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Tuesday, 14 August 2007
Page: 16


Dr SOUTHCOTT (1:39 PM) —I am pleased to speak on the Water Bill 2007, which is the most far-reaching legislation we have seen in the area of the Murray-Darling Basin for over 100 years. Since Federation, the allocation of water resources has been a matter for the state governments. This is something that has not served the Murray-Darling system well. What we now see is a river where allocations are reduced and salinity has increased. This has highlighted the need for the $10 billion national plan for water security. While it is disappointing that Victoria is not prepared to refer its powers, there are a number of things in this bill that will be quite far reaching in setting a sustainable basin-wide cap on both surface water and groundwater use, and also in having a basin-wide environmental watering plan. These will be an enormous step forward compared with the status quo. Also, there will be more consistent market regulation and much better information from the Bureau of Meteorology.

I remain hopeful that Victoria will one day change its mind. For the last six months Victoria has refused to refer its power, which would have allowed the Commonwealth to have an operational role in directing the flows within the southern Murray-Darling Basin. I think that that would be an improvement for water security. I speak as someone who represents an electorate in Adelaide. The concern of people in Adelaide is related to the future security of their water supply. Depending on the year, between 30 per cent and 80 per cent of our water supply comes from the River Murray. The rest comes from the reservoirs. The fact that we have had two droughts in the last five years highlights the need to have a plan for future water security. In Adelaide, no reservoirs have been built in the last 40 years. The city has grown enormously during that period. I support the first steps that are being made to look at having a desalination plant for Adelaide as well. Everyone knows we have now gone through two severe droughts. It is important to plan for the future so that we will have security for our water supply into the future.

One of the things that I am very pleased to see in the bill is that South Australia’s existing share for the River Murray system is unchanged. That will continue to be determined under the Murray-Darling Basin agreement. That is very important to people in South Australia. What I find in talking to people—and there is no doubt that over the last year or two people were very engaged on the whole issue of water—is that they are not interested in who is responsible or in shifting blame. They want to have the issue resolved. They do not care who runs the Murray-Darling Basin; they care about the future health of the Murray.

For over 100 years the Murray-Darling Basin has been managed as four separate entities. If we had an unlimited water resource in the Murray, maybe it could be managed in this way. Unfortunately, it is not an unlimited resource and the recent droughts have highlighted the way that this resource has been mismanaged. Continuing to manage it through four separate entities is clearly not sustainable. Having had four states competing for this resource over 100 years has left it in a critical condition. You cannot have four states, one territory and a Commonwealth government all running the Murray-Darling Basin. The management of the Murray-Darling Basin needs a new direction. That is why the Howard government proposed the national plan for the Murray-Darling Basin.

The National Plan for Water Security—a $10 billion, 10-point plan—was released by the Prime Minister on 25 January 2007. This is the plan that Victoria refused to sign up to. It is a lifeline to a dying river system. This plan would see the Murray-Darling Basin Commission reconstitute as a Commonwealth body, reporting to the federal minister for the environment. Functions would be carried out in consultation with all basin governments and the community to set caps on the use of both surface water and groundwater and to ensure that the caps are not breached. Of the $10 billion, almost $6 billion would be committed to modernising irrigation infrastructure, both on- and off-farm, to save water and increase efficiency of water use. Due to years of competing state interests, another $3 billion has been put aside to go towards addressing the overallocation in the Murray-Darling Basin. Assistance would be provided to help relocate non-viable or inefficient irrigators. The lifeline required a referral of state powers to the Commonwealth. Unfortunately, we saw Victoria’s interests getting in the way of the national interest and the greater good of the Murray-Darling Basin.

The New South Wales, South Australia, Queensland and ACT governments understood that the current arrangements for the management of the Murray-Darling Basin had not been effective, and they embraced this proposal. Victoria, on the other hand, has not and insists on a special deal with separate Victoria-specific arrangements. The Australian government does not accept Victoria’s arguments for a special deal, which would undermine a basin-wide approach and perpetuate a fragmented management system for the Murray-Darling Basin. After almost seven months of negotiations to no avail, to avoid further delays in the rollout of this important reform the government has introduced this legislation, using its constitutional powers to ensure a whole-of-basin approach.

The Water Bill gives effect to a number of key elements of the $10 billion Plan for Water Security. The bill will enable water resources in the Murray-Darling Basin to be managed in the national interest, optimising environmental, economic and social outcomes. There is 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. Water trading rules, such as basin-wide caps, water quality and salinity targets and environmental water provisions will be managed by the Australian government under this proposal. Setting a sustainable basin-wide cap on both surface water and groundwater use and having a basin-wide environmental watering plan are enormous steps forward compared with the status quo. These reforms will be strongly supported by more consistent market regulation and through improved information from the Bureau of Meteorology.

Under the Commonwealth’s powers we can achieve the majority of the outcomes that were being negotiated under a referral of powers model. Unfortunately, the proposal will not include jurisdiction over river operations, as I said before, because Victoria has declined to refer its powers on this issue. This is a great pity as a lot of water could be saved by coordinating a national approach to river operations. In addition to the national plan that was announced in January, on 30 July 2007 the Prime Minister announced that a further $3.55 billion will be provided for the improvement of off-farm irrigation systems, river operations and storage programs. It will be available to the states that agree to sign an intergovernmental agreement. If Victoria does not participate, it will miss out on that investment.

I was very disappointed that the Leader of the Opposition was unable to get the Victorian Premier to sign up to this deal. We were led a long way along the path by the previous Victorian Premier. It looks like the current Victorian Premier has taken the same approach. If there were ever an example of where we could see a leader of the Labor Party acting in the national interest, it would have been in intervening to get the Victorian Premier to put the interest of the Murray-Darling Basin first and the interest of Australia’s water security ahead of Victoria’s interest. A lot of factors have led to this situation, but the important thing is that we take this action to improve the Murray-Darling Basin.

This Water Bill, the Northern Territory National Emergency Response Bill, the setting up of the Future Fund and the Higher Education Endowment Fund that will be introduced into parliament soon are all examples of how this government is planning for the future in the areas of higher education, water security and protecting children. The Water Bill also provides an example of the government’s commitment to addressing the impact of climate change. Not only do we need to play our part in reducing greenhouse gas emissions—and over the last 10 years the Australian government has spent $3.4 billion in this area, with a whole range of initiatives like the global initiative on forest and climate—but we also need to prepare for a warmer and drier climate, particularly in south-east Australia. One of the features of the Australian climate is that we have an extremely variable rainfall. The old line from Dorothea Mackellar about droughts and flooding rains is very apt for Australia. We have had two particularly severe droughts over the last five years. The important thing is that we pass this bill so that we have more certainty in the allocation of water and more security for our water supply in the future. I commend the bill to the House.