councils, farmers, irrigators, scientists and experts, environmentalists and First Nations communities. This bill comes after a historic agreement reached by the Commonwealth and basin states earlier in the year to ensure that the Basin Plan was delivered in full. We secured more time to deliver the remaining water based on expert advice. This means more time to recover 450 gigalitres of water for the environment, with a new deadline of 31 December 2027, and more time to deliver water infrastructure projects, with a new deadline of 31 December 2026. We secured more options to deliver the remaining water, including water-efficient infrastructure projects and voluntary water purchases. We secured more funding to deliver the remaining water and to support communities where voluntary water purchasing has flow-on impacts. This includes a Commonwealth support package to minimise any negative social and economic impacts associated with delivering the environmental outcomes intended to be delivered by the Basin Plan. Finally, we secured more accountability for all Murray-Darling Basin governments, including helping them to deliver on their obligations.
We have discussed these matters in good faith and at considerable length. Now is the time to act. We continue to achieve progress on the plan by supporting efficiency measures, which include projects to upgrade irrigation systems, line water delivery channels or install water meters. We are also supporting productivity improvements in manufacturing or irrigated agriculture and changes to urban water management practices to reduce water use. The first major change under this proposed legislation is in relation to the Water for the Environment Special Account, or WESA. WESA was set up by the government as a funding mechanism for these efficiency measures. This account was set up to provide funding to acquire the additional 450 gigalitres of water and remove physical constraints. There is over $1.3 billion left unspent in this account, which can help us reach this critical target. But the restrictions imposed on the account under the current legislation introduced by those opposite inhibit us in achieving that outcome. The proposed amendments will broaden the range of water recovery options to restore our rivers.
The second major change in this legislation is to the sustainable diversion limit adjustment mechanism. These projects are designed to achieve environmental outcomes while keeping water in productive use. Currently, 16 of these 36 projects are not forecast to be ready or operational by July next year. Of the 605 gigalitres that these projects are meant to keep in productive use, more than half may not be realised. It's clear that some of the original projects will never be delivered. If we're going to achieve the plan in full, we need to give the states more time to deliver viable projects. This is a very reasonable ask from the states. This bill gives them this extension.
The third part of this bill involves substantial and long-overdue reform to Australia's water market. Water markets are an important part of our agricultural system, but, as things currently stand, they lack integrity and transparency. Two years ago, the ACCC examined this market in some depth and found that its rules were inadequate and needed to be reformed. In particular, they found that there was a lack of quality, timely and accessible information for those participating in water markets. They found that there were a limited number of rules for market participants and no body to oversee their activities, which undermined confidence in fair and efficient markets. The ACCC also found that the complexity of the markets meant that opportunities were best understood and leveraged largely by professional traders and large agribusinesses with the time and knowledge to analyse and navigate them. Finally, all their research highlighted a lack of trust about whether key institutions were fair or working to benefit water users.
The bill amends the Water Act, Basin Plan and Competition and Consumer Act 2010 to implement recommendations made by the ACCC. The bill introduces a framework to create an enforceable, mandatory code for water market intermediaries. It provides the ACCC with increased information-gathering powers to facilitate transparency. It introduces civil penalties for market manipulation and doubles the penalty for insider trading. It will allow the ACCC, as the code and conduct regulator, to monitor water prices and investigate misconduct allegations. The bill acknowledges First Nations peoples' connection, history and water needs, and provides an additional $100 million in funding for the Aboriginal Water Entitlement Program. It also introduces mandatory reporting to demonstrate how environmental water holders have considered First Nations values and uses, and how they have involved First Nations peoples in environmental water decisions. These proposed amendments offer us a path forward from a decade of sabotage and negligence towards the delivery of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, and to this end I commend this bill to the Senate.
The coalition deplores the Water Amendment (Restoring Our Rivers) Bill 2023 because parts of it are a real kick in the guts for regional Australia and, in particular, for south-west Queensland. Though the coalition supports extending the deadlines for the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, the coalition cannot support the removal of the social and economic neutrality test on recovering water for environmental purposes because to do that hurts my communities in Queensland, particularly in south-west Queensland.
The Murray-Darling Basin Plan is an incredibly sophisticated part of our water policy in Australia. It covers Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia, and the Murray-Darling Basin Plan is a core aspect of our national framework for water policy. This is because, currently, the water in the Murray-Darling Basin is used to support the 2.6 million people that live across the network of rivers. The basin provides irrigation for much of our agriculture, supporting over 7,000 irrigated agricultural businesses that produce $24 billion worth of food and fibre each year, including all our nation's rice and 96 per cent of our country's cotton. The towns in south-west Queensland are heavily reliant on the Murray-Darling Basin for crop production, especially across St George and Goondiwindi. The Paroo, Warrego, Condamine, Balonne, Moonie and the broader border rivers support almost all of the agriculture production across southern and south-west Queensland. So what aspects of this bill say to those people—the constituents of mine and of Senator Scarr—is that they aren't important. They are second-rate. They are second-class Australians according to this bill.
With years of bipartisan support, the coalition and the Labor Party have worked together to ensure that water is allocated for environment purposes only if it has a positive or a neutral social and economic impact on the welfare of relevant regional and rural communities. This Labor government want to change that. This bill removes the provision for water being extracted for environmental purposes to have a positive social and economic impact on the relevant communities. What this bill does, these piles of printed paper, is kick those communities and punch those communities. It scratches and slaps them and pushes them down. This is the modern Labor Party, who do not care about Australians who live west of the Great Dividing Range. This is the modern Labor Party, who are more concerned about doing preference deals with the Greens to ensure they survive and stay in power. If this bill is about supporting rural, regional and remote Australia, as those on the Left have so arrogantly claimed, then why remove the provision that requires it to support rural, regional and remote Australia? This is deplorable. This is a joke. This is a kick in the guts. The removal of this provision is not only a backflip on Labor policy; it panders to their new woke base and ignores the pleas of farmers and irrigators, who want to ensure that you have food on your table at night.
We are in the middle of a cost-of-living crisis, but this government is so out of touch that this bill, through their policies that underpin this bill, will increase the cost of food and vegetables by removing water from farmers, who, in some areas, are in the middle of a drought or in the middle of a long dry. It also removes support from those who live in these communities. I wonder why they want to do that. Why do they want to hurt Australians? Why do they want to hurt Australians who live west of the Great Dividing Range? It comes down to where the modern Labor Party are at in terms of their policy platform. They know that the only way they can ever win elections is by doing preference deals with the Greens. This is the modern Labor Party.
