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Wednesday, 28 May 2003
Page: 15312

Mr TRUSS (Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry) (12:12 PM) —in reply—In summing up the debate on the Murray-Darling Basin Amendment Bill 2002, I thank the members who have contributed to it. There has been a long list of speakers, and that demonstrates the keen interest that there is in water issues in Australia and, indeed, in the future health of the Murray-Darling Basin system. These issues are especially highlighted in a time of drought. When there is a shortage of water, all Australians keenly focus on the importance of using our water wisely and well. I thank members who have made a contribution to the debate for the constructive way in which they have generally approached the issues.

The debate did deteriorate towards the end, as the member for Kennedy, as is his wont, gave us another diatribe of doom and gloom. The bill is not about tree clearing or sugar or trade imbalances, in case anyone has been misinformed. We have become used to the member for Kennedy throwing around figures like confetti—figures that are completely inaccurate. Even when it is pointed out to him that what he is saying is wrong—and repeatedly proved to him that it is wrong—he comes forward with this same kind of nonsense time and time again. At least twice during—

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Lindsay)—Order! The minister will resume his seat.

Mr Katter —I claim to have been misrepresented.

Mr TRUSS —That is not a point of order.

Mr Katter —He has said that I have said things which are blatantly wrong—

The DEPUTY SPEAKER —Order! The member for Kennedy will resume his seat!

Mr TRUSS —Repeatedly, the member for Kennedy makes statements that are inaccurate and, even when they are proven to be wrong, he continues to make them.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER —The member for Kennedy can raise this matter at the end of the minister's speech. The member for Kennedy will resume his seat.

Mr Katter —I claim to have been misrepresented, Mr Deputy Speaker.

Mr TRUSS —The member for Kennedy has been here long enough to know that there are appropriate places for him to deal with claims of misrepresentation. In fact, I have no intention of making any statements—

Mr TRUSS —As usual, the member for Kennedy has no interest in hearing the facts. He storms off and is not prepared to hear the truth. The reality is that, time and time again, the member for Kennedy has run this ridiculous rubbish about Australia being a net importer of food in nine years time. Sometimes it is eight and sometimes it is 10; today it seems to be nine years time. This was something that he was saying regularly two or three years ago. He was distorting the fact that we had a drought two to three years ago, which demonstrated a reduction—

The DEPUTY SPEAKER —Order! The minister will resume his seat. Is there a point of order from the member for Kennedy?

Mr Katter —Yes, there is. I claim to have been misrepresented.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER —I have already explained to the member for Kennedy that he may make a personal explanation at the end of the minister's speech.

Mr TRUSS —The member for Kennedy has repeatedly made these allegations—a couple of years ago, in particular—and he has misused statistics. We had a poor export performance one year because of drought, and he extrapolated that forward over many years as though the downturn was going to continue. Of course, the thing that went sadly wrong for the member for Kennedy was that the following two years we had record exports. If I wanted to use the same misguided mathematics as the member for Kennedy, I could prove beyond dispute that we were going to have massive increases in our exports. That is completely wrong.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER —Order! The minister will resume his seat. The chair is giving extraordinary tolerance to the member for Kennedy. I ask the member for Kennedy to observe standing order 55. The minister will be heard in silence.

Mr TRUSS —The member for Kennedy continues to run around the countryside with these claims, even though it was proved to him two years ago that the statistics he was using were being completely misused and that he was dishonestly reflecting the situation regarding Australian food exports. To suggest that Australia, a country that exports two-thirds of all that we produce, will be a net importer of food in nine years time is completely erroneous. Of course we will have bad times. We have a drought at the present time, and that has meant that we are importing grain into this country—something we do very rarely. Those sorts of extraordinary circumstances will occur from time to time. But the reality is that Australian farmers are continuing to be increasingly productive, and our capacity to boost our exports remains substantial. I have no doubt that Australian farmers will not only continue to more than adequately provide for the variety of food needs of the Australian people but also have the capacity to increase their exports as the years go by.

The member for Kennedy also threw around a stack of other statistics that were simply wrong. This is not a particularly important point, but the figure he gave about the percentage of production coming out of the Murray-Darling system was wrong. I do not know where on earth he got the idea that people were talking about having to cut back their use of water by 28 per cent. Even the extraordinary claims of the South Australian Premier would not require a cutback of 28 per cent. Certainly none of the proposals in relation to the Living Murray initiative talk about reductions in water use of anything like that magnitude.

I needed to put a couple of those things on the record—not that it will have any impact on the member for Kennedy; he will go out and say the same kind of rubbish time and time again. But I think it is important that some of the facts be accurately reported so that there is at least some degree of balance.

