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Tuesday, 27 November 2012
Page: 13541

Mr ZAPPIA (Makin) (19:58): I take this opportunity to speak in support of the Water Amendment (Water for the Environment Special Account) Bill 2012 that is currently before the House. I understand that yesterday the minister who is in the chamber here tonight tabled the Murray-Darling Basin Plan in this place. The tabling of that plan saw the culmination of a very long, difficult and exhaustive process that began about five years ago when this government came to office in November 2007—a process that has two very important outcomes. Firstly, it provides a high level of certainty for Murray-Darling Basin communities and for the environment within the Murray-Darling Basin area. Secondly, it transfers responsibility for basin communities, and the environment therein, from the states to the federal government. It effectively overcomes 100 years of bickering and disputes between the states, and it was a Labor government that finally brought that together. It was the minister who sits in the House before us tonight who did that. It was not members opposite, as the previous speaker would have you believe, who should get the credit for what is before us tonight. It is the minister who sits at the table who has worked through this process from day one and who has finally delivered something that we can put to the parliament that both is credible and will provide the certainty that I referred to. It is indeed an historic moment for Australia as a whole to have reached this point, and it is an historic moment in terms of water reform within this country.

Having tabled the plan, I understand that it may be disallowed by the parliament if members in this place choose to take that position and move a disallowance motion. We were told by the minister today in question time that the Greens have already lodged a disallowance motion in the Senate. I find that incredibly disappointing. I find it disappointing because if the plan is rejected we then have nothing and we go back to where we started from, and that is the uncertainty that we face until this plan gets through parliament. There will be no certainty for communities within the Murray-Darling Basin, no certainty for the growers and irrigators who rely on the waters from the Murray-Darling system, and no certainty for the environment. I say to members in this place, and to any members in the other place who might be taking note of this debate, surely the plan that is currently before the parliament is better than what we have, because what we have is effectively nothing.

For South Australia, transferring responsibility from the states to the federal government and having a basin-wide plan is important because South Australia, being at the end of the system, is very much reliant on the goodwill of the upstream states. As we have seen in the past, when the water system diminishes so does that goodwill. The basin plan sets a long-term average sustainable diversion limit reduction of 2,750 gigalitres. The government has committed to acquiring an additional 450 gigalitres in permanent environmental water entitlements and an easing of flow restrictions. For South Australia and for the environment that is a much welcomed additional commitment by the federal government because it means a lot for South Australia. For South Australia it means more water for environmental assets, including the iconic wetlands and river red gums along the system within South Australia. For South Australia it means more water for the Lower Lakes. It means lower salinity levels in the Lower Lakes. It means lower salinity levels in the Coorong, particularly the northern lagoon. It means less likelihood of the Murray mouth requiring dredging. It also means about two million tonnes of salt will be flushed out to sea each year.

As a South Australian I visited that part of the river system on several occasions, and I particularly visited at the height of the drought when the local environment was at its worst. There was no water flowing through the mouth and there was a dredging machine operating continuously for about two or three years prior to that, simply to try to keep little bit of water flowing through it. I saw the lakes. There were jetties in the lakes which were actually jetties on sand, because as far as you could walk out it was simply sand—there was no water in the lakes. The people who had moved down there to change their lifestyles and live in that part of the region were living in a pretty dry and barren area. The native vegetation around the place was almost all gone. In addition to that, we saw the emergence of acid sulphate soils and many of the local creatures of the area dying, including the turtles.

That was the perilous state that the lakes system had reached at the height of the drought because we did not have a plan. I have been there since and I can tell members that the situation has changed immensely. It has changed because we have had good rains over the last couple of years, the water has started flowing again, the salt has been flushed out of the lake system and the environment has regenerated. We were told earlier this year, when we went out there, that had the drought continued for a few more months the damage probably would have been irreversible. That is how close we came to what we would refer to as a tipping point. Fortunately, it was reversible and the local environment has regenerated.

All of the changes that the 3,200 gigalitres can bring to that part of South Australia are based on science—science that has been prepared for the Murray-Darling Basin Authority and, in turn, peer reviewed by the Goyder Institute for Water Research on behalf the South Australian government. That peer review modelling was enough for the South Australian government to say, 'We will withdraw our proposed High Court action against the plan if we don't get more water'. The South Australian government was originally looking for an even higher figure than that, but the South Australian government was prepared to accept the science, which is the very science that underpins this plan and the plan that the minister is now putting to the parliament.