The Labor Party have shifted so far to the Left that they are leaving behind generations of Australians and leaving behind large swathes of Australia. That is a shame because it is important in Australia's democracy that there is a broad Centre Left party and a broad Centre Right party. But what we see with the Labor Party now is just a left-wing party that thinks food comes from a supermarket. The Labor Party think that farmers are something that they read about in history books. The Labor Party think that modern Australia does not need rural, regional and remote Australia. This is the fundamental difference between our two sides of politics. On the Centre Right, on the Right side of politics, we believe that all Australians, regardless of where they live, whether they live in a place called St George, which I guarantee probably no Labor senators have ever been to—
It is a beautiful place. It is a beautiful part of Queensland. It has a very good mayor and a very good council. Whether people live in St George or whether they live in Brisbane, Sydney or Melbourne, you should have the same access to Australia—by that, I mean the same access to the modern brilliance that is Australia. But under Labor they say that if you live in the bush you are a second-class citizen and you are a second-rate citizen. If you don't believe me on this, just look at what this bill is going to do to the people who live in south-west Queensland, the people who live in St George and the broader south-west community. This bill is a kick in the guts, and that's why we should oppose it.
As a servant to the many different people who make up our one Queensland community, the Murray-Darling Basin is an important topic for One Nation because the Murray-Darling Basin starts in Queensland. Just because the water ends up in South Australia does not mean it's South Australian water. Queensland has a say in this as well, and I will continue to stand up for Queensland farmers, regions and communities.
During the last Senate session, I spoke about this Labor government's decision to withdraw funding from the Emu Swamp Dam near Stanthorpe in Queensland's Southern Downs. This area is in the Murray-Darling Basin and is one of the areas that ran dry in the last drought, requiring water to be trucked in for weeks using a convoy of water tankers. The Emu Swamp Dam was a proposal for a modest dam to retain 22 gigalitres of water for local residents. When I asked Minister Watt about the suffering and economic damage that decision would cause, the minister led the Senate on a merry dance that social media has rightly smashed and ridiculed.
Minister Watt avoided admitting that, yes, the Albanese government cancelled the Emu Swamp Dam and, yes, the Albanese government came back a year later and cancelled all the infrastructure upgrades in the region just to make sure the dam was never built. Such is the ideology behind the Water Amendment (Restoring Our Rivers) Bill 2023. Minister Watt, a Queensland senator, was happy to tell the residents of the Southern Downs that, in the next drought, they will have to truck their water in again—and in the next and the next and the next. Wow! What arrogance from Canberra bureaucrats and city politicians like Minister Watt! What arrogance from environmentalists who would see Australia destroyed as long as they get their way and as though humans don't matter!
These same urban elites go to Coles and buy their Australian almond milk for their half-strength lattes—organic, of course—buy Australian bread, buy Australian meat and buy Australian vegetables. Where do these Green and Teal fools think these products come from? From the Southern Downs and from farmers across Queensland right through to the Murray-Darling Basin—the very farmers this legislation is smashing, gutting. Among all of the technical, I speak in favour of humans and people.
Before you say it's not happening, let me share with the Senate a Hansard record of question time in the Victorian parliament from just two weeks ago. One Nation member for Northern Victoria, Rikkie-Lee Tyrrell, asked the Victorian water minister what her government's position on water buybacks was. Here's part of Labor Minister Shing's excellent, heartfelt response:
At the moment, we are in a process of discussion and debate at a federal level about the future of the Murray-Darling Basin plan.
Oh, really? I thought it was settled. Apparently that was government misinformation as well. Her remarks continued:
In 2018 all jurisdictions party to the Murray-Darling Basin plan signed up to what is known as the socio-economic criteria, meaning that water could not be returned if it did harm to communities—that is, that any return would need to satisfy a test of positive or neutral socio-economic outcomes for communities.
Victoria remains committed to achieving the outcomes and the objectives of our share of returning environmental water to the plan in the terms that we agreed. Victoria opposes buybacks.
Her words. Victoria:
… oppose buybacks for a range of reasons and based on modelling … showing that irrigated production job losses of over 40 per cent were observed in Victorian communities due to water recovery for the environment, including in Cobram, 40 per cent of job losses; Kerang, 43 per cent of job losses; Cohuna, 43 per cent of job losses; Kyabram, 42 per cent of job losses; Tatura, 42 per cent of job losses; Rochester, 42 per cent of job losses; Pyramid Hill, 66 per cent of job losses; Boort, 66 per cent of job losses; Shepparton, 61 per cent of job losses; Swan Hill, 53 per cent of job losses; Red Cliffs, 76 per cent of job losses; and Merbein, 50 per cent of job losses.
The Victorian government has this information because they funded Frontier Economics to conduct a study on the effect of water acquisition on rural communities. Queensland Premier Palaszczuk has not done the same thing. Under Premier Palaszczuk, if you don't live in a Labor electorate in the urban south-east, you don't exist. For the Queensland Labor Party, Queensland ends in Toowoomba and Noosa. Good on Victoria for defending their rural communities; shame on Premier Palaszczuk for selling out regional Queenslanders.
Forty per cent job losses is a common figure I hear when I travel to Queensland basin towns like St George, Dirranbandi and Charleville. This is not a matter of those people walking away and having to make a new start somewhere else—if they can find accommodation and a job, of course. Rural communities have a critical mass, the point below which the whole town ceases to be viable. The doctor leaves, the bank closes, the school closes, small businesses close and, suddenly, the town becomes unlivable. Many towns in Queensland and across the basin are facing that point now. Another 760 gigalitres of buybacks will kill them off. The shocking truth is this: wiping out towns and agriculture across the basin is an intended consequence of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan.
When I was first elected to the Senate and travelled down the Darling and Murray system, I spoke with a representative of the Murray-Darling Basin in the river lands. His words have stuck with me: 'The Murray-Darling Basin agenda is based on the principle that many towns along the river are in the wrong place. Those towns would not be built today because of their reliance on irrigation and have to go.' They have to go? That's the real agenda here. That's why this bill allows the minister to buy water from anywhere in the basin, not just within a valley. As Minister Shing, the Victorian Labor Minister for Water, rightly pointed out, 'This act removes the socioeconomic test.'
Now, finally, Minister Plibersek's intentions are out in the open. Entire agricultural areas are on the minister's hit list, areas that 'shouldn't be there'. When environmentalists and city politicians like Minister Plibersek hold this bill high, declaring, 'Let the rivers run,' what they really mean is death to family farms and death to the towns they support. At least be honest about it. What effect will this cruel policy, delivered to satisfy ignorant leftist city dwellers, have on our beautiful country? The Murray-Darling Basin accounts for $22 billion in food and fibre production needed to feed and clothe the world. Hell, it's needed to feed the two million people this Labor government let into Australia in the last 12 months. We have 2.2 million new mouths to feed and the government's response is to reduce the water available to grow food. There are five million tourist visa holders that have to be fed. No wonder our beautiful country is in trouble. We have a government that can't put two and two together.
I've travelled the basin, listening to people across the whole basin—from the northern basin, including Charleville, Dirranbandi, St George and Stanthorpe in Queensland; from Albury and Tenterfield in the east of New South Wales; from Broken Hill in the west of New South Wales; from Cobram in regional Victoria; through Menindee, Mildura and Renmark; all the way to Goolwa and the Murray mouth in South Australia. I've listened with farmers, irrigators, researchers and environmentalists. I've consulted with Aboriginal people, for whom the water in the river is their life, the centre of their culture and the centre of their health and happiness. Drought harms Aboriginal people and much damage was done even as the plan was nearing completion. And damage continues to be done.
