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Thursday, 15 May 2003
Page: 14800

Mr JENKINS (12:07 PM) —The Murray-Darling Basin Amendment Bill 2002 gives effect to the agreement between the Commonwealth, New South Wales and Victoria regarding flows from the Murray-Darling Basin back into the Snowy system. It is also, as has been outlined, an opportunity for us to discuss issues about the Murray-Darling Basin and flows along the Murray. This is appropriate because diversion of flows from that system to the Snowy will of course have an effect on both systems, and we must balance the outcomes. The effect of this amendment bill will be to ensure the new arrangements for the sharing of water made available in the River Murray catchment above the Hume Dam by the Snowy scheme.

It is interesting that, when we talk about the Snowy, we are talking about one of the iconic engineering schemes of Australian history. Whilst everybody lauds and is still in awe of and excited about what was achieved by the Snowy scheme, one also queries whether, in a modern context and given a full environmental study, what was achieved would be possible. I do not mention that to be churlish or to indicate that that is a reason we should be in any way overly critical of the Snowy scheme, because of course what flowed at a very important time in Australia's development—especially in the post-Second World War period—was the Snowy's contribution to economic development. A number of generations since we had this economic development, it is appropriate that we now share that economic growth in a way that ensures that we can look at environmental matters and try to not only maintain the environment but do it in a sustainable way.

Attempts are being made under the aegis of this bill to ensure that there is a return to much better health for the Snowy scheme, and it is made possible at this point in Australia's development because we are able to devote resources to it. Often I think people see environmental and economic outcomes as being in conflict. The honourable member for Farrer, who spoke before me, made some comments about the opposition's position and its proposals for the health of the Murray scheme, which I intend to touch upon later on. She quite rightly talked of her concern about the effect it might have on towns and cities along the river. But I would say to her that the way in which we are going to achieve sustainable solutions to these problems is to acknowledge that we have to have a sustainable economic situation. If, in fact, we are talking about sharing the load in achieving these outcomes, the load should be shared by the people who are directly affected in the region that we are talking about, along with the people who I represent in this place—people in a metropolitan area. I think that that is appropriate. What she is not acknowledging is that the work that has been done on proposals to put more environmental flows back into the Murray has been done in the context of balancing these objectives. We would not be gaining all that much if, in improving the health of the Murray River, we did not acknowledge the importance of the local economies along the river.

I want to talk a little bit more about the effects of the agreement that leads to the necessity for this piece of legislation at the Commonwealth level. The effects that have occurred in the Snowy river system are well documented. Obviously when flows decrease, we see things that are very characteristic. The biodiversity of the system is put under great pressure. There are instances of reduced occurrences in the Snowy scheme of platypi and native fish species. There are weed infestations that characteristically come in tandem with the reduced flows, especially the types of weed infestations that we see along the banks and in the riparian zones. There is a need for us to acknowledge that the natural seasonal effects that we see in river systems are lost. One outcome that is included in the agreement that leads to this piece of legislation talks about improving the temperature along the system, maintaining the flows and channels, restoring the types of corridors that are required for migratory species and improving the ability of native fish species to spawn et cetera. It also talked about the aesthetic value of trying to improve and return the Snowy system to what it was. These are the types of things that have intangible benefits to local communities that depend upon a river system, whether it be the Murray or the Snowy, so we have to balance these things out.

As has been said, this is an opportunity to talk about one of the greatest environmental challenges to confront Australia—that is, the health of the Murray-Darling system. It can be seen especially by the lack of flow at the mouth and by the level of salinity in the river by the time it reaches South Australia. It is also one of the great challenges to confront us as people who put in place public policy in an Australian context, because the federal system has resulted in impediments. I do not think the founding fathers—and we always use the word `fathers' directly; as I have mentioned before, we may have had better outcomes if women had been involved at the time of Federation, but that is an argument for another debate—understood the difficulties that would arise out of the arrangements that were made at the time of Federation when we had a river system such as the Murray-Darling that starts in Queensland and flows through New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia.

In the early 1990s, we attempted to remedy that through the Murray-Darling Basin Agreement between the Victorian, New South Wales and South Australian governments and the Commonwealth. We put in place an administrative mechanism that could look at issues to do with the Murray-Darling and attempt to start the rehabilitation required. Later down the track, Queensland came to the party and also signed up to the agreement. I think administration is a very important feature, and we continue to see the requirement for complementary legislation in the different administrations involved.

A little over 10 years down the track since these types of arrangements commenced, it is appropriate to look back to see whether the types of outcomes that we might have envisaged at the start have been achieved. To a certain extent, the health of the system indicates that there is a need for a great deal more work. I think the government should recognise that Labor's announced policies are a genuine attempt to try to, one, make sure that all the stakeholders involved understand that a Commonwealth government of a Labor persuasion sees that it has a role; and, two, make sure that the responsibility is put in an Australian context. Again, I wish to stress that this problem requires a shared responsibility. We will not achieve the outcomes required if we say that this is just a regional problem that needs to be solved directly by those who at the moment use the resource of the river system or are in the region of the river system.

