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Tuesday, 14 August 2007
Page: 91


Ms KATE ELLIS (7:14 PM) —I rise to speak on the Water Bill 2007 and to support the amendment which was moved earlier today by the member for Grayndler. Despite the contribution just given by the member for Page, most of us would agree that the need for action on our nation’s dwindling water supplies has been evident for years. This government in particular have dragged their heels for the last 11 years and now they are here seeking our congratulations and claiming that this is the first national reform of the Murray for a century.

In fact, the national water reform began with the historic COAG agreement in 1992, which was led by the Keating government, and the Murray-Darling Basin Act of 1993. It is pretty disappointing that it has taken another 15 years to bring us to this debate tonight. It has been disappointing as well as hugely damaging to our magnificent river. In my short time in this parliament, I have witnessed Labor calling on the government to take national leadership over Australia’s river system and of our water policy. In fact, in my very first speech in this place I urged the federal government to have the will and the courage to sensibly address this pressing issue and to leave politicking and buck-passing outside the chamber doors. Since that time, I have grasped each and every opportunity to stress the importance of ensuring a sustainable Murray and a long-term focus on this, and it is a relief to see that water and our great rivers have finally reached the policy agenda and that we can have this discussion tonight.

Soon after the government made their 25 January announcement, Labor offered in-principle bipartisan support for the policy. We have long called for Commonwealth leadership on water policy, particularly in the policy areas involving water resources that cross state boundaries. However, I do still hold reservations that this legislation will not deliver the objectives set out in the 2004 National Water Initiative, such as tackling overallocated water systems and ensuring greater water security. We on this side are willing to work constructively with the government towards this end, but we recognise that the choice being offered before this parliament tonight is, sadly, between second-rate reform or no reform at all. I must stress that this legislation is not the solution to the River Murray’s woes. It is at best a first step towards addressing the poor state that we have left our proudest river in. We as a parliament must continue to focus on ever improving the health of the River Murray as well as on better water policy outcomes generally. This is what we on this side of the House again pledge to work towards.

As a South Australian MP, I am particularly passionate about the River Murray and feel a particular responsibility to fight in this place for it. I have previously indulged myself in sharing my childhood recollections of growing up on the banks of the River Murray and I will not subject the parliament to that again tonight. I will say that the health of the River Murray is vital to South Australia and critical for a secure domestic water policy for Adelaide, which I represent in this parliament. The river and the Murray-Darling Basin are of special social, economic and environmental importance to all South Australians.

As the federal member for Adelaide, I am acutely aware of how necessary it is for everyone, particularly the upstream states, to be vigilant in their use of the river’s water—not just for the sake of South Australia, the downstream state, but for the river’s very survival. The Murray-Darling Basin has received record low inflows for 11 consecutive months, affecting allocations to South Australia. As a result, a number of water-saving measures have had to be implemented, including reduced allocations, introducing carryover and closing wetlands to manage impact equitably. As a result of this, salinity levels are steadily increasing along the river because of significantly reduced flows across the border.

While decent rainfall over the past few months has improved the state of the river system, a lot more rain is needed to return the waterway to anywhere near where it needs to be. As the South Australian government has gone to great lengths to highlight, the health problems facing the Murray could cause a huge array of problems, including loss of agricultural productivity, loss of recreation and tourism, a negative impact on our drinking water, risk to human health caused by high levels of toxic blue-green algae and a cultural impact due to losing the River Murray. We need a policy before us that will promote sustainable irrigation, restore Australia’s wetlands and provide both quality and quantity for Australia’s water supplies as well as assure the environmental flows which are necessary to ensure the health of this mighty river.

The Premier of South Australia, Mike Rann, has done a fantastic job in fighting for the Murray’s protection and the protection of South Australia’s water supplies, particularly through his insistence and negotiation with the Commonwealth for an independent commission to oversee the River Murray. I believe that there are merits to having a strong independent authority overseeing the river. As Premier Rann stated:

It is only through a politically independent authority that the parochial interests acknowledged to exist by the Prime Minister can be removed from the management of the basin.

I absolutely and entirely agree on this one. It is essential to ensure that those making the tough decisions about the state of the river system are independent experts. The River Murray is far too important for political game playing, which, sadly, we have again seen here today. As Premier Rann stated, this needs to be a politics-free zone.

