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ENVIRONMENT, COMMUNICATIONS AND THE ARTS LEGISLATION COMMITTEE
ENVIRONMENT, HERITAGE, WATER AND THE ARTS PORTFOLIO
Murray-Darling Basin Authority
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ENVIRONMENT, COMMUNICATIONS AND THE ARTS LEGISLATION COMMITTEE
Department of the Environment, Heritage, Water and the Arts
Murray-Darling Basin Authority
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ENVIRONMENT, COMMUNICATIONS AND THE ARTS LEGISLATION COMMITTEE
(Senate-Tuesday, 20 October 2009)
ENVIRONMENT, HERITAGE, WATER AND THE ARTS PORTFOLIO
Bureau of Meteorology
Senator IAN MACDONALD
Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority
Senator IAN MACDONALD
National Water Commission
Senator IAN MACDONALD
Murray-Darling Basin Authority
- Bureau of Meteorology
- ENVIRONMENT, HERITAGE, WATER AND THE ARTS PORTFOLIO
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CHAIR —In the remaining 41 minutes we will deal with the department and the Murray-Darling Basin Authority. I understand there are seven senators with questions.
Senator FIELDING —I would like to ask some questions about the Commonwealth water buyback scheme. It was reported in the Sunraysia Daily on 13 October 2009 that there are many irrigators who have had their offer to sell back their water to the government accepted but are still waiting on the Commonwealth to issue contracts so they can receive their payments or progress it further. Some of these payments go back as far as February. Are you able to explain why the department is dragging its feet on these things? It is a very big concern and a big issue for these people.
Senator Wong —I will ask Dr Horne, after I make some brief comments, to give you a little more information. There have been a number of factors which have delayed the processing of purchases by the Commonwealth. One set of those factors includes the various actions or issues in state jurisdictions. I cannot remember whether you asked me a question about this in the Senate or if it was someone else, but the New South Wales government placed an embargo on Commonwealth purchases for four months. Obviously, that meant in that state, notwithstanding whatever arrangements the Commonwealth may or may not have entered into with individual farmers, there were lengthy delays and a considerable backlog of trades which the Commonwealth had. You may recall, Senator, that we, by negotiation, did get the New South Wales government to agree to remove that embargo but, unfortunately, we had a situation for four months where that was in place.
You are probably also aware from your home state, Senator Fielding, that the four per cent cap—which we could traverse for some time—is in place and was hit. I think we have heard evidence in this place about the four per cent limit being reached in Victoria in relation to purchases. There was subsequently an arrangement entered into by the Commonwealth, which involved a ballot system, and I should probably get someone who is more technically qualified than I to explain that. In South Australia, for example, there was a couple of months suspension of trade approvals while there were arrangements put in place to implement water entitlements unbundling. These are some of the factors which, regrettably, have influenced the time frame around some contracts or some agreements being finalised. Dr Horne may be able to provide you with a bit more detail.
Senator FIELDING —Before going into any more detail, can I just confirm that these numbers are roughly right: the buyback has secured around 500,000 megalitres from over 1,066 individual trades. Is that roughly right?
Senator Wong —Is this across the basin?
Senator FIELDING —It is for that region.
Senator Wong —I do not have them for that region.
Dr Horne —Which particular region are we talking about, Senator?
Senator FIELDING —It is what was reported in the Sunraysia Daily. You would probably have that.
Senator Wong —While someone is looking for it, according to the public announcements we made, and we generally make them each month, from memory, as at the end of last month we had secured a purchase of 612 gigalitres, not megalitres—so it is billions of litres—at a cost of $947 million.
Senator FIELDING —How many irrigators have been have paid for their water out of this water buyback scheme and how many are still waiting? Are they all waiting? I just want to get a feeling for that because there is very big concern here. I will come to some of the concerns you have raised about why there have been delays in a second but I want to get a handle on the size of the problem.
Senator Wong —What was the question?
Senator FIELDING —The question was: how many irrigators have been paid for their water and how many are still waiting?
