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Monday, 29 October 2012
Page: 12215

Mr HUNT (Flinders) (13:30): Thank you, Deputy Speaker Rishworth. Acknowledging your own position, I note that former South Australian minister Gordon Bilney has just passed away. He was known to me. His is a sad loss for his family, the parliament and you, who I understand had connections in that direction.

Let me address this bill in terms of a very simple proposition. The Water Amendment (Long-term Average Sustainable Diversion Limit Adjustment) Bill 2012 comes in a broader context. For all the recent talk, the coalition has been the real party of water reform, at the national level, over the last decade. There was firstly the tremendous work of John Anderson, the then Deputy Prime Minister and Leader of the National Party. This was followed by the work of Malcolm Turnbull and John Howard, the former in his role as Minister for the Environment and Water Resources and the latter as Prime Minister. They put in place a water market, a $10 billion program, a commitment to focus on infrastructure as the real means of improving productivity whilst gaining water for the environment. That was a genuine commitment of real meaning, major significance and absolute standing, and it has largely failed to be delivered through the means it was intended.

Mr Deputy Speaker Georganas—I notice you have now taken the chair—this bill comes in three elements. Firstly, there is the broader context of the water reform to which I just referred. Secondly, there is the issue of the adjustment mechanism and, in particular, the creation of an opportunity for counting genuine environmental works and measures towards achieving the great goal of helping the Murray-Darling Basin, at the same time preserving the rights and productivity of upstream users and communities and allowing us to feed our nation, to be a food bowl for Asia and to be a source of fibre for Australia and growing international demand. Thirdly, it is about an attempt to remove ministerial oversight and give untrammelled authority to an unelected body. It is a body for whom we have respect—but we are a parliament; we are the elected chamber of an elected parliament and we believe in parliamentary accountability and ministerial responsibility.

In addressing this bill, let me start with a simple proposition. The coalition is firstly the party of genuine, real water reform, having created the markets, having created the $10 billion plan and having created the focus on infrastructure as a critical means of improving productivity whilst allowing greater water to be returned to the health of the Murray-Darling Basin. Secondly, we support, in principle—and, in fact, we were the architects and authors of the principle—that environmental works and measures can and should be used to enhance the environment, in non-river-course channels and in river channels. Thirdly, we stand very strongly for the ability of the executive and the parliament to have a real and final say over fundamental policy matters that relate to equity and justice. We will not resile from being supportive of those elements.

It is a great way forward but, for ideological reasons, the government until now has stayed away from this. Just 12 per cent of the projects in New South Wales, or $159 million of $1.35 billion; only 16 per cent of the projects in Victoria, or $171 million of $1.05 billion; just 26 per cent of the projects in Queensland, or $21 million of $81 million of allocation to agricultural infrastructure savings, which would in turn return water to the river on a shared basis; and 40 per cent of the projects in South Australia, or $161 million of $420 million, have actually been delivered. So, against that background, for every one litre this government has saved through infrastructure it has bought back five litres. The government has spent just over $500 million on infrastructure projects yet almost $2 billion on buybacks.

Our approach has always been to support practical action which protects the environment and also protects Australia's food and productivity sectors that allow us to continue to develop our rural sector. Indeed, the Asian century white paper from yesterday talks specifically about expanding our agricultural production. But the way to do that is to be more efficient with our water, and that is why we have supported a once-in-a-century replumbing of rural Australia, not a buyout of our farmers, our rural communities and our farm productivity. That sets the background for where this bill arrives.

Let me turn to one of the two main elements of this bill. The first is to allow the use of environmental works and measures to be counted in the assessment of the sustainable diversions. What does that mean? It means in practice—and I will give an example—that the use of channels may allow more direct and efficient watering of an environmental asset. It could be Lindsay Island. That means, rather than having to use huge volumes of overbank flows in order to achieve an environmental outcome, we could use channelling or piping. This is exactly the same principle we have adopted in irrigation infrastructure instead of the open channels, which you see if you travel through Mildura or through areas such as Griffiths. It is about covering or piping the water which has formerly been in the open channels, and it is instead of rammed-earth channels which are subject to leaking. In many parts of north-west Victoria we engage in that modernisation. That is what we have all agreed upon as being the vital—although the government has not delivered upon it—and actual mechanism of irrigation for agriculture. Yet, until now, the same principle has not been adopted, has not been applied and has not been accepted in irrigation for environmental works and measures. So this is a positive step forward. It is an element of the bill and it is an element of the steps, which we have championed and encouraged, which were initially rejected and which now at the last minute have been accepted by the government. To the extent that the bill is confined to the extraordinary potential of practical environmental works and measures, then it is a good thing. We endorse and support that component of the bill which is allowing practical environmental works and measures.

However, there is another significant element of the bill which is not acceptable and which we will seek to improve and amend. It is the notion of removing ministerial oversight and veto in relation to changes to the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. Under this bill as it currently stands the authority could make changes to the amount of water recovered by up to 700 gigalitres up or down. This amounts to a massive 25 per cent change from what has until very recently been the accepted and understood figure for the river. There are no restrictions on whether that 700 gigalitres would come from one area. It could effectively take part of rural Australia completely out of production. Under this bill the minister has to adopt any changes proposed by the Murray-Darling Basin Authority. I respect the authority and I respect the individuals, but we are a parliament elected by the people and an executive appointed by the parliament. What that means is that final responsibility for decisions with a fundamental impact on food productivity, fibre productivity, the health of our rural communities, the ability of Australia to feed and clothe itself and to feed and clothe tens of millions if not hundreds of millions of people throughout South-East Asia, East Asia and North Asia, is lost to the parliament and to the minister to be determined. So, final determination in our view should and must rest with either the parliament directly or the parliament through the executive accountable to the parliament. These are fundamental decisions. It is right and proper that something as significant as recovering 700 gigalitres of water—which is more than the amount of water in Sydney Harbour—should be the decision of the government and the minister of the day in the end.

I want to give notice that we will move an amendment—and we have had discussions with the government and informed them of this—which will ensure that there is mandatory public consultation on adjustments, that there is ministerial discretion to adopt any amendments, and that the final decision ultimately rests with the parliament through the executive. Our support for this bill is conditional upon those elements being moved, and during the consideration in detail stage we will make a move to ensure that real accountability over the health of our river system rests with the elected government of the day. That is the right and proper thing. We would like the government to accept these amendments. Better still, I understand they are now, at our behest, considering their own amendments. If those amendments are put forward, and if they achieve what we seek in terms of preserving and protecting the accountability, then we will support them. That will allow us to support the bill because the bill contains a fundamental—

The DEPUTY SPEAKER ( Mr S Georganas ): Order! The debate is interrupted in accordance with standing order 43. The debate may be resumed at a later hour and the member will have the opportunity in continuance.