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Wednesday, 28 May 2003
Page: 15295


Mr TANNER (10:53 AM) —The Murray-Darling Basin Amendment Bill 2002 amends the Murray-Darling Basin Act and implements an agreement between the governments of New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia and the Commonwealth with respect to water sharing. It implements the corporatisation of Snowy Hydro and also a very major scheme for transferring water to generate environmental flows back to the Snowy River. It also establishes additional mechanisms for water accounting, notification, consultation and modelling with respect to the Murray-Darling Basin Commission.

Most importantly, in my view, this legislation implements an agreement between the Labor governments of New South Wales and Victoria designed to return to the Snowy River 28 per cent of its natural flow over a 10-year period, with the cost of approximately $300 million to be borne by those two state governments. This effectively will increase the flow of the Snowy from the figure of seven per cent up to 28 per cent. There are sections of the Snowy which have been in recent years flowing as low as one per cent.

This is a matter that is very close to my heart, because I actually come from a town that is on the Snowy River, near the mouth of the Snowy River—Orbost. My father recently sold the farm that he had owned since I was a teenager—a farm that I worked on—which was on the banks of the Snowy River. Having grown up in the area, I have been very aware of this particular problem. It is to the great credit of the Bracks and Carr governments that they have intervened to ensure that the Snowy River can have some future, some prospect of being revived, and that the terrible situation that has prevailed there for many years with respect to the health and environmental quality of the Snowy River will finally be addressed.

I first spoke on this issue in the parliament in 1997. It was very interesting that, after having made that speech, I was contacted by a former Labor state member of the Victorian parliament who had been a member of a parliamentary committee considering the proposed Snowy Mountains scheme in the early 1950s. He wrote to me, pointing out that the consideration of the prospective impact of the Snowy scheme on the Snowy River itself at that time was predominantly focused on the need to ensure that adequate drinking water was provided for the people of East Gippsland. So the only issue from the point of view of the impact of the Snowy scheme and diverting the waters from the Snowy inland that was considered by that parliamentary committee in the early 1950s was the amount of drinking water that would be available to the people of East Gippsland.

When you consider that, at that time and subsequently, the number of people for whom that drinking water was needed was literally only several thousand—the entire Orbost Shire, as it then was, had a population of only about 5,000—you can see the appalling lack of scrutiny of the environmental consequences of the Snowy Mountains scheme at that time. It was understandable, given the lack of concern for and the lack of knowledge about environmental issues at that time, but it was nonetheless disastrous for the longer term.

For most people in Australia the Snowy Mountains scheme is a great icon and a great achievement in engineering and nation building. I accept that picture, but it has had a downside for the people of East Gippsland, and that downside has been the degradation of the Snowy River, the reduction in the environmental quality of the river and a reduction in economic opportunities for people in East Gippsland. There are great farming traditions in East Gippsland, just as there are around the Murray-Darling Basin. Some of the richest soil in Australia is in the Snowy River flats. There are a lot of farmers there; there is a lot of dairying and mixed cropping—the kind of things that my father was involved in. They were entitled to their opportunities just as much as other farmers, and they were denied them.

I visited my former home town back in September 2000 in the company of Craig Ingram, the Independent member for East Gippsland, who was elected largely on a platform of pursuing the issue of the Snowy. I went with him to look at various parts of the river, including one particular section near Bete Bolong, which is very close to a place where I lived as a child on a property which backed onto the Snowy. At that point the depth of the river was only one or two feet; of course, during summer everything in the river died because of the shallowness of the river and the lack of environmental flows.

It took the election of the Bracks government, and indeed the election of Craig Ingram, as the Independent member for East Gippsland, to finally get something done about the issue. The member for Gippsland, the Minister for Science, Mr McGauran, had said some nice things about the issue but had failed for a long time to do anything seriously on behalf of the people of East Gippsland with respect to the Snowy River. It took the election of the Bracks government and the election of Craig Ingram to ensure that action was taken.

I am very pleased to see that those promises have been delivered on, but there are still many difficulties and issues that need to be addressed. Understandably, there has been some local controversy about the implementation of these changes—as we are dealing here with a very great challenge: to restore one of Australia's great icons to a proportion of its natural health. I look forward to the day when the Snowy is back running at something like the state that it was decades ago before the waters were diverted. I look forward to the Bracks and Carr governments continuing to implement their commitments to ensure that that occurs. I am pleased that this legislation provides a framework in which those commitments are implemented.

