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Wednesday, 28 May 2003
Page: 15308

Mr KATTER (11:52 AM) —I rise today to speak on the Murray-Darling Basin Amendment Bill 2002, continuing from where I left off in my speech on the budget, which is most relevant to what is taking place here today. I mentioned the era of Mr Whitlam, with the 25 per cent tariff cut across the board—and I will relate this to the Murray-Darling legislation in one moment. I spoke about Mr Fraser with his monetarism: monetary growth had to equal goods and services growth, and that meant that the government withdrew from developmentalism. Then we had the onrush of Mr Keating—truly a great disaster of recent Australian politics. I think that most people in the ALP would agree with that comment. There was his corporatism, his laissez-faire capitalism, the rule of law being replaced by the rule of fang and claw, and the abolition of all government presence in the marketplace. To paraphrase Chalmers Johnson, who wrote the quintessential book on the Japanese economic miracle, we had a policy in Japan of developmentalism while in other countries we had regulatory industrial policies. Now Australia does not even have a regulatory regime, as the Coles-Woolworths phenomenon shows.

That brings me to the Murray-Darling. You may ask why this country is going bad. Last night in my speech in the parliament, I gave a breakdown to show that real incomes for the average Australian have fallen by a whopping amount—over $8,000. That is huge when one considers that an average income is, in monetary terms, about $40,000. So Australians have gone backwards. Why have they gone backwards? In the speech yesterday, I mentioned the economic reasons for this disaster, but today we are dealing with the other reasons for this disaster. Our dairy herd is down 15 per cent, our cattle herd is down 10 per cent and our sheep numbers are down over 30 per cent. Obviously, wheat production is almost non-existent as a result of the drought, but who knows what the overall, long-term effects of the wheat situation are going to be? Sugar is down 10 or 15 per cent.

What is happening here is that agriculture is closing down. In a fit of rage, when we deregulated the dairy industry, I said that in 10 years this country would be a net importer of food. Having shot off at the mouth, I did mean that in a metaphorical sense. I did not mean to say 10 but that is the number I used. I went to the library to face the music and find out what the true figure was. I found out that I was wrong and that the country would not be a net importer of food in 10 years; the country would be a net importer of food in nine years. In nine years time, Australia—the greatest food-producing nation on earth—would be a net importer of food. It would not be able to feed itself.

We have all these lovely assurances from the minister, but three years ago the sugar industry got assurances that it was not going to be deregulated. Yesterday the ALP in the Queensland state parliament, under a negotiated agreement with the federal government—with Mr Truss as the architect—deregulated that industry. Three years ago the industry was given an undertaking that it would not be reviewed again for six years. In return for that promise it took a tariff abolition—which was extremely damaging to the industry. So much for politicians' promises.

Today we are assured: firstly, allocations of water to environment must not adversely impact on irrigators; secondly, allocations must not adversely impact on the rights and interests of the state of South Australia; thirdly, the commercial viability of the Snowy scheme will be maintained; fourthly, water for environmental flows will be sourced principally from verified water savings; and lastly, water for environment flows cannot be consumed. It must flow through the river system to the sea. This is a pretty good trick. We are going to commit ourselves to all of those undertakings, and yet we are going to increase the flow in the river by 28 per cent. Maybe there is some sort of magic out there that I do not understand, but there is no way in the world—even if we were to put the water into pipelines and installed 20,000 kilometres of canals. And there are fewer than 20,000 kilometres of diversion channels in the Murray-Darling system. Even if we were to do that, we would end up with less than five per cent savings. We all know that is never going to happen. Even if we did that, we are talking about five per cent, not 28 per cent.

We are being told one thing by Mr Truss and, right at this very moment, the New South Wales cabinet has three discussion papers: one saying five per cent reduction awarded to farmers, one saying a 10 per cent reduction of water to farmers and one saying 15 per cent. So if we take a 10 per cent reduction in the water going to farmers, that means a 10 per cent reduction in their gross production. For anyone familiar with farming, if you are making a 20 per cent or 30 per cent profit on your gross income, you are doing very well indeed. What we are talking about here is about a 30 per cent or maybe 40 per cent cut to the net income for farmers in New South Wales. The statements are positively misleading. I will get up here and say that, because history indicates and will clearly prove that the farmers are going to lose their water.