This bill sets out the process and the mechanism by which the additional 450 gigalitres will be secured. The government amendments also make clear that the additional 450 gigalitres is not just an ideal figure put in the bill for the sake of having a figure there but it is a clear target firmly committed to by this government and by the minister. In support of that clear target and commitment, the government is prepared to commit $1.775 million over the next decade, place it into a special account and use it for the purpose of acquiring the additional 450 gigalitres of environmental water that is being sought. I believe that that is as firm a commitment as any government could be expected to make.

I have heard the members opposite speaking on this matter, and I understand that not every sector is happy with the proposed plan as it currently stands. But I have also read some of the reports that come from some of the rural communities and some of the environmental communities, and it is interesting that we have a mixed bag. Some people speaking up on behalf of the farming sector believe that this is a pretty fair plan. Similarly, some who speak up on behalf of the environmentalists feel the same. At the same time, there are people at the extreme ends of both of those arguments that argue that 3,200 gigalitres is not the right figure. Some environmentalists argue that it ought to be higher; some farming communities say that it is already too high.

The fact is that only time will prove exactly who is right. Right now, in the absence of time, we have a responsible plan being put where nothing else exists, and it is a start of a process that is not only based on good science but that will be open to continuous reviews if the need arises. So, as the need arises I am sure that this government or future governments will be able to make minor adjustments to it. As we have seen in other legislation, we have already provided the flexibility of five per cent movement up or down in terms of the sustainable diversion limits of water from each individual area.

Given that the minister is here, I would like to commend him in leading the debate on this issue. It is clear to me that the minister has listened to the communities in the Murray-Darling Basin system as part of his determination of this plan. As a supplementary member of the Winsor inquiry into this issue I also went out and spoke to community members right along that system. And I picked up on what they were saying. And it is clear that the minister has taken note of what they are saying. That is clear because he has done two very critical things. First, he has extended out the time frame, which enables the transition to take place over a longer period, and therefore has less impact on any local communities. Second, he has ensured that the additional 450 gigalitres will be taken from irrigation efficiency measures and not through the purchase of water entitlements. And they were two very clear messages that were being sent out to the committee that I was a part of.

But perhaps the most important message that was being sent out to the committee was that people along the entire system wanted to have a degree of certainty. The speaker who preceded me—the opposition spokesman for the environment—was talking about farming communities. I well understand the difficulties that farming communities have experienced over the last decade. I understand because I have been out there, I have seen their farms and I have spoken to the people. Their hardships are very real; there is no question about that at all. But their hardships were brought about, I suspect, for two critical reasons. The first reason was the drought, and as a result of the drought there was insufficient water in the system. Had we had a plan in place 10 years ago, they might have been better off because the water that was in the system would have been better managed and that in turn would have meant that they had more reliability and might have been able to get through the drought a little better than they did. At the height of the drought many farmers had access to zero water. They had no water at all. And if they wanted to grow crops they had to go and buy the water that they needed—and buy it at a very high price. It was a price that, quite frankly, I doubt that many of them could have afforded. Because they got themselves into debt—both because they could not grow produce and because what they did grow came at a very high price—they find themselves today in a really difficult situation.

The second reason for the hardship is the high Australian dollar. There is no question at all that that is affecting exports, including the exports of the growers along the Murray-Darling system. If we are going to provide them with any kind of support I think the best thing we can do for them is to say to them, 'You can now look to the future with a degree of certainty,' because if they have certainty they can plan accordingly. And if they plan accordingly they are more likely to get through difficult times much better. As I said, at the height of the drought a lot of farmers found it incredibly hard because for a lot of them it was the first time that they had been faced with such severe consequences and such severe situations.

I now return to where I started in terms of the importance of this legislation to South Australia. For South Australia this is important not only to the people in the Lower Lakes, down at the Coorong and the Murray mouth area, but also to the growers in the South Australian Riverland. They, like growers across Australia, went through hardships. Unlike growers in some parts—not growers in all areas, because I believe there have been very responsible growers right across the system—they made investments in water efficiencies in the late sixties and around 1969. Unlike farmers in some areas, they did not increase their water entitlements; they stuck to their entitlements, so they have done all they can to make the system sustainable.

The reliance now is on what happens upstream, because at the end of the day South Australians consume about seven per cent of the total amount of water that is taken out of the system. So, in effect, South Australia's contribution to fixing or breaking the system is much less than it is for others. But for South Australia, at the end of the system, this plan means a lot. It means security for the state in terms of the water supplies we need at the lower end, and it means security for the growers who rely on the waters of the Murray for their living. I commend the plan to the House.