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Wednesday, 28 May 2003
Page: 15299

Mr BYRNE (11:13 AM) —I rise today to speak on the Murray-Darling Basin Amendment Bill 2002. I would like to endorse the comments made by the member for Melbourne in his very passionate and eloquent speech about the nation's difficulties. I will start by agreeing with him and to some extent amplifying his concerns. In 1986 Paul Keating belled the cat on our economy. He raised the balance of payments crisis with the banana republic statement. We face a situation with our environment, our water flows, of a much greater magnitude, yet very little in relative terms and in real terms is being done. I find that quite staggering.

Some might ask why I am standing here today discussing this issue, particularly given that I represent an outer metropolitan electorate. It is very far away from the mouth of the Murray River at Goolwa; it is a very long way away. My electorate is noted not so much for irrigation issues but much more for the number of houses there and the number of people who shift there each year. So why would I have an interest in this issue? The reason is that I served on the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Environment and Heritage, which examined this substantive issue in 2000-01. It was an excellent committee, and its recommendations are contained in two bipartisan reports: Co-ordinating catchment management and Public good conservation. Mr Ian Causley, the member for Page, was an excellent chair of the committee. He is not someone whom you would have thought would have been saying that we have got to fix this issue and do something about the wastage of water.

This committee came up with two great reports that recommended that substantial and dramatic action be taken. What has happened? The first report, Public good conservation: our challenge for the 21st century, was tabled on 27 September 2001. It has had no response. The Co-ordinating catchment management: report of the inquiry into catchment management report was tabled on 26 February 2001. It has also had no response. What does that indicate about the government's priorities on this issue? Our nation is, in effect, rotting beneath us. A white plague is drifting through the Murray and destroying it. That was addressed in these reports. They identified this issue as a matter of national urgency. They spoke about the implementation of an environment levy. A bipartisan committee—members from both sides of the parliament—recommended that urgent action be taken, that a national summit be convened and that a national authority to address issues like water property rights et cetera.

What has actually happened? The government has not even responded to these reports. What does that say about the government's priorities on this particular issue? I think it is a disgrace. Members of that committee flew over the Murray and saw the scenes of devastation. They heard that people from Adelaide were not going to be able to drink water from the Murray two days out of five because of the salinity problem. Yet they saw that the government took no concrete action to address these concerns and did not even bother to respond to the reports. What does that indicate about the government's priorities and commitment towards fixing this issue?

The committee took evidence from the retiring Secretary of the Department of the Treasury, Ted Evans. He said that two issues were of the greatest structural threat to budgets now and in the future. The first was the environment and the second was defence. When we touched on the issue of the environment—and I subjected Mr Evans to fairly intense questioning—he said that there were two ways of fixing this problem. One was implementing a levy, because the expenditure was going to have to be so great. The other was making the consumer pay. Either way someone will have to pay. Either the taxpayer will pay and enable the government to raise money to seriously address the issue of salinity—which is touched on in this bill—or we will have to pass the costs on and increase food prices, which was what Mr Evans effectively conceded.

I turn to some of the estimated costs of fixing this issue. I have heard some people talk about the Natural Heritage Trust and I will discuss that a bit later on. The CSIRO estimated that the cost of fixing salinity in our soils would be $100 billion. We have heard some of the speakers talk about the fact that we have expended $1.4 billion on the Natural Heritage Trust. Yet the CSIRO, one of its own agencies, says that it will cost $100 billion. In a joint report the ACF and the NFF talked about $60 billion. These are people who do not go around creating figures for the fun of it. They are saying it will cost $60 billion. So the CSIRO says $100 billion, and the NFF and the ACF say $60 billion.

I hear speakers from the other side talk about the rights of property owners, and I accept that that is a legitimate concern. But of graver concern is that, if this issue is not fixed, we are not going to be discussing property rights because there will not be any usable properties to have rights over. That is the atmosphere that must be considered. There is a sense of crisis that has been consistently ignored. Words are being said, but commitments are not being made. We are running out of time to make solid commitments, solid expenditures and solid programs. Notwithstanding the shortcomings of our Constitution, it is time to come together in a national forum to address this concern. Labor has consistently indicated that COAG should be the vehicle to fix this particular issue. It examined it in 1994 but, obviously, it was not of sufficient concern. There has to be a national summit about these particular issues—water catchments and salinity. It has to be undertaken, and it has to be undertaken now.

