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Tuesday, 14 August 2007
Page: 75

Mr KELVIN THOMSON (6:07 PM) —Debate over the Murray River has been around for a long time. It goes back to the 1880s. In 1889 the Melbourne Argus said:

The River in fact belongs to the three colonies ... Broad principles and not narrow jealousies or pettifogging quibbles should rule in this matter. The Murray ought to be a great agent of Federation.

At the 1897-98 Federal Convention, the issue of the control of the Murray sparked a whole lot of debate. Section 31 of the draft Australian Constitution, which came from that convention, gave to the Commonwealth:

... control and regulation of the navigation of the River Murray, and the use of the waters thereof from where it first becomes the boundary between Victoria and New South Wales and the sea.

But the South Australian delegates were unhappy with this. While New South Wales argued for irrigation, South Australia wanted the stress on navigation. Eventually a compromise was reached and the draft section disappeared. The Commonwealth’s powers were quite clearly scaled back by section 100, which reads:

The Commonwealth shall not, by any law or regulation of trade or commerce, abridge the right of a State or of the residents therein to the reasonable use of the waters of rivers for conservation or irrigation.

So this issue has a long history. Every election year the Howard government rediscover the issue of water. The reason they are able to rediscover it each time an election is coming is that they forget about it once the election year has passed. In the election year of 2004, we had the National Water Initiative in June, which the government followed up with the National Water Commission Bill in December. But when I look back on the debate we had then, everything I said at the time about water and the Murray-Darling Basin remains accurate, because 2004 was all about appearing to do something while actually doing as little as possible. Frankly, there is no reason to believe that 2007 will turn out to be any different. On the issue of water management, I said the following in 2004, and I invite members to identify anything at all which has changed since I made these remarks:

The problem is that they say the water issue is important but they have totally and utterly failed to back up their words with actions. The Prime Minister has notional carriage of this bill and this issue, but in the last parliament—and apparently in this one, too—he subcontracted out the issue of water to the National Party leader ... and the rest of the National Party. The National Party have been absolutely unwilling to do anything which might put Australia’s management of its water resources on a sustainable basis, for fear that their constituency will rise up against them. The National Party have not acted in the national interest; they have acted on the basis of sectional interest.

When the Liberal Party have been confronted with the consequences of this inaction—for example, in the shape of the declining Murray River—rather than take on the National Party, they have taken the politically convenient path of blaming the state governments. For years their refrain has been: yes, the Murray River is in a bad way; the states must fix it. This has been for them a political solution to the problem; it has not been an actual solution to the problem. For years, they have sat on their hands while the scientific evidence rolled in about the need to restore environmental flows to save the Murray. They did nothing. They did not restore a single litre in environmental flows. From Murray-Darling Basin Ministerial Council meetings to COAG meetings, they prevaricated and obfuscated, refusing to act.

They dropped the ball with regard to Labor’s pioneering work back in 1994. The minister’s second reading speech correctly acknowledges:

Truly national water reform commenced ... with the original COAG Water Reform Framework agreed by Commonwealth and state governments in 1994.

Then the second reading speech jumps to the signing of the National Water Initiative in June this year—


—10 years later. Back in February 1994, the Council of Australian Governments agreed upon a strategic framework for necessary water reforms, covering water pricing, institutional arrangements and sustainable water resource management and community consultation. However, after the Howard government was elected in 1996, that work was left to gather dust on the shelf while the National Party took over and scuttled Australia’s path towards water sustainability. I have no doubt that had it not been for Labor’s energetic pursuit of water issues in the last parliament ... and ... commitment to finding 1,500 gigalitres in environment flows to save the Murray River ... we would not be having this debate today. Under duress, the government is accepting that there does need to be national leadership on water issues and that it is not good enough to say that it is up to the states to fix it.

Back in 2004 I said:

We have before us the National Water Commission Bill, which establishes a new National Water Commission as an independent statutory body. Labor, having called many times for national leadership on this issue, will support this bill and assist its passage through the parliament. However, we are under no illusions about the government’s real views on water: they want to do as little as possible, and they want to draw it out for as long as possible. So we will need to continue to put the pressure on for action. The moment that we stop watching them is the moment that they drop the ball again.

I said all that back in 2004 and it is still absolutely true. Sadly, they did drop the ball again. That is why we are back here now. In December 2004, I also attacked the government’s inaction on climate change and I made the link between climate change and Australia’s water situation in the following terms:

I grow increasingly astonished at this government’s failure to take climate change seriously. This is a government—The Nationals in particular—which claims to represent farmers, and yet it sits on its hands while climate change caused by greenhouse gas emissions condemns them to a dry, waterless future.