The broader picture is even more serious. The Murray-Darling system is dying; the Murray River is dying. We face the unbelievably critical challenge in our society of dealing with these issues and dealing with them urgently. The amount of water that is taken out of the Murray-Darling system for agricultural purposes has virtually doubled over the past 20 years. It is widely known that within the next decade or two, unless we have very substantial action, Adelaide's drinking water will be below World Health Organization standards for two days out of every five. We have serious silting up. The river mouth is closing, and there are areas where the water is sometimes flowing backwards. In addition, of course, there is the rapid spread of salinity.

The situation is absolutely critical, and the Prime Minister and the current government are doing virtually nothing about it. We can see why in the speech of the member who preceded my contribution, because the current government is shackled to the interests of the irrigators in the Murray-Darling system. They are at the very heart of the National Party, and their interests are very vigorously represented at the federal and state levels by the conservative parties. As a result, the conservative parties and the Howard government will always be a major barrier to reform. They will have to be dragged kicking and screaming to tackle these problems. All they do at the moment is blame the states. The Howard government's approach to dealing with the crisis in the Murray-Darling is simply to blame the states.

We need to accept that our society has made silly decisions in the past. We need to understand that there are crops being grown in the Murray-Darling Basin that should never have been established there. It is absurd that Australia is growing rice. When is our next monsoon? It is inappropriate for us to be growing these kinds of crops. Water is massively overallocated and is misused as a result, because not only are we using too much water but it is being used for crops that are inappropriate because they are extremely thirsty kinds of crops.

It is not going to be easy to address these problems; it is not going to be a simple matter. Quite clearly, it would be wrong and inappropriate for any government to simply march in and put ordinary farmers out of business. That, clearly, is unacceptable. Equally, it is unacceptable for farmers to expect that they are going to get 100 per cent, rolled-gold, universal compensation and that they will not be forced to bear any of the pain. The community is going to have to bear some pain. Governments, state and federal, are going to have to bear some pain. It is only reasonable that farmers also will have to bear some pain. What they need to understand is that, if that pain is not borne, ultimately none of us have a future; ultimately the future for Australian agriculture is dire. Salinity, the misuse of water and gradual environmental degradation will destroy the very lifeblood of Australian agriculture, for which the Murray-Darling Basin is the hub.

We cannot make these changes overnight, but they have to be undertaken. That requires some serious political courage and an acceptance across the board that there is going to be pain and difficulty. Farmers involved in this have to be treated with fairness and dignity, but they are not entitled to Rolls Royce treatment. In my electorate, I have very large numbers of textile, clothing and footwear industries. I have more TCF establishments than any other member of parliament in this place, in spite of the fact that there have been enormous job losses and a substantial closure of factories in the electorate. Those changes occurred to benefit all Australians, to free up the market for the items of clothing and footwear that we all have to wear, and to ensure that we had more competition, lower prices, greater innovation and better quality. There is a debate as to how much that has occurred, but I do not think that there is any doubt that there have been substantial improvements in that regard as a result of freeing up those markets.

The people who lost out, the ordinary footwear, clothing and textile workers, including some in my electorate, did get some adjustment assistance—not enough, in my view. Some were able to get new jobs; many did not. But they were not compensated for the total loss of livelihood that they suffered. They received adjustment assistance and the same principle should apply in dealing with the problems in the Murray-Darling. If it is good enough for people on very low incomes working in textile, clothing and footwear factories to get retraining and adjustment assistance then the same principle should apply in respect of farmers in the Murray-Darling Basin if we are to save Australia's environment and ensure that we have a future for our agricultural industries across the board and also for many communities to be able to access decent drinking water.

