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Thursday, 15 May 2003
Page: 14791

Mr MARTIN FERGUSON (11:31 AM) —As the Main Committee appreciates, theMurray-Darling Basin Amendment Bill 2002 reflects one of a series of intergovernmental agreements that facilitate the corporatisation of the Snowy Mountains Hydro-electric Authority. The new corporate body will oversee one of the nation's greatest achievements—the Snowy Mountains scheme. I suggest to the House this morning that this scheme was the result of the vision shown by the then Labor government, led by Ben Chifley; a government that identified a significant opportunity for this nation and acted on it. It was nation-building at its best. It was not only a vision about a major infrastructure project; it was also a decision that helped to dramatically change the face of Australia in terms of the multicultural make-up of Australia. This project, more than any other project, brought to Australia a range of people from different countries—Yugoslavs, Finns, Italians, Greeks and so on. They made a long-lasting contribution not only to the success of the Snowy Mountains scheme; they went out from this scheme with their skills and contributed to infrastructure development on a broader scale around the states and territories of Australia. I compliment the then Labor government of Ben Chifley—

Mr King —Madam Deputy Speaker, under sessional order 84A, I seek to intervene.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Ms Gambaro)—Is the member for Batman willing to give way?


Mr King —My question is: did all the achievements that he has listed in relation to the Snowy scheme occur when the work force in those areas was unionised or not?

Mr MARTIN FERGUSON —As the member appreciates, the Snowy Mountains construction force was a highly unionised work force. The construction was facilitated by not only a highly skilled and unionised work force but also a management that understood the requirement to work with the unions and the work force rather than embrace a confrontationist approach to industrial relations like that of the Howard government.

It is also interesting to note that, in historical terms, the ability of management working with the work force to actually deliver was very much strengthened by a very strong, independent Industrial Relations Commission, not a toothless tiger; a commission that was able to facilitate at a state level more than a national level the capacity to get the parties to sit around a table and work out their differences in a meaningful, constructive way. Even on the industrial relations front, the current minister for workplace relations could learn a lot from studying its industrial relations framework, which included on the employer's side a number of people who went on to hold very senior positions in management in Australia, such as Mr George Polites and Mr Brian Oakes and, alternatively, others on the union side. It was not about developing union leadership; it was about giving people from overseas a great opportunity to come to a new country and to give them and their families the opportunity of building Australia into the nation it is.

Having said that, I compliment the member for Wentworth on his taking up the opportunity reinforced by a change in House procedures yesterday that allows people to engage in such an interchange in the Main Committee. I know that he and I, as members of the Procedures Committee, would encourage other members to take this opportunity for interventions. In that context, may I say that the decision to build the scheme was also about investing in our future and demonstrating leadership—something that the previous speaker, Mr King, spoke of.

The Snowy Mountains Scheme continues to be vitally important to our national economy. It continues to provide environmentally friendly energy, using clean, renewable water—which is very much a part of the debate for Australia in the 21st century. It is interesting to note that approximately three per cent of the total power requirements of mainland eastern Australia is regularly provided by the scheme. Because of its capacity to produce much more than it does, it can very quickly, as we all appreciate, overcome any power shortages that may arise. The only inhibitor, unfortunately, to increased production is the all-important issue of the availability of water.

After the water is used on a number of occasions to operate the turbines that create the electricity, it is sent down the Murray and Murrumbidgee river valleys for irrigation. As a result of this action, Australia is the winner yet again because production from the Murray-Darling Basin has grown to $7.5 billion per year. But I lament the fact that insufficient volumes of water are being set aside for what I regard as just as important as the economic achievements: our need to maintain the environmental flow of these all-important rivers. The end result is that forests are dying, habitats are being destroyed, salinity is increasing, and the Murray-Darling mouth would be closed without dredging. The truth is that the Murray-Darling mouth at the moment is only about as wide as the length of a cricket pitch. We as a community have got a lot to answer for. It is for that reason that we now require a bit of leadership to help us repair the damage that we have done to this great nation. This great country has gone backwards in terms of its environmental quality because of man-inflicted damage. It is therefore important for us to intervene. It is not a decision that we can put off; it is a decision that we have to confront across the political barriers as a matter of urgency. We have to intervene as a parliament at the national level and take the states with us.