I have had the pleasure of visiting a number of places along the Murray, especially with the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Environment and Heritage. The economic importance to the communities along the river cannot be understated, and that is a consideration that has to be factored in. I think any work done on improving the health of the Murray system will always have to take that into account. The opposition have quite clearly indicated what we would do if in government. For instance, we would restore 450 gigalitres of environmental flow in that first year and move towards delivering what has been assessed by the Wentworth Group, amongst others, as 1,500 gigalitres within 10 years to restore the health of the river.

These things are achievable. They are achievable if we marry the types of technological advances we have seen in agriculture, engineering and the like. We need to make sure not only that these flows can be achieved by better use of the water in the system as a resource but that this can be done in a sustainable way. The direct importance of this piece of legislation is that it acknowledges that, with the diversion of flow from the Murray to the Snowy system, we have to take into account the health of both of those systems. Obviously, if you take a flow out of one and put it into another, it is going to have an effect on both.

We need to have the type of investment that has been discussed in this agreement between the state governments and the Commonwealth—investment in the types of engineering works that will be required to make the savings of water use that can be achieved and that can then be allocated to environmental flows. Of course, the great challenge of all environmental concerns is that we make good use of newer technologies to achieve an environmental outcome in an economically efficient way. If we do not marry the economic and environmental objectives it is doubtful that anything will be achieved by the attempts that are made.

The opposition, of course, have said that in saving the Murray River it is important not only to achieve the type of environmental flows that have already been discussed but also to respond and be involved in climate change. We have said all along that the Kyoto protocol holds out a solution and that Australia should sign and ratify immediately so that we can get on with the work that will see amelioration of the effects of climate change. If we do not take actions immediately, the types of environmental disasters that we see along the Murray system will continue.

I acknowledge that a phenomenon like algal bloom is made worse by the present drought conditions and that it has occurred at times of better rainfall. That has to be acknowledged. The declining number of native fish is of concern. Along the plains of this system are great areas of trees, such as river red gums, that are under stress. The increase in the amount of salinity in the Murray-Darling Basin is of grave concern. This happens not only in the lower reaches of the system but also in a number of the areas higher up along the Darling.

At the end of the day, one of the great challenges that confronts South Australia, is of course, its dependency upon the Murray system for its water supply. That is of grave concern because of the health of the Murray is getting to such a stage that, no matter what newer technologies might occur for the salvaging of potable water, given the condition the Murray is in that will not be achievable; the Murray will be useless as a drinking resource for Adelaide. Some of the estimations that have been made by various studies indicate that perhaps within 20 years Adelaide's water will be undrinkable for two days out of five. For a community the size of Adelaide, this is of grave concern.

There have been many engineering solutions that have been discussed. Some discussions have taken place on the Murray system and the indications are that in some parts, for some of the tributaries, we might have to acknowledge that the problem of salinity in those streams cannot be resolved. We should acknowledge that these systems have basically become drains. We have to see them in the context that they are gathering waste water rather than gathering a resource that can be returned for agricultural or other purposes.

These are the great challenges that confront governments both at the state and the Commonwealth level. It requires leadership by governments, and this is why we believe that it is important that the present government is involved in the necessary measures. The Commonwealth government has a national responsibility to show leadership and to ensure that the Murray-Darling system is saved. Labor has committed to that and acknowledges that that type of leadership is essential. I am pleased that Simon Crean, as the parliamentary leader, acknowledges that this issue is one of the most important issues confronting Australia.

I think it becomes an iconic issue in the context of Australia's ability to make sure that with environmental concerns we are delivering systems that are sustainable. It would be no use if we devoted a whole host of resources that might at a point in time restore to a certain degree the health of the Murray system if we did not put in place measures to ensure that that is sustainable. Again, it is in that context that I stress that those who criticise the Labor position on the basis that they believe it will have an effect on local communities and cause them to close down do not acknowledge that there is a requirement that environmental measures such as this have to be sustainable both environmentally and economically. That is the type of public policy that is necessary.

I am pleased this legislation is before us, because it is very important, particularly for the Snowy system. As I said, it returns the dividend we have seen from the Snowy Mountains Hydro-Electric Scheme over the last 50-odd years. That is important. As economic benefit has flowed from what is a world renowned engineering project it is appropriate now, a couple of generations later, that we find resources to address the environmental degradation that was a natural consequence of a scheme like the Snowy. Those communities along the Snowy will benefit from the increased environmental flow, and it will lead them to greater health and prosperity. In turn, they can make a contribution when we confront the challenges on the other side of the divide in the Murray-Darling system. Those are the types of things that require a national effort. Therefore, a contribution should be made not only by people in those regions that are directly affected but also by people in the metropolitan areas who see these things as important. I am pleased to rise in support of this amendment bill.