Tuesday, 28 November 2023
Water Amendment (Restoring Our Rivers) Bill 2023; In Committee
It is my understanding that, right here, right now, the minister is again in the process of having a press conference with our colleague Senator David Van. We have not yet seen the circulation of the amendments that the press conference is talking about. We have just seen Senator Van's second reading amendment pass, with our support because we do fundamentally support in principle enabling the government to use all available options when considering how they will recover water. I understand that the government has amendments through this committee process to facilitate the proposal in Senator Van second reading amendment. They will enable the bill to allow the option of forward leasing, instead of purchase, for the Commonwealth to recover environmental water. I fundamentally agree with that.
We would also like to see—and we will be moving amendments through this process—the government acknowledge complementary measures and rules changes as part of environmental recovery and as part of the Basin Plan. We know that the hard work hasn't been done by the department or this government of looking seriously at how that moves, so we have an amendment before us to require the government to undertake an independent review of complementary measures—things like fish passage, cold water pollution, addressing riparian vegetation and rules changes. We know that the New South Wales government has actually called on this government to do that work to enable rules changes to form part of the recovery process. We're calling on the minister to require that that work be done and not just accept when the department says: 'It's all too hard. We don't want to look at it.' It's much easier to rely on the transfer of a piece of paper. A licence is effectively only a piece of paper. That's what this government has been relying on.
We do support the work that will now go into looking to enable long-term leases. Either way, we believe it's appropriate for farmers to hold onto their water entitlements and be able to lease them to the Commonwealth at certain times and in certain scenarios. We believe that is one of a swathe of options that should be on the table for the government to consider. I congratulate my colleague Senator Van for his efforts to make sure that that gets across the line. It's funny that in the past I myself raised that option with the government. Admittedly, at the time I raised it I was not fobbed off immediately, but clearly the minister has determined that she will talk to the Independents more than she'll talk to the opposition on this.
A lot of the government's amendments before us do raise significant questions, particularly when it comes to the idea of a one-off SDL adjustment. I will have questions for the minister representing the Minister for the Environment and Water to try and get to the bottom of what that one-off adjustment means, particularly as to whether both credits and debits will be given equal weight and whether those one-off adjustments then go on the register and will be carried forward—and carried forward after water resource plans have been accredited. I note that these amendments were circulated only late yesterday. From my reading, it appears that the one-off adjustments are to allow for recording on the register of take in areas where there aren't resource plans accredited.
There are also questions about what the leases will look like and whether there are any case studies or examples the government can point us to to make sure that our interpretation of leasing is actually consistent with what is going to be in the bill. There are questions about the expansion of the additional held environmental water to be water access rights, water delivery rights or irrigation rates—or part thereof—and about whether those are the areas that facilitate leasing. I have some further questions about the meaning of the Greens amendments, specifically in relation to what some of the notes mean, and I will be asking about those through this process.
To cut to the chase, this is a moving feast, and it has always been a moving feast. The Basin Plan has for many years enjoyed bipartisan support. We did approach the government to talk about keeping the socioeconomic test for the recovery of additional environmental water. I understand that that is part of what is being talked about at the press conference that is underway right now, but we have not seen that amendment, and I really need to ensure that that amendment will go far enough. Not having seen that amendment, I have proposed an amendment that will insert a socioeconomic test into the bill, which I know is robust, which I know is consistent with the 2018 agreement of the Murray Darling Basin Ministerial Council and which has the support of basin communities from top to bottom, including South Australian basin communities, which I know everyone likes to fob off on one another.
There are so many questions, Minister. Through the committee phase, I should start asking those questions. The first question is: are you able to explain, Minister, the purpose of the one-off adjustments? Can you clarify that they are just to allow the register of take to record, in the absence of accredited water resource plans, where basin valleys or water resource plan areas are at, or do these one-off adjustments apply to any water resource plan area?
Senator Davey, thank you for your question and for your patience while I find the relevant information in my folder.
As you would certainly understand, under the Water Act and the Basin Plan there are 30 water resource plans required to be prepared by basin states and accredited by the minister. As you know, these underpin water accounting for the plan and they are key to its implementation. These were all supposed to be in place by 1 July 2019. Notably, New South Wales did not meet that time frame—we discussed this at some length in estimates. In fact, New South Wales still has 11 water resource plans that are yet to commence.