I think it is also fair to say that some criticism ought to be offered to some of our state governments with respect to their inability or unwillingness—as is the case on some occasions with the New South Wales government, irrespective of who is in government—to front up to the debate about the water system. All too often we say that we love trees—that is an easy decision—rather than front up to the real, hard issues, such as the water flows and the impact they have on our river systems in Australia. I simply say that, yes, we have had the tree debate and there will be some ongoing skirmishes on that front. We have come a long way, but let us front up to the real priority at the moment.

The real priority in Australia is the debate about water and salinity. The Australian Conservation Foundation, for example, acknowledges that that is the main priority, as does any person who understands the nature of the environmental debate in the 21st century. Unless we acknowledge that, we will be the losers not only on the environmental front but also on the economic front. The Murray-Darling Basin Amendment Bill 2002 correctly reflects agreement between the relevant states and the Commonwealth, and that agreement is about facilitating the successful corporatisation of the Snowy Mountains Hydro-electric Authority. I therefore commend the bill to the House. However, I am also going to raise very serious questions about the tardiness of the current government with respect to this challenge.

This bill represents the government's belated attempt to recognise the crisis facing the Murray-Darling river system. That cannot pass without comment. The system is in crisis; the system is dying. As usual, the government have refused to recognise the issue, even when it reached crisis point. The usual course adopted by the government has been to establish a review, fund a feasibility study—that reminds me of the inland railway—have another feasibility study, and tell everyone who will listen that they are doing everything they can about finding the solution. That is just like the announcement—I suppose it is best described as the reannouncement—in recent days of funding for a feasibility study of the Wimmera-Mallee pipeline. Rather than accepting that the Commonwealth should meet the Victorian government in making a contribution—the Victorian government has put its money up—what do we get from the Commonwealth? Yet another media release this week reannouncing a feasibility study that has been announced on a number of occasions in media releases previously.

No wonder the Australian electors get sick and tired of politicians playing games and reannouncing decisions that they have made on a number of occasions. I suppose in some ways that reminds me of the transport portfolio budget announcements of this week. They were already in answers to the questions that I had placed on notice over a range of months to the Minister for Transport and Regional Services. There were no new announcements, just an ongoing commitment of money that was already dedicated to the upgrade of our road system in Australia.

This is the modus operandi that the Howard government have refined and refined well. Instead of initiating policy for the betterment of the nation, they initiate policy for the political gains that they want to pursue. We all accept that this bill is the response the government have initiated for the crisis in the Murray-Darling system after many years of ignoring the impending disaster. They are complicit in stalling any meaningful solutions. Once again, the government are demonstrating that they are all talk and no action. But we all know that shifting the blame to the states does not solve anything. It may pacify some constituents in a few marginal government seats, but it will not save the Murray-Darling system. Those same constituents in those seats will be the end losers in this game if we do not front up to the hard decisions.

As I have stated, this reaction is unfortunately entirely consistent with the government's approach to all the hard issues confronting Australia. For example, according to the government everyone and everything but the Commonwealth government is at fault for the socioeconomic disadvantage experienced by a region such as the Wide Bay Burnett region in Queensland. Money is thrown at this region in the same way as it is thrown at a variety of other regions, especially where there is a marginal coalition seat—and, more predominantly, a National Party seat—at risk. Giving money to mates to increase their income and reinforce their political support, such as in the ethanol industry, is not the long-term solution to the problems and challenges that confront Australia. The Wide Bay Burnett region continues to have an unemployment rate of more than 15 per cent, which is higher than any other region in the nation. Any evaluation of the performance of the programs and the funding thrown into this region would clearly demonstrate how ineffective the programs are. I think it is about time that we accepted—and this is a message for the Deputy Prime Minister, Leader of the National Party and Minister for Transport and Regional Services—that National Party pork-barrelling does not do anything for the long-term capacity of regions to solve their problems at a local level.

This takes me to the announcement of the regional partnerships program in the budget on Tuesday, when the government had an opportunity to fix up their regional difficulties. Unfortunately, they have not. In the past, they have not and I contend that in the future they will not. They will not be honest with the Australian community about what is contained in the budget with respect to those issues, which are intimately related to the use of water, because regional programs impact on the economic performance of regions. What I find in the examination of the budget papers when it comes to how we develop these regions—one component of which is an adequate supply of water such as from the Murray-Darling system—is a decision by the Howard government to rip out $17 million from the regional programs for this year and next year. The government are ripping $100 million out of regional programs in the next three years. I wonder why they did not tell regional Australia this on Tuesday night, but I suppose it is part and parcel of the Howard government modus operandi: tell them as little as you can and, if you have to tell them anything, tell them a few lies to get away with what you want to achieve in terms of political objectives; don't worry about the nation's best interests; lie on the way through if it suits your political agenda; perpetrate those lies; and then reward those who carried out those lying activities by appointing them to high-paying jobs, such as Paris—as has recently occurred with Mr Reith, who was famous for his Telecard activities.

