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Wednesday, 3 September 2008
Page: 4448

Senator WONG (Minister for Climate Change and Water) (4:22 PM) —I welcome the opportunity to debate this MPI today and I welcome the opposition coming out of the shadows where they have been hiding since the submission options on the Lower Lakes were provided to the Senate yesterday.

For those of you on the other side who have read the submission to the committee which outlines the options that are being considered by the department and by the MDBC, it certainly makes for very sobering reading. It outlines the serious situation in the Lower Lakes and outlines the short-term options for managing the situation that had been provided to government. It is interesting to note what has happened since it was provided. We have not heard a peep from the opposition somehow on which option they would choose. I am sure if you did a straw poll over there we would certainly not have a single position from the opposition because we know how divided they are on this.

Can I say this: given how serious the situation in the lower Murray is, I am shocked that we have the Leader of the Opposition trying to play it down. Today on Adelaide radio we had an astonishing distortion of the facts by the Leader of the Opposition, who misrepresented a report by the Bureau of Meteorology. He said, ‘Annual mean rainfall has been slightly more than average recently, 25 millimetres, but also we have had an annual mean maximum temperature for 2007 of 0.73 degrees.’

Dr Nelson was referring to the annual Australian climate statement for 2007. It is a statement that showed that 2007 was the sixth hottest year on record and it also showed that, whilst there was slight increase in annual mean rainfall attributed to La Nina, that was in Australia overall including the tropical north. But that very statement also showed that the Murray-Darling Basin remained dry. What is Dr Nelson’s message to Adelaide? His message to Adelaide is this: there is no shortage of water; just move to Darwin. Dr Nelson says: ‘Never mind if you are in the Lower Lakes because in the Kimberley it is bucketing down. Never mind if you are the member for Riverina and there is no water in Deniliquin.’

Opposition senators interjecting—

Senator WONG —Why not go and talk to the member there, Senator, because it is raining cats and dogs in Broome. And to Senator Joyce he is effectively saying, ‘Don’t worry about St George, Senator Joyce, because the Daintree is fine.’ While I am on the subject of the relationship between the Murray and climate change, it is indeed interesting to note that this motion was moved by Senator Bernardi, who is one of the die-hard climate change sceptics of the opposition just like his mentor, Senator Minchin.

Senator Bernardi —Hear, hear! Because he is my mentor!

Senator WONG —I will take that interjection, Senator Bernardi. He says, ‘Hear, hear!’ because these are people who just cannot let go of their scepticism on climate change and you are why the coalition has absolutely no credibility on climate change. Because you do not believe it is happening. So why do you not front up to the Australian people and say that what you took the last election was only because you thought you had to pretend to care, which is what one of your colleagues said—that you had to pretend to care about climate change. That was the only reason you moved before the election. I return to Senator Bernardi, who said just one year ago:

I have come to believe we’re seeing a distortion of a whole area of science that is being manipulated to present a certain point of view to the global public, that is that the actions of man—.

clearly, only men—

are the cause of climate change.

Perhaps it would be a good time now for Senator Bernardi to admit and recognise that an important part of helping the Murray is to tackle climate change.

I want to make a comment about the submission that those on that side clamoured long and loud to see, because before the submission was released the opposition were demanding to see it, and now it has been released they cannot face the facts. They have gone to ground. They have ducked for cover. If you consider yourselves to be the alternative government, it is not that easy. You have the facts now. Why do you not take some responsibility, Senator Bernardi? Why do you not take some responsibility? You made all that hot air and noise about releasing the submission and, once you got the information, where were you? You ducked for cover.

Opposition senators interjecting—

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Humphries)—Order! The chamber will come to order.

Senator WONG —While we are on the issue of transparency and accountability, which is what the opposition demands from government, it is very interesting to note that the relevant shadow minister appears to be hiding documents about the availability of water in the basin. I had a look at a transcript of an interview that Mr Hunt gave earlier this week. He says that he has his own figures on water availability for the Lower Lakes. He says, ‘The advice we have is that a higher percentage of the water than there would previously be will now arrive in South Australia.’ This is what Mr Hunt says: ‘This is water that’s available. It’s available now. It could make a real and significant difference.’

Senator Bernardi is speaking after me, and I say to him: why does he not get up and tell us where Mr Hunt’s water is? Why do you not get up, Senator Bernardi, and tell us where Mr Hunt’s water is? Because the fact is, you keep making these claims which—frankly, now that you have the information—you ought to know not to be true. You ought to take more responsibility as the alternative government for the way in which you enter this debate. I would like to know from Senator Bernardi, Senator Minchin or Senator Fisher where Mr Hunt’s water is going to come from. I am sure Senator Joyce would like to know that. I am sure Senator Nash would like to know that. And I am sure Senator Boswell would like to know that. But, instead of being transparent, what we see from the opposition, having spent 12 years in government doing absolutely nothing on this issue, is that they are now cynical enough to walk both sides of the street.

There is a consistent theme when it comes to the way in which the opposition approaches the politics of water. And it is politics, because they did not have an approach on the policy. It is this—it is very simple: it is called telling people what you think they want to hear. So, when you are down in South Australia, you send backbench senators down to tell those communities what you think they want to hear. Meanwhile, you have frontbenchers up in New South Wales and Victoria telling their communities what they think they want to hear. So, when you are downstream in South Australia, you express outrage at the state of the Lower Lakes and you call for emergency action, although you actually have no solution—no option that you have put forward on this. And when you are upstream in Victoria you tell your constituents that the lakes cannot be saved, should not be saved, and the government should not stop purchasing water entitlements.

