Senate debates

Monday, 27 November 2023


Water Amendment (Restoring Our Rivers) Bill 2023

5:50 pm

Photo of David VanDavid Van (Victoria, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

As I said before I was put into continuation, we have a situation where the Darling/Barka is absolutely choking to death, with not enough water flowing through it, whereas at the same time the Murray-Darling is drowning because there is too much water being put through it. If you go and have a look at the Barmah Forest right now, it is two or three feet underwater. This is a red-gum forest—it needs to be flooded from time to time—but to be kept under water simply to force water down the Murray River is killing that forest. It has already killed all the undergrowth, which means that there are no echidnas there, no goannas and likely no koalas in those trees. The environmental impacts that this amendment to the bill is trying to achieve aren't necessarily going to be achieved simply through buybacks. While we have a river system that is diverse in geography, it is also terribly diverse temporally—that is, part might be in flood one time and in drought another. As Dorothea Mackellar said in 1904, I believe, we are a land of droughts and flooding planes, no more so than in the Murray-Darling basin

That is why simply sticking to a monolithic, dull, blunt instrument to try and supply water down through the Murray-Darling system isn't smart policy. Yes, it buys water, but that doesn't necessarily means it gets to the place you need it to get to or is used for the reason it needs to be used, which could be flood plain regeneration or stopping bank erosion. If you go up and look at parts of the Murray and the amount of water flowing through, the amount of bank erosion is quite frightening. That means it is likely that the platypus that were there that had their nests in those banks have had to seek shelter elsewhere, if they've managed to survive.

What is the alternative to a blunt instrument? I'm glad you asked. We need to look at alternatives to do this. This is simply a constrained market, and we need to look at in those terms, exactly the same as the gas market, the national electricity market and commodity markets. Markets manage to use different instruments to solve different problems. This is where I would like to thank Minister Plibersek for having the intelligence, temerity and bravery to sit down with me and find different ways to solve what are not one single problem. They are diverse problems that need diverse solutions to be achieved. I won't go into the engineering parts that have been put forward because they have been debated in this place and in rural newspapers almost every day.

Where we've got to with this legislation is the ability not simply to rely on buybacks but for the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder to be able to use other instruments. What instruments, you ask? Instruments such as leasing water. A large part of the damage of buybacks is the fact that the water is bought in perpetuity. The people at home might not know that when a farmer sells his entitlement to the water back to the Murray-Darling Basin Authority it's not for one year or for two years—it's in perpetuity. What effect does that have on a farm? I know there are a few farmers in the chamber right now who will tell you—if you take water away from a farm, it's no longer a farm. Yes, the farmer might be able to take the money he gets from the buyback and turn it into some other economic activity. I know of one example where the farmer wants to build an abattoir. That does make some sense, especially if he's given a grant to go along with that to be able to proceed and to promote the economic development of that particular area. But there can't be an abattoir on every block. And if you look at some of these constraint areas, once one farmer takes a buyback then the rest of the region is going to suffer and pay even more for their water simply because of the constraints that it's going to put on the system.

A farmer, after all is usually a small-businessman. There are some large ones too, we know that. But the small-businessmen that I care about need to have the flexibility to be able to manage their farm in the way that they see best. They may see leasing their water for 12 months as a smart thing to do, and they can do that currently through the water market. But what about if they want to look longer term? A farmer being able to set the lease term for leasing back water gives them and the CEWH—or the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder—flexibility to be able to do the things both of them need to be able to do—that is, run a business and provide water to the environment. That term for leasing back the water could be 12 months, three years, 10 years or 30 years. But it's through a negotiation—based on pricing, what premium they will get and when the water is needed—that you get real flexibility in the system and a system that is able to cope with the droughts and floodplains that we mentioned before.

We saw in 2022—and even in this year—more water go down the Murray—and the darling, for part of it—than it can cope with. That says to me that you need flexibility in the system because if, in a flood year, you push more water down the system, you are just going to flood more towns, homes and businesses. I don't see the point in that. In my view would be we should be having something like a rolling five or 10 year average, based off scientific principles that says: 'There's sufficient groundwater and sufficient surface water. We know what the flows are at various points along the rivers. We now know that we need to contract for more water or less.' Rather than pushing water through constraints like the Barmah Choke, which just kill forests and biodiversity, you get not only the opportunity for farmers to do more farming, which means more food and fibre for us all to eat and wear, but also the environmental needs that you are looking for.

The hardest part about this is if you just stick with buybacks, it is going to damage the economies in these communities—of that I have no doubt. I've been up and down the Hume Highway and up and down along the river visiting all the communities, and I've spoken to enough people, communities and farmers, to know that they are all absolutely petrified that the damage done from previous buyback periods is going to be visited on them again. However, they were thrilled to know that, if there is a leasing arrangement, they'll have the flexibility to do what they need to do. They know, with that, the social and economic impact on their communities is going to be lessened.

But here's the thing: the government wanted to take the socioeconomic impact test out of the legislation. I'm happy to tell the chamber that I will be moving an amendment to keep that socioeconomic test in there. I also foreshadowed that I will be moving a second reading amendment that says that leasing will be a feature of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan moving forward. Why am I doing these things? Because it protects the river. It protects biodiversity. It protects communities. It protects farmers. It is a far smarter way to run this system. It's a constrained system. It's a system that floods and has droughts. We're going into a potential drought year. It is a far smarter way to build flexibility into a system. It's just doing in this marketplace what happens in every other marketplace. You use tools at the right time, in the right place and for the right reasons. For that reason, I think leasing is going to be very, very good for the Murray-Darling Basin system.

6:01 pm

Photo of Bridget McKenzieBridget McKenzie (Victoria, National Party, Shadow Minister for Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Development) Share this | | Hansard source

Sadly, I have been in this place long enough to have been here when the abomination that is the Murray-Darling Basin Plan was put in place. I've watched that plan decimate communities, industries, towns and families right throughout my home state of Victoria. It was the sad fact in Victoria, because we had a very highly regulated irrigation system, that it was our water that the Labor government back then, when Penny Wong was the water minister, could enter into our communities for. If you purchased Victorian water, you were actually guaranteed of getting water because of the highly regulated nature of our system. And so, today, when we know over 90 per cent of the water originally envisaged under the plan has been recovered, over half of it comes from regional Victoria. We have paid the price for this plan. Despite it encompassing four states and one territory, it is the Victorian regional communities which have paid the very worst price under this plan. That is why the Labor government in Victoria does not support this piece of legislation. It does not support the water minister going back into the market with forced buybacks and does not support the 450-gigalitre political solution that was arrived at back in the day to get certain members in this chamber across the line. It was never meant to be part of the total plan. It was always a political solution.

We have a Labor Party that doesn't understand the regions, doesn't care about the regions, wouldn't know the Barmah Choke if it fell over it and has not sat down in the pubs and footy clubs of Kerang, Cobram, Swan Hill, Mildura, Echuca and Shepparton. Eighty per cent of our national pear crop comes from Shepparton and the Goulburn Valley. Horticulture and dairy industries in regional Victoria have done the heavy lifting in this water recovery task. It says everything about the government and their attitude to those nine million of us that don't live in capital cities that they cannot wait to give our farmers and our regional communities a Christmas present that will devastate our productive capacity and will devastate families.

