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Tuesday, 14 August 2007
Page: 8


Mr WAKELIN (1:02 PM) —The Water Bill 2007 is a very important piece of legislation. It goes to the very core of our national purpose and—I do not think it would be too strong to say—of our national existence. It is highlighted by the circumstances of our climate at this time, and I think there is no better time for it to be introduced into the parliament. I am sure we would all wish that it could have been expedited over a shorter time, but no doubt many of us are aware of the reasons that it has not been able to come to the parliament until this point.

In some pre-emptory discussion, before I come to the content of the bill, I will make some overall statements and address some of the member for Grayndler’s comments. He mentioned the hastiness in which it has come to the parliament and the lack of public debate and deplored the government’s failure to honour this approach. I think the people of Australia would have a very different view, remembering that the Prime Minister brought the National Plan for Water Security before the Australian people on 25 January 2007. The circumstances of the states, particularly Victoria, are well known to the Australian people. It is not my purpose to revisit them here, but I think they are well known. I pay due respect to the Keating government for the COAG initiative of 1992 leading up to 1994. That was an important national initiative; the great pity is that we have not moved more rapidly.

We can talk about climate change at great length, and I am sure we will—and we already have—in this place, around the nation and around the world. Suffice to say for my purpose, being much more of the practical ilk, I will talk in terms of a severe drought and not get caught up in the politics of climate change, because there are much more pressing issues.

I was raised in one of the driest areas of this country. The closest part of the Murray River to my home is some 400 kilometres away by road. But nevertheless the Murray-Darling system is a vital part of South Australia’s existence. To go to the electorate’s specific issues, the pipeline from Morgan supplies water to Yorke Peninsula and now to Eyre Peninsula, since the building of the new pipeline from Iron Knob to Kimba. Water from Kimba, I understand, can gravitate to Ceduna and Penong, well to the west, some 350 kilometres from Kimba. So the Murray River, even at this very severe time, is being asked to do more and more.

Some of the statistics from the second reading speech of the Minister for the Environment and Water Resources are quite remarkable. There has been something like a fivefold increase in demand on the Murray-Darling system in the last 70 or 80 years. It is a huge increase, so we should not be too surprised that we are here discussing this today. For all the politics of it, there is this wonderful piece from Alfred Deakin, when, in 1886, while he was Chief Secretary in the Victorian government—and I am sure the irony of that will not be lost on the House—he introduced, quoting from the minister’s speech, ‘innovative and, in the minds of many, radical reforms to water management in that state’. I quote Alfred Deakin:

The water legislation of this country, fortunately for us, has proceeded upon one line of continuous and consistent development … The present proposals of the Government—

Remember that this was in 1886—

however large they may appear at first sight, are after all, only the necessary consequence of what has gone before …

There is nothing new in history.

I turn to the bill itself. The Water Bill 2007 gives effect to a number of key elements of the Commonwealth government’s $10.05 billion National Plan for Water Security, announced, as I said earlier, by the Prime Minister on 25 January 2007. It will enable water resources in the Murray-Darling Basin to be managed in the national interest, optimising environmental, economic and social outcomes. Its key elements include an independent Murray-Darling Basin Authority with the functions and powers, including enforcement powers, needed to ensure that basin water resources are managed in an integrated and sustainable way. There are a whole lot of subpieces of that general intent, and I do not propose to go through all of them in the discussion today except to touch on the environmental watering plan, a Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder to manage the Commonwealth’s environmental water inside and outside the basin, the role of the ACCC for pricing issues and a much increased role for the Bureau of Meteorology.

The new arrangements bring greater certainty for water users. They will give effect on the ground via accredited state plans. This means that the nature of existing water entitlements is not affected by the bill, and nor are existing state water shares. The legislation locks in the government’s commitment to respect existing water resource plans, most of which do not expire until 2014. The substantial funding of $10.05 billion available through the program will have a positive impact on regional communities by reconfiguring irrigation infrastructure so as to use water more efficiently and productively. Time permitting, I will mention the general financial breakdown, which is well known to the House and well known to many throughout Australia.

