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Thursday, 14 September 1978

Senator THOMAS (Western Australia) - I shall speak only briefly. I firstly thank Senator McLaren not only for his remarks but also for the enthusiasm which he portrayed in the investigation of this important subject. He, together with Senator Robertson and Senator Maunsell, showed special interest in this matter, and I would thank them for their contribution. I personally, in common with other Chairmen of Senate standing committees, appreciate the new policy that has been announced by the Prime Minister (Mr Malcolm Fraser) that the relevant Minister will respond to these reports. I assure Senator McLaren that I shall be pushing as hard as possible for the adoption of not only that part of the report but all of its recommendations.

We have a good precedent in that the first inquiry that was carried out by the Committee, upon its establishment in March 1976, was into solar energy, and all of its major recommendations on that subject have been adopted by the Government. I would also mention that currently the Committee is investigating the adequacy of quarantine and other control measures to protect the Australian pastoral industry from the introduction of exotic livestock and plant diseases. There is no doubt in my mind- certainly there is none in the minds of my Committee- that we could not do anywhere near the job that we do without the assistance of the staff. We are all pretty busy and have other duties to perform in the Senate, and the staff renders extremely valuable assistance to us.

The terms of reference of this inquiry into water resources underline a problem that is not shared by other committees: Almost without exception, areas of natural resources come within the purview and /or responsibility of the States. Most of the matters that are looked at by other committees are within the responsibility of the Commonwealth. This fact was strongly underlined in regard to the question of water resources. The two main parts of the terms of reference- apart from the requirement to look at the assessment, planning, development and management of Australia's water resourceswere to examine in detail the diverse responsibilities of the Commonwealth and the States, and the national water policy statement recently endorsed by the Australian Water Resources Council.

It took us about 18 months to complete the inquiry. We received 80-odd submissions and 40 organisations, represented by 61 persons, presented further evidence to us. The largest single group which gave evidence to the Committee was from the sugar producing area of Queensland. I pointed out to them- not being completely facetious- that when they ran out of water in Queensland the Ord River of Western Australia was a wonderful place to grow sugar. They did not appreciate that very much. The problem in Queensland is quite dramatic. As is well recognised, it is a highly decentralised State and these large sugar-producing areas on the coast of Queensland are becoming extremely short of water. The growth and expansion of the sugar industry when world prices were very high encouraged the rapid development of the industry of those major cities along the coast- so much so that the water table is dramatically lower than it was in earlier years. Many of the aquifers are drying up and sea water is flowing in to take their place. When one thinks of towns such as Townsville, which has a population of almost 100,000, facing a critical water problem, one understands the gravity of the situation.

Another matter which we considered, and which involves quite serious consequences, is the situation of the River Murray. No one is better equipped than is Senator McLaren to appreciate that fact because the State of South Australia, especially its capital city of Adelaide, is so reliant on the water from that river. The salinity problem is of major seriousness and in that regard I should like to quote briefly from the text of the report- not necessarily the recommendation- wherein we set out our concern. We consider that the River Murray Commission, as it is structured now, is totally inadequate to deal with the salinity problems of that river. The report reads:

The Committee considers that the River Murray Commission is not an appropriate body to undertake concerted, long-term action to deal with the problems of salinity, water logging, despoliation of wetlands and saline drainage into the River Murray. The salinity problems associated with irrigation have their origin in the catchments or lands adjacent to the rivers over which the existing River Murray Commission has no control.

The problems of the River Murray are of national significance and the Committee considers that there is an urgent and vital role for the Commonwealth in respect of the development and preservation of the River Murray Basin. The Commonwealth should take the initiative through the Australian Water Resources Council in preparing and implementing a long-term comprehensive program for the management of River Murray salinity problems including regulation of land use as well as water management.