Ms Kruk —Did you also want us to pursue what the purchase was in the Sunraysia region?
Senator FIELDING —Correct, for the whole lot and the Sunraysia region.
Senator Wong —We might have to take that on notice. I do not recall getting information about numbers. The information that we put out publicly and that we focus on is the gigalitre.
Senator FIELDING —I suppose I am not just after what is public. You must have information on how many irrigators have applied and how many have been—
Senator Wong —Could we take that on notice?
Senator FIELDING —Because quite a few have been accepted.
Senator Wong —Yes. And could you just be clear with me: is that across—
Senator FIELDING —I actually want both.
Senator Wong —I will take that on notice and consider whether we want to go through the process of identifying how many irrigators across the entire Murray-Darling—
Senator FIELDING —Not their names, but their numbers.
Senator Wong —If I can finish, Senator—how many irrigators across the Murray-Darling Basin we have had contracts with. Do you have a particular region which is of interest to you?
Senator FIELDING —I was trying to get a perspective across the Sunraysia region but I also wanted the total so I could get an understanding of the proportion.
Senator Wong —Sunraysia?
Senator FIELDING —Yes. Actually both of those: the total but also just for Sunraysia—those that have been paid and how many have been accepted but are still waiting for contracts. This is an important step, because people have been told they have been accepted but they are still waiting for contracts. I will go through the reasons for the delays that you put forward in a second. The reason I want the numbers is this, Minister: did one of your staff seek a list of irrigators affected by the water buyback delays? What was reported in the paper was that one of your staff sought a list of irrigators affected by the water buyback delays.
Senator Wong —I am not sure which list you are referring to.
Senator FIELDING —I am trying to work it out myself.
Senator Wong —You say ‘the list’. I do not know which list you are talking about.
CHAIR —Do you want to provide that to the minister to read?
Senator FIELDING —Yes, I can.
Senator Wong —Is this out of the Sunraysia Daily?
Senator FIELDING —Yes, it is. I think you have probably seen it.
Senator Wong —I do not know if you have noticed, but there is quite a lot of print copy that I have to read these days. I do not carry it all in my head. I was not aware of this, but I have just been advised that a member of my staff spoke to the Sunraysia Daily in relation to an earlier article in which some concerns were raised about irrigators being affected. The offer, as I am advised, was made that if we were provided with a list of people who had concerns we would then ask the department to see what could be done and find out the reasons for delay and so forth.
Senator FIELDING —How many were on the list? I do not want to know their names, but do you know how many it was?
Senator Wong —I would have to take that on notice.
CHAIR —Senator Fielding, we need to move on.
Senator Wong —I am advised that no list was in fact provided.
Senator FIELDING —That article mentions factors beyond your control—for example, in New South Wales and the Victorian issues. In fact, is it the case that a number of those contracts would not have been delayed because they would have fallen under the four per cent cap in Victoria anyway? In other words, I do not understand why you would delay stuff when some of them would have fallen underneath that four per cent.
Dr Horne —The Victorian case, as you well know, has been quite a complex one and the government has had to discuss with Victoria how much water could be purchased out of Victoria. So there are two sorts of areas where the government is able to purchase water out of Victoria. Some of them are in districts where you can take four per cent out. Those districts filled up very quickly, in the early months of the last financial year.
Senator FIELDING —And have they been paid?
Dr Horne —No. We were not buying water then. Other people put offers into the ring. We said we were interested in pursuing this offer but we would need to pursue it outside of the four per cent. Because the four per cent pile was already full we would have to go outside the four per cent. That then fell into a ballot which took place in July and August this year. Some of it is still taking place. I can give further detail in a minute, but it took place in July, August and September. In some cases those areas which we were looking at being able to purchase through exclusions were not available because the Victorians came back and said that they would not exclude those. So those ones go back into the pile for purchasing potentially under the four per cent rule next year. Some of them were able to be purchased this year, but some of them were actually next year—a year later. Because of the restrictions of the four per cent rule, which was, as you know, a restriction on everybody—we just go into the ballot like everybody else; we do not get any preference—we can purchase either within that four per cent area or outside where the Victorian government lets us. Inevitably, through this process, there are going to be people who get caught up and are going to have to wait a long time. Even though we might want to buy their water, they might have to wait for two years. It is completely beyond our control.