What the document that has been presented to the Senate shows and what the Murray-Darling Basin Commission information, which was also released yesterday, shows is that there is no room for political opportunism when it comes to the Murray-Darling Basin. There are no easy options; there are only hard choices. We have significantly less water in the southern basin than we need. The document that was provided shows that currently there are around 3,949 gigalitres in storage, and 4,292 gigalitres have been committed. The fact is: if it does not rain, unfortunately, something has to give.

What I said previously in this chamber in question time remains the case. My first priority is securing Adelaide’s water supply and the supply for the towns that rely on the river. We on this side will not be part of any approach which threatens the critical needs of communities that rely on the Murray-Darling for drinking water. Again, I ask this question: can other senators say the same? At the moment what we have is a whole heap of noise from the opposition when it comes to the problem and deathly silence when it comes to a solution. You run away from the options and you run away from the difficult policy decisions, just as you did for 12 years in government. Where were you, Senator Bernardi? Senator Minchin was in cabinet. Where were you, Senator Fisher, when the previous government did not spend one cent on buying one drop of water to return to the Murray? Did I hear coalition backbenchers or Senator Minchin in the cabinet demanding that the government purchase water for the Murray River? I do not think so. You delivered absolutely nothing and now, in the face of the Mayo by-election, you want to whip up this issue, an issue on which you never delivered.

Let me be absolutely clear about the Lower Lakes. As the Senate knows, the Prime Minister has visited there. I have visited on a number of occasions and I have met with the communities down there. We do need to do everything we can to avoid the acidification of the Lower Lakes. And while the situation is serious and urgent, when the options before us have such serious consequences, we also need to avoid a precipitous decision, and that is the approach the government has taken. We are proceeding with a course of action that was outlined in the submission—that is, to continue the pumping arrangements which we have in place—but we also have to ensure that we find a longer term solution.

One of the things the government has already committed is $200 million to the South Australian government to find an enduring solution, a lasting solution to the problems facing the Lower Lakes and the Coorong, and we have indicated we would make $10 million of that immediately available to accelerate projects to the Lower Lakes in the Coorong. That is why the government has already committed $120 million for piping works to connect towns, communities and irrigators who currently rely on the Lower Lakes to a higher point along the Murray. Senators may recall that that announcement was made jointly by the Prime Minister and the Premier. Also, I was there when we visited the Lower Lakes and when we visited Langhorne Creek and spoke to the community there. Let us understand this: we actually responded directly to one of the options that were put to us by those communities. One of the things that were put to me and to the South Australian Premier was that we need to look at infrastructure works to secure the supply, particularly for the irrigators on the Langhorne Creek site. What did the government do? We listened to that and we provided $120 million to deal with that issue.

It is the case that we do face a great deal of difficulty on current inflows in the southern part of the Murray-Darling Basin in particular. We do have to take an approach that avoids having a situation where you see a repeat of what is occurring in the Lower Lakes in other parts of the basin, and we do need to do what we can to ensure that all communities in the basin have the water they need.

As the Senate would be aware, the government has a $12.9 billion plan, Water for the Future, which is fundamentally about preparing Australia for a future where we are likely to see less rainfall. But the reality is that we are prepared to recognise the impact of overallocation and climate change on this basin, and we are prepared to do the hard yards when it comes to delivering on water for the future. It appears that those on the other side are back to the old game of playing politics on water, pointing the finger and saying one thing upstream and one thing downstream. The reality is that those opposite continue to deny that climate change is real. They continue to deny that climate change is having an effect on Australia. They continue to deny that climate change is having an effect on the Murray-Darling Basin, and what we know is that they are deeply divided on what they want to do. All they have done, as I have said, is to tell people what they want to hear. Let us remember what Mr Hunt said in terms of the Lower Lakes. He said:

There are real things that can be done in terms of physical work.

What did Dr Stone, shadow minister for the environment, say? She said:

... no amount of strident demand for more water and flow from upstream would change the fact that there simply was not the fresh water available for these lakes ...

Is that the position? Dr Stone also said that we should open the barrages to the Lower Lakes and flood them with sea water. She obviously has not been listening to Senator Minchin, who went back downstream to South Australia and said:

... the coalition is totally opposed to the flooding of the Lower Lakes with sea water.

Who are the public supposed to believe—the shadow minister for the environment, Senator Minchin, Mr Hunt or Senator Birmingham?

Let us also talk about one of the ways in which we know we can return water to the river, which is by purchasing water, one of the fastest and fairest ways in a difficult circumstance to return water to the river. What does the opposition think about that? Firstly, we know that they did nothing for 12 years in government on that. They were 12 years in government and there was not one drop of water. But we also do not know what they think about it, because guess how many positions they have had on purchasing water? We have counted them. We think it is about seven, to date. In relation to water purchase, Mr Hunt says that he is pleased we are doing it but then he says that it will not work. Mr Cobb says that purchasing water is meaningless. That was after he said that it would cause a new drought. Mr Truss, Leader of the Nationals, says it will increase grocery prices. Mr Pyne, member for Sturt, says we should be doing more. Dr Stone says it is okay as long as it is not in her electorate. And Dr Nelson says, ‘Why purchase water? Why not just compulsorily acquire it?’ So who is speaking for the opposition and what is their position? Or are they too divided to have a position? Or is their position simply yet again, ‘Let’s tell people what we think they want to hear’?

What we ought to do when it comes to the Murray-Darling Basin is deal with the facts. This basin has suffered for too long from politicians and governments that have done nothing or have told people simply what they think people want to hear. We need to confront the reality of climate change, we need to confront the reality of overallocation and we need to confront the facts. Those on the other side are simply playing politics. (Time expired)