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Tuesday, 14 August 2007
Page: 11

Mr GARRETT (1:19 PM) —I relish the opportunity to speak in this second reading debate on the Water Bill 2007 and the Water (Consequential Amendments) Bill 2007. The Murray-Darling Basin is at the economic heart of Australia. Its environment is central to the health and productivity of the nation. As Paul Keating, our former Prime Minister, said on 21 December 1992:

The Murray-Darling is Australia’s greatest river system, a basic source of our wealth, a real and symbolic artery of the nation’s economic health, and a place where Australian legends were born. Nowhere is the link between the Australian environment, the Australian economy and Australian culture better described.

As the records of Charles Sturt’s early voyages through the Murray-Darling show, it is a river system that has been literally transformed—often, regrettably, to the detriment of its health—over a century or more.

The Murray-Darling Basin occupies 14 per cent of Australia’s total area and is the nation’s main food source, producing some 40 per cent of the value of our agriculture and with a population approaching three million people. It contains Australia’s longest rivers and many of our most important wetlands, as well as some of our most precious but threatened flora and fauna.

Unfortunately, the Murray-Darling Basin is under severe threat from a range of factors and impacts. Water extractions have increased fivefold from the 1920s to the present. We are taking, and have taken, a lot of water out of the system. Invasive weeds and pests, as well as salinity, are also significant threats. Finally, there is the impact of climate change. In 2006, just 1,317 billion litres flowed naturally into the Murray system—almost 25 per cent less than the previous minimum of 1,740 billion litres in 1902, the final year of the famous Federation drought.

Last Friday, in his evidence to the Senate environment committee inquiry into the water legislation, one of Australia’s leading water experts, Professor Peter Cullen, said he feared inflows into the Murray-Darling system have dropped by 40 per cent compared to long-term averages. Professor Cullen went on to warn that the Murray-Darling system needs to adapt to the long-term impacts of climate change—that is, to a drier climate over the basin, and a hotter climate as well.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, in its 2007 fourth assessment report, found that annual stream flow into the basin is likely to fall 10 to 25 per cent by 2050 and 16 to 48 per cent by 2100. These are significant predicted falls. Report after report has identified climate change as a genuine threat to the health of the Murray-Darling Basin, but still, as of now, we do not have a thorough climate change adaptation plan for the basin. In fact, a recent report of the Prime Minister’s Science, Engineering and Innovation Council called for priority to be given to developing an adaptation plan for the Murray-Darling Basin. Yet it is has not happened.

When it comes to the state of the environment there is no question that the rivers, the wetlands and the other precious environmental resources of the basin and other areas are now experiencing extreme stress. The 2006 State of the environment report tells us:

Overall, the state of the inland waters environment in the southern and eastern part of Australia is not very healthy. Significant areas of major inland and coastal catchments are degraded (including vegetation, aquatic habitats and water quality), the pressure on water resources continues to be high, and many indicators show that aquatic ecosystems and biodiversity are degraded across large areas of the continent.

The truth is that the government’s much vaunted Living Murray Initiative has virtually gone nowhere. To be a healthy, working river, the Murray River needs 1,500 gigalitres more water per year, in the view of an expert review panel appointed in 2001. But to date all we have seen is an approval to purchase 20 gigalitres.

The government’s failings in other areas of environmental policy have also been adversely impacting on the basin. For instance, the government has no national wetlands program. The government’s support for the stressed Ramsar wetlands, which it has international obligations to protect, has been minimal. In fact, the 2006 State of the environment report and the annual measures of Australia’s progress reports from the Australian Bureau of Statistics show that on nearly all the measures of Australia’s environmental health we are going backwards.

The State of the environment report confirms that Australia continues to lose ground in protecting our natural environment. Greenhouse emissions are set to rise by some 27 per cent of 1990 levels by 2020; Australia has lost 56 per cent of its vegetation in river systems and wetlands; and, critically, the last five years have witnessed lower than average rainfall over eastern Australia. In the west, which is a long way from the Murray-Darling Basin but is experiencing the same kinds of stresses and pressures, Perth’s water supply catchment is yielding 50 per cent less water than in the years before the mid-1970s.

The 2006 Measures of Australia’s progress report indicates that Australia’s biodiversity has declined in the past decade, and that is very worrying and very troubling. It shows that the number of terrestrial bird and mammal species listed as extinct, endangered or vulnerable rose by 41 per cent between 1995 and 2005, that in 2000 about 5.7 million hectares were assessed as having a high potential to develop dryland salinity, and that in 2000 about one-quarter of Australia’s surface water management areas were close to, or had exceeded, sustainable extraction limits.

