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Wednesday, 20 October 2010
Page: 976


Dr STONE (5:02 PM) —To continue, it is extraordinary that this new minority Labor government began making special abeyances to regional Australia and yet has just facilitated the announcement of the guide to the Murray-Darling Basin plan, which is to precede the draft, which is in turn to precede the final water plan, but the guide is hopelessly inadequate. It has caused absolute despair and profound disappointment among all those looking for a sound ecological and economic and social outcome. We need a win-win outcome to improve the environment and sustain the food producing communities, who are also in fact the managers of the environment in the basin.

In order to understand the seriousness of Labor’s failure to show leadership right now to build or sustain the confidence of the basin during this plan development, it is important to look at the scale and importance of the Murray-Darling Basin for all Australians. The basin covers one-seventh of our continent and is one of the largest and driest catchments in the world. It is home for over 2.1 million people but another 1.3 million also depend on its water outside the basin. Most of those are in Adelaide. The basin includes 16 internationally recognised Ramsar listed wetlands and these wetlands cover 6,300 square kilometres.

The basin accounts for 20 per cent of Australia’s total agricultural land and has 40 per cent of its farms. These farms produce 40 per cent of the gross value of all of our agricultural production. The basin is in fact, not just by reputation, the food bowl of Australia, growing most of our cotton and rice but 58 per cent of all orchard trees, 68 per cent of all the tomatoes, 38 per cent of all the onions, 48 per cent of all of the melons, 90 per cent of all the almonds, 95 per cent of all the oranges, 54 per cent of all the apples and 90 per cent of all the pears—and remember this is from only 14 per cent of Australia’s land mass, and in one of the driest catchments in the world. Our dairy production is also extraordinary.

One-third of all people working in manufacturing in the basin are employed in food processing, and this adds up to over 30,000 people, and guess what: the unions representing those people and taking their fees have so far been totally silent on the job losses that will proceed if this plan goes ahead. In 2006, 920,000 people were employed in the basin, with an increase in that employment of 8.3 per cent last year, and 98,000 people were employed in agriculture in the basin, producing $15 billion worth of produce for the nation’s economy. That included $9 billion worth of exports.

As I said in my earlier remarks, since colonisation the basin has been divided between different jurisdictions with different water laws and property rights to water. Since Federation there have been competing interests in access to water in the basin. We understood that, and that is why the coalition when in government addressed the governance failure across the basin and determined that we should have a sustainable future. We must indeed have a sustainable future which takes on board a triple-bottom-line approach. So a new basin water authority was to be formed that would work in the interests of sustaining both the ecosystems and the human communities making a home in the basin, producing most of the country’s food and fibre.

In 2004 COAG signed the National Water Initiative, which was to achieve water reform through an agreed, cohesive national approach. No-one said this would be easy. But no-one imagined that the task, left to a Labor government, would degenerate into a farce, destroying the expectations of people in and out of the basin that at last we would have an expert plan, based on best science, that would deliver a win-win outcome. No-one wanted to see Labor’s massive failure, least of all the 3½ million people dependent on the basin. But after three years and millions of dollars spent, last week we saw the Murray-Darling Basin Authority deliver such a deeply flawed guide, mostly ignoring socioeconomic impacts, that the basin community has been left angry and despairing. We know investment decisions are now being delayed, we know that banks are reconsidering the value of their lending portfolio, we know that employment is being already reconsidered and we know that more students about to graduate across the basin are saying there is just no point them considering employment in the future in natural resource management or agriculture because the basin, on the basis of this guide, just has no future.

There seems to be no recognition in the MDB guide that environmental water can be used many times over. There is just a bald figure of between 3,000 and 7,600 gigalitres to be clawed back from so-called willing sellers amongst the irrigators. But it is more complex than that, and there can be and must be a win-win scenario. For example, you can improve the quality of water in a river by an environmental flow. This same flow can then be put into a red gum forest as a flood and, finally, it can inundate a wetland. What we have seen in the basin plan that has been offered is environmental water calculation at the crudest—and it is the least scientific.

Apparently only some of the environmental water already quarantined for the basin is to be counted in the final analysis. The authority seems to have ignored technology or management processes that can and are being used now to manage environmental water into wetlands, billabongs, tributaries and rivers. We have just heard a contribution from the member for Wills, who accused the coalition of not wanting an environmental outcome from this plan. He seemed to think that all we want is the status quo. He forgot that there has been a drought and, like so many, he seems to be trying to pitch irrigators against greenies in the city. This is a crude and naive approach and one that delivers absolutely no benefit to anybody except perhaps those with the political lusts who want green preferences in the next state election.

We must have technology managing environmental flows and this involves pumps, regulators, channels and pipes. This is already the case in places like the Barmah Forest and Kerang Lakes. It is not just a matter of naming a number of gigalitres and clawing that water back from so-called willing sellers, who are in fact those leant on the most by lenders, and then saying the job is done. We have to ensure that every gigalitre is delivered efficiently at the right time of the year to the environment for the health of the ecosystem to survive. It has to be released at the right volume and at the right temperature. The water has to be of the right quality and the environmental water must be held for the right duration to ensure successful fish and bird reproduction and vegetation renewal. Failure to do the right thing means biodiversity loss and weed inundation and a serious revisiting of the worst of the drought impacts in the last 10 years. The ecosystem needs to be managed like a well-run estate. It is not just a case of throwing a few gigalitres of water down a river or into a lake when the cameras are rolling or a minister deigns to visit.