I was taken to task for talking about the mental health impact this policy has had over the last decade on these communities. Hard men, grown men and proud men were brought to tears and worse, and it will be the same with this because it is an incredibly blunt, pathetic response to achieving environmental outcomes. The truth is that a decade ago when we set this thing up we didn't have the science and the telemetrics on our creeks and rivers—the measurement tools to understand how best to water environmental assets didn't exist—so we thought it was all about a base number: 'If we get this many gigalitres down the river then all the Ramsar wetlands will be tickety-boo.' No, they won't. We have pushed too much water down river and it's actually destroying environmental assets as a result. Guess what the scientists say? 'Don't push so much water down the river, because there are natural constraints. Let it sit longer and be slower. That's what our kind of environment needs.' That's what our environment actually needs.

Photo of Don FarrellDon Farrell (SA, Australian Labor Party, Minister for Trade and Tourism) Share this | | Hansard source

Ten years you let it sit there.

Photo of Bridget McKenzieBridget McKenzie (Victoria, National Party, Shadow Minister for Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Development) Share this | | Hansard source

I'm very happy to hear Senator Farrell, the trade minister. He's going to have to explain why our dairy industry is devastated and why we're not going to be exporting grapes, almonds, apples, pears—horticulture galore—and wine from these regions that his party is seeking to kill. You can't grow anything, Senator Farrell, without water. We have the most efficient irrigators in the world. They're drip-feeding their permanent plantings. The sad reality is—and we heard it in Senate inquiry after Senate inquiry—that the scientists know that measuring the health of the river isn't just about the number of gigalitres pushed down it over a time frame; it's about fish stocks and about leaving water longer in certain places and less long in others. They're all unique aspects because they are unique environmental assets right up and down our rivers. That has nothing to do with actual people who live there.

It appears that our worst fears are being realised before our eyes. Today Labor has bowed down to the Greens to ensure that their ideological bill that will destroy regional communities is passed through the Senate today. Those guys do not have a dirty deal that they're not prepared to do between the two of them.

Photo of Don FarrellDon Farrell (SA, Australian Labor Party, Minister for Trade and Tourism) Share this | | Hansard source

John Howard proposed this.

Photo of Hollie HughesHollie Hughes (NSW, Liberal Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Climate Change and Energy) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Farrell, Senator McKenzie has the right to be heard in silence. All interjections are disorderly.

Senator Farrell, you don't have the call. I didn't give you the call. Do you have a point of order?

Photo of Don FarrellDon Farrell (SA, Australian Labor Party, Minister for Trade and Tourism) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator McKenzie has to start telling the truth about—

Photo of Hollie HughesHollie Hughes (NSW, Liberal Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Climate Change and Energy) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Farrell, resume your seat. That's not a point of order. Senator McKenzie.

Photo of Bridget McKenzieBridget McKenzie (Victoria, National Party, Shadow Minister for Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Development) Share this | | Hansard source

If telling the truth in this chamber becomes the new standard for the Labor Party, I look forward to them following their own example, because what we are subjected to in question time after question time and in committee stage after committee stage on key policy and legislative arrangements that we're putting through this place—

Photo of Hollie HughesHollie Hughes (NSW, Liberal Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Climate Change and Energy) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator McKenzie.

Photo of Bridget McKenzieBridget McKenzie (Victoria, National Party, Shadow Minister for Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Development) Share this | | Hansard source

They have a psychology that is anti truth telling.

Photo of Hollie HughesHollie Hughes (NSW, Liberal Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Climate Change and Energy) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator McKenzie, you may resume your speech.

Photo of Bridget McKenzieBridget McKenzie (Victoria, National Party, Shadow Minister for Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Development) Share this | | Hansard source

There was no point of order?

Photo of Hollie HughesHollie Hughes (NSW, Liberal Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Climate Change and Energy) Share this | | Hansard source

No, there was not. Nice try.

Photo of Bridget McKenzieBridget McKenzie (Victoria, National Party, Shadow Minister for Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Development) Share this | | Hansard source

Okay. You can tell you're getting under the trade minister's skin when you start talking about the hypocritical approach this government has to growing prosperous, safe, sustainable regional communities and industries. He's very happy to get the business class ticket to the EU and to swan around Europe talking up a big trade proposal, but at home their legislative agenda seeks to destroy the very men and women and the communities that sustain them that provide you that opportunity, Senator Farrell—

Photo of Don FarrellDon Farrell (SA, Australian Labor Party, Minister for Trade and Tourism) Share this | | Hansard source

I'm looking after them. You didn't. You ignored these people.

Photo of Bridget McKenzieBridget McKenzie (Victoria, National Party, Shadow Minister for Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Development) Share this | | Hansard source

And provide Minister Watt—the joke of an agriculture minister this country, sadly, has—

Photo of Hollie HughesHollie Hughes (NSW, Liberal Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Climate Change and Energy) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator McKenzie, can you resume your chair for a second. Senator Farrell, you have been asked to stop interjecting. Senator McKenzie has the right to be heard in silence. Senator McKenzie, if you could direct your comments through the chair.

Photo of Bridget McKenzieBridget McKenzie (Victoria, National Party, Shadow Minister for Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Development) Share this | | Hansard source

Thank you, Madam Acting Deputy President. It is very disappointing the agriculture minister and the trade minister were rolled in cabinet on standing up for these communities, clearly. If they really cared about productive food capacity in the regions, they would not be supporting this bill and they would be standing up for our great primary producers. Communities across the Murray-Darling basin have done it tough under the challenging conditions of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. There are many senators on this side of the chamber who have sat down in these communities and sought to understand it. In my home state of Victoria our dairy and horticulture industries have done the heavy lifting in meeting the targets of the plan. More than 50 per cent of the water recovered has come from Victoria. No more should come from the state of Victoria, but the Minister for the Environment and Water is going to roll her own Labor state, which is valiantly standing against this ridiculous policy, this cruel policy.

Our farmers have had no choice but to produce more with less water, and they've risen to the challenge. We should be proud of that instead of taking the stick to them once again. Enough is enough. Without water there is no ability to grow food, provide well-paying local jobs, sustain the future of our regional towns and communities and provide Senator Farrell with a platform to negotiate future free trade agreements with our fabulous primary produce. The Albanese Labor government is backed in by the Greens and the regional Independent for Indi, Helen Haines. What a shameful, woeful regional member Helen Haines is. She voted to decimate her own communities. The people across Indi know she is more interested in currying favour with the likes of the Greens from Melbourne and Tanya Plibersek from Sydney than in standing up for her primary producers. I am confident they will throw her out.

