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Tuesday, 14 August 2007
Page: 54

Mr SECKER (4:27 PM) —As always, I found the speech by the member for Hotham quite interesting. His speeches are a bit like those big Texas longhorn bulls which you see in the westerns. They have a point here and a point there but there is always a lot of bull in between. I found it very interesting that the member for Hotham came back to Labor’s promise at the last election, in 2004, to return 1,500 gigalitres of water to the environment. Unfortunately, the problem with Labor’s policy is that they did not actually say how they were going to save that water. They did not have the commitment—the money commitment that we are making here—to ensure they could save it.

To put it into perspective, 1,500 gigalitres is twice the amount that South Australia uses out of the Murray River every year—twice as much as we use every year for all our irrigation in the Riverland, the lower Murray, the Lakes area, Barossa and Clare, and of course Adelaide’s water supply. We use about 750 gigalitres per year, a little bit less now because of the water restrictions that have been put in. Labor promised to commit twice that amount without telling us where the savings were coming from. If we had delivered 1,500 gigalitres every year for the last three years, I can tell you that the Murray River in South Australia would be awfully dry. It would be a creek bed of ponds here and there. There would not be the water that exists in the Murray River had we committed 1,500 gigalitres to the environment without being shown how it was going to be saved. It would have absolutely devastated the communities in my electorate.

I have the honour to represent all of the Murray River in South Australia. It is a great river. I have been travelling on it for a week virtually every year for the last 30 years. It is my pilgrimage that I really enjoy. Unfortunately, this year I have not been able to do so.

We committed 500 gigalitres three years ago. In fact, I was part of the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry that looked into this very problem. When we got evidence from the head of the Murray-Darling commission, he told us that probably the best that they could physically manage would be 500 gigalitres to start off with. So we took the expert advice—all the things that Labor has been calling for and the states have been calling for. We took that expert advice because we believed that it was very sensible to start off with the 500 gigalitres. Now, my understanding is that the states have committed about half that through various savings. Unfortunately, the drought—which I have to say no government produces, welcomes or generates—has meant that that water has not been returned to the river yet. It will, when the flows come again, but it cannot be done when there is no water in the river to do so.

But I think it is worth pointing out that under the previous Hawke-Keating government not one drop of water was returned to the environment or to the Murray River. Not one drop. This is the record of the Labor Party in Australia. They talk big and do nothing. We have had Labor state governments all around Australia—and previous to that we had a few coalition governments of various persuasions—and it has certainly been a big issue in South Australia. We had bipartisan support, but unfortunately none of that was delivered under Labor. Not one drop was returned under Labor.

On the area that the member for Hotham was talking about—and I hope he has not got it wrong and thought about lowlands, because there is an area in the Riverland called lowlands—there was the Loxton rehabilitation scheme where under our government we changed those open channels into pipes in my electorate in the Riverland of South Australia. I think the saving there was something like 42 gigalitres, which every year used to either evaporate in the open channels or seep. The member for Hotham was right that up to 90 per cent savings can occur. I think the figure is right that we have 26,000 kilometres of open channels in New South Wales alone. Just imagine the savings we could grab there for the Murray River.

The $10 billion plan is made up of three areas. The first area is the $6 billion that we will put into better infrastructure, taking those open channels and putting in the pipes so we do not lose water from evaporation or seepage. If you look at a figure of $2,000 per gigalitre saved—and I have tried my best to find a benchmark figure—and you spend $6 billion, that means that we will save 3,000 gigalitres. That is four times what South Australia uses each year. We are saving 3,000 gigalitres. Half of that will be returned to farmers because of their input. This is the cooperative way that we are dealing with it—the cooperative way that the member for Hotham suggested was not happening.