Many of the members who have spoken have—I think rightly—referred to the challenges facing the Murray-Darling Basin system at the present time. I cannot overstate the seriousness of the current water supply situation in the Murray-Darling Basin system. The ministerial council was told at its last meeting in Toowoomba a couple of weeks ago that the inflows into the Murray-Darling Basin system this year are 15 per cent lower than ever previously recorded. That has nothing to do with who is using too much irrigation water or whether there should be additional environmental flows; it is simply a fact of the drought. There has not been enough rain, and so the inflows are way below anything we have previously experienced.

If we were to have a second year of below average rainfall, the whole Murray-Darling Basin system would move into completely uncharted territory. There would be severe difficulties in providing water just for urban supplies, let alone there being any capacity to meet the desires of the irrigators and other industrial users. Certainly the Murray-Darling Basin system is on a knife edge. There are real difficulties that we could confront in the season ahead if in fact the drought continues. Obviously we hope that the slightly improved weather conditions over recent months will flow on to significant rains across southern Australia and the situation will be eased. It is certainly too early to make statements about what the dire implications might be.

I think it is right that, at this stage, governments, the Murray-Darling Basin Commission and others be cautious about allocations, to ensure that we do not have an even greater catastrophe in months ahead. I feel very much for the irrigators, especially in New South Wales but also in Victoria, about the cutbacks that they have had to face in their water allocations. In Victoria, where there has been a very conservative approach to water allocation, these cutbacks are almost without precedent. In New South Wales, in some areas, particularly in the southern parts of the state, the allocations of water have been very low. Some farmers have borrowed forward, so their prospects for the year ahead are especially gloomy. There is a risk that they may have to pay back water that they have borrowed. In a year when there is going to be a real risk of very low allocations, that puts enormous stress on that entire system.

In spite of the short-term difficulties that we face, we need to also look at the longer term approach to the life and the health of the River Murray system. There is simply nothing that governments or new regulatory systems can do to address the drought. Frankly, if man had not intervened over the last 100 years or so, most of the River Murray would be completely dry—you would be able to walk across it, probably from Swan Hill down to the mouth. Without doubt, if man had not intervened, the Murray mouth would have closed at this time, just through simple natural forces and the movements of sand up and down the coast. It has only been the fact that we have been able to get in there with dredges that has essentially kept it open. Barrages are preventing the movement of the salted water further upstream than otherwise would happen.

One wonders about the magnitude of the ecological disaster that would have occurred during this drought had there not been the interventions and the storage facilities that are in fact enabling the flow of water to go down the Murray—that simply would not happen if nature were acting alone. The fact that we are moving such a lot of water down to Lake Victoria to supply Adelaide's needs has actually provided some bonus environmental benefits, with flooding of wetlands that are not often flooded. The quality of water that is being delivered to Adelaide is probably the best ever, because it is actually snow fed water coming out of Victoria and New South Wales. So there have been some unusual side benefits. The EC readings at Morgan are the lowest that have been recorded in ages.

We need to keep those sorts of things in balance. There is a lot of talk about doom and gloom, and the system certainly faces threats, but the reality is that the intervention systems that have been put in place by the commission, funded by the Commonwealth and the states, are consistently reducing the salt loads in the river. We also have in place now a range of new engineering measures which will further reduce the salt loads in the system. I was present at Loxton over the weekend for the opening of a new irrigation scheme there which will significantly reduce the salt levels flowing into the Murray-Darling system from the irrigation users of Loxton. We have announced two new systems which between them will, from memory, reduce by about 50 EC units the salt levels going into the system. That and a number of the other systems that have been put in place are progressively improving the water quality in the river. In spite of what you might hear, the figures and the statistics speak for themselves: there has been a progressive improvement. It is slow, and a lot more needs to be done, but there is a genuine commitment to doing some things to ensure that this wonderful part of Australia's ecosystem is effectively preserved and enhanced.

The Living Murray initiative is a major approach to addressing these issues for the future. I agree with those who have spoken previously about the importance of involving the community in that process. These decisions will not be easy. Noone should ever assume that, because the flows are being given to the environment, somehow or other they will just miraculously appear. The only way you can get bigger flows in the environment is to take the water away from something else. That means taking it away from cities and from irrigators and perhaps diverting it from one environmental purpose to another. These are difficult decisions that have to be made.

In this process we need to examine and choose between perhaps 30,000 wetlands that we might like to flood in the Murray-Darling system. There is clearly not enough water to flood them all; nor would that be technically or even environmentally sensible. We are going to have to make choices about which areas are to be flooded. We are going to have to make decisions about whether the highest priority is a natural flushing out of the river mouth at Goolwa, whether we are going to have in place permanent or semi-permanent dredging arrangements there and use the environmental water for other purposes, whether there are systems that can be used to bring waters into the Coorong that make better use of the environmental flows that are potentially available and what priorities should be engaged. That is one side of it.