To illustrate this, I saw an ABC video made in October this year that talked to Aboriginal Australians along the river. When buybacks were happening in 2012, they were promised some of the water would be returned to their river in improved flows. Two thousand eight hundred gigalitres of acquisition later and those improved flows for Aboriginal water have never happened. What we've seen is a pattern of water flow that's harming the connected system. One reason is water trading. I'm not talking about productive water trading to keep family farms going; rather, we see foreign owned corporations exploiting water trading to keep their massive monoculture plantings alive. Hundreds of thousands of hectares of permanent planting—almonds, citrus and grapes—are pulling water from places like southern Queensland down below the border to western Victoria and to South Australia. Those water allocations are being sent down in floods to increase the amounts that arrives. Aboriginal communities are left without the regular environmental flows that are so much a part of a river tribe's life—that's their word: 'life'. As one elder said, 'We were used to justify buybacks and now we have been forgotten.' It sounds like the Voice. They were used to try and get it through, and now they are forgotten.
The other major culprit is environmental watering. That watering is being sent down in floods, which, once again, contribute to flooding along the river and do enormous environmental damage. In years past, the flooding that happened in the spring and early summer and during tropical storms in the Queensland basin went down the river as a flood, watering the associated forests. The difference today is that those short periods of natural flooding were between natural long periods with low river flow. That natural cycle allowed the banks to dry and harden to withstand the next flood. What used to happen was the water in the dams was released across the year for mostly local use. If it was not used, it was carried over. Most areas in the basin still have carryover water. Now we have huge amounts of water being sent south to keep massive permanent plantings watered and huge amounts being sent down to water native forests that don't need it, and the river is stuffed with severe, catastrophic riverbank erosion and forest drowning—and forests dying. That's the problem this government should be addressing. Instead, Minister Plibersek and her electorate full of city lefties were declaring, 'Let the river run!' The minister is killing the natural environment in the name of saving it, ignoring the harm that's being done—and being done in the name of the Basin Plan.
There's nothing in this bill that addresses the fundamental flaw in the plan. The mismanagement of river flow is based across the basin largely on unmeasured guesses of water flow—not on data, not on measurements. It does not matter if you're mismanaging 2,800 gigalitres or 3,200 gigalitres, the outcome will be the same: death to farming, death to our precious natural environment, death to the regions, death to Aboriginal culture and Aboriginal society.
Where are the targets for minimum and maximum heights of riverbanks to protect and repair the environment? Not here. Where's the plan to repair hundreds of kilometres of erosion down the Goulburn, Murray and Edward rivers? The Murray-Darling Basin Plan destroyed those rivers, and nothing in this bill will fix them. This bill will continue the environmental catastrophe. I see limits to diversion for irrigation, yet I don't see limits for diversion for environment watering—meaning how much water is to be taken out for the drowning and killing of forests as opposed to how much water is to be kept in the river for desalination, fish health and so on. Where are the hard limits? Rivers suffer when water is taken out. It makes no difference if the water is being extracted for irrigation or to drown forests. Where are the water quality limits to control blackwater, which is caused through the overwatering of wetlands, like the Barmah-Millewa Forest, under orders from the Commonwealth? Not here. Where's the ratio of water over the barrages as against basin inflows, which would ensure the rivers actually flow? Not here. Where are the explicit statements of minimum flows for Aboriginal water in each river? Not here. Real plans are based on measurements and data. Without measurement of river and creek flows across the Murray-Darling Basin, there is no plan, just political patronage, corruption and control.
Where's the solution to this salination in the lower lagoon of the Coorong? It's time to talk about the subject that shall not be spoken: the basin inflow from the south-east of South Australia, which is water supposedly from outside the basin that flows into the basin to refresh the water in the Coorong and Lower Lakes, inflow that before Western settlement delivered hundreds of gigalitres of water a year and flushed the Coorong and Lower Lakes to maintain a healthy environment. Years of draining the south-east to create a productive farming area have sent the flow directly out to sea, bypassing the basin instead of into the basin, where, by the way, it's damaging the saltwater environment of the sea and the seagrass beds that stabilise the coastline.
One Nation supports the farming community in the south-east of South Australia and seeks to protect vital agriculture in the area. The initial round of redirecting the drains back into the basin was completed, and basin inflow has been partly restored. The South Australia government now counts this flow is basin SDL recovery, after many years of my campaigning for that very outcome. Thank you. The south-east flow restoration project takes water from some of the drains and redirects the water into Tilley Swamp and then along natural watercourses through Salt Creek into the lower Coorong. Being a swamp, the water soaks in and forms part of the unconstrained aquifer that flows into the Coorong and Lower Lakes at a depth of as little as one metre.
The aquifer flow is not measured, yet it should be. The improvement in water quality in these waterways suggests more water is arriving that the 25 gigalitres that has been credited—much more. I foreshadow my second reading amendment calling on the Murray-Darling Basin Authority to measure all inflow into the basin from the south-east, both surface and aquifer flow. This surely must be a prudent exercise before embarking on costly water buybacks that will have a catastrophic effect on the basin just to meet arbitrary water acquisition targets—and those are the points that I don't have time to go into.
This plan is already highly complicated, and this bill makes it more complicated. It involves micromanaging with slogans. It involves taking taxpayer money to defeat productivity on farms and to raise food prices. Taxpayer money is being stolen to raise food prices. New South Wales farmers are moving to the Flinders River in North Queensland, and we now see the Labor-Greens-Pocock-teal coalition in full flight, destroying our country. The Water Amendment (Restoring Our Rivers) Bill 2023 isn't a plan to improve the health of our rivers and lakes; it's an open declaration of war on farming and rural communities, ideology driving a political and social war to the exclusion of decency and common sense. Making farming harder will reduce the supply of fresh fruit and drive up prices at a time when inflation is already out of hand. The Albanese government does not need another policy failure to add to its collection. I urge the government: don't do this! For the sake of every Australian who eats food, we oppose this bill accelerating the death knell of economic food production and food security. In opposing this bill, One Nation protects the natural environment, protects food security, protects economic activity and protects regional communities.
I rise to speak on the Water Amendment (Restoring Our Rivers) Bill 2023. First of all, I want to commend the work of my colleague Senator Hanson-Young and her ongoing commitment to saving the Murray-Darling rivers and to critical environmental outcomes in my home state of New South Wales. I also commend her for the courage which she has shown for her home state of South Australia; core to that is saving the beautiful Murray-Darling river system.