Senator FIELDING —Let us face it: this is turning into a debacle, seriously. I understand you can blame other parties here, but I do not think expectations have been set upfront. You folks are the experts. You knew the rules—they have changed since then but at the time—
Senator Wong —They have changed, come on. We are working—
Senator FIELDING —They were not told they were going to take this long. You would have known back then. If you are saying that, at that stage you had known.
Dr Horne —No. In fact, the agreement which the government struck with Victoria meant that each year we would be able to purchase 60 gigalitres over and above the four per cent rule, which is a massive increase in the amount of water which could be purchased.
Senator FIELDING —That is an upside. No-one is getting service here.
CHAIR —Senator Fielding, you have had a fair go. I am sorry, we are going to have to move on.
Senator Wong —I will try to be brief. I know other people have questions. The federal government has purchased 612 billion litres of water across the basin and we will continue to do that for a whole range of reasons. We are quite aware of some difficulties that, yes, I would like to resolve. Some of those are as a result of particular state government policies that we are also working to resolve. We have an agreement with Victoria to progressively remove the four per cent cap which enables those people who want to sell to us to do so. We have achieved agreement with the New South Wales government to remove their embargo. I would have preferred that neither of those two things was necessary but, in terms of implementing this policy, they were.
CHAIR —Senator Wortley has indicated she has got one quick question about Victoria, so we will go there, and then we will go to Senator Heffernan for four or five minutes.
Senator WORTLEY —Minister, can you please explain why the Victorian government is unable to transfer any irrigation efficiency savings to the Australian government for use in the Goulburn and Murray rivers, given that these savings are made with Commonwealth funds?
Senator Wong —You may have seen in the media that there has been a disallowance in the Victorian parliament, and that has a range of consequences both for the Victorian government and for the Commonwealth government funded project. Ms Nethercott-Watson might be the best person to explain very briefly the effect of the disallowance.
Ms Nethercott-Watson —The Victorian order in council was designed to secure the savings from the Goulburn Murray water bulk entitlement under the Water Act 1989 of Victoria. The order in schedule 3 of that bulk entitlement amendment provides for some modernisation water savings, including a reference to a project that the Commonwealth would invest in—stage 2. The disallowance of that order at this point means that we will not be able to receive any savings and transfer those to the Commonwealth environmental water holder. At the current point in time, however, we have not received the business case for the stage 2 Northern Victoria Irrigation Renewal Project. So it is hypothetical in the sense that we have not yet received the business case and received any investment for stage 2. The issue for early works is slightly separate, but stage 2 is hypothetical at this stage.
Senator Wong —It is a somewhat difficult situation. We have had an odd situation where members of the Liberal Party, the National Party and Greens have combined to block a mechanism to ensure that irrigation efficient savings can be managed in this context. They have combined to block a mechanism which ensures they can be transferred to the Commonwealth. I encourage those senators in the room—
Senator BIRMINGHAM —Savings that do not yet exist, Minister, because the Victorian government has not even yet provided you with a business plan for them.
Senator Wong —Be very careful, Senator, because this is exactly your policy. You are the ones who say we should invest in infrastructure and get the savings. This is the mechanism which will enable those savings to come to the Commonwealth under food bowl stage 2, which is the $1 billion commitment from the federal government to this Victorian project. My suggestion is that, if the opposition and other parties are serious about their policy position, they would encourage their state counterparts to be a little more reasonable about a mechanism which is important to secure the savings for this project. You can try to dismiss it, Senator Birmingham, but you should be aware that, in relation to the early works funding proposal presented by the Victorian government, I have written to Minister Holding indicating that it is not possible for the Commonwealth to approve all of the funding requested by the government as a result of what has occurred in the Victorian upper house.
