Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
 Download Current HansardDownload Current Hansard    View Or Save XMLView/Save XML

Previous Fragment    Next Fragment
Thursday, 15 May 2003
Page: 14776

Mr KELVIN THOMSON (10:24 AM) —The Murray-Darling Basin Amendment Bill 2002 amends the Murray-Darling Basin Act 1993 to give effect to an agreement between the Commonwealth, New South Wales and Victoria on new arrangements for sharing water made available to the River Murray catchment. It gives effect to the Murray-Darling Basin Amending Agreement, which was agreed by the Murray-Darling Basin Ministerial Council in October 2001 and signed by the Prime Minister and premiers of New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia in June 2002.

What that agreement does is remove references to the Snowy Mountains Hydro-Electric Authority in the associated Snowy Mountains Agreement. It requires the Murray-Darling Basin Commission to determine the respective allocations to New South Wales and Victoria for increased water flows, according to an environmental strategy developed by the commission. It protects Victoria's and South Australia's rights to water from the River Murray if New South Wales fails to ensure the release of environmental entitlements to the Snowy River or the annual release from the Snowy River to the River Murray. It enables the transfer of water savings and purchases to environmental entitlements for the Snowy River and River Murray and it establishes additional water accounting, notification, consultation and modelling mechanisms that will be the responsibility of the Murray-Darling Basin Commission. That amending agreement has been the subject of extensive consultation and agreement. It has high-level support from the New South Wales, Victorian and South Australian governments, and federal Labor supports it.

I want to make some remarks following on from the comments that the member for Barker made; unfortunately he is not here to hear my response. The truth is that in the year 2003, the International Year of Freshwater, we are experiencing one of the most severe droughts on record and many of Australia's river systems, and this river system in particular, are in poor and declining health. We need to use the year 2003—this International Year of Freshwater—to devote much more attention to the health of our river systems.

I said at the start of the year that it needed to be a key new year's resolution for the Howard government and for us all to secure more water for the Murray-Darling Basin. The Murray River is presently on life support. Its mouth is being kept open by continuous dredging. It would not be open if it were not for that dredging. Scientists have been telling us that, if we do not take action now, within 20 years Adelaide's water will be undrinkable for two days out of five. They tell us that the rivers of the Murray-Darling Basin have a moderate chance of survival if we can deliver an additional 1,500 gigalitres of water to them and even less chance if we do not. What the federal government needs to do, in consultation and partnership with the states, is deliver a long-term plan which will support the provision of 1,500 gigalitres of extra water for the Murray-Darling Basin over the course of the next 10 years. We need to act to secure and restore the health of our river systems by guaranteeing water flows to ensure basic river health, providing flexibility of water allocation that recognises that natural flows vary seasonally and over time, and clarifying water property rights and the responsibilities which go with those rights.

Governments can find solutions, and the bill before the House demonstrates that very clearly. The once mighty Snowy River had become a trickle. Together, the New South Wales and Victorian governments have started putting water back into the Snowy to ensure that it will flow again. In the International Year of Freshwater, we need a national water policy. Our task is to find water for our farmers and irrigators, environmental flows for our stressed rivers and sustainable supplies for our cities and urban industries. Last year's National Land and Water Resources Audit found that 84 of Australia's surface water management areas were either close to being overused or overused compared with their sustainable flow regimes. Many river basins in New South Wales have a greater than 100 per cent water diversion as a percentage of a sustainable flow regime. There are too many nutrients in 43 river basins, water is excessively turbid in parts of 41 basins and water is too saline in 24 basins. Many of Victoria's basins have all three problems.

The Year of the Outback—last year—was a disaster for the outback. We need to make sure that this year, the International Year of Freshwater, is a year of progress for our stressed river systems. Frequently, we get comments—almost asides—from the Prime Minister saying that he is very concerned about salinity, that he is very concerned about water quality and that he is very concerned about the state of the Murray-Darling Basin. In fact, I was astonished the week before last when Simon Crean and I visited the mouth of the Murray River. We discovered it to be in a very poor state indeed. It was only about a foot deep and about a cricket pitch wide; it was in an appalling state. We released a policy there which indicated that a Labor government would provide some 450 gigalitres of additional water for the Murray River during the first term of a federal Labor government.

The Australian saw fit to print not a word of this. The Australian, which has been running a campaign about the Murray-Darling Basin, claims to be concerned about these issues. It saw fit to run not a word about what a national Labor government would provide to save the Murray River over the course of the next three years. But, a day or two later, the Australian's rural writer, Asa Walquist, reported:

John Howard has promised to focus on salinity, water rights and land clearing in a bid to make the environment a key part of the government's third-term policy agenda.

