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Wednesday, 28 May 2003
Page: 15287

Mr WINDSOR (10:16 AM) —I am pleased to speak on the Murray-Darling Basin Amendment Bill 2002 and, like other speakers, I will probably range a little wider than the specific target of the legislation. The purpose of the bill is essentially to amend the Murray-Darling Basin Agreement to enable the sharing between the states of water made available in the Murray River catchment above the Hume Dam as a result of the corporatisation of the Snowy Mountains Hydroelectric Authority. The amendments also provide for the management of environmental flows in the Murray River. Obviously the Murray River—and given your particular background, Mr Deputy Speaker Causley, you would be an interested spectator in relation to this particular bill and the various arguments that have taken place over some time in relation to the Murray River—is an essential part of our part of the world. It is an essential part of the Australian economy and, as such, should be looked at as an essential part of our future.

I think the member for Maranoa raised a couple of interesting points towards the end of his speech, particularly in relation to the Queensland government and the property rights issue. Therein lie a number of the problems—partly through constitutional fault, I guess—in that the states are deemed to have a certain degree of control over water resources within their boundaries, while something like the Murray River does not stay within state boundaries but travels through a number of states. That immediately introduces a political dimension in terms of water reform and the way in which governments, both state and federal, can react to particular issues of water quality, salinity et cetera. In my view, one of the major problems that this bill confronts—which governments, both state and federal, do not confront on a broader level—is that there has not been enough money put in place to address some of these major reform issues.

I congratulate the independent member for East Gippsland in the Victorian parliament for reacting to the people's concern and essentially taking advantage of a political moment within that state to drive this bill. However, more important than the recognition of some of the problems that the Snowy was having and the various arrangements that have been put in place with the various irrigators west of the range, is that within this bill there was a coming together of the various states and the Commonwealth, with money, to embrace a solution. A lot of politics were played prior to the solution being obtained. I can remember being in the state parliament when, I think, the Hon. Robert Webster was appointed commissioner for the Snowy River inquiry, and a tremendous amount of politics was played—not by him, but by various parties and people in New South Wales and Victoria. Even though that argybargy took place at that stage, the fact that everybody in this House is agreeing with this particular bill today means that the introduction of money into the argument to help with the reform process has been able to achieve an outcome.

One of the great difficulties we have in relation to future debates about the Murray-Darling system—particularly the property rights debate, which is raging in all states and at a Commonwealth level—is that we have not introduced enough money into the system. It is all very well for the member for Maranoa to talk about how wonderful the Natural Heritage Trust has been in terms of funding environmental reform—and I am sure other government members will also talk about this—but a tremendous amount of that money has been wasted. A lot of it was not targeted properly. A lot of it was politically motivated and was used to indicate that there was some sort of lip-service being paid to some of the very real environmental problems that impact on the Murray-Darling system.

I believe that there needs to be a much greater injection of money. Obviously governments, through their budgetary constraints, cannot just produce new money and they cannot keep on selling Telstra to produce some of the funds that are poured into the political dimension in some of the marginal seats—and that leads to the need for a solution in terms of this particular problem. No doubt Mr Deputy Speaker Causley will let me know if I am out of order in mentioning that I think that he and a number of others in a committee that he was on at one time—I cannot remember the name of it—recommended that the government of the day look very seriously at the use of an environmental levy to fund some of these remedial arrangements.

That is a very important point. We need to inject new money. We need to stop this argument between the states and the Commonwealth and those of different political persuasions to inject new money into the system. I would not recommend that it be funded by asset sales—as some other things have been funded in the past. I would suggest that the parliament, and particularly the government, look very seriously at having a transparent package in terms of an environmental levy and that the money be used in an accountable process, as the former CEO of the National Farmers Federation suggested some time ago—which was pilloried to a certain extent when Rick Farley suggested that an independent body be set up to administer the Murray-Darling remediation money—so that we, in a sense, remove some of the politics. Let the politics determine what the target is, but we should then hand that process over to an independent authority so that it cannot be impinged and impugned by the political process. That has been one of the great problems in the past.

A simplistic way of looking at this fundraising issue is that $1 a week from all Australians raises $1 billion in a year. That is the magnitude of the funding that we are talking about. I forget what the Natural Heritage Trust arrangements were. I think it was something like $1 billion or $2 billion, which was spread over many years. Funding for the national salinity and water quality action plan—NAP—was $1.46 billion to be spread over a number of years. In my view those sorts of sums are not sufficient. We should be looking in the realms of $1 billion a year to be spent, particularly on targets like the Murray-Darling system—and some of that money should also be used in relation to the property rights issue.

The COAG arrangements were put in place then—I know that the current government was not in power then, but there has been a general agreement in relation to the processes—essentially to formulate a process of water reform. Other competition policy arrangements were made that embraced transport, gas, water and another thing I cannot think of off the top of my head to embrace a number of very important cross-border issues and issues that had an important dimension in terms of the running of the nation. That occurred in 1995. Within those various discussions between the Commonwealth and the states at that time, certain principles and protocols were put in place and certain moneys were applied and tied to certain processes being agreed to by the states. Certain benchmarks were set whereby the federal government would not allocate the funds to the states if, in fact, the states had not met those particular benchmarks.

That was in 1995 and we are now in the year 2003. The issue of property rights was raised back in the early days of 1995 and, under the protocols, a definition of property rights was to be recognised prior to the flow of money to the states; Commonwealth money would not flow to the states unless the states recognised an appropriate definition of property rights. That has not happened. A series of other agreements was made over that number of years. We had COAG. We had the competition policy where a call for a definition of property rights was made and certain protocols were put in place. Even yesterday we still had the minister for the environment extending the NAP arrangements because of Western Australia not having come into the tent in relation to agreement on some of these arrangements. We had intergovernmental agreements and bilateral agreements.