Senator XENOPHON —I will put a number of questions on notice but, in relation to the letter you wrote to the ACCC chairman on 30 September requesting a review of the water market and charging rules due to come into force on 31 December 2009, firstly, what prompted this request? These water market and charging rules give greater control and protection to the irrigators of their water asset. What amendments are you seeking? Finally, given these rules are due to come into force on 31 December 2009 but that you have requested that the ACCC report by March 2010, will implementation of these rules be suspended pending that review by the ACCC?
Senator Wong —I might ask Mr Slatyer and Ms Smith to provide some assistance. In relation to the last, my recollection is that we have indicated that the date on which they come into force will be January 2010. Mr Slatyer might be able to assist with the ACCC.
Mr Slatyer —Your question was about the review of the rules?
Senator XENOPHON —Yes, and the minister requested that the ACCC report back by March 2010 but the rules are due to come into force before then.
Senator Wong —Yes, my answer must, therefore, have been incorrect. I will have to correct that.
Senator XENOPHON —Yes.
Mr Slatyer —The minister asked the ACCC to provide advice, including draft amendments to the rules, by March 2010. The reason for that was to give the ACCC time for due consultation on those rules. The consequent starting date of the rules would then be a final decision for the minister after that consultation process has been gone through.
Senator XENOPHON —So that means that rules that were due to come into force on 31 December this year will be suspended, or will there be a hiatus until March 2010?
Mr Slatyer —There is a transition period currently that extends till 31 December, but there has been no decision as yet to a new termination date for that transition period.
Senator XENOPHON —But, given the minister’s request that the ACCC report by March 2010, is it likely that there will be a further transition period until that time when the rules come into force?
Mr Slatyer —There will need to be a further transition period. We would be advising, through the ACCC, the minister on that issue.
Senator Wong —I will take it on notice because I do not think I have advice on the termination date as yet.
Senator XENOPHON —It is just that March 2010 is the date. I will put other questions on notice.
Senator Wong —We should answer that in a bit more detail. We will come back to you on that.
Senator XENOPHON —Thank you.
Senator BIRMINGHAM —Minister, is my recollection correct that you have told us time and time again that stage 1 of NVIRP, as it is now known, is what funds or provides the water for the north-south pipeline?
Senator Wong —I will be quite frank with you: I cannot recall what my answer has been on that. What I have said I think on a number of occasions is that stage 1 is not funded by the Commonwealth and that the involvement of the Commonwealth is the EPBC involvement, which I think you traversed earlier today.
Senator BIRMINGHAM —Indeed. Stage 2 is funded by the Commonwealth and none of the water savings from stage 2 are intended for the north-south pipeline; is that correct?
Dr Horne —That is correct. They are for irrigators and for the Commonwealth environmental water holder to the environment.
Senator BIRMINGHAM —Minister, in your response to the Victorian government that you indicated just before did you suggest that in the regulations they attempt to pass it would be wise for them not to couple together water savings from their own funded stage 1 and water savings from stage 2 that the federal government is proposing to fund?
Senator Wong —That is a decision for the Victorian government and for the Victorian parliament. I am simply making the observation that it would seem inconsistent that a party should argue that it is supportive of savings from infrastructure projects and then block in the state parliament—and I accept, Senator, that—
Senator BIRMINGHAM —No, Minister. It would seem inconsistent to me that you would sit in the pious position—
Senator Wong —Can I finish?
Senator BIRMINGHAM —No, you had a fair go before.
Senator Wong —I have not finished my answer.
Senator BIRMINGHAM —It would seem inconsistent to me that you would sit in the pious position—
Senator Wong —You asked me a question, Senator Birmingham.
Senator BIRMINGHAM —over a long period of time saying Commonwealth funding has nothing to do with the north-south pipeline—
Senator Wong —Senator Birmingham, you asked me a question. I have not finished my answer. It is not—
Senator BIRMINGHAM —Come on, Minister, why are you trying to tell the Victorian parliament how it should link together two different projects?
