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Wednesday, 28 May 2003
Page: 15292

Mr JOHN COBB (10:36 AM) —The Murray-Darling Basin is the economic powerhouse of rural Australia, and I think that is something we all know, with all due respect to my colleague from Kalgoorlie. It is a catchment for the Murray and the Darling rivers and their many tributaries. Quite obviously, my whole electorate of Parkes forms part of the watershed for that system, mainly going through the rivers of the Lachlan. About once every 50 years it does actually reach the Darling, the Macquarie and the Bogan. They are the main river systems that flow through the whole region of Parkes and eventually into the Murray, and whatever part of that flows out the mouth.

I was rather surprised to hear the Leader of the Opposition talk about using 1,500 gigalitres of water—and we are not sure where he is going to get it from—to wash out the mouth of the Murray. You could not actually carry enough water in a short enough time to wash out the mouth of the Murray. That is a long-term thing. The build-up of silt is well known to have happened over a long time. Simply pouring out 1,500 gigalitres to wash it through is far and away from being any kind of a solution, not to mention the fact that there was no talk of how it was going to be funded and where it was going to come from.

The Murray-Darling Basin stretches from the north of Roma in Queensland to Goolwa in South Australia and takes in around three-quarters of New South Wales and about half of Victoria. It extends across one-seventh of the continent and encompasses about two million people, and probably another million people depend very heavily on it. The Murray-Darling Basin generates about 40 per cent of the national income, and that is obviously mainly from agriculture and grazing. Figures suggest that around one-quarter of our nation's beef herd, about half of our sheep, almost three-quarters of the irrigation system and about half of the crop land actually come out of the basin. I am proud to say that a good portion of all those things come out of my electorate of Parkes. There are about 20 major rivers and ground water systems involved. I represent the largest electorate in New South Wales—it is just under 270,000 square kilometres—and agriculture and mining are its main industries. Obviously, to them water is the lifeblood.

Our future depends upon water in one way or another, whether it be for stock and domestic use, whether it be for growing crops or whether it be for maintaining our towns and industries. The uncertainty over water allocations is without doubt one of the greatest hurdles facing the agricultural sector. There is no doubt that we have a duty to be sustainable, to use water properly and to be environmentally sensible. This means using commonsense, not—as so often in this debate and in many debates—using environmental correctness to appeal to a voting sector in the cities. The New South Wales government makes a particular habit of doing that: bowing to people who use environmental correctness rather than environmental commonsense as the criteria.

This bill deals in the main with the great Snowy Mountains HydroElectric Scheme. We all know that that was one of the great engineering feats of the world. The scheme was designed and constructed over 25 years, until 1974, at a cost of over $800 million. I wonder whether in this day and age we would have the guts, the foresight and the push to undertake a scheme like that. Yes, it is probably true that it changed the natural landscape to some extent, but what everybody forgets—with a great deal of passion, at times—is that nature and time change the natural landscape as well. It seems that in this day and age there are a great many people who feel that we must put a stop on time—that nothing must go forward and nothing must develop. All I can say is that, if businesses took that attitude, they would all go broke.

On average, the Snowy Mountains scheme diverts 2,360 gigalitres of water each year west of the Great Dividing Range for irrigation and river management. The additional water is shared between New South Wales and Victoria—approximately 75 per cent and 25 per cent respectively. Much of inland Australia owes its existence to the Snowy River and the great scheme that turned waters inland to regional areas. It provides power and it has provided an awesome amount of production for the Murrumbidgee and the Riverina—something that only somebody who has seen it and knew what it was like before could believe has happened. It has been quite incredible. The change to the landscape and the production of that part of Australia, and particularly New South Wales, has been phenomenal.

As I said earlier, a lot of people refuse to accept the fact that the world and the environment change of their own accord and think that if man has anything to do with change it is totally untenable. That is a short-sighted and unscientific view, because science and history show us that we have always changed and the environment has always changed. As a government we are prepared to think outside the square and do the hard yards to work with the states in order to come up with a system that addresses commonsense environmental issues without compromising the productivity of Australia's agricultural sector. In this case, the corporatisation of the Snowy scheme will mean that, for the first time, water users on the Murray and Murrumbidgee rivers will receive guaranteed levels of annual releases of water from the scheme. This will be made available from increased efficiencies in the way we use the water in the river.

To me, that is a lot of commonsense. I cannot help but compare it to what is happening in New South Wales and Queensland at the moment in relation to both water and native vegetation. Queensland in recent times seems to have caught up with environmental correctness rather than environmental commonsense; it seems to have caught up with New South Wales in one heck of a rush in the last year or so. When you look at what has happened and at the number of farmers coming to see us, you will see how dependent they, their families, our communities and the towns in our particular region along the Lachlan, the Darling and the Barwon are on this water. They keep saying to me, `Why aren't we getting any recognition for the fact that what we produce is so important to the region and so important to our communities?'

