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Thursday, 15 May 2003
Page: 14772

Mr SECKER (10:03 AM) —I rise today to add my support to the Murray-Darling Basin Amendment Bill 2002. As you may know, my electorate of Barker takes in a large part of the lower Murray, right through to the Murray mouth near Goolwa on the Fleurieu Peninsula. In fact, my electorate starts at Swan Reach and goes downstream from there. Between us, the Speaker—the member for Wakefield—and I represent the entire Murray River region in South Australia. The Murray River is an important watercourse not only throughout my electorate but also throughout the rest of South Australia. During dry conditions, such as those experienced recently, the River Murray is used for up to 90 per cent of South Australia's drinking water and irrigation. Not only that, the River Murray in my electorate is home to a fantastic tourism industry, which covers houseboats, river cruise boats and floating hotels right through to campers, who may waterski and participate in other water sports on the river. It is an industry which currently is doing well, but it does rely on the health of the Murray to survive. For this reason, I would like to provide my support for the Murray-Darling Basin Amendment Bill 2002. It has very significant features intended to help the plight of the River Murray, both environmentally and economically, which I believe will bring great benefits to the entire region.

It is interesting that only last week I was part of a Liberal Party Regional and Rural Council three-day tour of the Murray River in South Australia. Included on that tour was the Leader of the Opposition, Rob Kerin; the shadow minister for primary resources, the Hon. Caroline Schaefer; the Hon. David Ridgway; the Hon. John Dawkins; Ivan Venning, who represents a state electorate that covers part of the Murray River electorate that I represent; and quite a few other MPs and party officials. They took the time to go out to the Murray mouth, where there is presently some dredging going on to try and keep it open. Frankly, I was shocked. It had been some time since I had been to the Murray mouth, and I remember it as long as 30 years ago, when I used to go fishing there with my father and friends. The water level at the Murray mouth, by my estimation, is about 15 metres lower than it was 30 years ago when we used to go fishing. So it is no wonder that it is virtually impossible to keep the Murray mouth open the way we are trying to now. It is a shame because not only is it having a huge effect on the tourist industry but also there is a significant long-term fishing industry—several generations of families had been sustainably fishing the Murray mouth in the Coorong area.

One only has to look at the whole Coorong, which is part of a Ramsar agreement, to see that we have got huge problems because we are not getting the so-called environmental flows coming down the Murray River which can then replenish the Coorong and keep the Murray mouth open. I believe I have a possible solution to what is happening with the Coorong. The Murray mouth is situated at the top of the Coorong and is replenished by the flows of the Murray River, which can come over the barrages there, but of course that has not happened for some 18 months. Tides could be used to replenish the water of the Coorong down at the lower reaches, possibly around the Salt Creek area or the Forty-Two Mile Creek area. In fact, before we came on the scene the water used to come inland at Salt Creek.

The Coorong salinity content is quite a bit stronger than sea water now. Obviously it is very stale because it has not had any replenishment. Of course it is actually much lower than sea level now. By some fairly simple—I would have thought—engineering possibilities, we could have sea water coming in with the tides to the lower reaches of the Coorong, which could then act as a natural pump at the top area of the Coorong and near the Murray mouth. Unfortunately, trying to keep the mouth open probably affects at best only the top 10 per cent of the Coorong, because there is simply not enough water coming in. But if we were able to have quite large amounts of sea water providing a natural equilibrium for the Coorong I think we could go a long way towards saving the Coorong from becoming a dying resource—remembering, as I said, that it is part of a world Ramsar agreement, because it is such an important part of our ecological base. I certainly do have the pleasure of representing the Coorong, and it is a resource we need to protect.

In contrast, it is interesting to note that, whilst the Liberal Party organised a three-day tour of the Murray River, the response of the Premier, Mike Rann, was to drive down to the Murray mouth, get his picture taken and put out a press release saying he was trying to do something. It is all very well to be a media personality—I think even by his own standards he would call himself a media tart—but it was noted by the locals that he basically flew in to the Murray mouth and flew out. He did not notify the locals and he did not talk to the locals as we did. We spoke with community groups in Goolwa, which is the town nearest to the Murray mouth, and we spoke with irrigators at Langhorne Creek, who produce some of the best red wines in the world. They are fearful that they will not have any water supplies to irrigate their grapes in future. This is a relatively new scheme, introduced under a state Liberal government in the mid-1990s.