Today we have seen the true colours of the Labor Party under the Albanese government. States came together and said, 'We understand the pain that this plan implementation has provided our primary producers, and do you know what? You cannot take that additional water without convincing us that there won't be detrimental social and economic impacts.' That's it; do no harm. I often hear the Greens talk about the do-no-harm principle, the precautionary principle. That is all this is for the humans, the stock, the productive capacity, the future. If you want that additional water, just prove it's not going to do social and economic harm, but they don't care.

We know buybacks decimate and destroy our communities. A 2022 independent study found that the purchase of 750 gigalitres would cost the southern basin, that's Victoria for the non-giga literates—that's fine, because it can be complex—$900 million in agricultural production per year and tens of thousands of jobs. Talk a big game on jobs, but not if you live in the regions. You actually don't care, because tens of thousands of people are going to lose their jobs. I look forward to the committee stage of this bill, because if you have not modelled the impact of this legislation on our communities you will be held to account in this chamber this week. The research backs up what we already knew. When you take water away from producers, their business dries up. When farmers are forced to shut down it affects the whole community. It's not just about a farmer receiving an economic benefit for the water you've purchased. It flows right through the fabric of the community that the farmer is a part of.

It's not just the farmers who experience devastation. It's the local food producers, the manufacturers, the dairy processors, the abattoirs and the food processors such as SPC in my home state. It's the milk truck drivers. I look forward to hearing Senator Sterle and Senator Sheldon stand up for the Transport Workers Union workers who work for those companies. They don't care. They won't be making a contribution on this bill and standing up for those TWU members and other truck drivers. People will stop going to the local supermarket. They won't buy supplies at the CRT in town. Kids will move from the local school, the town will begin to diminish, the teachers will leave, you won't need so many coppers and you won't need to have your hospital so well staffed. That is the decline, and it is based on the decision that this chamber is choosing to make today.

The aspirations of Labor, the Greens and Helen Haines are not aligned with reality, and there is no regard for the lives this legislation will destroy. The VFF's water council chair, Andrew Leahy, said:

"Buybacks kill rural communities, it's plain and simple, I've seen it first-hand in my hometown."

"We'll have less kids in our schools, less doctors and nurses and less community volunteers in the CFA and our local football teams,"—

and I'm sure he also meant to say netball.

Even the Victorian Labor government understood this. The Victorian Department of Jobs, Skills, Industry and Regions did their own analysis on the impact of this devastating legislation on the Victorian Goulburn-Murray Irrigation District, and they emphatically concluded the buybacks would have 'substantial impacts to local communities and disproportionately affect the dairy industry.' But we're expected to believe that no-one is going to be hurt from this. This will be another net zero consequence. But it's only a net zero consequence because it's a net zero consequence to anybody you care about or anybody that has political value to you. This government is more prepared to stick up for Hamas supporters than it is to stick up for those of us that live in the Murray Darling Basin. Senator Farrell, shame on you—more prepared to stick up for Hamas sympathisers than you are to stick up for the productive capacity of those of us who live in the basin, prepared for our lives to be destroyed and our communities to disappear.

The report, which is a Labor's government report, I remind us, also found that a 450-gigalitres water buyback in the southern basin is estimated to result in—and here are the actual facts the Labor Party won't tell you, but the Victorian Labor Party has done its homework. There will be $270 million a year of net loss in gross value of our ag production, 900 jobs affected and lost. Farming practices will continue to evolve to account for less reliable water availability, and it's likely the number of farms and the amount of land used for dairy farming in the GMID will continue to decline.

If this Labor Party were serious about creating good water policy for people, for industry, for the environment, for the river, it would do the following. It would support extending the deadlines for the implementation of the Basin Plan. It would retain the cap on buybacks. It would not enable open tender buybacks used to recover the 450. It would say no to the 450 because it is not a neutral impact on our people. It would broaden the definition of water recovery. Imposing— (Time expired)

6:17 pm

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

With the exception of the need to support extended deadlines and the greater transparency and compliance measures in the water market, you can bet the farm that One Nation will not be supporting this bill. The Water Amendment (Restoring Our Rivers) Bill 2023 is gambling with the farms in a region that produces more than $22 billion worth of Australia's food and fibre, gambling with the fate of this production in the Murray-Darling Basin while stacking the odds against it. I shouldn't have to remind the Senate that the Murray-Darling Basin Plan is supposed to be a balanced scheme supporting better environmental outcomes in addition to ensuring sustainable irrigation industries and regional economies. The balance is thrown out with this bill.

First things first: the Basin Plan has already recovered an enormous amount of water for environmental flows—more than 2,000 gigalitres per year, which is the equivalent of more than four Sydney Harbours. These environmental flows have had a positive effect, according to the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder at Senate estimates in 2020. The Basin Plan has worked, as the recent drought did not result in the same terrible impacts and the risk of the end of the river system. We see no need to recover more water from irrigators only to see it flow to the end of the system where it will evaporate uselessly from the lower lakes at a rate of 1,000 gigalitres per year. They weren't freshwater lakes before those barrages were built in the 1930s, and it's past time this place stops pretending otherwise.

We see no need for the recovery of the additional 450 gigalitres per year called for in the environmental special account chapter of the Water Act. One Nation knows this water doesn't need to be forced from irrigators. The South East Drainage System in South Australia could supply a good deal of it to reduce hypersalinity in the Coorong. Innovative projects which allow irrigators to keep farming while producing positive environmental outcomes are the kind of water reform we would be prepared to support, and we'll be moving an amendment to this effect. That's what we want to see in the basin: investment in projects that underpin the economic sustainability of irrigation and river communities. It's what the sustainable diversion limit adjustment mechanism in the Basin Plan is about: projects which improve the efficiency of delivering water, offsetting the amounts which would be bought from irrigators.

Almost 1,300 gigalitres per year has been bought directly from irrigators for the Basin Plan. We were told that water would only be purchased from willing sellers. The reality was that much of this water was bought from desperate sellers at the lowest price possible. The effect on river communities which relied on irrigation was terrible. Thousands of people lost their jobs and river communities lost some of their best and brightest people as industries closed down. The Productivity Commission's Murray-Darling Basin Plan: implementation review 2023 confirmed this. The interim report said:

Water purchased by the Australian Government to meet commitments under the Basin Plan has had negative socio-economic impacts on some Basin communities.

  …    …    …

… there have been negative socio-economic flow-on effects in some small irrigation-dependent communities, particularly following major irrigators selling large parcels of entitlements. Some Basin communities saw agricultural employment fall rapidly, without offsetting growth in other employment areas …

In communities throughout the basin, from Dirranbandi to Shepparton to Waikerie, local business closed down as their communities and economies were demolished with taxpayer assistance. Schools and essential services like banking also closed down in response.

The irrigators who stayed found themselves victims of the so-called Swiss cheese effect—forced to pick up the costs once borne by the irrigators who sold their water to the Commonwealth. This was confirmed by the Central Irrigation Trust in South Australia's Riverland region, which told the committee inquiry into this bill:

We lost 180 farms across our network in no planned way. They left, and those that remained had to pick up the additional costs and will continue to pick that up into the future.

