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Monday, 29 October 2012
Page: 12274

Mr WINDSOR (New England) (17:30): Before speaking to the Water Amendment (Long-term Average Sustainable Diversion Limit Adjustment) Bill 2012, I wanted to mention that I hear the divisions starting to open up again today. I often wonder what John Howard would think of his original proposal, a $10 billion water plan, and the original legislation, the Water Act 2007, that put all this together and laid out the format to be used by the Murray-Darling Basin Authority and others to deal with these issues. Some members seem to be hedging their bets a bit, speaking against the bill for their constituents, but most probably voting for it at the end of the process, I think—because all of us would like to see some sort of plan for the future. But parochialism, whether it be state based or electorate based, reigns supreme; and, regrettably, I think both sides of politics have been engaged in that for some time.

The announcement the other day by the Prime Minister of the 456 gigalitres was unfortunate in the way it was done. It was seen as a win-lose, which is it is not, and I will go to some of the numbers in a moment. I can understand why the Prime Minister would want to do that, but I think that, in terms of the integrity of the debate and trying to arrive at a real conclusion, a real plan to address this issue, it is an opportunity missed. Obviously, the coalition speakers today are playing their parochial politics, and then you have the shadow minister still running around out there, saying this is all about 3,200 gigalitres returning to the system. I think, if anybody took the time to actually look at the numbers, they would see that is not the case. I might spend a little bit of time on that.

The water amendment bill before us today is essentially the recommendation that the Standing Committee on Regional Australia, which I chair, made in its report on the bill. The coalition members of the committee put in a dissenting report on the last piece of the inquiry. We have had three inquiries into this. There was one very significant inquiry, in which the member for Farrer was a very good participant, producing the document I hold. We had another, mini-inquiry into related matters which came up with four recommendations, and recommendation 3 is worth reading out, I think, because it directly relates to the bill:

The Committee recommends that the Commonwealth Government develop a mechanism to adjust sustainable diversion limits automatically in response to efficiencies gained by environmental works and measures.

Essentially, that is what the bill before the House today does. That was unanimously supported by the committee members—National, Labor, Liberal and Independent. There was quite a lot of work done on that recommendation, amongst other recommendations made in the second inquiry.

When the bill was introduced into the parliament, it was referred back to the committee—and there has been criticism from some of those parochial members here today, saying that the committee had some sort of secret meeting on this. It was our own recommendation that there be an automatic adjustment. It has been backed by the states. It has been backed by the Murray-Darling Basin Ministerial Council. It has been backed by almost everybody within the system who understands the system. And it was backed by the integrity of the original inquiry, in the sense that the communities were saying they wanted the capacity, valley by valley, to make recommendations and make adjustments where they see fit. If, for every gigalitre of water that had to be adjusted, a proposal had to come before the parliament and be debated in both houses, it would be an absolute farce, with the sort of nonsense we have heard today and at other times on this particular issue.

So the members of the committee who put in a dissenting report are dissenting from their own recommendation. I cannot think of a reason why they would do that, because they heard the evidence from the people we spoke to during the inquiry that there needed to be some sort of automatic adjustment, within limits—plus or minus five per cent of the SDLs—so that we did not have to have a political debate for every megalitre of water that could be saved through environmental works and measures.

Now, let us go to the heart of that. What did the basin communities actually want at the start of this process? What did the regional Australia committee go out and talk to people about? What are the government and the authority doing about some of these things? Let us go to some of those issues. I think the committee should take some degree of credit, despite those who spoke against their own recommendations today, who should have a good look at some of the things that have occurred as a result of their recommendations. There was a recommendation to the authority and the government saying that people within the community were opposed to the Swiss cheese effect, where irrigation entitlements were being purchased under the government's buyback policy. The government agreed, in an earlier report back to the parliament, that non-strategic buyback would cease. I believe that will be part of the plan; if it is not, I will have great difficulty voting for it. It is what the community said: 'We don't want non-strategic buyback; we don't want Swiss cheese.'

When the government took that out, on the recommendation of an earlier report of our committee, most of the phone calls I received were from people saying, 'You have taken away our right to sell to the government; we want to be able to sell to the government.' Very few people rang up and congratulated us, even though that is what the communities—and the coalition members—had been saying. They had been telling us: 'Buyback is not the way to go. Environmental works and measures, investment in infrastructure and strategic investment in on-farm efficiencies are the way to go.' This piece of legislation deals with a number of those things.

As the committee travelled around, what did the communities tell us they wanted? They did want environmental works and measures. One of the things they kept saying was, 'Why do the farmers have to accept most of the give in this?' In fact, that is not true, but it is still being peddled out there. No-one forces anyone to do anything here. There is a water market. If people want to sell their water, they can. They have been able to do that for quite some time. They can sell it out of their community, downstream, or sell it within their community. That has been available for quite some time.

