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Monday, 29 October 2012
Page: 12279


Mr BRIGGS (Mayo) (17:53): I rise to speak also on the bill before the House, the Water Amendment (Long-term Average Sustainable Diversion Limit Adjustment) Bill 2012, in relation to Murray-Darling Basin reform. I agree in part with what the member for Indi has just contributed in the debate—that is, the point the member for Indi made that reform in this area is complicated, very difficult and extremely contentious. It varies from irrigation district to irrigation district, not so much state by state, as some would like to simplistically argue. This is not a New South Wales versus South Australia or a Victoria versus New South Wales or a New South Wales and Victoria and South Australia versus Queensland issue; it is an issue which relates to district. Ultimately, if you understand at all how the Murray-Darling Basin works, only parts of it are connected with others in a serious way, and therefore those downstream of other irrigation districts always think that they are worse off because of those other irrigation districts, and usually the irrigation district upstream thinks that it should not have to reform at all—and that is very much the case when it comes to this debate.

It is important, I think, that we understand some history and put aside, as much as possible, some of the politics for which this issue has been used for so long now, including today in question time. Water and water reform in the Murray-Darling Basin were an issue which was a Federation debate. The South Australian contingent at the Federation debates argued that the management of water resources should be a matter for the Constitution handled by the federal parliament. They lost to the Victorians and New South Welshmen, who argued that it would be all okay if the states managed it. Following at least two royal commissions into the Murray-Darling Basin in the early part of last century and the establishment of barrages in the Lower Lakes in my electorate, this issue continued to get worse and worse as more and more irrigated land and irrigation settlements were built in the Murray-Darling Basin. Of course, a lot of that irrigation land and those irrigation settlements occurred post World War I and World War II, including that of my own family, who were on an irrigated soldier settlement property out of Red Cliffs, in Victoria in the Sunraysia district, following World War I.

In those times when governments were expanding and increasing the amount of irrigated product, in part because of the logistic connections of the river itself, with riverboat trade and then rail, we obviously did not think through the consequences of not managing how much water would or would not be taken out in good and bad years. As time went on, our understanding of the system got better and better and we understood increasingly that separate irrigation districts were struggling through separate environmental challenges, although it has to be said that there was, sadly, in the late seventies and early eighties—even though some of this understanding had begun to be realised—a spike in the irrigation licences that were issued by state governments. But no state government—not the government of my state of South Australia, not the Victorian government, not the New South Wales government and not the Queensland government—can say that they have clean hands when it comes to their management regime. They do not. This system has never been managed all that well, despite what some people would have you believe.

This issue has challenged us for 120 years. The Murray-Darling Basin is a vital part of our country. It grows much food and fibre in all of the states. It is not just somewhere that we grow food and fibre in New South Wales or Victoria; much of South Australia's agricultural product is produced in the Murray-Darling Basin in the Riverland and around my parts of the country. The member for Barker argues this point also. People too often allege that people in South Australia are interested only in reform to the Murray-Darling Basin because of so-called greenie interest, as I heard earlier in the debate. Nothing could be further from the truth. I am very happy to take members down to meet dairy farmers, wine producers and beef cattle farm operators, and they can tell you what it was like for six years without any water allocation at all—to have a licence with no value to it at all when you could not access the water. Not everyone in this debate is all that honest about the motives that necessarily drive why people are interested in this reform.

It is absolutely necessary reform. In 2004, John Howard as Prime Minister saw the need for it to be reformed. That is why he, being the first Prime Minister to seriously address the Murray-Darling Basin—the first Prime Minister, frankly, to be seriously interested in the issues relating to it—took the first step and introduced the Living Murray initiative, which brought back some gigalitres of water to the system between 2004 and 2006. Of course, in that period there was also an enormous drought. For the first time, the system went into the drought under stress, and therefore the stress was exaggerated enormously by a very sustained and difficult drought.

In mid-2006—and the member for Wentworth has recalled this story to me on numerous occasions—in a very frank meeting with the then South Australian Premier, our water minister made the important point that within months South Australia could be without water. Adelaide could be without water. The Murray had stopped flowing. It was a series of cut-up dams. That does not just affect South Australians; it affects people in Mildura, Deniliquin—you name it. When a system stops running, that is not healthy. Of course, it was in the worst of the drought, but the problem was the policy had made it harder for the system to adapt to that drought. If people do not recognise that, they are truly putting a blindfold on to the issues.