He wrote:

... the Prime Minister said “we need to get more money flowing” to tackle salinity, some kind of national understanding on water rights” and “more progress on tree clearing”.

“They are the three things that I have really set as objectives this year ...”

Rhetoric, words—there is no action to back it up. It was completely unsubstantiated, yet the Australian saw fit to run this as if it were some major new development. Indeed, this was followed up in the budget just a couple of days ago with the Prime Minister announcing that there would be no new money for the Murray-Darling Basin, no money to address land clearing and no new money to address salinity. Indeed, on the salinity front, we learnt that the government had failed to spend some $38 million—money which it had promised in the budget last year it would spend—and it had cut a further $25 million from the forward estimates for this year's National Action Plan on Salinity and Water Quality. So at a time when the government is reducing its commitment to salinity, reducing its commitment to tackling water quality and reducing its commitment to save the Murray River, the Australian sees fit to report that this is a key part of the government's policy agenda for the third term.

It is not merely the comments made in the Australian recently by the Prime Minister that show him to be a man of rhetoric rather than of action. If we go back to November 2002, he told CEDA:

There are few issues more important to our nation than water reform.

In a press release on 1 November 2001, the Prime Minister said:

When I spoke at the Press Club in August, I nominated water quality as one of the great challenges that Australian Governments must face up to.

At the Press Club on 1 August 2001, he said:

In a dry continent like our own ... there is no more pressing issue than tackling water quality and salinity issues.

Governments must come to grips with issues such as river health and efficiency of river irrigation system.

On 10 October 2000, he said:

I think we all want to recognise that this is a long-term national challenge. If you're really talking about leaving a better Australia for our children you do have to do something about the salinity problem.

If we go back to the 1998 Liberal Party environmental election platform, it was stated:

The Coalition has set itself the goal of reversing the decline of native vegetation by mid-2001.

That has not happened. If we look at the state of the environment report, it is clear that land clearing continues apace. Similarly, back in 1996, they said:

We will work to achieve the long term objective of ensuring that, for the first time since european settlement, the rate of vegetation establishment will exceed the rate of vegetation clearance.

Again, there has been no progress towards that commitment. As a result: more salinity, reduced river quality and threats and damage to our biodiversity.

Regrettably, despite the fact that the Prime Minister has claimed that water is a third-term priority agenda, there is no new initiative to save the Murray River, and we have seen that the government's flagship program, the National Action Plan on Salinity and Water Quality, has been substantially cut. Indeed, after seven years of a Howard government there has been little progress on the whole of the COAG water reform agenda.

Back in 1994 the federal Labor government established, through COAG, a process of water reform which it said would have, amongst other things, the objective of providing environmental flows and restoring the health of our river system. In fact, what has happened since then is that we have been going around in circles and we have water quality continuing to deteriorate. There are problems with algal blooms, fish species are dying and being reduced in number and there are problems for the river red gums. Some very serious data is emerging which is suggesting that along the Murray many of the river red gums are dying and will die over the course of the next few years.

Yet the budget this year shows no new funding for these priorities and, indeed, over the course of the six-year period, it shows a cut of $287 million to the Prime Minister's original commitment to the national action plan. Little wonder that the National Farmers Federation said, in its response to the budget, that the government's response to salinity has been totally inadequate. On budget night, the head of the National Farmers Federation, Peter Corish, said:

It is now 2½ years since the Federal and State government committed $1.4 billion to the NAP and the rate at which money is being spent on the ground is unacceptably low. It is time for the Prime Minister to take personal control of this excellent initiative to ensure that the funds get where they are needed as a matter of urgency.

Those views were shared by Don Henry from the Australian Conservation Foundation, who said:

The Prime Minister had promised that salinity, tree clearing and water were priorities for the next 12 months, but this budget contains no additional commitments. Instead, we are seeing cuts and little progress in these critical areas.

The National Farmers Federation is right; if the Prime Minister is serious about salinity, he needs to take personal responsibility for the national action plan and take those ministers who are presently responsible, David Kemp and Warren Truss, off the case because they have failed. They should be taken off the field for their inability to deliver environmental spending and their inability to deliver the National Action Plan for Salinity and Water Quality.

As I said before, the science on these issues is clear. The Wentworth Group tells us that the Murray needs an extra 450 gigalitres of water in environmental flows to keep the mouth open. It further needs an additional 1,500 gigalitres to give it a moderate chance of restoration to a healthy river system. Federal Labor has committed to action in restoring 450 gigalitres of environmental flows within its first term to keep the Murray mouth open and delivering 1,500 gigalitres in environmental flows over the course of 10 years to restore the health of the river system.