This amendment which the government will propose—and I think it's what you're referring to with your question, the government amendment about an adjustment—enables the Murray-Darling Basin Authority to make a one-off adjustment for water resource plans that were accredited after 1 July 2019. The adjustment would reflect the sum of combined annual permitted take and annual actual take calculations for each relevant water accounting period from 1 July 2019 to the year that the register commences. So the water accounting will be deemed to have commenced on 1 July 2019. We have put this forward to deliver fairness for all of the basin states. It means that we start water accounting for everyone from 1 July 2019, irrespective of when the water resource plans were actually accredited.
I think you would understand that it wouldn't be fair for New South Wales and some other states to have an advantage, or other states to be disadvantaged, through the delay in water resource plans commencing. All basin states were consulted on this provision, and supported it. This amendment also addresses recommendation 8 of the Senate committee, and responds to submissions to the Senate committee, including by the Inspector-General of Water Compliance and the Victorian and South Australian governments.
I rise to speak on the Water Amendment (Restoring Our Rivers) Bill 2023. The first thing for me to say is that neither the Murray nor the Darling rivers run through Tasmania, but that doesn't mean that I don't take an interest in or care about the Murray-Darling Basin and the plan to make sure the rivers will continue to flow.
The Jacqui Lambie Network has been banging on about our nation's food security and national water ever since I was elected. The Murray-Darling Basin supports $22 million in agricultural activity and is part of our nation's food bowl. Over two million Australians call the basin home and 40 First Nations peoples have called it home for a thousand generations. The Murray-Darling Basin also generates billions of tourism dollars, not to mention the internationally recognised wetlands and the animals, birds and fish that live on and in the rivers. The Murray-Darling Basin has many stakeholders, and that includes communities in the basin and beyond. These are people in Adelaide and as far as Whyalla on South Australia's Eyre Peninsula, who drink its water.
But for a long time there has been too much water taken from the Murray and the Darling rivers. It took the millennium drought for our leaders to wake up to the idea that a plan was needed to address the overextraction of water. Back in 2006, water ministers from the affected states and the federal government met and agreed that if things didn't change it would lead to environmental, economic and social disasters. And, for once, everyone agreed that action must be taken. A year later the Water Act 2007 was passed, guided through the federal parliament by then federal water minister, Malcolm Turnbull. It legislated the need for a plan, the scientists got to work and in October 2010 the Murray-Darling Basin Authority said that, scientifically, we need to return at least 3,900 gigalitres of water, and that was for a low certainty of success. But the scientists at the time said that a better number was 7,600 gigalitres for a high certainty of success. The big irrigators weren't happy. They saw an immediate challenge to their bottom line. Protests were organised. In Griffith there were even burnings of the guide to the plan. Well-paid lobbyists were engaged and political arms in this building were twisted. I can tell you that nothing much changed. In the end—what do you know?—as per usual politics trumped science. I know that, sadly, that won't surprise many Australians out there.
The lobbyists had done their work, and the plan for water was reworked so that it called for only 2,750 gigalitres to be returned to the river system, plus another 450 gigalitres of 'efficiency water' South Australia insisted on before agreeing to the plan. Instead of a scientific number between 3,900 and 7,600 gigalitres of water being returned to the river, the target was set at just 3,200 gigalitres. You wonder why we are standing here today. The scientists had agreed that 3,200 gigalitres wasn't enough, and, by the way, it wasn't. To make matters worse, the government didn't factor in climate change, which of course is making the situation even worse. It's getting hotter, and inflows to the southern basin are falling. Less water is going in, more is being lost through evaporation, and there has been no reduction in what's being taken out of the river.
Thirteen billion bucks was set aside to implement this scientifically flawed plan. What happened? It failed. It has fallen short of the 2,750-gigalitre target. After nearly 10 years, the plan has recovered just over 60 per cent of the target. Of the 450 gigalitres, only five per cent has been achieved. That in itself is shameful. It's a pretty bad return to Australians out there for their 13 billion bucks.
After 10 years of the very poor performance of the Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison governments, Labor has been left to clean up the mess. But—this gets even better—it's taken Labor and Minister Plibersek 18 months to come up with a plan to fix the water flows and keep the rivers flowing, and this is what they've come up with. The bill before us isn't perfect. As a matter of fact, it is far from it. It's not a winner for any of the stakeholders. No-one is winning out of this. You've had 18 months to come up with a plan of trash. That's what the taxpayer is paying for. That's the truth of the matter. Is this the best thing you could deliver in here? My goodness me, Labor is slipping, isn't it!