When you look at the Central Irrigation Trust's multi-million-dollar electricity bills, which must be paid to pump and pressurise the water in their system, you might begin to appreciate the enormous cost of water reform that will not end with the completion of the Basin Plan. Labor and the Greens don't care about these impacts. They despise farmers and they despise the country communities which do not vote for them. That's why they want to remove the cap on water buybacks with this bill. That's why they want to use buybacks to recover the additional 450 gigalitres. And that's why they're effectively removing the positive or neutral socioeconomic test on recovering this water, because they could not care less what happens in electorates where their vote is in the toilet.

One Nation opposes all of it. We will never support more buybacks from desperate irrigators because we've seen for ourselves the devastation they've caused in river communities. We will not support any change to the cap on buybacks. We will not support any reversal of the outcomes of the Northern basin review, which confirmed the negative socioeconomic impacts of water reform and sensibly reduced water recovery by 70 gigalitres. We will not support any removal of watering down of the socioeconomic test on water recovery.

This was put in place to help ensure the economic and social sustainability of river communities because it was acknowledged water reform was most definitely going to cause harm—and it did cause harm. You can see it for yourself—from Saint George to Menindee to Mildura, right across the Murray-Darling Basin—in the clothes shops, on the main streets, in the dead orchards and vineyards, in the deserted schools and, tragically, in local cemeteries. Labor and the Greens deliberately caused this harm. They are responsible for the cost in lives and livelihoods their anti-farming policies have created. And now they've teamed up to deliberately cause more of this harm to the farmers and country communities they hate. In the long term, it will do little for the environmental health of the river but it will make our grocery bills a lot more expensive.

This bill also seeks to implement some changes recommended in the Water market reform: final roadmap report. The value of water traded in the basin continues to rise every year and is approaching $5 billion annually. I have always had strong concerns about the separation of water from land and how this enables speculation and profiteering. I have always had strong concerns about foreign ownership of Australian water for trading purposes and the lack of transparency around it. It's estimated that about 20 per cent of traded Murray-Darling water is foreign owned. It's only an estimate, because the facts are being hidden from the Australian people.

In one important aspect, I support water trading between irrigators. The basin is a big place in which some parts can experience low flows and others can experience higher water availability at the same time. Water trading allows some flexibility during times of drought, improving the sustainability and resilience of farm businesses and irrigation industries, but there must be some limits.

One Nation wants an annual cap on the value of water trades. We want to make sure that only irrigators with thirsty crops are able to trade it as needed. We support greater transparency measures, compliance and enforcement powers, and information sharing powers involving the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission and the Bureau of Meteorology. We strongly support provisions that stop insider trading and market manipulation. We support broader information about trades being collected and published, but we note this measure falls short because you would not identify who owns the water being traded, including foreign owners. I know, because I have tried to obtain this information only to have the door shut in my face.

The very idea that foreigners own our water, our primary farming land or any property in Australia is obscene to most Australians. One of the largest water entitlements in the basin, Cubbie Station, is majority owned by a Chinese company. They control enough water to fill more than 90 per cent of Sydney Harbour. Does China allow Australians reciprocal property and water ownership rights in China? Of course not, and this is fundamentally wrong and unfair.

The other issue of water ownership goes to the Greens's deal with Labor on this bill. While I don't have an issue with some existing environmental water being used for Indigenous cultural purposes, I outright oppose water being taken from irrigators and just given to Aboriginal land corporations to make money. This industry, which is rife with corruption and nepotism that prevents support from getting to the people who really need it, already gets up to $40 billion per year from taxpayers. That's more than enough.

As I said during the referendum debate, Australia is a democracy where there can only be equal rights for all and special rights for none. It's the only way that's free and the only way that's fair. We won't be supporting this deal between Labor and the Greens, the parties which are attacking Australian farmers on multiple fronts. Seven-hundred gigalitres—that's the bare minimum that will be taken directly from irrigators and river communities if this disgusting deal sneaks through the Senate. This will absolutely decimate irrigators and river communities, which have already sacrificed too much in water, jobs, businesses and lives to the Basin Plan. Enough is enough.

Labor-Greens environmental Marxism, which puts the interests of fish and frogs and birds and trees ahead of Australian human beings, must be held accountable for the disasters it is creating. It must be stopped before it's too late. We have the opportunity here to show farmers and regional Australians that they still have some support in this parliament. One Nation stands with our farmers, with our irrigators and the basin communities against this direct attack on their very survival.

6:30 pm

Photo of Kerrynne LiddleKerrynne Liddle (SA, Liberal Party, Shadow Minister for Child Protection and the Prevention of Family Violence) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak against the Water Amendment (Restoring Our Rivers) Bill 2023 in its current form.

The coalition cannot support this bill without amendments. The proposed bill is a rewrite of the original Basin Plan, which, importantly, was intended to balance economic, social and environmental outcomes. This legislation involves a cap on buybacks. The minister has proven that Labor puts its own lazy interests first. It is lazy, lazy policy. As a senator for South Australia, I'm particularly focused on the impacts of this bill on river communities in South Australia and those that rely on the river to exist. I'm talking about many communities along the river in South Australia, like Renmark, Berri, Loxton and Waikerie in the Riverland, and Murray Bridge and Mannum in the Mid Murray, right through to towns along the Coorong and Lower Lakes to Goolwa, near the Murray mouth. These communities are the lifeblood of my state, and contribute to making South Australia the great state that it is. These communities support farmers, irrigators, tourism operators and service providers. And then there are the workers that they employ. Remember the workers that Labor say they stand for? Or maybe they're just not the workers you care about, Labor, because they're not likely to be union affiliated workers. The people in these industries that rely on the river matter to me.

Where is the work? Where is the modelling that tells of the social and economic impact of Labor's grand Basin Plan? Why is the cost of this bill undisclosed? As Australians continue to hurt under Labor's rising cost of living, this decision by the Greens and Labor will only add to that pain. We will all see the impact at the supermarket checkout. Remember the cost-of-living pressures? Less water to grow and produce fruit and vegetables, cotton and farm cattle, will affect the amount of production, which will, in turn, increase the value and cost of commodities which will be paid for by Australian families. Labor almost always forgets about the flow-on effects.

And Labor ignores the end users. Between 20 November 2022 and February this year, South Australian river communities were affected by the largest flood since 1956 and the third-highest flood ever recorded in South Australia. There was an unprecedented number of impacted homes, shacks, businesses and infrastructure. River communities are still recovering. Labor may not have seen or heard them from inner city Sydney, Melbourne or suburban Adelaide, but they were hurting. I saw the houses along the river boarded up, some underwater, and others just trying to stop the flooding. I saw the farmers taking their stock to higher ground and losing vital fodder to the river, even for some time after the water had receded.