The second part of the debate is clearly the question of where the water is going to come from. You have to be honest with people and ask, if you are making an assessment about a particular environmental flow, who is going to have to give up water to achieve those objectives and then—most importantly, if the community wants people to make that sacrifice—what compensation we are prepared to pay to those people who are being asked to make a sacrifice in the national interest. All of those issues need to be addressed honestly and fairly and the community must be told the upsides and downsides of these issues to effectively make decisions on them.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER —Order! Is the member for New England seeking to ask the minister to give way?

Mr Windsor —Yes, Mr Deputy Speaker.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER —Will the minister give way?

Mr TRUSS —Yes, but I do not have much time.

Mr Windsor —I think you will be able to answer this fairly briefly, Minister. In commenting about compensation, the rights of people and allocations, you, the Deputy Prime Minister and maybe the Prime Minister have spoken about the property right issue being recognised in the regional catchment blueprints. Those blueprints are starting to filter through the system. Could you explain how the Commonwealth intends to use those blueprints and the definition of property rights within them as a means of either withholding or reinstating funds to the states in relation to the property right issue?

Mr TRUSS —That is a fairly involved and detailed question. Most of the plans that have so far been approved are not actually for the Murray-Darling Basin area or do not particularly involve the areas with keen property rights issues. We certainly do want to address issues associated with property rights. I do not think you have any hope of achieving a balanced system without an effective property rights regime. You have to be able to trade and you have to be able to ensure that water goes to the highest value users but, most importantly, people must have confidence that if they invest in water savings measures on their properties they will have sufficient access to water to be able to meet their obligations to the banks and others who are providing the funding.

We can do a certain amount of that through the regional property plans, but a certain amount also needs to be addressed in the context of the Living Murray initiative. I think the COAG meeting that is coming up in August-September will be a critical turning point. I have to say that at the last Murray-Darling Basin Ministerial Council meeting there was stronger cooperation on this issue from the states than I have ever previously experienced—a willingness to address the parameters and a commitment to ensure that we have an appropriate regime in place as part of underpinning the security of the water supplies of the region. For the first time I detected some movement from the states, and that was encouraging. I hope that the new ministers from New South Wales and Victoria in particular may provide some leadership in achieving a satisfactory outcome.

In the couple of minutes that are left I will return to the key issues in the bill. Obviously these relate to amendments to the Murray-Darling Basin agreement that are designed to provide for accounting of water resources within Snowy Hydro Ltd, which will be obliged to release annually some amounts of water as a consequence of the corporatisation of the Snowy Mountains Hydro-Electricity Authority which occurred on 28 June 2002. The amendments also delineate the Murray-Darling Basin Commission's advisory role in the acquisition of River Murray and Snowy River environmental flows which will be provided as a consequence of the outcomes of the Snowy water inquiry.

The amending agreement sets out arrangements for the management of the 70 gigalitres of River Murray environmental entitlements that the Commonwealth is funding, including the development of environmental objectives and a strategy for retaining and releasing the environmental entitlements. The Murray-Darling Basin amending agreement has been agreed by the Commonwealth government and the governments of New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia. The amending agreement will also require the approval of the parliaments of New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia before it can be implemented.

This particular bill is just one small piece of the jigsaw in addressing improved environmental flows and improved management of the water resources in the Murray-Darling Basin system. We have a lot of work yet to do. There is, I think, a spirit of cooperation in the community to achieve these sorts of objectives. Governments need to work, as other speakers have said, harmoniously together to endeavour to achieve satisfactory outcomes. Suggestions by some that the Constitution should be changed to give the Commonwealth total power over all of these issues might have some attraction from an efficient management perspective but are politically unrealistic. We need to work within the framework and the architecture that is available at the present time. The Commonwealth has a clear commitment to do that. We have put $4 billion on the table through the NHT and the NAP as part of our commitment to the Murray-Darling Basin to ensure that happens. We want to work not only with the state governments but also, most importantly, with local communities and landholders to achieve the very best possible outcomes for all of those Australians—something like two million people—who are dependent upon the resources of the Murray-Darling Basin system for their livelihood and for their social and cultural life.

I commend the bill to the House and I thank the opposition and others for their support for these proposals. The bill is likely to receive similar unilateral and bipartisan support in each of the state parliaments so that these important amendments can proceed.

Question agreed to.

Bill read a second time.

Ordered that the bill be reported to the House without amendment.