The coalition originally promised First Nations people $40 million to buy water entitlements. The $40 million never turned up, and now the Labor government is promising $100 million. But the bill doesn't, in law, recognise the connection of these nations. The bill also removes the cap on water buybacks, which is the main method for getting water back into the rivers. Guess what, Australia? The government won't even say how much this will cost. That's right—it's got no costing on it. And another thing: the government are hiding behind commercial-in-confidence, as per usual.
Australians are no better off with either side. The bill also doesn't address—wait for it—targeted reforms that will take into account climate change projections. They have not done that. They have not done that, but the Greens have decided to sign up with them. I don't see any amendments that address that. The Greens are signing up with the Labor Party here. With environmental groups telling the media that this bill is doing the bare minimum, this is as good as it gets from a Labor-Greens government. This bill also delays a review of the operation of the act. A farmer told me, 'I have never been to so many depressing farming meetings since this bill was announced.' As if they're not doing it tough enough already.
Something has to be done. We're at a fork in the river. Down one path is a smooth ride free of conflict with big irrigators and state governments, but it will inevitably lead to dry creek beds and environmental disasters. Down the other path are some political rapids that will take a bit of courage to push through, but they will lead to a sustainable system where everyone benefits, even the irrigators. This looks to me like another government bill that has been designed to do a little bit here and a little bit there but never fix things. It's like being half-pregnant. You haven't got the glory to go all the way and do what needs to be done for national water security; that is what it comes down to.
Why aren't we looking at what crop production best meets the national interest? Why aren't we looking at what crops are needed to provide a variety of food for Tasmanians? Have you learned nothing from COVID on that side? Obviously not! Which communities and businesses can be transitioned so they can survive into the future? Where is all that done? Look at the cotton and the almonds, crops that use hundreds of gigalitres of water. But we ship it off so that huge hedge funds—that's right, the hedge funds—and big business can make mega profits. Don't worry about our food and water security in Australia; don't worry about that. You have neglected that, as per usual. We live in the driest continent on the planet, and exporting cotton and almonds is the same as exporting water. How dumb is that? I thought this government was going to bring back manufacturing; I thought it was going to bring some common sense back in here. It obviously has not! This government was going to make Australia great again. Well, we're 18 months in. How's that going for you? Not so bloody great, is it?
I'll be looking at every one of these amendments, and I'll be looking very carefully at what we have done this morning, because, as per usual, having everything wedged at us as once as a crossbench is not helpful. I'm hoping that some of these amendments may make this bill just a little bit better, although I have my doubts. I also want to make sure that this apparently new plan will protect our food security. I actually have no faith in you doing that whatsoever, to be honest—none whatsoever! And I ask the Australian people not to have any faith in them either, because I do not believe you'll get the job done.
My question to you, Minister, is: I have not seen it, but is there or is there not economic modelling in relation to this bill?
I thank senators for their contributions this morning and in the second reading debate. Senator Lambie, you've made a number of observations about areas where you believe the bill ought to have gone further. You've also made a number of observations, which I agree with, about the shortcomings in the last decade. The truth is that settling a set of workable arrangements for a healthy working Murray-Darling Basin was a very difficult political challenge indeed.
I was talking to someone just yesterday who referred to the fact that in the debates leading up to the Federation a good proportion of the record of conversation between the different states when they were contemplating forming the Federation was, in fact, about how the Murray would be managed and how the assets and the resources in the Murray system would be worked. It is a longstanding feature of Australian politics. It took the last Labor government to work through the very complex issues, balancing the economic interests, the community interests and the environmental interests in that system. The truth is that many decades of development saw more water resources allocated for productive use than could be sustained in that system. The test for government—which was met in a bipartisan way at that time—was to find a fair way of redressing that and responding to it. Unfortunately, in the years that the Abbott, Turnbull and Morrison governments were administering this plan, they didn't make sufficient progress. On coming to government, we were advised that it wouldn't be possible to implement the plan in full on the current policy settings. That's the process that has led to this bill.
We know these are hard questions for communities to deal with. Change is difficult. That's true, whether it's change that comes about as a consequence of global economic forces shaping the preferences for crop production in the basin or change that comes about because a warming planet is creating drier conditions in parts of the basin. It's also true about policy changes. It's why we have tried to work through this in a sensitive, consultative way, engaging with all the stakeholders to try and find a way through this, working with the states and territories and the various parts of the basin community.
You asked about economic modelling for this bill, Senator Lambie, and I think what you are really referring to—