River Murray tourism was particularly impacted, like the popular river houseboat industry and environmental tourism that takes canoeing tours. Those who could survive are just getting back on their feet. Without the Victorian Labor government signing up to the new Basin Plan agreement underpinning this bill, it's not really a basin plan. Extended time frames to deliver the Murray-Darling Basin Plan are welcome. However, this Labor government's removal of the social and economic neutrality test on recovering the additional 450 gigalitres and resorting to buybacks is a handbrake on that bipartisanship. It was not the coalition who wrote in the Basin Plan that it must only be pursued if it then delivers positive or neutral social and economic outcomes. That was actually Labor. The coalition, in government, honoured the criteria written by now Labor minister Tony Burke in 2012 and worked with the Murray-Darling Basin Ministerial Council, at the time made up evenly of Labor and coalition members, to develop the social and economic test which was then agreed in 2018.

But everything, it seems, is different when Labor is in government. Ponder this example of Minister Burke speaking on ABC Country Hour in October 2012, leaving no-one in any doubt as to what the Basin Plan was about, when he said: 'The rule is that the additional 450 gigalitres can only happen through methods that have no downside, social or economic.' So that's the rule, and that's why none of this money could be used for general tender buyback rounds or anything like that, because the authorities reached a very strong conclusion that, if you did it through a general buyback, you'd get downsides for the local community. So what's changed other than who's in charge of the Treasury benches? That would be what you call a backflip.

This government's bill is a major rewrite of the Basin Plan. It includes a last-minute deal with the Greens to get it over the line by including $100 million for First Nations people to participate in water negotiations. There is no strategy or plan as to how the money will be spent. The coalition had committed funding to specifically include Indigenous people and organisations when consulting about water. $40 million was placed in trust while an agreement was to be reached about distribution. Well, guess what? With 18 months of Labor being in government, that money has not been distributed. It still sits in trust. But that's an enticing number, $100 million. It looks like a good headline. But it has not even moved to the people it's intended to benefit. Labor has no plan and no action strategy but to announce more taxpayer funding with no accountability. Announcements and outcomes are two totally different things. Labor's supposed Basin Plan fundamentally ignores the intent of the Basin Plan agreed to in 2012: to deliver a plan which would not destroy the social and economic fabric of communities and would deliver environmental outcomes, not just numbers on a page.

The then Labor government knew that buybacks hurt basin communities. We on this side of the chamber are more than concerned about the detrimental impact of water buybacks on regional communities; the Greens and Labor are obviously not. By creating a new classification of water recovery under the 450 gigalitres against which the social and economic test will not apply, the minister is effectively admitting that buybacks hurt communities, but the Greens and Labor don't care. If you don't fit their ideology, you just don't exist. The government say they will compensate communities that are impacted, but they won't say how, how the impacts will be assessed, what social and economic benchmarks will be used, or what the compensation looks like.

The real answer to this legislation is that buybacks are this government's first, second, last and only option. The millions of megalitres of water which has already been recovered for the environment over three major reforms over the past 30 years is actually having a positive impact. An exceptional combination of wet conditions plus careful use of water for the environment has created optimal circumstances for waterbird breeding across the Murray Darling Basin in 2021 and 2022, and that continues in 2023. Despite rivers running dry in the basin from 2017 to 2020—a record-breaking drought—South Australia received more than its base flow in each year of that drought. The current Basin Plan is working. With an investment in river management and complementary measures such as dealing with barriers to fish passage, invasive species like carp, cold water pollution and increasing in-stream fish habitat, we can expect to see environmental outcomes maximised while we maintain healthy and socially and economically viable communities.

As a South Australian senator, those communities are important to me, and they should be important to every single Australian. They matter. They may be downstream, but they matter. And they rely on the river because it matters to them. Sadly, this rewrite will not assist any of those communities that rely on the river.

6:39 pm

Photo of Simon BirminghamSimon Birmingham (SA, Liberal Party, Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak on the Water Amendment (Restoring Our Rivers) Bill 2023. I've spoken in relation to water policy many times over the years in this chamber. In fact, one of the first bills that I contributed on as a new senator in this place was the Water Bill 2007. I was proud to be sitting as a new backbencher on the government side in 2007 as Malcolm Turnbull and John Howard brought forward the water bill. It was a time of critical drought and water shortages which placed immense pressure on my home state, South Australia, and on so many communities right around the Murray-Darling Basin. The Water Act, as it passed through this place, has proven to be one of the most important and most successful—I'll come back to that—but also one of the most difficult reforms that I have seen through this place.

In many of the contributions, I'm sure I have reflected on the great old Mark Twain quote:

Whiskey is for drinking; water is for fighting over.

That is well and truly evident when it comes to the Murray-Darling. It has not been evident just in the last couple of years. It has not been evident just in the last decade or two. It has been evident throughout the European settlement history of Australia. Throughout that period, the federation debates were interspersed with arguments about how water is treated in our Constitution and whether there would be a role for the Commonwealth in leading water policy—particularly the management of the Murray-Darling Basin—or whether management would be retained by the states. In those debates, it was ultimately resolved to leave it with the states. The debates at that stage were more about river transport and navigation up and down our river systems.

But, of course, as the years went by, debates turned to the management of the river systems, flow regulation, issues of water storage, irrigation licensing and entitlements and, ultimately, environmental management. Throughout that time, the state led and state empowered approach embedded in our Constitution led to slightly more cooperative arrangements between the states, then to federal structures being put in place and then, finally, in 2007, to the Water Act being legislated through this parliament. It provided for a federally legislated architecture, melding Commonwealth law under international obligations with different federal agreements and maintaining certain residual state powers and responsibilities.

The Murray-Darling Basin legal framework and regulatory framework is a complex web and intersection. It requires, still, the cooperation of all of the different jurisdictions involved: the Commonwealth and the five different state and territory jurisdictions. It is on that score that I see the biggest concern and the biggest failing in the way the Albanese government has approached the bill that is before us. That's because their approach has lost the support of all of those jurisdictions. In losing Victoria's support and willingness to cooperate—and in imperilling it, potentially, after today's announcement of further amendments with the Australian Greens—they imperil that support from other states. We risk, potentially, seeing one of the great reforms and initiatives of Australian environmental management, water management and agricultural management undone because of the critical framework of cooperation between jurisdictions falling apart.

Why do I say this is and has been a successful reform, when all I hear from those opposite, from the Greens and from elsewhere, is a tale of alleged nondelivery? Unfortunately, for political purposes, there has been a conscious decision over the last couple of years to focus on a relatively small additional component of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan that was not part of the plan recommended and adopted but was an addendum to the plan at the time. When the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, as required under the Water Act, was finally brought to this parliament as a piece of regulation, it recommended some 2,750 gigalitres—or, for those who don't do giga-babble, some 2,750,000,000 litres of water entitlement—being recovered for environmental flows across the Murray-Darling Basin. That had been a long, scientifically driven process, one informed by community consultation, seeking to try to strike the balance of ensuring that extractions from our nation's largest river system were sustainable for the long term and that we still had the farming, agriculture and food and fibre industries that depend upon the river viable into the future.

