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Thursday, 15 May 2003
Page: 14796


Ms LEY (11:50 AM) —I am pleased to be able to speak today on the Murray-Darling Basin Amendment Bill 2002 and in doing so recognise the critical importance of the Murray-Darling system both to Australia's agricultural production and to the constituents in my electorate of Farrer. This bill amends the Murray-Darling Basin Act 1993 in order to give effect to the Murray-Darling Basin Amending Agreement between the Commonwealth, New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia. The amending agreement makes new arrangements for sharing water made available in the River Murray catchment above Hume Dam by the Snowy scheme. Its purpose 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 amending agreement adds a new schedule G to the agreement to make arrangements for the sharing between New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia of water made available in the catchment above Hume Dam by the Snowy scheme. It also enables the transfer of water savings and purchases to environmental entitlements for the Snowy and Murray rivers and makes reductions in the respective states' long-term Murray-Darling Basin diversion caps. In addition, the amending agreement requires the Murray-Darling Basin Ministerial Council to develop environmental objectives and a strategy for environmental water that will be made available to the river Murray as a result of the Snowy Water Inquiry and requires the Murray-Darling Basin Commission to manage this environmental water in accordance with the strategy.

The decision initiated by the Victorian state member for East Gippsland to restore flows to the Snowy River has not generally impressed the farmers of western New South Wales, particularly those who rely on irrigated agriculture for their livelihood. They see this decision as taking water from a stressed catchment, the Murray, and returning it to an unstressed catchment, the Snowy, essentially because of an emotional attachment to the romance of the Man from Snowy River legend. In view of the reliance of many small towns on irrigated agriculture, the small businesses and the workers in those businesses were also unhappy with this decision. Premier Carr's dramatic opening of the aqueduct in the Snowy Mountains last year and the attendant media hype of `the Snowy flows again' while western New South Wales stood on the threshold of possibly the worst drought in living memory and faced its lowest water allocations ever was simply appalling. The flow that was released on this occasion was not of a quantity that could have made any difference to anyone's water allocations, but the symbolism was awful.

Secure access to resources is the No. 1 issue facing Australian farmers, and it is a source of constant frustration to me that we as a federal government have one hand tied behind our backs because of the control over water that state governments have. As Deputy Prime Minister Anderson noted at a water conference in Wagga recently:

The state government has created an island of hydraulic despotism within our free economy. As members of the broader community, NSW farmers can make investments and know that no-one can take them away without just compensation. As irrigators though, they are entirely subject to the decrees of the modern pharaohs in the DLWC.

I have had and continue to have many approaches from individuals, private irrigation cooperatives and trusts, large irrigation companies, New South Wales farmers, irrigated councils, representatives and others, who are all unhappy about the water rules under which they are forced to carry on their businesses. I wish I could help these constituents more. Generally, I find the local state government water authorities easy to deal with and helpful. Some partnerships at local level work quite well. Undoubtedly a lot of the present unhappiness relates to the drought, and no-one can make it rain, but this does not mean that I agree with New South Wales government policy on water. I simply do not.

There is no clearer example of the city-country divide than that which exists between the people of coastal New South Wales and the people west of the Blue Mountains. People on the coast, and some of the mainstream media, look at it like this: New South Wales water is overallocated; farmers are used to using more than they should, than they have any right to use; people along the Murray are growing rice when they should be growing grapes; all that flood irrigation is wasteful and it is filling up the river with salt.

These are the facts. The cap on water extractions from the Murray-Darling in 1995 has limited uncontrolled extractions. Queensland do not have a very good record of following the cap, because they think they have to catch up. Irrigators in New South Wales are not entitled to a volume of water but a share of the available water, so in a dry year irrigators are not sucking the river dry; they are in fact getting only 8 to 10 per cent of what they would get in a normal year. It takes the same amount of water to grow a paddock of lucerne as it does to grow a paddock of rice. New varieties of rice yield more and use up to a third less water than existing varieties. Rice cannot be grown everywhere and it cannot be grown where the soil is too porous. Rice provides a very valuable export income for the country.