Then, I think it was in the year 2000, we had what was seen as a very important step forward—the national action plan on water quality and salinity. On a number of occasions at a state level, prior to coming into this place, I raised these issues in the New South Wales parliament. I was on the water inquiry committee within that parliament and on a number of occasions in that capacity I raised the issues. Also, in a federal capacity since coming here, I have raised these issues with the Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister and the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry. In fact, a year ago within this very place I raised with the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, in terms of last year's budget documents, the money flows to the states through the national action plan and how the minister would interpret the property rights issue when the Commonwealth government had continually given the states, particularly New South Wales, national action plan money and other funds without appropriate recognition of property rights being given.

I am quite pleased that within the New South Wales government we have a new minister, Craig Knowles, who, in my view, is prepared to address this issue in a fashion it should have been addressed in years ago. I encourage the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry and any of the various ministers responsible, particularly the Prime Minister, to really get behind this issue of property rights. It is about money and it will require an injection of it before any worthwhile reform process can take place. You cannot, through various legislative or regulatory arrangements, force the farming community to deliver appropriate actions without the injection of some degree of money. There has to be a proper recognition, a proper definition of property rights, and that recognition needs to be converted into compensation where it is appropriate, where there is going to be a loss of capital or real income by the application of government policy.

I refer to the year 2000, when the national action plan was launched by the Deputy Prime Minister, the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry and the Prime Minister. They all made great play—and rightly so—of the inclusion of the property rights in the funding arrangements. In welcoming the $1.46 billion announcement in October 2000, Mr Truss said:

The plan recognises that actions required to sustain the environmental health of a region may affect the property rights of individuals and some local economies. Compensation must be payable—

these are his words, not mine—

under the plan to those adversely affected.

That has not happened. It is a redefinition of the 1995 COAG and competition policy arrangements. In his briefing note titled `The Action Plan at a Glance', Mr Truss further said:

In regard to policy improvements, the Action Plan proposes Commonwealth, State and Territory Governments agree to supporting an agenda of key land and water-use policy initiatives. These include:

Land-clearing controls in salinity risk areas;

caps on surface and groundwater allocation;

improved security of property rights for water, together with improved water pricing and trading arrangements;

“buying back” water allocations to achieve sustainable water use.

A number of people in this parliament have seen the absolute fiasco at the Commonwealth level—and at the state level as well—that has occurred in the Namoi region, where the very principles embraced by the minister, the Deputy Prime Minister and the Prime Minister back in 2000 of buying back water allocations to achieve sustainable water use were built in and could have been funded through this $1.46 billion national action plan. Only last year the Prime Minister signed off another $200 million to the state of New South Wales without the buy-back arrangements—the very principles lauded at the announcement of this process.

A Prime Ministerial communiqu dated the day of the meeting of the Council of Australian Governments at which the states and the Commonwealth government agreed on six elements to the plan—`all of which are necessary to achieve lasting improvements', according to the communiqu—stated:

... an improved governance framework to secure Commonwealth-State/Territory investments and community action in the long term: including property rights; pricing; and regulatory reforms for water and land use;

That still has not happened. Moving forward a short time, Mr Anderson issued a press release, after some degree of criticism from me about the national action plan bilateral agreement which was signed off without any recognition of property rights. Mr Anderson said in the press release:

The inter-governmental agreement on water quality and salinity signed by the Federal and NSW Governments provides that compensation and structural adjustment issues will be dealt with under regional catchment plans. There is no need for the issue to be dealt with—

as I had raised and been critical of—

again in bilateral agreements.

This was just to brush aside the seven years of history. He was saying, `Don't worry, it's all still coming. We are going to recognise property rights. Mr Anderson continued:

Regional plans will require the agreement of the Federal Government and I make it quite clear that plans will not be approved, and Federal funds will not flow, unless property right issues are dealt with to the Federal Government's satisfaction.

Last year the minister was asked what definition he would apply to `the Federal Government's satisfaction', and he was unable to answer.

I think the point that is very valid now is that we are rapidly running out of excuses on this particular issue. There are regional blueprints on the table now; I have seen a number of them. There is no mention of property rights in these regional blueprints that are going to supposedly take care of the property rights issue. So I ask ministers concerned to start to look at the 21 regional catchment blueprints which are in New South Wales alone and explain to the community how they are going to use those blueprints to achieve property rights when most of them have not even mentioned property rights as an issue.

I asked the Prime Minister a question on 18 September last year—given recent comments by both the Deputy Prime Minister and the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry—regarding the government's intention to withhold national competition policy payments from the states that had not adhered to the principles of the COAG arrangements in 1995 relating to water reform. The question was: what benchmarks does the government intend to use as a trigger for this process? The Prime Minister answered the question by saying that he had put in place the appropriate benchmarks. Time is dragging on, Prime Minister. I do not believe the appropriate benchmarks can be achieved through the regional blueprints, because most of them have not even got a definition of property rights—but hopefully some of them have recognised it.

It is time that the various ministers concerned recognised—and this has been going on for eight years—that we do need two things to happen. Firstly, we need recognition of property rights so that the farming community, when it is impacted adversely by structural change, can be compensated in an appropriate way. That does not mean that everybody who has ever had a water licence suddenly becomes a millionaire, but there are people who are impacted very strongly. Secondly—and perhaps this is the way to in fact fund this—we need to look at using an environmental levy across all Australians as a source of funding not only to compensate for property rights but also to fund the many issues to be considered in relation to salinity and water quality reform. (Time expired)