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Tuesday, 14 August 2007
Page: 51

Mr CREAN (4:16 PM) —Before question time, I had commenced my contribution to the second reading debate on the Water Bill 2007 and the Water (Consequential Amendments) Bill 2007 and was making the point that Labor has had not only a commitment to developing initiatives on water but also a strong objective. Mr Deputy Speaker Causley, you were a minister in attendance at some of the ministerial council meetings in which we had these discussions. Our commitment to bipartisanship, working with the states and securing agreement cannot be put in question. The contrast I was making was about the way in which this government has botched the negotiations on this water initiative.

Not only has the government failed to build on the framework that Labor put in place when it was in government, by way of both initiative and process, but it did not build on any of that legacy at all. In fact, if you look at the history of this government, you will see that until 2004—that is eight years of government—no new funding was made available, through this government or its budgets, for water. In fact, in the budget in 2003, the government cut funding to the water initiatives.

We heard in question time today the joke by the Treasurer, who claimed that this was the greatest environmental government in the history of the country. How out of touch and arrogant is it? If you simply look at the water initiatives, you see that we have a government presiding over the worst drought in recorded history and it actually cut funding in terms of water. The only time it made a commitment to new funding, short of this latest initiative that we are debating, was just before the introduction of the water fund. This was part of the Prime Minister’s ‘drunken sailor spree’—$60 billion spent in total by the government to get itself re-elected. The problem with the $2 billion Australian water fund is that it has not been spent.

So here we have a promise being made just before an election to get themselves into the frame of looking active, yet the funding has not been committed. Worse, not a single drop of environmental flow has gone back into the Murray, even though, at the same time as making that $2 billion commitment, they committed to putting 500 gigalitres back into the Murray. We say that the 500 gigalitres was deficient. We argued, and actually proposed, that it be 1,500 gigalitres. That was our policy. Not only did the government commit to merely going a third of the way; in the three years since, not one drop of water has gone into the Murray as a result of that commitment.

Here we are, three years down the track, with another election pending, and we have another commitment. But it is not $2 billion this time; it is $10 billion. It is five times as much—but, as we know, with all the wriggle room in the world by which the government, if it is re-elected, can get out of making that spend. We have seen the Premier of New South Wales complaining that they have been dudded on the infrastructure fund. We know of the problems in Victoria. We know of the difficulties that South Australia had in terms of whether there would be an independent body to make decisions about where the environmental flows were.

We have circumstances in which, for this great initiative that we all agree needs addressing—water—money is not the problem anymore. There was $2 billion three years ago that was not spent, and we now have $10 billion. Will it ever be spent, even if this government is re-elected? The problem is not the money. The problem is inaction followed by ineptitude in terms of implementing the strategy.

Let me go through the flawed process that leads us to this legislation that we are debating today. In November last year, the Prime Minister called a meeting of the premiers to get agreement around water. As we understand it, significant progress was made in that matter. Then, out of the blue, the day before Australia Day, the Prime Minister announced his $10 billion water initiative. No costings were released. There was a one-page document demonstrating that the cost was going to be $10 billion over 10 years. There was no time line as to when the money was going to be spent over those 10 years. We subsequently found out that Treasury had been excluded from the costings, and we now know the revelations from the departmental head, the Secretary of Treasury, and his concerns about this government’s fiscal profligacy. And there was no consultation with the stakeholders.

That is not the way to run a business of cooperation within a federation. Sure, it is important to have leadership and to show leadership—and the Commonwealth must show that leadership—but you also have to be able to take the states with you. It is not sufficient to take the lead. You have to take the states and the stakeholders with you. We did it. We showed it could be done. Even when we had to deal with Liberal governments, we showed it could be done. This government has demonstrated its inability to achieve that.

Then there is the process by which this legislation is being considered—one day’s debate. We had not seen the legislation until last week. There are 240 pages of legislation and 60 pages of explanatory memorandum. I said before that we support this bill as far as it goes, but there is still a long way to go. The issues that we say still need to be addressed are contained essentially in the second reading amendment moved by the member for Grayndler. Firstly, there has to be a truly cooperative approach with state governments, just as Labor was able to manage when it was in office. Secondly, there has to be full implementation of the government’s 2004 water initiatives. Where is that money? Why has it not been spent? Why aren’t the flows going into the Murray? That is a very important question when it comes to accountability. We have to fix the overallocation of water licences. We have to establish a coherent set of rules to ensure the problem of overallocation never recurs. Then we have to see the development of economic instruments to address the fact that water has been overallocated, undervalued and misdirected.

In addition, we need proper consultation with the key stakeholders. I know how important it is to involve the stakeholders and the local catchment management groups. When I was Minister for Primary Industries and Energy I saw this as the vital driving force by which we could implement initiatives that stacked up. Where the Commonwealth had to put the infrastructure spend in, but not the totality of it, it had to forge a partnership with state governments, local governments and the local stakeholders. It had to come to grips with issues of properly pricing water but doing it in consultation. We introduced a raft of initiatives. One initiative that comes to mind is the highlands irrigation project on the Murray in the Riverland area. We sat down with the stakeholders and implemented an important initiative for water-saving and proper pricing but with little cost to the stakeholder because of the efficiency of the infrastructure and the methods that we introduced. We did the same in Shepparton. In addition, we funded the significant covering and lining of open channels from which much evaporation happens—in fact, up to 90 per cent in certain parts of the country.

These important practical infrastructure initiatives will only happen if they are driven by the Commonwealth, but not where they are expected to be paid for by the Commonwealth alone. That is what true partnership is, and it has to involve the stakeholders. There has to be proper consultation and, quite frankly, it is only Labor which is truly committed to that approach. We are the ones who established Landcare and we are the ones who have constantly supported the catchment management groups. We do not see any of that involvement in the government’s latest initiative.

Sufficient water has to be returned to the rivers in the Murray-Darling Basin. We have talked about how inadequate this government’s actions have been in that regard. Finally, there have to be measures to ensure that industrial and urban water users adapt to maximise water efficiency. In this regard Labor have already put forward a significant policy whereby we would allocate money to the infrastructure to work with the stakeholders. There is also a $10,000 loan scheme to help households implement, in their own places, water-saving and efficiency measures.

This bill is supported. It does not go far enough. If we are to truly solve this problem we have to complete the unfinished business that Labor began. Labor is the only party committed to this. It should be given the opportunity to complete the job. (Time expired)