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Tuesday, 14 August 2007
Page: 72

Mrs HULL (5:47 PM) —I rise today, unlike the member for New England, to congratulate the Minister for the Environment and Water Resources for the consultation that he has personally undertaken throughout the formulation of the Water Bill 2007. It goes to show that there are members in this House who will engage themselves on behalf of their constituency and there are some members in this House who do not want to engage. They have no idea what is going on; they do not want to know what is going on. But then they enter the House and make wide-sweeping accusations against the way in which policy has been formulated. The member for New England has again demonstrated that his personal vitriol gets in the way of supporting decent policy every time. I really believe that the New England electorate need to look through the Hansard and seriously look at how their member has contributed, and ask him how he has contributed to policymaking and the decisions that have come into this House today with this legislation. I would say that it would be to have sat at the sidelines sniping and firing shots but not engaging, and I believe that is the downfall and the reason there is such inability within that electorate to get their voices heard. Some members do not want to engage.

I genuinely and honestly believe that even my irrigators—companies that have been involved in intense negotiation and discussion on the draft bill for so long—would have to agree with my comments here. They have said that they have had unprecedented access to the minister, the department, the decision makers, the policymaking and the minister’s staffers. I again say to the minister: congratulations, Minister Turnbull. You have personally undertaken this with great gusto, with great understanding and with a desire to know, to learn and to understand the way in which water works. It is a very complicated issue. I also take the time to congratulate the Assistant Minister for the Environment and Water Resources, the member for Parkes, because he too has played a very valuable role in formulating this legislation and in ensuring he has had a very sure and guiding hand on the way in which it was going to play out, particularly for his electorate and electorates right across Australia—not just in New South Wales, where I am. It is the responsibility of the minister and the assistant minister to have a guiding hand for all of Australia and the Murray-Darling associates, not just for New South Wales.

I also congratulate the minister’s staff and the department, who, when prompted with countless phone calls, interaction and exchanges—through teleconferences et cetera—met with my electorate and the leaders of irrigation industries in my electorate, which has a combined membership of irrigation organisations representing perhaps two-thirds of the water. The minister has seriously consulted with representatives on a day-to-day basis, even to the point of ringing them in the evening, in his personal hours, and walking through the processes in order to ensure that he had captured the concerns that many of my companies had.

We have seen many changes along the way, from the draft legislation to this final piece of legislation before the House. I think Minister Turnbull has been one of the most hands-on and active leaders on the issue of water that we have had for some time. I include the member for Gwydir in that remark as well; he was the catalyst for ensuring that there had to be some management of water. I have been the member for Riverina since 1998. I have been in a situation of great difficulty because, for six of the nine years since then, we have been in a catastrophic drought. For six of those years we have been juggling and managing water to the best of our ability. We have had carry-forwards from the snowy system. We have purchased water from the system. We have done all that we can to try to continue to contribute to the GDP in the way in which we have done in the past—and we hope to in the future. We have significant industries right across the Murrumbidgee Irrigation Area that underpin our national economy in an enormous way. If anyone knows water, it is the people whom I represent. I do not come to this House professing that I know the ins and outs of water, but let me say that, on a daily basis, I do engage with my stakeholders. I do ensure that my stakeholders have access to decision makers in order that they can get their point across. I think that is an important point.

We have had continual buck-passing between state and Commonwealth for so long. I want to talk about the ASGE program—the Achieving Sustainable Groundwater Entitlements program. That program has caused the most excruciating pain—it has been the most pain that I have seen in my electorate for a long time. I have talked about that in this House before. We have seen father against son; neighbour against neighbour; cousin against cousin. It has been extraordinarily damaging to the social fabric of my electorate to see the way in which water management has taken place under a two-tiered structure—and in particular the ASGE. That is why I decided that one government had to manage this system. There has to be one management process because the buck-passing between the state and the Commonwealth was becoming almost intolerable. The people out there get hurt big time. We had this issue of changing direction during the ASGE. It changed from a scenario of an absolutely documented, across-the-board cut to a history of extraction. Whether that be wrong or whether that be right, it was changed. People made major financial decisions believing that they had a clear understanding of what their future was going to be. But the buck-passing went on. Whether we get it right, whether we get it wrong or whether we need to tweak it in the future, the Commonwealth needs to manage water, health, education and communications. That has always been my view.

I think what needs to be recognised is that my irrigators—both surface water and groundwater irrigators—have taken enormous cuts. They have taken significant hits over the last four years and are at a point now where the drought has created an enormous concern. This has prompted the need to address it. Whether it is climate change, climate variability or whatever it is, we have to have some action. There has to be some appropriate action taken. In the meantime the story keeps getting lost that the irrigators in the Riverina have taken the most significant hits in terms of cuts to water allocation. Some of them have lost all of their water. I know some people who have had cuts of 5,000 megalitres. They get not a cent and not a megalitre of water because they had no history of extraction of the groundwater. We also need to note that our surface water irrigators have had progressive cuts over the years. The one thing we need to remember is that they currently get no water all. They get absolutely zero water allocation.

