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Monday, 29 October 2012
Page: 12270

Ms LEY (Farrer) (17:15): I am pleased to speak on the Water Amendment (Long-term Average Sustainable Diversion Limit Adjustment) Bill 2012. Previous speakers have talked about the adjustment mechanism which would be agreed by the basin states and the Commonwealth enshrined by this bill that would allow for environmental works to gain credit towards meeting environmental targets and may allow for additional water to be recovered from the environment. As the shadow minister said at the beginning of this debate, we will be moving amendments because we do not want the flexible targets which would result, in terms of the sustainable diversion limit, to be controlled by the Murray-Darling Basin Authority. It is not that we condemn the authority as such, although I have been very harsh at times in my criticism of the authority. It is the principle that is at stake—the principle that it should be the parliament, through its executive and its members on both sides of this place and in the Senate, that determines something as important as policy relating to water diversions and that we do not hive off our decision-making responsibility to an independent authority.

I just want to talk about the context of the debate, because it is very topical at the moment given that the minister has said that he will have the final Murray-Darling Basin plan in the parliament by the end of the year. There are only one and four-fifths sitting weeks left, so I do hope that we will see the plan by the end of this calendar year.

This bill does not concern the plan itself and it is important to make that distinction, although there is, of course, a close relationship between the diversion limits that may result from this piece of legislation and the final plan. It is very much the cart before the horse, however. Wouldn't it be good if we actually had the plan in the parliament at this point in time so that we could make the decisions that we need to make—to see the final piece of legislation that the minister has been talking about brought to the parliament and not to have these diversions: this bill, which then led to some modelling that I think has placed some quite unrealistic expectations on the basin communities that I represent, and the announcement by the Prime Minister at the end of last week flagging the possibility of 3,200 gigalitres of environmental flows in the river system.

But I will just step back, because there is a need to give this some context. I will talk about agriculture in Australia generally because—as I represent 30 per cent of the state of New South Wales, an enormous part of the southern Murray-Darling Basin in my electorate of Farrer, and most of the water users in the New South Wales Murray and Darling river systems and the Menindee Lakes, and since obviously there are implications for water for Broken Hill—I do feel that my constituents are very much at the centre of this, and I feel my responsibility to them very strongly.

We have had a debate about foreign ownership of Australian agriculture. While I am not getting into that debate, my response is: it is a pity that we have to have a debate about foreign ownership of Australian agriculture because we do not have the confidence in Australia for Australians to invest in Australian agriculture. Those outside this country can see that we do have a very good story to tell. It is just that this government has not led a legislative agenda, or a discussion or debate or any policy at all, that gives farmers confidence in their future or gives agribusiness confidence in the future of Australian agribusiness and all of the associated industries that Australia has such a long and proud history of doing so well in. We should have confidence reflected in Australia, and we do not.

Just before I get to the debate on sustainable diversion limits and environmental flows and the socioeconomic effects et cetera, it is topical to look at Australia in the Asian Century. The Prime Minister made a strong statement on Friday and, representing farmers, I hunted through it for the detail about agriculture. Yes, it was mentioned in the Prime Minister's press release—in one line, towards the end:

Explosion in demand for high-quality agricultural products will mean opportunities for our farmers and regional Australia.

So then I turned to the fact sheets. The 22nd of the 26 fact sheets is titled 'Meeting the growing demand for food', and it says:

Australian food producers and processors will be recognised globally as innovative and reliable producers of more and higher-quality food and agricultural products, services and technology to Asia.

…   …   …

Most of the projected increase in food demand will come from Asia. Driven by the need to feed a larger, more urban and richer population, the real value of global food demand in 2050 is projected to be more than 70 per cent higher than in 2007.

The increase in Asia's food demand is likely to outpace the growth in its production over coming decades.

Quite right, Prime Minister, but what is your government doing about this? What confidence and what heart and what hope are you giving to the people in Australia who are actually equipped to do this task?

Look at the Murray-Darling Basin, the subject of discussion. It is a million square kilometres—and I mentioned that I represent a large part of the southern area of the basin. It is 14 per cent of the total area of Australia. It generates 39 per cent of the national income derived from agriculture, so nearly 40 per cent of our total national income in agriculture comes from the basin. It produces 53 per cent of Australian cereals grown for grain, 95 per cent of oranges and 54 per cent of apples. It supports 28 per cent of the nation's cattle herd, 45 per cent of sheep and 62 per cent of pigs.

If you took the nation's food bowl, which is the Murray-Darling Basin, out of Australia's production in terms of its economy and its contribution to the national balance sheet it would be devastating. I am not scaremongering here today and I am not suggesting that the Murray-Darling Basin Plan is going to do that. There is goodwill from every perspective. But we just have to be very careful that we understand exactly what is at stake and exactly what is being proposed. Because, without casting aspersions on the more than 85 per cent of Australians who live a long way away from rural Australia, sometimes I hear statements about the Murray-Darling Basin and its future that do not make any sense and that show, I think, a lack of understanding and how people view it in very simplistic terms: if you add more water, you get a better outcome. It is not surprising that much of the modelling that we have recently seen come to light has that assumption built into it. If you create a model that has an assumption that if you add more water you get a better outcome, then obviously if you add more water you get a better outcome. It is much more complicated than that.