With regard to the timing for the new arrangements, it is anticipated that the new authority will commence operations in early 2008 and that the basin plan will be completed within two years of the authority’s establishment. It will complement the National Water Initiative, which was a very important initiative of this government. We should not lose sight of that, because that has been very much part of this parliament, being a pre-election promise in 2004. The community water grants—the larger-picture allocation of capital—are water improvement initiatives that are already very much happening on the ground throughout Australia. I am sure there is not a member of parliament who would not have many electors who are very pleased with this government’s National Water Initiative.

There will be discussion—in fact, it came up in the speech of the shadow minister, the member for Grayndler—that, somehow or other, this legislation is a second-best option. There is no way that that charge can be levelled. There can always be improvements; you could make that judgement about any piece of legislation. But, with regard to the national interest, this is very much at the cutting edge of what we need and have to do in water through much of Australia. I make the point that, should Victoria change its mind in the future, it could go somewhat further. Time permitting, I will come to that in more detail later.

The government has not reneged on its commitment to the states that there will be no net increase in costs as a result of the national plan. I will not go into the individual details but simply say that the Commonwealth has put an enormous effort in. I think that, if you go behind the scenes, strip away the politics and try to overlook the fact that there is a federal election not many weeks away, the states—that is, apart from Victoria—which have traditionally had responsibility for water in the evolution of our federation, will acknowledge that this legislation is vital to our national interest and an excellent model for water management in the Murray-Darling Basin in the years ahead.

The constitutional basis for the legislation, of course, comes up in this debate, and the Commonwealth has made its position clear. It believes it has the appropriate authority and that a constitutional challenge, should there be one, is something that will be dealt with at the time. All I need to say is that the Commonwealth is confident of its position.

In the time left, I will talk about stakeholder consultation. The Basin Community Committee members will be appointed on the basis of expertise. The committee will consist of a chair and up to 16 other members. The committee must include at least one authority member and at least eight individuals who are representatives of one or more water users. ‘Water user’ means a person who is engaged in irrigated agriculture, is engaged in environmental water management, uses water for industrial purposes or uses stock and domestic water.

With respect to this groundbreaking water security plan, part of the $10 billion will be allocated as follows: $3 billion to address overallocation; and $3.55 billion for the improvement of off-farm distribution efficiencies for each state as they sign the intergovernmental agreement on water. I understand it poses a real implementation challenge for Victoria. I know there has been some rethinking on the matter by those who do not want to miss the boat on this very important part of the plan—the off-farm distribution efficiencies.

I know from personal and practical experience the remarkable difference that such efficiencies have made in a specific part of Victoria that I am very familiar with, where they went from an open channel system to pipes and reticulation from the river to the various storage systems that have been established over the last 20 or 30 years. So this is not new; this has been happening for some time, but it makes a huge difference. You do not have to be Einstein to work out that this is a vital part of the plan.

An amount of $450 million—a very large amount—is allocated for water information, and $617 million for on-farm investments in irrigation efficiency. So we have off-farm and on-farm measures which bring the figure for the farm-specific part of the plan to over $4 billion. There is also $70 million for ‘hot spots assessment’—to identify where water losses are occurring in irrigation infrastructure across Australia.

In terms of national importance, this matter has been discussed for many decades. Even during my time in the parliament, some people from my own state have been advocating for this measure. The current Minister for Ageing, Mr Pyne, has been an advocate for many years for such a national response to the water issue. I applaud him for his tenacity in raising the issue from the perspective of my own state.

I come from an area where, throughout my life, we have just about always had too little water. For much of Australia, that is not the case. Most of Australia has always taken this resource for granted. The opportunities that come from this great drought and the difficulties with water availability are obvious. The timeliness of this legislation is very apparent. This government should be remembered as the government that actually implemented this measure. Previous Labor governments can be given credit for attempting, through the COAG agreements, to introduce this type of major national initiative, but the implementation of it was always going to be the tough part.

I thank the minister, and I congratulate the Prime Minister, because our national wellbeing is obviously very reliant upon this measure. I cannot think of a better way of investing $10 billion, for our long-term future and for our children’s future, than by this legislation, which will ensure our national water security.