The agreement that has been reached today takes us a significant step towards that goal of saving the Murray-Darling river system. It does not take us to our final destination of ensuring the protection of the river, but I've got to say that it is perhaps one of the most significant steps forward for the river that we've seen in decades. The angry opposition we're hearing from some elements in this chamber, and the angry opposition we've heard to any kind of priority for environmental flows for the river, is at odds with the interests of our environment; at odds with the interests of First Nations peoples, and their clear need for cultural flows; and at odds with the interests of our farming communities, who absolutely need thriving healthy rivers to produce the food and fibre that we desperately need. And, ultimately, it's at odds with the interests of this gorgeous, extraordinary and unique place that we live in, and the animals and the plants who share it with us. That's because water is life, and millions of Australians rely on the Murray-Darling Basin for drinking water, jobs and recreation, and for that gorgeous ribbon of life and biodiversity that winds its way through our states and through this beautiful country that we share it with. There are no jobs on a dead river, there's no agriculture on a dead river and, obviously, there's no life on a dead river, and that's what we have to avoid.
The Murray-Darling Basin Plan was originally intended to be an overall plan for the catchment. It was intended to stop the warring and water theft, and it was intended to deliver real and measurable environmental flows, along with guarantees for adequate, predictable and sustainable amounts of water for agriculture. But despite more than a decade, only 26 gigalitres have been recovered up till now under the plan—26 gigalitres, when the goal, roughly, for this time next year was 450 gigalitres. I don't know how we could describe it as anything but a lost decade, or perhaps the decade spent dealing with rorts and ugly, grubby politics from a former coalition government that seemed hell-bent on destroying the Murray-Darling Basin Plan rather than delivering for it. It was a government that seemed comfortable with letting the river die at the hands of some pretty greedy vested interests who were playing politics with perhaps one of the most critical environmental assets on our continent.
We need water to keep flowing in the Murray-Darling—we need it urgently. And we need more water, not less. If we let the irrigators and the big corporate agricultural interests play, they would suck every last drop out of the river. We would see continuing summers of fish kills, blue-green algae blooms and dead rivers. Those things might deliver short-term corporate profits for a few big agricultural corporate interests, but that's when family farms die. That's when communities walk off the land. That's when First Nations connections with rivers die, and that's when the rivers die. That is what we have been fighting for—a critical lifeline for the Murray-Darling Basin in the face of the existing impacts of climate change and the further impacts of climate change that we know are already plugged into the system. That's why we need to pass this legislation, rapidly, this week.
I and the Greens don't pretend that this bill delivers everything that we need, but it will deliver real environmental water flows across the basin, it will close a series of loopholes in the plan and it will lead to significantly increased transparency and accountability, as well as wins for First Nations communities. What have we managed to agree to? The agreement includes a guarantee in law that the environment will finally receive the 450 gigalitres of water needed to protect our precious river system—no more media releases, no more lost words, but a legal guarantee that that minimum of 450 gigalitres will be brought back and put into the environmental flows. That's a win for my home state of New South Wales, it's a win for South Australia and, critically, it's a win for the Menindee Lakes in my home state.
The Menindee Lakes have been a political football in New South Wales. The former coalition government was willing to literally kill the lakes for the interests of irrigators, with a deeply flawed plan that the local farming community opposed, the local community in and around Menindee opposed, the Barka people opposed, First Nations people opposed—everybody opposed, except for a small handful of corporate irrigators. Yet the former Commonwealth coalition government in this place and the former state coalition government joined together to deliver for the interests of a handful of multinational irrigators, over the interests of pretty much everybody else, including the environment and the lakes themselves. Well, with this agreement, that Menindee Lakes plan is dead, and not before time. This is a chance to actually save the Menindee Lakes—a spectacular part of our continent, full of environmental diversity.
There's also an independent audit of water in the basin. The purpose of that is to stop the rorts that we know are already plugged into the system, to put some integrity in the system and to restore trust, because we absolutely need to restore trust after the last lost decade. It will also give the Commonwealth essential power to withdraw state government infrastructure projects. That, of course, is one of the key elements which mean that we can stop the Menindee Lakes project. Without this legislative capacity, we may well find that the Commonwealth government is forced to continue with that disastrous Menindee Lakes project. This will end it. I understand we have a political commitment from the minister to end the funding of the Menindee Lakes project.
Of course, a long overdue amendment is to include in the objects of the act acknowledgement of First Nations peoples' connection to water, their rights, their interests and their values. Of course that should have been in the act when it was originally passed, but now, finally, we'll put it in the act. With that will come a significant amount of money to make it a reality—$100 million for First Nations water and Aboriginal water entitlements programs. Those two things together mean that, finally, this parliament is listening in part to First Nations elders.
I give credit to the Dharriwaa Elders Group up in Walgett. For me, they have been a compass point in this discussion and debate. The Dharriwaa Elders Group up in Walgett live on the river. They know how essential to culture connection to the river is. They have said, at each point, that it needs to be dealt with as a catchment and that First Nations peoples need to be at the table, to talk about the health of the river, to talk about the flows of the river and to explain the connection between land and culture, country and river, because the Dharriwaa elders will tell you that they've been talking about the river for 20,000, 30,000 or 40,000 years, and they might know a thing or two about it.
When they said that the original draft of this bill didn't do enough to save their river, didn't respond to the needs for culture and didn't acknowledge their wealth of knowledge, they were right. These amendments put in those critical things in the objects of the act and then put the funding next to it. I think that shows in part that the Dharriwaa Elders Group and other First Nations groups that have engaged with us on this are being listened to, finally. I think that is a significant win. It's not just the Dharriwaa elders. An article in the National Tribune states:
Polly Cutmore, a Gamilaraay/Wirri/Anaiwan traditional owner has said:
We need to recognise the rights of the river as a source of life in our country and those rights need to be respected. Our culture would not exist without it but us murris have become alienated from the decisions that are made about how it is looked after.
What we know about our country and the changes that the colonisers have brought, tells us that drier times are coming and now it is so important to listen to what Mother Earth and our Ancestors are telling us. We need to restore the flows that give life to the river and support our culture.
How true—no river, no life. That's what they've been telling us.
My first personal experience of just how appallingly we treat our river systems was when I was 14 or 15. I was camping in north-west New South Wales on a tributary of the Paroo, I think it was. I had gone off on a little motorbike to sit on the side of this lagoon, off the edge of the river. It was extraordinary, with all this bird life, monitor lizards running around. I was extracting carp out of the river and feeding the monitors with them. As I was doing that, as I was sitting on the banks of the river in this extraordinary place, I remember over the course of an hour and a half, the river went down by about 1½ metres, almost two metres. I didn't know what had happened. I was 14 or 15. I had never had an experience like this before. I was sitting on the side of this extraordinary little lagoon off the river and it disappeared under my feet. I jumped back on my motorbike and went back into camp, which was near one of the homesteads. I remember saying, 'What on earth happened?' They said, 'Go and check it out at the homestead.' I went and saw a bloke called 'Buck' at the homestead and said, 'What has happened to the river?' He said, 'Oh, mate, they have turned the cotton pumps on. It happens like that. They suck the river dry.' I genuinely couldn't believe it. I couldn't believe what was happening to the river.
