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Tuesday, 14 August 2007
Page: 87


Mr CAUSLEY (7:00 PM) —I have been strenuously trying to hear some cogent argument coming from the opposition about the Water Bill 2007, which is a very important bill for the future of Australia. The contribution from the member for Corio just a while ago was empty, I have to say. There was nothing in there to even hang your hat on. He did not talk about the real issues in the Murray-Darling Basin. No-one has had more hands-on experience in managing the water resources in the Murray-Darling Basin than I have. I spent five years as the Minister for Water Resources in New South Wales, and five years on the Murray-Darling Basin Council. So I think I know a little bit about what is going on in this particular area. I listened with interest this afternoon to a number of members of the opposition speaking on this bill. I would like to make some clear comments about some of the issues that have been raised.

The member for Grayndler, who is completely out of his depth in this area—and we all know he is a political ideologue—made some very astounding statements. The member for Grayndler, instead of talking about the water resources of the Murray-Darling Basin, talked more about the environment and his position on the environment. That was followed by the member for Kingsford Smith, and we had a similar rhetoric coming through. It seems to me that these people were never taught history at school. They are trying to tie the present drought to climate change. As far as I understand it—and I stand to be corrected, but I have not seen it from any scientist—there is no absolute connection between the two. While many scientists are saying that they think there is something happening with global warming, I have not yet seen any definitive statement that has linked climate change to drought in Australia. Yes, there are some suggestions and suppositions saying that this might happen, and that is coming from some scientists. But anyone who has read the history of Australia will have found that Australia is a land of drought. We have had many droughts in the past. I recall research from James Cook University in North Queensland on core samples from the Barrier Reef which show that back in the 1800s there was possibly a 20-year drought. That is a long way longer than what we have had at the present time.

So we have some political hyperbole here, and it is being used for political purposes to try to link these things so that people will assume that unless we do something about climate change we are going to have this problem with water supply in Australia. The term ‘hyperbole’ is absolutely correct, because, unfortunately, we see members of the media jumping in on this. I have seen virtual images of flooding on the Central Coast and in Queensland, and that is just outrageous because even the most extreme predictions of scientists talk about 100 years. So the hyperbole is not just with the Labor Party; it is with the media as well. Some of these predictions cannot be justified and cannot be backed up. I have always concluded that a very strong part of a strong democracy is an inquisitorial and free press. But I am very disappointed at the present time about the questions that are being asked about certain political statements that are being made in Australia at the present time.

The member for Grayndler went on to talk about The Nationals, as the member for Corio did more recently. We happen to represent an area; we happen to represent irrigators; I happen to know irrigators; and I happen to know the management of the system. So at least we do have some knowledge of what goes on in that particular area. We had the member for Hotham getting up and saying that the Labor Party would guarantee 1,500 gigalitres a year to the Murray-Darling system. How could you guarantee 1,500 gigalitres this year? We are in drought. That is just a very stupid statement, and we have had many of those coming from the Labor Party at the present time.

The Labor Party are posturing here, and we have seen it for the last few weeks. They stand up here saying that they support this bill, but let us look at the detail. They are not supporting it. If you look at the detail of what people from the opposition have said you will see it very clearly. The management of the Murray-Darling system is a very delicate operation. They stand up and say, ‘We will go back and work with the states on managing the system.’ Well, I spent five years doing that, and I can tell you that you could not get agreement from amongst the states. The Hon. John Kerin was the chair of the council when I was on it. He and I used to get together because we could not get agreement from Victoria and South Australia—Labor states in those days. We would try to find some middle ground to get some agreement. In those days, Queensland did not belong to the Murray-Darling Basin Council. I first went on the council in 1988 and went through until about 1992. Queensland did not belong. If you think you can just simply sit down with the states and get agreement, I have news for you: that is not easy. We have seen that particular exercise recently with Victoria, who I believe are just using their position to push the federal Labor Party view. The federal Labor Party say, ‘We agree,’ but Victoria is standing up and saying, ‘No, we are going to stop this because we do not agree.’

Let us look at some other issues. The member for Wills made a ridiculous speech. I have heard these statements before. The member for Wills got up and started to talk about the increase in salinity in the Murray-Darling. Anyone with a semblance of knowledge at all who has read the Murray-Darling Basin Commission reports will know that salinity has reduced. We have even had the statement from Professor Cullen—who should know better—that salinity has increased in the basin. It has not. If you look at the annual reports of the Murray-Darling Basin Commission, you will see that salinity has been reduced. Why? Because there have been policies put in place by the Murray-Darling Basin Commission over a number of years to reduce salinity. The Salt Interception Scheme, for example, was part of the process that has been going on for a long time.

