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Monday, 16 June 2003
Page: 16397

Mr FORREST (3:02 PM) —My question is addressed to the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry and it goes to the announced Living Murray initiative, about which there is considerable community debate. Would the minister advise the House of progress with this initiative? Could he also advise what environmental benefits for the Murray River have already been achieved? Is the minister aware of any alternative policies?

Mr TRUSS (Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry) —I thank the honourable member for Mallee for his question. He and other members who represent electors who live on the banks of the River Murray are very conscious of the importance of having a healthy River Murray. It is very much the lifeblood of a significant proportion of Australian agricultural wealth, but also rural and urban communities are critically dependent upon this river system. We are committed to having a healthy Murray system not only for the two million people who benefit from and use its water but also for the 40 per cent of Australia's agricultural wealth that comes from that particular region.

The Living Murray initiative is a plan to improve the health of the Murray-Darling river system by increasing environmental flows in that system. The Commonwealth has been working with the states in a process of community consultation to look at the environmental, social and economic implications of various options that might be considered in relation to increasing the levels of environmental flows. When we make those assessments it is important that we look at what can be achieved for the amount of water that is available, the cost of those proposals and how that cost is actually going to be met. There are many communities and regions in which livelihoods are dependent on that decision, and it is appropriate that they should be effectively consulted about that process.

We have already spent a considerable amount of money on improving the quality of the River Murray system—more than $60 million on new salinity management initiatives and $33 million on salt interception schemes—and a significant proportion of the $4 billion for the National Action Plan for Salinity and Water Quality and the Natural Heritage Trust will be spent on those particular regions.

The honourable member for Mallee asked whether there are any alternative policies. I heard the Leader of the Opposition throw a number around a few months ago and again today but, frankly, I would have to say there are no alternative policies. The Leader of the Opposition went to the River Murray mouth and said that he is going to provide 1,500 gigalitres for environmental flows. He did not say what he is going to use it for. Is it all going to be used for flushing out the mouth?

The honourable member for Mallee, who is an engineer, would have a better idea than the Leader of the Opposition as to whether that is a practical idea or not. The Leader of the Opposition has not done any engineering or hydrological studies to know whether that would do any good. Is he going to remove all the barrages from the system to enable all this water to get down? If so, what about the towns and the regions that will be flooded as a result of his decision to take this action unilaterally? Or is he going to put the water towards some of the 30,000 wetlands in the system that would like to have improved water flow? You do not have a policy when you do not even know what you are going to do with the water.

The next question obviously is: where is the water coming from? The Leader of the Opposition might think he can walk on water after this morning, but I do not think that even he thinks he can just command it to fall from the sky. If you are going to have 1,500 gigalitres extra going down the River Murray, where is it going to come from? Is he going to take it from the water supply for the people in the city of Adelaide or in the country towns, or from the industries that use it, or is it all going to come from the farmers? Are they going to have to give up the 1,500 gigalitres? And, if that is the case, how are you going to pay for it? Where is the money put aside for this significant new initiative?

The South Australian government have just introduced a new tax that they say is going to improve the health of the Murray, but that tax would have to run for more than 500 years to pay for 1,500 gigalitres of water. So where are the opposition going to get their 1,500 gigalitres from? Where is the money coming from? This is the policy: Labor are going to provide 1,500 gigalitres for the Living Murray initiative, but they do not know what they are going to use it for, they do not know where it is coming from, and they do not know how they are going to pay for it. If that is the best they can do for policy, it takes us back to the 13 years when they did absolutely nothing.

Honourable members interjecting

The SPEAKER —Order! I probably should declare a vested interest in any question on the River Murray, but it irritates me, even if I did not have that interest, that I should actually find myself in a situation in which I am struggling to listen to an answer in which everyone in this room has a vested interest.