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Thursday, 15 May 2003
Page: 14788

Mr KING (11:18 AM) —The Hon. Robert Webster, the former New South Wales National Party minister who was appointed as commissioner of the Snowy water inquiry, in his final report of 23 October 1998 into the question of the Snowy corporatisation legislation that had been proposed in 1993 and the impact of that upon the Snowy River system and the Murray-Darling Basin system, submitted five significant points. They were: significant environmental gain for the river systems must be achieved; significant reduction in water wastage in irrigation areas must be addressed; the cost impact on agriculture must be minimal because of its significant economic contribution to the community, apart from the economic cost to the potential growth of industry; the impact on the hydroelectricity generator must be manageable; and the capital cost for the government must be reasonable in terms of returned benefits to the environment and the community. As indicated by the member for Blaxland, a number of options were examined in that report. The commissioner adopted the view, finally, that the stream flow into the Snowy River should, if his report were to be adopted, be a 15 per cent increase in its average flow, at an estimated cost of $194 million.

Mr Deputy Speaker, you will be aware—as other honourable members will be aware—that the relevant average natural flow for the new Snowy River proposals has been a matter of great contention. I seem to recall that Mr Craig Ingram, the member for Gippsland East in the Victorian parliament, won his seat on a campaign based on a 28 per cent flow. Others have suggested different proposals. The member for Wills, in his address a little bit earlier today, suggested a figure which, if I recall it correctly, was 1,500 gigalitres, an increase over 10 years involving something like a two per cent change in the parameters for the Murray system itself. He says that that will give rise to difficulties for farmers in adjusting to those changes. Without doubt that is the case. I think the proposals that he has made are too dramatic. He says that it can be done through national leadership, which the government has not been showing on this issue. He says that, otherwise, we will be trashing the inland river system. I suggest that, if the proposal put forward by the member for Wills were adopted, we would be trashing the livelihood of many of those who depend upon water as the basis for their agriculture and prosperity.

But I do not want to dwell too much on the final outcomes as proposed in this legislation, because I want to suggest that they are correct, that they are an important advance in improving the environmental profile of inland Australia with respect to water and that water reform issues are being addressed in a way that this legislation does very well. I want to take a slightly different tack because, unlike the member for Farrer's, my electorate does not immediately adjoin the Murray-Darling. My interest in this matter goes back to the time that I was chair of the Australian Heritage Commission and conducted a number of reports into the natural heritage issues arising out of the flow of the Murray-Darling Basin system—not only in the Murray itself but also in the Darling. It is interesting to note that almost halfway across the continent, where the Darling River itself commences its flow, there is an extraordinary water catchment system, which—whilst it does not necessarily mirror that of the Snowy Mountains, because of the volume that comes through from the Snowy—is an example of the last remaining natural catchment system in the Murray-Darling Basin. It suggests that, if nature were allowed to take its own course in relation to our river systems in Australia, there would be good outcomes not only for the environment but also for those who take their livelihood from the land.

Let me remind members of the House of the words of Henry Lawson, the famous Australian poet, who wrote about the Paroo River in a wonderful poem, as follows:

It was a week from Christmas-time,

As near as I remember,

And half a year since, in the rear,

We'd left the Darling Timber.

The track was hot and more than drear;

The day dragged out for ever;

But now we knew that we were near

Our Camp—the Paroo River.

He goes on to speak about how they walked up and tried to find the Paroo River:

With blighted eyes and blistered feet,

With stomachs out of order,

Half-mad with flies and dust and heat

We'd crossed the Queensland Border.

The great thing about this wonderful poem—written by one of our famous Australian poets, who is buried in my electorate—is that he was suggesting that the Paroo River system was in some ways the dead heart of Australia, in that nothing ever happened there and that no water would ever flow into the Murray-Darling system from there. But in fact he was wrong. Shortly afterwards in the Bulletin, in a very controversial poem written by his rival Banjo Paterson, this came out. I want to emphasise this, because I want to bring us back to the topic which I think inspired the report of the Hon. Robert Webster that I began my address with and which I think is at the heart of the government's reform program in relation to water issues in this country and which is therefore to be commended. This is what Banjo Paterson had to say about one aspect—the unreal aspect, if I can put it that way—of the Lawson poem, part of which I just read. He said:

And no doubt you're better suited drinking lemon-squash in town.

Yet, perchance, if you should journey down the very track you went

In a month or two at furthest you would wonder what it meant,

Where the sunbaked earth was gasping like a creature in its pain

You would find the grasses waving like a field of summer grain,

And the miles of thirsty gutters blocked with sand and choked with mud,

You would find them mighty rivers with a turbid, sweeping flood—

and so on. For those who have not had the privilege of seeing the Paroo River system, which is the last natural, untouched water catchment system flowing into the Murray-Darling Basin system, it is a wonderful place to visit. Do not take it from me: take it from Lawson, take it from Paterson and go and look for yourself. It is a fantastic and an inspirational place for any Australian, no matter where you come from and no matter where you were born. That has to be contrasted with what has happened in this respect in the Snowy Mountains.

This legislation seeks to undo or to tweak the effect of the Snowy Mountains scheme, which has had such a long-running impact upon the flows of the Murray River and, indeed, upon the Snowy itself. As I said, it has become a critical electoral issue. People have lost seats in the state parliament of Victoria on this very question. I do not know if anybody in the federal parliament has been affected in that way. The federal government, showing leadership—as it has done on so many environmental issues, contrary to the suggestions of the member for Wills—has taken up the challenge of doing something about the Snowy River, of putting life back into that important river system, which, before these reforms take place, has only one per cent of its previous flow, and repairing the environmental damage resulting from the Snowy scheme.

I am not suggesting that the Snowy scheme was in error in some way or another; I am suggesting that now, in the 21st century, we really do need to address the environmental impact of that extraordinary scheme. And we need to take a lesson from it when we do try to address the major water issues facing this country. People like Mr Pratt of Melbourne, Mr Alan Jones of Sydney and others understand that one of the biggest issues facing this country is water reform.

I am pleased to say that this legislation puts 21 per cent of the flow back into the Snowy system. It does have a negative impact—we have to face that—upon aspects of the Murray system and it does affect irrigators, but that means that we ought to be looking at new and creative ways of retrieving the water that is lost through irrigation. Mr Pratt has suggested the use of PVC pipes so that evaporation does not take away a lot of the water as it comes out of the system and flows onto the fields intended to be irrigated in that fashion.

In other parts of the world such as Israel, people have adopted a different water reticulation system, with PVC pipes buried about one metre under the ground. Maybe that is something that Australia ought to consider as another way of solving the problem of limited water resources that we and other dry countries such as Israel face. Another suggestion has been the recovery of water by reprocessing it and putting it back in through the system. But that means looking at the whole question of fertilisers and whether they are having a negative impact upon water quality. Those are big issues which I will not go into now, but I do flag them because it seems to me that they are very important.

Let me conclude by commending the minister on the water reform program that has been adopted through this legislation and by commending the leadership shown by the Commonwealth in working with New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia in reaching agreement. It has not been easy. Let me also commend the Commonwealth and others who have cooperated with the Commonwealth on the leadership shown in relation to water salinity, irrigated agriculture and other initiatives contained in the national water reform framework. I commend the legislation to the House.