That development of the plan saw much angst, and I lived through much of that angst and visited many of the communities both in my home state and upstream during that time. And during that time it became very clear to me, when I visited those communities, that you've got to be willing to say difficult things downstream and upstream and be consistent in all places. I've stood in Griffith, in Deniliquin and in upstream communities in northern New South Wales and southern Queensland, and explained why South Australia's Lower Lakes deserve to have freshwater flow, why they should not be purely saltwater and why the river should not be cut off at the end of the channel of the River Murray. I've equally stood in Goolwa, in Adelaide and in river communities in South Australia, and justified the existence of crops, like rice and cotton and other seasonal plantings, that provide a unique addendum to the permanent plantings and enable more efficient use of water and, from that, more efficient agricultural production across the basin. None of those have been easy conversations either downstream or upstream, but it's about being consistent with all those communities and trying to explain the different perspectives that exist.

Another great Mark Twain quote when it comes to water management is, 'Wherever you stand on a river system, everyone upstream is a thieving bastard and everyone downstream is an undeserving swine.' That is in some ways a reflection on human nature. But, importantly, when you are looking to try to share a finite resource like river flows in a water management regime, you've got to ensure that you are being upfront with all about the environmental needs such as those of the Lower Lakes or about the economic realities such as the benefits of seasonal plantations like rice or cotton.

So the Murray-Darling Basin Plan was adopted, with its 2,750-gigalitre target. But, as a compromise in the politics of the time, there was also an addendum of some additional 450 gigalitres being sought—but with strict conditions applied, particularly as they related to there being no socio-economic detriment to communities as a result of the acquisition of that water. It was a balanced negotiation between the state government of my home state, who wanted the extra water, and the state governments of other states, who wanted to ensure that communities didn't face the peril of losing their economic basis, their economic lifeline of water, to sustain those communities. Of course, the first task—the biggest task, the overwhelming task—was to recover the 2,750 gigalitres and to ensure that that adjustment, as had been scientifically recommended under the Murray-Darling Basin Plan to ensure sustainable extractions and river flows, was actually achieved. Sadly, nobody seems to talk about that now.

The Water Act established a new entity known as the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder. That entity, the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder, now has some 2,800, nearly 2,900, gigalitres of entitlement available to it. The Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder holds 2,888,695,000 litres of water entitlement. That entitlement has been recovered by governments—Labor and coalition—from farmers and from irrigation communities through system upgrades, investment in infrastructure and some buybacks, but it has been recovered in a massive total sum. The difficulty of that adjustment has been huge and has come at huge cost to the Commonwealth budget. But we should be celebrating the fact that that has been achieved and that that major bipartisan, cross-jurisdictional undertaking has seen a massive amount of water recovered for the Murray-Darling Basin that is now actively managed by the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder, each and every day of the year, in their decisions and their actions to create environmental watering events that support fish breeding, bird breeding, landscape enhancement and a whole range of crucial environmental outcomes that do provide, for the river and the system and the communities, a healthier outcome right across that system.

This is of a far greater scale than the 450 gigalitres that is the sole topic of debate. We have the Minister for the Environment and Water, Tanya Plibersek, other Labor ministers, Greens senators and others who only talk about how little of the 450 gigalitres has been recovered and never acknowledge the fact that the overwhelming majority of the 2,750 gigalitres has been recovered and that additional infrastructure works and management changes have recovered the bulk of the rest, ensuring that, as a country, we have actually delivered the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. That is what has occurred, and we should be proud not only of it but of the reforms and changes that it's achieving. And we should be grateful to the communities who have borne the pain of adjustment and have worked tirelessly in the delivery of infrastructure upgrades.

The approach this government has taken is, firstly, to basically dismiss the huge achievement that has been undertaken in favour of focusing purely on the addendum that was intended to exist to that achievement. Secondly, their approach has been to break the consensus of jurisdictions that has helped us deliver that huge achievement of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan and, thereby, risk the cooperation for the future. Tragically, in their pursuit of this, that consensus across jurisdictions has been broken because of the abandonment of the very commitment that Tony Burke gave as water minister back in the previous Labor government that that additional 450 gigalitres—that addendum to the Basin Plan—would be achieved only by means without socioeconomic detriment to communities.

The coalition, noting that we support some parts of this bill around timing and other factors, were willing to work with the government, as long as they maintained that no socioeconomic detriment test, as Tony Burke had inserted it in the first place. We were willing to work with them if they maintained reasonable restrictions on buybacks so that they weren't hollowing out irrigation districts but instead had a strategic approach to water recovery. We were willing to see the passage of this bill, because of the reasonable requests around timing and other factors in it, if the government was going to be reasonable in sticking to some of the safety nets that had been put in place in terms of the delivery of the addendum to the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. Sadly, the government has chosen the path of doing a deal with the Greens. That will only further jeopardise the cooperation of jurisdictions like Victoria and potentially others. It will only create further division in communities. It will, tragically, imperil irrigation districts, which is why even in my home state they are opposed to it. And, of course, it ignores the great success that has been the core of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan and its delivery to date.

6:54 pm

Photo of Lidia ThorpeLidia Thorpe (Victoria, Independent) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak to the Water Amendment (Restoring Our Rivers) Bill 2023. This bill represents the latest iteration of the colonial government attempting to restore the health of country in the Murray-Darling Basin, and, yet again, First Peoples have been left out of the process. As Wiradjuri woman and academic kate harriden pointed out, the title of this amendment bill raises two questions deserving deeper consideration: who is the 'our'—whose rivers are being restored—and why do rivers need restoring? Evidently it is not First Nations rivers being restored, given the absence of First Nations peoples and of our water ontologies, axiologies, management praxes or epistemologies in this bill.

To First Peoples, the earth is our mother. Water is the lifeblood that runs through country, connecting clans and songlines while nourishing the land. Since time immemorial, the knowledge and expertise of First Peoples has kept the lands and waters in the Murray-Darling Basin in optimal health while sustaining the cultural, social and economic wellbeing of communities who lived there. Our relationship with rivers, lakes and creeks is part of a deep sovereign connection with the country. To not only survive but thrive with over 250 distinct language groups for so many millennia on the driest continent on the planet, you need to have a very good understanding of water, where to find it, how to store and manage it, how to keep waterways clean and healthy, and how to ensure that all the life systems that depend on healthy waterways are kept in balance.

First Peoples have never ceded our sovereignty. As the Blak Sovereign Movement stated in their submission to the inquiry into this bill:

First Peoples have never surrendered. The war is ongoing. We are still here, we belong here and we maintain our rights, our borders, and our Sovereignty. This includes our water Sovereignty.

Australian law and policy has systematically failed to recognise and address these rights, leading to the marginalisation of First Peoples in water decision making and dispossession from water access, management and ownership.

First Peoples in the Murray Darling Basin have distinct, enduring sovereign rights and cultural obligations relating to the management and custodianship of our lands and waters. These rights, as outlined in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, UNDRIP—to which Australia is just a signatory at this point—have been systematically erased and negated from water management and decision-making.