There is little point in having a debate about whether water should be allocated to irrigators or kept in the rivers for environmental flows if we do not have any water to argue about in the first place. Yet this is precisely what the CSIRO, the Bureau of Meteorology and other scientific experts are telling us is on the cards for Australia. I mentioned earlier in my remarks how Perth has dried out in the last 25 years. Its climate has literally changed. In my home city of Melbourne, its reputation for constant drizzle is a memory … Brisbane’s water storages were at 50 per cent capacity in late October, Sydney’s at 44 per cent and Perth’s down to 37 per cent.

CSIRO research commissioned by the New South Wales government shows that annual average rainfall in New South Wales has fallen by 14.3 millimetres a decade since 1950. Victoria’s Department of Sustainability and Environment produced regional estimates of climate change impacts in Victoria by the years 2030 and 2070. They showed rainfall decreases of up to 15 per cent by 2030 and 40 per cent by 2070 for the Mallee, Wimmera, North Central and Goulburn Broken regions. Gippsland and Western Victoria are facing up to 10 per cent rainfall loss by 2030 and 25 per cent loss by 2070. And that problem will be made worse by temperature increases—in the Victorian regions, typically up to 1.6 degrees by 2030 and five degrees by 2070. So in other words you get less rain and higher temperatures causing more evaporation and moisture loss.

These are very serious figures. Unless we get serious about climate change, in the years ahead Australia will become one big desert. I am astonished that the Howard government appear to be relaxed and comfortable with this prospect. The minister’s second reading speech admits that climate change is one of the factors putting, in his words, ‘enormous pressure’ on our water resources. Yet the government steadfastly set their faces against any of the things that we need to do to tackle climate change. They will not ratify the international climate change treaty, the Kyoto protocol. They will not set up a system of emissions trading. They will not increase the mandatory renewable energy target.

The Nationals MPs scoff at the mention of climate change and greenhouse gas emissions, yet in doing so they condemn those who they claim to represent to the bleakest of futures. What an appalling abdication of responsibility. What an appalling dereliction of duty. I am pleased that at least one organisation is doing its job in representing farmers’ interests in this matter. The Western Australian Farmers Federation has called on the Howard government to ratify the Kyoto protocol on climate change. I hope that it is not too long before the National Farmers’ Federation and The Nationals get the message and do likewise.

I said all of that in 2004, and it is all just as true today. Just yesterday, we saw members of the Liberal Party continue to be in denial about climate change. No fewer than four out of the six members of the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Science and Innovation signed a dissenting report challenging the science which says that greenhouse gas emissions are causing the planet to heat up and, most relevant for the purpose of this debate, causing southern Australia to dry out. The Liberal members for Tangney, Solomon, Hughes and Lindsay—the ‘Flat Earth Four’—remind me of the black knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, lying there on the ground with no arms and no legs, blood pouring from every limb, and still wanting to fight on.

The dissenting report produced a graph showing aggregate rainfall in Australia, which suggested little change over time. But the problem for Australia’s rainfall is that it is drying out in the south. Perth, Melbourne, Sydney, Canberra and the Murray-Darling Basin have experienced declining rainfall in the past decade, and the CSIRO and the Bureau of Meteorology are predicting even less in the years ahead. Do the members for Tangney, Solomon, Hughes and Lindsay think that the CSIRO and the Bureau of Meteorology have this wrong? Or do they think that it does not matter if Perth, Melbourne and the Murray-Darling Basin dry out provided that there is higher rainfall in the tropics? What a shocking abdication of their responsibility to their constituents. The member for Tangney represents voters in Perth, and the members for Lindsay and Hughes represent voters in Sydney. They should be urging action to prevent rainfall loss for their electorates, not hiding behind aggregate data to pretend that climate change is not a problem for Australia. The member for Tangney would do himself and his constituents a favour were he to study the graphs of Perth’s rainfall over the past 30 years which reveal a striking decrease.

Yesterday, when he was confronted in the House with the member for Tangney’s eccentric views on climate change, the Prime Minister disowned them, but it should be remembered that the same Prime Minister personally intervened to restore the member for Tangney’s preselection after he had been defeated by another Liberal Party member in Western Australia. As it happens, the Liberal who won the democratic ballot in Tangney, Matt Brown, is known to have a modern and forward-looking position on renewable energy. It shows where the Prime Minister’s true colours lie on environmental issues. He prefers to support an MP who gets his instructions from think tanks of climate change sceptics who are being bankrolled in the same shameful way that tobacco companies used to bankroll anyone they could call an expert who would stand up and say that the link between smoking and lung cancer was unproven.