There has been some criticism of moves to give power to independent bodies, scientists and experts and, whilst in this bill the independent body’s role will be largely strategic, I would like to address some of these criticisms, particularly those in the South Australian media and within local politics. Opponents have argued against having an independent body overseeing the river by saying, ‘Isn’t this just conceding that politicians aren’t up to the job?’ I think that we need to recognise that our very job is advocating the interests of our local communities. This means that, just as the lobby groups and stakeholders have vested interests, so actually do we—whether it be my vested interest in securing Adelaide’s water supplies now and into the future or another MP’s interest in protecting the water allocation of the irrigators that they represent in their electorate, no matter how overallocated that water may be or how unsustainable the practice is. We have amongst us a series of competing interests and the question needs to be: whose job is it here to represent the Murray’s future viability? Whose job is it to ensure that the generations that follow us also enjoy access to a strong and once again mighty Murray? Because this is the role that past and present parliaments have failed us in.

We need to ensure that the long-term wellbeing of the river is given a voice, and I believe it is helpful to have independent experts and scientists without any other interests to assist in this role. If we do not have independence in this process, we run the risk of this important issue becoming bogged down by politics and vested interests. Anyone listening to the debate on the river in this place would hear many different viewpoints and opinions in contrast to their own. I certainly have passionately disagreed with many things I have heard in this chamber about the River Murray. I have nearly fallen off my seat disagreeing with comments made by other MPs in this place. On 18 October 2006, the member for Page criticised Professor Peter Cullen, of the Wentworth Group, who I would have thought is undeniably one of Australia’s leading water experts. On that occasion, the member for Page stated that Professor Cullen ‘parades as a scientist’. But the comment I remember most clearly was in relation to the opinion of the Wentworth Group that the Murray-Darling was dying. The member for Page said:

In fact, the quality of the Murray River downstream is now better than it was 10 or 15 years ago.

The member for Kennedy also got in on the act and made some comments which I have found similarly disturbing. He claimed that the salinity levels on the middle Murray and the lower Murray are the lowest they have ever been in recorded history. He went on to question what all the fuss was about with South Australians. He said:

I have been to Murray Bridge and it is water from bank to bank.

If I were a little less polite and prone to interjecting, I might have shouted out to him that there may have been water from bank to bank but it probably was not moving anywhere at the time.

The loss of native plants, animals, fish and wetlands; declining water quality; an increase of pests in the Murray, including carp; increasing salinity; and water shortages all indicate a river in crisis. Today we have again heard some differing views about the Murray—and I might just mention a couple of them. The member for New England, seemingly speaking in defence of the cotton industry, said he thought it was South Australia’s own fault that we had a blockage and water was not flowing through to the Murray mouth. Another South Australian, the member for Barker, said the environmental lobby groups were part of the reason why we were not getting more results—whereas I would argue that these groups have been amongst the very few who are arguing for the long-term environmental viability of this river.

The problems plaguing the River Murray are intricate and complex, and any decision to alleviate these complexities must not be made for political reasons. A solution to the water crisis must transcend politics, and it must be a national solution to a national problem. It requires input from all state governments and leadership from the Commonwealth. However, independence is the key to ensuring that the interests of the Murray are not overlooked in this process.

The Minister for the Environment and Water Resources, in his second reading speech, highlighted the government’s decision to rule out compulsory acquisitions even as a last resort. I think this is worthy of some discussion. The minister said:

Let me reiterate the Commonwealth’s commitment—clearly stated in the bill—that we will not compulsorily acquire water entitlements. Entitlements will only be purchased from willing sellers.

But I would ask the minister: isn’t the most significant problem facing the Murray the overallocation of water permits in the Murray-Darling Basin? What is the government going to do if it is unable to secure enough willing sales of overallocated water entitlements? What is the backup plan if people do not voluntarily choose to sell back their water? What do we do then? I am yet to hear a response from the government on that question.

Another problem with this process is the extraordinary lack of consultation with the community and government stakeholders. Many of the groups I have spoken to feel completely left out and are outraged that such monumental legislation can be pushed through the parliament so hastily without giving people adequate opportunity to input their views and expertise in this area. This has again been demonstrated by the government allowing just a one-day Senate committee hearing for such a monumental piece of legislation.