If everyone started growing grapes, who is to say that the market for grapes would stay strong? It is not particularly strong at the moment. It would also mean that all irrigators along the river would be using water at the same time, leading to huge demands over summer. If winter crops such as wheat, canola and other cereals gave way to higher value summer crops such as horticulture and vegetables, there would be an enormous demand on the river in summer when summer crops are being watered and less demand in winter. Ideally, along the length of the river, there needs to be a balance. Flood irrigation can be wasteful, but not if it is done properly. If farms are set up with laser levelling and proper water delivery and recycling so that water is only on the crop for a short, optimum time, it is surprisingly efficient. Farms are conforming to complex land and water management plans and are required, in the interests of good land management, to be efficient. Clearly it is in their interests financially as well. Irrigation does not fill up the river with salt. If farms are not well set up, effluent and runoff can flow into the river, adding to salt loads. The watertable in the irrigated areas that I represent is well under control. It is dryland salinity that is the problem, and it is not related to irrigation.

I am constantly trying to present the facts and correct the record somewhat towards irrigated agriculture. Unfortunately, misunderstandings persist. Yet I know that city dwellers are not really anti-farming. Their generosity towards us during the drought has given me great respect for them, and their support of farming families is something that those families are truly thankful for. If only we could persuade the New South Wales Labor government to spend a bit more on investing in the future of agriculture. The federal government will pay New South Wales $255 million in national competition policy payments next year. There is no evidence that New South Wales will spend any of this on compensating farmers whose property rights are being taken away. Given that the reform of water was one of the principal national competition policy initiatives, this is a clear breach of the spirit and intent of the agreement between the Commonwealth and the states. I welcomed the Deputy Prime Minister's remarks when he said, `If we have to, we will revise the competition policy system to require the states to recognise the legitimate water property rights of farmers and their communities.'

This bill deals with the mechanisms we need to introduce the environmental flows to the Snowy and the Murray that were agreed to at the Murray-Darling Ministerial Council. In the bill, I note that the strategy `must not have significant adverse impact upon the security entitlements to water'. I really welcome and appreciate that. The savings that we need to make to gain these increased environmental flows are savings from efficiency gains. They are not to be sliced from the allocations of irrigators.

I wish to make some remarks about the Living Murray initiative currently being carried out by the Murray-Darling Basin Commission. This process involves the MDBC consulting with rural communities about the level of environmental flow increases in the system: 350 gigalitres, 750 gigalitres and 1,500 gigalitres. It is not the case that we have to pick one of these amounts and increase flows accordingly; rather, they are reference points only. I know that our environment minister, during a visit to the Deniliquin area last year, was able to allay the fears of many in the irrigation community, and his balanced, sensible approach is much appreciated by all of us. In fact, one of the principles underpinning much of the government's approach to the environment and in other areas is that we will not launch into prescriptive policies which are not in the interests of the local community and not supported by local people.

A series of meetings about the Living Murray has just concluded in certain towns along the river. Meetings were held in Albury, Corowa, Finley, Deniliquin, Barham and Tooleybuc in my electorate. Later meetings in Balranald and Jerilderie on the Murrumbidgee River have only just concluded. I attended three of these meetings. Their purpose was for the Murray-Darling Basin Commission to acquaint residents with details of the proposal and to receive community feedback. They were left in no doubt as to how the community actually feels about all of this. Attendances at some of these meetings were huge. In Finley, the town practically shut down as hundreds of people tried to squeeze into a room, forcing a last-minute change of venue. It was not just irrigators; it was the small businesses in the town, dependent on farming for their livelihood. They are so concerned about this process that they closed their shops for two to three hours to come along and have their say. Similarly, at Deniliquin and Barham, there was standing room only.

On behalf of the constituents I represent in these areas, I wish to report their feelings to parliament and also express my hope that the community engagement process of this Living Murray initiative will enter into a dialogue with them that answers their concerns. Remember, farmers are the best environmentalists because they have to live with their mistakes—and pay for them. A great many farmers I know work long and hard, producing limited income from over-capitalised assets, in large part for the satisfaction of managing the land well and passing the farm on to the next generation. They are not in it for the short-term gain. My constituents feel that the scientific process that is looking at river health, largely from laboratories in Canberra, is leaving them right out of the loop. As one person said to me, it might help if they came and talked to the locals.

People who have lived along the Murray all their lives say various things about its state of health. But I have never heard any of them say that it is dying—a condition that many Australians seem to accept as gospel truth. I have been told that native fish populations are quite healthy. Carp are a problem but their numbers are lower than they have been for some time. Environmental flows will not necessarily address carp numbers—a significant cause of declining river health—although a pest reduction program will. I know that the CSIRO is involved in a `daughterless gene for carp' program. Environmental flows in the Barmah Forest wetlands sustain these world-class wetlands, but they have greatly increased carp numbers.