What is the state of health of our river systems? I described them in the following terms in 2004 and I invite anyone to suggest that the picture has changed—that anything done as a result of the National Water Initiative or the National Water Commission has led to any improvements:

Our rivers are suffering and stressed as a result of the amount of water that we have been taking out of them for our domestic, industrial and agricultural needs. The most striking example of this is the poor state of the Murray River. This river, and the Murray-Darling Basin which feeds it, has been a mighty source of prosperity and life for this country since European settlement. It is at the heart of our agricultural prosperity. It sustains many regional communities. It is essential for the drinking water of Adelaide … But it is in a state of decline. Levels of salinity have been on the rise … if we do not take steps to address it then over time there is no doubt that it will threaten the river system, including its capacity for agricultural production. In other words, we will kill the goose that lays the golden egg.

As well as an increasing salinity, the river has shown increased susceptibility to blue-green algal blooms, and its ecological richness is taking a hammering. River red gums are dying and native fish species are in decline—during the last parliament the government was forced to place the Murray cod and the trout cod on the endangered species list. Waterbirds are also in decline. Dr David Paton, an Adelaide academic who conducts regular surveys of migratory wading birds in the Coorong, a famous coastal wetland area in South Australia, has found an alarming decrease in the numbers of these birds over the past decade.

The Murray River, sad and unsatisfactory and all that its state is, is far from the only example of a river in poor and unsustainable health. Rivers feeding Sydney, like the Hawkesbury and the Nepean, have been infested with weeds. The rivers feeding Victoria’s Gippsland Lakes bring with them the nutrients which feed algal blooms. Many other lakes and waterways around Australia have been in a state of declining water quality.

This is just as true in 2007 as it was in 2004. Why should Australians believe that the Prime Minister’s announcement this year and the Water Bill 2007 are anything more than election year posturing?

The Prime Minister’s announcement in January had ‘stunt’ written all over it. The states were not consulted. Environment groups were not consulted. Farmers were not consulted. Cabinet was not consulted. Most tellingly, Treasury was not consulted. Ten billion dollars of taxpayers’ money and Treasury was not even asked for a view. One can only assume the government did not want a group of people with a bias in favour of getting value for money, and a bias against pork-barrelling, to be involved.

In March the Secretary of the Treasury, Ken Henry, gave a speech to his colleagues in which he noted that the department had worked hard on water reform and climate change policy, and he went on to lament:

All of us would wish that we had been listened to more attentively over the past several years in both of these areas. There is no doubt that policy outcomes would have been far superior had our views been more influential. ... Water has got away from us a bit in recent times, but it will come back for some quality Treasury input at some stage-it will have to.

The National Plan for Water Salinity has all the hallmarks of a cobbled-together, election year stunt. Notwithstanding that, we will support it because there most certainly is a problem; the government is not making that up. Given that there is a problem, we will support anything that has the potential to address it.

The size of the problem is indicated by the Inland Rivers Network’s 2007 wetlands report card, which concludes that almost all iconic wetlands in inland New South Wales, such as the Macquarie Marshes and the Gwydir wetlands, are endangered. Its coordinator, Amy Hankinson, says that 90 per cent of the wetlands in the Murray-Darling Basin have been lost to overextraction of water upstream, that New South Wales floodplain wetlands are in ecological free fall and that some are on the brink of collapse.

Both the Inland Rivers Network and the Australian Conservation Foundation have said that national leadership and a national water plan are needed, and they have pointed out the need for clear timetables and targets to tackle overallocation and to return water to the river system. They have expressed concern that there is no explicit requirement for the environmental watering plan to include targets and timetables for environmental water recovery or benchmarks or annual milestones for environmental watering. They say that introducing firm targets and timelines for water recovery would improve planning and accountability and increase the likelihood of the Water Bill achieving its objectives as they relate to addressing overallocation and overuse. They also express concern that the first basin plan needs to be prepared ‘as soon as practicable’. In the absence of a deadline, this is of course a recipe for us to be back here in 2010, should the government be re-elected, debating yet another bill setting up yet another plan to tackle the problem.

In the last parliament, the Labor Party committed to the science based target of returning 1,500 gigalitres to the Murray in environmental flows. Under pressure from Labor, the Howard government said in 2004 that it would return 500 gigalitres annually by 2009 as part of the Living Murray Initiative’s first step. The expression ‘first step’ implied that there was more to come; in fact, there was less to come. By September 2005 a communique from the Murray-Darling Basin Ministerial Council said that the plan would fail to deliver the agreed 500 gigalitres by 2009. Indeed, the return of water to the Murray under the Living Murray Initiative has been negligible.

Everywhere you look you see the federal government trying to pick fights with the states and territories. Whether it is on water, education, housing, Indigenous issues, hospitals or council amalgamations, the Howard government are trying to pick a fight. The more they do this and the more I see of the blame game, the more I am convinced that a federal Labor government could take great strides, with the states and territories, towards actually solving problems. If the Commonwealth and the states stop trying to score off each other, as has been happening incessantly, and start working together, there is so much more we could achieve—not just in water but in tackling so many other national problems as well.