There is so much misinformation out there—and it seems to be very city focused and city driven—that we have this abundant supply of water; that we are letting it run down our drains, down our gutters and out into our fields; that there are ducks swimming on it. But that is just not the way it is. That is simply not reality. When I hear people defame industries in my electorate, particularly the rice industry, for their use of water, rather than getting angry my reaction is to invite them to come down and have a look. It is a case of the ‘from paddock to plate’ philosophy. When they come and have a look, they are so surprised—because what we have in Australia is world’s best practice in rice growing. I am very proud of it. I recently visited Cambodia and saw the way in which the environment is degraded for the low yields that they are getting. I came back even more vocal in my support for the Australian rice industry—if that is possible. If you purchase rice which is not from Australia, you are purchasing rice from countries that are using unsavoury and environmentally destructive practices to grow their rice. It would be of great benefit for people to actually understand how this industry works and the people in this industry. They have done nothing wrong, but they are constantly having to defend themselves.

The other day I was in the car and had the ABC Riverina radio program on. I heard the ACT Chief Minister, Jon Stanhope, talking about the possibility of taking water from the Murrumbidgee. He spoke about how entitled the ACT was to take water from the Murrumbidgee because just as much water fell into its catchments and the ACT was entitled to take it. That was fine—I quite agree with that; I did not have any problem with that—until he went on to make, for a Chief Minister, a mischievous and uninformed comment. I could not believe it. The ACT takes only 30 gigalitres out of the system, and he said, ‘That’s only what some rice farmers take in the Riverina to grow one crop.’ I thought, ‘Thirty gigalitres to grow one crop? One rice farmer, two rice farmers—50 or 60 rice farmers might use that.’ I do not even know whether 50 or 60 rice farmers would use it. I was angry that I could not get on the radio to explain to him that that was a very sad indictment of his understanding.

A lot of questions will be asked about this legislation. I could go through and discuss many of the issues. Will the new arrangements cause uncertainty for water users? No, they will not, because the nature of existing water entitlements is not affected by this bill, nor are existing state water shares. There is a lot of concern out there, so information is needed, because we are honouring the water-sharing plans that have been put in place with a lot hard work and a lot of effort. There are issues about what the arrangements are for the new bill to come into play. It will be in about early 2008. There are questions like: does the Water Bill replace the National Water Initiative? No, the NWI, as the member for Gwydir clearly and articulately outlined, remains the blueprint for water reform in Australia, as it clearly should.

There are many issues about which we need to ably go out there. Whilst we have been consulting very intensely with representative groups—and there was a need to do that—we now need to equally as intently educate and inform the general stakeholders. I urge the minister to now go out and get a roadshow. We have the drought bus out there and it has been very effective. It has been sensational in the way it has been able to deliver perfect outcomes and good information to people suffering because of the drought. In fact, the other day I was having difficulty with it and suggested to Centrelink that maybe we could have the drought bus on a farm because people may feel more comfortable in coming to somebody’s farm. We trialled that about two weeks ago in my electorate—in Coleambally, actually. Centrelink agreed to trial an on-farm drought bus visit. I got a fabulous email back from Centrelink saying, ‘As you predicted, 30 farmers turned up for the drought bus; it was terrific and we got the message through.’ I would urge the minister to take advantage of where the drought bus is, because it is primarily in the Murray-Darling Basin area, and put people there with a wide grasp of how the national water plan is to be delivered. There should be simple facts and a clear understanding outside of the major stakeholders and the representative bodies that have been consulted intently and widely so that the general stakeholders can get the same information. I think we could certainly benefit from having a drought bus attitude and utilising it for water, particularly as we have a drought unit now set up to service the Murray-Darling Basin through Centrelink, under Senator Ellison’s Human Services portfolio. I would really urge the minister to consider doing that.

There are some concerns about who will now be managing rivers, storages and water deliveries. The state water agencies will continue to manage the storages, the river flows and the water deliveries and, generally, the people I represent and have dealt with for a long time will probably still very much be in the picture. There is a process that we will go through that will see many people engaged in achieving an outcome on this plan. I think there is a different way in which the Commonwealth have always looked at how they would achieve some of the requirements they need for the Murray. When the New South Wales government issued their tender document, they just issued a tender document. They did not say whether or not the water would come from tender—or from anywhere—whereas, when the Commonwealth issued their tender document, they said it had to come from savings. So there was less likelihood of community dislocation and the breakdown of the social fabric of the communities that have been heavily reliant on water. I think that is what we have to recognise: that as we go down this pathway and as the Commonwealth and the ministers take responsibility for outcomes in this, what is never to be forgotten is the way in which our fabrics glue together, the way in which our communities are that fabric and the way in which water is the beating heart of those entire communities, delivering to them businesses, business opportunities, schools, churches—a whole host of different things that come from a community that has been designed around water. I have many of those communities. They are designed entirely around the way in which water is allocated, delivered and utilised to support the nation’s economy.

I reiterate: the people I represent have taken an enormous amount of pain. Mr Turnbull recognises that. He has seen them on a constant basis. As I said, never has his door been shut to these people. There needs to be clear, concise understanding of that. When we engage with the states, communities and willing sellers in the future—no forced acquisitions, just willing sellers—we need to understand how our communities work together and how they need to survive during this whole process. The fear has to be taken out of it. I would urge the minister to move forward now with direct community consultation to take away the fears of the people who have not been party to these discussions during the lead-up to this legislation. I commend the minister and I commend the bill to the House.