Since then the extractions have got bigger, that industry has grown at the expense river, and never have I thought more desperately that this parliament needs to act to protect that beautiful lifeline. As the NCC said in New South Wales, 'This is a win for the Murray-Darling.' Jacqui Mumford, the CEO of the Nature Conservation Council of New South Wales said:
We commend the Federal Government for wanting to cancel the Menindee project, which was never going to work. Now we need to see how they intend to return real water to the rivers, in particular the Darling-Baaka in the leadup to the next drought.
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We've seen time and time again that the devil is in the details. We are still waiting to understand how the government is planning to ensure the Darling-Baaka is protected.
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Communities along the Darling-Baaka have borne the brunt of decades of water mismanagement, and have done an amazing job of advocating for the rivers.
I commend every word coming from Jacqui Mumford and the NCC.
This has been a hard negotiation. We've heard a lot of lies from a couple of big corporate vested interests in the farming community willing to sell out their rivers, towns, sell out the mum-and-dad farmers, sell out First Nations people for a short-term profit and, thankfully, they're being stared down and we're now going to have a bill that the Greens can vote for. I do want to credit the hard work, the consistency, the belief in the river and the belief we can do something good that's been shown by Senator Hanson-Young in this. I commend her for her work, and let's get this legislated.
I also rise to speak to the Water Amendment (Restoring Our Rivers) Bill 2023. I first want to start by acknowledging, as Senator Shoebridge just did, the amazing contribution of my colleague, Senator Hanson-Young, who sits in front of me, and associate myself not only with her comments but also with my colleague, Senator Shoebridge.
The fact is that millions of people rely on the Murray-Darling. Without water flowing through these rivers that make up a huge river system—the largest and most complex in the country, in fact—ecosystems will die, jobs will be lost and entire communities will suffer. The Murray-Darling spans five separate jurisdictions in this country: South Australia, Victoria, New South Wales, the ACT and Queensland. It covers an area of one million square kilometres. That's the size of Spain and France combined, so you can just imagine how enormous that is. It is home to six internationally significant wetlands, 35 endangered species and over 120 species of waterbird. This is all at risk because of poor management and overextraction. We need more water flowing through the Murray, not less. Otherwise, we will see more mass fish kills, blue-green algal blooms and degradation of flood plains and delicate wetland systems.
We over here in the Greens will not sit back and just allow this to happen. It's happened on the watch of this government and previous governments that have been administering the Basin Plan, and this is why our colleagues—particularly Senator Hanson-Young—have worked to improve this bill. The win that the Greens have secured will guarantee those environmental flows across the basin, close the loopholes in the plan to increase transparency and accountability and deliver money for First Nations communities in the basin, as well as acknowledging the important connection. While I was in my office, I listened to Senator Roberts talk about First Nations people's connection, but it's also their rights, interests and values that are connected, not just to the river systems but also to the basin.
Just last sitting, I stood in this place and talked about the importance of water to First Nations people. This was when we were debating the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Expanding the Water Trigger) Bill 2023, Senator Hanson-Young's private senator's bill. I spoke about how water was life for First Nations people. It is an intrinsic part of our culture and the vitality and resilience of my people. I spoke about how native title very intentionally excluded our water rights, and I spoke about how it's our birthright to continue to fight for and protect water in our country.
In this debate, senators have spoken a lot about environmental flows and how we can ensure that there's sufficient environmental flow through the Murray-Darling to keep it alive and healthy, which we absolutely need to do. I absolutely concur with those comments. However, the other aspect to this is the importance of cultural flows. Cultural flows relate to sufficient water flows for activities such as fishing, hunting, ceremony and harvesting, as well as preserving and protecting ancient burial grounds, songlines, scar trees and camp sites. There are over 40 First Nations nations across the basin that rely on the Murray-Darling, and they've done so for tens of thousands of years. These nations know the river, they know the basin and they know how to use it sustainably. The Murray Lower Darling Rivers Indigenous Nations, or MLDRIN, whom I had the pleasure of speaking to last week, represent some of these nations and have long called for First Nations justice in the Murray-Darling Basin. I want to acknowledge their very strong advocacy in this space. MLDRIN strongly endorsed an open letter from legal practitioners and academics which stated that the bill in its original form failed to address the rights and interests of the nations across the basin and was in fact inconsistent with the rights and principles contained in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. This framework systematically excluded and discriminated against First Nations people and deprived these communities of the opportunity to manage the river and contribute to its health. Environmental flows keep the river alive. Cultural flows keep our culture alive. A healthy river is directly linked to First Nations people being able to use the river to maintain cultural practices. This, in turn, is directly linked to maintaining our identity, wellbeing, capacity-building and intergenerational teachings of our people. The Murray-Darling is a topical example at the moment, but it also applies to many river and freshwater systems right across this country. This is why it's so important that there is funding set aside for First Nations water rights, that there is a framework to use it effectively and that that money is actually delivered and spent where it should be, because that's what self-determination looks like in this country.
In 2018 the previous government committed $40 million to establish and support First Nations investment in cultural and economic water entitlements and associated activities within the basin. The current government recommitted to this, and yet this money has not been spent. The environment minister admitted back in August that there's been very little work done about how this might happen, due to the fact there was no mechanism for allocating that water. If that weren't bad enough, the $40 million was nothing compared to the estimated value of water entitlements in the southern basin, which a report from earlier this year valued at $32.3 billion. Forty million dollars is just 0.1 per cent of that. I'm appalled, but I'm not actually surprised, that this government, alongside that former government, thought that that's all that black fellas were worth in this country—0.1 per cent.
In fact, in August, when the new agreement regarding the Murray-Darling Basin Plan was announced, there was no mention of water for First Nations people. First Nations people in the Murray have been short-changed again. They were overlooked in the original Murray-Darling Basin Plan in 2012. They were strung along with $40 million that never came, and they were overlooked in the revised Murray-Darling Basin Plan this year.
As I mentioned earlier in my speech, one of the wins the Greens have secured in this amendment is to the objects of the act, which is long overdue and will finally acknowledge—finally—the connection, rights, interests and values of the First Peoples that have called the Murray-Darling Basin home for tens of thousands of years. Another win that wouldn't have happened without the Greens is the increase from $40 million to $100 million for First Nations water and for the Aboriginal Water Entitlements Program to reflect the loss of value. That $40 million was never, never delivered to them. But we cannot let it only be about money that was promised before. You can bet that we will keep a very, very close eye on this to ensure that the money is being spent and delivered and that the government is talking to the right people—people like those in MLDRIN—when establishing this framework of how this money will be allocated and spent.
The Greens have significantly improved this bill, and it's a win for the Murray. It's a win for First Nations water rights in this country. There's still a long way to go before First Nations connections and rights to water are upheld in the same regard as our connection and our rights to land are, but I believe this is a step in the right direction. This signals to traditional owners across the country that the Greens are in fact listening. We will use our power on the crossbench here to fight for your rights and to ensure that this government is forced to acknowledge those connections, rights, interests and values of First Peoples in the basin and that it doesn't, as Senator Shoebridge already alluded to, just appear as nice words in a press conference or a media release, but that it actually comes to life through legislation in this place, and the other, to ensure the delivery, accountability and transparency that First Peoples in this country deserve. Thank you.
