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Monday, 29 October 2012
Page: 12278

Mrs MIRABELLA (Indi) (17:46): I rise to oppose the Water Amendment (Long-term Average Sustainable Diversion Limit Adjustment) Bill 2012. I will cut to the chase here and be blunt—this bill is nothing more than an outsourcing of ministerial and parliamentary responsibility to bureaucrats in Canberra. If passed, the bill would effectively allow the Murray-Darling Basin Authority to adjust the amount of water being taken out of the basin by up to 700 gigalitres either up or down, and it could be done without approval by the minister, the cabinet or the parliament. Consider this for a moment. Should the bill pass, the Murray-Darling Basin Authority could adjust the sustainable diversion limit from the current target of 2,750 gigalitres to 3,450 gigalitres without any parliamentary or ministerial oversight. To put that into perspective: 700 gigalitres is more water than South Australia currently extracts, and to allow such a massive and potentially devastating adjustment to occur without any parliamentary or ministerial oversight would be completely irresponsible.

The Murray-Darling Basin is contentious policy, and I think that all of us in this place can acknowledge that—especially those of us who represent basin electorates. Indeed, in my electorate of Indi, which is the largest single contributor of water to the entire basin with about 40 person of total inflows generated in north-east Victoria alone, I appreciate how critical policy on the Murray-Darling Basin is and how critical it is to ensure that ministers are responsible for decisions and that they do not hide behind the bureaucracy. As elected representatives we have a responsibility to make sure that we do get policy on the basin right, because, if we do not, it will have an enormous and potentially devastating impact on irrigation and farming communities throughout the entire Murray-Darling Basin. We are the ones who should bear the ultimate responsibility for the basin plan, not unelected public servants in Canberra, as well-qualified and well-meaning as they are. We are elected to make decisions and to take responsibility for important policy which affects the nation, and there is arguably no more important policy affecting our long-term sustainability in agriculture, population and industry than water policy. This bill is an abrogation of basic responsibility, and the minister should be ashamed to be hiding behind the bureaucracy in this way through this bill. I am not suggesting that the MDBA is not qualified to make recommendations and provide advice to the minister and the parliament; but providing advice is a long way from making a final decision that would impact the lives of thousands of people across the country.

The MDBA will be given the right to bypass not just the minister but also the parliament, because under this bill the MDBA's adjustments would not be disallowable. This would mean that elected members would not even be given the opportunity to vote on adjustments. In the Westminster system under which we operate, there is an great emphasis placed on ministerial responsibility. Although over the last five years we have seen an extraordinary and unprecedented erosion of the application of the principle of ministerial responsibility, I think that we should nonetheless aspire to ensure that the principle of ministerial responsibility does remain a very real and very active part of our parliamentary system. Governments should not be able to make decisions which impact people's lives without having to face those people and without having to answer for their decisions. This bill flies in the face of that fundamental principle—the principle of ministerial responsibility—of the Westminster system of parliamentary democracy.

The bill comes in the wake of the Prime Minister's announcement last week of an additional 450 gigalitres of environmental water to be returned to the basin, apparently through an additional $1.7 billion worth of investment in water savings infrastructure. On the face of it, this sounds like reasonably positive news. But it is important that some points be noted. This announcement does need to be examined, the facts do need to be looked at and questions do need to be asked. Is it not curious that, during Senate estimates just a couple of weeks ago, the departmental officials made it quite clear that you would need between one-and-a-half and two times as much investment in infrastructure to achieve the sorts of cuts which have been announced? Many in the basin are asking the question: does the minister plan on announcing a whole new round of water buybacks to achieve that increased target? If you look carefully at the announcement you see that the door seems to have been left open for additional buybacks but that, in typical form, the government has not provided any detail.

Of course, questions are being asked. What are the considerations for land users upstream? My electorate sits at the mouth of the Hume weir at the top of the Murray River. What will the ramifications be for prime land around the upper reaches of the Murray? Can they expect to be flooded year round? A constituent of mine in the upper Murray recently brought to my attention that she has been paying around $14,000 a year for a grazing licence that she could not even use because the land has been flooded for the last two years. Can farmers and graziers in my electorate and other electorates expect more of this as a result of these announcements? These are valid questions to which reasonable people would like some answers.

This government has fumbled and fiddled with the Murray-Darling Basin Plan for almost five years now and in doing so—I can tell you—has crushed confidence in the agricultural sector. Now it is trying to pass a bill that will allow it to hide behind the basin authority and avoid scrutiny at every turn. This bill should be opposed, and the minister should have the courage to face up to people whose very livelihoods are in his hands.