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Wednesday, 28 May 2003
Page: 15284

Mr BRUCE SCOTT (9:59 AM) —I will reiterate some of the comments that I started to make when we were last in this place. Water is without doubt the country's most valuable natural resource. To say that Australia's primary industries and many of our inland country towns rely on this product to survive is an understatement. With the exceptional drought that is continuing to plague many parts of Australia, we absolutely have to address the issue of the sustainability of this resource which underpins so many of our rural economies and country towns.

UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation, has predicted by the year 2020 water shortage will be a serious worldwide problem. It will not just be one for Australia; it will be a worldwide problem. Already, though, many parts of Australia are reaching their limits of supply under current practices. Today I would like to make the House aware—and I am sure many members and senators are aware—that this is the International Year of Freshwater, as proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly, with the aim to increase the awareness of not just a few who understand the issue but everyone about the importance of sustainable freshwater use, its management and its protection.

I would like to quote for a moment from the executive summary of the UN World water development report, which was delivered earlier this year. It states:

Globally, the challenge lies in raising the political will to implement water-related commitments ... Water professionals need a better understanding of the broader social, economic, and political context, while politicians—

us in this case—

need to be better informed about water resource issues.

On our part, the federal government, the Liberal-National Party coalition, is all too aware of the importance of water quality and of the need to sustain this valuable resource, especially because of its importance to our national economy.

The Murray-Darling Basin, which is the focus of this amendment bill, is one of Australia's largest drainage divisions, covering over just one million square kilometres of land. The Murray-Darling Basin is an extraordinary part of Australia's economic wealth. Environment Australia figures show that some 30,000 wetlands are in the Murray-Darling Basin and that biodiversity and ecological processes themselves are under pressure. For this reason, the states which the Murray-Darling Basin extends across, including my own home state of Queensland, have representation on the Murray-Darling Basin Ministerial Council and the Murray-Darling Basin Commission. These organisations play an integral role in the management of the basin's natural and environmental resources.

In the lower part of my electorate of Maranoa, the St George Water Harvesters and the Dirranbandi District Irrigators have undertaken their own monitoring program of the Lower Balonne, spending over $1 million in that process. We ask ourselves: why would a group like that be doing their own monitoring? Because the viability of their own enterprises and the towns that depend on the wealth created from irrigation in that area are so important to them. They are not going to see the river damaged. They want to make sure that it is sustainable, and they are taking a very responsible part in ensuring that the river does not become degraded and that it remains sustainable.

These people have an interest in being water-wise. However, it appears that they are only now winning the fight against the Queensland Labor government and some of its political agendas, which I have witnessed over the last 18 months. The Labor government in Queensland last year tried to sneak through a secret plan that would have seen the compulsory acquisition of a large irrigation farm, Cubbie Station at Dirranbandi—I admit that it is one of the largest irrigation operations in Australia—and reallocate that water into New South Wales, but over into another catchment. It was going to cross two other catchment basins and put it into another catchment area altogether. This issue has been very close to my heart because it is of critical importance to the people of my electorate. But I just want to revisit some of the facts for the purposes of reading them into Hansard.

In July last year I refused to remain silent after discovering that the Premier of Queensland, Premier Beattie, intended to push through a secret Murray-Darling Basin sustainability initiative strategy paper that proposed to forcibly and compulsorily buy out Cubbie Station, ramp down the operations and reallocate that water. This was seen by the Department of Primary Industries in Queensland as the answer to sustaining water and land resources. But this move would have shut down a town without prior consultation or good science and with a politically motivated agenda. It would have seen Dirranbandi become a virtual ghost town. Furthermore, Premier Beattie, the leader of the Labor Party in Queensland, expected the federal and New South Wales governments to contribute some 85 per cent of the buyout price so that the Queensland government could contribute more water to the Murray-Darling Basin and avoid—and this is what they were after—some $128 million in compensation payments.

The coalition government were not interested in the proposal asking it to buy out Cubbie Station. We were well aware that the Queensland Premier had based his motives on flawed science—on salinity maps that were prepared without proper community consultation and that were politically motivated. They were proven to be so when the Premier came to a public meeting in Dirranbandi and agreed to have a study done by independent, outside-of-government sources and researchers. By the end of last year, when that study was completed, it had completely identified the fact that the river was in good health and had discredited the research that had been done by Premier Beattie's own Queensland government department.

This substantiated the argument that had been put by the local people, by me and by the opposition in Queensland that Premier Beattie's agenda was political; it was not based on science or fact. It was a scandalous and outrageous attack that used misinformation to try to seek revenue for the state of Queensland and, at the same time, shut down a country town. During the whole process there were two large public meetings in the town of Dirranbandi. The Cubbie Station manager and the people employed there maintained their claim that they had been responsible agriculturalists. As long-term residents and investors—as farmers on the river system—they have, in fact, a greater commitment to the long-term issues of river health and salinity than most.

