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Thursday, 14 October 1999
Page: 11623


Mr TIM FISCHER —My question is directed to the Prime Minister. Are you scheduled to visit the Snowy Mountains Hydro-Electric Scheme this weekend as part of the 50th anniversary celebrations of that wonderful scheme? What benefits have accrued to Australia flowing from that scheme and from the contributions of the thousands of Australians and new Australians who worked on its construction and maintenance? Is the Prime Minister also aware of real concerns of irrigators and others with regard to the immediate circumstance in respect of crop plantings for this year relying on irrigation water?


Mr HOWARD (Prime Minister) —I congratulate the honourable member on his close attention to local matters. I will, along with many other members from both sides of the House, be attending the celebrations this weekend in relation to the great Snowy Mountains Hydro-Electric Scheme. It is fair to say that that scheme stirred the imagination of the Australian community in its phase of postwar reconstruction in the late 1940s and early 1950s. It features 16 major dams, seven power stations, 145 kilometres of tunnels and 80 kilometres of aqueducts. It cost—and this seems in today's dollars a remarkably small amount—$1 billion. If built today, of course, the cost would be much greater.

The Snowy scheme made a significant contribution to the reshaping of the image of Australia as a nation built on post World War II migration, because the work force came from over 30 countries, most of them people affected by displacement in Europe during World War II. When Australians think of the Snowy scheme, we think of the massive contribution made by migrants from so many parts of Europe to the building of the assets of that scheme and the way in which they made, through that and through their later lives, an enormous contribution to modern Australia.

More than anything else, at the weekend we will celebrate the contribution of those people from so many backgrounds to the building initially of postwar Australia and subsequently, in different ways, of modern Australia, which is such a credit to all of us and such an example of what can be achieved through tolerance, hard work, commitment and equality of opportunity. Indeed, Australia is seen around the world as a shining example of that.

I am aware—as is my colleague Senator Minchin and the Deputy Prime Minister, in particular—of the difficulties and uncertainties that face some irrigators, particularly in the Riverina. I thank the member for Riverina. She and the member for Farrer, who asked me the question, have drawn attention to the concerns of their constituents. The issue of balancing the needs for water around irrigation, energy and environmental flows is a perennial problem in a dry continent such as Australia.

Although it has to be said that water management is in the remit of the governments of Victoria and New South Wales, the three governments concerned—because the federal government does have a role—have to work to try to find the right balance. Water is too important a resource for the Australian community to ever be the subject of partisan or interstate rivalry of a political kind. It is very important that I say that, whatever the outcome of other matters is, I do not want to see this issue get caught up in interstate rivalry between the governments of Victoria and New South Wales, whatever their political complexions may be.

I understand that the Snowy Mountains Council has agreed to release an additional 300 gigalitres of water on commercial terms. Part of the commercial terms is the repayment of any volumes used by the recipients against their future allocations. I do ask that the New South Wales government is in future very sympathetic to possible impacts on regional communities from this water payback if water shortages persist in New South Wales. It is very important that that be said.

The very livelihood of many of the rice growers of the Riverina depends upon the availability of water. I saw a group of these people yesterday afternoon, and they also saw the member for Farrer, the minister, the member for Riverina and the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry. This is an important issue and I ask the New South Wales government to treat these farmers fairly and decently. I ask the Victorian government and the New South Wales government—and, indeed, the Victorian opposition—not to allow this issue to be caught up in any kind of political crossfire. It is far too important for that. What matters is that the farmers of the Riverina get an adequate supply of water on fair terms. That is what matters, and that is what the federal government will pursue.