The environmental groups, including the Australian Conservation Foundation—whom I have found have done an absolutely fantastic job in lobbying for a strong and healthy River Murray—have been vocal in their response to this bill, rightfully nervous that the government is rushing through another piece of legislation in the lead-up to the election that could have a devastating effect on our future if it is not handled with care. We can only wish that the government had treated this matter with some urgency 11 years ago instead of ignoring it until their polling indicated that they could ignore it no longer. The government’s repeated failure to consult in good faith with the other stakeholders has seriously undermined the intentions of this bill and, quite clearly, is not the path to finding the best public policy outcomes.

In its submission to the Senate inquiry, the South Australian government raised serious concerns that environmental returns could not be guaranteed by this bill. As the submission indicated, the Water Bill 2007, by its nature, will not ensure environmental returns to the River Murray without including an end-of-system flow target. An end-of-system flow target, building on existing flow guarantees, should be included in the basin plan. As South Australia has indicated, this would ensure that measurable benefits are actually delivered. When I have met with various lobby groups, they have expressed a similar concern that environmental returns could not be guaranteed by the bill. An end-of-system flow target is essential to ensure that environmental returns are delivered and to ensure that we can measure this and provide adequate scrutiny.

It is impossible to separate the issue of water from the broader crisis of climate change. Climate change will bring with it less rainfall and increased evaporation, which will directly affect our water supply. For 11 long years the federal government has ignored the looming threat of climate change and turned its back on the state of the Murray-Darling Basin. The Australian public will no longer tolerate such complacency. While the government may finally have switched its rhetoric on the problems of climate change and the water crisis, its inaction over the past 11 years has had a devastating effect on our capacity to deal with this problem. The reason for the complete and utter neglect of the problems facing the Murray—and, indeed, the planet, through climate change—is that the federal government is full of climate change sceptics.

We have once again seen this illustrated this week with the four government members’ dissenting report to the report of the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Science and Innovation geosequestration inquiry. They indicated that those who argue that humans are responsible for climate change are ‘fanatics’. How absolutely absurd. This does indicate that the Howard government remains divided on climate change, and for this reason we will have to deal with the consequences of 11 years of complacency on this urgent issue. As a parliament we must recognise that water and climate change go hand in hand. We cannot address one without addressing the other and receive the long-term results that we all hope for. It must be kept in mind that this initiative must be carried out with a number of other policy initiatives if it is going to make the much-needed impact on Australia’s water crisis that it sets out to. We need a holistic approach to Australia’s water shortages, and only a Rudd Labor government will be able to deliver this.

Labor has committed to ensuring the security of water supplies to all Australians, regardless of their location, through our national water security plan for towns and cities. Australians based in rural and regional communities, as well as those in our towns and cities, are already facing the brunt of the national water crisis. Labor has a plan to target domestic and industrial water use in urban areas by fixing the leaky pipes across the nation in order to stop the wastage of water as it makes its way to our taps. The National Water Commission has indicated that, across the 175,000 kilometres of water mains in Australia, up to 30 per cent of water can be lost through leaks and burst pipes. In Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne, Perth and my electorate of Adelaide, 155,000 megalitres of water is lost from urban water systems each year. This is the equivalent of 77,000 Olympic sized swimming pools. Just a small leak could cost this country 500,000 litres of water in a year. Urgent action is needed to deal with these leaks and losses, which is why Labor has committed to an investment of more than $250 million to work with state and local water authorities to minimise water loss, construct modern and efficient water infrastructure, and refurbish older pipes and water systems, as well as provide funding to practical projects to save water. This is a nation-building policy to help protect Australia’s future by minimising water wastage. I am currently working with a number of local councils within my own community of Adelaide on programs to better use our water supplies in our local Adelaide region.

In conclusion, anyone who thinks that the passage of this bill through the parliament will put an end to my constant advocacy for our great River Murray is sorely mistaken. This is a step forward, but there remains a great marathon before us. The relationship between the River Murray and the state of South Australia is symbiotic: the survival and sustainability of one is essential to the survival and sustainability of the other. South Australians have got a lot to lose if the River Murray is not managed and controlled effectively. The future prosperity and sustainability of our state absolutely depends upon it. We must make the most of this historic opportunity and ensure that we sensibly tackle the many obstacles to the river’s health, improve water security and urgently address the overallocation of the Murray’s precious water. It is fantastic that we have the opportunity to have this debate within the parliament, but let us ensure that we do not forget about this issue once this debate is complete and that we keep on working on this issue until we can save this mighty river.