What I am trying to say is that there is an inexact science happening here, or there may very well be. As part of the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry inquiry into the future water supplies of Australia, the committee interviewed the Executive Director of Land and Water Australia in December last year. I put a question to the executive director about environmental flows on behalf of the people of my electorate, and I asked: generally, with environmental flows, do you feel comfortable with the science that exists? The answer was: `No, in short.' I asked: what can we do about it? The answer was:

We have found it to be quite lacking on practical measurement of what has happened on the ground. As I said, it is strong on modelling, conceptual frameworks, prediction and so on. However, there is not enough solid work on going out and measuring what has actually happened when extra water has been put down the river for environmental purposes. All around the world, the methodologies for doing that are thin and there is not much evidence in the literature. There was a world conference on it in Johannesburg only a few months ago which Australia attended. No-one talked about the work they are doing. The work in the Murray-Darling Basin is as advanced as anywhere else, which was quite sobering for us to realise. We went there expecting to learn from other experiences and could not find anything practical to go on. Everyone else was still in the realm of theory and modelling.

In response to a further question that I asked, Mr Campbell said:

It is a fact that there are not too many areas around the world where communities and governments are actually doing it—

that is, increasing environmental flows—

Secondly, there are the methodologies. What measurement techniques do you use? How robust are they? Have they been peer reviewed? The science is pretty thin as well.

The communities that I represent are not convinced that the science is exact. They are being asked to make major changes to return more water to the river. There will be a huge cost. The financial cost may be spread among country and city people—it is only fair that it should be. Of course, if it comes down to compensation, everyone should pay. But there is no doubt that, dollars aside, if economic activity is lost, these communities are threatened. People do not want money to put in their pocket so that they can go and sit on a beach. They want the footy club to have enough players, not just for the firsts but for the thirds as well. They want their hospitals and their local doctor and their preschools and TAFEs to be sound. They want government services, libraries, tourism, and parks and gardens. In short, they want their towns to thrive.

We have just heard the opposition spokesman on the environment advocate the Labor Party's policy, which it seems to me is to close down most of the towns along the New South Wales Murray. Make no mistake: that is exactly where we will be heading if we make a decision to return 1,500 gigalitres of environmental flows.

Thankfully, this government and this agriculture and environment minister are not so cavalier, and we are considering the issues carefully. I welcome the decision from the last ministerial council meeting to consult further with local communities, to study a detailed proposal later this year and to take the time necessary to reach this important decision. I am pleased that the Murray-Darling Basin Commission has listened to and heard the message to consult more with the community. This has not happened sufficiently to date. I simply repeat: the locals have much to offer. They are experts in their own right because they understand the river—they have lived with it all of their lives. It might be an idea for the shadow minister for the environment to make some visits to other areas of the Murray, along with the opposition leader, rather than wade into the mouth and make extravagant statements about putting the equivalent of the Murray Irrigation's entire allocation back as an environmental flow. Just getting that in perspective, that is 2,500 land-holders, 1,600 farm businesses and eight towns, not to mention the regional multiplier effect of four or five.

Opposition members speaking about this bill have talked about algae. That is there because of the drought. They have talked about the dying red gums. Trees everywhere are dying because of the drought—just have a look around you. The environmental floods in the Barmah/Millawa forest are in fact making our red gums in that area extremely healthy. The Murray mouth is being dredged, and a lot is being made of the fact that tidal sand is moving back into the mouth. It is a fairly natural condition, and there is not enough water flowing out to counter that effect. I point out to members opposite that those who want to restore the Murray to its original condition would find that in a year such as this, in the drought that we are experiencing, the Murray would stop flowing at Swan Hill, and there would be absolutely zip running out of the Murray mouth.

Members opposite mention that this is a bill about the Murray-Darling crisis. I should point out that it is not; it is a bill about returning flows to the Snowy River. Many of us are taking the opportunity to talk about the Murray-Darling issues. I really do invite members opposite to visit parts of my electorate to have a look and make a good study of irrigated agriculture and the activities that do so much to enhance Australia's wealth—to really take time to consider what would happen if we stop those activities. The Labor Party policy is now advocating shutting down regional towns. The living Murray issue, in conclusion, is the biggest issue facing my electorate, and we will all be watching it closely. I would like to say that we recognise that a great Australian icon flows through our area, and it matters just as much to us as it did to Henry Lawson and Banjo Paterson. It is just as important to us as it is to this House and to the rest of Australia.