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Wednesday, 20 October 2010
Page: 970


Mr KELVIN THOMSON (4:35 PM) —It was interesting to hear the member for Barker talking about the history of this issue and the idea of the 1,500 gigalitres as recommended by the science. I can remember when I was shadow environment minister and Simon Crean was Leader of the Opposition and Labor in fact adopted a policy that we should see—over the course of a decade, let me say—1,500 gigalitres returned to the Murray-Darling Basin based on the scientific evidence of that time. It is regrettable, I think, that we did not see action taken at that time to return those 1,500 gigalitres to the Murray-Darling Basin. Indeed, the previous government talked about 500 gigalitres as the first step, but that largely did not eventuate either. It seems to me that as a result of that inaction the position has deteriorated in the meantime.

Let me also observe at the outset that one thing that will strike anyone listening to the Murray-Darling debate is the idea that the silver bullet to solve the population problems of Australia’s big cities—Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane—is to move people to rural and regional Australia. It is an idea that does not really stand up to scrutiny. On the one hand, we have the Murray-Darling Basin Authority saying that the environment has not had sufficient environmental water for decades, leading to environmental decline which now threatens the economy of the basin—the economic and social viability of many industries—and on the other hand we have members opposite saying that action to put water back into the Murray-Darling will lead to the depopulation of rural communities. If you think about these issues at all, it becomes clear that the Murray-Darling region is already stressed and in no position to absorb population from the capital cities.

Nearly 40 years ago, Peter Howson, the then environment minister in the Liberal-Country Party government of William McMahon, presented a report to cabinet about the declining health of the Murray-Darling and the need for action to protect it. Forty years on and we still have those opposite crying, ‘It’s too soon; we need more time.’ They always cry out for more consultation. Indeed there will be much more consultation concerning these matters—as the minister and the parliamentary secretary have pointed out—but the truth is that this problem has been well known and well documented for the past 40 years and those opposite had an abundance of consultation during their 11½ years in government. What we never got from those opposite was any action to protect the river system or anything to address the problem.

If patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel, consultation is the last refuge of the policy bereft. Those opposite have been calling for more consultation because, frankly, they have nothing. They are clueless on this matter. State conservative governments created the problem years ago, handing out licences to extract water from the Murray-Darling which were simply unsustainable. And, having created this problem, they are now bereft of any way to solve it. Having no answers of their own, they run interference on the government’s attempts to solve a problem which they have created. It has been said that:

Our greatest waterway, the Murray-Darling Basin, is under immense strain …

                         …                   …                   …

It is heartbreaking to read weekly stories about the Murray’s plight: water levels falling below the end of irrigation pumping pipes, the risk posed by rising salinity and acidity …

                         …                   …                   …

The clock is ticking on the opportunity to ensure the environmental fruits and economic benefits of the Murray-Darling Basin are not lost or endangered forever.

and that:

Australia was one of the first signatories to the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands of International Significance, but anyone could be forgiven for thinking our governments have not done absolutely everything in their power to protect our own ecosystems. What is preventing the government buying back more water licences?

I have to confess that none of the comments I have just made are original to me, though I would cheerfully associate myself with them. They are in fact statements made by the South Australian Liberal Senator Birmingham. Senator Birmingham is an intelligent man and a South Australian. I have never come across a South Australian who was not acutely aware of the risks facing the Murray River. Indeed, Senator Birmingham’s comments must have found favour with the Leader of the Opposition for he is now the opposition spokesman on the Murray-Darling. Some of his other observations, which I also commend to the House’s attention, are that:

The upstream states are extracting more water than can rightly be defended …

and that:

Increased water extractions over decades left the Murray-Darling system critically stressed …

                         …                   …                   …

The Murray-Darling needs a national plan for water use, delivered by an independent national authority, with the teeth to act.

The House should also remember, when we are debating an opposition motion attacking the government for endeavouring to return water to the Murray-Darling, that the Leader of the Opposition himself, in one of his first acts as opposition leader, described the Murray-Darling as the nation’s biggest environmental problem and proposed a referendum to put responsibility for the Murray-Darling in the hands of the national government. To my way of thinking that is a reasonable proposition, but it is very hard to square with what opposition members are saying here this afternoon. They now choose to ignore the abundant evidence of the seriousness of the Murray-Darling’s environmental problems.

Just last summer, yet another outbreak of toxic algae crippled the health of the Murray-Darling. In towns like Yarrawonga in Victoria, people were advised to avoid contact with the river or risk gastroenteritis and eye and ear complaints. We know from Australia’s National Dryland Salinity Program that, within 50 years, the water of the Murrumbidgee, Darling and Murray rivers may be too saline to irrigate most crops and that salinity in the lower Murray is projected to rise by 50 per cent—and more than 100 per cent in many smaller rivers—in the coming 50 years.

In 2001 we learned that, if things go on the way they are, Adelaide’s water will not meet World Health Organisation guidelines on two days out of five by 2020. I know some people think that Adelaide’s water is already pretty much undrinkable. We know that 16 of the basin’s 35 native fish species are now listed as threatened. Whether it is salinity, algal blooms, dying river red gums, endangered fish species like the trout cod or the Coorong, the Macquarie Marshes turning into basket cases, or the mouth of the Murray kept open by dredging, symptomatic of a system on life support, everything points to an unsustainable state of affairs, where inaction is not an option.

This is not just a question of the environment. A healthy river system is essential to support agriculture and drinking water. As the Murray-Darling Basin Authority has said:

The real possibility of environmental failure now threatens the long-term economic and social viability of many industries and the economic, social and cultural strength of many communities … the nation risks irretrievably damaging the attributes of the Basin that enable it to be so productive.

In short, we risk killing the goose that lays the golden egg. This is not a choice between irrigators and the environment. Either we protect the river or we kill the goose that lays the golden egg. There are no jobs from a dead river. It has been said that we are reaching a tipping point. If we keep flogging the horse, the horse will die and we will be left in the lurch.

The Murray-Darling river system is like a bridge which used to carry cars but in recent years has started carrying B-double trucks, and is starting to crack and subside. In 1920, the amount of surface water diverted for consumptive use was about 2,000 gigalitres per year. By the 1990s the number had risen to 11,000 gigalitres per year—a more than fivefold increase. If a bridge is starting to crack and subside, you do not say to the B-double trucks, ‘Because we’ve let you cross this bridge until now, we’re going to keep on letting you do this and take the gamble that the bridge won’t collapse completely, becoming useless to all traffic.’ The responsible thing is to say, ‘We might have made a mistake.’ You fix the bridge and you work out what weight of traffic it can withstand. It is the same with the Murray-Darling. You need to reduce the amount of water being extracted from the river, reduce the load it is expected to bear and work out what load it can sustain without collapsing.

Finally, I want to say that I have listened with considerable interest to the remarks made by the member for New England, both about the issue of the Murray-Darling and about the idea of tackling climate change by storing carbon in the soil. I think it might be possible to link those ideas. There are clearly significant sums of money involved in both restoring the Murray-Darling to health and in tackling climate change and I have no in-principle objection to industry paying farmers, or taxpayers paying farmers, for their help in tackling these problems on the proviso that the benefits are real and accrue to the environment—paying landowners to look after the land by planting mallee which stores a lot of carbon, or other native vegetation which tackles salinity, can make sense. We need to look after our rivers, our soils, our native vegetation and our wildlife much better than we did in the last century. I hope we are now going down that path. (Time expired)