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Monday, 29 October 2012
Page: 12258

Dr STONE (Murray) (16:18): We are here to debate a bill which amends the Water Act 2007, the Water Amendment (Long-term Average Sustainable Diversion Limit Adjustment) Bill 2012. As I said a minute ago in my interjections, we are not here to discuss the very unfortunate statements made by the Prime Minister last Friday, not unexpectedly in South Australia. It was not very edifying to hear the Prime Minister during question time repeatedly refer to her announcements on Friday as being all about South Australia and South Australians. The Murray-Darling Basin provides water for 3.4 million people, from Queensland, New South Wales, the ACT, Victoria and, finally, South Australia. I realise South Australia diverts the Murray River water across deserts and so on to places like Port Augusta and Whyalla. I understand their failure to look at their own capital city needs. Of course Adelaide is also outside the Murray-Darling Basin. Given all that, it was disturbing and astonishing to hear so much South Australian-centric rhetoric in relation to the Murray-Darling Basin. We all know we must work to a win-win scenario—in other words, to something that works from the top of the basin to the bottom, for the communities, the economy and obviously the environment.

This sustainable diversion limit bill, in principle, is indeed what the coalition said must happen. But we are opposing the bill as it was originally proposed by the minister, on the basis that it completely denies the minister of the day any say in what the diversion limit adjustment might be—up or down by five per cent. What it says in the Prime Minister's bill is that whatever the Murray-Darling Basin Authority of the day says goes. They can just do a tick and flick, it can be noted by parliament, and that is the end of that. That is an extraordinary proposition, given that we already have a discredited Murray-Darling Basin Authority whose lack of capacity to properly consult and whose avoidance of proper engagement with the states and agencies like the catchment management authority are already legendary. The Murray-Darling Basin Authority had to sack its first CEO. They have installed someone different to try and do better. To say that this authority will have the final word on what the sustainable diversion limit adjustment will be, without recourse to the democratically elected government of the day, is breathtaking.

I have to say that my concern about this matter is not just hypothetical; my electorate depends for its wellbeing on water security. That water comes out of some of the major tributaries to the Murray, particularly the Goulburn River, and also the Murray River. So for us to sit back and say, 'That's okay; the Murray-Darling Basin Authority can decide whether there will be an adjustment up or down of five per cent of the diversion limit because they're so fantastic'—I am sorry—that does not wash.

We have, through our shadow minister, foreshadowed an amendment to this bill which will have the executive reinstated as the final word on what this adjustment should be. That is as it must be. I understand the government is very seriously now considering the error of its ways in its first draft of the bill. But we are also concerned that this bill has been brought forward in a way that is greatly disturbing to those of us who depend on both the environmental sustainability of the basin and access to the water of the basin. They are one and the same thing, in fact. This bill was rushed into parliament in our last sitting. There was no warning. It was rushed off to the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Regional Australia. At a meeting of that committee, which I attended as a supplementary member, the chair, Mr Tony Windsor, said: 'We don't need to consult on this bill; the job's right. We'll have one meeting. We'll not call for submissions. We'll hear no evidence.' I put on the record that I felt we had to take evidence—that we had to at least put out an invitation for submissions to the inquiry. 'No,' we were told; 'it will be a quick tick and flick.' We had one 26-minute meeting on this bill. During that meeting, the majority on the committee, who of course were not coalition members, said: 'We will simply flick this on and say it's okay. We will completely reverse what we said in our previous reports on the Murray-Darling Basin, where we argued that you must have government oversight of an adjustable sustainable diversion limit.' So the committee went back on what we had said previously, and that was the end of that—one 26-minute meeting.

There was a dissenting report written by the member for Wannon, the member for Riverina and me, where we said: 'No, we cannot agree to this bill being allowed in its current form.' Why else did we reject it? We said, for example, that the whole business of a sustainable diversion limit has to be within the context of the total Murray-Darling Basin Plan. When this bill was introduced, it was just one small bit of the total picture. We had no idea what the final sustainable diversion limit might be. It was quite extraordinary. We were quite concerned too that, while the adjustment mechanism can be implemented under the current act and you must take into account the social and economic consequences of the adjustment, we have lost any sense of that in this government's bill. Also, under the current act an amendment to the Basin Plan is subject to a disallowance of the parliament. This bill would remove this provision in the instance of the adjustment mechanism operation. So, as I said before, the elected representatives would not have the capacity to review the critical element of the Basin Plan—quite an extraordinary business. We cannot imagine what the rush of blood was to the head of the minister who put such a bill into the House. There are still no protections in this bill for an adjustment weakening economic or social outcomes. In proposed section 23A(3) it states clearly that any adjustments must reflect an environmentally sustainable level of take. So why doesn't the bill provide the same references to protection for economic and social outcomes? We want to know.