But some within the communities were saying, 'Why should it be the farmers who have to bear the brunt?' They were demanding, 'Why shouldn't the environment bear some of the brunt?' I agree with them. If you can efficiently—and we made certain recommendations along those lines—deliver environmental water to environmental icon sites for less than the original draft indicated, why would you not have a good hard look at that? That is what our recommendation embraces. It takes on board what the communities were saying. We do not want the farmers to bear the brunt of this. We want the environment to be efficient too where it can be and as it should be.

This bill today is about what people in the basin asked for—and I live in the basin, I farm in the basin and I have relatives who irrigate in the basin. I am probably one of the few people in this debate who actually lives and farms in the basin itself. So I have some idea about agriculture and all the vagaries of it. I farm on a flood plain, so I have some understanding of what water means to a flood plain's longevity et cetera.

What else did the communities we spoke to ask for? Rather than buyback, they wanted on-farm efficiencies—investment in infrastructure on-farm to get efficiencies. For instance, if a hundred megalitres of water was your entitlement and you were able, through investment in infrastructure or through other on-farm efficiencies, to obtain the same outcome with 70 megalitres of water, 30 per cent could be returned to the system. That is what people were asking for—for those on-farm efficiencies to be funded by the taxpayer.

The other thing they wanted—and we have discussed this here today—was for the Environmental Water Holder, who is going to hold all this environmental water, to be able to trade back into the productive market. Hopefully that will be part of the plan. I think, objectively, that it is something we should all lobby for. When there is a surplus of environmental water, there should be the capacity to temporarily trade some of that water back into the productive system. That is what the farmers and others were asking for.

They also asked for a rules review. That is going to happen—a review of the way the river is run and of various other monitoring systems. Another thing they wanted was for taxation issues to be addressed—the treatment of investment in irrigation efficiencies et cetera. That has been done, to the credit of the government. The parliament has actually passed some legislation on that. They also asked for strategic buybacks to be considered where possible. We heard the member for Riverina rambling on a moment ago, playing to his crowd. He has been the one proposing an area on the Murrumbidgee from which a vast number of gigalitres of water may be able to be returned to the system. He has been advocating that. If he does not believe that, as his ramblings today seem to indicate—'Any work or measure or efficiency or buyback in a strategic sense is nonsense and should be opposed'—perhaps he should go out and say that to his constituents.

I will briefly address the issue of the announcement the other day about the 450 gigalitres. I know there are a lot of people on both sides interested in the politics. Regrettably, I think I can see a South Australia versus the rest dimension developing. But I suggest that people should take the time to examine the real numbers in the documents out there. The target number at the moment is 2,750 gigalitres. This legislation allows for a five per cent increase or decrease in the total sustainable diversion limit, which is 10,000 gigalitres. So five per cent of that is 500 gigalitres—and that is where the 450 announced the other day fits in.

I will run through some numbers and hopefully people can understand. Most people can't—probably because it is me doing the explaining. You start with 2,750 gigalitres, which is the number everybody seems to have in their head. There are suggestions by the basin states—which I think will end up in the plan—that, through environmental works and measures and more efficient delivery of environmental water than was proposed in the original guide, you can save 650 gigalitres of water. That reduces the 2,750 back to 2,100. As of today, there have been something like 1,300 gigalitres returned to the system through strategic and non-strategic buybacks. If you deduct the 1,300 from the 2,100 you have after the environmental works and measures—which this bill deals with—it comes out at 800 gigalitres. Anybody listening to the debate today would think that 3,200 gigalitres of water is to be stolen—taken away from someone out there.

Let's go to the other side of the equation. You have 2,750 as the goal. The Prime Minister announced the other day that 450 gigalitres of water is going to be returned to the system. How is that going to get returned to the system? It is not going to be returned to the system for a long time, if ever. It is going to be funded via some sort of credit card arrangement, if ever. It is also a voluntary system. There would be some sort of government fund to support investments in on-farm efficiencies.

If farmers do not want to be part of an on-farm efficiency program, they do not have to participate; there is nothing mandatory about the government's system. So a scenario could develop where the 450 gigalitres and up, which was designed placate the South Australians, in fact turned out to be nonsense. If no farmer takes the government's system on board, it is nonsense, and that would mean that the real figures would be the original figures I was talking about: the 27 gigalitres less the 650 gigalitres and environmental works and measures—which is a more efficient way of delivering water to the environment in certain circumstances, such as the icon sites—less the 1,300 gigalitres that has already been obtained. That would leave 800 gigalitres to be obtained over the next eight years. If you add a few things, such as the Nami Caira proposal, which could be 100 gigalitres, and the Menindee proposal, which could be 100 to 200 gigalitres, it is not hard to get to a position of balance. But the suggestion that the 3,200 gigalitres is going to come out of the system is a nonsense. The efficiencies on both sides of the equation rework the numbers internally.

Plenty of people out there will argue the case, but I would like to see them analyse the numbers and be critical while looking at the numbers, not the rhetoric. (Time expired)