I am really pleased to be standing up here today to speak to the Water Amendment (Restoring Our Rivers) Bill 2023 because it is a real win for our environment. It's a real win for the health of the Murray-Darling system, which is the lifeblood of so much of Australia. I particularly want to congratulate Senator Sarah Hanson-Young for the work she has done negotiating with the government, and I want to congratulate the government as well, for moving this legislation, for listening to the Greens, listening to the community, listening to First Nations peoples, listening to the environment and actually moving to legislate for some real, very significant wins for the river system.
What is being guaranteed in this bill, guaranteed in law, is that our environment will finally receive the 450 gigalitres of water, the minimum that is needed to protect our precious river systems. This is a real breakthrough. It's going to deliver water across the whole basin, the entire basin—north and south. As I said, it's a minimum. Since the Murray-Darling plan was first developed there has been more than 2,100 gigalitres of water allocated each year, but according to what the river really needs there's a shortfall of almost 750 gigalitres a year. So the 450 is not an extraordinary amount. It's not over the top. It's not unreasonable. It is the minimum that's required to keep our river systems alive. It is a really good news story that at least we are getting that minimum.
There are other things that have been negotiated and included in this legislation. The Greens have secured an independent audit of water in the basin to stop the rorts, to insert integrity and restore trust after a decade of mismanagement from vested interests. And, as Senator Cox has just outlined, we've secured $100 million for First Nations water and the Aboriginal water entitlements program to protect country and culture from greed and over-extraction. For the first time—and it's extraordinary that it's the first time—the laws governing the Murray-Darling Basin will recognise the unique connection that First Nations peoples have with the river system. This is a really significant piece of legislation.
This breakthrough agreement will help protect the river from over-extraction, it's going to help protect the river from the massive fish kills and environmental degradation as our climate continues on its fairly chaotic but increasingly hotter way. It's particularly important that we have achieved this breakthrough now. When the Murray-Darling Basin Plan was being developed, I remember my late wife, Penny Whetton, a climate scientist, working on it. The fact is that climate change wasn't acknowledged in that original plan, the impacts of climate on our river systems were ignored. We know, and we've known for a very long time, what the likely impacts of global heating are on the Murray-Darling system—the reduction in water going into many parts of the basin that's likely to result, and the increased heat, meaning the increased evaporation and the increased water temperatures in the rivers. To actually get this water now, as we face really dreadful and tragic likely impacts of climate change, is so important.
The other thing that this legislation is going to do is finally get in place a new agreement with all the basin states except Victoria. I do want to go to the issue in Victoria. There's a lot of the basin in my home state of Victoria. The Murray River rises in north-east Victoria. We have very significant tributaries of the Murray that flow through Victoria. It is crazy that the Victorian government haven't signed onto this plan. And so, while I'm standing here congratulating the federal Labor government—for working with the Greens, listening to the Greens, listening to the environment, listening to the First Nations people—for some reason, the Victorian government haven't been signing up. They have had this absolute blockage on water buybacks, which is crazy. We know that water has been overallocated in Victoria, just like it has been overallocated across the rest of the country. We know there's no economy and there are no jobs on dead rivers. If you're concerned about the future of agriculture in Victoria, if you're concerned about the future of the environment, if you're concerned about First Nations rights and First Nations justice, then you have to acknowledge that there are limits as to how much water you can take out of the rivers. The system just doesn't allow us to make more water. Sure, there are going to be some good years where there's a lot more water flowing in but, overall, the trend is that there's going to be less water flowing in because of climate change and there are going to be more reparations. We need to acknowledge that the system is overcommitted and there needs to be less water taken from the river. This is the basis of the need for buybacks.
I call upon Victoria to come to their senses. This bill is going to allow for buybacks within Victoria now, so even if the Victorian government don't support them, if there are people wanting to sell water in Victoria, the Commonwealth will be able to buy it for the benefit of the river. What it means is that Victoria won't get any benefits of this legislation. They won't be able to get funding for a whole range of projects that might also be benefitting the river. I'm hoping that after this legislation has been pushed through the Victorian government will realise the benefits of also signing up to this legislation, and that they recognise the value of the legislation and of restoring our rivers to Victorian communities.
There have been a lot of stories that were collected by the Murray-Darling Conservation Alliance, as part of the Stand by your River campaign—stories from First Nations leaders, fishers, farmers and community members from across the basin. Lots of them come from Victoria, not surprisingly. Two weeks ago, a number of these groups came to Canberra to present the Stand by your River petition, which had more than 10,000 signatures. I want to read out two testimonies from Victorians who were listed as part of this campaign. One is from Linley and Glenn, who say:
We live close to the Kaiela (also known as the Goulburn River). Here, the river flows through Kaieltheban Clan homeland, on the Yorta Yorta Nation country. Our concern is for the health of the whole river system, and the importance of listening to Traditional Owners as we move—hopefully—to a greater sharing of this natural life-giving resource.
Another Victorian story is from Irene, who says:
The Murray Darling Basin holds an artery of Australia's heart. Degrading our river system by Restricting flows and pollution denies life to the natural systems that support our life. In the face of climate change we should be doing everything to enhance natural systems not undermine them.
I know from the campaigns that have been run across Victoria, particularly the ones that have been coordinated by Environment Victoria, that there are many thousands of Victorians who are going to be celebrating this legislation going through the parliament today. They will continue to question why the Victorian government is so backwards in protecting the river environments, and why they are so backwards and so reluctant to accept the basic premise of the need to allow water to be bought back so it can benefit the environment.
The other issue about Victoria that I want to raise is that their whole justification for being against water buybacks has been shown not to be based on good science. The Murray-Darling Basin Authority released a damning report recently that highlighted the Labor government's reliance on subpar research to justify their policy position on water recovery. This report, produced by the University of Adelaide's School of Economics and Public Policy, showed that successive governments have leaned on studies by expensive consultants which largely failed to meet basic research standards. This study detailed a lack of peer review, small control groups and inconsistent mathematical modelling across various studies which have helped inform Labor's stubborn opposition to water purchases. Our Greens MPs in the state parliament, on hearing of this research, said:
This report raises serious questions about the integrity of water policy in Victoria. It's distressing to hear the Labor Government's position on water purchases is based on unreliable research and not based on science.
I'm hoping that, with the good news that we've got today, we will have a change of heart in Victoria as well. I'm also hopeful about the expensive engineering projects the Victorian government have been relying upon to not support water buybacks. I'm heartened by the fact that there will now be an audit of all of these projects so that we can see which will actually benefit the environment and which won't. There are quite a few of these expensive engineering projects that we will see the end of after this audit. I'm very pleased that this legislation also gives the Commonwealth the ability to end the projects which are inappropriate. It may be that some of the projects in Victoria will help with water efficiency.