This bill as it stands represents the latest iteration of colonial governments' exclusion of First Peoples from water management and denial of our sovereignty and rights to care for country. First Nations currently own—get this—just 0.2 per cent of available surface water in the basin—0.2 per cent—while—wait for it—overseas multinational corporations own 12 per cent. In some regions, water ownership has decreased since the Basin Plan was legislated.

This exclusion is known as aqua nullius, and kate harriden provided a definition of aqua nullius and its implications in this bill: 'Aqua nullius refers to the systemic and deliberate exclusion of Indigenous water rights from settler-state water laws and policies and resultant water system. Dr Virginia Marshall describes it as "governments' lack of inclusion of Indigenous water rights and interests … and reconstructs Indigenous water rights as aqua nullius or 'water belonging to no-one'".

'Aqua nullius effectively allows First Nations water values and practices to be constructed and defined by Western frameworks and values. For those familiar with Indigenous water design principles, aqua nullius can most obviously be seen in the waterscape, particularly water infrastructure—for example, weirs or stormwater systems—and channel modification—for example, channel straightening or filling in wetlands.

'However, aqua nullius is most pervasive in laws and policies. This bill epitomises aqua nullius, given its utter absence of Indigenous water rights and commitment to constructing and maintaining physical infrastructure changes in the waterscape. Thus the primary implication of this bill is the ongoing exclusion of Indigenous water rights from settler-state water laws, policy and practice. First Nations water laws, values, customs and practices remain "subdued". Given the Water Act 2007 is unlikely to be reviewed again in the near future, the bill will further entrench aqua nullius, resulting in further erosion of pre-invasion waterscapes, water quality and opportunities for Indigenous peoples to express their water rights, knowledge and practices.'

This government has made big promises to First Peoples when it comes to increasing ownership of water and involvement in decision-making, and this bill offers a great opportunity to fulfil these commitments. I'm still in conversation with the government on how this bill could be improved, and I'm negotiating in good faith to ensure that the legacy of aqua nullius ends soon. Throughout the Senate inquiry process there was unanimous agreement from First Peoples and our representative bodies, environmental groups, irrigators and legal experts about what needs to happen to this bill to strengthen our water rights and deliver outcomes for our people. I acknowledge the need to get this bill through before the end of the year, but my question is simple: how much longer do we have to wait until we get a proper say in the management of water? How much longer do our sovereign rights and cultural obligations to care for country have to be denied? And how much longer do we have to stand by and watch our lands, waters, rivers, creeks and cultural heritage being destroyed by colonial systems of extraction before our science, knowledge and expertise is respected, before people realise that we have the solutions to restoring the rivers and country in the basin?

Our solutions don't involve markets or dodgy infrastructure projects. Our solutions do not involve relating to water as transactional, as a resource to be extracted and traded. In First Nations ways of knowing and being, water is life. It is core to our relationship with country. Since colonisation, First Peoples and our representative bodies have asserted our enduring sovereign rights to manage, own and access water on our country. This has occurred alongside decades of advocacy for the colonial state to recognise and uphold First Peoples' water rights and interests, including proposed amendments to the Commonwealth Water Act. There is unanimous agreement for many of the proposals that are being put forward by First Peoples in this inquiry.

As MLDRIN stated in their response to questions on notice, First Nations advocacy over several decades has been consistent and unequivocal in its call for recognition of First Nations rights in Commonwealth legislation, procedural justice and water access. MLDRIN's advocacy has been built on this policy platform over many years.

As outlined in my additional comments to the committee report, I have highlighted some of the key reforms that need to happen in this bill and the Basin Plan to improve First Peoples' water rights and outcomes. These include: ensuring tangible First Peoples' water rights and interests through delivery of WESA; further improvements to the Water Act to recognise basin First Nations' right to procedural justice and water access and ownership; aligning the act with the principles of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, including our rights to use and manage natural resources on our own lands; our right to self-determination, in building our own sovereign nations to own and manage our own water; our right to free prior and informed consent; and also ensuring proper representation by First Peoples in all water resource plans and the next iteration of the Basin Plan.

Something else I have also pushed for which is crucial is for governments to genuinely resource a comprehensive basin-wide program of cultural flows without delay. This must include properly resourcing every First Nation in the basin and their representative bodies with sufficient and highly skilled staff and adequate funding to fulfil aspirations for genuine cultural-flows projects. It is critical that the Albanese government and Minister Plibersek do not miss this opportunity to fulfil some of the big commitments they have made, promising water justice for First Peoples.

I will not let this be another broken promise from the government, who talk big yet continue to exclude us and deny our sovereign rights to manage country. I foreshadow moving my second reading amendment and look forward to continuing to negotiate in good faith with the government to improve water rights and outcomes for First Peoples—I'm sorry the Greens have already sold out on First Peoples, but it's not surprising—and ensure that the rivers and waters in the basin can be rightfully cared for and returned to good health.

7:07 pm

Photo of David PocockDavid Pocock (ACT, Independent) Share this | | Hansard source

We are dealing with an update to legislation governing the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, which, it seems to me, was an ambitious but imperfect plan. It has clearly resulted in some improvements in river health in many parts of the basin, but managing a basin as a connected system is a complex undertaking. Considering the health of the basin's many environmental assets as well as the economic value of the water is full of trade-offs and contested viewpoints.

This year, I was lucky enough to visit communities in the south and north of the basin. I met with a broad range of stakeholders on those visits—irrigators, other farmers, First Nations groups, environmentalists, people who lived in towns along the river who were concerned about what water reform meant for them, and people who just genuinely loved the river and had a special connection to the river that flowed past their property or through their town.

I would like to thank Senator Davey for her engagement on water and for hosting me in Deniliquin, where we saw the Barmah choke and the Barmah-Millewa forest, then went to Menindee Lakes and saw the spectacular Macquarie Marshes by getting out on them on horseback. We then flew over big areas that still are Ramsar wetlands but look more like dry paddocks while being talked through the consequences of lack of flows around places like the marshes.

I'm grateful to the many people who engaged with me on this issue, the stakeholders who have come to Canberra, the many people who attended the two roundtables I held in Parliament House to learn more about the complexities of this issue, the people on all sides affected by this and people who have spent many decades working on either a specific part of the basin or an issue that encompasses many of the river systems.

The contentious part of this is obviously to do with water buybacks which, again, is an issue where there are many views and, rightly, concerns about what buybacks mean for communities. When water is being bought to be returned to the environment, administered by DCCEEW, who, from what I could see, are doing a fantastic job in most instances, we need to take into account what effect that has on regional communities. We know how tough so many regional communities have it when it comes to access to different services and the distances that they cover to get to school or to health care or to weekend sport—whatever it may be. We also need to ensure we maximise benefits by ensuring water is purchased in catchments where it will do the most good. Something that I heard echoed from most stakeholders is we need water in the right areas, so we need an undertaking from the government that when water is bought part of the consideration be that it's going to go into the right areas to ensure that we have healthy rivers.