We know that drought continues to rage in many parts of Australia and in this part of Queensland, and my electorate is no exception. But that part of the river has recently had a run from rains that have fallen further upstream. The interesting thing is that, when Cubbie Station could have been harvesting the waters that came down the river, as responsible citizens they let the first three days of the flow go past Cubbie Station for users downstream and for the health of the river. They could have been harvesting for three days to store more water for a crop that they would grow later in the year, but they let the first three days' flow go through. I think that demonstrates their commitment to being good citizens and also to considering the health of the river. They have some 30,000 acres there that they could irrigate. By letting three days go you might say that they have, effectively, let a commercial opportunity go down the river. They did harvest after the first three days and they have been able to store enough water to irrigate 3,000 acres later this year—some 10 per cent of the total capacity.

The Premier of Queensland, Premier Beattie, has all but admitted to unjustly targeting Cubbie Station. As I said earlier, after two public meetings that were organised by myself as the local member, the local state member and the leader of the opposition, Premier Beattie agreed to commission an independent review of the science underpinning the assessment of the current and future ecological condition of the Lower Balonne river system.

I want to touch on that report as it is important to get the facts into Hansard. The scientific review panel, which was headed by the highly regarded Professor Peter Cullen, produced the Cullen report which contradicted Labor's claims that the Lower Balonne is a severely degraded river system. However, although this report was released in January this year, the Queensland government has remained silent to avoid any embarrassment over its own flawed processes used during the early part of last year. This is just another example of how the Queensland government ignored the importance of community consultation and listening to the people. We are seeing the same processes starting up again in relation to vegetation management in Queensland right now. This stands in stark contrast to the federal coalition government here in Canberra because we support the protection of property rights. We recognise that landholders have property rights. And, whilst we acknowledge the need for water reform, we see the notion that you can compulsorily acquire property as morally incomprehensible.

I want to bring to the attention of the Main Committee the marked difference between the coalition's efforts to manage and protect the environment and those of the state Labor government, which stand in stark contrast. The Australian Labor Party in this place opposed the creation of the Natural Heritage Trust, which was introduced by this government and stands as the largest environmental protection program developed in Australian history. On that note, let me add that the coalition government has also established Envirofund, the community component of the $2.7 billion Natural Heritage Trust, which has been one of the most proactive community assistance initiatives ever started. This year alone rounds one and two of the drought recovery round, which is putting money into those drought areas, has seen some 76 separate projects in my own electorate of Maranoa receive a total of more than $1½ million to carry out specialised environment works. Under a Labor government, these 76 initiatives would never have eventuated because they opposed the establishment of the Natural Heritage Trust fund and of course the Envirofund which has flowed from that.

I would like to record in Hansard that Labor has never had a real interest in addressing the core issue of the environment. In contrast, in the 2002-03 financial year the coalition government has spent more than double on the environment than Labor did in its final year in office, and I think that gives credibility to what I am saying in this place this morning. The coalition government is committed to supporting communities in their efforts to develop local solutions to local environment and natural resource management challenges. In fact, this is the very essence of the Australian government's Envirofund: harnessing the local knowledge, expertise and enthusiasm of community groups, like those in my own electorate, to help their local environment and, in the case of the drought recovery round, to combat the effect that drought is having on the community. Almost 40,000 volunteers have contributed to more than 12,000 Natural Heritage Trust projects to repair and restore the local environment and communities right across Australia. The Natural Heritage Trust has funded native vegetation work on over 773,000 hectares of land, and this includes more than 98,000 hectares of predominantly cleared land replanted with native vegetation.

At the other end of the spectrum, when Labor want to be seen as acting on environmental interests in this great land of ours, they go about it in entirely the wrong way. They seem to want to pander to minority pressure groups rather than addressing the real core issue of making sure that you can get money to repair some of the damage and make sure that agriculture, towns and the environment are sustainable for future generations.

Another current issue that is confronting landholders in my electorate and their battle against the Queensland Labor government is one that causes me great concern, as it demonstrates that government's failure to acknowledge the property rights and civil rights of farmers as landholders in Queensland. The Queensland Labor government's draft Southern Brigalow regional vegetation management plan proposes to lock up some 12,500 hectares of land in the Murilla shire near Miles because of local wild flowers. This land comprises freehold, leasehold, state forest, national park and reserve land.

They have now identified this particular area of my electorate as having a high conservation value, yet 10 years ago, when the Labor government under Premier Goss wanted to establish a new toxic waste dump in Queensland—the Willawong one near Brisbane was full—they went out and found this area, and the report done internally by the department said that it had no conservation value at all. Ten years later, with a different agenda, they say that this area that they established a toxic waste dump in is an area of high conservation. That supports what I have been saying this morning: that the Labor government in Queensland has a political agenda. They seek a solution by manipulating departments for their own agenda. I could talk a great deal more, but I will conclude on that point. (Time expired)