The truth is that these statistics show clearly that the state of Australia’s natural environment has worsened considerably over the last 11 years. That is the legacy of the Howard government’s period in office—a dismal legacy of degradation and decline. Overlaying all of this is the government’s failure to comprehensively tackle climate change. A government that was serious about climate change would have developed a plan to substantially cut Australia’s greenhouse pollution, and it would have prepared Australia for the dramatic impact of climate change. A government that was serious about climate change would have developed a climate change adaptation plan for the Murray-Darling Basin. This has not happened. Notwithstanding the statements—sometimes, I have to say, the boasts—of the Minister for the Environment and Water Resources on the record of the Howard government, the fact is that there is virtually no track record on climate change and a poor track record on natural resource management.

I take the opportunity to address for a moment or two natural resource management. I note that in 2004-05 the Australian National Audit Office reported on the administration of the National Action Plan for Salinity and Water Quality. This was an instance of the Audit Office examining closely where these key environment programs were going and how much progress, if indeed any, had been made. The Audit Office found that the $700 million program had been characterised by ‘delays that have had flow-on effects for all stages of program implementation’. So the necessary urgency that needed to accompany the delivery of these programs has simply been lacking.

The 2006 State of the environment report to which I referred earlier also found serious shortcomings in the Natural Heritage Trust. In particular, the adoption of indicators by regional bodies funded by the NHT has proved problematic, with a lack of data and the appropriate indicators that are so necessary. The Audit Office found that projects funded from the first round of the NHT, from 1996-97 to 2001-02, were at too small a scale to have much impact and few projects have impacted on sustainable agricultural production. Notwithstanding the very good efforts of people in the community to apply themselves to the business of delivering programs which will see a significant improvement in the conservation and management of our national resources, very few of the projects actually impacted on sustainable agricultural production.

The State of the environment report also expressed concerns about whether enough funds were being invested on the underlying causes of biodiversity decline, particularly in priority areas such as excluding invasive species and reversing the impacts of past land clearing. The message from this Audit Office report was clear—that is, the Howard government has not been taking the focused and measurable action that is required to restore Australia’s environment to health.

In his Senate committee evidence last week Professor Cullen identified two specific things that need to be done in helping the Murray-Darling Basin adapt to a dry climate. The first is to accelerate implementation of the National Water Initiative. The second is to improve governance of the Murray-Darling Basin. Labor has been calling for the accelerated implementation of the National Water Initiative for some time and, with regard to the governance of the Murray-Darling Basin, Labor supports the need for greater Commonwealth leadership in water policy, and consequently supports the Water Bill.

However, while supporting this bill, we are concerned that little practical action is being undertaken by the government. In the May budget just one-half of one per cent of the $10 billion national water plan money—just $53 million—was allocated in the coming financial year. A mere $15 million was provided to deal with overallocation in 2007-2008. These sums are insufficient to deal with a problem of this magnitude.

In relation to the Water Bill itself—as has been noted already by the member for Grayndler and I am sure will be noted by other members on this side of the House—this began essentially as a reaction to the very high levels of concern that the Australian community had about the impacts of drought both on the environment and particularly on the Murray-Darling Basin itself and the long-running problems that were occurring in the basin in terms of water, water health and access to water for communities. It was an exercise essentially in its initial gestation conducted on the back of an envelope, where Treasury and the cabinet seemed to be completely out of the loop, notwithstanding that it ultimately represented the most significant legislative intervention in the Murray-Darling Basin and is of major significance to the environment of the basin. It needs to be put on the record that this was a poll-driven response to a significant policy area, not a policy-driven response that came about because of a commitment that this government had to reform the basin. It is a matter of regret that on such an important issue we now have groundbreaking legislation being rushed through in such haste.

The government has failed to consult in good faith with state governments and other stakeholders—and I understand that state governments and key stakeholders, including the National Farmers Federation, were not even provided with a copy of the final bill before it was tabled in the House. That is a contemptuous approach to bringing legislation of this magnitude into the parliament. We have waited 13 years to get to this point, and now the government is ramming the legislation through in a week.