Over the weekend, we had the Prime Minister's announcement of the amazing potential growth in our neighbourhood, in Asia, and the fantastic prospects for increasing food production and exports to the middle classes of India, Indonesia and China. We gloried in the prospects of a future where Australia would not just be a mine or a gravel pit for China but might in fact export highly value-added food products. At the same time, we have this government determined to remove the water security that underpins food manufacturing in eastern Australia. It is quite an extraordinary situation. You cannot, on the one hand, say that we have enormous potential to grow and manufacture more food and grow wealthy through the process and, on the other hand, say, 'By the way, besides reducing the actual volume of water available to irrigators, we'll make it so uncertain from one year to the next what availability there is that the older farmers will find their sons and daughters simply walking away from the industry.' We have a crisis of confidence right now in agriculture, across Australia but particularly in the basin. That crisis of confidence is being played out every day. The drought debt that accumulated over the seven years when it did not rain has become so pressing that many farmers are giving up and saying: 'We have in theory this great future but, when we look at the various bills and policies of this government, we can see they're not serious about us fulfilling that potential.'

Besides this water problem in the Murray-Darling Basin, where the government refuse to take a triple bottom-line approach, we have a slashing of the research and development funds for irrigated agriculture in particular but agriculture in general. We have a complete crisis in training and education related to agribusiness, natural resource management and farming in particular. We have the quarantine and biosecurity services being slashed and burned so that we are very, very concerned about every decision made to weaken our phytosanitary special measures—and the potato issue right now is an example of how it seems that Biosecurity Australia is just giving up. We have a terrible dilemma right now where things like the food innovation grants, which were key to be able to develop new products and compete, are all gone. Of course, the biggest problem of all for agribusiness is the incredible hike in prices for energy—for electricity in particular and also for things like refrigerant gases. When you have irrigation, you have energy costs. When you have food manufacturing, you have energy costs. Sadly, this government does not seem to understand that, if you are touting the glories of a future in food manufacturing for Asian markets, it just does not ring true if you are tying the producers' hands behind their backs.

If the Water Amendment (Long-term Average Sustainable Diversion Limit Adjustment) Bill 2012 can be amended, as our shadow minister stated in his opening speech, if we can have that amendment carried into law, if the government agrees with it or indeed if they amend the bill themselves—instead of the current situation, have the minister or the government of the day reinstated as the arbiter of what the sustainable diversion adjustment is—we can be more confident about where this bill is going.

Let us not pretend that this is not a very significant issue for the people of the Basin. Up or down five per cent in volume of water—the 700 or so gigalitres that could be involved—is, in fact, the entire South Australian water quota. The business of adjusting the water volume up is all we seem to be hearing about. No one is talking about potentially adjusting the sustainable diversion limit down, which I find rather ironic and deeply troubling.

I am very disturbed that when the Prime Minister and the minister for environment announced the plan, as they did in South Australia, on Friday, they failed to rule out further buying of water from irrigators' entitlements. The minister stated that additional water that might be found, or would need to be found, if there is another 450 gigalitres to go to the environment would primarily come from investment with on-farm irrigation works.

I am on the record for saying that on-farm irrigation works are essential for water savings. I was verballed at question time and I put my protest, as a personal explanation, to the speaker immediately after question time. I am on the record for saying that any water for the environment should come from environmental works and measures or from on-farm water use efficiency measures, not from dipping into the water entitlements of farmers—particularly the high-security water entitlements that you find in northern Victoria. They are the sorts of water entitlements that sit in dams like Eildon. Unfortunately, we have more environmental water sitting there than irrigator water, and that is a serious problem of space.

For Victorian irrigators in the Goulburn-Murray system, many cannot access the federal government's on-farm water use efficiency grants, because they are in the Food Bowl Modernisation Program. Until they have had that program completed on their properties, or the planning for that measure completed for their properties, they cannot put their hands up and apply for an on-farm water use efficiency grant. So it was not extraordinarily good news, when all we have been talking about is on-farm water use efficiency, primarily—I stress that word 'primarily'—with no reference to putting a stop to reaching into the irrigators' market via deep pocketed governments or to environmental works and measures being an integral part to the future of the Basin.

The coalition is concerned about this bill because it takes the government completely out of the driver's seat and puts the business into the hands of a deeply flawed authority, an authority that has been discredited over many years now on so many fronts. We hope the amendment will pass because that could give us a better outcome, but this whole business is still a very concerning proposal.