There is an alternative that Labor leader Simon Crean has put on the table, and I am very proud to support that alternative as a major step forward for tackling these issues. It is a fundamentally important alternative which consists of the following commitments. A Labor government will restore, in our first term of office, 450 gigalitres of environmental flows, which will be enough to guarantee that the mouth of the Murray remains open—a small but significant step—and over 10 years we will commit to restoring environmental flows of 1,500 gigalitres, which is widely accepted as the minimum level required to restore the health of the river to a moderate level. This is seen by scientists as the absolute minimum necessary to revive the Murray-Darling system. Labor will also create the Murray-Darling Riverbank, which will be a bank of capital designed to fund the restoration of the Murray-Darling system with an injection of $150 million of capital to enable that to be funded. We will establish an environmental flow trust to manage environmental flows. There are some difficult and complex issues that the previous speaker alluded to about how you deal with the ups and downs of environmental flows, the differing levels in the river and differing rainfalls; there are some difficult issues that need to be addressed there. Labor will ensure that there is a sustainable future for irrigation agriculture by restoring the health of the river and that we have viable, long-term agricultural industries built in the Murray-Darling system. And we will commit to ending large-scale, indiscriminate land clearing, which is a significant contributor to the environmental problems in the system. And of course, more broadly and indirectly, a Labor government will ratify the Kyoto protocol.

One of the things that always staggers me about the attitude of the government to the greenhouse issue and the Kyoto protocol is its blithe disregard of the potential negative impact of global warming on the agricultural industries that provide the heartland of support for its own side of politics. The CSIRO estimates that a negative or downside possibility for global warming by the end of this century could see the flows in the Murray-Darling system reduced by as much as 45 per cent. When you consider how overused they already are, contemplate the prospect of those flows being reduced as a result of global warming by 45 per cent and you have got an economic and an environmental disaster on your hands. And yet even though the CSIRO assesses this as a possibility—it is at the extreme end of possibilities—clearly we have to be deeply concerned about the prospect of global warming on the Murray-Darling system. The government regards that as some kind of illegitimate issue that it is not particularly interested in and it refuses to sign the Kyoto protocol, which is not perfect but it is all there is and it is a major start to the world dealing with questions of global warming.

We face a huge national challenge here, and it is the kind of challenge that only Labor governments are capable of dealing and grappling with. The Howard government is simply about ducking responsibility; it is about ensuring that somebody else tackles the problem in future years, even though that will guarantee that the problem will be much worse and much harder to deal with. Labor is prepared to take the difficult decisions. Labor is prepared to confront the difficult problems. Labor is prepared for the challenges that lie ahead to save the Murray-Darling. The commitment that Simon Crean has put forward in his budget reply speech two weeks ago is the first and most important instalment in ensuring that we as a nation can save our agricultural heartland, our environmental heartland; that those vital river flows are there for everybody, to sustain our agriculture; that the communities relying on the system for drinking water are able to continue to do so; and that we have a healthy natural environment which we can all enjoy and benefit from.

I conclude by returning to the question of the Snowy River. We have to learn from our mistakes. However great the Snowy scheme may have been, however great an engineering achievement it was, however great a set of economic opportunities it generated, it still involved significant mistakes—the most important of those being the degradation of the Snowy River. We need to recognise that there is a limit to the extent to which we can exploit the environment without seriously degrading it and therefore killing the goose that lays the golden eggs. That is the great lesson from the Snowy debacle, and we have to now apply that lesson to the Murray-Darling system as a whole.

The Snowy River is finally being given a chance of life again, courtesy of the Bracks and Carr governments and the great work of Craig Ingram. We as a community should learn from that lesson and understand that we have to take a similar approach with the Murray-Darling system and that the future of our nation depends on tackling this problem.

Water is Australia's number one national security issue. For all of the attention that is legitimately paid to threats of terrorism, to war in Iraq and to the threat of other nations, water remains our number one national security issue. That is what we have to address. This legislation is important because it follows through on commitments directed at tackling that issue but is of little real credit to the government because it is pursuing commitments that have been driven at a state level by state Labor governments. But at least these things are happening; they are an important start.

I commend the legislation to the parliament, and I look forward to the day when a Labor government will be implementing our commitments to return decent environmental flows to the Murray-Darling system and to ensure that we have a sustainable future for our agriculture, our people living inland and our major cities. It will ensure that we operate our water systems on a sustainable and intelligent basis, we stop abusing them, we stop overusing them and our environmental footprint on this fragile land is sustainable.