I point out that it is pretty hard to cooperate with a rogue state like Victoria which has been time wasting for the last six months. Since the time that we announced the position, we have still not reached a cooperative position with Victoria—on the basis that they want to look after their own dungheap. I think that they are probably a bit more concerned about the income of the Victorian Labor government. So that has been a problem. This would have been happening much earlier if Victoria had cooperated like Queensland has, like New South Wales has, like the ACT has, and like my home state, South Australia, has. But Victoria has not been cooperating, and I am not sure how you are supposed to deal with that sort of rogue state in any other way than the way we have.

So, with the 3,000 gigalitres saved and with 1,500 returned to further production in agriculture, a total of 1,500 gigalitres is saved. Now let us come to the $3 billion that is being used to buy back where there have been overallocations—by state governments, I might add, not by the federal government—and I think that will be spent largely in New South Wales. At that price of $2,000 a gigalitre saved, that is a further 1,500 gigalitres saved. But guess what? Exactly the same amount will be used for production, so we are not affecting the producers of Australia. We are going to have in total the same amount of production from irrigation, but we are going to save 3,000 gigalitres every year forever and ever—four times what we use in South Australia each year alone. So that is a huge saving for the Murray River.

If you look at governments over the last 70 or 80 years, you will see that they have been reasonably successful in the way that they have managed the Murray River. I think it would be very hard to do the things that we did in the thirties, for example, when we put in the lock system. If we did not have the lock system, you could walk across a dry creek bed right now in Berri, South Australia. I have seen pre-lock pictures. If we had not put in lock No. 3, Lake Bonney would not be the great lake that it is.

As governments, over the years we have made some good decisions. Unfortunately, I think, they would be much harder to do now because of the environmental lobby we have got in Australia. But we have done some very good things. We have put the barrages down at the bottom of the lower lakes, which has ensured that the saltiness does not creep back up into the Murray River. It is with great pleasure that I am supporting the Water Bill 2007, because we are going to return 3,000 gigalitres extra into the river. It is going to be a long-term project—this is long-term thinking. This is 10 years of thought and it would not surprise me if we spend further into the future. Compare that with Labor; they did not commit a cent to restoring water to the Murray River when they were last in government. Let us get this into perspective. This government has acted. We are taking the responsibilities away from the states—they are the ones that have caused the problems. We are going to put money into fixing up this system because it is so important to the Murray-Darling Basin, which of course does not recognise state boundaries. I am very pleased to support what we are doing here.

My large electorate of Barker encompasses South Australia’s end of the Murray River. Wind your way from Swan Reach, halfway from the border, all the way down to the Coorong in the south, and along the way you will pass the Riverland—home to some of Australia’s best export oranges—and the Murraylands, where the trademark black and white holsteins dot the productive dairy lands. I am especially pleased that the South Australian end of the basin produces some of the best—if not the best—wine in the world. In a normal year, 25 per cent of Australia’s production comes from the Riverland, which the member for Hotham formerly spoke of. South Australia’s River Murray producers are hard workers. Dairy farmers along the lower swamps have spent thousands of dollars—money that was matched by this government and the South Australian government—to completely rehabilitate their swamps. They undertook extensive laser levelling works so that the efficiency of their irrigation was world standard. They upgraded the channels and the infrastructure that supplies water to the farms. This has been no mean feat. The sheer cost and expense of the project saw too many dairy farmers forced from the land. However, for the most part they have stuck through, all in the name of improving environmental and water efficiency on their farms.

Whether they are in the dairy, viticulture or horticulture industry, or any other for that matter, growers along the river in South Australia understand the vital importance of reducing water use in any way possible. This is a message that is being increasingly understood, accepted and acted upon. I am quite happy to say—and boast—that the irrigators in South Australia are leading the way with the world’s best technology in improving irrigation efficiencies. Given that South Australian farmers are at the end of the line, they could use and abuse the system and have no consideration for what is returned to the river from their farms, and they could take whatever they can. But they do not. The water that is piped from the River Murray in, say, New South Wales is the same water that is piped in South Australia and in Victoria. Just because the basin covers part of my great state does not mean that we pretend for a second that we have any more rights to it than any of the other states it passes through. Boundaries are insignificant. We are talking about one system. There is one basin and there is one River Murray regardless of how many state borders that system may cross. It seems obvious then that a holistic approach to managing the system is the best method. To do otherwise would be madness.