As I said, the one thing we do not have, and this was touched on by the member for Melbourne, is time to get political about this. One person on one side of the chamber talks about property rights and we talk about the fact that we need something done. We need something done. The time for semantics on this issue is over. If you talk to the people on that committee who were there, they effectively said the same thing—and they were members of both sides of the House.

Having said that, I will touch on the particular aspects of the bill. The basis of this is an agreement and deal between the Commonwealth, New South Wales and Victoria to allocate an additional 70 gigalitres per annum in environmental flows for the Murray River and to improve the environmental outcomes for the rivers in the Kosciuszko National Park. A key element of the arrangement is the absence of adverse consequences for irrigators' water entitlements, South Australia's water security, water quality or existing environmental flows. The agreement has been subjected to extensive consultation and it enjoys a high level of support. It is a first step. It is long overdue. We obviously support this bill and we do so out of necessity. But it is a start.

As I said, we conduct this debate as though we are in a vacuum. We are not in a vacuum. The starting point has been too long in the making, too limited in vision and, therefore, too meagre in the delivery. We on this side believe that the bill does not go far enough. It is piecemeal and goes only part of the way to addressing the serious concerns that I have delineated, and it leaves all the other problems—salinity, vegetation loss and sustainable land use—for another day, another government, another generation and another group of taxpayers. And it is based on blind faith that creating markets will solve all environmental problems. The tragedy is that in this House we, like the Australian people, know that there are problems. As I have said before, this House is also aware that two reports were tabled and that the government has not responded to those reports. On a personal note, we flew over the Murray-Darling Basin. I was struck, in flying over that very fragile river, by how much we are obliged to this generation and future generations to ensure that it is protected, enhanced and developed. We cannot continue to exist in an atmosphere of complacency.

I will touch on some of the issues that we addressed in the report. In Western Australia, Victoria and the western suburbs of Sydney, salinity is undermining houses, buildings and infrastructure. Some 60 per cent of the urban area of Wagga Wagga is at risk from highly saline watertables rising by half a metre a year. About 20,000 kilometres of major road and 1,600 kilometres of railways are in regions of high salinity risk. By 2050, this will increase to 52,000 kilometres of road and 3,600 kilometres of railways—meaning that salinity will erode the roads and railways to the point where we may not be able to use them. If we continue to do as we do now, by 2050 two million hectares of remnant vegetation and associated ecosystems will be under threat from salinity. The Great Barrier Reef is under threat, as is biodiversity in each state. Species disappear each day.

According to the New South Wales Department of Land and Water Conservation, salinity is of concern in Western Sydney, Wagga Wagga and many other towns in central, western and southern New South Wales, including Blayney, Boorowa and a list of others that I will not read out now. Already in the Macquarie River west of the Great Dividing Range, about 630 ute loads of salt pass Narromine every day. In Western Australia, land affected by salinity will increase to 32 per cent of agricultural land within several decades. Environment Australia advised the committee that lost agricultural production as a result of salinity has been estimated to cost $130 million annually. Damage to infrastructure costs another $100 million annually, and loss of environment assets costs a further $40 million annually. Other estimates placed the cost of salinity alone, without including other difficult to quantify costs, at $335 million per annum. In April 2000, the ACF and the NFF estimated the annual cost of environmental degradation to be about $2 billion. We see the problem, but what does it mean?

In the Murray-Darling Basin agricultural production is valued at about $10 billion per annum—that is approximately 40 per cent of the gross value of Australia's agricultural production. Tourism and the recreation industry in the Murray-Darling Basin are valued at about $3.44 billion. The Productivity Commission found that soil erosion and run-off from fertilisers and chemicals pose a significant threat to the Great Barrier Reef, particularly the inner reefs. Tourism fuelled by the Great Barrier Reef, under threat from the run-off of inappropriate agriculture, is worth about $4.2 billion per annum and employs some 47,600 people.

What is actually being done about the run-off? Nothing. In 1991-92 in the Murray-Darling Basin there were some 3,280 manufacturing locations, which employed over 62,400 people, with sales of produce goods exceeding $10.75 billion or 6.4 per cent of the Australian total. Look at the magnitude and the scale of production and its meaning to Australia. In the 1996 census, the Murray-Darling Basin had a population of almost two million people, almost 11 per cent of the total Australian population. Outside the Murray-Darling Basin, another one million Australians are heavily dependent on the River Murray for their water supply. None of these figures take into account the many millions of Australians living in the suburbs of our major cities whose jobs in manufacturing, office work, and light and heavy industry depend indirectly upon the health of the rural environment. This is why this issue must be of concern to urban members like me, notwithstanding my commitment to and participation in the environment and heritage committee.