Under the guarantee of water allocations that the previous Premier of South Australia Tom Playford ensured for South Australia, everybody thought that they would have no problems with the water supply. Unfortunately, because of the drought—and I am not blaming any government for that, of course—South Australians do have some serious concerns that their guaranteed allocation will actually be reduced. That could have a fundamental effect on irrigation along the Murray River, especially in my electorate of Barker. It is very important that we acknowledge that the irrigators in Langhorne Creek, for example, have made quite amazing efficiency gains in quite a few areas with the irrigation they use. In some cases, they are only using up to a quarter of the water that they had planned to use some five or six years ago when they put the scheme in. We should acknowledge the Langhorne Creek irrigators for the good work that they are doing there. It has the effect of producing beautiful fruit wine which some of us can enjoy.

This bill seeks to amend the Murray-Darling Basin Agreement, a schedule to the Murray-Darling Basin Act 1993. The purpose of the agreement is to promote and coordinate effective planning and management for the equitable, efficient and sustainable use of the water, land and environmental resources of the Murray-Darling Basin. The effect of the amendments contained in the Murray-Darling Basin Amendment Bill is to make new arrangements for sharing between New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia, with the water being made available in the River Murray catchment above the Hume Dam by the Snowy scheme. The amendments will hopefully also protect South Australia's water rights in the event that New South Wales fails to ensure either the release of increased environmental flows to the Snowy River or the required annual releases from the Snowy scheme to the River Murray. This will ensure that the annual environmental flows are met. Unfortunately, they are not being met now.

There is no doubt that the health of the River Murray has suffered and is suffering as a result of all the water redirections. That is not to say that they were not necessary; that is merely a factual statement. In particular, in the Fleurieu, Murray, Mallee and Riverland regions of my electorate—regions through which the Murray River flows—there has been a noticeable decline in the quality of the water, and the higher water temperatures and lower oxygen content of the river have also adversely affected various inhabitants of the River Murray in those regions. For these reasons, it is very important that every decision made with regard to the Murray-Darling Basin is carefully considered, discussed and debated, because we are talking about the most important watercourse in South Australia, and the system is obviously the most important watercourse in Australia. What happens upstream is of great concern to the people in my electorate and to all South Australians.

It is really important that South Australians and all Australians recognise the impact that they themselves have on the river system. We must look at ways in which they can improve the plight of the river as well. In my electorate of Barker, farmers and other interested parties are willing to do so. However, they cannot do it alone. Unfortunately, I have to say that the state Labor government in South Australia has been irresponsible in not already bringing in water restrictions in Adelaide. It is very hard for us to argue with other states which have water restrictions; the water is going past them and we then say to them, `Well, we haven't got water restrictions in South Australia, including in Adelaide.' I think it is only reasonable that we all share the burden. The South Australian government is talking about bringing in water restrictions now but, frankly, they should have been in place for the last six months. We have had the worst drought in Australia's history. Anyone with any ability to discern and look at what is happening can see what a huge effect that has had on the Murray-Darling system.

The situation in the lower Murray at the moment is that farmers are willing to improve their irrigation practices to help the Murray, but they are being hampered by a penny-pinching South Australian Labor government which are wasting time and money on administrative activities instead of helping the farmers get on with the job of fixing the problems on the ground. I am pretty upset about this, because we have done a lot of work in consulting with the local community. We had a plan with the previous Liberal government which was based on processes in place. Under the national action plan the federal and state governments would contribute 40 per cent each and the local farmers the remaining 20 per cent. Even though that was still going to cost the farmers a lot of money without any real economic benefit to them, it was something that they were prepared to do. They understood that they had to do something about the problems of the area that they were irrigating.

