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Wednesday, 17 November 2010
Page: 1477


Senator TROETH (3:01 PM) —My question is to the Minister representing the Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities, Senator Conroy. I refer the minister to the statement made by Minister Tony Burke on 25 October concerning the legal interpretation of the Water Act. In relation to the legal advice he was releasing, Minister Burke said:

What is important now is how the MDBA … responds to it.

With more than three weeks having passed, when will the Murray-Darling Basin Authority respond to this legal advice?


Senator CONROY (Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister on Digital Productivity) —I am not quite sure that it is within the power of the minister to deal with that, but I will give the senator what information I have on the legal advice. As we have discussed before, the government is trying to achieve three outcomes: to deliver a healthy river system, to deliver it acknowledging the importance of food production and to deliver strong regional communities. That was the objective when the Water Act was first introduced by those opposite. This government’s determination to reach that objective is the same. Let us acknowledge that the government’s triple bottom line approach is what those in opposition once claimed they sought too. It is certainly what the member for Wentworth sought and I hope it is what the current Leader of the Opposition is willing to help deliver.

Given the continuing uncertainty about the extent to which the basin plan can take social and economic considerations into account, Mr Burke did release advice from the Australian Government Solicitor on this issue. Broadly, the advice outlines that the Water Act:

  • gives effect to relevant international agreements,
  • provides for the establishment of environmentally sustainable limits on the quantities of water that may be taken …
  • provides for the use of the Basin water resources in a way that optimises economic, social and environmental outcomes,
  • improves water security for all uses, and
  • subject to the environmentally sustainable limits, maximizes the net economic returns to the Australian community.

The international agreements which underpin the Water Act recognise the importance of social and economic factors. The advice continues:

The Act specifically states that in giving effect to those agreements, the plan should promote the use and management of the basin water resources in a way that optimises economic, social and environmental outcomes.

(Time expired)


Senator TROETH —Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. Does the minister knowledge, then, that uncertainty continues to exist about the legal interpretation of the Water Act by the MDBA? What are the government doing to ensure that they and the MDBA both agree—to quote Minister Burke, as you have just done, Minister—that ‘environmental, economic and social considerations are central to the Water Act and that the basin plan can appropriately take these into account’?


Senator CONROY (Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister on Digital Productivity) —I think that there is a great deal of concern out there, which is exactly why Mr Burke sought this legal advice. Once he released it, even the National Farmers Federation welcomed the minister’s comments and said that they would reassure irrigation communities. Mr Burke has been travelling the country, talking with irrigation communities. We are in a circumstance where those consultations are ongoing. If there is any further information about when those negotiations could conclude, I am happy to seek that from the minister. But I think it is a little unreasonable of those opposite to now try to suggest that Minister Burke is dragging his feet.


Senator TROETH —Mr President, I ask a further supplementary question. I would have thought that, as the responsible minister, Minister Burke should be doing everything within his power to see that these things are expedited. When does the minister now expect the proposed basin plan to be released for public consultation? If the release is to be delayed until after February, why is the MDBA still insisting on closing off comments to the controversial guide to the plan this month?


Senator CONROY (Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister on Digital Productivity) —Thank you for your question, Senator Troeth. You have asked about a very specific point. I am happy to seek further information from Minister Burke. But, again, I think it is a very unreasonable assertion that you make. You continue to suggest that he is dragging his feet or that he is not interested. Minister Burke has been travelling the country, talking with these communities, as you would want him to be doing, I am sure. I know that he has been. I sit next to him in cabinet and, given that I represent him in this chamber, I have discussions with him about it. He is diligently pursuing consultations with these communities. I am happy, as I said, to seek further information on that, but I do reject your assertion that he is somehow not diligently following his duties.


Senator Chris Evans —Mr President, I ask that further questions be placed on the Notice Paper.