Yesterday, the Minister for Transport and Regional Services was asked to comment on the benefits in the budget to regional Australians. He certainly did not talk about water, because they did very little. Nor did he talk about his so-called new flagship—new regional programs. He knows, if he is to be honest, that he has ripped the heart out of regional programs and he has tried to hoodwink the Australian public into believing that he is representing them in this parliament. He knows that his regional programs have failed in the past, and he is now overseeing the financial death of these programs. This is, unfortunately, very similar to the process that we are having to deal with in respect of the Murray-Darling system.

In the minister's second reading speech on this bill, the government have finally recognised that there is a need to provide some water to the Murray and Murrumbidgee rivers for environmental flow. They have indicated that they will dedicate up to 70 gigalitres annually for environmental flow. I suppose it is a start, but it is inadequate. It is clear that everyone accepts that this river system needs much more than this. As the shadow minister for sustainability and the environment has already outlined in this debate, a federal Labor government will deliver 450 gigalitres in its first term.

The Wentworth Group of eminent scientists, some of whom I have sat down with and had a discussion about these matters, called for 1,500 gigalitres of environmental flow—something that the opposition, the federal Labor Party, fully supports and is committed to provide within 10 years of coming into government. These scientists have clearly indicated that 1,500 gigalitres is the minimum amount required to have any chance of returning health to the Murray-Darling system, to do something on the environmental front and to also protect our economic future. But to achieve that and to support the independent voice, the Wentworth Group, we need leadership and vision at a Commonwealth government level—two things that the current government lacks.

I believe the government has tried to paper over its inadequacy and lack of vision by throwing out a few dollars and trying to con the Australian public into believing that it is in the process of developing a solution. Everyone knows and everything indicates that the long-term solution will never arrive if the government of the day is the government that has to make those decisions. What has been achieved to date has actually been imposed on the Howard government by the state governments of New South Wales and Victoria, by economic pressure, by environmental pressure and by community pressure. Without the foresight and vision of the recently re-elected Premier of Victoria, Steve Bracks, and the recently re-elected Premier of New South Wales, Bob Carr, the Snowy River would never have had the long-term solution now in train. The people of Victoria and New South Wales have demonstrated what they think: they have voted according to their desire to have this river system repaired. They have resoundingly endorsed the actions of the state governments at a series of state elections. It is in our hands. We are required to act on the need to do something about this system.

If only we had some leadership from the Commonwealth government, we might see the mighty Murray restored to health. But to do that they would have to cooperate at a Commonwealth and state level, rather than throwing stones at one another. I think it is fair to say that there is competition, irrespective of who is in government, between New South Wales and Victoria on an ongoing basis. That is the nature of the state system in Australia. The fact that two premiers—albeit Labor premiers—are able to front up to their responsibilities across borders is a statement about our capacity to do it if we are prepared to put our shoulder to the wheel. What we now require is the Commonwealth to not only pass this piece of legislation, with the support of the opposition, but also lend weight to the bigger challenge of how we go on to make the huge decisions that enable us to finally go a long way in repairing the damage to this water system.

I think the Australian community—not just the people living along the Murray-Darling system but, more importantly, the Australian community as a nation—appreciates that a healthy Murray River would be able to provide for the users of its water far into the future. By improving the river system, what we are doing is protecting our economic future and ensuring that we have a capacity to enlarge the economic cake and create greater prosperity in the future. I would say today that we have to come to the point at which we accept that putting money into repairing the system is not a cost to government or to the Australian community but, more importantly, is an investment by us in our future and in the future of the generations that pass us—just as our own grandparents built the great infrastructure that we currently avail ourselves of.

I say in conclusion that the people of South Australia correctly look forward to being able to have a glass of water whenever they need it. Our future generations deserve more from the current government than it is willing to give. The Murray-Darling system deserves more than the half-baked commitment currently on the table. Solutions to the environmental challenges facing our nation will be realised only through good policy, strong leadership and vision. It is a requirement for all of us to lend weight to this objective. Whilst I commend the bill to the House, when it comes to the real hard decisions on the requirement to invest in our future, to actually do something to repair the damage to the river system, the current government just has not got it. It does not understand the challenge and it is all too difficult, because it actually requires leadership rather than political pork-barrelling.