So in 2007, recognising just how serious this was, John Howard and the member for Wentworth, as the minister for the environment and water, made a groundbreaking announcement on Australia Day. It was criticised by some for its reach, for its takeover of what was traditionally a state managed system, but it was absolutely necessary. This system had proven the Federation incapable of managing itself, largely because irrigator districts could not come to an arrangement which ensured that the management of the system was done properly. So the national water plan was announced, a $10 billion 10-point plan which was to ensure that water was recovered, to ensure that a national independent authority was put in place to make decisions outside the realm of politics.

Unfortunately, politics have failed this debate for too long and it remains the case. It is sad that 5½ years on from that initial plan we are still here debating this in this place without yet seeing a finalised plan. The minister for the environment continues to fail to deliver upon it. It was January 2007 when John Howard first announced this. It was during the parliamentary sittings in 2007 that the member for Wentworth, as the minister for the environment, delivered this reform and since that time the Labor Party in government have failed to deliver on it.

It also has to be said, contrary to the grandstanding of the minister today and of the Prime Minister last Friday, that it was the Labor Party—Premier Steve Bracks and Premier John Brumby—who stood in the way of a national agreement in 2007 that would have hastened this reform. In the middle of the drought, when it was absolutely vital and essential, they stopped it for very blatant political reasons. They did not want to give John Howard a victory in the lead-up to the 2007 election. That is the reason that they stood in the way of it being agreed to in that year. Now we have the minister for the environment and the Prime Minister grandstanding to South Australians, saying that somehow they are the great saviours, even though it was never Labor's idea to have a national takeover of this system, to have a national independent authority. When it was proposed by John Howard and the then minister for the environment, Malcolm Turnbull, they opposed it every step of the way. They used John Brumby and Steve Bracks to oppose it every step of the way.

People should remember the history on this. It is this side of the House that has been committed to reform for a very long time, because we know that, to ensure that we can continue to be the food bowl of Australia, we need to have a sustainable and managed system that does not enter droughts in a distressed state. We need enough water to ensure that the environmental assets that Australians hold dear remain healthy and that communities are sustainable. That has been our position for a long time. We say the best way to deliver that is to have an independent authority.

I agree with the member for Indi in that the minister should not be giving over all his ability and authority in this respect, as this bill proposes. That is why we have foreshadowed an amendment, and I understand the minister is considering that amendment. I think it would be a wise move if the minister accepted that amendment to ensure that what are not unreasonable proposals in this bill are agreed to.

I am still absolutely and utterly committed to reform of the Murray-Darling Basin. I was when I ran for parliament in September 2008. I grew up on the Murray-Darling Basin. I spent many of my school holidays swimming in the Murray River. I spent many of my school projects testing salinity in the Murray-Darling Basin. I understand and I have for a very long time that this system needs to be fixed. We have understood for a very long time that this system needs to be fixed. It was the coalition who first proposed that this system be fixed by a truly national independent authority making the decisions outside of politics, taking the ongoing battles between irrigator districts away and making decisions in the best interests of the nation. We remain committed to that process.

I will quote from the coalition's election policy from before the last election. The third point of the 10 point plan is:

3.   Proceed with the implementation of the Basin Plan without delay

The Labor Party has taken too long to implement what was a sound plan in January 2007. It opposed it in 2007 for political reasons and since it was elected to government it has taken too long to implement the necessary reforms. We should not still be debating this bill today. We should be implementing the plan to get the management of this system right. I make this very clear in the parliament tonight: I remain and will remain committed to reform of the Murray-Darling Basin. This is the commitment that we as a coalition made at the last election:

The Coalition wants proper consultation on the draft Basin Plan, according to the principles outlined in The Water Act 2007. We want full and transparent discussion of its consequences. We want to bring the communities of the basin with us on the journey of reform.

We will implement a plan. It is important and necessary that we do so, because if we do not we will go back to the old ways of managing this system, which have failed our country, which have failed irrigator districts along the system and which have failed my communities utterly and absolutely over the years—just as the politics of this issue continues to fail us today. We need to remove as much as we possibly can of the ongoing, insidious battle between different states, different irrigation districts and different vested interests and come to a conclusion finally that this system is far too important for us to continue to argue over in order to score base political points.

I thought it was shameful for the Prime Minister and the Minister for the Environment to try to play base politics last week after failing the system for the last five years, but that sums up where this Prime Minister and her credibility are at. It is now time for us to put in place this reform. I urge the minister to come to a conclusion on the Basin Plan. I urge him to table it in this parliament and to get it in place so that we can take the steps necessary to have a finalised Basin Plan and a finalised national authority managing this system and so that we do not again have to have this debate, which is occurring for no purpose other than base political purposes.