If we were to build a monument in this country, the monument should be built to the people who created the Snowy Mountains Hydro-Electric Scheme. I look at it with awe. It is one of the greatest achievements that this country has ever achieved. It was regarded as one of the eight engineering wonders of the world when it was completed. It enabled us to produce nearly one-tenth of the power for the golden triangle of Adelaide to Sydney and northern New South Wales. The electricity was produced for free, forever, under that scheme. Here was a scheme that turned a barren wilderness into a place where beautiful cities existed. I have been to some of those cities and they are wonderful places. What a magnificent achievement: land that was thought to be wasteland was found only to be land wasted.

What we get paid for in this place is to sometimes show a tiny little bit of moral courage. When the media is out there baying and screaming for your hide over some issue and the media does not know what they are talking about you should have the courage to stand up and state the truth. I, of all people, was the only member of parliament who went to all of the seminars, forums and public addresses on the Murray-Darling system. And I have none of the Murray-Darling system in my electorate. I am from one of the few country electorates in Australia that does not have any of the Murray-Darling in it, and yet I went to all of those meetings. At the conclusion of the last one I said, `We've been hearing this now for the last 12 months to two years. What do we do: go and slit our wrists?' The reply was, `No, you haven't been listening to what I've been saying here. If we put five per cent of the cleared areas back under a deep-rooted plant such as a tree or lucerne then clearly you would again lower the watertable. But every farmer has to do this.'

If your worry is that the Murray is lacking in flows, the vast bulk of the tributaries and the main river system of the Murray-Darling—and I include the Darling here—actually ceased to flow in days past on a fairly regular basis. It ceases to flow now, but it ceased to flow then as well. We wonder what exactly is going on here. If you say, as Dr Kemp has said, that we cannot clear any more land in Queensland and that we are down to 0.5 per cent and that is all that is available to us, then you are saying we cannot enhance our land, we cannot improve our land and we cannot increase the productivity of our land. That is what you are saying to us. You are saying, `You are frozen where you are now forever.' What sort of primitive landscape Luddites are running amok in this place and in this government and in the state governments of Australia?

The manufacturing sector under these brainless policies simply collapsed in this nation, going from some $36 billion to $86 billion in imports. We took a hit on the current account, on the income of this nation, of $50 billion a year on the stupidity of these free trade policies. As far as agriculture goes, the last time I looked at the figures, albeit some time ago, within nine years we are going to be net importers of food. But even if you want to take a 20- year or 30- year time frame you will find that imports will increase about 600 per cent and exports will increase about 300 per cent. Clearly, this country cannot survive in agriculture against the massive subsidies—the over 60 per cent average subsidy, and increasing—in the OECD; it cannot sell profitably in Australia because of Woolworths and Coles, the only two companies to sell to; and it cannot compete against Third World countries where people work for nothing.

On top of that, we are talking about no more land clearing in Queensland, which means we cannot increase our production anywhere at all. There is not a single farmer on the Queensland coastline that does not believe that the area he has under production at the present moment is not going to be cut back. So all we can look forward to is a gradual decline in agricultural production in this country. Having run cattle for all of my adult life, I can tell you that if you cannot clear some trees you cannot improve the pasture of the land. Anyone who thinks there is going to be some massive wholesale clearing in Queensland believes in the tooth fairy. It costs about $200 to $300 a hectare to clear land—the last time I had a quote, anyway. We are talking about land worth about $20 a hectare. Only the greatest fool would be out there clearing land. It is not land that loans itself to cultivation. If it were down in the southern part of the state I would say yes, but all of that land has been cleared.

Anyone who wants to cultivate has already cleared land and is cultivating it at this very moment. But where they did clear land in Queensland—and we are talking about land clearing as well as the reduction in water for farmers—they had the Brigalow scheme. Some of my relatives—young men who had no hope of getting anywhere in life—suddenly won a ballot. One of them lived in a shed for eight years of his life with his wife and kids. They were—until recent years—very wealthy and prosperous people. I thought, `What a wonderful achievement we have here. What an absolutely fantastic achievement.' But nature does not stand still. If you think that by withdrawing the water rights from these farmers in the MurrayDarling Basin you are somehow going to make the Australian landscape more wonderful than it is at the present moment, then you simply do not understand agriculture.