We believe that there has not been significant action undertaken. Half of the profit in 1996-97 from Australian agriculture was generated from irrigated production systems. Surface water allocations—and this is quite critical—and use in Australia's eastern breadbaskets, coastal Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria, exceeded sustainable flows. In fact, water extracted for irrigation between 1985 and 1997 increased by 76 per cent—in just 12 years. Of the 12,000 gigalitres flowing into the Murray-Darling Basin, 10,000 gigalitres are used for irrigation, and it is not returned. Eighty per cent of all agricultural production comes from less than one per cent of the total area used for agriculture and pastoralism.

I believe that this bill is a chronicle of lost opportunities. It shows that the present system is cumbersome and too vulnerable to being held ransom to the brinkmanship of whoever is the Prime Minister of the day and people who will not take responsibility for exercising national leadership on this particular issue. It is at best an interim solution, which leaves the real work to later generations when the damage has already been done and the solutions are much more difficult to implement. The bill fails to address the underlying policy issue that confronts us: how the states and the Commonwealth will work together to develop a coherent national policy. The bill is a start but it is not enough. It is symptomatic of the inability of the Howard administration to develop nation-building and nation-sustaining policy and plan rationally for the future.

What have they actually done? Launching the NAP, Our vital resources: a national action plan for salinity and water quality, the Prime Minister said:

Most Australians will accept that this is one of the most significant ... environmental challenge and natural resource management challenge that this country has. And what is needed is a national plan, flowing from Commonwealth leadership but working closely with the states and with local communities ...

Since that, what have they done? The Auditor-General found irregularities, questionable administration and ineffective allocation processes in the operation of the Natural Heritage Trust. The Howard administration has reduced funding for every year of the operation of the National Action Plan for Salinity and Water Quality. The Howard administration has reduced expenditure on the environment collectively over the past four years. After seven years of the Howard government administration, there has been little progress in real terms, particularly given the problems that I have detailed. Under the national water reform agenda, land clearing continues at unacceptable levels, water quality continues to decline and there is no national approach to ensure ecologically sustainable use of Australia's catchment system. Again, in terms of their priorities, why haven't they responded to this report that I have tabled?

In finishing my contribution in this debate, what needs to be done? The major recommendations of the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Environment and Heritage reports that we need to integrate water management with land use into a properly funded and coherent policy. The committee noted in Co-ordinating catchment management that the expectation within the community is that legislators will act sooner rather than later, decisively rather than timidly. Australians want the talking to stop about this issue and the action to begin. Furthermore, they do not want a piecemeal approach but a national approach, coordinated at a national level and founded upon a national policy to which all stakeholders should subscribe and in which all Australians have the opportunity to participate.

We need to stop the piecemeal approach to this particular issue. We need to get serious. We need to seize the opportunities that the present situation offers and move catchment use from the unsustainable to the sustainable. We need a national plan, national leadership and a national catchment authority that coordinates and fosters all facets of catchment management across Australia, across all levels of government and all parts of society, and that does so through existing agencies, institutions and community groups. Even the Prime Minister has acknowledged this. In launching our vital resources National Action Plan for Salinity and Water Quality in Australia, the Prime Minister said:

Most Australians will accept that this is one of the most significant, if not the most significant environmental challenge and natural resource management challenge that this country has. And what is needed is a national plan, flowing from Commonwealth leadership but working closely with the states and with local communities ...

And since then he has done nothing.

We need to adopt better water management policies. At present too much water is used on agricultural activities that are environmentally unsustainable. The present approaches are not only poor environmental management but also poor economics. We need to reform not only water usage practices but also land use practices and the way we value land use. One major change that we need to make is to stop thinking that the market will solve everything. Professor Peter Cullen, who supports water trading, added this particular warning:

We are seeing water being privatised, we're starting to see the emergence of what people call water barons, who are buying water up from the market place and you can see an image where all water is controlled by a couple of big businessmen and we have a lot of peasant farmers who are dependent on it. ... We cannot afford to just let the market run wild and say we'll fix the problems at a later date. We haven't proved capable of doing that with say the media laws, so let's not get into the same mess with the water laws.

Markets fail in the delivery of a nationally imperative issue like this. We can see the consequences of this.

I will finish at the starting point. We face a national crisis. It is up to us to determine whether or not we as legislators exercise the collective will to address this particular issue. If not—and we are debating what happens with a further Murray-Darling rescue package which is piecemeal at best—we will not only have our generation to answer to but future generations as well.