Another thing I heard was concern about the focus on water quantity coming at the expense of water quality. Again, this is something we need to look at clearly. Many of these river systems need more water at the end of the day. But we need to be looking at: catchment management, farming practices along rivers, the way we are funding Indigenous rangers to get involved in river management, the way we are working with communities on riparian restoration projects and other conservation initiatives ,which we know are not just important environmentally but have huge social benefits. We've seen the data. The University of Canberra did a big study after the last big drought, looking at farmers who were engaged in Landcare or who identified as a regenerative farmer and their mental health through the drought fared a lot better than farmers who were not involved in those practices and did not have that support structure around them. There are far-reaching benefits for engaging and looking after these incredible rivers together.

Senator Thorpe just raised issues about First Nations water. Clearly, this is something that, as a country, we have to come to terms with. We saw $40 million allocated in 2018 and it has just sat there; they have not spent a cent. That is now worth probably 60 per cent of what it was worth. I welcome the announcement of $100 million for First Nations water. We have to take this seriously and ensure that there is water for First Nations people not only for cultural reasons but also for economic reasons, that there is water owned by First Nations people so that they can benefit from the water economically, so they can farm and make a profit. On top of the funding, I agree that we need to look more at the consultation and the way that the 40 or so First Nations groups in the basin are engaged and then the way that they are empowered to actually manage water and to benefit from it.

I would like to thank Senator Hanson-Young for her work on this issue for many, many years. I note that there a number of other South Australian senators for whom water at the end of the river is a huge issue, and many of them have kept this on the agenda for many, many years now.

I would like to take a few minutes to draw the attention of the Senate to part of the Murray-Darling Basin. I would argue it's an incredibly important part of the Murray-Darling Basin that has been missed by the Basin Plan. The upper Murrumbidgee has its headwaters in the Snowy Mountains and it flows past the towns of Adaminaby and Cooma and then through the ACT into Lake Burrinjuck, where it then joins the Murrumbidgee. It is in the Basin Plan. This important river has been the forgotten river. It has totally missed out on ecological improvements from the Basin Plan. It has been run by Snowy Hydro with one goal in mind, and that is to generate electricity. We have seen it starved of historical flows, with 90 to 99 per cent of its flows taken away. We saw in the last drought that it stopped flowing in the ACT, with disastrous implications for the ecological health of this river that is so loved by the people who farm and live along it and by Canberrans, who spend a lot of time walking along the river, swimming the river and enjoying its beauty.

The upper Murrumbidgee is an important source of water for towns such as Cooma and it's a backup water supply for Canberra. We know that population growth and climate change are putting increasing pressure on water supplies, on river health and, indeed, on whole catchments and on farmers in those catchments. We saw water trucked into Tharwa for drinking and for firefighting reserves.

It is this overallocation of the upper Murrumbidgee that I think needs to be addressed. We have seen decades without the political will to do this, and here we are dealing with an update of the Water Act to make good on the promises of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. That can extend the thinking and the care to the upper Murrumbidgee and the alpine rivers. The river needs more than reviews. It needs a guarantee of sufficient water. It needs a guarantee that it can continue to function.

Minister Plibersek said this morning in her joint media release with the Greens:

This is a critical time for our environment—I don't want communities to wake up one day with a dry river and know their governments could have done more.

Yesterday, I visited the upper Murrumbidgee at sunrise and was lucky enough to watch a couple of platypuses feeding. It's extraordinary to live in a place where you can do that. This is the continent that we have and that we can and should be caring for. Clearly, when it comes to these complex pieces of legislation, with trade-offs and such different views on the same issue, the thing that I would keep reminding colleagues in here is to ask: how far ahead are we looking? Are we making decisions where we can pass things on to the next generation and be proud of our contribution, with more platypus for our children to see and with healthy rivers for them to swim in, and still with water allocation for farmers? Will we work out a system where we can have these trade-offs and don't end up in ultrapolarised debate over this?

At the end of the day, we rely on these rivers for our health and wellbeing, for food and fibre and for all the emotional and spiritual connection, and we know that First Nations people have done that for tens of thousands of years. They've used the Murrumbidgee to walk up into the high country. They've met at specific places, year after year, for hundreds and hundreds of generations. While there's a huge amount of detail in this, we can't lose sight of the fact that we're part of these systems. We're part of nature and, if nature goes down, we go down with it. I thank the many people in this place who've been pushing to ensure that we can look after these rivers and also the many communities that rely on them.

7:22 pm

Photo of Jenny McAllisterJenny McAllister (NSW, Australian Labor Party, Assistant Minister for Climate Change and Energy) Share this | | Hansard source

As we approach the vote on this key piece of legislation, this really should be a good day for our parliament and for our country. With the Water Amendment (Restoring Our Rivers) Bill 2023, we are taking another step in fulfilling our promise to the Australian people to deliver the Basin Plan in full. And that is what this bill does. It offers more time, more options, more money and more accountability.

With these changes, we are opening up the full suite of water recovery options. We'll be able to invest in on-farm water infrastructure, in land and water purchases and in other novel water recovery mechanisms, where it's sensible to do so. We will be able to count recovery above bridging-the-gap targets towards the 450-gigalitre target. And we will be able to purchase water from willing sellers where it's needed to deliver the plan. Water purchase is never the only tool in the box. It's not the first tool at hand, but it does have to be one of them. The bill will also improve transparency and accountability in the Basin Plan and for water markets, and we know that this is most important for the many stakeholders engaged in productive activity in the basin.

Can I thank the senators for their contributions in the second reading debate. This is an important debate for the country, and I do appreciate the range of experiences and perspectives that senators bring to this chamber. Can I thank also the crossbench for constructive engagement. We have worked with the Greens on a number of sensible amendments, and they include extra accountability to ensure that governments are recovering water as they are required to—especially the 450 gigalitres of water for the environment—$100 million in investment in Aboriginal water entitlements and new flexibility to ensure water is recovered from across the basin, north and south.

I do want to say this also to the senators who are yet to make up their mind about how they will vote on this new law. Time is running out for the rivers of the Murray-Darling. None of us want communities to wake up one day to a dry river. Everyone wants healthy, productive agricultural activity and strong food and fibre industries. Everyone wants waters beds to breed and fish to spawn. No-one wants to lose that, and certainly no-one wants to know that their parliament could have done something to stop it. We do have to act now. I say to the Senate: thank you for your contributions. Thank you for your engagement to date, but work with us now to get this done. This is what the Australian people voted for.

I should also say that I table an addendum to the revised explanatory memorandum relating to this bill. The addendum responds to matters raised by the Scrutiny of Bills Committee.

Photo of Karen GroganKaren Grogan (SA, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The question before is that the second reading amendment on sheet 2190, in the name of Senator Davey, be agreed to. A division having been called, I remind senators that, it being after 6.30 pm, the division is deferred.

Other amendments have been flagged in the chamber from Senator Roberts, Senator Van and Senator Thorpe. I am advised that they do not conflict, so should you choose to move them at this stage, you may do so. We cannot vote on them, obviously, given the time, but should you wish to move it, then you may.

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

I assume I can move it tomorrow.

Photo of Karen GroganKaren Grogan (SA, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source


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

Thank you; that's what I will do.