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Wednesday, 29 February 2012
Page: 1207

Senator JOYCE (QueenslandLeader of The Nationals in the Senate) (13:41): I rise today to talk about the Murray-Darling Basin. Being within my shadow portfolio responsibilities, it is something that is obviously very close to my heart. If we did a word association game with the Murray-Darling, I think many Australians would think of the food the basin produces and the environmental assets it contains. The Murray-Darling has played a pivotal and iconic role in the development of Australia, from a country that at one point had problems with food production. We had times of starvation in Australia not long after whites settled, in the convict days—and we would not want to return to those days.

Not too many Australians realise that 2.1 million of us live in the Murray-Darling today. Another million, while living outside of the basin, rely on it for their water supplies. If the Murray-Darling were a state it would be roughly equal in size to Western Australia. The people who live and work in the basin are often the forgotten elements of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. There is much talk about gigalitres and environmental watering plans but less about how we can design a plan that does not—and this is extremely important—pull the economic rug or the social rug out from underneath millions of Australians. These Australians are the descendants of thousands of Australian pioneers who went west and scratched out a living, as was asked of them by their nation. They fed their family, they fed their town, they fed their community, they fed their state and they fed our nation. Now they feed not only our nation but people overseas as well. Their labours have produced the towns of Shepparton, Mildura, Renmark, Griffith, Bourke, Moree, my home town of St George and many others. The economies of these towns are quite substantial. Towns such as St George in the last year produced $640 million worth of cotton and a couple of hundred million dollars worth of grain, as well as cattle, sheep and everything on top of that. If a nation wants to pay its debts, it must make money; it must invest in where it makes money and it must accept that it produces a product that other people are willing to buy.

The pioneers who went out west and developed our nation sometimes do not get full kudos. We have this long-lasting legacy of real wealth and easy access to a wide variety of fresh food. One of the greatest responsibilities of any government is to feed its people and to protect its food sovereignty: the capacity to feed itself. So often we are losing this as we import more and more products and as we shut down agricultural areas, which will exacerbate the problem. We have representatives of these Australian people here in Canberra today. I would like to formally recognise the representatives from Women for a Living Basin who have made the trip to Canberra today. Their stories are some that are not told often enough.

The Basin Plan will have its biggest direct impact on those that hold irrigation licences. Those who hold an irrigation licence will generally get paid, but those who live in a town from which irrigation licences are taken will not. It is a ripple effect through the town—to the mortgage holder, to the tyre shop, to the motel. These people do not get paid. These people are left literally high and dry and are put out of business by the government.

We can see that impact in the data. House prices in 25 towns that the authority identified as 'vulnerable' have fallen by four per cent, according to RP Data, in the year after the release of the botched Guide to the Murray-Darling Basin. House prices have fallen in Finley by 17 per cent, in Hay by 15 per cent and in Stanhope by 10 per cent. Those price falls came after house prices had risen in these towns in the year prior, by nine per cent. I saw that in my own town. During the drought house prices went through the floor. Since the drought we have had one of the most successful increases in house prices. But what this has the capacity to do is lock in a permanent 'drought' in some areas.

The government's botched Basin Plan process, however, has dampened that new confidence even as the rain has continued to fall, because people are asking, despite the rain falling, whether the government will turn off the water. We can see that impact at the consultations that the Murray-Darling Basin Authority has held throughout the basin. In one week, more than 15,000 people turned out in Shepparton, Griffith and Deniliquin to voice their concerns about the plan. Deniliquin experienced its biggest-ever traffic jam—possibly its first-ever traffic jam. We can see the impact in the impassioned speeches that were delivered at these consultations. Bernie Roebuck, the principal of Finley High School, gave an impassioned plea for us to concentrate not just on the farms and the wetlands but on the broader impact of what we are doing—and this is a teacher talking—on the schools and on the social fabric. As Bernie said:

Constantly I hear that emotive calls, emotive language, emotive pleas, emotive people should be dismissed as the lunatic fringe because they exaggerate, they misrepresent, they do not produce balance nor facts in dealing with the plan.

