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Tuesday, 14 August 2007
Page: 111

Mr TURNBULL (Minister for the Environment and Water Resources) (8:36 PM) —The Water Bill 2007, before the House, is a quantum leap into the future compared to the current lowest common denominator approach to decision making on water management in the Murray-Darling Basin. The Water Bill and the National Plan for Water Security will accelerate the 2004 National Water Initiative, which was signed by all Australian governments. The bill implements reform of governance in the Murray-Darling Basin through the establishment of the Murray-Darling Basin Authority. This is an enormous step forward from the current governance model, which has remained largely unchanged since 1915 and requires the agreement of all basin jurisdictions before anything can be done. Through this bill, for the first time in the basin’s history, one basin-wide institution accountable to the government will be responsible for planning the basin’s water resources. It will be expert and it will be independent. For the first time, the governance of the basin will reflect the hydrology of the basin—one interconnected system managed for the first time in our history in the national interest.

The reforms in the bill will establish consistent rules for water charging and an efficient operation of the water market. There will be a Commonwealth environmental water holder established to be the custodian of water access entitlements and, under the bill, the Bureau of Meteorology will collect up-to-date, accurate and comprehensive information on water use and availability across Australia. Investment in metering and monitoring has been overlooked for far too long. You cannot manage what you do not measure, and we will set that right with this bill.

I want to address a number of the issues that were raised in the course of the debate. I thank all honourable members for their contributions, but I have to correct a number of the misconceptions that apparently the members of the opposition are labouring under. The first is the criticism that the bill has been developed without adequate consultation. You only have to read the testimony given in the Senate Standing Committee on Environment, Communications, Information Technology and the Arts inquiry last Friday to see how much consultation was had. We have had countless meetings with the states, with water ministers and their officials, with stakeholders, with irrigators and with farming organisations. Their comments, suggestions and input have been introduced into the bill. It is a genuinely collaborative work, and I want to thank all of the stakeholders, the three states that have played such a constructive role—Queensland, New South Wales and South Australia—and of course the farming organisations, in particular through their peak body, the NFF. If I may invidiously single out one person from the NFF who has made an enormous contribution to that, it is Laurie Arthur.

The member for Grayndler made a number of observations which I say without any rancour reflect a misunderstanding of the legislation. He suggested that clause 77, which talks about risk sharing in the bill reflecting the obligations or the commitments under the NWI, amounted to compulsory acquisition. The fact is that compulsory acquisition is ruled out in this bill. It is not part of the government’s policy, and we have made it express in the legislation that there is no power for compulsory acquisition. However, a central plank of the reforms under the National Water Initiative was to move from the old system of volumetric licences to water access entitlements that are a perpetual or ongoing share of the available resource.

If the amount of water available in the future is reduced—and this is canvassed and contemplated in the NWI as a possibility—a risk-sharing formula applies to spread those risks between water users, the states and the Commonwealth. The bill achieves the codification of the Commonwealth’s NWI responsibilities for risk sharing. That is not acquisition. The legal status of water entitlements is not affected. Importantly, through these arrangements, the government is meeting its NWI commitments. These arrangements have been agreed to by all governments and are supported by farming organisations and farmers around Australia and have been ever since 2004. So, with respect to the member for Grayndler, he misunderstands the nature of the legislation and indeed the National Water Initiative itself.

The other criticism, which was made by the member for Kingsford Smith, was that the bill does not address climate change. That is one of the most absurd comments that has been made on this legislation. This bill is all about meeting the prospect of greater water scarcity in the future. This bill is an exercise in adaptation to climate change. What is one of the most significant likely impacts of climate change in Australia? A drier and hotter future. What will that mean? Less rainfall and less run-off, so less water. What does this bill do; what does the National Plan for Water Security do? They enable us to make every drop count. They enable us to use water efficiently and ensure that we can adapt to climate change. This is the largest national-scale program of adaptation to water scarcity that I am aware of anywhere in the world, and to describe it as not responding to climate change is absurd. That is the exact reverse of what the bill seeks to do. This is all about recognising the prospect of hotter and drier times and being able to meet them.

This bill is the first of its kind in 106 years. This is the first time the Commonwealth parliament has sought to take charge of the management of our largest connected system of surface water and groundwater in the national interest. I quoted Alfred Deakin in my second reading speech, saying that it is a necessary consequence of reforms that have gone before—and of course it is. It is a necessary consequence of the times we live in. No matter how much the Labor Party grind their teeth and how much they object to recognising it, the simple truth is that it was John Howard and the Howard government that had the courage to take this challenge of managing the waters of the Murray-Darling Basin out of the too-hard basket where it had languished for more than a century and have sought to deal with it in a way that will ensure this great system of waters above the ground and below the ground—which are all connected—will be managed for the first time in the national interest. The reforms in the bill are needed to meet the future challenges facing water management in the Murray-Darling Basin. We need these reforms to ensure the viability of our water dependent industries, to ensure healthy and vibrant communities and to ensure the sustainability of the basin’s natural environment.

I again want to thank and repeat my thanks to everybody who has contributed to this debate, for the efforts of the states which have supported this exercise and to the irrigators, environmentalists and many stakeholders who have helped to deliver a bill that will deliver great benefits to the basin. Officials from the Commonwealth have worked tirelessly and been supported by officials from the states. They have made an enormous contribution to this legislation and, in many respects, it is as much their work as it is the work of those of us who are legislating here tonight. Finally, I would like to thank the Senate Standing Committee on Environment, Communications, Information Technology and the Arts for their important contribution through their report, which was delivered today. I commend the bill to the House.

Debate adjourned.