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Wednesday, 15 June 2011
Page: 2846


Senator JOYCE (QueenslandLeader of The Nationals in the Senate) (13:38): I must say Senator Cameron is far more entertaining when he is elevated than when he is reading the script. I find it incredible that at the forefront of the policy agenda of my good friend and colleague Senator Doug Cameron at the moment is bringing about a carbon tax, which is going to destroy the fundamental standard of living of every working family. They are going to make them poorer, because apparently they can change the temperature of the globe. It is amazing—it is like living with gods, omnipotent beings! They cannot actually get fluffy stuff into the roof for the rats and mice to urinate on but they can change the temperature of the globe—incredible.

Senator Forshaw: You're getting hot under the collar.

Senator JOYCE: Today I want to talk about something different. It was great to hear your valedictory speech the other day, Senator Forshaw. I think from this point forward you should shut up! The other day I was fortunate enough to go to India, and to Malaysia on the way back. What struck me whilst I was there was how important it is to make sure that in this nation we can feed ourselves. That was at the forefront of my mind. What an incredible gift it is to provide good quality food.

To provide that gift, of course, you have to have the capacity to produce the food. What produces the food in our nation is the Murray-Darling Basin. One of the other strokes of genius of the current government was to bring about a guide to a draft plan which was going to close down the Murray-Darling Basin, close down our capacity to feed ourselves. What is even more unusual is that that is something the Labor Party said they would not do—in fact, they promised they would not. They promised they would bring a triple bottom line, an equivalence of social, economic and environmental factors. But what we got was something that looked after the environment and counted the bodies later.

We have to acknowledge that the Murray-Darling Basin produces about 40 per cent of our nation's food. It is responsible for housing about 2.1 million people. The result of the initial draft, where they talked about taking up to 7,600 gigs from the basin, was that there were almost riots, like we have never seen in this nation before, in agricultural towns throughout the basin.

I acknowledge the Labor Party's promise and the promise of my own side that we would bring about an outcome that would bring about equivalence. At times, there are anomalies within an act that mean that to fulfil a promise you have to strive for changes, amendments, if required, to an act. Therefore, I am mindful of the report that was drawn down recently by the Legal and Constitutional References Committee, A balancing act: provisions of the Water Act 2007. The inquiry drew as witnesses some senior people from the legal profession, not only from Australia but elsewhere throughout the world: Professor John Briscoe from Harvard University, Professor Judith Sloan, Professor George Williams and Josephine Kelly, a barrister at law who is extremely knowledgeable about the Water Act. Their overwhelming evidence, and I will read out one of the committee's recommendations, suggested:

The committee considers that the Water Act, as currently drafted, is uncertain and ambiguous, requiring amendment as a matter of priority to provide clarity for all concerned.

I think it is vitally important that we start from that premise. If we are going to truly fix the problem, we must have the capacity, in a bipartisan way, to look at the act. This was also brought up by people from Mildura and from peak industry bodies and by a wide range of people involved with the Murray-Darling Basin.

My belief at the start was that the Water Act was predominantly an environmental act for which you take into consideration social and economic outcomes. It disturbs me but also confirms my view that that is also the view of the Australian Greens, who state in their dissenting report:

The legal evidence to the inquiry is clear that, given the reliance on the external affairs power as well as the stated objects of the Water Act, the Murray-Darling Basin Authority (MDBA) and the Minister are required to give environmental considerations precedence in developing the Basin Plan.

That is the view of the Australian Greens, and I agree with them, unfortunately. For the coalition and the Australian Labor Party to deal with this issue and make sure we deliver on our promise we have to bring about amendments that give weight to our promise. The only reason the Greens issued a dissenting report is not that we disagree with the interpretation of the act but with its desirability. The difference between the Greens and us is that we believe in a triple bottom line approach; they want to deliver an extreme outcome which takes up to 7,600 gigalitres from economic use and devastates Australia's ability to feed itself. Because the government disagrees with the views of so many legal experts, it is important to outline why the act does not deliver the triple bottom line. In simple terms, the act does not do so because, while economic and social considerations are mentioned in the act, they are always 'subject to' or fettered by environmental concerns. This approach cuts across every part of the act—its objects, its purpose, its guidelines—for what the Basin Plan should include in its definition of environmentally sustainable take. In effect, this means that economic and social considerations are given substantially more weight than social and economic consider­ations under the act. Where there is a trade-off between economic, social and environ­mental issues, environmental factors are paramount; economic and social con­siderations are considered, but only after the environmentally sustainable level of take is determined. There would appear to be no scope for the MDBA to reduce cuts to water use below an environmentally sustainable level of take based on social, economic and other considerations.