In the lower Murray region we have a group of farmers and the local irrigation action group who have recognised that changes must be made to ensure more efficient water usage and, in turn, to ensure a healthier Murray. There is no disputing that fact. What we also have is a group of farmers who are feeling pushed into a corner by the state environment minister, John Hill, who is trying to railroad them into doing the necessary work with inadequate support—both financial and logistical—from the state government. The simple basis of what the state government has done to change the plan between the federal government, the state government and the local farmers is cost shift $10 million from the state government onto the local farmers, which they simply cannot afford. Instead of the local farmers—about 200 people—providing about $8 million, which was still a large sum of money, they are now being told that they have to supply $18 million, enabling the state government to make a saving of $10 million. Unfortunately, I do not think the state Labor minister, John Hill, actually understands what his department is putting to him. I really do not think he understands what is happening.

The federal government has implemented a national action plan as a result of the Prime Minister's initiative to provide $1.4 billion over seven years. That is to be done nationally across 21 priority regions—the lower Murray region, which I am talking about, is one—to motivate and enable regional communities to prevent, stabilise and reverse trends in salinity, particularly dry land salinity, and to improve water quality. Under that national action plan, the federal government is encouraging local communities to get together with their regional planning groups and assist the needs of their regions and then make submissions to both the state and federal governments for assistance with funding of these projects. Up until now, this has worked well; we have seen community driven projects improving the situation right through the Murray-Darling Basin. For example, the Loxton Irrigation Scheme has worked very well under the system of 40 per cent federal, 40 per cent state, 20 per cent local farmers. It has worked well up until now, until this situation with the lower Murray irrigators. Frankly, it is appalling.

Instead of the state government assessing the submission by the community and discussing funding options in conjunction with the community, we have an environment minister writing letters dictating to the farming community exactly what will be done and telling them how much they will pay for it, without negotiating with the community at all. This is not what the national action plan is about. The national action plan is about the community telling governments what they need, not governments telling communities and farmers what they have to do. This is appalling. When the process is followed correctly, the system works really well; but it is certainly not in this situation. As I said, the lower Murray irrigators have already stated that they are prepared to implement changes, but the state government is not playing its part.

The government takes the issue of the Murray-Darling basin very seriously, just as the Murray-Darling Basin Commission takes it seriously. I would like to think, despite what I am seeing at the South Australian state government level, that the state government takes this issue very seriously as well. The Murray-Darling Basin and the rivers within it are vital to the surrounding areas: they provide wealth and they provide a way of adding value to the local communities. Further, the environmental ecosystems of the rivers are home to communities that rely on them for their survival and they are greatly affected by any decisions made in relation to the Murray-Darling Basin. The amendments we are discussing today are not exempt from this. It is very important that the health of the rivers in the Murray-Darling Basin is considered, for the survival of these ecosystems and communities.

As I have previously stated, in my seat of Barker there are many towns and businesses that rely on the health of the river for tourism and various farming related activities. That does not even take into consideration the state, which relies heavily upon the Murray for its drinking water. Were the Murray to get much worse, these businesses and local communities would suffer. For example, in my electorate I have one of the most celebrated and awarded—at both a state and national level—houseboat operators: Unforgettable Houseboats.

Unforgettable Houseboats, based at Mannum, has the best boats on the river—in fact, I had the pleasure of staying on one last week. It is part of a growing fleet of luxury houseboats that cruise the Murray River, from Goolwa to the Victorian border, and I take this opportunity to officially congratulate the managing director, Mike Coory, and his team on their amazing success. However, the fact is that the river may not be so kind to this business as the tourists and the tourism awards are. Just last year they had a problem with a customer who putted along the river, as you do in a houseboat, up to Swan Reach and they were told they could go no further. From my personal experience, I can tell you that I have been to every part of the Murray River that you can on a houseboat—in fact, I have been up the Darling a few times as well—and they do have a problem. I totally support the Murray-Darling Basin Amendment Bill 2002 because it helps in some way to ensure that we protect the Murray-Darling Basin. I commend the bill to the House.