This government is moving in slow motion to protect the Murray-Darling Basin. It has a political strategy for dealing with this problem but not a genuine strategy for dealing with it. The political strategy is to say, `Yes, the Murray-Darling is in a bad way; the states must fix it.' We heard the member for Barker speaking before me on exactly the same theme—blame the states. Here we have a failure of national leadership, and simply a political strategy for addressing the problem, not a genuine strategy for restoring the health of the Murray River. The COAG water reform process was started by Labor in 1994. It has languished; it has gone around in circles.

We have seen this in subsequent meetings of the Murray-Darling Basin Ministerial Council, at a time when the State of the Environment Report tells us that increasing pressures to extract surface and ground water for human use are leading to the continuing deterioration of the health of inland waters; that the amount of water extracted for irrigation from 1985 to 1997 increased by 76 per cent; that the increase in salinity in the Murray-Darling Basin is causing water quality decline and land degradation; and that, of 12,000 gigalitres flowing into the Murray-Darling system in the average year, 10,000 gigalitres are used for irrigation and not returned, which has seen a dramatic change in the ecology of the Murray-Darling Basin. At a time when we know all those things, we still get calls for delay and inaction.

There was more of this at the Murray-Darling Basin Ministerial Council meeting on Friday. We hear that, when the ministers met in Toowoomba, there were calls for a delay on a final decision. If we go back to March or April last year in Corowa, the Murray-Darling Basin Ministerial Council committed itself to setting a target for environmental flows to restore the health of the Murray River by October this year. We now find that that timetable is being shifted. We have people saying, `There's not enough consultation; we haven't had enough time to address this problem.'

That is not good enough. People have known about the declining state of the Murray-Darling Basin for years—indeed, for decades. The 1972 cabinet papers were released recently, and I recall that in that year the first Australian environment minister, a Liberal environment minister, brought to the cabinet some papers concerning the health of the Murray River. People were concerned about this 30 years ago, so it is not good enough to now say that we need some more consultation and that we need some more time. Delay will only make matters worse; delay will only cause the problems arising from the decline in the health of the system to get worse. I do not support the calls for delay. I believe we need to get action from the Murray-Darling Basin Ministerial Council.

A federal Labor government would be committed to saving the Murray River, our greatest river, by increasing the environmental flows—not only by restoring 450 gigalitres within our first term, not only by delivering 1,500 gigalitres within 10 years to restore the health of the river, but also by taking action to prevent the climate change that reduces the amount of water that flows into the system in the first place. We would ratify the Kyoto protocol as the first step to an effective global response to climate change.

We really do have a serious situation here. The Murray River is becoming choked with exotic species and algal blooms, native fish are dying, the magnificent river red gums on our floodplains are dying of thirst because no floodwaters nourish them and dryland salinity now threatens to affect around six million hectares of the Murray-Darling Basin by 2050. We are simply taking too much water out of the Murray, and the only way it can survive is for us to put more water back in. That is what Labor will do as a priority. We will deliver these things in the first term of a Crean Labor government.

There is no doubt that this is a substantial challenge, there is no doubt that this is not easy for those irrigators and farmers who have been the principal users of this water, but I believe we can achieve that target of 1,500 gigalitres over the course of 10 years. You need to understand that that involves putting back about 20 per cent of what we take out now. Over a 10-year period, that represents a two per cent change each year. So, viewed as a productivity target, I believe it is achievable without impacting on our agricultural productivity. Indeed, if we fail to act, that will impact on our agricultural productivity. I believe it can be done over the course of the next 10 years. It is an ambitious target and it requires national leadership, but Labor is prepared to provide that leadership.

The government is going around in circles, unwilling to make any of the hard decisions. It has put this decision on the backburner, as it has put on the backburner so many decisions needed to protect our environment, allowing some of us to live in a fool's paradise thinking that we can go on trashing the river system in the way that we have been over the course of the past 15 years. If we do not recognise that, it will have very serious consequences—for South Australia in particular.

I hope that the member for Barker and other government members from South Australia put more pressure on the Howard government to show national leadership and to take the action needed to protect the Murray River by doing the sorts of things that were done to protect the Snowy River and by doing some of those hard yards covered by the New South Wales and Victorian governments that are set out in the legislation before us. I hope those South Australian Liberal members put some genuine pressure on the Howard government; otherwise we will find that the Murray River will continue to decline.