The state government keeps pulling back the entitlements of farmers, without any sign of compensation. The government is looking at the situation now, and is attacking the ground water issue. It was the river water, but now the ground water situation is being dealt with as hard and fast and as unscientifically as the river water was. As recently as 1996 Kim Yeadon, the New South Wales Minister for Land and Water Conservation, was writing to our farmers in the lower Macquarie encouraging them to take up licences to make use of the ground water allocations. Today they are being threatened with the annihilation of their industry. They are being told that they have to take account of the environment to an extent which would not only allow the water levels to rise, but make salinity a threat as well. There is no common sense in this. It is being driven by Sydney, and being paid for by the few thousand farmers—not even a few thousand—along those river systems.

The Lachlan, which is being treated as though it is part of the Murray-Darling system, does not even reach it. Once in the last 50 years it may have run into the Darling, yet the Lachlan River is being treated for environmental flows, and it has had its entitlements and its cap cut down. It is being treated as though it is a permanent part of the Murray-Darling system. The result is that livelihoods and communities are being put at risk all the way down the Lachlan, whether it be Forbes, Condobolin, or Hillston. Hillston is one of the success stories in country areas in Australia in the last 20 years. It was discovered that Hillston's climate was fantastic—they could grow almost anything. It had the ground water and river water systems combined. Its water has not been over-utilised, but it is being treated as a resource that has been over-utilised. There are cutbacks going on there which do not make sense.

I have had a lot of contact with the irrigators along that line. They are asking COAG to look very hard at the use of Lake Brewster for permanent storage to allow better utilisation of water down there. So far, that has not happened, but I would hope that the Murray-Darling Basin Ministerial Council will look kindly on a scheme which is designed to make better and more efficient use of water for that region, which is becoming—certainly in the last 15 years—one of the success stories of country New South Wales and of Australia.

One of the problems in this system is that in New South Wales, in particular, the environmental movement are far more concerned with power and with frustrating productive communities than they are with commonsense environmental business, and insist on environmental flows at a time when there is not much water, when it is dry. The natural result is that, when water is put down when people are not irrigating and when there are not natural flows, that water is soaked up and totally wasted. It does not even get anywhere. Whether it be the Macquarie, the Bogan or the Lachlan river catchments, to send flows down at a time when nothing else is running defies imagination. It does not clean anything out. It does not necessarily fill up reservoirs. It just wastes money, because the banks are dry—the whole system is dry. As anybody who knows anything about water realises, if you send water into a dry state on its own for a specific period, up to half of it can be totally wasted; 40 per cent is a figure that is often used.

The issues of the Murray-Darling Basin system, the main water system in Australia, are enormous. When I look at what New South Wales and Queensland have joined forces on, if we are going to do some commonsense things about good use of water out of that system, we have to acknowledge a few things. Firstly, New South Wales uses about 6,000 gigalitres of water to produce about $2.5 billion worth of output, Victoria uses about 3,300 gigalitres to produce about $1.5 billion and South Australia uses about 500 gigalitres to produce something over $1 billion. Partly that is because of the different crops grown, but obviously we have to do it better.

The point I am making here is that we all realise there have been overallocations but we all realise also that we are talking about the productive powerhouse of Australia. If we are going to do anything about easing down further on water usage, we have to do it over a long time and we have to pay people for what we are depriving them of and pay the communities who depend upon them. It is no good coming up with a scheme which simply says, as New South Wales has done and as Queensland is in the process of doing, `You, the farmers of New South Wales and Queensland, are going to pay for environmental correctness as envisaged by Sydney and Brisbane.' It is totally unjust. I think the way the farming community and the towns and communities that depend upon them have been made to pay for the environmental correctness, and the totally unrealistic expectations on the farmers right around those two states is one of the great rip-offs of Australia.

A lot better management could go on. Certainly the Department of Land and Conservation in New South Wales could have done a lot more, for example, to ensure better water facilities for Broken Hill, where at one stage water was let go down the Murray when water quality was taking a high dive in that area and the salinity factor of the water in Broken Hill was coming into serious question—and still is. The issue is that there should be not environmental correctness but environmental commonsense. The livelihoods and the way of life of people who produce all the primary production one way or another and the regions that produce those things have to be taken into account. It is not good enough for the state governments to simply strip communities of their resource, their way of life, without even hinting that they can be compensated for it, especially when you look back to the fact that over many years state governments of all political persuasions encouraged and begged people to clear land to get into irrigation. Now they are saying, `You are going to pay for an ideal that the rest of us have.' I recall at one stage putting to the Premier of New South Wales, Bob Carr, the question of compensation for all the cutbacks. His comment was, `We can't afford to pay for that. The community can't afford to pay for these cutbacks.' If the whole community cannot afford it, how in the heck can a few thousand farmers afford it on their behalf?