CHAIR —Let the minister answer.
Senator Wong —I was trying to say—and I accept that it is not your decision, Senator—that it would seem inconsistent that parties that espouse support for infrastructure projects and savings from those projects being returned to the environment would then vote in state parliaments to prevent mechanisms that enable those environmental savings to be dealt with.
I know you have a particular view about the north-south pipeline. It has been well traversed here. It certainly is a controversial issue in Victoria. I understand that. But it is not for the Commonwealth to be dictating precisely how state governments or parliaments deal with projects such as these. We have a particular role, which is the EPBC role, on the north-south pipeline and we have a particular interest on behalf of taxpayers in relation to stage 2.
Senator BIRMINGHAM —Minister, it is just a little bit too cute to come in here and suggest this. You understand full well that opposition parties, minor parties and parliaments cannot amend regulations. Regulations are decisions of government. The Victorian Labor government took the decision to link these projects, one which they have funded and one which you have funded. You have said you cannot proceed with the funding on the Commonwealth one unless this regulation is passed.
Senator Wong —That is not what I said. I said ‘some’.
Senator BIRMINGHAM —How about if the regulation is split, Minister? Surely that would provide the same outcome. I am quite sure that a split regulation that dealt solely with the savings from stage 2 of the NVIRP would pass the Victorian parliament. Perhaps you should reconsider what you have put back to us tonight when you said, ‘It is all on the Greens, the Liberal Party and the National Party.’ Perhaps it is on the Victorian Labor government that they should be drafting their regulations in a different manner.
Senator Wong —You are clearly quite sensitive about this, Senator Birmingham, and I am not surprised.
Senator BIRMINGHAM —That is because you have had a clever little dorothy dixer by Senator Wortley dumped on us at this time of night
Senator Wong —Labor senators have had very little airplay on this day. If you want to talk about being cute, Senator, and you want to open it up, you know what is cute? You telling people in South Australia one thing while your colleagues from the Liberal Party—
Senator BIRMINGHAM —Minister, let us not revisit this turf again.
Senator Wong —You brought this on. Your colleagues in the Liberal Party, such as Dr Stone, saying ‘flood the lakes’, such as Mr Cobb saying that they support—
Senator BIRMINGHAM —It is like deja vu, Minister.
Senator Wong —You know what is cute? What is cute is you coming in here and telling us about water reform and not having the spine to get a reasonable position up in your party room. When you can get a reasonable position in your party room, then you can come and talk to everybody and talk to the Australian people. But, right now, you say one thing downstream and another thing upstream. That is what is cute.
Senator BIRMINGHAM —The reason you are getting so tetchy tonight is because you would have been caught being too clever by half on this. You have tried to play politics with it yourself. You have tried to join the Victorian government, who have hardly assisted any of this water reform process. They stood in the way on water buybacks. They have been the most belligerent state when it comes to that. They have hardly assisted when it comes to water infrastructure. Why won’t you tell them to fix their regulations so that their regulations pass the parliament so this project can actually be progressed?
Senator Wong —I tell you what, Senator Birmingham, I will do you a deal. I can guarantee that I will continue to press for national water reform and reform in the Murray-Darling Basin Commission with the Victorian government just as I do with the New South Wales government and other basin states. Are you going to give us the same guarantee that you, as a Liberal senator concerned about water reform, will have a chat to the Victorian opposition about water reform? Have you done so? Because I can tell you, I do. I do talk to the basin states. This government does. That is how we achieved what we have achieved in the time to date. When was the last time you picked up the phone and told the Victorian opposition that maybe they should be a little more sensible when it comes to water reform?
Senator BIRMINGHAM —Minister, will you write further to the Victorian water minister and ask him to decouple these regulations to make it possible for the regulations relating to stage 2 INVIRP to actually pass the parliament?
Senator Wong —I have answered this question.