I wish to take this opportunity to publicly voice my utter disgust at the appallingly selfish attitude of the Victorian Labor government towards this issue. This government has spent tireless hours negotiating with the states and territories to achieve a referral of powers to better manage the Murray-Darling Basin as one single entity. Despite the support of water ministers from all other states, Victoria was too arrogant to look at the bigger picture beyond its state border for the greater good of Australia. Victoria’s argument for a special deal undermines the widely accepted idea that a basin-wide approach is the best method for managing Australia’s most precious resource. It underscores the very reason for the plan in the first place. We cannot have the states reserving their right to have the final say and impacting on everyone else at their whim.

Despite the stubborn attempts of the Victorian Labor government, the Water Bill 2007 now sits before us, making a historic step forward in the management of Australia’s water resources to ensure environmental health and certainty for irrigators. It implements the fundamental aspects of the $10 billion National Plan for Water Security that was introduced by the Prime Minister in January. This bill is the most significant water reform in over 100 years. This government will address the overallocation and overuse of water from the Murray-Darling Basin by state governments. It will improve water use efficiency and establish clear pathways to return all water sources to sustainable levels of extraction.

For years state governments have overdrawn and put their growers before those of other states. As the member for Barker, I know too well the effect that this has had at the end of the line in South Australia. Regular flushing of the Murray’s mouth has occurred at great expense. Wetlands dried out and many are now closed off in order to keep as much water in the Murray as possible. A weir has been planned for Wellington. I have spoken about that before in this House. I think it is the craziest idea I have ever come across in my nearly nine years in parliament. Something had to be done at a national level and I commend this government for taking action. The Water Bill 2007 enables water resources in the basin to be managed in the national interest optimising environmental, economic and social outcomes. It relies on the Commonwealth’s constitutional powers, with the original intention being that the bill would be reliant on referrals of power from all basin states so as to best address the broadest range of issues. However, agreement obviously could not be reached, so under this bill we will not have jurisdiction over river operations or flow interception activities as we do not have constitutional authority to legislate in this area. It is a shame we could not get Victoria’s cooperation.

Briefly, the Water Bill will: provide for a new cap on surface water and groundwater diversions; prohibit the compulsory acquisition of water entitlements; establish the Murray-Darling Basin Authority and a Basin Community Committee—the latter will include at least eight people who are or represent water users; set out how risks flowing from future reduced water allocations will be shared between the Commonwealth and the basin states; guarantee that the Commonwealth will honour state water plans for the life of those plans; establish a role for the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission to monitor and enforce water charge and market rules in the basin; and provide for the Bureau of Meteorology to collect up-to-date, accurate and comprehensive information on water use and availability that will be critical inputs to the basin plan.

The bill establishes an independent Murray-Darling Basin Authority. The authority will report to the Commonwealth Minister for the Environment and Water Resources and be made up of a full-time chair and four part-time members. Authority members will be required to have expertise in fields like water resource management, hydrology, freshwater ecology, resource economics, irrigated agriculture, public sector governance and financial management.

The bill requires the authority to prepare a basin plan for approval which will provide for a new, enforceable, sustainable and integrated cap on surface water and groundwater diversions to be developed as part of a basin-wide plan. This will be based on CSIRO modelling of future water availability, other social and economic studies and consultation with communities throughout the entire basin. The basin plan will also identify risks to water resources and strategies by which to manage them. Also, it will establish the requirements that the state water resource plan will have to comply with if it is to be accredited under the bill.

I stress that the basin plan will be prepared in full consultation with the states and their communities, unlike some other governments we heard about today and yesterday in the parliament. The basin plan will identify responsibilities for managing risks associated with reductions in water availability. This bill does not allow for favouritism or special deals, but it does provide for the future of the Murray River. (Time expired)