There was a revolution in irrigation. I deregulated irrigation in New South Wales. We went away from the flood system in horticulture. We went to microjet; we went to drip. We laser-levelled. We got farmers to laser-level rice-growing areas. We bred rice varieties that were shorter to try to reduce the amount of water that was used. This has been going on for a long time. Governments have been trying to alleviate the problems.

I want to talk a little about Victoria, because I just do not understand where they are coming from. When I was Minister for Water Resources in New South Wales, I was very aware of the problems of leakage in the system. In fact, we estimated that we were losing 30 per cent of the water we were sending down the system. You have to understand that these canals and channels were built in an era when they used a horse and scoop. They went right across the land. They went across gravel beds; they went across sand. These people just built the channels. The great Mulwala canal, which takes the water down to the lower Murray, is a very big canal. But we know that there was leakage in the system. So I say to the states: $10 billion? Grab it with both hands! Because if you can stop the leakage in the system you can save 30 per cent of the water that is being taken down the rivers. That is a very important point.

I know we do not want to continue to debate too long and there are others who want to speak on this, but I have to say a few more things. The member for Wills talked about blue-green algal blooms as if this were something new. I have news for him: the first blue-green algal bloom ever recorded in Australia was in 1874, in Lake Alexandrina. They were around long before any dams were built in Australia. You have to understand that before there were dams built in Australia these rivers ran dry at times. Again, in the 1870s it was recorded that the Murray was dry. If you look at history you will find that the great Darling River was affected. There was an export port at Bourke and paddle-wheelers plied the river, taking the wool down to Adelaide. For a period of three or four years the paddle-wheelers were all tied up at the riverbank because there was no water in the Darling. It is nothing new in Australia. That is the history of Australia.

I want to go to some parts of the second reading amendment moved by the member for Grayndler. I heard the member for Corio spend six minutes in his speech just reading out the amendment. There are some things here that I think are important. First of all, the member for Grayndler was trying to rewrite history by saying that the Labor Party are the only ones who have ever initiated legislation to help the Murray-Darling. We are sick of hearing that sort of rhetoric from the Labor Party. A number of people have contributed to what has been going on in the Murray-Darling.

There is one part of the amendment in particular that I want to talk about, which I think is very important because it really goes to the core of this, and that is 8(d). At the end of 8(d) it says:

... address the fact that water has been over-allocated, undervalued and misdirected;

I say to anyone who has any interest in this particular debate: have a very close look at those words. Those words are code. They say to me that the Labor Party does not support agriculture in the basin. The member for Grayndler went to great lengths to tell us, and the member for Corio also told us, about the value of agriculture in the Murray-Darling Basin. It is very important. It is a very important part of Australia’s economic future. There are large exports. Depending on the year, anywhere between 40 and 60 per cent of Australia’s agriculture exports come from the Murray-Darling Basin. It is a huge catchment area—the same size as the Mississippi-Missouri catchment. It is a pity we did not get some rain. But it is the same size catchment as the Mississippi-Missouri.

What this amendment is saying is: ‘We are supporting this. We understand the importance of agriculture.’ But I have been through all this before, and I have to say that if you are an irrigator or someone who lives in rural Australia you should look very closely at the amendment that has been put forward by the Labor Party. What it is saying to me, and what the member for Hotham was saying when he talked about 1,500 gigalitres a year to the river, is that there will be no water for irrigation, no water for farming.

I have to also say that if you did not have control of these rivers you would not have water for the towns either, because at certain times they would dry up. It is a very important balance you have to get here. It is important that you work with the people who are the users of the water. They are very decent, cooperative people. I have worked with them for years. If you sit down with a problem, I can guarantee you that they will work through that problem. But, if you allow the bureaucrats or scientists from the CSIRO to start to dictate this program, I can assure you that you are in for trouble. One of the problems I have at the present time with some of the scientists is that they are not working on scientific facts; they are part of the hyperbole. They are out there exaggerating statements. It is about time that our scientists got back to giving us the facts of the issue and not being part of the debate—because I think that is a very real risk we run.

Let me say this: do not believe what the Labor Party are saying here. They are not supporting rural Australia. They may be supporting what they think is their view of the environment. I tell you that the environment, over the centuries, has come to terms with the fact that the rivers at times do not run. I think that is where the whole debate is getting off course and where the exaggeration is coming in from the Labor Party. Let rural Australia beware.