I'm very hopeful that after a serious independent audit, some of those projects will go ahead, and the Victorian government will change its mind and realise that by signing up for this plan, they will benefit from some money potentially going into those projects. Congratulations again to Senator Hanson-Young and to the Labor Party for giving us a good news story. So much of the news in this place, so much of what we are doing, leads you to be despairing. Working together like this to get good outcomes gives me hope. It gives me hope that, when we look objectively and sensibly at the environmental needs of our planet, we can work together and get good outcomes. I'm really pleased to be speaking in support of this bill today.
We've just heard that the Labor Party and the Greens are teaming up again to sell out farming communities across Australia and Australian families who are already struggling to pay for groceries at the shops. This bill, the Water Amendment (Restoring Our Rivers) Bill, will mean that there'll be less water used to grow food in Australia. That's what it will do. It will remove a cap on water buybacks that was properly put in place to protect Australia's agricultural productivity and food availability for all Australians. Now our nation's food bowl in the Murray-Darling Basin, a place that accounts for over 40 per cent of our food production and over 70 per cent of our peaches, apples, oranges and massive amounts of the fresh food in our shops, will be the playground of the Labor Party and the Greens to rip out water from food production and reduce the amount of food that is grown in our country.
We already have a cost-of-living crisis. People are struggling to pay their bills. The government is going underwater because they're doing nothing to respond to the fact that people are struggling to pay their mortgages. Every time you go to Coles and Woolworths, you play that game where you estimate how much is in the trolley and how much it's going to cost you when you go through the checkout. Every time you do, you end up responding: 'Holy hell, that is a lot more than I thought it would be! Holy hell, I thought that would be half of what I put there, and this is just a couple of meals for my family this week! It's costing me a fortune.' People are struggling. They now know that when they walk into the shops, they have to think, 'Have I got enough on the credit card to get out the other way once I get what my family needs?' And this government is doing nothing to help. In fact, the deal that they've just done with the Greens today is going to make things worse. If we grow less food, it's going to cost more for everybody in this country. It's a simple economic reality that this government does not seem to understand. They don't understand simple economics. You reduce the supply of something, you increase its price.
We've heard that directly. Liberal and National senators, including myself, travelled through the Murray-Darling in recent months. The government hasn't done that. The Senate didn't do that. We had a committee looking into this bill. This bill was referred to a Senate committee. That committee refused to hold hearings in the actual Murray-Darling. They hold hearings here in Canberra, and notionally, this is in the Murray-Darling, but, of course, this town is not where the food is grown. They use a bit of water here and build dams for their own purposes, but they do not produce our food. The Labor and Greens senators refused to go to the communities and towns that grow our food and supply everything in our shops, as I said, 40 per cent, almost all of our food. Especially in southern Australia, almost all of our food comes from this area.
The reason they didn't go is that they didn't want to hear the cold, hard truth that this bill, this proposal between the Labor Party and the Greens, will increase the price of your shopping trollies even more. That is the cold, hard truth of this bill. We heard that ourselves when we went, so we decided to establish our own committee. We established our own extra parliamentary committee. We didn't have the resources of the parliament. We didn't have big budgets. We teamed up as a group of senators from both the Liberal and National parties.
We travelled to Shepparton, Mildura, Renmark, Griffith and Moree—all proud, beautiful farming towns that grow our nation's food. Many of us would know these towns because these towns are actually in your shops. That's one thing that struck me as I was driving around the region with my colleagues. When you see SPC at your shops, some people probably don't realise that that's Shepparton Preserving Company. That's Shepparton on your shelves in your shopping centre. Mildura is also known as the Sunraysia region. You can get Sunraysia dried fruits from that region. I think Berri is defunct. Berri fruit juices is no longer around, unfortunately. Berri fruit juices used to be from the Berri and Renmark region in South Australia. All of these places are effectively wrapped up with our nation's history and heritage, which this government is destroying, effectively, through its policies in league with the Greens.
When we went Shepparton, we went to the SPC factory. We heard from lots of local businesses and farmers in the region, and heard from the CEO of SPC. As I said, they make all that preserved, tinned fruit in your shops. They've got some beautiful new drinks hitting the shops as well. He very clearly said to us that, if you cut the amount of water supplied in the Shepparton region, that will reduce the amount of peaches and fruit, which he needs to run his factory. It will increase input costs for people. He will have to pass those input costs on. SPC nearly went broke a few years ago. They're not made of money. It's tough being in the food supply business, facing competition from overseas and the pressures put on by Coles and Woolworths. It's a very tough business. They will have to increase their prices.
I want to be clear and outline why this bill will increase those input costs for farmers. At a broad level: if you reduce supply, you increase the costs. I want to go through in detail how that happens, because I don't think the government quite understand that. The Greens either wilfully ignore it or don't understand it. They don't go there and don't hear from farmers about how the system works. These areas like Shepparton, when they grow food, don't work like individual businesses. There are no farmers who are an island in this area. They are all connected through the irrigation network. These irrigation networks were built, sometimes, over 100 years ago. They were planned by people with great vision. A lot of these areas were deserts before they put these irrigation channels in—that's definitely true for Griffith. There was not much there before very visionary Australian men and women, sometimes around 100 years ago, carved out these irrigation channels and built dams so they could grow food and make these beautiful communities and farms in these areas. When they did that, they planned out this system so they could minimise costs. It costs money to send water from a dam or water storage down a channel. You have to upkeep the channels and invest in them every year to make sure they still work. Monitoring and metering cost money. When the government come along with this bill, what they're going to do is say to Joe Bloggs on his farm in, say, the Murrumbidgee irrigation area, 'We want to pay you'—taxpayers' money, not their money; your money—'to stop using water.' That farm shuts down. That farmer normally does pretty well. The farmer gets a pretty good price because the government's not negotiating with its money—it's using your money—so it tends to overpay for the water. The farmer does well. They can go and buy another farm, retire or do whatever they like; it's happy days.
But what happens to the rest of farmers who are stuck there? That irrigation network is now like Swiss cheese. The irrigation network has a hole in it. Water passes that farm, but the farmer is not there to contribute to the costs of upkeeping that irrigation network that was planned and run to minimise costs. When the government pock marks an irrigation network by buying out farms in an uncoordinated fashion, which they also did last time they were in government, it completely destroys the economics of these irrigation communities. The average costs for the remaining farmers all go up because now there are fewer farmers to maintain, effectively, the same network. The bulk water infrastructure also has to be paid for by fewer farmers—that's a given. Suddenly the costs for everybody go up. When the cost of everything goes up, the price of that food has to go up. Then it goes up at the factory, at SPC. Then the price will have to go up again in your shops. That's what this policy does.
I haven't been able to be here for all of the other contributions, but I doubt anyone on the other side is responding to this point, like the minister could do in the summing up. What have they done? Have they done any planning here to assess how buying back more water will increase costs? We haven't seen it. They haven't published any modelling that I've seen about how this will impact on the costs of farmers and therefore the cost of food in the shops for everyday Australians. There's been no analysis of this at all.