I would say how can one not be emotive if your livelihood, and all that is important to you, is at stake. I see no reason for us to need to apologise for being emotive.

It is for this reason that it is so important that these women have made the trip to Canberra today. The fundamental problem with the Basin Plan approach has been that it is driven from Canberra, not from the people in the basin with the greatest knowledge and the capacity to bring about an outcome that will have the least economic and social effects and will deliver what people want, which is water for the basin. It is of constant bemusement to me that the Murray-Darling Basin Authority has one office for the basin, in Canberra, and another in Adelaide, Adelaide not actually being in the basin while Canberra is, in fact, the biggest city in the basin. So the question has to be asked: what about the other places—Griffith, Deniliquin, Swan Hill or Berri? It would be helpful if there were a greater concentration of shopfronts for the people in the basin in the areas most likely to be affected by the decisions of this plan.

When you read the draft basin plan there is no indication of how they have factored in the economic and social impacts of their decisions. You do not read anywhere, 'Well, we won't take so much water from this area, because the impacts would be too great on a social or an economic basis.' They made promises and they paid for consultants—and no doubt they have all got their cheques—but we have never actually been able to clearly identify a change to the plan by reason of social and economic factors. The draft plan reads as one giant black box that none of us, those who eventually have to vote on this plan, have the privilege of seeing inside. I fear that this black box has had to be constructed because the plan has become more about political compromise than a true and fair balance of economic, social and environmental concerns—which is actually what both the Labor Party and the coalition promised. I fear that, as Bismarck would remark, 'the lesser the people know about how sausages and laws are made, the better they sleep in the night'.

This approach is not good enough. We promised the people of the basin a triple bottom line. We promised people we would balance the economic, social and environ­mental outcomes. We cannot yet tell whether such a balance has been achieved because we do not have the detail in front of us. We all recognise that we need to protect the environmental health of the basin and that some of that will require a reduction in the amount of water used in the basin. But that is already happening.

Before the Basin Plan process was even started, the last Liberal-National government returned almost 500 gigalitres of water to the Murray through the Living Murray Initiative. Such amounts were achieved without the rancour and wasteful buyback rounds that we have seen from this government. These reductions were carried out in consultation with local communities, a process that the recent Windsor report praised but which the government seems to have ignored. They do not seem to look after their Independent mates when it actually counts for the rest of us. When it came to office, the government turned its back on these successful approaches and instead launched headlong into a haphazard and ill-thought-through buyback process. It all sounds good in theory: buy water from willing sellers. What could go wrong? Well, plenty did. The government spent $23.75 million to purchase Toorale Station, near Bourke. They did not even bother to inspect it before they purchased it. We know that today the government is yet to touch the infrastructure at Toorale, partly because an environmental assessment deemed that the irrigation infrastructure had created its own ecological climate which should not be destroyed. So the ring tanks and cells continue to fill but there are no jobs and the Bourke Shire Council has lost a substantial section of its rateable base. What is more: even if they were to let the water go, it would not go to the river but out to a floodplain.

The government also bought $303 million of water from Twynam Agricultural Company. From the government's own figures, we know the cost of this water was around $2,800 per megalitre, compared to an average cost so far of $1,900 per megalitre. So when they do buy water they are not prudent enough to do a proper assessment of how they could buy it for a proper price. Its rushed approach to buybacks was in stark contrast to its foot-dragging on investment in upgraded irrigation and on-farm infrastructure. Investing to upgrade our water delivery practices can save water for the environment and local communities. It is a justified choice given the social dividend that this investment provides. That is why when the last Liberal-National government announced its Murray-Darling plan, it called for this spending to be prioritised.