National water reform—let us put it clearly—has been a long time coming. It has taken a long time for the Commonwealth to start to address the problems of the Murray-Darling Basin, despite clear warning signals about the health of the river system from scientists, river users, communities and others for many years. National water reform began with the historic bipartisan Council of Australian Governments agreement of 1994. The water reform framework proposed an integrated approach to address environmental degradation of river systems, including strategies such as allocation of water to the environment, ecological sustainability of new developments, institutional reform, protection of groundwater and so on. This was a bipartisan agreement with support from all Australian governments, including the Fahey Liberal government in NSW, the Kennett government in Victoria, the Brown government in South Australia, the Goss government in Queensland and the Follett government in the ACT. In 1994, COAG agreed that:

... action needs to be taken to arrest widespread natural resource degradation in all jurisdictions occasioned, in part, by water use and that a package of measures is required to address the economic, environmental and social implications of future water reform.

Thirteen years later you have to say there is still widespread natural resource degradation in all jurisdictions.

There are some useful environmental features in the Water Bill 2007, but more work is needed to enhance the protection of the environment and the environmental features of the basin, especially in the face of the increasing impacts of climate change. It is our view that the bill is a second-best solution for national water reform. I note that the Prime Minister in his keynote speech of 25 January outlined the national water plan and stated:

... water acquired by efficiency measures or direct purchase can both provide greater security for water users in dry years and provide substantially greater environmental flows in later years.

So a key test of the Water Bill will be the extent to which it delivers substantially greater environmental flows.

The bill requires the basin plan to give effect to relevant international agreements, and this provision is welcomed by Labor. However, given the track record of the government in meeting its obligations under various international environment agreements such as the Convention on Biological Diversity and the Framework Convention on Climate Change and in supporting the effective management of Ramsar wetlands, one has to be sceptical as to the level of real commitment that will come from this government. Consideration should be given to ensuring that the definition of ‘environmental assets’ of the basin which are to be protected and restored under the ‘environmental watering plan’ includes Ramsar wetlands.

Professor Cullen observed last Friday that in relation to climate change scenarios we are likely to see step-by-step drying out of the basin, occasionally interrupted by higher rainfall events. In these circumstances we have to help the natural systems of the basin achieve greater resilience. Australia’s native fish, for example, can survive long-term drought conditions by sheltering in riverbed pools or refuges, but in order to identify thresholds and refuges the best available science is required to build the resilience of the system, and the bill should refer to the need to use the best available science in determining the sustainable diversion limit. Determining the sustainable diversion limit is a critical element of the Water Bill as a consequence, and I am concerned that provisions in the bill for determining the sustainable diversion limit do not seem to take account of the need to protect the environment in low-flow years.

The provisions in the bill for environmental watering plans do require the setting of targets. But you cannot have targets without time lines. You need targets, time lines and milestones. I am concerned that there appears to be a lack of clear provision in the bill to regulate, for example, flood plain harvesting and associated land use and other activity causing overextraction. We know this is a major problem in the Darling Basin, where the Darling River is in a worse state than the Murray River.

Finally, there is a critical need to ensure that there are adequate flows right through the system to the Murray River mouth and to the internationally significant Coorong. The Murray-Darling Basin has reached a parlous state, and, because of climate change, its prospects for the future are grave. After 11 long years, the Howard government has not taken its national environmental responsibilities seriously. It has frittered away billions of dollars in unfocused small projects and has neglected national environmental priorities such as the state of our unique biodiversity and sensitive wetlands.

Added to this, the Howard government has ignored climate change. Yesterday, the government revealed its true colours with four government MPs outing themselves, along with previous government ministers, as climate change sceptics. We say again to the Australia public: a Howard government full of climate change sceptics cannot deliver climate change solutions. If you do not have a plan to tackle climate change, you do not have a plan to address Australia’s water crisis. It is as simple as that.

The condition of the Murray-Darling is critical. This Water Bill is a start but much more needs to be done. Labor has identified a number of issues that need to be addressed for real national water reform—in particular, a cooperative and constructive approach with state governments to assist water reform and investment in urban and rural water infrastructure, full implementation of the National Water Initiative principles that were agreed to in 2004, and returning sufficient water to the rivers in the Murray-Darling Basin to ensure the long-term health of all rivers, wetlands and connected groundwater systems in the basin. As a result, the health of communities and businesses that rely on the health of those rivers will increase as well.

The Murray-Darling Basin is at the heart of our nation. It is central to our economic, environmental and cultural future, and we are committed to the task of achieving the vision of a healthier Murray-Darling Basin. (Time expired)