And, before I move on, keep in mind just one other factor: when there are fewer farmers in a district—though, as I say, the people who sell the water do pretty well—it's not just the other farmers that are left to picked up the can; it's the whole community. With fewer farmers, you get less contracting business, fewer fencing contractors, fewer dozer drivers and fewer people to laser-level land. That then has a flow-on effect to people's shops, and the community and cafes and hotels.
If you want a real-world experience of this, go to Dirranbandi or to Collarenebri. When this government was last in power, it bought up enormous amounts of water around these towns—some of the most disadvantaged towns in our region. Both those towns have very high Indigenous populations. And the government just came in and destroyed those towns. They are shadows of their former selves, because of the uncoordinated, ill-thought-through and, I would say, careless approach to water recovery that the former Labor government had. And now we're up to the sequel, with the Labor and Greens back in power, back in charge, destroying our proud competitive farming economy across Australia.
The other aspect you would have heard about, I'm sure, from the other side, is that they are all doing this because they care about the environment. If pressed, they would say, 'Unfortunately, there are costs on farms, but we have to do this for a healthy river; we have to do this to increase water flows down the river.' They have these very vague goals of water recovery. You'll hear numbers like 450 gigalitres and 3,250 gigalitres—they have probably come up in this debate. Even they don't know what those numbers mean; no-one really does. They're just numbers on a page. They don't actually translate to real environmental outcomes, for two reasons.
First, anyone who knows the Murray-Darling properly knows it is not a series of interconnected garden hoses. Down here, in this building, so many people seem to think that, if you just put water in at one end, then down the other end the water comes out. Some people even think you can put water in up in Queensland, up in Toowoomba, and it will come out in Adelaide and supply them with water. It doesn't work like that. The Murray-Darling Basin, as many people have told me before, is like a big old carpet—like this carpet that's in front of us here in the Senate. It's dry, usually, and it's quite flat in most parts, like most of Australia. So, if you tip water on that corner of the carpet over there, it's not going to flow down to that other corner. It doesn't flow down, because this carpet is all dry and it soaks it up, just like Australia—just like the Murray-Darling! The only way you'd get water from one corner to another corner, across the Senate, would be if the whole thing were flooded—if you had so much water that basically it was above the carpet and it just flowed. That does happen from time to time: sometimes we get massive floods, and we do have that connectivity, but that is a very, very rare circumstance; it doesn't normally happen.
Normally, there are a whole lot of what are called constraints in the system. There's the Barmah Choke, through which you can usually only get 10,000 megs per day. But this government, in the way it's going to approach water management, is just going to flood everything; it's going to put water through everything, and that will be a disaster.
On our tour we heard about areas that have been environmentally damaged by too much watering. You might think that's somewhat counterintuitive, but think of your own garden. If you put too much water on some plants, they die. Different plants need different amounts of water. And—surprise, surprise—the native plants in Australia typically can be hurt by too much water because they've adapted and evolved to live in what is often a very, very dry continent for large numbers of years. But when this environmental water manager comes along and this government buys back water and just lets the water flow through, areas like the Barmah-Millewa Forest will get too much water and you won't get big enough trees growing because they're flooded too often. Then, when the dry does come—eventually it will come, and even the environmental water manager won't have enough water—those trees will die because they won't have been allowed to grow big enough individually to survive the dry times. They're running an unnatural system. They're not converting it back to the pre-Captain-Cook era. They're running it based on what bureaucrats see and do here in Canberra. And it's an absolute disaster. Nothing in this bill deals with that issue of the constraints in the system. If you were serious about protecting the environment, you'd fix those first. That is what could help make the effect of the water that's been already recovered do better.
The other reason we don't need to buy back water is that we could actually invest in ways that recover water for the environment and maintain food production on people's farms—we can, and that is what the coalition was doing. We can invest in ways that farmers themselves can be more efficient with their water use, like laser-levelling fields and lining channels—lots of different techniques. We can do that. They all cost money, but if the government decides that, as a society-wide objective, we should spend a lot of money to save water, farmers are ready to help do that. They possibly can't afford to do that on their own, from an individual commercial perspective, because they have to run their businesses for a profit, but if there is a broader societal benefit that the government can contribute to, there are lots of ways to save water so we could have more water for the environment. We could protect frogs, wetlands and birds and supply water down to Adelaide while maintaining our fruit production and keeping people's grocery bills down.
Why won't the government do that? Why won't it adopt policies that will help people with the cost of living? This government is so out of touch. It is doing nothing to help people pay their bills. In fact, when people in this country are screaming out, 'Help me stay above water,' it has come into the Senate today and is passing a bill, in league with the Greens, to reduce food supply and push people's grocery bills up. What is going on with this government? It's like it is living in a different environment—'I just got here!'—and a completely different universe. Everyone is talking to me about their bills, and this government is just doing deals with the Greens. It's an absolute disgrace, and it's why people have had enough of this government.
I also rise to speak on the Water Amendment (Restoring Our Rivers) Bill 2023. I agree with some of Senator Canavan's remarks about our ability to do more to enable our environment to recover and thrive with the rivers flowing, but this bill doesn't quite do that. I've had a very good interaction with the office of the Minister for the Environment and Water, Ms Plibersek, to try and find ways to improve this bill. There are many ways in which this bill could be improved, and I think we've been able to achieve some of them. Hopefully, we can get further on that, but given the time frame that this bill has in which to pass and its limitations, there is only so much that can be done in this round, but it doesn't mean that the bill can't be improved further.
The ability that I now have as an Independent senator to focus on improving legislation and to look at policy and improve it, rather than simply focus on the politics, is an incredibly liberating path to take and one I am enjoying thoroughly. I'm also enjoying the intellectual rigour that I get to bring to policy. Rather than being hamstrung by the politics of it—by the partyroom agenda and by those words only given to you by leadership—I can now take legislation and policy and debate and improve it as well as I can for the people of Victoria and, indeed, for all Australians. Hopefully, that is what I have been able to do with this bill.
As we know, the Murray-Darling Basin Plan was implemented in 2008 and then renegotiated in 2011, so this is old policy. It is old legislation. While the government has done what it can to improve it somewhat, it's basically the same old policy. When I sat down to take a look at this legislation, my priority was to ask how it could be improved, and improved not just for farmers, although they are incredibly important—they've been great to me on how they've engaged with me about what this will do—but for the communities who will be affected by the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. There is lots in this bill that can be improved and in many different ways that will modernise what is basically a constrained network, like our gas market and our electricity market. This is just a market with constraints. Buybacks themselves are only one financial instrument that is being used here.
Where I think I've been able to get this bill and have been working to get this bill is to look at a range of different financial instruments that allow the Commonwealth to get the water it needs for the environmental needs of the rivers. Those needs are large. The Darling is choking and the Murray is drowning. These can't just be let to lie, and this can't be allowed to happen just based off one bit of legislation. There's a lot of work that needs to be done to be able to fix both these river systems. And fix them we must.