Senator BIRMINGHAM —Will you table the letter you have written to the Victorian minister?
Senator Wong —I will consider that.
CHAIR —We need to move on.
Senator HEFFERNAN —We are down to 500 gigalitres in the Goulburn River. What is the reviewed estimate of flow for the year? Have we got that, because it would be looking a bit more cheerful, wouldn’t it?
Senator Wong —For the Goulburn River?
Senator HEFFERNAN —Yes. It has got a mean of 2,700 gigalitres.
Senator Wong —Is there anybody from the authority who is able to help us? Mr Dreverman is shaking his head. I thought you knew everything, Mr Dreverman. Usually Mr Dreverman tells us how much water we do not have.
Senator HEFFERNAN —What is interesting is the amount of water that has gone down through the Gippsland by way of flooding. It would be interesting to know how much that was. It is in a different rain shadow to the Goulburn River. The Goulburn River thing was a stupid decision. We cannot own that up to that politically, but it was dumb.
Senator Wong —Senator, I do not know what you want me to take on notice.
Senator HEFFERNAN —Take nothing on notice.
Senator Wong —Okay.
Senator HEFFERNAN —I want to deal with the Lachlan River, but, before that, in terms of the Toorale sale, was there due diligence taken into consideration on the area based licences, and how did you arrive at a valuation for the water in area based licences which notionally should have been cancelled 15 years ago?
Ms Harwood —My name is Mary Harwood, and I am the First Assistant Secretary—
Senator HEFFERNAN —Is the department running out of money? You no longer have your titles on your name plates.
Senator Wong —When we did, it was all too small, Senator, and everybody complained about it. For example, you would have ‘Ms Kruk’ with ‘Secretary’ underneath it, and you could not read it.
Senator HEFFERNAN —Righto. Away you go. Good on you, Mary.
Ms Harwood —We have already provided—in response to a question that I think arose one or two hearings ago—a full description of the valuation process we went through for the water licences at Toorale, with the different valuations we got and the way we approached assessing the value of those water licences.
Senator HEFFERNAN —I can see it from here; it was about $350 a meg and six megs a hectare for pasture. But, in terms of the validity of the licence against the volumetric consideration of licences, how come these area licences are still tradeable instruments?
Ms Harwood —The licence is inseparable from the land in the Bowen-Darling because—
Senator HEFFERNAN —But when they issue the volumetric licences shouldn’t they be cancelling the area licences?
Ms Harwood —It is really a matter for the New South Wales government in its future floodplain harvesting policy.
Senator HEFFERNAN —All right. It is just another New South Wales balls-up. Okay. Could I go to the Lachlan—and, Minister, you may have to guide me here. I have a statement which I would like to table, if I could, from some community leaders in the Lower Lachlan. Is that all right?
CHAIR —If you provide it, we will have a look, Senator Heffernan.
Senator Wong —It is from community ‘leaders’?
Senator HEFFERNAN —It is from the likes of—
Senator Wong —No, no. I just didn’t hear the word, Senator.
Senator HEFFERNAN —It is from some of the people affected. The original charter for the dam construction on the Wyangala Dam was that they would secure the supply of water for the Jemalong scheme and for the long-term sustainability of what is the terminal river, the Lachlan River. Like most of the systems through the course of history, they have mucked it up and now the Lower Lachlan is completely destroyed. The Lower Lachlan floodplain is a disgrace. I will not read it, but the fact is that they bought the wrong property when they thought they were buying the ibis rookery and they bought the place next door. Don’t ask me how you make that sort of mistake, but anyhow.
Ms Kruk —I thought we had addressed that issue, Senator.
Senator HEFFERNAN —Mrs Norton was very pleased to go to $109 an acre, which has taken off, and the ibis rookery is still there and it is not protected, so don’t ask me how you come to that. But, in terms of the decision, this is a really serious issue.
Senator Wong —Which decision in particular?
