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Monday, 29 October 2012
Page: 12268

Mr GEORGANAS (HindmarshSecond Deputy Speaker) (17:03): I rise to support the Water Amendment (Long-term Average Sustainable Diversion Limit Adjustment) Bill 2012. I do so because all of us can remember the drought not that far back, whether it was 2004, 2005, 2006 or 2007, that devastated this country. It was not the first and it will not be the last, so I think it is extremely important to our nation to put measures in place that ensure the sustainability of our river. Bills such as this look at sustainability and the adjustments that can be made during the different periods of drought and during the good times, when there is plenty of water and you can actually release five per cent more if you want to. This is very important.

The devastating drought, the last one we had here, moved and touched all of us, whether it was in communities, in rural areas or in the cities, where there were water restrictions. In fact, if the drought had not broken, there was talk that in South Australia we would be running out of water within a few months, I think it was. Thank God there was some rain. Also, there was the insurance of building a desal plant that would have saved us from that terrible situation.

We are in the driest continent in the world, and South Australia, where I come from, is the driest state in the driest continent. For us these bills are extremely important, and water is extremely important, because we are at the bottom end of the river. I have spent a lot of time down at Goolwa, where the River Murray mouth is. My wife is from that area and for many years we have been visiting the lovely town of Goolwa in South Australia. It was heartbreaking a few years ago to go down there and look at the lake and see the jetties sitting on sand because the water had receded. There were dead from many species, with fish dying everywhere. Birdlife was leaving the Coorong. And people were basically leaving entire towns, because there was no industry for them—no tourism and a whole range of other small businesses.

The water has returned because we have had some good rains. One thing we cannot do is control the weather. We do not know when the next drought or the next floods are going to come. This bill gives us the long-term ability to adjust certain parts of the river for the particular time we are going through.

I would like to comment on some of the statements made here in debating this bill. The Murray-Darling Basin and its lack of health have been big issues here in this House for a number of years, certainly during my time here in parliament. As I said, we all remember those worsening years—the years when we saw devastation across the country. And certainly we saw our river system dying very quickly. The then Howard government acted to do something about it, to save the river system, in 2007. We on this side of the House, once taking over in government, continued to do so and to establish a regime under which both the river and the communities that rely on the river could be sustained.

Whilst I spoke about Goolwa at the other end, there are also communities along the river that need to grow our food, not just for Australia but, as we heard, for export. This is about getting a good balancing act, something that is sustainable for the river and that at the same time ensures that our communities along the river are looked after. This is something we have grappled with. We have grappled with the science as it has been presented to us. Each of us has had a look at what is the best outcome for all concerned, including the river communities upriver and in South Australia at the river mouth.

I could not have been more pleased when recently the minister for water, the honourable Tony Burke, released the modelling on the impact of returning 3,200 gigalitres of water, with key constraints removed, to the river. Previous suggested volumes of environmental water being returned to the system were seen by the scientists as meeting only 12 of the 18 key indicators of a healthy river system and environment. That is only approximately two-thirds. So I do not think anyone can realistically or credibly state that 65 per cent is a particularly good outcome. And I do not think anyone could say that a proportion of two out of three ain't bad. Modelling undertaken by the Murray-Darling Basin Commission showed us that with 3,200 gigalitres of water being returned to the river, with key constraints removed, we can actually meet 17 out of the 18 key environmental targets, which is a good result. This is an outcome that each and every one of us should be supporting. In the future, we will experience different weather patterns, different circumstances, different climate conditions. That is why this bill is so important: it will enable adjustment during those different weather patterns.

We have had the drought in the last decade. We are going to experience climate change, with increasing weather fluctuations, in the future. That has not been refuted by any credible authority at this point. We are going to be living in a changing climate with changing rainfall patterns and changing flows into the south-east of Australia in particular—into South Australia—and we are going to need the flexibility that this adjustment will give us with most elements of our lives, including how we will live, how we will work, how and what we will farm and how we will manage the health of the natural environment.

It will also increasingly be up to us to manage the impact of climate change. It will be increasingly up to us to manage the health of the Murray-Darling Basin, its rivers and its wetlands. All of us know that the opposition, of course, have already stated that they will oppose this and most of these bills that we bring to this place to improve the health of the Murray and the Murray mouth. We cannot play politics with this river. This river sustains Australia, and for the first time we have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to get it right—to get the balance right, to get the science right and to ensure that we never, ever go through what we went through a few years ago.

This bill has certain criteria placed on it. For example, adjustments are limited to no more than five per cent of the sustainable diversion limit. In other words, you can go up five per cent or down five per cent during different periods, depending on whether we are having a drought, whether we are having lots of rain or whether there are floods et cetera; you would be able to adjust it. Any adjustments must not reduce the environmental outcomes that have been achieved by the Basin Plan or worsen the socioeconomic impact—which is very important; it is at the heart of the communities along the river. Adjustments to the sustainable diversion limit will be made in accordance with those criteria and a process specified in the Basin Plan.

The authority is required to prepare a notice to the minister detailing the proposed changes to the sustainable diversion limit, the history of adjustments and the individual changes. The authority must also prepare and present to the minister an amendment to the Basin Plan to reflect those adjustments that are proposed in the notice. And, of course, the minister must adopt those amendments in writing and table both the notice and the amendment here in the parliament.

This bill involves far-reaching reform so that the Murray-Darling Basin is managed as a single, connected system. We have to start looking at the river as one system across Australia. We cannot look at it as we have done for nearly 200 years now, with different states managing it differently over the borders, and differently compared with what was happening down south and up north. We have to look at it as a whole. As I said, we have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to ensure that we get this right. It is so important, especially in my home state of South Australia, which, as I said earlier, is one of the driest states in the country. I was so pleased the other day—and so were the majority of South Australians, I have to say—when the Prime Minister made the announcement, together with Premier Weatherill in South Australia and Tony Burke, about the extra 3,200 gigalitres flowing through the river, which will ensure that we at the bottom end will get a sustainable river. It is so important, and it was welcomed very much by everyone involved. The current version of the Basin Plan does not include the removal of system constraints, for example, to limit the use of environmental water and take into account social and economic impacts. We heard that the authority has proposed the reduction in those diversions.

These bills are very important to not just individual communities in different electorates but the sustainability of all of Australia. We have heard about the communities along the river, and they are very important. We need to act to ensure that we can sustain those communities. We need to act to ensure that we have an environmentally free-flowing river, because if we do not, and if we do not act on these issues, then there will be no communities, because if there is no water it will not be long before we cannot grow anything, and we came very close to that in the last few years. We saw how precariously close we came to killing off that river. We were just lucky that we had plenty of rain and that got the flows going. But we can no longer take it for granted. For 200 years we have been just taking water out, and we need to be doing all we can. This bill reflects this government's concern to ensure that we do get it right and we get a sustainable river—that we get the environmental flows that are required to ensure that we continue to have a vibrant, living river so we can feed our communities and feed Asia as well, which is a great opportunity for Australia. I commend these amendments and bills to the House.