Then the report goes on to make specific recommendations. As I said before, the constitutional responsibility for water matters rests almost entirely with the respective States. The only areas for which the Commonwealth is specifically responsible are those of meteorological observations, in the Commonwealth Territories, and in the field of foreign affairs. It is rather interesting to recall that the Commonwealth has been involved in water matters for only a relatively short time- only since the Australian Water Resources Council was established some 1 3 years ago. The role of the Commonwealth has expanded quite dramatically since then and the financial assistance provided under section 96 grants has been the main vehicle for that assistance. I underline, particularly in regard to Senator McLaren's remarks, the fact that an important part of the National Water Resources (Financial Assistance) Act is that the Commonwealth will fund certain projects which, however, must be high on a State's list of priorities. We regard it as very important that the States themselves should support the projects that the Commonwealth wishes to support.

One of the problems in the past- this is a matter of which the Committee was very critical- has been the ad hoc approach of the Commonwealth to major water resources projects. One does not have to look any further than the Burdekin Dam in Queensland to illustrate that point. In fact, it seems that the best way to ensure that a dam will be at least started is to hold an election. I recall one of the better known sayings of my friend Bert Kelly, the recently retired member for Wakefield who is known far and wide in Australia. When he could feel an election approaching he would say: 'I can feel a dam coming on'.

As Senator McLaren said, the first of our recommendations was that the Commonwealth establish a clearly stated water resources policy. As Senator McLaren also said, we recommended that the policy and non-policy functions of the Commonwealth be separated. We must establish a bureau of water resources to handle the nonpolicy functions of the Commonwealth's interest in water resources. One of the important functions of the Commonwealth with regard to water resources is in the area of the Bureau of Meteorology. We were quite disappointed with the evidence we received, particularly from the States which, without exception, were quite critical of the role of the Bureau of Meteorology in the area of recording and the other areas for which it is responsible in regard to water. We recognise, of course, that the Bureau has many areas of interest other than water. For the purposes of those functions with regard to water, we recommend that the Bureau be transferred from the Department of Science into the Department of National Development and that its water functions be part of a separate independent statutory authority.

I say again that we were particularly disturbed to find that the Commonwealth seems to lack a clearly stated water policy. This is one of the most important things we found. We made altogether 34 recommendations. There is not time tonight to go through them all. They come under several headings: The Commonwealth's role, the assessment of water resources, development and funding, research, the Australian Water Resources Council, flood mitigation and drainage and salinity. One of the recommendations was that the Government should avoid impinging on what have been and are regarded as State responsibilities. A great deal of duplication has occurred in the past, particularly in the area of the assessment of major schemes where it is recognised by the Commonwealth and the States that the main expertise rests with the States. The States have experienced people. There should not be any duplication on the part of the Commonwealth in the assessment of these major schemes.

We also had a bit to say about the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation- another Commonwealth responsibility. The CSIRO has nine divisions which have some major or minor interest in water matters. We recommend that the Commonwealth try to concentrate its interests in water matters into fewer departments. In fact, at the moment 22 Commonwealth departments and agencies have some interest in water. The States certainly are showing us the way in this regard. They are concentrating water matters in either one or two departments. This is not happening in the Commonwealth area. It is not happening in the CSIRO or the Bureau of Meteorology. Because water is so important and will be of greater importance in the future and could be a limiting factor in many potential production areas in Australia, we recommended that CSIRO set up a separate division of water resources and, just as importantly, establish a mechanism above the divisional level to co-ordinate the work that is already going on in relation to existing water resources.

It was an interesting inquiry. As Senator McLaren said, we were sorry that we did not receive submissions from the Riverland area in South Australia. That area feels the effects of the salinity in the River Murray and the shortages of water more than any other part of South Australia or any part of New South Wales or Victoria. We were grateful that the relevant Commonwealth departments were so complete in their co-operation with us. In fact, this is probably the only Senate committee inquiry that has had submissions from every State in Australia. The States have a great deal of expertise and interest in water matters. They have a constitutional role. The Committee is of the opinion that the constitutional role should be maintained.

Question resolved in the affirmative.

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