This is all consistent with the legal advice from the Australian Government Solicitor that we have seen thus far and the approach the MDBA took in the guide to the proposed draft Basin Plan. Indeed, after the release of the guide, the MDBA stated that, regardless of the economic and social impacts, the Water Act did not let them choose to cut water use below the minimum required for the environment—that is, below 3,000 gigalitres recommended in the guide.

What does this mean in practice? It means that there is a wetland that needs 10 gigalitres of water—we heard this as evidence—and just above it is a town that needs 10 gigalitres of water. If in that wetland there is a precious frog or a sala­mander or something that requires 10 gigalitres of water and in the town there are jobs and the people that Senator Cameron talked about—working families—that also need that 10 gigalitres, and it is a choice between the working families and the frogs, guess who wins: the frogs; they get the water first. That is not a desirable outcome if you believe in a triple bottom line. That evidence was given by Josephine Kelly.

To get to the bottom of this, the government needs to release all the legal advice that they currently have. If the government have nothing to hide, they should release it all. But it is clear that the government are not confident of their position. If they were they would not say things like this—this is from the Australian Labor Party—in the government's dissenting report:

That advice shows that decision-making in the development of the Basin Plan involves the application of broad concepts and that there is considerable scope to consider how economic, social and environmental outcomes should be optimised.

What does this mean? The Senate asked the inquiry to answer whether economic, social and environmental outcomes can be considered on a equally weighted basis. The government's report fundamentally fails to deal with this issue, preferring once more to put their spin on it and try to use these amorphous terms where 'consideration' is supposed to equal 'equality'. Of course, it does not. If you wanted me to treat you equally, you would want me to go much further than just considering what your requirements may be; you would want me to act on them. And to act on them means we must change it in the act.

This is all about getting the balance of this plan right. We now have a report from the Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs References Committee. I would like to thank those people for the work they put into that report. I would like to thank Senator Xenophon for allowing, in his support, that inquiry to go forward. It is extremely important that we get it. None of those witnesses were unduly influenced by the government; I certainly was not involved in trying to convince Professor John Briscoe, Professor George Williams or Professor Judith Sloan what to say—they are all independent and they have basically overwhelmingly stated that, if we want to deliver on our promise, then we must be open to the amendment of the act.

My suggestion to the Labor Party is this: the Australian people are looking for Labor to be independent of the Greens on some issues and have the capacity and stand up, if required, and go in to bat for the Australian working families, the 2.1 million people who live along the basin. It means that they might have to have a fight with the Greens on some of these issues to deliver what they promised, but if they do not have the ticker to stand up to the Greens then they will continue to leech votes from Labor. They will take them from the left and Labor will start to disappear, which they already are.

This is something that needs a bipartisan view: we look for people who want to work constructively together. If we can get together to try to fix this problem, it will bring a better outcome for all of those who are there. We know what will happen. We have reports going on at the moment. People are saying the words, the beautiful words, that things are going to better, but if they are not better then we will end up with the outcome challenged in the High Court. The High Court will look at the act and the act will say, 'You have to look after the environment,' and it will not matter how beautiful the words are; they will throw the outcome out until the government goes back to looking after the environment first. And then all of those riots we saw, all of those problems we saw, will re-emerge and we will be back where we started. What we want, what I want and what I am sure the Labor Party wants is an effective outcome so that we can not only continue to feed our nation but also continue to hold up our responsibility in the world in which we live, in the south-east of Asia in which we live, and assist them to be fed as well.