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Monday, 21 June 2004
Page: 30900

Mr FORREST (2:48 PM) —My question is addressed to the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Transport and Regional Services. Will the Deputy Prime Minister advise the House of the government's attitude to the importance of water to Australian communities? Would the Deputy Prime Minister furthermore advise the House of initiatives the government is pursuing to provide sustainable and secure access to water for industry, consumers, irrigators and the environment?

Mr ANDERSON (Minister for Transport and Regional Services) —I thank the honourable member for Mallee for his question. I begin by acknowledging the member for Mallee's passionate interest in water. He is an engineer, and I think there could not be a more passionate advocate than he is for the water needs of his community, including of course the Wimmera-Mallee pipeline.

Nothing could be more important than ensuring, in the driest inhabited continent on earth, that we use our water very carefully, that we plan carefully for the future, that the water goes where it can create the most value, the most jobs and the greatest export performance and that it is all done sustainably. So it is that water and its proper management is unquestionably one of the biggest issues that the nation faces. The premiers are coming to Canberra on Friday. In that context, I hope they are focusing on what needs to be done. Water is often thought of as a rural issue because that is where, believe it or not, 67 per cent of consumptive water is used. In reality, it involves all of us. I think all Australians know that not only because of the imagery of drought on their television screens but also because something like 80 per cent of Australians are at the moment facing water restrictions.

In relation to where the water goes, yes, something like 67 per cent of Australia's water is used by the farm sector. But they are not the end users of that water. The people who eat the food and wear the clothing that that water produces are the end users of it. Of course, they live all around Australia and overseas, because our water produces enough food and fibre for some 80 million people around the world—a pretty astonishing performance. We have a responsibility to use that water wisely for high-quality, low-price produce not just for Australians but for people around the rest of the world as well.

The COAG meeting on Friday will make a very important decision regarding our national water initiative—whether to agree to it and its principles or not. I believe this is very important to the future economic prosperity of all Australians as well as the security of the Australian agricultural sector. A major problem, a really serious problem, has arisen in recent years—that is, water users have experienced a fundamental loss of certainty and security in their water rights. The implications this has are profound. It affects their ability to plan, to invest, to get into better technology, to produce more with less water and indeed to have confidence to take a long-term view of sustainability.

We find that, extraordinarily but in a very welcome development, we now have governments, farmers, environmentalists and scientists alike united in the view that certainty and security of access to water not only will facilitate investment, economic growth and innovation but is a vital key to achieving better sustainability outcomes. So we are on the brink of a historic opportunity for governments to put in place a framework to provide water users with the security they need to invest with confidence, to provide secure flows to the environment and to ensure fair dealing for the nation's water users.

The government are firmly committed to this agreement. We are firmly committed to getting water management right for Australia, but we will not sign on to an agreement for the sake of an agreement. It has to provide the right framework to take us forward. Firstly, it must deliver that investment certainty by ensuring proper access entitlements. Secondly, it must develop a proper framework for measuring, monitoring and accounting for the nation's water—where it is, who owns it and where it is going to—because we do not have that at the moment. Thirdly, it must improve the efficiency of water use in urban areas. Fourthly, it must ensure that trading reforms deliver real outcomes and that water goes where it needs to and can best produce the right outcomes for the nation. Fifthly, it must ensure fair pathways for dealing with overallocation where that exists and ensure that risk assignment is properly handled.

As the Prime Minister said in this place last week, the 25 June meeting is a make-or-break meeting. We cannot go on talking about this issue forever. I had hoped when we checked the web site that that might have come up at the Labor Party's country conference. I can find nothing on their web site. That does not mean that nothing was said; it does not even mean that there was nothing put on the web site. There could have been something, but there is not at the moment. That is disappointing because, to be fair, many of their state colleagues have provided a bit of leadership here. We are looking for them to complete that next Friday.

About the best we have had, apart from a bit of mumbling about the Murray-Darling from the Leader of the Opposition, has been from my opposite number, the member for Batman, who suggested that Australians could perhaps use a bit less water when they wash their cars. That is about as sophisticated a policy approach as we have had from him. It is time to move beyond that. State governments must sign on to a high-quality national water initiative so that we can move on, particularly to get some real expenditure under way in relation to the Living Murray process.