Environmental flows are, I think, one out of 23 indicators of catchment health. I have talked to not just farmers but also those who manage our catchments and those who work in our regional universities and who do a great job teaching in our universities all the way along the basin and I do not believe that I am coming to this matter just from an irrigator-centric point of view at all. Recent modelling that referred to removing system constraints immediately raised an alarm in my mind. What does 'system constraints' really mean? It has been described in statements made by the government as 'roads, low-lying land, bridges et cetera'. It has not been described as 'weir pools' and, I think, that in itself is interesting. If you are talking about genuinely returning the river to its natural state, you would recognise that it is small pulses of water down the system, absent of the presence of weir pools, that wet and dry the banks and that provide the vital life systems and ecological systems on which rivers rely. We do not have that. I am not suggesting we do remove the weirs, but I am suggesting that those who talk about the advantages of a natural flow look at what we actually have, which is a regulated river.

As I like to say, what we want is a healthy working river. We do not want to return it to the way it was before white settlement, before the dams, weir pools, locks and barrages were put in. We do not want that. So we have to have a balance between what we are doing with the river to service its population and grow food and the very important environmental health of the river.

We have a Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder, who has an allocation of, I think, about 1,500 gigalitres. You would think, if you were listening to the debate at the moment, that all of that is out there and then some, so there is a demand for more environmental water. In fact, that is not the case. The Environmental Water Holder is using, I think, about 60 per cent of the allocation. Some of that has been undertaken in trials. Some of those trials have not been very successful. I am told there was a big flow down the Murrumbidgee in May and June, which was not particularly successful and which did not achieve an environmental outcome. It created some minor flooding and the benefit was negligible. But it was partly necessary in order to move some water through the system. So if the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder cannot use the water it has got, my question is: how will it use 2,750 gigalitres, which is the notional figure in the plan? How would it, for example, use 3,200 gigalitres, which might be a flexible target somewhere down the track? The answer is: unless you have a well-designed plan in existence, why would you seek to create that allocation? Why would you remove that productive water from the system and put it in storages, possibly change the water rules that say that the water has to continue down the system at certain times and say that you actually want to keep it in the storages, if you do not actually have a plan?

If you are talking about environmental health, why wouldn't you frame it in terms of the health to vertebrates, birds and fish in the system? Why is it always talked about in terms of volume of flow? I went looking for the science that tells me that and I cannot find it. So I invite anyone listening to this broadcast to send it to me.

As I said, I represent a significant number of farmers who have their lives on the line with the legislation concerning the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. I feel very upset and distressed, as they do, about some of the statements and suggestions that have been made by the government. Nobody minds giving up water if they see it as a win-win. Everybody who lives in the basin understands and loves the River Murray. They visit it regularly. They camp, fish with their kids and poke about there on weekends. They understand the life of this very important river system. They take it very personally when people suggest that they are just sitting there with a big pipe, sucking out water, trying to make money. Nothing could be further from the truth; it is an insult.

With respect to the flows that we are talking about here, 40,000 megalitres a day would be the flow required between Lake Hume and Yarrawonga. I just want to give this example because, for this plan to take effect and for us to have the basin plan near where it seems the government wants it, a lot of work would have to be done in easements. 'Easement'—that sounds easy. But it took 15 years to negotiate the easements between Lake Hume and Yarrawonga because the river was required to run at a higher level. It took 15 years to work through all of the third-party impacts that that would create.

It is bizarre that the government says, 'We'll just sort out these easements, we'll toss a bit of money at it and do away with them.' I do not understand how in the real world that can actually happen. Third-party impacts are real, substantial and uncosted. The Koondrook Perricoota flood enhancement scheme in my electorate came about from the Living Murray process. It has been around for almost as long as I have—almost 10 years. It cost $67 million to build this very complicated system that diverts water through the forest. By the way, because of the third-party impacts, there is a dirty great channel to send the water back into the Murray so it does not flood people's homes and farms—$67 million. Now, if this latest iteration of the Basin Plan actually happens, that entire project will be drowned out. The member for New England visited it with me, and he understands the issues. It would simply put a layer of water on top of that, and we would never see any of the infrastructure underneath because the river would be running at a much higher level.

So I say, on behalf of my constituents, that we will participate in the discussions in good faith. We have lost a lot. We have been hurt a lot. We have had our way of life threatened. We have come through a drought that had us on our knees. We have listened to nonsense coming out the mouths of government members who do not understand. We do not see any direction from Prime Minister Gillard that gives us hope that we have a future in our agricultural industries. We are still here and our children are still here, but we do not find that very many of them want to take on the family farm anymore, and that is a tragedy. I will stay on the case; it is the most important one for me and for the electorate of Farrer.