The very sad thing in this country is that the decisions being made on water are being made by people who live in the concrete pleasure domes of Sydney and Melbourne. The people who love the landscape and the bush and who live in it are the people on the land. That is why they live there. Most of them are reasonably intelligent people who could make a very good living wherever they went. Some of them are very bright people indeed who could make a much better living. The only explanation for them living in the middle of nowhere is that they love the Australian bush. That is why they are there. There is a great bumper sticker that says: `No matter how much you say you love my land, I love it 10,000 times more.' That is the absolute truth.

We are dealing here with people who do not understand what they are doing. They do not understand the economic ramifications of what they are doing to this country—a country that not only has taken a hit of $8,500 in average incomes, but also is now running a current account in the first half of this year of $42 billion. Yesterday I quoted both the present Prime Minister and the last Prime Minister. When the current account was $11 billion a year, one said that this country was in danger of becoming a banana republic and the other—the present Prime Minister—said that far and away the most overwhelmingly important problem that needs to be dealt with in this country is the balance of the current account. When he said that, it was $16 billion. It is now $42 billion. I quote no lesser persons than the leader of the nation, Mr Howard, and the former leader of the nation, Mr Keating. I quote their own words. They say this is the worst problem, yet here we are, cold-bloodedly deciding that we do not need agriculture.

Half of Australia's agricultural production comes from the MurrayDarling Basin. We are talking about taking 28 per cent of the water away from the farmers, regardless of the assurances that are given here—because they are a joke. Instead of moving forward, and instead of saying that we can enhance and protect the banks of our rivers in Queensland by taking water out of the rivers and putting irrigated pastures and tree plantations on the banks of those rivers, thus enhancing our landscape magnificently, we are saying, `You can't take any water at all.' We are not saying, `If we clear some of these trees, we can put improved pasture in.'

Near my home city of Cloncurry, turpentine trees have gotten right out of balance. Noone knows why or how—there are hardly any cattle in the area in which they grow. You need to wear very tough clothing these days to walk through most of the places where I ran as a kid. Nature does not stand still; nature moves on. Down amongst our gullies, creeks and tiny waterways, there is a thick cover of buffel grass that stops those turpentine trees from getting away. The buffel grass is an introduced species. So, instead of all of that magnificent topsoil being torn up and ripped away into the Gulf of Carpentaria, it is kept and protected and we have massively greater numbers of native flora and fauna, such as kangaroos and everything else that follows from having that grass cover. We have the ability to make our land better.

Those of you who read the Good Book from time to time will know that there is a story in there where some blokes were given a few quid. One bloke was given a hell of a lot, and he went out, took risks and made a hell of a big quid out of it. Another bloke was given a moderate quid, and he made a few quid out of it and did all right too. The other bloke said, `Oh, jeez, I might lose this money; I'd better go and hide it.' What we are saying with this legislation is, `We are frightened to use this water: we might lose it, we might destroy this country. Do not clear the trees and do not make any changes, because we do not know what these changes will bring.' I am very pleased that these landscape Luddites were not around when we were inventing the wheel, because they would have had all sorts of reasons why we could not change things.

I come from an area—my homeland—where kangaroo numbers have probably increased 100- or 1,000-fold with the coming of settlement and the coming of the cattlemen. When I first went up to the area, in the part where I owned a lot of country, there was a fire that went for 1,500 kilometres. That fire started near our property. It took every single tree out for 1,500 kilometres. There will never be another fire of that nature in that country because we have built fences, we have built fire plough lanes, we have gear and equipment and we volunteer—when a fire occurs, all of us drop what we are doing and go off collectively to fight the fire. The fire regime that destroyed so much of our Australian flora and fauna will be no more.

But how well are the naturalists, the national park people, the greenies, the environmentalists and the department of environment people looking after their land? Two million hectares south of Canberra have vanished. But our land is not vanishing, because we love it and we get out there actively and we cut fire ploughs, we do some moderate burns—as the first Australians used to—and mosaic burning from time to time as well when we get a dangerous build-up. We husband that resource because we understand the land. We know how to work with that land. Today, that wonderful resource that God gave this country, the Murray-Darling water system, has been taken away from the people of Australia and frozen forever. It is a very sad day indeed. (Time expired)