Instead, the exact opposite has happened. The government has spent more than originally planned on buybacks and less than hoped for on infrastructure funding. So far $1.75 billion has been spent on water buybacks, while only $280 million has been spent on infrastructure which actually delivers water into the basin. Now they are continuing that process. Just last year the inquiry of the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Regional Australia into the Murray-Darling Basin lambasted the government for its poor handling of the buyback and infrastructure programs. The report, which was agreed to by Labor, coalition and Independent members said:.

The Committee heard of grave mistrust of this department—

the department of water—

across Basin communities resulting from the failure of the department to identify and respond to community concerns on a range of issues. In addition, this department has demonstrated a consistent failure to deliver water programs, including strategic water buyback, which is in the best interests of productive communities. This department should no longer be responsible for delivering these programs.

The report recommended that the government end its non-strategic approach to buybacks, and this is something that the coalition put forward in its Murray-Darling policy at the 2010 election. The government agreed that it would freeze buybacks in the southern system. So it came as a shock to many in the basin that the government announced a new round of buybacks in the southern basin last week. Minister Burke argued in the other place yesterday, in response to a question from the member for New England, that this really was a non-strategic buyback process and was exactly what Murray-Darling communities were asking for.

That was news to them. Every major irrigation company has come out to criticise the government which, in its chaotic form of government that we are currently experienc­ing, once again has failed to think this through. Once again, it has failed to talk to them properly. Today in the Colleambally Observer John Culleton, CEO of Colleambally Irrigation, rejected Minister Burke's explanation to parliament as 'nonsense'. He said:

The notion this initiative is in any way strategic is just nonsense; it’s quite clear the real purpose is about buying water as cheaply as possible and being seen to be ticking-off on one of the Windsor Inquiry’s recommendations and little else.

What’s doubly galling is that this announcement should come as it has - out of the blue; so much for commitment to recovering water in smarter ways and the promise of improved engagement and transparency.

This is the hallmark of the government's approach to the Murray-Darling—lots of announcements, very little consultation and completely chaotic planning.

We are now 14 weeks into the 20-week consultation period announced after the draft. So far the Murray-Darling Basin Authority has announced only nine public meetings. After the release of the guide to the Murray-Darling Basin Plan they held 33 public meetings. This time meetings have been held at inconvenient times, such as during the grape harvest in Mildura. There is a growing sense of frustration at the lack of detail and lack of consultation that has been provided. Nobody can say how much water is needed for specific environmental assets. This plan is not just about the one or two iconic environmental assets; it is about 2,442 key environmental assets throughout the basin. Nobody can explain how much water is needed for each, how they are going to get it there, where they are going to store it and what the socioeconomic effects will be on the places they take it from. It is complete and utter chaos.

Every irrigator in the basin knows how much water is needed for the different paddocks in their fields. The government will now be the biggest irrigator in the country, but we cannot get any detail of how they are going to water their assets. They do not even know what to do with the water that they have got now. Last financial year they were allocated 724 gigalitres of environmental water but used only 387 gigalitres. Five gigalitres was wasted when it could not be carried over to the next year. The government cannot even say how much water will come from each catchment. Instead, they have hung X factors—I do not know what X stands for; maybe it is the Xenophon factor—over every basin community. How can they say that the economic and social impacts are not excessive on a particular town if they will not even tell how much will come from that town?

But this is not just about the towns in the basin and the 2.1 million people who live in them. This plan involves all Australians. If you push a shopping trolley you are part of the basin. If you want grocery prices to stay down you are part of the basin. If you are proud of Austria's capacity to produce its own food you are part of the basin. If you believe that people who have done what this nation has asked them to—go west, scratch out a living and deal with the privations of remoteness as honourable people—then you believe in the basin. But, if we believe somehow that borrowing money from overseas to shut down productive assets and reduce our capacity to repay our debts is a smart move, then we are fools, all of us.

Sitting suspended from 13:5 6 to 14 : 00