Unfortunately there have been some disastrous environmental waterings in the basin, which point to the fact that this cannot be about volumes alone. We need to have a skilled and committed state public service to march alongside our expert farm and food producers so that the outcome at the end of the day is as good as it has to be. We might be making some metropolitan based greenies happy if we talk simply about gigalitre volumes, but it does not guarantee a sustainable ecosystem at the end of the day. Environmental water must be carefully managed with funds committed to structures and measures to ensure the environmental flow actually improves the conditions of the ecosystems. We have to make sure that the farmers and other primary producers who live alongside and around the tributaries, the wetlands and the billabongs are also sufficiently viable through their own hard work so that they can assist, as they always have done, in monitoring, managing and ensuring the ecosystems stay in good health. This is not a them-and-us situation, as we have already seen the member for Wills try to push in his contribution a minute ago.

Let me give you an example of how locals care and often have to try to bring about some better environmental outcome when the public servants turn their backs. At the height of summer last year locals living adjacent to the great Barmah Forest, the world’s biggest red gum forest, with Ramsar listed wetlands and endangered species, were appalled to see that some people had smashed four river regulators, releasing some 850 megalitres of water into the forest. This was over a few days of 40 degree heat. The spill spread 30 kilometres through the forest and into wetlands, particularly into a five-kilometre wide stream triggering a breeding cycle for hundreds of thousands of water birds. Given the extreme temperatures and the shallowness of the water we soon had a black water event, all the fledglings died and the vegetation was killed. These farmers reported the disaster to me. I could not understand why it had not reached the media, nor why the state agencies were not doing something to try to find the culprits and to make sure it never happened again. This tragic event was only made public when I took it to the media and insisted that it be officially investigated. But no-one was ever charged, and I am not sure if any official investigation ever did take place. Yet, just months before, farmers who had spilled water into a recreational lake near Kerang were pursued relentlessly through Goulburn-Murray Water, the police and the state’s Department of Sustainability and Environment. They were named and shamed as water thieves and vandals, having put some water into the lake so that they could do some water skiing. There had been no environmental damage, but it seems there are different outcomes for different suspects. The local farmers were outraged by the official failures and by the waste of life, biodiversity and water in the Barmah Forest because they cared deeply about the state of that ecosystem. They have been its custodians for generations and they knew that a deliberate wetting of the forest at that time of the year would have catastrophic consequences, and of course it did.

The authority’s guide that is on the table now might please the metro based greenies in that it simply names some very big numbers. But those who really care know that it fails to take a valley-by-valley approach; it fails to ensure that the ecosystem, in all of its diversity, is sustained while they continue to live as food producers contributing to the nation and, internationally, to the food security of the world.

So timid or uncertain was the Murray-Darling Basin Authority about the guide to the plan they released, that they had a huge range of water reductions for potential use—from 3,000 gigalitres to 7,600 gigalitres, which is a huge 250 per cent difference from the highest to the lowest option. Then there was the ABARE-BRS client report commissioned by the Murray-Darling Basin Authority, which was released just a few weeks ago, which had a stab at modelling the socioeconomic impacts of a 3,500-gigalitre reduction. They conceded that there was some problem with the models they used, which only suggested a reduction of 1.3 per cent in gross regional product. They were worried about their efficacy and suggested you look a little harder.

We were not surprised at all when the chairman of the Murray-Darling Basin Authority, Mr Michael Taylor, at the first meeting at Shepparton—only one working day after the release of the 220-page report—immediately, without question, agreed with the distressed farmer in the audience: ‘Oh no,’ he said, ‘we know that the 800 job loss calculation in the report is wrong. We know that there are substantially bigger socioeconomic impacts. We think the model was wrong. We think it took a net cross-basin approach. Yes, we know it’s wrong. Our data is not up to it. But, of course, we had a problem with the legislation.’

I do not think there is any problem with the legislation, and I certainly think Minister Burke is wasting our time by even debating that issue. You just have to read sections 20 and 22 to see that it categorically spells out that there must be in the basin plan consideration that ‘optimises economic, social and environmental outcomes’. That is a quote from section 20(d). The act also says that ‘the authority and the minister must, in exercising their powers and performing their functions under this division (b), act on the basis of the best available scientific knowledge and socioeconomic analysis’. It goes on and on referring to what should be in the report or mandated in the final plan, which is to include ‘the social and economic circumstances of basin communities dependent on the basin water resources’.

It is just a red herring—a furphy, a time waster—for us to now say that the authority did not deal with the economic impacts because it did not think it was allowed to. How come we now have the basin authority saying, ‘We’ll rush out now and do some socioeconomic analysis work, and we’ll have it done by March, and yes, it parallels the panicked response of the minister, who said that we’ll also get a parliamentary committee to do that missing socioeconomic analysis work; they have a few more weeks to get their report in in April’?

This is extraordinary. We really have to get the minister out there in the basin reassuring our communities that what they read in the plan is not necessarily government policy, despite what Prime Minister Gillard said before the election, and that the government really does understand that the guide is an inadequate and flawed document and that it will take more than just so-called purchase of water back from willing sellers to get the right result, and that it understands that we must also have on-farm water use efficiency—a massive investment. There must be a win-win scenario where we make half the water grow twice as much. The ecosystems, the economies and the communities together have to be sustained, because one depends on the other. It is not a hierarchy with the environment at the top and everything else going to whistle, because it simply does not work that way. If you beggar human communities in the basin, they cannot look after and manage the environment in the way they have done for generations and struggle to do during record droughts. This government has failed in its leadership to reassure the basin that it will bring the Murray-Darling Basin Authority to task and make them do the work they have failed to do so far. The minister himself should attend some of these community meetings and show that he does, despite every other impression, intend to have a basin plan which is right for the nation. (Time expired)