Senator HEFFERNAN —To put a block in the Lachlan River. Could someone explain to me, given the sensitivity of the places I mentioned earlier, which are Booyong, Juanbung, Toopuntal—those places that are the terminal wetland of the river system—how you can take a decision, with no environmental impact study, to put a block halfway down the river which is going to leave about 500 to 600 kilometres of river to drain out? How is that possible?
Senator Wong —Senator, I might ask someone else to assist you. The advice I have is that this was a decision—as I think you and I have discussed—by the New South Wales government. I am advised that it was a decision essentially based on operational constraints, given that there were record low dam levels for this time of year, and obviously the priority is critical human need. I am not aware of what environmental considerations were—
Senator HEFFERNAN —I are imploring you—I am imploring the Commonwealth—to take an interest in this. As you know, I tend to follow it, and I have to declare an interest. I have had a place there for bloody years. We have faced up to this once or twice before. This happened two years ago. There was a contingency plan. I was not aware of it, because you cannot be across everything, but they did not actually have an environmental study done. They are now rushing around saying, ‘What are we going to do about the fish?’ Yeah, I know; it is a bugger. We are running out of time.
Senator Wong —Do you have a view about what should occur instead?
Senator HEFFERNAN —They should have been sensible enough to have had an environmental impact study. There is 500 kilometres of river. We have restocked the river. The fish are just up to the legal size. The carp have gone out of the system. The Lower Lachlan below Booligal for all intents and purposes now has no ponds. It is just going to be like a gutter outside the building here. It is going to drain and, if you do not do something, they are all going to be dead in the middle of the stream. The carp have filled all the holes in because they have dug the banks. There are some weirs above Booligal and there is one at Booligal. So you have a couple of hundred river kilometres where the fish, which are beautifully restocked—we have got rid of the carp—are going to die.
I am amazed, disappointed and distressed that a responsible, democratically elected government would decide to put a block in a river. At the stroke of a pen they said to the bottom half of the river: ‘You’re not going to have critical human needs water. We don’t know what we’re going to do about the fish.’ They do not even know how many homesteads are affected. A lot of homesteads do not have bore supply because there is no groundwater, and if there is it is a thousand feet down and saline. They have done no studies on that. They have had no consultation. I think they are breaking the law. Above the block that is going to happen at Condobolin in a couple of weeks time they are still going to allow extractions for irrigation.
CHAIR —We are running out of time. If we are going to get a response from the department, we need it now.
Senator Wong —I will get some advice about what matters the Commonwealth could look at.
Senator HEFFERNAN —Above the block they are still going to allow some irrigation extraction. They have to supply Cowra and Forbes and they are going to try and slug water down to Lake Cargelligo, but you would have thought that they would have a contingency plan to get the government and the Commonwealth perhaps to assist with the cartage of water. This could go on for God knows how long. In Booligal they are going to put a bore down in some local little aquifer and everyone will have to pull up with their billy and fill up because it is not going to be reticulated. They do not even know how many homesteads or how many livestock are affected. Blokes are having to take really deadly decisions. At the same time we see the stupidity of planning on those lower creek systems. The Willandra Creek goes off to Ivanhoe and the Merrowie Creek goes off to—
CHAIR —Can we get a response please.
Senator Wong —We will look at it. As I said, it is a New South Wales government decision. We have purchased in the Lachlan, as you know.
Senator HEFFERNAN —Yes, 50,000 megs. It distresses me that a government could take a decision to block a river without an environmental impact study, given there is a very sensitive, terminal environmental—
Senator Wong —I get the picture.
Senator HEFFERNAN —I do not surrender, but we will continue in another place.
CHAIR —Thank you to the department and to the authority for appearing before us. That concludes the examination of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts portfolio. I thank the ministers and officers for their attendance and also thank Hansard, broadcasting and the secretariat for their assistance. I thank all senators for their cooperation. The committee has agreed to Senator Birmingham’s motion to publish the fish! I remind senators that written questions on notice should be provided to the secretariat by the close of business this Friday, 23 October 2009.
Committee adjourned at 11.00 pm